Shel Horowitz: What I learned from my energy audit

Last modified: Sunday, March 30, 2014
January was much colder than usual here — and my old farmhouse (built in 1743)
 was feeling unusually chilly — especially the kitchen, which we’d just redone.

It had been a few years since our last energy audit, so I set one up.

The first thing I learned was why my house has felt so much colder this year. The house had been insulated by the previous owner, probably in the 1970s. And the insulation was fiberglass, which has a definite lifespan. We’d been told the last time we’d had an audit that the insulation was aging; this time, we were told it was past its usefulness.

But beyond the worn-out fiberglass (not the most ecological material to begin with) — the whole house was leaking air all over the place. As I walked around the house with the auditor, he pointed out chinks in the basement foundation, spaces between beams and walls, beams and ceilings, and walls and ceilings, gaps between the wooden pieces of our skylights.

And we finally found out why the kitchen was even colder than the rest of the house: our new energy-saving LED light fixtures, ironically enough, were not insulated and tapped into the very coldest part of the house: a second-floor knee wall running the length of the longest side. The quality of light and the amazingly low energy consumption of the lights is fabulous — but who knew it would have such an impact on our home heating?

No wonder we’ve had to turn the thermostat higher lately! The auditor suggested we could fix the LED air infiltration problem with spray-foam insulation. However, in that room, which we just spent a large amount of money to redo, aesthetics are a big consideration. When I applied some of that foam in another part of the house, I found it very hard to control, and the results were less than pretty. So I think we’ll wait until we can find someone to do it who can make it look nice.

The vendor for the energy audit outlined several steps we could take to alleviate the situation — each of which cost about double what I would have expected to pay. If we did everything he told us to, we’d have been looking at well over $18,000. Even if it saved us as much as $500 per year — highly unlikely, considering that’s about 25 percent of an entire heating bill — that’s a 36-year payback. Not a very good return on investment, even for a green guy like me.

Fortunately, since he had walked me around he house and shown me the areas where cold air was infiltrating, I could fix the most glaring problems myself, with rope caulk or spray-foam insulation. I am doing this a little at a time, and already notice huge improvement in the room where I’ve been concentrating: my grown daughter’s former bedroom, which is where I keep my exercise bike. Just by caulking the skylight and foaming some of the air spaces, I’m able to use a lot less electric heat in that room. It doesn’t get nearly as cold, and when I preheat the room before an exercise session, I can come back in a lot faster. In short, the savings are immediate.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sealing up a lot of these cracks all around the house. I’m expecting a substantial reduction of energy use and much greater comfort as I work my way through the project. Cost? About $20, and some short periods of time when I need a break from the computer anyway.

Also fortunately, we live in an area where many vendors are competing in the insulation arena. So we’ll get a few more estimates, and find a vendor who can deliver value as well as comfort.

Lessons and takeaways

So what did we learn from this experience?

• Even a building that was well insulated in its day may need some refreshing after some years.

• Look at value received over money spent. Do the little, inexpensive things that have a big impact to get a measurable result.

• Don’t accept the first estimate you receive; check a few competitors.

By the way, if you’d like to see this remarkable pre-Revolutionary War house, and several other alternative-energy buildings in the 18th/19th-century eco-village of Hockanum in Hadley, I’m running a three-day Green Marketing and Social Change Intensive, May 16 to 18. More info at shelhorowitz.com. Also, I’ve put together a free “Business and Marketing for a Better World” telesummit this month, featuring over a dozen experts in green business and/or marketing. Presenters include Joel Makower of greenbiz.org; Ruthy Woodring, a partner in a bicycle-powered hauling company; Ivan Misner, founder of Business Networking International; and (prerecorded) my co-author, the late Jay Conrad Levinson. Sign up at business-for-a-better-world.com/telesummit.

Marketing consultant and copywriter Shel Horowitz, shel@greenandprofitable.com, shows you how to “reach green, socially conscious consumers. He writes the monthly “Green And Profitable” column and is the primary author of “Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green” (John Wiley & Sons).