What Happens During a Comprehensive Home Energy Assessment?
Energy auditors search your entire home for escaping energy. They will search inside and out for inefficiencies and safety concerns using advanced equipment and techniques. After the tests, they will provide a customized, detailed account of your home's energy efficiency that shows where the most energy is escaping and what repairs can be made to maximize your savings-to-investment ratio (SIR). Once you discuss the results with your auditor, they will help you make plans to complete the work with an accredited Building Performance Institute (BPI) contractor and show you ways to improve efficiency on your own. It will save you money, improve comfort and safety, and increase the overall value of your home, all while reducing your energy footprint.
We spend a lot of money on energy. We use it to stay warm, keep cool, make dinner, light up the living room, take a hot shower and do a host of things that help create a safe, comfortable environment for ourselves. Unfortunately, a large portion of the energy you pay for goes to waste through inefficiencies hidden all over your home. A comprehensive home energy assessment or energy audit is the best way to pinpoint these inefficiencies so you can take the right steps towards improving your home.
Tools Your Auditor Might Use
Unseen air leakages through chimneys, attics, wall vents and poorly sealed windows and doors can cause heat losses which may account for up to 50% of your total energy consumption. That is why energy auditors are trained to know what to look for, and use the most advanced tools and techniques available to locate every problem.
Blower Door Evaluation - A blower door is a powerful fan mounted in the frame of your main doorway that is used to check for air leaks. It works by blowing the air out of the house, which temporarily lowers the air pressure inside. The outdoor air pressure then causes a flow into the house through all unsealed openings, revealing undetected leaks.
Infrared Scan - An infrared or thermal imaging camera detects energy waste, moisture and even electrical problems. It shows exactly where the problems are. It also measures air loss.
Duct Blower - A duct blower is a fan that attaches to your duct system to measure the amount of air it leaks.
Manometer - A manometer is a small instrument that measures the pressure differences between two parts of your home.
Flow Hood - A flow hood is a device that measures the amount of air flowing through a register to determine total airflow, correct airflow and duct air leakage.
Preparing Your Home for the Assessment
An effective comprehensive home energy assessment begins before the auditors arrives. Preparing your home beforehand ensures that your auditor will be able to give you the best report possible without anything getting in the way.
Make a List of Questions - This is your chance to get an expert opinion. Draw up a list of questions and concerns to raise during the audit. Take stock of your home's drafty rooms, condensation, equipment age and wall or window cracks.
Collect Past Utility Bills - Have copies of your past utility bills that go back at least one, preferably two years. Your utility company can provide these if you don't have them on hand. These records will help your auditor understand your overall energy consumption. They will also perform a Utility Bill Analysis that will be included in your final inspection packet.
Plan to Be Home - It is highly recommended that you be home during the audit. If you are gone, you will miss out on a lot of useful information.
Make Sure the Auditor has Access to Every Area of Your House - The auditor needs to examine every nook and cranny of your home. Make sure everything is unlocked and uncluttered as possible. Pay special attention to clearing a path to windows, doors, and any vents in the home.
Restrain or Remove Pets - Tests are safe for pets, but animals may obstruct the auditor's work.
Close Windows, Exterior Doors, Fireplace Dampers and Other Air Intakes - Make sure all openings to the outside are shut, and shut tightly. This will allow your auditor to perform a proper interior analysis and make sure everything is sealed completely, giving you the most accurate audit.
Cover or Remove Ashes from Fireplaces or Wood Stoves - In general, if you can think of anything that might scatter or cause a mess if blown, it would be a good idea to cover or weigh it down.
Questions Your Auditor May Ask
Keep answers to the following questions in mind:
How old is your home?
How long have you lived in the home?
What is the average thermostat setting in summer and winter?
Which rooms get the most use? The least?
Is anyone home during working hours?
Are there any infants or elderly adults in the home?
Have there been any additions made to the home?
The Exterior Inspection
During the exterior inspection, your auditor will check to make sure the outside of your home is in proper working condition. They will take measurements to determine your home's floorplan. The different components of the house are also important: porches, decks, attached garages, basement or crawl space, drainage system and the number of stories.
The Roof - The job of the roof is to keep the elements out and to keep heat or cool air in. The most common problems are small leaks between the tiles or shingles and gaps where the siding meets the roof. Air or bathroom vents that exit through the roof can often be damaged, blocked or painted over, causing air and moisture problems throughout the entire home.
Windows, Doors and Siding - Think your windows or doors are a problem? It's actually the areas around the portals to your home you have to look closely at. Although a double or triple pane window is more efficient than a regular single pane, most of your energy escapes through cracks, crevasses and openings where the window meets the wall. The same is true for doors and siding. They all have small openings that develop around their edges, such as where the siding meets the foundation and the roof, or where two walls come together. Previous weather stripping and air sealing that has deteriorated may also need to be replaced.
