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Tuesday, September 06 2011
Address the energy efficiency issues weighing down your utility bills, with help from an energy audit.

Homes are supposed to breathe. But some inhale excessively from the outdoors and exhale too much from inside. The result: Drafty rooms, high utility bills, dirty and leaky ducts, and a bigger-than-necessary carbon footprint. If you think your home could be more energy efficient but aren’t sure where its leaks live, an energy audit can diagnose your energy issues and help you decide which to tackle.

Audits identify a mixture of major and minor air leaks. So if you’re budget-minded, you might opt for inexpensive fixes like adding caulk or insulation at leak points and installing weather-stripping. If you’re embarking on a remodel, you can make bigger investments, such as adding insulation.

The question is whether to hire a pro or conduct a free do-it-yourself audit guided by online tips. There are pros and cons to either approach.

Paying for a pro

Professional audits aren’t cheap: They run from $150 (visual) to $400-$600 or more (diagnostic). But the information they reveal can help you make targeted repairs that lower energy bills by 5% to 30% annually, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. With energy bills averaging about $2,200 annually, according to Energy Star, following an auditor’s recommendations could save you up to $660 within a year.

Paying for an audit may not make sense if you have a newly-constructed home, which likely follows the most up-to-date building codes. Energy audits should also take a back seat to urgent home issues that compromise safety, such as old or faulty electrical or structural issues, like roof or foundation problems. So if you own a fixer-upper, it’s worth addressing safety issues before optimizing energy issues.

DIY audits

A do-it-yourself audit may help you make an educated guess about how airtight your home is—or isn’t—and point you toward fixes. A typical DIY test: Hold up a lit candle to windows, doors, and electrical outlets to see if a draft blows the flame.

But be aware that when you fix a problem you uncover yourself, you could err. For instance, you might pay for new windows when you need to insulate existing window frames instead. You could also over-seal your home, creating indoor air quality issues (dirty air, mold) that compromise your health.

Services of a professional audit

Pro audits give you access to high-tech tools that pinpoint the exact location of duct leaks; exactly how airtight your home is (and should be according to local code); gas leaks; and which direction drafts are blowing. Draft direction can alert an auditor that your attic is greedily sucking up your warm air, for instance. They also ferret out drafts between insulated and less-insulated (garage, basement/crawlspace, attic) portions of a home and assess the performance of heating and cooling systems.

Two types of professional audit

A visual inspection (like a home inspection, but focused narrowly on energy issues) might be sufficient if you have semi-finished or exposed spaces (unfinished basements, exposed ducts, crawlspaces, and attics). A diagnostic inspection includes visual work, but also employs tools and devices to pinpoint air leaks.

  • Blower door tests use high-powered fans to depressurize a home so that a technician can measure draft levels.
  • Thermal or infrared scanning measures surface temperature variations along walls to spot exact locations of air leaks or insulation lapses.
  • Smoke puffers release a form of “dust” during a blower door test to reveal the direction drafts are blowing.
  • Duct blasters inject and measure air pressure, air flow, and leakage in ducts.
  • Gas leak detection devices help assess indoor air quality.

These technologies provide far more specific information about a home’s issues than a typical DIY audit.

Common energy issues

A technician should be able to tell you how much total air leakage exists in your home (10 sq. ft. is like having a door open all the time), where it comes from, and how best to address it, says Robert Stockmann, of Pinnacle Home Inspections in Bellingham, Wash. The most common issues he finds are:

  • Ducts in uninsulated areas (crawlspaces, attics, unfinished basements), which need cleaning, insulation, re-sealing
  • Moisture in crawl spaces and basements
  • Air that’s entering or exiting the home via range hoods, attic trap doors, and poorly sealed doors

Hire an auditor, smartly

Energy audit is a loose term these days, so when hiring an auditor, ask questions. Make sure the auditor doesn’t work for a window company; has a professional affiliation with or training from an auditing organization such as RESNET or the Building Performance Institute; and can provide a written report. If you need diagnostic advice, ask if the auditor can use tools that assess what’s going on behind walls and inside ducts. Your local utility company may offer audits or be able to recommend auditors.

Because an audit is a precursor to further spending for repairs, if your DIY audit indicates you need extensive, expensive, or hard-to-do repairs, consider a paid audit as a kind of second opinion. Likewise, any paid audit that indicates you need only minor fixes may seem unnecessary—but if you consider that small fixes may keep you from overspending on major ones, the money may be worth it.

Jane Hodges has written about real estate for publications including, Seattle Magazine, and The Seattle Times. In 2007, she won a Bivins Fellowship from the National Association of Real Estate Editors to pursue a book on women and real estate. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, CBS’s BNET, and Fortune. She lives in Seattle in a 1966 raised rancher with an excellent retro granite fireplace. Latest home project: Remodeling a basement bathroom.

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Posted by: Rolando Trentini AT 08:00 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Thursday, April 15 2010

Auditor Distinctions: Exclusive Auditor or Integrated Contractor?

An energy auditor by any other name? Maybe: Here we discuss the pros and cons of two distinct types of energy auditors: those who will conduct an audit only, and those willing to conduct an audit and do the follow-up work themselves. We're fine with both. We'd love to know what you think.

