Home en­ergy au­dits defy crit­ics, back­ers’ fore­casts Real es­tate ef­fects don’t seem oner­ous, but fewer up­grades made than ex­pected

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Shonda No­vak

A year af­ter it took ef­fect, Austin’s re­quire­ment that many homes un­dergo en­ergy au­dits has not pro­duced the dire ef­fects that some in the real es­tate in­dus­try had feared.

But its im­pact on en­ergy con­ser­va­tion is de­bat­able.

In 96 per­cent of the 4,862 au­dits con­ducted, the en­ergy au­di­tors rec­om­mended at least one im­prove­ment. How­ever, only 520 home­buy­ers or sell­ers fol­lowed through on any of the rec­om­men­da­tions.

That is far short of the City Coun­cil’s first-year goal of 25 per­cent of all homes sold get­ting en­ergy up­grades. More than 9,500 city homes served by Austin En­ergy were sold in the 11 months that ended in April.

Still, it’s a start, said Karl Rábago, vice pres­i­dent at Austin En­ergy, which over­sees ad­min­is­tra­tion of the new or­di­nance.

“It sug­gests that this is in fact a valid gate­way to our en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency pro­grams and hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about en­ergy us­age,” Rábago said.

The City Coun­cil will re­view how well the or­di­nance is work­ing, he said. “We need to take a hard look at mar­ket­ing and ed­u­ca­tion and the im­pact of this econ­omy on the most ef­fec­tive means for get­ting to that goal.”

The or­di­nance ap­plies to homes older than 10 years, with some ex­cep­tions, in­clud­ing homes that have had en­ergy im­prove­ments within the past 10 years.

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Sell­ers must hire a cityc­er­ti­fied en­ergy au­di­tor to in­spect their home and pro­vide a re­port that must be shared with the buyer be­fore or at clos­ing.

Sell­ers are not re­quired to make any of the rec­om­mended im­prove­ments, which can range from steps as sim­ple as caulk­ing and weather-strip­ping to in­stalling new heat­ing and air-con­di­tion­ing sys­tems, which cost sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars.

The au­dits typ­i­cally cost $200 to $300. Fail­ing to get one can re­sult in a fine of up to $500. Austin En­ergy says no fines have been levied un­der the or­di­nance, which is en­forced through a com­plaint-based sys­tem.

The or­di­nance has not stalled home sales or weak­ened sell­ers’ ne­go­ti­at­ing power, real es­tate agents say.

Tammy Young, an agent with Realty Austin, said she thinks the au­dits are a good first step to­ward mak­ing buy­ers and sell­ers more aware of a home’s en­ergy ef­fi­ciency and what they can do to im­prove it.

“The au­dit has never crushed any deals for any of my buy­ers or sell­ers,” Young said. “In one or two cases, it led to an ad­di­tional seller con­ces­sion,” she said, men­tion­ing a case in which a seller agreed to pay half the cost of seal­ing the ducts. “That was a de­fect in the house that we wouldn’t have known about based on the gen­eral in­spec­tion re­port alone.”

Sell­ers gen­er­ally have ac­cepted the cost of the au­dit as part of the ex­pense of sell­ing their homes, Young and other real es­tate agents say.

Gin­ger Auel, a lo­cal real es­tate bro­ker, said the au­dits make buy­ers aware of en­ergy-re­lated items that they can im­prove upon, which will in­crease the home’s ef­fi­ciency while keep­ing cost down.

Asked whether the au­dits can be an­other sell­ing point, Auel said, “I think it’s help­ful for buy­ers to have the en­ergy au­dit re­ports so they know what to ex­pect on their fu­ture in­vest­ment, but I don’t think it is nec­es­sar­ily a huge sell­ing point.”

Joe Ste­wart, a bro­ker/agent with John Hor­ton Realty, said he thinks the au­dits largely du­pli­cate the job done by li­censed home in­spec­tors and don’t ma­te­ri­ally add to the stock of more en­ergy-ef­fi­cient hous­ing in Austin be­cause act­ing on the rec­om­men­da­tions is vol­un­tary.

Ste­wart said home in­spec­tors, who are state-li­censed and must use an au­dit form pro­mul­gated by the state, in some cases have caught mis­takes made by en­ergy au­di­tors, in­clud­ing one case in which an au­di­tor er­ro­neously said a home had dou­ble-pane win­dows. (Rábago said Austin En­ergy’s goal is to re­view 10 per­cent of the au­dits for ac­cu­racy and com­plete­ness and to fol­low up with the new own­ers about mak­ing en­ergy up­grades that are el­i­gi­ble for Austin En­ergy re­bates.)

Ste­wart said the au­dits are a bur­den for lower-in­come home sell­ers who “count ev­ery penny.”

The or­di­nance’s pro­po­nents counter that it is es­pe­cially cru­cial for lower-in­come folks to know about their home’s en­ergy use, be­cause it ac­counts for a higher pro­por­tion of their house­hold in­come — as much as 20 to 25 per­cent, Rábago said.

Billy Mey­erdirk, owner of En­ergy au­di­tor Kristof Ir­win checks a swim­ming pool pump at a Park­field Drive home in North Austin to see if it has a timer. im­prove its com­fort, health, safety and dura­bil­ity — and likely its re­sale value,” said Kristof Ir­win, who, with his wife, Diane, owns Blue Heron Builders, an Austin-based green builder of cus­tom homes, and Pos­i­tive En­ergy, an en­ergy au­dit firm.

For ex­am­ple, fix­ing leaky ducts not only im­proves air qual­ity but can help pre­vent mold, he said.

In ad­di­tion, an au­dit some­times un­cov­ers po­ten­tial safety is­sues, in­clud­ing im­prop­erly vented com­bus­tion ap­pli­ances such as gas ranges, wa­ter heaters or fur­naces. Such de­fi­cien­cies, Ir­win said, rou­tinely turn up in the au­dits.

When buy­ing a car, “we’d be aghast if there wasn’t a win­dow sticker say­ing how it per­forms as far as fuel econ­omy,” Ir­win said. Be­cause homes use a sig­nif­i­cant amount of en­ergy, it’s all the more im­por­tant for an owner or buyer to know about its ef­fi­ciency, he said.

Rábago said con­sumers “come to en­ergy ef­fi­ciency by 100 dif­fer­ent roads,” such as want­ing lower elec­tric bills or im­proved indoor air qual­ity. The en­ergy au­dit or­di­nance “is one more road, and the more roads the bet­ter, he said, “be­cause we know the cheap­est power plant you’ll find is the one you don’t have to build.”

“There is a gold mine of en­ergy sav­ings in older homes,” Rábago said.

The util­ity has a wide range of en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency pro­grams, in­clud­ing re­bates and low-cost loans, for both homes and com­mer­cial prop­er­ties.

Since Austin En­ergy’s last rate case in 1995, “we’ve saved over 660 megawatts of elec­tric­ity — the size of a large power plant — through en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency pro­grams, and at way less than half the cost of what a power plant would cost,” Rábago said. “That’s why for 15 years we’ve avoided a rate case.”

Larry Kolvo­ord pho­tos AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Pos­i­tive En­ergy co-owner Kristof Ir­win cov­ers a reg­is­ter in a Park­field Drive home’s kitchen to test the cen­tral air-con­di­tion­ing and heat­ing sys­tem ducts dur­ing an au­dit un­der the year-old city rules.

This gauge mea­sures air pres­sure and flow in duct­work.

Larry Kolvo­ord

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