Braving the home energy audit (and surprised by the results)

Then came the blower door test. We walked around, feeling the exaggerated drafts. Quite a brilliant apparatus. 

The idea of “home” goes deep. Human story-telling spills over with iconic tales like the Bible’s prodigal son, the 10-year struggle of Odysseus to return to Ithaca after the Trojan War, Dorothy outwitting evil witches and rescuing the flawed trio of Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion to get back to her humble home in Kansas, and the heart-twisting despair of Spielberg’s E.T., the wide-eyed extraterrestrial mistakenly abandoned on alien Earth, three million light years from his home planet.

It’s because “home” has that kind of near-magical, safe-place status in my own life that my living-climatically challenge for May, to have an “energy efficiency evaluation” done of my house, was an uncomfortable thought. After all, I caused this house to be built. I made the decisions and the compromises in its construction. I knew there were choices that I made — energy options I didn’t know about then and others I couldn’t afford — that have been sucking up energy ever since and increasing my carbon footprint.

So the house is far from perfect, but it’s still where I want to be when the sky is falling. And I found myself very reluctant to have “some guy” come in and evaluate it, rate it — let’s face it, tell me what’s wrong with it, at least from an energy efficiency standpoint.

How ironic, given that I’m an evaluator myself by training, as well as a social programs and projects evaluator. So at least I also knew that the point of an evaluation is not to find fault, not to be disapproving or dish out blame. It’s to help some organization (or some home owner) find out how to be better at what they are doing.

And that’s exactly what Neil, the certified energy advisor dispatched to my house earlier this month by City Green Solutions of Victoria, wanted to do too. He wanted to help me figure out how make my house better, i.e. more energy efficient. City Green’s literature points out that if you make the changes their advisor recommends after the audit, your home will be more comfortable — warmer, drier, less drafty — your heating bills will go down, AND you’ll cut your greenhouse gas emissions.

Alright, alright, clearly I had to get my small, 18-year old, no-frills house evaluated. I was pretty sure some of the problems would be my big windows and skylights, maybe my baseboard and woodstove heating, definitely my unfinished “crawl space” (though you can stand up in it). Not small items.

First thing after he arrived, Neil sat me down to tell me a few things about houses, as well as what he was going to look at and measure, using the EnerGuide rating system. He’d be looking at the size and characteristics of the house, the equipment being used (e.g., for heating and cooling, water heating, etc.), the insulation, and the overall air tightness using the very fascinating “blower door test.” (More about that in a moment.)

As we walked through the house together, Neil didn’t seem too critical of the windows and doors or the heating system, though he said that the blower door test would tell us more about their performance. The basement, however, was another story.

I was expecting that my built-on-the bare-rock basement would be a problem, but I thought I had done a pretty good job with it. It’s well vented to the outside; its ceiling is insulated (albeit just with fiberglass batts and who knows to what standard); and a year or two ago I had new thicker plastic laid down over the rock and sealed up around the edges to the degree possible. The water heater, I was expecting, might need more insulation. Maybe he’d recommend a solar water heater? Or some kind of on-demand thermostat?

What he actually recommended was something much more radical: seal up the basement to the extent possible; close off the outside vents which do let cold air in to fill the air space (thereby chilling the upstairs living area); upgrade the insulation in the basement ceiling; install mechanical ventilation; make sure there is no moisture leakage on the uphill side of the foundations; insulate the foundations. Oh yes, and please move the water tank. Yikes.

Then came the blower door test. A big fan in a frame of metal and canvas was placed in my front door frame, the purpose of which was to suck the air out of my house, pulling outside air in through every point of leakage. Then we walked around, feeling the exaggerated drafts. Quite a brilliant apparatus.

To my relief, the windows and doors were good, very little air movement. The biggest problems were a complete surprise: my pot lights (all through the house), my pocket door, and my plug and light switch boxes. The wind just whistled through those holes, and the worst offender was the pot lights. Absolutely typical, I was told. Who knew?!

When Neil went up into my newly insulated attic, he wasn’t too happy with what he found there either. The blown insulation was not as deep as reported by the installer; there were gaps in the partition insulation; the reno crew had not put everything back where it was supposed to be; and there seems to be a major ventilation problem affecting the “cathedral” ceiling over one part of my living space. Again, yikes.

All in all, my house rated 64 on the EnerGuide scale of 100, but the average for a house that’s the age and construction type of mine in B.C. is 67, so that wasn’t soooooo bad. If I do everything Neil recommended, I could make it to 79.

So now what? To be honest, I don’t really know. I’m still digesting the news. Apparently there are seals I can get for the switches, and I’m going to look into newer, better insulated pot lights —although Neil did say I should replace the whole kit and caboodle with track lighting. I’ll report in later in the year on all this. In the meantime, get in touch with City Green to book your own energy evaluation (1-866-381-9995). Right now, there is a $75 rebate on the cost.

Next month: a closer look at lighting. Are compact fluorescents really the answer?