Welcome to the Home Energy Audit Center. We know you want energy efficiency in your home but you also have questions. Search our Green Directory to find pre-vetted energy audit providers in your area. Then read the articles below to learn more on energy efficiency and home energy audits.
Leaving cracks and crevices for air to leak in and out of your home can make life feel drafty and uncomfortable. It can allow moisture-laden air to sneak inside, increasing the likelihood of condensation, mold, and rot. It can swell your energy demand, adding 20% to your bill for heating and cooling. To avoid this fate, prepare your house for winter and other sorts of inclement weather. In other words, weatherize!
Some people worry that a tighter house means poor indoor air quality. While it’s true a healthy home needs fresh air, it’s important to be able to control when and where that outdoor air enters and indoor air leaves.
Many older homes are extremely leaky, and even newer homes often aren’t airtight. You may be aware of drafty spots around doors and windows, but air is likely escaping in other places, too. Here’s where the air leaks out in most of our homes:
If you’re a handy do-it-yourselfer, you can probably do the more obvious air sealing and weatherization work yourself, but it may take a pro to get at some of the less accessible spots. If you are thinking the DIY approach, be sure to check out the helpful videos at the bottom of this article from our friends at Green Dream Group in Chicago who do energy audits and weatherization work.
Editor’s Note: October is National Energy Awareness Month. Take a look at your home’s energy use and how you can take advantage of incentives for efficiency.
You may have gotten the mailers or seen some items in stores marked “Eligible for the Energy Efficiency Tax Credit!” Maybe you bought that new storm door, window, or even the entire energy-efficient heating and cooling system qualified for the credit. Then, if you noted it on your federal income tax return, you got some money back—the government’s way of thanking you for doing the right thing for your home and the planet.
“The goal overall was to encourage people to make that extra jump to the energy efficient product,” said Thomas Simchak, a senior research associate at the Alliance to Save Energy in Washington, D.C. “If they were going to be installing an air conditioner, [the tax credit was intended to] have a value that would compensate for the price difference for the energy efficient unit.”
Blink and You May Miss It
The federal tax credit for existing homes has been available to homeowners for their primary dwelling—albeit in changing amounts—for most of the last six years. You still have time to get in on the tax incentives, but there are costs to putting off those household improvements. These federal incentives will be gone entirely by the end of 2011. Qualified items must be installed and placed into service before the end of the year to get you money back on your federal tax return.
Even if you upgraded to energy-efficient products, you may be among the many Americans who left money on the table. A survey out this week finds “[m]ost American consumers aren’t at all aware of the tax advantages of upgrading to energy efficient products.” Karl Zellmer, vice president of air conditioning sales at Emerson Climate Technologies, guided a Harris Poll commissioned by the manufacturing company. The poll found that “71 percent of consumers did not take advantage of any rebates, tax holidays, or other incentives” and that 61 percent did not even know these potential money savers existed.
“The survey did show that a majority of folks have gone to [compact] fluorescent bulbs to reduce energy consumption, and that does help,” Zellmer says. “They may do that because of the four or five dollars extra for the cost of the light bulb and they get beat up with that information everywhere they go.”
But when it comes to the details about state, local, and federal incentives, Zellmer says the study clearly shows that consumers are not getting the information they would need to calculate the costs and the paybacks of more-substantial purchases.
Like the weather, the federal government’s home energy efficiency tax incentives have been, well, changeable. The tax credit came in as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 signed by President George W. Bush and began as a 10-percent credit on certain items. It disappeared for a year in 2008. After returning in 2009, it reached its highest level—30 percent—under the Economic Recovery act, signed by President Barack Obama in February 2010. Then, almost before you could grab the low-hanging fruit of the tax credit tree, it was cut back to 10 percent for 2011. This most recent change also came with lower thresholds for rebates and more restrictions; there is now a $500 cap on tax credits a homeowner can use. Blogger Darwin Prince says the smaller tax credit and lower threshold for cash back made the tax credits less attractive to consumers—and less effective overall.
