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Home Energy Audits: All the Facts

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Apr 9, 2020

How were your heating bills this year? Many of us are thinking about efficiency, the associated cost savings, and conserving resources' environmental benefits. How do you know where you stand? Doing a home energy audit will give you and your family a baseline concerning your home's energy use.

Energy audits are frequently offered by local gas and electric companies at a discounted price (or free for low-income families). The results of these audits can provide you with some strategies for beating the cold that doesn't involve wearing hats and gloves indoors.

Home Energy Audit

What Is a Home Energy Audit?

A home energy audit is an evaluation of the current energy use in your home. It aims to find energy efficiency measures that will reduce your energy usage and associated costs. When undertaken by a reputable firm, the evaluation will take between 2 and 4 hours, depending on the size and age of your home.

Many homeowners worldwide are opting for the Net-Zero energy standard, wherein buildings produce the same amount of energy they use. In fact, Net-Zero homes increased by 33% in 2016 alone. An energy audit is essential if you consider investing in renewable energy for your home (even if you're not ready to become 100% net-zero).

How Much Does a Home Energy Audit Cost?

The cost of a home energy audit is generally anywhere between $250 and $650. In some cases, your utility may subsidize or even cover the cost of a home energy audit. Depending on what the auditor or advisor finds, an investment of another $500 to $1,000 in energy efficiency repairs and maintenance could save $50 per month on your electricity and heating and cooling bill. These savings generally offset the cost of the renovation within a year or two.

home energy squad truck
Home Energy Squad Truck. Photo Credit: CUB Minnesota

Examples of Energy Audit Programs

The Home Energy Squad offers a basic-level audit ($200 value for $70) or an "enhanced visit" ($600 value for only $100). Both audits include LED bulbs, a programmable thermostat, weather stripping, water heating, pipe insulation, and an attic and wall insulation inspection. The enhanced service includes a blower door test, thermal imaging testing, combustion safety test, and a carbon monoxide test.

Many other cities across the USA and Canada offer low-cost energy audits or assessments. On the west coast, Energy Upgrade California provides a variety of services. These include no-cost weatherization services and energy-efficient appliances. A non-profit in British Columbia called City Green Solutions works with local energy providers to offer "EnerGuide" home energy use evaluations, access to grants for home improvements, and more. Mass Save offers no-cost, virtual energy assessments.

Traci Daberko, the author of an article in The New York Times, notes that while states can run their own programs, there is also a federal program. The Department of Energy's Home Performance with Energy Star program is designed to help homeowners assess their home's energy efficiency. 

Word is out: low-cost energy audits are available in many major cities and across the country. The question is, why don't more people know about and use them?

Home Audit

Home Energy Audits Are in High Demand

Stacy Boots Camp is the assistant outreach manager for the Center for Energy and Environment (CEE). CEE is a Minnesota-based non-profit that promotes energy efficiency to strengthen the economy while improving the environment. For nearly 40 years, she says, CEE has been conducting research that informs how consumer-oriented energy-saving programs are designed and delivered. Home Energy Squad, which CEE delivers for Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy, is pushing hard to keep up with demand.

So is the need greater than is presently being met? This writer's request for a home energy audit at the Home Energy Squad website (and via telephone contact) confirmed a several-month waiting list for a single-family home audit. An MPR story written in December 2017 stated that energy audits would benefit many homes in Minnesota. It reports the inadequate insulation of many Minnesota homes, particularly those built before 1970. And while Boots Camp stated that "We're pretty much doing all that is possible" with current funding and staffing, what could be done with more funding and staffing?

It should be noted that Boots Camp says emergency audits, for health or safety reasons, or if the audit is a prerequisite to obtaining a loan, can be arranged. She also strongly suggests scheduling spring and summer audits vs. high-traffic fall and winter. The problem with undertaking audits in the spring or summer is that the temperature differential between inside and outdoor temperatures is minimal. This can make it more difficult to find issues with, for example, missing insulation.

Many states are required to invest in programs that help households and businesses use electricity and natural gas more efficiently. For instance, Minnesota electric utilities and natural gas utilities must invest at least 1.5 percent (electric) and 0.5 percent (natural gas) gross operating revenues. As Daberko writes in the New York Times, the people who pay the utility bills ultimately fund many audit and home energy loan programs.

The truth is those utility companies invest some of their operating revenues in-home energy audits that will save you, the homeowner, utility bill dollars. Understanding that audit programs are not designed as revenue producers for utility companies but as a resource for energy savings might well help convince homeowners to at least investigate their utility company's home energy audit offerings. Indeed, is it time for utility bill-payers to rally for more of such utility-company subsidies?

Why Do Utilities Give Discounts on Home Energy Audits?

