Monday, December 28, 2009

Covering Your Attic Stairs

One of the most overlooked areas for leakage in your ceiling is your attic access. While “overlooked” should probably more appropriately stated as “homeowners don’t know how to correct,” the outcome is the same. Homeowners live with the attic access being leaky.

Your stairs cover a small area, typically around 8 square feet, but there can be a large amount of leakage around the opening if they don’t fit correctly, and this is 8 square feet of little to no insulation. It's an area that is most typically unconsciously perceived as an uncomfortable area - but most homeowners don’t know why.

Also, most homeowners don’t realize that they can purchase or build an item called a battic cover that will seal and insulate their access stairs. A purchased battic cover typically consists of a cover that can be lifted or unzipped, and possibly insulation. Several companies make these items out of a reflective material that gives the added benefit of a radiant barrier. Typical costs are around $100. Some can be found for less, but they usually don't have insulation included.

You can also make one using rigid foam board. This is relatively inexpensive and easy to work with. The cover should be made so that it sets inside the framing for the stairs and allows for clearance of side hinges and folded stairs when it closes. Insulation can also be added to this to beef up the inherent R-value of the material. If preferred, a homeowner could also add a radiant barrier to the exterior of the surface or construct it out of foil-backed foam board. I usually recommend ½” board, but your stairs may allow for more. This can all be built for around $50 unless you want to add the radiant barrier afterwards.

So how does a homeowner choose which one to do? It depends on you. Both products require some amount of skill, as the purchased cover still has to be installed. However, the built cover is relatively simple to construct and can be done by someone with moderate to little construction skills. Payback can be a big factor in choosing. Payback will vary by location, but for an area of moderate climate, such as central North Carolina (and assuming R-30 insulation is used), you will see a return of about 1 to 3.5 years, depending on what you use to heat your home, gas, or electricity. Current pricing and efficiencies of the various fuels result in a longer payback for heat pumps. If you live in a colder climate, like Maine, then you'll see a payback of 0.5 to 2 years.



Set your thermostat to proper temperatures.

Each degree to lower or raise your thermostat can save you 3% in cost! It's recommended that you set your thermostat to 68 degrees in winter and 78 in the summer. You can increase your savings by getting a programmable thermostat.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Improper Operation of a Crawlspace


Over the last few weeks, I’ve focused on the sealed crawlspace and what goes into one. This week, I will review why you shouldn’t leave a crawlspace open and what is not a proper solution to a vented crawlspace. The reasons for sealing a crawlspace have already been discussed in the previous post; however, here's a review of what a vented crawlspace will typically have:

  1. Higher moisture content in the wood
  2. Increased fungal growth
  3. Higher relative humidity
  4. Overall less energy efficient for the home
  5. The need for more pest control
  6. Lower indoor air quality in the home

Since most homeowners know about these issues, some are looking for alternatives to the sealed crawlspace. While there are possibly individual solutions to each one of these problems, none of them solve the problem like a sealed crawlspace.

There is one solution - the foundation fan - that I have seen used  time and time again in an attempt to control moisture. However, it not only fails to eliminate the problem, but will actually increase the issues in the crawlspace. There are several variations to this product, ranging from simple humidity-controlled fans that install in the vents to larger, more powerful fans that are run on timers. Most individuals will sell these fans on the premise that the crawlspace needs more ventilation to “dry” the space. This is the concept on which the foundation vent was based: By providing ventilation under a home, you are able to keep it dry. Here in the South, this is not the case, especially since we began installing plumbing and HVAC in the crawlspace. By exposing the crawlspace to the exterior air and having surfaces in the space with lower temperatures, you are just providing an optimum situation for condensation.

Condensation occurs when the temperature of the surface is below the dew point of the air. This is the same thing as dew in the morning. When we have surfaces such as plumbing pipes and ducts that will consistently be below the dew point of the outdoor air, we will get condensation of these surfaces. This condensation can wet the other surfaces and cause even greater problems.

Wood surfaces can also be affected, and since fungal growth can occur with a humidity over 60%, you increase the risk of providing an environment conducive to growth when introducing the outdoor air. This brings up another aspect of introducing outdoor air, because as you lower the temperature, the relative humidity rises. We can all assume that the crawlspace will typically be cooler than the outdoor air in the summer time, so as the outdoor air comes into the crawlspace, you will actually increase the air's relative humidity.

Originally, the idea of a foundation vent fan was to increase the ventilation of the crawlspace; however, all it does is actually increase the moisture content of the space by pulling in more exterior air. Therefore, the fan actually increases the relative humidity and the potential for condensation. Many will argue that the air will help remove the condensation, but as you lower the temperature and raise the humidity, you will actually decrease the amount of moisture the air can even hold. Adding more moisture to it will only increase the dew point temperature. There are several cases I've seen in which a vent fan has been installed to combat a small amount of fungal growth, and actually ended up causing the floor structure to rot!

So, if someone tells you that a sealed crawlspace is a bad idea, and that you should instead install a foundation fan, take the time to consider the negatives.





Reduce your air leakage.


If you have a leaky home, think of it as spilling money through the cracks. Most of your loss is through the ceiling, so start looking there first. Seal all ceiling penetrations you can; these include recessed lights, attic stairs, and even standard lights. Next, look to your walls and floors. Last should be your outlets, as they only account for about 2% of the leakage in your home.

Need help finding the leaks? As a homeowner, you can feel for drafts, use a candle, or have a professional set up a blower door.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What Goes Into Sealing a Crawlspace?

Last week I discussed why to seal a crawlspace, so how about now looking at what goes into properly sealing the space? There are a large number of variations on how a sealed crawlspace is installed; while most just vary by quality, not all of them are proper. A sealed crawlspace is intended to provide 5 things:

1. Moisture management
2. Pest control
3. Combustion safety
4. Fire safety
5. Radon safety

There are a few items that are required to make sure your crawlspace is properly sealed and that you will get all the benefits that are intended:

1. Installation of a vapor barrier with sealed joints on the floor, piers, and foundation walls.
A minimum of a 6-mil vapor barrier should be installed, with all joints sealed via mastic or an approved tape. It is highly recommended that a higher mil plastic be used because the 6 mil will tend to tear and wear easier.

2. Seal all foundation vents.
No vents or openings to the outside should be present, other than an access door. Porch penetrations should also be sealed with an access panel or permanent material.

3. Provide a foundation drain.
A foundation drain is needed with a backflow preventer. It is a good idea to allow the drain to accept moisture from above and below the vapor barrier.

4. Insulate the floor or foundation wall.
Insulating the foundation wall is more efficient, but either the floor or wall is acceptable. Evaluate the situation and choose accordingly.

5. Air seal duct and floor penetrations.
Air sealing the ducts will help improve your home's efficiency, and sealing them and the floor penetrations help prevent air transfer between the home and crawlspace. This also helps with fire safety.

6. Vent appliances to the exterior.
Gas appliances should be direct vented or two-pipe vented in the crawlspace. Most vented spaces do not have enough makeup air for single vent appliances, and a sealed one definitely won’t. Direct venting is recommended.

7. Mechanical Moisture Control
There are several variations on this, including the use of HVAC ducts and dehumidifiers. If an HVAC supply duct is to be used, a backdraft damper is needed and no return ducts. This can affect the efficiency of the system, so check with an HVAC contractor prior to doing it. I tend to recommend a dehumidifier, as it is the least problematic.

Additional Item:
A relative humidity monitor is good addition to help you know that the system is operating properly!




Use CFLs!

This is pretty rudimentary when it comes to energy savings, but there are still a lot of people who are not aren't doing this! Incandescent bulbs convert 90% of their energy to heat and only 10% to light, so they are good heaters but poor light generators. CFLs not only use less energy, but they last longer, too. A 14-watt CFL is equivelent to a 60-watt incandescent. The CFL uses around 75% less energy, and therefore costs 75% less to operate. Also, because the CFL lasts 10x longer, you buy one CFL for every 10 incandescent, which increases your savings. Many will argue that you can't use a CFL everywhere, but they are also becoming more versatile in their uses. So look at your light use and install CFL’s where you can!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

To Seal or Not to Seal, That is NOT the Question!



