Do-It-Yourself Home Energy Audits, Part 4: Lighting

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Conducting a four-part do-it-yourself home energy audit can help you find ways to cut cooling costs and save money off your electricity bill this summer. Once you've completed the first three parts of a DIY home energy audit — detecting and sealing air leaks, checking your home's insulation and inspecting your HVAC equipment — you're ready to move on to the final step: lighting.

Evaluate the Type of Lighting You Use

Since lighting your home accounts for up to 10 percent of your monthly electricity bill, it's important to take a closer look at the type of lighting you use.

Incandescent Bulbs

Incandescent bulbs are cheapest, but you're going to go through a lot more of them. Additionally, incandescent bulbs are incredibly inefficient and do a far better job of producing heat than making light.

Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs)

CFLs can be four or five times the price of equivalent incandescent bulbs, but they can last eight times longer and use 75 percent less electricity to produce the same brightness. Drawbacks include environmental concerns — CFLs contain mercury — and shorter lifespans when turned on and off frequently and used in humid parts of the home, such as bathrooms. CFLs are also knocked by some for taking a short time to reach full brightness. Check out these tips for getting the most out of CFL bulbs.

Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs)

LED lights are clearly the future champ of home lighting. While they're the most expensive to buy, they consume 20 percent or less of the electricity used by incandescent bulbs and last up to 25 times longer — without any of the drawbacks associated with CFLs.

For more information, check out our post comparing the money-saving benefits of CFLs and LEDs.

Upgrade to Energy-Efficient Lighting Where You Can

Where you can, you should upgrade to energy efficient lighting. Not only will the bulbs pay for themselves in a short time — because you'll save electricity every time you turn on an energy-efficient bulb — but once the bulbs are paid for you'll start saving real money on your electricity bill. To make upgrading even more attractive, some utilities even offer retail discounts on energy-efficient bulbs to customers in their area.

When Shopping for Energy-Efficient Bulbs, Use Lumens, Not Watts

It's important to note that watts are not a measure of a light bulb's brightness. Instead, brightness is determined by something called lumens. When shopping for an equivalent CFL or LED, use the bulb's lumens rating – printed on the packaging – to find a similarly bright bulb.

Develop an Overall Lighting Strategy

There are certain things you can do to increase the lighting efficiency of your home that go beyond upgrading your light bulbs, like using more task lighting or using a brighter-colored paint for walls and ceilings.

For these and other additional lighting tips, check out our post on energy-efficient home lighting.

You can also browse our glossary of energy-efficient lighting terms to help you navigate your options when it comes to lighting and bulbs.

Review the Do-It-Yourself Home Energy Audit

There are four steps to a fairly comprehensive do-it-yourself home energy audit. Here are the other three parts, in case you need to review them or if you missed one earlier:

Part 1: Detect Air Leaks

Part 2: Check Insulation

Part 3: Inspect HVAC Equipment

Part 4: Lighting

Sources

U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, "Do-It-Yourself Home Energy Assessments."

Do-It-Yourself Home Energy Audits, Part 3: Inspecting HVAC Equipment

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Conducting a four-part do-it-yourself home energy audit can help you find ways to cut cooling costs and lower your energy bills this summer. Once you’ve completed the first two parts of a DIY home energy audit — detecting and sealing air leaks and checking your home’s insulation — you’re ready to move on to part three: inspecting your HVAC equipment.

The efficiency of your home’s air conditioning system, also known as heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) equipment, plays a critical role in your ability to cool your home and maintain your comfort during hot summer days while keeping electricity bills from breaking the bank. To help your AC system run as efficiently as possible, you’ll need to inspect your equipment, check for leaks in your ductwork and insulate your ducts.

Inspect Your HVAC Equipment

It’s important that you inspect your HVAC equipment at least once a year. Twice a year — once before summer and once before winter — is ideal. For a summertime checkup, you’ll want to focus on your AC system.

AC Air Filters

Checking air filters and changing them out when they’re dirty is the most important maintenance task you can perform for your AC system:

  • Clogged or dirty air filters restricts normal air flow, which can make your AC system work harder to cool your home
  • Dirt that bypasses an air filter can make its way to the evaporator coil where it can reduce the coil’s ability to absorb heat
  • Clean air filters can lower your energy consumption by 5–15 percent

For central AC systems, air filters are generally located somewhere along the return duct. Filter locations can include walls, ceilings, furnaces or the air conditioner itself. If you have a room air conditioner, the filter will be mounted in the grill facing into the room.

You should clean or replace your AC system’s air filters every month during the hottest summer months, when you run your AC a lot, and about every month or two during months in which you run your AC less frequently.

AC Coils

Your AC system’s evaporator coil and condenser coil will collect some dirt over time. Even if you change out your air filters regularly, the evaporator coil will eventually collect dirt over months and years of service. Dirt that does collect will reduce air flow and insulate the coil, which will in turn reduce the coil’s ability to absorb heat. Outside condenser coils can also become dirty over time, especially if the outdoor environment is dusty or you have a lot of foliage around your unit.

