Homeowners' Frequently Asked Questions

About residential energy audits and condition surveys
About repair or replace decisions
About rehab and new construction practices
About alternative energy options
About energy economics
When can we start?

1. What is an energy audit, a condition survey?

Informed Energy Decisions’ type of energy audit is based on a “condition survey” of your building’s structure, systems and appliances, using state-of-the-art diagnostic tools as well as good old fashioned observation, both yours and ours. Unlike the do-it-yourself clipboard survey offered free and online by many local utility companies, our energy audit/condition survey inspects the entire building with special equipment and expert eyes. We use an infrared scanner, infrared thermometer, air flow measuring devices, a blower-door fan that depressurizes the air in the house, low-E detectors and other tools to help us detect the way air is moving through your house and how energy is being wasted.


2. How long does a condition survey take?
The average single family home or condo (under 2500 square feet) takes about 4 hours to inspect every nook and cranny from crawl space to attic (but don’t worry, we’re not inspecting for dirty socks!) We prefer our clients to be with us during the condition survey so we can point out our findings as we go. Then, with notepad in hand, we sit down with you for another hour to review the major and minor problems and put together your action plan, a list of solutions in order of cost and priority.


3. What do I get from you after the audit?
Before we leave, we’ll give you the Condition Survey, a written report based on our checklists and notes of findings. We’ll give you a packet containing a list of contractors that do good work, information on heating systems, windows, current standards on insulation, and more. (As a separate service, we can provide you with a computer-modeled analysis of Energy Cost Reduction Measures (ECRMs) that generates more specific cost and savings estimates. This is required, for example, when applying for certain kinds of home improvement loans or Energy Star rating. This report generally takes a week to generate. For more details, see Modeling & Cost Analysis.)


4. What if I have more questions after you leave?
We welcome your phone calls or emails to get further clarification. We can also review a contractor’s bid for work to be done. Depending on its complexity, there may be an additional charge.


5. Will you come back to fix any of the problems?
We’re happy to come back as your owner representative. In that case, we set up an additional contract with you to outline our new responsibilities. These may include: reviewing architectural and engineering plans, putting out requests for contractor bids, helping you select contractors and products, inspecting the work-in-progress, and re-testing the building for energy performance when the work is completed.


6. Are windows usually the main cause for air leakage?
In our Chicagoland climate, windows account for about 20% of heat loss and 25% of summer heat gain in houses. Replacing windows can reduce some of the unwanted loss or gain. But are there alternatives to window replacement? As a matter of fact, yes! We assess the current condition of your windows and provide you with suitable options to reduce excessive heat or cold. Caulking and repairing, double glazing, even putting up curtains and other improvements are available. (An excellent resource for selecting window energy improvements is www.homeenergy.org.) However, we have found that windows are usually NOT the biggest offenders for drafts and cold zones. One very unhappy client came to us after spending $16,000 on new windows only to have worse drafts than before because the new frames were not sufficiently air-sealed when installed. So it's best to investigate first the source of air leakage throughout the house.


7. What is air-sealing?
Air sealing is the practice of closing off unnecessary bypasses, holes, open seams and cracks that allow unconditioned and outdoor air to mix with conditioned air (heated or cooled). Most houses and workplaces merit air seal work. Among the many tests we perform in our energy audit, the air leak survey is the most crucial. With it, we pinpoint leaks for repair, and gauge the overall leakage in your building so that we can then point out where to control ventilation. Contrary to popular belief, opening windows is no substitute for fan-forced ventilation.


8. Can my house be too air-tight?
Yes, but with controlled ventilation an air-tight house is fine. Since there are many choices for ventilation, we help you select the system that best suits your budget, your home, and your desired comfort level.


9. Will more insulation lower my utility bills?
Walls are usually the largest area exposed to cold, so insulation usually has benefits, but improper installation of insulation is often the culprit of energy loss. Our infrared scanner can reveal defects in frame wall insulation—from "settled" or skipped areas to poor placement and fastening. Masonry walls often have no insulation, though foam insulation is now available. Avoiding unnecessary or inappropriate insulation materials can save you much more than our fee.


10. What about insulating my attic?
The attic/roof of houses accounts for about 15% of heat loss and 22% of summer heat gain in older two-story houses in our climate, and often a higher percentage in single-story houses. Our energy audit can identify several problems associated with attic insulation: by-pass leaks, insulation voids, roof heat gain. There are a variety of ways we assist you to seal by-pass leaks and correct insulation voids, and we can work with roofers to take care of all three problems while re-roofing or insulation rehab is in progress.


11. Should floors be insulated?
If your floor gives you ‘cold feet,’ here’s an opportunity to save money and aggravation. There are many conditions that can cause this problem, which our infrared scan can quickly identify.


