On today’s episode of Perspectives, we are chatting with Eric George, Owner and Founder of Building Performance Group to discuss how he helps homeowners and builders of large, high-end luxury homes throughout the community maintain healthy and efficient home heating energy ratings. Heating and cooling efficiency is often one of the biggest – and most overlooked – issue that many homeowners face when purchasing an existing home.
Eric explains how he helps homeowners and builders identify their home energy ratings for newly constructed and already established, older homes. He provides simple, yet powerful advice on how homeowners can help reduce their heating and cooling bill, prevent “drafty” windows and doors, and live more comfortably with just a few simple fixes such as switching to LED lights or properly insulating the attic space.
“Existing homes are not required to meet the current building codes of newly constructed homes.” – Eric George
In This Episode of Perspectives:
- Eric explains the Home Energy Rating and how it works with the new building code updates that took place four years ago for newly constructed homes.
- He explains his inspection process for existing homes and what he looks for when he inspects an older home.
- He explains what’s involved and how long it takes to complete the Home Energy Rating inspection on large, existing homes.
- He explains why it is better to have your home inspected during certain seasons.
- He shares the most common energy efficiency issues that he has seen throughout many existing homes and what homeowners can do to fix these problems.
- We discuss how switching to LED light bulbs can help homeowners become more energy efficient and maintain a comfortable indoor temperature during the warmer weather months.
- We talk about air leakage and heat loss that occurs due to unsealed or poorly insulated windows, doors, and fireplaces.
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In this week’s episode of Perspectives, brought to you by Louisville’s luxury real estate brokerage, Lenihan Sotheby’s International Realty, I’m speaking with Eric George, the owner and founder of Building Performance, where he makes homes more comfortable, healthy, and efficient. Eric, good to see you again. How are you?
Eric: I’m great. How are you, Greg?
Greg: I am doing well. I’m going to go ahead and admit right up front that I found you, I met you, through another podcast with a builder here in town that brings you in for primarily high end, luxury custom homes. You help him find … Why don’t you explain what you do for new construction, high end, luxury homes?
Eric: What we do primarily is HERS ratings. Home energy ratings for new construction. Part of what we do is energy co-compliance verification. Most people aren’t aware, but about four years ago, the building code was updated in most states, actually. Kentucky and Indiana specifically to include basically air leakage testing and duct leakage testing. It gave builders an optional path of compliance that’s called the Performance Path.
For example, if a builder wants to build a new home that has a spray foamed attic, a conditioned attic, the insulation level of that attic is not exactly what the code requires. For example, the code requires a R-38 insulation in the attic. If you spray foam the attic, it only gives you a R-21, but the performance is equivalent, more or less, to an R-38, because of how much tighter the house is and the way that it’s constructed.
You take everything into account when you do an energy rating on a new house. You say, “Even though I’m putting less than R-38 in here, I’m doing all these other things.” The HERS rating proves that it complies with the code by testing it and by doing what’s called energy modeling.
Greg: That’s for new homes. We sell quite a few existing homes here. Is there an equal or a similar rule or regulation that we need to start looking at that stuff for existing homes? Is that a different animal altogether in your industry?
Eric: It’s a little bit different because existing homes are not required to meet the current building codes. If something was built 50 years ago, unless you take that house and gut it back to the studs and do some remodeling work, you don’t have to bring up the insulation levels. You don’t have to install new energy efficient windows.
What we do with existing homes is, we go through the same process as we do with new construction, except we don’t necessarily do the energy modeling part of it. We’ll do air leakage testing. We’ll do duct leakage testing on older homes. We’ll also use infrared cameras to go around and see like where’s the air leaking in-and-out of the house. Where is the insulation missing or insufficient?
There’s a lot of different tests that we can run. We can say, “All right. Here’s your older house. Here are the one, two, three, four, five things that you should do that are going to be the most cost-effective, bang-for-your-buck things to make it, not only more comfortable, but also more efficient and hopefully also more healthy for the indoor air quality.”
Greg: When you’re working with … Let’s just stick with existing homes for the conversation. How long, obviously depends on how big the house is, but we were talking before we started recording, you said that when you do an existing home, it’s usually going to be on the larger side, higher end homes, because it’s hard to make enough difference on utility bills in a smaller home to really make sense for you to come out.
