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Energy Audits

September 9, 2008 - 11:30am

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Autumn officially begins soon, and with it comes cooler weather and fewer hours of daylight. Fall is a great time to start thinking of a home energy audit so that you can prepare your home for winter, saving energy and money in the process.

The main purpose of an energy audit is to determine whether your home wastes energy, and to pinpoint where energy is being lost so you can evaluate what measures you can take to make your home more energy efficient. Audits also determine the efficiency of your home’s heating and cooling systems, and ways to conserve hot water. Audits can be as simple as a do-it-yourself audit, or they can be very detailed, using specific tools and techniques to pinpoint air leaks.

If you've lived in your home for some time, you already may be familiar with areas that get drafty as the cold, wintry weather approaches. Sky-high energy bills may hint at the inefficiency of your appliances and heating and cooling equipment.

A do-it-yourself energy audit, commonly referred to as a walk-through, is the simplest and most common method of conducting an energy audit. Go room-by-room to check for air leaks. There are many potential sites for air to leak into or out of your home, including: windows and doors, gaps around pipe and wire feedthroughs, electrical outlets, foundation seals, mail slots, exhaust fans, attics, garage doors, siding cracks, and old caulking. Check insulation levels where possible. Look at the age of your heating and cooling equipment, and past maintenance records and maintenance schedules; check to see if filters are clean. Review the types of lighting in your home, and explore more efficient alternatives. Be sure to keep a checklist of areas you inspected and problems you found. This list will help you prioritize your energy efficiency upgrades.

If you’re somewhat computer savvy, you may be interested in using a computer program to conduct a more thorough energy audit. Home Energy Saver and Home Energy Checkup are two free web-based do-it-yourself residential energy audit tools. These tools can help you determine the savings you can expect from making specific energy upgrades, and thus help you prioritize improvements to make. Or try the ENERGY STAR® Home Energy Yardstick to compare your home's energy efficiency to similar homes across the country and get recommendations for energy-saving home improvements from ENERGY STAR.

Another option is to pay a professional service company to conduct a sophisticated energy audit on your home. The company’s “house doctors” often use tools such as blower doors, infrared cameras, digital surface thermometers, and smoke pencils to detect leaks in the building’s envelope—your home’s surface area exposed to the outside. They may conduct a building pressurization test that measures the leakiness of the building envelope, or a thermographic inspection that reveals the often hard-to-detect areas of infiltration and areas where insulation is missing. These “house doctors” will generate a report with the results of their tests. This report typically includes a list of where you are wasting energy, what improvements you can make, estimates on what these improvements will cost, and what your annual savings will be should you make the recommended improvements. In some cases, the house doctors will carry out some energy-conserving measures on site at the time of the audit. Ask beforehand to find out which of these services the company provides and what the fees are. These professional tests tend to be expensive, but the savings after upgrades can be considerable.

Where can you locate professional energy audit companies? Your first step should be to contact your local electric or gas utility to see if they offer free or discounted energy audits to their customers or if they can recommend local auditors. Your local government or state energy office may help you identify a local company or organization that performs audits. They may also have information on how to do your own audit. Low-income residents should contact their weatherization office.

Two other good resources that can help locate a professional energy audit company near you are Home Performance with ENERGY STAR and Residential Energy Services Network. If you’re planning to make extensive energy improvements, you may wish to think about getting an energy rating for your home with the energy audit, and then applying for an energy mortgage. An Energy Improvement Mortgage finances the energy upgrades of your existing home in the mortgage loan using monthly energy savings.

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