American homeowners desire to reduce energy consumption is like the elusive itch that can’t be scratched. Right there – no over – no up… Think you got it but still itches.
Manufacturers pitch the virtues of high efficiency products such as furnaces, windows and appliances. The truth is window replacement is almost always a terrible energy savings investment and high efficiency furnaces will fall short if a home’s duct work is excessively leaky – which is frequently the case in older homes. Household appliances account for a relatively small portion of total energy consumed in a typical house and do not represent an attractive replacement bang for the buck.
Home Energy Audits Are Not the Answer
Various government programs use tax payer dollars to subsidize “home energy audits” – and sometimes energy improvements made by union wage contractors. While having an energy audit is a good place to start, most companies who do energy audits are not geared up to actually implement improvements. Auditors are typically very small, young companies that need to subcontract various trades such as HVAC and insulation. This subcontracting drives up both cost and complexity for homeowners. Overall responsibility for project success is diffused and multiple levels of mark up and coordination increase cost and inconvenience.
Are Government Subsidies and Rebates the Answer?
But not to worry – government subsidies and rebates will make things right. Not really. Subsidies such as provided by the federally funded Community Power Works (CPW) program in Seattle require the utilization of contractors who pay grossly inflated worker wages. This is because organized labor uses its influence to ensure government subsidies are only available if prevailing (union) wages are paid. Prevailing wages are typically calibrated towards commercial/industrial environments and can be multiples higher than normal market wages for residential work. So yes, subsidies such as provided by CPW do reduce audit and project prices – unfortunately, the cost was artificially high to begin with. In any case it would be more efficient for homeowners to work directly with a qualified home performance company outside the subsidy system.
So Where Should Homeowners Turn?
Qualified Home Performance companies can provide a comprehensive assessment and take single-source responsibility to implement solutions. But exactly what is a “qualified home performance” company? Ken Summers of Comfort Institute Inc explains that “Home Performance involves taking a holistic look at how a house is working, then prioritize and implement improvements based on comfort and efficiency gains. The ideal company to offer these services already has a deep understanding of how homes work and utilize this knowledge to offer cost-effective, total solutions. Heating/cooling companies are probably best positioned to do this. Adding energy assessment, whole-house testing and work scope such as insulation is a natural extension for them. In addition, these established companies with proven performance capabilities will be around after various subsidy programs come and go.”
While the energy efficiency itch may be hard to scratch – it is possible.
Start by selecting a qualified Home Performance company that has credentials, a track record and takes a consultative approach. Credentials include things like Comfort Institute membership and BPI (Building Performance Institute) certification. Have them perform an energy assessment which includes pressure testing and thermal imaging. Review results and prioritize improvement measures based on the efficiency and comfort improvements they bring. By all means, take advantage of any utility rebates or government subsidies that may be available – but do what is right for your home, not necessarily what is required to maximize rebates or subsidies. Have the improvement measures implemented by the same company who will take single-source responsibility for getting things done correctly. Make sure the company does a “test out” to confirm the results.
In summary, work with qualified professionals you trust to understand and implement comfort and efficiency improvements that are right for your home. Use rebates and/or subsidies when available but do not let incentives cause you to do the wrong things, the wrong way with the wrong providers.
Comfort Institute is international indoor comfort research, training, and consumer protection organization based in Bellingham, Washington with trainers and offices located throughout the United States and Canada.