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On The Energy Audit Trail With Cape Light Compact

Posted in: Region
Dec 5, 2008 - 12:27:25 PM
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Douglas Brown of the Cape Light Compact checks the boiler and hot water heater in the basement. All audits provide homeowners with a list of recommended mitigation measures, many of which come with incentives and rebates for low-income households. MICHAEL BAILEY/ENTERPRISE
Douglas Brown could be called an energy efficiency detective.
Mr. Brown is a residential energy specialist for RISE Engineering out of Cranston, Rhode Island, the firm that conducts home energy audits for the Cape Light Compact. Over the past two months alone, he has conducted four audits a day four days a week, helping home-owners find those sometimes hidden areas where their homes are losing energy and, consequently, money.
According to Briana C. Kane, the CLC’s residential program coordinator, the CLC performed 1,381 audits between January 1 and October 31, and as of mid-October there were 700 more requests in the queue. “Audit requests are pretty steady year-round,” she said, though the recent spike in home heating fuel costs led to an increased interest in the audits.
A Falmouth resident, who did not wish to be identified for personal security reasons, learned of the program through a story in the newspaper, as well as through a notice on her monthly electric bill. The audits are free of charge to Cape Light Compact customers, and are funded through an energy conservation surcharge on ratepayers’ monthly electric bill.
She contacted the CLC for an audit so she could be educated about any possible improvements to her home “and make up a plan of action that worked for my budget.”
The CLC keeps tight budgets in mind when conducting audits, and presents clients with a list of rebates and incentives available to households earning less than 80 percent of the region’s median income level. These include free compact fluorescent lights (CFL) to replace standard incandescent bulbs; a partial or total rebate to replace an inefficient refrigerator; up to $3,000 in insulation and weatherization measures; and fuel assistance.
All audits come with a three-page report summarizing the findings, and a list of recommended mitigation measures.
On The Hunt For Savings
“It’s a two-pronged attack,” Mr. Brown said of the audit process. The first prong is to determine where a customer might be wasting electricity, the second, to find spots in the house that might be adversely impacting the homeowner’s heating bills.
Mr. Brown begins with a basic overview of the customer’s monthly utility bills, which provide early clues as to how much the home-owner might be over-spending on electricity and heat. The Falmouth customer, who received her audit Monday morning, spent $40 on electricity last month, a relatively small bill.
“Generally you’re doing exceptionally well,” Mr. Brown told the client, who informed Mr. Brown that she had already adopted a few energy-conserving measures: she had replaced several light bulbs with CFLs; and she completely unplugs items, such as her TV, when they are not in use. She added that her home lacked several common energy users such as a computer, dishwasher, or laundry machines.
“I’m so 19th century,” she laughed. She then inventoried the devices she does use regularly, a list that included multiple air conditioners in the summertime and an ionic air filter, which she runs “almost constantly” as she is a smoker.
Armed with a meter that measures appliances’ energy consumption, Mr. Brown checked the client’s appliances and devices. He discovered the client is saving a little money by leaving her TV unplugged; even when off, the television constantly draws about four watts of power.
Mr. Brown then checked the client’s 12-year-old fridge and learned that it uses 55 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity, which equals about $11 of her monthly energy costs. “Older refrigerators are a common culprit” for excess energy usage, he explained.
The big surprise came when he tested the homeowner’s air purifier. It uses 122 watts of power, which comes out to $18 a month in electricity—nearly half of what she paid last month.
On the way down into the basement, Mr. Brown spotted a manual thermostat. “She could replace that with a programmable thermostat,” he remarked to Ms. Kane, who observed the audit. According to the US Department of Energy, an Energy Star-rated programmable thermostat can save a typical household $180 a year on heating and cooling costs.
The customer uses oil heat, and she informed Mr. Brown she receives three deliveries during a typical winter, receiving about 175 gallons per delivery.
Fortunately for her, she did not sign up for a price-lock contract this year and is paying the current market rate for heating oil. According to, which tracks prices across New England, heating oil prices on the Cape and Islands currently range from $2.20 per gallon to $2.85 per gallon, whereas people who signed price-lock contracts during the summer are stuck paying as much as $4.71 per gallon.
A quick check of the boiler revealed that it is at least 15 years old, but appeared to be in excellent shape. “I see you have your annual inspections,” Mr. Brown said approvingly, checking an inspection tag on the boiler from January. The efficiency rate was in the high 80 percent range.
The client suspected her hot water heater, which is about 17 years old, might not be doing as well, explaining that she has to keep the temperature turned up all the way in order to get a suitably hot shower. She leaves the heater off most of the day.
Mr. Brown suggested looking into a “hot water on demand” system, also known as a “tankless” hot water heater as the units heat water as it passes through the pipes rather than heating it in a storage tank. lists small tankless water heaters, capable of heating 1.5 gallons per minute, starting at $218 and larger units, for handling up to 6.4 GPM, at $1,283.
“They are pricey,” Ms. Kane said, but in the long run save money since they don’t require constant energy consumption to keep water heated.
Mr. Brown inspected the cinderblock foundation, typical for a home built in the 1950s, and discovered two potential sources of heat loss: the top of the foundation is exposed throughout the basement and none of the cinderblocks’ holes are capped or filled with an insulated foam; and the first floor hangs over the foundation slightly but has no insulation.
Both of these features, Mr. Brown explained, could draw in cold from the earth and allow it to spill into the basement. While the basement itself maintains a relatively warm temperature year-round, the homeowner noted that the first floor has a cold spot near the front of the house, which happened to be above one of the un-insulated overhangs. Mr. Brown said the issue can be addressed by capping the cinderblocks and stuffing fiberglass insulation in the overhangs.
The tour spotlighted two air leaks, one of which was in the basement, around a door—a simple sheet of wood—separating the basement from the bulkhead. Mr. Brown recommended adding a slab of foam to the back of the door to provide an insulating layer, and adding weather stripping to the edges to plug the air leaks.
The second leak was back on the first floor, around a front window. The homeowner said that window was one of two remaining Anderson-brand windows in the building; the others were replaced by Newpro-brand windows, which she said did lower her heating bills “but not by the 40 percent they promised.”
There were no storm doors at either the front or back, but Mr. Brown determined they’re not necessary; the front door receives a great deal of sun exposure year-round, while the back, a Newpro brand door, leads to an enclosed porch that acts as a giant storm door.
A fireplace, rebuilt after Hurricane Bob, according to the owner, proved well-sealed, so Mr. Brown headed into the attic, where he discovered a six-inch layer of “rockwool”-style insulation, a loose-fill fibrous material that is blown into spaces, rather than laid out in sheets as with fiberglass insulation.
Mr. Brown told the homeowner she could actually use another six inches of insulation; 10 inches is code-standard for homes nowadays, he said, but he recommended 12 inches. He said  rockwool is a cellulose-based insulation that is, essentially, shredded newspaper coated with boric acid as a fire retardant.
For more information about energy audits, visit the Cape Light Compact website at or call 1-800-797-6699.