Gaines Group Architects
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Increase comfort and cut energy bills for your home

This time of year my phone starts ringing on a regular basis for our free energy audit service. People do not like being cold and uncomfortable in their homes and we can help them solve this problem. If you live in the Harrisonburg / Rockingham County area, give our office a call to schedule an audit and we will help identify issues in your home. This audit can also identify solutions to increase comfort and cut energy bills for your home.

HVAC Quality

The issues I find in most homes are very similar and the biggest comfort challenge is air leakage. The biggest leaks come around the holes in your walls that you see everyday and don’t think about anymore. No, not your windows and doors, although those cause issues. The biggest air leaks when added up are probably your electrical outlets and light switches – both on outside walls and inside walls. Taking the decorative cover plate off the outlet / switch you can caulk the plastic box tight to the drywall behind. There are also pre-cut insulation patches that can be added behind the decorative plate. Finally adding child protective plugs in any open outlet will reduce air leakage through these many holes in your walls.

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There is also a door in your home that most people don’t treat like a door. The attic access almost never has insulation over it and does not have weather-stripping.  Adding rigid insulation glued in layers, on the back side of the attic access panel will keep insulation in place even after you retrieve the Christmas tree.

Air Leaksair leaks

Another common problem I find in almost every home I get called in for an energy audit is lacking insulation. The easiest place to add insulation is usually the attic. I often find missing insulation that has been moved by people, animals, and wind in attics. Keeping a well insulated thermal envelope is critical for maximizing the comfort of your home.

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If your home suffers from high energy bills or rooms that are not comfortable, give us a call today.

Renew Rocktown

Community means helping each other without expectation of anything in return

I have heard that true service is when you help someone who can never help you in return. It is a call to action to reach out a helping hand to others. It is the Rotary calling card – service above self. It drives us to support one another without worry of labels, politics, or greed. This has become a main focus for my design work through my career. I want to build a better and stronger community through design. This means designing houses for clients that are energy-efficient. This means reducing overall demand on our power grid and our impacts on climate change through fossil fuel consumption reduction. This means capturing rain water to reduce erosion and flooding downstream. This means designing apartment communities in ways that bring neighbors together to meet each other. Design can solve a lot of problems, and it can also build good. To me, this is why I design. As Sam Mockbee said “everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul.” This comes in all forms of service and community work. It comes as drawings of a new project. It also comes in the form of sharing advice on how to improve your building to reduce your utility costs. It comes from teaching young people the value of design. It comes through service to my community. To me community means helping each other without expectation of anything in return.

A story of impact from design

Renew Rocktown arranged for Our Community Place to get a free energy audit through the Sustainable Building Coalition in Harrisonburg. Energy Audits is a service our firm is able to provide in partnership with equipment provided to us by HEC. We offer residential audits in Harrisonburg through HEC and outside of Harrisonburg through our firm. We can also help non-profits and small businesses by providing free energy audits.
Renew Rocktown Renew Rocktown
 
The energy audit provided a list of strategies to help this community organization reduce their energy consumption.
 
OCP then partnered with volunteers to install LED bulbs in their building, the fastest return on investment we identified. Then Renew Rocktown, through the efforts of Jeff Heie helped them get a grant to solarize their roof. This could provide 70% of their energy needs through a clean energy source. For a non-profit, reducing utilities bills allows them to better serve their community. This work that started with an energy audit, then volunteers working on lights, then solar pv on the roof will have a ripple effect in our community for years to come. This is my community! 
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attic insulation

Get an Energy Audit to Verify Your House Doesn’t Have Unwanted Guests

Energy auditI went out to do an energy audit at Massanutten yesterday. The home was clearly well maintained. It was 30+ years old, was not showing signs of neglect, and the heat was ON. It was very warm inside just like the homeowners like it. We took a moment to talk about their concerns and I learned they just wanted to make sure the home was in good shape as it pertains to energy efficiency. They told me about adding insulation in various places around the home. They talked about keeping the thermostat higher than normal because they like it warm. The talked about appliances that were a little old and had concerns they might have to replace them.

Energy audit

Dryer vent problems

They did not mention high electric bills – so I asked. They have average electric bills. So overall – the house was performing really well, keeping them warm, and the electric bills were not killing them. So I found the normal leaks – around electrical outlets, doors, windows, cabinets, and attic access. The framing intersection at the top of basement wall glowed from all the energy leaking through. The light bulbs could all be changed to LED to cut energy usage. The doors needed a little weather-stripping attention

So it was a normal energy audit. They could probably cut their energy usage by 30% with a few minor changes and I gave them names of people who could help with fixing it. So was it worth my trip out? YES. I found two major issues for them that neither of us expected.

