My Energy Upgrade California—The Numbers Are In

Here are the final numbers for my Energy Upgrade California home retrofit.

Table 1. Air Leakage (CFM50)

Test-in air leakage

Test-out air leakage

1,850

     1,530

 

Table 2. Duct Leakage

Test-in duct leakage

*Test-out duct leakage

22%

     10%

(*Note: The duct leakage is a percentage of the rated flow of the air handler. The measured air flow at the return grill was somewhat lower, so the percent leakage was actually higher.)

 

According to the EnergyPro software used in the Energy Upgrade California (EUC) program, the air sealing, insulation blown into our exterior walls, and the duct sealing achieved a total of 23% energy savings; this was enough to quality for a rebate from PG&E that covered 40% of the costs for our project. I have been assured the check is working its way though the system to our mailbox.

Jason Deshasier from Stewart Heating and Air (see photo) did the duct sealing and installed the bathroom fan. Jason spent some time sealing up the plenum by cutting holes in it, brushing on a lot of mastic on the inside leak areas, and then sealing the access holes. At the Energy Out West conference this year, I learned from Bruce Manclark that sealing leaks in a duct system close to the plenum, where the air flow is the highest, has a bigger pay off than sealing around registers, for example, where the air flows are much diminished.

I did the air sealing, and was a little disappointed that I only shaved of 320 CFM. I think most of that was due to my installing a Chimney Balloon in our fireplace. Brian Stevens, our test-out auditor from Energuy, pointed out some leaks that I missed: the cabinet and vent pipe above the kitchen range hood that connects to the attic and at the doorway to the dining room there was a gap connected to the crawlspace where a door used to hang.

Michele and I are very happy with the work done on our house, and working with Bill Stewart and his crew; our energy advisor Scott Mellberg of Populus, LLC; and Energuy’s Richard Cunningham (test-in auditor) and Brian Stevens (test-out auditor) was a pleasure. Bill, Scott, and Brian were all at our house for the test out, along with our dog Cooper, Tom White, Home Energy publisher, and Kate Henke, our designer. Kate took lots of photos that we will use in an article early next year. The atmosphere was festive, and it was great to see the contractor, auditor, and advisor all getting along and respecting one another. And when Brian pointed out a new rule requiring a two-inch clearance around gas water heater flues, Bill got on top of the water heater closet with a hand saw and cut out a bigger hole for the flue.

Bill shared some horror stories—bucket of mastic falling through the ceiling onto a brand-new white carpet and antique table, for example—from past jobs and Brian kept things light with his good humor and some auditing horror stories—somehow this involved his young children at home. Brian was very thorough. He documented every measurement and test with an iPad Mini.

Michele and I were happy that 40% of the costs of our retrofit was covered through EUC. But if I were a typical homeowner and not the editor of Home Energy, it would have been difficult for someone to convince me to put in the time and the inconvenience and the 60% of the cost not covered in the rebate for a tighter, more efficient house. Plus, we were living pretty efficiently already, in a climate with hot summers but mild winters. Our gas and electric bill last month was only $38.75. It gets over $100 for a few months and peaks at about $150 mid-December to mid-January—more than $100 for heating—and we are looking forward to seeing how much we’ve cut our gas use for heating. The idea of an energy upgrade should be much more appealing though to the homeowner, perhaps with a few teenagers at home, who uses a lot more energy.

Wearing my homeowner hat, I’m happy about the new bathroom fan that is very quiet and automatic, and it felt good seeing the crawlspace covered. When we get our first heating bill next winter that will also make me happy. And the house is quieter. Jason moved the furnace filter from the air handler to the return plenum, so it is much easier to change the filter and much less likely that I’ll come crashing through the ceiling. Now that I don’t have to get up there to change the filter I may never see the inside of the attic again—until the day when we swap out our ducted system for a mini-split heat pump, anyway.

The whole process of our retrofit took several weeks and Michele or I had to be home several days during the week all together. It was noisy at times and disruptive. The wall insulation made a bunch of drywall nails pop inside! The guys from McHale’s Environmental Insulation, who sealed our crawl and blew in our wall insulation, are coming out next week to fix the nail pops. But that’s another day one of us has to be home.

As an energy geek, I love the fact that our walls are now totally insulated and our duct system is more efficient.  And I’m one of those people who feel some responsibility to the community and the planet to live more sustainably.

I am really pulling for contractors like Stewart Heating and Air and other businesses marketing, selling, and doing the often dirty and difficult work of home performance. Bill’s company is doing well, but we need more of them.

I understand the frustration that business owners have with the amount of paper work and the changing rules for energy efficiency programs. Policy makers and program managers have their jobs to do as well. Not much would happen in the home building and renovation industry without some push from a higher authority—and I don’t mean the market. But we have a ways to go to make home performance work easy for the homeowner and the home performance contractor. I think that should be a goal at every level of our industry.

Addendum: During a recent hot spell I measured temperatures inside and outside of our house every hour or so over the course of three days. One day it reached a high of 103 degrees F outside (around 5 pm), from a low of 63 degrees F (around 7am) and only reached 83 degrees F inside (around 7 pm). We open the windows at night and close them when T inside equals T outside. Not exactly "beating the heat" but learning to get along.