Crawl Space or Basement - If you have an outdoor entrance to your crawl space or basement, the auditor will check to make sure that it seals when closed. Some crawl spaces tend to have ventilation issues. The auditor will also make sure no air ducts from inside the home end in the crawl space. If they do, they will only end up putting all the air you are trying to remove back into your home through the floor.
Chimney - The area between the base of the chimney and roof can often have cracks and air leaks, letting warm air escape. Cold air can also get into a damaged or ill-maintained chimney. If your chimney has not been cleaned for a while, that is another safety issue. A substance called creosote develops inside and on top of the chimney from the smoke, and if enough of it builds up, it could ignite.
Exterior Drainage System - The wetter the climate, the more you need a properly functioning gutter and drainage system. Water is more corrosive than you would think and given time, it can create more cracks in your home and even compromise the foundation. If the ground surrounding the foundation gets soaked with water, then at least some of that moisture will find its way into the basement, crawl space or concrete floor. The air in the home will absorb this moisture, which will make your air conditioner work harder in the summer and cause condensation to form on the walls during winter. Left unchecked, excessive moisture causes fungal wood rot, mildew and mold, or even foundation damage, leading to a much more expensive repair.
Common Interior Problems
Air Leaks: Cracks, Crevasses and Bypasses - Air leaks are the most common cause of energy inefficiency. They are usually found near and around doors, windows, corners, joints, connections to home additions, electric outlets, vents, recessed lighting and other areas. Your auditor will help you find all these significant leaks and include a detailed list on the final report. The goal is to get your home as airtight as possible while still allowing controlled and gradual air exchange with the outside.
Insulation - Ineffective or insufficient insulation is another common problem. The auditor will check the insulation of the attic, walls, floor, basement and crawl space.
The attic is likely the most important for homes in cold areas. Since heat rises, this is where most energy escapes during the winter. In order for the attic to be sufficiently insulated, there needs to be a thick and even layer of insulation in every spot. If insulation is too thin, damaged or missing in some areas, it will allow a lot of heat to escape. Icicles forming on the top floor of the home is indicative of heat loss in the winter months.
To check levels, the auditor will need to take a peek inside your wall cavities. There may already be a few inconspicuous holes in your home that have allowed builders and contractors to check insulation levels, but if that's not the case, the auditor may need to make a few. They will typically make them in a concealed space, like the back of a closet, and seal them up when finished.
If your home is built on concrete without a basement or crawl space, then floor insulation will probably not be required. But a home with a crawl space or basement does need insulation on any above-ground exterior walls or on the interior ceiling. Without it, cold air will infiltrate your home from the ground up.
Venting System -All homes have venting systems that remove moisture and maintain a healthy cycle of air. This controlled air exchange is crucial not only to your comfort but also to your safety. Blocked or damaged venting systems can lead to moisture problems, mold and even the buildup of dangerous toxins.
The opposite is also a problem. A vent that allows too much air to leak in can cause energy waste and moisture problems. During the inspection, the auditor will check your home to make sure neither is happening. They will also check that all the vents are properly routed to the outside. Vents that end within the home are problems.
Carbon Monoxide - These hazardous leaks can come from a variety of sources, but usually come from leaking, worn, blocked, ill-fitting or poorly maintained boilers, flues, gas water heaters and gas stoves. High levels of carbon monoxide are extremely dangerous and pose a serious safety issue. Your auditor will use equipment similar to what the utility company uses to check for leaks. If there is a problem, you will need to get it fixed immediately!
Gas Leaks - Gas leaks typically come from the same sources as carbon monoxide leaks and are also extremely dangerous. The auditor will use special equipment to make sure there are no gas leaks in your home.
Moisture Damage - Moisture damage will not only hurt your home, but can also compromise your safety. It is typically caused by a leaky roof; damaged or blocked venting systems; vents that empty in the attic, basement or crawl space; a poor or absent gutter system; and leaky pipes. This can cause wood rot, mildew and mold. Mold in particular can cause serious health problems, so if your auditor finds evidence of it, they will not only recommend you immediately fix the problem, but you may even need to leave the house until it has been cleared to restore proper, healthy living conditions.
Asbestos - From the mid-1880s to about the 1970s, asbestos was commonly used in homes for insulation. We now know that asbestos is a toxic substance that has caused illness and even death for those who have been overexposed to it. Newer homes will likely be safe, since builders now only use cellulose or fiberglass insulation. If you do have an older home, your auditor will want to check your walls to make sure you are asbestos-free, and the home is safe for all inhabitants.
