Plugging Up Leaks with a Home Energy Audit

Identify energy-loss areas to cut costs and increase comfort.

Home Energy Audit

Photo: shaneshirleysmith.com

Homeowners are looking for ways to conserve energy and still make a positive impact on the environment. Here are some constructive ways to tighten your home’s energy consumption and save both energy and money.

Bank on these Benefits
Heating and cooling are the greatest energy demands in your home, comprising 56 percent of energy usage, according to the Department of Energy.

An audit will increase your home’s thermal efficiency, which is the overall ability to keep heat inside in the winter and keep heat out during the summer months. Since every house is different, only a home energy auditor can tell you the specific locations within your home that need attention.

“People get an energy audit analysis for reasons other than energy drain and economic benefits,” says Katie Ackerly, research assistant at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) in Washington, DC. “It can increase the value of your home along with improving your comfort.”

A careful examination of how the whole house operates will increase air quality. Additionally, Ackerly says, replacing your current HVAC system with a more efficient unit will reduce the noise level in your home because the new equipment is much quieter. A couple other benefits: increased speed and efficiency of hot water delivery and, upon completion of the audit, you gain a better working knowledge of how your house functions.

But the real payoff comes when the professional auditor completes the assessment and provides a quantified list of areas that need attention.

Dan Gibson, owner of Home Energy Advisors in Ballston Lake, NY, says, “The list allows you to move ahead to make good decisions about borrowing money to complete the needed changes.” And it makes good sense to borrow that money for home energy improvements since you’ll be reducing your energy expenses in the long run. The scientifically based home audit provides a prospective lender the supporting methodology that will sustain a loan application.

In today’s green-conscious world, you may be able to secure a new house energy mortgage, or if you currently own a home, you may quality to refinance an existing loan.

Tuning Up the House
Energy auditors may use one or a combination of methods to assess a home: a blower door, infrared camera, a duct blaster to test ducts for leakage. They may also provide their reports in a variety of ways: a spreadsheet for utility bill analysis, a list of needed fixes, etc. Homeowners can expect to pay anywhere from $200 to $700, as the price varies due to location, size of house and complexity the layout.

He then inspects the windows, doors and the exterior to make sure everything is tight. Next, Gibson tackles the insulation in the attic and the basement. “I do a solar access survey to see if there is any opportunity to use the sun,” says Gibson. “Some people have great opportunities but never take advantage of the sun’s energy-saving benefits.”

He uses an infrared camera to look for cold spots throughout the house, explaining, “some of those cold spots might be missing insulation or have cracks letting in cold air.” Using a blower door test that depressurizes the house, Gibson diagnoses major leakage in the basement, the attic, porch overhangs and the garage.

He summarizes his findings for the homeowner under categories that include big and small opportunities and health and/or safety issues. Although it’s not a part of the investigation process, Gibson tells his clients about the incentives and credits available. “At the end of this phase,” he says, “the clients have enough information to decide to go ahead with the second phase by completing the improvements. They will know the opportunities, how much it will cost and how much they can save.”

In the second phase of the assessment Gibson uses computer software to build an energy model of the house. He includes the walls, windows, doors, heating system and type of fuel used in the house. Then he takes the existing energy bill and compares it to the model to see if the dwelling is consuming as much energy as the model estimated. He gets rough estimates of all the improvements being considered and then does a cost-benefit analysis to see just how much money and energy can be saved by each improvement.

When Gibson meets with the clients again, they review all the results and the homeowner decides which improvements they want to do. If the clients want him to do the work, he finds qualified contractors to complete it.

At the conclusion of the audit and corrections, Gibson says he will run one final test to determine exactly how much tighter the home is; he also runs an additional safety test to make certain the appliances are vented properly.

The Green Home Upgrade
“Having an energy-efficient home is like having an insurance policy against rate increases,” explains Harry Ford, administrator of the California Building Performance Contractors Association (CBPCA) in Oakland, CA. “It’s a way to set your house apart from others.”

Selling a home with green improvements just got easier. ‘There is a growing demand among buyers for energy-efficient homes,’ says Ford, whose association works closely with the Home Performance with Energy Star program. A national program with the Environmental Protection Agency, the program offers a comprehensive, whole house approach to home energy audits in 19 states across the country with more states coming on board soon.

Contact your utility company directly to see what programs they offer, call an independent energy auditor or put your “do-it-yourself” cap on and look for assistance with several organizations, including the Building Performance Institute and their Home Performance Program with Energy Star or Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET).

Homeowners may be eligible for utility, local, state and federal rebates or tax incentives for energy-efficient upgrades. See the DSIRE, the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.