Home Performance: California’s Hot Cool Home Makeover Trend

A Realistic, Actually Helpful Home Energy Audit for the LA Area

by Muna Deriane (1999)

Open plan interiors. Granite countertops. Whirlpool tubs. Professional stoves. Wine cellars. Recessed lighting. The media room. Chances are, your house bears the mark of one of theses renovation trends. But, that’s all soooo 2009.

Today’s home makeover trends are all about energy efficiency. Stainless appliances are still hot, but they need to be energy efficient to be cool. Recessed and indirect lighting is still a big thing, but lighting designers are working with LED lighting these days to lower the electrical load without lessening the lumens.

In fact, no matter which room you walk into, there are things you can do to slash the energy bill. An open plan interior can be a challenge to cool, but new approaches to insulating, along with high tech glass, and advanced air conditioning systems, can maintain the perfect temperature, and do it without pillaging the environment, or your bank account.

The President’s Council on Environmental Quality estimates that 130 million existing households in the US can be made at least 25% more energy efficient. Governor Schwarzenegger is advocating for goals like an overall 40% reduction in energy usage in California by 2020. Federal, state and private incentives are available for energy reduction renovations (see sidebar). So, it’s a fair bet to say that home energy makeovers are a trend that’s going to be around for a while.

To get an idea of what Los Angeles area denizens are doing to boost their homes’ energy performance, we spoke with Frank Nascimento of Simi Valley’s GreenHomes America, a company that specializes in home performance, and has done home energy makeovers in the San Fernando Valley and greater Los Angeles area. That’s the booming new home service specialty that energy conscious homeowners are using to eliminate waste while dramatically improving their indoor comfort. Here’s what Frank tells us, as we virtually ‘walk’ our way through a typical house:

A Home Energy Audit Is The First Step

A good home energy audit can pinpoint root causes of comfort problems, high utility bills, and wasted energy. There are two keys to a good home energy audit; it must be ACCURATE, and ACTIONABLE. To be accurate, the audit needs to include a thorough inspection, and a range of diagnostics tests. To be actionable, solutions need to be easily understood by you, and by any installation contractor you might hire to complete them.

In a good home energy assessment, the contractor will systematically assess each component of a home for energy efficiency, using tools like a blower door, infrared camera, and smoke wands.

Green Homes Ameicals blower door looking like from inside a home.

Green Homes Ameicals blower door looking like from inside a home.

Green Homes America's infrared camera.

Green Homes America’s infrared camera.

In most homes, the audit procedure should take about two hours, and create minimal disruption to your regular routine.

You own comfort is also great proxy for how energy efficiency your home is. If you have rooms that are or too hot or cold, the home is drafty or dusty, won’t easily maintain a constant temperature, or is too humid or dry, there’s a good chance your house is an energy hog. Be sure to tell the company performing your energy audit about all of these types of issues.

The Next Step:
Making The RIght Eenergy Improvements

Most people do not realize that their attic is one of the major reasons their utility bills are high and their home has uncomfortable rooms. Once these core attic problems are fixed, you can save money when it’s time to replace your air conditioner or furnace because you can install a smaller unit.

Insulation

Most older homes, (usually homes built before the mid-80’s) are not insulated adequately, or properly. You’ll almost certainly need to tweak your home’s insulation. Its pretty straight forward work, and offers a good return on investment. The contractor will insulate ductwork, and around pipes, chimneys, recessed light fixtures, and electrical switches and outlets. But insulation only works the way it should if you air-seal first.

Air Sealing

To many people, insulating is obvious. Air sealing, on the other hand, is not. Yet, it’s absolutely essential, and most homes are not well air sealed.

Air sealing simply means eliminating leaks and drafts — places where interior air exits the house, or vice versa.

Here’s a good way to think of it: a fleece pullover will warm you up only if there’s no breeze. When the wind picks up, it cuts right through the insulating properties of the fleece, and you get cold. Add a light windbreaker to that fleece layer, though, and you’re instantly warm. Air sealing is exactly the same.

A good contractor will eliminate virtually all air leaks. That, combined with proper insulation, will slash the energy bill, and drastically improve comfort.


EnergyAudit_AirSealing2
EnergyAudit_AirSealing3
As a bonus, air sealing helps keep dust out — so the house stays cleaner and allergy sufferers have fewer symptoms.


Duct Sealing

If you have a forced-air cooling system in the house, you’ll probably see the ductwork up in the attic. It likely needs attention: an average system leaks 30% of conditioned air through ductwork. Not only are you paying to cool your attic, but these leaks can draw dust and particulates into the system, blowing them around the living areas of your home. Want to increase cooling and heating efficiency by a third, and sneeze and clean less? Seal those ducts!

Air Conditioners and Furnaces

A typical air conditioning system operates at a mere 65% of its rated efficiency. That means 35 cents of every dollar you spend to run it is pure waste. The reasons vary — from poor design and installation, to insufficient maintenance. Fortunately, your cooling and heating system (called an HVAC system in industry lingo) is the centerpiece of a home energy audit. In addition to scientifically analyzing the “thermal shell” of your home (walls, attic, insulation, windows), a home performance contractor will identify critical HVAC-related energy saving opportunities that will also fix many of your common comfort problems.

