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Home Remodeling & Maintenance

Plug Your Home's Costly Leaks Before Winter

Pinpoint problems with an energy audit and save big bucks.

About one-third of the $2,000 that a typical U.S. household spends each year on energy goes toward heating and cooling the great outdoors. And as the price of fuel climbs, that wasted energy takes a bigger bite of your budget.


SLIDE SHOW: What You Could Save on Energy Costs

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Protect Your Home This Winter

This winter, the Department of Energy forecasts, the cost of natural gas will increase by some 18% compared with last year, and residential heating oil (most commonly used in the Northeast) will rise by 23%. Electricity rates will rise 10%.

One easy way to keep utility bills in check is to do a home-energy audit. Although an audit's scope depends on the age, size and design of the house, a typical audit takes three to four hours and costs $250 to $600. The resulting report can serve as a road map to improve your home's energy efficiency and comfort.

Getting personal. My husband and I ordered an energy audit for our northern Virginia house last summer. We hired Bill Gray, of Gaithersburg, Md., an energy auditor certified by Maryland's Home Performance With Energy Star program.


Gray arrived with his black bags of tools and diagnostic equipment in the company of Glenn Dickey, technical-services director of the Maryland program. The duo then inspected our house like Holmes and Watson. For the next three hours, they peered inside and out, basement to attic. They measured our home's volume, poked their flashlights into voids, and ran tests designed to measure the efficiency of our furnace and the leakiness of our home's exterior.

The "blower-door test" provided a big clue to the results of our audit. Gray covered our front-door opening with a ripstop nylon cover, into which he inserted a large fan that depressurized the house. As I stood in the basement stairwell, I felt a door-slamming breeze rush upstairs as air was sucked into the basement through gaps in our home's exterior.

Later, on the second floor, Gray held up a thermographic scanner, which translates heat and cold into color images -- from blue to black for cold, and from yellow, orange and red to white for heat. It was a hot August day, and I could see white halos around our canister lights and the attic hatch from 95-degree air infiltrating from the attic.

When we reviewed the results, we learned that, among other things, the air flow in our house was twice what was necessary for healthful living -- the equivalent of leaving a window half-open all the time.


The fix list. The top three items on our punch list, as with most audits, are to seal the house's exterior, plug the ductwork and add insulation. Gray recommended that in the basement we seal the gap between the top of the foundation wall and the framing above it with inexpensive foam insulation (such as Great Stuff Insulating Foam, $5 for a 12-ounce can), and add fiberglass insulation to the band board (or rim joist) to which the floor joists are attached.

In the attic, he found unsealed joints in the ductwork and gaps between the drywall and framing at the tops of our second-story walls -- both common problems and a likely source of dust in our house. The solution? Several hours in the attic with a $20 bucket of duct mastic, a special sealant, and more foam insulation to seal the tops of the walls.

We also need a new attic hatch ($200) to keep hot and cold air out of our living space. Or we could upgrade our current hatch for about $35 (visit and search for "attic hatch"). And we need to seal the gaps where utility hoses and lines penetrate our home's exterior (cost: $3 for a 1-pound block of Duct Seal from an electrical supplier). Thermal shades for basement windows are about $100 apiece, and replacing a leaky cellar window with an Andersen window with a low-E coating would cost $103, if we do the work ourselves. New weatherstripping around our doors will run about $50. (I'm not sure how to keep the cats from destroying it this time.)

Other items on our to-do list include a furnace tune-up, at a cost of $80. Turns out the combustion efficiency of ours is less than the rated 93%. And we're losing heat from our hot-water heater. A blanket and top cost about $25; preformed foam pipe-insulation sleeves are $3. Or better yet, because the water heater is 11 years old, we should replace it with a higher-efficiency model. A GE 50-gallon natural-gas water heater costs about $800. Beginning in January 2009, you'll find Energy StarÐlabeled gas, solar and heat-pump water heaters (about $1,000 to $2,000 installed, excluding solar).


Finally, unplugging the nearly empty refrigerator in the basement will trim about $70 a year off our electric bill.

What will it cost? We're lucky, because we made the really expensive fixes -- such as replacing the heating and cooling system and windows -- when we renovated. And we're handy, so we can do most of the work.

What it will cost you depends on your house and region, says Chandler von Schrader, an Energy Star program analyst. For example, in New York, where the state's Home Performance program has closed nearly 20,000 cases, the average job has been about $8,000; in Austin, Tex., it's been about $4,500 to $5,000; and in California, where the program is just now kicking in, up to $20,000. Those are big numbers, but you needn't do everything at once, and you'll probably get the biggest bang for your buck with the least-expensive improvements.


SLIDE SHOW: What You Could Save on Energy Costs

Shortcuts to Save on Utilities

Protect Your Home This Winter

You may be able to offset the cost with incentives from your state or your utility provider -- typically a rebate or exemption from state sales tax on the purchase of Energy Star appliances. Under New Jersey's Home Performance program, the more fixes you make, the bigger the incentive -- usually a low-interest loan and cash back combined, to a maximum of 50% of the job cost or $5,000, whichever is less.


Incentives are listed on the Web site of your utility company, your state's Home Performance With Energy Star program and your state energy office (at, click on "member center"). Or check North Carolina State University's database ( Note that federal incentives expired at the end of 2007.

Finding an auditor. Before you call an auditor, try Energy Star's Home Energy Yardstick ( Plug in your zip code and some of your utility history (check a recent bill for monthly usage over the past year), and you'll find out how your energy use compares with your neighbors'.

On the Energy Star Web site (and probably on your local utility's site), you can try a free online audit and find information and advice on saving energy.

For a rigorous evaluation, you'll need an on-site visit. Energy auditors typically come to the job with experience in home inspection, as Bill Gray did, or in heating and cooling and other building trades.

The Maryland Home Performance With Energy Star program that subsidized Gray's training and certified him is one of 26 such programs; most are co-sponsored by a utility or state energy office (to find one, visit and click on 'home improvement' and 'home energy audits').

Home Performance auditors have a vested interest in their clients making the fixes because their continued accreditation depends on it.

Or you can try the Residential Energy Services Network (Resnet), which primarily audits and rates new homes for Energy Star certification. At, click on "consumer information" and "find a certified rater").

With the slowdown in the housing market, Resnet auditors have begun auditing existing homes. Contractors who do audits and propose to do the fixes raise the question of conflict of interest. Home Performance and Resnet auditors must disclose that. Your best protection is to seek multiple bids for the work.

SLIDE SHOW: See How Much You Can Save on Home Energy Costs