Energy efficiency isn't as sexy as shiny solar panels or sleek wind turbines. But it's often the quickest, cheapest way to start reducing your carbon footprint. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, most homeowners can reduce energy costs 20 percent simply by insulating and fixing leaky ductwork.
Such tasks are part of "sealing the envelope" — reducing the ways that air (and energy) escape from a building.
Curious to learn how the experts tackle the process, I sought what's commonly called an energy audit for my West Asheville home, a 1950 stone cottage. Several Asheville-area companies do such audits, which typically include a review of a variety of household systems that could be made more efficient or environmentally friendly. While checking out information booths at the 2009 Mountain Sports Festival, I met a few folks who belong to the BuildSmart Alliance, a coalition of businesses ranging from plumbers to solar installers. I was in luck: They were giving away free audits.
On a mid-summer day six BuildSmart guys descended on the house, and a few weeks later, Steve Linton, the audit coordinator and director of sustainable technologies for Deltec Homes, paid me a follow-up visit.
As the team got ready, BuildSmart's Brett McCall joked that if they were cartoon characters, they'd be superheroes, swooping from the sky to "green" homes new and old. These capeless heroes poked around the moldy basement, studied the exterior walls, looked at the sky and trees to see how much sunlight hit the place (not enough for a solar system), examined the ductwork, mentioned various federal and state tax-credit programs, pointed out the inefficient rock-wool insulation used in the upstairs loft, and noted the original, metal-framed casement windows.
"We try to see the house as a whole system," said McCall, tapping on a windowpane. "I can already tell you your windows are old, they're single-pane and there's obviously some air and energy leakage." Replacing the quaint windows could be expensive, he admitted, before noting some less costly options, such as installing storm windows.
A2Z Plumbing Contractors' George Efird
pointed out that all the faucets, toilets and showerheads in my house are older, water-wasting fixtures. One showerhead alone, he calculated, sprayed 2 to 3 gallons per minute. A low-flow fixture would reduce that figure to 0.8.
"Our main mission is to reduce your water footprint," he said, mentioning that I could capture rainwater for watering shrubbery or even for flushing toilets.
On another front, Stuart Ray of Building Environmental Solutions explained that before tightening the envelope in the basement and adjacent crawlspace, I'd need to get water to flow away from the house. Most of the mold-inducing moisture, he reported, appeared to be coming from the rear of the house, where downspouts drain into old, possibly leaking ceramic pipes. Before installing a dehumidification system or getting a mold treatment, I was told first to experiment with some inexpensive measures: installing a French drain that bypasses the old pipes or building curbs to keep water from flowing off the asphalt driveway. "Try those options and see if they work, because excavating to fix the clay pipes would be the most expensive," Stuart said.
In his follow-up, Linton took a closer look, pointing out fiberglass batting that was sagging or missing in places in the basement ceiling, the home's subfloor. Much of the heating-and-cooling ductwork is metal, which conducts heat and cold, he explained. That's one reason why, when the heat pump works to cool the house, the basement feels like a refrigerator while the upstairs stays toasty.
I asked how to choose what to do first.
"I'm focused on looking at the things that will give you the most return for your money and efforts," Linton replied. He suggested starting with projects I can do on my own and that were most affordable: Caulk cracks in the plaster ceiling and in gaps between the rock fireplace and the wood stairway, for instance. Insulate the basement door to prevent heat (and cool air) loss through the stairwell. Tackle the bigger, more expensive projects in stages, he continued.
Still, I need to insulate the ductwork and subfloor as soon as I can, said Linton. "You're losing a lot of heating and cooling energy through there. It's kind of like you're driving around with a leaking gas tank, and you're going around town, leaking gas everywhere you go."
Fix that leaky tank, Linton urged.
Since the audit, I have managed to reduce water problems in the basement (no French drain needed), and my caulk gun's ready to go when I have a few spare hours. I hope to get to the ductwork before winter sets in.
Meanwhile, at least my shady yard means the house stays cooler in the summer.
For more information, check out DOE's "Energy Savers" Web site at www1.eere.energy.gov/consumer/tips.
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