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The latest Consumer Reports feature article was on home energy efficiency. It had some good tips on inexpensive ways to save energy – use energy efficient appliances, replace incandescent light bulbs with CFLs or LEDs – the basics - the article does little to clear up the consumer’s decision to pursue energy efficiency improvements. There are a plethora of websites, articles, blogs, and books offering advice on how to make your home energy efficient, but few paint an accurate picture of what it takes to come up with an intelligent energy retrofit plan. That’s because the best plan for a particular home is completely dependent on the home’s current condition. No book can inspect your home and its construction, quirks, and opportunities. But a few basic questions is a good place to start. Does it make sense to replace your windows? It can if they are very old and contain only a single pane of glass. If not, you might be looking at a payback of 20+ years. How about replacing your old furnace with a newer model? For some homes it may make sense but if your home is drafty, you won’t realize the savings until you reduce air infiltration. If you do weatherproof your home, be careful you don’t make it too air tight or it will lead to air quality problems. And what about replacing your major appliances - is that a good investment? It can be but, again, it depends on what you already have and how the appliances work with respect to other conditions unique to your house.

Home Energy Audits – You Get What You Pay For

The latest Consumer Reports feature article was on home energy efficiency. It had some good tips on inexpensive ways to save energy – use energy efficient appliances, replace incandescent light bulbs with CFLs or LEDs – the basics – the article does little to clear up the consumer’s decision to pursue energy efficiency improvements.

There are a plethora of websites, articles, blogs, and books offering advice on how to make your home energy efficient, but few paint an accurate picture of what it takes to come up with an intelligent energy retrofit plan. That’s because the best plan for a particular home is completely dependent on the home’s current condition. No book can inspect your home and its construction, quirks, and opportunities.

But a few basic questions is a good place to start. Does it make sense to replace your windows? It can if they are very old and contain only a single pane of glass. If not, you might be looking at a payback of 20+ years. How about replacing your old furnace with a newer model? For some homes it may make sense but if your home is drafty, you won’t realize the savings until you reduce air infiltration. If you do weatherproof your home, be careful you don’t make it too air tight or it will lead to air quality problems. And what about replacing your major appliances – is that a good investment? It can be but, again, it depends on what you already have and how the appliances work with respect to other conditions unique to your house.

Building science is not an easy topic to digest. There are energy tradeoffs to be assessed and calculated and other factors that require training and experience.

If you’re serious about improving your home’s performance and saving energy, hire a certified energy auditor to analyze your home. These technicians are well educated in residential building science and are certified by the nation’s foremost authorities on home energy efficiency. They have all the diagnostic tools needed to develop a plan specific to your home’s current condition that maximizes your home improvement budget. It’s like hiring a lawyer to review home purchase and mortgage documents before you sign – spending a little extra money up front so you don’t waste money later.

Most homes can potentially shave up to 40% of their annual energy bill, but if you don’t effectively attack each source of waste, you will spend way too much to get where you want to be.

Here are some tips on choosing a home energy auditor:
1. Stay away from free or low-cost services – The only people offering energy audits for free have a hidden agenda. Usually it will be a window supplier or a heating/air conditioning manufacturer that uses the free audit to push their product. Be wary of their suggestion; their incentive is to sell you a product, not save you money. Other low-cost auditors have roughly the same agenda; they want to push you towards another service that is their primary source of revenue. There are also some non-profit organizations which offer free or low-cost services, but I have yet to find one that utilizes certified energy auditors.

2. Ask for certification – Make sure you are hiring a qualified professional by asking to see their certifications. If they haven’t been certified by a major program, they aren’t qualified to diagnose your home. There is a health and safety component to building science, and it’s too important to trust to anyone but a trained professional. The most common energy auditor certification program is provided by an organization called RESNET – the same program adopted by ENERGY STAR. Here’s a list of RESNET-certified auditors in Idaho, or you can contact the Idaho Office of Energy Resources.

3. Have your utility bills ready – The first step to diagnosing a home’s energy use is to look at the home’s energy history. Contact your utility provider (both gas and electric) and ask them to send at least a year’s worth of data. Since this information takes a few days to arrive, make sure you get it prior to the auditor’s visit. And if your auditor doesn’t ask to see your home’s energy history, view that as a red flag.

Tyler Wolf is a professional engineer specializing in energy efficient building design and sustainable development. He lives in Boise.

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2 comments

  1. One free audit that is worth pursuing in Montana is the one Northwestern Energy offers free to certain households. Certified auditors contract with Northwestern to do the service and the one who did my home did a thorough job. (I worked in energy conservation in the 1970s, and even I was surprised when these guys did a blower door test and found a large air leak along a chimney, hidden behind a suspended ceiling that was the equivalent of leaving a window open all year long.)
    Also, someone should investigate the window-replacement firm that advertises on local TV news about every night promising big tax rebates and a free $200 debit card. Sounds like the old aluminum siding scams of the 1970s.

  2. This was a very knowledgeable presentation of the facts. The author, Tyler Wolf, seems to understand the problems presented when using an inspector with an ax to grind, usually trying to sell the home owner something. We recently had a new home built, paying particular attention to using extra insulation, wonderful windows with U V protection, and many more “green” features. We were wondering if the author ever does home inspections. What is the possibility of having him come to Camas, WA to take a look at our new home and give us some advise? Thank you. Dave and Ileene Goodwin