Auditors ferret out funky accounting at corporations. Can they also find the energy culprits in my home?
I thought I'd find out.
Home energy auditors come to your home and take a look at your boiler and hot water heater, pipes, windows, inside and outside walls and appliances and issue a report advising what improvements you can make in your home to lower your energy consumption and your bills.
I found my inspector through a private company called
Pillar to Post, but the government's
Energy Star Web site can also provide resources. And your state government or local utility might also suggest contractors or home inspectors who can help you, just as
New York does.
I paid my inspector $175 for the audit, which, because I live in a small cooperative apartment building, included a look at what I could do in my unit and what we could do as a building.
Unfortunately (or luckily, depending on how you look at it), the inspector couldn't find many ways to lower our bills, though he did have suggestions for making the building more efficient and the apartments more comfortable.
Since moving in seven years ago, we've gradually replaced all of our major appliances as they've konked out on us-with Energy Star-qualified products wherever possible.
The auditor, Anthony Christoforou, explained that the Department of Energy
revamped energy and water standards for most appliances in 2000. So replacing clothes washers, refrigerators, air conditioners and water heaters made before then is almost certain to cut your electricity and water use even if you don't buy an appliance that is Energy Star-qualified, which of course is the best bet for long-term savings and environmental impact. This
energy guide can tell you how much energy and money you might save by replacing Jurassic appliances and water heaters.
Replacing an old refrigerator in particular can cut your electric bill by 30%, Christoforou says, because it's the one major appliance that runs 24/7.
If you use an air conditioning unit, as opposed to central AC, he says that you know it's time to replace it when your electricity bills soar more than they should -- $50 is definitely too much -- during the warm weather.
A clothes washer uses 85% of the energy it consumes to heat water. So washing in cold or warm water instead of hot saves energy, too.
Our windows, installed years ago by a contractor, are commercial grade double-paned glass, pretty much the lowest quality for this type of window. But that is not as bad as it sounds. Christoforou told me that how well windows were installed, how snuggly they fit and how well they're sealed can make more of a difference than the quality of the glass.
If we wanted an upgrade to really make a difference, we'd want to go with low-e windows, which are coated with a clear metallic surface that reflects heat and UV rays, keeping heat out during the summer and in during the winter.
Bob Vila does a good job of explaining them. These windows can reduce energy loss by 10% during the winter and reduce the need for air conditioning by 25% during summer.
But they're costly and not the slam-dunk investment that many people believe them to be.These high-performance windows often carry Energy Star approval. Energy Star
estimates that upgrading from old single-pane glass can save homeowners $125 to $450 a year. But replacing double-paned windows like mine might save as little as $25 a year -- not much of a return on an investment that can run into thousands of dollars for a whole house. Off-the-shelf low-e replacement windows run from $120 to $180 apiece at
. Custom replacement windows can cost around $1,000 apiece or more.
Heat and Hot Water
Our water heaters, replaced a couple of years ago, and our boiler, replaced in 1997, are about as efficient as they come. But that doesn't mean there was no room for improvement in our heating.
Neither the water heaters nor the heating and hot water pipes that wind through our unfinished, unheated basement are insulated. Wrapping them with duct insulation, which we can buy at
, would keep more heat and hot water inside the pipes until it makes its way up into our bathrooms, living rooms and bedroom, where we want it. He estimated it would cost about $165 to install and save us about $200 a year.
Sealing a poorly hung window and weather stripping basement doors -- also a minimal investment -- would keep more cold air out of the basement, making the living space above it that much warmer.
Some of the building's living space is above this unheated, uninsulated basement, and is likely to be colder than the rest of the building during the winter. Adding insulation between the basement ceiling and the floor above it wouldn't provide as much in the way of savings as it would cost to do, unfortunately, but it would make the living space warmer, and might allow us to turn the thermostat lower than we've kept it in the past.
The programmable thermostat we have allows us to automatically turn the heat down while people are at work and sleeping and turn it up in mornings, evenings and on weekends, when we're home. These gadgets can knock $15 to $20 off of your energy bills if you have both central air conditioning and central heating, so it was a smart, and small, investment on our part to get one.
I was happy to find out that we were doing things efficiently and that no major investments were warranted. But it's always disappointing to hear that you can't get your bills lower than they already are.
: To prepare for Halloween, I'll tackle vampires -- the electricity-sucking gadgets that fill my house, and probably yours as well.
Eileen P. Gunn writes about the business of life and is the author of "Your Career Is An Extreme Sport." You can learn more about her at
her Web site.