12. Could faulty air ducts be causing energy loss in my home?
The average forced air system in houses loses 10% of heat produced by the furnace, mostly through air leaks. In extreme cases, 40% of the heating bill is due to hidden duct leaks. Additionally, leaky ducts are a likely cause of Carbon Monoxide poisoning. We measure duct leakage and assess hazardous pressure imbalance as part of our standard Condition Survey.


13. Won't a new furnace solve my heating problems?
Possibly, but without first doing an energy audit of the whole house, you may be throwing good money after bad. Remember: your house works as a system; changing one thing can affect the performance of other components. Sealing all those leaks we're likely to find will make it possible to reconsider installing new equipment. If new HVAC equipment is needed, we help you determine the right size for your building. Many houses, in fact, have furnace capacities greatly oversized for the building. Not only is that more costly when purchased, but it is less efficient to run. It’s like having a tiger run the house where a cat would do.


14. What about replacing my air conditioner?
It is often better to reduce cooling requirements rather than replace equipment. Most improvements to reduce heat loss also reduce your cooling needs. We pay special attention to window orientation, shading and glazing because direct sun is a big cause of excessive summer heat in buildings.


15. Should I replace my water boiler?
If because of age, inefficiency, or lack of capacity your current boiler needs to be replaced, we can advise you on the latest developments in boilers and tankless water heaters.


16. How much can I save by upgrading interior lighting?
Compact fluorescent lighting uses about 75% less electricity to produce a quantity of light equal to the same sized incandescent bulb. New T-8 and T-5 (slender) fluorescent tubes and electronic ballasts use about 30% less electricity compared to older 1-1/2" diameter tubes and magnetic ballasts. You will save money by switching out your old incandescents for compact fluorescents in any fixture that will accommodate them. The Lighting Research Center has a lot of information on new lighting options, not to mention the advantages of daylighting (the use of directed skylights to enhance interior lighting).


17. Are my appliances costing more to use than they should?
Informed Energy Decisions improvement analysis includes detailed guidance regarding appliance efficiency.


18. Can energy efficiency upgrades be designed into rehab work?
Once you establish an efficiency goal as a result of our energy audit, it’s a great idea to incorporate the improvements in the initial planning for rehab. The good news is that the costs of efficiency improvements are substantially lower when incorporated into other work. Recently-adopted energy codes call for upgrade to code when any component of a building is replaced. However, it is in your economic best interest to go 'beyond code,’ when you consider that the Code merely establishes a minimum acceptable standard that often falls short of economically optimal performance. We value the opportunity to work with your professional designer, builder, kitchen specialist, etc., to put an effective energy package in place.


19. Can you suggest contractors?
Yes. We work with contractors who meet our requirements for effective installation, systems performance, durability and safety. We support industry standards for energy performance work, and are the first Illinois firm to meet the Energy Analyst standards of the Building Performance Institute.


20. Is steam heat a good money saving option?
The use of steam heat provides two good opportunities for savings, especially for multi-family buildings:

1) balanced distribution and improved control, and

2) conversion to hot water heating using exiting pipes and radiators.

Though steam heat has its drawbacks, new steam balancing practices developed in Minnesota show that it is possible to provide stable temperatures and meet comfort preferences. We offer a variety of ways to work with professional property management, your Association Board, on-site maintenance, or a selected heating (HVAC) contractor, to apply steam balancing. Conversion of steam heating to hot water heating has been shown to reduce utility cost by an average of 23%, though costs vary considerably depending on the details of conversion work.


21. Do you recommend alternative energy?
There are many exciting opportunities in this field: solar, windpower, hydrogen and fuel cells, and other alternative energy technologies. Solar water heating is included in the Informed Energy Decisions Improvement Analysis. We believe that, at present, technical mastery of several alternative energy options fall short of economic feasibility, and that you can best prepare for alternative energy by realizing the energy performance potential of your building with standard technologies.

The internet is a tremendous resource for information about alternative energy. Some information is provided by enthusiasts and promoters and should be viewed in this context. See our 'Links' section for some web sites that we like.


22. Could you inform me a little about supplemental heat?
Supplemental heat includes fireplaces, electric and kerosene space heaters, and the like. There is a widespread 'warm feeling' about sitting by a fireplace on a wintry night, but it is extremely inefficient in truly heating your home. Supplemental heat can meet aesthetic and practical comfort needs but is usually costlier to run and can be dangerous. Arranging the central comfort system to respond to spot discomfort and special needs is often more economical. We are happy to discuss your use of supplemental heat, and options to resolve unsafe or uneconomical use of supplemental heat, in the context of our services.


23. Are you familiar with geothermal heating/cooling?
Geothermal is a version of electric heating and cooling pulling heat from the mass of earth surrounding your house in the winter and moving heat from your house back to the earth in summer. In this region, tapping hot water and using geothermal systems for air conditioning can make economic sense for some. We will be happy to explore use of geothermal energy with you in our Modeling & Cost Analysis.


