(Bill Oxford)

Green. It’s the color of trees and money. And sometimes, being environmentally conscious costs more money than it should. Experts recommend having an energy audit, or an inspection that evaluates how much energy your house uses and how much energy escapes through cracks in walls, windows and appliances. Auditors then make recommendations on insulation, sealing and appliance usage to lower your bills.

But energy audits can be expensive, and they don’t pay off for everyone. On top of having to pay for the fixes that an auditor recommends, audits themselves can be pricey. “The price we usually see is between $300 to $800, depending on the size of your home,” said Daniel DiClerico, senior home editor for Consumer Reports. “But energy audits can definitely save some people money in the long run. It’s not something to do every year, or even every three years, but every 10 years, it may be worth doing.”

So do you need one? Here’s what you should know before having a professional energy auditor visit your home.

Energy Audit FAQs

What’s an energy audit? It’s sort of like a wellness checkup. An energy home auditor inspects all the obvious places energy can escape, driving up your gas and electric bills. Common culprits are air leaks in walls, ceilings and window-mounted air conditioners, poor insulation and old appliances. Auditors also assess the systems — air conditioning, furnaces, attic insulation — and recommend fixes.

Why do one? You’re at work all day, with no one coming or going. So how does it get so cold in the winter? “It’s incredible how inefficient many homes are,” DiClerico said. “Eighty percent of homes built before 1980 have inadequate insulation, meaning heat is escaping right through the top of your house and driving up energy bills.” And all the little cracks in a house that seem harmless? DiClerico says those can often add up to leaving a window open.

How much do they cost? There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Energy audits are expensive. But think about it as preventive care. If you hire an auditor, it can run you hundreds of dollars. But the District Department of the Environment offers free home energy audits (for homes less than 4,000 square feet) through its Home Energy Rating System program. If you’re not eligible, check to see whether your utility company offers free assessments.

How do you prepare? You don’t go to the dentist without brushing your teeth. DiClerico recommends you try a DIY audit first. Visit the Department of Energy’s (www.energysavers.gov) “Do-It-Yourself Home Energy Assessment” page. It will offer directions on how to inspect the four biggest areas of concern: insulation, air leaks, lighting and appliances. If you need a professional audit, you should have 12 months of electric and gas bills available for review. “They’ll also look at unusual spikes in utility bills and examine comparable homes to see how efficient your systems are,” DiClerico said.

Who should do your audit? Stay away from single-product salespeople who seem like they have an interest in making money off the recommended repairs. “We hear a lot about duct cleaners,” said DiClerico or inspectors who recommend $10,000 worth of new windows. Instead, Consumer Reports recommends finding a reputable firm through the Building Performance Institute or RESNET (Residential Energy Services Network). You can also call the Better Business Bureau to find a trusted company or inquire about complaints. The Energy Department advises using a company with a calibrated blower door — a large fan mounted to a door to suck the air out of a house. They’re used to find air leaks, and if a company doesn’t have one, you should be wary.

What should renters do? Many energy audits can’t be performed if you live in an apartment controlled by a management company. But simple tricks, such as insulating old windows in shrink wrap (trust us; this works), buying a window insulation film kit ($20-$40) or even putting heavy curtains in front of windows, are cheap ways to save energy.

Do they really save you money? Not everyone needs an energy audit. Consumer Reports says audits save some people money, particularly people in older homes who plan on staying there a long time. “For updating your attic insulation, the energy savings can be as much as $220 a year. Of course, you have to pay for materials and the installation,” DiClerico said. “With air leaks, you can fix with caulking and weather stripping and save, on average, $435.” These annual savings add up over time.

So who should have a professional audit? People with older homes should have an audit every 10 years. But are you handy? Do you wield a mean caulking gun? If so, you might be able to handle many of the problems yourself. “I wouldn’t discourage someone who knows a thing or two about house systems from crawling up into the attic,” DiClerico said. “It’s great if you can do it yourself, and it gives you an idea if you do need to go through the expense of hiring.”

THE BOTTOM LINE Going green shouldn’t cost you greenbacks. If you own an older house, a professional energy audit is likely to save you money in the long run. But if you already have low energy bills, live in a small house or rent an apartment, it’s unlikely you’ll recoup your money. Instead, employ some helpful DIY tips and turn off those lights and computers when you leave the room!

On Sale
Marni arrives at H&M

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Montgomery County, which operates a thrift shop supporting mental health programs, is holding a Leap Day sale. Secondhand goods, donated from individuals and dealers, will be selling for 50 percent off their ticketed price. Expect to find dishware, crystal, furniture and decorative accents among the items. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday. 11718 Parklawn Dr., Rockville, 301-949-5731. www.namithriftshop.org.

The fruits of Marni’s collaboration with H&M are set to drop March 8 at the chain’s F Street store. Look for designer Consuelo Castiglioni’s signature mix-and-match prints, artsy jewelry and chunky shoes and sandals. Silk dresses start at $79.95, bracelets at $19.95. A men’s anorak will be $149. 1 0 a.m.- 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m. Sunday. 1025 F St. NW, 202-347-3306.

During Gossip on 23rd’s sale, take an extra 25 percent off already-reduced dresses, jackets and sweaters. Here’s an example: A pink-and-white dress in a sheer fabric originally $38, reduced to $30, is $22.50 until Wednesday. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. 566 23rd St S., Arlington, 703-920-1498. www.gossipon23rd.com.

Get smart about your office. Stylish organizing solutions, such as file folders, storage boxes and message boards that come in cheery prints and cut-out patterns are marked down during the Container Store’s “Work Smart Office Sale.” A brocade magnet board, originally $39.99, is $29.99. Through March 25. At area stores and www.containerstore.com.

— Janet Bennett Kelly