By Ken Wilson –
How much are you spending on energy to heat and cool your home? How efficient is your home at energy conservation? How energy efficient are your lights, and your computers and other electronics? Winter is on its way—if you can’t answer these questions, it’s time to assess your home’s readiness for cold weather by conducting a home energy audit.
Does an audit sound difficult and complicated? It needn’t be. Of course you can always hire a professional to do the work for you, but taking just a few minutes for a simple inspection can save energy, save money, and make your home more comfortable. Even recently built homes can often be made more energy efficient, thanks to rapidly evolving technology.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s voluntary energy conservation program, Energy Star, offers the following breakdown of energy usage in the average home: heating, 29 percent; cooling 17 percent; water heating 14 percent; appliances 13 percent; lighting 12 percent; computers and electronics 4 percent; other 11 percent.
Altogether, these processes and devices push the average annual energy bill up to $2,200. Finding and fixing common home deficiencies can lower bills by 5 to 30 percent annually. That means a little investigative effort and a little repair and upgrade work could save you as much as $660 a year. Get out a flashlight, a measuring stick, a dust mask, screwdriver and goggles, some candles, some work clothes, and a ladder, and you’re ready to go. Here’s a checklist of what you should look for.
Seal Your Home
With heating and cooling adding up to a whopping 46 percent of estimated energy bills, the first thing to do is to make sure your home is well sealed—that means caulked, weather-stripped and insulated. One good way to detect air leaks is to light a candle or incense stick and hold it up to window and door frames, switch plates and electrical outlets, plumbing and ceiling fixtures, range hoods, attic hatches, and bathroom ceiling fans. Also check gaps beneath the baseboard, and where the walls and ceiling meet. If the flame wavers, or the smoke is blown or sucked out of the room, you have a draft.
Cover your kitchen exhaust fan when it’s not in use. Double check, too, that fireplace flue dampers are tightly closed. Around the chimney be sure to use fire-resistant materials like sheet metal, sheetrock and furnace cement caulk. Single-pane windows are not nearly as effective at keeping out extreme outdoor temperature as storm windows. Double-pane, low-emissivity windows are even better, and will eventually pay for themselves in lower heating and cooling bills.
An un-insulated or inadequately insulated attic will leak heat as well. Has the insulation been evenly applied? Is it fallen down and in need of reapplication? Has the attic hatch been insulated and weather-stripped? Are the openings around the pipes and ductwork sealed?
Make sure the electrical boxes in the ceiling are sealed with flexible caulk from either the living room side or the attic side. Also, look for stains on the insulation, which may be signs of air leaks from duct holes or cracks in the outside wall. Does the attic insulation have a vapor barrier underneath it—tarpaper, a plastic sheet, or Kraft paper attached to fiberglass batts? If not, you can paint your ceilings with vapor barrier paint reducing the amount of water vapor that gets through to compromise the insulation.
Check the basement or crawlspace too. Is there insulation under the floor above? Are the water heater, hot water pipes, and furnace ducts insulated?
Heating and Cooling Equipment
Heating and cooling equipment should be inspected annually by a professional. If your unit is more than 15 years old, a newer, more energy-efficient unit might be a good investment. Look at the ductwork. If you find dirt streaks near the seams, the unit may have an air leak. Seal it with duct mastic. Ducts and pipes that pass through unheated spaces should be insulated.
If you have a heat pump, check and replace the filters as recommended by the manufacturer, usually every month or two, especially summer and winter.
New lighting standards set by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 took effect in 2012, requiring bulbs to use roughly 25 percent less energy than the old incandescents. In fact, the new alternative bulbs—halogen incandescents, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), and light-emitting diodes (LEDs)—use anywhere from 25 to 80 percent less energy, and many last longer as well.
The amount of light a bulb emits is measured in lumens—the more lumens, the brighter the bulbs. If you’re replacing a 100 watt incandescent, you want a bulb producing 1,600 lumens. For a 75W bulb, you want 1,100 lumen. For a 60W bulb, it’s 800 lumens, and for a 40W bulb, 450 lumens. Upgrading 15 old incandescent bulbs can save about $50 per year. Installing sensors, dimmers, and timers is another effective way to save energy by reducing lighting use.
If your appliances are aging, your energy bills are probably rising. New model refrigerators, dishwashers, washers and dryers, and room air conditioners with the Energy Star label created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy not only save money, but minimize air pollution. Plug these and other appliances into power strips, and either turn the strips off when they’re not in use, or unplug the appliances, and you’ll save even more.
A professional home auditor will make a thorough assessment of your home, if that’s what you’re most comfortable with. But for fix it up chappies and do-it-yourselfers . . . the fun awaits!