Ask an Expert: Home Energy Audits

Eco friendly

Ecobeco offers whole-house energy audits to help homeowners live in comfortable, energy-efficient homes. The company includes a team of energy auditors, general contractors, architects and interior designers to determine where homes can save energy and improve indoor comfort and air quality. We asked Brian Toll, Ecobeco’s Founder and President, about what homeowners should look for in a successful energy audit.

Does every home need an energy audit?

Any home that’s older than 10 years is a good candidate for an energy audit because energy codes that are being used in the U.S. are getting better every year. Each state adopts the codes at a different pace. Some states may be using old codes, and some stay current. If your home was built using a code that is within the past 8 years or so, it’s probably in good shape from an energy-efficiency standpoint. But if your home is older than that, it’s likely that the standards have been upgraded from when it was built.

One of the goals of an energy audit is to help you understand which upgrades to make. Those are often based on changes in the recommendations among code officials and the U.S. Department of Energy and other authorities that do a lot of research into energy use and energy conservation. So the age of the home is a big consideration.

How does comfort fit into the picture?

If certain parts of your home feel too hot or too cold, it’s a good indication that the air in your home is not flowing evenly, and that you need an energy audit.

Now for the big question. Are the upgrades worth the investment?

There are three ways to answer this question. First, think about how comfortable are you. Will insulating and reducing air leaks improve your living spaces? Next, what improvements you can afford? If you’re on a budget, you can always phase these in over time. Finally, since energy-efficient homes can fetch a higher price on the market, consider how much of your investment you could recover when you try to sell your house.

Does an audit help someone sell their home?

The audit tells you how to make your home more efficient and comfortable. Actually making the upgrades is what adds the value—but it’s also more of an investment. The good news is, in the past few years, home rating scores have become available. These are different home rating systems that you can use to tell the public how much energy your home uses once you’re ready to sell.

A home with energy-efficiency features stands out in a big way, and research shows that they sell for 5 to 10% more.

How does EcoBeco conduct its audits? It looks like you offer both a “quick home checkup” and a full-scale home energy audit.

The “checkup” is not available nationally. It’s only available in Maryland since it’s part of the state’s energy initiatives. It’s not nearly as complete as the audit—you’d use the checkup if you wanted to learn how to save a few bucks on energy, by using a programmable thermostat and changing your light bulbs.

But if you have real issues with comfort or high energy bills, we need to do a comprehensive audit because there is a lot of complexity in the way air moves through the house. We’re experts on air. We understand how a house is constructed, how the HVAC system works, and how moisture affects the air. We spend three or four hours in the house testing, model your home’s energy use via a comprehensive software package, and then recommend changes that estimate energy savings if you make those changes.

How expensive is a full-scale home energy audit?

You can expect to pay between $400 and $800, with energy audits costing $400 at EcoBeco. If  you see someone selling an audit for less than that, be suspicious, because they’re probably trying to sell you something else—they won’t be doing any scientific data collection or energy modeling or anything substantial. Stay away from $99 audits; that’s basically a fancy sales call, not doing analysis. Some companies do free audits. They’re just trying to trick you into their sales call.

What tax credits or rebates are available?

Some states offer subsidies, and some utilities offer rebates or subsidize the purchase of more energy efficient appliances. There are tax credits available from the federal government that certainly help, although they’re not significant. They cover only 10% of the material costs the homeowner incurs (such as for actual insulation, not labor), up to $500.

How long will the comprehensive audit take to do?

It usually takes between three and four hours to do the audit. The auditors will take infrared pictures of your home to see where it’s leaking energy, and will get up in your attic to measure insulation and go down under the house to examine your crawl spaces. They’ll look at your energy bills and figure out other places where you can save energy, too.

You’ll get your results back, along with specific recommendations, in a couple of weeks.

What are the most common problems energy auditors find?

Most of the time, houses are very leaky in the way air moves through them, so our first priority is to air seal the house to make it tighter. Most houses were built when energy was inexpensive and houses were built loose. Now, current codes make them very tight. Insulation is similar. We might see 5 inches of insulation in someone’s attic, but current code might require 15 inches.

Speaking of which, there are a lot of companies that just want to sell you insulation. Insulation by itself generally won’t solve the problem as well as when you both air seal and insulate, so try to find contractor to do both. That’s what will make your house warmer on all levels, improve indoor air quality, and save some money.

What should a homeowner look for in a reputable auditor?

Look for a company with a good reputation that follows a scientific process. When their folks come to your home, watch what they do. You can tell if they’re being thorough or just looking at things from afar. Find out if they’re participating in a program set up by your utility provider or the Department of Energy. Ask for verification that their work is based on industry standards and best practices.

If you choose to use a company that offers free audits and is not following standards, or if they don’t ask what your utility bills are, those are signals that the company won’t be thorough—and they’re probably just there to try and sell you something you don’t need.

What kind of certifications should a homeowner look for in an auditor?

The Building Performance Institute certifies auditors. So does ResNet and the Home Performance of ENERGYSTAR program. All of these will get you high quality work that’s reviewed by third parties to make sure it’s thorough and accurate. They’re quality assurance programs for energy auditors.

This interview was given courtesy of Brian Toll, Founder and President of Ecobeco.

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