Home tweaked home

Inspectors spot the small adjustments that can slash householders' energy bills

When Jed and Amanda Mayer found their dream house in Vermont last year, it came with a few nightmare details. To wit: a coal furnace (circa 1910) modified to burn oil in the days when no one worried about energy efficiency, electric wiring dating back to the Woodrow Wilson administration, and a hot-water heater venting carbon monoxide into the basement.

The Mayers couldn't afford to buy the home and make all the repairs. So as part of a special mortgage program, they hired an energy-rating inspector. After a thorough testing, the couple got good news: By fixing a few key things, the Mayers would save more on their utility bills than they'd pay extra on their home loan.

That's the power of an energy audit.

By tackling the most fuel-wasting aspects of your home, you may end up saving a bundle of money. A growing number of consumers are considering the energy-audit option, especially in areas where utility rates are rising fast.

"Almost every residential customer can do something to save," says Dace Udris, spokeswoman for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in Sacramento, Calif., which raised its rates in May for the first time in more than 10 years. The utility has seen a near doubling of requests for information about its energy-audit program.

"I'm booming," adds Gary Heederik, owner of The Energy Doctor, a residential energy consultancy in Lodi, Calif. "People of all income brackets are paying exorbitant energy bills and are concerned. Even the lower-income people are trying to figure out: 'What can I do?' "

There's plenty, experts say. Energy audits over the Internet can give homeowners a good idea of different ways to cut utility bills. And, if your house was built to code after 1980 and your energy bills look reasonable, an Internet-based audit may be all you need. (See story, left.)

Do-it-yourselfers should consider using compact fluorescent lights (which use only a quarter to a third of the electricity that incandescent bulbs do), buying Energy Star rated appliances when they're ready to replace an aging unit, and making sure the weather stripping around doors and windows is tight. Even owners of brand-new and highly efficient houses can take shorter showers, turn up the thermostat in the summer and turn it down in the winter to cut utility bills.

The savings can really kick in if you own an older home or if your utility bills are running high. That's when it makes sense to consider hiring an energy inspector. "We can go into an existing home and pretty confidently find 20 to 40 percent savings," says Richard Faesy, senior energy analyst with Energy Rated Homes of Vermont, a nonprofit home-energy ratings provider based in Burlington, Vt.

If you spend just $1,000 a year on utilities, that's $200 to $400 back in your pocket every year.

Some utilities still offer audits at reduced prices or even for free. Others sponsor or subsidize home-energy rating programs. In Fort Collins, Colo.,residents who obtain an energy rating through the city's Energy Score program receive a $50 subsidy toward the cost of the rating. If the rating shows that a conservation measure can pay for itself in 10 years or less, homeowners can apply for a zero-interest loan up to $2,300.

"I can't say its sweeping the town like wildfire," says Gary Schroeder, energy services engineer with Fort Collins Utilities. "We have some of the nation's lowest electric rates. [But] a doubling of residential natural-gas rates has spurred more consumer interest in the past year."

Before hiring an inspector, find out what he or she is going to do. Some walk through the house inspecting insulation, boilers, air conditioners, air ducts, and so on. Others use sophisticated equipment to supplement that visual inspection and pinpoint even hidden problems.

A "blower door" test, for example, sucks air out of the house to determine how leaky a house is.

Mr. Mayer's inspector took more than two hours to poke through the Vermont home he intended to buy. "He saw my furnace and started laughing," Mayer recalls. When he set up the "blower door" test, Mayer went to the back door. "The air that was coming in was unbelievable," he says.

To find a reputable inspector, experts suggest asking your utility for contractors it works with. Look for inspectors with a national certification, such as the Home Energy Rating System, or similar certification from your state. Avoid those inspectors who also sell related items.

"Your heating contractor probably isn't the best guy to come and do the initial assessment," Mark Hopkins, vice president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a national nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., promoting energy efficiency.

