The average household spends more than $2,200 per year on energy bills, with roughly half of that going to heat and cool a home, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data.
It's a fair bet that a sizeable percentage of that is wasted through leaky windows, foundations, attics and air ducts. Enter Franklin Orsini, a former accountant who decided a traditional office job wasn't for him and turned to the so-called "green" industry.
Orsini, 57, received his certification as a building, performance and institution inspector from Atlanta-based nonprofit Southface in 2010. The organization, according to it website, promotes "sustainable homes, workplaces and communities" while encouraging energy, water and overall resource efficiency through education, research, advocacy and technical assistance.
After connecting with Lawrenceville, Ga.-based Home Diagnostic Solutions, and tagging along to gain more knowledge, Orsini launched the Columbus branch of HDS and now is a certified energy auditor who, for a fee, can inspect a home, recommend improvements, then reinspect it after work is done to make sure there are no problems.
The Ledger-Enquirer sat down with the so-called "military brat" to talk about his job, the green industry and what it encompasses. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you make the transition from accounting?
I worked with a nonprofit organization and they were doing weatherization on low-income houses here in Columbus, and I just started doing some research. I wanted to make things more green and I think everybody's heading in that direction. I thought it was a viable business that's going to be productive in the future.
I also just decided I wanted to get out of the office and wanted a complete change. It's real enjoyable to go into different houses. Each one is different, as is the communication with customers. What I enjoy most is educating people about what's taking place in their homes, and helping make their homes more energy-efficient and green.
How long does an energy audit take?
It's a two-man team that takes approximately three to three-and-a-half hours to do all of the testing and then the presentation. If homeowners want to move forward and make improvements on their homes, then we get some contractors in there -- some that we work with -- but if the homeowner has people that they are real comfortable with, we let them do the work. Then we come back and retest and make sure all the work was done correctly. We also end up applying for all the rebates for the customer.
What kind of tests do you do?
One is called the envelope test. We call it the blower-door test. That's determining how much air is leaking out of the house. The other one is called the flow-hood test, and what we're testing there is how leaky the air ducts are and how efficient the unit is.
How do you show people how energy efficient their houses are, or aren't?
We take a lot of photographs. What we're showing them is leakage, where they have low insulation. A lot of times you have leakage around the plumbing, with the air ducts. You add all of these little cracks up and before you know it, they can be the size of a window or the size of a door. It just depends.
Where does the air typically escape from the home or enter from the outside?
Sometimes the windows if it's a real old house. And if it's not the windows, it's usually through the attic and the attic stairway. You have what's called a chase around your fireplace that can have leakage and around your doors, pretty much anywhere. A lot of times what we do is we walk around with the homeowner and let them feel the air where it's coming in at. And we have a low-smoke device that we use around different areas, so they can see the smoke coming in.
Has this really caught on here?
In Columbus, a lot of folks really don't understand what a home energy audit is and how they can benefit from it unless I can get in front of them and make a presentation.
It would appear the warm, humid summers in the South would make for a good market for audits?
It is. And Georgia Power is trying to do some education as far as billboards and TV ads, and they do have information online. A lot of times people don't know it, but their ducts are leaking 30 to 40 percent of the time into the attic or the crawl space. And that's a tremendous amount of air that you're losing.
You say you're independent, which means you're not affiliated with Georgia Power or contractors?
Right. We're working for the homeowner when they hire us to come in there and do all the testing. We're there to make sure everything's done correctly.
What's the toughest part of your job?
Climbing into a 160-degree attic in the middle of the summer (for 30 to 45 minutes). You pull the door off the air handler up there and look at the blower motor to see if there's a lot of dust there and make a recommendation to have that cleaned. I'd say 90 percent of the time the air handler, the blower door and the coils need to be cleaned, because after about three years you have a lot of dust going through your system and getting on your fan motor and coils. That makes your unit less efficient in cooling your house.
Is it hard to convince people to get an energy audit performed?
It can be. I use a lot of analogies. To me, it's kind of like going to the doctor and getting a complete physical. He runs your X-rays, blood tests and everything else, and then he asks you some questions and diagnoses you. ... We have the same concept. We come in and do our diagnostic test, do our visual inspections. We ask the customer if they have any hot and cold rooms, do they have any draftiness, do they have any excess dust in the house or allergy problems. That gives us some clues as to what's taking place in the house and then we can educate the owner.
Is there growth in this industry?
I see over time that it's going to grow. One of the things that the building code (people) have done is to say that all new construction requires the envelope testing and the duct-blaster testing. They want to make sure houses are tighter and the ducts are tighter, so air's flowing to where it should be and lowering homeowners' utility bills. As they make building-code requirements stricter and stricter, it's going to push everybody in that direction, which is a good thing.
Rather than hire a contractor, homeowners can make some improvements themselves?
There are a lot of things that they can do themselves. That's what I did to my house. I ended up caulking all of the wire penetrations, the plumbing, around the boots. I took off the covers on the receptacles and light switches and caulked around where the box and drywall meet, because there can be anywhere from a one-eighth to quarter-inch gap there. With the new building-code requirements, they have to caulk around all the upper plates and bottom plates (of the foundation), so that stops all of the air going down the walls. But with older houses, it's hard to do now.