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Doing Audits

It takes skilled detective work and proper diagnostic equipment to improve the comfort and energy performance of a house without causing damage to it. The process begins with an audit, where I use my blower door and other equipment to assess how much energy the home is currently consuming and determine what measures need to be taken to improve efficiency. The next step is to implement the improvements. Some contractors only perform audits, while others focus on the improvements; I prefer to do both.

In my area, energy audits are offered for free or at a reduced rate. I get referrals from NYSERDA, which pays a flat $250 fee for each audit. A full audit typically takes me at least a half day in the field, and then at least another two hours in the office to enter data and figure up work proposals.

I’ve never performed an audit where I haven’t found a problem. Quite often, there’s an unexpected safety issue, such as a disconnected smoke or CO detector, or a hot-water heater that doesn’t pass the spillage test. Other common problems include the presence of flammable materials near the combustible appliance zone (CAZ), gas ranges that release too much CO into the air, and plugged or damaged dryer vent pipes.

In order to make any money, though, I have to actually sell the proposed improvements, as I don’t really make anything on the audits (compared with my usual drywall work).

Selling Energy Improvements

While some home-performance contractors may think that improving energy efficiency is the main goal, I think energy savings are often the least important part of the job. It’s easy to improve energy efficiency, but it’s not cheap to perform the work, and on most projects the clients aren’t going to see a return on their investment for many years. Instead, I try to focus more on how the work will improve my clients’ comfort, health, and safety.

A recent proposal for a job I didn’t end up getting illustrates that this approach doesn’t always work either. After an audit, my recommendation was to add 10 inches of cellulose over the 10-year-old home’s existing fiberglass insulation and —since I won’t do this type of job otherwise — also properly air-seal the attic. The estimated job cost, including materials, came to $2,250.

I estimated that my clients would save $99 per year after the work, giving them a simple payback of 22.8 years and a savings-investment ratio (SIR) of .99. These numbers actually look pretty good compared with some jobs I’ve estimated (and will only look better as fuel prices increase). It should have been an easy sell.

To address comfort and indoor air quality, I proposed replacing two bathroom fans with units that can be set to run continuously at a low cfm, and providing an inlet port in the CAZ to improve the base pressure near the furnace. I also proposed installing new piping to vent the dryer. The cost for these improvements would have been $1,365. To date, the clients haven’t decided to proceed with the work, though the approach of cooler weather and improved incentives may yet tip the balance in my favor.

Incentives. In my area, low-interest loan programs and financing options are available to help pay for upgrades. The main one I discuss with potential customers is NYSERDA’s incentive, where the customer gets back 10 percent of the cost of eligible measures after work is completed. Initially, this incentive was available only if the SIR was 1 or higher, which meant that a lot of improvement projects didn’t qualify. As a result, we lost a number of customers and were forced to try to lower costs so the numbers would work out. Recently, however, the program was changed to allow some approved work to qualify for the incentive even if it does not meet the SIR cutoff.

In my opinion, understanding how to work with and sell local incentive programs is one of the keys to being a successful home-performance contractor.