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Spring home maintenance should include an energy audit

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When Karina and Calvin Jenkins Jr. bought their townhouse in Gaithersburg, Maryland in 2018, they knew it would need some upgrades.

What they didn’t realize was how cold two of the rooms in their house would be in the winter and how hot they would be in the summer. And those were the rooms where their sons, ages 4 and 1.5, slept.

“I noticed it right away,” said Karina, 37. “We thought if we increased the heat in the winter and lower the air in the summer, it would help. We put a fan in one of the bedrooms, and it didn’t help at all. They wondered: what else could we do?

Their real estate agent had mentioned when buying the house that it would be good to replace the insulation in the attic but they had not.

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They have since seen an energy assessment of their home offered by their local utility, Pepco. Last November, they decided to move on.

The couple worked with a licensed Pepco contractor, Zerodraft Marylandwhich focuses on energy efficiency, and conducted the study Home performance with Energy Star program evaluation. For $100, an auditor visited their all-electric townhouse to inspect every part of it, install energy-efficient products, including LED bulbs, and gave them a detailed report of recommended upgrades and discounts from the program that would be available. Once they upgraded their townhouse, they received a certificate from Pepco outlining the changes they had made to make their space more energy efficient and comfortable.

They didn’t want to spend more than $3,000 on upgrades.

Their report recommended:

  • Airtightness of their attic floor.
  • Added new insulation above sealed attic floor.
  • Apply spray foam insulation to basement rim joist and overhanging floor.
  • Installation of a new bathroom exhaust fan and duct insulation around the new fan.
  • Added a new exhaust fan timer switch to remove moisture and ensure proper air exchange inside and outside the townhouse.
  • HVAC system upgrade.

Staying within their budget, the couple followed every recommendation except for the upgraded HVAC system, which was the most expensive item on the list.

The cost of the power saving recommendations was $3,718, and with the rebates, their cost was $2,584.65. Through the Pepco program, rebates can be assigned to the owner or contractor. In this case, Zerodraft applied the rebates to the owner’s cost and Zerodraft received the rebates from Pepco.

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For Karina and Calvin, the changes were welcome. “It made a big difference,” Karina said. “I was impressed that I noticed the difference as quickly as I did.” The floors were no longer cold to the touch, she said.

They have already noticed dollar savings as well. Last winter, they saved $30 per month in 2022 compared to 2021, and the savings continued on their March bill, but they weren’t as significant. When energy demand is generally higher, the cost per kilowatt hour is higher, while in times of lower demand, the cost is lower.

Basically, there are two main reasons people decide to schedule an energy assessment, also called an energy audit, on their home. “Often it’s comfort that leads to an audit,” said Ryan Meres, program director of the Residential energy service networkwhich sets standards for how people become certified as a Home Energy Rating System Evaluator.

The other reason is cost savings, a reduction in their energy bills, he said. “You decide what things you implement, which will give you the best value for money depending on the upgrade.”

There are a variety of ways to save energy, and what you choose depends on your home’s needs, what will remedy the problem, and your budget.

The amount of energy a household uses depends on its location and climate; the type of house and its physical characteristics; the number, type and efficiency of energy-consuming appliances and their use; and the number of people in the household, according to US Energy Information Administration.

Experts say that heating and cooling consume about half of the energy used in your home. For example, water heating consumes between 10 and 20%. Other appliances, including a dishwasher and washer/dryer, consume between 10% and 20%, and lighting around 10%.

Heating and cooling, “that’s the big target,” said Kurt Pfund, director of Zerodraft, who co-founded the company with his father, Chris, in 2008.

According to Kurt, there are several ways to improve heating and cooling:

  • Replace the heating and cooling system.
  • Adjust the heating and cooling system.
  • Increase the efficiency of home ductwork.
  • Tighten the “envelope” of the house by finding places where cold air enters the house in winter and warm, humid air enters the house in summer.

“Tighten up your house by making it much tighter,” Kurt said. What you can do depends on the home, your budget, and the utility programs available to you. “All homes leak to one degree or another,” he said. “Same new construction.”

Unless your home was built with energy efficiency in mind, adding more insulation can likely lower your energy bills, according to the US Department of Energy. Older homes generally have less insulation than new builds. Still, adding insulation to a newer home can “pay for itself in a few years,” according to the ministry.

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Area utilities have a range of programs that can improve your home’s energy efficiency. Experts recommend starting with a free audit and working from there.

Pepco also offers a Quick Home Energy Checkup which is less complete than the assessment chosen by Karina and Calvin.

Dominion Energy offers the Home Energy Assessment Program and the retrofit’s more in-depth diagnostic testing program, according to Michael Hubbard, energy conservation manager for Dominion Energy in Virginia.

The utility does not dictate to the energy efficiency provider what to charge consumers. “A company can choose to do a free assessment,” but it’s not mandatory, he said. “The value to the consumer in the assessment or audit is in the discounted metrics through rebates” and in the ongoing savings of any installation, upgrade or tune-up.

Consumers receive a personalized report, a guide to future home improvements that can reduce energy use and lower your electric bill for years to come, Hubbard said.

Like the Jenkins, you may not do everything recommended immediately, but you can consider some for energy enhancements later. For now, the boys’ rooms are “much warmer,” says Karina.[They’re] not freezing.

Six Ways to Improve the Efficiency of Your Home’s Cooling and Heating

Since heating and cooling use about half of your home’s energy, take these steps to improve the efficiency and cost of keeping your home the right temperature, according to the Department of Energy.

  • Change the air filter regularly. During more intensive use in summer and winter, check it monthly, or at least every three months.
  • Adjust HVAC equipment annually. This can improve its efficiency and comfort.
  • Install a smart thermostat. It will allow you to control heating and air conditioning from your smartphone, tablet or computer. Look for an Energy Star certified smart thermostat.
  • Seal heating and cooling ducts. The first place to focus on is the ductwork that runs through the attic, crawl space, unheated basement, or garage.
  • Consider Energy Star certified heating and cooling products. Ask an HVAC contractor to assess your current equipment if it is over 10 years old or if it does not provide comfort in your home.
  • Ensure new equipment is properly installed. Improper installation can reduce system efficiency by up to 30%.

Resources to help you improve your home’s energy efficiency

There are many ways and resources to help make your home more energy efficient and save money. Much of what you do will depend on your home’s current energy efficiency, a professional energy evaluation, recommendations from a certified contractor, and your budget.

Some utilities provide energy coaches who will talk with you about steps you can take, energy assessments, and more in-depth evaluations of your home’s energy efficiency.

Star Energy is a program of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, and provides information on energy efficient products and practices.

In February, the EPA launched the Energy Star Home Upgrade, six electric home upgrades it says can save the average family about $500 a year on utility bills:

  • An Energy Star certified air source heat pump for clean and efficient heating and cooling.
  • An Energy Star certified heat pump water heater for super efficient hot water.
  • An Energy Star certified smart thermostat with smart climate controls.
  • High performance Energy Star certified windows and storm windows.
  • A well insulated and waterproof attic.
  • A home ready for the electric vehicle charger.

The average cost for the full upgrade would be $15,000 to $18,000, depending on the National Renewable Energy Laboratory data used by the EPA in its initial analysis. Cost for each upgrade varies by location, contractor and type of product selected.

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