Whether it’s finding duct leaks, cleaning a furnace or A/C unit that hasn’t been serviced in years, or addressing common problems like improper refrigerant levels and system air flow, an HVAC tune-up can save you hundreds of dollars each year in expensive energy and repair bills (a typical tune-up costs a $200-$300). And it will help your system do what it’s supposed to…make your home comfortable.

Windows and Doors

On average, homes lose about 20 percent of their heat through windows and doors. If you’ve got old leaky windows, or if your home is exposed to intense direct sunlight for a good part of the day, upgrading to modern windows can make a significant difference. The latest in window construction technology includes foam-filled frames and triple weather stripping. Energy efficient windows use Low-E coatings, microscopically thin layers that reduce heat and cold transfer, and reflect UV rays. Some double paned windows are filled with inert gases, which further increase the window’s insulating properties.

However, windows and doors are expensive. Insulation, air-sealing, duct-sealing and lighting usually provide a lot more bang for the buck. The energy audit will tell you if you really need new windows.

Hot Water Systems

Traditional hot water tank systems are inefficient. You’re keeping 80 gallons of water hot, all the time. Tankless, or on-demand, water heaters are more efficient, and have been popular in Europe for decades. In our Valley towns, solar thermal hot water systems make a lot of sense, and are a great entry point into renewable energy for your home. Don’t confuse these with solar voltaic systems, which make electricity. Solar hot water systems are much more simple and affordable to install and maintain. They are perfect for our climate.

Solar hot water and tankless systems offer a quick payback. To make it even more affordable, recent U.S. tax credits and Gas Company rebates can cover up 30% of the installation cost for qualifying systems!

So How Do I Get Started?

If you’re looking to make your home perform more like the Prius that might be parked in your garage, start with a Home Energy Audit. It will show you where the inefficiencies are, will prioritize the most important fixes, and should offer you an accurate estimate of how much energy you can expect to save after the work is done. Remember, the audit should be ACTIONABLE and ACURATE! Frank notes that a Home Energy Audit will typically run you a few hundred dollars, which you will easily get back in energy savings.

A comprehensive audit should also include a full ‘test out’ conducted after all the improvements are installed. This ensures that the newly tightened home is safe and healthy, and confirms that the upgrades will also deliver the promised energy improvement.

There are a few good ways to find a professional Home Energy Auditor in your area. The Energy Star website, a government resource, lists some auditors by state. That site is EnergyStar.gov.

You can also call your local utility provider. They can often recommend contractors that serve your specific area. Or you can do a web search for “Home Energy Auditor” or “HVAC contractor,” many of which are getting into the Home Energy Audit field.

GreenHomes America’s website also offers useful information on Home Energy Audits: GreenHomesAmerica.com/airking.htm

Hopefully, this article gets you off on the right track. In future articles, we’ll zoom in on specific areas in more depth. We will also feature recent case studies of what area families have been doing to their homes. In many cases, they have cut their energy waste by as much as 60% by using the intelligent, green approach called Home Performance. They have learned what more and more people now realize… going green makes economic sense!


About the Federal Tax Credit

Federal Tax Credit Q&A with GreenHomes America

Q: What is the Federal Stimulus Tax Credit?
A: The Federal Stimulus Tax Credit is a group of enhancements that were made to the 2008 tax credits for energy-efficient home improvements made from January 1, 2009 through December 31, 2010 (through 2016 for renewable energy sources).

Q: What does this mean for me?
A: This means that you are eligible for a tax credit if you make qualified energy-efficiency improvements to your home, such as air sealing, new insulation, or a new high efficiency furnace.

Q: How much is the tax credit for?
A: For most improvements, the tax credit is 30% of the cost, up to $1,500. Additional utility rebates are also available for qualified services and equipment.

Q: Does that include labor and material?
A: For improvements on the “Shell” of your home, (windows, doors, roofing and insulation), the tax credit covers the 30% of cost of materials. Improvements such as new HVAC systems, heat pumps and boilers will cover 30% of the total installed cost, both labor and material costs.

Q: What about renewable energy sources?
A: Solar water heaters, solar panels, and geothermal heat pumps are a 30% tax credit for labor and material cost with NO cap on the credit.

Q: What if I made improvements before 2009, will a tax credit apply?
A: Unfortunately no, the tax credit only applies to energy improvements installed after January 1, 2009

Q: When do the tax credits expire?
A: December 31, 2016 for renewable energy sources and December 31, 2010 for all other energy-efficiency improvements.

Q: Could this apply to my second property?
A: This is applicable to the taxpayers Primary Residence only. Solar water heaters, solar panels, and geothermal heat pumps may apply to second homes or rentals.

Q: What about energy-efficient appliances?
A: Federal tax credits do not apply to small appliances. Local state and city credits may be available.

Q: Can I use the Federal tax credits in 2009 and 2010?
A: Yes, but the Federal tax credit has a lifetime cap of $1,500 except for renewable energy sources. Therefore, once you reach the $1,500 limit, you can no longer apply the tax credit.

For a detailed list of the tax credits amounts available for specific upgrades (insulation, windows, central A/C, etc) see: GreenHomesAmerica.com/tax-credits.html


Thanks to GreenHomes America for their help and photos.

GreenHomes America has California offices in Simi Valley, Irvine, and Rancho Cucamonga.
877-867-2833