Hiring an energy contractor

Before you make home improvements for energy efficiency, get a professional energy audit
By Hannah McKenzie
Hiring an  energy contractor

A blower door fan can detect air leaks throughout the house.

As you consider making improvements to your house to increase its energy efficiency, you should start with a professional home energy audit. An audit will determine what home improvements are the most important for you to save energy, save money and make your home more comfortable.

A home energy audit can cost between $300 to $800, depending on the scope and the size of your house. Some companies only perform audits and make recommendations, while others are also contractors who provide energy efficiency improvements such as coordinating an HVAC replacement, air sealing or installing insulation.

If you don't already have recommendations from friends and neighbors or your electric cooperative, home energy professionals can be found through the Building Performance Institute (BPI) at bpi.org or (877) 274-1274. BPI-certified professionals or accredited contracting companies ensure a level of expertise related to analyzing and improving homes. When interviewing home energy auditors and contractors, ask for at least 10 references. Contact a handful of references to ensure the company communicates well with its customers, is prompt, respects customers' homes, stays on budget and that the work completed truly improve homes. It is also helpful to see a sample audit report.

The audit process

The typical process of a home energy audit takes at least two hours. The auditor will:

  • Walk around the exterior looking for walls and joints that could be problem areas.
  • Go into the attic to see how well the insulation works. Insulation works best when it is evenly applied and not crammed into spaces. The auditor will also look for holes, such as where electrical lines pass through, to confirm that the holes are properly sealed.
  • Assess appliances, heating and cooling equipment and water heater efficiency. Too often, filthy old air filters are one component limiting an HVAC system's efficiency.
  • Investigate duct work for proper sealing. Look for holes first. Then a duct blaster fan can be used to measure and find additional leaks that may be hidden from view.
  • A whole house air leakage test is conducted by using a blower door fan to measure and find leaks in the house. On a winter day, the fan will cause cold air to be sucked inside through cracks. An infrared camera will be able to see these leakage points and help the auditor pinpoint trouble areas.

After an audit is complete, a report indicating findings and prioritizing improvements will be provided. Improvements should be prioritized and grouped in a logical fashion. For example, attic insulation should only be installed if attic air sealing has been completed.

Some energy efficiency improvements are easy to see. For the improvements that are more difficult to see, your home energy auditor or contractor should provide before and after photographs, and retest duct and house air tightness.

The amount of money saved from home energy upgrades varies because each house is unique, homeowner habits vary and weather fluctuates from year to year. Just as people respond differently to a medication, houses respond differently to energy efficiency improvements. Energy savings will range from five to 30 percent but the most noticeable and long-term improvement will be the comfort of your home.

About the Author

Hannah McKenzie is a residential building science consultant at Advanced Energy in Raleigh who specializes in working with nonprofit developers like Habitat for Humanity to make new affordable housing energy efficient.

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