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Avoiding the Cost of Not Acting

Paul Kando

An energy auditor gets the rare chance to re-visit a client’s house. Not only that, he gets to walk around the house with the owner of the place. The tour includes a look at the attic. Since the audit some of its recommendations have been at least partly implemented. Others, sadly, were not. A case in point: a fairly large hole – about 100 square inches in size – still open to the attic. On this cold day, one can feel warm air rushing up from the heated space below. Feeling the flow of warm moist air and eyeing ends of rusty nails on the underside of the roof caked with ice, the image of a New York City taxi-meter pops into the auditor’s mind. Its numbers race exponentially even as the cab crawls, inch by inch, in heavy traffic, toward La Guardia airport.

The auditor asks for a plastic garbage bag and some duct tape. “This is not a permanent solution” he says as he tapes the plastic in place, covering the hole, “but it will save some money until you get around to fix the problem permanently”. “Look at the force of that air!” observes the homeowner, watching the taped-down plastic bulge like a hot air balloon. “How much money?”

Well, that energy audit took place in 2007, seven years ago. A check of the office copy of the report shows that just over a third of this home’s heat losses were due to air leaks totaling 462 square inches (3.2 square feet) in combined area. The audit report’s topmost recommendation calls for air sealing, particularly of the attic floor.

The price of a gallon of heating oil was $2.70 at the time and the house burned 1,014 gallons of it for heating and water heating, at an annual cost of $2,736. Of that $928 was lost annually through holes and cracks in the heated building envelope – over $17 per square inch of leakage area per year. At that rate, over seven years, this homeowner has lost $11,900 by not sealing the hole just covered with a piece of plastic and duct tape.

However, the price of fuel oil has risen by more than $1 since 2007. On average, any unsealed leak nowadays costs $25 per square inch per year. At this rate, over seven years, the total loss through a 100 sq. in. hole rises to $17,500. And, assuming none of the 462 square inches of leakage has been fixed, this homeowner could have invested as much as $80,850 in air sealing 7 years ago and had it fully paid back by now from energy savings. Surely, the cost of air sealing alone would have only cost a fraction of that. There must be a lesson in here.

In an ideal world, energy audits would be done by independent professionals providing third-party advice to home owners. Home owners would, with independent professional help as needed, evaluate the audit report’s recommendations, set an energy efficiency goal, and create a comprehensive plan to achieve it by improving the home and all its equipment as an integrated system. The homeowner and his/her contractors would work on an optimized combination of solutions – energy conservation, changing energy sources and/or equipment, etc. – until the goal has been reached.

In the ideal world, with the help of imaginative financing, all this could be accomplished without increasing the homeowner’s present monthly cost of occupancy, including the cost of heating, cooling and water heating. Blower door tests would be conducted throughout the energy upgrade process, to ensure the best results (including quality of workmanship). At the end, before contractors received their final payment, the original energy auditor would do an independent assessment, testing the completed improvements.

The logistics and cost of all this is beyond the means of most individual home owners, but not of homeowner energy cooperatives. A member-owned and managed cooperative can exercise the combined economic clout of all its members in negotiating deals, vetting prospective contractors, providing design services, supervision and quality control. It can even exercise lobbying power on behalf of energy policies that serve the interest of home owners rather than corporate/ industrial actors – something individual home owners do not have the political clout to do.

Together, I believe, we can do better than individually wasting thousands of dollars per year through square inches of holes in walls, floors and ceilings.