Energy Audits – The What’s and How’s

As a homeowner, you may have heard the term “energy audit” by now, but you may not know what one is or how it works. Many people think an audit is something done by the IRS or given freely by their utility companies. Some even think it’s a gimmick made up by “tree loving” individuals. The truth is that an energy audit can be a very useful tool to aid you in saving energy – and ultimately, money!

The complex definition of an energy audit is “an evaluation of the energy flow through a building with the objective of understanding the energy dynamics of the system.” To break this down into simple, understandable terms, an energy audit is just the objective evaluation of a home or building’s energy use.

There are various methods of performing the audit, and even more individuals who are trying to break into the industry. Because of this, you as a homeowner must take time to understand the steps in an audit, learn what you should expect from it, and obtain the knowledge to empower yourself to choose the most qualified professional in your price range. In doing all this, you may even gain enough knowledge to perform a basic audit of the home yourself.

The first bit on knowledge you should obtain is that an energy audit should consist of six primary categories. These categories may have several sub-categories depending on how extensive the audit is but an audit should always have these six main areas of concentration.

The primary areas are:

1. Home Sealing (Building Envelope)
2. Insulation
3. Lighting
4. Appliances and Phantom Loads
5. HVAC (Heating and Air)
6. Occupant habits

As mentioned before, each area may have sub-categories (i.e., “building envelope” will usually include windows and doors, and “appliances” will usually include water usage), but the sub categories will depend on the auditor and the building. The most difficult category for a professional auditor to observe is the occupant’s habits, and this portion of the audit will consist of generalized recommendations. This category, however, is one that you will be able to best analyze yourself, but may not want to admit.

As stated before, a homeowner or building owner can perform an audit themselves. However, an energy audit for a building is more difficult, and it is typically best to hire someone to conduct an audit of a business. If you would like to perform an audit of your home, you first need to gain a little knowledge on the subject. This can be gained through reading books on the subject or visiting Websites. Cut Your Energy Bills Now: 150 Smart Ways to Save Money and Make Your Home More Comfortable & Green by Bruce Harley is a good book to get some how-to knowledge and learn about areas for consideration with an audit. You will not only learn about the areas of the home you need to check out, but also how to perform some of the repairs if you are so inclined to do so. The N.C. Ag Extension Agency’s E-Conservation program is also great for online and local education events. They will hold information sessions and training events periodically. Check with your local extension agent for more information if you live in North Carolina. The DOE Energy Savers Website is also a good resource.

Once you get a little background information, you may want to use a checklist to help with the audit, or you may choose to just look around your house. You can make a small but noticeable impact on your energy usage by performing an audit yourself, but to get an even bigger impact, you may look to a professional auditor. In choosing an auditor you must be careful, because there can be wide range in the quality of the audit. Some individuals provide little more than what you could do in performing an audit yourself. Others provide professional insight into the home and how it functions. Above that, they provide cost-saving tips that may be able to save you the cost of the audit in as little as one year.

As mentioned, a professional audit will vary, but all audits should consist of a blower door test, a visual inspection that covers the 6 main areas, and the results should be generated in a report that makes recommendations based on your return-on-investment or savings-to-investment ratio. For those that may not know, a blower door is a piece of equipment that helps an auditor determine the tightness of a home and where leaks are occurring.

More advanced audits may include thermal imaging of the home using a thermal imaging camera and duct testing. While thermal imaging is a great benefit and it is becoming more commonplace as prices of equipment decrease, this one particular item does not necessarily make an audit better. Duct testing is another item that is not necessary, and often times as far as you will be concerned, the information needed to make a decision regarding the tightness of the ductwork can be determined using certain techniques during the blower door test.