Fix problems by cleaning your evaporator coil once a year before peak summer months and keeping dirt and debris near your condenser coil to a minimum. For best results, keep the area around the condenser coil clear of debris and trim foliage back at least 2 feet to allow for adequate air flow.

Coil Fins

The aluminum fins on evaporator and condenser coils can bend easily when you’re cleaning the coils, which can result in blocked air flow. Make sure to take care when cleaning your coils and consider using a fin comb (supplied by AC wholesalers) to remove dirt from the coils.

Condensate Drains

To clean your condensate drain, which can clog with dirt and debris and prevent an efficient reduction in humidity, pass a stiff wire through the unit’s drain channels. For best results, clean your condensate drains every two months.

Checking for Duct Leaks

Leaky ducts can reduce the efficiency of the air flow through your AC system and can also introduce dirt to the air flow after air has already passed through the system’s air filters. The best way to find out if your air ducts are leaking is to inspect them for dirt streaks, especially near the seams. Dirt streaks indicate air leaks. Thankfully, you can seal them easily enough with duct mastic.

Insulating Air Ducts

Insulating air ducts is a good, affordable way to preserve cooled air as it passes through ducts, especially ducts that maneuver their way through uncooled parts of your home, like your attic. Insulated air ducts will also help maintain heated air as it passes through the ducts in the cold winter months. When insulating your air ducts, make sure to use insulation with an R-value of 6 or above.

Do-It-Yourself Home Energy Audits: Air Leaks, Insulation and Lighting

Make sure to read up on the other steps involved in a four-part DIY home energy audit:

There are four steps to a fairly comprehensive do-it-yourself home energy audit. Here are the other three parts, in case you need to review them or if you missed one earlier:

Part 1: Detect Air Leaks

Part 2: Check Insulation

Part 3: Inspect HVAC Equipment

Part 4: Lighting

Sources

U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “Do-It-Yourself Home Energy Assessments.”

U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “Maintaining Your Air Conditioner.”

Do-It-Yourself Home Energy Audits, Part 2: Checking Insulation

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When conducting a do-it-yourself home energy audit as part of an effort to cut your cooling costs this summer, the first thing you want to do is detect air leaks and seal them. After you’ve done that, you’re ready to check your home’s insulation, which plays a critical role in your home’s overall energy efficiency.

If your home is older or has insulation levels that are less than today’s recommended minimum, you could be losing cooled air through the attic, ceiling and walls at a relatively rapid pace. To help shore up your insulation and prevent heat loss, you’ll need to check the insulation in your attic and walls.

Checking the Insulation in Your Attic

When checking your attic for proper insulation, make sure to inspect the hatch; openings for pipes, ductwork and chimneys; vapor barriers; areas around vents and electrical boxes; and the attic floor.

Attic hatches should be at least as heavily insulated as the attic itself and should also be sealed with weather stripping so it closes tightly.

Gaps around openings for pipes, ductwork and chimneys should be sealed tightly with an expanding foam caulk or other permanent sealant.

A vapor barrier is critical for reducing the amount of water vapor that can pass through your ceiling, which can reduce the effectiveness of insulation and cause structural damage over time. Check underneath your attic insulation for typical vapor barriers such as a layer of tarpaper, Kraft paper attached to fiberglass batts or a plastic sheet. If you don’t have a vapor barrier you’ll need to add one. If it’s in bad shape, you’ll need to replace it.

Areas around vents and electrical boxes need to be sealed tightly. Use flexible caulk to seal any gaps or cracks, from either the living room side or the attic side. And make sure that attic vents are not being blocked by insulation.

Your entire attic floor needs to be covered with at least the current recommended amount of insulation, which is based on your home’s material construction and the part of the country in which you live. For more information, check with a professional insulation contractor.

Checking the Insulation in Your Walls

Checking the insulation in your walls is a little more difficult than checking it in your attic. For the best DIY results, just follow these simple steps:

  1. Choose a wall to check
  2. Turn off the circuit breaker or unscrew the fuse for any electrical outlets that are in the wall
  3. Test to make sure the outlets are not “hot” by plugging in a lamp or some other device and turning it on — if it doesn’t work, the outlet is “cold” and isn’t getting any electricity
  4. Once the outlets have been tested and verified cold, remove the cover plate from one outlet and gently probe into the wall with a thin stick or long screwdriver — if you feel resistance, there is some insulation in your wall; repeat for other outlets on the same wall if desired 

Ideally, each wall should be entirely filled with insulation. Unfortunately, the DIY method for testing wall insulation described above can’t tell you if the entire wall is insulated. For that, you’ll need to swallow your DIY pride and hire a professional home energy auditor to perform a thermographic inspection.

A Word on Caulking

When sealing air leaks with caulk, make sure to choose the right kind of caulk and read up on how to apply it correctly.