Even when they find out about the home energy audits, people may pass on them because they distrust that the services and products are provided at such a discount. These discounts are possible because utility-consumer dollars help fund the audits, and utility companies are required by law to invest in homeowner energy savings programs.

A survey of those who completed the Minnesota audit went out some years ago. Of 800 to 1,000 homes, says Boots Camp, 99% of the respondents were satisfied with the audit and would recommend it to others.

Boots Camp was clear that not Home Energy Squad audits cover every consumer expense. She says homeowners can choose to go beyond the energy-saving devices installed within the $70 to $100 they pay for the audit. For example, although programmable thermostats ARE included, installed, and programmed through the utility program, a CenterPoint customer can upgrade to a "smart" thermostat by paying for it and receiving an immediate $50 rebate. If Home Energy Squad techs recommend air sealing, insulation work, or other non-covered items during the visit, their quote will be honored by participating contractors.

Many audits will culminate in estimates for large-scale work (re-insulation of an entire home, for example), which is completed at the consumer's discretion and expense. Daberko writes in NYT mentioned above article that since 2012, 126,000 New York State residents have conducted energy audits through the program. Of these, 60% have initiated an energy project of some kind. The projects might be completed via a utility-sponsored program with incentives. Or, they could have worked with a contractor outside the program or done the work themselves. Homeowners are under no obligation to make changes. Those who do can qualify for low or no-cost loans and rebates based on their success.

Who Performs Home Energy Audits?

Most of us would not need an expert to tell us that we could save by changing our old light bulbs for LEDs. However, most of us can't find the almost undetectable air leakages around our doorframe or through our attic that might be lowering our home's energy efficiency. Certified energy advisors are trained to do just this and help you maximize your home energy audit benefits.

bpi energy auditor
BPI Energy Auditor. Photo Credit: BPI

What Is a Certified Energy Advisor or Auditor?

certified energy advisor/auditor observes, analyzes, and evaluates how energy is being used in residential or commercial buildings. These energy professionals should have significant experience in increasing the overall energy efficiency of a building. They will be able to offer ideas and suggestions on renovations or repairs that can be made to facilitate energy conservation opportunities. Also, they can recommend ways in which you can reduce or optimize your energy consumption.

Why Do You Need a Certified Energy Advisor or Auditor?

A certified energy advisor or auditor (CEA) is becoming mandatory in many areas across North America. In the city of Vancouver, Canada, to name just one example, a CEA is required for any new building or renovations over $5,000. Many rebate and incentive programs offered by utilities and municipalities across North America require an energy audit to be completed by a certified energy auditor to receive money back for energy-efficient upgrades to your home. Perhaps most importantly, a quality energy audit of your home will maximize the money you can save on your energy bills.

What Does a Certified Energy Advisor or Auditor Do?

A qualified energy auditor or advisor will usually begin by checking your past utility bills to discover your home's current energy consumption and need. During the on-site inspection, he or she will most likely use several different tests and tools to inspect the energy efficiency of a home. The blower door test (explained in more detail below) is one of the most common home energy auditors' tests.

Thermal Image
Thermal Image. Photo Credit: Tom Barbour, Thermal Image UK

A certified energy auditor might also take thermographic inspections of your home with the help of an infrared camera. This inspection will help the auditor discover air leaks or areas where your home insulation is not ideal. The auditor should also check your heat pump, furnace, and air filter, as heating and ventilation systems in a home can also lead to higher energy bills.

Finally, the energy auditor should send you a report. The report details areas in which your home is losing energy efficiency and offers suggestions on how to reduce your overall energy consumption, upgrade to more energy-efficient devices for your home, and potentially save on your comprehensive energy bill. A final walkthrough is usually offered as well as the auditor will point out his or her findings.

Things to Look For in Energy Advisors or Auditors

Credentials and Certifications

You probably would feel a little bit wary about going to a dentist who does not proudly display his diplomas on his office walls. Similarly, when searching for the best energy auditors or advisors, you want to ensure they have the proper credentials and certifications.

The Association of Energy Engineers in the United States has a CEA or certified energy auditor certification program. Professionals looking to gain CEA certification need to meet rigid guidelines for both education and work experience, and they also participate in seminars and training. The Association of Energy Engineers' CEA program has also received recommendations from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Everblue Training and the Building Performance Institute (BPI) offer other certification programs for energy advisors or auditors. In Canada, the Canadian Institute for Energy Training certifies CEAs.

Blower Door Test
Blower Door Test. Photo Credit: BPI

What Is a Blower Door Test?

One of the tests that most qualified energy auditors or advisors will perform is a blower door test. A large fan is placed inside the front door frame with all other windows and doors tightly shut during this test. This lowers the air pressure inside the house. While the fan runs, this lower pressure enables higher outside air pressure to enter through any unsealed cracks and air leakages from windows, vents, ducts, and other commonly vulnerable areas. This test will determine the air infiltration rate of your home.

