Energy audits on Tampa homes spell utility relief
Larry Sheldon didn’t know how much energy his St. Petersburg home was losing every month until he sought out an energy efficiency audit from A-rated Florida Energy Conservation Advisors of Palm Harbor. He says they provided a wealth of helpful suggestions and improvements to seal his home, conserve energy and save power bills.
“The representative walked me around the exterior and interior of my home, showing me what could be done to conserve energy,” the St. Petersburg member says. “He even crawled through the attic searching for air leaks. In addition to all the work they did, he also gave me many tips on what I could do myself to save energy.”
Based on their recommendations, Sheldon chose to purchase an extensive insulation and window film installation job at a cost of $8,000, which he says was well worth the money: “I could feel a difference in the house immediately. The savings on my electric bill will probably be close to $100 every month.”
With Florida’s warm climate and hefty air conditioning bills, highly rated service providers recommend Tampa homeowners make sure their homes are as well-sealed as possible to minimize energy use.
Richard Muscarella, president of Florida Energy Conservation Advisors, says his auditors see the same problems over and over. “Most of the homes we visit are absolutely underinsulated,” he says. “Quite a few were built with lots of windows and single-pane glass, which is highly inefficient.” He says poorly insulated ceilings, wall gaps and inefficient or outdated appliances cause the most air loss, but sealing or replacement can usually correct those problems.
Given Florida’s ongoing real estate slump, Muscarella says complete window replacement isn’t always optimal. “The cost can be stifling, so the return on investment isn’t always apparent, but homeowners have other options,” he says. “A highly efficient window film can prevent large percentages of heat from entering the home, and block some of the UV light. That’s a very affordable solution to an energy bleed.”
Sometimes small, unexpected issues cause energy loss, Muscarella says. “People often don’t pay attention to the water heater settings or pool pump timers,” he says. “You need to change the batteries on water heater timers at least once a year, if not twice, and flush the water heater at least once a year.”
Muscarella also frequently suggests radiant barriers or radiant shields for roofs. “That’s the first line of defense, designed to ward off the intense heat of summer,” he says. “Your attic could reach 155 degrees in the summer without that.”
But Michael Turner, owner of highly rated Green Cooling Solutions in Sarasota, says air conditioning loss remains the greatest threat to energy efficiency. “Air conditioning takes up about 50 percent of the usual utility bill,” he says. “So anything you can do to lower the need for A/C is going to really show up in your bills as a savings.” He charges $300 for a detailed audit that includes measurements of all duct vents, a blower-door test to check air leakage, and infrared scans of walls to determine spots where hot and cold air are escaping.
Palmetto member Rachel Kersten hired Green Cooling Solutions to replace her air conditioner with an energy-efficient model at a cost of $4,000, and says the resulting savings exceeded her expectations. “They gave up their Saturday to install a new unit so we wouldn’t have to bear another weekend of a 95-degree house,” she says. “I received quite a bit of a rebate from FPL, and Green Cooling handled all the necessary paperwork, so it seemed like free money! I couldn’t believe the difference in the first electric bill after they installed the new system — I literally called FPL to make sure it was correct. It was only $50.”
Muscarella says he helps homeowners learn to read their utility bills. “You’d be surprised how many people don’t know how to look at a power bill,” he says. “We show people how to look at their consumption in comparison to the same month last year, and the peaks and valleys over the course of the year.”
Many energy providers offer rebates, credits or incentives for energy-efficiency work. “The local utility can provide the biggest financial benefits for the homeowner,” Turner says. Depending on location and energy provider, Tampa-area homeowners may qualify for a variety of programs. Florida Power and Light offers rebates for certain types of insulation, duct system and HVAC upgrades. Progress Energy rebates cover duct repair, insulation, heat pump insulation, windows and reflective roofing. TECO subsidizes insulation, HVAC systems, windows and ductwork.
Some companies assist customers with the paperwork needed to acquire rebates from local utility companies, and many manufacturers offer additional assistance or rebates as well. Before hiring, check if a prospective contractor offers this service, as well as whether it holds a reputable certification, such as Building Performance Institute, Resnet or Home Energy Ratings System, since Florida does not require licensing for energy efficiency auditing. “You want to make sure this person knows what they’re doing,” Turner says. “Anyone with $10,000 in equipment and a van could say they’re capable of doing the job, so those certifications are key to getting quality work.”
7 ways to save on energy bills
- Windows. Caulk annually to make airtight or replace with more efficient windows.
- Air ducts. Seal gaps or holes in air ducts to prevent heated or conditioned air from escaping in non-living spaces.
- Doors. Check sealing annually so cold air can’t enter.
- Insulation. Measure your insulation to make sure it’s enough and distributed evenly throughout the attic.
- Recessed lights. Cover or insulate them to prevent air leakage into the attic.
- Fireplace. Cover or seal if not using to keep air from escaping.
- Furnace. Service unit in spring and fall or replace with more efficient unit.