Efficiency + Comfort = Good Investment!

Our city home was built over three eras. The original four rooms have sheltered families since about 1870 — that’s one hundred and fifty years! A kitchen and indoor bathroom were added sometime between then and the 1940s, when a new two-story wing was constructed. Property records tell us the first occupant, a Dutch tulip and vegetable farmer, owned acreage the city gradually platted out from our place to become surrounding neighborhood lots.

Improvements we’ve made in our quarter-century-plus here have seriously insulated, air-sealed, and water-proofed the “modern” rooms from the ground up. Efficiency of the older parts has had some boosts too, but way fewer.

In February 2010, we hosted a group of contractors learning the Home Performance with ENERGY STAR audit process from EarthWays Center. This was a win-win-win. Seven professionals got a strong field experience, my energy program manager colleague tapped an unusual home as a training site, and we got a super-quality assessment.

The data, narrative, and thermal-image photos in our audit report documented how thoroughly we had improved the energy efficiency of about two-thirds of our home. Yay! Not so happily, but not news, the audit showed the almost total lack of insulation in our original four rooms, plus plenty of air leakage from foundation on up.

This means the energy used to heat the older, uninsulated parts of our home passes out of the furnace and its ducts, briefly through our living space, up through the attic and out the roof. Brrr!

By Fall 2020, I’d been working at home every day since March. My husband already had his business in our home. Building out his working space incorporated many of the efficiencies our 2010 energy audit confirmed. My “office” is now in our dining room, one of our 19th-century four. From our decade-old audit, a thermal camera photo of a corner of this room shows only blue (cold), from walls up into ceiling. Facing remote-work through winter — not to mention both of us simply being here all day, every day — we decided to invest in air-sealing and insulation for our eldest area’s attic and walls.

We solicited three bids from energy service firms I know through EarthWays Center, plus referrals by friends in the energy field. Getting bids for energy work is important. Frankly, I was quite surprised by the range of responses we received.

One company’s representative spent more time measuring walls outside our home than he did looking into our attic. Another poked his head up through the attic trap door, and that was it! Only two of the three evaluators asked whether we’d had (or wanted) an energy audit, and only one asked in any detail what our audit’s findings were.

Cost was not the biggest variable. Mister Quick Peek’s bid was lowest (least-cost buyer beware!) but the other two firms’ bids were pretty close. So what sealed our deal, and with whom?

The winning bid included conducting two Blower Door tests to document levels of air infiltration before and after insulating work. The attic perimeter would be air-sealed (without impacting attic venting, because a house has to breathe!) and our contractor would blow in cellulose, an insulation product made from recycled newsprint. We’d get to R-49, the U.S. Department of Energy’s standard for an energy efficient attic, a great improvement over tamped down shreds of rock wool scattered between our ceiling rafters. We also asked for our bid to include insulating the exterior walls of the oldest part of our home, but we cancelled that work when issues with the original siding proved too much of a barrier to effectively blow insulation through.

We went with SmartHouse Heating and Cooling, a locally owned company that EarthWays Center had featured as one of our 2020 virtual Green Living Festival energy and efficiency exhibitors.

Every communication we had with this company was timely and professional, including COVID-safety protocols for the bidder and the two-person insulation crew coming into our home. I clearly stated from the bidder’s visit that I know just enough about Whole Building Science, through my job at EarthWays Center, to converse with an expert and be a vigilant customer. I appreciated that these representatives talked with me about their work in technical terms and clearly explained anything I asked about. Interactions, I felt, were enjoyed by all. Exactly the quality I expected from my sustainability work experience.

This home improvement was not, however, a simple matter of calling a contractor, standing back, then paying a bill. My husband did a lot of preparatory work. We could have hired out the prep, as well, but having the (really good!) skills in-house reduced our cash outlay by about two-thirds. Those costs were paid by “Husband, Inc.” Plus, he graciously removed the mummified bodies of several squirrels without tormenting squeamish me.

Contractor time here was less than two days — neat and efficient. Check out the scene in our attic, before (at ~R4, minus the squirrels) and after upgrading insulation to R-49, atop structural reinforcements made by my husband.

Now here’s the big news: our home is so much more comfortable! The insulating work was done December 1-2. Since then, we’ve run our furnace every day, but have never set it higher than 68 degrees. Setting back at bedtime to 56 or 57, we wake up to 60-64 degrees even after freezing temps overnight. Our insulated attic is holding in the heat we’ve paid for furnace fuels to produce. Yay!

This is cold-weather comfort for us. We go in and out of doors often throughout the day, so I wear my fleece tops and vests and my husband wears his wool sweaters. We are not t-shirt people this time of year. Dressing for the weather is part of sustainable living — plus, I cannot enjoy my fleece in St. Louis in July!

I’m still comparing gas-heating bills from last winter to this year, taking into account “degree days” and the changing cost of natural gas in each billing cycle. We also converted our conventional tank gas water heater to an on-demand electric system this past fall. It’s a bit of a challenge calculating dollar savings across these fuel-supply system changes. Stay tuned.

I’ve learned enough about Whole Building Science, the principles underlying the EarthWays Center Home Performance with ENERGY STAR program, to know that improving efficiency of parts must happen in concert with evaluating all the elements of a home:

  • Integrity of building envelope (sometimes called the shell)
  • Air-sealing around all the penetrations (doors, windows, exterior outlets, etc.) in the envelope
  • Heating, ventilating, air conditioning (HVAC) system
  • Humidification
  • Plug-load
  • Lighting

As in our human bodies, the unique functions of multiple systems must work together to maintain an integrated, healthy whole. The program’s name is home “performance” to use an emotionally engaging term for what may seem abstractly mechanical, and ENERGY STAR is our national energy efficiency standard.

We did a lot of work ourselves (ok, it was mostly my husband, but I helped) to improve the efficiency of our home’s structure — and our energy systems. When we had to replace a furnace, we got an ENERGY STAR system that qualified for utility company efficiency rebates. Good work, good choices.

However, given what I know (and profess to care) about energy and sustainability, why did it take so long for my household to invest in measures that required hiring a contractor? According to Marc Bluestone, SmartHouse founder and President, I’m not much different from customers coming to his firm now, with few or no “green” inclinations.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic,” Bluestone says, “being home much more, people are turning attention to their comfort at home. And when we’re in our homes all the time, day and night, heating and cooling bills are higher. People are looking to better insulate and air-seal homes. Insulating drives comfort, and it’s one of the most economical measures you can take.

“Also, realize how the elements of a home’s HVAC systems work together,” he adds, “within the ‘shell’ of the building. Your ability to manage temperature, airflow and humidity works together with a better-insulated shell, that holds the conditions you set your home’s system controls to provide. Within the well-insulated shell of your home, you can control the functions of heating, cooling, air flow and humidification to maintain home comfort – efficiently!”

Hear Marc Bluestone, of SmartHouse Heating and Cooling, Ameren Missouri, and Spire representatives discuss home comfort, home health and energy efficiency for the 2020 Green Living Festival.

Jean Ponzi
Green Resources Manager, EarthWays Center

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