“When the window tax credit was up to $1,500, for instance, that was a substantial tax credit, which rightfully incentivized many homeowners to get around to installing new windows, making their homes more efficient and pumping probably $5,000 to $15,000 into the economy, depending on the extent of their upgrade,” says Prince on his blog Darwin’s Money. “The dual benefit was lower energy consumption into the future while providing manufacturers and installers with much needed revenues.”
At The Door Store, in Glenview, Illinois, where some doors’ prices run into the thousands, the 30-percent tax credit was extremely attractive to buyers. Owner Chris Erickson said, as that year drew to an end, “People were actually offering to pay extra as an incentive to get their door installed before the deadline.” The store did not accept the extra money, however, and could not accommodate all requests.
There is no way to know exactly how many homeowners took advantage of the federal tax credit in its various incarnations. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service does not publish that information. A report by the Government Accounting Office is expected to be published in the near future.
“Anecdotally, talking to contractors and vendors, the home improvement stores and window installers definitely saw this as a big selling point,” says Simchak, senior research associate at the Alliance to Save Energy.
If some merchants say the tax credit helped sales, and consumers who might have taken advantage of the tax credit say they were unaware of them, why not continue or even increase the tax incentives for home energy efficiency? Simchak, who is an energy efficiency advocate, believes the issue got buried.
“I think it’s largely a victim of congressional deadlocks more broadly,” Simchak says. “There is not a lot moving in Congress right now and other items were seen as ‘must pass,’ while the energy tax credits were not.” He adds that, even though they are going away soon, this “may not be the last we’ve heard of these tax credits. [But] we’re not optimistic they’ll be extended before the end of the year.”
Similar tax credits for commercial buildings, however, will remain in effect until 2014.
A Window Closes, a Door Opens
Even if these particular federal tax incentives for home energy efficiency do not come back any time soon, other options remain for capitalizing on your energy efficiency purchases. Similar state initiatives are unaffected by the closing of the federal window at the end of this year. You can check your state’s programs at http://dsireusa.org/.
Emerson Climate Technologies has just unveiled a new smart phone app that allows you to compute the true costs of products by energy use calculated using rates in your area. Zellmer says the new smart phone application will help consumers research purchasing options ahead of time, instead of waiting until the air conditioner stops working on a 90-plus-degree day and running out to buy anything to cool off. His survey found that consumers are aware that heating and cooling are their highest energy costs, but the majority were not willing to spend more for energy efficiency upgrades unless the payback time was relatively short. According to the poll, 67 percent of respondents said they would be willing to invest up to $5,000 in a home energy upgrade, but only if it paid for itself within six months. Only 29 percent of those surveyed said they would be willing to invest that amount if the payback were 10 years.
Now that the sun is setting on this particular tax credit, there will be an opportunity to assess its effects. After all, if a tax incentive is successful, it should go away once the behavior it aims to encourage is widely adopted. Simchak suggests that if a large number of homeowners believe upgrading their homes for energy efficiency is the right thing to do, they will do so, cash back or not.
“These tax credits got a lot of people thinking about energy efficiency, even if they didn’t actually go out there and use the credit,” Simchak. “People started hearing about energy efficiency on the news, and the media picked this up as a way to get yourselves $500 or $1,000. People say, ‘Oh, energy efficiency, yeah, I guess my kitchen door is pretty drafty, and I feel that chill on my feet in the morning, and yes, that does affect my bills, and they have been going up,’ so it gets people thinking that this is important to them.”
For related content on home health, see http://www.sierraclubgreenhome.com/home-health/.
Robbie Harris is a writer, editor and producer in Chicago at Lucid Dream Productions.
© 2011 SCGH, LLC.
Are you thinking about installing solar panels, a wind turbine, or a geothermal heating and cooling system for your home? Do you want to create your own electricity from renewable resources? How do you work with your local utility to set up net metering to sell unused energy back to the grid?
Before starting down the residential renewables path, make sure you are already maximizing your home energy conservation efforts. Review our article 10 Quick Ways to Green Your Home, or check the US Department of Energy site for more ideas.
Once you’ve got your home and behaviors as green as can be, think about your goals for energy production. Do you want to reduce your energy costs? Make money from an abundant natural resource on your property? And how important is the length of the payback period for your investment?
