- - Thursday, May 24, 2012

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.

“I ended up having a roofer put a sealant in the general area, and we have had no leaks there since,” Mr. Schlosberg said. “We would have never been able to solve that problem without the auditor and his thermal gun.”

The cost for an energy audit typically runs between $100 and $500. However, states and municipalities, including ones in the D.C. metro area, frequently offer free audits as an incentive for homeowners to increase energy awareness and improve their home’s energy efficiency.

Residents of the District, for example, if they live in a single-family home or a town house that is 4,000 square feet or less, can apply to receive a free energy audit from the District Department of the Environment. Other municipalities have offered free energy audits as pilot programs or on an occasional basis; homeowners should check with their local governments first.

Intrigued by the potential savings, this reporter signed up for an energy audit through Positive Energy LLC, an Arlington-based firm that primarily serves Northern Virginia. What made it appealing was that the audit was free, subsidized through a rebate program offered by the state of Virginia using federal stimulus dollars. (The program was unfunded in March.)After doing the audit using all the standard tools, such as the blower-door fan, Positive Energy determined that our house was more than twice as leaky as the recommended standard for airflow in and out of a house of that size and occupancy. The report also recommended additional insulation in the basement and elsewhere. Perhaps the most alarming finding was that the exhaust gasses of the spent fuel from the furnace registered relatively high levels of carbon monoxide.

“We got into this business because we wanted to give back to the community,” said Patrick Michaelyan, operations manager for Positive Energy. “One of the most important reasons homeowners should consider getting an energy audit is for health and safety.”

Energy audits can uncover mold or other problems that are potentially health-threatening, he said. He added that energy audits go beyond a home inspection because optimal energy-efficient conditions often are above code.

One potential downside for homeowners is that the market has been flooded with more and more companies, including window-replacement companies, getting certified to provide energy audits, which puts them in a position to offer sometimes expensive follow-up products and services. Homeowners should consider all recommendations carefully and check certifications and references before having work done on their homes.

Mr. Michaelyan acknowledged that it can be a potential conflict of interest to offer follow-up services to audit customers. He said that although his company does offer such services, it doesn’t do a hard sell and is willing to work with customers to manage their projects in ways that are cost-effective, from relatively affordable solutions such as new light bulbs to more complicated measures.

“More companies are beginning to offer these services, so homeowners have a choice of going with the company they’re more comfortable with,” Ms. Schindel said. “Although, after performing an audit, we would hope they continue to work with us, the homeowner does have other options.”

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