Weatherizing against emissions

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    The Sustainable Spaces team, from left, Daniel Bell, Trey Muffet and founder Matt Golden.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    Trey Muffet explains what kinds of problems the energy audit will reveal to Sam Eaton, his wife, Meredith, and their daughter, June.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    The first step is to pressurize the house with a door mounted fan in order to find air leaks.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    Muffet uses a smoke puffer to locate leaks.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    Even the gap between the floors and baseboard provides a direct path for cold, outside air to enter the house.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    Each of the furnace ducts are checked for airflow.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    An infrared camera is used to identify hidden gaps in insulation and any electricity wasters like this rechargeable baby monitor.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    Bad news for Sam Eaton's house: There's no insulation in the attic, which means hot or cold air is pumped directly into the rest of the house.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace


Tess Vigeland: Nothing screams green more than a home with rooftop solar panels and a Toyota Prius in the driveway. But when it comes to saving money and the planet, it turns out the lowly caulk gun has these high tech gadgets beat by a mile. A recent report (by McKinsey and Co.) found that simply plugging leaks and improving efficiency in existing buildings would do more to reduce CO2 emissions than ramping up wind and solar power. And it would also pay for itself. Sam Eaton from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk decided to put this theory to the test on his aging Los Angeles home.

Sam Eaton: So today is the day of my home energy audit, which means a company that specializes in fixing drafty houses is coming over to test just how drafty my 1921 bungalow is. And here they are.

Trey Muffet: Hello Sam? I'm Trey Muffet with Sustainable Spaces.

Eaton: Hi Trey. This is my wife Meredith and my seven month old daughter, June.

After all the formal introductions we sit down in the living room and get down to business.

Eaton: I was, last night I was going through the worksheet that you guys have as far as our year's energy, electricity and gas bill and I noticed starting at the end of July when June was born our energy and gas use suddenly shot through the roof. Especially compared to last year before she was here because we're here all the time. It's all single pane windows. There's actually you can see some gaps in the windows, you can feel the air moving in and out of the house.

Muffet: That's good. And so we really take a look at all of these things and how we would go about solving those problems in the least invasive way as possible while at the same time obviously taking into concern your budget and how far we want to go.

Eaton: Yeah, that sounds great.

At this point we get out of Muffet's way. He opens the front door and fits an orange tarp with a large fan in the middle of it onto the door frame. When he turns it on all the air rushing in pressurizes the house, making leaks easy to find.

Muffet: Right now we're walking into the main living room here where we have a couple of can lights and we're going to show you how the can lights tend to have leakage. So what we have is our smoke puffer and you can see as I blow smoke in the air it's just extinguished directly up that can light. You can see how fast it goes out.

Not good news. It means that when my house isn't pressurized all that nasty cold air in my attic flows the other way, directly into my living room. This makes the furnace work extra hard to keep the space warm.

As Muffet tests the rest of the house I sit down with Matt Golden. He founded the San Francisco based company, Sustainable Spaces, five years ago after he saw how much energy could be saved by simply plugging holes.

Matt Golden: If we were to just insulate and weatherize the under insulated homes in America we'd actually offset the equivalent amount of energy as we import from Saudi Arabia every single year. And it would cost us roughly equivalent of the Iraq War for five months, one time.

This helps explain why President Obama included $5 billion in the recent stimulus package to weatherize low income homes. But Golden says even without government incentives, money spent improving a home's energy efficiency quickly pays off.

Golden: We find that most homes have 20 to 40 percent of the energy that's just straight up being wasted and these projects are really small. They're almost always under $10,000 and usually closer to five than ten. And they have return on investment without any incentives of five to seven years in most climate zones.

In other words, a lot better than just about any other investment you can make these days. Especially when it comes to your home.

After a few hours peeking into my attic and crawl space with a high-tech thermal imaging camera, Muffet emerges with some bad news.

Muffet: Your air leakage is off the charts right now. But those things are fairly easy things to fix.

Eaton: So that's the good news.

