How to Get a Free Energy Assessment on a Home Before You Move In

Image TK note: I get a lot of submissions for guest articles at AltenergyStocks.com, most of which are off-topic (like this one.)  But this one from Whitefence Savings was a subject I’m interested in- understanding the energy use of a home before you buy, so I thought I’d post it here.

I paid for an energy audit of my home before I moved in, but was not able to get a free one… my utility required having an established account, and the current home owners had moved out a year before and were in bankruptcy.  The audits are inexpensive anyway… the most useful part for me was the infrared audit, although you should note that such audits work best when the house is being heated in winter or air conditioned in summer.

Walking through a house a few times while you’re thinking about making an offer on it will give you an idea of how much you like the house, but not an accurate estimate regarding its energy usage. You might notice the occasional drafty door or a window that needs sealing, but there’s no way to tell just how well-insulated or efficient a home is during a walkthrough. Have no fear! There is a way to eliminate unpleasant surprises regarding efficiency before it’s too late: get a free energy assessment on the home before you take the plunge into buying it.

Contact the Local Utility Company

The local utility company probably gives free assessments to its customers, or at least an average usage for the last calendar year or so. Though you are not their customer yet, the people currently living in the house are and will have access to that information. You would need to set up a time with the current owners for the assessment anyway, so you may as well see if they would be willing to speak with the utility company to have a free assessment done. From there they can share the results or allow you to be part of the process.

Schedule an Assessment with Energy Service Corps

Energy Service Corps is a group that has an overall goal of saving energy, saving the environment and saving you money. This is a great free option because they not only come out and assess the energy efficiency of your home, but they’ll also seal cracks around windows and doors to block drafts, change out your older bulbs for energy-saving models and make other small adjustments that will lower the cost of your utilities right away. As part of the assessment, they will give suggestions on other changes you should make to see greater improvements in energy efficiency. However, you should be aware they are limited in where they can go to provide their services.

Do It Yourself

You can do some informal assessments yourself. Ask the current homeowner about their energy usage, or call their utility company for an average use from the previous year. Keep in mind, this method will not tell you what areas of the house need updating or changing in order to create a more energy-efficient environment. Some ways you can assess the energy levels yourself is to feel along the walls for cool patches to determine where more insulation is needed. Along those same lines, feel along the windows and door frames and note where leaks are. Another thing you can do is peek into the attic to see about the state of the insulation. If it’s on the skimpy side, put that on a list of things that would need updating. If the basement is unfinished, check to see if the ceiling has any insulation which will impede the coolness of the basement from seeping up through the floors of your main level rooms. After your self-assessment is finished, you can determine if you need to hire a professional to determine if there are larger issues or be satisfied with your findings.

[ED note: Also see my own checklist for a DIY Energy Audit]

Know Why an Energy Assessment is a Good Idea

Before you move into a home, you’ll want to get an energy assessment so you can either know what improvements you’d like the owners to make as part of your offer on the house, or so you know what changes you’ll want to make once you do move in. Some things that are more serious, such as needing to replace windows and siding, may be more convenient if they’re completed before you start moving. Other, less pressing items such as caulking your windows or adding insulation to your attic, can probably wait until after you’ve purchased the house and moved in. Updating your home in small ways can lower your electric bills year round and impact the environment by lowering it’s carbon footprint.

Learn What Assessors Will Look For

Some assessors do tests to see how air-tight your home is. They mark where air leaks through, and can tell you the best way to eliminate those leaks. Others may do what is called a thermographic inspection that will measure the temperature levels along the walls of your home. This can be done indoors or outdoors depending, depending upon the season.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that, in order to increase the efficiency of the home and lower your energy bills, you must make the changes suggested by the assessor. Most changes that can be made to lower bills are relatively affordable and easy to do on your own. Don’t consider a house to be a lost cause just because it is not currently living up to it’s full potential in terms of efficiency, as you may be able to make small adjustments that have a big impact overall.

Resources:
http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=home_improvement.hm_improvement_au…
http://environment.about.com/od/greenlivinginyourhome/a/energy_audit.htm

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How a Storm Can Help Your Home’s Energy Efficiency

I was fortunate last night here in New York’s Hudson River Valley, unlike many neighbors who lost power, and the people in NYC and New Jersey who had to deal with an unprecedented storm surge of 13.88 feet and winds (video) which NYC utility Con Edison says caused the largest power outage in the company’s history.

While the high winds around me last night were causing power outages and worse damage, I was going around with a screwdriver and outlet cover gaskets to stop the air leaks which I could easily feel with my bare hands.

It was also a good way to keep my mind off the storm.

Sealing electrical outlets and switchplates  is one of the cheapest and most effective measures you can take to improve your home’s energy efficiency, as cost-effective as CFLs, with the added bonus that it makes your house less drafty.

Sure, it’s better to simply have the whole house spray foamed, as I recently did in my basement (see pic) , but that is a big job, and usually requires existing insulation to be removed.

These walls have been foamed, and the workers are in the process of shaving off the excess that extends beyond the studs.

My house, which was built in 1930, has an old urea-formaldehyde based foam insulation in the walls which was probably installed in the 60s or 70s.  The product was banned in 1982.

Over time, that foam shrunk and now does little to prevent air movement in the walls, and I can only replace it by tearing the walls open.

