A New Breed of Contractor

Did you know the average family spends more than $1,600 a year in energy costs? In many parts of the country, folks are spending double or triple that amount. Helping customers reduce high utility bills can be a rewarding and profitable opportunity for an enterprising remodeling contractor. We all know the secret to success is finding a need and filling it. No one likes paying energy bills.

There is a new breed of contractors, home-performance contractors, that specialize in reducing home energy bills 40 to 60 percent. Their approach to saving energy is very different from traditional approaches. Typically, if someone has high energy bills and he calls his utility, the utility suggests adding insulation or replacing the furnace, air conditioner or windows. But none of these may be needed or the best choice.

A home-performance contractor does not focus first on products as the solution but focuses on the homeowner’s energy bills. He or she finds where the energy is being consumed, then selects the most appropriate set of solutions. These contractors perform a detailed analysis of a homeowner’s energy bills to determine where energy dollars are being spent so the homeowner is not spending money on the wrong products.

For example, there are more than 5 million homes with in-ground pools, which can consume 3,000 to 5,000 kilowatt hours a year and are often the biggest energy hog in the home. Variable-speed pool pumps can cut the energy use of pool filtration by 50 to 70 percent. If a house has a pool, it may make more sense to replace the pool pump than to buy a new air conditioner.

Home-performance Contracting Explained

A home-performance contractor takes a house-as-a-system approach to retrofitting homes. His or her goal is to develop a good understanding of how all the systems in an individual house interact to make the home more energy-efficient, comfortable, durable and have good indoor air quality. Home-performance contracting is about measured results, not hopeful guesses based on a manufacturer’s marketing claims or lab tests. The key to home-performance contracting is a well-thought-out set of integrated energy-saving measures installed and tested on-site while the energy-efficiency retrofit work is being performed. The goal is that the measures and products are installed properly to ensure they perform to manufacturer specifications.

In addition to the energy bill disaggregation, a home-performance contractor also will perform a series of diagnostic tests:

  • A blower door test to determine how leaky or drafty the home is.
  • A duct leakage test, sometimes called a duct blaster test. This test determines how much conditioned air is being lost to the outside because of leaks in ducts.
  • Airflow and pressure balancing of the HVAC system. This test ensures the system has adequate airflow and conditioned air is being placed where it provides comfort and performance.
  • Using an infrared thermography camera, a thermal imaging test shows defects in insulation and air leakage.
  • Combustion appliance safety testing. These tests help determine whether any of the combustion appliances, like water heaters, fireplaces, etc., are back-drafting their combustion byproducts into the home.

All these tests help determine the energy performance of the home. This diagnostic equipment is used during the energy retrofit to find leaks and thermal defects, as well as to measure how well the workers did at eliminating the air leaks, duct leaks and thermal defects. This is key because performance is measured, not assumed. After the tests are done and the energy use analyzed, a detailed plan is developed to remedy the true causes of the high bills.

Homes Built in the Past 20 Years

Energy codes have become far stricter and products are better. Air-conditioner SEER ratings have nearly doubled, furnaces are 30 percent more efficient and windows have tripled in performance in the past 20 years. Yet the average home’s total efficiency and energy bills have not improved much.

Homes look great on paper, but in reality, insulation and HVAC equipment are so poorly installed, the improvements rarely live up to their labeled ratings. Consider these studies about home energy performance:

  • A 1998 Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Department of Energy study found 1,500-square-foot homes can have 181 square inches of leakage area. That’s like having a 15- by 12-inch window open all day long every day.
  • Measured values from more than 10,000 “CheckMe” reports of residential HVAC installations show 60 percent of air-conditioning systems have excessive or inadequate amounts of refrigerant. CheckMe reports are generated by a certified CheckMe air-conditioning technician who visits the home, takes measurements, then uses a software program developed by Proctor Engineering Corp., San Rafael, Calif., to get results. The refrigerant issue along with other measured shortcomings, like disconnected or restricted ductwork, wastes about 45 percent of installed cooling capacity in thousands of homes.
  • Measured values from 60 California homes taken by the Davis Energy Group, Davis, Calif., in 2007 showed that 83 percent of systems failed to deliver the amount of supply air needed to meet the peak loads of the homes. Discomfort and energy waste come from such poorly designed and installed systems because expensive conditioned air does not reach the occupied space. It’s not uncommon to see ducts leak 25 percent of conditioned air to the outdoors, which means 25 percent of the money homeowners spend goes to heating and cooling the outdoors.
  • Measured values taken in 2009 and 2010 from 80 homes completed in 2007 show that 80 percent of supply air grilles deliver air too slowly to mix in the space well enough to keep it comfortable. Thermal discomfort makes the homeowner adjust the thermostat, making the system run longer than otherwise would be necessary to heat and cool each space. Excess run-time costs money and wastes energy.

Combining the results of field measurements from those four studies, it becomes apparent only about 3.5 percent of typical tract or custom homes have the correct supply airflow, delivered at the correct velocity. Said another way, 96.5 percent of the homes tested have HVAC systems that don’t work to even the most minimal standards of efficiency.

A 1998 study from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tenn., found poorly installed insulation that has voids, gaps, cracks or was poorly lofted (not compressed yet fully fills the cavity) resulted in an energy loss of 28 percent compared to its labeled R-value.

Typical Energy-saving Measures

By using a blower door and an infrared camera, the home-performance contractor locates leaks and thermal passes and air seals them. Most of the focus is on attic and crawl spaces because these are the easiest and most cost-effective to fix. Insulation is upgraded where needed. Depending on air-tightness levels, fresh air ventilation is often provided.

A detailed HVAC analysis is done to determine proper airflow and refrigerant charge and if the size of the system and ducts matches the true needs of the home. Sometimes the entire system is replaced. If not, the system is sealed, repaired and tested to work correctly. Airflow is properly adjusted for each room.

Water-heating costs often can be nearly as much as heating and cooling costs, so water heaters are replaced with high-efficiency direct vent gas water heaters or heat-pump electric water heaters.

If the home’s windows need to be replaced because of leaks, wear and tear, high-performance low-E windows are installed. The cost difference between a standard double-glazed window and a very energy-efficient low-E product with argon gas is only about $1 per square foot.

Combustion safety testing is performed to ensure all combustion appliances are vented properly. Replace appliances, pool pumps and lighting where appropriate.

Opportunities

Every day in this country, 10,000 of the 78 million baby boomers retire. This means that every day 10,000 people will be adjusting to living on a fixed income. By the time they pay federal, state and local taxes, many households fall in the 50 percent bracket, which means for every dollar they spend, they have to earn $2. Energy bills can really eat into a family’s disposable income. Investments to reduce a homeowner’s monthly energy costs keep paying back year after year. Statistics show people are living in their homes longer and they are investing more into their homes, so it makes sense for remodeling contractors to have the knowledge to provide this service.

Steve Easley is a construction consultant who specializes in solving building-science-related problems and providing best-practice training and seminars about high-performance building techniques.

 

This article is based on the new book Measured Home Performance, A Guide to Best Practice Energy Retrofits by Rick Chitwood and Lew Harriman. Article author Steve Easley wrote the chapters about window retrofit and pool pump replacement. It is a free download from Measuredhomeperformance.com/pdf/BestPracticesGuide.pdf or can be purchased from Amazon.com.

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