Energy audits can trim heating bills

By ED MERRIMAN, Baker City Herald December 30, 2008 04:35 pm

With natural gas prices having risen by 5.4 percent in Baker City on Nov. 1, weather-proofing a house to keep the cold out and the heat in can save on energy bills, but there are potential hazards when a house is made “too tight.”

Electric rates dropped by 0.68 percent for residential customers of Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative, and are up slightly for Idaho Power residential customers.

However, Todd VandenBos, manager of the new residential division at Oregon Power Solutions in Baker City, said higher electric rates based on peak demand have been adopted in some metro areas and are likely to hit Baker County at some point.

“We would like to help residents of Baker County and Eastern Oregon identify energy consumption problems and take care of them before this stuff kicks in,” VandenBos said.

 He said Oregon Power Solutions is the only company in Northeastern Oregon certified by the state to provide energy audits of homes and  businesses.

“We go into your home and test every system in your house,” VandenBos said. “Our report is about 80 pages long. It will tell you where your energy is going, what your biggest problems are and what your options are to fix it.”

Using high-tech monitoring equipment and techniques, VandenBos said the company’s certified energy auditors identify cracks around windows and doors, in basements, crawl spaces and attics, where the building frame is attached to concrete and other areas where heat gets out and cold gets in.

 However, that’s just part of the services available. He said the company also has equipment to identify areas of a house where air circulation is unbalanced, where carbon monoxide or radon gas builds up, and other problems such as moisture accumulation.

“You can go in and make a house too tight, which can cause a carbon monoxide build up,” VandenBos said.

Anita Nelson said an energy audit conducted at her Baker City home found dangerously high carbon monoxide levels in the crawl space after she and her husband, Kent, plugged off the foundation air vents with styrofoam.

“The duct pipes were so close, that when the wind blew it blew the exhaust back into the furnace,” Nelson said.

“It’s probably been a problem ever since we put the new furnace in three years ago, but as long as air was circulating into the crawl space through the ventilation openings, we didn’t notice it,” Nelson said. “The carbon monoxide levels didn’t become dangerously until we plugged up the vents.”

Fortunately, Anita said she and Kent went on vacation right after they plugged the foundation vents, and had scheduled Oregon Power Solutions to do an energy audit while they were gone.

When the auditors measured the high carbon monoxide levels, they called the gas company, which found carbon monoxide levels of 400 parts per million — more than 10 times the rate considered dangerous, Anita said.

The Nelsons have fixed their furnace ventilation problem.

But Anita recommends everyone buy a carbon monoxide meter.

One of the most common mistakes people make when their house feels drafty is blowing more insulation into the attic, without first doing the research to determine if that’s what’s needed.

VandenBos said one of the most common causes of cold draft inside a house involves air being drawn up from the crawl space, through the walls and into the house.

A major source of heat loss in older homes is associated with furnace ducts and return air systems installed in outside walls. In those cases, VandenBos said the hot air inside the ducts is drawn out by the cold air outside.

“Hot is drawn to cold, and moisture is drawn to dry,” he said.

Many older houses were also built without moisture barriers, causing moisture and cold from the ground to be drawn into the crawl space and into the house through holes in the wood plates, duct work and other points, VandenBos said.

Installing a plastic tarp as a vapor barrier in the crawl space is one of the least expensive ways to cut energy waste, he said.

He said every dollar spent for home improvements recommended by an energy audit, such as proper home sealing, insulation and the proper design and installation of an efficient heating and cooling system, can save homeowners $5 to $8 per month on their energy bills.

VandenBos said when moisture intrusions into crawl spaces and basements go unchecked, it can lead to wood rot and other structural problems, so it’s important to identify and correct such problems as soon as possible.

Some homes use far more electricity, natural gas or heating oil to maintain a comfortable temperature than others due to differences in the tightness of home construction, the quantity, quality or location of insulation and moisture barriers, differences in the insulative characteristics of windows and doors, and how the furnace and duct system was designed or installed.

Examples of poorly designed or installed furnace and duct systems include those that draw too much cold air from a garage, basement or crawl space into the return air system, VandenBos said.

One of the more common sources of heat loss in homes with fireplaces is leaving the damper open when the fireplace is not in use, which allows warm air inside the house to escape through the chimney and cold air to be drawn into the house by the return air system on a furnace, he said.

Energy auditors also look at the type and size of heating systems, ductwork and other components and make recommendations when a more efficient alternative could cut energy costs enough to pay for a change to a more efficient system, he said.

Based on the results of an energy audit and assessment of power, natural gas or heating oil bills, Oregon Power Solutions prints a report containing recommendations for cost-effective home improvements, VandenBos said.

Other services available to residential and small business customers include help lining up qualified installers, as well as help identifying and applying for possible grants and cost-share funding for home improvements designed to cut energy consumption.

“The money available for home improvements to reduce energy consumption is huge,” VandenBos said. “You can do one or two things and get a rebate.”

“In Baker County, energy suppliers such as Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative, Idaho Power and Cascade Natural Gas offer cost-share programs and grants,” VandenBos said.

“Each program has its own parameters,” VandenBos said, adding that state and federal funds are also available for some energy improvements.

One of the more popular is a $1,500 grant to help pay for installation of  a heat pump to replace a less efficient type of heating system, VandenBos said.

“We do the audit first. We can oversee the improvements, file reports to get rebates  and grants for you, and we can test the structure after all the improvements are made and provide a report that tells you what your payback will be,” VandenBos said.

“It’s good for the environment, and it’s also good for your pocketbook.”

More extensive improvements, such as installing a 10-kilowatt wind turbine capable of supplying most home energy needs, or a solar heating system, may take several months or even years to recoup the costs, but VandenBos said grants and other funding may help with installation costs.

“There are incentives for wind power and hot water solar,” VandenBos said.

“We won’t let you buy a wind turbine if you don’t have enough wind resources,” he said. “It’s not a shot in the dark. We have all the resources to measure the wind.”

“We just completed our first residential wind turbine installation in La Grande a couple weeks ago, and we’re scheduled to install our second one in the Keating Valley in the spring,” VandenBos said.