With the high price of electric, natural gas, and fuel oil these days, it makes sense to know how much energy your home uses and use as little as needed while still making things comfortable for you and your family. When performing a home inspection, many of the items that I review with my clients deal with energy efficiency and how to help lower your utility costs. While this is done as part of a home inspection using non-invasive visual means, an energy audit goes a step further by actually measuring the efficiency of the home in several ways and putting an approximate dollar figure on savings.
Simple things that most home owners can do to help lower their energy costs include increasing the amount of attic insulation, caulking where exterior siding materials, doors, and windows meet as well as where wiring/piping penetrates from the home’s exterior. Also, weather stripping doors and windows is something that the average home owner can accomplish in a single day.
Modern building standards, for new homes in our area, call for at least an R-38 insulation value in unconditioned attics. From the mid-to-late 1990s to the mid-2000s, the standard was R-30 in most areas. This equals to approx. 9” and 11” of blown-in cellulose insulation (R-30 and R-38 respectively). Many of the homes that I inspect appear to have insufficient attic insulation levels. I have even inspected some relatively new homes (less than 10 years old) that are totally lacking insulation in one or more places. This can lead to increased heat gain into the home in the summer and increase heat loss out of the home in the winter. This means much higher heating and cooling costs and less interior comfort. The insulation creates a blanket effect to separate the conditioned home from the unconditioned attic. Think of a layer of blankets on your legs on a cold winter night; the more blankets, the more heat is kept in around your legs.
Of course, your home’s finished area’s exterior walls should also be insulated (modern standards call for R-20), but due to the fixed wall coverings, the insulation behind these areas are not easily inspected. In most cases, the basement or crawl space ceiling should also be insulated.
Something that often gets overlooked when insulating a home are the many small holes in joists and studs where ductwork, plumbing, and wiring pass through between conditioned and unconditioned spaces. These openings are not air tight and, in most cases, can easily be sealed with a proper expandable foam product. Something else that I regularly find lacking is insulation at the attic access panel or door; by not insulating this location, a large opening (almost like an open window into the attic) is created for heat transfer into and out of the attic. Modern standards would also require weather stripping where the attic access panel closes into place.
Going a step further is where the full-blown energy audit takes over. The main basis of an energy audit starts with a building envelope air-leakage test using a blower door and infrared (IR) camera. The home’s exterior doors and windows are closed, any open fireplace flues are closed, the interior doors are opened, and a blower door is installed at your main entry door. A blower door slightly depressurizes the home to find areas where exterior air is leaking in. Air leaking into the home during this test may equate to many hundreds (or possibly thousands!) of dollars in the form of heated/cooled air leakage in normal situations. When the home is depressurized, an infared camera is then used to visually find the air leaks. An IR camera is a tool which allows the trained user to search for differences in temperature in many areas of the home, such as in walls and ceilings, which often will directly correlate to areas of missing or insufficient insulation. Once air leaks or insufficient insulation are found, they can be properly repaired.
Another part of the energy audit deals with the home’s HVAC duct system. If your heating and cooling ductwork is leaking air, this can equate to energy dollars going to places that you don’t want to heat or cool, such as the basement, attic, or even worse, the exterior. The duct registers are sealed off and the duct system is slightly pressurized to find any air leaks. Most of the leaks from the ductwork tend to be at joints which can often be sealed with mastic or foil tape.
Once the energy audit is completed, a detailed report is provided to show where energy dollars are being lost and where improvements can be made.
To perform an energy audit properly requires a great deal of training and a substantial equipment cost investment as well as indepth technical knowledge of how a home and its various systems operate. Most home inspectors do not offer energy audits as an add-on service. This is most commonly due to the cost of the equipment and extra training needed to perform this service. I have also found very few home owners or home buyers who would be willing to pay for the service. Of course, once the energy audit is complete and an approximate savings dollar amount is provided, many home owners may change their opinion about having an energy audit performed. The cost of an energy audit can easily be recouped many times over in a single year in lower electric, natural gas, or fuel oil savings. As the cost of energy continues to increase, the number of home owners asking for energy audits may also increase.
Some utilities or local governments will partially subsidize energy audits. Calling your local energy supply or local government authority will tell you if this is available in your area.
© 2014 Matthew Steger
Matthew Steger, owner/inspector of WIN Home Inspection, is a Certified Level 1 Infrared Thermographer and an ASHI Certified Inspector (ACI). He can be reached at: 717-361-9467 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WIN Home Inspection provides a wide array of home inspection services in the Lancaster, PA area. This article was authored by Matthew Steger, ACI - owner of WIN Home Inspection in Lancaster, PA. No article, or portion thereof, may be reproduced or copied without prior written consent of Matthew Steger.