Search for savings this season in a home energy audit

October 19, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

From the crawlspace beneath the garage to the cramped attic beneath the eaves, no leak or cold draft escaped the attention of Gary Wood, a home energy auditor shimmying through the unseen corners of the Wilkinson residence on Squak Mountain.

The audit — conducted on a cool October morning — marked step No. 1 to make the 24-year-old home more energy efficient. The process is designed to help homeowners find small problems — improperly sealed roof vents, for instance — and, later, correct the issues. The result: savings on utility bills.

Gary Wood, home energy auditor, explains carbon monoxide and leakage tests he uses to check furnaces during a home energy audit. By Greg Farrar

“To cut our energy use by 30 percent would be huge,” homeowner Dan Wilkinson said.

So, Wood peeked inside the furnace and descended into the crawlspace, checked windows and light bulbs, deployed a high-tech infrared camera to measure temperature differences and — for the pièce de résistance — conducted a blower door test.

The test depressurizes the home using a large fan at the entryway and then measuring the airflow into the structure. The process allows auditors to check the amount of air leaking from the home.

Wood said a home energy audit educates homeowners about often-unseen parts of their residences.

“The more you understand, the more you can understand about how things fit together,” he said.

Home improvement

Ronnie Kweller, spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Energy, said the audits allow homeowners to set the pace for home improvements.

“You get a very good picture of where you stand energy efficiency-wise, and you can decide what steps you might want to take immediately,” she said.

The nonprofit Alliance to Save Energy is a coalition of business, environmental and government leaders based in Washington, D.C.

Malcolm McCulloch, Puget Sound Energy market manager, likened the auditing process to a physical or a 75,000-mile tune-up — a top-to-bottom assessment to root out and foil potential problems.

PSE initiated the audits in late 2008 and has since expanded the program under the HomePrint label. The utility relies on Wood and a network of independent contractors across the region to perform the audits.

Regulations require utilities to boost efficiency or use more renewable energy — a costly option, McCulloch said, because PSE might need to build power-generation facilities to meet the mandate.

“When we look at the least-cost alternative for our customers, efficiency pencils out really well,” he said.

McCulloch acknowledged the conundrum of promoting conservation, because a drop in energy use hits the bottom line for PSE and other utilities.

“By doing conservation, yes, we are reducing the usage of our customers, which seems sort of counterintuitive, but it allows us to deflect the additional capital expenditure” to build additional power-generation facilities, he said.

The city, PSE and Sustainable Issaquah — a community group — partnered to offer free home energy audits throughout the fall. Backed by a federal stimulus grant, the city offered 100 free audits.

“We think this project is super cool, because it’s an opportunity to take that message and all those tools, and get them directly into the hands of the local economy by focusing on local auditors out there working with our local community and teaching our local community how to either do it themselves or where to find the resources to become energy efficient,” city Resource Conservation Coordinator Mary Joe de Beck said.

Wilkinson, the Squak Mountain homeowner, learned about the program after a neighbor received a free home energy audit.

‘Green’ pioneers

The audit effort is part of a push initiated by the City Council in 2008, at about the same time officials held a ceremonial groundbreaking for the zero-energy zHome townhouses in the Issaquah Highlands.

Though the city has undergone a tremendous building boom in the past 15 years, experts said even recent construction can benefit from audits and subsequent energy tune-ups.

“Now that we have zHome going — and carbon neutrality is such a big part of that — it just made sense for us to focus on the existing building stock,” zHome Project Manager Brad Liljequist said.

The initial group of Issaquah residents requesting audits tended to be a “green”-minded bunch — a common characteristic among the early adopters.

“The early adopters are the folks that are very technically savvy or ‘green’ that really want to know more,” McCulloch said.

Alliance to Save Energy spokeswoman Kweller said the prospect of smaller utility bills might also be a draw for homeowners.

“It’s a tough economic time for a lot of people,” she said. “Maybe they realize that saving on energy bills is something that’s within their capability to do, and they want to do it.”

What to know

In addition to a home energy audit, homeowners can take other steps to save money and support renewable energy.

PSE has information about rebates for appliances, heating and cooling systems, light bulbs and insulation here.

PSE also offers a Green Power program to support renewable energy generation. Learn more about the program here.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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