How to Save Money With an Inexpensive Energy Audit
Your house may be wasting far more energy than you realize.Posted Feb 28, 2017
When we moved into our 1910 farmhouse many years ago, we were pretty confident that not much stood between us and sub-zero Minnesota winters besides some plaster and siding. Our house, though charming, was really chilly.
We signed up for an energy audit through our utility company and learned a TON about how our house worked, as well as numerous ways we could cut our energy usage. Ever since, I’ve been a raving fan of energy audits.
While the word “audit” can sound a little scary, an energy audit is a thoroughly positive experience. Call it a home energy assessment if that makes you more comfortable. When you sign up for an energy audit, a building performance expert will come check your home for leaks and offer money-saving ways to use less energy.
Often subsidized by power companies, energy audits can cost very little. Plus they will typically pay you back in energy savings many times over. And they are such an education. Many people don’t realize how little they understand about the way their home functions until an expert gives them a tour.
What an Energy Auditor Does
During an energy audit, an auditor will walk through all the rooms of your house, inspect your doors, windows, heating and cooling systems, and evaluate your insulation. They’ll look over your energy use for the past year and give you a sense of how your usage compares to the average for your area and type of home. They will likely also perform something called a blower-door test using a powerful fan to depressurize the house.
When we had our audit done, the blower door test measured how much air movement our house allowed, and gave us a number that let us compare our home to houses considered to be well-sealed. (Suffice it to say, ours didn’t do very well.) During the test, we walked all around the house to find places where outside air was being drawn in. I had known to install foam sealers behind our outlets, but I didn’t know the outlets themselves were also leaking air. Years before we had kids, we were instructed to get a pile of baby-proof plug covers to keep that air out. Who knew?
The blower door test, the auditor told us, confirmed that our walls didn’t have much in the way of insulation, and adding some would dramatically reduce airflow. The audit was part of a package of incentives from our utility company and gave us a rebate for adding insulation and a few other efficiency upgrades, with a follow-up blower door test to check whether our home’s performance had improved.
After having cellulose insulation blown into our empty wall cavities, the auditor came back and did another blower door test. A vast improvement! He reported that our house was now behaving much more like a modern, well-sealed building. But it was the following winter’s heating bills that really showed us how much had changed. Now that we were heating the great outdoors less, our heating bills dropped by about a third. (More money to put toward additional upgrades: hooray!)
Having a well sealed home also improves cooling. By keeping hot air out of the house in summer, all that insulation and sealing keeps your home cooler so you can use your air conditioning less, saving you money and preventing carbon pollution.
Personalized Advice from an Expert
Auditors go over numerous ways to cut your energy use, whether by reducing phantom loads (also known as “vampire power”), upgrading appliances, or using strategies that reduce heating needs. They may also discuss programmable thermostats (or even give you one!) and other low-cost ways to conserve more energy.
Our auditor also talked us through some of the options for using renewables to power, heat, and cool our home. We talked about furnaces, heat pumps, solar panels and more. We paid $35 and got hundreds back in rebates on our efficiency upgrades. And year after year we pay significantly less on energy bills than if we hadn’t made these improvements.
A few years later, I heard about another promotion from our power company that included some free sealing and supplies as well as an audit. I jumped at the chance to learn more about the quality of our building envelope. I had some questions about how well our insulation was performing. Since this time I could arrange the audit for winter, I could get an infrared test, which requires a large temperature differential between the inside and outside of the house. The test would cost $100, but I’d get more detailed information about where our house was still losing heat. Plus with some free door sealing and energy-saving supplies included in the visit, we’d probably about break even.
Our house is warmer than ever, though we’re spending less on heat.
I am so glad I did. The infrared imaging let us find places in the walls our insulators had missed and where additional caulking was needed. I sent the images to the owner of the insulating company, who explained that sometimes the quirky framing around windows in older homes makes it tricky to know whether blown-in insulation got to all the cavities. But armed with the infrared images, his insulators came back and filled all the rest of the problem spots. Our house is warmer than ever, though we’re spending less on heat.
How to Prepare for Your Audit
If your utility company doesn’t have an energy audit program, you can hire your own auditor. Though it may cost a few hundred dollars, you should recoup the cost pretty quickly in energy savings. Some regions even have rebate programs to cover the cost of the audit plus upgrades.
To find an auditor, talk to your local or state energy office or look up auditors in your area through the Residential Energy Services Network. Be sure to ask for references and find out if the auditor uses a calibrated blower door.
Before your audit, make a list of questions you have and things you’ve noticed over the years you’d like to understand better. Perhaps there’s a cold spot you’d like to address or you’ve had problems with condensation. If you’ve been considering different efficiency upgrades, an auditor can help you prioritize which ones will have the most impact.
Get out past utility bills for the auditor to look at so they have a record of your habits. Some auditors may have you release the prior year’s bills electronically from the power company in advance of your appointment.
How Could an Energy Audit Benefit You?
More than likely, you’ll come out of an energy audit far more educated about how your home functions and uses energy, equipping you to make smarter decisions and increase your home’s efficiency. In addition to saving you money year after year, following the advice of your auditor should make your home more comfortable. And reducing your home’s energy use should take a good bite out of your household carbon emissions.
How much energy could one of these informative audits save you? Get one and find out. You’ll be glad you did.
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Susannah Shmurak is an enthusiastic advocate for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. She shares practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at HealthyGreenSavvy.com.