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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Sonoma County's Energy Upgrade Program

The key to all-season home comfort 
and safety: energy efficiency
By Lori Houston

Fall is here and with it, an annual homeowner ritual is fast approaching: switching on your furnace for the first time since last winter. Have you ever noticed a strange smell that often accompanies this annual rite of passage? Or perhaps you smell this every time you run your furnace?

Even though Sonoma County homeowners are fortunate to live in a climate where we can open our windows practically year round, a home’s indoor air quality can still be poor. One main reason for this is poorly functioning combustion appliances. Gas furnaces, for example, heat homes by passing air over a heated metal box (called a heat exchanger) and circulating the heated air throughout the house. If the heat exchanger has any cracks or leaks, this process can produce toxic combustion by-products and odd smells— not to mention reduce the efficiency of the furnace. Dusty smells are often caused from leaky, unhealthy, and inefficient ducts also.

When Nick Sanders, the owner of West County Cycle Service, and his wife bought their Sebastopol home, they decided to have the furnace checked while they were remodeling before moving in. They were replacing those ubiquitous aluminum-clad, single-pane windows of houses built in the 1970s era, as they had done to their previous home. They wanted to avoid problems they had also experienced previously with uneven indoor temperatures because of an outdated, inefficient furnace.

Their window contractor, Earth Tone Construction, suggested going a step further and having the home’s overall energy performance analyzed.

Daniel Smith of Zero Energy Associates (ZEA) conducted a series of tests to determine how the Sanders’ home functioned as a whole system. As a result, Smith recommended revamping the heating-ventilation-air conditioning (HVAC) system, replacing the furnace with a higher efficiency model and reconfiguring the ductwork for more even temperature control throughout the home. He also recommended sealing the home’s “envelope,” filling in all the cracks and openings where the house inadvertently leaked air, re-insulating the attic, and adding insulation in the walls.

“The results are striking,” Sanders says. “The rooms are all the same temperature without a lot of air moving. Every room is comfortable. It’s really quite dramatic.”

By having a home energy analysis and working with ZEA on their home energy improvements, the Sanders qualified for a $4,000 rebate toward their project costs through the Energy Upgrade California™ program in Sonoma County. The project also lowered their monthly utility bills.

“Even though it was a chunk of change to pay up front, we were going to do the windows anyway,” Sanders says. “I didn’t do this primarily as an economic decision. I wanted to know what I could to make our house more comfortable year round.”

Air sealing their home for optimum comfort necessitated installing fine-tuned bathroom fans for a precise exhaust rate and adding a special intake vent to control air quality and air flow in and out of the house without losing temperature or wasting energy. Smith also sealed the crawl space in the Sander’s home with a moisture barrier and installed a ventilation fan to maintain more constant temperature beneath the house and to comply with current building codes. Many furnaces inadvertently draw air from a home’s crawl space because of leaky and improperly sized ducts — not always the cleanest air. In the Sanders case, the furnace was relocated to draw combustion air directly from outside and the sealed crawl space eliminates the possibility of air passing from outside into the crawl space, and then into the home through cracks and openings in the walls, floors, and duct work. Sealing the crawl space resulted in much better indoor air quality.

Unfortunately many homes have numerous potential sources of unhealthy indoor air. A gas water heater with an improperly assembled or rusted out flue, improperly sized or aging range hood fans, and even poorly functioning bathroom fans can suck dangerous gasses such as carbon monoxide (CO) back into a home. Because CO exposure in particular is such a prevalent, yet invisible threat, a new law went into effect on July 1 of this year requiring all California homes with combustion appliances inside the living space — such as hot water heaters, gas furnaces, gas stoves, woodstoves, and fireplaces — to install at least one CO detector on each floor. Exposure to CO causes symptoms similar to the common cold including lightheadedness, confusion, headaches, vertigo, and flu-like effects. In large doses, CO causes a person to fall asleep and acute levels can lead to death.

