The Energy Audit-A Discription

As I stated in my previous post, I am a part time energy auditor.  This is my favorite job, I wish I could audit full time, but living in a small community, there’s only a limited supply of people in need.  I conducted my first audit, actually an energy assessment, in 2009. I’ve learned and seen a lot since then.

So, what’s the difference between an energy audit and an energy assessment? The assessment is a simple audit with limited or no testing of the home. There’s no blower door test, usually no thermal imaging scan, and of course, a lower cost.  I review energy bills and ask questions of the homeowner to determine a solution.  An energy audit will include the blower door test and thermal imaging scan. The full audit would typically be required when there is a heating issue with the home.

When I approach either an assessment or audit, I’m always looking at three causes.

1. Is there a problem with the house?
2. Is there a problem with the equipment in the house?
3. Is there a problem with the people in the house?

Most of the time, it’s a combination of the three. I typically start out by asking questions about the house. The age, insulation levels, type of foundation, windows and doors, etc… I then move on to the equipment in the house. Type of heat, water heater, cooking appliances, lighting etc… Then I ask about how the people live in the home.  How many loads of laundry per week, bathing habits, (kind of personal, but it can make a difference), thermostat setting, etc… From there, I make a determination of the next step, depending on the homeowner responses and how high their energy costs are, I may test the electrical service panel for individual circuit consumption.  I may take a closer look at the home, maybe in the attic, or I may ask additional personal questions. It all depends on the answers to the questions I’ve asked.

What’s done with the information after it is gathered?
I return to my office to type up a report with recommendations.  An energy assessment will include limited cost savings numbers, but will include general recommendations on what could be done to reduce costs.  An energy audit will have more cost savings numbers and photos.

What is a blower door test?
This is a test that is used to determine a home’s airtightness.  10% to 40% of heating (and cooling) costs are due to air leakage.  A blower door test will determine how much leakage exists, calculations can be made to estimate the cost of leakage.  A thermal imaging camera or a smoke pencil is often used with the blower door to identify leakage areas.  I’ll discuss blower door testing and thermal imaging in more detail in future blogs.

What else may be identified during an energy audit?
Most auditors are trained with safety in mind.  Looking for smoke and carbon monoxide detectors to protect occupants is often required.  Some auditors have portable CO detectors that are worn during an audit. Inspecting heating and cooling equipment may also be included.  I’ve found gas water heaters that have back drafted.  Back drafting is where burned gasses flow back into the home, increasing CO levels, which can cause death.  The auditor may also look for electrical hazards.  A missing electrical panel covers is common. Problems with houses can also be found.  Ice dams on roofs, water leakage during the spring, frost forming on interior walls are all problems that energy auditors can address.

So, how do you know if you need an audit or assessment?
There’s no good answer to that question.  It depends on your perspective of costs or realizing a problem with the home that may identified using an auditor.  I’ve been at houses where the electric bill is $1000 per month in the winter, but I’ve also been to places that are under $100 per month.  I’ve been to homes that heat with natural gas and feel they are paying too much, and others who like their fuel oil or wood heat.  Some homeowners are comfortable at 62 degrees in the winter, some require much warmer temperatures.  I’ve been in houses that drip water inside every spring.  Demand is mostly driven by costs, but comfort and house problems can also warrant an audit.

What have I seen?
I’ve been in new homes where the energy bill costs compared to expectations aren’t close.  For example, several years ago I was in a very nice newer home during the summer.  I had my thermal imaging camera out looking for water damage from a plumbing leak.  It was warm for northern Minnesota, 80 degrees.  The homeowner had the air conditioning operating, and the hydronic in-floor heat was also on.  Heating and cooling at the same time will raise your energy costs!  This is an example of a problem with the people in the house, but I blame the builder and HVAC contractor.  The homeowners had no training on how to operate the heating and cooling equipment.  This is something I see from time to time, contractors need to train the homeowners and homeowners need to ask questions.

What resources are available?
A great place to start is with your electricity, gas or fuel oil supplier.  Many suppliers offer free or reduced cost energy audits and assessments.  Your local builders association is another place.  Blower door testing is now a code requirement, contractors need to know who’s conducting the tests in their area, and most people testing are energy auditors.  Builders associations also have members that are builders, insulators, electricians, HVAC and plumbing contractors.  Nearly all building fields are represented.  A great place to start if additional work is required after an audit or assessment.  Another resource is energy assistance organizations.  Even if you don’t qualify for energy assistance, most of these organizations have contacts that may be able to help.  Lumber yard, building contractors and of course, the internet are also great resources.

This is just a taste of what is required to be an energy auditor.  I will go into greater depth with several of the items discussed here in later blogs.  I’d love to hear your feedback. Have a question, or want to talk about a particular topic, let me know in the comments.

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