Innovative solutions for creating healthy, efficient, eco-friendly homes

Home Energy Audits

Throughout your house, air is escaping out of every hole, crack, gap, nook and cranny. It's leaking through floors, walls, ceilings and windows. It's seeping out of ductwork, fireplaces, vents and even electrical outlets. It's making you uncomfortable - it might even be making you sick - and it's definitely costing you money. The energy wasted through poorly insulated windows and doors alone is equivalent to what we get from the Alaskan pipeline each year, according to the Department of Energy. But it doesn't have to be that way. You can easily reduce the amount of energy that escapes your home, and in the process make your home more comfortable, healthier and more economical. Mark Ginsberg of the DOE says Americans spend about $140 billion a year on residential energy. But with a few energy-saving steps, homeowners can save 10 to 30 percent on their energy bills in existing homes and 30 to 50 percent in new home construction. If the average homeowner saved 20 percent, the savings would add up to $28 billion - or roughly $275 for every household in the United States. "It's amazing how many leaks there are in typical buildings," Ginsberg says. "Sometimes it adds up to a hole the size of an open window. If people thought about the size of an open window, they could save a lot of energy by closing it up." The best way to assess the energy efficiency of your home is to conduct a home energy audit to identify where your home is needlessly losing energy. By pinpointing those areas, you can decide which measures to take to increase energy efficiency, whether it be caulking windows, sealing heating and cooling ducts, or increasing the amount of insulation in your attic. Besides saving you money in monthly bills, these measures in the long run should also make your home more durable, increase its value and contribute to a cleaner environment. "You can benefit yourself and the environment and society at the same time," says Rozanne Weissman of the Alliance to Save Energy, a non-profit coalition in Washington devoted to energy conservation. "It's a win-win." There are two ways to conduct an energy audit: by yourself or by hiring somebody to come to your house and audit, or rate, your home energy efficiency. Hiring a pro will obviously give you the most thorough and precise energy examination. To find an energy auditor, also called a rater, check with your state or local energy office, your gas or electric utility, the yellow pages or the Internet. Many home energy raters are certified through HERS (Home Energy Rating System), a standardized system for rating the energy efficiency of residential buildings. A rater will go through a home room-by-room, looking for places where energy is escaping. He might look at a homeowner's utility bills and will use tools - including a large fan and possibly an infrared camera - to detect energy loss. When you hire an energy auditor, you are getting more than a just a technical meter reader. You should be getting an energy expert. Ginsberg says good energy raters should bring experience and insight to the task at hand. And in the end, they should end up saving you money. Energy audits should inform homeowners of where their homes are efficient and inefficient, and allow them to prioritize which problems to fix. Experts say a home energy audit will take two to eight hours and cost anywhere from $50 to $500. But don't expect much for $50. When hiring a professional, you should make a list of problems in your home, such as drafty rooms, mildew or condensation buildup. The auditor will use this information to help determine what to look for. He will also want to know the residents' behavior, including whether people are at home during normal working hours, at what temperature the thermostat is typically set, and whether every room in the house is used. After giving the home a visual inspection, the auditor will generally conduct blower-door tests. A blower-door test is the most common energy-auditing tool. It is nothing more than a powerful fan mounted into the frame of an exterior door that pulls air out of a house and lowers the air pressure inside. The higher outside air pressure then flows in through all unsealed cracks and openings to determine the air infiltration rate of a building. Make sure the rater uses a calibrated blower, which will measure the amount of air pulled out of a house. The data will allow you to quantify the air leakage and later measure the effectiveness of any air-sealing job. Chris Dorsi, director of training for Saturn Resource Management energy consultants in Helena, Mont., calls the blower door the most basic tool available to assess home energy efficiency. "The air leakage through the house is the single biggest determining factor in how much energy consumption there is going to be," he says. The blower door isn't the only tool, of course. Home energy raters might use infrared cameras, surface thermometers and furnace efficiency meters as well. Infrared cameras basically record the temperature variations of a building's skin. Warm regions will appear white or red, and cool areas are blue or dark. The resulting image helps the rater assess where insulation might be needed, and whether existing insulation was installed properly. Reducing air leaks, or drafts, can be as easy as caulking and weather-stripping windows, doors and other openings, and can result in cutting your energy bills by 5 to 30 percent. Although windows and doors are the most obvious places to look for drafts, other places to check include gaps along baseboards or floor edges. Examine electrical outlets, fireplaces, attic hatches and air conditioners. Check around pipes and wires, foundation seals and even mail slots. You can tell if you have leaks if you can see light come through, or by holding up a paper tissue to see if it moves because of any wind that is coming through. An energy audit should also tell you if you need more insulation. Homeowners often have no idea how much insulation is in their attic or behind their walls. Weissman, with the Alliance to Save Energy, says people are often shocked to learn how little insulation they may have. "We've heard people tell us horror stories about how their whole north wall has zero insulation in it," she says. Another area that results in huge amounts of lost energy is your home's duct system, the network of tubes that carries heat and cool air throughout your home. Like insulation, ductwork is usually hidden beneath your feet or above your head - out of sight and out of mind. Harvey Sachs of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a Washington-based nonprofit group that promotes energy efficiency, says the largest source of lost energy in heating/cooling systems is shoddy ductwork. Sachs says the average duct system leaks about 30 percent of the air that passes through it. "All ductwork leaks," Sachs says. "It depends on whether it's in conditioned or unconditioned space. If your ductwork is in unconditioned space - such as the attic or garage - you have major problems almost anywhere with leakage." He says homeowners are well-advised to hire professionals to fix leaky ductwork, although they could fix the problems on their own with special tape or mastic if the problems aren't too big. He cautions, however, that duct tape - despite its name - is not a good way to fix leaky ducts. Once homeowners know where their energy problems are, they can then make a list and prioritize them. Some problems cost little or nothing to fix, such as drafty windows and doors. Other areas, though, may cost thousands of dollars, such as replacing insulation in walls or installing new windows. Sachs says making your home energy efficient "should be a journey, not a destination." You can take care of the low-cost trouble areas now, he says, and over time fix the larger, more capital-intensive problems. When you make the improvements, you should save money. The payback depends on what you do and when you do it. You might enjoy some unexpected benefits as well. A less-leaky house means less dust in the air. And where there is air infiltration, there is often moisture infiltration. Fixing these areas can ward off mold and mildew, which in turn can ward off other air-quality and health problems. If you replace old windows with new windows that keep out ultraviolet rays, then your carpets and drapes won't fade in the sun's rays. All of which adds up to a more comfortable home - something that is impossible to put a dollar figure on. Of course, living a more energy-efficient lifestyle involves more than just making sure your ductwork, insulation and windows are efficient. There are hundreds of other ways to cut down on your energy consumption, from turning down thermostats and turning off lights when you leave a room to installing an insulating wrap around your water heater. An energy audit is a good first step that gives you an overall view of the efficiency of your home. Home energy audits may cost you a few hundred bucks, but they might give you the information you need to avoid making a $5,000 mistake on a furnace or a $10,000 mistake on windows. At the least, home energy audits will open your eyes to simple ways to improve your home and save money by making it more energy efficient. "A smart homeowner," Ginsberg says, "has an energy-efficient home." Clarke Canfield is a freelance writer based in South Portland, Maine.