Do-It-Yourself Home Energy Audits: Air Leaks, HVAC Equipment and Lighting

Make sure to read up on the other steps involved in a four-part DIY home energy audit:

Part 1: Detect Air Leaks

Part 2: Check Insulation

Part 3: Inspect HVAC Equipment

Part 4: Lighting

Sources

U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “Do-It-Yourself Home Energy Assessments.”

U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “Attic Insulation.”

Do-It-Yourself Home Energy Audits, Part 1: Detecting Air Leaks

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As the weather starts to really warm up and you begin to run your AC more often, you probably also start thinking about how that will impact electricity bills this summer. That's why now is a great time to think about your home's energy efficiency and the different ways you can lower your cooling costs.

The first thing you'll need to do is conduct a home energy audit, which will give you a better idea of what kind of energy efficiency improvements you can make. You can always hire a professional to perform the audit. But, if you're like us, you'd rather take the do-it-yourself approach. Thankfully, a DIY home energy audit is a pretty simple and straight-forward, four-part process.

5 Steps for Detecting Air Leaks

There are five steps you can take to complete a thorough DIY air leak inspection:

1. Make a list of obvious targets for indoor air leaks

Grab a piece of paper, a clipboard and a pencil. Make a list of obvious places inside your home that have potential gaps or cracks that can allow air to flow in and out:

  • Attic hatches
  • Baseboards
  • Electrical Outlets
  • Fireplace dampers
  • Mail slots
  • Pipes
  • Switch plates
  • Wall- or window-mounted AC units
  • Weather stripping around doors
  • Window frames

2. Perform a visual inspection

A quick visual inspection of the potential problem areas on your list should be able to reveal significant air leaks. Make sure that all caulk and weatherstripping is applied properly, in good condition and without gaps or cracks.

If you see daylight around a door or window frame, then there's definitely a leak. Also, try and rattle your windows and doors. If you can move one by shaking it gently, then there's probably an air leak.

Seal any gaps that you can see with calk or weather stripping. If your doors and windows are old, you may want to consider upgrading to new, energy-efficient doors and windows.

3. Fine tune your search for air leaks

Once you complete a visual inspection for obvious air leaks you can fine tune your search for the leaks that aren't as obvious. You can do this by conducting a basic building pressurization test, which makes leaks easier to detect:

  • Close all exterior doors, windows and fireplace flues
  • Turn off all appliances with pilot lights, such as gas water heaters and gas-burning furnaces
  • Turn on all exhaust fans, such as those in the kitchen and bathrooms

Then, light a stick of incense and hold it next to the locations on your list. If the smoke is sucked in or blown out, then you know you have an air leak.

Caulk is usually your best choice for sealing these smaller leaks.

4. Take your search for air leaks outside

Next, take your clipboard and pencil and search for air leaks on the outside of your home. As a general rule, you want to check any part of your home where two different building materials meet:

  • Areas where the foundation meets the bottom of exterior brick or siding
  • Exterior corners
  • Places where pipes, electrical outlets and wiring enter the home (through brick mortar, siding or the foundation)
  • Where siding and chimneys meet

You're going to have to rely more on a visual inspection (since a pressurization test won't work outside, for obvious reasons) to check for exterior air leaks. For best results, make sure that all external areas are appropriately sealed. If not, or if you can see gaps or cracks in the mortar, siding or foundation — even if they're not around things like pipes or wiring — seal them with the appropriate material.

5. Beware of indoor air pollution and appliance backdrafts

Sealing your home up tight is a good idea, but, if no air is able to get in or out, you'll create a potential hazard from indoor air pollution or appliance backdrafts (when an exhaust fan pulls combustion gasses from gas-powered water heaters and furnaces into the living space).

When sealing air leaks, make sure combustion appliances have adequate air supplies. As a general rule, one square inch of vent opening is required for each 1,000 Btu of appliance input heat.

If you have questions about sealing air leaks and combustion appliances, play it safe and contact a professional ventilation contractor or your utility company.

A Word on Caulking

When sealing air leaks with caulk, make sure to choose the right kind of caulk and read up on how to apply it correctly.

Do-It-Yourself Home Energy Audits: Air Leaks, HVAC Equipment and Lighting

Now that you know how to detect and repair air leaks, make sure to read up on the other steps involved in a four-part DIY home energy audit:

Part 1: Detect Air Leaks

Part 2: Check Insulation

Part 3: Inspect HVAC Equipment

Part 4: Lighting

Sources

U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, "Do-It-Yourself Home Energy Assessments."

Tennessee Valley Authority Provides Home Energy Audits

Tuesday August 23, 2011
Posted at 09:57

The TVA is reporting some success with its home energy audit program:

The Tennessee Valley Authority has logged 25,000 home energy evaluations since launching an in-home program in March 2009.

TVA Vice President Bob Balzar said the steady growth in the program came because power distributors strongly supported it.

Balzar said the recommendations from the audits help consumers save energy and also bring them up to $500 in reimbursements when they make the recommended improvements.

We reported on the growing popularity of home energy audits here.