My Energy Upgrade California—The Numbers Are In

Here are the final numbers for my Energy Upgrade California home retrofit.

Table 1. Air Leakage (CFM50)

Test-in air leakage

Test-out air leakage




Table 2. Duct Leakage

Test-in duct leakage

*Test-out duct leakage



(*Note: The duct leakage is a percentage of the rated flow of the air handler. The measured air flow at the return grill was somewhat lower, so the percent leakage was actually higher.)


According to the EnergyPro software used in the Energy Upgrade California (EUC) program, the air sealing, insulation blown into our exterior walls, and the duct sealing achieved a total of 23% energy savings; this was enough to quality for a rebate from PG&E that covered 40% of the costs for our project. I have been assured the check is working its way though the system to our mailbox.

Jason Deshasier from Stewart Heating and Air (see photo) did the duct sealing and installed the bathroom fan. Jason spent some time sealing up the plenum by cutting holes in it, brushing on a lot of mastic on the inside leak areas, and then sealing the access holes. At the Energy Out West conference this year, I learned from Bruce Manclark that sealing leaks in a duct system close to the plenum, where the air flow is the highest, has a bigger pay off than sealing around registers, for example, where the air flows are much diminished.

I did the air sealing, and was a little disappointed that I only shaved of 320 CFM. I think most of that was due to my installing a Chimney Balloon in our fireplace. Brian Stevens, our test-out auditor from Energuy, pointed out some leaks that I missed: the cabinet and vent pipe above the kitchen range hood that connects to the attic and at the doorway to the dining room there was a gap connected to the crawlspace where a door used to hang.

Michele and I are very happy with the work done on our house, and working with Bill Stewart and his crew; our energy advisor Scott Mellberg of Populus, LLC; and Energuy’s Richard Cunningham (test-in auditor) and Brian Stevens (test-out auditor) was a pleasure. Bill, Scott, and Brian were all at our house for the test out, along with our dog Cooper, Tom White, Home Energy publisher, and Kate Henke, our designer. Kate took lots of photos that we will use in an article early next year. The atmosphere was festive, and it was great to see the contractor, auditor, and advisor all getting along and respecting one another. And when Brian pointed out a new rule requiring a two-inch clearance around gas water heater flues, Bill got on top of the water heater closet with a hand saw and cut out a bigger hole for the flue.

Bill shared some horror stories—bucket of mastic falling through the ceiling onto a brand-new white carpet and antique table, for example—from past jobs and Brian kept things light with his good humor and some auditing horror stories—somehow this involved his young children at home. Brian was very thorough. He documented every measurement and test with an iPad Mini.

Michele and I were happy that 40% of the costs of our retrofit was covered through EUC. But if I were a typical homeowner and not the editor of Home Energy, it would have been difficult for someone to convince me to put in the time and the inconvenience and the 60% of the cost not covered in the rebate for a tighter, more efficient house. Plus, we were living pretty efficiently already, in a climate with hot summers but mild winters. Our gas and electric bill last month was only $38.75. It gets over $100 for a few months and peaks at about $150 mid-December to mid-January—more than $100 for heating—and we are looking forward to seeing how much we’ve cut our gas use for heating. The idea of an energy upgrade should be much more appealing though to the homeowner, perhaps with a few teenagers at home, who uses a lot more energy.

Wearing my homeowner hat, I’m happy about the new bathroom fan that is very quiet and automatic, and it felt good seeing the crawlspace covered. When we get our first heating bill next winter that will also make me happy. And the house is quieter. Jason moved the furnace filter from the air handler to the return plenum, so it is much easier to change the filter and much less likely that I’ll come crashing through the ceiling. Now that I don’t have to get up there to change the filter I may never see the inside of the attic again—until the day when we swap out our ducted system for a mini-split heat pump, anyway.

The whole process of our retrofit took several weeks and Michele or I had to be home several days during the week all together. It was noisy at times and disruptive. The wall insulation made a bunch of drywall nails pop inside! The guys from McHale’s Environmental Insulation, who sealed our crawl and blew in our wall insulation, are coming out next week to fix the nail pops. But that’s another day one of us has to be home.

