I know, for a lot of folks, it’s really tempting to go straight to the shiny, sexy stuff, like installing solar panels or a whole-house fan or geothermal heating and cooling. But before you mount solar panels on your roof, before you invest in a residential wind turbine, before you buy new windows, before you install more insulation–in fact, before you spend a dime on changes to your home and your lifestyle–you’ll want to have someone perform a green energy audit on your home.
This audit will identify the areas where you can conserve
energy, where you can become more efficient. This type of audit will establish a baseline: It’ll give a snapshot of where you are right now. I promise you, the time and money you invest in an energy audit will pay off several times over.
In order to take your level of green up a notch, first
you want to conserve. Establish a baseline, see the challenges you face with your home, and see where you can improve the situation. Then go from your baseline to a lower energy-usage position before
you do anything else. First you want to work to get your use of electricity down to the lowest possible level. Only then can you start to think about creating your own electricity on-site. Otherwise, you’re just going to be overproducing electricity, and that’s wasteful in many, many ways.
Let’s begin with some ways to establish that all-important baseline.DIFFERENT TYPES OF GREEN AUDITS
The best way to figure out your home’s energy performance is to perform a green home energy audit.
This term is used a lot these days. Some people call it a green home audit. Some call it an energy audit, but the terms are not always used to describe the same types of activities.
Actually, there’re all different kinds of green home audits and energy audits. Some audits look at your electricity use. Some look at your natural gas use. Some look at your water use. Some look at all of the above. Some also consider your recycling habits and your waste management. And some go so far as to consider your overall carbon footprint.
For simplicity’s sake, we can break down the offerings into three levels of green home audits. From the most basic to the most detailed and involved, you can
1. use an online resource to get a general idea of your home’s energy use
2. contact your local utility company for an audit, which is often free
3. get a professional green audit, in which a company sends representatives to your home to evaluate your energy usage, water usage, and more
Another really valuable type of home audit is a green home health issues audit. Many professional energy auditors will address potential health threats from your home during their audits, too.TAP INTO FREE RESOURCES FIRST
When you look at the different levels of green home audits, the first two typically are free–at no cost to you, the consumer. So start with the free options and consider the results.
A great example of a free audit is on the Energy Star website (see Resources, page 340). In the website’s section on home improvement, you’ll find the interactive Energy Star Home Energy Yardstick. You’ll need to have your last twelve months of utility bills (or ask your utility company or companies to get you a twelve-month summary). Plus, you’ll have to enter some basic information about your house, including the following:
• your ZIP code
• your home’s age
• its square footage
• the number of occupants
The site will tell you how your home’s energy efficiency compares with similar homes across the country, and it provides recommendations for energy-saving home improvements.
If you want more detail, another great free resource online is ENERGY Guide (see Resources, page 340). Check that site to see if your electric or gas company offers a “personalized energy center.” Many utilities from all across the United States are included. Once you choose the link for your utility, you can get some pretty helpful information.UTILITY COMPANY AUDITS
Another option for a free audit is to contact your local utility company directly and see if it offers home-inspection-type audits for its customers. Many utility companies will do this to help you conserve energy and to help you better understand your utility bills, too.
Naturally, these types of audits focus specifically on the service provided by the particular utility company. So if the utility provides both natural gas and electricity, the audit will cover both.
These audits can be very helpful. For example, Silicon Valley Power (see Resources, page 340) in Santa Clara, California, will send a specialist to customers’ homes for free. The audit is quick and painless. It takes just an hour or less. The specialist will walk through your home and evaluate your refrigerator (or refrigerators), your dishwasher, your washer and dryer, and your lighting. The specialist also will ask questions about your energy habits, how many people live in your home, and other important information.
The specialist will come armed with copies of two years’ worth of your utility bills. They’re looking for any trends in usage, including seasonal shifts with your winter heating and summer air-conditioning.
“The auditor usually will give recommendations for ways to save energy right at the audit,” says Leslie Mackenzie of Silicon Valley Power. And it includes information on ways to save money when you invest in newer, more efficient appliances and other items. “We talk to people about our rebate programs at the time, if we feel that they’re appropriate. We have rebates for attic insulation, whole-house fans, refrigerator purchase and recycling, LCD monitors, and recently added solar attic fans, ceiling fans, and the new energy-efficient pool pumps.”
To encourage customers to get these free audits and take steps to conserve energy use, some utility company auditors also give homeowners compact fluorescent lightbulbs and other useful items to help them save energy–all part of the package.
