Working at Home Energy would seem to have prepared me for having an energy efficiency retrofit done on my own home, at least to ask all the right questions.  But Murphy’s Law intruded nevertheless, and you may learn from my experience.  We live in the SF Bay Area in a 970-sq ft wood-framed stucco single-family home on one floor over a basement and garage, no air conditioning, with central heat.  Our goal for the audit was to improve comfort, as hot days were hotter inside the house, and cool days were downright cold.  The attic already had some insulation, but the walls and floors did not. 

After meeting with the salesman from an energy efficiency company, completing the audit, and receiving the quote, we decided to go ahead with adding insulation to the attic to a value of R-38, and insulating the walls.  Although the company also recommended insulating the floor, we decided to hold off on that because of limited funds and because our basement has always seemed warm year-round. 

Since we were also planning to paint the exterior of the home, it was recommended to us that the best approach to insulate our walls would be to bore multiple small holes in the exterior stucco instead of into the interior walls, a much more intrusive method which would create dust in our living space.  It made a lot of sense as I have allergies, and thus my relief at being offered this solution distracted me from asking if there might be any downside to this method.  They assured us the holes would be small and they would be patched up for the painters.  I checked with the painters and they concurred, as they had seen such holes in the past.  We discussed my windows and doors, and though new windows were offered to me, I knew enough not to replace my historically appropriate, single-paned original wooden bungalow windows as they were in decent shape and could be weatherized. 

The insulation was begun while I was at work a few weeks later.  I returned home to find a very unhappy spouse who said that the noise had been unbearable, and he and the dog had gone out several times during the day to escape, but had still borne the brunt of it inside the house.  The drilling continued for several days, during which some dinnerware broke due to the vibrations of our kitchen wall cabinets.  I did come home for some of it and couldn’t believe the decibels.

I wondered why we had not been given a heads-up about the noise and the vibrations so we could have made plans to be elsewhere.  Also, dust did appear mysteriously inside the house which we were able to vacuum up each day. 

Relieved when the noisy hole boring and the insulation blowing into the walls were completed, the last phase was the stucco patching in blessed silence.  When completed, the concave stucco patches looked awful.  I called to ask that the workers come back to level them, as the painters were not responsible for that.  One or two guys appeared every day for a number of days to level the patches on the innumerable holes, which they did but without matching the texture of the rest of the stucco.

I hoped that the painting would successfully conceal the textural differences, but after the new paint job, all I could see were the circular patches all over the house.  The energy efficiency company workers did their best but were unskilled in stucco application.  I called an independent stucco guy who came out to the house for his opinion.  He said if he had a dollar for every time he’s been called to look at the unsuccessful finish work done to stucco by insulators, he’d be a rich man.  He said there was nothing to be done, and that comparatively speaking, it was a lot better than some he’d seen.  I was appalled after spending so much money on the new paint job, but felt I had no redress.  I blamed myself for not thinking it all through ahead of time.  Since then I have learned not to focus on the imperfections in the stucco: I’m sure they’re still there, but I’ve learned to not see them. 

As a result of my experience, I have three recommendations for energy efficiency companies and all of them involve communication

ONE: give residents fair warning ahead of time about any negative impacts the work will have on people and animals in the space so they can make plans to deal with it. 

TWO: have a working partnership with stucco experts for those times when exterior hole boring is the way to go; or at least  recommend to the homeowner from the start that they find such an expert and get a quote to do the patching so that the holes can be filled to the optimal effect.  If the industry is going to take a "whole house" approach to energy efficiency, the least the contractor can do is to consider the whole house from the perspective of the customer and not just the part he is concerned with.  

THREE: have the salesman call the customer when the work is completed to check in to see that the customer is satisfied.  We never saw the nice salesperson again in our home, although someone did come back to do infrared tests to see that the walls were filled properly, and I believe the blower-door test was repeated. 

We have noticed a big difference in our comfort levels which was the outcome we had desired.  Interestingly, we recently refinanced the house and our appraisal report showed no increase in value from improving our home’s energy efficiency, despite pointing out to the appraiser the insulated walls, attic, new highly efficient can lights in the kitchen and window reconditioning by our local master window restoration specialist.  ZERO $! 

