Stories from the Field: What Were They Thinking?

It would be funny if it weren't so serious. An experienced home performance contractor takes you on a tour of some hidden home features that will have you scratching your head.

March 06, 2011
March/April 2011
A version of this article appears in the March/April 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more articles about Auditing

Those of us who have spent any time in the field looking at homes with an energy auditor’s eye have at one time or another been stopped dead in our tracks and marveled at something we’ve stumbled upon. And though these findings may amuse us and our colleagues, there is a deeper, nagging question that invariably comes to mind: What were they thinking? There are, of course, variations to this wording, but no matter how you put it, it all boils down to the same thing—how could some contractor (or homeowner, or brother-in-law) do such a thing? It’s usually followed by a second question: Why? A good energy auditor is trained to measure energy use and waste in homes, and the better ones will approach the job with a detective’s eye. They’ll note health and safety problems caused by mechanical equipment, locate air leakage and insulation deficiencies, and look for the reasons why the house is drafty, or why utility bills are so high. Based upon these and other findings, they’ll ask, “What is the problem? What is the cause?” and finally—hopefully—arrive at “Here is the solution.”

To view the image captions during the slideshow, hover over the module and click Show Info at the top.

But many homeowners haven’t had the benefit of having a trained energy auditor look at their home. Nor have builders and remodelers always built their homes with energy efficiency and performance in mind (see “What Homeowners Believe”).

There are legions of stories about the bizarre things that auditors have found in the field. Some of them illustrate the ridiculous practices that make us laugh; some of them are so dangerous that you wonder why anyone is still alive in the home; and some—well, though they may not be obvious to the untrained eye, they are just as misguided as the obvious mistakes. Remember: We are all ignorant to some extent (“honest ignorance” I call it), so that which makes auditors shake our heads in wonder can easily escape homeowners. Their viewpoint isn’t necessarily the same as ours. Be easy on them. Still…

A homeowner called me because the house was cold (duh!) and energy bills were through the roof. (Who knew?). The house was rather large (over 3,500 square feet), with its fair share of electrical gadgetry—large flat-screen televisions, an extra washer and dryer (do four people really need 0.5 washers and dryers apiece? What were they thinking?), and so on. I found the laundry list of problems that we’ve come to expect: poor insulation, high air leakage, and so on. But one thing that I was able to point out to the homeowner right then and there was a problem the family had created. I snoop around a lot when I do an audit, and I opened the door to the spare freezer and found … nothing. Well, almost nothing. Freezers work hard to keep our food frozen, and harder still when they’re keeping the air in the freezer frozen. This is a good example of What were they thinking? I informed the homeowner that if the family must have an extra freezer or refrigerator, they should keep it full. Fill it with food, fill it with beer, but keep it full. If extra food is beyond their budget, they can fill it with jugs of water—a simple solution to a sizable problem.

What Homeowners Believe
  • A bigger furnace will heat my home better. A bigger furnace won’t necessarily heat your home better. It will put a bunch of extra Btu into the home—more than you need. Why pay extra money month in, month out for energy when a one-time investment in efficiency can permanently solve the problem? Plus, a bigger furnace is likely to short-cycle and to cause noticeable temperature swings. This in turn can shorten the life of the furnace.
  • A bigger air conditioner will cool my home better. Ditto, only as applied to cooling. A larger air conditioner may satisfy the sensible cooling load quickly, but it may not run long enough to condition all of the air and dehumidify it properly. Longer cycles allow for complete destratification of the air.
  • Most heat loss occurs through windows and doors. Maybe. Sometimes. But doing the simple math will tell you that the surface area of the windows and doors is less than the surface area of the rest of the home (ceilings, walls, floors). This says that more heat is lost through an uninsulated shell than through the glass.
  • Heat rises. Warm air rises. Heat travels in all directions. It just depends on what’s pushing or pulling it.
  • I have to be uncomfortable to save energy in my home. Please! Not true! A well-executed home improvement project will result in energy savings and comfort. You don’t have to freeze in the dark.

