Saturday, May 23, 2009

Home Energy Audit

Pinpoint Where You’re Losing Energy
Are your home energy bills getting out of hand? Does your house feel drafty even when you crank up the heat? Have you been dragging your feet on giving your house an energy-efficiency tune-up because you don’t know where to start?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, you might want to hire a professional home-energy auditor.
Home energy auditors come to your home and identify where energy is being wasted. If you follow through on the recommendations from the home energy audit, you may be able to reduce your energy costs by as much as 20% to 30%, especially if your house is older and hasn’t been retrofitted for energy efficiency.
Energy auditors are similar to home performance contractors—in fact, some companies provide both types of services. But energy auditors focus specifically on saving energy. Home performance contractors look at other issues as well, such as saving water and improving indoor air quality.
A home energy audit makes sense for every type of home: apartments, condos, single-family houses, multifamily buildings. But if you don’t own your home, be aware that many of the auditor’s recommendations may be for improvements that only a building owner can make, like upgrading heating or cooling equipment or adding more insulation.
If you’re a diligent do-it-yourselfer, you can conduct your own home energy audit with guidance from online checklists or utility company brochures. But unless you have considerable expertise, you may miss out on savings opportunities. It’s also unlikely that you’ll want to invest in the expensive, specialized diagnostic tools that many professional auditors use to pinpoint where your home is losing energy.
Home Energy Audit – Buyer Beware
When shopping around for a home energy auditor, look for companies that provide unbiased advice based on sound building science and economics. Start by looking in our directory!
Before signing a contract, do your homework to make sure the company is reputable (for tips, see our article on hiring a contractor). Be cautious about companies that offer free or very low-cost energy audits; their primary goal may be to sell expensive repairs and products. While many of these companies are above board, some use the free audit as a tactic to pressure you into paying for repair work that may be overpriced or unnecessary. Replacing windows, for example, rarely makes sense from an energy-savings standpoint.
Many companies only do home energy audits, not any associated remediation work. The cost of a basic home energy audit generally ranges from $200 to $500.
Companies provide different levels of home energy assessments, so when comparing fees, make sure you understand what you’ll be getting. You’ll also want to verify that the audit will include a “blower door test” and “infrared thermography.” These two diagnostic procedures, described below, are key to pinpointing where your home is losing energy.
What to Expect From an Energy Audit
Once you’ve signed a contract, your energy auditing company will send someone out to do a top-to-bottom visual inspection of the whole house, including the attic and basement. This auditor will look at the building components and systems that affect energy use, such as ducts, windows and doors, insulation levels, and heating and cooling equipment. Be sure to be home during the audit so you can ask questions and point out areas of particular concern, like condensation on windows or drafts in certain rooms.
If your auditor conducts a blower door test, he or she will probably install a large fan (set within a door-sized panel) into one of your home’s exterior doorways. When the fan is turned on, it will suck air out of the building. By measuring the rate of air flow, the auditor can determine how leaky the house is.
To find the source of the air leaks, the auditor can walk around the house with a smoke plume (such as from an incense stick) to see where air is being drawn in from the outside. The auditor’s report will include recommendations on how to remedy those air leaks.
Many energy auditors also used an infrared camera to conduct a thermographic inspection of walls, ceilings, and areas around windows and doors to see where insulation may be missing or poorly installed, or where the building’s components aren’t airtight. On the infrared image, colder spots show up as dark areas.
The auditor will also analyze your utility bills for the past year or more and will ask you some questions about your household’s habits as they relate to energy use. (If you don’t keep copies of your bills, you can get them from your utility company.) This information will help the auditor compile a list of recommendations for energy savings.
Watch this video featuring Corbett Lundsford from the Green Dream Group in Chicago to see what happens during a typical energy audit.
The Audit Report
After the audit, the company will give you a written report describing its findings and suggesting actions to save energy. The report should prioritize the recommendations and for each item it should explain what’s needed and how much energy could be saved by making the change. If this information isn’t clear, ask the auditor for details.
Some of the recommendations will likely be easy fixes that you can do yourself, like replacing incandescent lights with compact fluorescents, putting weather stripping around windows that don’t fit tightly in their frames, or installing door sweeps under exterior doors.
Other recommendations, like adding insulation or upgrading to more-efficient heating or cooling equipment, may take more effort and money, or require the services of a professional.
Don’t be pressured into buying products or repair services from your auditing company. As with any home improvement project, take your time to do research and interview multiple contractors. Many energy auditors don’t do repair work themselves but can provide you with a list of contractors you can call for estimates.
Remember, in the end, an energy audit is just a piece of paper. To save energy, you’ll likely have to make some changes. Some will cost money, but others will be free. To get a sense of what they might entail, go to “15 Ways to Save a Buck and a Watt.”

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