Home Energy Assessment: Would Your Home Pass?

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Feeling cold walls, or air rushing through windows and outlets are obvious signs of leakage, but if you want an accurate diagnosis of where your house is ailing, call in an energy auditor—a specialist trained in providing a comprehensive home energy checkup.  He or she will do a series of tests and inspections to find out where your house could be more efficient and thus save you energy and money, besides making you more comfortable.

Home energy assessments ideally are performed by a Building Performance Institute Certified Building Analyst (BPI BA). These individuals have had special building science training and testing to earn this Certification.  LEAP (Local Energy Alliance Program)—a community-based non-profit in Central Virginia that provides local residents and property owners with a one-stop shop of who to call, what to do, and how to pay for it when it comes to creating a more comfortable, efficient and affordable home or building—requires every assessment done in its Home Performance with ENERGY STAR program, be completed by a certified BPI BA. 
 
Using diagnostic tests, an energy auditor will provide you with a report that lists areas where improvements can be made to save you energy and money. Using software to model your home’s energy use, the auditor will prioritize steps to reduce those costs and give you the information you need to decide which improvements you want to make and when.
 
With 24 years in the business, Albemarle Heating & Air is a certified contractor for LEAP and has the BPI BA designation.  Staff members are not only experts in home energy assessments, but because they are also specialists on the equipment and ductwork side, they provide homeowners with a more comprehensive evaluation. “What we do a little differently than your typical assessment is to actually run a heating & cooling load so we can determine if your equipment is properly sized,” said Ralph Sachs, General Manager.
 
Sachs, assisted by three other members of his team, came to my home to do an assessment. They spent nearly four hours examining every aspect of my home’s energy issues, starting with a series of questions to determine why I wanted the assessment. Was it because I wasn’t comfortable? Were my energy costs too high? Was I concerned about the efficiency of my appliances? 
 
Once those questions were answered, Sachs and his team began the assessment. They measured the house, performed visual inspections, both inside and out, looking for problems around walls, joints and under the eaves to make sure the home had a tight fit.  Sachs went into the attic to check the condition of the insulation and air barrier. The team inspected holes where electrical lines pass through to make sure they were sealed and they checked the ductwork to make sure there was a tight fit with the connections.
 
“The duct system is one area that most people ignore,” said Sachs.  “There are times we’ve told people don’t waste your money on equipment unless it’s broken, but fix your ductwork.”
With health & safety being the #1 issue addressed by the BA, they checked both the hot water heater and gas furnace for proper draft and carbon monoxide levels. Thankfully, all passed the test.
 
The blower door test was the most dramatic and fun of all the tests. All the windows and doors were closed and a special fan was installed in the front door to depressurize the house. The fan sucked air out of the house, allowing outside air to rush into the home through all those openings you didn’t know about. With the windows and doors closed and the fan running, leaks were easy to spot. 
 
“For every unit of conditioned air going out of your house an equal amount of hot or cold air is coming in that you have to heat or cool,” said Sachs. 
 
With the blower door test and the use of the thermal imaging camera, you get a clear picture of where you’re losing energy and surprisingly, it isn’t always through the windows.
“Typically people first want to replace the windows, but if you are looking to get the biggest bang for your buck, unless your house is really old, the windows may not be the best place to put your investment,” said Sachs.
 
Using a thermal imaging camera, Sachs went around the house, shining the laser on the walls to get a reading. Red indicated there wasn’t a draft.  “If you see blue, there is some infiltration or gaps in the insulation,” said Sachs. “The big culprits are soffits because often there is no drywall behind them, so they’re open to the outside and show up blue through the camera.”
 
Recessed lighting fixtures are big energy suckers as well, not only because air is lost through the canister, but also because if they use incandescent bulbs, they’re using a lot of energy.  The same is true for all the lighting fixtures in your home.
 
“When the assessment is over, I take all the measurements and test results, enter them into a spreadsheet that we use to determine the estimated energy savings based on the improvements you make,” said Sachs.  
 
Then it’s pretty much up to the homeowner of what to do with that information.
“You can have the assessment done to acquire information, or you can have it done because you’ve decided you’re going to spend $5000 and you want to know where’s the best place to spend it,” said Sachs. “That should be the focus.” 
 
For those who want to make improvements, there are financial programs such as the PowerSaver Loan from the UVa Community Credit Union, which comes with zero percent interest for five years.  LEAP’s Home Performance with ENERGY STAR program also offers rebates provided qualifying contractors do the work.
 
The average cost of a full-house energy assessment for a 2400 square-foot home is around $495, plus $25 for each of its combustible appliances. Even if you intend to sell your home, having the energy assessment certification is a plus with buyers. 
 
“A certificate goes along with the Home Performance with ENERGY STAR assessment program,” said Sachs. “With it, you can say you’ve got your house up to this level.”
For more information on programs available to assist you with improving your home’s energy usage, visit www.leap-va.org and www.albemarleheating.net. 
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