Hidden Energy Efficiencies

by Julie Sturgeon

For several years, Ron and Julie Kirchgessner shrugged their shoulders at paying an average of $122 in utility bills to heat and cool their 3,000-square-foot all-electric brick home in Greenwood. But this summer, as the annual painting and sealing jobs to the 20-year-old house loomed, they began to wonder if their choices could lower that monthly bill.

"For instance, turning up the thermostat one degree in the summer (say, 79 to 80 degrees) reduces the electric bill by 6 percent; lowering the temperature one degree in winter trims that bill by 3 percent," Melinda Wright assures. But the Kirchgessners wanted to dig deeper than merely refining the thermostat, so they began with a basic energy audit, a three-hour, $150 test to determine a home's Uniform Energy Rating System. Think of it as the miles-per-gallon rating on a new car. The number between 0 and 100 helps Realtors, mortgage companies and banks measure exactly where a home stands in its overall energy efficiency abilities. The audit considers the obvious, such as window types and wall thickness, and the more obscure, such as where the house sits on the property, flooring, insulation materials and even the number of sides exposed to outside temperatures.

The audit hinges on what Mark Underhill, a staff engineer at Kyler Bros. Services, calls the " blower door test" (a machine that sits in a specially sealed frame to create a pressure difference between indoors and outdoors), which determines how often the air in a home is completely replaced through leaks. After all, since heat travels from warm to cool, it costs bucks to continually work with cold air in the winter and vice versa in the summer.

During the test, homeowners should walk through the house flagging any area where they feel air movement. As the Kirchgessners suspected beforehand, their window frames needed caulking. But they never suspected every electrical outlet, cable outlet, light switch and doorknob catch also allowed air to escape. Ditto drain pipes under the sinks and can lights in the ceiling. "Builders commonly don't insulate these areas, but homeowners should," Underhill says. "In fact, nine out of every 10 things we find, a homeowner can repair on her own with supplies from Home Depot."

He recommends removing the electrical and switch covers to install either a gasket or non-expanding foam around the circuitry. When caulking, select a clear latex version for interior trim, and a fire-rated brand for anything around a fireplace. Another commonly overlooked offender: inside registers between the wood floor and metal boots. Simply pull off the cover and caulk in that crack.

Ducts in general represent the Kirchgessners' biggest problem, as the blower test revealed air movement so strong from the registers, it could still blow papers on a counter. "It's likely a piece of the metal conduits has become completely unattached," Underhill says. The Uniform Energy Rating System Rates Manual for the Midwest reveals that 18 to 22 percent of a home's energy loss stems from broken or unsealed ducts. Ductwork leaks in the crawl space and attic (outside what professionals call "the building envelope," or living space) rank as the number one offender in Underhill's investigations.

Homeowners can purchase liquid caulking through any HVAC contractor for approximately $30 per gallon and paint-brush it wherever the metal joints meet. The concoction dries hard, sealing the duct. However, reaching these tight, hidden places can prove irksome. Underhill recommended the Kirchgessners budget between $700 and $800 to hire out this two-day job.

The Kirchgessners' energy audit revealed their abode falls into the "average leaky home" category, rating a 73.7 on the EPA Energy Star Home scale, which is nearly 13 points below what they needed to score for that seller-friendly stamp of approval. Likewise, it takes a score of at least 82 to qualify the home for a debt-to-income ratio stretch under several government mortgage guidelines. Nearly 40 percent of the amount of heat the home battles stems from these infiltration points; the windows represent the next largest category at 19 percent. Floors account for 13 percent and the walls' insulation adds another 12 percent.

So merely addressing the leaks could cut the family's utility bills by $272 annually, putting the return-on-investment at approximately three years. On the other hand, replacing windows would mean extending that pay-off to at least 42 years, although that move would greatly enhance the home's resale value. "Energy efficiency is a matter of prioritizing," says Underhill.

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