There are still individuals in the construction industry who will question a sealed or conditioned crawlspace, but this argument should be put to rest: Studies have shown significant improvements in a home's efficiency and environment with the installation of a sealed crawlspace! According to a study conducted by Advanced Energy, sealed crawlspaces, when properly installed, will perform better with relative humidity, wood moisture content, and energy efficiency than a traditional vented crawlspace.


The study has shown that during the summer of 2003, the studied sealed crawlspaces only exceeded 70% relative humidity only 5% of the time, while the vented crawlspace stayed above 70% almost all the time. The wood moisture content in the sealed crawlspace stayed below 12% during the study, while the vented crawlspace wood moisture varied greatly. Also, the sealed crawlspaces showed an annual energy use reduction of 15% for sealed crawlspace with insulation on the floors and 18% for sealed crawlspace with insulation on the foundation wall.

Here are some of the main benefits to having a sealed crawlspace:

1. Improved Moisture Control
A sealed crawlspace improves the moisture content of the space by preventing transfer of moisture through three of the main entrance points, the foundation wall, the soil floor, and the foundation vents.

2. Pest Control
By removing moisture from the space, the appeal to subterranean termites is reduced.

3. Improved Efficiency
As already stated from the study, results a sealed crawlspace can improve the efficiency of the home.

4. Improved Indoor Air Quality
A good number of contaminates can come from your crawlspace. By cleaning up the space, you may be able to improve the air quality of your home. A sealed space can reduce the mold content in the crawlspace and can be used or modified to prevent radon intrusion.

5. Improved Maintenance
This is an unintended benefit, but due to the increased visibility and improved environment, homeowners are more likely to “visit” the space, leading to better home maintenance. Also, if the insulation is installed on the walls, the floor structure is visible and individuals are more likely to find problems around plumbing or HVAC.





Increase your ceiling insulation.

Most of your heat loss is through the ceiling of your home; by adding insulation in the attic, you can save energy. Insulation in the attic is relatively easy to install when compared to insulation in other areas, and it can have a greater impact. Here in North Carolina, we are required to have R-30 insulation in the ceilings, but I can see a benefit by increasing this to R-38 or beyond. Be careful, though - there will come a point in which the cost of the additional insulation will not outweigh the benefit of installation!


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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Top 5 Findings on a Home Inspection


I have found there to be little information available regarding the most common findings during a home inspection. While there are some Top 10 lists available, the ones that I have found are only general, listing such categories as minor structural repairs, plumbing leaks, or grading/drainage problems. To be honest, these general categories are not Top 10’s, but rather a summary of what the home inspector will be looking for during the inspection. When performing an inspection, though I will be looking for items that fall into each one of the categories mentioned, I don’t find that providing this list to the homeowner is very helpful. If everyone knew what to look for within these categories, then the person buying the home wouldn't need to have a home inspector to perform the inspection! In realization of this, I have compiled a Top 5 list from my experience that are relevant to the homeowner.

1. Improperly operating interior doors.
This is typically a door that rubs slightly on the jamb or drags the carpet. It is usually a minor repair and is caused by an improper installation, settling, or installation of new flooring. The door is usually easily repaired by trimming or shaving the door slab.

2. Rotten or damaged trim.
This can be anywhere around the home, but the most common problems tend to be around exterior doors that are on the ground or not covered, such as a garage or deck entrance. Repairs vary from replacement to repair in some situations. 

3. GFCI is not working properly.
Surprisingly, this item actually comes up a lot. While it is a simple fix, most individuals do not realize that the safety feature on their electrical system doesn't work, or they would have repaired it. These outlets are in place to prevent an electrical shock, but if they don’t trip, this can’t happen. The solution is typically a new outlet.

4. Improperly operating garage door opener.
This is another home safety feature gone awry. Most of the time, the problem is the pressure feature that will return the door if something is under it, but sometimes the sensors that return the door if something has crossed under it are not working either. This is typically a simple adjustment or sometimes replacement of the motion sensors.

5. Fungal growth in the crawlspace.
This item can be a discussion all of its’ own, but it is still one of the most common findings in my area of the country. To keep things simple, because the crawlspace is exposed to the environment and has conditions that are conducive to growth, it may have mold in it. How this affects the home and should be treated is again a discussion all of its own and too long for this brief explanation. Repairs for this item will vary significantly based on the scenario.



Replace your old Christmas lights with LED lights

The holidays are upon us, and as the many Christmas trees begin to go up over the next few weeks, everyone can save a little money by using LED lights. If you are anything like me, you have a few strands that aren’t working anyway, but yet you still fight with them every year - trying to find that one bulb that will make that strand work! While savings may be short-term and worth a small amount, they are still savings, and the new lights will last for years to come. Savings will be even greater for all the individuals who take the time to dress the entire home in the festive spirit by placing lights on every eave, doorway, tree, and bush around their home. To all those individuals, thank you for making my holidays a little brighter - both figuratively and literally - as I am still a kid at heart, but take the time and do yourself some good by getting those LED lights.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

How Can Saving Water Save You Money?


Often, many homeowners  - and unfortunately, some energy auditors, as well - overlook the benefits to reducing water consumption in the home. Just like reducing your electrical needs, reducing your water needs can also save you money. The benefits you will receive by reducing your water consumption will vary depending on how you receive your water, but ultimately, there are benefits no matter what the situation!


If you are on a well, you may not see the same, direct monetary benefits as someone who pays for their water. However, there are still benefits, primarily in the form of reduced energy consumption through reduced pump use. If you use less water, you will use less energy. Also, in times of drought, you may be able to make it through without your well going dry, saving you the cost of drilling another well.

There are several areas in the home where you can reduce water use, and some of the reductions are by habit alone. Here are some tips for the water-using rooms of your home:

Kitchen:
  • Use the dishwasher instead of hand washing dishes. This may sound counterintuitive, but this does reduce water usage when washing full loads - according to the EPA, as much as 5000 gallons a year!
  • Install a low flow aerator on the kitchen sink.

Laundry:
  • Wash full loads of clothes only!

Bathroom:

  • Get rid of the old high volume toilets. Old toilets used 3.5 gallons or more per flush. These can be replaced with low volume or even dual flush. Don’t want to spend the money to replace the toilet? Look for tank flush valve that converts an existing toilet to a dual flush.
  • Install an aerator on the bathroom sink.  
  • Install a low flow shower head. Old units can use over 4 gpm. Newer units can help reduce flow to 1.5 gpm without sacrificing power and comfort.
Yard:
  • Don’t use :"set-and-forget" yard sprinklers. These are the ones that you always set in the yard and leave for hours at a time while you are doing something else. These will overwater the yard and waste your money, not to mention make one section of your yard greener than the rest! Consider automated sprinklers or timers. 
  • Use rain or moisture sensors on sprinklers. For those of you who do have automated sprinklers, make sure you have moisture sensors on your units so they don’t come on in the rain or directly after one. Let Mother Nature do her job! 
  • Use rain barrels to collect your water for indoor and potted plants.
  • Use spot watering or soaker hoses for your gardens. If you’re not watering by hand, use direct watering means for your plants in the garden. These can be either be soaker hoses or drip irrigation directly at the base of the plants, which eliminates unnecessary watering of the soil (which promotes weed growth, anyway).



    Set hot water temperature to 120 degrees.

    Setting your water temperature over 120 degrees can not only cost you money, but it is also a safety hazard. We do not typically use the full temperature of our hot water, so why pay to heat something up when you are only going to cool it down?

    Saturday, November 14, 2009

    Basics of Mold Testing

    Once you have had your home tested by a professional, how do you determine if the results are accurate? Hopefully, you have hired an ethical professional who has the proper training and expertise to perform the testing; just in case, as a homeowner, you should have a little understanding on how to interpret the sample results.

