Sunday, November 22, 2009

Home Energy Assessment: Part One

Four winters ago we lived in Urbana, Illinois, in a tri-level home built in 1964. Our gas bill circa January of 2006 was roughly $125 for the use of about 119 therms to run a gas furnace, water heater, and range (the biggest percentage of gas going toward home heating). The average daily temp that month in Urbana was about 33 degrees.

When we moved to southeast Wisconsin in October of 2006, we were stunned by our first Jan/Feb 2007 power bill. The price to heat our 1918 bungalow with roughly the same square footage as our tri-level was nearly 2.5 times what it was in Urbana.

Here's a comparison of our gas usage/cost in January, 2006 in Urbana and January, 2007 in Wauwatosa:

House Size
Urbana: approx. 2200 sq. ft.
Wauwatosa: approx. 2200 sq. ft.

Gas Cost
Urbana: $1.06/therm
Tosa: $1.14/therm

Avg. Temp
Urbana: 33 degrees F
Tosa: 22 degrees F

Urbana: 119
Tosa: 270

Total Cost
Urbana: $125
Tosa: $310

Being further north and in a slightly colder climate we expected higher gas bills. Plus, gas prices were about 8 cents per therm higher between winter of 2006 and winter of 2007. Still, math isn't my strong suit, but I'm venturing a guess that the difference in temperature and the price of gas weren't significant enough to increase the use of therms from one house to the other by 250%.

With only one income and three little mouths to feed (four if you count our beastly, all-consuming golden retriever), we were strapped for cash our first year in Wisconsin – and continue to be. After all, at about $500, our average January power bill rivals many folks' rent payments.

To offset the huge cost of winter heating, we made a decision not to run our A/C in the summers. Suffering through some infernally hot summer days without air conditioning brought our monthly budget payment (the average of all 12 months' gas and electric usage) to about $280.

That wasn't good enough for us. So we began cranking down our heat in the winter. Unfortunately, even keeping our thermostat set in the mid-60s didn't bring down our wintertime bill significantly. All it did was make our fingers and toes a lot colder.

So two years ago we replaced our old heater with high efficiency (92%) gas furnace. Then, one year ago, All American Window & Door installed triple pane, argon filled replacement windows on the second story of our home. We programmed the thermostat with a conservative schedule and, on nobler days, sucked it up, put on sweaters and turned down the heat a few more degrees. We turned down the temperature on our water heater, too.

While every little bit has helped, to our dismay the current gas payment continues to be about $310 to $387 during the coldest months. That's about of 270 to 340 therms at the current cost of $1.10 per therm.

Colder weather aside, there's another factor that explains the huge difference in heating our Urbana home versus our Wauwatosa home: "house health." Our practical tri-level in Urbana was a solid, well-insulated construction with brand new windows added in roughly 2002. Conversely, our partially-insulated blue bungalow is drafty and inefficient.

We love our impractical blue bungalow, so our goal is to help it use as little energy as possible. In that spirit we struggle onward, trying to determine what more energy savings we can squeeze from our house.

Thankfully, this fall we were offered a special opportunity. The Wauwatosa Home Energy Efficiency group offered us a free energy assessment in exchange for us opening up our home for experimental purposes. At $300 to $400 a pop, home energy assessments are not cheap, but a good one can provide accurate, unbiased information on how to make a home more energy efficient.

We learned the hard way the cost of the kind of biased "energy assessments" that are currently being offered by various enterprising contractors. Windows, siding, insulation, HVAC and other contractors are all vying for consumer and government dollars ear marked for "greening up" residences and businesses. We were wooed by window contractors' promises of energy efficiency into spending thousands for what amounted to nice windows that hardly saved much energy or money at all.

I don't exactly regret replacing windows in our home – our upstairs is much more attractive and comfortable now – but was this the most effective energy saving technique? Not by a long shot.

Our home energy assessment was conducted just before Thanksgiving. The inspector was Keith Williams of West Allis, a "home performance consultant" with nine years' experience. Keith was one of the first consultants in the state of Wisconsin. Prior to working as a consultant he ran his own insulation contracting business for 22 years. He's a certified building analyst, a certified energy rater, and is nationally recognized as a trainer.

In part two, I'll talk about Keith's visit and what he told us about our house.

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