As an energy geek, I love the fact that our walls are now totally insulated and our duct system is more efficient.  And I’m one of those people who feel some responsibility to the community and the planet to live more sustainably.

I am really pulling for contractors like Stewart Heating and Air and other businesses marketing, selling, and doing the often dirty and difficult work of home performance. Bill’s company is doing well, but we need more of them.

I understand the frustration that business owners have with the amount of paper work and the changing rules for energy efficiency programs. Policy makers and program managers have their jobs to do as well. Not much would happen in the home building and renovation industry without some push from a higher authority—and I don’t mean the market. But we have a ways to go to make home performance work easy for the homeowner and the home performance contractor. I think that should be a goal at every level of our industry.

Addendum: During a recent hot spell I measured temperatures inside and outside of our house every hour or so over the course of three days. One day it reached a high of 103 degrees F outside (around 5 pm), from a low of 63 degrees F (around 7am) and only reached 83 degrees F inside (around 7 pm). We open the windows at night and close them when T inside equals T outside. Not exactly "beating the heat" but learning to get along.


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Comment by Nate Adams on July 25, 2014 at 1:24pm

Jim, Glad to help! OK, a touch of soap box. So long as we don't tell people EE is free and 'payback' is not the primary reason people do it, that's great. We REALLY need cheap financing to make EE work. I'm thrilled Matt is working on this, it needs to be done. So is AFC First Financial. Cheap financing comes from confidence both in savings and that the loans will be repaid. Accurate modeling is an important piece of this, we can't have 34% realization rates like in CA. Modeling will only get accurate if there is an incentive to do so, and having your results published is about the best way to do that. The good will be shown to be good and the ones who don't do as well will know it and have incentive to improve (it shouldn't be punitive, that is counterproductive.) 

You hit on a very important point as well - contractors need to know there is profit there. Right now that's debatable at best. If there isn't money in it, we won't attract the business talent we need to scale. And we haven't scaled... Ely Jacobson just wrote about that in his last update, it's surprising we haven't gotten here earlier, but at least we're getting here! Thanks so much for writing and responding.

Comment by Jim Gunshinan on July 23, 2014 at 11:09pm

Thanks Nate for more good stuff to chew on—and nutritional! We may be running out to Home Depot in September, when it can get really hot in the Bay Area, for a couple of window units.

I don't think modeling is useless either. I think in the right hands it can be a good guide to setting priorities. I'd love if our community got to the point where we could predict pretty well energy use after a retrofit. I know some builders of new homes who guarantee energy use for heating and/or cooling for a number of years after move in. With older homes there is so much behind the walls, in the attics, and in the crawl spaces that a contractor can't control—including of course the buyers!

Matt Golden and others are working very hard to build confidence in modeling as a tool to predict aggregate energy savings to attract investors in energy efficiency. They want to know they are getting a return on their dollar and contractors need to know that their chosen business model will result in profit over time—or at least enough to pay salaries and overhead with a little left over.

I also agree that some times it is better to leave a house be and wait for a better opportunity. We push retrofits as much as possible at Home Energy, but I have to admit that sometimes it might be better to build new, or just move on to a better opportunity.

Tom, thanks for chiming in and for your kind words. If and when we decide to go with mini-splits or some other system for heating and/or cooling our house, we will definitely look for multiple bids. Am I courageous enough (and will anyone remember this) to let this forum know how much my energy bills are this coming winter, compared to last winter? To be determined.

Comment by Tom Conlon on July 23, 2014 at 9:35pm


I just got around to re-reading your four-part series and I think this is a really interesting case study, especially for other dry-climate Californians who start out with bills in the same modest range as yours. I especially enjoyed your Addendum where you describe monitoring indoor and outdoor temperatures and managing your overnight (free) ventilation accordingly. We need to teach more people how to do this.

