How To Perform Your Own Energy Star Appraisal

home energy audit guide

The Benefits of a Home Energy Evaluation

Health, safety, money and satisfaction rank high on any person’s list of priorities whether they own or rent their dwelling place. Your home represents an important factor in anyone’s quest for a quality life, and that makes it important to know about your home’s energy efficiency.

A residential energy audit holds the power to enhance your quality of life, save you money and create better safety with a well-functioning home. Shipley Energy Home Services offers answers about how to do an energy audit and why it’s more beneficial than most people probably realize.

So what is a home energy assessment? Basically, it’s a review of your living space to evaluate its efficiency. Whether you evaluate it yourself or have a professional do the work, you will gain valuable information you can use for more than one purpose.

The federal government’s Energy Star website breaks down the costs of running a home:

  • Heating 29%
  • Cooling 17%
  • Hot water 14%
  • Appliances 13%
  • Lighting 12%
  • Electronics 4%
  • Other 11%

Energy costs run high and aren’t getting any less expensive, but unlike a mortgage or rent payment, they can be controlled to a certain extent. The annual, average cost for energy in a typical home is about $2,200, varying with structure and age as well as the number of people in a household. When you conduct a home energy audit, it provides a number of residual benefits besides the cost savings:

1. Ensures safety with a thorough inspection of all important parts
2. Creates a more comfortable space
3. Makes everyone in the house more environmentally aware 
4. Reduces a home’s carbon footprint
5. Prevents small imperfections from becoming big problems

What is Energy Star?

Energy Star is a certification that means the technology is as efficient as it can be. Congress established the Department of Energy, which founded the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA created the Energy Star program in 1992 as a means to reduce energy consumption, increase energy security, and make less pollution. The Energy Star program standards apply to just about anything consumers and overall businesses entail that use energy, such as the following:

  • Homes
  • Buildings
  • Factory assembly lines
  • Large and small appliances
  • Computers, tablets, phones and other electronics
  • TVs and home entertainment items
  • Light bulbs
  • Water heaters
  • Furnaces
  • Heat pumps
  • Vent and ceiling fans.

Energy Star is a voluntary designation and/or certification designed to help everyone use less energy. Even before the dawn of the program, there were parents who’d say in a loud voice, “Hey, shut the door – we’re not paying to heat (or cool) the outdoors.” As people grow up and get their own places, they look at their electric bill and understand why mom and dad used to fuss about open doors and lights left on in unused rooms.

Energy Star addresses shrinking resources and rising costs. For example, a clothes washer with the Energy Star label will use about 70% less power and 75% less water than a washer made 20 years ago.

Determine your home energy efficiency rating

You can conduct a DIY home energy audit or have a professional come to do the work for you.

Many people prefer to have an expert come and analyze their home, if for no other reason because they have no time and lack the technology and energy audit tools to do a thorough job. Because heating and cooling are the biggest energy expenses related to a home, you or a professional will check thoroughly for outside air that’s coming in or inside air that’s leaking out.

air leaks

The U.S. Department of Energy says stopping leaks not only creates more comfort, but it can also mean saving 5-30% on energy bills. Leaks happen in many predictable ways, such as a broken or cracked window, as well as in many unexpected ways:

  • Door hardware that doesn’t fit right
  • Door or window seals with pieces missing or that are old and dry
  • Around window-unit air conditioners
  • Air ducts
  • Where pipes enter the house
  • Electrical outlets and light-switch plates
  • Baseboards
  • Attic-access doors
  • Basement-access doors
  • Mail slots
  • Pet doors
  • Bathroom exhaust fans
  • Kitchen ventilation hoods
  • Skylights
  • Foundations

There are a few ways to detect moving air:

  1. Light a stick of incense and carry it from room to room watching the smoke
  2. Carry around a burning candle and watch the flame for movement
  3. Feel around with a damp hand to detect air

While people may prefer to do the assessment themselves, it’s worth considering that the experts know exactly how and what to watch, are intimately familiar with the rapidly changing technology and have the energy audit tools to do it efficiently.

They’re capable of doing the most thorough evaluation using thermographic tools to literally see video and photos of where you can’t look to pinpoint the places in which your home is too hot, overly cool or may be leaking air. An expert inspector may use a radiometer or thermal line scanner, but the most efficient is a thermal-imaging camera that produces a two-dimensional image of warm and cold air.

Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to remove curtains and shift furniture away from the walls. Those efforts only help to get a more accurate impression of what is happening within your home. Generally, it’s best to have a home-energy efficiency audit done during winter in cold climates and during summer in warm climates.

Check around the outside of your home as well, especially where things come together like the walls to the foundation, the chimney to the roof, and doors and windows to the walls. Look at the places where utility wires or plumbing fixtures enter the home. Do you see daylight where you should not? Check siding and other exterior materials for holes and gaps that may need to be plugged, covered or repaired.

You or your preferred professional may do a pressurization test in which you switch on all the implements that suck air out of the house and turn off all the combustible utilities that might generate or require air like a fireplace, water heater or gas furnace. These steps will help make true leaks more apparent.

If you do it yourself, keep a list of things you checked and what you found. This record naturally forms a to-do list so you can remember where you need to caulk, add weather stripping or get more insulation. For example, if you discover that cold air gets in through your light switches or outlets, you can stop the flow with insulation pads to go underneath them or with plastic pieces that plug into empty outlet holes.