Solar, wind, and geothermal all are free and sustainable resources, but the initial residential installation costs are higher than conventional electrical or heating and cooling systems. Solar and wind also are variable resources, meaning that they are not available 24/7—so the energy produced must be used, stored, or sold back to a utility. In contrast, geothermal is a steady resource but must be tapped through pipes installed deep within the ground. (See our stories on solar and wind or geothermal for more information.)
Four steps to becoming a renewable energy resident
Call your local utility to understand which renewable options and resources are available in your area. According to a workshop co-sponsored by Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development (NW SEED) and Puget Sound Energy, homeowners can take four steps to become part of the local energy movement:
Step 1: Assess needs. Determine how much energy you currently use and estimate costs to install solar panels, a small wind turbine, or a geothermal pump.
Certain states and regions offer energy production incentives for every kilowatt-hour (kWh) produced with wind and solar as well as tax exemptions for systems less than one kW in size. The federal government also is offering until the year 2016 a 30-percent tax credit for the installed cost of small wind systems and geothermal pumps. Your state energy office or local utility may offer rebates for renewable energy systems as well. (For more information on state incentives, see the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency .)
Step 2: Evaluate feasibility. Consider your site and think about the feasibility of a renewable energy installation.
For solar, consider the typical weather patterns in your region, your home’s orientation to the sun, available space on the roof, and whether the roof is shaded by trees.
For wind, evaluate the wind speed on your property, by using a professional service or by viewing wind maps of your region. Small wind turbines usually are suitable only for residents with more than one acre of land and a Class 3 or greater wind. Wind turbulence from buildings can be a deterrent, and towers need to be at least 60 feet high, often more. Urban dwellers, especially, must consider their city’s building parameters, including height restrictions, as well as neighborhood covenants that may preclude residents from modifying their home’s exterior.
For geothermal, consider your property size, landscaping, and access. In a small lot, a contractor will need to use a drill rig to create bore holes up to 400 feet deep to install vertical pipes. A less expensive alternative called a horizontal loop system often is used in rural settings. Flexible pipe is laid in coils in shallow trenches below the frost line. For retrofits, also consider the system that the geothermal heat pump is replacing. Using existing ductwork will reduce costs.
Step 3: Get a contractor and permits. Find reputable solar, wind, or geothermal contractors in your area and discuss your goals and site. Compare bids and make a selection based on which solution will best meet your goals. Once you have selected a contractor and signed a contract, you or your installer will need to apply for an electrical permit and building permit, if applicable. If you are planning to generate energy from solar or wind, your utility or contractor also will add a DC-to-AC power inverter near your existing utility billing meter. This inverter is critical to converting the energy produced by your solar panels or turbine into a form that matches the grid. (Geothermal pumps are used only for heating and cooling the home and not for energy production.)
For wind and solar, you also will need to contact your utility to understand and apply for an interconnection agreement. While it varies by utility and state, this process may include installing a production meter in conjunction with the solar or wind installation. The production meter keeps track of energy that you do not use to power your home and can sell back to the grid. Some utilities reverse the meter for the energy sold back; others cut an annual check and send it to participating residents.
Step 4: Follow up with tax credits and maintenance. Once your system is installed, you can apply for your state’s renewable energy system certification for a state production credit as well as applicable federal tax credits. You also will need to maintain your system per installer guidelines and monitor production to help make sure that it keeps working over the lifetime of the system.
Congratulations! You’ve taken the first steps toward joining the local energy movement.
Debbie Van Der Hyde is an experienced freelance writer with a strong interest in sustainability, clean energy, and the green economy.
© 2011 SCGH, LLC. All rights reserved.
Definitely not your uncle’s Winnebago! And being green with envy isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when talking about environmental-friendly mobile homes. Luxury or comfort aren’t the words that come to mind either, but words like cramped, or small, or automotive usually don’t instill satisfaction inside the hearts of potential residents who’re use to a home that can’t get up and drive off But “green” is exactly what Michael Berk, F.L. Crane Endowed Professor of Architecture at Mississippi State, wants mobile homes to be. Tossing traditional thinking about the structures of mobile homes, into the metaphorical “recycling bin”, is exactly what Berk plans to do.