    While there are several different types of samples used in the industry - and just as many sampling devices - two kinds of samples are the most common. These are the non-viable air sample and the surface sample.

    Non-Viable Air Samples
    The non-viable air sample is collected by pulling a known amount of air over a sticky slide. Contents of the air are deposited on the slide. This includes mold spores, insect parts, fibers, and anything else in the air. Some labs report on the other contents of the slide, while some only report on the mold. Several things can be inferred from the additional contents, but to keep this simple, we will concentrate on the mold spores.

    The spore counts will be listed in the number of spores of a category, spores per cubic meter of a category, total spores, and total spores per cubic meter. The number of spores is the actual number of spores on the slide, while the spores per cubic meter is derived from a formula based on the amount of air pulled over the slide.

    Both findings are important along with the location of the samples. An outdoor control sample should always be taken, and an air sample should never be taken in an unoccupied zone such as an attic or crawlspace. The sample taken from the investigated area is to be compared to the control sample.

    There is a lot to interpreting non-viable spore samples, and a homeowner cannot be expected to understand all the aspects of the testing. A lot comes from experience and dealing with a large number of samples. I always recommend that you remember the following and don’t be afraid to ask questions or even another opinion:

    1. In most situations, spore counts in the home should be similar to or below the outdoor control;

    2. The type of mold spores in each sample should be similar;

    3. Variations in the samples can occur, but this doesn't necessarily mean there is an abnormality in the home - you must look at the amount and type of spore in the variation;

    4. Just because spore levels in the home are higher than outside does not mean there is a problem - levels must be considered significantly higher to cause alarm;

    5. Actual counts of spores should also be considered - one spore in the sample can read as 13 spores per cubic meter or more, depending on the amount of air passed over the slide when the sample was taken. One spore may not indicate a problem!

    Surface Samples
    I have found surface samples to be one of the most misused samples out there. A surface sample can be used to determine the type of mold present, or if there are a large number of spores on a surface due to cross contamination. However, many people have been using surface samples to indicate abnormal fungal growth. This should not be the case if mold is visible.

    A surface sample can be taken using a swab, tape lift, or stick slide. All are proper methods of sampling; the only difference is how you record the area sampled. The area sampled is only in question when quantitative results are desired; in most cases, the samples are qualitative and only used to determine what type of mold is present.

    How results are reported vary by lab, but most use a scale, such as "occasional, few, moderate, numerous." Wording and categories may change between labs, but in this case, "occasional" and "few" would be viewed as normal, while "moderate" and "numerous" would be viewed as abnormal. The scale is typically listed at the bottom of the results.

    Here are some items to remember when reviewing surface samples:
    1. Surface samples do not indicate how much growth is present on a surface, just in the sampled area;

    2. For the most part, surface samples are only for mold identification;

    3. All surfaces may contain some amount of spores, even if everything is normal;

    4. Generally, surface samples should not be used to determine abnormal conditions or remediation protocol.
    The final item of this list is the most important, and should be further explained. The best example that can be given is as follows:

    There are two walls in the home, Wall A and Wall B. Wall A has one square inch of mold on it that is very dense, and Wall B is fully covered (80 square feet for an 8x 10 wall), but it is not very dense. Two samples are taken from each wall. The results from Wall A come back with "Numerous" spore levels for one genius of mold, where Wall B comes back with "Moderate" and "Few" spore levels for several genera of mold. According to the samples, Wall A has a problem, while Wall B does not. Someone could determine based on the samples that Wall A needs remediation more than Wall B. In actuality, Wall A has had all the mold removed by the sample, while Wall B has a significant problem. The variation comes from the density and area sampled.

    This just gives a rudimentary example of why surface samples cannot be used to determine the need for remediation. I see this happening the most in crawlspaces, with recommendations being made over the density of the growth - not the actual coverage area.

    With surface samples, only take them for what they can actually tell you. Again, as a homeowner, don’t be afraid to ask questions or get a second opinion!



    Install weather stripping.

    This may seem like a simple item, but many people forget about it. Check around your windows and doors and see if they are leaking, or if you can see daylight. If so, install weather stripping to seal this up! There are various types, and each one has it use. Ask someone at your local hardware store which one works for your situation or you can research your options online. Also, while door socks can help, many people will remove them in the summer. Just because you are not uncomfortable in the summer with the draft under the door, it's still there and costing you money! If you do this, also remember to pick up a door sweep while you are at the store getting your other weather stripping supplies.

    Saturday, November 7, 2009

    How Do I Prevent Mold?

    This is a very common question among homeowners. Concerns for fungal growth or mold often arise when an unfamiliar odor is noticed or a small leak occurs, and at that time one starts to investigate how to prevent the growth from occurring! I am often asked if there is a special treatment or construction product that can be used to prevent fungal growth in the home. While there are products on the market that are resistant or retard growth, there are even simpler solutions to prevention.

    Before even looking at how to prevent fungal growth, what must first be understood is whether mold is ubiquitous to the environment. No matter what we do, we cannot keep mold spores from being in the air! It is the nature of our world and part of the air we breathe. With the understanding that these spores are everywhere, we can look at how to stop them from growing. In order for fungal growth to occur, there are four items that need to be present; removal of any of the four will prevent growth:

    1. Mold Spores
    Common sense would prompt the thought that for if spores are everywhere, then why even discuss this? Of course, spores are one of the four items that are required for growth, and there is little that can be done to prevent them from being in the air. What should be understood is that if you have some growth in the home, remove it - you don’t want to increase the number of spores that are there. I have had several individuals ask if they could just leave the mold growth if they removed one of the other three items required for growth; the answer is no. If you leave the growth, you have left spores on the surface; if you reintroduce optimum conditions for growth, you have just created a bigger problem because there are more spores present than under normal conditions. The bottom line is that you can do little to prevent the number of spores in the home; however, if you have growth, no matter how little, remove it before you just create a bigger problem if the conditions that are conducive to growth become favorable.

    2. Temperature
    This is the one item that is hard to control, and in all actuality, you really can’t. Though there are some species of mold that like to grow outside of our comfortable temperature range for living, many grow in the same temperature range that we like to inhabit, so there is not much that we can do. I am often asked if someone can cool or heat a home to help with the growth. There is some possibility to this, but often the range that inhibits (or prohibits) growth is out of our comfort range, so this is difficult to do.

    3. Nutrition Source
    Like all living organisms, fungus needs something to "eat" to grow. This comes down to organic material, which is often drywall paper and wood in our homes. Things that are not organic and will not support fungal growth for the most part are bricks, stones, and fiberglass. These objects do not have nutritional value for the fungal growth, and for the most part will not support it. However, dust and dirt collected on these items can have nutritional value, so there can be an exception to this rule. If we build our homes primarily out of material that supports growth, how do we eliminate this item? For the most part, we can’t, but this is where all the new materials on the market can help, such as fungal-resistant wall board and the variety of products that have Microban as a component. We can limit the nutritional value in the products we use, but again, this is something that comes along with the construction of the home, so it is less of a preventative measure in older homes.

    4. Moisture
    This is the most preventable of the four items in preventing fungal growth from ever occurring. Stop the moisture in the home! If you have a water leak, correct it and dry out the area. If you have water intrusion through your basement wall, stop it. Plain and simple, keep your home dry. Most homeowners understand this and do well with stopping the large water intrusions. Some of us could do a little better at doing maintenance inspections to find leaks, but again, for the most part, active leaks are typically corrected. Sometimes catastrophic damage occurs from a water line breaking or when piece of equipment malfunctions, such as a dishwasher. This cannot always be prevented, but there are items on the market that can help reduce the likelihood of the damage being significant, as well as good practices with preventive maintenance.