Enter the Attic and Basement Space

This step of a home energy audit is sometimes enough reason to let a professional do the work, since not many people enjoy crawling around dark and dusty spaces. Unless your home is fewer than two years old, it is likely you’ll find things in both spaces that could be more efficient. You can also think of the attic and basement inspection as an insulation audit.

poor insulation

Poor or inadequate insulation causes energy loss. Once you’re in the attic, you’ll be able to see some of what’s in the walls, if pipes are insulated, if ductwork is wrapped and if your home has a vapor barrier. A vapor barrier is usually a plastic or tar-paper product that seals out moisture. If your home doesn’t have one, there are interior paints that help do the same basic job. Moisture is an enemy to your home because it will degrade insulation and can cause wood and other materials to deteriorate.

You might discover that your attic floor or electrical boxes have no insulation and therefore allow cold or hot air in or out. One place there should not be insulation in a home is on its attic vents, which should be neither fully nor partially blocked.

In an unconditioned basement, you’d want to check for insulation underneath the living areas of the home. A lack of insulation under those floors allows heated or cooled air to escape from the spaces where you want it be, and your floor will feel colder in the winter. The EPA advises against placing a moisture/vapor barrier on the exterior of a below-grade wall because it traps moisture that can cause problems. The agency says it’s possible to insulate around the inside wall of a basement but only with a material of the correct permeability.

If you can’t clearly see the wall insulation from your attic or basement, you can check it from inside the home. Follow the correct steps to ensure your safety:

  • Turn off the electricity in the room where you’ll conduct the test.
  • Pick an outlet or switch plate to remove.
  • Use a long implement like a crochet or knitting needle or part of a coat hanger to reach into the outlet a few inches.
  • Pull a bit out so you can what kind it is.

The type of insulation you need depends on where in the country you live, exactly what you’re insulating and where you’re placing it. You’ll need a different type in the attic than in the basement, and there are various kinds made especially for wrapping around pipes, water heaters, ducts or an electrical box.

Consult a Shipley Energy professional to learn more about the R value of insulation, usually expressed as R plus a numeral. Generally, the higher the R number the more effective the insulation will be. Insulation has come a long way from the days when people stuffed paper into the wall, and it is made of many materials:

  • Foam
  • Fiberglass
  • Mineral wool
  • Cellulose
  • Foil
  • Plastic
  • Rock slag
  • Polystyrene
  • Polyurethane

As you perform an insulation audit, stay alert for discolored, damp or wet places that could indicate a leak in the roof or wall. You’ll want to figure out why it is not in good condition, which can be due to age or household pest activity as well as moisture. If you think your home contains asbestos insulation, stay safe by letting a professional manage the process.

While use of asbestos was banned in 1977, the material was often used in homes built between 1930 and 1950, as well as structures built before that time. The mere presence of the material is not in itself hazardous, but it becomes a health hazard if it’s damaged or disturbed and becomes fibrous.

Consider, Plan and Budget for Best Practices

Once you’ve checked thoroughly for air leaks and inspected your home’s insulation, turn attention to the elements that heat, cool and light your home to further boost energy savings. Keep in mind some general guidelines for efficiency:

  • Replace an air conditioning unit or furnace that’s more than 15 years old.
  • Change the filter in either utility at least every two months.
  • Inspect your ductwork once a year and clean if needed.
  • Switch to more efficient bulbs such as compact-florescent (CFL) or light-emitting diode (LED).
  • Replace old appliances with Energy Star-rated items.
  • Install weather stripping and caulk to plug air leaks.
  • Upgrade your windows or cover them for the winter with inexpensive, clear film.
  • Place a threshold sweep at the bottom of doors connected to the outside.
  • Put tubular bags filled with sand or beans across the length of windowsills during cold weather.
  • Hang heavy drapes over drafty windows.
  • Remove window-unit air conditioners during winter weather.
  • Cover pipes and water heaters in any non-insulated areas.
  • Install a programmable thermostat that automatically adjusts indoor temps while you’re away and sleeping.

You can save a bit of energy just by unplugging things that are not in use. Phone and other electronics chargers, lights and lamps, toasters, coffee makers and other household items draw energy when they’re plugged into the wall. These are often called ghost or phantom loads but cause an unnecessary drain on your energy and wallet.

sleep mode

The same basic principle applies to computers, video-game consoles and TVs. Instead of leaving it to enter sleep mode, turn it off if you’re leaving for more than two hours. Some people find it easier to plug items into a power strip they can switch off. Over a year’s time, this best practice with just one electronic can save you as much as $100. If your child can’t seem make it happen, tell them they can earn two additional video games for the same cost by getting into the habit of saving power.

Everybody likes to save money and be more comfortable, which is the main motivation for conducting a professional or DIY home energy audit. People also feel positive about reducing their energy usage and generally achieving a greener life by making a smaller carbon footprint and doing their part to reduce overall emissions.

Making a home or business structure as energy efficient as it can be also increases its market-resale value, and an annual inspection helps to find any potential problems before they become an expensive emergency. Whether you bring in an expert or do them yourself, knowing and implementing these home-energy efficiency tips will help reduce your utility bill, gain more comfort and security and create a better overall quality of life.

Learn more about Shipley Energy, everything we offer, and how we can help you save money on home energy bills by exploring the rest of our site!