Energy audit

The two major issues we found doing an energy audit:

  1. Their dryer vent was long, had multiple dips in it, and from a brief test, appeared to be mostly clogged in one place and had considerable lint build up in several other places. This can easily lead to a fire. So I asked them to have that looked at immediately. Hopefully they will take care of it before it becomes a story on the news.
  2. The second major issue was multiple, more than 6, places in the attic that appeared to either be roof leaks or nests. A more fit energy auditor – like Building Knowledge – would have gotten up in the attic to verify the issue. However, if you call for a free audit from the overweight architect, I will simply give you a name of someone who can climb through the attic scuttle and determine the problem. Either way, they were losing energy through their attic insulation that had been moved away or gotten wet. Fixing this issue and adding a layer of insulation (while plugging the holes causing the problem) will certainly make their home more comfortable and eliminate any uninvited guests from living in their attic.

So, my 1 hour free energy audit gave them a list of things to fix in their home that could lead to a 30% reduction in energy usage, but it also identified roof leaks and squatters. It also hopefully prevented a fire that looked like it was ready to happen. If you want an energy audit, give me a call.

Energy audit

Attic nest

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attic insulation

Was your house cold this morning? If so, learn how to fix it here.

Was your house cold this morning? If so, learn how to fix it here.

The cold weather is coming! Is your house ready? Do you have to add a blanket on your bed this time of year because your house is always uncomfortable? Are you dreading the winter heating bills?

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Making your home energy-efficient also improves comfort on these cold mornings. Your home is the most complicated machine you own. So where do you start? How do you fix it? As you can imagine, this is a topic I have written about a lot over the years. I found some blog posts in particular that touch on making your home more comfortable in the cool months and listed them below.

North Fork Middle School

The summary is call me for a free energy audit. There are no strings attached. I come and test your home for air leakage and give you a list of things you can fix yourself and some names of people who you can call to help you fix them. I don’t get paid to do this service – I just want you to have the most energy-efficient and comfortable home as possible. If all architects and builders would design homes with building science in mind, this would not be a needed service, but they don’t. My payment for this service is showing you the value of building science knowledge and you telling your friends that need something designed about it. Consider it a marketing expense. I save you money and build my brand. Call to schedule your audit if you want to be more comfortable this winter. Read the blog posts below for more ideas on how to fix your home.

attic insulation

Typical home energy problems

8 steps to an energy-efficient home

Vented Attic Space

How much insulation do you need in your attic?

Add attic insulation to make your home more comfortable and energy-efficient

Proper insulation provides comfort and energy-efficiency in your basement renovation

Should you use spray foam insulation?

harrisonburg spray foam

Find the air leaks by looking at the fiberglass insulation

Comfort issues caused by poor insulation

Thinking of building a custom energy-efficient home, where do you start?

Why does building science matter and why is if left out so often?

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harrisonburg energy audit

8 Steps to an energy-efficient home

8 Steps to an Energy-Efficient House

 

  1. Insulate and air seal the attic / roof – there should be a minimum of 12″ of insulation in your attic and all penetrations should be sealed to the conditioned space in your home
  2. Air Seal walls – stop losing energy through your walls and ducts, seal all cracks and material intersectionselectrical outlets
  3. Insulate the Basement walls and band boards not the floor above – gravity works against insulation in the floor above and defeats the purpose of the productvented crawl space
  4. Insulate walls and around all penetrations – any hole or penetration for wires, pipes, and vents should be sealed
  5. Replace and / or air seal around old windows – or simply add storm windows
  6. Replace HVAC systems that are outdated or failing – 15 years old and you will probably see a fairly fast payback on investment
  7. Replace appliances that are not energy star with energy star rated appliances
  8. Add renewable energy sources – solar thermal / solar PV

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Why have an Energy Audit

An energy audit will allow you to better understand where to spend money to get the best return on investment. An energy audit is a test that can determine whether you house is air tight and if not where the holes are in the thermal envelope. For years we have heard, don’t make your house too tight – so tell me, why did you install all the windows, how big of a hole do you want left in your wall. Making a house air tight is not a negative; it will then allow you to control the fresh air intake of your home rather than filtering your makeup air through your attic insulation, your vented crawl space, or through your walls. An energy audit will give you the information to determine if you should replace your HVAC system, windows, and / or appliances. This is a test that every home owner should have in order to better understand their home and how they spend their money.

Did you know: the average new American home has a 28% duct leakage on a well installed and maintained heating and cooling system. That means you are probably wasting 28% of your money on each months electric bills.

Did you know: A vented crawl space or vented attic are not recommended in Virginia as it promotes bad indoor air quality and leads to higher energy bills?

