It’s Cool Outside! Give Your Home an Energy Audit

Home energy auditor points out the air leaks around a door
There goes your college fund, kid. Jim Conlon of Elysian Energy shows the author and her son where heat escapes and cold air leaks in around their back door. A quick fix? Inexpensive foam tape and a draft blocker.

Three years ago, soon after my husband and I bought our first home (a 100-year-old, unrenovated row house), we realized that we had bigger problems than the dusty carpets and stained wallpaper that covered the house. It was winter, and we were freezing. Thanks to a free city-run program, we had a professional  energy auditor come to our house and tell us just where our house was wasting energy. (Hint: everywhere.)

Expert auditors have the equipment and the knowledge to do a thorough, fine-tuned evaluation of your home’s air leaks and other inefficiencies. But if you cannot afford an audit or don’t want to wait, you can conduct a home energy audit yourself. When auditing your house, keep a list of areas you have inspected and problems you found. This list will help you prioritize your energy efficiency upgrades.

1. Check for leaks.

Energy savings from reducing air leaks in a home can be as much as 30 percent per year, and many of those leaks can be easily detected, either visually or by feel.

Inside the house: Check for visible gaps and feel for drafts around baseboards, electrical outlets and switch plates, window and door frames, attic hatches and wall or window-mounted air conditioners. Also look for gaps around pipes and wires, electrical outlets, foundation seals and mail slots. Check to see if the caulking and weather stripping are applied properly, leaving no gaps or cracks, and are in good condition.

Tip: If you can rattle your window in its frame, it is likely that the window is leaky. If you can see daylight around a door or window frame, then the door or window leaks and should be sealed with caulk or weather stripping. If your windows are very leaky and replacing them is not in your budget, consider installing low-cost plastic sheets over the windows.

Outside the house: Inspect all areas where two different building materials meet, including all exterior corners, where siding and chimneys meet, along the foundation, and around faucets and outlets.

2. Conduct a basic house pressurization test.

Close all exterior doors, windows and fireplace flues. Turn off all combustion appliances such as gas-burning furnaces and water heaters, then turn on all exhaust fans (generally located in the kitchen and bathrooms) or use a large window fan to suck the air out of the rooms. This test increases infiltration through cracks and leaks, making them easier to detect with your bare hand.

3. Make sure your insulation is adequate.

Attic: Since heat rises, one of the best ways to save energy is to insulate the attic. A quick look inside the attic or crawl space will tell you whether it is insulated. If your attic hatch is located above a conditioned space, check to see if it is at least as heavily insulated as the attic, is weather stripped and closes tightly. In the attic, check the openings for items such as pipes, ductwork and chimneys to make sure they are sealed with expanding foam caulk or other sealant. There should be a vapor barrier—tarpaper or a plastic sheet—under the attic insulation. Ensure that attic vents are not blocked by insulation.

Walls: Checking a wall’s insulation is more difficult: It can be done either by probing through a wall outlet (turn off the circuit breakers first!) or by drilling a small hole in a closet or other unobtrusive place.

Basement: If your basement is unheated, look at the basement ceiling to determine whether there is insulation under the living area flooring. Other insulation: Your water heater, hot water pipes and furnace ducts should all be insulated.

4. Examine your heating and cooling systems.

If you have a forced-air furnace, check your filters and replace them as needed. Generally, you should change them about once every month or two, especially during periods of high usage. Have a professional check and clean your equipment once a year.

If the unit is more than 15 years old, you should consider replacing it with a newer, more energy-efficient unit—especially if the existing equipment is in poor condition. Check your ductwork for dirt streaks, especially near seams. These indicate air leaks, and they should be sealed. Insulate any pipes that travel through unheated spaces.

5. Update your lighting.

Examine the wattage size of the light bulbs in your house, and consider replacing larger-watt bulbs with smaller ones. Also, consider replacing some or all of your bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs, which save energy and last much longer.

Adapted from information provided by the U.S. Department of Energy.

NWF Tips on Conserving Energy at Home

Did you know you should never place a lamp near a thermostat? Find out why and get more hints on how to save energy (and money) at home.

Published: October 13, 2010