Working in the Carl Small Town Center, which is a part of MSU’s College of Architecture, Art & Design, Berk created an award-winning, factory-built unit he calls the GreenMobile. Unlike other lower-end housing, Berk applies sound construction methods, as well as energy-saving concepts for lower utility costs. The GreenMobile design meets all International Residential codes for structurally sound foundations, insulation, promotes the use of energy-efficient appliances, and creates interior spaces that are better suited for natural-day lighting and ventilation. It also includes an option to install solar photo-voltaic systems, which convert energy from the sun into electricity.
Energy savings from the home make it a smart choice for people looking for affordable housing and lower utility costs. “It potentially could make money at the end of the month,” Berk said.
Energy isn’t the only thing that separates the GreenMobile from traditional mobile homes. Berk says that his next generation mobile home will actually appreciate in value, unlike current mobile homes that depreciate shortly after being bought. Given the potential to accrue value and the fact that they’re designed to last longer than traditional mobile homes, GreenMobiles could be financed through low-interest loans from lending institutions such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They’re expected to cost in the $50,000 range.
The i-House is a next generation, green manufactured home. It’s from Clayton Homes, who have been building mobile homes for over 70 years (They were bought by Warren Buffet in 2003). It will sell for about $100,000, which puts it above trailer park homes but below regular houses. Clayton homes can be configured in seven different ways and includes eco-friendly and energy-saving features like low-e windows, dual-flash toilets, butterfly style rainwater-collecting roofs, tight insulation, zero-VOC paint, and more. Other amenities include IKEA fixtures, bamboo flooring, recycled content decking material, and Japanese-style climate control in each room. The i-house also features a large open kitchen and living room with contemporary cabinets and high efficiency appliances.
The layout of the long main “core” of the house and a separate box-shaped guestroom/office “flex room” resemble the letter “i” and it’s dot. Yet Clayton CEO and President Kevin Clayton said their “i-house” stands for more than it’s carbon footprint.
With a nod to the iPod and iPhone, Clayton said, “We love what it represents. We are fans of Apple and all that they have done. But the “i” stands for innovation, inspiration, intelligence, and integration.” And shattering those mobile home stereo-types is a good thing, he said. “I think the “i-house” is just more proof that the industry is capable of delivering homes that are highly customizable at an affordable price.”
The “i-house’s” metal, v-shaped roof, which has been inspired by a gas-station awning, combines design with function. The roof provides a rain water catchment system for recycling, supports flush-mounted solar panels and vaults interior ceilings at each end to 10 ½ feet for an added feeling of openness. The Energy Star-rated design features heavy insulation, six-inch thick exterior walls, cement board and corrugated metal siding, energy efficient appliances, and tankless water heater.
As more and more Americans struggle to find affordable ways to travel, the attention turned to recreational vehicles. But can eco-minded travelers reduce their carbon footprint(or tire tracks) when driving these behemoths? The good news is that the RV industry is adjusting to the demands of a more environmentally conscious public. These vehicles are offering more efficient fuel usage and improved design while providing spacious accommodations that can fit realistic budgets.
Most modern mobile RVs today use fuel-efficient diesel engines that get about 15 miles per gallon as opposed to the industry standard of 8-10 miles per gallon. Manufactures are also building RVs with lighter composites(similar to the material found in golf balls), experimenting with new design, combating wind resistance by making sleeker front ends that improve overall fuel efficiency, changing the look of trailers to a more European design, with an aerodynamic front that conserves energy.
Innovations hitting the RV world include units powered by solar and wind turbines, which generate electricity, power gourmet kitchens, full bathrooms, and home enter-tainment centers. According to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, a coalition of nearly 500 manufacturers, suppliers, and dealers of recreational vehicles, up to 20 percent of RVers use solar panels to power on-board systems. Meanwhile, manufacturers like Winnebago and Fleetwood are introducing newer, hybrid models that are incorporating diesel engines and batteries. Like hybrid cars, these RVs rely on battery power for city and slower driving, and both the battery and diesel engine at higher speeds(which charges the battery at the same time). This means that a hybrid vehicle can travel up to 700 miles without refueling, using approximately 12 miles per gallon.
