An Eye for Home Performance
Scroll to bottom for info on entering the June contest: "Home Performance Horrors"
No disrespect to blower doors, infrared cameras and manometers, but a skilled and observant home-performance professional doesn't need expensive equipment to identify that a home has some problems with regard to comfort, energy efficiency and health and safety.
For Scott Donelson, of Home Energy Medics (logo at left) some of the most flagrant culprits are visible to the naked eye.
- spider webs by windows or along basement floor joist ("spiders love air movement," he said;
- dirt around duct registers ("a sign that dirt is entering the system through leaks, or problem with the furnace filter");
- burn spots ("combustion gases are not going out of the house as they should") on the top or bottom of a water heater.
These and other images typically aren't very pretty.
The dirty insulation at right, for instance, results from gaps along the top plate of a wall. Any variety of gaps -- around the attic drop-down stairs, around plumbing vent pipes, between exterior and interior walls -- cause comfort problems and energy loss, as well as bringing in dirt that may become visible on insulation, duct registers and a number of other places.
Donelson, who is a BPI-certified building analyst and does a lot of community outreach on building performance, stays busy assessing and retrofitting the older housing stock inside the beltway of Washington, D.C. "We see a lot of problmes with underinsulated homes with no air sealing," he said in an email Friday. Citing statistics from the EPA, he added that air leakage causes 40 percent of most homes' heating and cooling costs and even more for seriously leaky homes.
Heat loss in winters, heat gain in summers: "Generally this is the cause of people feeling drafts around their windows and thinking they need to be replaced," Donelsen said. Like most home energy pros, he disputes this notion and pushes homeowners to consider options that cost less than windows, have more lasting benefits and provide a higher return on investment.
"I often say, 'If you had a plumbing leak, would you just continue to let it leak?'" he said, as an example. "'Of course not, so why let air continue to leak into and out of your home every day causing comfort problems and higher energy bills?'"
For Josh Wojcik of Upright Frameworks, a green building and weatherization company in Maine, suspicious snow melt patterns are a solid indicator of heat loss ailments.
"In late autumn and early winter, when there's not much snow on a roof, I'll examine the snow melt patterns," Wojcik told us via email. "Unless it's a sunny (and warm) day, if the snow is melting off a roof, there's a good chance that the building's top thermal and pressure barriers are failing." The photo below illustrates his point.
An infrared image confirms this, showing the heat (in red) coming through the roof right where the snow has melted.
Later in the winter, Wojcik added, "those same melting patterns will typically lead to large ice jams, so I keep my eyes open for those as well. Contrary to what some roofing contractors may say, ice jams have little to do with the roofing material on the roof. Ice jams do not need to be a fact of life."
Wojcik, Donelson and several other home-energy professionals provided a long list of other visual indicators of a home's energy performance weaknesses, ranging from the presence to rodents to dirty refrigerator coils to tongue-and-groove paneling, which one said rarely have an adequate air barrier behind them and leak profusely during blower-door tests.
We'll catalog this list for the d5R Premium Library, as well as explore these and other home-performance issues in the weeks ahead on d5R.
In the meantime, we invite you to enter the June contest on d5R (details below), and to ponder these thoughts from Wojcik.
"It's been said that ignorance is bliss. People who believe this are usually afraid to get an energy audit because they're afraid that the recommendations will be expensive and scary. What's scary to me is the volatility of energy markets and the fact that oil's been averaging a 10 percent-a-year increase over the last 10 years. A good weatherization retrofit pays for itself (quickly) and I like helping people save money. My advice to savvy building owners is to look for the symptoms I've described above, because fixing those symptoms (if done correctly) can create an annuity for that building owner of 10 to 40 percent a year for a long, long time."
The June Contest on d5R
In the d5R contest for June, the Building Performance Institute seeks "home performance horrrors" -- that is, "before" photos (or infrared images) illustrating that a home needs energy retrofit work, such as moldy insulation, dank and damp basements, gaps in walls and dysfunctional HVAC systems.
The contest also seeks "after" photos illustrating that the work was completed properly. The winner, chosen at the end of the month, will receive one BPI certification written and field exam, valued at $550, administered by one of BPI’s affiliate organizations. Cost of training not included.
In the example "before" image below, for instance, dirt-saturated fiberglass insulation sits against a basement band joist. This shows that moist air enters the house here, bringing with it mold and other uninviting particles.
The "after" image below shows the sand band joist after it's been properly sealed with two-part foam insulation. Proper sealing prevents air from infiltrating through the cracks on either side and into the house.
To enter the June contest on d5R, and be eligible for the prize worth $550 from the Building Performance Institute, email one or more “before” photos of home energy retrofit work as well as one or more “after” photos once the problems have been addressed. Send your entry to snapshots@daily5Remodel.com. Include a brief narrative explaining how you identified the problem and solved it for your clients.
Feel free to chime in with your own observations about home-performance problems, readers.