April 3, 2011

APS, SRP are providing $99 home energy audits

Home-energy expert Ken Pancost opened the ceiling grate for a Chandler home's air-conditioner earlier this month, shone his flashlight inside and immediately spotted a gap where hot air from the attic was being sucked into the air-conditioner.

Instead of supplying the air-conditioner with air from inside the home, which is easy to cool, the unit was working twice as hard to cool the superhot attic air and blow it into the house.

The small gap was costing the homeowner $50 to $80 a year in wasted energy.

"Oh, that's nice," homeowner Theresa Boughton said when Pancost showed her the flaw, which also makes housework more demanding because it blows dusty air from the attic into the home.

Boughton took advantage of a $99 deal from Salt River Project and Arizona Public Service Co. to have energy experts audit her home and report how she can make repairs to save on power bills.

The audits help homeowners make the most cost-efficient home-energy repairs and not overlook simple steps to save electricity.

It might sound counterintuitive that electric companies would try to get customers to buy less of their product, but utility officials agree that it is better and cheaper to conserve electricity than to build new power plants to supply power as demand increases.

The SRP budget for efficiency projects this year is $39.3 million, while the budget at APS is $60 million. Both utilities plan to increase that spending in their next budgets.

Boughton's audit paid for itself before the family made any repairs. Pancost and his partner, Ben Chao, from Arizona Energy Management and Remodel in Phoenix, showed her that reducing the run time on her pool pump to six from nine hours a day can save her about $200 a year.

"All we had to do was change one setting on the timer," she said. "That pays for them to have come and done the energy audit."

Both SRP and APS call the program Home Performance With Energy Star and base it on guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The $99 cost is a discount from the $400 or more that contractors normally would charge for such an audit.

The utilities also offer rebates for certain work if the auditors identify the need for it, such as insulation and air-duct sealing. Some rebates are available only if the problems are discovered through a certified audit.

It takes about a week for the audit report to be complete, and the contractors then schedule a meeting with the homeowners to discuss the results and the most cost-effective repairs that can be made.

The homeowners have no obligation to make any repairs or pay for anything more than the $99 audit and are given 10 compact-fluorescent lightbulbs, a low-flow showerhead and faucet aerators, worth about $50, as part of the deal.

The auditors gave Boughton several repair ideas in a four-page report on her home, which looks much like the report a home inspector provides on houses for sale.

During the audit, Pancost and Chao sealed her front door to perform a blower-door test, in which air is forced out of the home with a fan and pressure readings are taken to determine where the home and its ducts are leaking.

The test found a few major problems that prevent the air-conditioner from cooling the home efficiently.

The home formerly had an evaporative cooler, and when it was removed a few years ago, the contractors simply left the ductwork in place, creating wasted space in the ducts.

Also, the connection on the roof between the air-conditioner and the home has a visible gap, allowing cooled air to get hot before blowing into the home.

And the air-conditioner on the house is larger than needed, but the ductwork supplying it is sized for a smaller unit, making the air-conditioner work extra hard to supply air.

"It has been a few years, and at this point, I don't know if there is any recourse to go back to the contractor (who completed the ductwork)," she said. "You assume somebody is doing a good job, and obviously they didn't."

The family has already decided to install a few hundred dollars worth of shade screens on the windows, which, like many of the repairs, qualify for rebates from the utility.

And based on the report, they could hire contractors to make some of the other suggested repairs.

"It validated some of the things we thought about," Boughton said. "It is all in scientific terms and some of the things we would not have known about."

The Boughtons' energy bills are $100 to $120 in the winter and as high as $350 in the summer, even when they keep the thermostat set at 80 to 82 degrees in their 2,100-square-foot home.

"This house was built in the 1980s, when they were just slapping them together," Boughton said.

Last summer was especially costly, with three college-age children spending their time off at the house.

"Between the rates going up and the kids being home, you try to control things, but it's just not going to happen," Boughton said.

A few years back, the family tried the time-of-use rate plan that charges more for energy used during peak times but discounts energy used at night or early in the morning.

"Disastrous," Boughton said. "The kids did laundry whenever they wanted, ran the dryer. It just didn't work."

The audits outline how many years it will take to pay off the investment of any work that is done to help homeowners determine if the work is worth the investment.

"The normal payback for duct sealing is one to five years," Chao said. "Usually, we don't recommend any repairs that are beyond that 10-year mark (for payback)."

When contractors are hired to fix the energy problems, the workers must test to ensure the fixes are saving energy before they can collect rebate from the utilities.

"They will set up the test equipment, and if it is not where they like it, they keep fixing and sealing and looking for hidden areas," Chao said.

Chao said that the things he found in the Boughton home were typical of homes in the Valley.

He said he has never audited a home without finding places to save money.

"Even right now, I'm writing a report on a home built in 2005 in Peoria near Lake Pleasant, an extremely nice house," he said. "They told us they had comfort issues. When I got in the attic, they had crushed ducts, detached ducts."

by Ryan Randazzo The Arizona Republic Mar. 30, 2011 12:00 AM

APS, SRP are providing $99 home energy audits

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