Jim Alexander, a real estate agent in Atlanta, decided this summer to subject his own 11-year-old house to an energy audit.
"If this was something I was going to recommend to my clients I wanted to see for myself how it works," he says. His verdict: "Home energy audits are going to change the way we buy and sell houses in America."
Alexander hired the company Retrofit America to conduct the audit, which showed that by spending about $3,000 -- $700 of it covered by government rebates -- he could save several hundred dollars a month in energy costs.
Some of the recommendations were as simple as putting a latch on the attic door so that it would not swing open. "The auditors not only brought in all the latest equipment and computer technology but they also used their eyes," he says.
Home energy audits are like doctors' checkups for the house, says Seith Leitman, who blogs as the Green Living Guy and consults on McGraw Hill's series "Green Guru Guides." And just as you need to follow a doctor's advice to get healthier, so you need to follow an audit's recommendations and retrofit your house if you want to see savings, experts say.
The federal government's Energy Star Web site, Energystar.gov, says the audits are the first step in making a home more efficient, comfortable and healthy.
If your home is too hot in summer, too cold in winter, drafty or damp, and if you suffer from allergies or just from high energy bills, you should do a home energy audit. You also should do one on any house you are considering buying.
HOW TO PROCEED
You can perform a simple home energy audit yourself, but you will need a professional for a thorough assessment that includes heating and cooling systems.
Begin with a diligent walkthrough of your house, keeping a checklist of areas you have inspected and problems you find. The Energy Star website offers a checklist, or for more guidelines read "Do-It-Yourself Home Energy Audits" (McGraw-Hill, 2010).
To get started, Chandler von Schrader, national manager of Home Performance with Energy Star, recommends going online to complete the Energy Star Home Energy Yardstick, which lets you compare your household's energy use to others and get recommendations for improvement. The yardstick is intended just to give you a general idea, not a thorough audit.
Some simple steps to start conserving energy at home include replacing incandescent lighting with energy efficient, fluorescent lighting in the room you use most.
Other quick fixes may include replacing old appliances with Energy Star Appliances. Check the Energy Star website for products that have earned that label.
Beware of some other popular quick fixes. Windows, for example, cost a lot, and new ones will not provide energy savings if they are not properly installed with caulking, and if leaks in rooms are not sealed.
Von Schrader warns against cheap energy audits conducted by someone trying to sell you something.
"Houses are complex and require comprehensive solutions," he says. "You should look at a house in a holistic fashion. If you do just one thing you may throw others off. For example, sealing off drafts in an attic may cause humidity buildup in other parts of the house."
A complete energy audit requires specialized equipment, says Matt Golden, president and founder of Recurve Inc., a San Francisco-area company that helps homeowners to increase energy efficiency.
That equipment includes blower doors that measure the extent of leaks in the building, infrared cameras that reveal areas of air infiltration and missing insulation, and duct blasters that use pressure testing to find leaks in a duct system, said Recurve's Golden.
SELECTING AN AUDITOR
Von Schrader suggests hiring energy auditors approved by the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) or the Building Performance Institute (BPI), which set national standards.
Companies like Retrofit America and Recurve promise one-stop service for homeowners, from the audit to financing to completing the home improvements and verifying the work is done right. Retrofits may include air sealing and insulation; duct work; replacing heating and cooling systems and water heaters; substituting windows, doors or appliances; and adding renewable energy systems, such as solar pane:ls.
The average cost of retrofitting a house once it has been audited is $8,000 to $10,000, according to Von Schrader, and it is not always advisable to go with the lowest estimate. "Work done correctly often costs more," he says.
Fortunately, there are programs to offset the costs. Some state energy programs and utilities offer rebates, which require accredited home-energy auditors and contractors to do the work. A federal energy tax credit of $1,500 is available until the end of this year.
Providing rebates to consumers to encourage energy-efficiency upgrades is also part of energy legislation making its way through Congress.