by Tom Groening
Bangor Daily News news story
BELFAST, Maine — Few people go to one car mechanic for a diagnosis of a rattle in the engine, then go to another to get the necessary repairs. But that’s the way Maine’s nascent home energy audit and weatherization work has been done.
Under a new consumer program offered by Efficiency Maine, homeowners can have an energy audit and six hours of work improving a building’s heat retention done all in one day by the same contractor.
The Direct Install program pays contractors $300 for work, which includes an energy audit and the six hours of air sealing or insulation work. The air sealing work typically focuses on stopping air leaks around doors, windows, plumbing, exhaust fans, chimneys and the foundation.
What’s new about the program, explains Keith McPherson of the Albion-based Home Energy Answers, is that the work is done by the same person who conducts the energy audit.
Until now, energy auditors typically have acted as consultants and referred the actual work to other contractors. Though a law had been considered to prevent energy auditors from earning money from insulation work they had recommended, Dana Fischer of Efficiency Maine said it did not win legislative approval.
McPherson said it simply is more efficient to fix the leaks that become obvious during an audit, rather than write a report prescribing what another contractor must do at a later date.
An energy auditor comes into a home and sets up a blower door, which is a vinyl curtain of sorts that hangs in an open exterior door frame. A fan blows the air outside, with a device measuring the volume of flow and temperature changes. Inside, the auditor is able to locate the sources of air infiltration around windows, doors and other parts of the house using a little smoke to identify moving air sources and an infrared camera to locate cold spots.
Homeowners often imagine big-ticket fixes must follow, such as installing new doors and windows or adding significant amounts of insulation. In fact, McPherson said, big energy-saving rewards are reaped in small fixes. These include adding weatherstripping and caulking to doors and windows, using spray foam to fill gaps around building penetrations for pipes and exhaust fans, insulating around the sill in a basement and around an attic hatch door.
“We spend 90 percent of our time in attics or basements,” McPherson said jokingly. But the work yields substantial improvements, with as much as 25 percent of air flow reduced.
If a house is sufficiently tight, the six hours of work can focus on improving ventilation, if needed, or insulating knee walls or wrapping an electric hot water heater with insulation.
McPherson, who now has an employee working with him, had worked as an energy auditor for four years before venturing into the energy retention work. He was trained by MaineHousing to do the auditing work, then got certified by the Building Performance Institute.
Efficiency Maine lists auditors on its website, but Fischer stresses that hiring one should include the same sort of due diligence on the part of the consumer. Just as someone might solicit references from a carpenter or electrician, the same should be done for those doing energy audit and insulation upgrade work.
Efficiency Maine asks contractors using the program to complete a 40-question survey about the house, detailing insulation, electric usage and other information. The nonprofit also will send out inspectors to randomly review the work completed through the program.
McPherson said he likely will charge his customers $300-$400 for an audit and the six hours of work, but they are actually receiving $700 in improvements, thanks to the $300 he will get from Efficiency Maine.
The Direct Install program can function differently for community action programs, Fischer suggested. They may send their auditors and weatherization crews into low-income households and complete $300 in work at no charge to homeowners.
Both Fischer and McPherson said the Direct Install program also serves as a conduit for Efficiency Maine’s PACE and Power Saver loan programs, which provide low-interest funds for larger weatherization or energy related improvement work.