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Sealing a money leak

We've been wasting our energy. New air-duct rules fix that, but there's a price.

October 23, 2005|Dinah Eng | Special to The Times

WHEN Larry and Donna-Marie Acker bought their 25-year-old home in Newport Beach last year, they knew it needed work. What they didn't anticipate was having to spend $15,000 to replace the duct system.

"Just by looking at the house, we could see there were a lot of things the developer didn't do," Larry Acker said.

Near the top of their to-do list was the heating and air-conditioning system, which the environmentally conscious Ackers decided to check for leakage.

Tests showed that the system was leaking nearly half the air that was supposed to circulate through it. The vents were too small, and ducts were not properly sealed or located, so the system had to be replaced.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 27, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Duct testing -- An article in Sunday's Real Estate section said cities in California climate zones 2 and 9-16 are exempt from the state's new air-duct testing and sealing requirements. In fact, cities in those zones must comply with the new regulations. All other zones are exempt.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 30, 2005 Home Edition Real Estate Part K Page 6 Features Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Duct testing -- A story in the Oct. 23 Real Estate section incorrectly reported that cities in California climate zones 2 and 9-16 are exempt from the state's new air-duct testing and sealing requirements. Cities in those zones must comply with the new regulations. All other zones are exempt.

Leaky ducts have been such a prevalent energy waster that on Oct. 1 a California building standard was imposed requiring most inland homeowners to have systems checked before the installation or replacement of a central air conditioner or heater. Ducts found to leak 15% or more in existing homes or 6% or more in new construction must be sealed.

For consumers, it's spend now, save later. The California Energy Commission estimates that testing and sealing should cost about $660, depending on the condition of the ductwork. With the average home duct system leaking about 30%, according to Bill Pennington, manager of the commission's buildings and appliances office, cutting that in half would save about $16 a month on a $200 heating bill and $28 a month on a $200 cooling bill. The rise in heating costs this winter will shorten the time span to recoup the initial expense.

After repairs have been made, a third party, known as a Home Energy Rating System verifier, will test again to make sure the duct sealing is up to code, or the homeowner can opt to be placed in a random testing group where one in seven duct systems repaired by the contractor is checked.

Exempt from the new law are homes in specified coastal zones where people use less air conditioning and heating and energy savings would be minimal. To see if your city falls in an exempt zone, visit Cities in climate zones 2 and 9-16 are exempt.

Also exempt are houses with less than 40 feet of ductwork; ducts constructed, insulated or sealed with asbestos; and a few extremely energy-efficient heating and cooling systems.

Some contractors secured as many building permits as they could before the law went into effect Oct. 1 to save their customers the cost of duct testing and sealing. In most local jurisdictions, a permit is required to replace or install furnaces and air conditioners.

"Under the old rules, if you did a change-out of a furnace and put new ductwork in the attic of an 1,800-square-foot house, the homeowner would probably pay about $5,200 to $5,800," said Craig Iascone, owner of CMI Heating & Air Conditioning in Thousand Oaks. He figures that duct testing and repair will cost consumers more than twice the California Energy Commission estimate.

"If I were to bid that job today, I'd have to add on $650 for the rater's services to test before and after installation," Iascone said, plus an additional $800 for sealing. "So, it'd cost about $1,450 more for that job."

Iascone, who has been in business for 18 years, said he believes conserving power and replacing old ductwork make sense.

However, he added, "if people don't want to pay for duct testing, they'll shop around and find a contractor who will do the work without getting a permit."

There will always be contractors who work without permits, noted Lyman Lockwood, president of George Haney & Son Inc. in Glendale.

Lockwood also pointed out that, because systems with higher energy efficiency exempt a homeowner from duct testing, decisions about equipment have become more complex.

"For example, you can buy a 92% efficient or higher furnace and a 14 SEER [Seasonal Energy-Efficiency Rating] and 12 EER [Energy Efficiency Ratio] air-conditioning system and be exempt from duct-performance testing," Lockwood said. "But be cautious if the contractor says you should just buy the highest-efficiency equipment and avoid the testing, because that may not be the most cost-effective or energy-efficient solution."

If you install energy-efficient equipment but have duct leakage, the overall system will be less efficient than it should be, he said.

Not only does leakage cost consumers, but Pennington noted that improper airflow can also cause health problems. For example, if the leak is in the attic, garage or crawl space underneath the house, pollutants from those areas can be sucked into the home.

Utility companies in California are working on rebate and incentive programs to encourage compliance with the new law, which carries penalties if not followed.

Real estate law also requires a seller to disclose whether a permit was obtained, when necessary, for work done on a house.

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