Efficiency Works, It Really Does!

Home energy audits on Energy.gov

Home energy audits on Energy.gov

When my wife and I moved to Colorado last summer, we bought a 1940s bungalow. We liked the style and construction of the older house, and it is in wonderful Old Town Longmont. Only problem, we found out later that the water heater was trying to kill us.

The water heater was vented directly into the chimney. The person who later installed the furnace vented it through a sleeve in the chimney and then capped the top of the chimney. Yep, the very same chimney being used to vent the carbon monoxide from the water heater. After we learned this, we had a tankless water heater installed. It is vented through a PVC pipe out the side of the house, no more worries about killer gas coming back down our chimney.

The person who gave us the cheery news about our homicidal water heater said the main reason it hadn’t succeeded in its dastardly plans was because our house was so drafty. Not unexpected for such an old house. We bought the house in July though, so it wasn’t noticeable at the time. For the sake of our comfort and our heating bill, we wanted to put an end to the draft.

After doing some research, I started tackling the obvious problem areas. I used latex caulk to seal gaps around the exterior of our storm windows. I used caulking cord, like this, to seal the gaps around our basement windows. I noticed only 3” of insulation in the attic when we bought the house, so adding to that was a priority. In November, before it started getting too cold, I put in 14 bags of Owens Corning blown-in insulation. The machine for installing the insulation, which was free to use since I bought over 10 bags, made the job easier, but I still don’t recommend doing it by yourself. Oof.

The house was clearly not as drafty anymore, but I hadn’t totally ended the draft either. As winter set in, we noticed cold spots around the house. I read about a handheld draft detector device on the website of my natural gas utility, Xcel Energy. They said the device was available for free at my local library. Great, I love free!

On my next visit to the Longmont Library, I asked the ladies at the front desk about the draft detector. They had a radon detector and another gadget, but no draft detector. Instead, one of the ladies gave me information about something called Efficiency Works.

Efficiency Works is a program offered by five municipally owned utilities in Northern Colorado. Other locations have similar programs, check this Department of Energy website for more information. Efficiency Works offers a subsidized home energy efficiency audit ($60 for something that usually costs $400), rebates on efficiency upgrades, and a personal advisor to guide you through the process. Sixty dollars isn’t free, but it is cheap compared to the program’s possible benefits. Sign me up!

 On the day of the audit, we met Peter Stelling, our energy efficiency auditor (not nearly as scary as an IRS auditor). Peter spent over 3 hours with us, walking throughout the interior and around the exterior of our house. He checked everything–windows, doors, walls, the attic, the basement, light fixtures, sinks, etc. He even pinpointed a gas leak outside our house before the gas meter. Peter talked us through what he was doing and patiently answered all of my questions. It was a very educational process, one I highly recommend to any home owner.

Setting up for the blower door test

Setting up for the blower door test

The last part of the audit was the famous blower door test. Peter installed an insert into our front door to create a seal for the blower. Although it’s called a blower, it actually pulls air out of your house. This allows the auditor to see where air is leaking into it using an infrared camera. Pretty cool stuff.

Peter and his IR camera in action

Peter and his IR camera in action

So how did our house do? Surprisingly well. It isn’t nearly as drafty as we were told or expected. (Makes me wonder whether the water heater was closer to killing us than we thought or wasn’t even a problem at all. Oh well, we’ve moved on.) In Peter’s words, it is “relatively tight for an existing home.” There are some things we can do to batten down the hatches, but I’m happy it did as well as it did.

Before he left, Peter gave us three LED light bulbs, a low-flow shower head, and a low-flow aerator for one of our sinks. I wasn’t expecting that. All total, those cost about $65 at my local Home Depot. So essentially the energy efficiency audit was free.

A few days later I received the audit report. In addition to the blower door test results, the report included other suggestions for making our house safer and more efficient. As far as safety, the report recommended being careful of lead paint since our house is older and buying low-level carbon monoxide detectors. According to the report, store-bought detectors don’t alert until the CO is 400 parts per million, above a level where people can suffer physical damage from it. That’s scary. Regarding efficiency, the report recommends insulating and air sealing our attic hatch, having the walls insulated, adding attic ventilation, upgrading our windows, replacing our doors, and upgrading our furnace. I knew about some of these issues, but not all of them. I won’t do everything on the list, such as upgrading our furnace right now, but I’ll do some of them to improve our energy efficiency.

A week after getting the report, Nick, my personal advisor, called to review the report with me. We went through all the recommendations in it together. He gave me some suggestions on how to do the DIY jobs. For the bigger jobs, such as adding wall insulation and installing a venting fan in our bathroom, he emailed me contact info for contractors the program recommends. He’s going to call back in a few weeks to see how things are going and offered to help me review any contract bids I receive. When you do this program, they take very good care of you.

So now I have a list of things I can do to make our house more efficient and recommended contractors who can help me with the bigger projects. Efficiency Works worked for me!


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