    The one moisture source that most homeowners overlook is humidity. We all know how high humidity affects us, especially in the south, but mold likes a relative humidity above 60%. If your air conditioner is not properly operating and removing the moisture from the air in the summertime, or even in some cases putting more moisture into the air, you can have a mold problem without ever having water damage. The solution to this is to monitor your relative humidity and make sure the air conditioner is functioning properly.


    Install a Radiant Barrier

    A radiant barrier in your attic does not add to the insulation value of the attic, but it does help manage radiant heat. Radiant heat is the warmth we feel when standing in the sunlight. In the summertime, we want to keep this out, and in the wintertime we want to keep it in. Depending on the installation of the barrier, you can achieve both of these functions and reduce the heating and cooling cost of the home.

    Saturday, October 31, 2009

    Can I Test My Home For Mold Myself? Do Self Test Kits Work?

    Mold is a very common concern when dealing with indoor air quality. Many homeowners will believe that an odor or the reason they are feeling sick is due to mold without ever seeing the growth. The truth of the matter is that I find mold in only about 30% of the "unknown odor" cases I investigate! Often, the odor is coming from other sources, or it eventually goes away and the source is never discovered. The percentages are even smaller when it comes to a sickness in the home. Often times, these are truly resulting from work stress, lighting, or other factors in the home.

    While it is not as common as it used to be, I still come across scenarios in which the concern has been increased due to the use of a home test kit. These test kits typically consist of two petri dishes that are set out for a period of time. One is used as a control outside, and one is the sample of concern. These tests work off the idea that spores will settle out of the air over a period of time and grow on the auger in the dish.

    So you may ask, "Why doesn't this test work? If there is mold in the dish, doesn’t that mean I have a problem?" Here are some answers for you:

    1. Mold is ubiquitous to the environment
    Mold is everywhere! Contrary to what many homeowners may believe, there are many spores in your home. These spores are brought in through the air exchanges in the home, on your clothes, the HVAC system, and anything else that has air in or around it. Just because there is mold in the dish does not mean that there is a problem in the home. A control of the outside is needed for comparison. In a normal environment, the indoor sample and the outdoor sample should have a similar composition; spore levels in the indoor sample should be equal to or less than the outdoor one, and any variations from inside should be small or of a type that is not considered a water damage mold. Self-test kits did get one thing right by providing the exterior control, but there are other flaws.

    2. A known volume of air must be passed over the samples.
    Using petri dishes as a collection media is not a problem, as it is used in viable testing (living specimens are able to grow). However, the issue with the self-test kits is that there is no known volume. You know the time, as the homeowner will write down the hours the dishes were left out, but how much air passed over the dishes? Were fans on in the room, was an HVAC duct blowing on the dish, was there a lot of movement in the room, was the wind blowing outside? All these are factors that will impact the amount of air moving over the dish and the spores it may be exposed to. Some could argue that these are settled dishes and movement of air will lessen the amount of spores; however, this is still an issue with the accuracy of the dishes, as we don’t know the volume of air sampled and therefore do not know if you can accurately compare the interior and exterior sample.

    3. Non-viable vs. Viable
    This test is only looking for viable or living spores. What about the non-viable ones, or total counts? When looking at the indoor air quality of the home, all spores are of a concern because even non-viable spores can have health effects. While this is a minor concern with the self-test kits, it is still a concern, because looking at only viable samplings can misconstrue findings. Typically non-viable samples are taken first to determine if there is a problem, and then viable are used if further investigation is needed for specific species of mold.

    4. Result interpretation
    The home test kits are usually interpreted at the lab. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, I have often seen any variation in levels labeled as abnormal. When someone is interpreting results from a lab, they have not seen the home and cannot make assessments based on conditions in the home. I will say that their assessment may not be incorrect; I just caution that there may be other influences in the home that are causing a variation and are not attributed to actual growth. I will often review samples taken by other individuals and make comments on them, but I always caution that in order to make an accurate assessment you have to be at the home at the time of the sampling. I have intentionally taken samples as less than optimum locations in the past to see how sample results vary. A specific one that comes to mind is one I took near a bowl of rotting fruit. The fruit had visible growth on it, and the results showed elevations as compared to the outdoors. Had someone read these in a lab and had not been present in the home, they may have said there was an abnormality - when in actuality, someone just needed to get rid of some fruit!


    Install Low Flow Fixtures

    This saves in several different ways, depending on your situation: By installing low flow faucets and toilets, you can save money on your water bill, you can save power by not running your pump as often, and you can save by not using as much hot water.

    Saturday, October 24, 2009

    The Basics of Energy Star


    Many people are becoming familiar with Energy Star certification for their home, but I still have conversations with individuals who aren't sure about the process or what it really means. It is really great that everyone is interested about Energy Star, but we really need to get adequate information out so that everyone is familiar with the process and how you go about having your home certified!

    The first thing to know is that building a home that is Energy Star compliant does not cost significantly more than constructing a standard home. There are only a few items that need to be done, depending on your climate zone, that your builder may not already be doing. This is usually a air sealing and just a few insulating techniques dealing with air barriers. These items, again, do not add a significant amount of money.

    Secondly, having your home certified does incur a fee. The party that verifies the construction and certifies it will charge a fee for their service. The individuals that perform this service are HERS raters. A HERS rater has been trained and tested to prove that they understand the building process required by Energy Star and how to properly test the home. The fee ranges, but there are some programs available depending on your location that provides assistance or rebates for this service.

    To get your home certified as Energy Star, you have to score an 85 in the southern part of the country and an 80 in the northern. A detailed chart and more information are available at http://www.energystar.gov/ that shows which region you are in. The score means that you are respectively 15% and 20% more efficient than a home that is built to code. Again, this is relatively easy to achieve. A lower score is a better score.

    Step 1: Thermal By Pass Inspection

    The certification for energy star requires two inspections. A thermal bypass inspection occurs pre-drywall, and a final that tests the tightness of the home. I have had several builders miss the pre-drywall due to them not fully understanding the process and not being willing to let you know or ask questions. I have also had several homeowners contact me because they were informed that they only needed the final. This is a very critical point and evidently there is a large amount of misinformation out there as to how the process works.

    The thermal bypass inspection is to verify the insulation and air barriers are installed correctly. Also, at this time, the HERS rater will evaluate the air sealing and give any tips on what else can be done to make the home tight. Air sealing is not specifically on the checklist and does not have to be inspected, but it is important, so we still tend to make comments regarding it. If the HVAC contractor is ready, the duct test can be performed at this time so that any leakage can be fixed prior to drywall.

    Step 2: Final Inspection

    The final inspection will consist of the blower door and duct blaster, if it was not done at thepre-drywall stage. The blower door checks the tightness of the home and the duct blaster does the same for the ducts. The equipment pulls air out of the home and ducts and we are able to measure the amount of air that flows through, telling us how leaking the home or ducts are.

    The final step that you will not see is the modeling. There are two paths that you can take to get Energy Star certification: the Performance path and the Builder Option path. With the performance path, you must model the home, and with the builder option, you must meet certain requirements. Most individuals go with the performance path, as it is more flexible; with this path your home is modeled using software and given a score.

    This is a very brief overview of the process, and there are other details that you will need to know if you are to construct an Energy Star home. However, this provides more than many know about the basics, and it allows you to get started with the process. If you are going to build an Energy Star home, contact a local HERS rater prior to starting construction to discuss the process with them!


    Insulate Your Water Pipes


    Many people know about this, and most do it if they have a chance of freezing their cold water pipes; however, you can benefit by insulating all water pipes, and the biggest gain actually comes from the hot water pipes. Just like I discussed last week with the water heater, the temperature difference between the hot water and the ambient temperature is significant no matter where the pipes run. By insulating the pipes, you slow the cooling of the pipes and therefore conserve energy and water.

    Saturday, October 17, 2009

    Attic Ventilation: What Most People Don’t Know

    Most individuals believe that the more ventilation, the better when it comes to the attic, and others wonder why they even have to ventilate the attic. The truth to all this is that it varies between regions of the country and systems that you see installed every day may not actually be functioning the way they were intended.

