Energy Audits: The First Step to Savings

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Tompkins Weekly 9-9-20

By Phil Cherry

An energy audit is not like an IRS audit. It’s nothing to be afraid of, and in fact, it may actually save you money.

An energy audit is also often called an “energy assessment” because it assesses the energy efficiency of your home and identifies areas where your house is leaking heat on cold days or cool air on summer days or maybe wasting electricity on outdated lighting or older refrigeration equipment.

Audits are done by professional contractors trained by the Building Performance Institute (BPI) to conduct such studies. There are other certifications and rating systems for homes and raters, but the BPI certificate is likely the most common.

There are multiple companies here in the Finger Lakes and elsewhere in upstate New York that conduct energy audits. Audits are usually performed by heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) companies or home performance/insulation companies in advance of furnace replacements and home improvement projects or to simply find out where your home is leaking energy and money.

The idea is to save money on heating and cooling costs and to make your home as efficient as possible so you can “right-size” your new furnace, solar array or heat pump for maximum return on your investment. It doesn’t make sense buying a 100,000 BTU furnace to heat a leaky house when a 75,000 BTU would work perfectly well in a better insulated and sealed home.

The same goes for solar power. You wouldn’t put up 10 kilowatts of solar capacity if your more efficient home only needed 8 kilowatts of power. And the home energy audit is the best way to determine where improvements need to be made or where the most waste is occurring in your home.

Audits may consist of a health and safety inspection, a blower door analysis, a lighting assessment, an insulation assessment and some general energy education. Audits take about two to three hours depending on the services provided and the size and complexity of the home.

The health and safety part of the audit is critical and can locate leaks in your home’s furnace or water heater exhaust systems and improper or missing smoke or CO2 detectors. The electrical or insulation inspections look for ways to reduce electric demand through lighting or appliances and where insulation might be needed in the attic or walls of a home.

After the audit is complete, customers are usually provided a report that outlines the main findings and where improvements are needed. The audit usually will also include an estimate for energy savings for each measure recommended.

Audits can also unlock incentive programs — rebates and financing to help pay for the improvements. For low- and moderate-income households, these incentives may cover some or all of the costs of the work — including sealing air leaks, installing insulation and in some cases, replacing water heaters or upgrading to efficient heating systems like heat pumps.

Audits cost between $150 and $500; however, across New York state, audits are free for all homeowners, regardless of income or electricity supplier. Renters can work with their landlords to access audits as well. That’s because NYSERDA, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, has programs in place to pay auditors the cost of providing the service, so New Yorkers will become more energy efficient, and we can forestall the need to build new power plants, transmission systems or gas pipelines to heat and cool our homes. It’s in the public’s interest to save energy, both from an economic as well as an environmental perspective, which is why NYSERDA does what it does.

There are energy programs for almost every situation — homeowner, renter, low, moderate or higher income — all of which start with an audit. Some of these have been around for decades. Others are new.

You can learn about these programs on Cooperative Extension’s Smart Energy Choices website, where you can also find contact information for our area’s community energy advisers. They can help you find local contractors and share possible incentives for your particular situation. All our community energy advisers offer trusted, impartial, fact-based advising for free.

I had an audit done when I bought my current home in Watkins Glen in 2016, and I’m glad I did. Not only did I find out that my attic and exterior walls lacked any insulation (the house was built in 1924), but the auditor also found an improperly sized, leaking gas piping system feeding my hot water tank. I’ve since fixed all the issues and am saving over $400 a year in energy costs, and I’m breathing easier knowing my home is safe.

In summary, getting an energy audit is free and easy. It can lead to savings on your heating, cooling or electricity bills or even save you from unknown or hazardous health and safety situations. It’s a phone call or internet search away, and, who knows, it may save you hundreds of dollars a year.

Phil Cherry is the executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schuyler County and also serves as community energy adviser for Schuyler and Steuben counties.

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