Gas prices are rising and energy bills will be costly this summer, following an expensive winter. What can you do about it?

Perhaps more than you think. According to Michael Lotesto, an energy auditor and certified building analyst who owns Performance Exteriors ( in Crystal Lake, IL, tackling a few small fixes can add up to big savings.

“Take a look at the average attic,” he said as he poked through wide gaps in the pink insulation in my attic one day. “Voids and gaps of 5 percent in an insulating surface can reduce its overall effectiveness by up to 70 percent.”

Making sure your attic and basement insulation actually covers 100 percent of the area is a good first step toward energy efficiency. But many times, homeowners are hoodwinked into an expensive fix like replacing all of their windows, when a simple tube of caulk or an extra batt of insulation might be a better – and far less expensive – solution.

Still, plugging air leaks in a house and increasing energy efficiency is no longer considered an art, but a science.

“Building science has become more and more sophisticated than ever before,” said Steve Baden, executive director of the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET), based in Oceanside, Ca. “In the past, this was considered more of an art and now it’s a science because we have a methodology for calculating and testing of a home’s energy use.”

The science of building homes has developed dramatically over the past decade, according to William J. Parlapiano III, CEO of the Building Performance Institute (BPI), based in Malta, NY.

“A lot of contractors didn’t know what they were building when they built houses and the structure and ventilation was shoddy,” he explained. “This not only caused ‘sick buildings’ that were affecting the health of its occupants, but it was also costing customers unneeded high energy bills because certain components of the buildings were not installed correctly.”

While consumers pay a lot of attention to what their house looks like, they don’t pay enough attention to what goes on behind the walls, Parlapiano said.

“There are all kinds of problems caused by poor building science, including moisture problems, thermal discomfort, ice damming on roofs, windows freezing and cold rooms,” he noted. “All of these factors are caused by building performance problems.”

Baden says the biggest mistakes builders make include oversizing air conditioning and heating systems, and building ducts that leak. “Twenty-five percent of the time we find that this is why people are losing quality air conditioning in their home,” he added.

Often, contractors pass themselves off as energy specialists, when in fact few actually have any credentials whatsoever.

To get credentialed by RESNET, Baden said a contractor would need a background in basic building science and construction practices. A 6-day training course with classroom and fieldwork time helps get contractors up to speed for a test they must pass with a score of at least 80 percent correct. There is also a $100 fee.

“The people who achieve accreditation have to understand building science and the test covers all aspects of the new technology being used to do those measurements,” Baden explained.

To get credentials from BPI, an applicant must pass a written test as well as a field test, and pay a $500 fee. Currently, BPI has handed out more credentials in the Northeast than anywhere else in the country, but they are slowly reaching out to the south and west.

Michael Lotesto is the first BPI certified building analyst in Illinois. Robert and Marilyn Model met him at a building trade show and hired him to conduct an energy audit of their Schaumburg, Illinois home.

“At the time we were looking for windows. We were worried about energy efficiency. We were going to sign with another contractor, but then saw his products and I started to do some research,” Robert recalled.

While the Models were sorting out the differences between various bids for window replacement, Lotesto crawled into their basement and found exposed fiberglass and cement. There was a 2-inch gap in the foundation, which allowed a tremendous amount of air to leak into the house.

After conducting the rest of his energy audit, including the blower door test, Lotesto came up with an inexpensive plan that Robert Model could implement to cut down on the amount of air leaking into his home. It included purchasing about $300 worth of Styrofoam insulation and putting it over the exposed concrete walls in the crawl space. He also bought spray foam insulation and sprayed it over the insulation to seal any smaller leaks.

The Models ultimately wound up hiring Lotesto to replace their 28-year old windows in addition to making other adjustments, but they bought the less expensive windows he suggested, which have worked out well.

“They’re triple pane, double-strength glass. These windows had all these great features, but at a very affordable price,” Robert added.

Robert said his whole house feels warmer, and his monthly winter gas bill has dropped $50 to $160.

“There are no dusty smells from the basement and the whole house is quieter,” he observed.

Homeowners who hire a credentialed energy specialist to conduct an energy audit can expect to pay as much as $500. If you follow the recommendations, you can expect to save between 25 to 50 percent or more on your energy bill, although the audit should come with a written report detailing your annual energy profile, including consumption and cost for each mechanical system, plus detailed recommendations.

The energy audit report for my house ran more than 35 pages of single-spaced information.

In addition to saving money on energy, there can be other unintended benefits as well from the energy audit. In my own house, Lotesto found that an uninsulated, dirt floor crawl space was sending dust into the basement and up through cracks in the floor as well as delivering dust particles through electrical outlets in every room.

“Sealing those cracks will not only improve your energy efficiency, but should cut down on all the dust in your house,” Lotesto told me.

And all this time, I thought it was the duster.

Published: Apr 18, 2006