I keep hearing that I should get a home energy audit. What should I expect to pay and expect to get?
The words “energy audit” convey a specificity of action and purpose. My experience is that there is a wide variety of prices, actions, and approaches. We can capture the general range of deliverables with a quick discussion of three areas.
1. Price: Free to $1,500 per home
2. Level of detail: from Energy Survey to Comprehensive Home Energy Audit
3. Implementation: Consultant vs. contractor model
Invariably, this discussion will miss a type of audit. But understanding the features and how to apply the benefits of these approaches will cover 90% + of the elements to making a good decision for an energy efficient home.
How much does an audit cost?
Utility companies often offer “free” audits. In general, these are good, as they are offered by a competent third-party professional (often a utility company employee) who visits many homes and has the experience and knowledge to quickly identify common problems and offer a range of no cost, low cost and more expensive options. Usually, free options are an energy survey (see below for more information on test options). These visits take about an hour to perform. Also, they are not really free – it is just that the cost is covered in the rate structure of what utility companies charge and in their regulatory mandate of required services for having an electricity monopoly.
Contractors and product suppliers also often offer free audits. These could also be marketed as free sales calls. A free audit from a contractor or product supplier is not inherently good or bad. Like any public experience, you may have wildly different outcomes across the whole range of possibilities. I have seen audits advertised by AC and heating companies, window suppliers, appliance sales organizations, lighting specialists and more. If you have identified a specific problem or a specific solution that you are interested in, finding a professional who sees their product and service in terms of energy improvement may be a good way to go.
$300 to $1,500
One way to look at an audit is based on the phrase “you get what you pay for.” There are a wide range of options on audits but paying $1,500 is definitely not out of line if you have a difficult-to-diagnose problem and you get a highly trained expert who provides diagnostic testing and energy modeling; helps you work through the process of what order to do work and what things should cost; and can tell you if the work was properly installed. When you have a persistent medical problem – and you have tried all the simple remedies – many people will pay almost any amount for a specialist who can diagnose their problem and make the illness go away. If you are prepared to make significant investments to fix your home’s problem, paying big money up front for an audit may be the lowest total-cost solution in the long run.
- Free is often not free … just no upfront costs. Sales tactics range from a discussion of options to a high-pressure sales pitch.
- In any audit, but especially the “free” ones, the “solutions” offered may be “solved” only by the product or service supplied by the auditor. Sometimes, this is exactly correct. Sometimes, the answer is not correct -- the “auditor” has a quota to make and your problem is the auditor’s sales opportunity.
- Free may get you exactly what you need and paying a large sum of money upfront is no guarantee of success. In all events, your experience with any cost and level of energy audits will vary.
- Utility subsidized audits. Audits can be subsidized in various ways. In areas where there is electricity deregulation, the “regulated” arm may not be allowed to offer audits. You may find that the retail electricity providers can offer audits that are incorporated within a certain rate plan. There may be incentives or demand-side management rebates for audits . . . and that can reduce the upfront cost of an audit.
- Many companies may offer audits for a price below their cost and plan to make up the difference on adding customers for their contracting and home improvement businesses. In this case, an audit is like a very intensive job interview. The company delivers a high performance audit and through the process demonstrates knowledge and capability to diagnose and resolve the issues that cause the owner to seek an audit in the first place.
Level of detail
Essentially an energy survey consists of a short interview with the occupants and a quick walk-through of the home and is completed with filling out a checklist and delivering some recommendations. These energy surveys usually take about an hour and may or may not come with a presentation of a particular product or service – and an offer to buy.
Comprehensive Home Energy Audit (CHEA)
This process incorporates all the elements of the Energy Survey. In addition, there are a number of additional services that are associated with a comprehensive energy audit. You will find home tightness testing (blower door) and duct tightness testing (duct blaster). You may get a utility bill analysis (12- or 24-month history) along with an energy model. The energy model may show you your current HERS (Home Energy Rating System) Index and the potential improvement in the index by implementing various measures. There are other energy modeling systems that show you the baseline of where you are and then quantify the improvement from an energy conservation measure or basket of measures. You may find “smoke tests,” “infrared thermography,” and HVAC load calculations (to determine what would be the proper size AC and heating system).