Perhaps it’s because we live in a temperate zone…or the appraiser thought that a new granite countertop in the kitchen would have had a REAL impact on value, I don’t know.  Hopefully when it is time to sell the house, its energy efficiency value will rise to the fore.  I shared with the appraiser that our electric bills are generally about $30 to $35/mo, and our gas bills from $15 to $25 depending upon the season.  The appraiser revealed that his own house, more than twice the size of ours a few miles away cost about $300 a month for gas and electric utilities.  Apparently several professions could use more education on energy upgrades!

 

- Alana Shindler

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Comment by Robert H on October 27, 2011 at 10:02am

Glen

 I agree with your comments...."I always advise homeowners to make improvements for themselves not resale. Whether it is granite counter tops or insulation the project must be for the homeowners goals and satisfaction. The only exception is flips and sale preparation. Lets face it not many folks are doing flips and most folks selling are trying to limit losses. Most work today is for homeowners in place or just coming into a new space and wanting to improve. If you are more comfortable you should be happy as that was your goal. The fact these guys came back and tested out is an indication it is a good firm. I would suggest you call the nice salesman and have him listen to your concerns. While not your job to follow up it might make you feel better and the salesman might learn to follow up with his customers.

Energy upgrades outside of new HVAC systems and solar do not add value in most markets. They can however speed up a sale and provide a premium that is difficult to gauge. In other words an educated consumer might be looking for the features and are more likely to buy the home for asking price. The educated consumers are not as populous as the price driven consumer. As energy increases in price more will be educated. Today the reality is granite counter tops are more desirable than insulated homes."

 

Some very relevant points. Home improvements, not maintenance, should be done for the homeowners benefit.  As a former appraiser I got the question all the time should I do..... My answer was always do it for yourself as full cost will not be recovered.

There was a recent blog on appraisals reflecting the cost of energy retrofits.  You comment supports my cotention that in most cases the market will not pay additional. Though I do feel that it could make the home sell faster which is a value but it may be impossible to measure. Ask any realtor what happens to a sales price when it was on the market at too high a price and then price gets lowered to it real range. It will usualy sell for below that. 

 

Bud

It is hard to sell energy audits at a fair price to the company performing the audit. There isnt a big enough market for people that pay $300+.

 

Another thing I see is the coordination of repairs.   If an auditor comes in and does his testing and says to the homeowners do  A B C.  Now the homeowner needs to find contractors to do that work and more importantly do it right and in the right order. 

If a business takes a different approach and offers low cost or free audits and then does some of the most comon work themselves. We know that air sealing and insulation are going to be needed for most homes. I dont have a problem with  them doing it right and at a fair price.  I said fair price and not cheapest price. 

They could also be aligned with other trades so the homeowner doesnt have to do all the leg work.  There is a value to the homeowner and the work is more likely to be done and done right. 

 

 

 

 

Comment by Iain Walker on October 25, 2011 at 3:11pm
Even as I type this my home is recovering from having blown in insulation installed in the walls through exterior stucco and also through lath and plaster.  The exterior holes are for the first floor and interior holes are for the second floor due to poor outside access (I live in a 100 year old neighborhood so our homes are very close together).  It is definitely a loud, long and dusty process and it is next to impossible to match exterior stucco but it was also pretty hard to match my old lath and plaster on the inside walls.  In my case I was committed to repainting the outside of the house already, but also repainting the interior is turning out to be tricky - even if I am only doing the upstairs - due to having many different colors and needing to take paint chips for color matching.  Basically, I was resigned to this - but I can see for a regular homeowner that this is pretty intrusive and a little concerning if you are not aware up front.  And I didn't insulate my basement/crawlspace either - but I like a bit of heat down there for my laundry room and workshop that otherwise get no heat.  I haven't decided if I want to insulate the floor of the house and live with a cold basement - or try to seal and insulate the crawlspace and basement walls.
Comment by Carol A. Markell on October 25, 2011 at 7:13am

On behalf of Alana, I thank you all for your comments. Alana is on vacation and I hope she will be pleasantly surprised when she returns.