Caring for Sensitive Occupants (Newborns, Sick, Elderly) - Homes with a newborn, the sick or the elderly need to maintain a higher than average temperature in the home during the winter. For these households, energy efficiency won't just save money. It could save lives. The auditor will likely recommend you keep the indoor environment more temperate, and will take extra care to properly seal the rooms of sensitive occupants.
The Mechanical Systems Inspection
Making sure your home is free of leaks and well-insulated is important, but fixing the shell of a house will not mean much if your home's heating and cooling equipment is not up to par. These systems are the heart of any home's climate control, so the auditor will inspect them to make sure they are working both efficiently and safely.
The auditor will check for leaks, rust, corrosion and malfunctioning safety controls. They will not only examine the equipment itself, but also the vents, flue pipes, fuel lines, ductwork and wiring. Most importantly, they will check for safety issues, such as gas, carbon monoxide or water leaks. Let the auditor know if you have old equipment and if you have ordered any repairs in the past.
Getting the Most Out of Your Equipment
Efficiency Rating - How can you tell if you are getting the most out of your current system? Check the equipment's efficiency rating. A system's rating is measured by Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE), or how efficiently the equipment uses energy over the course of a year. For example, if a model's AFUE is 80%, that means 80% of the heat is used in the home and 20% escapes through the flue, chimney or elsewhere. New models are required to display the rating so consumers can compare different models. If you do not know or cannot find the AFUE of your heating equipment, your auditor should be able to make a close estimate and recommend any upgrades or replacements.
Retrofitting your Equipment - There are some common cases where retrofitting your equipment is recommended. For example, if you furnace or boiler is too big for your home, it may be possible to modify it to operate at a lower capacity. Other retrofitting options include installing programmable thermostats, upgrading ductwork in forced-air systems, and adding zone control for hot-water systems.
Replacing Your Boiler or Furnace - By far, most U.S. homes are heated with furnaces or boilers. Older systems typically have efficiencies at 56%-70%, while newer systems can achieve efficiencies as high as 97%. Keep in mind that the most efficient models are also the most expensive, so unless you live in a particularly cold climate, the most efficient model may not be the best choice. Your auditor will help you decide what efficiency level will offer you the most savings at the lowest cost, maximizing your Savings-to-Investment Ratio (SIR). Also, do not buy a new system until after you have completed any weatherization repairs. Once these improvements are made, you will likely need a smaller furnace than before, which will not only be less expensive to buy, but also less expensive to operate.
Space Heaters (Use With Caution) - Small space heaters can be a cost-effective solution when the main heating system is inadequate or you want to supplement the heat in only one room (for newborns or the elderly) without wasting energy maintaining that temperature throughout the entire house. If you do use them, you need to be careful! The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that more than 25,000 residential fires every year are associated with space heaters, causing 300 deaths and sending another 6,000 to the emergency room with burn injuries, mostly in non-fire situations. So make sure your space heater has all the current safety features, and use it with care.
Electric Resistance Heating - These systems are typically more expensive and less efficient than the more common combustible heating systems. Even though it converts nearly 100% of its electricity to heat, the electricity itself is produced from oil, gas or coal generators that are only 30% efficient. This system may be acceptable in warm, dry climates where heating needs are low. If heat needs are moderate to high and electricity is the only practical choice, then your auditor may recommend supplementing your system with heat pumps, a more cost effective and efficient way to generate heat that cuts electricity use by 50%.
Radiant Heating - A system that provides heat to panels in the floor, wall or ceiling of a house, bringing heat directly from the hot surfaces to the people in the room, much like the heat you feel from a hot frying pan. This is typically a fairly efficient system, beating out baseboard and forced-air heating. The lack of moving air can be good for people with severe allergies.
Active Solar Heating - This system is one that harnesses the power of the sun to offset the use of gas and electricity. Though energy from the sun is free, installing a system is expensive and will likely take at least 10 to 20 years to pay itself off in savings. Plus, most systems will not produce enough energy to run your whole home, so it is currently best used to offset costs of your current energy systems, such as a solar water heater.
Wood and Pellet Heating - This has become more popular as the cost and environmental impact of fossil fuels rise. It is a cheap way to supplement the heat of your home, but do not go out of your way to install a fireplace if you do not have one, unless you are doing it for aesthetic reasons. The purchase and installation cost will be much too high to justify any savings.
Getting the Most Out of Your Equipment
Air Conditioners - Two-thirds of all homes in the U.S. use air conditioners. If your central air conditioning system is more than 10 years old, replacing it with an Energy Star model could reduce your energy consumption for cooling by 20%. Use your system properly and you can save even more. Make sure all windows and outside doors are closed while your system is running. Install window units on the shady side of your home, and make sure the area around it is sealed.
Venting - Venting with fans and natural breezes is the least expensive and most energy efficient way to cool a building. In some cases, natural ventilation will be enough, although it usually needs to supplemented with spot ventilation, like a ceiling fan and window fan.
