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Our writer was curious about energy audits, so she invited a professional energy consultant to perform one on her home. Now she has the skills it takes to save energy and money with some simple DIY fixes and routine household upkeep. And so can you!

energy auditA professional energy consultant uses an infrared camera to conduct an energy audit. Photo: Jen Jafarzadeh L'Italien

I'm no stranger to energy efficiency. I'm well-versed in ENERGY STAR appliances and compact fluorescent light bulbs. But I have to be honest: I'd never had an energy audit before. I've read plenty of articles that stated how beneficial it can be to get one performed in your home. But until recently, I was clueless about what an energy audit actually entails or why it's important.

So I hired Sherard Murphy of Pro Energy Consultants and tagged along as he completed an energy audit on my mom's 1940s New Jersey home. I learned that an energy audit is one of the smartest investments you can make in your home. In a nutshell, the energy consultant uses special technologies to uncover building shell problems that typically go undiscovered and unresolved by builders, architects, and insulators. My mom walked away with a boatload of information about how to make her home more energy efficient, which equates to considerable savings in her energy bill and a home that's comfortable in the chilly days of winter and the hot days of summer.

Before sharing the details about the audit, I want to bring up a key point that I learned through this process. Not all energy audits are going to be the same. One consultant may suggest changes that total about $4,000, while another may suggest a few hundred dollars' worth in fixes for the same space. Some energy consultants will push certain brands and fixes to your home that you may not necessarily need. It's important ro choose an independent energy consultant who's not affiliated with a company. An independent consultant, like Pro Energy Consultants, will likely cost a little more (about $360 for an energy audit), but it's worth it because you're getting a thorough, unbiased assessment of your house. Imagine you hire an energy consultant who's associated with a window company, for instance. You're likely to hear that you need new windows.

The energy auditor's tool box. Photo: Jen Jafarzadeh L'Italien

Also, be wary of any energy consultant who walks in with just a clipboard and a pen. An energy audit is a scientific process that requires many specialty tools (see the tool box above) and a clear understanding of the science of a home. With Sherard of Pro Energy Consultants, we didn't feel pressured to buy anything; he just made suggestions that made sense.

Of course, once you hire someone to do an energy audit once, you can perform your own energy audits in the future. A professional's toolkit contains a lot more sophisticated equipment than you might care to (or be able to afford to) buy. For instance, many professionals use infrared cameras to locate air leaks (the cameras are able to detect changes in air temperature). But you can improvise with more basic tools (for instance, use an incense stick instead of a high-tech smoke stick). The U.S. Department of Energy offers this guide to DIY energy audits.

Now, back to our professional energy audit. Here's what I learned:

1. Newer is Not Always Better
Case in point: My mom's house has its original single-pane wood-frame windows with storm windows on the outside. Sherard noted that her windows work really well; there's no immediate need to switch them out for newer energy-efficient models. Also, the existing radiators were designed to sit right under the windows, and Sherard pointed out that this was a smart design. This way, the radiator breaks up the convection current from the window and eliminates a draft.

sump pumpCovering the sump pump is a cheap, effective way to curb basement moisture. Photo: Jen Jafarzadeh L'Italien

2. Cover the Pump
My mom's sump pump needed a cover (which costs about $12. Easy!). The open sump pump was increasing the humidity in her basement storage room. It let the moisture seep into the rest of the basement. And the last thing a basement needs is more moisture!

Holes in the ceiling insulation are best filled with spray foam. Photo: Jen Jafarzadeh L'Italien

3. Spray Foam to the Rescue
By far, the most common fix that Sherard suggested through the audit was to seal up energy leaks. In the basement, holes in the ceiling insulation and an used leaky window were in dire need of sealing. Sherard suggested using spray foam. He also found drafts behind most of the electrical outlets, and suggested caulking around the outlets.

4. Big Leaks Overhead
We found out that my mom's attic is the site of one of the home's biggest energy leaks. The attic hatch has been allowing hot air from the attic to seep into the second floor of the house during the summer; likewise cold air during the winter. Sherard suggested placing an airtight attic tent above the pull-down attic stairs to provide a thermal and air seal between the attic and the second floor. Whenever she wants to go in the attic, she'll simply unzip the tent.

5. Blower Doors and Smoke Sticks
One of the biggest parts of the energy audit was creating a blower door. Sherard installed a parachute-style door in one of my mom's doorways, with a big blower fan in the bottom of the door to simulate actual wind. Then we closed every window and door in the house and turned the fan on. The blower door helped show Sherard the dynamics of the entire building envelope, and highlight where there were drafts and energy leaks. Sherard also used a smoke stick, which emits a visible, non-toxic smoke to help you detect drafts coming through doorways, windows, outlets, recessed lights, and so on. It's pretty cool to actually see your energy leaks! (Use a powerful floor fan and an incense stick to perform your own blower door test).

The energy efficiency pro used a smoke stick to detect leaks around the basement window. Photo: Jen Jafarzadeh L'Italien

All in all, my mom's house fared pretty well in the energy audit. And we learned so much about the way a house works through Sherard's assessment. And it was so easy to follow Sherard's suggestions. Fixing the house's energy leaks required one stop to The Home Depot to pick up an attic tent, sump pump cover, chimney balloon, and loads of spray foam.

And we're already feeling the difference. Typically, I need to wear a fleece jacket inside my mom's house once the temperature drops. No longer. Post-energy audit, my mom's home feels so much more comfortable. And when she receives her next heat and electrical bills, I'm sure she'll feel even better.


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