Friday, May 02, 2014

Thar She Blows - Through our Home!

Blower door tests if home is well sealed (or not)
Beverages exploded, things froze and plants died in our sunroom this winter. The new screen on the back door let water and snow inside. Holes above the utility sink and for an old stove vent let cold air inside easily and all the time. These issues were obvious this winter.

On a bigger scale, I knew there was little or no insulation as I'd seen inside the walls when we rehabbed the kitchen. I'd also seen inside the attic on the 3rd floor, where the previous owners installed an air conditioning unit for the top 2 floors. The unit sat on the wood floor of the attic with open air space all around it. 

We know we have a leaky old 'ship' and are ready to do something about it: starting with a Home Energy Assessment

From People's Gas site, I clicked links for residential rebates and incentives and landed at Energy Impact Illinois. This is an alliance of local utility companies and government agencies funded by a line item on our utility bills, the "energy efficiency fee." This non-profit works with homeowners and is part of the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT)

The affiliations and acronyms may be confusing, but the work is straightforward: they help Illinois residents lower their home energy costs and give details about energy-related rebates and incentive programs, including tax credits and low interest loans. The thing that caught my eye was the FREE home energy assessment. 
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I read the page, looking for fine print. I called and was told it was true: you can get a full home energy assessment - for free - if you host a "Home Energy House Party," so I set a date with Elevate Energy (the new name of the CNT Energy group). 

I invited neighbors and a few friends who own houses to the house party and coordinated with Eric at Elevate Energy, who made arrangements with a contractor, DNR Construction

Contractor Mike first went around the outside of the house to check for issues causing energy loss. He noted the vent from the old hood above the kitchen stove had a plastic bag stuffed inside it. He saw the back door wasn't sealed or weatherstripped and leaked. And he said the fan above the utility sink served no purpose other than to let in cold air. 


Home "heat map" shows heat loss areas
In front, he saw no insulation in the sunroom that was enclosed years ago but still dangerously cold, and snow started to fall while we assessed the house. The floor by the back door was also not insulated, which is why the kitchen floor is so cold.

In the basement, Mike checked the boiler and water heater using a "Testo," which made me laugh at the simple name. It literally tests if appliances are working by checking if they have a charge. The appliances checked out okay but he noticed cobwebs along the basement walls, which indicates airflow (or the spiders wouldn't go there).

Up in the attic, there wasn't much to look at since you can see wood beams on the floor and sloped ceiling clearly - and not a single layer of insulation. If heat didn't rise, we would not have been able to have houseguests upstairs this winter.  

After checking for any other holes and making sure the fireplace flu was closed, Mike set up the blower door test. He unrolled it and put it snuggly in place outside our open front door and placed a round fan in the bottom. When he removed the fan cover, he said the fan should be the only open hole in the house.

He turned on the fan to the equivalent of a 24 mile per hour wind - and then you walk around to see what you find - and feel. We also had a handheld infrared camera that showed cool spots that were leaking air, and often it was more air loss in the walls than the windows, surprisingly.

But we didn't need any device to tell us where MOST of the air was flowing from - as the blower door fan clearly pulled it through the whole house. The back door leaked a bit, which we knew. The basement did a little bit - but not nearly as much as I would have thought.

By far the biggest culprit was the attic - and it felt like a 20 mile an hour wind when you walked up to the 3rd floor of our house. It was SHOCKING to feel that much air flowing out of the attic, down the stairs and throughout the entire house!!

Testing a home's air movement is a critical part of the assessment, and shows how important it is to not only insulate but also SEAL the air leaks. This is part of the energy efficiency and weatherization training contractors get from the Building Performance Institute

The goals of weatherization are to make the home more comfortable and also perform better. The average savings for energy costs is $400 to $500 per year, they told our group - and their goal is to achieve at least 15% on energy costs after the work is completed.

Illinois is the first state to recognize home energy improvements as adding value to the home. When work is completed, and energy savings are confirmed compared to the initial home assessment, the homeowners can request an Illinois Home Performance Certificate, which shows the specific upgrades made on the home, and the contractor that did the work. 

Also, the certificate can be directly listed into MLS when the homeowner sells the home. Thus, the homeowner can get their money spent on improvements back via energy savings AND see an increased value for the sale price of their home down the road.

Within 2 days of the house party, we got an estimate for sealing and insulating our home and we scheduled the work for next week. We'll do all we can to keep our home warm, energy efficient and cozy - and we won't miss the "attic effect" winds next winter, that's for sure! 


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