The Home Front: Part 2

Wherein we learn how to tell if your house leaks energy--and how to fix it
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Wherein we learn how to tell if your house leaks energy--and how to fix it

So, in The Home Front: Part 1, I decided to figure out how energy-inefficient my house is, and I resolved to figure out how to fix it.

To start, I called Efficiency Vermont and talked to Bridget, a super-helpful customer service representative who walked me through the steps and the costs for finding out how energy-leaky my house is and where.

Step one, according to Bridget, is to contact a certified Home Performance with Energy Star technician and to schedule him or her to come out to my house for an energy audit. It involves a "blower doors test" (more on that below), photographing my house with an infrared camera, examining the basement and attic insulation, and also checking for moisture and mildew. (As it turns out, the energy audit has a health and safety component, too.) The blower door test sounded a little scary until Bridget explained it. Here's the deal: Air leakage counts for about 1/3 of heat loss of house. The blower door test will determine what kind of leaks your house has. During the test, a large fan is sealed into an outside door, and air is blown into the house; the pressure difference between outside and inside helps technicians identify where air leakages might exist. Supposedly, when you walk around the house during the test, you can actually feel the air flowing out of leaky areas. Everyone can remain in the house during the test, and no, the hair won’t be sucked off your cat. It won’t damage your house, but it may change the temperature.

An energy audit isn't cheap--a typical test costs around $400. The good news: my local utility, Green Mountain Power, is so on board with energy efficiency, that they will pay for it as long as I follow up with improvements totaling more than $1000. And, they'll also pay 1/3 the cost of any improvements I'm making up to $2500 (which means $7500 of improvements for me for $5000). I wish I knew that when I replaced my old leaky windows a few years back, though I doubt the program was in place then. Green Mountain Power is not the only utility in Vermont that's contributing financially to its customers improved energy efficiency—Vermont Gas also pays for audits.

Whether or not you live in Vermont, if you do an energy audit and decide to make improvements, you might be eligible for federal tax credits. Check energytaxincentives.org to find out more.

Don't live in the Green Mountain State? Your utility provider may have equally great programs. Contact whatever company sends you your gas or electric bill each month, and also visit energystar.gov for more information and links to initiatives near you.

One really important thing that I learned: Even if you're a do-it-yourselfer (which I am), you'll get the most bang for your buck by paying for the audit so you know where the problems lie. Guessing if it's your old windows, lack of insulation in the floor, or something else is all well and good, but if you know where the biggest heat loss is coming from, you can prioritize, and usually save money.

Stay tuned for the blower door test the week of June 8! Until then, check out tons of useful links on Efficiency Vermont's website.

--Berne Broudy