Then there are the problems that make me wonder, “How come nobody got killed?”

A client called me to inspect the furnace of a home he and his wife were interested in purchasing. Before I went to the home, they informed me that the seller was moving away for health reasons. I filed that info away for the time being, and arrived at the home at the appointed time with the seller and the buyer (and the buyer’s agent) all present while I looked at the furnace. It was a small home; the natural-gas forced-air furnace was a newer model, with an annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE) of 90+%; and I was happy to see that it was a model that I’d tested many times before. “This’ll be easy,” I thought, as I removed the cover of the unit and found this. Photo 1 is of work that a contractor did. This contractor had installed a new furnace in the home when the seller moved in, some five years prior to my visit. Notice the exhaust fan in this picture. The equipment manufacturer provided the option for the installer to vent either to the left or to the right of the unit. This installer chose the left option, but forgot to cap off the unused port. Oops! Result? Exhaust gases—five years’ worth—were pushed into the home, ready for human consumption. And of course, there were enough duct leaks on the return side to expedite the delivery of these exhaust gases whenever the air handler was operating. Remember the “client’s health reasons”? Well, here was the answer. Yes, just what were they thinking? Sometimes the answer is, They weren’t! (Note: I should stress that this was in no way a design fault on the part of the manufacturer.)

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Lots of things that fall into the What were they thinking? category are there because the answer is, Out of sight? Out of mind! This is often the fault of overanxious remodelers who are in the Fix and Flip business (aka Fix and Flop). Here are a few examples.

The home I was visiting was a 100-year-old bungalow, a single-story masonry model that on first glance was pretty nice. The remodeling work was attractive, and the floor plan spacious, including two additional bedrooms and a family room in the basement. I was working with a trainee who was taking an exam at the time, so I had to keep my mouth shut as we went through the home. But, the first impressions were positive.

This new kitchen featured a gas stove and a working exhaust fan vented to the outside. But the work done in areas out of sight—such as the attic—left a lot to be desired (see photo 2). The work done here was limited to supporting the rafters so the roof wouldn’t collapse. Safety comes first, yes, but couldn’t they have added just a bit of insulation? Done a bit of air sealing? The overall R-value was about R-5.

Energy auditors cringe when they see stuff like this. Their minds run through a list of things that could have been done to improve comfort and efficiency. But we all know that a home with attractive features (new refrigerator and stove, fancy countertops, recessed lights) will likely sell quicker and turn more of a profit than one with just energy improvements and a new paint job. Let’s face it—insulation isn’t as sexy as some people think it is! Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and if the beholder is a home buyer, good luck! But the true disservice to the buyer here had to do with energy consumption. Let’s consider these points if the attic had been fully insulated.

  • assuming a 900 ft2 attic at R-5 versus R-49;
  • assuming that the house is located in Region 5, with 6,128 heating degree-days per year; and
  • assuming a -2°F winter design temperature (68°F indoors, net ΔT of 70°F),
  • the heat loss of the R-5 attic would be 12,600 Btu per hour; and
  • the heat loss of the R-49 attic would be 1,260 Btu per hour (or 11,640 Btu per hour less, or about 90% less)!

And so the contractor/remodeler is selling a nice-looking home that will be uncomfortable and expensive to heat. What are the new homeowners to do once they’ve moved in? Maybe they’ll just live with it and think, “Well, it is an old home. What do you expect?” Or maybe they’ll call a heating contractor, and it’s possible that the contractor might recommend that the furnace be replaced with a larger (read: more Btu) unit. Yes, more Btu might solve the comfort problem. But the house will cost more to heat every winter, and to cool every summer. This house didn’t have air conditioning, but maybe the HVAC contractor will sell them one of those too. And then, will the new equipment be sized properly? Maybe it will be, maybe not.