When selecting an auditor, you should remember that one week-long class does not make a good energy auditor! There are several places to start when looking for an energy auditor, and one that many people recommend is the EPA Energy Star program. While being a HERS rater (Energy Star rater) is a good indication of an individual understanding the basics of a building environment, it also does not necessarily mean the individual is qualified to perform an energy audit. The process of certifying a home for Energy Star and performing an energy audit are two very different things, and sometimes you will find a HERS rater will not perform audits.

So how do you find a qualified auditor?

1. Search the Web for auditors in your area, ask neighbors or relatives who may have had an audit, and check trusted resources for certified individuals.As mentioned, HERS certification is a good place to start, but it doesn’t end with that! Referrals are a great source of information because you can see the outcome of the audit before you ever have one.

2. Talk with the person who will perform your audit and get some insight into their process.Ask about their qualifications, certifications, audit experience, and general knowledge of the subject. As mentioned, a professional audit should always consist of a blower door, a visual inspection, and the results should be generated in a report that makes recommendations based on your return-on-investment or savings-to-investment ratio.

3. Ask to see a sample report.
You can learn a lot about an auditor from the information a sample report contains. Does this report explain the “whys” of the recommendations? Does the report give an overview of the location of the findings? Does the report give an easy-to-read summary of the recommendations in a usable, cost-conscious and informative format?

4. If the auditor is to use a thermal camera, ask them if they are a Certified Level One Thermographer.This is a good indication if they have a basic knowledge of how the camera works. A thermal camera is a complex piece of equipment, and the information gathered from one can be very useful; however, the individual should have some training on how to use the equipment.

5. Finally, do they also perform repairs?While this is not always problematic, it can sometimes lead to questions regarding an auditor’s objectivity. Ask the individual how they plan to stay objective and ask for references from previous audits.

Overall, an energy audit is a very useful tool in beginning the process of becoming more energy efficient and sustainable. You may choose to perform an audit yourself, or you can hire a professional. If you should hire a professional, take the time to make sure that they understand what they are doing, they have the correct equipment, and they are going to provide you with information that you can use to save money. Finally, take time to educate yourself on the subject, because a smarter homeowner is always a happier one!

Use of Energy Monitors in Your Home

With all the talk about saving energy, I think it is best to introduce two items that I believe a homeowner will find to be very beneficial in saving energy. Both of the items are energy monitors. Neither one of these units will save you energy themselves, but they will make you more aware of your energy use. The first unit is from Blue Line Innovations. I have personal experience with this, and have watched its use change the habits of an individual who didn’t always believe the items I recommended, such as washing clothes with cold water. This unit is easy to install. You simply place the sensor over the power meter and sync up the base unit. After a few minutes of entering the power cost information, the unit will begin to track your energy usage, displaying current usage and total usage. You must reset this every month to keep a monthly tally, and you must replace the batteries in both units every so often – though this can lead to some sync issues, overall this unit will really make you aware of the usage in your home.

The second unit is The Energy Detective, or TED for short. This monitor hooks up to your electrical panel and can track usage from one circuit or the entire house. A homeowner may be slightly intimidated by the way the unit hooks up and may want an electrician to perform the work. I don’t have personal experience with this one, as I am awaiting the release of the 5000 series to make up my mind as to which unit to try, but I can say I have heard great things about it, and the features look really great. Like the Blue Line Innovations model, the unit tracks both real time and monthly usage, but you get additional features if you use your computer. The system can graph usage, showing peaks and valleys to allow a homeowner to see when certain items may be coming on or going off. This information may be more beneficial to an energy auditor, but alas, it is more information to improve your energy habits!

Both units are great additions to any home, as the hardest thing to get a homeowner to correct is their habits. These units make the homeowner aware of their energy usage and can help modify habits. With both units selling for around $120, they are both comparable in price and features, but if a homeowner wants to spring for the additional $45, they can get the footprints software for their 1001 series TED and up the information they get. The TED 5000 series will start at $200, but it appears to be coming with a lot of additional features. Regardless of which unit you may choose, you will find them to be a cost saving purchase as long as you pay attention to them!

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