There is an important distinction to be drawn among and within the auditor community - those who conduct an audit and may recommend contractors to do the needed work, and integrated auditor/contractors who combine contractor and auditor skills with the expectation that they will be hired to do some of the work themselves that their audit indicates needs doing.

There are benefits to hiring each type of professional. This article is designed to help you evaluate whether an audit only or "integrated" approach will work best for you and your home.

This list is not comprehensive by any means, and it is our hope that readers will jump in with insights based on professional or personal experience or pure passion. We welcome your contributions to this discussion. In fact, we rely on them.

Here are some of the potential benefits and disadvantages of each. Please add your thoughts.

1. The Integrated Home Energy Auditor/Contractor:

An integrated home performance contractor will conduct an audit and have the skills to address many or all of the issues that arise.

Potential Benefits:

House as a System Approach. Every certified auditor will view your house as a system. It may be a comfort to know that the contractor who does the work following the audit will approach the work from that point of view as well.

 In other words, unlike a specialized contractor (an HVAC contractor, say, or an insulation specialist), a home performance contractor will be able to assess when a new boiler needs to be accompanied by increased ventilation, or when beefed up insulation needs to be preceded by beefed up air sealing.  A HP contractor is a big-picture kind of guy, a sort of Dostoevsky for the house.

Continuity. You will be saved the trouble of translating your audit report for a contractor, as your home performance contractor will have familiarized herself with the totality of energy issues in your house. Given the complexity and subtly of some audit findings (and the variability of audit reports) this can be a significant challenge.  

Values Air Sealing. An integrated contractor recognizes the importance of air sealing, rather than looking at it as grunt work or a low-paying job - in fact, it is sometimes difficult to find a qualified contractor willing to do air sealing work.  

  An energy-first approach to renovation/retrofits. An integrated contractor recognizes the importance of capitalizing on opportunities to improve energy efficiency, which means that essential but unglamorous steps such as air sealing may get higher priority. A contractor hired after the audit may have little interest in such tasks.

Bird in Hand. For some homeowners, having skilled labor in the house is a giant leap closer to getting the work done.


Potential Disadvantages:

 Objectivity. The audit report may reflect what the contractor likes to do/sell as a contractor (if, say, your auditor's first passion happens to be boilers), rather than provide an objective assessment of the house.

 Commitment. You might not want to hire the contractor who does your audit to do retrofit work. Just because you've had an audit doesn't mean you are ready to do the work or have it done.  For some homeowners, it's a nuisance to have to explain to a contractor that you think he's a great guy (or gal) but you're going to hold off on the windows, or look for a differently skilled contractor, or someone whose hair doesn't stick out that way. 

 2. The Home Energy Auditor-Only

Many home energy auditors are trained specifically to conduct audits. They may have been motivated to enter the field because of their passion for energy and efficiency issues, to increase the safety of dwellings, or a host of other reasons. They are not contractors, and do not expect or intend to do the work that a home energy audit may reveal necessary for your house.

Potential Benefits:

Purity.  Your certified Home Energy Auditor is not trying to sell you insulation or convince you to replace your furnace. She wants your house to be safe, efficient and healthy. Her primary interest will be in energy savings, not in any specific product or service (you won't need to worry about being talked into re-insulating your entire house unless you actually need to do it, because she isn't going to profit from the job if you hire it out).

 The Whole Picture. An auditor will point out all areas of concern, and won't be tempted to shy away from identifying an issue (say, roofing) that's not within his realm of expertise.  Since the pure auditor's primary expertise is the audit itself.

 No Conflicts. An auditor who doesn't plan on making any of the improvements himself may be able to point you in the direction of someone who does have expertise in whatever needs to be done (i.e. "You really need some insulation in the attic. I know the best insulation guy in town, he worked on my house and my mom's house, here's his number.)

You are the ROI focus.  An auditor will prioritize work that needs to be done based on your needs, and the return on your investment based on energy savings, without regard to his or her desired construction schedule.

Potential Disadvantages.

Lack of continuity. There is a lot of information (and a lot of very specific information) that comes out of an audit ("some caulking here," "some foam over there"). If the person who performs the audit is not performing the work, then the homeowner must act as translator of that information.  This is true of higher level outcomes, as well. An auditor's expertise may be difficult to adequately convey to a contractor unfamiliar with energy issues.


Increased dependence on a high quality actionable report. The best translation of the audit is the Audit Report. If a homeowner is looking for a contractor to do the work stemming from an audit report, the report has to be thorough and instructive.


Increased burden on homeowner. If an auditor is not performing the retrofit work, then the homeowner will need to find an appropriate contractor or go the DIY route. Either way, this adds a step (or several).


3. A Winning Proposition either way.

We are bullish about home energy audits and certified home energy auditors. While there are no doubt exceptions, in our experience they are an exceedingly competent lot. Before choosing an auditor, figure out what kind of audit customer you are. Do you intend to do some or all of the work flowing from the audit on your own? Do you already have a contractor lined up?

Once you know what you want, place that call. We're betting you'll be glad you did.

And please chime in. Let's get the conversation started.


Posted by: Rolando Trentini AT 08:00 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
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