Airtight case: Naperville residents encouraged to get energy audits

<p>This simple-to-use thermostat controls the entire multistage heating and air-conditioning system. | Courtsey of Rheem</p>

This simple-to-use thermostat controls the entire multistage heating and air-conditioning system. | Courtsey of Rheem

The recent winter brought some of the heaviest snows and coldest temperatures in years — predictably followed by unusually high bills for home heat.

Homeowners hoping to ease the future sting of staying comfortable despite extreme weather might do well to have their living spaces audited for energy efficiency. Naperville for Clean Energy and Conservation advises it, on the rationale that staying on top of air flow is the best way to ensure against excessive heat loss in the winter and to keep cooled air contained when it’s hot out.

“It’s very similar to a home inspection,” said Stephanie Hastings, NCEC’s founder and president.

The cost for an audit depends on the size of the home, but Hastings said it generally runs $200 to $300. And while many heating and air conditioning companies offer the service, she sees insulation contractors as a better fit. They’ve become much more dynamic, she said, than simply being guys hauling around big rolls of attic insulation.

“There’s a lot that they can do in terms of drafts, or what we call air leakage,” Hastings said.

When she talks to groups about the idea, she uses the analogy of keeping a beer cold, noting that cheap polystyrene crates and soft-sided zipped coolers don’t do as thorough a job as their rigid plastic counterparts.

“What kind of cooler would you want to put it in?” Hastings said. “You’re trying to minimize air flow and really have a nice solid envelope for your home.”

Nicor Home solutions, a division of Nicor Gas, offers home energy audits as well. Technicians called out to provide the service perform an infrared audit that seeks out air leaks and weak spots in the existing insulation. Also available is blower door testing, which uses a fan mounted into the frame of an inside doorway to move the higher-pressure outdoor air through, spotlighting places where air is coming in, and how much. Gas pipes also can be tested for leaks.

Kay McKeen suggests incorporating a big-picture view into efforts to cut energy consumption. The president and founder of School and Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education Close recommends using as many logical, low-tech approaches as possible to cut power use to sustain comfort, such as closing blinds in the summer to keep the heat out and flipping on the ceiling fan when it will suffice to maintain a desirable temperature in the room, simply by keeping the air moving.

“Maybe you don’t need an air conditioner unless it’s 99 percent humidity,” McKeen said. “So using ceiling fans and keeping the heat out might work.”

To stretch both heating and cooling dollars farther, she suggests checking to see if insulation added to fireplaces or drop-down attic steps might make a difference. Some homeowners discover substantial air leakage around roof-mounted vents and the ceiling openings that hold recessed light fixtures. Even small changes, such as swapping incandescent bulbs for LED or CFL alternatives, can help.

“Do the things that you can do yourself, and then see what you’ve got,” McKeen said.

Heating and cooling are just two of the ways humans tap the energy sources available to them. McKeen advises taking a close look at all of the ways we consume power.

The Kill-A-Watt electricity monitor can be used to gauge how much power is being used by different items that are plugged in around the house. Available online and at home-improvement stores for less than $20, the implement also can be checked out from local libraries.

“It’s a great little device. You plug it in, and then you plug your appliance into it,” said McKeen, adding that after a week a window displays the amount of energy that’s been used. “You can figure out from your bill how much your kilowatts are costing you.”

Other items can directly boost the efficiency of heating systems, such as blankets made to wrap around water heaters, but simple steps such as dusting light bulbs and vacuuming the coils on the back of the refrigerator can add up to make a big difference in overall energy use.

“One of the worst energy hogs,” McKeen said, is the old refrigerators that often are retired to the garage when their replacements arrive in the kitchen. Unless the garage is heated and air-conditioned, the fridge works extra hard to compensate for the temperature swings that come when the garage door is opened.

“You’re using a tremendous amount of energy,” McKeen said.

It’s easy, she said, to overlook the fact that using any form of energy means creating some degree of pollution.

“Either you’re using uranium to make nuclear power or burning coal and putting (emissions) into the air,” she said. “There’s a whole bunch of ways to think about the energy use, both locally and globally.”