A free audit may not be the most in-depth energy audit available, but it’s obviously well worth sixty minutes of your time.HOUSEHOLD IMPACT CALCULATOR
Free utility company energy audits are really useful, and so are some of the quick and easy online tools. When you’re ready to investigate even further, there’s one other great and still free tool: the most in-depth free resource I’ve run across, which is on Low Impact Living’s website.
So before you have someone visit your house, I highly recommend using this site’s free household impact calculator (see Resources, page 340). It covers all the environmental impacts for your household–carbon emissions, energy usage, water usage, trash production, water runoff on your property, and even more.
To get you thinking about things you might want to change, the calculator asks some really valuable questions about:
•the age of your heating and cooling systems
•how often you use your air- conditioning
•how many loads of laundry you do each week
•how many times you run the dishwasher
•how many refrigerators you have, how old they are, and how large they are
•how many of your lightbulbs are compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs)
•your recycling habits
•information about your yard
•how many vehicles you have, including their year, make, model, and annual mileage
•how many short, medium, and long airplane flights you take each year
The site then gives you a LILI–that is, a Low Impact Living Index number. This score lets you know how you compare with other homes in your area, and it reflects not just your carbon footprint but your entire environmental footprint. The average score is 100. The lower this number is, the better.
The site then provides many suggestions regarding how to lower your Low Impact Living Index number. Some of the relatively simple suggestions include, for instance,
•installing low- flow showerheads
•installing ultraefficient toilets
•installing a high- efficiency dishwasher
•replacing your incandescent lightbulbs
•increasing ceiling insulation
•planting shade trees
•reducing the temperature setting on your water heater
•buying carbon offsets for airplane travel
Alongside each suggestion, you’ll find a number indicating how much the change will lower your LILI score. I find this to be a really helpful resource. It goes into considerably more detail than the other free resources I’ve found.A PROFESSIONAL GREEN HOME AUDIT
Once you’ve taken advantage of all the free resources and you’ve gotten a general idea of your home’s energy consumption, the next step is to hire a professional to visit your home to perform a thorough green audit. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of getting an expert to come out and do a home energy audit.
Performing green home audits is a pretty new field, and different companies within this field do things differently. Some will mostly look at your heating and cooling systems. Some will bring out some fancy equipment–duct testers, blower door testers–to figure out how well your home is sealed and insulated. Some will look at your appliances and your lighting, both indoors and out. Some will look at your water usage and your carbon footprint as a whole.
There’s one specific tool that you want to make sure these folks have, and that’s an infrared gun that can measure heat. If your home auditor doesn’t have an infrared gun, tell them thanks, but the audit isn’t worth a penny without it. This infrared gun is a heat- sensing camera, basically. It will tell you where your home is losing heat in the wintertime and where it’s letting in heat in the summer.
The prices for these services range from $100 or $200 for a basic audit to $1,500 or more, depending on the size of your house and the size of your property. Naturally, an audit of a 1,200-square- foot home on a quarter-acre of land will cost a lot less than an audit of a 6,000-square-foot home on fifteen landscaped acres.
The extent of the analysis also affects the price. And speaking of analysis, some companies will give you your audit results and also take the next step: analyzing what various changes will cost and how much money you’ll save as a result. This cost/benefit analysis is incredibly valuable, since it basically provides a road map for you to follow as you make the types of changes that will help you conserve energy and water and make your home even more efficient.FINDING A COMPANY TO
PERFORM AN AUDIT
It’s not difficult to find a company that performs green audits or energy audits (you can do a Google search).
Low Impact Living, which is based in the Los Angeles area, has associates all around the country, and if you visit their website (see Resources, page 340), you can search for reputable, highly skilled individuals in the energy audit realm near you.
Before you get too concerned about the money you’ll spend with this audit, think of it as an investment, rather than a cost. If your electricity and gas bills combined come to more than $100 each month, having a professional perform an energy audit will pay for itself in a very short time–maybe even within the first year.
Remember all the benefits this audit will give you–beyond the financial. You may be able to improve your health and the health of your family by performing a green audit. If you were able to reduce allergies and reduce other health issues, how much would that be worth to you? It’s invaluable, isn’t it?
Excerpted from Ed Begley, Jr.'s Guide to Sustainable Living by Ed Begley, Jr.. Copyright © 2009 by Ed Begley, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Potter Style, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.