Audit, Caulk Take Some Sting Out Of Old House Energy Bills

March 29, 2009|By JACQUES KELLY | JACQUES KELLY,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

The moment of truth arrived last week in a green-and-white envelope - a BGE bill. I opened the invoice slowly, then ran to consult last year's records. It was like opening a report card or a set of SAT scores.

For the past 30 winters, I've lived in a drafty, 1870s Baltimore house where each room registers a different temperature. An upstairs bedroom would be Miami and one a flight down will feel like Garrett County. When my father visits, he wears heavy sweaters. Some friends say I have a tape recorder to emulate the sound of a furnace running.

That is, however, no sound effect. My furnace does run marathons, and I have the bills to prove it. On the other hand, I love my quirky old house with its original windows, sash weights, wavy glass, uninsulated plaster walls, stone foundation, capped-off illuminating gas lines and remains of a hand-pulled doorbell. I have a recurring dream that I am still finding rooms and chambers within the house that have yet to be renovated.

A little background: On the morning of Jan. 17, I awoke to no water, the result of frozen pipes. By the afternoon, one had burst, but a plumber was on the scene so I dodged a flooded basement. When the heat and electricity bill for December-January hit $925, it was time to move - or fix something.

Friends suggested a professional energy audit, wherein your home gets tested for air leaks. This $260 procedure sounded exotic and way too scientific.

Being a thrifty Baltimorean also brings its own set of questions. Do you pay that kind of money for advice? Do you trust the report? Do you want a well-intentioned but undiplomatic technician who lives in a super-insulated 1995 townhouse to tell you that you are crazy for living in a city house built not long after the Civil War?

And maybe the hardest question: Are you ready to change your ways?

My house is not going to get any smaller, and I don't see the cost of energy dropping. So I swallowed hard and scheduled a BGE energy audit. The checkup took four full hours - and a revisit from a BGE "team leader" when I found the initial audit papers hard to read. On the second visit, supervisor Chuck Raut brought a hand-held meter - it looked like a police speed camera - and aimed it at parts of the house where heat was escaping. He also had a smoke atomizer that showed me how much air was being sucked up through unseen crevices.

The very devices built into the house to help heat it in 1873 - the kitchen, dining room and living room chimneys - were all very problematic today. They were the main source of heat loss. So was the basement foundation, where heat was leaking - despite my earlier attempts of insulate some hard-to reach cavities under the floor joists.

After coughing up the $260, I took the next step and called in a contractor, who shut the superfluous chimneys, caulked and caulked and filled holes around the foundation. It now looks as if there's whipped cream (goopy insulation) oozing from my basement's pipe maze.

The outcome: When the February-March bill arrived, I had shaved $75 off the comparable heating period of 2008. It was like getting a 90 in a physics test.

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