There Are More Reasons to Get an Energy Audit Than Just Saving Energy!

The cheapest, safest and cleanest energy is the kind you never use!  Obviously, saving energy also saves money on home utility bills, and those savings will vary according to how many of the energy-efficient improvements you decide to do after the audit.  Although no one wants to go to the trouble or expense of following all the recommendations, the more you do now means the less you’ll waste on energy bills every month for as long as you own your house, adding up to thousands of dollars! 

But even more important than saving money on wasted energy or improving your home’s comfort is protecting your family’s health and safety!  Every true energy audit starts with a safety inspection, including a test for natural gas and carbon monoxide leaks.  This is actually the most important part of an energy audit, because it protects you and your family from fires, explosions and lethal poisoning by these gases.  At the end of this article are a couple of news items detailing two such cases, but there have been many more found during energy audits, because the CO and gas detectors that we use are much more sensitive than the one (if any) that you have in your home!

The most important tool of an energy audit is the blower door that fits into an outside door frame.  Beware of anyone doing an ‘audit’ without one.  The built-in fan pulls air out of the house, while a manometer keeps track of the indoor/outdoor pressure difference as it records how much air is being moved through the fan.  This equals what’s coming in through the home’s air leaks to equalize the pressure.  Once we know just how ‘leaky’ the house is, we leave the fan running as we search for all the leaks, followed by tips on how to seal each one.  Some will be easy and cheap to fix, while others will be harder and more expensive. (And almost never require new windows!)  You decide how much you want to do and what you want to spend, but even the simple ones will quickly pay for themselves and the audit.

An energy audit usually takes three to four hours.  This includes the safety inspection, blower-door test, walk-thru to find leaks, and training on what you can do about them. As a home inspector too, I always watch for safety and construction issues, whether they’re related to energy or not. At $50 per hour, the total cost should be no more than $200, although I have had clients who kept me much longer to learn more about their homes.  And it’s always a good idea to get a second energy audit after weatherization, even if it’s just to find out how well you did.  Once the big leaks are plugged, it helps find the simple ones that were too small to find before.

And the final reason for an energy audit is that the less carbon-supplied energy we use, the better off our children and grandchildren will be.  After I retired in 2000, I decided to spend the rest of my life slowing or stopping climate change.  Since our buildings account for half the energy we use and carbon we emit, making them more energy efficient and replacing fossil fuels with renewables are two of the most effective methods.  All it takes is everyone improving their home’s comfort and safety, while saving money in the process – a no-brainer!

Don Dieckmann is the founder and president of Better Building Institute Inc., a non-profit Building Performance Institute-certified energy auditing and consulting corporation. He is also an energy contractors’ instructor for the Illinois Home Weatherization Assistance Program (IHWAP); a volunteer for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Workforce Quality, Training, and Certification Guidelines Team at the National Renewable Energy Lab; a presenter for the Climate Reality Project; Energy & Climate chair of the Sierra Club Piasa Palisades Group; and co-chair of the Glen Carbon Citizens Climate Lobby group.

Solar Energy Company Makes Life-Saving Discovery During In-Home Energy Assessment

August 11, 2016; CAMPBELL, Calif., Aug. 11, 2016 /PRNewswire-iReach/

Today, a local solar-energy installer made a life-saving discovery during a comprehensive energy audit at the home of one of their clients: The home was registering dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide leaking from the furnace. Although it is not uncommon to find carbon monoxide measuring safely at 25 parts per million in a home, this furnace was producing upwards of 541 parts per million, a level at which three hours of exposure would have been life threatening.

A Tragedy Avoided

The homeowners were informed that their newly purchased home would need a roof replacement. Being environmentally conscious, they took the opportunity to go solar as well.

Before a solar installation even begins, it’s recommended that an energy audit be performed on the home. During this assessment, a health and safety test is performed on all gas-fired appliances to ensure the gas is being released from the home properly. The health and safety test is vital in identifying the level of carbon monoxide that is being produced when these appliances are running. Most solar energy companies believe this energy assessment is essential not only to design an effective and intelligent solar system, but is also necessary for the safety and well-being of their customers. During the process, they found a carbon monoxide leak caused by a cracked heat exchanger in the furnace. This discovery inevitably saved the family's lives.

Carbon Monoxide: The "Silent Killer"

Carbon Monoxide is capable of taking a life before the resident even knows they were at risk. It is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas, slightly less dense than air. When a person breathes in carbon monoxide, the amount of oxygen carried to blood cells decreases, essentially suffocating each cell. On average, over 400 people in the United States die every year from carbon monoxide produced by non-automotive appliances, but the annual number of people who experience carbon monoxide related health problems is exponentially higher at 30,000. The short term effects of carbon monoxide exposure include nausea, confusion, vomiting, dizziness, and loss of consciousness. Long term effects include chronic headaches, increased risk of heart disease, and early dementia.

Detector saves Godfrey family from carbon monoxide

by Frank Prager, Advantage News, August 7, 2016×

GODFREY | Dave Whaley did not see or smell anything out of the ordinary. It’s thanks to a small device that Whaley and his family stayed safe.

Whaley, who lives in Godfrey with his wife Jan, and their dog Thunder, were alarmed last month when, despite no signs of danger, their carbon monoxide detector alerted them to move to fresh air. They never had experienced a carbon monoxide issue in the home, to the point that Whaley didn’t suspect anything.  “I’d had it for years and almost forgot about it,” he said.

The family left the residence and Whaley called 911. When firefighters arrived, they identified carbon monoxide in the air. Whaley suspected it could be from the gas water heater in his basement.

