Home Audits Fuel Business

According to the US Census Bureau, 44 percent of America’s existing homes were built before 1970. In established regions such as the Northeast—including the greater Philadelphia metro area, where Orange Energy Solutions does most of its work improving residential energy efficiency and comfort—the housing stock skews even older. Most existing homes have components and systems cobbled together that lead to energy waste, but Orange Energy takes a holistic approach to fix the problems. John Kelly, principal and founder, and Scott Sidlow, manager of building analysis, explain how they do it.

Scott Sidlow

Orange Energy Solutions: At a Glance

Location
Havertown, PA

Founded
2010

Employees
9

Specialty
Home-performance contracting

Annual Sales
$1.25 million

What does Orange Energy Solutions do?
Scott Sidlow: We build, renovate, add on to, or retrofit homes using a whole-house approach so that homes are more comfortable, durable, safe, and energy-efficient. It begins with a home energy audit, where we learn how a house works. We use tools like blower doors, [which] help us find leaks, as well as infrared cameras. But the inspector has to figure out what is happening with the house, and that involves using human senses: eyes, ears, and nose. Human proficiency really is very important with this.

Who are the people most interested in upgrading the performance of their home?
SS: It’s often baby boomers who plan to retire in the next few years. They are settling into their houses for the long term. They want to make sure their utility bills are affordable and that there won’t be any emergency repairs like needing a new roof or mechanical equipment. If they make these improvements while they are still working, it is often easier to secure financing for these types of improvements.

Some of these upgrades and retrofits can cost tens of thousands of dollars. How do people pay for them?
SS: About half of our customers get their financing through the Keystone Home Energy Loan Program. This provides homeowners in Pennsylvania with low-interest loans [as low as 0.99 percent] for energy-efficiency improvements. [There are no federal tax credits available anymore. Converting to gas saves money but does not reduce energy consumption.]

So the best incentive is a low-interest loan. Where do renewable-energy sources such as solar or wind factor in?
SS: Every home in America should be fueled by renewable sources. However, homes are not ready for renewables until the home has been made as energy-efficient as possible. Something like solar isn’t a good investment if a house is leaky and inefficient. We know that every $2 spent on energy efficiency will save about $5 off the cost of a solar system. It’s just smart to reduce demand first. In our new-construction business, or if an existing home has already been made more energy-efficient, we install geothermal systems.

Do different kinds of houses come with different efficiency needs?
John Kelly: Homes built before 1930 had balloon-frame walls, which made them much leakier due to all the air penetration through the walls and attic. From the 1940s onward, building methods got better. By the early 1990s, new construction processes resulted in tighter building envelopes, but when houses are too tight, other problems can result. Therefore, buildings of any age have their own issues.

Orange Energy Solutions tailors its work to clients’ needs. At this home, the firm put in a new roof, attic insulation and air sealing, and duct sealing.

Can you give us an example of a successful pre-1930s project you’ve worked on?
SS: A home in Media, Pennsylvania, built in 1910 and last renovated in 1972, had asbestos on the ductwork, broken windows, limited insulation in the attics, an unvented gas heater, no HVAC returns, and several other problems. Just calling an HVAC or insulation company wouldn’t have worked because the home needed a comprehensive solution, not single-measure contractors who would take care of one problem or another.

Does improving a home’s performance lead to any additional work for you down the line?
JK: I was called in to evaluate a multimillion-dollar home built in 2001. When I arrived, I found out the homeowner was sick because she was allergic to penicillin. After some investigation, we found mold [which is what penicillin is made out of] in the walls of her living room behind very expensive artwork. We were hired to remove the mold, replace the roof [so that mold would not come back], and add insulation. Because we were able to earn her trust by improving the health, safety, comfort, and efficiency of the home, we were then able to sell a several-hundred-thousand-dollar, second-phase project that included a new deck, landscaping, and a new pool. ABQ