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New breed of inspector goes after energy leaks

Traditional home inspectors check to see if everything works in a house. A new breed of eco-inspectors check energy efficiency and report on how much upgrades will offer in savings.
Image: Chris Trujillo
Eco-inspector Chris Trujillo shows homeowner Robert Deane how poorly sealed air vents cause energy leaks in the home. The inspector recommended $10,000 worth of upgrades to the home.Helen Kaiao Chang
/ Source: contributor

When Robert Deane reviewed his energy bills for this year, he was shocked. The propane gas bill hit $583 in February, and the electricity bill reached $418 in September.

Deane, a retired marketing executive, was “real surprised,” about the high cost of heating and cooling the home he and his wife, Chizuko, bought last year in Temecula, Calif. “We’ve lived in larger homes and we’d never seen bills like that.”

Deane hired eco-inspector Chris Trujillo, one of a growing number of specialists who recommend upgrades that can save homeowners hundreds of dollars a year.

Traditional home inspectors check to see if everything works in a house, with an emphasis on safety. But eco-inspectors check energy efficiency and provide reports on how much cost savings upgrades will offer. “The report is rating your energy usage, not your lifestyle,” said Trujillo.

The number of eco-inspectors is rising nationwide, as homeowners search for ways to save.

“There is an increased consumer awareness taking place regarding environmental issues and rising energy costs,” said Jana Maddux, a manager at the California Home Energy Efficiency Rating Service, which certifies these "green" specialists. Inspectors can "diagnose the home and help the consumer make sound decisions on how to make their home more energy efficient.”

In addition to saving money, homeowners can use the results of an inspection to qualify for "green" mortgages, which roll the cost of upgrades into the loan.

A basic inspection typically costs $250 to $600, a fee that can rise as high as $1,000 with additional tests. But inspections can save homeowners thousands of dollars.

If the Deanes implemented all the recommendations in Trujillo’s report, their energy bills would fall about 24 percent, saving about $844 a year.

The recommended upgrades would cost about $10,000, so the investment would pay off in 11 years. Some upgrade costs can be defrayed by utility company rebates for installing energy efficient appliances and other upgrades.

Deane was pleased with the result, saying, ‘If we’re making returns on investments in a reasonable timeframe, it’s something we’re interested in."

Trujillo started his inspection of the five-bedroom home with the ventilation system, or HVAC.

“The main vein of the house is the HVAC,” he said. “People have more problems with air and heat than anything else in the house.”

By sealing the air vents and blowing smoke into the system, Trujillo could literally see where the system was leaking energy. The home’s two HVAC systems had a capacity of four tons, and the test showed a leakage of three tons, or a startling 75 percent energy loss.

Trujillo’s recommendation: Upgrade the HVAC system. Cost: $7,500. Annual savings: $549.

Trujillo’s test also showed significant leakage in the house’s air ducts and return section. The air ducts are the passages where hot or cold air travels from the HVAC to the rest of the house. The return section draws air into the HVAC system to be heated or cooled.

Trujillo also recommended sealing the air ducts and insulating the return section. Leaks in this part of the system, which circulates air through the house and back to the heating and air conditioning unit, caused energy to be wasted on air that never reached the house. Cost: $1,000. Annual savings: $349.

Trujillo also recommended sealing vents through the house. When he unscrewed an air vent in the Deane home, he found that the air duct was not caulked to the ceiling, so air escaped into the attic.

Installing a new water heater with an outer insulation blanket is another easy way to save on energy. The Deanes had an older model, so Trujillo recommended a replacement. Cost: $1,000. Annual savings: $144.

Trujillo recommends buying appliances with an Energy Star label, which is a government energy-efficiency standard. But he also cautions to look at the gallon capacity tag for water heaters, since some knockoffs illegally add an Energy Star label, without meeting the required standard. An energy efficient water heater uses 256 gallons a year, whereas older models use 288 gallons.

Appliances with the Energy Star label can save anywhere from 15 to 75 percent over conventional models. Most other major appliances in the Deane home were Energy Star models.

But Trujillo found a small portable refrigerator in the home office, which used the same amount of wattage as the large Energy Star refrigerator in the kitchen. The inspector recommended removing or replacing it. “It’s an electricity guzzler,” he said.

Trujillo also recommended replacing the Deane home's 168 lightbulbs with compact fluorescent models, or CFLs. These bulbs pay for themselves quickly,  cutting costs by 75 percent over conventional bulbs, and they last 10 years.  Estimated cost: $700. Annual savings: $1104.

The news was not all bad at the Deane home. Trujillo found sufficient insulation in the attic, for example. And the home had double-pane windows that were good enough for the mild climate.

Trujillo also looks at a variety of other factors, including vaulted ceilings, fireplace flues, rain gutters, landscaping and house direction. Sometimes he might recommend new trees or other landscaping changes to affect the amount of sunlight that reaches the house.

Vaulted ceilings mean more air to heat or cool, while unsealed flues can leak air. The house direction affects how much heat a house gets; east-facing walls get more morning sunlight. Trees in a backyard will mean more shade, cooling a house. In the Deane house, these were not significant factors, said Trujillo.

Solar energy panels can cost some $40,000 for a typical house. Even with tax credits, which vary across states, the cost can still be $20,000. Trujillo typically does not recommend solar panels. “That’s the most awesome upgrade anybody can do,” he said, “but most people want to start smaller.”