If you’re looking at a larger home, say $500,000 and up, do you have an idea of how long that usually takes? What’s involved? I know you have an idea. Can you share your idea of how long and what’s involved in your inspection?
Eric: Sure. It does depend on how big the house is and how many heating/cooling systems it has to inspect, but for example, like a 4,000 or 5,000 square foot house, with two HVAC systems would probably take between three and four hours to complete the inspection.
Usually what we do, is we start off by doing an air leakage test on the house with a tool that’s called a blower door. Basically, what the blower door does is it simulates air leakage on the house.
It pulls air into the house, wherever there’s leaks, from the attic, from the outside, around windows and doors, electrical outlets, whatever. It pulls air into the house and then it blows it out through the front door through the blower door fan.
While that runs, we use an infrared camera and we walk around the house. We look at all the windows, the walls, the ceilings, floors, and we can see where that air is coming into the house.
What we have to do is set it up for a day where we have, it’s either a cold morning, or it’s like a hot afternoon. We have to have a 15 or 20 degree temperature difference to do thermal imaging with the infrared camera.
Greg: Okay. So you can see the air coming through, wherever the gap is, you need to be able to have enough difference between inside-and-outside to see it actually coming in?
Eric: Right. Yeah. In the wintertime, you can pretty much do it all day long, but when it gets in the spring and fall, you hit-or-miss as to having that temperature difference.
Greg: Then, do you find that a lot of people, do they make this part of the contract or this usually a situation where someone has already bought a house and just for their education, they’d like to, especially with the 5,000 square foot home or bigger, they’d like to reduce their energy bills or make sure that it’s a little tighter than maybe it was built. Is it usually done after contracts and doesn’t get involved in you fix this, I’ll fix that, negotiations?
Eric: Most of the time it is done after the house is closed although we do do energy audits as part of the inspection process. We’ll come in either before or after the home inspection is done and do our thing and provide a report. It’ll list, like I said, the top five or six or whatever biggest issues are in the house, whether that’s something that has to do with the HVAC system or with air leakage or insulation, windows or doors.
We’ll provide recommendations for repairs. We take it a lot further than a typical home inspector would because home inspectors are not allowed to actually tell you how to fix things. They basically say, “This is a problem.” They point it out. They say, “Find a qualified professional to fix it.”
We take it a step further and say, “This is how you fix it. You use these materials. You do it in this way. By the way, we have a set of recommended contractors that we work with to get it done properly.” It is a little bit different but typically we’re called in after the house is built, which is sometimes unfortunate because we uncover sometimes very expensive problems that they were not aware of and were not caught as part of the traditional home inspection process.
Greg: That someone might have liked to have known about before they …
Greg: Can you give us a couple of examples. Again, I understand every house is different. When you say you give people the top five, that’s particular to their house. That doesn’t mean that whatever five you talk about now is going to occur for every house. What’s something that you see fairly often on existing homes?
Eric: On older homes, a lot of times what we find is poorly insulated homes. They’re just poorly insulated or they’re not insulated at all in certain areas.
Greg: That’s sad to hear. You’re just putting a period there, right? Just poorly insulated.
Eric: They’re just poorly insulated. You know, houses have been poorly insulated for decades. Foundation insulation is a big thing today in new homes. People think that just because you have 8 or 10″ of concrete in the foundation walls that that stops the heat loss. Well, concrete is extremely good at transferring and absorbing heat and then releasing that heat very slowly throughout the day. Insulating foundation walls is a big one that I find.
Attics that just have like 5 or 6″ of blown insulation in there. If you can pop your head up in the attic and you can see the top of the ceiling joists, it is not enough. A lack of attic insulation is definitely one of them. Poorly insulated or completely unsealed duct work is a huge one. I mean, they didn’t even require duct sealing until like the last five or ten years.
Greg: What do you mean with that? With the duct work?
