June, 2012
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

Energy Audit: If it's good for me, why not for my clients?


Winters in Colorado Springs may be warmer than those of my childhood in Minnesota, but they are still painful for my wife, who is badly afflicted with arthritis. She was ready for a friendlier climate, so we recently purchased a home in Sun City, Arizona. We had looked at duplexes, but high homeowner association fees to maintain bluegrass lawns seemed crazy in a desert. This led us to a small house with a gravel yard and a non-citrus-eating neighbor with an orange grove out back. I hired Bruce Barker, an ASHI Certified Inspector, who convinced me to find out what we could do to keep down our energy bills. I did a little research and got a recommendation for an energy auditor in the area from The Energy Conservatory, an exhibitor at ASHI InspectionWorld. The auditor I used qualified me for a rebate, so I paid $99.

Checking attic insulation

The auditor, Charles Russell, with Advanced Insulation, arrived with a blower door, duct blaster, combustion gas detector, CO sensor and infrared camera. I have to confess I would not have minded if he had accidently left some of those toys behind. First stop was the attic, where we discovered that in some areas, the insulation was nowhere near the reported nine inches.

Ours is an all-electric house, so he didn’t need to test for gas leakage, safe CO levels or any evidence of combustion gas backdrafting, all crucial tests in buildings where gas- or oil-burning appliances can cause these health and safety hazards.

Using the blower door

Therefore, the second step in our energy audit was to set up for the building envelope air-leakage test using the blower door. At the last ASHI annual conference, The Energy Conservatory vendor had one set up at her booth; it looked even better in my front door. After making sure all exterior doors and windows were closed and the interior doors were open, he ran the fan to depressurize the house. Nationwide, the standard for this test is an air-pressure difference between inside and outside of 50 Pascals (Pa). If you are more familiar with inches of water column, the conversion is 1" = 250 Pa. So, 50 Pa or 0.2 inches of water column is not a lot of pressure. It’s approximately the same force a house would experience if a 20-mph breeze was blowing on all sides of the house at the same time.
My house tested tighter than I had expected it would.

Photo: The blower door set up to run the building envelope air-leakage test.

Photo: Depressurizing test equipment

With the fan on, Charlie (yes, by now he was Charlie) used the infrared camera to find leaks in the building envelope, including voids in the insulation. If you’ve seen or used these cameras, you know they provide information you couldn’t get any other way unless you’re willing to knock a hole in the wall.

Photo: Using the infrared camera

In addition to the problems we discovered with the camera, I found a bolt hole in one of the bedroom door frames where the fan-exaggerated leak showed that the stud cavity connects directly to our attic. Real men love “Great Stuff”; it’ll be fixed soon.

Photo: A bolt hole leak detected by the depressurization test

Testing the duct system

Once he was done with the blower door, Charlie set up the duct blaster to run a pressurization leak test of our duct system. As is common in many parts of the country, our duct work is in the attic. During warm weather in Arizona, attic temperatures frequently reach in excess of 120 degrees F. Charlie explained that reducing leakage here is one of the most effective energy-saving moves we could make. Since we prefer to cool the house and not the universe, fixing this sounded good. First, he taped off all of the registers, then attached the duct blaster at the central return. The duct blaster has a smaller fan, but still moves enough air to change the pressure between the interior of the ductwork and the house by 25 Pa.

Photo: Checking the a/c on the roof

Photo: Duct testing equipment

Photo: The duct testing equipment in place

Developing the report

Charlie used all of the data gathered from the audit to develop a comprehensive report outlining suggested improvements, estimated savings and the anticipated payback period (see an excerpt from the report below). Of course, this timeline would be affected by changes in energy prices, but it is helpful guidance when deciding which measures to have done.


Thinking about implications for home inspectors

I found the energy-audit process fascinating and have been thinking about the implications for us as home inspectors. Many of us have been financially battered during this depressed housing market. In some areas, members have been forced to give up performing inspections and find whatever jobs they could. We all hope the market rebounds strongly enough so all of our phones are ringing with new appointments. Until then, many of us are looking for ways to distinguish ourselves in a market with more workers than work. Well, many communities and counties have adopted changes in their building codes based on the International Energy Conservation Code. In many areas, duct tightness and/or other forms of energy-efficiency testing are now mandated. And across the country, energy auditors, HVAC and other contractors provide the service. With our extensive construction knowledge, housing inspectors are well positioned to take advantage of the opportunity to offer these audits as a service and add another source of revenue.

Where local utilities or other programs subsidize audits, you would need to get yourself on the list of approved providers. Otherwise, the price competition could make offering this service at a market rate rather pointless. Also, both Charlie and the other auditors I have spoken with integrate these tests into their sales efforts for the retrofit job: Most of the money is in the work. Some states have addressed possible conflict-of-interest issues by requiring third-party verification. And, some companies have responded by setting up another LLC arm to perform those tests. As with any possible change to how we operate our businesses, residential energy auditing is an option deserving serious thought. The Home Score program, with its abbreviated building energy-use evaluation, may inspire more comprehensive tests like the one we had done. I hope so, both for the inspectors who decide to take up the challenge and because every dime homeowners save on energy is a dime that can be spent on something more important.

Now, I’m off to my new yard to pick myself an orange and think about how I can be a part of this evolving home inspection trend.