The stretch of frigid weather at the start of the year taught me a valuable lesson: I live in a very drafty house. Cold air seeped through the first-floor perimeter and windowsills, making it impossible to keep the temperature inside above 58 degrees when the temperature outside dipped into negative numbers.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the federal agency that Ely Jacobsohn works with and one of the agencies where homeowners can get information on the Energy Star program.
Before then, the 116-year-old Victorian my husband and I purchased over the summer seemed to withstand the New England winter just fine. But by the time the cold snap ended, we were calling insulation companies. One contractor recommended we get an energy audit before starting any work. That bit of advice has made a world of difference.
“Audits are important for homeowners because they provide solutions based on proven building science,” said Ely Jacobsohn, who manages the Home Performance With Energy Star program at the U.S. Department of Energy. “They find the root cause of problems, rather than just treating symptoms.”
Auditors assess how much energy your home consumes and recommend ways to make it more efficient. An audit can cost up to a few hundred dollars, depending on the work involved, but many utility companies offer customers free or discounted examinations. You can also find a professional auditor through the Building Performance Institute, the Residential Energy Services Network or on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star website.
In our case, we selected an auditor from a list of local professionals approved by our electricity provider. For $149, a team of technicians inspected every inch of our house, using a blower door machine to measure the airflow and detect the source of the drafts.
They examined the furnace, ductwork, insulation and windows, then sealed air leaks on every floor. The technicians also installed LED lightbulbs, low-flow showerheads and weather stripping in the windows, and caulked the perimeter of our family room, bedroom and office.
Not every energy audit is quite that thorough, explained Joan Glickman, who manages the Energy Department’s Home Energy Score program. Audits, she said, can range from a simple visual inspection of your heating system to more involved diagnostic testing, such as the blower door test or use of infrared cameras for thermal imaging.
Glickman recommends selecting an auditor who provides a home energy score, which rates the efficiency of your house based on its age, size, and heating, cooling and water systems. The score ranges from one to 10, with 10 indicating lowest energy use. It estimates how much energy your house will use in a year given the size of your family and the weather in the area.
“It gives you a trusted, credible source of information coming out of the Department of Energy,” Glickman said. “We’ve done a tremendous amount of testing of this tool, so we know it’s very accurate.”
Our big, old drafty house scored a one. My husband and I knew when we closed on the house that we would need to replace as many windows as the historic preservation board would allow. We’ve swapped out six since moving in last August. Single-pane wood windows aren’t exactly energy-efficient, even with storm windows, a technician explained during the audit.
Yet he cautioned against focusing on the windows because the return on investment would take far longer to materialize than shoring up the insulation in the house. The report we received after the audit agreed that adding insulation in the basement and attic would be most useful in bumping up our score. More important, it would save us money on heating and cooling the house.
“After an audit, homeowners should work with their contractor to figure out their highest priority in the home, and focus on that,” Jacobsohn said. “The contractor should be able to help them find funding resources in the form of rebates or financing.”
The good news is our state, like many others, offers rebates for installing insulation. Many states and utilities also offer low-cost financing for energy-efficiency renovations. To learn what’s available in your state, visit the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency at www.dsireusa.org .
Ideally, we should have gotten an energy audit before purchasing our house. That way, we would have known what to expect and could have used the findings to negotiate with the seller. Perhaps we could have spared ourselves the whopping heating bill that arrived last week.
Glickman encourages buyers to schedule an audit alongside their home inspection but said the assessment is valuable no matter when you get it done.