According to Smith, 85 percent of all the homes his team surveys exhibit several of these unhealthy traits. “It’s astonishing.”

Sonoma County homeowners can find out exactly how good or bad their indoor air quality is and get help to do something about it — as well as incentives to defray part of the cost — through the Energy Upgrade program.

What does energy have to do with carbon monoxide? As part of determining whether a home is wasting energy, the program’s “whole-house” approach also addresses combustion appliance safety, which affects indoor air quality. Using diagnostic test equipment and state-of-the-art industry protocols, participating Energy Upgrade contractors evaluate the home’s overall performance and make recommendations for upgrade measures that can include options for improving indoor air quality such as sealed combustion appliances, sealing up the envelope, and high performance HVAC systems.

And of course, in addition to improving home air quality and comfort, energy upgrades also make the home more efficient and reduce utility costs.

Homeowners can qualify for up to $4,000 in rebates for whole-house projects, and, through March 2012, a 75-percent rebate on the cost of a home energy analysis through Energy Upgrade California in Sonoma County. The program features two main packages for homeowners:

The Basic Upgrade Package is designed to achieve a 10-percent reduction in energy use through simple, low-cost home improvements that can be completed by a Participating Contractor relatively quickly. Prescribed improvements include attic air sealing, attic insulation, duct sealing, hot water pipe insulation, and temperature-controlled showerheads. These upgrades qualify for a $1,000 rebate through PG&E.

The Advanced Upgrade Package, which begins with a custom Home Energy Analysis, can reduce a home’s energy use up to 40 percent or more through the basic measures combined with custom measures such as installing a high-efficiency furnace, high-efficiency water heater, dual-pane energy-efficient windows, wall insulation, and duct replacement. Advanced upgrades qualify for up to $4,000 in rebates through PG&E, based on the percentage of energy efficiency improvement.

Financing for both of these packages as well as single-measure energy efficiency services are available through the Sonoma County Energy Independence Program (SCEIP), which provides financing to property owners for energy efficiency, water conservation, and renewable generation improvements. The financing becomes an assessment on the property that is then paid back through the property tax system.

Other types of financing are also available, including state-subsidized CHF loans with a 3-percent interest rate. These loans require the same testing protocols as the Energy Upgrade program.
Sonoma County homeowners are also eligible for a 75-percent rebate on the cost of a Home Energy Analysis that includes a California Home Energy Rating System score (known as a HERS II Rating).

For homeowners to be eligible for home energy analysis and upgrade rebates, an Energy Upgrade Participating Contractor and/or a HERS II Rater must perform the work. About a dozen local energy efficiency contractors are participating in the Energy Upgrade Whole House program in Sonoma County. All these companies have building analysts on staff who are certified by the Building Performance Institute (BPI), the national home performance standards organization. All HERS II raters are certified by a State-designated CalCERTS organization. All Participating Contractors and HERS II Raters are also part of ongoing quality assurance programs to ensure consumer protection.

Beginning with a home energy analysis is the best ways to learn about everything you can do to make your home healthier and more comfortable. For those who can’t afford to do it all, it’s also the most comprehensive tool for assessing your best options based on your budget and priorities to get the most for your money.

“Daniel (Smith) gave us a lot of options,” says Nick Sanders. “It’s possible to go bananas and have total efficiency but then you may start to lose cost efficiency. I had very knowledgeable contractors so I got a great education but they also kept my costs down. I wasn’t sold something I didn’t need. I tried to do all the bang-for-the-buck stuff but I also went the extra step of having the HVAC analyzed and redesigned. That has made the most difference.”

You can learn more about available rebates, financing options, and the benefits of energy upgrades, or find participating contractors and HERS II raters by visiting or contacting the Sonoma County Energy Independence Program (SCEIP) office at (707) 565-6470. Energy Upgrade California and SCEIP will also be at the Fall Home Show October 14-16, 2011, at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds with contractors on hand to speak with directly.

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