Eric: You’ve got an HVAC system, whether it’s a furnace or a heat pump, or maybe you have geothermal, and it has to force that warm or cold air through a duct system. Well, traditionally they never actually sealed the gaps or the connections between all the duct runs and everything. When air moves through that system, it leaks out a little bit as it goes through and makes its way into the bedrooms, into the kitchen and stuff. You’re leaking air in places you don’t necessarily want it to go.
Greg: I’m going to, for the sake of … I’m just going to take this back to the very elementary question just to make sure we’re saying the same thing. Every, I don’t know, maybe they’re 2′ long, where the little rivets are, where the duct work is connected to each other, is that the seam you’re talking about?
Greg: Those rivets …
Eric: Are never sealed.
Greg: Those don’t count as seals?
Eric: Those are not sealed. Those are mechanical fasteners to keep two sections of duct work together.
Greg: Even if it’s riveted there, there’s going to be some leakage at each section where that occurs?
Eric: Yes. You have a trunk line. The trunk line moves most of the air through the system. Then, you have branches. The branches feed into the bedrooms and the kitchen and the bedrooms and all that kind of stuff. Where those branches connect to the trunk lines are collars. Those collars tend to never be sealed. Those are big leakage areas as well.
It’s especially important if you have a duct system that’s in your attic. If you have a big house and there’s multiple HVAC systems and the systems that are in the attic are not sealed properly and they’re not insulated properly, then you’re going to spend a lot more electricity or gas to heat or cool your house. You’re going to be less comfortable as a result.
Greg: There are a couple of big ones. Do you have a couple more and then I wanted to ask about how much more difficult is it in an existing home to correct some of these issues that you find? In a new home, I’ve heard you talk, that the drywall’s not even up sometimes. The insulators can come back and fill in gaps that they accidentally missed or make corrections.
An existing home, I’m guessing, a lot of people don’t want to tear down their walls or pull their drywall down to put a little extra insulation around the windows.
Eric: Right. Most of the time, we find leakage around windows and doors, but it’s not necessarily through the window itself. It’s around the window, between the window frame and the wall frame. When that window was originally set in the wall, they didn’t used to use minimal expansion foam to seal that gap. They would either stuff it with some fiberglass insulation, which does not stop air leakage, or they wouldn’t put anything in there at all.
In older homes, the easiest way to stop that leakage is by caulking the trim all the way around the window or the door to the wall. A lot of times, the top of the window trim and the bottom of the window trim is not caulked when it’s initially installed because the painter, it’s not a line of sight that you see. You know what I’m saying?
Eric: The left and the right side of the windows and doors will be caulked, but not the top and the bottom. That’s where I see most of the leakage. It’s silly, but it’s a super easy fix. People think that their windows leak all the time and that they need new triple pane windows or whatever.
The fact is that most houses that have built in the last 30, 40, 50 years, they probably have pretty decent windows in them. It’s not the window itself leaking, it’s the air coming around the window that’s causing those comfort problems.
Greg: How it’s connected to the house?
Eric: Yes. It’s how that thing is set in the exterior wall.
Greg: Okay. I think I heard you talk on another podcast about lights. Can you touch on lights real quickly?
Eric: Sure. Lighting is a big deal now. Now, you’ve got LED lights and CFLs, which are compact fluorescent lights. They’re much more efficient than the incandescent bulbs that everybody’s used to in the past. They use about one-tenth of the amount of electricity to create the same amount of light, LEDs do.
They’ve gotten a lot more cost-effective in just the last few years. LEDs are almost the same price as CFL lights now. Believe it or not, they’re not even producing incandescent bulbs anymore. General Electric quit making incandescent light bulbs several years ago. They’re just emptying their stockpile that’s been sitting in warehouses.
Greg: I had no idea.
Eric: Most manufacturers don’t even make incandescent bulbs anymore, but LEDs are the way to go. Not only do they use less electricity than the other forms, but they don’t produce nearly as much heat either. If you’ve got a bunch of recessed lights in your house or halogen lights or whatever, usually those are 100 watt bulbs or higher. They produce a lot of heat.
In the summertime, when you’re trying to keep your house at 70 or 72 degrees, you’re adding a bunch of heat to your house just by turning on lights. By switching to LEDs, it’s a very efficient way to recover that investment. It’s not that much to swap them out, but you’re also helping your air-conditioning work better.
