While a professional home energy assessment is the best way to determine where your home is losing energy and where you can save, you can conduct your own simple but diligent walk-through and spot many problems in any type of house. This "do-it-yourself" home energy assessment will not be as thorough as a professional home energy assessment, but it can help you pinpoint some of the easier areas to address. When walking through your home, keep a checklist of areas you have inspected and problems you found. This list will help you prioritize your energy efficiency upgrades. Do not assume that just because your home is recently constructed–or even new–that there are no opportunities to save energy. Energy-saving technology has evolved rapidly over the past few years, outpacing training commonly available to many builders, including some of the most reputable.
Locate Air Leaks
First, make a list of obvious air leaks (drafts). The potential energy savings from reducing drafts in a home may range from 10% to 20% per year, and the home is generally much more comfortable afterward.
Check for indoor air leaks, such as gaps along the baseboard or edge of the flooring and at junctures of the walls and ceiling. Also check for leaks on the outside of your home, especially in areas where two different building materials meet. Other places to check for leaks include windows, doors, lighting and plumbing fixtures, switches, and electrical outlets. Also check for open fireplace dampers. See detecting air leaks for detailed instructions on finding air leaks yourself.
Seal Air Leaks
You should plug and caulk holes or penetrations for faucets, pipes, electric outlets, and wiring. Look for cracks and holes in the mortar, foundation, and siding, and look for leaks around windows and doors. Seal them with the appropriate material. Learn more about selecting and applying caulk and weatherstripping.
When sealing any home, you must always be aware of the danger of indoor air pollution and combustion appliance "backdrafts." Backdrafting is when the various combustion appliances and exhaust fans in the home compete for fresh air. An exhaust fan may pull the combustion gases back into the living space, increasing indoor levels of carbon monoxide. This can obviously create a very dangerous and unhealthy situation in the home.
In homes where a fuel is burned (i.e., natural gas, fuel oil, propane, or wood) for heating, be certain the appliance has an adequate air supply. Generally, one square inch of vent opening is required for each 1,000 Btu of appliance input heat. Burn marks or soot around the appliance burner or at the vent collar, or visible smoke anywhere in the utility room while the appliance is operating, indicate poor draft. When in doubt, contact your local utility company, energy professional, or ventilation contractor. Learn more about proper ventilation.
Check Insulation Levels
Heat loss through the floor, ceiling, and walls in your home could be very large if the insulation levels are less than the recommended minimum. When your house was built, the builder likely installed the amount of insulation recommended at that time. Given today's energy prices (and future prices that will probably be higher), the level of insulation might be inadequate, especially if you have an older home.
If the attic hatch is located above a conditioned space, check to see if it is at least as heavily insulated as the attic, is weather stripped, and closes tightly. In the attic, determine whether openings for items such as pipes, ductwork, and chimneys are sealed. Seal any gaps with an expanding foam caulk or some other permanent sealant. When sealing gaps around chimneys or other heat producing devices, be sure to use a non-combustible sealant.
While you are inspecting the attic, check to see if there is a vapor barrier under the attic insulation. The vapor barrier might be tarpaper, Kraft paper attached to fiberglass batts, or a plastic sheet. If there does not appear to be a vapor barrier, you might consider painting the interior ceilings with vapor barrier paint. This reduces the amount of water vapor that can pass through the ceiling. Large amounts of moisture can reduce the effectiveness of insulation and promote structural damage.
Make sure that the exterior attic vents are not blocked by insulation. Baffle vents may be installed to allow air flow into your attic space. You also should seal any openings or penetrations (such as electrical boxes) in the ceiling with flexible caulk (from the living room side or attic side) and cover the entire attic floor with at least the current recommended amount of insulation.
