The patient was a 100-year-old Victorian with chills and fevers from drafts and uneven heating and cooling over four floors of living space. The diagnostician was John Pfeiffer, a home performance contractor and president of Kinetik Energy Solutions, Inc of New Rochelle. He showed up at 10 am on a sub-freezing winter day with the environmental equivalent of a medical lab: a complete Blower Door kit, infra-red camera, portable computer, printer, lights, probes and sensors for detecting inefficient or even dangerous conditions.
The gear filled up the kitchen, but remained untouched for the first hour as Mr. Pfeiffer conducted a thorough “medical history.” Tell me about your problems? Drafts? Hot and cold spots? Utility bills? Smells, mold?
This Whole House
“We building analysts think of the house as a system: all its components are interrelated,” said Mr. Pfeiffer as he explained his process. ” Changing one part without thinking of the others can create a domino effect with negative consequences,” he said.
For example, it isn’t enough to find and plug leaks or install new expensive windows or massive heating or cooling systems,” he asserted. If you seal up a structure too tight, without considering ventilation, you’ll create a “sick house” where moisture gets trapped in walls, rotting out beams and feeding toxic mold. “Over-tightening a house can even cause a furnace to backdraft, spilling carbon monoxide into the home,” said Mr. Pfeiffer.
A too large heater will cycle on and off too often, potentially cracking the heat exchanger in short order and still not providing heat in an even, comfortable way.
Similarly, a too large air conditioner – or multiple, wrong-sized units – will cycle on and off too quickly to remove the humidity, which is what makes you feel sticky and uncomfortable, regardless of temperature.
Slapping in new windows is another super expensive move that Kinetik does not recommend as a first line of offense in most homes.
“First caulk and seal cracks and gaps around windows, doors and floors,” said Mr. Pfeiffer. Adding insulation is a likely next step. Done properly – with attention to maintaining sufficient ventilation, these relatively modest initiatives will both increase comfort and cut energy costs, he said. Plus, you will be able to select a smaller (and less expensive) boiler or air conditioner should you decide to upgrade in that sector.
With the basics thoroughly covered, Mr. Pfeiffer devoted another hour to walking all four floors and the full attic. Each room got its own assessment: was it warmer or cooler than its neighbors? Where were the windows, radiators, ducts, pipes, and unheated adjacent spaces (like the attic or crawl space)?
Only after a thorough walk-through did Mr. Pfeiffer open his bags (two back packs, two suitcases, two parts of the door blower kit and a portable computer). He outfitted the front door with the blower – a giant fan surrounded by red fabric -to create “negative pressure” and suck in air in through all the myriad leaks in the house. This would speed up air infiltration, allowing an infra-red camera to more easily detect the temperature differentials created as the cold air rushed in.
This was the “fun” part – watching as Mr. Pfeiffer pointed his camera at each window and along each wall and ceiling to detect contrasts and note the temperature at each spot.
The camera did not disappoint – there were some truly dramatic results. In the master bathroom, temperature at one window was twenty degrees lower than at the interior wall.
In the kitchen, purple stripes of cold air could be seen infiltrating the walls – right behind where the homeowners drink their morning coffee.
Ceilings, walls and floors showed hot and cold spots where insulation was missing or dysfunctional.
There were no big holes. Instead the house was suffering “death by a thousand paper cuts,” said Mr. Pfeiffer.
So how about the heating and cooling systems? Mr. Pfeiffer got out his next set of armaments – handheld monitors that attached to various probes, wands and sensors. Poking and prodding the boiler, water heater and stove and pipes, he detected a slow but potentially dangerous leak in one of the gas lines in a remote part of the basement ceiling.
The hot water boiler, installed in 2002, was functioning fine but was only 65% efficient. It uses old technology that requires extremely hot flue gases to prevent condensation and corrosion, but this sends a good percentage of heat up the flue, explained Mr. Pfeiffer. A new “condensing boiler” would extract the remaining heat and operate at around 95% efficiency.
The gas oven and burners were off-gassing high levels of carbon monoxide when they first turned on, and even after a few minutes continued to produce fumes. This was not enough to set off the carbon monoxide detector, but Mr. Pfeiffer recommends always using a vent to the outside when using a gas stove. “You should never heat a room by turning on the oven,” he stressed.
By the Numbers: What’s the Prognosis?
Hours after entering the home, Mr. Pfeiffer packed his gear and left.
And that was only phase I – the exam. He would now analyze the reams of data collected, correlate them with two years of utility bills and come up with recommended actions that consider: 1. improved comfort and safety; 2. conservation of energy and 3. cost.
The analysis came a few days later and indicated this old house could definitely be less drafty and more energy efficient.
Mr. Pfeiffer identified three update packages, beginning with the most comprehensive and expensive. Package 3 sealed all the leaks, insulated the water heater and pipes, switched all lighting to compact fluorescents, added insulation in the attic and replaced an old refrigerator for the relatively modest sum of $4322. He estimated a savings of $980 per year in utility bills – so the savings would pay for the work in around 4.4 years.
Package 2 added two major projects: replacing the boiler and insulating the walls. This would boost costs to around $22,750 with a payback period of around 8.7 years.
Package 3 included an additional $28,000 for installing 46 double-pane windows, bringing the total to around $51,000 and a payback period of 17.6 years.
Incentives through NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) might help defray the cost of some of the projects through low-interest loans, tax credits and rebates. (Details are at: GetEnergySmart and Energy Tax Incentives.) Navigating NYSERDA, a potentially time-consuming and difficult challenge, is something Mr. Pfeiffer and other consultants do for their clients.
Armed with Mr. Pfeiffer’s data and advice, it’s now up to the homeowners to decide: which projects can they do themselves; which require help; and – given current costs and future savings – how much can they afford?
More info: Mr. Pfeiffer can be reached at (914) 235-4203 or John@KinetikEnergySolutions.com. The cost of an energy audit depends on the size and complexity of the building.