I share your disappointment, particularly when I know you started out thinking furnace/duct replacement with VRF (mini-splits), and you still have that old fossil unit in place. Did you ever consider getting multiple bids? $20k for a mini-split job sounds high to me.

I'm eager to hear how your bills turn out. If you really save 23% weather-adjusted this winter, then -- as my grandfather used to say -- "I'll eat my hat on Market Street at five o'clock".

Thanks for taking the plunge with EUC, and for documenting your experience so well.

Comment by Nate Adams on July 23, 2014 at 9:01pm

$50 in health ain't much... not with my crappy high deductible plan. It buys half of a cold treatment. I'd want a lot more savings than that to give up humidity and IAQ control. In fact, I'm looking to move because I can't control them in my home right now, and retrofitting it is too expensive - I could fix another home much more cheaply.

If you can't predict health care costs, you CAN fairly precisely predict energy savings with a good energy model, so you could figure out if it is $25 or $50 or $200/year in savings between different units. It takes someone who has actually gone back and checked afterwards to see what happened with usage, and those are few and far between (once again, Dan, Gavin, and MacFarland, and Ted Kidd. I expect there are others, and please speak up, I want to know who you are!)

Don't let people tell you modeling is worthless and you can't really predict usage. It's like people saying Harry Potter is evil without reading it - don't knock it 'til you try it. It's scary as anything hanging out there in the beginning (that's frankly where I am) but if we were ALL predicting energy savings and tracking the results, and results were public, we'd get pretty good pretty fast. I'd bet as an industry we could get from 50% to 85-90% realization rate in less than 5 years. The guys that predicted poorly would have to get better, get more honest, or price accordingly. But I digress...

One last point you made, this may not be your last house. That does determine how far you go. Right now, my process in my area isn't cheap, but housing and gas/electric are. So somebody has to be digging in for 10-15 years to pop on a $20-30K project. I can still do something for short termers, but it won't be as good of a result. That's a question for you to decide as well, perhaps a couple window units for occasional use is good enough. Yes, there's a major energy penalty, but mini splits are pushing $5K each vs. $100-150 for a window unit - that buys a lot of electricity if you aren't certain of getting your money back. More to chew on, just what you wanted, right? =)

Comment by tedkidd on July 23, 2014 at 6:38pm

Yep, this thread has some good discussion.

Back to dehumidification.  This may be counter-intuitive, but dehumidification CAN be a problem in dry climate.   For dry climate it's a problem not because you need it, it's a problem because you have it and don't want it (this was one of many "ohhhh" dot connecting moments association with Gavin Healy, Dan Perunko, Mike MacFarland and all the Dry Climate guys has given me).  

It happens when you have Air Conditioning, particularly oversized Air Conditioning on undersized duct.  

If you don't have fast airflow across your AC coil, moisture condenses on it and is removed from your air.  In a dry climate this represents not only wasted energy (state change takes a lot of energy), but also it means you are dehumidifying when you don't want to be.  You using energy to remove something from the air that you want left IN it.  

Comment by Jim Gunshinan on July 23, 2014 at 5:25pm

Thanks for the clarification Nate.

If I had the ability to precisely measure what $50 of health might be than I could make the decision. Mostly what we depend on is educated guesses. (As opposed to wild-ass-guesses, or wags!)

I think there may be another home in our future as well. We only have one bathroom! That's something an energy audit can't address.

Comment by Nate Adams on July 23, 2014 at 5:03pm

Jim, Just a clarification, it's not DEhumidification I'm worried about in your climate, it's humidification - adding moisture. It's a problem here in Cleveland in the winter, and likely year round for you. Your skin and throat can get really dry.

