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Many homes in Las Vegas Valley built in way that drains power, wallet

Annette Bubak isn’t knocking Las Vegas for its low quality of home construction, perhaps an unwarranted generalization founded on the blow-and-go philosophy of some builders during the housing boom and the ensuing slew of construction-defect cases.

Around this time of year, when temperatures drop into the 30s, people realize how cheaply many homes were built. They feel a draft in certain spots in the house, and there’s that one room that’s always colder than the others.

It’s a drain on the energy bill and seasonally uncomfortable, but homeowners live with it because that’s what they’ve come to expect with a stucco home in the desert.

“It’s just the way homes have been constructed here,” said Bubak, principal of Las Vegas-based Distinct Energy Performance, a company that performs home energy audits. “It’s not a negative on construction. It’s just that building science has evolved that makes the envelope a lot tighter.”

Homes that aren’t properly sealed and insulated lose 20 percent to 30 percent of their heating and cooling capacity through shell leakage, Bubak said.

“With over 400,000 homes in the valley not performing at optimal level, that’s a lot of energy being lost,” she said.

Saving energy is becoming more of a priority as utility rates continue to rise. The cost for 1,000 kilowatt hours provided by NV Energy Inc. is $129.64 in Las Vegas, compared with a high of $246.74 in San Diego and a low of $63.09 in St. Louis, according to JEA electric system in Jacksonville, Fla.

Distinct Energy Performance charges from $75 for a basic consultation to $500 for a more advanced analysis on an average 2,500-square-foot home. Data collected from a series of tests are entered into a software program that generates an energy performance rating for the home and gives recommendations on fixing problem areas.

“A lot of leakage is in the ducts and HVAC system,” Bubak said, referring to heating, ventilation and air conditioning. “They’re going to look at the sealing of the home and then look at the mechanics of the heating and cooling system.”

The amount of energy savings depends on the individual home, she said. The company recently went into a 20-year-old home with a Home Energy Rating System score above 260 and brought it down to 76 through retrofitting and improvements, which can cost from $500 to $60,000.

Homes built with a rating of 85 or lower are certified as Energy Star homes by the Environmental Protection Agency, part of the push toward “green” building. These homes are at least 15 percent more energy efficient than homes built to the 2004 International Residential Code.

More than 1 million Energy Star homes have been built since the program was started in 1995, and occupants of those homes are expected to save $270 million on utility bills this year.

Las Vegas is No. 3 in the nation with 79,929 Energy Star homes, trailing Houston (144,420) and Dallas (102,872), the EPA reported. Phoenix (73,021) and Los Angeles (53,673) round out the top five.

Les Lazareck, owner of Home Energy Connection in Las Vegas, said he hopes there’s “meat” to Assembly Bill 457, a Nevada law to take effect in 2011 that would require every home to have an energy audit conducted before the close of escrow unless the buyer waives it.

“If you buy a vehicle, you want to find out how efficient it is to operate,” he said. “I want to see appraisers properly appraise a home based on operating costs. If a home uses 50 percent less electricity than the same model down the street, does it make sense it would be worth more?”

Lazareck is also program manager for HomeFreeNevada.org, an organization dedicated to improving energy efficiency of homes and buildings and reducing their “carbon footprint,” or the negative effect people have on the environment based on how much carbon dioxide they produce.

Bubak noted that utility rebates and federal tax credits are offered for some energy-saving home improvements. The city of Las Vegas has a program that will pay for an energy audit, she said.

Many problem spots can be identified through do-it-yourself home energy audits. Residents should start by checking for obvious air leaks around windows and doors. Also, look for gaps along baseboards, at junctures of the walls and ceiling, and around pipes and wires, electrical outlets and mail slots.

Check to see whether caulking and weather stripping are applied properly, leaving no gaps or cracks, and are in good condition. For more tips, visit www.energysaver.gov.

NV Energy also provides information on how to conduct a comprehensive home energy audit on its Web site, nvenergy.com. By setting up an online account, customers can compare energy use with similar homes, track energy use over a period of time and find specific ways to lower their bills.

Contact reporter Hubble Smith at hsmith@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0491.

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