Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Home Performance & Indoor Air


Saving your money and your health

Is your home plagued with musty smells, condensation on windows, a clammy basement, or mold creeping up the walls? Is your home drafty and uncomfortable, with energy bills that seem too high no matter how diligent you are about turning down the heat and turning off the lights?

If these headaches sound familiar, it may be time to call in a professional who specializes in identifying and fixing home performance problems. Depending on what your concerns are, there are different types of contractors and consultants to address them:

  • Home performance contractors

  • HVAC contractors

  • Weatherization contractors

  • Insulation contractors

  • Indoor air quality or indoor environmental consultants

We'll cover each of these individually, but first here are a few general tips.

Top Tips

  • Start with your utility company. Many local utility companies offer free or low-cost energy-efficiency evaluations. They usually also have publications with tips on how to do your own energy audit and home performance improvements.
  • Hire a home contractor

  • Do it yourself. If you are reasonably handy with home repairs, you can tackle many energy-efficiency and indoor-air-quality improvements yourself. This website is filled with tips for tuning up your home.

  • Check the results. If you hire a company to do home performance work, don't pay the final bill until you're sure you're satisfied with the results. If a company has installed weatherstripping, for example, examine each door and window to make sure none were missed. Open and close the windows and doors a few times to make sure the weatherstripping isn't loose and doesn't impede their operation. If you hired a company to beef up the attic insulation, go up into the attic to see if the workers did a quality job. (See our Insulation article to learn more).

Home Performance Contractors

Although they go by different names--home performance contractors, energy auditors, home energy raters, energy efficiency specialists--most of these contractors have a similar focus: they evaluate the whole house, looking for problems related to energy efficiency, comfort, health, and safety. Home performance contractors tend to be multidisciplinary, taking a holistic approach to evaluating your home as a system made up of interacting components. They typically address the most common building-related problems that affect indoor air quality. They check for excessive or inadequate humidity, damp spots and mold, and make recommendations about how to solve these problems. They typically do combustion safety tests to find out if your furnace or other fuel-burning appliances are producing too much carbon monoxide and other combustion gases. They'll evaluate exhaust fans in the kitchen and bathroom to make sure they're working properly to remove humidity and indoor pollutants from your home.

Some common home-health concerns, such as radon, lead-based paint, and asbestos, aren't routinely addressed by home performance contractors, however. The U.S. EPA has information about how to identify these hazards and what to do about them if you find them in your home. You can also hire a contractor who specializes in dealing with these issues; contact your state or local health department for local resources.

Home performance contractors generally fall into one of three types: 1) contractors who do the initial audit as well as subsequent repairs and improvements; 2) contractors who do the audit and bring in subcontractors to do the work; and 3) consultants who do the audit and give you recommendations on what needs improving; you then do the work yourself or you hire others.

If you hire a home performance contractor, an auditor will come to your home and typically spend three to four hours making observations and performing tests using a variety of techniques and tools. He or she will look at the efficiency of your windows and your heating and cooling systems and check insulation levels (sometimes using an infrared camera that shows where air is leaking and insulation is missing). The person will also perform diagnostic tests that measure how leaky the home is and whether your ducts leak or fuel-burning appliances and equipment are introducing too much carbon monoxide and other combustion gases into your home.

Home performance contractors usually charge from nothing up to $250 for the audit. They profit from doing the repair and improvement work, not from the audit itself. If you hire an independent auditor who gives you a report with recommendations but doesn't do the tune-up work, expect to pay from $450 to $650.

Interested in seeing what typically happens when a Home Performance Contractor visits your home, check out the video below from our friends at Green Dream Group in Chicago.

HVAC Contractors

HVAC stands for heating, ventilating, and air conditioning. These contractors are the folks to call if your heating or cooling system needs maintenance or repair, if you're getting dust blowing into your home from the ducts, if the furnace seems to run too often or too loudly, if certain rooms are getting too much or not enough warm or cool air, or if it's time to replace your old equipment.

Besides servicing the HVAC equipment, they install, inspect, and clean ducts and install programmable thermostats. Some HVAC contractors also provide services similar to the home performance contractors described above, although they may not have the same level of training in whole-house performance.

Weatherization Contractors

Weatherization basically means caulking, sealing, and weatherstripping all unwanted cracks, gaps, and other openings to the outside. Much of this work can be done by a handy homeowner, or you can hire a contractor who specializes in weatherization (also called air sealing).

Weatherization contractors don't usually perform the kind of systematic testing, diagnostic, and repair work that home performance contractors do, but they can locate air leaks that are wasting your money. If your house isn't well sealed, having a contractor do thorough air sealing can lower your heating and cooling costs, as well as improve your comfort. In some areas, low-income households may be eligible for free or low-cost weatherization services; check with your local utility company. Some weatherization contractors may also install insulation (see below). Read our Air Sealing and Weatherization article to learn more.

Insulation Contractors

If the insulation in your home is spotty or nonexistent, you may be able to beef it up yourself in certain areas, such as an accessible attic. But for walls, crawl spaces, and other hard-to-reach areas, you may want to call in pros with the right equipment and training.

When interviewing insulation companies, ask about green insulation options. Also talk to the installation contractors about how they ensure quality, especially when insulating areas that are out of sight, like inside walls (some contractors check quality by using an infrared camera that shows where insulation is missing). Shoddily installed insulation can reduce the product's effectiveness by as much as 30%, which means you won't get the comfort or energy savings that you've paid for. See our Insulation article to learn more.

As with any contractor, get several written quotes before signing a contract. Make sure the quotes include the installed R-value (an indication of the material's resistance to heat flow), so you can fairly compare them. Some insulation contractors may also provide weatherization services.

Indoor Environmental Consultants

If you have indoor-air-quality concerns that go beyond the relatively common issues detailed above, you may want to hire an indoor air quality (IAQ) or environmental health consultant with more specialized expertise. Before hiring a consultant, check with your state health department about whether the state certifies or licenses companies that do indoor-air-quality work; Although some states regulate companies that do mold assessment or remediation, for the most part the industry is unregulated, so you may have to do extra homework to make sure the consultant you hire is reputable.

Some tests are relatively inexpensive to conduct, such as testing for lead-based paint or elevated formaldehyde levels. But it can be costly to bring in an IAQ consultant to do a broad-based investigation of your home, such as trying to pinpoint specific kinds of VOCs that might be present in your home.


...to your health
If something in your house is making you sick, a home performance contractor or indoor air quality expert can help you figure out what it is and how to fix it. A person with this kind of expertise can also make your house quieter and more comfortable.

...to your wallet
These contractors can help you save big bucks on utility bills. They can also lower your home's maintenance costs and increase its value.

...to the Earth
A high-performing home will be energy- and water-efficient, radically reducing your emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

Common Mistakes

Falling for a slick sales pitch. As in any industry, the home performance industry has many reputable, reliable contractors and a few bad apples who pocket your money and then do shoddy work--or don't do the work at all. When hiring contractors and other tradespeople, follow commonsense practices to make sure you won't be cheated. For advice, see our "What to Ask Your Contractor" article.

Getting Started

Use the Energy Star Home Energy Yardstick to assess your home energy use and compare it with similar homes in the United States. It's an easy-to-use online calculator that takes 10 to 15 minutes to complete. (You'll need to have your past 12 months of utility bills on hand.) The yardstick won't tell you specifics about how you are using energy in your home, but it's a good way to get a handle on whether your home is an energy hog, an energy star, or somewhere in the middle. Your utility may have a similar online calculator that shows how your home's energy use stacks up against other homes in your area.

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