Sometimes, apparently related professions require different skill sets, equipment, and know-how. As such, remodelers considering home performance testing should examine if it’s the right move for them. Can a rangehood installer be expected to accurately interpret the results of an air current test? Are infrared camera users ready to fix air and moisture problems behind the walls?
Though some diagnostic equipment manufacturers offer products easy enough for do-it-yourselfers to use, other equipment is best left to contractors who have, or plan to earn, energy auditor credentials.
The most recognizable home performance diagnostic tool is the blower door. (See more energy audit product information.) Mounted in the frame of a home’s entryway, a blower door depressurizes the building to reveal how much air infiltration is occurring.
“This is probably the easiest diagnostic tool for people to understand and use,” says Frank Spevak, marketing and sales manager for The Energy Conservatory, a diagnostic equipment manufacturer. Most home performance professionals generally test air leakage at the beginning of a project, make fixes, and then test again at the end of the project. However, Spevak says that some contractors keep blower door fans running during the air-sealing process. “Not only does it help them find leaks, but they can also continue to monitor the changes to the house,” he points out. A “cruise control” feature adjusts the fan speed to the building’s pressure. As holes are sealed, the fan speed reflects the change.
Ranging in price from $1,500 to $4,000 for residential units, blower doors can be a major investment, and some manufacturers say that the high-dollar equipment may not be necessary for home performance testing beginners.
Tools of the Trade
“The first equipment purchase I would recommend to a new contractor in this industry is an air current tester,” says Colin Genge, CEO of Retrotec, a door fan test equipment manufacturer. Sometimes called smoke puffers, air current testers create puffs of neutral-buoyancy smoke that follow currents created by air leaks and household ventilation fans. Different designs are available and are priced from $50 to $150. The price point is considerably more affordable than blower doors, and Genge says that air current testers make an excellent sales presentation as well.
“If a homeowner is not able to see with their own eyes what’s going on in their home, they’ll never go for the extra money,” Genge says. “An air current test is a very visual element that can help a remodeler make an effective presentation right in the home.”
Genge also recommends using duct testing equipment, especially for ducts in unconditioned space. “Testing the ducts is critical to the performance of a house,” Genge says. “Typically, a house will lose 20% of the air going through the ducts — it never winds up in the house. If you lost 20% of the gasoline between your gas tank and your engine, that would be a big problem.”
Spevak agrees. “Interest in home performance really started changing over the last few years with different regulations aimed at making houses and heating and cooling systems more efficient,” he says. A 2007 revision to California’s Title 24 required duct leakage testing because of problems with HVAC systems placed in attics. “When there’s a leak in the ductwork, the effect is that people are trying to cool off a 150º attic,” Spevak says. “That’s when some major changes to construction techniques and regulations came through.” Duct leakage testing equipment can cost several thousand dollars, but manufacturers agree that tools’ valuable results give the most bang for the buck.
Save and Study
More affordable home performance testing equipment is also available for remodelers just getting their feet wet with diagnostics. Tool manufacturer General Tools & Instruments recently introduced its Seeker series of video inspection and diagnostic products, including an infrared thermometer, digital airflow meter, digital moisture meter, combustible gas detector pen, and other tools, each of which is priced at a few hundred dollars or less.
“The same way that the price of flat-screen TVs dropped, we’re able to offer a line of video inspection systems around $300 instead of several thousand dollars,” says Peter Harper, General Tools’ vice president of strategic marketing. “These are very useful products that are much more accessible now.”
Harper says that camera scopes and infrared thermometers are among the most valuable tools for contractors doing home performance work. The equipment can detect air leaks, moisture, mold, and other problems behind walls, inside ducts, or in other hard-to-see places. Available at specialty tool and some big-box stores, the instruments come with instructions on how to use them to interpret the results. However, manufacturers suggest that a page of instructions may not provide enough information for contractors aiming to perform an effective home inspection.
“Remodelers can’t walk into this blind,” Genge says. “We have Level 1 and Level 2 training materials to give a sense of the interaction between air quality and energy conservation, safety and building integrity. The contractor should also consider going through BPI training to learn the finer aspects and how to perform other tests.” The Building Performance Institute (BPI), certifies contractors in residential energy-efficiency retrofits and weatherization. Remodelers can partner with BPI-certified professionals on home performance projects, but the remodeler-auditor relationship may not be ideal.
“I’ve seen the remodeler-auditor relationship work, but there’s not always enough money in the job to account for the number of times the auditor may have to come back and re-test the home’s performance,” Genge says. “The person doing the work should really have the equipment at their disposal so they can work and test continually. This involves an investment of time and training on the remodeler’s part.”
Spevak agrees. “Diagnostic instruments give you numbers,” he says. “The hard part is figuring out what that number means. What do you do with it? We have instructional material that explains how to set up our equipment, but we recommend that the people doing the testing and repairs also receive building science training.” Without training, incorrect repairs could make the house perform even worse.
For remodelers prepared to put their home performance and building science training to work alone or with an energy auditor, Harper says that diagnostic equipment is highly useful, even addictive. “We’ve had a lot of contractors ask if they really need something like an infrared thermometer,” he says. “They’ve worked without them for a long time, but there’s also a lot they can help you test for. Once a contractor gets an infrared thermometer in his hand, he can’t stop using it.”
—Lauren Hunter, associate editor, REMODELING.