About seven years ago, I was a single mother of two cobbling a living out of freelance work while finishing up my journalism degree. To say money was tight would be an understatement: Every penny counted. We ate a lot of macaroni and cheese.
At roughly 1,200 square feet of living space, my 1950s home was the right size for my small family. But the energy bills—$400 to $450 in winter—were burying me. True confession: Twice, the power was cut off because I couldn’t pay the bill, and was too proud to ask for help.
Finally, a friend in the know made a suggestion to combat my enormous energy bills: What about an energy assessment? I was dubious at first. After all, what good would a few new light bulbs do?
As it turns out, an energy assessment is about much more than replacing old light bulbs. Acting on my friend’s suggestion ultimately saved me thousands of dollars with significant, low-cost changes that cut my energy bill by about 50%.
Home energy assessments can be a good first step to find out how much energy your home consumes, while evaluating measures to make your home more energy efficient, says Andy Gostisha, a program manager with Focus on Energy. “Usually, there is a lot of room for improvement,” he says.
In my case, I was losing the most heat through a thinly-insulated roof, plus through drafty doorways that badly needed sealing.
There were other problems, too. My 20-year-old electric water heater wasn’t exactly efficient, my bathroom exhaust fan wasn’t vented properly, and my furnace, while on the new side, didn’t have a programmable thermostat. No wonder my energy bills were so high.
After my home was initially assessed, we got busy. First, we tackled the biggest energy suckers. A team came through to add insulation in my attic and to seal gaps around doorways. My income level qualified me for a low-cost water heater replacement. A technician installed a new thermostat for my furnace, then taught me how to program it to automatically turn down the heat while my family sleeps or when we’re away at work and school. A new bathroom fan was installed and programmed to circulate the air twice each day, cutting down on bathroom mold and venting humid air to the outside, rather than just into the attic.
And yes, I did indeed get a bunch of new light bulbs.
From start to finish, my home’s energy transformation took about three months, but the payoff was immediate and continues to pay dividends. My highest utility bill last winter was around $250—that’s $200 less than I was accustomed to paying before.
Having an energy assessment and following up on at least some of the recommendations can save homeowners 20% to 40% on their annual utility bills, according to energy experts. Beyond the cost savings, you’re also reducing your carbon footprint and at the same time making your home more comfortable.
In general, the older a home is, the more likely it is to benefit from an audit and the associated improvements. Before 1950, many homes were built with no wall insulation at all, says Corey Sillars, a Wausau-based builder.
“Sometimes people used sawdust or newspaper in the walls,” Sillars says. “One of the things you can do to fix that is to drill holes from the exterior when upgrading siding and blow insulation in.”
Then there’s the style of the home to consider. Cape Cods, tri-level homes and houses built with living spaces above an attached garage tend to have higher utility bills thanks to a less efficient design, energy experts say. Assessments can pinpoint the problems in those types of homes, as well as in homes where the fuel bills seem unusually high for no obvious reason.
Even newly constructed homes often have room for better conservation, Sillars says.
Energy-saving technology has evolved rapidly over the past few years, outpacing the typical training available to many builders, including some of the most reputable.
So, whether you live in an old Victorian or are building a new home, there are likely improvements to make if you look for them.
The program I participated in t has since been discontinued, but other, newer programs for homeowners of all income levels are available.
In Marathon County, some families can get free weatherization assistance through the North Central Community Action Program. Both homeowners and renters can apply by contacting Energy Services of Marathon County, says Lori Napstad, a program director for the agency.
Income restrictions apply but they are fairly broad: For example, a family of four with a total household income of less than $4,195 per month is potentially eligible. Energy Services also provides energy assistance payments to more than 211,000 households annually, helping struggling families cope with rising fuel prices. Energy Services has already begun taking applications for the upcoming cold weather season.
“Basically, people apply through our agency to see if they meet the criteria,” Napstad says. “If they do, many times they also qualify for a one-time payment to help offset their utility bill. So, they get immediate help, and can reduce their expenses down the road, sometimes significantly.”
Statewide, the weatherization program operates using a combination of federal and state funding and provides services to more than 6,000 households each year. Among the potential improvements applicants can receive:
• Insulation added to attics, walls and crawlspaces
• Air leaks and cracks in the home’s structure can be sealed or repaired
• Inefficient furnaces repaired or replaced
• Old refrigerators or freezers replaced at no charge in some cases.
Any assessment is worth the investment
Even for homeowners who don’t qualify for a low-cost or free energy assessment, having one performed can yield potential benefits that are well worth the investment, says Kate Wesselink, senior program manager with Focus on Energy, a statewide energy efficiency and renewable resource program.
The agency since 2001 has been working with residents and businesses to install cost-effective energy efficiency projects, including Home Performance with Energy Star, a program that includes assessments and incentives to complete the energy improvements.
To sign up, homeowners can search for an approved “energy trade ally” on the Focus on Energy website. Though any contractor can be used, those listed as an ally are trained and certified to perform a whole-home assessment that aligns with the Home Performance program. Assessment fees range anywhere from $100 to $400, unless the homeowner qualifies for an income-based subsidy, which typically reduces the charge to about $50.
One thing to keep in mind: To qualify for a subsidy, which also increases the cash back incentive, participants must apply on the Focus on Energy website before the assessment is scheduled, Wesselink says.
A typical home assessment takes about three hours, depending on the size of the home and the issues involved. Typically, the contractor—sometimes called “home comfort advisors”—will bring a load of testing equipment, including a blower door to measure the amount of air leakage. An infrared camera can check for missing insulation or gaps and can show you in real time where heat is being lost. A combustion analyzer checks how well a furnace is performing. The auditor also will measure the efficiency of major appliances in the home and check the piping for gas leaks. They’ll usually need access to the attic, so be sure to remove any personal items (or junk) that might be in the way.
Information from the assessment is entered into a software program that comes up with projected energy savings for each recommended improvement. About a week later, homeowners receive a written report about the results along with a list of recommended actions. Contractors then help choose projects that match the homeowner’s goals and budget.
Weatherization options with Focus on Energy aren’t free, but depending on income you could qualify for financial “cash back” incentives on insulation, and heating and cooling equipment. Cash back amounts range from $100 to $2,500, depending on the amount of energy reduction projected.
After the work is completed, the same contractor who performed the assessment will run through a final inspection and complete the paperwork necessary to receive the incentive check. There is no charge for the follow-up visit.
For some homeowners, even swapping out old appliances may be enough. According to the Department of Energy, replacing that old, in-room air conditioner for one with a high energy efficiency rating can cut your A/C energy costs in half.
Other homes might need more extensive renovations. Regardless of the upgrades necessary, a professional assessment saves guesswork and ensures you actually spend your money on the improvements your home needs, Wesselink says.
“You want to be sure you’re not exchanging one problem for another,” she says.
With the heating season creeping ever closer, now is a good time to schedule an assessment so work can be completed before winter.
“It’s amazing how a small investment can pay off over time,” Wesselink says. “People are pretty excited when they see the results.”
Do-it-yourself energy assessments
While a professional home energy assessment is usually the best way to find where your home is losing energy (and how you can save), you can conduct your own simple audit to spot problems. When walking through your home, keep a checklist of areas you inspect and problems you find to help you prioritize any energy efficiency upgrades.
Locate air leaks: First make a list of obvious air leaks (drafts). The potential energy savings from reducing drafts can range from 5% to 30% per year, and the home is generally much more comfortable afterward. Consider: A tiny 1/8-inch gap around a door is the equivalent of a 5-inch hole in the wall! Check for gaps along the baseboard or edge of the flooring and at junctures of the walls and ceiling. Also check for leaks on the outside of your home, especially where two different building materials meet. Other places to check include windows, doors, lighting and plumbing fixtures, switches, and electrical outlets. Also check for open fireplace dampers.
Check insulation: Heat loss through a ceiling could be substantial if the insulation level is less than the recommended minimum. Builder recommendations have changed, so older homes are more likely to have inadequate insulation. If the attic hatch is above a conditioned space, check that it’s at least as insulated as the attic, is weather stripped, and closes tightly. In the attic, determine whether openings for pipes, ductwork, and chimneys are sealed. Seal any gaps with an expanding foam caulk or other permanent sealant. (Use non-combustible sealant around chimneys or other heat producing devices.
Inspect heating, cooling, dehumidifying equipment annually: If you have a forced-air furnace, check filters and replace them as needed. Generally, change them once every month or two, especially during high usage. Have a professional check and clean your equipment once a year. Even the filter of a dehumidifier—which can cost $5 to $30 a month to run—needs to be changed regularly.
Replace inefficient light bulbs: Lighting accounts for 10% of a typical electric bill, so energy-saving incandescent bulbs, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) or light-emitting diodes (LEDs) make a huge difference. Sensors, dimmers or timers also reduce energy consumption. Another thing about light bulbs: Lamps near the thermostat cause the air conditioner to run longer than necessary because the thermostat senses the heat.
Check appliances and electronics: How you use them greatly impacts energy costs. Unplug items when not in use to prevent “phantom loads.” Change settings when applicable or consider replacing an appliance more than 10 years old. Leaving a computer on all day costs about 21¢ per day, or $79 per year! Unplug electronics and appliances when not in use—a task made easier with an outlet strip, which turns everything off with the flip of a switch.
Check the thermostat: The largest portion of utility bills are for heating and cooling, and a programmable thermostat can save 10% to 30% on those costs. Program it to warm or cool your home when you’re actually there, and awake. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends turning the heat setting down by about 10° each night. Another tip: If you use air conditioning, a ceiling fan allows you to raise the thermostat setting about 4° with no reduction in comfort. Just make sure to turn it off when you leave the room. Fans cool people, not rooms.
Invest in thermal curtains and drapes: Drafty windows are expensive to replace. Instead, consider insulated curtains, which consist of four layers: a core layer of foam that insulates windows from heat and sound; a vapor barrier; a reflective film that deflects heat back into the room; and an outer layer of decorative fabric. Together these layers protect homes from heat loss around drafty windows, as well as keeping the heat outside during summer.