Do you ever face sticker shock when you open your utility bills because you don’t understand how you managed to guzzle through so much energy running your home?
Every home owner should consider conducting an energy audit on their new home. In doing so, you can save hundreds of dollars on your bills, help the environment by cutting back on energy consumption, or fix problems such as drafty rooms and lack of insulation.
A home energy audit, also known as a home energy assessment, provides a clear snapshot of your home’s energy usage. It’s a thorough assessment that lets you know how much energy your house uses each month, whether the energy usage is efficient, and what problem areas may be sapping away valuable – and expensive – resources in heating, cooling, and lighting your family’s home.
They’re worth the effort with long-term benefits, too. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that home energy audits could cut energy bills by 20 to 35 percent, unlocking up to $627 in annual savings. These savings come from various simple home improvements identified during the audit, from swapping air conditioners to sealing up air leaks. Ultimately, you end up saving money, living in a more comfortable home, and enjoying better air quality.
Home energy assessments can be conducted by a professional or by you, the homeowner. Here’s our step-by-step look at what energy audits entail, the most common home improvements that lead to significant cuts in energy consumption, and how to prepare for the assessment for the best results.
How to Prepare for a Home Energy Audit
If you’re curious about how much energy you’re burning through or ways to lower usage, an energy assessment is your go-to for answers. It’s also your first step if you’re thinking of making home improvements centred around energy-saving, and before adding renewable energy systems to your home.
Before you do the assessment, though, you’ll need to save a little bit – a professional home energy assessment costs about $400, although the price will vary depending on the size of your home and where you live.
You’ll need to pull up past utility bills from the past year for you – or a professional auditor – to study. Pay attention to when bills spike, such as in the summer or winter months.
Before the energy auditor visits your home, he or she may task you with making a list of any problems you and your family members have around the house, from drafty rooms to condensation. Upon arrival, the auditor will study the outside of the home, taking note of doors, windows, and size of windows and walls, for example.
They’ll also ask your family about energy usage habits, such as what the average thermostat setting is season to season, and whether you’re cranking up the heat at night or leaving the air conditioning running while everyone is at work and school.
As your auditor walks through the rooms, he or she may use equipment such as blower doors, infrared cameras, furnace efficiency meters, and surface thermostats. All of these gadgets help your auditor gain insight into how efficiently your home uses energy.
By the end of the audit, you’ll better understand how much money you’re spending on energy monthly and annually, where your greatest energy losses are, and which simple home improvements you can deploy to help you cut back on energy expenses.
However, you’ll need to decide what your budget will be for carrying out these changes, whether it’s filling air leaks or replacing major appliances. You’ll also need to decipher whether you have the time and experience to make these home improvements or if you’ll need to recruit a contractor.
What are the Most Common Swaps to Improve Energy Efficiency?
There are common pitfalls homeowners often fall into with their houses that make their energy bills skyrocket. The good news is, these energy inefficiencies can be picked out during the audit and then resolved with some slight tweaks and repairs.
Insulation and Air Leaks
Does it feel like it’s taking ages to heat a chilly room during the colder seasons? Homeowners need to check their homes for proper insulation, especially in areas like the attic. They also need to seal any air leaks around the home, such as in crawl spaces to make sure their heating isn’t seeping through and going to waste. Experts suggest plugging air leaks is your first step before upgrading any appliances – after filling existing leaks, it’s likely you could already see a difference with your energy costs. The government estimates that the potential savings just from removing drafts in a home range from about 10 to 20 percent per year. Don’t forget – your home will be suddenly more comfortable, too – an invaluable perk.
Sometimes it’s worth checking on the efficiency and age of your water heating system. If it’s on its last legs, you could be throwing your money literally down the drain as you pay to heat your household’s water. A replaced water heater can result in three to four times more efficiency in heating up the water in your home.
When you’re shopping for new appliances, look for the Energy Star label – this indicates that these major household products tend to be more energy efficient and green. Some labels even clearly state how much you could save each month.
The government’s Energy Star website, listing home upgrades can be found here.
Bigger is not always better – homeowners often make the mistake of buying an air conditioning system that’s too big for their home – contrary to what you’d conventionally think, a larger cooling system doesn’t run as long as smaller ones. Instead, it’ll blast your home with cold air quickly, leading to extra moisture, condensation and even mold. You’re better off choosing an appropriately-sized air conditioner that’s better suited to your home’s needs.
