Conversation with an Energy Auditor: Tom Schlotter

Tom Schlotter
Allied Home Inspections
Danbury, Connecticut

AlliedWhat is the biggest overall misconception that homeowners have about energy efficiency?

Most people's biggest misconception with energy efficiency is that it is an all-or-nothing proposition. Any home can be made more energy efficient to some extent, usually with little expense and effort. Small, low-cost projects include caulking around windows or even turning down the thermostat at certain times. Saving energy does not necessarily need a major investment or a total overhaul of the home, such as replacing windows.

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

Energy audits can provide many benefits. Homeowners can save money on heating and cooling costs by following the advice given during the audit. Natural resources such as gas and oil are conserved by saving energy. Comfort in the home is often increased by stopping drafts and decreasing humidity. The resale price of the home also goes up. The energy audit process is painless and informative for the homeowner. These days, many local electrical, gas, or oil companies are providing energy audits to their customers at low cost or free of charge. Homeowners can expect to be given an energy efficiency tour of their home, usually lasting a few hours. Appliances like furnaces or hot water heaters that may be wasting fuel are pointed out. Windows, doors, and the entire building envelope are checked for air leakage. Insulation is checked to make sure the home is properly wrapped to keep heat and cool air in and the elements out. Often, a thermal imaging camera and a blower door are used to gauge the heating and cooling loss and so that the auditor can make energy saving recommendations to the homeowner. Normally, a homeowner does not need to do anything to prepare for an energy audit other than to be prepared to learn ways to save energy and, hopefully, money.

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

Homeowners are often surprised to learn how quickly they can get a return on their investment when upgrading the energy efficiency of their home. Choosing Energy Star appliances when replacing or upgrading air conditioning, refrigerators, furnaces, dehumidifiers, and the like saves money quickly. Switching to a compact fluorescent light bulb will save about $30 in each fixture over its lifetime, completely paying for six months. Heating or cooling equipment is often not sized properly and wastes energy unbeknownst to the people living in the house. Poorly sealed or unsealed ductwork in an unseen area like a crawl space or a basement is often a revelation, wasting energy and analogous to throwing money out the window. Another big surprise to homeowners is seeing hidden defects in a home that are discovered while using an infrared camera during the course of an energy audit. The infrared camera can detect missing or deteriorated insulation in a home encased inside a wall where it would not otherwise be discovered. The camera also can "see" water pipes or leaks inside a wall that would not otherwise be visible. This allows homeowners to make any needed repairs and save money before significant damage occurs.

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

One challenge that homeowners face regarding energy efficiency is to break the mold and be willing to use new technologies or products that will save energy. Many contractors may not be qualified or familiar with newer energy efficient products and may not be willing or able to advise a homeowner appropriately. It may be up to the homeowner to become knowledgeable in these areas. One example is dark-colored asphalt roofing shingles used on houses throughout the United States. Studies show that these dark-colored asphalt shingles absorb large amounts of heat during the day, making it harder to cool the home in the summer. There is no beneficial heat gain in the winter. Yet these shingles are the norm, and other more efficient options, such as metal roofing that reflects sunlight or light-colored shingles that absorbs less heat, are normally not offered for consideration.

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?

Energy audits are a very low cost investment in your home that will pay dividends in the immediate future. After receiving an audit, a homeowner can choose from implementing the simple and inexpensive solutions to spending thousands for major appliances that will reduce energy costs. Some examples of the simple solutions are spending $10 for new weather stripping around doors saves saving money. Part of the energy auditor's job is to inform the client of the rate of return on any upgrades that they make to their homes. The homeowner then decides if it is worth the time and effort. Also, the audit often does not reveal any one thing the home needs; it is a menu of upgrades that the owner can pick and choose from, implementing changes in a week or over several years. It's their choice. However, having a clear picture of a home's energy usage will always save the homeowner money.

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

One low-cost project that homeowners can do in a weekend or less is to add or repair insulation while sealing the home to prevent drafts. Cold air enters the home around doors, windows, chimneys, electric outlets, light fixtures, and the attic. Energy is wasted and the home feels uncomfortable. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that homeowners can typically save up to 20% of heating and cooling costs, or up to 10% of total energy costs, by air sealing their homes and adding insulation in attics, floors over crawl spaces, and accessible basement rim joists. Your auditor will pinpoint areas needing additional insulation and any air leaks in the course of the investigation.

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.

We've had many energy audits that have saved clients a significant amount of money...and grief. During one audit of a 1920's Colonial home in Stamford, Connecticut, an inspection using an infrared camera revealed an entire exterior wall that had no insulation or vapor barrier, causing the house to lose a large amount of heat in the winter and cooling in the summer. Further investigation showed insulation gaps in the attic. Since the owner could see insulation in a few places in the home, he assumed the insulation was complete and functional. Repairing the areas where insulation was lacking provided an immediate increase in comfort and saved the owner money each year on heating and cooling costs. A recent success story we've had is for a landlord who is renting a home to a young family. The family has been complaining of drafts, cold floors, and a musty mold odor throughout the home. An energy audit revealed that the crawl space in the home was not adequately insulated and that the vapor barrier was installed incorrectly. Further investigation turned up a heating/cooling system that was drawing moldy air from the crawl space into the home and distributing it into every room. After making the suggested upgrades and repairs, the landlord reports that the family is happy and comfortable.