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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Professional Energy Assessments

April 19, 2011 - 10:59am

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Several years ago my family moved into a beautiful townhouse. The neighborhood was lovely, there was a gigantic park directly across the sleepy residential street, and it was close enough to my work to bike every day (though I must admit I didn't take advantage of this option every day…).

In short, it was perfect for our young and growing family. My oldest daughter, Emily, was eight when we moved in, and my wife and I were blessed with a new baby girl soon after. When I moved in to the home I was pretty clueless about energy. But after working at Washington State University's Extension Energy Program for a year, I learned a thing or two about do-it-yourself home energy assessments. I noticed after we moved in that our home was difficult to keep warm and our energy bills were excessively high. I was determined to find the source of the problem and save us a little money in the process.

Not having access to professional auditing equipment, and not yet being savvy enough to know that there are low-cost alternatives available, I had a hard time locating the problem. At first I suspected that the ceiling of the living room was un-insulated —this seemed to be the room that got the coldest the fastest. I crawled up into the attic and (a few dusty moments later) verified that it was actually quite well insulated with blown in loose-fill insulation.

Next, I searched for drafty windows. I felt with my hands and detected no drafts. I lit incense sticks and passed them around the edges of every window frame, outlet cover and door in the house. I didn't find any drafts, but my house smelled like sandalwood for a week so it wasn't a total loss.

I was befuddled, and to make matters worse, the winter of 2009 was a particularly harsh one (by the relatively benign standards of the Pacific Northwest). I hesitated to hire a professional energy auditor—I thought it would be expensive and difficult to arrange—so I procrastinated.

A few weeks later on a particularly cold night, I walked past the gas fireplace in the living room and felt a freezing cold wind blowing—and I mean blowing— against my shins. I was shocked; I knew that the fireplace flue was closed because I had checked it myself as winter set in. I got closer, put my hand out and felt a strong cold breeze whipping, not from inside the fireplace, but around the outside edges. It seems the pressure difference between our warm house and the extremely cold outside was causing the house to suck in cold air at a rapid rate. Wouldn't you know, I hadn't thought to check around the edge of the fireplace when looking for drafts.

A contractor was quickly called in by the owner to assess the issue. He discovered that several pieces of siding had come loose on the outside of the chimney. While difficult to see from the ground, from a ladder you could clearly see the large gaps in the siding. The insulation had been washed and rotted away inside the chimney space by rainwater, until all that remained was a hollowed out space filled with mold. Unbeknownst to us, air was freely flowing through this space into our home.

Not too long after that we decided to purchase our first home. Having learned my lesson from our drafty town home, I had a professional energy assessment performed to assure myself that the home was ship-shape for my family. The assessment was easy to schedule and not very expensive at all, and the peace of mind it provided was definitely worth it. Walking through the home with the assessor and seeing the house through his thermal camera assured me that everything was properly sealed and insulated. Even though our new house is larger than the old townhome, our careful habits combined with a well sealed and insulated structure have led to a reduction in our energy use—and that's good for the planet and for my wallet.

If you've got a drafty home, don't wait to act. A good place to start is the Energy Saver's Home Energy Assessment page. There you can find tips on do-it-yourself assessments, or locate a professional assessor to do a full inspection like I did. It's worth a small investment of time and money now to assure yourself that your home is operating the way it should be.

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