Mar 032012


By Milt Petersen

In December, 2010, my wife and I had a new high efficiency gas furnace installed in our home. We immediately noticed a significant drop in our gas bill from NIPSCO. In the spring of 2011 we received a “Home Energy Report” from NIPSCO congratulating us on being one of the most improved energy efficient homes in our neighborhood. Then in December 2011 we again received another Home Energy Report from NIPSCO telling a totally different story. We were rated almost last in the neighborhood on energy efficiency. That is, we were rated 44 out of 45 homes in our neighborhood for Energy INEFFICIENCY. What happened in the space of about 8 months? Well to be honest, I don’t know but I can make a few educated guesses. 

First, We live in a ranch house – one of the few in our neighborhood of mostly two-story houses. That means we have far more roof area than a similar sized two story house. Think about it, a two story house should have only half the roof area of the same sized ranch house. Since heat rises, the biggest heat loss in a house is through the attic. When you have twice the attic space of your neighbor, the chances are (all things being equal) you will never match the energy efficiency of your two story neighbor. Regardless that fact shouldn’t deter one from trying to make his or her home more energy efficient. 

Just a few days after receiving our rather dismal energy report, we received another notice from NIPSCO of a “Home Energy Audit” program they were offering to home owners. I thought what do I have to lose so I called the number. They advised that they were booked out about 60 days but they gave me an appointment date of February 23, 2012, when an Energy Auditor would come by the house and evaluate our energy efficiency (or inefficiency as the case may be). 

Now a word about how I, as a builder, could have an energy inefficient home when I’ve always tried to build housing to be reasonably energy efficient given the constraints of cost. I built Brookstone Condos after an approximate 20 year part time rehabber career. I sandwiched my rehabbing around a full time engineering gig at a local steel mill. When I retired from the mill I built Brookstone as an affordable multifamily complex which means I cost engineered various energy saving techniques during construction keeping those with the biggest bang for the buck. The average condo unit at Brookstone has a monthly NIPSCO bill of well under $100/month which is pretty good. On the other hand, my home which was built in the 1970’s (incidentally by another builder) has been kind of ignored through the energy efficient or “green” building focus of today. Given all that, I was looking forward to the visit of the Energy Auditor. 

The Auditor showed up at the appointed time with his tote box and lap top computer. After a series of questions about the house (how big, how old, age of furnace, age of water heater, etc., etc.) he went to work. I tagged along through the entire process. First, to the basement to inspect the furnace, water heater, insulation or lack of in the rim board space by the sill plate around the perimeter of the basement, etc. I have a fairly new high efficiency furnace and water heater so that is good but I had never insulated the rim space. Then we proceeded to the attic. My blown in fiberglass insulation had settled over the past 35 years to what he felt was about an R9 equivalent. The bathroom vents extended only to the attic which means that humidity from the shower, etc. goes directly into the  attic and could cause mold. Fortunately the house has good roof vents so the humidity doesn’t build up. Regardless, he recommended the bathroom vents should be extended through the roof and additional insulation be added to bring up the rating to R30. 

After the attic inspection, we went back to the living space. He offered to install new, low volume faucet and showerhead nozzles through out the house. I took him up on the offer as I am very familiar with the product having installed the same products throughout Brookstone. It may take a little longer to fill a sink, for example, to wash dishes, but if you just run water to wash your hands you will save water and the cost to heat it. One thing you do have to get used to, however, is that the low volume nozzles tend to aerate the water and a glass of water will look cloudy until the air bubbles dissipate. 

The Auditor then offered to change out any incandescent light bulbs for the squiggly cfl bulbs throughout the house. Just remember that the regular cfl bulbs are not dimmable so you have to purchase a special dimmable cfl for those applications. Anyway there was no charge for the low volume water nozzles and the cfl bulbs.

The audit took about an hour. Then we sat at the kitchen table while he entered his readings into his laptop program. He even used a thermometer to measure our hot water temperature. The Auditor gave me a report, actually more like a quote, for the cost of a NIPSCO subcontractor to do all the recommended work. There is no obligation on the homeowners part to use the NIPSCO subcontractor – the owner could do the work themselves, hire someone else to do the work, or not do the work at all. But, hey, I’ve come this far and I felt his recommendations were good so I do plan to have the work done. As an added incentive to use the NIPSCO subcontractor, they gave me a 23% discount for the attic work he recommended. First, extend the bathroom vents to the roof. Second, reduce air leakage into the attic around all ceiling can lights, Kitchen and bathroom soffit areas, whole house attic ceiling fan, etc, and third, blow in additional insulation (he recommended cellulose rather than fiberglass) to increase the R rating to R30 minimum. 

NIPSCO did not offer a discount to seal the basement rim space but their contractor would do the work using a  two part foam sealant. Again no obligation to do the work, in fact, one could use R30 or R38 batt insulation in each joist space just as easily. 

In summary, the net quote for all the work after discount using a NIPSCO subcontractor ran about $1.40 per square foot of house footprint area. The auditor’s lap top program also calculated the expected payback for each component of the work. The overall payback from energy cost reduction was 8.5 years – not great but substantial and I intend to have the work done. Incidentally, NIPSCO asks that if the owner intends to use the NIPSCO subcontractor, he should sign and return the Auditor’s proposal within 30 days of the audit. One of their contractors will then contact you to schedule the work within 10 business days, 

Overall, I though the audit was thorough and the Auditor professional. The name of the Audit Company is Thermo-Scan Inspections located in Carmel, IN. Their local office is in Frankfort, IL. Apparently they are totally booked now and well into the future with the NIPSCO audits. The Auditor did advise that while they primarily work in houses they do plan to offer audit services for commercial offices in the future.