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Confessions of an Energy Waster

I have a confession to make.

I’ve lived in Louisville for four-and-a-half years, reporting on energy and environment issues for WFPL. This includes examining ways to save energy and reduce carbon footprints. And two years ago, my husband and I bought a really, really energy-inefficient house.

Our intentions were good. But the house is 80 years old and needs a lot of work. We made some improvements when we could afford them, but progress stopped when our son arrived in April 2014.

LG&E has been pushinga program where they give onsite home energy analysesfor years. So I finally decided to take them up on it.

On a cold day last week, LG&E’s contractors — they work for a company called Nexant— come to the door. Nick Geswein walks me through the program, starting with offering some energy-saving devices he can install right now. He pulls a showerhead out of a box.

“Everybody likes to cringe whenever I bring out the low-flow showerhead because honestly, when they first came out, even us energy nerds, we weren’t crazy about them either,” he said. “But just like the first compact fluorescent light bulbs, when they came out there were a lot of negatives. But you give those engineers a little bit of time, and they’ll come up with a solution for anything.”

People in the industry often refer to energy efficiency as the “low-hanging fruit” of reducing emissions. If you use less energy, in theory, the utility company doesn’t have to burn as much coal or gas. So that’s why companies like Louisville Gas and Electric offer ratepayers a home energy analysis, to help pinpoint places to save.

The program has been around since 1995 and was expanded to Kentucky Utilities customers when LG&E and KU merged in 2001. Beginning in 2012, the utilities began offering financial incentives for ratepayers to have the audits. As of October, the company says 1,100 customers have participated. LG&E and KU have awarded about $800,000 in incentives.

I’m paying $25 for this analysis. But I’ll get a bunch of stuff — the showerhead, a smart power strip, CFL lightbulbs — in exchange. Then there’s the possibility of some serious savings — both through lower energy bills and rebates from LG&E if I meet certain reduction percentages.

The company will cut me a check for $300 if I reduce my energy usage by 16 percent. That goes up to a $1,000 check if I make 30 percent in reductions.

I take Geswein and his colleague, H. Ball, on a tour of the house. Right off the bat, they find a few easy fixes. In the basement, our hot water heater is turned up higher than it should be.

“If it’s OK with you, I’d like to turn that down just three degrees, to 120,” Geswein said. “And then I can put that in the program as energy savings.”

After the visual inspection come the higher-tech tools. Geswein Velcro’s a large piece of nylon with an opening onto my door frame. He fits a huge fan into the opening. This is called a “blower door test.”

“And then we’re going to turn this fan on, and it’s going to suck air out of your home. And it’s going to measure the amount of air that is exiting, and that’s going to give us a reading and let us know whether your house is tight, maybe it’s average, or maybe it’s really drafty or leaky,” Geswein said.

Spoiler alert: It’s really drafty.

“You’re more than double as much leakage as you’re supposed to have,” Geswein said. “So we kind of thought this house was going to be leaky, and it is. So you can look at it two different ways. I like to stay positive, I like to say ‘there’s a lot of improvements you can make.’”

The fan blows the equivalent of a 25 mph wind into my house. I follow Geswein and Ball around as they point an infrared camera at windows and walls, showing me the coldest spots.

“Woooowheee! That is cold!” Ball hollered as he pointed the camera into our downstairs bathroom.

It is. The culprit is a leaky window that doesn’t close properly. That project was already on our to-do list. And when the analysts are finished, they email me 20 more pages of their findings and suggested improvements.

Based solely on what they’ve replaced during their visit — a few faucet aerators, a showerhead, some pipe insulation — and a new efficient air conditioner we bought a few months ago, they estimate we’ve reduced our energy usage by 20 percent. That alone is enough to apply for a hefty rebate check from LG&E.

But the program gives us another three years to get out the caulk and weather stripping. So we'll try to get our bills down even further and apply for even more money in rebates.

Featured Image: Nick Geswein using an infrared camera to identify leaks.