There’s a reason why governments have shifted their energy policies towards using LED (light emitting diodes) lights or CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps). Simply replacing incandescent lighting to LEDs can increase a home’s energy efficiency by about 85 percent, according to experts at the U.S. Department of Energy. Lighting accounts for about 10 percent of your electric bill – invest in swapping your lightbulbs and you could see a dent in your bills already. Installing sensors, dimmers, or timers could also cut your lighting use.
Programmable thermostats and power strips can also help save on bills by handing you the control to turn off and turn on temperature controls strategically. Pay attention to incentives your city may offer to help offset energy efficiency and renewable energy upgrades, too. Little changes to your day, such as doing the laundry or running the washing machine during off-peak hours, could lessen your bills too.
Hire a Professional or DIY?
Home owners can do an assessment on their own, especially if their trouble spots, such as uninsulated basement and attic walls or air leaks along window frames, are obvious.
A professional home energy audit, on the other hand, is much more thorough. During the assessment, auditors will conduct a room-by-room examination of the home using technology such as blower doors, infrared cameras, and PerFluorocarbon tracer gas. It’s through this assessment that they can pinpoint precise air leaks and prioritize your problem areas so you gain the biggest cuts on your energy expenditures.
If you’re conducting an audit on your own just as a first step, start by inspecting each room as an auditor would do. Make a list of areas inspected and problems you’ve found, skimming along the baseboards, edges of the flooring, and at junctures of the walls and ceiling as you feel for air leaks.
Windows, doors, lighting fixtures, plumbing fixtures, and electrical outlets are also areas that are notorious for air leaks. With some caulking, you can plug air leaks to seal these gaps. However, you need to be incredibly careful of “backdrafting” – this is when combustion appliances and exhaust fans compete for air in the home, pulling gases back into the living space.
Another trickier DIY task is checking on insulation levels around the home – how your home is insulated is dictated by what recommended guidelines were at the time. If you have an older home, it’s likely insulation isn’t up to today’s standards. At the same time, owners of new builds shouldn’t rest on their laurels – there are still opportunities for them to save on energy consumption.
Pay special attention to attics and basements where insulation may be sparse – you can check that doors leading to these parts of your home close tightly, keeping out cold, damp air. Your attic should have a vapor barrier beneath the attic insulation. It usually comes in the form of tarpaper, Kraft paper attached to fiberglass batts, or a plastic sheet. If this is missing, you can paint the interior with a vapor barrier paint – this move alone keeps the amount of water vapor that can pass through the ceiling to a minimum.
You should also check for insulation in the walls of the main floors of your home. First, for safety’s sake, you need to turn off the circuit breaker or unscrew the fuse for any outlets in the wall. When you’re sure the outlets aren’t getting any electricity, you’ll need to probe into the wall by removing the cover plate from one of the outlets. A plastic crochet hook, for example, could be inserted and you’ll see if it comes back with any bits of insulation material. Ideally, you’ll hit some friction so you know right away that your walls have some padding to them.
Ultimately, if you’re not a handyman by nature, these aspects of an energy audit are harder to pull off and your best bet for a thorough audit and for peace of mind is to go with a professional. By the end of the year, the cost will be paid off by the savings you’ve reaped from addressing problems around the house.
Other Simple Energy-Saving Swaps
At the very least, your audit could shed light on your family’s lifestyle and point to simple changes that could result in better energy usage without making a single permanent upgrade. For example, you can:
- Be conscious of turning off the lights when leaving the room, and switching to energy efficient lightbulbs
- Keeping your thermostat lower in the winter and higher in the summer, especially when no one is home
- Take shorter showers or run the washing machine with cold water
- Rely on the sun to help with heating and lighting your home by leaving the blinds and curtains open during the day
- Unplug items around the home when they aren’t in use to prevent phantom loads
Home buyers could even insist on a professional energy audit before purchasing a home – if the audit returns with some glaring problems, such as out of date appliances that need upgrading, buyers can ask for the price to come down or for the seller to fix the problems. It’s an important step for prospective buyers in case they end up unknowingly buying an energy guzzler.
Carmen Chai is an award-winning Canadian journalist who has lived and reported from major cities such as Vancouver, Toronto, London and Paris. For NewHomeSource, Carmen covers a variety of topics, including insurance, mortgages, and more.