Lost in all the talk about new and exotic energy sources -- synthestic fuels from coal, oil from tar sands and shale, electricity from the sun, etc. -- is a less exciting but very real, and practical way to increase our energy availability. This energy resource comes not from the sky or from under the ground but from our homes. By eliminating energy waste in home heating, the equivalent of 1.6 million barrels of oil a day becomes available for gasoline and other energy needs. This is three times as much oil as we imported from Iran before their revolution, and almost half of what we now import from Arab and Iramian sources.

Despite the great potential that exists in boosting residential energy efficiency, relatively little attention has been paid to this alternative. Perhaps this is because people are not aware of how much could be saved. Perhaps energy efficiency is linknd in people's minds to conservation and to many people conservation means freezing in the dark. Or maybe it is because improving energy efficiency does not catch the imagination like advanced-technology programs, such as landing a man on the moon.

Although there has been no concerted effort to improve residential energy efficiency, the need for such improvement has not gone totally unrecognized. The Department of Energy has proposed a program to ecourage the installation of energy-conserving measures in existing homes. The program is centered around "energy audits, a technician examines a home for energy-wasting defects, such as inadequate insulation, cracks around doors and windows resident is left to follow up on the auditor's recommendations. DOE expects the program to benefit only a quarter of U.S. households and to save. 200,000 barrels of oil a day by 1985. This is only one-eight of the savings that could be achieved economically.

There are several reasons why DOE so greatly underestimated energy savings. A major reason is that its audit focuses only on some of the more obvious areas of energy waste. However studies conducted by Princeton University researchers have shown that greater waste occurs because of heat lost through obscure air leakage paths. Although most obscure heat losses are difficult to detect, they can be eliminated with little extra effort when they are identified.

We recommended the following prescription for saving energy in the home. A pair of "house doctors," trained technicians, enter a house carrying diagnostic equipment and about $10 worth of buildng materials. As they walk through the house looking for obvious defects, they identify and eliminate obscure heatloss paths. For example, when checking insulation levels in the attic, they seal openings around flues and pipes by stuffing them with glass fiber and close small cracks with caulking compound. They close larger air-leakage paths, such as those above dropped ceilings and stairwells, by taping or stapling a sheet of polyethylene over the opening. They install foam gaskets to reduce air leakage through electrical switches and outlets on outside walls. They also tune up the furnace. According to our experiments, about 20 percent of the space heat may be saved in a typical house by just these on-the-spot improvements. Thus, sizable energy savings will be achieved in all houses visited, even if residents themselves take no followup action.

How can residents be encouraged to achieve the large energy savings that are nationally desirable? One way is to permit utilities to finance the conservation measures and to include their investment in their rate bases. The resident would pay for the conservation measures only when the house was sold, presumably at a higher price that reflected the improvements. Utilities would also benefits, because financing these improvements would be cheaper than expanding supply. A form of this plan is being tried in Oregon.

The process of upgrading the nation's homes can start today and yield results much sooner than most supply-increase options. The house-doctor calls would cost resients $10 billion, but would save them $102 billion at today's price of imported oil. This would be cheaper than importing oil at $2 a barrel! If all oil- and gas-heated homes were upgraded to the cost-effective limit, the nation would save $173 billion in foreign exchange over the life of the improvements. The fuel savings per household would average $280 per year.

Conservation through improved energy efficiency has many advantages. People will not have to sacrifice comfort or convenience to save energy. Increasing energy efficiency will also reduce pollution and inflation, create jobs and, perhaps most important, reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Given these benefits can we afford not to undertake a major program to make our homes more energy-efficient? CAPTION: Picture, Foam insulation is blown into the walls of a house/ Christian Science Monitor