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Home energy audits can offer a bundle.

Byline: Lisa Eckelbecker

LEICESTER - Last winter, Patricia A. Sullivan closed off the top floor of her 1950 Cape-style home, shivered as she lowered her home's thermostat and slept under an electric blanket to hold down heating costs.

Yet she still spent $2,100 on home heating oil. Now, that amount might seem a bargain compared with the $3,000 she estimates she may spend this winter.

"I have to budget my money week to week," said Ms. Sullivan, a dental hygienist and single mother of 9-year-old daughter Rebecca. "What is more important this week? Are there any recreational things we can do without? Because we have to eat, and we need heat."

All of which explains, in a roundabout way, how Mark T. Donovan of Conservation Services Group wound up in the basement of Ms. Sullivan's Cherry Valley home last week, peering at her dryer vent and stretching his hand into a dark hole in her garage's ceiling. Over the course of about 90 minutes, Mr. Donovan examined her 1,218-square-foot house from top to bottom as part of an energy assessment aimed at finding ways to cut her energy consumption.

It's one of the hottest services around, as consumers grapple with budget-busting home heating costs. The average cost of heating a home this winter is expected to jump 14.6 percent to $1,114, according to the National Energy Assistance Director's Association. The cost is projected to reach $2,593 for homes heated with heating oil, the group reported in June. About 163,000 Massachusetts households will struggle to pay their heating bills, and those that use heating oil could end up spending more than $3,000, the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute estimates.

"Finding ways to help people conserve, use less energy, get insulation into their homes, especially people who heat with oil, is going to be absolutely essential to help our families pay their bills and get through this winter," said Michael D. Goodman, director of economic and public policy research for the Donahue Institute.

National Grid, the Westboro-based utility, is on track to process 10,000 free home energy assessments this year, according to Jerry E. Hanna, a National Grid residential energy efficiency expert. Conservation Services Group of Westboro, one of the groups that perform the assessments for National Grid, just hired six new workers to keep up with the demand.

"Right now we're inundated with people who want audits," Mr. Hanna said.

Home energy assessments, also called audits, are a way to examine the elements of a home that conserve or drain energy, such as insulation, appliances and lighting. Online energy audits allow consumers to enter information about a home into a form and calculate findings. The free assessments offered to National Grid customers and other utility consumers feature visits by workers skilled in fields such as construction and engineering. Homeowners can also pay for energy inspections done by specialized home inspectors.

An energy inspection treats a home as a living, breathing organism, said Mark Forkey of Certified Inspection Services and Certified Home Inspection Corp. of Sterling. His energy inspections focus on elements such as the energy use of appliances, leakage around doors and windows, and the potential cost and savings of steps that homeowners can take.

"People call me mostly because their house is uncomfortable," Mr. Forkey said. "Yes, they're concerned about the money, and wait until they get their next oil bill. But the majority of situations, people call me because there's a drafty situation, they're uncomfortable in the house and they don't know why."

National Grid spent about $840,000 on about 5,600 home energy assessments last year, using money from special fees that customers pay to support conservation. It's a small price to pay, according to Mr. Hanna.

"It's actually cheaper to spend that money on conservation than it is to put into a new generating plant," Mr. Hanna said.

During 2007, the utility estimates its energy-saving programs helped customers in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire cut more than $39 million off their electric bills. The incentive to tap into those programs grows even sweeter starting Sept. 1, when consumers will be eligible for rebates of up to $2,000 toward the cost of certain home energy-efficiency improvements, up from the current limit of $1,500.

When it comes to home assessments, however, not everyone who wants one gets one. National Grid generally targets older homes for assessments.

Ms. Sullivan waited two-and-a-half months for her home assessment. At Ms. Sullivan's house in Cherry Valley, Mr. Donovan of Conservation Services Group set up a laptop computer in the kitchen and then headed to the basement to start his energy assessment.

"Right off the bat, I would get a dehumidifier down here to start pulling the moisture out of the air," he told Ms. Sullivan.

He crouched to examine the oil heating system and electric water heater, which were both installed in 2006 when the house was renovated, and peered behind her dryer, which was not connected to a vent.

"That'll put a lot of moisture into the house," he said.

He pointed out where insulation could be installed on the foundation's sill, and examined a pipe that froze last winter. Back in the kitchen, Mr. Donovan examined the refrigerator, then removed the plate over a light switch to probe the wall for insulation. He repeated the insulation test in the living room. Upstairs, he examined a crawl space, then walked outside to measure the home.

Back inside, he began removing incandescent bulbs from Ms. Sullivan's lamps and light fixtures and replaced them with compact fluorescent bulbs. Then with information on her home heating oil purchases last winter and data from her electric bills, he began calculations.

The verdict? Ms. Sullivan's home wasn't as badly insulated as she feared. Her electricity use was on the low end. Changing her light bulbs should save her about $105 a year. But her options also were limited by her damp basement. Adding insulation to her attic could save $150 a year in heating costs, but extensive insulation also could seal in moisture and cause mold. Mr. Donovan recommended that Ms. Sullivan try to dry out the basement, then ask for another energy assessment in one year.

"We always want to make sure we're not tightening up a house and make sure it's not worse than it was before," he said.

Ms. Sullivan agreed.

"I want to do exactly what they tell me to do to save as much money as I can," she said. "First thing I'll do is make sure the dryer (vent) is hooked up, then the dehumidifier."

Contact Lisa Eckelbecker by e-mail at leckelbecker@telegram.com.

ART: PHOTO; CHARTS

CUTLINE: (1) Energy consultant Mark T. Donovan, center, of Conservation Services Group, evaluates Patricia A. Sullivan's home in Leicester. At left is Jerry E. Hanna, a National Grid residential energy efficiency expert. (CHART 1) Average home heating costs (CHART 2) On the Web

PHOTOG: (PHOTO) T&G Staff/MARK C. IDE
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Aug 17, 2008
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