Some 44 homeowners in Spokane County have arranged for professional home energy audits so far under a two-year pilot program announced at the end of April that's being administered by Avista Utilities.
Customers sign up for the audits through Avista's Web site, and the audits are done by one of five Avista-certified home energy audit contractors.
"They're certainly finding opportunities," Joe Brabeck, Avista's manager of the home-audit program, says of the initial results from the audits. "A lot of what they're finding is air leakage."
The audits cost homeowners between $150 and $325, depending on where in the county they live. The price is 20 percent to 60 percent less than the typical commercial charge for a comprehensive residential energy audit thanks to subsidies from the cities of Spokane and Spokane Valley and Spokane County.
The three governments have pledged to support the audits with nearly $700,000 in federal stimulus money received through Washington state's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program. Avista is matching the funds through its energy efficiency initiative, for which the utility collects money through its electric and natural gas rates, but roughly 7,000 audits would have to be done for all of the almost $700,000 in federal money to be paid out.
"When we call it a pilot program, that means if we can make it cost effective in Spokane County, then we might be able to extend it into other parts of our service area," Brabeck says.
"It's really hard to tell how it will be received, given the economy, the fact that we just got through a mild winter, natural gas prices are down," and other factors, he says.
Five companiesEnergy Alliance Solutions, Integrity Energy Services, Palouse Energy Systems, Quantum Energy Service, and Residential Energy Consultants of the Northwest LLCare performing the audits, Avista says.
"They're not allowed to upsell or cross sell" any energy-efficiency equipment, Brabeck says. "We don't want to taint the audit by someone having a pre-established bias on a product they might be selling."
"We want the homeowner there during the test, so the auditor can ask questions," Brabeck says. Avista wants to know how many people live in the home, the temperature at which the thermostat is set, if someone is home all day, whether pets live in the home, and whether anyone in the home suffers from headaches, muscle aches, breathing problems, or unexplained weakness.
"These symptoms could indicate 'sick building' syndrome, which can be caused by inadequate ventilation and chemical contaminants," Avista says.
The auditor also will ask whether the homeowner runs out of hot water, whether the home has areas where it can be too cold or too warm, and whether big icicles extend down from the eaves in the winter. Any of those factors could indicate the home needs repairs, and the auditor will check for cracks in the home's siding, moisture problems, improper venting, or holes in any other place in the home, the company says.
In addition to inspecting a home and its major appliances, such as the furnace and air conditioner, the auditor will check windows, doors, insulation, forced-air heating and cooling ducts, and vents and will perform tests to uncover ways homeowners can save energy, Avista says.
In one test, the home is depressurized so leaks that pull air in from the outside can be found more easily. The test also determines the amount of outside air that makes its way into the home.
While the bathroom, range-hood, and any air-exchange fans are running, the ability of each gas appliance to expel exhaust gas out of the home is tested, carbon monoxide levels around the appliance are tested, and the area is tested for fuel leaks.
"The audit is for energy efficiency, but it's also for comfort and safety," says Brabeck, who's been involved in Avista's commercial and industrial demand-side management program for 15 years.
During an audit, the auditor will install door sweeps and weather stripping at no charge and will demonstrate how to install foam gaskets behind the cover plates on electrical outlets and switches and will leave some gaskets with the homeowner.
Such "leave behinds" will include a weatherization kit, compact fluorescent lightbulbs, low-flow shower-head restrictors, and other items, Brabeck says.
The auditor will present the results of the inspection and diagnostic testing to Avista's energy engineers for their review. Afterwards, the results of the inspection and testing will be given to the homeowner in a home energy audit report.
"The report quantifies what they can expect to save and estimates what they might expect to pay" for improvements that could produce those savings, he says.
The report will include an energy-use score called an Energy Usage Index, or EUI, which Avista says "can be thought of as the 'miles per gallon' for your home and is a function of both the home's structural integrity and your personal lifestyle habits. Both must be optimized and closely monitored for best results."
The average EUI for Spokane homes is between 50 and 60, with lower numbers being more desirable, Brabeck says. "We've had some as high as 100," he says.
The report will include a general overview that discusses how old a home is, how it was built, and the effect of shading by any trees, and it will discuss how well the home breathes and exchanges stale air inside for fresh air from outside.
"It is important to maintain a proper level of air changes per hour to ensure good indoor air quality, yet keep energy usage in check," Avista says. "Too few air changes can result in the build-up of moisture, carbon dioxide, and household odors that can result in poor air quality." Too many air changes make houses expensive to heat and cool.
The report will discuss insulation and the merit of maintaining heating and cooling equipment, changing furnace filters, and sealing and insulating duct work, plus the advantages of having a programmable thermostat.
The report also will discuss whether appliances in the home might need to be upgraded, and will talk about the home's lighting, which is a potential source of quick savings.
The report recommends that homeowners who have appliances that burn heating oil, natural gas, propane, or any other combustible fuel install and maintain carbon monoxide detectors.
Subscribe today to our free E-Newsletters!SUBSCRIBE