Give us a call to schedule a basic energy audit today or call our friends at Building Knowledge for a complete energy audit assessment of all the systems in your home.

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harrisonburg energy audit

Green Term Defined: Energy Audit

An energy audit is an inspection that looks at energy flow in a building. The objective of an energy audit is to identify things that can be modified to reduce energy usage and increase comfort and safety for the occupants of the building.

An energy audit usually involves a blower door that depressurized a house or office and thermal imaging technology to see the thermal bridges and air leaks. The audit will also identify equipment, lights, and appliances that can be replaced or upgraded to reduce energy consumption.

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There are common places that you can address without an audit to cut your energy loss. 

  1. caulk the gaps and cracks
  2. seal the electrical outlets
  3. seal your crawl space
  4. add insulation in the attic

In Harrisonburg for homes that use electric heat HEC provides free energy audits. This free audit is performed by me and is a very basic level energy audit that will identify a litany of items to improve. If you do not live in the city or do not have electric heat or own a commercial project or want a comprehensive audit you should call Building Knowledge.

harrisonburg energy audit

Timberville Snow

Snow may help identify places you are wasting money

Snow may help identify places you are wasting money

There was a time I enjoyed snow – that time has passed. To me now, snow is an interruption in my schedule, plowing a driveway, shoveling many hours, and dangerous roads. However, it is also an easy time to identify energy leaks in your home. Snow may help identify places you are wasting money through air leaks and poor insulation.

Timberville Snow Timberville Snow

For instance, in this house we used to own in Timberville had a major insulation problem in the bonus room. That room above the garage was always a few degrees different from the rest of the house. You can see the snow has melted at the roof / wall intersection from heat coming through to the outside. When we did an energy audit on this house we found that the wall did have insulation in it. It was just installed in a way that allowed air movement and in one case a bridge to the outside. This room’s comfort issues and thermal bridge was corrected by Elite Insulation adding a layer of foam to create an air barrier on the outside of the existing fiberglass insulation. The room comfort was considerably improved.

Timberville Snow

From the front of the house you can see the trusses in the roof over the garage. This indicated more air movement from the conditioned space. This attic space was not accessible so all we could do when we insulated was to fix the back half of the roof cutting down most of the air movement. You can see there is again warmth coming through the wall at the roof intersection above the porch. Not an area that is easily fixed after construction so make sure you get it right during construction. All in we spend $1,500 fixing insulation problems on this house and lowered our annual energy bills by $500.

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At our new (old) house there is still much work to be done. See the melted snow in between the windows on the roof – that is air escaping out of the hood vent above the stove. We need to improve our insulation in the attic to fix this problem. Also you can see we have storm windows which traps the warm moist air escaping from the house in between the window and outside creating condensation. We have a LOT of warmth leaking from out windows. However, this is the last thing we will fix as it is the most expensive and has the longest payback period of changes we could make to the house.

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With this particular storm the snow drifts are massive. Nothing you can do here other than hope they do not pull gutters down or worse cause a roof collapse. Our roofs here are designed for 43 pounds of snow load psf. We should be ok now that the snow has stopped, but I will remain nervous until it melts.

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Finally, watch how the snow melts on your roof. This will tell you, compared to your neighbors with a roof facing the same direction if you are average or above average with your attic insulation. I know our house needs attention since we don’t yet have R-72 insulation in the attic. If you are building a new house this is the time to get these details right, it will cost you less and save you more. If you have an existing house, things can be fixed to work more efficiently, but there is only so much to be done. The best we have done on an existing home is a 65% reduction in energy use. Let me know if you want help identifying the problems that need addressed at your home.

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Home Energy Audits in Harrisonburg City

Home Energy Audits in Harrisonburg City

I am now performing Home Energy Audits for Harrisonburg Electric Commission (HEC). These are base line / help you reduce your monthly electric bills / more of an air leakage test than full energy audit kind of review for your home. The advantage – they are FREE to HEC customers that have electric heat in their homes.

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The kind of things we are looking for are easy things the home owner can do to lower monthly electric usage. You simply need to call HEC to schedule the appointment. It takes us about an hour to set up the blower door and walk through the house looking for air leakage patters. We use thermal imaging camera technology to see through the walls. We also have been able to catch a couple of water leaks that were not yet visible. We leave a short checklist of things for you to do to improve your thermal envelope after our audit.

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Once you have done the easy things you could potentially reduce your monthly electric bills by up to 30% depending on what we find during the audit. Note, this is not an exhaustive audit. For a more complete audit you need to call Building Knowledge. However, start with the base line audit that HEC provides for free. We are proud to partner with HEC on this effort.

