Energy Audits Help Homeowners Save Green

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Cap Robinson had a free energy audit at his Hunting Hills home.

Cap Robinson had a free energy audit at his Hunting Hills home.

by Gene Marrano

Roanoke County’s RC Clear Committee, comprised of citizens and county government staffers, is tasked with finding ways to make “going green” something that residents and businesses will want to do. Funded by a small grant from the federal stimulus package, RC Clear will soon debut the “Save A Ton” campaign, working with Roanoke City’s “Clean & Green” group, showing how even small changes – using compact fluorescent light bulbs, better insulation, plugging drafts in houses, turning off lights when possible, etc., can save a metric ton of carbon emissions per year per household. (RC Clear will be present at the Earth Day event in Grandin Village on April 23 to talk about Save A Ton.)

While some may “Save A Ton” because they want to be green for altruistic purposes, for other homeowners and business people it’s all about the return on any investment they might make in their property. To that end Roanoke County and RC Clear is working with TAP (selected after a bidding process) on a series of free energy audits that are underway now, going through people’s homes to check for poor insulation spots, leaky windows, drafts around electrical wiring, pipes and the like.

Homeowners who signed up for the free audits (performed by TAP contractors who normally perform such an audit on low income homes in the city) receive a written report telling them where they might be able to save on energy costs – thus lightening the load on utilities that deliver electricity and heating fuel – helping to save that ton.

Once the free audits are over (those who wanted them responded to a TV news story about the offer), Jim Vodnik, Assistant Director of General Services for Roanoke County and an RC Clear facilitator, hopes that private contractors might see where doing such a service for a reasonable price might be good for their business. He sees 75 dollars an hour (or possibly less as a loss leader) for several hours might be an attractive price point to homeowners and local businesses in the county.

Last week Vodnik and two TAP employees came to the Hunting Hills home of Cap and Deborah Robinson to perform one of the free energy audits. “I’m curious see to see if we can make an improvement,” said Cap Robinson as he watched TAP contractor Philip Brammer check for leaks and poor insulation.  Robinson will wait for the written report, to see “how much it’s going to save versus how much it’s going to cost.”

Brammer used an infrared camera to look for signs of poor insulation in the walls but said the Robinson’s house might have been “the best I’ve seen,” of the 40 or so audits he has done to date.  Brammer also does a pressure test on furnaces to check for leaks in the duct system; the Robinsons have replaced the boiler and furnace with more efficient models in recent years.

Making some of the improvements suggested “will save you money in the long run,” Robinson was assured by Rick Sheets, the Director of Energy Conservation and Housing Rehab for TAP, “typically in 2-3 years.” Tax credits can help with window replacements he reminded Robinson, who built his home almost 40 years ago.

Depressurizing the house with a fan mounted in the front doorway, Brammer used electronic devices that measured the resistance of air rushing back in, to check for the size of any leaks, which he can relate to homeowners as the size of a hole in the house. “This technology is amazing,” said Sheets, who noted that TAP is also creating a business model where they could charge for future energy audits.

Philips did notice some air leakage around pipes and pathways for electrical lines, and suggested caulk or a foam product that Robinson could use himself to make his house have a tighter seal.  The amount of insulation in the attic seemed sufficient, according to Philips.  “You made my day,” said Robinson when the audit was completed. Other homes haven’t been so lucky – they can do more to save a ton. The audits developed by RC Clear and TAP are just a start.

A series of small business energy audits will follow the residential pilot project. “We want to create a mindset in the business community that you don’t have to pass your energy costs along [to consumers],” noted Vodnik, “that will possibly make your product more affordable.”