Energy primer: Be direct and don't back down

Kathryn Young, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Saturday, January 06, 2007

As the holiday bills start arriving, the thought of an energy-efficient home that saves money on heating and electrical costs starts to sound more appealing, if not downright imperative.

If you're considering buying an Energy Star home from one of many local builders, but don't know what questions to ask the sales representative, here are some suggestions:

"The obvious question is simply to ask, 'Are your homes Energy Star? And if not, why not?'" advises Gord Cooke, a building-science trainer who runs one-day Energy Star training workshops for sales representatives. The workshops are sponsored by EnerQuality Corp., which administers the Energy Star program in Ontario that will be mandatory for all new homes by 2010.

The sad truth is that many sales reps can't answer that question and stumble badly in their replies.

"Uh, I think so. Let me check," is one response I've had, along with "I don't know" and the completely erroneous "the government cut that program."

Cooke has had sales reps tell him it's a government scam or that builders pay to be labelled Energy Star -- both of which are not true.

Another said the builder didn't need to do Energy Star, that it was only for bad builders who were required to have their homes tested.

Do your homework and learn what it takes to become an Energy Star builder so you can't be bamboozled by their answers, says Cooke. Try or but, quite frankly, they don't offer much detail.

While the R-2000 program was aimed at custom builders, the two-year-old Energy Star pilot program in Ontario encourages large-tract builders to construct energy-efficient homes with standards 30 to 40 per cent better than the Ontario Building Code.

Builders can choose from a menu of energy-efficient items (such as high-efficiency furnaces and air conditioners, low-e argon-filled windows, superior insulation, basement damp-proofing, sealing of ductwork and air barriers, heat-recovery ventilators), that should result in a score of at least 78 on the blower-door test, which measures airtightness.

Led by Urbandale, Tartan Homes, Tamarack Homes and Metric Homes, there are now about 40 Eastern Ontario builders qualified to construct Energy Star homes. In fact, Urbandale has set the early standard for energy-efficiency and was named Energy Star Builder of the year in 2005 for Ontario.

Ask, "Do you build all your homes to Energy Star standards, or do you offer Energy Star package deals as an optional upgrade?"

Many builders are sending their sales agents to Cooke's workshops so they can answer buyers' questions, and also steer them toward an Energy Star home by confidently pointing out the immense benefits.

By asking questions about Energy Star, you will also learn which builders invest time and effort in training their sales representatives, which can help you evaluate which builders might care about quality and service (although there are no guarantees).

Ask them how they handle customer/after-sales service and to describe their warranty procedures.

"Some will say, 'Oh you don't need to worry about that,'" Cooke says. "Frankly, that ain't good enough."

Every two years, Cooke hires three young couples to go through about 200 building sites posing as buyers. He does the same himself all the time. He's found that about 75 per cent of agents could not accurately answer technical questions such as "My last house had a leaky basement. What do you do that's different?" or "My child has asthma. What do you do that's different?"

An Energy Star home should help with those problems.

When they do answer questions, ask for proof in a brochure or a demonstration to back them up.

Ask builders what testing they do to assure the home buyer of quality. If their only answer is that the building inspector passes their homes, then again, that's not good enough, Cooke says. An Energy Star home will be tested by a third-party inspector to see if it meets the energy-efficient level necessary to earn a blue Energy Star sticker affixed to the electrical panel. Ask to see the sticker.

"I would say what you want to do is to encourage sales agents to talk about products and technology they put in their homes," he says. For example, what brand and quality of furnace and water heater? What type of windows? What are the benefits of low-e argon windows? Is there an HRV? How do you make the home airtight and watertight? Ask for specifics.

"Only five per cent of agents can explain what their builders do to protect basements."

One sales agent told Cooke their windows were R-32 -- an astoundingly high insulation rating 10 times the norm. "She finally said, 'No one else is interested in the stuff, I can't imagine why you are.'

" Typically, about 80 per cent of sales agents will hand you brochures and price sheets, and tell you to walk through the models and let them know if you have any questions.

"It is frightening," Cooke says. He says a good agent -- Energy Star or otherwise -- will offer to show you around and point out all the quality items that will make that home more comfortable and healthier to live in.

Assess how well they know what they're talking about. Are they proud to sell these homes or a bit embarrassed?

And finally, get down to the nitty- gritty numbers: How much greenhouse-gas emissions will this house help cut? How much more expensive is an Energy Star home? How much money will I save in energy costs over the next five years? Why should I buy an Energy Star home?

Good luck in your mission.

Kathryn Young is an Ottawa writer.