The Results Of The Home Energy Assessment
Diagnostic Summary - The Diagnostic Summary analyzes the results from all the various tests, including the utility bill analysis, blower door test and infrared scan, to give you an overall energy-efficiency rating. It will also show your air exchange rate, which is the rate at which outdoor air replaces indoor air in your home. A lower exchange rate is good, while a high one indicates a lot of leaks. The optimum exchange rate is about 0.35.
Recommendations List - Each home has dozens of improvements that you can make to increase energy efficiency. So where should you start? Using the data gathered during the audit, you will get a prioritized list of improvements, from the easiest and most cost effective to the least. To do this, the auditor will calculate a Savings-to-Investment Ratio (SIR) for each project, showing which improvement will yield the greatest savings at the lowest cost. Projects that yield the greatest improvements and pay themselves off quickly go at the top of the list, while expensive projects with a lower return go at the bottom. If an improvement will take 10 to 20 years to pay for itself, they likely will not recommend it unless it will correct a safety issue.
Plan of Action - With the recommendation list in front of you, your auditor will help you make a plan of action for making improvements. Choose which projects you want to get started on, both do-it-yourself and professional level. The plan may even include discounts, a list of recommended contractors and payment schedules.
Step One - Decide Which Improvements You Want to Make
This decision should be based on money-saving potential and safety concerns. The priority list with the SIR ratings will help, but if you want to do an improvement low on the list for aesthetic reasons, such as plant a tree or install a fireplace, feel free. It's your home. Choose to do a lot, a little or nothing at all. It's up to you.
Step Two - Contact Your Utilities Company or Search for Government Grants
Your utilities company may cover the cost s of some upgrades and repairs, so make sure you give that a call to find out what is offered in your area. The government also has money available in the form of grants and tax breaks for people who perform weatherization improvements on their homes. So do your research to find out if you qualify!
Step Three - Choose a Good Contractor
If your auditor cannot do the follow up work for you, then you will need to find a reputable company that can. If the auditor's firm is able to do the work, you are not obligated to choose that firm. Your auditor will have a list of recommended contractors and can help you pick one. This is an important decision, so use all your resources to find the best people for the job. It is best to hire a professional who understands all the aspects of the audit. Each part of your home functions interactively with the rest of your home; for example, the way that your home is air sealed can affect both how your furnace functions and how hard it must work to hea the home. If you do decide to hire several separte contractors to make individual improvements to your home, make sure to take note of the changes that are made as they occur, and keep each subsequent contractor informed of those changes. Keep in mind that to take advantage of the Home Performance Programs, you can only choose one contractor.
Step Four - Set the Date
The average family saves $350 or more per year on their utility bills after having their homes weatherized. So why wait any longer? Call an eligible BPI contractor, set a date and make the changes as soon as you can. You will be glad you did. Save money, be more comfortable, increase the value of your home, and get peace of mind. An energy efficient home is good for everyone. Especially you.
Tips for Finding a Good Contractor
- Get references from friends, family and neighbors who have had similar work done. They will likely be your most honest, unbiased source of information.
- Look for contractors certified by the Building Performance institute (BPI).
- Call the Better Business Bureau and Better Contractors Bureau to ask about any complaints against companies you are considering.
- Check online ratings sites for reviews from past customers, e.g. Angie's List
- Call the contractor to make sure they offer all the services you are looking for, and get an estimate on the work that you are looking to have done.
- Get estimates from multiple contractors, but try not to let the lowest price be the main reason for selecting a contractor. Better contractors may charge more, but they may offer more expertise and greater value. Be skeptical of extremely low bids; those contractors may cut corners and be unreliable in their work.
- Reliable contractors are professional. They should be prompt and courteous. How a company treats you now reflects how they will treat you if there is a problem. They should have an office or facility, and should not be ashamed to have you stop by.
Addressing Safety Concerns
The Interior Inspection
The interior is likely the most crucial step in the energy audit. The inside is where you spend most of your time. A home is meant to be safe and comfortable, and if it is not, your auditor will find out how to change that for you.
This is the point of the inspection where your auditor will check for interior air leaks using the blower door evaluation and the infrared scan. As discussed earlier, these tests usually uncover the most vital energy escape routes. Then the auditor will check insulation levels in the attic, walls, and basemen or crawl space. Once completed, they will check the interior venting and drainage systems for signs of problems and moisture damage.
An interior investigation can also uncover a number of safety issues. The auditor will check for signs of mold, asbestos or vermiculite insulation, and make sure temperature levels are appropriate for any sensitive individuals. If your auditor finds and of these problems, they will need to be taken care of by a professional immediately.
Addressing Safety Concerns
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