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Doin' the airtight thing
An Energy Star evaluation exposes the leaks, insulation fills 'em in
Home energy-use consultant Laura Paprocki (with gauge) explains how the 'blower door' test works.
Home energy-use consultant Laura Paprocki (with gauge) explains how the 'blower door' test works.

She counted windows and measured walls. She flipped on fans. She felt the floor. Laura Paprocki walked through my house with the eye of a building science specialist. After loading in several pieces of technical equipment, including one that looked like an air-travel case for a shotgun, she methodically hunted down signs of energy inefficiency. It didn't take long to find them. Paprocki, of Perfect Environmental Performance in Madison, was conducting a Home Performance with Energy Star evaluation. As a partnering consultant with the federal Energy Star program, she is certified to investigate commercial and residential buildings and to make assessments and suggestions for increased energy efficiency. As a certified home performance evaluator, she assesses four basic elements when conducting a site visit: safety, durability, efficiency and comfort.

"The best way to think of your house is as a box," says Paprocki, as we walk through my cold unfinished basement. "In winter, warm air rises and finds the paths of least resistance to your attic. At the same time, cold air from the outside is leaking in at the bottom to replace the air being lost at the top." In summer, she says, just the opposite happens: warm air fills the attic spaces while heavier cool air is forced out below.

The purchase of a home is, for most people, the single biggest investment in a lifetime. Whether building new, buying a classic, or simply upgrading your present home, it pays to know a building's strengths and weaknesses. Not unlike a living organism, a house breathes, consumes energy and can even produce unwanted gases.

In the fall of 2007, my wife and I purchased a 50-year-old ranch-style home on the near west side of Madison. It is, as we've discovered, the perfect example of how a home energy-use evaluation can benefit homeowners like us who want to make improvements with long-term energy efficiency, not to mention elevating future resale value.

Most potential homebuyers insist on a certified home inspector to shine a light in the nooks and crannies before keys change hands. If buying a home, this is a great way to get to know the property and snoop out any major flaws. If you already own a home, but want help prioritizing potential improvement needs, a Home Performance with Energy Star evaluation is the way to go. Not only is it a boon to long-term energy efficiency and resale value, but with an eye to reducing your carbon footprint, it is simply the right thing to do.

Energy Star programs are offered jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy. Its services are implemented regionally through Wisconsin's Focus on Energy (

A Home Performance with Energy Star evaluation can range in price from about $250 to $400. Fees vary among partnering consultants. A $75 cash-back reward is also available from Focus on Energy after the entire process is complete.

The evaluation is a critical yet productive look at a house as a complete operating system. In the end, it offers suggestions for mechanical, ventilation, insulation, air-sealing and remodeling upgrades via a comprehensive written report. The summary report can also include projected annual savings figures, both in terms of dollars and carbon emissions, based on select improvements. These figures are increasingly useful to secure financing toward home efficiency improvements.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of a home performance evaluation is the blower-door test. A powerful fan embedded in a collapsible frame is fit to the size of a main door and moves high volumes of air, reversing the normal pressurization of the house. Using a "smoke stick," a device that pumps out small puffs of faux smoke, air flow and infiltration can be detected throughout the building.

"One of the best things I can do for homeowners," says Paprocki, "is to help them understand how leaky their home is and where those leaks are located." The blower door, used in conjunction with an infrared camera, are two of the most valuable diagnostic tools used to find air infiltration weaknesses.

The average natural rate of air exchange per hour for existing Wisconsin homes is about 30%, according to Energy Star data. This means that about a third of the air in an "average" home is exchanged with outdoor air every hour through numerous points of leakage in the building's shell.

Case in point, my own basement, left somewhat neglected by the previous owner, offered plenty of places for air to creep in. Old single-pane windows, leaky sill boxes, and an uninsulated, unsealed crawl space allowed for very noticeable air movement as the blower door fan drew 1,850 cubic feet per minute of air out the front door.

If the smoke stick had been an actual burning match, it would have been blown out by the draft coming through a window that had previously had a hole cut in it for the clothes dryer exhaust. An area above the foundation near the old chimney stack was also found to be extremely leaky.

To limit or stop air infiltration, spray-foam insulation is becoming a popular option for both new homes and remodeling projects, according to Brian Hudy of Duerst Insulation of Dane, Wis. "Closed-cell polyurethane foam spray both blocks air infiltration and creates a vapor barrier," says Hudy. Duerst Insulation, also a partnering Energy Star contractor, started using foam spray about four years ago. It's more expensive than fiberglass batting or rigid foam board, but most of the contractors Hudy works with seem to be over the initial sticker shock of foam applications. "They see how much bang for the buck you can get," he says.

Paprocki explains that the value of foam spray stems from its ability to stop air and, she emphasizes, provide an R-value of 6.8 per inch. R-Value indicates the measure of a material's ability to resist heat from traveling through it. Higher R-values mean better insulating qualities.

To increase both efficiency and comfort in my own basement, I have had the sill boxes, those spaces at the top of the foundation wall between the ends of floor joists, sprayed with insulating foam to a depth of about three inches. I've also had dense-packed cellulose insulation blown in above the foundation wall running parallel to the floor beam, or rim joist, along the length of a foundation wall. This wall included the particularly drafty area near the old chimney stack.

Other suggestions for my home in Paprocki's final report include adding a few more inches of blown-in cellulose to the attic space and applying rigid foam board insulation to the bare concrete walls in the basement. After framing the stud walls in the basement, Paprocki also suggested fiberglass batting insulation be added before hanging sheetrock.

