Summit County’s High Country Conservation Center offers low-cost energy audit
April 14, 2018
Spring is here, and homeowners are starting to take a good look at their houses and gardens now that the snow is out of the way. It just so happens that May is National Home Improvement Month, and one of the most critical ways Summit County residents can improve their homes is by making them more energy efficient. For lower-income families that struggle to budget for an energy audit, let alone paying for major efficiency improvements on the home, Colorado's Affordable Residential Energy, or CARE, program can help.
The CARE program is a community- and utility-sponsored program that aims to help people make their homes more energy efficient by providing low-cost energy audits, installing free energy-efficient products such as light bulbs and showerheads, and educating homeowners on ways to reduce their energy usage. To qualify, a homeowner must have a household income of less than 80 percent of the area median income. For example, the maximum qualifying income for a single-person household is $49,280 or below.
In Summit County, the CARE program is administered by the High Country Conservation Center, which provides energy auditors and resources to help residents figure out ways to become more efficient. Cody Jensen, HC3's energy operations manager, said that the organization provides around 150 free or low-cost energy audits to Summit residents every year. Most of the households he sees are inefficient, with age of the home being a frequent reason.
"The majority of homes we do audits in were built before 1990," Jensen said. "A lot of homes built in the '70s have electric heat, which is not a very efficient way to heat a home compared to natural gas. A lot of the people who struggle with high bills live in homes built in the '70s or '80s that were never updated."
Jensen said that he looks for the simplest, cheapest efficiency fixes first.
"What we're focusing on are low-hanging fruit," he said. "We don't want to recommend replacing all your windows or swap out your heating system for tens of thousands of dollars. We're looking for items such as leaks in the building itself, areas in the structure that could be more efficient. We like to say we don't want you to put a bunch of money into a tent; we want to make the tent much nicer before you start putting money into expensive upgrades."
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In the energy audit report, Jensen highlights the areas with the highest "savings to investment" ratio — fixes that are the cheapest to make while providing the most benefits.
One of the biggest energy savers is making a home more airtight to make sure heat isn't constantly being lost outdoors. To test airtightness, the primary tool Jensen uses to conduct his audits is a "blower door" test. The test, which simulates 50 MPH winds hitting on all sides of a structure, involves using a special fan and door cover that continuously sucks out air from the house to lower the internal pressure. Air pressure gauges help the auditor understand how much air is lost every hour through leaks, cracks or openings in the wall like electric outlets. This is a very useful way to determine how bad the airtightness is in a home.
To actually find the leaks, Jensen uses an infrared camera, which spots where cold air is entering a house. Heat shows up as reds and yellows, while cold air shows up as dark or completely black, highlighting areas around a house that have cold air leaking in. Some of the worst culprits for air loss are doorways, window panes, exterior wall baseboards and electric outlets, which almost always show dark on the IR sensor.
Jensen said that these air leaks are often the cheapest and most effective way to make a house more energy efficient, as it may only involve using cheap silicone air sealant around problem areas.
"You can lose around 70 to 90 percent of all the air in a house within an hour," Jensen said. "That's an entire hour's worth of heating wasted, and that happens 24 hours a day."
Other ways energy auditors like Jensen help homeowners is by replacing old fluorescent or CFL bulbs with much more energy-efficient LED bulbs.
"A CFL bulb uses about 40 percent less energy than a fluorescent bulb," Jensen said, "and a LED bulb uses 80 to 90 percent less energy."
Replacing all the bulbs in a home with LED bulbs — especially large spotlight bulbs around vanities and mirrors — can go a long way toward yearly energy savings. The same goes for water usage, which can be significantly lowered when Jensen installs low-flow adapters for water faucets and showerheads. These upgrades can reduce a home's water usage by half, which is certainly a good goal to pursue after the third driest winter on record is raising concern of summer droughts.
Once Jensen conducts the audit — a two-hour process which is worth about $400 but is discounted starting at $99 for qualifying homeowners — he takes his time to compile the data he collects at home and lays it out in a very easy-to-follow report. The report goes over the major items of concern, such as air leakage and energy hogs, and educates the homeowner on ways to improve or repair those areas of concern. Addressing these concerns can reduce energy bills by up to half.
"Additionally, HC3 will always provide rebates to cover half the cost of any of the projects recommended in this report up to a $400 maximum rebate per household, per year," Jensen said.
Jensen said that homeowners he has helped average about $400 in energy savings per year by following recommendations and having the necessary fixes done. For houses in really bad shape, the cost of making major fixes may be recouped in a single year.
"One of our big goals is to help homeowners understand the way they use energy and how they're wasting it, to provide them with the knowledge and tools to help them conserve energy now and in the future," Jensen said.
For a limited time, HC3 is offering energy audits for $49 instead of the regular $99, depending on square footage. For more information about how to apply for the CARE program and get a low-cost energy audit, contact HC3 at 970-668-5703 or visit HighCountryConservation.org/home-energy-audits.