Energy Efficiency 101 – What’s an energy audit?

If you’ve ever looked into energy efficiency, you’ve probably heard about energy audits. But what is an energy audit? What does it involves? Why should you get one? How much does it cost?

I’ll try to touch on all these topics, and more, in this posting, but if there’s anything I miss, please ask a question at “Ask Ted” and I’ll be sure to answer!

What is an energy audit?

This is a tough question to answer. The problem is, if you ask a bunch of us this question, you’ll get lots of different answers. It’s part of the problem – it’s become a marketing phrase that people put in their ads so they can sell you windows, insulation and other services.

So I’ll give you  my definition of an energy audit.

A proper energy audit is a bottom to top analysis of your home, inside and out. It’s kind of like a general physical for your home. The goal is to find how well constructed your home is from an energy, health and comfort perspective. Is it properly insulated? Is there any sign of water intrusion? How well are the heating and cooling systems installed? Are there drafts? Are the electric bills in line with expectations? How about other heating fuels (gas, propane or oil)?

A complete energy audit will usually include a blower-door test and a detailed thermal imaging (also called infrared) scan. I say usually, because sometimes the conditions aren’t appropriate for these tests. For example, during the spring and fall, the temperatures are usually too moderate for useful thermal imaging.

If it sounds like a pretty comprehensive analysis – it is! It typically takes me a minimum of three hours to go through the process on a small home and most of the time it’s a four-plus hour process. And to do it right, it can be pretty unpleasant.

In order to do an energy audit properly, every room and space in and around the house has to be visually inspected. That includes crawling around in the attic spaces, if they’re accessible and the basement and crawlspaces. In fact, on my jobs, I’ll spend more time in the attic and basement than anywhere else in the house because those areas have the most impact on the overall performance of your home.

What’s NOT an energy audit?

A warning – there are a lot of unscrupulous contractors advertising energy audits for free or for a very low cost, like $99-$199. They do this because they’re trying to sell you something, usually windows, insulation or a new heating system. This is like going to the brake shop and asking them to tell you if you need new brakes for your car. Of course you do! If you don’t get new brakes, you and your family’s life will be in danger! Blah, blah, blah.

So if some guy (they’re almost always guys) with a green business card tries to sell you on a cheap energy audit, send them packing. There’s virtually no chance that they’re going to do a proper job or even have the equipment to do a proper job. And they certainly won’t have the training or background.

Here are some things to look for when you’re interviewing people/companies to do an energy audit:

  • How long have they been doing this type of work?
  • How many homes have they analyzed?
  • Is this their primary line of work?
  • What organizations are they part of?
  • Do they profit by selling the work they recommend?
  • Can they send you a real sample report they’ve done for someone else?
  • Can they provide a half dozen references?

I would be particularly sensitive to whether this is their primary line of work and whether they’re getting kickbacks for selling you other services, for obvious reasons.

Note that, on occasion, contractors did give me money for sending clients their way as a way of thanking me. But it wasn’t a formal arrangement – it’s not like I only sent work their way because they were paying me. I provided my clients with a list of several contractors whom I knew to do high quality work. You’ll have to play this one by ear. You’ll know pretty quickly whether you can trust your auditor.

Also, insist on getting a sample report from a real client. If they make noises about not being able to do so because of privacy, scratch them off your list. We’re not lawyers or doctors – who cares if somebody sees your energy audit report? How hard is it to remove someone’s name and address from a report? If they’re not willing to go that far to win your business, how hard are they going to work once you hire them?