Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Energy upgrade: Is it the one-stop shop we’ve been waiting for?

Linnzi Cannon, a field energy analyst for Advanced Comfort and Energy, sets up a blower door during an energy audit at Mark Braly's house in Mace Ranch. The door was sealed too to detect leaks around doors, windows, electrical sockets and elsewhere. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

July 5, 2011 |

Learn more

What: Public workshop on rebates for home energy upgrades, featuring a panel of energy upgrade contractors to answer questions

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, July 14

Where: Community Chambers, City Hall, 23 Russell Blvd.

Watch it: Live on City Government Channel 16

I learned two important things as I set out to improve my home’s energy efficiency:

1. If your heating and cooling system is reaching the end of its useful life, usually 15 to 20 years — there’s 3 percent financing available to replace it.

2. There is new super-efficient technology available that can do a better, more energy-efficient job of dealing with Davis summers than anything available 15 to 20 years ago.

The UC Davis Western Cooling Efficiency Center has a good handle on what is now available, and, in some cases, has helped develop and test it. Looking through the list of manufacturers who work with center is how I found AquaChill, a state-of-the-art water cooling approach developed by Buetler, a Sacramento company.

The AquaChill has little in common with the old swamp coolers, which still survive in odd corners of Davis. It uses very little water (a shower’s worth a day) and it will not make the inside of your house damp. Instead, it takes full advantage of the superior cooling power of water compared to air coolers like the ones you and I have. The result is that the AquaChill can better cope with triple-digit days, while using a fraction of the energy consumed by air-cooled units.

New energy-efficient technologies are notoriously difficult to introduce into a change-resistant marketplace. There has been only limited success with utility rebates, tax incentives and public education campaigns. A missing piece has been attractive financing.

Until a year ago, there was momentum for Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), a form of financing that became part of a property’s tax bill, like a special assessment. That is stalled in Washington, D.C., where many good ideas go to die. We don’t know if it will be revived.

In the meantime, we have California Energy Upgrade, a statewide effort to pull all the incentives, information and financing together in one place. That place is  I went there to get the complete picture, which has been very confusing. The website has a list of contractors who have been certified to do whole-house energy audits on homes. I found one that handles AquaChill — Advanced Comfort and Energy Systems, a division of Beutler.

I expected to pay up to $500 for a whole house energy audit that meets state Energy Commission requirements. I found that the audit is free if you are applying for 3 percent financing from California Housing Finance. It’s free even if you decide not to go ahead.

CHF funding (which results from a federal stimulus grant) is available in Yolo County to almost anyone. The money is limited, however, and it’s first-come, first-served. Other available financing is described on the CaliforniaEnergyUpgrade website.

Bob Goebel of Advanced Comfort and Energy arrived recently with two certified energy auditors and spent a full morning analyzing my energy use and waste. They sealed off every heating/cooling outlet in the house to check air flow. If weak, this in an indication there is leakage in the duct system. They later estimated that I had 35 percent leakage, a huge number. The duct work that is visible in the attic has been sealed tightly, but the rest of it is hidden from sight. When I replace my furnace, installers may be able to see the source of the leak.

The front door was sealed off for a blower door, which helps detect leaks around doors, windows, electrical sockets and elsewhere. Included in the audit is a check for natural gas or carbon monoxide leaks. There were no carbon monoxide leaks but there was a significant gas leak, since repaired.

A week later, Bob came back to give me the results. The changes recommended would move my home from the upper end of poor performance almost to the efficiency of a new home built today under California’s energy building code. On a scale of 0 to 250, my home would move from 163 to 113. Zero is a home that uses net zero energy.

This was due to a saving of 26 percent of current electricity and gas use, enough to qualify for all available incentives.

Most of the savings will come from replacing the inefficient heating, cooling, and ventilation system. The rest comes from plugging leaks. The analysis of energy use in my home showed that heating and cooling were by far the biggest users. The distant second was all appliances.

State energy regulators didn’t really intend for the audits and the corrective work to be done by the same company. The problem is that there are very few independent certified energy auditors in business, and none are in Davis. These auditors charge up to $500 for the audit, but Energy Upgrade California soon will launch a program to cover the cost. Once the work is done, an independent certified auditor will check to see that the savings were achieved.

I’ve already made many efficiency improvements to my home — upgraded attic insulation, whole house fan, tankless water heater, sunscreens, sun awning and a rooftop solar electric system. Most of what was left had to be the heating and cooling, the biggest users.

I had followed the work at UCD’s Western Cooling Efficiency Center and knew that the water-cooled HVAC systems had achieved greater efficiency than the conventional air-cooled. And what also interested me was the greater cooling capacity at high outside temperatures. The three-ton air-cooled compressor I have now has never cooled my home upstairs on the hottest days.

Cooling capacity can be measured as SEER or EER. SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) assumes an outside temperature of 85F. EER assumes 95F, more like a Davis summer day. The water-cooled systems have been shown to maintain most of their cooling effectiveness even at the highest temperature. The heating side of the system also has become more efficient, and their fans have added variable speed motors, which match air flow to cooling and heating needs.

The improvements come to $14,575 after $4,900 in rebates, credits and grants. (Grants of up to $1,250 are available for California Housing Finance borrowers.)

But I will be borrowing $17,575, an amount that can be reduced as the tax credit and rebates come in. My monthly payment for 15 years will be $121. Annual payments on the loan ($1,453) will be more than the estimated annual utility bill savings of $400.

Why am I paying more than the savings? The answer is partly comfort. I would like to cool the second floor of my house during triple-digit days. The other part is an obligation to the planet. The improvements will avoid 1.6 tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year.

Despite California’s leading role in energy efficiency, we have never achieved the full potential available with current technology. There is no agreement as to why this is, but my experiences as an efficiency consumer is that doing the right thing is just too burdensome to the average homeowner. Too much research is needed. Too much money is required. Too much time is spent.

We need something that takes us by the hand and shows us what we need and what to pay for it. Energy Upgrade California is not that. But it is a big step forward. Is it the one-stop shopping point we have been needing? Not quite. It won’t transform the market, but it is a valuable resource for the motivated.

— Mark Braly of Davis is past chairman of the Davis Planning Commission and president of the Valley Climate Action Center.



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