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Wiser Living

Finding a natural solution

Energy Audit Revelations

by Nina Utne

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I am confused. The more questions I’ve asked, the more I’ve learned—and the more confused I have gotten. 

I have a big, old house with only one child left at home, but I’m not ready to sell it. At the same time, I want to be proactive about reducing my energy impact, so I’ve been trying to figure out how to get the biggest bang for my buck and what investments I can make that will increase the value of my house if and when I do decide to sell it. I’ve talked to several real estate agents, including someone who bills himself as an eco-broker. The consensus seems to be: It would appear to be a good idea to make energy improvements, but no one really knows yet when or how that will translate into higher values or faster sales. 

Well, then, start with simple things first, right? Like compact fluorescent light bulbs. Except that an informed source recently told me that she thinks that the next generation of LED lightbulbs will be so far superior that it isn’t worthwhile to buy a lot of CFLs now. How about my big, old fridge? One energy auditor told me not to buy a new efficient fridge—that the energy the manufacturing would consume offsets my energy savings. Another expert told me that that’s one of the first places he’d invest. 

I got an energy audit with a blower door and an infrared camera, which told me that my house is incredibly leaky and that tightening it up is essential. 

One insulation expert recommended tearing all the stucco off my house, putting on solid core foam and then re-stuccoing. That sounded like a good idea until I learned that it would cost more than $100,000. The next expert advocated blowing in cellulose and patching. Another expert opinion: forget the walls and concentrate on the attic. And then there was suggestion that I start by sealing all the places that are particularly leaky and then have another blower door and infra red test. 

I renovated a while back, so half the windows in my house are new. I decided to defer replacing the rest of them. But I heard about a guy who comes to your house and replaces the old ropes and weights with a new track and then insulates the hollow frames. This preserves the house’s character but tightens the windows up a lot—and for a very reasonable price. But of course my windows turned out to have unusual dimensions. Anyway, I don’t know where windows fit on my priority list.

Part of my roof is flat and south-facing, so when I found a company that’s pioneering a new business model of installing and leasing solar panels, I arranged to be part of its pilot project. But it turned out that in the summer, when the sun is high, the trees cast too much shade, and in the winter the chimney blocks the low angle of the afternoon sun. So the panels would only be 65 percent efficient—not enough for the company to justify the expense. 

Replacing my old boiler would seem like a no brainer—except that if I decide to install a geothermal system, I wouldn’t need it. I got an estimate and, on the face of it, geothermal looks like the most radical and economical solution. But it is a big upfront investment, and a lot of hidden costs are still emerging. I’m leaning toward it anyway, but I’m playing phone tag with a guy who said that he had done all the geothermal homework and can tell me why not to do it. And then there is the energy auditor friend who says to just put in a new boiler and invest the money I would save. 

But my take on the price of heating makes me think that even a significant investment in energy efficiency will pay out—and probably sooner than any of the current predictions would suggest. Though my research doesn’t necessarily bear this out, my intuition is that even if I don’t stay in my house for long, and even if I were to invest my money elsewhere, putting money into my house’s energy efficiency is probably the best investment I can make. But, as I look at the growing number of ways that I could spend money on my house and the lack of expert consensus on priorities, I realize that there are a lot of expensive mistakes I could make. 

I was finding all the conflicting information paralyzing, but the geothermal guy, who is becoming a friend, steered me to someone who can help sort through it all. He is an architect who is also an experienced hands-on builder, knowledgeable both about energy efficiency and old houses. Part of me feels a little defeated by hiring someone—but the truth is most of what I’m contemplating hasn’t been done often and the information is hard to come by and not easy to assimilate. I’m already sure that he will pay for himself many times over by saving me from mistakes. 

On the basis of what I have learned and been confused by so far, I can say for sure that there is lots of opportunity for people who can navigate this terrain and help the rest of us. We have coaches for every other aspect of our lives. Can energy coaches be far behind?