Friday, January 4, 2013

Our home energy audit

So the other day, we finally got a serious energy audit of the home place.  A big handsome guy with a truck full of instruments began to expose the 1958 thinking of how a house should be insulated.  Not surprisingly, there were plenty of problems.

First of all, the first ceiling insulation attempt had been done with vermiculite—a substance that sometimes contains asbestos fibers.  The immediate problem this caused was that it made it legally impossible to use his air door.  So some of the big infiltration tests we wanted to run were not going to happen because the air door could suck stray fibers into the house.

Then we encountered the occupational bias of our auditor.  His background was HVAC so while we got the 20-minute lecture about our primitive water heater and how it wasted energy, other subjects such as how many vents the roof needed got a much more cursory treatment.

Mostly, however, the audit was a real eye opener.  His infrared sensor / camera revealed wall cavities that had been filled with something (what, we could not determine) that had settled over the years leaving a space of at least a foot at the top where there was no insulation whatsoever.  And even without the air door, it was pretty easy to tell that the 55 year-old windows and doors were very leaky.

But what was most interesting about our auditor is that he had been trained to suggest solutions that had relatively short paybacks.  In practice this meant that new windows were probably not a good idea from  cost / benefit standpoint no matter how leaky they were.  Even his suggestions about how to upgrade the water heater came with the caveat that it probably wouldn't pay for itself for a very long time "because natural gas prices are so low these days."  In fact he must have brought up low gas prices at least a dozen times.

So unless someone like us wants to upgrade the insulation systems for the house to create a more comfortable and less drafty space, there really isn't a whole lot of reason to do anything right now.  Of course, natural gas prices will not be forever low and when they rise, all those calculations change.

Because we don't believe it is a good idea to heat the outdoors during the winter, and because climate change is a real problem, we will be fixing our leaky old house.  It's just that there isn't any economic pressure to do something right away.  This is a good thing because fixing our house will require a lot of careful planning.  But at least we have started the process.

Natural Gas Prices Are Tanking

Rob Wile | Jan. 2, 2013

Natural gas futures dropped as much as 9 percent today after a meteorology forecasting group said the country would see above-normal temperatures through Jan. 11, according to Bloomberg's Christine Buurma.

Commodity Weather Group LLC in Bethesda, Maryland added the low in New York on Jan. 9 may be 38 degrees Fahrenheit, 11 higher than usual, Buurma said.

It was the second consecutive price collapse for the commodity. Yesterday contracts fell nearly $0.25 following a 900-contract order on the NYMEX, she reported.

Futures are way down from fall 2012 highs of nearly $4, although there is usually a decline at the beginning of the year as orders for winter supplies tail off. more


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  2. Very interesting stuff, and this agrees 100% with the energy 'audit' approach I got when I bought my 100+ year old house five years ago. There was zero talk from them (or opening to discuss even) about the benefits of green energy installations of any sort. So I did nothing beyond lowering the thermostat in winter and only running the A/C on the most brutal summer days.

    But the biggest advantage of buying a 100 year old house was it wasn't overbuilt. It is small, only about 750 total sq ft over the two stories. Since I live alone it is perfect size for me, and this also means my gas/electric bills combined given my simple life only add up to about $1000 annually. The downside to these energy auditors though is I will never get payback from virtually any household energy improvements based on cost savings alone.

    Still, if there was a Germany-like green energy tariff buyback program, if I went green there would be a society benefit. I could sell all my excess (PV solar most likely) energy back to Xcel. Why don't I? Because I'd probably still be looking at about a 15 year ROI and with an underwater mortgage who cares about improving my house anymore. So I've done nothing there either.

    Which brings me to my other point--in Iceland, since all energy is already green (geo-thermal or hydro), they care less about perfect insulation or having a tight house. In fact, energy is so cheap to them, they often leave windows open year-round (unless a big storm moves in of course) to gain the benefit of the fresh air there. And I think that is where America needs to change its thinking a bit.

    Since the 70s first energy crisis, there have been gov't/energy company programs encouraging private homeowners to conserve energy and improve their houses via these very energy audits. Now after 40 years, where might our housing stock be? What might be a guesstimate on how energy efficient our housing is...50%...70%...30%...who knows, what might we declare as our baseline, the average 1980 American home, typical Swedish home, a new German home?

    I guess all I'm saying is that we just should go green energy now regardless of how perfect it is using energy. Regardless of how tight our doors are or well our walls are insulated. Short of tearing down and rebuilding a new house (like your brother did and I applaud his fine efforts), there will always be a hundred weaknesses in our existing housing.

    And some of those weaknesses are actually keeping us alive given the need for proper ventilation to keep us breathing good I recall, some houses were being built too air tight and people were dying when their heaters/stoves would produce any bad gases or suck away too much oxygen.

    Basically this is related to my comment the other day about how green energy has been pinned down by forces on both left and right...forcing it to be perfect before we go there. This is incredibly silly. Even today most gas furnaces are rated at about 90% efficiency and this is after many decades of household furnace engineering. We need to stop stalling, stop the endless analysis and studies followed by tiny incremental improvements. Green energy is needed now for economic and social reasons, we just need to change and do it knowing it will not be perfect, and to accept we will need to improve it as we go forward. Improvement jobs are good jobs too.

    1. As you might imagine Mike, my brother the energy auditor has already sent a bunch of suggestions this morning. Yes indeed, we will be fixing some or all these problems—mostly because we want good healthy indoor air to breathe when it gets cold out.

      Then there is the little matter that I have a brother so there are bragging rights involved. What gets fixed—and how—will be covered in future installments. Me—I like a nice barefoot house where the furnace doesn't run all night and my sinuses don't dry out.

    2. $1000 is interesting. You may still want to consider efficiency improvements. I own a 1986 house with about 1800 usable square feet. I now pay less than $1500 per year for both gas and electric. Consider that I own an electric car as my primary vehicle, which is left on the charger every night during off-peak. I also run my computer each day and have smartphones and tablets charging each night as a software engineer. I bought a 96% efficient furnace a few years back and it's sad to see my investment won't pay off as well as I was hoping.

      Consider the good economic news for green efficiency... Gasoline prices hit a $3 low in October yet electric vehicle sales all hit record highs for the five most popular electric vehicles in America.

    3. Hi Colin--I was just estimating it to be $1000...I realized I had my checkbook with me now and just added it up and turns out it was only $538. But I have to admit I am a bit of an energy freak, I keep my house set at 56 degrees in winter and last year I only ran the A/C less than 10 days.

      Even with that, like Jonathan mentioned for his house, during that recent New Years cold snap my furnace was clicking on with only short pauses all night and the air inside was desert dry and my skin and sinuses were pretty dried out too.

      In American housing stock, excepting the few people like Jonathan's brother's house, there is always room for energy-efficiency/household-comfort improvement--but my main house issue now is with the bankster mortgage holders of my underwater loan.

      When they created the housing bubble, now burst, one result is a house I will never be able to call 'my home.' It is so far underwater that I have zero motivation to improve it since that involves adding my money into their property. Probably for as long as I'll live there but certainly for the foreseeable future given the worthless economy, since nothing I do will return the investment in housing value to me, only to the banksters. So I'm now a renter, and standing pat and watching their landlord-free house slowly deteriorate around me.

  3. We have seen most of the Energy efficiency firms nyc opting for regular Energy audits that has helped them control the major expenses.