Over the past 6 months, I have been working with the Historic Chicago Bungalow Association to administer a grant that will make the the homes of dozens of bungalow owners more efficient. The grant required a radon test, an energy audit, visits by an experienced contractor, and post-inspections. It was, I must say, an incredibly difficult grant to administer, but a really worthwhile one.
Now, I don’t own a bungalow. I wish I did. But it was worthwhile to work on this grant because I got to learn about radon (boy, there’s a lot more than we expected despite our sandy Chicago soil!), see countless contracts/scopes of work, HERS reports, insulation techniques, blower door testing, carbon monoxide mishaps…you name it. As a result, I applied to receive a scholarship to be trained as a Certified Energy Rater, which I will be in the throws of all week. And I tell you what–I’ve been writing about and reading about energy in older homes for years now, but I’m still learning a heck of a lot through this training. The first thing for any homeowner to do whenever they are trying to make home efficiency improvements, without question, is to have a rater come out and diagnose your home before you start buying things willy nilly. You’ll save a lot of money in the end and have better results.
I think it is a difficult thing to make the leap from historic preservationist to “green” historic preservationist. For one, despite the fact that universities and preservation agencies are venturing into the green world now, the language and tone often comes off as academic vs. practical, and doesn’t do much to combat the truckloads of marketing materials that are on the doorstep of every foursquare and Queen Anne in existence. We go on about saving windows, using your transoms, embodied energy, and a slurry of other things (just see all of my entries below), but we’re not very good about explaining (in a straightforward way and without sounding irritated when certain technologies are suggested) what needs to be done and how it is simple, affordable, increases comfort, and is even economically advantageous. I’ve noticed the National Trust blog now has weatherization tips, etc. which is a very useful tool with language that is more accessible than other sources. This is a great step, but naturally only targets a preservation-minded audience vs. the larger existing building pool.
We need more people who are practical, fast, and experienced coming out to older homes to do energy audits. Homeowners will respond best to a list of what needs to change, and how much it will cost, and how long it will take to regain that money. Too much information is confusing, and too many options are overwhelming. When armed with information, a homeowner or builder can say “Hey, I have $5,000 to spend, and here is how I can get the most bang for my buck. Of course, certain things should be prioritized and done in a certain order so you aren’t sizing a furnace before you’ve done your air sealing and insulation, or installing 30 LED light fixtures when you have a hole in your roof.
The grant I’ve been working on was also interesting because it showed the advantages and disadvantages of using a fancy new system vs. a thoughtful and experienced contractor. Honestly, there are advantages to both. Will most of these homeowners replace all of their light bulbs with CFLs? No. Probably almost none of them, which is a strike against the HERS reports, which always used that as a primary recommendation even though it isn’t necessarily realistic and homeowners aren’t made to understand why they should change their behavior. Our contractor realized this and didn’t focus as much on it, even though it is low-hanging fruit. On the other hand, the contractor is not a computer and can easily miss some of the things that the equipment used by energy auditors will pick up, or possibly not be aware of the newest changes and technologies available. In the end, our contractor seemed impressed enough by the audits to get an infrared heat gun for himself, and since he had already been performing blower door tests, he obviously realized that they were a superior way of finding leaks. And, of course, I’m finding my training fascinating and incredibly useful as a preservation geek, so I agree.
In the end, I guess we need both: an experienced, thoughtful, certified energy rating contractor is the way to go. Some might feel that is like trying to hire a leprechaun, but I swear there are at least a few out there!