Winter is coming. Is your home ready for the first deep freeze?
When I moved into a 1920s stand-alone shotgun-style house in southern New Jersey earlier this year, I suspected it would cost a lot more to cool and heat than the rowhouse I had previously owned, because the “charm” and “character” that come with old houses often mean they leak like a sieve.
So when fall arrived, I decided to take the necessary steps to winterize the house. The first: a home-energy audit, in which contractors and utility companies come into your house and tell you everything that’s wrong with it when it comes to energy efficiency.
Sure, the home inspection I had before I bought it revealed that the sewer pipe was cracked and the crawl space needed to be waterproofed. But it didn’t tell me that my attic insulation was worthless or that the previous owner’s renovation had covered up a vent in the kitchen with linoleum and a refrigerator, which is why the kitchen was boiling in the summer, even when the oven was off.
My bedroom was also oddly hotter than the other living spaces, and once the weather turned cool, the clothes in my closet, which protrudes from the rest of the house, felt cold, even damp.
The federal government encourages home-energy audits through the Department of Energy’s Home Performance with Energy Star program. States also run their own programs, offering incentives to utility companies, contractors and homeowners, in hopes of easing pressure on the power grid.
“The cheapest electricity we can make is the energy you don’t use,” said Ken Sheehan, director of the clean-energy division at the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. Making homes more efficient means “reducing the cost for you and reducing the cost for the entire state — it’s a benefit for everybody up and down the food chain.”
Emily Dean, director of market development for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, said the state’s program aims “to engage homeowners and provide them with quality information about their home, and pinpoint where and how the home is losing energy and which systems are working efficiently.”
Since 2012, some 126,000 New York state residents have had home-energy audits through the program, and 60 percent of them “have gone on to do some kind of energy project,” she said, “whether it’s coming through the program and getting incentives, or working with a contractor outside the program, or even doing the work themselves.”
In New York, the cost of an audit through the state program is based on a homeowner’s income. In New Jersey, where I live, contractors set their own rates. Some offer the same audit to everyone for free. Others offer a basic audit at no charge but for a fee will conduct a more comprehensive audit that can include diagnostic tests on the furnace and hot-water heater and something called a “blower door test,” which pulls air through the home to see how leaky it is.
I had two energy audits done on my home. One contractor did the audit for free; the other offered a free audit and a more extensive test for $250. I went for the more extensive test.
Homeowners are told that there is no obligation to make any of the changes recommended in an audit, but those who get work done can qualify for low- or no-cost loans and for state rebates based on how much energy they will save by making the recommended changes.
Sheehan said that contractors who are certified and accredited by the state of New Jersey offer free or cheap audits because they know they can pitch homeowners to do the work. Those contractors also become part of a marketing cooperative that provides marketing materials and rebates for some marketing costs.
On New Jersey’s energy website, njcleanenergy.com, I searched for local contractors, choosing five within a 10-mile radius of my house. Two never got back to me; another left a strange voicemail message. The other two responded to my emails right away, and I scheduled audits with both.
The audit process itself was relatively simple.
The contractors asked similar questions about the house, whether I had allergies or asthma and where I felt variations in temperature. They also asked for a copy of my utility bills to see how much energy I was using, as the amount helps determine how much of a rebate I could get from New Jersey. Contractors usually want a full year of bills, but since I had been in the house only since July, they looked at what I had available.
Then they poked around and performed a few basic tests to see where I was losing heated or cooled air. The tests included using a thermal camera to document changes in temperature; identifying which parts of the house bumped out from the main structure; and going into the crawl space, attic and basement to see what kind of insulation (if any) was there. Each audit took about three hours.
The first estimate for the work my house needed came in at a little over $9,000 and the second at $14,000. Both proposals included things like replacing the insulation in the attic and adding insulation to the basement and the attic stairs.
The insulation in the attic was old and porous enough that you could see lines of dirt where air was streaming in, as you would on an air filter. My house has balloon-style framing, meaning that the studs that make up the frame are long pieces of lumber extending from the top of the basement up to the roof. The basement pockets had some insulation, but not a lot, and what was there was old and needed replacing.
As for the attic stairs, adding insulation underneath would stop cold or hot air from flowing into the main living space — a problem that apparently helped create an overheated bedroom and kitchen in the summer.
The more expensive proposal also included replacing my water heater, furnace and air-conditioning condenser with more energy-efficient units, although the ones I had were less than 3 years old. The contractor explained that my water heater used atmospheric venting, which can be a problem in spaces where appliances are close together — in a utility closet, for instance, that holds a furnace, water heater and washer and dryer. But that was not the case in my house, where the water heater was in a big, open basement.
He also urged me to apply for state financing before I had seen his final proposal, a suggestion that, combined with pushing me to replace everything, felt a bit too aggressive.