    In the north, attic ventilation is used to prevent ice damming. This is when the snow on the roof melts at the higher regions of the roof and then refreezes at the gutters. This can lead to water damage in the home. In the south, the attic ventilation is used to reduce the temperature in the attic to help with the cooling load on the home. The main idea that needs to be taken from this is that with traditional construction the attic needs to be vented no matter where you are located.

    Building code will typically requires a certain ratio of net free ventilation area (NFVA). Depending on where you live, this can be anywhere from 1 to 300 to 1 to 150. There are several methods of venting the attic, but the most common methods that I see are ridge and soffit vents, gable vents, and powered attic fans or ventilators. Each of these systems are used as standalone systems, and at times they are used in conjunction with each other.

    As with almost any system in the home, there are some issues that you should be aware of when evaluating your attic ventilation or looking to modify it:

    1. Soffit and Ridge vents must not be used with gable vents.
    This comes directly from the Cor-A-Vent installation instruction. “COR-A-VENT ridge vents should always be installed with soffit/eave/intake vents of equal or greater area. All other vent openings (except soffits) should be closed off. The air passageway, or “Ventilation Chute,” between the inlet (soffit/eave/intake) and the outlet (ridge) vent must not be blocked or restricted.”

    2. Powered ventilators may not save you money and can cause problems.
    A study conducted by the Bureau of Standards found that the cost of operating power ventilators did not outweigh the minimum savings in cooling cost due to the decrease in the attic temperature. The use of solar-powered ventilators may correct this issue, but then you must weigh the cost of the unit vs. the savings in cooling cost. Powered ventilators have other issues that include depressurization of the home. This can cause backdrafting and moisture problems in the home if there is not enough ventilation in the attic to accommodate the fan or if the ceiling in the home is not tight. Even if the fan is not powerful enough to depressurize the home, it can still pull conditioned air out of the house through leaks in the ceiling and therefore cost you more money to cool the home. Powered ventilators must be used with caution, and I do not recommend them except in extreme situations.

    Ventilation is important if you intend to stay with a vented attic. Shingle manufacturers may void warranties, and you can cause damage to the roof sheeting if the ventilation is not sufficient. The important item with any system you install is to make sure that it is installed per manufacturers instruction and local building codes. As mentioned before, a good source of information regarding natural ventilation and the various types of vents is the manufacturer Cor-A-Vent. The Energy Star Website and Advanced Energy also have resources regarding attic ventilation.

    Insulate Your Water Heater

    Many people will argue on this subject for various reasons, but the most common two arguments are that the water heater doesn’t feel warm and the water heater is in the home and therefore doesn’t need a blanket. The truth is that at 120 degrees Fahrenheit, your 75 degree home looks really good to the heat in the tank. No matter where the tank is, it will lose heat. As for the argument that it doesn’t feel hot to the touch, the truth is that tanks are becoming more efficient with their insulation, but they will still lose some heat. If you don’t believe this, put some towels on the top of the tank, come back after a day, and put your hand under them to see if they are warm.

    A water heater with R-7 insulation at 130 degrees Fahrenheit can potentially save $33.10 a year based on a $0.10 kWh electric rate. This is not a bad return on a $15 blanket!

    If you are going to wrap with a blanket, make sure you do it right and follow any instructions from the manufacturer. If your tank is fueled by gas, there are additional measures you need to be aware of, so make sure you take the time to learn how to install the blanket safely on your system, or have someone experienced install it for you.

    Saturday, October 10, 2009

    Who Should I Trust? Green Washing in the Marketplace


    Over the past few weeks while researching ideas for this blog, I have noticed a trend in the media sources I have consulted. Often times, these sources are online; as we all know, online sources may not always be that reliable! With trends being what they are today, many people turn to the Internet to gather information regarding potential purchases and to educate themselves on topics of interest. As energy efficiency and sustainability are hot topics at the moment, many companies are trying to capitalize on this.

    Many companies are trying to market their products as sustainable and energy efficient. However, at times these products are only at most slightly better than a standard product, and in some situations, they might actually be counterproductive to what you are trying to achieve - especially when it comes to saving energy. So what is one to do? Here are just a few recommendations to try and keep your head above water when finding out the facts:

    1. Any time a research paper is cited, find that document.
    In an attempt to prove my stance on powered attic ventilators (of which I will go more in-depth at a later time, but for now let it be know I am against them), I discovered a disturbing trend among marketing material. Several companies used quotes from a research study conducted by the Bureau of Standards. In this study, the bureau found that the attic ventilators did not create a significant enough reduction in the attic temperature to offset their power usage; however, several companies have cited this research paper as a reason to use their product.

    2. Don’t trust a single statement.
    This is not meant to imply that you should be skeptical, but consider all arguments! For some products, there are several opinions by very reputable individuals - just because they are different doesn’t necessary make one right or wrong. Products have different properties, and what one individual may consider a poor product another may consider a good choice for their situation. This argument can range anywhere from radiant barriers to concrete countertops, but the best one I can use to prove my point in bamboo flooring. While the majority of the people consider this to a very green product, it may depend on who you listen to. Bamboo is a highly renewable resource, with maturity at 7 years compared to hardwoods at 30+. However, the bamboo is mostly grown in Asia and must be shipped, causing it to have an extremely high embodied energy. Is bamboo sustainable? It all depends on how you look at the big picture.

    3. Look at the source.
    This ties into the previous two statements and can also be stated as "what makes an expert." There are times in which the various components of the building community disagree with each other. So how do you determine who is the expert in the whole process? Look at the source, determine their experience, and use your own judgment. Just because someone has been building houses all their life, they’ve been to school for 30 years, or they write an article or blog on the Internet doesn’t automatically mean they have all the right answers! I was once told a story about a class that spent an hour lecture listening to the professor explain how the sky was actually orange and not really blue. This class never once questioned the professor because he was perceived as the expert. The next day, the professor quizzed the individuals on the previous lecture and they all failed because they answered that the sky was orange. The professor wanted to prove a point - just because he was perceived as an expert doesn’t necessarily make him right! The class learned an important lesson to use their own minds and never be afraid to question even a perceived authority.



    Wash Clothes in Cold Water

    This is a simple little tip, but many individuals don’t realize how much heating your water can cost! Clothes don’t necessarily have to be washed in hot water. There are many detergents on the market that work just as well with cold water as they do with hot, and some are becoming specialized for cold wash cycles. As with all recommendations, there are exceptions that require the use of hot water - and I have come across some of these, including the need to reduce certain allergens - but for most laundry cycles, cold water can be used. This alone could potentially save you quite a bit on your utility bills!

    Saturday, October 3, 2009

    When Should I Go Green?


    The answer to this question is, AT ANY POINT AND TIME YOU WISH, but you can start today! During a recent home show, I had several conversations with individuals in which the final statement always went something like one of these: “I really want to do some of these repairs, but I don’t have time,” “I want to put in some upgrades and improve my efficiency, but I’m doing a lot of remodeling right now,” and finally, “I’m sure my home is really inefficient, but I really don’t want to know how bad it is!”

    If only the individuals who made these statements just took the time to look into energy efficiency and sustainability, they might realize how wrong these statements are! To keep you from making the mistake of believing these statements, let’s look at each one and see how we can really act to correct these problems:

    “I want to put in some upgrades and improve my efficiency, but I’m doing a lot of remodeling right now.”
    If your walls are open and you are performing repairs, why aren't you at least adding a few efficiency or sustainable features? I always tell my clients that the time to make adjustments is while you're working on your home! For years I worked in insurance restoration, and we always told homeowners that you can turn a bad situation into a good one by making improvements you had always wanted to do. The same goes for any type of work when you are considering sustainable improvements. I understand that when someone is performing a remodel that there can be big cost associated with it, but some items cost little to nothing to perform. Here are five items to consider - and remember there are hundreds more. Just look at your situation and make improvements accordingly.

