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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.