Thursday, March 26, 2009

Free energy audit provides the info to go greener

Hey all, Melissa here. Jenn's painting today (for me, no less), so I'm blogging for her...nice trade, eh?

About a month ago, in what I like to refer to as one my “get off the fence moments,” I finally signed myself up for a free home energy audit. I'd heard or read countless times in recent months and years that this was an option, and, after checking out a seminar in my town on ways to save energy, I decided, what the heck? I figured it would be a good reality check to see how we're doing around the house, and where there might be room to do better.

I'd been warned that Conservation Services Group (CSG, which performs this service for MassSAVE, the group that conducted the energy-savings workshop I went to) has been swamped with audit requests, especially since our recent brush with upward-spiraling oil prices. But since I'm a stay-homer anyway, the flexibility in my schedule meant I only had to wait a few weeks.

My auditor, Jim, started off with a few questions about the size of my house, the type of heat we had and how we heated our hot water. He also looked over last month's electric bill to see what we were spending. Then, he began his circuit of the house.

Good news, bad news

Well, the bad news came first. When we recently replaced our old furnace as part of our basement-finishing project, we were told we could no longer have a tankless hot water heater because it wouldn't work with the furnace the HVAC contractor recommended. So instead, he installed a hot water heater – an electric one. At the time, a little voice in my head said, “Electric? Isn't that going to be pricey to run?” But because I am no expert (not to mention happily related to my general contractor), I told the voice to pipe down. Not, apparently, a good move.

“What did they do that for?” Jim asked, and then enumerated several other possibilities that would have worked as well or better and for less long-term cost. Right off the bat, Jim observed, my electric bill is going to be on the high side in every season, even when it would have previously gone down (in the summer), because we are now using electricity to heat water. Alas, that ship has sailed, so we moved on.

One thing he noted was that a few feet of pipe wrap insulation on about the first six feet of pipe coming out of the water heater would help maintain water temperature longer. (I knew pipe wrap was a good idea, but having him show me exactly where it would be most beneficial was probably just what I needed to get me moving on installing it.)

At 87 percent efficiency, the new oil burner itself was a piece of good news. If you've got to burn oil, 87 percent is pretty nearly as good as it gets. It was definitely an improvement over our 12-year-old model, which had dropped to between 79 and 81 percent efficiency and would not have supported another zone (hence the replacement).

I had expected to get some grief about our “beer fridge” downstairs (chock full at all times with my husband Jeff's home brews), since second fridges are notorious power suckers. But it turns out that our downstairs model is actually newer and more efficient than our main refrigerator (which Jim also told me wasn't as inefficient as I feared...though it's getting closer by the day!).
If we didn't need both, I would contemplate ditching my main fridge for the basement one! Jim also pointed out that the downstairs model actually has an energy-saving setting (to which it was already set) – something I had never noticed.

Attic time

Here's where Jim found some real opportunity for us to save some energy and some funds. He noted that the insulation in our attic is R30, which is adequate, but that today, professionals use R38 or better. He suggested blowing in another four inches of cellulose to give us better insulation, and thought we should be able to save as much as $300 to $400 a year by doing so.

Part and parcel of that process would be sealing cracks in the attic with expandable foam – and when my eyebrows went up at the suggestion that I had cracks in my attic, Jim assured me that everyone does...just one of those things you can chalk up to settling.

I should point out that Jim asked up front if I had any particular areas of concern, so as we walked and talked our way around the house, he was great about fielding my random questions.

A couple of other checks he made: verifying that our bathroom fans vent properly, instead of directly into our attic, which can cause moisture problems, and doing a carbon-monoxide test to ensure that the furnace is venting properly, as well.

Bring on the free bulbs

As we passed by our newly finished basement, Jim gave us props for lighting it with compact fluorescents throughout.

Then, after having gone through most of his checkpoints, Jim broke out a bag loaded with CFLs and to my surprise began replacing the bulbs I hadn't yet gotten around to changing out. He had a supply of multiple style bulbs – everything from regular spirals to dimmable CFLs, even the small bulbs for the kind of reading lamp where the shade clips directly to a bulb! When he was done, we had replaced more than 15 bulbs – for free!

I don't know if he intended to wind up doing all of them, but every time I thought of another one that hadn't been changed yet, he cheerfully handed me another. It was, er, illuminating to see how many incandescents I had left!

Results in writing

To conclude the audit, Jim sat me down and went through his written report (of which I have a copy to refer back to – very helpful in relaying all this to Jeff), detailing things we could do to save energy, including the cost, the potential amount per year we could save, and the amount of time it would take to recoup the expenditure. He also pointed out a couple of incentive programs available to help cover the cost.

Two examples are a 75 percent instant rebate on work to help reduce energy consumption, up to a cost of $2000, and the HEAT loan program, a 0 percent interest loan for up to seven years to help finance updates to heat and hot water systems that will result in greater energy efficiency.

MassSAVE Home Energy Solutions – the group that did the energy-saving seminar that got me moving on this – is a public/private partnership that was created to help Massachusetts residents save money through energy conservation. You can reach them at 800-632-8300 to make an appointment for your free audit.
Or if you live elsewhere, a little online research might reveal that your state is running a similar program.

Jim says he's been doing these audits for four years, and works with people who've been doing it for much longer. He says auditors usually do three audits a day, five days a week, and sometimes more. And it seems like a sign of good things to come when he notes that CSG, the company he works for, recently hired 10 new people to help meet the demand for audits.

Jeff and I still have to decide when is the best time to go ahead with the insulation project, but I feel like this audit gave us a great mix of practical tips, free stuff and even recognition for what we've done right so far. That makes them five-leafers, in my book!

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