    1. Increase your insulation.
    If your walls are open, make sure your insulation is correctly installed, and beef it up a little if possible. This cost: little to nothing more than what it is costing you to replace the insulation, anyway.

    2. Caulk joints and seams in the walls.
    Make sure you limit the air leakage in your home. Having the walls open is an opportune time to stop leakage, even if it is one or two walls.

    3. Donate old materials
    Don’t send your old materials to the dump if they are reusable! Someone may have a good home for that old toilet or cabinet.

    4. Use low or no VOC paints
    Almost all remodels include paint. Make sure you use one that will not emit gas.

    5. Consider future use
    A lot of individuals look only a few years down the road. Consider what you would need if your family grew or an unfortunate accident caused someone to be handicapped, and make adjustments or plans for the future (i.e. block for handicap bars in the bathroom, increased door sizes to allow for a wheelchair, or make adjustments for a office to be easily turned into a bedroom).

    “I really want to do some of the improvements, but I don’t have the time.”
    This is a classic excuse, and believe me, I understand how people may feel! However, this is easier than you think. You don’t have to take a lot of time to make these improvements; in fact, many improvements are as simple as changing your habits. Here are five items that you can start today.

    1. Use CFL’s
    This one is self explanatory, but you would be surprised how many people still don’t do this!

    2. Label your appliances with replacement information.
    This one plays right into individuals who don’t have a lot of time. Often, when an appliance goes, we don’t have time to find the replacement we want. Take that time now and place a label on the back of the appliance with the replacement model, cost, and place of purchase, with a backup in case that store doesn’t have it. (However, remember you need to update this every so often with new information!)

    3. Turn off your ceiling fans when not in the room.
    Again, this one is self explanatory, and for those of you who already know me, you won't be surprised at this one!

    4. Adjust your thermostat.
    Just a small change in temperature on your thermostat can make a big difference in the cost to heat and cool your home. Set the winter temperature to 68 degrees and the summer to 78 degrees.

    5. Adjust your freezer/refrigerator temperatures.
    Setting the temperatures on your refrigerator can help make it run more efficiently. The refrigerator should be between 36 and 40 degrees and the freezer between 0 and 5 degrees.

    “I’m sure my home is really inefficient, but I really don’t want to know how bad it is.”
    I have no explanation for this comment. If you thought your HVAC wasn’t running correctly or you had rotted siding, you wouldn’t ignore them and not call professionals just because you were worried how bad it really is. If you don’t have the funds for an expert to assess your home, then educate yourself and look for the deficiencies, but please don’t ignore them! There are plenty of things you can do to improve your home that don’t cost a lot.


    Install a Programmable Thermostat

    Many people still do not have a programmable thermostat, and some that do still aren't using them to their full potential. According to the EPA, a programmable thermostat can save you $150 a year. Based on current prices, if you can install the thermostat yourself, this give a 6-month payback; if you can’t, the payback will still only be one to two years, which is still great!

    If you already have one, then make sure you have it programmed correctly. Have it adjust the temperature while you are out of the home and at night. If you are not doing this, then you are not saving yourself the money that you could be. Many people have them programmed incorrectly because they have different schedules than what their thermostat may have allowed for, such as working Wednesday thru Sunday instead of the standard work week. The thermostats are becoming more flexible, with some allowing for day-to-day changes instead of the week and weekend schedule many people are used to. So, if you have this situation, check into a different model to see if it can work with your schedule.

    Sunday, September 27, 2009

    Have You Ever Seen a Home With Lungs? (Why Your House Doesn’t Have to Breathe)

    Every day, I am presented with the argument that a home can not be sealed tight because it must breathe. A long time ago, a friend and colleague of mine answered this comment by asking,“Have you ever seen a house with lungs?” Of course, the answer to this is no, but many people still believe that their house must get fresh air to breathe.

    What you must remember is that it is not the house that needs fresh air, but the occupants of the home. Also, you have to realize that everything we put in a house doesn’t need to be there, so we need to get it out. You may ask, “Isn’t this basically the same thing as the house breathing?” The answer to this is yes and no. Currently, many builders believe that fresh air needs to enter the home, but don't really care how or where. This can be a real energy buster for you if your home gets too leaky! What you want to do is control how much and where the fresh air enters - and let’s not forget about getting rid of the stale air.

    You do this by creating a tight home that has few uncontrolled air leaks or air changes. Air changes are the number of times the air in your home is exchanged with fresh air over a given period of time. Typically, this is figured over an hour. Often times, air exchange rates are amplified for measurement purposes. This is done with a blower door that decreases the pressure in a home, and is usually measured at 50 Pascals. Most new homes that I see range between 5 and 8 air changes per hour at 50 Pascals (ACH50). However, there are the exceptions in which they have leakage below and above this range. I like to see homes around 3 ACH50, with controlled ventilation. The most efficient homes that I see are in this range and will typically have ERV’s or other means of air changing. (An ERV is an additional piece of equipment for your HVAC that can exchange and condition air.)

    Once the home is tight, you need to get air in and air out. Building codes may state how much air you need to bring in and out of a home, so check there first! They may also limit the amount that can be brought in by natural means, such as leakage or passive ventilation. Once you have checked with someone who knows about the codes, you will want to get someone who is knowledgeable about exchange rates and how to achieve them. This is done by various means, and each has its own pros and cons. You may see the use of any of the following types or a combination of them:

    1. Passive ventilation
    This is ventilation that operates on natural forces and is most commonly seen in crawlspaces and attics; however, you may see it on exterior of walls as well. This is used to lower temperatures and humidity levels in these areas.

    2. Spot ventilation
    This is used to remove contaminants/stale air from a central location. An example of this is bathroom exhaust. Spot ventilation is very important to remove unwanted moisture in bathrooms and kitchens, but it can produce a negative pressure on the home. Just make sure you don’t go overboard on the size of the fan.

    3. General Ventilation
    This is simply the ventilation of the entire living space using fans. It may be broken down into sub categories or considered supply only or dilution ventilation, depending on the source. Dilution ventilation is achieved by only pumping in air to dilute stale air, and it can create a positive pressure on the home. The exhausting of air is not controlled. It can be achieved via a standalone unit or through the HVAC.

    4. Exhaust Only Ventilation
    Exhaust can be sub category of general ventilation, and it is achieved through exhausting of air only. This may seem like spot ventilation, but it is for the whole house and not just a certain location. It can be achieved through an exhaust fan in a central location, the HVAC unit, or through a bathroom fan that is designated to permanently stay on. This can cause a negative pressure on the home, because the intake of air is not controlled. A negative pressure can cause back drafting.

    5. Balanced Ventilation
    This is also called supply and exhaust ventilation. The air taken in will typically equal the air exhausted. This is often achieved with piece of equipment, such as an ERV or HRV. It keeps a balanced pressure in the home, and both sides of the air exchange are controlled and possibly conditioned to help lower heating and cooling loads.

    There are several systems and variations on the ventilation types mentioned above. If you are building a home or just working to better your current one, talk to your contractor or someone knowledgeable about ventilation to work out a system that best fits your home, needs, and budget.


    Install Energy Star Appliances

    Since we are taking the time to talk about ventilation this week, I thought I would just mention Energy Star appliances. Many people will probably say that they already know about this, yet wouldn't understand its connection with ventilation. Many people don't realize that there are appliances and fixtures approved by Energy Star other than the typical dishwasher and refrigerators!

    In respect to the topic on ventilation, there are Energy Star ventilation fans. When looking at a system that may be using one of these fans to provide ventilation, it is a good idea to have one that will save you energy.

    So next time you’re looking for a new appliance or fixture, check to see if there is one that is Energy Star approved, because you just may be surprised by what you find!

    Saturday, September 19, 2009

    Infrared Cameras - Can You Really See Through Walls?