Greg: Then, those kinds of lights on the second floor, I think I heard you talk about the insulation on top of recessed lights. Is that a little harder to deal with in an older home? Is that a new home concern? Is that a concern for everybody?
Eric: It’s really a concern especially in older homes that have those recessed lights or some people call them can lights. They were not intended to be sealed lights. They were not intended to be insulated over either. The new code for recessed lights in new construction, they require airtight insulated can lights, if you’re going to install those, between living space and an attic.
Older homes that have those leaky can lights, they can be sealed retroactively. You can go in and basically use metal tape and seal off the holes. You can put certain types of covers over top of them and seal it to the drywall from the attic side.
There’s a few different ways that you can seal up older lights, but the most important thing is that if you’re going to do that, you have to replace those old light bulbs with new LEDs, otherwise the heat that’s generated from those older light bulbs in that now sealed can, can overheat and cause a fire, which is the last thing that you want in your house.
Greg: That’s why you have someone like you come through and make sure that the recommendations are appropriate.
Greg: One more topic before I let you go. Fireplaces. What do you do about fireplaces in older homes?
Eric: Fireplaces can be a challenge. They are essentially big holes in your house. If it’s a natural gas fireplace, it’s going to have a flue pipe typically that comes off the back of it or off the top of it. If that flue pipe runs up into an attic, usually you’re going to find a big hole in your attic. If you were up in your attic looking down around that flue pipe, it might be a 2′ by 5′ hole in your house.
It allows a lot of air leakage to occur, it allows a lot of heat loss to occur. Those can be blocked off and sealed and insulated properly. That’s fixable, but some of the chimneys and stuff that we have with wood burning fireplaces is going to be a little bit more difficult to deal with. Typically, there’s a way to seal it up and insulate it properly.
Greg: You have contractors that you work with that can handle most aspects of any kind of issue that you find, you can point people in the right direction?
Eric: Yeah. We’ve got recommended general contractors, handymen, carpenters, HVAC contractors, insulation guys. Pretty much whatever you need to have done, we can bring in some of the right people and get quotes. What we usually do is, I’ll write up a scope of work. I’ll say, “Here’s the biggest problems that you have. Here’s what I recommend that you do. We’ll get three bids for each trade.” Then, the homeowners can select whichever one they feel most comfortable with.
Then, what we do is, Home Performance Contracting is what I call it. We act as the third party independent consultant to make sure that that work gets done properly. Then, we retest afterwards to actually quantify what the difference is. If we spec that we’re going to air seal this house and do insulation work and do duct sealing, I’m going to do an air leakage test before that happens and after that happens.
I’m going to do a duct leakage test before that happens and after that happens. I’ll probably do an infrared inspection before-and-after to verify that what I’m saying is supposed to be done is actually done properly. We’re like a very specialized general contractor in that respect.
Greg: Would this be a different service than say the base inspection so that someone would hire you to come out and do an inspection? Then, that would be one cost and then if they want you to bid out and contract out and help them with the next step of doing this work, that’d be a separate…?
Eric: Yes. Yes.
Greg: If someone’s listening and they’re interested in having you come out to their home and just want to reach out or maybe read some articles on your website, what’s the best way and a variety of ways of people to find you online or not necessarily online?
Eric: Sure. The website is buildingperformancegroup.com. You can also find us on Facebook. Facebook Building Performance. We’re on Instagram as well, Building.Performance. Our phone number is 502-509-5535.
Greg: For anyone listening, I particularly like watching your Facebook and Instagram feeds just because there’s a lot of stuff on there that I hadn’t thought about. You go around and you take pictures of things that have gone wrong for someone else. Right? We all like to point at other people. “That’s not the way it’s supposed to be done.” It’s fun to see some of these pictures that come out. I hope not to be on there one day, but …
Eric, good to talk to you again. Thanks so much for coming in.
Eric: I appreciate it. Thank you.
Thank you for joining Perspectives this week. Presented by Lenihan Sotheby’s International Realty. If you have an idea for a future episode or think you might like to participate, please contact us at email@example.com for more information. Please, if you like this series, make sure to Subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher, then leave us a review, and share and like on all your favorite social media channels.
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