I had a similar retrofit on my home and when I refied early this year the appraiser could care less. This may change if the CEC requires an audit on point of sale. Granite still counts more than energy ROIs.

Comment by Jan Green on October 24, 2011 at 4:42pm

I agree with the pros in their comments re companies that try to do it all.  Stucco is a common exterior finish here in the desert and as such is more commonly repaired.  Researching for a patch guy is highly recommended. Make sure to check that he is licensed through your local Registrar of Contractors, BBB good ratings, etc. 

Commenting on resale (granite vs. insulation) a good bet is that a home with added features, such as insulation, as compared to other homes - your home would sell faster than a similar home as compared to efficiencies, thus might sell for more if the comparable home lasted longer on the market.  The longer a home is for sale, the less it sells for. 

Hopefully in the future homes with Energy Efficient upgrades will gain in value as there will be more of them for appraisers to use as comps.  Appraisers cannot assign a value to something without proof that the market bears that value.  As more and more folks become aware of newer technology and upgrades, there will be more homes with these features.  Here's to a future where these bring extra value!

Comment by Joseph Novella on October 24, 2011 at 11:22am
The most interesting comment was that you chose not to insulate the basement because it is always warm. It's always warm because so much heat is inadvertently being dumped into that space which. Basements typically get very little air infiltration below the foundation wall which makes the space even more comfortable. 10" Concrete is R-1, block wall is even worse and is subject to internal convective loops that accelerates heat loss. If you looked at your foundation from the outside with a thermal camera during the heating season it would be on fire. Warm comfortable spaces can sometimes have very inefficient thermal boundaries.
Comment by Glen Gallo on October 24, 2011 at 10:39am

Alana

Interesting read,

1)  Although common practice I disagree with blown in insulation from the outside. Unless the issue with boring through building paper is addressed and correctly. Stucco breaths and can become saturated, the building paper provides a back up system to insure moisture is not transferred into the structure. I will not bore from outside by choice ever. However I am not in a position to turn down work and the homeowner is the boss. My method from the outside would always be more expensive as after the bore hole I would need to make a square hole and remedy the building paper hole I created.  Unlike Bud this a common material in my area and  often misunderstood.

 

2)  Noise is inevitable in all work done on homes, so is dust. Part of the game. I agree you should have been warned.

 

3) I always advise homeowners to make improvements for themselves not resale. Whether it is granite counter tops or insulation the project must be for the homeowners goals and satisfaction. The only exception is flips and sale preparation. Lets face it not many folks are doing flips and most folks selling are trying to limit losses. Most work today is for homeowners in place or just coming into a new space and wanting to improve. If you are more comfortable you should be happy as that was your goal. The fact these guys came back and tested out is an indication it is a good firm. I would suggest you call the nice salesman and have him listen to your concerns. While not your job to follow up it might make you feel better and the salesman might learn to follow up with his customers.

Energy upgrades outside of new HVAC systems and solar do not add value in most markets. They can however speed up a sale and provide a premium that is difficult to gauge. In other words an educated consumer might be looking for the features and are more likely to buy the home for asking price. The educated consumers are not as populous as the price driven consumer. As energy increases in price more will be educated. Today the reality is granite counter tops are more desirable than insulated homes.

4) call another stucco guy. Patching is an art. Some stucco guys simply re stucco the entire homes and a patch job is not worth their time. I suspect this is one of those contractors. Call a patch guy.  I do ok at at matching existing but am by no means perfect.I would never leave it untextured I would have told you this up front and would have added the cost of perfection by having a stucco guy come behind me if you demanded perfection. This is another reason from the inside while more evasive is a good idea. it is much easier to repair and texture match drywall to satisfaction. 

Your advice on communication does not fall on deaf ears in my case. Defined work scope, cost, expectations and realities should be communicated by all contractors. As a contractors we should be able to deliver bad news as well as good news.