The energy-rating inspection, based on a national standard, costs anywhere from $150 to $290 and involves on average a 2-1/2-hour inspection.

Whether to have one done depends not only on the age of your house, but on your own situation.

"If you're planning on buying a home or refinancing a home, the answer is absolutely yes," says Steve Baden, executive director of Residential Energy Services Network, a national group of lenders and other housing-industry and energy-efficiency professionals based in Oceanside, Calif. Endorsed by lenders around the country, the program uncovers improvements that save more money than they cost. That way, everybody wins.

Banks agree to finance the extra amount, generating bigger loans for themselves. Homeowners save because the extra money they pay the bank is more than offset by their reduced energy bills. And when they go to sell, they have an improved home to put on the market. (To find out more about the program, contact a leading-edge lender in your area or consult the website of the Residential Energy Services Network - www.natresnet.org - for a directory of lenders in your state.)

"I would definitely say it was well worth it," says Mayer, who added an extra $15,000 to his home loan to finance everything from wall insulation to a new furnace. The cost added $87 a month to his monthly mortgage payment, but the program estimated an average $108 a month in energy savings.

And while Mayer is paying more than those estimates - thanks to higher fuel prices and the addition of floor space -he remains enthusiastic. "It takes a lot of time to get to the final point, but in the end, I'm going to save a ton of money because of this," he says.

But the program is running into some resistance. Many realtors, for example, don't like the fact that tests and approvals add time to the home-buying process.

"I can't explain it, but the response has not been overwhelming," says Mel Simmers, a certified energy rater in the greater Sacramento area. "I don't think the public's really aware of what's available to them."

And it has some limitations, adds Mr. Heederik of Energy Doctor, who is getting out of the energy-mortgage program. "It does give you some paybacks on the items that are identified. But it really doesn't tell the consumers what they should be doing. [For example,] changing out the air conditioning might have the greatest impact, but [first] you have to address the duct work."

One thing is sure: If energy prices continue to climb, consumers will be casting about for ways to stop dollars from leaking out of their homes.

A tally sheet on efficiency and waste Energy US consumers could have saved in 1997 if they had replaced:

96 million most-used refrigerators with the most-efficient ones - 158 trillion BTUs

50 million natural-gas space-heating systems with the most-efficient ones - 579 trillion BTUs

33 million stand-alone freezers with the most-efficient ones - 68 trillion BTUs

What cost the most to operate annually in the average US home (1997)

Appliances $576

Space heating 482

Water heating 203

Electric air conditioning 150

Refrigerators 130

Appliance boom has cut into efficiency gains

Refrigerators are getting more efficient, but they're also getting bigger. In 1990, a quarter of US households used a small unit (less than 14 cubic feet) as their primary refrigerator. By 1997, only 9 percent did, while nearly half the homes used a large unit (more than 19 cubic feet). The percentage of households using the following appliances:

1978 1987 1997

Microwave oven 8% 61% 83%

Dishwasher 35 43 50

Clothes washer 74 75 77

Clothes dryer 59 66 71

Stand-alone freezer 35 34 33

Water bed heater N/A 14 8

Use of central air conditioning skyrockets in the US

Percentage of homes with central air, by region:

1978 1997

Northeast 9% 22%

Midwest 25 51

South 37 70

West 14 28

Source: Energy Information Administration

***

Want a free energy audit?

Try the following websites:

EnergyGuide

(www.energyguide.com/audit/webauditintro.asp) - This site offers a detailed and extremely helpful look at your energy spending with lots of savings recommendations broken down by how much homeowners are likely to spend during a year.

Home Energy Advisor (www.homeenergysaver.lbl.gov) - Sponsored by the US Department of Energy and the US Environmental Protection Agency, the site lets you calculate your annual energy spending and offers common-sense tips on steps to take to reduce the bill.

Home Energy Checkup (www.ase.org/checkup/home) - The Alliance to Save Energy lets homeowners see the actual savings (in dollars and carbon dioxide emissions) from improving various aspects of their home.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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