Muffet: That's the good news. And we typically find that most of the time houses of this nature, we can be in and out in three days and have all of this, everything fixed.

But fixing everything is expensive. Turns out my home has zero insulation. So besides sealing leaks, the crew would have to blow new insulation into the attic, walls and floors. The grand total would be about $13,000. But it would also cut my hefty energy bill by nearly two-thirds. Do the math and the project would pay for itself over a decade. It's tempting. But there's a hitch. I don't have the money to spare. And until low interest financing is available for this kind of work I'll have to stick with the small stuff, like wrapping my aging water heater in a blanket.

In Los Angeles, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.
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I'm interested in hiring Sustainable Spaces but the website shows that they do business only in SF, while the Marketplace story was in LA. Where does the company actually do business?

Thanks for these comments. Matt and Otto are completely correct in pointing out that there are plenty of options between zero and $13K that weren’t mentioned in this story. My house was perhaps too extreme an example since we would have to essentially start from scratch. Most homes wouldn’t need such an extensive amount of work. The payback in Los Angeles is also a little longer due to the temperate climate.

One of the points I was trying to make was that absent some kind of federal program for low-interest financing most homeowners in this economy aren’t going do this work, simply because the upfront costs are high. It’s a challenge facing everything from CFL bulbs to rooftop solar panels. Even if the energy savings make these technologies more economical in the long run the high initial costs keep them out of reach for many people. There’s no reason a financing model like the Berkeley First program (uses municipal financing to pay the upfront costs of residential solar, which the homeowner then pays back over 20 years through a surcharge on their property tax bill) couldn’t be applied to home weatherization. See my previous story on this: http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2009/01/19/pm_states_model/

The irony is that the existing incentives favor installing solar panels on my house over doing basic weatherization and insulation work that would yield a 64% reduction in my energy use. Matt is correct in asserting that home energy efficiency improvements should be the first step homeowners take if they are considering solar panels. That way the savings from one can finance the other! Sustainable Spaces creates a roadmap for homeowners to follow as they gradually make this transition to a net zero home.

Matt and I are now putting together a plan to fix some of the biggest energy offenders in my home without biting off the whole thing at once. So stay tuned for PART 2!


Sam Eaton
Senior Reporter
Marketplace Sustainability Desk

The first comment regarding the fact that there is a lot between zero and $13k is completely correct.
In this case, as with almost every home, there is a progression of steps that should be undertaken in order. There is an effective project that can be made to fit almost every budget.
This home was completely without insulation, and had extreme amounts of air leakage. It is by no means necessary to complete the entire project in order to see major improvements in energy, health and comfort.
Starting with air sealing and a blanket of attic insulation would do wonders and represents less than half the total amount of work quoted. This home has massive air leakage, which creates drafts and loss of energy, while bringing crawlspace air into the house, and an attic with zero insulation. Fixing just these two issues would change the way this house feels in both the winter and summer, and would have a dramatic and cost effective impact on their energy bills. The whole scope that was presented was set in phases, and could easily be undertaken in multiple steps.
The result of each audit is a road-map with phases tailored to each individual’s budget and goals. It is important to have each phase in context based on the overall picture, but the full picture does not inhibit people from taking action.

I was quite enjoyed your story, but the ending was such a let-down. My goodness..."I don't have the money to spare." Okay, I don't have 13,000 to spare either, but besides spending the $20 bucks on the waterheater sleeping bag, there's a significant gap between $13K and change for your next Sat. nite out at the movies.
Your story had the potential of informing people paying for an energy audit is good, then work toward the changes to reduce your heating bill while reducing emissions. However, you dropped the ball and also lost my respect for appropriate coverage for sustainability issues coverage.

Yes, I also don't have the spare $13K spare change, but I have elbow grease, weather stripping, caulk, plastic for the windows, reducing electronic therostat temp by 2+degreesF, insulating without using a contractor, clean the windows, place insulators behind electrical outlets, etc.

Like the Car Talk Guys will tell you, don't buy everying your mechanic suggests purchasing, but do make sure you're driving a safe and efficient vehicle.

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