In a recent independent study by the Department of the Environment in Britain showed that, on average, RVs released 4.58 pounds of CO2 per mile verses 1.39 pounds per mile for an average car.
RVs reduce our carbon footprint through conservation and efficiency. According to PKF Consulting, a research firm specializing in travel and tourism, families of four taking RV vacations generate less carbon dioxide than families traveling on a plane, renting a car and staying in a hotel. This study analyzed the CO2 emissions of vacations varying in length, and included car/folding camping trailer, SUV/travel trailer, Type C motor home, and Type A motor home(diesel). Using the carbon calculator methodology developed by Conservation International, an organization promoting biodiversity conservation. PKF found that in each case, RV vacations had a softer environmental impact than the typical airline/rental car/hotel vacation.
Times are tough, there’s no doubt about it. We’re facing a convergence of multiple crises, from a warming planet to dwindling fossil fuel reserves to a stumbling economy. Reducing our energy consumption won’t make all these problems disappear overnight, but it can make a big difference.
The key is to take action now. To fire you up, we’ve put together a list of some of our favorite energy-saving tips, starting with ones that won’t cost you a penny.
By: Paul W. Roberts
Energy use of a typical U.S. home. Chart Source: Energystar.gov.
Awareness and Action
In our efforts to move towards a more sustainable society, how do we affect the day-to-day habits of individuals to make a difference? Invoke the “double A” principle – increased awareness leads to increased action.
While debates rage about which energy inputs should fuel the future of our great consumption engine, we should also explore innovative ways that we can do more with less. I’m not suggesting suffering or dramatic life style changes, but shifting our focus to tighter buildings, enlightened buying decisions, and the wise use of the things we have. Where do we start?
Story and photo by E.Q. Lam
July 5, 2011
SAN FRANCISCO — Cargo containers—those giant, steel, rectangular boxes most often seen hitching a ride on a train, truck, or ship—hold a myriad of industrial goods. But now the shipping container itself is a house. Cargotecture is a modular home that is portable, off the grid, and made of recycled materials. HyBrid Architecture | Assembly designs sustainable living spaces in cargo containers and coined the term “cargotecture” to describe these novel structures.
“You can essentially press a button and order a house shipped to you—within eight weeks,” said Joel Egan, principal architect at HyBrid.
HyBrid showed off its c192 Nomad model home at the recent Pacific Coast Builders Conference in San Francisco. The Nomad can last 400 years, Egan said. The firm focuses on maximizing the efficiency of the cargo container space. The Nomad dwelling spans eight feet wide, 192 square feet in all, and the price for its design and manufacture starts at $59,500. Customized options include solar panels, composting toilets, water collection decks, and additional doors.
“This represents the beginning of a system that we’re offering,” Egan said. “It’s sort of predesigned, but it allows different containers, different sizes—homes and offices—to plug into each other, to stack essentially like Legos [sic] any way the client wants to do it.”
Are your home energy bills getting out of hand? Does your house feel drafty even when you crank up the heat? Have you been dragging your feet on giving your house an energy-efficiency tune-up because you don’t know where to start?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, you might want to hire a professional home-energy auditor.
Home energy auditors come to your home and identify where energy is being wasted. If you follow through on the recommendations from the home energy audit, you may be able to reduce your energy costs by as much as 20% to 30%, especially if your house is older and hasn’t been retrofitted for energy efficiency.
Energy auditors are similar to home performance contractors—in fact, some companies provide both types of services. But energy auditors focus specifically on saving energy. Home performance contractors look at other issues as well, such as saving water and improving indoor air quality.
A home energy audit makes sense for every type of home: apartments, condos, single-family houses, multifamily buildings. But if you don’t own your home, be aware that many of the auditor’s recommendations may be for improvements that only a building owner can make, like upgrading heating or cooling equipment or adding more insulation.