AGreenSpeed is a really advanced heat pump from Carrier. No one else has one like it on the market presently. I'm out of my pay grade here, but it has much more flexibility for load matching than other systems. Rather than just 2 stages, it has infinite stages between two loads. The 3 ton unit can go all the way down to 1.25 tons. A typical 3 ton 2 stage unit might do 3 tons and 1.75 tons, or 60% ish of total load. Since it is also a communicating model, it 'listens' to what the house needs and supplies exactly that, no more, no less. It is capable of running all the time, which is actually the goal. This makes sure air is well mixed in the house, you can attach an ERV/HRV to it at the same time, humidification/dehumidification are easily managed, and the house temp is really even and comfortable, it helps even out mean radiant temperatures. 

The GreenSpeed also has some of the highest efficiency ratings of any unit on the market. They aren't cheap, though, as you might expect, but if you are doing multiple split systems it may not be that different. 

Minisplits only blow from one point (unless you duct them, of course) and don't offer these abilities. 

Ted and I's point is to have an integrated plan for the future that matches what you want and need. It shouldn't be driven by what rebates there are or what contractors want to sell.

If you give up some health in your home to save $50/year in energy, is that an ok trade for you? (It could be, no judgement here.) And I really appreciate your openness! Right now I'm a hypocrite, my house needs a lot more work, but it is too expensive to do to this one, so I am hoping to move. I just have to get my wife on board, which is tricky since our house is awesome.

Comment by Jim Gunshinan on July 23, 2014 at 4:47pm

Hi Nate, I'm glad this post has generated so much good discussion, since that is its main goal.

Dehumidification is not a problem in our climate. We have good ventilation and made sure there are no cold spots in the house where condensation could occur and maybe mold growth. The north side wall of the house was insulated while the other sides were not when we moved in. One reason may have been to eliminate condensation, but I'm not sure.

As for the ducts, I'm thinking very long term—maybe in ten years we'll switch out heating systems and add cooling. So not wasting energy and having decent air flow all over the house is a priority right now. We had some air sealing and insulation done in the attic shortly after we moved in, so I didn't make that a priority this time.

I'm beginning to understand why some contractors always answer questions with "It depends..." I want the best performing house within our budget: that is, efficient, healthy, comfortable, sustainable—even livable in the case of a disaster when the power from the grid is out for a few weeks or more. But I also want a high performing house because I'm into high performing homes. It's not just about the money. I like knowing that now all our walls are insulated and that our duct system is optimized. My wife and I try to eat right and sometimes that means paying a little more for fresh food (living in California makes that relatively easy). Can I translate that directly into living a certain amount of days longer than I would have otherwise? Not really. I could be shot out of the air tomorrow by Southern California Separatists!

I don't believe there is ever one answer for any house throughout it's history. You just have to make the best decision you can given your limits of time and resources and move on. Later you can re-evaluate. You know what would be awesome? Getting a heat pump that heats and cools the house, creates hot water, and with an energy recovery ventilator built in—that fits in a shelf in a closet.

But.... I am curious about GreenSpeed since both you and Ted Kidd mentioned it and I value both your opinions. What the heck is it?

Comment by Nate Adams on July 23, 2014 at 3:16pm

Jim, one thing that jumped out to me is how the duct sealing was largely paid for by rebates, yet you would like to abandon the duct system. That sounds like a poor rebate structure if you did it only to get a rebate, not for a better reason. 

I'm with Ted, abandoning the duct system severely limits your filtration and humidification options. Your house already gets the equivalent of 50 mpg. If a mini split gets you to 56, but a GreenSpeed gets you to 54 yet adds filtration and humidification capabilities, would that be useful to you? Do you notice dry skin or allergies (both would likely be helped with those capabilities.)

It strikes me that the program prescribes 'solutions' without really taking into account your goals. Jeremy Begley just posted an article where the author states 'Prescription without proper diagnosis is malpractice.' That sounds like what's going on with EU CA. I need to know your goals before I can design a solution, like we talked about at ACI. 

A chat with the Dry Climate guys could really be useful to you (I think I mentioned them at ACI too.) Thank you for writing about this and giving us a view into the program!

Comment by Jim Gunshinan on July 22, 2014 at 1:55pm

To all, one thing I don't lack is advice from the experts! Thanks for the input, challenges, food for thought.

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