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Deep-Energy Retrofits for Existing Homes

When it comes to energy efficiency, the smallest retrofit can make a difference — and a big update can make a huge impact. Deep-energy retrofits can save a great deal of energy by remodeling homes with targeted energy updates, says Don Ferrier, president of Ferrier Custom Homes and Ferrier Builders, Inc., in Fort Worth, Texas.

According to Cheryl O'Connor, CEO of the Home Builders Association of Northern California, retrofits have a great impact on energy efficiency because new homes only represent 1 percent of the total home inventory. To reduce energy use and consumption, the focus should be on retrofitting existing structures

“The biggest impact is to focus on retrofitting existing buildings,” she says.

What Qualifies as a Deep-Energy Retrofit?

Kendra Weinisch, building performance consultant with Energy Beyond Design, an energy retrofitting company serving the Bay Area, says a deep retrofit consists of multiple projects that reduce the energy use of a building by 50 to 90 percent. A retrofit usually includes the work of a licensed remodeler, says Weinisch, as opposed to “level 1” audits, which involve superficial updates such as changing incandescent light bulbs.

“Retrofits involve heavy lifting and include professional HVAC and/or duct work, drill-and-fill insulation — drilling a hole in a wall and spraying foam insulation into it — and installing vapor barriers in crawl spaces,” she says.

Challenge No. 1: High Costs

Weinisch says the price of a retrofit is specific to the property and homeowner, but she’s heard of companies quoting retrofits that take a house to net zero energy use for as much as $70,000. Although still expensive, Weinisch says homeowners can get a deep-energy retrofit for $20,000 to $50,000. Although your clients might experience sticker shock, she adds there are rebates for energy-efficient appliances and funding under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act for energy-efficiency work through the White House’s HOMESTAR program and EPA’s Home Performance program with ENERGY STAR program.

However, the best solution to bring down the cost is to perform an energy audit on the building’s infrastructure and systems.

“We always encourage the owner to start off with an energy audit to determine what actions will give them the biggest bang for their buck,” Ferrier says. “It gives a computer-generated report detailing where the ROI is and a very intelligent menu of options to choose from to accomplish one’s energy upgrades.”

For example, Weinisch says an audit might show that you’re using a lot of conditioned heat, which is common during the winter in cold northern climates. To reduce the cost, a one-time installation of better insulation and air sealing foam would accomplish more than buying a more efficient HVAC system, according to Weinisch.

“A furnace will last 10 to 15 years, but quality insulation will last the lifetime of the home,” she says. “Of course, a well-designed HVAC system and tight ducts are great, but they are not always options for homeowners on a budget.”

Challenge No. 2: Project Difficulty and Verification

Deep-energy retrofits are comprehensive projects that shouldn’t be taken on lightly. However, because the results can reap major benefits, Ferrier says the challenge of a thorough energy audit shouldn’t be intimidating. The key to performing the energy upgrades well is to make knowledgeable decisions and hire knowledgeable subcontractors who understand building science.

Ferrier recommends setting up full screenings of your subcontractors to outline exactly what a retrofit will entail and what is expected of the subcontractors, including questions of how they plan to implement and perform their work. Then, you can determine whether or not a subcontractor is right for the job. Ferrier is a strong believer in continuing education and he recommends studying the Energy and Environmental Building Association handbook and attending their conferences. For general education on energy efficiency, he recommends studying the LEED for Homes Rating System and the National Green Building Standard created by the National Association of Home Builders and the International Code Council in compliance with the requirements of the American National Standards Institute.

“They’re the most thorough guides on how to be sustainable or green,” he says.

Another challenge is third-party verification, which Weinisch says is currently voluntary. Although there are quality-control and safety requirements for certain elements such as the Home Energy Ratings System (HERS ratings) for new HVAC installations, Weinisch says contractors can do deep-energy remodeling without confirmation of the safety of the work. Although it’s not a requirement, Weinisch says there is third-party verification available through the Building Performance Institute and Home Performance with ENERGY STAR.

“It can be useful in adding value to a home that is on the market,” she says. “Any reputable retrofitter will test — or have someone come in to test — the home before and after the retrofit to measure the energy savings it produces.”

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