Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ October 2008

The Home Energy Audit That May Have Saved My Life

By Jacquie Bokow

I mean that title quite literally.  Let me tell you how it happened.  I know our home is inefficient, energy-wise.  It was built in 1955 as one of the 44 cooperative homes in our neighborhood.  There is no insulation at all in the walls.

We’ve taken some steps to save energy.  We’ve upgraded both the windows (from single-pane aluminum clad to triple-pane vinyl) and the insulation in the attic (from several messy layers, each different, to one R-38 layer).  We use compact fluorescent bulbs in almost every light fixture in the house.

I know these steps have helped us save energy, but I’ve always wondered what else we could do and how effective different measures would be.  And just how bad is our home?

Walder uses a “blower door” to test for air infiltration.
When Jim Zepp started the Silver Spring Solar Collective, I joined immediately.  I’ve long been a supporter of renewable energy and thought a group purchase and the expertise of others in choosing a system, etc., might allow us to add solar photovoltaic (PV) panels to our roof.

At the first Solar Collective meeting, I met Reuven Walder, who lives on Lombardy Road and who conducts energy audits for a living through his company called Energy Efficient Home Services (301.802.7038,  He offered any member of the Solar Collective a 25 percent discount on a home energy audit (a savings of $100).  I signed up right away!

Walder uses a pressure meter to measure the air pressure in a bedroom as part of a combustion gas safety test.
Really, if you’re going to add any sort of additional energy generator (like solar panels) to your home, it makes sense that you should try to reduce your home’s energy usage as much as possible first.  So Walder appeared on the scene right when we needed him.

Walder was accompanied on our audit by Glenn Dickey, Technical Services Director with Maryland Home Performance with Energy Star.  With Glenn looking over his shoulder, Walder spent 4-1/2 hours conducting tests throughout our home.  He checked the efficiency and flue gases of the furnace and water heater.  He checked appliances and lights.  He went into the attic to check insulation levels and leakage of heat from the living space below.

The shrunken top plate in the attic meant heated air was escaping daily during winter.
The most interesting part to me was the blower door test.  All windows are closed and a barrier with a fan in it is secured over the front door.  When the fan is turned on, the leakage out of the whole house can be measured.  We then walked around the house, feeling for breezes.

A strong gust from the knob plate on my son’s bedroom door jamb confirmed what Walder had seen while in the attic:  the board placed atop the walls (called a “top plate,” shown above) had shrunk over time, allowing air to seep through the living space into the attic (despite the layer of insulation).

But there was practically a gale downstairs.  It turned out there was a gap around the chimney that went clean through to the attic.  Essentially, the hot air from the furnace was rising straight up to the unfinished attic!

Walder checks the attic.
It was the first test Walder conducted, however, that showed us just how dangerous our house is.  He tested the exhaust system to make sure the house was venting properly.  First he set up a “worst case scenario,” where all the windows were closed and the fans in the bathroom and kitchen were turned on.  With a digital carbon monoxide meter in his hand, we watched as the CO levels rose ... and kept rising, until they had to stop the test and open all the windows to air our home out.  It seems that, during times when windows are closed but we have a fan running, we’ve actually been pulling deadly carbon monoxide gas into the house from the flues on the gas-fired water heater and furnace.

We’re scurrying now to replace both units with closed-combustion, high-efficiency equipment before winter sets in.  Since Walder told us our 15-year-old air conditioner was near the end of its service life, we’ll try to replace that at the same time (especially if we can get a good deal from the installer).

Walder gave us a list of changes he recommended we make in our home, including how much each item would approximately cost.  He then calculated how much we would save:  $228.91 in natural gas heating, $40.79 for air conditioning, $146.66 in water heating, and $572.19 in electricity.  So our annual energy savings from following his suggestions he estimated would total $988.55, which would reduce our total energy consumption by 40 percent.

The cost to update our equipment, appliances, etc., as Walder suggested would be $11,575.  He estimated the simple payback to be 11.1 years.  That’s if prices for electricity and natural gas don’t rise during those 11 years; if they do, payback will come more quickly.

I highly recommend you have an energy audit performed on your own home.  You may be surprised at what you find out!   ■

   © 2008 NFCCA  [Source:]