Pitkin County tweaks home energy audits | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County tweaks home energy audits

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Pitkin County’s fledgling Energy Smart program, with about 20 home energy audits under its belt, remains a work in progress.

Ongoing tweaks are aimed at creating a program that is a cut above what the federal pilot program envisions and that treats all consumers equally.

The Energy Smart Resource Center opened at the Aspen Business Center in January and is fielding inquiries and setting up appointments with those who’d like to arrange an energy audit. It has yet launch a full-blown campaign to spread the word about the program, though.

The audits that have been done so far have helped the program’s administrators iron out the kinks, according to Piper Foster, campaign strategist.

For one, program staffers quickly discovered the cost of the audit varied, depending upon where a consumer resided. Different energy utilities that serve the Roaring Fork Valley, including the city of Aspen’s own electric utility, offer rebates of differing amounts for such audits and one utility offered the audits in-house, for free. The goal is to treat everyone who seeks an audit through the Energy Smart program equally, Foster said.

It has been a complex start-up, said Dylan Hoffman, energy program manager for Pitkin County.

Though the audits are conducted by various individuals working for utilities and businesses, they are all being trained to provide the same Energy Smart service. That means all of the auditors will be equally knowledgeable about energy-saving programs and will conduct a standardized audit for every participating household.

It quickly became apparent that the audit should go beyond what’s required by the Department of Energy for its pilot program, Hoffman said. The DOE audit results in a home energy score of one to 10 (the higher the score the better), with the goal of giving consumers a basis with which to judge one home’s energy efficiency over that of another. The idea, Foster explained, is to compare homes in the way that a consumer can shop for a vehicle with an eye toward its fuel efficiency.

“It’s basically miles per gallon for a house,” Foster said of the home energy score.

Consumers in the Energy Smart program will get that score, but the auditor takes a more in-depth look at the home’s operation than the federal program requires, Hoffman said.

For example, a “blower door test” is performed. The test involves sealing a door into the home and blowing air out with a calibrated fan that measures how airtight the structure is based on the air that leaks back into the residence.

“A blower door test really tells you a lot about how a building is working,” Hoffman said.

Auditors may also make use of thermal imaging to, for example, detect temperature variations on a building’s exterior. It’s a tool that can help determine where additional insulation is needed.

“It speaks very loudly. It’s a great visual indicator of what’s going on,” Hoffman said.

Like the blower door test, thermal imaging isn’t required to produce the home energy score under the federal program. It’s something the local Energy Smart program embraces though, giving local consumers something that is more comprehensive than the basic audit.

“We wanted something that was measurable and meaningful,” Hoffman said.

In addition to pointing out ways to boost a home’s efficiency, the Energy Smart auditors will make on-the-spot improvements at a residence – installing a programmable thermostat, replacing light bulbs with energy efficient ones, wrapping pipes or installing a hot-water heater blanket, for example.

For big improvements – in the $3,000 to $15,000 range, program administrators hope to set up a loan program with a bank. That’s still in the works, Hoffman said.

There are a lot of effective upgrades, however, that a homeowner can choose to make for far less than $3,000, according to Foster.

Pitkin County is a partner in the pilot Energy Smart program with Eagle and Gunnison counties. It’s being funded with a three-year, $4.9 million Department of Energy grant. Audits can be arranged at the Aspen resource center by residents of Pitkin County and Eagle County residents who live in the Roaring Fork Valley.