Thank you for sharing your experience.

Comment by Bud Poll on October 24, 2011 at 9:56am

Thanks James, and thanks for the correction Bill.  I implied I didn't know much about stucco and at least that was right. 

Your comment about much of the work coming from the weatherization programs is right on.  In my area they actually spun off a group so they could do both WAP and private wx work.  ie if someone doesn't fit under their program for free work, they simply send them to their orphan business.  But the quality is lacking and as you said, that is just the way they learned to do the work, fast and furious.

As for the issues from the op, even though I'm in an entirely different climate, the results from some of the work I have seen mirrors the disappointment posted here and that is not good for business. 

Bud

 

 

Comment by James H. Bushart on October 24, 2011 at 9:12am
What Bud said.
Comment by Bill Robinson on October 24, 2011 at 8:33am

I think here are a couple of issues here and hopefully the industry will change to address them, obviously it won't work for you but for others. And you-all have an opportunity to spread the word through your publication.

 

At this point in time the bulk of the work you had done is being done by companies who have been influenced by the weatherization program.

And there is no emphasis on aesthetics.

And there are several companies who are doing this work in the tin man model.

Sell the job and get in and out as quickly as possible.

They should be making money at this however they typically focus on being efficient, not necessarily effective, and not so much pretty.

 

This leaves the ocnsumer with what you have.

 

I see it all the time in Louisiana where most of my work is beong done.

And am sure it is happening wherever there are companies and consumers matching up to make a profit and reduce energy consumption.

As time goes by hopefully the customer-focused contractors will pick up this line in their offerings.

 

They are around and ready to do the work you had done.

 

Often the savings are over estimated and the details are overlooked.

 

Good contractors will address those annoying and sometimes costly oversights like noise and vibrations.

 

I do feel compelled to touch on something Bud mentioned, stucco being a WRB, it is not.

And in fact two layers of a wrb material are required in new construction.

 

And, as a recovering contractor from Cali I do have some experience with patching stucco, not me but using skilled contractors these patches can be made to look fine.

It does require skim coating the wall(s) in question from corner to corner.

Of course not knowing the texture it might be more difficult with some of the more elaborate textures.

 

As the weatherization and remodeling industry merge these issues will diminish except for those looking for the lowest price.

Bill Robinson

 

Comment by Bud Poll on October 21, 2011 at 5:02am

Hi Alana,

Your blog is long and filled with much I could comment on, but I'll try to be short. 

1.  Be wary of full service companies that provide the auditor and follow with a list of recommendations and work.  This is not saying they are not good, but suspiciously they always seem to recommend the services they provide.  An independent energy auditor that represents YOU is often a good place to start, especially if they offer to follow your project to completion.

2.  Stucco is not a common material used in the NE, but it is a WRB (weather resistant barrier) and needs more than a paint job to look and perform properly.  If they couldn't make it look good, I would question if it still performs its job as a WRB as well as it did to start.

3.  You mentioned attic, walls, and floor as being recommended.  I did not hear air sealing and other details that should often be included prior to the work you had done.  Recessed lights, attic ventilation, baffles to provide vent space and protect the insulation from wind washing.  I have rarely had a home with less than 20 of those little details that go into making a job turn out great.  Some lists have reached almost 100 items.

4.  You did not mention your heating source, but if it is a combustion system there are other concerns that should have been covered.

5.  You said they came back and looked at the completed job with an IR camera.  You should have received before and after IR images as part of your final report.  And being in a warmer climate, the temperatures at the time of the inspection would have been important as without a temperature difference, and IR camera is blind.  Since you do not air condition, achieving a good delta T can require some timing.  20 degrees or more is best, but a stable 10 degrees can work.  With stucco, a high mass surface, it takes time for the walls to adjust. 

Like I said, there is much I could comment on as I'm one of those independent energy auditors that works to represent the interest of the home owners and from what you posted, you needed one of us.

I want to add a big thanks for the posting as this is important work and getting it right makes for a much happier ending.

Bud

 

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