    Many people have heard of an infrared camera and the wonderful, amazing things that it can do, but have you taken the time to really find out the truth behind the use of one? You may have heard people claim that they can see what is in your walls or if you have mold hidden in your home; while there is some truth to this, these cameras have their limitations and can’t do all that is claimed. At the same time, they can be an extremely powerful tool, and be used in applications that you would have never have imagined!

    To start off explaining an infrared camera, you must first understand a little about infrared (IR). William Herschel first discovered IR back in 1800. He used a prism to refract light onto a table. While he was measuring the temperatures of the various colors, he realized that the temperature on a thermometer sitting outside of the red light was higher than that of one inside the light. Upon further study, he concluded that there was energy above the red spectrum, therefore discovering infrared. Over 200 years later, we have now taken this knowledge and created cameras that can be used by individuals to see this energy.

    Put simply, IR is the energy emitted by objects based on their temperature. The higher your temperature, the more energy you emit. Everything in the world emits this energy; however, some things emit better than others - and there are also objects in the world that act as reflectors. This is where the limitations of the camera can come into play. First, the cameras are not able to "see through" objects. However, it does show what is in your walls by way of heat on the surface of the wall. For example, the studs heat up or cool down differently than the insulation, which allows us them to show up on camera. If the insulation and the studs are the same temperature, then they can't be seen. Likewise, the camera will now show mold in the wall; however, the camera may be able to show the water that has caused the mold, because the water heats up or cools down differently than the other objects around it. Also, the camera can't see through objects such as windows, or tell the true temperature of shiny metals or other reflective objects. This is because they have a very low emittance and they would rather reflect your energy than emit theirs.

    So you may be asking yourself, "If IR can’t be used to see in my walls, what good is it for my house?" Because objects in the home heat and cool at different rates, and they transfer heat differently, the camera can be used to show subtle differences in the temperatures and draw conclusions from that. Below is a simple list of some of the items that can be investigated around the home with an infrared camera:

    1. Whether or not there is insulation in the walls.
    If enough of a temperature difference between the interior and exterior can be created, it can be seen (200F or greater is optimum.) The insulation, studs, and voids will show up as different colors or shades, and a thermographer can draw conclusions based on this.

    2. Whether or not your have air leaks.
    When air movement is forced around the home, with as little as a 50F difference the camera can begin to show the temperature differences caused by this air. This can help with finding air leaks around the home.

    3. Whether or not you have an effective air barrier.
    While you may not know what an air barrier is, having one is important for efficiency! An air barrier stops air movement through insulation, which increases its efficiency. To get a better idea of its benefit, a leak in the air barrier is kind of a leak around your windows, but it is in the wall, and the air may never enter the living space.

    4. Whether or not you have water leaks.
    Water heats up and cools down at a different rate that most items in the home. Because of this, the camera can detect the temperature differences between the water and the wall or floor.

    These are just a few of the items that the thermal camera can be used for around the home. Depending on the applications, the camera may be able to be used to "see" - or really detect - a variety of items. The cameras are being used in everything from building to electrical to medical. There are a variety of uses for this type of camera! If there is something in your home that you can’t see or wonder about, ask a thermographer - because we might just be able to find it for you.



    Use Blinds and Shades for Your Windows

    Last week, I touched on replacement of windows and how the payback is so long. This week, I will touch on a simple way to help save energy around your windows. Blinds, shades, and drapes can all help conserve energy. By closing your blinds in the summer, you can help reduce the amount of energy gained through solar radiation; by closing your drapes in the winter, you can help retain the heat in your home. Your window dressings were not made just to look good - they do serve a function, so use them! Also, the bug screen is not just for bugs. By using it you can also reduce the solar gain through the windows.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009

    Why HVAC Isn’t Just a Lot of Hot Air (or Cold, Either)

    Ever since I started my career in the construction industry, I have always seemed to run into problems with HVAC systems. This shouldn’t be that surprising, since the HVAC system is the primary system responsible for the living conditions in your home and can have the most impact on how a building functions. I have seen systems that are contaminated with fungal growth, systems that you would think had been installed to provide irrigation to the crawlspace, systems that my 8 -year-old niece and nephew could have installed, and systems that are a piece of art. However, out of all of these, the latter is the rarest of them all.

    In the past year, I have dealt with systems that
    • increased the gas bill after the system was installed,
    • caused the homeowner to pay more per month than they were per season before it was installed,
    • were not cooling or heating the home equally. The excuse for this was that two systems should have been installed, when the contractor installed only one - however, that one unit was not properly installed (twice), and ended up causing damage to the ductwork.
    These are only three of the multitude of cases where I have seen of improperly sized, installed, or designed units. Why is this? The only explanation I can come up with is that homeowners - and unfortunately, most HVAC technicians - do not understand the impact the system can have on the home, and that it is not as simple as a fan moving air through some round tubes.

    There is a standard of practice set forth in both the building code and by industry organizations that state how a system should be designed. This process takes into account how each component of the system works with the other, and combines them to provide efficient delivery of your conditioned air. This whole process starts with what is called a load calculation, or Manual J calculation. This takes into account the construction of your home and how heat is transferred between the exterior walls, ceiling, floor and the exterior environment. The next step covers the system selection or Manual S. This outlines the proper method to select a system to accommodate for the required load calculations. Next comes Manual D, which is another critical step as this is the duct design. Each system must have the ducts designed for the unit to be installed. Finally is Manual T, which is the register and grill sizing. Even grill sizes can impact your comfort levels!

    Properly designed systems can increase your comfort and decrease the cost of your utilities. Next time you are going to have your HVAC system replaced, take note of these simple reminders, and hopefully, you will have your system properly installed:

    1. Make sure Manual J, S, T, and D calculations were performed for your system.
    Of all of these, Manual J and D are the most critical. Whether you are having your home system replaced (ducts and system) or just the unit, these calculations are critical. There is no such thing as rules of thumb or matching the system with what you previously had. Each home is unique, and the system you had before may have been improperly sized.

    2. Your ducts impact your system’s efficiency.
    While most people will try to just install a new unit and keep using the old duct work, this can actually cost you money. If ducts are improperly sized for the system, they can cause the system to operate inefficiently. Why pay for the more efficient system if it is going to operate at a lower efficiency than the one you just replaced?

    3. Manual J has safety factors already figured in.
    There are some companies that will perform Manual J calculations, but they will not use the weather data provided in the back. Instead, they will design the system for hotter temperatures. You don't design systems for newsworthy days! By raising the design temperature, you oversize the system. When you do this, you size the system for 1% of time it is in operation - and oversizing for 99% of the time.

    4. The lowest or highest price may not be the best.
    It's hard to judge an install on just the price of the system. HVAC installs can vary greatly! ACCA (Air Conditioning Contractors of America) has produced a document that allows you to compare bids so that you get the best value. However, remember that if the contractor doesn’t properly design the system, it doesn’t matter how good their price is! You can get the document here: Quality Installation Specifications


    Do NOT Install Replacement Windows!

    The tip this week is more of a what not to do instead of a what to do. Every day, I see a commercial advertising replacement windows and how much money they can save you; and every day, I know someone has invested a lot of money into their home that they will not get paid back.

    Many people are advertising 50% savings with the replacement of new windows. This is completely true. You may save 50% on the amount of energy the windows cost you, but this translates to only about 10% to 15% of your total bill. With this limited savings as compared to the cost of the windows, you end up with a very long payback period. If 10 windows cost you between $6000 and $7000 and you save a gratuitous 20% on a utility bill of $200, your payback will be between 12 and 15 years. This is almost a best-case scenario. In most cases, the paybacks for replacement windows are going to be between 20 and 30 years, because the savings will not be that great for such a small investment.

    Most homeowners are not going to be in the home for 15 years, and if they are, there are several other items that can be done to the home that have a quicker payback. I will only recommend replacement windows in extreme cases. In the majority of the homes I see, I would more likely recommend installation of storm windows (for single panes), or repair of the windows currently in place, typically because those are the best scenarios when windows are involved. So next time you have someone suggest you replace your windows or you see the commercials, remember that those windows will save you money, you are better off investing in other, similarly effective improvements that have a much shorter payback period.

