Try a DIY home energy assessment

After the 2022 “Spring that never was,” summer heat is coming on quickly. Soon, we’ll be opening windows for the breeze instead of insulating against drafts. We’ll switch the ceiling fan direction, program our thermostats for summer, and cover the windows that get the most direct sunlight. 

But how much difference do these measures make, really? The answer is that any simple moves that reduce energy consumption are helpful, but it’s challenging to know if you’re getting the most out of them without a home energy assessment.

What is a home energy assessment? 

 A home energy assessment should be the first step you take on the path to energy-saving home improvements. Thinking of adding renewable energy to your home or property? Assessing your home’s energy use “leaks” will help you make informed decisions in that process as well.

Sometimes called a home energy audit, an assessment shows you the big picture regarding your home's energy use and efficiency. It can show you how much energy your home uses, where your home is inefficient, and what improvements to prioritize. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “while a professional home energy assessment is the best way to determine where your home is losing energy and where you can save, you can conduct your own simple but diligent walk-through and spot many problems in any type of house.” 

How do I conduct my own home energy assessment?

The EPA offers guidelines for homeowners wishing to conduct their own DIY assessments. It will help you pinpoint some of the easier areas to address. Take a notebook as you walk through your residence and make a list of any problem areas you find. This will help you prioritize your fixes and upgrades. 

TIP: If you live in a newly constructed home, don’t assume that there are no opportunities to save energy. Technology in this area evolves rapidly, often faster than the training commonly available to many builders, even the most reputable.

Step 1: Locate Air Leaks

First, make a list of obvious air leaks - this is a great way to make a big difference quickly and simply. The potential energy savings from reducing drafts in a home can range from 10- to 20 percent per year, not to mention that a home without drafts is much more comfortable!.

  • Indoors: Gaps along the baseboard or edge of the flooring, at junctures of the walls and ceiling,  windows, doors, lighting and plumbing fixtures, switches, open fireplace dampers, and electrical outlets. Check out this EPA guide on detecting air leaks for detailed instructions. 
  • Outdoors: Pay attention to areas where two building materials meet, like siding and foundation, window frames and siding, etc. 
  • Other: Also check for leaks on the outside of your home, especially in areas where two different building materials meet. Other places to check for leaks include

Step 2: Seal Air Leaks

Plug and caulk holes for faucets, pipes, electric outlets, and wiring. Look for cracks and holes in the mortar, foundation, and siding, and look for leaks around windows and doors. Learn more about selecting and applying caulk and weatherstripping on the EPA website.

Step 3: Ensure proper ventilation

Backdrafts are dangerous, and can even cause death when carbon monoxide can’t properly vent to the outside of your home. Backdrafting is when appliances, wood stoves, propane heaters, and/or exhaust fans in your home compete for fresh air and come up short. This in turn can lead to dangerous indoor levels of carbon monoxide. 

In homes where a fuel is burned (i.e., natural gas, fuel oil, propane, or wood) for heating, be certain the appliance has an adequate air supply. Generally, one square inch of vent opening is required for each 1,000 Btu of appliance input heat. Burn marks or soot around the appliance burner or at the vent collar, or visible smoke anywhere in the utility room while the appliance is operating, indicate poor draft. 

Step 3: Check attic insulation

Given today's energy prices, the level of insulation might be inadequate, especially if you have an older home. Most homes are constructed using the guidelines available at the time; standards have raised over the years, especially since Americans now desire whole-house heating and cooling at all times.

  • Insulate your attic hatch to match the rest of the attic
  • Seal the openings around pipes, ductwork, chimneys, electrical boxes, etc. Use non-combustible expanding foam caulk or other permanent sealer
  • Check your vapor barrier. If there isn’t one, you can paint the interior ceilings with vapor barrier paint
  • Free your vents from insulation that might be blocking them. If your venting is inadequate, consider installing baffle vents to allow air to flow in
  • Don’t forget the floor

Step 4: Check wall insulation

This is challenging outside a professional thermograph inspection, but the Spruce has a good overview of options.

Step 5: Basements and crawl spaces

In most areas of the country, an R-value of 25 is the recommended minimum level of insulation for basements and crawl spaces. If the sub-space is enclosed and contains heating or cooling appliances, air ducts or plumbing, insulate the sub-space perimeter. The insulation at the top of the foundation wall and first floor perimeter should have an R-value of 19 or greater. Water heater, hot water pipes, and furnace ducts (especially if located in unconditioned space, such as an open crawl space) should all be insulated. 

Step 5: Inspect heating and cooling equipment

If you have a forced-air furnace, replace the filters as needed, typically about every month or two, especially during periods of high usage or if your home has poor indoor air quality. Have a professional check and clean your equipment once a year. When it’s possible, replace units more than 15 years old - they will definitely be more energy efficient. 

Also check your ductwork for dirt streaks, especially near seams. These indicate air leaks, and they should be sealed with a duct mastic. Insulate any ducts or pipes that travel through unheated spaces. 

Step 6: Optimize your lighting

Energy for lighting accounts for up to 10 percent of your electric bill. When shopping for LED bulbs, look for lumens and the Lighting Facts label to get what you’re really looking for. Also look for ways to use connected home devices or lighting controls to manage lighting use.

Step 7: Appliances and electronics

Examine the appliances and electronics in your home and estimate their energy use and consider the following:

  • Unplugging an item when it is not in use to prevent phantom loads
  • Changing the settings or using the item less often
  • Purchasing a new, more efficient product
  • Utilizing smart home energy management systems to monitor and control energy consumption 

Make your plan

After you know where your home is losing energy, make a plan by asking yourself a few questions:

  • How much money do you spend on energy?
  • Where are your greatest energy losses?
  • How long will it take for an investment to pay for itself in energy cost savings?
  • How long do you plan to own your home?
  • Can you do the job yourself, or do you need to hire a contractor?
  • What is your budget?
  • How much time do you have for maintenance and repairs?

Sometimes, at least a portion of the savings you’d enjoy in taming energy loss is outweighed by practical concerns like cost and complexity. Do what makes sense for your home and energy needs, but even if you don’t take all the steps here, use this information the next time you’re making plans that offer opportunities to improve energy retention in an area of your home.