In the Spotlight

News & Features
Energy Prices Increase Demand for Audits
By Mark Zdechlik
December 29, 2000
Click for audio RealAudio

Around the upper Midwest people are struggling with higher energy bills. It's been a double whammy this winter: colder-than-normal temperatures coupled with about a 50-percent increase in the cost of natural gas. There are several ways to cut down on your energy expenses this winter while remaining comfortable in your home or apartment.

For tips on saving energy, visit the Xcel Energy e-house.
ENERGY CONSULTANT JIMMY SPARKS can't remember the last time he's been so busy making house calls.

"Normally Christmas is our deadest time; we take some time off to be with our families, but this year with the the added increase of natural gas prices plus it's actually been colder than normal, we've really been busy with ice-dam problems, bills going up and other considerations," Sparks says.

On this day, Sparks is helping Anna and Harold determine how to make their Roseville home more energy efficient. Sparks is a program manager for the St. Paul Neighborhood Energy Consortium, a non-profit which conducts residential energy audits for Xcel Energy.

Sparks says it all starts in the attic.

The frost in part of Anna and Harold's attic is caused by a common problem: There are major gaps where the chimney and waste vent pipe enter the attic, allowing warm inside air to escape.

"If you stick you finger in there, it's hot - probably about 70 degrees. This is a chaseway from the basement to the attic. It's what we call an 'attic bypass,' and an area that has to be sealed," Sparks tells the homeowners.

Back downstairs, Sparks confirms Anna and Harold's suspicion that there's no insulation in the walls of their 55-year-old home.

"That's not unusual. This house is like going outside with a windbreaker instead of a down jacket. It's a windbreaker with a good hat on because they have insulated the attic well, but it just doesn't retain the heat very well," he says.

A check of the home's old windows shows they leak air, but it's mitigated by decorative quilted blinds held snugly against the trim with magnets. Sparks highly recommends plastic-film kits for windows.

What many people don't realize, says Sparks, is that even if you have super-efficient windows and a modern furnace, your bills will still be high.

"All the warm air that leaks out of your house causes the cold air that we feel to come in," he warns.

Sparks says sealing leaks is often an inexpensive and easy first step toward increased efficiency and comfort at home. The audit ends with a check of the furnace and water heater and a thorough rundown of how Anna and Harold are using energy. Sixty percent of their gas bill goes toward fueling their furnace. The balance heats their water and covers basic gas service charges. About a third of the electricity they use goes to keeping their refrigerator cold, almost 20 percent covers lighting and the rest is split between things like the furnace fan, televisions and other appliances.

The experience leaves Anna and Harold with a "to do" list and motivation to do better.

The heightened interest in conservation isn't likely to diminish any time soon. Natural gas prices - already 50 percent higher than they were earlier this year - are expected to increase even more moving into January, traditionally the coldest month of the year.

Next: Why Natural Gas Prices Skyrocket

Mark Zdechlik covers business issues for Minnesota Public Radio. Reach him via e-mail at