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Green House
Making your home more efficient also means lowering heating and cooling costs. Here’s how to cut energy bills by as much as one-third. By Katie Knorovsky
Comments () | Published March 1, 2010
Thermographic photography reveals energy leaks in an old house. Red and yellow spots are where heat is escaping to the outside. Blue sections of glass may be newer double-pane windows that keep in heat.
There’s nothing sexy about upgrading your home’s insulation. The same goes for caulking drafty joints. But the temptation of lower utility bills is seducing more Washingtonians to make their homes’ energy efficiency a priority.

“Energy-efficient upgrades can reduce costs by about one-third,” says Maria T. Vargas of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program. Those upgrades also include replacing appliances and windows.

The Alliance to Save Energy projects that the average American household will spend $2,160 on home energy costs in 2010.

“The average house is about 40 years old,” says Doris Iklé of CMC Energy Services in Bethesda. “That house was built when codes were laxer and when energy was cheaper. They are not as efficient as houses that are built today.”

DC’s Department of the Environment began offering free energy audits to owners of single-family houses in the fall of 2006. Last year, the department provided more than 1,200 audits. During a two-to-three-hour home visit, technicians first assess the house’s thermal envelope and HVAC system; then they administer a blower door test, which traces leaks by sucking air out of the house using a vacuum-like fan affixed to the front door. Homeowners receive written reports with recommendations for improving their house’s efficiency.

DC homeowners can call 202-673-6700 to sign up for a free energy audit. Non-District residents can identify certified energy auditors at natresnet.org.

Some utility companies offer online resources for dissecting bills. Pepco customers can log in to “my account” at pepco.com to have their energy usage analyzed and compared with that of other homes in their service area. Dominion Virginia Power offers energy-savings calculators at dom.com.

Reston homeowner Larry Wright retooled his home’s energy efficiency after an energy audit. “The house felt drafty,” he says. So in April 2008 he hired Troy Tanner of Home Energy Detective in Manassas to evaluate the five-bedroom Colonial where Wright lives with his wife, three kids, and dog.

A smoke test revealed leaks in his 15-year-old house’s construction. “All of a sudden, the smoke was rushing to one spot,” Wright says. Based on Tanner’s recommendations, he made a number of upgrades—starting with simple fixes he could do himself, such as sealing gaps with inexpensive foam caulk. He hired Tanner’s crew to handle the rest, from sealing the top plates in his attic to increasing insulation.

Wright spent $3,500, including $400 for the audit. He has saved around $350 on energy bills in the first year and figures he’ll recoup his money in ten years. The payback might have been quicker, he says, had he done more of the repairs himself, but he’s pleased with the results.

“We’re saving money, and more importantly the house is more comfortable,” he says. “How much do you pay for comfort?”

Wright says that when he needed to purchase a new furnace and air conditioner, he was able to replace both with models that are more efficient and less expensive. That’s because his upgrades have lowered his heating-and-air-conditioning load, a function calculated based on house size, windows, insulation, rate of air infiltration, climate, and more. A house with a lower load needs smaller equipment, which costs less to buy and operate.

Lower utility bills aren’t the only financial incentives for increasing a house’s energy efficiency; the economic-stimulus package signed into law last February tripled the tax credits available to homeowners who completed energy-efficient renovations in 2009 or who do so this year. Homeowners can recoup 30 percent of the cost of eligible products, up to $1,500. Details are at irs.gov.

Montgomery County homeowners also can apply for up to $250 in tax credits for improvements such as weather sealing and installing programmable thermostats. Details are at montgomerycountymd.gov. Arlington County doesn’t have cash incentives, but it offers lots of guidance and resources about eco-friendly building through its Green Home Choice program at arlingtonva.us.

“This is a unique time where achieving green objectives is part and parcel with building the economy,” says George Hawkins, former director of the District Department of the Environment and now general manager of the DC Water and Sewer Authority. “That’s a remarkable opportunity.”

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 03/01/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles