Perform Your Own Home Energy Audit

I was in Home Depot this past weekend, and got asked if I wanted to have a free home energy audit done.  My house is only 3 years old, and I have done some stuff over the past year to make it more energy efficient, but I’ve always wanted to have an energy audit done, so I said yes.

I’ve done a lot of research over the past couple of years to try to make our home as energy efficient as possible.  I haven’t done all the work necessary, but I have found a lot of areas where we could improve.  I was expecting the guy from Home Depot to show up with a heat camera and a cover for an open doorway with a fan.  I expected him to find the cold spots (since it was about 20 degrees outside) with the camera, and offer ideas on how to fix them.

I was wrong.  In fact, he showed up with a flashlight as his only tool.  He walked through the front door, and his first words were “Why am I here?”  He said that since the house was new, it had to adhere to all sorts of requirements that make it energy efficient.  I was shocked (but I did really try to limit my expectations since it was free and from Home Depot).  So I started asking him all sorts of questions regarding things that I found during my own research.

It turns out that I actually knew more about home efficiency than he did.  He was just there to check the basics (basically, he asked about the insulation in the attic and if we had double pane windows).  He even had a paper checklist of everything they check, and didn’t know a whole lot outside of that.  When I asked him some specific questions, his “expert” opinion didn’t line up with the research I did on my own prior to his visit.

So I thought I’d write up a little post on a basic checklist to do your own home energy audit.  If you cover these 9 things, you’ll end up having a more energy-efficient home than most people.

1) Check your attic insulation.  This is the most important thing you can do to cut down on energy costs, and it’s relatively cheap and easy to do yourself, with a little knowledge.  To find out how much insulation you need, look at the Ceiling R-Value on http://energycode.pnl.gov/EnergyCodeReqs/.  In my area, I need R38.   Use the following formula to determine how much insulation you should have in your attic:

Blown in fiberglass: R value (i.e., 38) / 2.7
Batts (or blankets): R value (i.e., 38) / 3.33

Now that you know how much insulation you should have in your attic, go measure what you actually have.  If you don’t have enough, add more until you get to at least the appropriate thickness.

My recommendation is to get the recycled newspaper blown-in insulation.  It’s super easy to install, and it’s cheap compared to the batts.  You just blow it in with a machine you can rent.  Most places even rent the machine for free with a minimum insulation purchase amount, which you will most likely need anyway.  The recycled newspaper doesn’t itch if it gets on your skin, and insulates at a better R-value per square inch (3.6 compared to 2.7), so you need less of it to fill in the gaps.  I did not include the newspaper calculation above because if you didn’t add your own insulation, you most likely have the fiberglass.

2) Check your window types.  If you have old, single-pane windows, you can probably feel a draft coming through them on cold days.  Replace them with energy efficient double or triple pane windows.  Make sure you get energy star windows when purchasing, and you should be good to go. Unfortunately, you probably won’t be able to do this one yourself, and it will cost you some serious money to replace all the windows in your house.  But if you have single pane windows, replacing them will save you a lot of money you’re paying to heat the outside in the winter, and cool the outdoors in the summer.  A lot of energy goes right through single pane windows, so you will recoup the cost of them in just a few years.  If you don’t want to spend the money on new windows, add storm windows to the outside of your windows.  That will essentially turn your single pane window into a double pane for the winter months, and you can take the storm windows off during the months where you open your windows.

3) Check the seals around your windows.  On a cold, windy day, check around all the corners where your windows touch your walls on the inside of your house.  If you feel cold air coming in from where your windows meet your walls, you should run a bead of caulk around the entire window.  That alone should stop most of the draft from coming through, and is really cheap to do (a tube of caulk is around $2, and you can get a caulk gun for not much more than that if you don’t own one already).  My tips to you regarding this is to use clear silicone caulk, and tape around both sides so you get a nice straight finish.  I also use a tool such as this one to give you a nice, smooth finish.

If you get air leaking through the window portion itself, you might have to replace the window.  You could try adding storm windows as mentioned in the previous point, if you don’t want to spend the money on new windows.

4) Seal all areas where items go into your house.  Go outside, and look at where everything comes into your home (electricity, exterior outlets, air conditioner, hose bibs, etc.).  Go inside your house, and find where each section goes inside (if you have a basement, this will be where your rim joists are).  If there’s a small gap, caulk around it.  If it’s a larger gap, get some Great Stuff (basically expanding foam) and spray it all around the holes.  The Great Stuff will expand to cover a larger area.  Just make sure you get all the holes completely covered.  These open holes are an easy target for outside air to come right into your house without any protection from the outside elements.  My house was brand new when we moved in, and I saw some gaping holes where I could see items outside!  And the overall construction was much better on our house than any other we looked at in our price range. So any house can have major holes in this area.  Sealing them up will save you some money, and drastically reduce drafts in those areas of your house.

5) Insulate your rim joists in basement.  If you have a basement, check your rim joists.  To get a proper seal, you should not use batt insulation in these areas.  Get some 2″ rigid foam, cut them to fit in between each section on your rim joist, and caulk around each edge.  This will take some time, but it’ll give your house a nice, tight seal in an area that typically leaks a lot of air.  If you have batt insulation, I’d recommend removing it and replacing it with rigid foam.  For some more detailed instructions on how to do this yourself, visit this site.

6) Insulate outlets.  On a cold winter day, put your hand on an outlet that’s on an exterior wall.  If you feel cold air, you should insulate those.  You can find special outlet insulation at any local hardware store for a really cheap price.  You simply unscrew the faceplate, put the insulation cutout on, and screw the faceplate back on.

7) Insulate around exterior doors.  On a cold winter day, check for air leaks around your exterior doors.  If you feel air coming through the sides and/or top, a quick and cheap fix is to get some door insulation.  For detailed instructions, read this.  If you feel air coming from under the door, add a door threshold to the bottom of your existing frame.  For details on that, read this.  If you do that and still get cold air coming in, install a storm door.  That will get you a little better insulation as well.  An added benefit of a storm door is that you can open your main door and let a breeze through on nice days as well, reducing your heating and cooling costs on those days as well.

8) Change your furnace filter every 3 months.  This one is super easy, but needs to be done frequently.  Modern furnaces are designed to work very efficiently, but that can only happen if they get enough airflow through the system.  If you don’t change your furnace filter, dirt and dust build up, which restricts the air flow that goes through your furnace.  This will lead to your furnace working much harder, and making your house colder in the winter.  I just buy an entire case of 3M filters online at a cheaper price than you can get in the store, and keep them right next to my furnace.  I write the date I installed the filter with a permanent marker right on the filter when I put it in the furnace.  I have a recurring reminder on my phone to remind me to change my filter every three months.  That works really well for me.

9) Replace all your incandescent bulbs.  Incandescent bulbs take up a lot of energy.  If you want to make the most difference, replace bulbs with LED.  If you get the right kind, it can put out the same brightness and type of light as an incandescent.  LED bulbs can be a lot more expensive, but they are designed to last 20+ years.  They also use about 1/50th of the energy of an incandescent, so you will easily recoup the cost, assuming you want to pay the up front cost of an LED (and can find one that fits each place you are replacing).

If that doesn’t work, or you don’t want to put up as much money up front, at least replace all your bulbs with CFL bulbs.  They still use less than half the amount of electricity of incandescent, put out the same light, and aren’t much more expensive.  If you are replacing a standard 60 watt bulb, you can find CFLs online for 50 cents a piece.

If you follow the 9 techniques above, you will make your home much more energy efficient, and should recoup most of the cost pretty quickly.  It’ll save you money in the long run.

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