Energy audits help homes operate efficiently

October 13, 2009

By David Hayes

This graphic shows all the locations in a home where an energy audit can pinpoint cold and hot air escaping. Department of Energy

This graphic shows all the locations in a home where an energy audit can pinpoint cold and hot air escaping. Department of Energy

Not many business owners look forward to undergoing the scrutiny of an audit. The process is renowned for sending shivers down the spine.

However, architect Terry Phelan, who knows the benefits of a well-designed home, is actually looking forward to an energy audit this week for her office, a converted home in downtown Issaquah. She said she hopes the results will mean less shivers in the future.

“Hopefully, we’ll find where the inefficiencies are, where the heat is escaping and what we can do to improve the building’s energy use,” she said.

Phelan’s office was an older house converted about 20 years ago, when there wasn’t much attention given to energy efficiency. For instance, the house has only three inches of insulation rather than today’s 12-inch standard, and the heating ducts and water pipes are not as airtight as they could be.When the inspection is complete at her office, Phelan, who already knows about winterizing homes, said she hopes the experience allows her to better tell her clients about energy audits.

Even with her knowledge of the subject, Phelan needed to call in an expert to do the audit. She turned to Gary Wood, of Applied Performance Technologies Inc., a certified member of Home Performance Washington.

A home improvement contractor for 25 years, Wood expanded his Issaquah business into energy audits in the past year.

“I’ve been aware of energy issues for years,” he said. “Many of these houses were spending 25 percent of their operating costs on their energy budget.”

The first step in the audit is to determine what the homeowner is looking for, what type of savings he or she is trying to realize. Then, he helps find trouble areas in the home, from drafty spots to the worst heat exchange locations. The inspection covers the home from top to bottom, from the attic to the crawl spaces.

“In the past, houses were built pretty leaky,” he said. “But energy costs were so cheap, it wasn’t a big concern at the time.”

Home designers, such as Shirey Contracting, of Issaquah, have been aware of building science for a long time, such as creating a closed envelope for air flow and managing the air within that envelope. The difference is these days they’re offering energy audits to measure it.

Owner Donna Shirey said the business uses modern technology to show where problem spots are within a home, including smoke sticks that locate currents of air coming into a home; thermal energy guns that show in a scale of colors the heat loss occurring; and blower doors, which suck air out of a sealed home to better locate leaky spots.

The energy audit, Shirey added, can also help locate bad air entering the home.

“We had one home where gas from the water tank was causing a backdraft, which can be a safety and health issue,” she said. “Anything over 10 seconds is a failure. This home’s tank, which wasn’t properly sealed off, was experiencing backdrafts of over 10 minutes.”

Nationally, there are about 128 million homes in the United States, Shirey said, and very few of them are energy efficient.

Phelan doesn’t want her office to be just another statistic.

“You can do an energy audit for less than $1,000. You can then realize a savings after making improvements in a short amount of time,” she said. “From the savings, you can pay for the audit and the upgrades within a year.”

On the Web

Learn more about energy audits on Home Performance Washington’s Web site, www.homeperformancewashington.org.

David Hayes: dhayes@isspress.com, 392-6434, ext. 237. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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