Hits and Misses with Energy Audit and Home Construction

For a long time I’ve considered that my house could be a lot more efficient. One option recently fell though when my water heater started leaking. I put off replacing it for while in order to consider tankless heaters, but I got repeatedly told that the cost of modifying my home for a tankless water heater would be significantly more then the cost of the heater.

Back in more ordinary measures, I felt overwhelmed by the array of options available. I’ve also been dealing with roof replacements and questions about icicles by way of the condo board. I figured I could address both concerns by getting an Energy Audit.

I wasn’t much better off choosing an auditor than I was choosing home improvements. In the end I believe it was some variation of a web search for “energy audit near south elgin, il” that gave me ProEnergy Consultants

I had some preconceptions, mostly unfounded – for instance I half expected to be told that I should replace all my windows. The audit included the infamous “blower door test” and, other than measuring my attic insulation, that was really the extent of it. They claim that as building science has advanced (and, presumably, thermal cameras have become widely available) air infiltration was recognized as a primary cause temperature loss. (If you have an audit done by someone else, it would be interesting to compare notes.)

The air test did prove educational. For one, I learned that the attic should be considered an outside space (at outside temperature) and that opportunities for air exchange with the attic aren’t far from having a window open. The audit turned up lots of items to address – for instance, small cracks that I always considered cosmetic were open pathways for air infiltration.

From the audit, I got a digital copy of the report within a few days (including all or most of the thermal pictures), and a printed copy of the report two weeks later.

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Some specific items, that might be worth checking in your own home:

  • The flue for the furnace and water heater had a hole that was bigger than it’s pipe; it had been taped and painted over, but heat and time had peeled back much of this, further exposing the gap.
  • I mentioned the cracks; many were around windows, so it’s a good idea to caulk around all of them.
  • There was noticeable cold/air leakage along the baseboards. However, they consider this unimportant enough to put off until you remove the baseboards for painting anyway.
  • One of the vertical walls in my bedroom ceiling had spots of missing insulation.
  • The attic hatch had a very loose seal (remember, this is essentially an outside door) They recommended weather striping, and caulking around the trim.
  • Seal electrical boxes and electrical holes in the attic – there was significant air leakage around light fixtures. Later I found very noticeable drafts coming from some of my exterior-wall light switches.

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When my father and I actually got up in the attic to start making repairs, however, we found something to top them all: a rather sizable hole in the ceiling, which appeared to have been very deliberately built. The best guess I can possibly make is that one set of people thought it would be a good idea to have an air return in the utility room (such a good idea, in fact, that they put two registers on it) and vented it to the attic. The people hooking up the ducts, however, were having none of it, and nobody seemed to think much of a pipe sticking up through the insulation, venting warm air into the attic and probably contributing to the roof melting. (Of course, these are the same builders who thought nothing of having the bathroom vent fan exit directly into the attic – they can’t even seem to make up their mind whether the attic is inside or outside!)

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Unfortunately, this wasn’t a priority punch list item in the energy audit – it was only hinted at, off to the side of one thermal picture. I mentioned this to the auditor – I figured “hole in ceiling” might make an amusing story in his line of work. His theory was that the builders may have been trying to “bring in fresh air from the attic for combustion”. Which of course raises the point that all of the air that leaves from the heater exhaust has to be replaced from the outside – likewise with the bathroom vent and dryer, I suppose.

Edit: I’ve found some evidence that a direct vent is required.

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