Home energy audits: savings or sales hype?

Jeffrey Anderson | Improvement Center Columnist | September 6, 2013

Can going through an audit ever be a good thing? It might be when the audit provides recommendations for reducing your home's energy consumption. Home energy audits are not only a great way to make your residence more eco-friendly, they may also lower your monthly utility costs.

Energy audits are still a fairly new concept, however, and contractors who claim to be qualified might not have the proper training to do a thorough inspection. You should know what to look for when hiring a home energy auditor.

What exactly is a home energy audit?

Just about every house uses energy -- electricity, natural gas or oil. How efficiently those materials are utilized determines your home's total energy consumption. It can also have a big impact on your monthly utility bills. An energy audit is an inspection that offers suggestions for improving your house's energy efficiency.

A complete audit involves inspecting all parts of your home that can affect energy usage such as insulation, HVAC equipment, ductwork and even your windows. The inspector's sophisticated testing equipment can find air leakage spots in your home's exterior envelope and measure the performance of your heating and cooling systems. Based on the results of the inspection, the energy auditor provides a report outlining how you can reduce energy consumption in your home.

In many cases the recommendations are fairly simple and budget-friendly such as air-sealing windows or adding insulation around ductwork. However, the auditor may also suggest a few more costly improvements such as replacing HVAC equipment, upgrading your hot water heater, or installing high-efficiency windows as ways to realize more significant savings. Whether you follow through with any or all of the report's recommendations is entirely up to you.

What credentials should your energy auditor have?

Benjamin Meredith of Building Knowledge in Linville, Va. has been doing home energy audits for about six years and also works as an independent building inspector. He advises homeowners to be cautious as right now there are few regulations governing who can claim to be an energy auditor. Meredith recommends that homeowners only hire auditors with certifications from these professional organizations:

  • Residential Energy Service Network (RESNET) -- RESNET is geared more to improving energy efficiency in new construction, but many of their certified inspectors can also provide audits for existing homes. Their website provides assistance in finding qualified home energy auditors in your area.
  • Building Performance Institute (BPI) -- Auditors with BPI certifications are knowledgeable about methods for making existing homes more energy efficient. In addition to completing BPI's training program, an inspector must take refresher courses to maintain certification. BPI's website also offers help finding reputable home energy auditors in specific regions.

Peter McGuire of Welford Engineering in Fredericksburg, Va. concurs with Meredith about the certifications. He also feels that the software programs available to auditors with RESNET and BPI certifications provide details that assist in lowering his residential clients' energy costs. McGuire adds that checking references from previous customers before hiring a home energy auditor may help avoid a bad experience.

Many local utility companies offer free or low-cost home energy audits to their customers. While these inspections can be helpful, don't expect them to be quite as thorough as those done by independent contractors. It's also a good idea to be wary of companies that sell windows, insulation, or HVAC equipment and who advertise free home energy audits. The odds are pretty high that you'll get a sales pitch for their products.

What to expect

Both Meredith and McGuire agree that an audit typically takes from 2 to 3 hours, and they require the homeowner to be present during their inspection. Meredith primarily does audits in rural areas and charges from $300 to $500 for his services. McGuire's firm is located in Northern Virginia, which is primarily urban. His rates for an audit are about $500 for a 3,000 square-foot home but can be higher for larger homes and for homes with multiple HVAC zones.

Both auditors have the capability of showing their clients how many dollars and cents can be saved by following their recommendations; however, they prefer using percentages because so many variables are involved. For example, suggesting that an additional six inches of insulation in the attic can reduce your annual energy usage by 5 percent can be more accurate than saying it could save you $100.

Meredith says that one reason it's often difficult to pin down savings to a particular dollar amount is that it depends on the homeowners' lifestyle. Installing a more efficient water heater can reduce electric or natural gas consumption, but if that family is accustomed to taking long hot showers, some of that savings may be negated.

Still, having a qualified inspector perform an energy audit on your home can point out areas where improvements can be made, and if you are willing and able to execute some or all of those changes, it can be a good investment.

About the Author

Jeffrey Anderson has a Degree in English from V.M.I., and served as an officer in the Marine Corps. He worked in Residential and Commercial construction management for 25 years before retiring to write full time. He spends his time writing, remodeling his old farmhouse, and in animal rescue.