Conversation with an Energy Auditor: Jason Acosta

Jason Acosta
Denver/Boulder/Fort Collins, Colorado

First and foremost, what is the biggest overall misconception that homeowners have about energy efficiency?

Homeowners often feel that window replacement is one of the first logical steps in reducing their energy use. In fact, windows are very expensive and typically have a very long payback. Insulating blinds and storm windows are much less expensive and typically have a much better return on investment. These alternatives to window replacement also help preserve the character of older homes.

Tell us a little about energy audits. Why are they important? What should homeowners expect? What can they do to prepare?

An energy audit is an assessment of a home's thermal envelope and mechanical system. The energy audit should be tailored to the needs of the client, whether they are related to saving money, improving comfort, improving indoor air quality, or reducing environmental impact. A homeowner should expect an air leakage test with a diagnostic tool called a blower door. Homeowners should also expect the auditor to do a detailed inspection of the entire home, including the attic, crawlspace, and basement. A homeowner can prepare by assessing what their own goals are for the audit and by compiling at least twelve months of utility bills.      

In your experience, what are homeowners always the most surprised to learn from their energy audit results?

Typically, homeowners are surprised to learn exactly what is causing their comfort issues. Often, poor ductwork design leads to comfort issues that homeowners thought were caused by missing insulation, air leakage, or an undersized furnace. Also, homeowners are surprised to find that their windows are leaking less than they suspected.

Are there any specific energy efficiency challenges that homeowners in your state or region face?

I often see older homes with finished attic that are difficult to heat and cool. Getting conditioned air to the top floor can often be quite difficult. Radiant heat solves this problem for heating, but does not address cooling issues. High velocity heating and cooling systems come with very small ducts that can squeeze into tight spaces. Also, living on the front range of Colorado, many homes are built with lots of west-facing glass for the mountain views. Ideally, retractable exterior shades can be installed to keep the afternoon sun out. 

What advice would you give a homeowner who is hesitant to schedule an energy audit because they fear the recommended improvements will be too expensive?

The most cost effective and practical improvements often involve adding insulation and air sealing. These improvements happen to be least expensive. An auditor should give you a prioritized list of recommendations. They don't all need to be done at once, and can help in developing a long-term plan for improving your home. An audit should leave the homeowner with more knowledge about their home, allowing them to spend their money more effectively on improvements.

In that same vein, what's one low-cost weekend project that homeowners can do to make their homes more energy efficient?

Attach insulation to the attic hatch and weather strip the lid where the hatch sits. It's important to attach the insulation to the attic hatch so that insulation stays in contact with the hatch when it is closed. 75% of the homes I go into have attic hatch insulation that gets stuck in the attic when the hatch is closed. Weigh down the hatch by attaching a piece of plywood to the top of it so that it compresses the weather strip and forms a tight seal.  Installing low-flow bathroom aerators and low-flow shower heads is a great way to save water and the energy that is used to heat that water. 

Now it's time for some inspiration. Tell us about one of the best home success stories you've seen in your time in this field.

I did an audit of a large home with a very cold master bedroom and bath. There was no access cut to the attic over this space. Using an infrared camera, we were able to see that the attic was completely un-insulated. EnergyLogic later returned to install an attic access, air seal the ceiling from the attic, and install blown cellulose insulation.