Checking a wall's insulation level is more difficult. Select an exterior wall and turn off the circuit breaker or unscrew the fuse for any outlets in the wall. Be sure to test the outlets to make certain that they are not "hot." Check the outlet by plugging in a functioning lamp or portable radio. Once you are sure your outlets are not getting any electricity, remove the cover plate from one of the outlets and gently probe into the wall with a thin, long stick or screwdriver. A plastic crochet hook is particularly suited, as it will retrieve small bits of any insulation material for easy identification. If you encounter a slight resistance, you have some insulation there. You could also make a small hole in a closet, behind a couch, or in some other unobtrusive place to see what, if anything, the wall cavity is filled with. Ideally, the wall cavity should be totally filled with some form of insulation material. Unfortunately, this method cannot tell you if the entire wall is insulated, or if the insulation has settled. Only a thermographic inspection can do this.
If your basement or crawlspace is unconditioned and open to the exterior, determine whether there is insulation under the living area flooring. Insulation is recommended in some situations where the basement is conditioned. In most areas of the country, an R-value of 25 is the recommended minimum level of insulation for basements and crawlspaces. If the sub-space is enclosed and contains heating or cooling appliances, air ducts or plumbing, you should insulate the sub-space perimeter rather than the living space floor. The insulation at the top of the foundation wall and first floor perimeter should have an R-value of 19 or greater. If the basement is intentionally conditioned, the foundation walls should also be insulated to at least R-19. Your water heater, hot water pipes, and furnace ducts (especially if located in unconditioned space, such as an open crawl space) should all be insulated. For more information, see our insulation section.
Inspect Heating and Cooling Equipment
Inspect heating and cooling equipment annually, or as recommended by the manufacturer. If you have a forced-air furnace, check your filters and replace them as needed. Generally, you should change them about once every month or two, especially during periods of high usage or if your home has poor indoor air quality. Have a professional check and clean your equipment once a year.
If the unit is more than 15 years old, you should consider replacing your system with one of the newer, energy-efficient units. A new unit would greatly reduce your energy consumption, especially if the existing equipment is in poor condition. Check your ductwork for dirt streaks, especially near seams. These indicate air leaks, and they should be sealed with a duct mastic. Insulate any ducts or pipes that travel through unheated spaces. An insulation R-Value of 6 is the recommended minimum for ductwork.
Energy for lighting accounts for about 10% of your electric bill. Examine the light bulbs in your house and consider replacing inefficient bulbs with a more efficient choice, such as ENERGY STAR light-emitting diodes (LEDs) bulbs or energy saving incandescents. When shopping for bulbs, consider the brightness of the bulbs you want and look for lumens and the Lighting Facts label. Your electric utility may offer rebates or other incentives for purchasing energy-efficient lamps. Also look for ways to use connected home devices or lighting controls such as sensors, dimmers, or timers to reduce lighting use.
Appliances and Electronics
The appliances and electronics you choose and how you use them affect your energy use and costs. Examine the appliances and electronics in your home and estimate their energy use. Consider strategies for reducing the energy use of your appliances and electronics.
You might consider the following:
- Unplugging an item when it is not in use to prevent phantom loads
- Changing the settings or using the item less often
- Purchasing a new, more efficient product. Learn more about shopping for efficient appliances and electronics
- Utilizing smart home energy management systems to monitor and control energy consumption of devices.
Your Whole-House Plan
After you know where your home is losing energy, make a plan by asking yourself a few questions:
- How much money do you spend on energy?
- Where are your greatest energy losses?
- How long will it take for an investment in energy efficiency to pay for itself in energy cost savings?
- Do the energy-saving measures provide additional benefits that are important to you—for example, increased comfort from installing ENERGY STAR certified windows?
- How long do you plan to own your current home and how much value do you want to get out of your home?
- Can you do the job yourself or do you need to hire a contractor?
- What is your budget?
- How much time do you have for maintenance and repairs?
Professional Home Energy Assessment
Once you have finished your do-it-yourself assessment, consider calling in a pro to complete a more thorough assessment. Many utilities offer professional energy assessments at no or reduced cost to their customers. Your self-assessment can help the auditor better analyze your home, including issues such as comfort and indoor air quality, and potential areas for saving energy and money. Learn more about professional home energy assessments.