Monday, January 10, 2011

In-Home Energy Evaluations Help!

Great story in the Commercial Appeal about the TVA In-Home Energy Evaluation Program...

Energy audit pays off for Mud Island homeowners

When Betsy and Thad Howard moved to Memphis in 2004, they downsized and upsized at the same time. They bought a smaller house, but it came with a higher utility bill.

They knew that their new home, a three-bedroom, two-story house on Mud Island, could be improved for greater energy efficiency, but unlike their former home in Durham, N.C., they found that green building practices were few and far between.

"We thought that there wasn't as much of a culture here of doing energy-efficient building and we didn't know the trade people here, so we didn't know anyone who did these things," Betsy said.

But the numbers were unavoidable. In Durham, a bad month for utilities brought a bill of around $200. Here, an average winter month cost them more than $300.

This year the Howards got serious about becoming more energy-efficient.

The couple participated in the Tennessee Valley Authority's In-Home Energy Evaluation Program, which included a comprehensive inspection of their home, an audit of their current energy usage and physical improvements to their home.

They started by getting educated. Betsy contacted TVA and set up a class on energy saving for First Congregational Church in Midtown. The Howards co-chair the church's green committee. There they learned about IHEE and late last year, they started the process.

Betsy worked for the Environmental Protection Agency for 20 years before the move, studying air quality issues, so some of the issues in the home were obvious to her.

All of the windows on the north side of the home are single-pane because they were meant to be decorative. Entries to the house for the dryer vent and other pipes and hoses were made too big and not well-sealed.

They called the number listed on TVA's Web site and, through Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division, were connected to a TVA representative who scheduled their inspection with Scott Little of Conservation Service Group.

"We walked through the house with him and he showed us things and educated us," Betsy said.

The results of the inspection were eye-opening.

The 20-year-old, 2,000-square-foot home had at least 25 square feet of completely uninsulated attic space.

Their crown molding was not sealed to the wallboard, allowing heated air to be siphoned through the cracks above and below, up into the attic.

Their heating and air conditioning unit was sealed with tape instead of mastic, a putty-like substance which hardens into cement around the duct connections.

After the audit, the Howards received a report detailing the changes needed, along with the estimated costs for improvement and energy savings so they could set priorities for their projects. The windows, they decided, would have to wait for now.

On Feb. 11, Betsy's birthday, a slew of TVA-approved contractors arrived with cases of caulk and blown insulation and started to work. Fortunately, some of the projects were fairly simple.

The gas line in their fireplace was sealed with a fire-proof mortar. Loose ceiling supply registers were screwed tightly in place so that the air flows into the room, not between walls and floors. A wooden box cover was installed on top of the pull-down attic staircase to keep it from sucking heat up through it like a chimney.

"The contractors don't get their money until TVA inspects their work and says you've done quality work," said Thad, who works for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. "They're going to make sure that they do it right."

TVA spokesman Mike Bradley said the program, which started in May 2009, is taking off, albeit slowly. A total of 4,631 in-home evaluations have been conducted across TVA's seven-state service area, 3,737 in Tennessee. Seventy-four power distributors have signed on.

"We're hoping for more (participants), and the program is still evolving," Bradley said.

Bradley said there is a separate weatherization program aimed at the less affluent and funded by federal stimulus money to do much of the same kinds of work. TVA is training auditors for the program.

But the IHEE is not without its financial benefits. As part of the program, the Howards paid $150 for the audit, which is refundable by TVA. Also TVA will pay them up to $500 for the first $1,000 they spend on improvements. Essentially, they will receive $650 back.

The Howards may also qualify for a tax credit, good through 2010, of as much as $1,500 for approved materials at up to 30 percent of the cost.

The Howards haven't completed a billing cycle since the work in their home was finished, but Betsy says she can already tell that the house is warmer and less drafty.

"When I take a nap I don't have to crawl under as many blankets," Betsy said. "I'm not wearing as many sweaters. I think when it will really pay off the most is this summer because our upstairs air conditioner couldn't handle it."

"With all these incentives, it was like if we don't do it now, why bother?" said Thad.

For information, go to TVA In-Home Energy Evaluation Program.

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