Come Along On A PSU Home Energy Audit

Apr 2, 2013

A long, cold winter – like the one that is mercifully coming to a close – can be more than just an emotional drain. It can be a drain on home finances and the environment. As her home-heating bills piled up, WPSU’s Emily Reddy went in search of solutions for her energy woes. She found a program gearing up at Penn State to help homeowners just like her.

My boyfriend and I bought our first house last April. We were sold on the hardwood floors, stone fireplace and arched doorways. Built in the 1870s, it had been the one-room schoolhouse for the town of Lemont. It spoke to our sense of history.

The house was charming… except for the massive iron furnace, that’s at least 50 years old.

So we had David Riley, the executive director of the Penn State Center for Sustainability, make a trip to our house for a home energy audit.

We knew the furnace would need to be replaced. But that wasn’t our only problem.

On gusty days cold air came in around doors and windows. The walls likely had no insulation at all.

Riley heads the National Energy Leadership Corps at Penn State University Park. He brought along two students he's training to do energy audits, Eddie Udegbe and Fuju Wu. Wu took the lead. She explained the purpose of the project then tells us she’ll be asking a lot of questions.

"Different house have different issues," Wu began. "So we want to know your house and help you to have your personal energy profile.”

Wu is a PhD student at Penn State. She flipped through several pages of questions: about safety, conservation measures, and renewable energy.

Do we have smoke alarms? Yes. How often do we keep the heat at 68 degrees or lower? Always.

She asked us to grade ourselves on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being most satisfied.

How satisfied are you with your home overall efficiency?

We gave that a 4.

After maybe 20 minutes of questions, Riley said it was time for the home tour.

The tour started outside, where Riley took infrared pictures with a device that looked like a handheld barcode scanner. Wu jotted notes. Udegbe took pictures on an iPad. Riley made sure he was getting what they need.

“Eddie do you feel like you were able to get pretty good representation of the sides?" Riley called to Udegbe. "Did you get back far enough?”

The three circled the house before they headed back inside. They checked out appliances in the kitchen and laundry room. The verdict? They're old an inefficient. They took more pictures and measured windows.

Then they headed down to the basement. Riley noticed the room is toasty and blamed it on our furnace – a metal behemoth that had been converted from coal to oil. We'd been told it was 65 percent efficient.

“They don’t make them like that anymore and there’s a reason," Riley laughed.

That ancient furnace and the uninsulated pipes are losing a lot of heat. Riley says we’re basically heating an extra 500-600 square feet of unfinished basement. 

“And if you replace your furnace it’ll get colder down here because you won’t be bleeding so much heat down into this space,” Riley said.

Next we all go to another part of the basement, a room that’s a finished addition. We've closed it off to save on heating costs, so it's cold. 

“So your unfinished basement is comfortably warm," Riley quipped, "and your finished basement is a popsicle.”

They measured more windows then headed back upstairs.

Riley pointed the thermal camera at a window and wall. The wall glowed blue on the screen. The window was an orangey-yellow. This is not optimal. Blue means there’s no insulation, like we thought. The windows were yellow, heated by the sun. The blinds were down and they had trapped the heat.

Riley rendered his verdict.

“Everything in this house is backwards," Riley said. "You’ve got a heated unheated basement. You’ve got windows warmer than your walls. And the few windows that actually are receiving solar energy you’ve got very well insulated to keep it out of your house.”

Before they can make recommendations, Wu said they’ll have to analyze the data, including energy bills from the last few months that we'd handed over. 

“We will go through all the pictures and all the conversation we have today," Wu said. "And we will have more clear picture about how to recommend you to reduce your energy usage.”

The National Energy Leadership Corps, or NELC, is part of a larger Penn State effort. It’s supported by Penn State’s Energy Efficient Building Hub, located at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. On a visit to Penn State in 2011, President Obama lauded the HUB for its research on reducing energy use in new and existing buildings.

And while the HUB focuses on commercial buildings, the NELC focuses on residential energy savings. Riley has created online modules, activities and even an iPad app so professors can easily integrate the program into classes.

The goal is to take the NELC national and make a dent in energy used by U.S. homes. At the same time, students get hands-on experience in the growing world of green jobs. But Riley said this program won’t prepare students to answer homeowners’ every question.

"They’re there to gather some information and absorb some priorities and concerns of homeowners," Riley said. "And then go back, take some time, get some advice on that report from some more experienced faculty or peers and deliver a report that’s useful.”

A week later, Riley emailed us a report. He and I met in person to go over it, though usually the student talks with the homeowner about the results.

A couple of things jumped out. Our house scored a 4.8 on the “EPA Home Energy Yardstick.”  

“Yeah, so the HEY is a pretty simple tool that takes your utility costs and the size of your house and it sort of reflects how your house stacks up to others of similar size," Riley said. "Even though it’s not that big, your house is using a lot of energy…and that score from 1 to 10 is a pretty powerful motivator. Got your attention.”

Every audit ends with five recommendations. Our includes insulating hot water pipes in the basement – Easy. New siding with built-in insulation – That’s a bigger investment.

And, of course, a new furnace.

Penn State’s project is currently small, but Riley hopes they’ll eventually train enough students to be able to offer free or low cost energy audits to anyone who wants one. And a website is in the works that would provide a lot more resources.

Meanwhile, Riley said our house will be a case study for his classes. And if we do everything they suggest in their report… we’ll save $2,000 a year on energy bills.