Monday, July 07, 2008

Tighten homes now for winter

By Kevin Miller
Saturday, July 5, 2008 - Bangor Daily News

With new record fuel prices arriving daily and another New England winter looming, many Maine homeowners are exploring every possible avenue to make their abodes more energy-efficient.

But energy experts offer homeowners a few words of advice before embarking on a costly home improvement bonanza.

First, start planning now.

Second, get audited.

Finally, pick off the proverbial "low-hanging fruit," such as drafty attic nooks, before emptying the bank account on the more ambitious fixes or upgrades.

"You can have a whole bunch of cellulose [insulation] dumped into an attic and the attic still leaks," said Richard Riegel Burbank, a certified energy auditor from Rockland. "It’s equivalent to having an Energy Star refrigerator with the door open."

Winter may be months away, but already some of Maine’s leaders are calling the coming heating season everything from a "crisis" to a "catastrophe." Regardless, many Maine homeowners should be bracing for a brutal season financially.

The professionals who conduct what are known as "home energy audits" already are being flooded with calls from people desperate for help as they face having to shell out twice as much for fuel oil and propane as they did a year or two ago.

"We’ve got a couple months’ worth of work, for sure," said Michael Bush, director of home performance at the Penquis agency, which launched a fee-based auditing service earlier this year.

Energy auditors typically use infrared cameras and specially designed high-powered fans to detect cool spots, underinsulated areas and places where cold air creeps in or heated air rushes out. These auditors will recommend fixes and, in some cases, return afterward to see how they worked.

In Maine, auditors are certified by either the Maine State Housing Authority or through the national Building Performance Institute.

Randy Bridges, who manages Penquis’ weatherization program for qualified low-income households, said many homeowners could find the biggest bang for their buck by looking in the attic. But before laying down lots of insulation, people need to locate and seal up leaks in the roof, joints, chimney and walls.

"A lot of homeowners right now are just blowing in insulation and they are making our job more difficult because they are covering up the air leaks," said Bridges, whose program offers weatherization assistance to about 200 participants in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

But Bridges and Burbank, who runs Evergreen Home Performance, both pointed out that many homeowners spend too much time focusing on the attic and not enough on the basement.

Building materials are assigned insulation scores on the "R-value" scale, which measures a material’s resistance to heat flow. The higher the R-value, the better the insulation that material provides.

Burbank said uninsulated wood walls are rated at R4, while a concrete foundation wall is rated around R1. By comparison, the U.S. Department of Energy’s most recent fact sheet recommends installing R49 insulation in the attic of a new home built in Bangor.

Many homeowners can make a bigger difference by addressing those low-rated surfaces, such as the exposed foundation, than by adding more insulation to an already insulated attic, Burbank said. At the same time, they can dramatically improve energy efficiency by addressing drafty areas in hollow walls and around the so-called "chimney chase."

"All of these hollow spaces become ductwork … to lose heat faster," Burbank said.

Another area auditors identified for possible savings is upgrading to a more efficient water heater. Then there are the more costly home improvements, such as purchasing a supplemental heat source, replacing a furnace or installing new, energy-efficient windows.

But John Kerry with Maine’s Office of Energy Independence and Security said the other key to energy savings is becoming more conservation-minded. This involves simple steps such as turning off the lights, turning down the thermostat and thinking about your energy usage throughout the day, he said.

"Obviously, the best kilowatt is the kilowatt that is not [produced] and the best Btu is the Btu that is not burned," Kerry said.

The energy crisis in Maine likely will be exacerbated by the fact that the state’s housing stock is among the oldest in the country. But auditors cautioned that just because a house is new doesn’t automatically mean it is energy-efficient.

Bush recounted how one house he visited recently had a woefully inadequate amount of insulation in the attic, and it was less than 10 years old.

"The presumption that because it’s new it’s good is not always true," Bush said.

A big part of the problem, according to Maine Home Performance building analyst Tom Boothby, is that many of the contractors who build homes in Maine are not up to speed on the latest recommendations for maximizing energy efficiency.

Maine Home Performance certifies evaluators through the national home performance program, which examines how the entire house functions as a system, from energy efficiency to air quality, moisture levels and heating system combustion safety.

Boothby gave the example of a contractor covering up a leak in the attic with fiberglass insulation. All the fiberglass will do is filter the air, not stop it, he said.

"Many builders don’t get this, let alone homeowners," Boothby said.

Another problem, Boothby said, is there are not enough certified auditors spread throughout the state. Interest in Maine Home Performance’s training and certification program is growing as demand for auditors increases, however.

For a list

of home energy auditors certified by either Maine State Housing Authority or the national Building Performance Institute, go to: or

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