Finding the Energy Leaks

Help owners seal the gaps and make their homes more energy efficient.

February 1, 2008

Charm radiates throughout the beautiful old house your clients just bought — but so does cold air in the winter and hot air in the summer. Should you suggest that your clients install new windows to increase the energy efficiency of their house?

Not necessarily. What you could do is recommend that they get an energy audit conducted by a professional third-party energy efficiency certification company.

Better yet, offer to pay for the energy audit yourself, giving it to them as a closing gift.

It’s a pricey gift, at about $350. But Candace Lightner, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Alexandria, Va., says you’ll garner widespread customer goodwill.

“We thought it was a fantastic gift, and what we’re learning about our house is invaluable,” says a buyer who had an energy audit conducted on her home late last year at Lightner’s expense.

The audits, which take about two-and-a-half hours, are designed to identify major energy leaks in a house. Home owners are given a thick report showing where the top leaks are and how to fix them.

Older Means Less Efficient

Surprisingly, drafty windows and doors are typi­cally not the greatest sources of energy loss, says Lee O’Neal of NSpects, an energy inspection company based in Chantilly, Va. The biggest culprits are construction shortcuts such as:

  • The absence of external building wrap around the joists between the floor and walls
  • Improperly insulated attics
  • Improperly insulated basements and crawl spaces

As you’d expect, homes that are 40 or more years old are typically far less efficient than newer ones that have been built to updated codes, says O’Neal.

New homes are more likely to have building wrap and well-insulated attics and basements. Also, newer homes tend to come with more efficient double-paned windows and heating and air conditioning systems.

Both older and newer homes tend to be inefficient when it comes to the places where pipes and wires come into them. “The holes never get sealed,” explains O’Neal.

Another problem area, even in new homes, he says, is recessed lighting. Recessed lights sit in big ceiling holes and carpenters rarely think to seal around the edges.

The Nuts and Bolts of Audits

The heart of any energy audit is what’s known as the blower-door test. It involves sealing a front door opening with an airtight nylon tarp penetrated by a large fan. The fan depressurizes the house by drawing out indoor air. This pulls in air from the outside, so every gap in the house, large and small, acts like a vacuum, and anyone in the house can feel the air streaming in from all directions. Inspectors identify the smallest penetrations using a device called a smoke pencil, which releases a thin stream of gray smoke that billows in the presence of leaks.

To get an especially detailed picture of leakage, inspectors use a camera with infrared film to photograph problem areas like chimney flues and crawl spaces. Areas with leaks will be visible in the pictures by differences in color density.

By the end of the audit, your clients should know the house’s main problem areas. The inspection report, which takes a few days to compile, will give them suggestions for repairs. It’s unlikely the auditor will recommend that everything be fixed, says O’Neal. Auditors usually focus on repairs that will provide the greatest efficiency at a reasonable cost.

“It doesn’t make sense to spend thousands of dollars to get small improvements in efficiency,” says O’Neal. “But it does make sense to spend a few thousand to get efficiencies that’ll pay for themselves in a few years.”

Reduced utility payments aren’t the only benefit your clients will see; they’ll also enjoy more creature comfort and — down the road — potentially a greater resale value.

Robert Freedman

Robert Freedman is the former director of multimedia communications at NAR.


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