When I did some research on the two companies, I learned that the first contractor had done an audit and renovations on the home of some close friends who had been extremely happy with the work, so I went with him.
The process wasn’t all that different from finding a plumber to replace my sewer pipe, except that this time I qualified for a $4,000 rebate and a zero percent-interest loan — all funded by utility bill payers.
Yes, us. Rebate and loan programs in most states are funded by a monthly surcharge on customers’ utility bills. In New Jersey, no-interest financing is available for home-energy work that costs less than $10,000, and 4.99 percent financing is available for upgrades over $10,000.
“You’ve been paying into the charge as long as you’ve been a New Jersey ratepayer,” Sheehan said when I told him that I planned to take advantage of both the rebate and the no-interest financing. “You’re getting back some of the money you’ve put into the process.”
While this is overseen at a state level, municipalities can also play a part in encouraging homeowners to get audits, which is what Summit, New Jersey, did when it partnered with Ciel Power, a contractor, to offer home-energy audits to residents for $49.
When the city formed the partnership and sent flyers to residents, the goal was to get 150 households to sign up for audits. Two hundred did, and 40 homeowners decided to install upgrades, said Nora Radest, mayor of Summit.
Radest was one of them. “I know it’s not the most energy-efficient house,” she said of her 1930 Tudor-style home. “Plus, being mayor, I wanted to set an example in the community.”
After the audit, Radest and her husband were presented with three levels of changes they could make. They chose the middle one, which cost about $9,000 and included insulating the attic and garage as well as a crawl space under a newer addition to the house. They decided not to add insulation behind the exterior walls because it would have meant drilling holes in the hand-applied stucco to blow it in, and the contractor couldn’t guarantee that the stucco, which was original to the house, wouldn’t be damaged.
The upstairs rooms, Radest said, are now far less drafty in the winter, and her daughter’s, which has two exterior walls, was cooler this summer than it had been before. She also said they used their air-conditioning less.
Ciel has partnered with a number of other New Jersey municipalities as well, including Highland Park, Woodbridge, Watchung, Glen Rock, Millburn, Princeton, Morristown and Madison, where Peter Teshima lives. Teshima got a flyer about the program soon after moving into a 1950s ranch house. His wife’s grandfather built the home, so he and his wife knew it well and were aware that it needed some work.
The Teshimas got one audit and were offered three options for upgrading. Like Radest, they took the middle road, which included installing insulation in the attic and basement, and closing off a kitchen fan that hadn’t been used in years but was letting air in and out of the house.
Teshima, who works in the energy industry, keeps track of his bills and said the home had used far less energy since the upgrades. In November 2016, they used 148 therms of energy; in November 2017, that number dropped to 91. In December 2016, they used 242 therms; last December, they used only 194.
“The study I’m sitting in right now used to be very chilly,” he said on a recent crisp autumn day. “But now it’s nice and toasty, and I don’t even have a space heater in here.”
While home-energy audits are focused on saving energy, they also touch on safety issues, something that was on Stephan Edel’s mind when he had an audit done in 2013 on a two-bedroom, one-bathroom home in Queens that he and his wife were renting.
They were about to have a child, and they knew that the home, built in 1926, wasn’t ideal: Radiators in the master bedroom and the one small bathroom were the same size, so “our bedroom was always cold and the bathroom was just boiling,” said Edel, director of the New York Working Families Project. The attic also wasn’t well-insulated, he said, and “when the heat was on you could just feel wind going up the stairs.”
The estimate to fix everything, which included sealing gaps and cracks around windows and doors, insulating walls and pipes, replacing the old boiler and refrigerator, and venting and replacing the stove, was $24,000.
The owner of the home balked at making such extensive repairs, but Edel decided to take some of the recommendations himself. He added weatherstripping on windows and doors, caulked cracks, put plastic sheets over some windows, switched to LED and CFL bulbs and closed the gap in a basement door. After the boiler and hot-water heater finally died, the owner replaced them with Energy Star units, and Edel replaced some of the pipe insulation himself.
When he and his family moved to Holyoke, Massachusetts, in September (he telecommutes now), they bought a four-square bungalow built in 1924 and had a home-energy audit done through the local utility company.
“I knew the boiler needed at least servicing, so I went ahead and scheduled it right away,” Edel said. The audit called for replacing not only the boiler but also the heating and air-conditioning system. He hopes to make those changes in the future; for now, he is working with a contractor on air-sealing and weatherizing the home — many of the same things he did in Queens, which are relatively easy and inexpensive.
“I’m not a great handyperson, so none of it was perfect or permanent,” he said. “But they’re the kind of simple things that anybody who can follow basic instructions can do to reduce their heating bill.”