You must get a home energy assessment. It will save you a ton of money.

Collective wisdom.
Feb. 25 2010 2:22 PM

You Must Get a Home Energy Assessment

How a "blower door test" will save me $900 per year.

Val (left) and Vitality.
Val (left) and Vitaly Siretsanou

In this project, "The Efficient Life," Slate is seeking your best ideas for helping people use less energy at home and save money. You can read Daniel Gross' explanation of The Efficient Life here, his article about compact fluorescent light bulbs here, and his article about utility bills and peer pressure here. You can submit your proposal here and scan all the proposals submitted by readers so far. Over the next six weeks, readers and judges will choose a dozen finalists, the top five ideas, and a winner.

I was skeptical of the claims that a bit of caulking here and there could make a difference in my home's energy use—partly because I'm a skeptical guy and partly because I'm largely ignorant about home improvement. And so when I signed up for a home energy assessment through my electricity provider, Connecticut Light & Power, I wasn't expecting much. A couple of days later, New England Smart Energy Group, a local company, contacted me to schedule the assessment. The cost: $75.

From the minute Val and Vitaly Siretsanou, brothers from Moldova, showed up at my front door, I was ahead of the game. The $75 fee is essentially a co-pay. The (much larger) cost of their supplies and labor is paid for by the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund, which is paid for by a small per-kilowatt-hour fee levied on bills of all Connecticut electricity users. First, they handed me a box of merchandise that comes with every assessment: a Kill A Watt electricity monitor like this, 10 GE dimmable compact fluorescent bulbs, four basic CFLs, and a couple of low-flow shower heads. The retail value of this merchandise: well over $100. If I bite the bullet and install the CFLs in high-use areas, I could probably save another $100 in electricity over the next year.

Val and Vitaly set up a "blower door test." A canvas with a fan embedded in it was set up across the open front door, and the fan was turned up to depressurize the house. As I followed Val around, I was alarmed to feel wind being pulled through the door to the garage, through uninsulated electrical outlets, through cracks in the wall, though holes where pipes and wires pierced walls. My house, it turns out, isn't so much a secure shelter against storms as a perforated wooden box. "You do have a little bit of a leaky home," said Joe Swift, operations supervisor at Connecticut Light & Power, when I shared data from the blower test with him.

Val whistled under his breath and instructed Vitaly to take notes. Their task was to reduce the flow of air through the house by a number of cubic feet per minute, or CFM, equal to 25 percent of the square footage of the house—i.e., to cut the flow by 625 CFM for a house of 2,500 square feet. Over the next three hours, they put insulated pads behind electrical outlets, attached stripping to doors, put aluminum foil tape around an exhaust duct above the stove, and shot foam insulation into gaps in the ceiling and walls surrounding pipes and wires. They went up to the attic to test the air duct from the central air conditioning unit and ironed out some kinks.

I didn't have much to do other than make ironic comments that were largely lost in translation.

When they finished, Val and Vitaly reran the blower tests. And voila! The caulking and taping had worked their magic. The volume of air going out the front door fell by 1,300 CFM, and the duct's efficiency rose significantly. New England Smart Energy provided the following rules of thumb, which were validated by CL&P. Presuming heating oil costs $2.75 a gallon, a reduction of 1,300 CFM saves about $416 in heating costs annually. Given Connecticut's high electricity costs, the improvements to the air duct could save about $500 per year in cooling costs. Assuming I keep my winter and summer temperatures the same and don't do anything else, Val and Vitaly's handiwork could save me more than $900 per year. If the work delivers on only half its promise, I'd still save about $450—and be well on my way toward the goal of cutting energy use by 10 percent.

Stephanie Weiner, founder of New England Smart Energy, which conducts about 30 such assessments per week, ranging from condos to 9,000-square-foot homes, says these assessments typically result in customers reducing their energy bills by between 7 percent and 11 percent.

Despite the fact that large-scale conservation efforts have the potential to reduce demand for its services, CL&P encourages its customers to get an assessment. "It makes more sense to conserve than have to invest in new resources," said Joe Swift of CL&P. But while they're heavily subsidized and offer apparently enormous bang for the buck, not many customers take advantage of the offer. CL&P has about 1.1 million customers and is hoping about 18,000 of them will perform home assessments this year. The reason: Consumers don't seem to respond much to the articles, mailings, and other promotions that the utility conducts. "Word of mouth seems to be most influential," said Joe Swift.

So take it from my mouth: Get an energy assessment. The worst that could happen is you meet some nice Moldovans and get a couple of household gadgets. (Fellow Nutmeg Staters: This is the application.) I'll be watching my heating and electric bills—especially over the summer—to see how it pans out. Readers who have gone through similar assessments, let me know in the comments section below how they have worked for you.

Slate is seeking the best ideas for helping people use less energy at home and save money. You can submit your proposal here, see the 10 most-popular reader proposals, and scan all the proposals submitted by readers so far. At the end of March, when we choose the top ideas, I'll commit to making changes in my use of energy. And over the course of the next year, I'll provide progress reports on whether my efficient life is living up to its promise.

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Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster. Follow him on Twitter.