Dave Whaley, his wife Jan and their dog Thunder, avoided carbon

monoxide poisoning when alerted by a CO detector like the one in

Jan’s hand.  Photo by Frank Prager

Ameren came out that same night to do more extensive analysis and identify the source of the problem. They eventually determined it wasn’t an equipment malfunction, but rather a flue design problem that was trapping carbon monoxide emissions in his house. The device that had been mostly out of mind may well have saved the lives of everyone in the house.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, CO poisoning causes approximately 2,100 deaths in the United States per year.

CO is a colorless, odorless gas. CO poisoning can occur when a fuel-burning appliance or machine, such as a furnace, heater, stove or generator, is not working or vented properly. Symptoms of CO poisoning are headaches, dizziness, tiredness and nausea.

These symptoms easily can be mistaken for flu or common viruses. However, as in Whaley’s case, there often are no symptoms at all. As well as alerting people to danger during the daytime, a CO detector prevents the gas from overcoming and killing people while they sleep.

CO emissions can be created by inefficient or incomplete combustion of fuels such as gas and propane. Physical danger signs of leakage can include yellow or orange flames on your appliances where there should normally be a crisp blue flame. Signs may also include sooty stains around fires and water heaters.

Information on preventing CO poisoning is available from your local fire department. Recommendations include:

• Install at least one CO alarm on each level of your house

• Have a licensed professional inspect heating systems and other fuel-burning appliances in your home annually

• Have fireplaces cleaned and inspected annually and keep chimneys clear of animal nests, leaves and residue

• Do not block exhaust flues and ducts used by water heaters, ranges and clothes dryers

• Do not leave your car running in an attached garage or carport

• Do not use ovens or stoves to heat your home

• Do not use charcoal or gas grills inside or operate outdoors near a window where fumes could seep in

• Test all carbon monoxide detectors in your home monthly

• Replace CO alarms every five years to benefit from the latest technology upgrades

• Do not use generators and grills indoors during a power outage

Anyone can be poisoned by CO, but some individuals may be more vulnerable than others, including children, senior citizens and people with anemia and heart and lung diseases. Anyone suspecting the gas’ presence in their home should immediately call 911.

CO detectors are available at hardware and department stores as well as online. People should install them following the instructions included with the product.

Whaley said after the event at his house, he realized the detector was old and it was time to replace it. He noted that even though its time was up, the inexpensive device did the job it was meant to do.

“It died a hero,” he said.

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We all want to live in a home that we can depend on to keep us...

  Safe in times of violent weather, wildfires or other natural disasters;
  Healthy by avoiding exposure to toxic gases, mold and allergens; and...
  Comfortable during even the hottest summers and coldest winters.

At the same time, the price of traditional energy keeps rising, while its reliability and safety decline, especially when we compare them to renewables like solar or wind. Our addiction to fossil fuels has held our economy hostage while causing dangerous pollution, spills, fires and explosions since we began using them over two centuries ago, and those disasters are more common every year. Even if you don't believe they are also the biggest cause of climate change, you should still agree that we'd be better off without them.

But we can get ahead of this transformation by improving our homes' energy-efficiency (EE) before we add renewable energy (RE).  The first thing to remember is that the safest, cleanest and cheapest energy is the kind we DON'T
use.  This means that before we do anything else to our homes (like adding or replacing doors, windows, a furnace, or solar panels), we need to maximize their EE by measuring, finding and sealing any air leaks and insulation weaknesses, to keep the inside temperature as close to our comfort level as possible.  At the same time, this weatherization (WX) can also make our homes stronger and more resilient to severe weather!

On the other side of the coin, if we're planning to build a new home, we can expand on this technology to the point where it may not need any energy other than a few solar panels and/or a small wind turbine.  This zero-energy construction technology can even result in a practically indestructible "SuperHome" that’s immune to almost any extreme weather, fire, floods, earthquakes, termites, mold or harmful off-gassing!

The first step is to find out how well our homes perform by having an Energy Audit done to find the air leaks and insulation weaknesses so they can be fixed.  This is what the Better Building Institute does.  Founded in 2003 as an Illinois-licensed home-inspection business, BBI was incorporated as a non-profit educational organization in 2009 when we added EE, RE and WX testing and consulting services to help St. Louis-area home-owners save energy and money.  BBI's Energy Checkups usually take about three hours and include:

  • A Blower-Door Test that creates a slight vacuum in the house so replacement-air leakage can be measured and found, followed by tips on how you can seal most of those leaks yourself - and a list of contractors who can do the work for you.
  • A Home Safety Inspection, checking for combustible gas leaks, carbon-monoxide (CO) and radon gas, electrical faults, plumbing and roof leaks, and structural problems.
  • Consultation on how you can fix the problems, and a list of contractors who can do it for you.
  • Weather permitting, a thermal-imaging scan of your house to help find insulation weak spots.

We ask only for a donation of $150 for our three-hour Home Energy & Safety Checkup, rather than the $500-$1000 charged by most other for-profit companies. We do this because we believe everyone should know how well their home performs, so they can make educated choices on how to improve it.  After more than fifteen years of home-inspections, energy audits, and EE, RE and WX training and consulting, if we don’t have the answers to your home's problems, we'll find them.  We also offer classes and free seminars on EE, RE, WX, Net-Zero Homebuilding and Climate Change by request at your location.

             Visit us in the MISSOURI BOTANICAL GARDEN's Home Performance with Energy Star booth at local home shows.

The Better Building Institute is Certified by the Building Performance Institute (BPI) as an Energy Auditor and Consultant, and by the State of Illinois as an Illinois Home Weatherization Assistance Program (IHWAP) Contractors' Instructor.