Cover story: Save energy, lower costs with home audit

When Jason Schlosberg and Donna Lombardo bought their house in Arlington in 2009, they were pleased with many aspects of their new residence. The house was spacious, the location was convenient to Metro, and an ample deck was perfect for entertaining.

The couple were concerned, however, that the house was drafty and perhaps not as energy-efficient as it could be. They also were interested in finding ways to save on their utility bills.

Mr. Schlosberg was searching around the Internet one day when he saw a deal for a $99 energy audit from a company called Access Green, based in the District. He booked the audit, and an auditor came to his house and spent about two hours checking for a range of things, including air leaks, water damage and insulation levels.

Access Green ultimately gave Mr. Schlosberg’s house an energy rating of three out of five stars. The report determined his house was 2.1 times leakier than it should be, meaning Mr. Schlosberg and his family were wasting energy and money every time they ran the heating and air conditioning.

Energy audits like the one Mr. Schlosberg received are becoming increasingly common as homeowners become more savvy about the financial and environmental benefits of energy efficiency. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, getting a household energy assessment and correcting identified problems can save consumers “a significant amount of money over time.”

Energy Star, the federal energy-awareness program that rates appliances and offers energy-reduction assistance, estimates that homeowners ultimately can save 25 percent to 30 percent in utility bill costs by doing an energy audit and implementing a few measures to improve home performance.

According to Access Green, the average household spends 11 percent of its energy budget on lighting, for example, but switching to more energy-efficient lighting (such as compact fluorescent bulbs) can reduce the amount of energy used for lighting by at least 50 percent.

Audits are provided by a range of entities, including public utility companies; private-sector companies in the energy, insulation or heating and cooling business; and state energy offices. Homeowners are encouraged to find auditors who are certified to perform energy assessments through third-party organizations such as the Building Performance Institute or Resnet, the Residential Energy Services Network. On its website, Energy Star (www.energystar.gov) also offers an interactive map to help homeowners find established auditors in their area.

Energy audits help homeowners identify and set priorities for their home’s specific problem spots, said Alyssa Schindel, marketing coordinator for Glenmont Heating, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration in Rockville, a certified energy auditor. Common problems her firm sees are leaky windows or doors and attics and basements with poor insulation.

“Sometimes the fix is as simple as turning down the temperature on your hot water heater, or changing out your old thermostat for a new, programmable one,” Ms. Schindel said. “The audit gives the homeowner the opportunity to take control of their home, lower their energy bills, and create a healthier and more comfortable environment for their families.”

Before an auditor comes to your house, it is helpful to have copies of your house’s yearly energy bills handy. The auditor also may ask about standard occupancy levels and the family’s preferred thermostat settings. Although audits vary from company to company, most audits take about two to four hours.

The most common diagnostic tool used by auditors is the calibrated blower door test, which uses a large fan mounted in an exterior doorway to create negative air pressure inside. The fan pulls air out of the house, and auditors then can determine where cracks and poor seals are allowing air to come back inside.

It also is common for auditors to use a device called a thermographic camera or scanner, which uses special infrared video or cameras to record surface heat variations, heat losses and air leakage. This technology helped Mr. Schlosberg pinpoint a hole in his roof.

“I asked the auditor to check our bedroom ceiling, since we were getting water damage on a spot where the northern wall met the sloping ceiling,” Mr. Schlosberg said. “With his thermal gun, the auditor actually determined that the water in that corner was coming from closer to the roof peak and trickling down the slope to settle near the corner.”

Mr. Schlosberg then called five roofers to find and seal the hole, which apparently was so small that none could find it.

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