If you’re a diligent do-it-yourselfer, you can conduct your own home energy audit with guidance from online checklists or utility company brochures. But unless you have considerable expertise, you may miss out on savings opportunities. It’s also unlikely that you’ll want to invest in the expensive, specialized diagnostic tools that many professional auditors use to pinpoint where your home is losing energy.
When shopping around for a home energy auditor, look for companies that provide unbiased advice based on sound building science and economics. Start by looking in our directory!
Before signing a contract, do your homework to make sure the company is reputable (for tips, see our article on hiring a contractor). Be cautious about companies that offer free or very low-cost energy audits; their primary goal may be to sell expensive repairs and products. While many of these companies are above board, some use the free audit as a tactic to pressure you into paying for repair work that may be overpriced or unnecessary. Replacing windows, for example, rarely makes sense from an energy-savings standpoint.
Many companies only do home energy audits, not any associated remediation work. The cost of a basic home energy audit generally ranges from $200 to $500.
Companies provide different levels of home energy assessments, so when comparing fees, make sure you understand what you’ll be getting. You’ll also want to verify that the audit will include a “blower door test” and “infrared thermography.” These two diagnostic procedures, described below, are key to pinpointing where your home is losing energy.
Once you’ve signed a contract, your energy auditing company will send someone out to do a top-to-bottom visual inspection of the whole house, including the attic and basement. This auditor will look at the building components and systems that affect energy use, such as ducts, windows and doors, insulation levels, and heating and cooling equipment. Be sure to be home during the audit so you can ask questions and point out areas of particular concern, like condensation on windows or drafts in certain rooms.
If your auditor conducts a blower door test, he or she will probably install a large fan (set within a door-sized panel) into one of your home’s exterior doorways. When the fan is turned on, it will suck air out of the building. By measuring the rate of air flow, the auditor can determine how leaky the house is.
To find the source of the air leaks, the auditor can walk around the house with a smoke plume (such as from an incense stick) to see where air is being drawn in from the outside. The auditor’s report will include recommendations on how to remedy those air leaks.
Many energy auditors also used an infrared camera to conduct a thermographic inspection of walls, ceilings, and areas around windows and doors to see where insulation may be missing or poorly installed, or where the building’s components aren’t airtight. On the infrared image, colder spots show up as dark areas.
The auditor will also analyze your utility bills for the past year or more and will ask you some questions about your household’s habits as they relate to energy use. (If you don’t keep copies of your bills, you can get them from your utility company.) This information will help the auditor compile a list of recommendations for energy savings.
After the audit, the company will give you a written report describing its findings and suggesting actions to save energy. The report should prioritize the recommendations and for each item it should explain what’s needed and how much energy could be saved by making the change. If this information isn’t clear, ask the auditor for details.
Some of the recommendations will likely be easy fixes that you can do yourself, like replacing incandescent lights with compact fluorescents, putting weather stripping around windows that don’t fit tightly in their frames, or installing door sweeps under exterior doors.
Other recommendations, like adding insulation or upgrading to more-efficient heating or cooling equipment, may take more effort and money, or require the services of a professional.
Don’t be pressured into buying products or repair services from your auditing company. As with any home improvement project, take your time to do research and interview multiple contractors. Many energy auditors don’t do repair work themselves but can provide you with a list of contractors you can call for estimates.
Remember, in the end, an energy audit is just a piece of paper. To save energy, you’ll likely have to make some changes. Some will cost money, but others will be free. To get a sense of what they might entail, go to “15 Ways to Save a Buck and a Watt.”
Many associate a sustainable home with solar panels, expensive floor renovations, various purchases of Energy Star appliances, and other costly investments. But greening your home doesn’t have to be costly and time consuming. Even though pricey investments, like going off the grid, can have great ecological and economics benefits, it’s important to accomplish the basics of going green first. Here are 10 quick and cheap steps you can take to make your home more energy efficient while helping you save money.
According to the Consumer Energy Center, 31% of air leaks occur in floors, walls, and ceilings. Poor insulation can cause significant indoor heat loss. Sealing air leaks in your home can save you 20% or more on your heating and cooling bill. Learn how to seal and locate leaks in your home by reading our Air Sealing and Weatherization article.
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