I've been wondering lately why we're so hell bent on testing houses. After all, we're a bunch of smart building scientist type guys and gals, right? We may not be Joe Lstiburek's (for which our families and fiends, unbeknownst to them, are mighty grateful), but we have a working knowledge of air and moisture movement, thermal and pressure boundaries, various Deltas (T, P, and the rest), and all that other stuff BPI made us learn. We don't assess houses one day in Tallahassee, the next in Bangor, then Bakersfield, Portland, and Wichita. We live and work in communities that we know well, with their own climate (and micro-climate), architectural, and geographical challenges. We've been in a bunch of houses, too many crawlspaces and attics, can set up a blower door in our sleep, and have a pretty good idea that those single pane, aluminum frame windows might be a problem. Doesn't it all get a little same-old, same-old?

I would never say this out loud to anyone in this business who wasn't a close personal friend, but I find myself these days pulling up my clients address on Google Maps and immediately creating a preliminary scope of work. I have a pretty good idea right away if they sit over a high water table, are buffeted by winds, or are on Propane rather than natural gas. When I park across the street, I can assess the approximate age of the home and its architectural deficiencies, solar orientation and shading, site drainage, general maintenance and upkeep, etc. and so on. I'm sure you have your own list, but the point is, before I walk in the door, my scope of work is getting a little meat on the bone. 

Once I'm in the door, I pay close attention to my clients, peruse their energy bills, stick my head in the attic and/or crawlspace, note the condition and location of their combustion appliances, if windows are opened or closed, health and moisture issues, condition of ductwork, you know the drill. By this time, my prioritized scope of work is pretty well fleshed out, and I haven't pulled out any of my overpriced, specialized, professional looking energy auditing equipment.

When was the last time you ran an envelope leakage test and were shocked, shocked I say, at the results? And does it matter the rate of leakage? You have your own regional priorities, I'm sure, but if I see a house built over a crawlspace one my highest priorities is to isolate it from the conditioned space, no matter what the blower door tells me. Same with an attached garage. I already know this imaginary house needs mechanical ventilation (or will when I'm done), will have to have the existing insulation moved out of the way (or more probably, removed all together) so I can get the area air sealed and the pressure/thermal barriers aligned, and it's a given the duct leakage rate is unacceptable. If the 20th century furnace and rusting water heater are in a hall closet with inadequate combustion air, a test won't clarify anything. 

Now that I have that off my chest, I get that we need to quantify stuff, and I would never do any air sealing, for one example, without first testing in, then testing out. But why take the time and energy to test up front when our visual, and often nasal, observations have already pointed us down the road our experience tells us to take? Instead, why not focus more on presenting our clients with a sensible scope based on visual observation and careful consideration, attach appropriate pricing, then roll the testing into the proposal? Everybody likes something for free, and I see no reason to pull out the big guns unless I'm doing battle.

It's pretty clear by now that no one makes money on the test-in, and the results are meaningless if our clients don't act on our findings. If we can get them to commit early to taking appropriate actions, we might not only fix a few more houses, but improve our bottom lines. 

I'd appreciate your thoughts.

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Tags: energy audit, envelope leakage,, test in,, test out,


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Comment by Robert Riversong on October 25, 2012 at 11:06am

I'm not an energy auditor, but a designer/builder of super-efficient homes and a renovator, and I've performed a variety of house inspections.

What Ron is describing is the high level of diagnostic capability of someone with sufficient knowledge, experience and expertise to which sophisticated testing equipment is either training wheels or an adjunct. This brings to mind the difference between Western medical diagnosis, which relies on increasingly sophisticated and expensive equipment and Oriental medical diagnosis which relies on visual cues, aural cues, and reading by hand of 12 very subtle pulses (six in each wrist) that correlate to various organ systems and energy paths.

Starting with one's own senses and brain makes a lot of sense, pulling out the techy stuff only when necessary and cost-effective.

I'm also hearing an undertone of conflict between what is best for the homeowner/client and what might bring in more work for the professional. We have to be careful about whose interests we are serving - theirs or ours.

Comment by Scott Kunkel on October 24, 2012 at 2:20pm

Sean, I'm all for having a client put out the $700 -$1200 for an audit after a walk through justifies the action & I encourage this practice/ do it myself.  On the other hand, if during a walk through we see all the usual situations and that client has a limited budget, morally, I'd like to see that money be put into safe and efficient upgrades.  Again, it's all about the situation at hand.  

Comment by Sean Lintow Sr on October 24, 2012 at 1:52pm

To bad we can't reply directly to comments - Ron no you didn't lead me to believe, it was just a heads up about the practice as it seems both you, me & quite a few others are either in or been through the same program or a similiar one  

Scott I am not sure what you mean that it is morally hard to charge or to pay for an audit & please don't get me started on the "BPI way"

Comment by Ron Jones on October 24, 2012 at 1:29pm

Sean, sorry if I lead you to believe I made my mind up too early and missed potential opportunities. The point is simply that creating a scope of work is a process, and not reliant on the information gathered through the audit. As far as missing obvious items, guilty as charged. Happens all the time. I'm in a 12 step program now to cure my fallibility.

Scott, we can never "ensure" our clients safety, we can only increase the potential by, among other things, building tightly, and venting righteously. Fixing or eliminating combustion appliances, sealing leaky return air ducts, and hiding their cigarettes are pretty good options as well.

Comment by Scott Kunkel on October 23, 2012 at 3:04pm

The way I see it... it all comes down to the client's situation and what you see in the home during a visual inspection, along with any data you gain via conversation with HO.  With the Upgrade CA rebate program building awareness (that's about it - I haven't heard much about rebates actually going out)  of the home energy audit in our area, it seems that a homeowner's knowledge is in the infancy stage and we as professionals will need to evolve our services to fit their individual needs.  As Ron points out, charging for an audit is hard to do (morally & financially for the client) if you see little reason to think it's necessary after a basic walkthrough.  We all know where the "BIG LOSERS" are in a home and can address them accordingly which will improve the home's overall performance.   

Ron: How do you ensure safety of occupants after sealing the building up tight?

Of course making the home safe at the same time is the main reason this testing (specifically BPI) was adopted in the first place.  Than again, depending on the HO situation -their CAZ might be outside of the home.  

I understand Ron's frustration and feel that this emerging market... well, we just aren't there yet.  As these standards are adopted/ required for any home bought or sold in CA (2014-ish) we can expect to see all the reasons we need to have this experience we are gaining now by learning how to do it BPI's way.

Comment by Sean Lintow Sr on October 23, 2012 at 12:31pm

You make some good points & someone with enough experience can mostly get away with doing it that way. In many ways it depends on what the customers goals or problems are. In plenty of cases I have flat out told them they don't need a full audit (though I will be glad to do it) but rather a more modified one. I mean seriously when the HO agrees or mentions that they are replacing the WH & furnace with direct vent, do we really need to do a WCC test - yeah I didn't think so. Should we test the ducts - that depends on if they are keeping the existing or going new.

With that said I have had blower doors & duct testing numbers that have shocked me. If the testing is done right (i.e. you are not there just to get a number) it can be instrumental in finding the problem spots as they do vary from house to house.

Let me leave you with one word of caution, be careful on having your mind made up so early - in some cases it can cause you to miss some obvious items. It does sound like you have a firm grip and understanding on the looking & listening aspects but it still can happen to the best of us.

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