By Deb Hickok
Since 2008, Emmett Leffel, a thermographer with Alaska Thermal Imaging, LLC, has worked with people in all corners of the state dealing with aging buildings and higher energy costs. The simplest and easiest way to reduce home energy consumption, he says, is measuring it.
Emmett is the volunteer secretary of the board of directors for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, a nonprofit based in Fairbanks. He also serves as a weatherization instructor in a series of free classes offered by CCHRC.
In broad terms, weatherization focuses on the reduction of energy costs for households by increasing the energy efficiency of the home. Space heating accounts for 42% of home utility bills, followed by water heating, cooling, lighting, refrigeration and other energy-consuming functions, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Mindy O’Neall, CCHRC Executive Director, says the organization is getting more calls from around the state on the impact of warmer winter weather on homes. Some of the examples of concerns are snow loads, sink holes, softer ground around foundations, and flooding, such as water in basements which can result in mold issues.
“Ice damming used to be predominantly an Anchorage issue, but Fairbanks has also been experiencing it more in the last few years,” agrees Emmett. “The impact can be seen on low-income housing as well as million-dollar homes.”
Emmett sees similar challenges for owners of older homes as well as those with newer homes built in the last five years. “Older home have old problems, and new homes have brand new problems,” Emmett says.
Old problems are often ones that can be seen, like long-term degradation, failing windows, sagging roofs and foundation problems.
“Newer homes can have severe visible problems that even show up during construction,” Emmett says. “We have to change the way we build homes.”
Building inspections in Alaska are currently required for electrical and mechanical functions. But Emmett and others advocate for more inspections of the building envelope and commissioning—testing that the ventilation is performing as designed and constructed—during construction.
“Awareness is one of the biggest hurdles,” says Emmett in speaking about the challenges to attaining better energy efficiency. “Understanding how our homes impact on our health, and everyday life is key to understanding the why and how.”
CCHRC Provides Education and Outreach
Emmett gears his CCHRC presentation to the homeowner.
“But I try and fill it with enough information and clues that anyone listening can find a resource or information that could be helpful,” he adds. Emmett also speaks at seminars held by the Alaska Center for Appropriate Technology. “You can learn about more technical issues and deeper threads of information for professionals and do-it-yourselfers,” he says.
Mindy explains CCHRC’s online courses are usually held twice a year, in the spring and fall. Weatherization and solarization are standard course offerings along with other topics, such as electrical energy, ground and air-sourced heat pumps, attic retrofits, and air sealing around windows and doors.
“GVEA has been a financial supporter of CCHRC’s education and outreach efforts,” Mindy says. “There’s value to them to have a third-party organization that is educating their members about energy conservation.”
“GVEA also has a lot of great resources,” Emmett says. His weatherization presentation features a link to the “Member Resources” section on the electric association’s website. Its “Energy Saving Tips” offers frequently updated energy-saving tips for every room of the house.
Another CCHRC sponsor is the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, which administers the Weatherization Program through grants to local service providers. Alaska residents who meet income criteria may be eligible to receive weatherization services from their local provider at no cost.
An Energy Audit is Step One
The first step in weatherization is a home energy assessment— also known as a home energy audit—which helps the homeowner understand the whole picture of a home’s energy use, comfort, and safety, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
“An energy audit can determine how much energy your home uses, where your home is inefficient, and which problem areas and fixes you should prioritize to save energy and improve the comfort of your home,” says the DOE. An independent certified energy rater usually performs the audit.
“According to the energy.org website, in addition to a room-byroom examination of the home, a home energy professional may use equipment such as blower doors, infrared cameras, gas leak and carbon monoxide detectors, moisture meters, and non-toxic smoke pens.”
Only after an audit should a homeowner make energy-saving home improvements and/or add a renewable energy system to a home.
“The audit gets down to the root of the issue—why are we having this problem,” Emmett says.
If a home has an ice damming problem, a homeowner’s first action may be to pay to have the roof fixed or the attic insulated.
“Typically, these do not fix ice damming problems,” Emmett says. “Only diagnostics gets to what the bigger issues may be.”
Energy.org says a do-it-yourself home energy assessment is also an option. “While a professional energy assessment provides the most complete picture of your home’s energy use, a diligent self assessment can help you pinpoint problem areas and prioritize your energy efficiency upgrades.”
Emmett advises that there are “some amazing tools” for the homeowner that can help assess indoor air quality. An example is a product by Airthings which has a phone app that connects to monitors installed in a home that measure radon, carbon dioxide, temperature, airborne chemicals, air pressure and humidity.
“In order to improve performance, we have to understand the problems,” Emmett says. “Most homes are unique, and I rarely see just one problem.”
The IRA Tax Credit and Rebates
The IRA offers tax credits and rebates for improved energy consumption in homes. Mindy cites the federal government’s Inflation Reduction Act passed in 2022 as potentially benefiting homeowners who weatherize. One IRA program offers a partial tax credit for a home energy audit.
She says that CCHRC is working to increase entry-level participants in its classes.
“We’re seeking to reach more homeowners so that they can take advantage of tax credits for incorporating energy efficiencies into their home,” Mindy says.
The federal government is rolling out other tax incentives for new household clean energy systems—including solar, wind, or geothermal systems—that produce electricity or heating, as well as energy-efficient home improvements. Rebate programs are being run by the states for electrification projects. For example, pumps for space heating and cooling.
The IRA also provides taxpayers with a tax credit for eligible new or substantially reconstructed homes that meet applicable Energy Star home programs or the DOE’s Zero Energy ReadyHome program requirements.
“The CCHRC mission is clearly aligned with the idea of healthy,durable and sustainable shelters for all of us,” concludes Emmett.“So it’s an honor to with work them and all of their partners.