Formaldehyde based foam revealed during bathroom renovation

Hence, I’m taking smaller steps with air sealing.

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How Not to Publicize Net Zero Homes

I received this photo as part of a press release from Nexus Energyhomes,  which builds net zero homes, and is doing a groundbreaking on a community near Charleston, NC which will combine solar and geothermal to produce zero energy homes.

All well and good, but did they really have to go with a rendering of a home where both the house and a tree will be shading the solar panels on the garage for several hours in the morning?

Perhaps the graphic designers should spend a little more time talking to the architects.

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New York’s Energy Highway: Public Comment until July 31

In his 2012 State of the State address, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo put forward an initiative to upgrade and modernize New York State’s electric power system.  The goal is to systematically plan new electricity generation and transmission in the state with all the relevant government agencies and private developers at the table.

The first stage of the proposal was a request for information about proposed generation and transmission from developers, utilities, and interest groups.  These responses are in, and are shown on these maps:

NY Energy Highway Transmission

Ny Energy Highway Generation Map

The Energy Highway taskforce will be taking comments from the public on these proposals until July 31, and issue an action plan based on all the information received sometime this fall.

More information is available at the NY Energy Highway website.

You can submit comments here.

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Pink Slime is Green

I’m getting tired of the knee-jerk reactions to all the pink slime controversy from the environmental establishment. Like this one, which spured this article.

I totally agree that pink slime is gross, but so is digging through your trash for recyclables, toilet-to-tap water recycling. But both are very green.

Likewise, industrial processes like CAFOs and pink slime are not all bad- the good and the bad have to be carefully weighed… we should not dismiss one side just because it is gross.

Grass-fed cows produce more methane per pound of beef than CAFO cattle (because the latter gain weight faster.)

And “pink slime” is a way to use parts of the cow which would otherwise be thrown away. If we use 15% pink slime as a filler in our hamburger, we reduce the environmental impact of that hamburger by approximately 15% (as something which would otherwise be waste, pink slime has no negative environmental impact, except for that caused by processing it, and has some positive impact because it’s not rotting and producing methane in a landfill somewhere.

Pink slime is an environmental innovation. It only started being gross when we started talking about it. So do the planet a favor, and stop worrying about what’s in your burger.

Unless you’re ready to give up the burger altogether.

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Seeking Alpha: How To Encourage Thinking Inside the Box

Seeking Alpha (SA) has long been a good website aggregating content about stocks from around the web, and they’ve come up with some useful innovations, such as paying authors for original content (1 cent per page view). The money isn’t great, but I know of at least one seasoned writer (Dana Blankenhorn) who is actually making a decent living on it… and I was the one who told him about the opportunity.

SA has been republishing about 2/3 of my content since 2007 – a little over 300 articles so far, although I have not participated in the exclusive content program, for two reasons. First, because my other blogs (AltEnergyStocks.com and Forbes.com) pay more (although still not much) and they don’t say that I can’t republish elsewhere afterwards.

Part of the reason they pay more is because Seeking Alpha is set up to favor conventional, easy-to-categorize content: About two years ago, they changed their categorization system to only include the traditional industry groups: Utilities, Consumer Goods, Etc. In the process, they eliminated the category Alternative Energy. Now, writers who focus on one traditional sector such as IT tend to be featured more prominently on the website.

My articles, on the other hand, are about green investing, a cross-cutting theme if there ever was one. Much of the time, they do not get categorized at all.

To be fair, I’ve talked to Eli Hoffman, who owns the site, and several other employees about this several times over the last few years. They are aware of the problem, and agree that it needs to be fixed, but they certainly have not made it a priority. Which is weird, since the claim that the main purpose of their site is to help people be better investors.

Since when did promoting conventional thinking make anyone a better investor?

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Bill Konrad 1930-2011

May father died on December 7th, and I just published his obituary on Forbes: http://onforb.es/BillKonrad. As a life-long investor and IT CEO, I think it would have pleased him to have it published there.

Interviewing his friends and family in the process of writing it was a great help in coming to terms with losing him, as was this shorter poem I read at his memorial ceremony:

Dad could be a little prickly and hard to know at times,
just like the cacti you see around you here,
at his favorite spot,
overlooking the Pacific ocean.

I believe he loved them because he saw a parallel between them and himself.
That parallel was not the unexpected beauty of their blooms,
a trait he never would have admitted to in himself…
But I think that was just his needles talking.

Instead, I think he valued their ability to thrive in adverse conditions.
Above all, he loved to watch them grow,
To see what unique forms they would take on.

Just recently he told me that, when he was young, he was somewhat sickly.
Against the odds, he did thrive.

Dad was a risk-taker, but not a gambler.
He did everything he could to stack the odds in his favor.
With his health, he exercised religiously, and kept careful track of everything he could,
from his pulse rate to the most recent medical research.

In the stock market, he would place big bets on individual companies,
but only when he knew everything he could about those companies.
He made his first million before he was thirty because he saw the emergence of of a new electronics industry long before most other investors.

His diligence continued to pay off even when he was 70,
When he won his age division in the Big Sur marathon.

Dad was a great role model.
He set goals for himself, and he succeeded at them.
One of his goals and successes was to be a great father.

I love you, Dad.

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