I remember when I first started Priority Energy; I was advised by nearly everyone I knew NOT to use the term Energy Audit, because using “audit” evoked nothing but bad feelings (taxes, punishment…), and the “energy” portion is hugely missing the mark – since our Energy Audits assess so much more than just energy efficiency

Fast forward nearly a decade later, and we’re still talking about Energy Audits.  Why? Because it’s still the term our industry chooses to use.  Feel free to replace “audit” with a term of your liking from this point forward (assessment, exam, advisement, consult, or whatever else comes to mind – btw, I’m still open to suggestions).

This brings me to the main point of our topic this month; “Why or when would an energy audit be helpful?”  To list all the scenarios in which an auditor can help, or better put, the home issues our certified building science technicians are trained to diagnose, would fill many pages. So, since I listen to the hundreds of calls that come in and talk to many first-time callers/customers to Priority Energy; I thought it might be helpful to share some of their common concerns and how an energy audit uncovered the root of their problems.

Complaint #1- Why do room temperatures feel so different across my home, or why is it always too cold or too hot? 

We receive countless calls during deep freeze periods like we saw these last several weeks, with temperatures plunging low enough to set a record cold streak in Chicago.  Many of them start like this:

“We have a room that’s normally cold in the winter, but during extreme weather like this, it’s unbearable, not to mention the rest of our house is extra drafty and cold. 

-  “When it gets below 20° outside, our first floor will not heat up past 65-68°, but our basement is over 70°.”

Whether you’re trying to make one room or your whole home more comfortable, the auditor analyzes a simple equation. Heat lost through your floor, walls and ceilings (we call this the building envelope) vs. heat gained from your furnace or boiler.  In the summer you would reverse this equation (with your heat being removed by your AC and heat being gained through the building envelope). 

A properly conducted Energy Audit will figure out why the heat gain from your furnace is not equaling the heat loss from your home, and then prescribe and prioritize exactly what needs to be done to fix it.  The infrared photo, above, identified two problems in this house – ductwork that was not well insulated, and ducts that were poorly air sealed. You may notice in the image that the air leaking around the ceiling register was 41°– it shouldn’t be more than a few degrees below the average temperature of the house!  Cold air was being drawn into the home when the HVAC system was off, and heat was being lost when the system was running.  Don’t even get us started on the air quality that was being pulled from the attic... 

With some attic air sealing, better insulation and duct sealing we brought the comfort level way up for this family.

Complaint #2 – Why is our house so dry?

We get questions about dry and humid indoor air a lot; it's become a year-round issue.

“Our house is plenty cool in the summer, but water keeps dripping around our windows. When we cut open the drywall to fix the windows, we found some black stuff behind our drywall.  Why is there dripping?”

-  “Our home’s humidity never gets above 25% all winter long. Why?”

-  “Our home is running at about 65% humidity all summer with the AC running. What is wrong?”

An audit will help you figure out why your home is extra dry in the winter and humid in the summer.  Optimal indoor humidity levels should be between 45-50% year-round (for health and home durability).

Managing humidity is about removing it in the summer and selectively adding it in the winter.  Things that effect the ability of your home to hold humidity are:

  1. How airtight is your home?  – A tighter home will keep humidity levels higher (we run a blower door test to verify this and identify areas to fix if it isn’t tight).
  2. How correctly matched your furnace and air conditioning system is to your home/lifestyle?  When your HVAC system is properly sized and matched it will run consistently, which allows the humidifier to regularly add moisture in the winter and the AC to more effectively remove moisture in the summer.
  3. Is the HVAC system set up correctly? There are multiple settings which affect an HVAC system’s ability to regulate humidity such as fan speed, and humidifier on/off controls which are tied to the fan or heat on the furnace. Unfortunately, not all HVAC installers are familiar with these settings. 

Our energy auditors look at all things humidity-related including testing the tightness of your house, measuring fan speeds, checking settings and much more.  A common problem over the last several years has been high humidity levels year-round – in large part due to the way we’re now sealing up our homes. 

Making our homes air tight improves comfort and humidity levels, but the mechanicals must be properly sized and set up correctly.  We often find incorrect fan settings on furnaces (see our article on adjusting fan speeds) paired with improper or nonexistent whole home ventilation and improper thermostat and/or control settings.  The good news is that fixes for these issues can be easy.  Adjusting fan speed can be performed during an audit and even when additional equipment or controls are needed the cost is still far less than having to remediate a mold problem.

Complaint #3 – We have a strange smell in our house or, we just completed a home renovation and are now getting a strange smell?

Strange smells are not uncommon in homes – especially if you have children (at any age)!  However, when smells change, or are here one moment and gone the next, they can be a sign that something is not quite right and could start to cause health problems if not addressed.  Priority Energy’s energy auditors are also trained indoor air quality and healthy home specialists and have recently helped with the following issues:

“Every time I start a fire in my fireplace on the first floor, I get smoke in the basement.  What’s going on?”

-  “Our offices were recently remodeled and now we’re getting a sewer smell. Why would this happen?”

-  “We moved into a newly built house and when we run the air conditioner we get a strange smell coming through our ductwork. We ignored it at first thinking it was a “new house smell”, but then my husband started losing his hair! Can an audit tell us what it is?”

Sometimes simple nuisances can really be serious health and safety concerns.  Our auditors come equipped with the diagnostic tools to quickly identify the root causes of all these scenarios so serious problems can be avoided.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, in the last example of the new construction home with the smelly ducts, we found poor ventilation combined with spray foam insulation and high humidity to be the culprit.  We helped the homeowners fix this by adjusting fan speeds, installing some dehumidification and improving ventilation

These are real examples of calls and home performance problems we’ve helped our customers fix.  If you are experiencing similar issues within the four walls of your home, give us a call.  Or if you are simply looking to lower your utility bills or reduce your impact on the environment, our energy audits can help with that too!

by Robert F. Schildgen