24. What is the most overlooked benefit of energy performance?
Home sales value. For decades homeowners and home buyers have been surveyed about home features they value most. Efficiency consistently lands near the top of the list. While realtors may agree that location is more important, we know that given comparable location and features, buyers pay more for the home with low utility bills. In fact, customary upgrades such as kitchen remodeling and expansion space cost more than the resulting gain in sale value. Not so with efficiency improvements. The financial analysis we provide is key to understanding this most overlooked value of energy performance.


25. What if I have already installed some major efficiency improvements?
Our business is to move your present level of efficiency and comfort to the level you want. No single improvement will address all of the twenty ways that energy is used. We encourage all owners to 'benchmark' efficiency (see www.energystar.gov/benchmark). Benchmarking tells you how you have progressed with efficiency, and, if it interests you, how your efficiency compares to others. We always encourage our clients to benchmark following the installation work they've done with Informed Energy Decisions.


26. Do I really have to do anything?
Most owners delay action and/or limit their investment in efficiency upgrades, so they never know how much they are missing in terms of comfort and how much they’re losing in terms of money. It is unnecessary to accept high utility cost, settle for discomfort, incur the costs of emergency repair, or risk safety and health problems when you can manage it all safely, knowledgeably and economically with the help of expert guidance and easy financing.


27. How much does energy efficiency cost?
Over time doing nothing is probably the most expensive option you have. Making large investments in your building’s energy efficiency based on hunches or the persuasion of product advertising is also a costly option. Getting a complete energy diagnosis and developing a workable plan is your most cost-effective option. We can help you calculate the cost of making different improvements and compare them to the amount of energy dollars you will save over time. Spending wisely up front will net you savings on future fuel bills as well as add value to your home. Not to mention, you will enjoy greater comfort while you live there!


28. How do I know that I'll save money?
Energy performance field studies have progressed over the past 25 years. Many studies are covered by Home Energy Magazine, and can be downloaded free of charge (see www.homeenergy.org). These studies verify the effectiveness of energy improvements and programs.


29. Can I finance energy efficiency?
Yes. We can show you how to take advantage of preferential lending terms available for energy improvements. Underwriting terms established by major secondary lenders, such as Fannie-Mae, provide 0% down payment financing. Informed Energy Decisions works with lenders who offer energy improvement loans, and we can provide the lenders with the analysis they require to process your loan.

In many cases, you can achieve utility savings that are greater than the loan payments for the improvements, so that the energy improvements will have cost you nothing. Improved efficiency can also reduce assessments and raise resale value of the property.


30. Are there tax incentives to invest in energy improvements?
Yes, in the year 2006 and 2007, new Federal tax credits came into play for homeowners, builders and commercial building owners. Explaining those options is part of our report.


31. What does your Condition Survey cost?
We charge $500 to perform a condition survey of the average single-family home of less than 2500 square feet. There are additional charges above 2500 square feet or for more than one heating and cooling units. Additional travel fees may apply for homes over 25 miles from our office as well as for weekend jobs. Rates for multi-unit buildings, high-rise condominiums and commercial buildings are set on a case-by-case basis. Our clients find our fee returned to them many times over, by saving on services and equipment they would have bought had we not advised them with more suitable products and solutions. "Stop guessing" is not only our motto, but our assurance that your money is spent wisely. One of our clients who implemented all of our recommendations, and kept careful statistics before and after, cut his energy costs by 60%. (It doesn't hurt that he teaches statistics!) Of course, results can vary.


32. I live in a condo or apartment building. Can you survey my unit alone?
Generally, no. We can help, however, when the individual unit is experiencing unique conditions. (See "On the Case: Where there's smoke, there may be Fire.") While improvements can sometimes be made in one unit of a building, we know energy does not observe real-estate boundaries. Air flow is dynamic through the whole building, coursing through shared ductwork, floor joists, walls, shared corridors. Even townhouses in a row, each with individual heating units, share common construction flaws. It is to your advantage (and more cost effective per participant) to have the Energy Detectives examine the entire building complex.


33. Am I in your service area?
Informed Energy Decisions provides services in the greater Chicago metropolitan area. Travel costs are added for services 25 miles beyond our home base in the city.


34. What is the best time to get started?
Right now. Although motivation generally peaks when cold weather arrives in the fall, and again when 'dead of winter' utility bills arrive in February and March, these are not necessarily the best times to pursue your own improvements. The insulation companies get booked weeks in advance as does Informed Energy Decisions! The weather is too cold to make some of the exterior improvements, and there is no escaping to the outdoors while renovations are taking place indoors. Start anytime of year and be assured that winter will come again and again, but next winter the furnace can be working less hard while your family stays toasty warm throughout the house.


Informed Energy Decisions © 2008