Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Save Energy. Save Money. Save a Life ...?

Scary, Real-Life Story Highlights Health & Safety for National Homeownership Month

Today everyone is concerned about home energy efficiency – which is good.  People are primarily driven by a desire to lower their outrageous energy bills and/or fix some kind of comfort issue (these are typically interrelated).  What many homeowners don’t understand though, is that serious health and safety issues can also be the outcome of a home that is ‘under-performing’ (the term us building performance folks use). 

For National Homeownership Month, I want to share a very personal story with you about the truly life and death importance of applying a comprehensive, holistic approach to understanding how our homes work.

On a hot Saturday, I was called to a home for an emergency visit by the owner of a great local HVAC company I frequently work with on projects.  His HVAC technicians were dealing with a critical situation that no one could figure out the solution to, and they wanted to see if I could help.  

By the time I arrived at the house there were fire trucks and an ambulance parked in front.  Not a good sign. Even worse, the family’s six month old baby was on a stretcher in the ambulance receiving emergency oxygen.  The parents were frantic.

The HVAC service technician quickly conveyed the basic details: a new furnace had been installed the previous year and it had been functioning perfectly and was currently turned off due to the scorching summertime temperatures. The air conditioner was running and the basement was quite chilly. For no apparent reason, the home’s carbon monoxide detectors went off sounding the alarm that there was a problem. The family fled the house and called the HVAC company demanding immediate service. The service technician carefully reviewed the HVAC system but was perplexed about the build-up of fumes.

As I began diagnosing the home, it was clear to me that the furnace and its installation were not the problem.  After some careful analysis, I finally discovered the “perfect storm” of factors that created this household nightmare. The gas water heater and the furnace were linked together through a single vent which is not uncommon. Although, what was uncommon was that the extreme summertime heat outside was forcing the vented fumes from the gas water heater back into the chilly basement.

The drastic difference in temperatures made it impossible for the fumes to vent to the outdoors. This build-up of carbon monoxide in the basement drifted upstairs into the house (CO is lighter than air, so this is why all levels of the home should be protected and why duct work should be sealed, particularly the return). The fumes eventually reached a dangerous level that activated the alarms and sent the family fleeing out the front door.

The good news is that the baby and parents are fine. The other good news is that solution was fairly simple and cost effective. The gas water heater was replaced with an electric water heater.

Temperature differentials between levels of a home (such as this really chilly basement) are a common complaint of clients’ but many don’t realize that temperature differentials can be the manifestation of a potentially serious problem.  Truth is, you just don’t know until an assessment is done.

It’s important to be informed about how your house functions. Your home is a major financial investment and should be a source of comfort, happiness and safety.  When you’re an informed homeowner, you can make smart decisions about maintenance and improvements, and protect the health of your family.

Happy Dwellings,

About Mark Cannella:

Mark Cannella is a Certified Auditor from Building Performance Institute (BPI), HERS, Retrotec, Inc. and the American Lung Association. He is also designated as a Certified Instructor by the State of Ohio Board and Building Standards and is an Energy Star partner. Mark Canella is the founder of Pro Energy Consultants and has been one of the country’s leading authorities on energy audits and building performance for nearly 20 years. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Buying An Energy Efficient Home

A feature for National Homeownership Month

All the emphasis on energy efficient homes these days often adds to the home-buying jitters, especially for first time homebuyers.  Concerns about ongoing energy bills, what upgrades might be needed and the potential cost, and related comfort issues are now top of mind for more people than ever when buying their next home.  Here are the top 3 concerns we hear from homebuyers and real estate agents, and the important things to consider before making any hasty conclusions.

“Those windows look old….I bet they’re really inefficient.”

The window companies have done a great job of convincing homeowners that old windows automatically mean energy efficiency problems.  In our experience conducting thousands of home energy audits, that’s simply not true.  Most times, there are basic air leakage issues around the windows that can easily be addressed without replacing the windows themselves.  As we always say, if you’re going to replace your windows, do it for the right reason, such as if you want an updated/newer look.  But windows are way too expensive of a ‘guess’ to make, and can unnecessarily drive you away from a great home.

“The monthly utility bills for this place are outrageous!”

Smart homebuyers are asking for sample energy bills before they commit to purchase.  This makes a ton of sense – you should know what your monthly budget will be for the new place.  If the statements send you into shock, here are some things to consider:
  • Everybody’s usage is different.  If they have 4 kids, 2 teenagers, work from home and leave the lights and TV on all day for the dog, their usage may simply be a lot more than yours.  Also peek at the thermostat and see what their settings are at.  Plus or minus 2 degrees on the settings can have up to a 20% impact.
  • Consider climate.  Was it unseasonably hot or cold for the time period of the sample bill you’re looking at?  If so, you may not be looking at ‘normal’ usage.
  • Check the systems and appliances.  Look for EnergyStar labels.  If they’re not present, the units may simply not run as efficiently as newer models.  This doesn’t mean you should replace everything right away, but simply know you’ll have the opportunity to upgrade to more energy efficient versions throughout time.
  • Look for evidence of ‘vampire’ usage.  Homes are loaded with electronics today that remain plugged in all the time, ‘sucking’ energy even when not in use.  Home entertainment systems are the top culprits and can add a significant amount to bills.  A few bucks at the DIY store will get you some gadgets to easily remedy the situation and lower your bills.
  • Feel for temperature differentials as you walk through the property.  If high energy bills are truly the result of poor home performance, there are typically corresponding comfort issues somewhere in the home.  The upstairs can be hotter/colder; drafts may be present in areas; the basement may be significant colder.  Note this can be difficult to judge if outdoor temperatures are mild.  You can ask the sellers if they experience any of these, but be aware they may not always reveal the entire truth.

“The MLS for this home says it has energy efficient appliances and systems, so it must be very energy efficient.”

We are thrilled that the MLS is starting to report on energy efficiency attributes of homes in certain parts of the country.  However, this is only one small part of having an energy efficient home.  High performance systems will not operate as intended if you have other issues such as missing/failed insulation, massive duct leakage, air leakage, etc.  These are not attributes visible to the naked eye, nor are they within the scope of a home inspection.  Remember, optimal home energy efficiency is achieved through a combination of personal behaviors, energy efficient systems, a good building envelope and minimal air leakage.

Bottom line: don’t let surface-level information sway your decision on a home, one way or the other.  Interpret the initial information you have access to as a sign that further investigation may be a smart move.  In our experience, it’s a minority of homes that need huge, expensive upgrades to achieve better energy efficiency.  And remember, if you do anticipate making energy improvement investments, incentive programs and energy efficient mortgages may be available to you.