- These two basic audit discussions offer the basic range of options for you to consider. Generally speaking, the energy survey/energy audit is the less expensive of the two and is often offered for no cost.
- The diagnostic testing offered with the comprehensive audit is essential to developing the baseline of performance and quantifying the improvement of various measures. This will be useful to capture various incentives for improved performance and helps deliver more consistent value to the occupants of the building.
- Energy, air quality, and comfort problems with existing homes often require efforts on more than one measure. Utility and government programs find that comprehensive audits usually offer a more comprehensive list of choices in action for the homeowner. Those more broad-based measures are more frequently implemented though the comprehensive audit.
- With either survey, the outcome will be dictated by the company, the level of training and professionalism of the auditor, the quality of the process for indentifying issues and the quality of the installed measures that are selected. All these are important items to consider when choosing between audit levels, audit pricing and the specific auditor who comes to your home.
Implementation: consultant vs. contractor
The consultant is a person trained in building science who can come perform an energy audit, give you advice as to what the issues are, perform the tests required to provide the baseline of energy performance and can write a scope of work and help you evaluate proposals, choose contractors to do the work, provide quality supervision and performance-test to confirm the work was properly completed. Consultants do not perform the work themselves. In many cases, these consultants will be “HERS Raters” or “HERS Auditors.”
There are specially trained contractors who have the equivalent training in building science and can provide the same information and tests. But these companies are both evaluators and improvement contractors. Their training allows them to understand and evaluate the issues, discover the baseline performance, deliver the improvement work with their own crews or act as the general contractor and oversee the work and then they provide the “test out” to quantify improvement and confirm the work was done properly. The consultants in this case usually refer to themselves as “Building Analysts” and they often deliver what is known as “Home Performance with Energy Star” – this is an existing building performance program with guidelines outlined by the EPA.
You may come across organizations or partnerships of organizations that offer a combination consultant/contractor approach. These partnerships offer advantages of specializations in their respective areas but with a common framework for understanding how to work with each other and capitalize on their experience. If you are located in North Central Texas, you may wish to try our approach. We perform a comprehensive energy audit with our TexEnergy Solutions building performance company and offer a comprehensive upgrade of the home through our Tempo Mechanical sister company. We think this is the best possible combination of service levels, speed and pricing.
- Many consider the consultant approach cleaner and less potentially biased. The concept is that the consultant has no particular axe to grind and therefore gives better and more appropriate advice.
- Many consider the contractor approach to be more effective in delivering real improvement. There is more action with the contractor approach because the contractor gives the diagnosis and a price for the work to be performed at much the same time. Often, the consulting energy auditor’s report goes on the desk waiting for “3 bids” per trade (and all the effort that goes with that) and by the time you look up, the audit is forgotten under piles of paper and no action has been or will be taken.
- It is true that “energy audits without action are of no value.” If you need an audit, you need to understand the issues and be able to take action that impacts change in a timely basis.
- In either case, neither a “consultant only” approach nor a “contractor approach” guarantees you any success. There are great organizations of both types that exist and both types can give you superior results. There are poor organizations of both types and you can have a bad experience with both as well.
Choosing an auditor
What to look for in terms of credibility
- Certifications like HERS Rater, HERS Auditor, Building Performance Analyst
- Awards from BPI, RESNET and awards from Major Trade Organizations
- Experience – from both the auditor team and from the auditor company.
- How long have you been performing audits?
- How many audits have you performed?
- Do you have any successful referrals?
- What is your BBB accreditation rating?
- What certifications do you have?
- Who will come to my home?
- What is the process?
- Why should I choose your firm?
- If I am unhappy, how will you know?
- Do I have to use your service if you perform the audit?
- What will you leave me with when you complete the audit?
If you have read this far, then you have a good chance of having a good experience with an energy audit.
Understand the options and the trade-offs, and good luck.