Blower door tests are gaining more traction as cities and states aim to document a home's energy costs at the time of sale. This would include energy use evaluations and home energy audits, often including a blower door test. Realtors are pushing for a similar change to the MLS (real estate listing system) as well.

Before hiring an auditor or advisor, ask them to send you a detailed plan of what they plan to check for and what types of tests they will run. The blower door test is considered one of the most critical tests to measure the energy efficiency of a building and has become mandatory in certain states like New York.

Energy Audit Companies that Stay Ahead of the Curve

When choosing an energy auditor or advisor, make sure to ask for their background and past experiences. Due to increasing governmental regulations related to home energy efficiency, some contractors and building companies have reluctantly brought certified energy auditors to their team to comply with those regulations.

Companies (or individual auditors) with a long record of accomplishment usually stayed ahead of the curve and were interested in improving home energy efficiency before becoming mandatory. Along with their experience in detecting problems related to your home's energy efficiency, they might also be able to offer coherent and consistent planning strategies that will help you improve the overall livability of your home.

Potential Risks to Consider Before a Home Energy Audit

If your home contains asbestos or vermiculite, which can be found in certain brands of older insulation, do not perform a blower door test! If your home is known to contain the insulation material with the brand name of Zonolite, a blower door test is, in fact, a hazardous mistake.

Typical Vermiculite Insulation
Typical Vermiculite Insulation. Photo Credit: Asbestos.com

What is Vermiculite?

Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral, deemed safe when pure. It was produced and used to insulate primarily attics from 1940-1980. However, an estimated 75 percent came from Libby, Montana, where it was regularly contaminated with toxic amphibole asbestos. Amphibole asbestos is one of two mineral families of asbestos, the other family being serpentine. According to the Health Protection Agency in the U.K., Studies, amphibole types of asbestos are the most dangerous.

The brand name of the Libby, Montana vermiculite is Zonolite. The Minnesota Building Performance Association estimates that 35 million U.S. buildings may have Zonolite insulation.

How to Tell if You Have Asbestos in Your Home?

Asbestos causes cancer and other diseases, and there is no known safe level of asbestos exposure. Asbestos identification and removal should be left to experts with proper protective equipment and removal methods. One way to identify vermiculite is by sight if you can view your attic insulation without disturbing it. Vermiculite insulation was a pour-in product that is gray-brown or silver-gold and pebble-like.

Here are ways to identify your insulation as Zonolite:

  • Built before 1990:  The Libby mine was closed, and production ceased in 1990. So, if your home was built or reinsulated after 1990, the chances of your insulation containing asbestos are greatly reduced.
  • Specific color: Vermiculite insulation is generally gray-brown or silver-gold.
  • Accordion-like texture: Due to the treatment process, insulation that contains asbestos will likely have an accordion-like texture. Manufacturing applies heat to the material causing this unique texture.
  • Lays flat:  Loose-fill fiberglass insulation tends to fluff up and mimic snowdrifts. Insulation containing asbestos tends to lay flat and remain firm in the joist cavities.

The EPA suggests that once you've found vermiculite insulation in your home, take precautions not to disturb it and use a trained professional to remove it. In the interim, if you have found asbestos in your attic, do not store boxes or other items and do not allow children to play there.

Where Does the Blower Door Test Stand?

In addition to the risks associated with asbestos, the blower door test can fall short in a few other areas. Air leakage into a house, for example, can be influenced by variable factors like wind and outdoor temperature. When the blower door test is undertaken, it tests for all the leaks in the house EXCEPT the door used for the test. In other words, the house could actually be less leaky (outdoor conditions) OR leakier (not assessing the door used for the blower door) than the test shows.

While a useful tool in many situations and a good idea in the absence of asbestos-contaminated insulation, the blower door test is not perfect, as with all decisions you make about your home, proceed with informed caution.

Energy Savings

The Bottom Line on Home Energy Audits

The average cost of a digital programmable thermostat is around $100. The HUD website defines a blower door test as a diagnostic tool to measure and quantify your home's airtightness. They estimate its cost in an average-sized home to be $450. For Minnesotans, there's most of your $600 value in an "enhanced visit" Home Energy Squad audit, right there. And you're paying only $100—a great deal. But the real benefit comes from the recommended energy efficiency measures, many of which the auditor implements during the visit. Even if you end up saving only $10 per month on your gas bill (a safe bet after any audit), within ten months, you break even, and you will continue to save $120 (or more) per year, every year.

Conclusion: A home energy audit is a financial no-brainer. It should help you save energy on your household energy bill while potentially lowering your home's overall carbon footprint. A quality home energy audit will increase the comfort of your home. For any new home build or major renovation, a home energy audit should be a top priority.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2023-05-08T16:08:49+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.