Higher fuel prices put a premium on energy audits

The beauty of this information age is that I can send you schematics and specifications for a renovation project in one quick e-mail. The scary side is that too many buildings are still being constructed to be just as energy-hungry as buildings were in 1950.

The reason is simple. Building codes (even the energy code) do not dictate good building practice — only minimum performance. An example of this is that the current residential energy code requires duct insulation of R-8 in unconditioned spaces. In the winter, this means that you can distribute the heated air from your furnace in ducting throughout your cold attic that is insulated to about 25 percent of the amount of insulation required in the ceiling (R-30 to R-40).

Time and again, buildings with chronic ice dam problems and high energy costs have HVAC systems located in the attic. This does not violate “the code” (furnaces are not required to be installed within the conditioned envelope of the building), but it sure does violate both common sense and the laws of physics.

Maybe a car analogy would be helpful. Imagine if your car had an airplane propeller in front, instead of a connection from the engine to the wheels. Sounds inefficient, right? Well, placing your furnace in the attic — outside the conditioned envelope — and distributing warmed/cooled air through that attic generates similar inefficiency.

This is just one example. One of my favorite energy audit stories occurred in a small medical office facility where I was told that the heat did not work in a particular room. They were wrong. The heat worked fine. It was the combination of variation of window quality and the installation of exam room exhaust fans that created this perception.

Safer, healthier

A good energy audit will cover structural and mechanical systems and the building envelope as well as the needs of the building’s occupants. For instance, comments from employees in a medical office building helped me identify a problem and to propose a solution in that building.

Implementing recommendations made from a professional energy audit will not only help reduce utility costs, but will help make your building more safe, leak-resistant and healthy. (We see lots of moldy attics in our work.)

Appropriate thermal isolation of the living space from the attic in most construction will:

• Eliminate ice dams

• Minimize mold problems

• Reduce heating and cooling costs

I received an oil delivery at my home earlier this summer. The “cash” price of $4.66/gallon was a great reminder that the payback (the time it takes to save as much money in reduced fuel expenses as you spent on the project) for energy improvements has been cut in half.

Said another way, if we predicted that your new insulation would take six years to pay off, it is now three. (It’s probably a good time to buy insulation stock!)

It may be hot right now, and you may not wish to think about your increasing energy budget, but you should. High fuel and utility costs are providing serious financial incentive to study the energy efficiency of the buildings in which we live and work.

John P. Turner is president of Criterium-Turner Engineers, Goffstown.