Draft busters

Homeowners with rising utility bills, industry that creates 'green' jobs find a common cause in energy efficiency

March 10, 2009|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,scott.calvert@baltsun.com

Think your BGE bill is high? Meet the Glaun family of Owings Mills. Their electricity bill last month topped $900. And that was a major improvement over January, when they had to pay a whopping $1,151.

"It's quite embarrassing," said Kim Glaun, who says she turns off lights in empty rooms and lowers the thermostat at night. "We feel like there's a big hole in our house."

Turns out, their house is full of little holes that appeared last week as purple splotches captured by an infrared camera that "sees" invisible cold pockets - evidence that chilly air is invading a home as warmth escapes.

The Glauns have joined a growing number of homeowners turning to energy audits as a way to find leaks that drive up energy use and utility bills. For a fee, they are given steps to seal their homes. And companies that conduct the audits have seen rising demand, which makes home weatherization a rare growth industry.

Business is expected to remain brisk, thanks in part to the federal economic stimulus bill. Maryland officials say the state will receive $173 million over 18 months to boost energy efficiency and develop "green-collar" jobs. About 300 lobbyists, businesses and others attended a Maryland Energy Administration forum yesterday in Annapolis to discuss the likely impact of stimulus funds.

More low-income owners will be eligible for weatherization grants. A revolving loan fund might be started to help owners tighten their homes or install renewable systems such as solar. The funds will also train workers in the burgeoning weatherization field.

"We do not have enough auditors and retrofitters trained in Maryland to do all this work," said Maryland Energy Administration Director Malcolm Woolf. "An unemployed construction worker in a matter of weeks can get retrained so he learns about insulation and ductwork and gets put to work implementing these retrofits."

Home energy audits have gained popularity as BGE bills have nearly doubled. It's hardly just a cold-weather need, as air conditioners can send bills soaring. Home Energy Loss Professionals in Baltimore County has done 23 audits this year, compared with 50 last year and 15 in 2007.

TerraLogos ("Wisdom of the Earth") has seen a similar spike in business even though many families are trying to curb spending: It has conducted about 100 audits this year after doing about 300 last year and 140 in 2007. After an audit, the Baltimore firm recommends contractors that can do upgrades.

Last week, TerraLogos home performance inspector Atticus Doman visited the Glauns' Tudor-style house on an expansive lot that backs up to woods.

To the Glauns, the $450 audit was a wise investment. Their five-bedroom, 3,600-square-foot house is 19 years old, along with its heating and air-conditioning system and most appliances. The audit will help prioritize short-term fixes and with an overhaul of the heating and cooling systems in a year or two.

Beyond her frustration with the eye- popping BGE bills, Kim Glaun is annoyed at having to wear Ugg boots and multiple layers to feel warm in her house. She works at home part time as a lawyer for a nonprofit group. Her husband, Braeme, is a neurologist at Sinai Hospital. Their two sons are 2 and 5.

"I'm not comfortable," she told Doman. "My kids don't mind; they're young. My husband is warm-blooded. But I'm always cold."

The thermostat was set at 67 degrees, but the temperature hadn't budged above 65, a sign of inefficiencies. Often, the two electric heat pumps will go into emergency mode, she says, an energy-guzzling situation.

Doman spent a couple of hours sleuthing from basement to attic. Before the second of two checks of the house, he positioned a large fan at the front door to suck air out. This, in turn, pulled in cold air through any leaks or cracks.

One issue was plain: A section of basement ductwork that had come unhooked.

"That," Doman said gently, "is a problem." Glaun seemed chagrined that neither she nor her husband had noticed. It meant that the heat pump was warming the mudroom - and would cool it in summer - rather than reaching the dining room.

With the fan whirring, the home's porousness could be felt. Some leaks were so gaping they generated a breeze. But the thermal imaging camera told the tale most vividly. A bland yellow indicated fairly warm areas with no leaks. The back door and kitchen window looked fine.

Doman got ominous purple readings, though, when he aimed the device along the line where floor joists meet the foundation, at a vent coming from the attic ductwork and around poorly insulated recessed lights in the second-floor ceiling. At the leaky spots, temperatures were 10 degrees lower than a few feet away.

Afterward, as the late-afternoon sun slanted through the window, Doman offered advice: The aged heat pumps should be replaced "fairly soon."

"Before you do that, you really want to focus on making the house itself more efficient," he said.

Adding insulation and sealing the ducts would go a long way. Such work can cost more than $1,000. (TerraLogos estimates that even a $5,000 investment can pay for itself in five years through lower bills. And Woolf noted that a federal tax credit for energy-efficient retrofits has been tripled to $1,500.)

Glaun, 38, wants to make her home more efficient both to be friendlier to the environment and to lower those BGE bills.

"Especially with these huge bills, you feel like, what are we doing wrong?" she said.

"At least we'll have information," she said of the audit. "It could be the utility rates are so high and there's only so much we can do. But we feel like we need to at least figure out why we're having to pay through the nose."

Baltimore Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

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