Treatment without diagnosis is risky, for human health or home energy performance.
For any tax-paying citizen, the term “audit” probably has more negative than positive connotations. That’s why companies and individuals who perform home energy audits often refer to their services as “energy assessments” or “energy evaluations.” If the “A” word stigma isn’t bad enough, there’s another issue that makes it difficult for energy auditors to sell their services: A home energy audit doesn’t yield any energy savings; it simply identifies different features and conditions that are influencing your home’s use of energy.
So why pay money for a home inspection that merely identifies various aspects of energy usage? If you already know that your furnace needs to be replaced, shouldn’t you just call an HVAC contractor instead of a home energy analyst?
These are very common questions, because most of us stand to benefit greatly by reducing home energy use. Research by the U.S. Dept. of Energy tells us that many homes in the U.S. use about twice as much energy as they should (see pie chart). In other words, the typical $2200 annual energy bill could be cut in half if the right energy-saving upgrades are completed. Who wouldn’t like those savings? But is an energy audit really necessary to improve home energy efficiency?
You bet. An energy audit is a one-time investment that will keep paying off as you act on the results and recommendations. Check out the benefits explained below.
Four Benefits you get from an energy audit
1. Protection from “single solution” contractors. Replacement window companies, appliance dealers and contractors who install insulation or HVAC equipment are all interested in helping you save energy. But the single solutions offered by these businesses don’t come close to addressing all the factors that interact to determine overall energy consumption. Before you commit to a single improvement, it’s important to see where this upgrade fits in your home’s overall energy performance. An energy audit is the best way to get the big picture on your home’s energy performance.
2. Whole-house analysis. Like holistic medicine, an energy audit evaluates multiple systems that interact to affect your home’s overall function and energy performance. You’ll learn how leaks in your ductwork are forcing your HVAC system to operate longer than necessary, while also compromising indoor air quality. During a blower door test, the energy technician can actually pinpoint air leaks throughout your house that increase heating and cooling costs. The energy assessment will also include efficiency evaluations of your water heater, appliances and lighting system. In short, you’ll get the total picture on how your house uses and loses energy. Your energy audit will compare existing conditions in your home with benchmarks that have been established by the Dept. of Energy for efficient energy use. For example, many homes have less than 10 in. of attic insulation (rated at R-19 or so); in northern states the DOE recommendation for attic insulation is R-49 to R-60.
3. Prioritized recommendations. The end result of a home energy audit is a list of recommendations –upgrades you can perform that will yield energy savings, improved comfort and (in some cases) improved indoor air quality. You’ll also learn what upgrades should be made first, in terms of affordability, effectiveness and return on investment. For example, it’s usually best to make air-sealing and insulation improvements early on, because doing so means that when your heating or cooling system needs to be replaced, a smaller unit can be purchased. It’s worth noting that some energy-saving improvements (like sealing ductwork and upgrading insulation levels) are permanent and maintenance-free, while others (like installing a new water heater) may require maintenance or even replacement eventually. It’s exciting and empowering to have a master plan for energy savings –that’s exactly what a good energy audit should provide—but it’s important to keep your expectations realistic. For more in this vein, check out an article about common mistakes made by energy auditors. Also, there’s a helpful video explaining the process of a home energy audit.
4. Financial incentives. Some of the improvements recommended in your energy audit may qualify for tax breaks or rebates. For example, you can get a Federal tax credit of $300 for installing an ENERGY STAR® water heater. A tax credit of up to $500 is available for insulation upgrades. Visit the ENERGY STAR website for details on Federal tax incentives for energy-saving upgrades. For details on state and local incentives, visit the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.
Final note: Some energy audits are less thorough than others. The free or discounted energy audits available through some local utility companies may not include important tests and inspections that are necessary for a comprehensive evaluation of your home’s energy use. If you are selecting or scheduling a home energy audit, make sure that the technician who performs the audit has BPI (Building Performance Institute) certification. Make sure that a blower door test will be included, and that the inspector will evaluate ductwork, water heater and HVAC efficiency as well as insulation levels and air leakage. It’s a good idea to check for positive reviews online when researching energy auditing companies in your area.
Article by Tim Snyder, a journalist specializing in sustainability, energy efficiency and home building topics.