Using Energy Audits to Make Progress

Incremental Changes Add Up

Shortly after I moved into my house, 15 years ago, I got an energy audit through our local utility company.The house The guys came out with their blower door to check for airflow and found that my house was a sieve. Built in 1915, it had its original windows and doors and enough drafts to blow out candles on a windy day. They gave me some rolls of weatherstripping, showed me where to caulk, and when they left I had a list of all the problem areas. I picked off the small, cheap projects first.

  • Install insulation pads behind outlet covers on outside walls.
  • Weatherstrip the doors
  • Caulk around the windows
  • Insulate the window jams of the old double-hung windows
  • Spray Great Stuff into the crumbling spots around the foundation – if mice are getting in, so is cold air
  • Use plastic over the windows in the winter

No change in the utility bills.

Three years into home ownership, the neighborhood association had some money  for home security improvements. As a low-income single mom, I qualified for help and was able to replace very inefficient basement windows with secure glass block, to put egress windows into bedrooms for safety, and to replace the original wood doors. The change was huge when the drafty old door was replaced.

But no significant change in heating bills.

Five years into home ownership, I qualified for a forgivable loan. I was able to replace all the leaky windows on the first floor. Although every home weatherization person I’ve met says new windows don’t make much of a difference, we were now able to sit in our living room in the winter without needing blankets.

I love the historic bungalows of S. Mpls and didn’t want to do anything to change the look and feel of my home. I decided to do vinyl windows in rooms that had painted woodwork, and to use wood windows in the main living area where the trim work is natural wood. The window installer was suggesting a vinyl glider window to replace my piano windows but I thought that looked tacky. I had custom piano windows made to match the existing piano windows. I’m really glad I did. It was not very costly and they look like they fit the house.

Starting to see changes in energy bills. Now we’re cooking.

Incremental improvements finally pay off

About seven years into home ownership, a major structural problem became evident. I had to take half the roof off before it fell down. It was a costly problem. There was no grant money out there, but I qualified for a lower-interest loan through the neighborhood. I would never have chosen to spend so much money, but when it couldn’t be avoided, I was free to create the perfect second floor living space.

  • New walls meant more insulation
  • New roof meant more insulation
  • New windows were 1,000 times better than the old metal ones
  • Air leaks between floors and along the chimney were sealed
  • Proper venting was put into the remaining attic storage space
  • We replaced the 1940 forced air furnace with a high-efficiency furnace

Now we were seeing real change in the energy bills.

Time for another energy audit to see if we’d done all we could. No such luck, the auditors found more holes that needed to be blocked, we needed insulation between the unheated attic storage and the first floor bedrooms, and there was no insulation in the basement.

Twelve years into home ownership, we decided to put our house on the Mpls/St. Paul Home Tour. We’d never actually finished remodeling the second floor. Having the deadline of the home tour lit a fire under us. While doing the cosmetic work on the second floor, we finally patched those air leaks. While remodeling the basement family room and bedroom, we got insulation into those walls.  Oh yeah, the water heater sprung a leak on Christmas day so that got replaced with an efficient unit.

Fifteen years into home ownership, the neighborhood had a sustainability fair and offered an energy audit that was supposed to be more hands-on and comprehensive. I signed up for it. I thought we would be doing really good…. but there was still more to do.

  • We replaced regular lightbulbs in almost every fixture with CFLs (can’t find light bulbs for the overheads on dimmer switches)
  • We switched out the high flow shower head in one shower (couldn’t do the other without a plumber)
  • We found two more air leaks
  • And they reminded me to insulate the attic floor

Because of that list, I was prepared when tax breaks became available for weatherization and home energy projects. I called one of the contractors approved by the Center for Energy and the Environment (CEE) (the organization that handles grants and loans for the Longfellow neighborhood) and got them out to insulate the floor. They also redid the kneewall insulation, adding several more inches.

The workman said, “Hey, it’s really nice in here – that’s all wrong! I should be sweating (it was July).”  Big surprise — massive damage to the venting was allowing cold (and hot) air to escape into the attic storage space.

On our most recent energy bill there was a note saying that they are going to reduce our budget plan to $44 a month, down from $60.

So are we there yet? Wish I could say yes, but… We have a door to weatherstrip, a window to replace, and two basement rooms to insulate. Those are the things I know. What I don’t know is what’s going on in the stucco/plaster walls on the first floor. Insulation was blown into them before I bought the house but as I understand it, that doesn’t always work so well.

And, oh yeah – I’ve got a big hole in the kitchen wall covered by a thin sheet of metal. You know, the old-time kitchen vent! That’s probably not so good, but I burn a lot of rice so we’d die of smoke inhalation without it. Looks like I’ve got some investigating to do. 🙂

Any tips on things I may have missed?

About thinkofitasanadventure

We are a 50-something couple living in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis. We attended a sustainability conference at our local high school in November 2010, with keynote speaker Richard Heinberg from the Post Carbon Institute. What we heard shocked us deeply. We finally understood the need to transition away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. We immediately began to change the way we live. We joined together with other folks in our neighborhood to learn more, to do more and to have fun doing it! We're part of Transition Longfellow. We're choosing to change now and to "think of it as an adventure." If you are on this journey too, we'd love to hear from you.
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