Snug Planet Energy Audit

On June 7 Mary Kate and Maria came from Snug Planet to hold a one hour education session with us. We took some action from that: we replaced that horribly wasteful showerhead with the 1.5 gpm Niagara Chrome Earth. My wife also had me replace a bunch of faucets around the house with lower flow aerators (I’m less pleased about this and I’m not convinced it’s that important anyway, given how little time we spend in front of sinks).

Three weeks after the education session Blake showed up to perform the full audit. Like Mary Kate and Maria, Blake asked us about our goals for the house. It’s important to clarify which of comfort, saving energy, or saving money is your highest priority, since payback on the cost of remediation can be both difficult to quantify and difficult to achieve. The work can be expensive and natural gas is cheap (and will likely remain so for quite a while).

We walked throughout the house, going top to bottom, so Blake could do a visual inspection. There are 3 closets (really access doors into the attic space) on the third floor that Blake said would benefit from having their floors torn up and filled with insulation. This would render these spaces unsuitable for storage, but would help seal off the living space from the attic. The floor cavity underneath the storage and living space needs to be separated so air doesn’t travel between the two spaces. The walls would also benefit from being filled with insulation. That drywall has bulged and needs to be replaced anyway.

On the second floor the main takeaway was that after the house is buttoned up, it will be more important to expel moisture from the bathroom. Blake recommended a bathroom fan in the wall.

I don’t remember much of note on the first floor other than Blake’s advice to turn the range hood fan on when using the oven. As the oven begins to warm you may get unburned gas and carbon monoxide that’s best vented outside.

Like the attic I expected there would be plenty of work in the basement, and it did not disappoint. Using a nifty gas sniffer Blake found two (!!!) minor gas leaks.

Gas detection

The device is pretty cool, but it’s hyper-sensitive so you still want to verify there’s a leak with the old fashioned bubble test (where you apply a soap or soap-like solution to a connection and look for bubbles), which did indeed confirm those leaks. Fortunately no leaks were found in the gas line leading to the dryer, which I hooked up myself.

When Snug Planet came for the education session Mary Kate suggested a vapor barrier to seal off the basement floor, but Blake believed pouring more concrete (into the rougher section of the floor) would be sufficient. He was more concerned with the walls of the basement, which he said would benefit from being insulated with rigid foam boards. He also approved of my draining the dehumidifier into the sump.

As my home inspector pointed out, the doorway leading to the basement access (often called “Bilco doors” although I don’t know if mine is actually Bilco brand) needs to be sealed off because it leaks pretty generously. Fortunately Snug Planet has experience in that sort of thing:

There were a few other minor notes about the basement, but then it was on to my most anticipated part of the audit: the blower door test. The blower door is an adjustable metal frame (to fit just about any size door) that holds some kind of nylon-like fabric that blocks off the door except for a hole where a powerful fan fits.

Setting up the blower door

The fan speed is computer-controlled in order to maintain pressure of 50 Pascals. Apparently this number is a building performance standard, and like many standards its origin was a bit arbitrary. Blake mentioned that while experts desired a higher pressure, the fans of the era when the standard was established (the 1970s maybe? I forget) were only powerful enough to maintain 50 Pascals, and that limitation defined the paradigm.

Keeping things at 50 pascals

Fixing the internal pressure allows us to measure the amount of air flowing through the home in cubic feet per minute. Blake said our number was about average for a house of this size and age. In the attic you could feel air rushing through the access doors, which isn’t surprising considering the living space is connected to attic space with a vents to the outside. Also unsurprisingly, there was lots of air coming in through the basement door too. Once you get past the obvious stuff, though, it’s helpful to use tools that give you better visibility into your home’s deficiencies.

That’s where this thermography camera from FLIR comes into play. I imagine this works better when it’s winter and there’s a more substantial differential between inside and outside temperatures, but even in summer you can notice obvious deficiencies. In this photo below you can very clearly see the outlines of the floor joists, suggesting there’s little to no insulation in the cavities between them.

Infrared camera

As with the gas detector, though, these gadgets still require you verify their results, and again a low tech solution was useful: Blake had a short piece of wire he stuck into available holes (I still have many outlet covers removed from when we painted) feeling for resistance that indicates some kind of insulation was present. Sometimes he could hook into the insulation and pull some out in order to identify whether it was fiberglass or cellulose.

Unsurprisingly, our walls are sorely lacking in insulation. Some of the rooms did have some fiberglass insulation that came from some previous owner’s renovation (plaster and lathe removed and drywall installed), but for the most part the walls are empty. This problem is usually solved by punching holes in the wall and blowing in insulation. Because our house is covered by two different materials, each level of the house would be handled differently. The upper level, covered in cedar shake shingles, could be entered from outside like most homes. Stucco, however, is very difficult to patch in an aesthetically pleasing way and Blake said they’ll usually blow in insulation from the inside in that situation.

At the end of the audit, Blake asked us how he could best help us proceed with our goals for the house. As someone with limited time and skills, I figured getting estimates for the various solutions we discussed throughout the audit would be helpful for deciding what our priorities should be. The attic easily had the most to gain, and Blake ballparked that the work to rip up the flooring and install insulation throughout could be in the $3000 range. Other things we’re interested in, as mentioned above, are installing a bathroom fan and insulating the basement with foam board.

There are a handful of easy things I can take care of myself, such as putting insulation around some of the pipes leading in and out of the water heater (why in, you ask? thermosiphoning can pull warm water into the cold intake pipe). The gas leaks are best handled by an HVAC specialist. For the rest we’re waiting on word from Snug Planet on how best to proceed and how much it might cost.

It was a great educational experience and well worth the four hours total (1 hour educational session, 3 hours for the actual audit). The cost in New York is free or really low, so there’s little reason not to get it done. I have no basis for comparison, having only gotten one energy audit done ever, but Snug Planet was as friendly, helpful and knowledgeable as their reputation indicated. I’m looking forward to seeing what else they can help us with.

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