“I'd be willing to bet that these walls don't have insulation in them.”
Mark Loscutoff was just a few minutes into a recent energy audit in a 1927 home when he placed his wager. Homeowner Patty Scamperino had a feeling he'd say that.
Last February, while she was away for most of the month, Scamperino set the thermostat in the low 50s and still came home to a heating bill that was more than $200.
“It was ridiculous,” she said. “This year, I wanted to get someone in here and get things taken care of before it gets too cold.”
This is the time of year when homeowners start thinking of ways to save on heating bills. Utilities officials say that although natural gas and propane prices are projected to be down slightly from last winter, heating costs still may rise this year compared with last year.
That's because of last winter's abnormally warm weather. Should the Midlands experience a “normal” winter, with colder conditions throughout, the Metropolitan Utilities District is estimating a 13 percent increase in the total bill because of increased use. When compared with the cold, snowy winter of 2010-11, however, this year's estimate represents a 16 percent decrease.
An energy inefficient house could only amplify the temperature difference.
The utilities offer energy-saving ideas on their websites. For people who want help pinpointing areas for improvement, Omaha Public Power District lists some certified auditors on its website.
Scamperino's home was examined by two of those listed, Loscutoff of O-HEAT (Omaha Home Energy Analysis and Testing) and Jon Traudt of Health and Energy Co. The audit evaluated not only her house's energy efficiency (or lack thereof), but also the safety of its heating and ventilation systems.
And after spending four hours touring and testing the 1½-story home in northwest Omaha, Loscutoff and Traudt found plenty of opportunities for improvement. The bulk of the suggested improvements centered on sealing air leaks.
While most of the windows in the home are original and a little drafty — complete with pulleys and weights — they weren't the main culprits.
Instead, the two inspectors found dozens — maybe hundreds — of small leaks throughout the house, from basement to attic. Combined, those small leaks often make up more than 80 percent of energy waste, according to Traudt, who has been an energy inspector since 1982.
“I had no idea,” Scamperino said. “I figured they'd walk around the house, poke around a bit and recommend blowing some insulation into the walls.”
Adding insulation to the exterior walls will be a part of the final recommendation — Loscutoff's hunch about empty walls was spot-on — but only as a piece of a much larger puzzle. It's the small gaps that allow air to move freely inside and out that will require more attention.
The gaps were found using a device called a blower door. Set up in an outside doorway, a powerful fan pulls air out of the house and depressurizes the space. Outside air will rush in through any openings at the same rate air goes out the blower door.
When the fan was turned on in Scamperino's house, a chill wind blew down the stairs from the finished TV area on the second floor. Cobwebs dangling between basement floor joists swayed in the breeze. Air came in even through joints and openings on interior walls, thanks to the lack of insulation, well, pretty much everywhere.
“It makes so much sense now,” Scamperino said.
Luckily for her — and for most who own similar homes — making most of the changes won't require a lot of time or money.
And as long as the areas are easily accessible, some are downright easy. They range from adding or replacing weatherstripping around doors to applying a thin bead of caulk between the hardwood flooring and the baseboard to seal air leaks from the wall.
“We see a lot of the same problems over and over,” Traudt said. “Many people could do a few of these simple things and save a lot of money.”
One of the most effective fixes may well come in the basement. The joint between the cinder block foundation and the outer joists of the house structure are completely uninsulated. Air rushed through the sometimes large gaps between the junction. And the blocks themselves were unsealed as well — Traudt reached down into one of them easily.
A similar situation was present upstairs, in the eaves. No insulation or barrier was in place to keep cold air from sneaking in between the walls and the roof. With an unobstructed pathway, cold air can come in through the eaves, flow down through the walls and result in a draft on the floor.
Though Scamperino's heating and cooling bills will see a drop after sealing off the leaks, the improvements can also provide a potential health benefit. With unwanted airflow cut off, she'll also be able to cut off unwanted moisture in the house.
Without those pockets of warm, moist air, it's much more difficult for mold to form.
The inspection also uncovered a problem with the exhaust fan in the main-floor bathroom. While testing the fan's air-moving ability, which was less than 10 percent of the ideal rate, Loscutoff went in search of its outside termination point. As it turns out, there wasn't one.When the house was re-sided a few years ago, the outside exhaust vent was removed and eventually covered.
“What air that fan is expelling might be going into the attic, or behind the old siding,” Loscutoff said, and with moist air being blown regularly into a tight space, it could become a breeding ground for mold.
Scamperino paid $300 for the inspection and will likely pay more in improvements to cut down on energy costs. But she says it will be worth it.
“I keep the house pretty chilly,” she said. “And it shouldn't cost as much as it does.”