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Home Energy Audit Finds Potential Savings For Homeowner

KPBS Reporter Ed Joyce looks at how home energy auditing can help homeowners. But at what cost?

A San Diego homeowner wanted to reduce her increasing utility bills. After a home energy audit, she was surprised how much energy her home loses and how much it would cost to change it.

Erin Cooley lives in a modest home near Del Cerro, but her bills for gas and electricity have been rising.

"With the kinds of bills we get from SDG&E, we are looking to save as much as possible," said Cooley. "I know we have done some things - change light bulbs, install new windows, new roof. But I think there are a few other things we can do to help the bills go down a bit."

Her bill averages about $170 a month, but can be higher depending on the time of year.

She opted for a home energy audit with San Diego home performance contractor Christian Asdal of GGR Energy to find out how much energy was being wasted at her 2,200 square foot home.

Asdal begins the home energy assessment with an interview.

"We really want to make sure that we understand their experience in the home, why they may have called us, if it's a comfort issue, or if it's a safety issue or an energy efficiency issue," said Asdal. "We want to know what they're feeling, how the home works for them so that can help us better diagnose what we're looking for and have some places to start."

Asdal told Cooley she can save money by switching to a gas stove.

"And it's going to cost you less to run that appliance," he said.

"And do you think that's going to be true going forward?" asked Cooley.

"I think so," said Asdal.

When the interview's over, Asdal and his assistant start the audit with an inspection of the outside and inside of the house.

From there, they do a variety of tests using specialized tools to measure energy loss from doors, windows and vents. The audit also evaluates the efficiency of appliances, water heaters and other energy sources.

Asdal said Cooley's gas-operated pool pump outside, and her furnace inside, are energy suckers.

"A lot of this stuff here is old," said Asdal. "You can hear the pilot light running which just means it's constantly drawing energy, like the one outside, which is going to contribute to her therm load."

He said the tests establish a baseline to show the homeowner how improvements would benefit the bottom line: energy savings and lower utility bills.

But the homeowner has to spend money to make those changes and hope the savings on the monthly bills makes it worth the expense.

"We address the payback, we look at what the return on investment is and we make sure that she is aware of all the energy saving rebates that are available," said Asdal.

Several weeks later, we rejoined Cooley in her living room to look at the comprehensive energy report.

But when she looked at the cost of the recommended changes and upgrades, Cooley decided it was too much investment for too little savings.

"For us, the numbers don't seem spectacular," Cooley said. "Any savings is good but when you have to crunch numbers and do the math about what you're going to lay out of your pocket and what return you're going to get, we were surprised. I think we expected more."

For example, Cooley said if she paid for air sealing, new attic insulation and duct replacement, her energy savings would be 21 percent.

"Now only for us it doesn't seem like a lot, 21 percent, that's $300 per year when the cost of doing that is about $5200 and that includes a rebate," said Cooley.

Cooley said the cost for adding solar didn't pencil out either.

"This is only two people in a relatively large home, if it were a family that had a higher energy bill, some of this investment might make sense," she said.

Cooley said the energy audit report shows old appliances account for more than half of her monthly energy costs.

She said spending money now, during a time of economic uncertainty, is something she has to think about.

But, she does plan to consider upgrading some appliances and adding the attic insulation, giving her a little bang - or slightly lower bills - for fewer bucks.

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