Thermal Blues

Want to cut your home’s energy usage? Find out where it leaks. (Hint: An infrared map can help.)

The remodel of Gaya and Michael Dowling’s 1961 ranch home in Douglas Park had all the makings of a made-for-HGTV fairy tale: a young couple with two tiny children; the evil contractor who demolished half their home and left town with their money; the good contractor who all but rode in on a white horse and made everything right.

In the end, the Dowlings had a new master bedroom suite and an expanded kitchen, dining and living space, among other improvements. But there’s another side to the happy ending that their before-and-after photos don’t show. Their utility bills are now half what they were prior to the remodel, even though the renovated house is twice its original size. The secret is hidden behind their walls and in the attic: better insulation and air sealing.

“One thing I always try to do as a default is ‘fix the hat,’” meaning focus on roof insulation, says Michael Sauri of Arlington-based TriVista USA, the design-build firm that finished the Dowlings’ remodel. “Many homes have only a fraction of the insulation they need under the roof, or insulation that is in poor-to-horrible condition”—for example, due to water damage or mold, he explains.

After the debacle with their first contractor, the Dowlings were understandably concerned about costs. But they did opt for a new HVAC system and spray foam insulation—a product that can cost five to six times more than conventional fiberglass batt insulation, but which creates a much tighter air seal, particularly in hard-to-reach places inside wall and roof cavities.

The total price tag of their remodel ended up at about $400,000, but the energy improvements—which represent only a small fraction of that total—are already paying dividends. In 2005, when their house was roughly 2,000 square feet, the couple paid $2,020 to Washington Gas. By 2009, their home was 4,000 square feet and their annual gas bill was $1,062. “We honestly didn’t realize how much we would save,” Gaya says. “It’s a much better house that turned out beautifully.”

A few miles away in Aurora Highlands, homeowners Candi Jones and Peter Roe had their own problems in their 1940 Colonial—and it wasn’t just steep utility bills that were making them uncomfortable. The 2,300-square-foot house had been remodeled shortly before they bought it in 2005 and it “looked great,” Jones says. But they couldn’t ignore the fact that there were huge temperature fluctuations from room to room. Certain parts of the house were “unbearable” and therefore unusable on very hot or cold days.

After researching their options, the couple turned to Scott Donelson of Arlington-based Home Energy Medics for a whole-house energy audit (see sidebar). Donelson’s assessment found several areas in the home that were poorly insulated. Plus, there were air leaks in some surprising spots, including around the home’s many recessed lights, the drop-down stairs to the attic and plumbing lines to the attic.

As a result, the house was effectively a sieve. “This [current situation] is equivalent to leaving one of the standard windows open 15 inches and leaving it that way all year,” Donelson wrote in his audit report. “The homeowner is paying to heat and cool 310 percent more air than necessary every day.”

To fix the leaks, Home Energy Medics undertook a list of improvements that included air-sealing gaps and cracks, adding insulation to the attic, re-sealing the recessed lights, re-ducting and replacing several bathroom fans, and installing an inflatable fireplace plug in the chimney to stop drafts.

Today, Jones and Roe are paying an average of $90 less per month on heating and cooling—even with a 400-square-foot addition that runs on a secondary heat pump, which they built about a year after that initial audit—and they are enjoying every room in the house.

The total cost of Home Energy Medics’ consultation and repairs (not including fees paid to another contractor for construction of the addition) was just over $11,000. “We never even need to turn on the air conditioner or heater on the second floor,” Jones says. “We’re comfortable no matter where we sit.”

When it comes to home heating and cooling issues, homeowners like Jones and Roe are not alone. At least 40 percent of U.S. households report at least some winter drafts, and 60 percent complain of a room that is too warm in summer, according to the federal government’s Energy Star program, a joint effort of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy. This is particularly true among Northern Virginia residents whose houses date back to the ’40s and ’50s, notes David Merrill, owner of Arlington-based Merrill Contracting & Remodeling.

It’s not that the older homes in our area were poorly built. It’s just that much of the local housing stock—wood-framed bungalows; masonry Cape Cods, Colonials and ranches—went up at a time when energy was cheap and insulation was an afterthought.

“Builders just didn’t know much about air infiltration back then,” Merrill explains. “Our understanding of building science has grown exponentially in the last 10 years or so, and we’re able to make homes more efficient, comfortable and long-lasting as a result.”

Builders now know that poor insulation and inadequate air sealing make it tough for a home to keep cold air out in wintertime, or to keep the heat at bay come summer. When a house is vulnerable to outside air intrusion through gaps, cracks and holes, the HVAC system must work harder to maintain a constant temperature inside. And that’s when the utility bills tick up.

The first step toward energy conservation, of course, is knowing which areas of the house need to be fixed. One of the biggest mistakes homeowners tend to make is assuming they know—and then wasting money on the wrong home improvements.

Windows, for example, are typically not the primary culprits in a drafty house.

