Gazette Ceases Publication: Donates Archives to LHS

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Warmer? Cheaper? A Larchmont Victorian Undergoes Energy Audit

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.

Drilling Down

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.

A Blower Door kit installed in the entry sucked in air through the homes' many leaks, making it easier to detect where air was getting 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.

Thermagraph of window

The window near the master bed, at right, is surrounded by a wall where the temperature was 60-63 degrees (yellow). The purple area of the glass was below 50, while the darkest areas on the sill were below 40.

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.

Unheated air infiltrating through unsealed light fixtures created frigid zones thirty degrees lower than the rest of the ceiling.

Unsealed recessed lights leaked frigid air thirty degrees lower than the rest of the living room ceiling.

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.

John Pfeiffer, president of Kinetiks Energy Solutions, checks functioning of the boiler. He estimated 20-30% of heat produced was going up the flue.

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 The cost of an energy audit depends on the size and complexity of the building.

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6 comments to Warmer? Cheaper? Larchmont Victorian Undergoes Energy Audit

  • Ralph Engel

    It would be good to get an idea of the range of his charges for doing such an audit. Is it $100 or $1,000–for $100 it would probably be a good idea for many of us to do it, but maybe not for $1,000.

    • Judy Silberstein

      There are all sorts of energy audits with a range of costs depending on the size of the home and how thorough the consultation. Many companies will waive the audit charge if you contract with them for subsequent work.

      There may even be government programs – though none in Larchmont at the moment – that subsidize costs for audits.

      Mr. Pfeiffer or any other consultant should be able to give you an idea of what the charge would be for your home.

  • Ralph Engel

    What did the one in the article cost? One can then compare house sizes and, perhaps, get an idea of what to expect.

    • Judy Silberstein

      For a house of this size and complexity, Mr. Pfeiffer typically charges $600 for the audit and the detailed report of results and recommendations.

      The homeowners can recoup some or all of that back if they contract with Mr. Pfeiffer for energy improvements. The rate is 10% of the contract fee up to the total cost of the audit. With a $6000 job, the audit is free.

  • robert

    Jobs creation legislation being drafted in the US Senate includes billions for energy efficiency measures, such as a home energy efficiency rebate program.

  • We generally charge $300-400 for the basic Energy Audit (aka Comprehensive Home Assessment) depending on the size of the house. This includes an exterior and interior inspection, combustion safety tests for the hot water heater and boiler/furnace (Carbon Monoxide, proper draft and efficiency) and a Blower Door test for air infiltration.
    Beyond the basic audit there are the following additional services. As each house and situation is different the prices will vary. If the house has a duct system we can do a Duct Blaster test for air leaks. An infra-red thermographic scan can also be done during the Blower Door test when the weather is cold or hot if the AC is running. If you have an AC or heat pump system we can also test that when the weather is a bit warmer.
    If you are interested in the incentives from NYSERDA then an audit by a BPI Accredited Contractor and Home Performance with ENERGY STAR Participating Contractor is required by the program. The forthcoming federal program called Home Star (aka “Cash for Caulkers”) will likely have a similar stipulation regarding BPI-Building Performance Institute.
    I like to spend time with the clients going over the house with them and showing them where the problems are and how to fix them. It can be fun and very interesting.
    Please post any questions or contact me directly.
    -John Pfeiffer