These moderate upgrades could potentially save an estimated $436 dollars a year in utility expenses. But they could also reduce carbon emissions by an estimated 2.3 metric tons annually (see sidebar). Replacing an aging water heater and upgrading the furnace to a unit above 90% efficiency would help to further reduce utility bills and greenhouse gas emissions.

In conjunction with efficiency assessments, combustion safety testing during a home performance evaluation provides a chance to evaluate natural gas equipment such as a hot water heater, furnace, or boiler. These tests check the drafting capability and carbon monoxide levels that occur during operation of combustion equipment. Carbon monoxide should never be back-drafting into a house, says Paprocki.

Measures of ventilation and durability are also assessed as part of an Energy Star evaluation. These tests measure, among other things, the potential for how moisture could be damaging the housing structure.

Consultants, for example, check to see if air from bathroom and kitchen fans is exhausting to the outdoors rather than into the attic space which, Paprocki says, is "a big no-no." Excess moisture buildup in attic or wall spaces can lead to mold growth which, in turn, may contribute to poor indoor air quality.

The cumulative results from this type of Energy Star evaluation could easily be an overwhelming set of reports for any homeowner to decipher. What a homeowner gets, however, is a detailed and fairly easy-to-understand set of five or six separate reports. Photos highlighting problem areas are included as well as information that might be helpful when trying to secure a loan to make the suggested improvements. Then, all that remains is the actual work.

As any homeowner knows, having a project to do and getting it done are two vastly different things. To wit, many Wisconsin residents who have had a home performance evaluation don't follow through with making improvements, says Sue Hanson of Focus on Energy.

Awareness of the availability of home performance evaluations is certainly increasing, says Hanson, but in slower economic times people seem to be a little tighter with their money when it comes to making recommended improvements. But, she says, it's important for people to have the consultant come back and recheck the house from a safety and verification standpoint once upgrades have been completed.

"Because the house operates as a system, changes may need to be verified to ensure maximum efficiency and safety," says Hanson. If a rating was performed initially, she says, a revisit to the home will allow the consultant to give the home a final efficiency rating, what's called a HERS Index. And the visit, she stresses, is included in the fee that the homeowner has already paid.

The Home Energy Rating System (HERS) is a classification recognized nationwide by contractors partnering with Energy Star. The HERS Index ranges from a possible "net zero" to a high score of 150. The lower a score, the more energy efficient a home is.

According to the Residential Energy Services Network (, the existing "typical" home has a HERS Index score of about 130. A new Energy Star-certified green-built home has an average HERS score of about 85.

A Home Performance with Energy Star evaluation can inform a homeowner of many things. The HERS Index score, not unlike a credit score, is becoming increasingly helpful, especially when trying to sell a home (see Is it Green? below).

"If you're staying in your home for a long time, even just five years," says Hanson, "a homeowner should see payback on efficiency investments."

Paprocki also notes that the evaluation - nonbiased, pertinent and standardized - will help homeowners prioritize which home improvement options will bring the best return on their investment.

Paprocki sums it up: After an Energy Star evaluation, "a homeowner can feel empowered to make many educated decisions regarding home improvements to increase comfort, safety, durability and energy efficiency."

Is it Green? Check the listing

Lending institutions as well as real estate brokers are becoming more aware of the significance of energy-efficient homes and are eager to promote these "green" attributes for their clients. Sara Alvarado of the Alvarado Real Estate Group is one such agent.

Working with the South-Central Wisconsin Multiple Listing Service (MLS), the computer-based entity Realtors use to access information on homes being bought and sold, Alvarado has led the charge to have eco-friendly criteria included on a home's MLS listing.

Being able to pass along the value of energy efficiency as a selling point is something that more consumers want and need, says Alvarado.

"It will change how buyers think about the efficiency aspect in their home search process, as well as in the sellers' marketing when they're trying to sell," says Alvarado. "A lot of people do the right things in order to prepare to sell their homes," she continues, "but they don't market it properly. This will help them to do that."

Alvarado and other Realtors who recognize the value of energy efficiency as a marketing tool have banded together to form Madison's Green Agents. As real estate professionals, they want to promote the benefits of making upgrades and help the seller pass that value along in what has become a tough home-sales market.

The MLS made these search criteria available for the first time on March 18, says Alvarado. This makes the Madison area only the fourth region in the nation to have such "green" listing criteria available.

Just one home in the big picture: Greenhouse gas emissions

Based on the EPA's Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2004 (April, 2006), it has been calculated that by making improvements in my own home, such as sealing off air infiltration points by insulating the rim joist space and foundation walls, as well as adding more insulation in my attic space, greenhouse gas emissions, primarily carbon dioxide, would be reduced by about 2.3 metric tons per year.

This amount is approximately equivalent to the pollution created by burning 240 gallons of gasoline or about five barrels of oil.

Alternately, its equivalent could be measured in terms of what's called "carbon sequestration." This, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science, is the "provision of long-term storage of carbon in the terrestrial biosphere, underground or the oceans so that the buildup of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere will reduce or slow."

By making the aforementioned upgrades in my own home, the equivalent carbon sequestration rate would be that of 50 tree seedlings growing for a period of 10 years.

Calculations made by Aaron Toneys, a sustainability associate with Good Company of Eugene, Ore.

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