June 21, 2016

Seeing the Value in Home Energy Efficiency Improvements

By Brian Zeidner, Director of Member Services

If I'm going to invest time, effort or money into something, I usually want to know how I am going to benefit from my investment.

Somethings are easy to determine.  Upgrading to a vehicle that gets better gas mileage will save on gas money.  Buying bulk paper towels at a discounted price saves grocery money.  But how do my wife and I calculate the potential savings when considering energy improvements to our home?

I recently identified some areas of our home where I suspected problems.  I felt I was losing heat in the winter because of attic areas that had ventilation problems and were not well insulated.  I assumed that I needed to make improvements, but I really didn't know if it would be cost effective to commit the resources requried to make those improvements.

After some investigation, I hired a local energy consultant, Solaire Energy, to perform a blower door test.  A blower door is a powerful fan installed in a doorway of the home that measures the airtightness of a building and helps you detect air leakage sites within your home. 

The test was fascinating, and the results were startling!  Based on the size of our small home, the ideal air exchange rate is 800 cubic feet per hour.  The test showed that our air exchange rate was 2,639 cubic feet per hour.  Basically, our house was losing three times more heat than it should have been because it was so drafty.

The blower door test pinpointed exactly where we were losing heat.  With the fan running, I could feel outside air drafting into the house in multiple places, and the use of a small powder puffer made the air flow in problem areas visible.

As I had guessed, the attic areas showed major drafts.  Although fiberglass insulation had been previously installed in these areas, the drafts and subsequent heat losses were still substantial.  It was a perfect place to target improvements.  Some surprises were uncovered, as well.  Although I had installed replacement windows a few years back, the test showed that I needed to caulk around the windows.  Drafty receptacles on exterior walls showed a need to remove the receptacle and caulk the holes in the boxes.  The test also revealed ductwork that needed to be sealed with tape or mastic paste, and that the basement door leaked air like a sieve.

I began my to-do list last fall before the weather turned cold.  I hired a contractor to spray foam insulation in the attic areas.  I also sealed many of the small leaks myself, using 15 tubes of caulking and a couple of cans of spray foam in the process.  I sealed ductwork, as well as cracks between walls and ceilings in rooms that I had not yet remodeled.  

Our efforts paid off.  We steadily began to notice changes in our home.  The wind and vehicle traffic was not as loud inside our house.  The home was more comfortable.  The heat pump was using less electricity, and I burned substantially less wood in the wood stove.  Granted, this winter was milder than last winter, but I was using a lot less energy and spending less money.

I wanted to quantify my home improvement efforts, so I had the blower door test repeated.  The improvements we had made reduced the air exchange rate by 819 cubic feet per hour, from 2,639 to 1,820.  I was initially disappointed as I wanted to be closer to the ideal 800 total cubic feet of air exchange; however, I learned that was unrealistic for a home that is 140 years old.

I still have a couple of areas that need to be sealed tighter but have not initiated that work yet as we are considering cosmetic changes in those areas.  I am convinced I will be able to improve my energy savings even more when those areas are buttoned down.

Article Source:  PENNlines|May 2016

Picture Source:  U.S. Department of Energy