Before you finalize home improvements, consider a home energy audit that will show you what and how to prioritize the projects to make your home more energy-efficient. An audit conducted by a licensed professional or an HVAC contractor is the most accurate and expedient way to learn where to invest your time and money to make your home more comfortable and less costly to cool and heat.
What Audits Involve
The three most common causes of high energy bills include air leakage through your home’s envelope, heat transfer through the entire structure, and inefficient ductwork for your forced-air cooling and heating system. An audit identifies each of these issues and to some extent, how significantly these problems contribute to higher energy bills.
The Auditing Process
The first step in the home energy audit is a close inspection of your home inside and out that shows the auditors the obvious issues, especially those related to windows and insulation. Single-pane windows offer almost no thermal protection from heat transfer, and inadequate attic insulation is easy to assess.
The next step in the auditing process is the blower door test, which consists of a powerful fan that sits tightly in an exterior door frame. Blower doors have gauges that measure the air pressure indoors. Once the auditing team has readied your home and turns the fan on, the air pressure indoors will fall.
The time it takes for the pressure to fall indicates how extensive the air leaks in your home’s envelope are. Homes that have few leaks lose air pressure quickly. Those with many leaks compensate for the air pressure imbalance the fan creates by pulling air inside through the cracks, leaks and gaps.
Finding the Leaks
Knowing the degree of leakage you have is important, as is finding exactly where they are. The most accurate way to identify them is by using thermographic equipment that shows temperature differences as colors.
If the home energy audit happens at at time when the outdoor temperature is similar to the indoor temperature, the auditors may ask you to use your home’s heating or cooling system prior to the start of the energy audit. This allows the temperature differences to show up more clearly.
Most air leaks in homes occur around window and exterior door frames, as well as in places where pipes, wires and cables enter the home. Leaks and gaps around the sill plate or where the walls and ceilings meet are also common. The auditors will look around dryer vents and fireplace dampers, along with electrical outlets and switches placed on exterior walls.
If an HVAC contractor conducts the home energy audit, the team can also test ducts for leakage and inadequate insulation. Duct leaks increase energy bills in proportion to their size. Uninsulated ducts cause thermal losses in the air you’ve paid to have cooled.
Besides visually inspecting the attic, the auditing team will use the thermographic cameras to see where your home has excessive heat transfer. Over time, insulation can settle, degrade or shift, especially in the attic. Sometimes the original builder may not install it at all in a wall. Because heat is always moving to cooler temperatures, it’s important to know exactly where to increase insulation.
Prioritizing Home Improvements
- You may want to seal the air leaks first, particularly since caulk, weatherstripping and expanding foam are easy to install and stop air leaks immediately.
- Increasing attic insulation will lower energy costs by keeping the attic cooler, reducing heat transfer to your rooms.
- If there’s room inside the exterior walls, specialty contractors can blow loose or foam insulation inside them and seal the holes afterward. If budget is an issue, start with south- and west-facing walls.
- Inefficient windows can increase energy bills considerably. While Energy Star windows are most efficient, you can use alternatives that reduce heat gain and losses, like shade screens or insulated drapes.
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