This is an aggravating example of What were they thinking? in that it is the crux of the energy conservation/remodeling problem. Homeowners often honestly don’t know what they need to make and keep their home efficient, comfortable, and safe. Instead, they’re dazzled by what’s on the surface (dramatic recessed lighting, granite countertops, and so on) and unaware of what’s going on behind the drywall. And I suppose the case could be made that the contractor might not have known that R-5 is insufficient insulation. Who hasn’t fought this uphill battle of educating not just the general public but also the contractors who perform work for them? To this day, I still meet contractors who don’t see the need for sealing ductwork, air sealing attics or garages from living spaces, or having insulation enclosed. I’m not accusing them of doing a bait and switch here. But what better time is there to make energy improvements than during a remodel?

Another all too common example of misguided work—the floor space over a garage. For many years, in homes with a living space over the garage (a tuck-under garage) you’d find R-19 insulation in the floor space above the garage—a space that was covered with drywall on the bottom, and with flooring and carpeting on the top. Definitely out of sight. I spent years investigating comfort complaints with existing and new homes. A common complaint I would hear from homeowners was that “the bedroom over the garage is freezing!” The causes were sometimes several: That bedroom was usually the farthest one from the furnace, and thus the duct design (or lack of) and duct leakage prevented any significant airflow to the room. Plus, there often was no return nearby to facilitate recirculation. But I’d also just as often find a 12-inch floor joist with 5½ inches of fiberglass stuffed into the cavity. It might look something like this (photo 3).

Notice the air space above the kraft facing on the insulation. There is a gap between the batt and the floor above. And at the far end of the floor cavity is the rim joist, with probably little or no air sealing or insulation against it, allowing cold air to travel between the batt and the floor. The result is a cold floor (and cold occupants) in the room overhead. The effective R-value of this batt is nothing. This is also a common practice in cantilevers. A thermal image from inside the home will clearly show where the cantilever overhang begins. What were they thinking?

Here are a few more things I find in the field that prompt the same question.

Toe Kick Deliveries

A toe kick delivery is a forced-air register installed in the toe kick space in a bathroom or kitchen cabinet. The ones that don’t work are the ones that are not connected to any ductwork (duh!). Instead, they rely on air finding its way into the room from a 5-inch-round hole in the floor located 6 to 12 inches behind the register! (See photo 4.) Note: Ducts need to be connected before they’ll deliver air properly! What is the point of heating the kitchen cabinet? Shouldn’t the conditioned air be going to the conditioned space? Run the ductwork all the way to the register, please. Or, eliminate the use of toe kick registers.

Wall Return Openings

One day (a long time ago) it dawned on me that I ought to take a look behind return registers, just to see what was going on. It was a turning point for me in my investigative work. What I found was not unlike the picture shown here (see photo 5). Don’t let the size of the register fool you. Air needs a passageway in order to circulate properly—preferably an unobstructed passageway. Give it one. You’ll be amazed at how much better the HVAC will work.

Flex Duct

This picture speaks for itself (see photo 6). How is air supposed to get through this duct? Really? What were they thinking? Flex duct will work when it is installed properly, without obstruction, and with decent support. It is not necessarily an inferior product. But when it is installed like this, it doesn’t stand a chance of performing well.

The Skylight Shaft

This skylight shaft was located in the master bath (see photo 7). The homeowner’s comment: “It sure is cold when I get out of the shower!” No wonder!

Doing It Right

Good home performance relies on good design, good products, and good installation. Take a minute (or more, please) and think before you install equipment in a client’s home. Will the home perform the way the occupants want it to? Will it be safe, efficient, and comfortable? Think about how the systems will work. Your job reputation may be on the line here! And educate the homeowners. Walk with them around the house and explain what you are doing in language they can understand. Encourage them to ask questions. Safe, efficient, and comfortable homes are a reality, not just an engineer’s dream! Your clients deserve that kind of home and are paying you to make it so.

Rich Moore operates Invisible Energy from his home in Denver, Colorado, offering training and consultation services since 2003. Prior to starting Invisible Energy, he worked in the weatherization field beginning in 1984.

For more information:

Rich Moore
Invisible Energy
Denver, Colorado
Tel: (303)919-9849

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