“Windows are usually lower on our recommendation list, unless the house has single-paned windows,” says Marty Valentine, an energy auditor with Home Performance Solutions in Burke, which serves clients throughout Northern Virginia. Contrary to popular belief, he says, leaky windows usually account for only 5 to 7 percent of a home’s total energy loss.

More problematic are air leaks around electrical outlets, switch plates, baseboards, attic hatches, heating and cooling ducts, plumbing pipes, wall top plates (the horizontal framing) and—as was the case in the Jones-Roe home—recessed lighting. If these aren’t properly sealed, Donelson points out, “they’re just like holes in your ceiling.”

Another common misconception is that hot and cold spots, or inadequate heating or cooling, mean that a house needs a new HVAC system. In fact, a home that is better sealed and insulated often reduces the degree to which it is taxing its heating and cooling appliances, making equipment upgrades unnecessary. Some homeowners are even able to downsize their furnace or air conditioner once their home’s outer shell is tightened up. Sometimes, simply “air-sealing the HVAC ductwork helps to improve airflow and increases personal comfort, which allows the homeowner to reduce the temperature setting on their thermostat,” Valentine says.

The paybacks of a well-insulated home can be dramatic. Michael Winn, president and owner of Winn Design & Remodeling, cites one recent addition his company completed for a family of four that expanded their Falls Church home from 1,326 square feet to 1,700 square feet, at the same time slashing their peak monthly gas and electric bills considerably (one recent winter gas bill was $112, down from previous bills of $250 and more).

In this case, the family’s 1928 Craftsman bungalow—a drafty home with “basically no insulation in the walls”—was improved with a second-story modular addition that replaced and expanded the original second floor. The “mod” was built in a Pennsylvania factory and then trucked to Virginia and installed on site.

Modular additions tend to be inherently energy efficient, Winn explains, because they’re assembled indoors under strict quality-control standards that are designed to yield a tighter structure. Unlike site-built additions that are exposed to the elements during construction, “modular [units] are constructed from the inside-out,” he says, allowing for the sealing of joints, framing and wall penetrations with a sprayed polystyrene foam.

Proper insulation and air sealing can offer other benefits, too—such as healthier indoor air quality.

Last year a pilot program tracking 31 low-income single-family homes in Baltimore found homeowners saving an average of $400 per year in utility costs as a result of air sealing and similar home energy improvements. But that’s not all. The program, spearheaded by the nonprofit Green & Healthy Homes Initiative in partnership with the building analytics provider WegoWise, also noted a 67 percent reduction in asthma-related emergency-room visits among the families in the study. The reason? Reduced exposure to mold and other allergens.

Donelson has seen similar scenarios, such as an Arlington family whose baby had frequent congestion and ear infections. An energy audit revealed that the boy’s bedroom had significant air leakage from a crawlspace below and an uninsulated storage room above it. Plus, the home had a leaky duct system, which prevented adequate heat from reaching his room. The parents noticed a difference, Donelson says, after a few modest improvements reduced the home’s air leakage by 21 percent.


Yet another potential upside to energy upgrades? Higher resale values. Some appraisers and lenders now factor energy improvements into their home assessments, as contractor Michael Sauri discovered when he sold his nearly 6,000-square-foot Lyon Park home last year. One appraiser’s estimate exceeded another’s by $90,000, in recognition of energy-conserving features such as structural insulated wall panels, insulated floor framing and an energy-recovery ventilator air-exchange system. The actual sale price ended up being closer to the higher estimate, Sauri says. The house also won an award from the Arlington Green Home Choice Program.

Moreover, remodeling for energy efficiency may soon be the law. So far, Virginia has yet to adopt the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), which sets minimum design and construction requirements for energy efficiency in buildings. But many experts feel it’s only a matter of time before higher efficiency standards become expected, if not codified.

Arlington County has already begun offering financial incentives to homeowners who invest in energy-conserving features and renovations, in keeping with the county’s ambitious Community Energy Plan, which seeks to achieve a 75 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. One recent partnership with the nonprofit Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP) offered rebates on energy audits and home improvements performed in accordance with federal Home Performance with Energy Star (HPwES) guidelines.

What kind of return on investment (ROI) can a homeowner expect from such upgrades? Aggregate cost-benefit data is hard to come by, although in New York state, home of the nation’s leading HPwES incentive program, the average whole-house energy retrofit for a 1,950-square-foot house costs just over $8,000 and saves the homeowner about $700 per year, according to Leslie McDowell, a spokesperson in the Washington, D.C., offices of the Building Performance Institute (BPI), an accrediting body for energy auditors and contractors.

Valentine says that most Virginia homeowners who invest in the basic one-two combo (air sealing and insulation) will see a return on that investment within three and a half years.

Of course one major variable in the equation is homeowner behavior—for example, where you set your thermostat and whether you leave lights and appliances on when they are not in use.

“Ah, the infamous ROI question,” says Winn. “We never get that question when we talk to clients about granite countertops or a Jacuzzi tub. That’s part of the challenge of energy efficiency and green products. There’s no bling, so we often find ourselves wanting them more than the client. Air sealing and insulation generally offer the best ROI and are usually a no-brainer, especially with the many tax credits that are available.”