 

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Comment by David Eakin on July 22, 2014 at 8:50am

Jim,

Well, as the editor of Home Energy you should already know that the order of remediation is top, bottom, middle; that air infiltration is more of a contributor to comfort issues than thermal loss; that heat radiates 360 degrees from hot to cold. Meaning all ceiling perforations should have been sealed and insulation levels in the ceiling/attic floor area should have been increased to the highest level practical (it's the labor that costs so it's best to just aim for Energy Star for Homes levels) including adequate venting of the attic area (so as not to increase attic re-radiation) and using approved high-heat materials for sealing around any combustion device flue areas (e.g., sheet metal/high-temp silicone). Next, all the lower-level areas (your crawl space in this case) should have been sealed/insulated either through encapsulation (sealing/insulating the dirt floor and inside of foundation wall including the rim joist area) or isolation (the bottom of the floor joists and rim joist area) as a well-vented crawlspace will still have unhealthy mold/allergens and undesirable air temps/RH and will not "help cool the house". Then do the middle stuff like wall insulation. You do know all this stuff, right? It's all pretty much building science 101.

Even with these recommendations, our customers rarely get to an air tightness point that they need mechanical ventilation as there is still leakage around double-hung windows, conventional doors, conventional framing methods of years past, conventional bath fans/kitchen vents and laundry dryer vents to provide make-up air for combustion appliances and healthy exchange.

Comment by tedkidd on July 21, 2014 at 6:55pm

Jim, I'm glad you are open, that's great!  We all learn best when we are open!

The answer to what is best for you will be highly dependent on your specific situation, but the answer is probably best answered by a Building Science pro then self-prescribed.  Someone like Mike MacFarland, Gavin Healy, or any of the Dry Climate Forum guys would be well suited to helping you sift through the issues.  They do large number of split systems on the West Coast.

My 2¢ to bring you back to middle.  These are some of the reasons I can imagine you might want to keep your traditional split system:

  • You are in a dry temperate climate, you have a high efficiency enclosure, and low energy bills even before that was true.  
  • Managing humidity and air filtration may be greater challenges than managing temperature.
  • Being able to adjust your system for high airflow across your coil will prevent dehumidification.  
  • Having a system with a humidifier may also be important.
  • Having high quality air filtration and even distribution may also be important.

I like mini-splits, I've sold and recommended them.  But I'm not sure what the benefit of the minisplit will be for you unless you have an open floor plan.  For those who might want to blurt "the savings!" What will those savings be, $2000?  $3000?  $10?  

Even if a mini were to save, sounds like those savings might be pretty small given there simply isn't much load. Sure a mini may have higher rated "efficiency" but isn't it more important to ask what it saves?  Does an extra 10% efficiency matter if you only spend $400 a year?  Does it matter if there are benefits you give up??

And keep logging temperatures, that's fantastic!  If you use a window AC, put a Kill-a-watt meter on it.  Consider an Ecobee for your furnace.  The more you know the less you will be guessing.

Comment by Jim Gunshinan on July 21, 2014 at 2:50pm

Hi David, to answer one question, the crawlspace was covered with thick poly and the seams were taped but the space was not air-sealed and is vented to the outside. I don't worry about the air coming from the crawlspace since it is never very hot or very cold. In fact, it is probably helping to cool the house. I just wanted a dry, clean space under the house. And for another, we moved the furnace filter to a place where I could access it easily—therefore I will be more likely to change it regularly. Before I was in danger of putting a foot or other body parts through the ceiling when trying to get to the filter!

Not sure I can answer all your questions. I did write three blog posts about my retrofit previous to this one though. Some of your questions may be answered.

Comment by David Eakin on July 21, 2014 at 2:26pm

Jim,

Maybe a little more detail on the project is in order. You say that your crawlspace is now covered. Is this an enclosed/insulated crawlspace with a thick poly covering over the ground (taped seams and epoxy/mechanical wall fastening)? If so, leakage from the dining room doorway would not have mattered. If the crawlspace is still open to the bottom of the floor (but there is a covering on the ground to reduce moisture) then that is probably your largest reason for the lack of air tightness change - your floor area is still closely coupled to the outdoors and needs to be sealed off at the bottom of the floor joists (taped foam panels work real well, as does good quality house wrap). And it sounds like your air handler and ducts are all in the attic. The gas furnace too? What were the attic temps on those days you measured temps (maybe you could use better attic venting)? What attic floor insulation do you have (wall insulation is all well and good (but windows/doors/fire blocking often reduce its total effectiveness); attic floor insulation is more critical)? Access to the (former) attic-located air filter - was the attic scuttle sealed and insulated (I prefer layers of 2" polyiso glued directly to the scuttle)? 

Comment by Jim Gunshinan on July 21, 2014 at 2:16pm

Ed, no problem, I caught your meaning.

Ted, I made a judgement that a mini split would be the best system based on what I know about them so far, from reading about them, visiting homes with the systems, and talking with some HVAC folks I know. I am always open to reevaluating!

Comment by Ed Voytovich on July 21, 2014 at 1:21pm

Yikes!  Not only did I misspell "roof" as "rood," I also meant to more clearly that establishing a continuous thermal boundary to bring the existing air conditioner into the conditioned space would buy you heaps of time to save up for the replacement of the existing A/C system with more versatile mini-splits (or whatever even better technology might come into play in the next several years.

Comment by tedkidd on July 21, 2014 at 12:56pm

That makes sense.  

What are your criteria/metrics for determining what might be the "most efficient system for heating and cooling the house"?

Comment by Jim Gunshinan on July 21, 2014 at 12:48pm

All the way means the most efficient system for heating and cooling the house. 

Comment by tedkidd on July 21, 2014 at 12:16pm

Hmmm.  What does "go all the way" mean?  Why are wall warts, "all the way?"

We very seldom replace ducts in my neck of the woods.  If you can fix them, downsize equipment so the duct is no longer undersized, maybe they don't need replacing.

If you really want to go "all the way" why wouldn't you get a Carrier Greenspeed?  

Comment by Jim Gunshinan on July 21, 2014 at 12:08pm

The duct sealing was mostly paid for with the rebates. We decided not to go with new ducts. When we lay out the cash for a heat pump, we want to go all the way and get a mini-split. 

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