OLDER HOMES: Brenham couple get tips on energy efficiency

By Lisa Maher
Acorns knock and roll every few minutes against a metal roof directly above Phil Audet’s head as he slowly scans a hot attic space with a flashlight. Like a forensic investigator, he calls out clues and evidence of entry and escape, identifying the culprits of energy loss that drive up a utility bill. 
A 30-year career in energy auditing helps him crack the case.
“Over time, this insulation has compressed and there are voids in the joists,” Audet tells homeowners Richard Roach and Vitalina Lisovaya, who stand nearby listening. “The effective R-value is probably quite a bit less than it should be. It was probably R-19 Batt originally.” 
R-value, which measures how well insulation resists the flow of heat, becomes new vernacular for the married couple, who are Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative members. R-value could just as easily stand for resource value, because it translates into money saved once new insulation is added. 

(Sarah Beal)Richard Roach and Vitalina Lisovaya, above, own a 22-year-old, 1,900-square-foot house near Brenham. They knew their home, with a mostly limestone exterior, needs to be more energy efficient. Sarah Beal photo
Roach and Lisovaya agreed to let Bluebonnet bring an independent energy auditor into their 22-year-old house near Brenham, where they have lived for seven years. They knew the 1,900-square-foot house was in need of some energy-efficiency improvements. Their previous home was newer, and “our power bills in that house were about half of what we pay here,” Roach said. The energy-saving suggestions for their home, which is similar to many houses in the Bluebonnet service area, could help other homeowners looking for ways to cut their electric bills.
After a two-hour investigation in and outside of the house, Audet sat down at the kitchen table to write final observation notes. The family cat, Timmy, checked out the visitor as he wrote.
“Things that you might consider include ceiling insulation,” Audet said. “Right now you have a lot of parts that aren’t insulated so the difference would really be noticeable if you address that.”   
Roach and Lisovaya already had a few ideas about how to improve efficiency in their home, but the condition of the attic insulation was a surprise. Other parts of Audet’s findings confirmed what they already knew.  
“We used to live in a newer house in Austin that was twice as big. It was a two-story that was really energy efficient,” said Roach, a software company project manager who works from home. 
The couple moved outside Brenham to be closer to Lisovaya’s job at Blue Bell Creameries, where she works in the IT department. Their mostly limestone house sits on three open acres, set back from an unpaved road thickly lined with tall trees.
“It’s one of those places you walk in and you just feel at home,” Roach said. “And we have some exciting things happen here. Every once in a while some cows or pigs from the ranch down the road will get out and come down to our house.”
Their large front yard features rose bushes and a pole flying the Texas and Navy flags (Roach was in the Navy in the 1980s). A covered porch includes four white rocking chairs ready for guests. Though the couple’s two grown daughters don’t live here, five dogs and 11 cats provide plenty of company. The couple often rescues stray animals that roam the property.
“I really like the metal roof,” Roach said. “I don’t have to worry about it much. We like to sit and listen to the rainfall.”
  Other than painting, landscaping, replacing a water heater and fixing a small roof leak, they haven’t remodeled. But they knew energy-efficiency improvements were needed, so they recently attended the Bluebonnet Solar Tour in Brenham to research options for reducing their electric use. 
“We never had an energy audit done before so we were very interested in what it would entail,” Roach said. “We already knew some of the problems that existed and changes we need to make.” Roach said an average summer electric bill is about $250.
Obvious fixes included new weather stripping around doors, adding solar screens and tint to windows to reduce heat from sun- light, and replacing incandescent light bulbs with LEDs. But the audit, which normally costs several hundred dollars, helped identify top priorities for the short and long term.
Audet, who’s conducted thousands of energy audits, majored in chemistry in college. When he graduated in the 1980s, the job market was filled with opportunity because energy efficiency had become a national priority after the oil crisis of the 1970s. New federal regulations and programs encouraged energy conservation.
Today, home design is critical to energy efficiency. “Their home is kind of a ‘T’ shape,” Audet said. “There’s a lot of surface and ceiling area … the ratio of surface area to square footage is pretty high,” 
The house has cathedral ceilings in the kitchen, living room, master bedroom and office. That means higher energy costs. Also, the kitchen is warmed by bright sunlight from large windows on all three sides. The views are nice, but incoming heat can add to cooling costs.
“The cathedral ceilings increase the volume of the house,” Audet said. “If the ceilings were flat, the surface area would be less so the heat gain would be less. With reasonable attic insulation, it’s not that big of an issue.”
The key to efficiency isn’t about homebuilders and their customers making sacrifices, Audet said. “It’s about taking a home and increasing the comfort and livability, and lowering the energy cost at the same time,” he said.
With that in mind, Audet recommended three priorities for Roach and Lisovaya: attic insulation, a new AC unit and new double-pane windows. “They should consider the attic first, which will be the least expensive and very helpful in creating more efficiency,” he said. “There are basically two ways they can do this.”
Loose fill insulation can be blown in over the existing insulation to increase the R-value and cover gaps, Audet said. “Another option that might be better is to use rolls of insulation that can be run perpendicular to the existing insulation. They can buy the rolls and on a cool day ... roll it out in the attic.”
The space around the attic’s pull-down stairs could be insulated, too. “Not only is there heat transfer through that uninsulated area,” Audet said, “that part gets a fair amount of air leakage,” he said. Home improvement stores and the internet offer do-it-yourself kits to insulate the area where stairs are folded closed. Kits typically cost less than $200.
The attic insulation is “a quick win, and I’m going to look into what to do,” Roach said. “I may just have it blown in. I’m interested in comparing different ways.”
The home’s AC is 22 years old, making it the second priority. Audet estimates the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating, known as SEER, is probably very low — “10” or less. Today’s standard SEER ratings are around 14 and as high as 25.
“I strongly recommend they consider an energy-efficient heat pump,” he said, which differs from a central air conditioning system. “They should purchase a system with a SEER value of 16 or higher. That would reduce cooling costs by 30 percent or more because heat pumps are much more efficient.” A heat pump can cost around $8,000.
Roach and Lisovaya maintain a home warranty policy, which they recently used to replace a broken water heater. When the AC system eventually breaks, it will be covered by the warranty. “Later on down the road, we’ll look at getting a new heating and AC system,” Roach said.   
Another long-term fix is to replace their older single-pane windows with double-pane glass. Window technology has greatly improved over the last few decades, and now offers higher efficiency glass and frames. Replacement would likely cost $8,000 to $20,000, depending on the number, size and type of windows. Many installers offer discounts to customers who replace all windows at the same time.
The energy audit uncovered lots of information helpful to the couple and, likely, to other Central Texas homeowners. Roach and Lisovaya plan to start with the easier, less expensive things they can do themselves, such as installing solar screens. Then they’ll move on to attic insulation.
“This whole experience has been really good and educational,” Roach said. “An energy audit is a valuable thing to have done if you have a house and you’re curious about energy usage and finding ways to save.”

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