Donelson agrees. Energy retrofit work “is one of the only home improvements that truly puts money in the homeowner’s pockets over time,” he says. Plus, “what price do you put on your comfort and quality of life?”

What’s an Energy Audit?

Performed by trained professionals, a whole-house energy audit is a good way to identify whether your house is working properly as a system. The typical audit includes:

■ A visual inspection of your home’s “envelope” (its outer shell), from both inside and outside the house, to pinpoint obvious cracks and gaps.
■ A “blower door” test that checks for air leakage. A blower door is a power fan that, when frame-mounted in an exterior door, draws air out of the house, creating a lower pressure inside the house. This prompts outdoor air to flow in through unsealed gaps, which the auditor can pinpoint using a “smoke pencil,” a tool that emits nontoxic puffs of smoke.
■ A safety examination of visible gas lines and combustion appliances, such as water heaters, furnaces and ovens, to ensure that they are properly venting flue gases to the outside. Unsafe levels of carbon monoxide can produce flu-like symptoms or even kill; and ironically, those risks can be exacerbated if a home is sealed too tightly.
■ An insulation check, generally performed using an infrared camera that creates a temperature map of your house, indicating its hot and cold spots.

Costs for audits vary widely, from $100 to $850 or more. (Note that the cost of the audit does not include repairs that may be recommended as a result of the findings.) If you’re in the market for an energy auditor, look for one with home-performance credentials from a certifying organization such as the Building Performance Institute (BPI) or the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET). For a list of certified Energy Star auditors and contractors in our area, visit

Too Tight?

Can a house be too tightly sealed? Actually, yes.

David Merrill is one of many contractors to warn of the potential dangers of commercial-style range hoods that are so popular these days.

“If the hood is pushing 1,500 cubic feet of air out of the house each minute, somewhere else the house is pulling that much air back [in],” he explains. “But if the house is too ‘tight’ and you crank up your hood vent, the replacement air might come from the furnace or water heater.” That’s what is known as back-drafting, which brings in carbon monoxide, and “in extreme cases it can kill you.”

A good home energy audit will identify and prevent carbon monoxide poisoning caused by back-drafting appliances, poorly designed flues or deteriorating chimneys. Energy auditor Scott Donelson estimates that one-third to two-thirds of the homes he sees have some version of this problem.

Easy Energy Fixes

Siblings will squabble over just about anything. At Brian Keane’s house, in Tara-Leeway Heights, that includes the privilege of pushing certain buttons. “My wife and I have four kids under the age of 8, and whenever they finish watching a movie there’s almost a fight to see who can turn off the power strip,” says Keane, author of Green Is Good and president of SmartPower, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates energy efficiency and renewable resources.

But the button-pushing is, in fact, more than a game. “The reality is that every one of us is using a tremendous amount of energy,” Keane points out. Consider the phenomenon known as “vampire power” or “phantom load,” which refers to the electricity consumed when devices are switched off or in standby mode, but still plugged in. Collectively, this can amount to 10 percent of the average home’s energy use.

The flat-screen TV you think you turned off? “That’s about $100 a year in power,” Keane says. The iPhone charger you never unplug? Another $10 a year. And guess where most of your microwave oven’s energy goes? To power the clock—you know, the one you always assume is wrong anyway.

The good news is that there are lots of easy ways to reduce your energy diet with minimal cost and effort. Here are some tips from Keane and other experts:

■ Unplug your electronics and chargers when not in use.
■ For surge protectors, use “smart strips” with on/off switches. (Note: You can plug your TV into a power strip that can be turned off when the TV is not in use, but your cable box must stay plugged into a live current if you’re planning to DVR your favorite shows. Some learn this lesson the hard way.)  
■ As lights burn out, replace them with high-efficiency LED or compact-fluorescent bulbs. (Incandescent bulbs are gradually being phased out, and the new high-efficiency bulbs are becoming more affordable and attractive.)
■ Insulate your water heater and hot-water pipes so water doesn’t lose heat while traveling to its destination.
■ Install a programmable thermostat. Set the temperature lower (in winter) or warmer (in summer) for times of day when your home is typically unoccupied.
■ Install water-saving devices on toilets, showers and faucets.
■ Use those ceiling fans. In the winter, set them on low speed and operate them in reverse, so they push warm air down.
■ Insulate wall outlets and switches with foam pads to prevent drafts.
■ Caulk along baseboards and around plumbing and electrical penetrations.
■ Insulate the attic access door.
■ Keep air registers and grills open and unblocked.
■ Participate in local incentive programs such as Dominion Virginia Power’s “Smart Cooling Rewards” program, which cycles your A/C or heat pump on and off during periods of high demand and offers a rebate on your utility bill in return.
■ Keep an eye out for “fridge buyback” programs. If you have an old, energy-hogging fridge in your basement, you might be paying a fortune to keep that case of beer cold.

Leah Thayer is a writer in Washington, D.C. and editor of

Categories: Home & Design