In some energy circles, there’s derision toward what some term the ‘science project’ energy audit. The idea follows that energy auditor engage in gobs of scienctific kabuki to justify the expense of their services. Auditors trot out blower doors, infrared cameras, conduct flue gas tests, combustion zone testing and zone diagnostics in service of their exorbitant fees. A pretty harsh assessment to say the least.
But is there a kernel of truth? Could much of what auditors do be achieved without the snazzy equipment? How good a job could an experienced energy pro do with just a phone interview and those tools available online?
The idea has been advanced of conducting ‘Google audits’. These would be audits conducted by phone and online research without on site testing (Don’t worry…there will be a strong rebuttal section). Based on the house’s image on Google Maps, data from the tax assessor’s offices, and speaking with the customers, experienced energy professionals can suss out a very considerable chunk of information about the buildings.
If done properly (like I said by an experienced pro), the homeowner could receive some useful advice and planning and at a low price. Fast, effective, low cost? What could possibly go wrong?
First, What Could Probably Go Right
Cost – Before I launch into a fit of reasons why not, what is the upside to this approach. The first and most obvious is cost. A standard audit is intensive and time consuming for energy auditors and the costs reflect this. The infrared, blower door, etc. all require experience and pricey equipment to conduct. The cost of a proper diagnostic audit is not inconsiderable.
A Google audit would slice out most of these expenses. It would take less time with less testing and the expense is whatever the auditor chooses to bill for their time. Fire up Google Streetview and you’ll have a pretty good idea about the house’s structure. A tax assessor search will show the building’s age, building type, heating fuel, heating unit type and distribution, siding, basement type and whether it is finished. The cherry on top is the homeowner phone interview which can fill in any gray areas.
Saves Time – And have I mentioned less time? The typical energy audit takes at least 4 to 5 hours. Yikes. Thie time imposition can be a hurdle for the busy, energy conscious homeowner. A Google audit could be fit in at the owner’s convenience, merely needing to carve out time for the phone interview.
Convenience – This closely dovetails with it’s convenience for both homeowner and auditor. Most energy companies schedule their audits Monday to Friday during standard working hours. An owner may need to take a day off from work with a standard audit, make babysitting arrangements, or petsitting if they have an easily spooked pet. If the house is one being purchased, then convoluted realtor and buyer meetup arrangements need to be wrangled. A Google audit would only require a phone call and some free time.
Privacy – Privacy is an underrated concern of some homeowners. How comfortable would you be with a complete stranger tramping through your home? About half my customers run around the house tidying up as I start working. Given the choice, the option to keep their private space private could be very appealing.
Mostly Doable – Lastly and this is one of auditing’s dirty secrets: you can determine a very large chunk of the work to be done without visiting the site. Knowing the age the house was built, the house style and getting customer feedback go a long, long way toward clarifying what insulation and weatherization projects might be done.
For example, suppose a customer has a Cape Code style house. I wrote a blog post for Green Building Advisor detailing the challenges with effectively insulating and venting Capes. Without even visiting the site, I would have a very good idea of the issues to be addressed.
And What Could Possibly Go Very Wrong
One might normally say here that we’re playing devil’s advocate but I rather think we’re just advocating. Advocating against omitting steps which test for potentially dangerous problems. A Google audit may suss out 70% of the information about a house. But the remaining 30% contains an awful lot of vital info.
Testing – The crucial difference between a Google audit and an onsite audit is testing and professional observation. The Google audit can reveal insulation levels, moisture issues and general needs for ventilation and air leakage. But ye gods, all the things it can’t reveal.
Natural gas lines are tested for leakage, ambient carbon monoxide, the possibility of backdrafting flue gases, the approximate tightness of the building envelope (with all the understood limitations of blower door testing), moisture content of concrete and wood. *Inhale* There are a lot of things that could be test and may need to be tested.
Observation – Site observation runs into the same speed bumps. A homeowner may know the house better than anyone but they see it through jaundiced eyes. They’re accustomed to looking at the house ‘as is’ and may not spot issues an auditor would. And not recognizing an issue, they won’t be able to effectively communicate information during a phone conversation.
This isn’t limited to insulation but also potentially dangerous materials like friable asbestos, vermiculite or lead paint. Hopefully these were disclosed during purchase to the owner. But if that’s not the case and they don’t describe the puffy gray-brown kernels of vermiculite, an off-site evaluator would never know. And then making insulation and weatherization recommendations can potentially be hazardous.
The Dangers – I’ve hit you with a blizzard of areas a Google audit may not cover but wanted to single out one: carbon monoxide. Of all the potential issues in a house audit, it’s one of the few that could quickly prove fatal. Per BPI standards, an auditor continually checks CO levels in the house, tests the heating system and if any weatherization work is done, the house tightness and CO is tested at the end of every work day. Hand waving this as part of an online evaluation is cavalier and hazardous.
Air Tightness Standards – On a less lethal note, one can’t conduct blower door testing. Every energy code and efficiency standard coming down the pike has an air tightness standard. Looking at online resources may give you a general sense of a building, but no amount of zooming in the map will miracle an ACH50 number into existance.
Customer Service – Lastly, you really miss out on the customer experience with the Google audit. Telling a homeowner they should air seal is one thing. Conducting a blower door test and pointing out the dramatic holes in the home’s building envelope is another.
Reducing cost and enhancing convenience for the homeowner are noble goals. But to gloss over some of the standard testing for the sake of cost is a recipe for disaster.