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Help, My House is Cold! – Keeping Your Home Insulated and Cozy

air leakHelp, my house is cold! This time of year, with weather like we have been having, the electric meter gets a strong workout. Yet, often our homes are not comfortable, cold even. So what can you do to make your electric bills lower and your home more comfortable?

I am now working for Harrisonburg Electric Commission providing their clients with free energy audits. It really is a air leakage test and identification of easy to correct high energy usage issues – but energy audit sounds better. In the test we use a blower door to depressurize the house. This allows us to find areas where air is moving from outside to inside of the home. These air leaks are a huge part of the discomfort and high energy use for your home. The typical heating and cooling system in an average home accounts for 60-70% of the monthly electric usage. The typical home could easily reduce this portion of the electric bill by 10-30% by plugging up these leaks. Air leaking through the walls, from the crawl space or attic, around electrical outlets are the same as leaving a window open on a cold winter day.

Here are 10 spots that are almost always air leaks in a home and how to fix it.

  1. attic insulationAttic access or pull down stair – Seal it up like a door, add weather-stripping and glue rigid insulation to the top of the access or create a hinged door over a pull down stair
  2. Electrical outlets / light switches – These holes in your drywall / plaster allows for an easy air path. Caulk the plastic box tight to the drywall and add insulation made for behind the electrical cover
  3. Wall / Floor intersection – Remove the 1/2 round and caulk the drywall tight to the floor
  4. Drywall corners – The only good way to fix this is to stop the air moving from above and below the corner. This can be done well in new construction but is really hard to fix in an existing home
  5. Wood floor over crawl space – In our climate the crawl space should be sealed and conditioned space. This eliminate air leaking from outside.
  6. Recessed lights – These are always a big leak, unless they are air tight cans sealed tight to the drywall. The best way to eliminate this problem is to stop air movement on the backside of the drywall (between floor joist or in the attic).
  7. attic energy solutionsRim board between basement and first floor and first floor to second floor – This is probably the biggest air leak in your home. It is hard to fix in an existing finished space. If you can easily access these spaces, get it filled with open cell spray foam. If it is finished space, you can fix it, but it will require drilling lots of holes or removing drywall.
  8. Chimney / Bath Vents / Kitchen Hood Vent – Use the damper in the fireplace to reduce air leakage, install vents with dampers for all exhaust vents
  9. HVAC ducts – A surprise to many that this is a source of outside air coming into your home. The average duct system installed in your home uses tape to seal the joints’ leaks and leaks big time. If the joints are sealed with Mastic, then you will certainly have less leaks. I know one HVAC company in town that prides themselves on duct tightness, but that is one out of 12+ in town serving the residential market. If you can access the ducts, you can seal them, but this is often not the case. The only solution that I have found for a finished house is sealing from the inside of the duct using a product similar to Aeroseal. I have not seen a before and after, but I have heard of good performance.
  10. Doors and Windows – Make sure they have the proper weather-stripping. We also use air stopper socks at the bottoms of all our doors. These are holes that open and close, really hard to seal them tight, do your best.

If you ever have to think to yourself “Help, my house is cold!” then fix these air leaks to see a reduction in your monthly electric bills. If you live in Harrisonburg give HEC a call to schedule your free energy audit to verify the leaks so you can get them fixed. If you want a complete energy audit or don’t live in Harrisonburg, Building Knowledge – Benjamin is an expert and does a great job.

Tired of High Electric Bills? Get the Test!

energy testIf you are ready to fight back against those high energy costs or simply want your house to be more comfortable, you should consider hiring an energy auditor. They are able to test your home to determine where the problems are and give you a list of things to address. Don’t fall for the sales pitch of replacing windows or upgrading your HVAC system, it is more complicated than that and those are both expensive options. Start with something simple like air sealing to reduce the wasted energy through walls, floors, and ceilings. To do this you need a blower door test to be performed on your home. A blower door test is a measurement of how airtight your house is.

 

Basically, an energy auditor places a BIG fan in the frame of one of the exterior doors on your house. The fan sucks air out of your house, lowering the air pressure inside the house. This will make “fresh” air try to infiltrate your house wherever there is a leak. This is the fresh air that comes in when your forced air heating and cooling system is blowing. The air coming from the unconditioned spaces of your home.

You can get two types of information with a blower door test:

  • How quickly air leaks into your house (a measure of your homes tightness), and
  • Where the leaks are (by using a smoke pencil to trace airflows or an infrared camera).

The results of this test will give you a list of places where you can improve your home’s energy efficiency and comfort. Then you can decide which options you can afford to change and which you need to wait to address.

This test will also help inform you, through the auditors knowledge and his use of an infrared camera, where you should add insulation and how much more you will need. While opinions will vary on how much, there is a consensus that the average home needs MORE insulation. Just make sure to put it in the right places or you are just wasting your money.

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