Leaky windows and faulty insulation can sap money out your front door, but a home energy audit can help counter the loss of energy while lowering your power bill.

So where do you get your home audit — your local utility company or a private auditing firm? The answer may depend on how much energy savings you want for the initial outlay.

Taking steps to conserve energy can cut your electricity bill by as much as $600 a year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Add tax credits of $1,500, and it’s not surprising why performing a home energy audit is a burgeoning business.

The free home energy audit offered by many power companies is usually comprised of a visual inspection. That could include identifying energy hogging appliances as well as leaky windows, air ducts and areas where insulation is lacking. A professional audit, which can cost $300 to $500 depending on the home’s size, is a more in-depth assessment — about four hours long and utilizing measurement tools to identify leaks, according to the Department of Energy.

The free utility audits give homeowners ideas on how to save energy, but fee-based energy audits, because they are so detailed, can potentially save homeowners 30 percent or more on energy costs, according to Brian Castelli, executive vice president at Washington, D.C.-based Alliance to Save Energy, a nonprofit group of that supports energy efficiency.

A free energy audit makes sense for homeowners who aren’t paying excessive energy bills or aren’t dealing with drafty areas of their home, says Mark Cannella, a partner at Cleveland-based Pro Energy Consultants.

“If a homeowner truly has an issue and truly wants to make a home more energy efficient, a full-blown audit is necessary,” Cannella says.

Utility companies help consumers conserve

For some homeowners, swapping out old appliances may be enough. According to the Department of Energy, replacing your old, in-room air conditioner for one with an energy efficiency rating of 10 can cut your A/C energy costs in half.

Duke Energy Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., offers a free home energy audit through its House Call program. During an assessment, a specialist reviews appliances, analyzes home energy use, checks the home for air leaks, examines insulation levels, and monitors heating and cooling systems. Duke says homeowners get a custom report within 10 days, providing ways to increase efficiency and reduce energy loss. The report’s recommendations could include buying energy-efficient appliances, adding insulation or sealing up leaks.

Although it isn’t free, Long Island Power Authority of Uniondale, N.Y., or LIPA, offers its Home Performance with Energy Star program. Customers pay $200 to $400 for the home assessment performed by contractors accredited by the Malta, N.Y.-based Building Performance Institute, an organization that offers contractor training and certification.

LIPA says it will rebate 25 percent of the cost up to $3,000 if customers choose to follow up on recommended electric energy-saving measures from the Energy Star program. LIPA reimburses after it receives proof the work was done.

The utility company also is testing a program to select customers with electric heat or air conditioning in which accredited contractors perform assessment and sealing services for free.

LIPA will cover 75 percent of recommended energy-saving measures up to $3,000 from the free service, says Dan Zaweski, LIPA assistant vice president. In addition, electric heating customers can save from $150 to $300 a year, depending on the home’s square footage, under the program.

Buyer beware when it comes to audits

Not all fee-based home energy audits are created equal. As in any budding industry, there are fly-by-night companies that claim to be experts but really aren’t, according to Cannella. Make sure you’re using an accredited auditor and that the auditor uses specific energy measurement tools.

Before hiring a professional auditor, check with the local Better Business Bureau to verify the company is legitimate. Also, ask for references and confirm the auditor does a blower door test and thermographic scanning.

“You want to be sure the person is certified by the Building Performance (Institute) or Residential Energy Services Network, and you want to be sure the auditor uses a calibrated blower door and infrared cameras,” says Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, deputy home editor at Yonkers, N.Y.-based Consumer Reports. The Oceanside, Calif.-based Residential Energy Services Network is a nonprofit group that sets energy efficiency standards.

The blower door is a powerful fan mounted on the front-door frame that tests a home’s air leakage; thermography (infrared scanning) pinpoints failures in insulation. Proper home air tightness will reduce energy usage and eliminate drafts, the Department of Energy says. Private auditors will take around four hours before providing a detailed report.

Bottom line: Whether you go with the free assessment from your utility or pay for a more detailed one from a private auditor, any steps taken to curb energy usage will save you dollars over the long run.

“Sealing up your house, adding insulation and sealing duct work can result in between 20 percent and 40 percent savings,” says Cannella of Pro Energy Consultants.

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