    Saturday, September 5, 2009

    Energy Audits - The What’s and How’s

    As a homeowner, you may have heard the term "energy audit" by now, but you may not know what one is or how it works. Many people think an audit is something done by the IRS or given freely by their utility companies. Some even think it's a gimmick made up by “tree loving” individuals. The truth is that an energy audit can be a very useful tool to aid you in saving energy - and ultimately, money!

    The complex definition of an energy audit is “an evaluation of the energy flow through a building with the objective of understanding the energy dynamics of the system.” To break this down into simple, understandable terms, an energy audit is just the objective evaluation of a home or building’s energy use.

    There are various methods of performing the audit, and even more individuals who are trying to break into the industry. Because of this, you as a homeowner must take time to understand the steps in an audit, learn what you should expect from it, and obtain the knowledge to empower yourself to choose the most qualified professional in your price range. In doing all this, you may even gain enough knowledge to perform a basic audit of the home yourself.

    The first bit on knowledge you should obtain is that an energy audit should consist of six primary categories. These categories may have several sub-categories depending on how extensive the audit is but an audit should always have these six main areas of concentration.

    The primary areas are:

    1. Home Sealing (Building Envelope)
    2. Insulation
    3. Lighting
    4. Appliances and Phantom Loads
    5. HVAC (Heating and Air)
    6. Occupant habits

    As mentioned before, each area may have sub-categories (i.e., "building envelope" will usually include windows and doors, and "appliances" will usually include water usage), but the sub categories will depend on the auditor and the building. The most difficult category for a professional auditor to observe is the occupant’s habits, and this portion of the audit will consist of generalized recommendations. This category, however, is one that you will be able to best analyze yourself, but may not want to admit.

    As stated before, a homeowner or building owner can perform an audit themselves. However, an energy audit for a building is more difficult, and it is typically best to hire someone to conduct an audit of a business. If you would like to perform an audit of your home, you first need to gain a little knowledge on the subject. This can be gained through reading books on the subject or visiting Websites. Cut Your Energy Bills Now: 150 Smart Ways to Save Money and Make Your Home More Comfortable & Green by Bruce Harley is a good book to get some how-to knowledge and learn about areas for consideration with an audit. You will not only learn about the areas of the home you need to check out, but also how to perform some of the repairs if you are so inclined to do so. The N.C. Ag Extension Agency’s E-Conservation program is also great for online and local education events. They will hold information sessions and training events periodically. Check with your local extension agent for more information if you live in North Carolina. The DOE Energy Savers Website is also a good resource.

    Once you get a little background information, you may want to use a checklist to help with the audit, or you may choose to just look around your house. You can make a small but noticeable impact on your energy usage by performing an audit yourself, but to get an even bigger impact, you may look to a professional auditor. In choosing an auditor you must be careful, because there can be wide range in the quality of the audit. Some individuals provide little more than what you could do in performing an audit yourself. Others provide professional insight into the home and how it functions. Above that, they provide cost-saving tips that may be able to save you the cost of the audit in as little as one year.

    As mentioned, a professional audit will vary, but all audits should consist of a blower door test, a visual inspection that covers the 6 main areas, and the results should be generated in a report that makes recommendations based on your return-on-investment or savings-to-investment ratio. For those that may not know, a blower door is a piece of equipment that helps an auditor determine the tightness of a home and where leaks are occurring.

    More advanced audits may include thermal imaging of the home using a thermal imaging camera and duct testing. While thermal imaging is a great benefit and it is becoming more commonplace as prices of equipment decrease, this one particular item does not necessarily make an audit better. Duct testing is another item that is not necessary, and often times as far as you will be concerned, the information needed to make a decision regarding the tightness of the ductwork can be determined using certain techniques during the blower door test.

    When selecting an auditor, you should remember that one week-long class does not make a good energy auditor! There are several places to start when looking for an energy auditor, and one that many people recommend is the EPA Energy Star program. While being a HERS rater (Energy Star rater) is a good indication of an individual understanding the basics of a building environment, it also does not necessarily mean the individual is qualified to perform an energy audit. The process of certifying a home for Energy Star and performing an energy audit are two very different things, and sometimes you will find a HERS rater will not perform audits.

    So how do you find a qualified auditor?

    1. Search the Web for auditors in your area, ask neighbors or relatives who may have had an audit, and check trusted resources for certified individuals.As mentioned, HERS certification is a good place to start, but it doesn't end with that! Referrals are a great source of information because you can see the outcome of the audit before you ever have one.

    2. Talk with the person who will perform your audit and get some insight into their process.Ask about their qualifications, certifications, audit experience, and general knowledge of the subject. As mentioned, a professional audit should always consist of a blower door, a visual inspection, and the results should be generated in a report that makes recommendations based on your return-on-investment or savings-to-investment ratio.

    3. Ask to see a sample report.
    You can learn a lot about an auditor from the information a sample report contains. Does this report explain the “whys” of the recommendations? Does the report give an overview of the location of the findings? Does the report give an easy-to-read summary of the recommendations in a usable, cost-conscious and informative format?

    4. If the auditor is to use a thermal camera, ask them if they are a Certified Level One Thermographer.This is a good indication if they have a basic knowledge of how the camera works. A thermal camera is a complex piece of equipment, and the information gathered from one can be very useful; however, the individual should have some training on how to use the equipment.

    5. Finally, do they also perform repairs?While this is not always problematic, it can sometimes lead to questions regarding an auditor’s objectivity. Ask the individual how they plan to stay objective and ask for references from previous audits.

    Overall, an energy audit is a very useful tool in beginning the process of becoming more energy efficient and sustainable. You may choose to perform an audit yourself, or you can hire a professional. If you should hire a professional, take the time to make sure that they understand what they are doing, they have the correct equipment, and they are going to provide you with information that you can use to save money. Finally, take time to educate yourself on the subject, because a smarter homeowner is always a happier one!



    Use of Energy Monitors in Your Home

    With all the talk about saving energy, I think it is best to introduce two items that I believe a homeowner will find to be very beneficial in saving energy. Both of the items are energy monitors. Neither one of these units will save you energy themselves, but they will make you more aware of your energy use. The first unit is from Blue Line Innovations. I have personal experience with this, and have watched its use change the habits of an individual who didn’t always believe the items I recommended, such as washing clothes with cold water. This unit is easy to install. You simply place the sensor over the power meter and sync up the base unit. After a few minutes of entering the power cost information, the unit will begin to track your energy usage, displaying current usage and total usage. You must reset this every month to keep a monthly tally, and you must replace the batteries in both units every so often - though this can lead to some sync issues, overall this unit will really make you aware of the usage in your home.

    The second unit is The Energy Detective, or TED for short. This monitor hooks up to your electrical panel and can track usage from one circuit or the entire house. A homeowner may be slightly intimidated by the way the unit hooks up and may want an electrician to perform the work. I don’t have personal experience with this one, as I am awaiting the release of the 5000 series to make up my mind as to which unit to try, but I can say I have heard great things about it, and the features look really great. Like the Blue Line Innovations model, the unit tracks both real time and monthly usage, but you get additional features if you use your computer. The system can graph usage, showing peaks and valleys to allow a homeowner to see when certain items may be coming on or going off. This information may be more beneficial to an energy auditor, but alas, it is more information to improve your energy habits!

    Both units are great additions to any home, as the hardest thing to get a homeowner to correct is their habits. These units make the homeowner aware of their energy usage and can help modify habits. With both units selling for around $120, they are both comparable in price and features, but if a homeowner wants to spring for the additional $45, they can get the footprints software for their 1001 series TED and up the information they get. The TED 5000 series will start at $200, but it appears to be coming with a lot of additional features. Regardless of which unit you may choose, you will find them to be a cost saving purchase as long as you pay attention to them!