Home audits offer inexpensive energy-saving advice

After a year of receiving unusually high utility bills, Tom and Lana Oliver resolved to improve the energy efficiency of their home. Like most Americans these days, they had been inundated with advice on insulation, caulking, weatherstripping, and other methods for saving energy and energy dollars.

Yet the Olivers were unsure what major improvements their home actually needed. They wanted expert advice on which projects to start first, as well as an estimate of the costs involved in making the changes.

Help, they found out, was only a phone call away.

Tom discovered that free home energy audits were available from local gas and electric companies.

Free or inexpensive home energy audits are offered to customers of more than 300 major utility companies in the United States. This service represents one of several energy-conservation programs required of utility companies by the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975.

The home-energy-auditing program is based on the philosophy that use of existing kilowatts is more economical than the generation of new ones.

By using professional surveyors to evaluate the energy efficiency of a house, ''lost'' kilowatts can be recovered to the mutual benefit of the customer and the utility company.

Most audits take at least 90 minutes. During this time the auditor gathers structural information about the house by looking under floors and inspecting attics and basements. Further, he inspects equipment in the house - water heater , furnace, and air-conditioning systems, if any. He notes such divergent items as the age of the house, the square footage, the number of people living in the house, and the way the house sits on the lot.

By the time the survey is completed, the auditor will have collected some 40 to 50 items of information.

Using telephone lines and a portable computer unit, the auditor transmits encoded data to the utility company's main computer. The computer then processes the information and instructs the portable unit to generate a list of recommendations for the homeowner.

The printout specifies improvements that are necessary as well as those that are not necessary to increase the energy efficiency of the house.

The recommendations include the costs of making the changes, quite often quoting a do-it-yourself price. Also, most listings indicate a payback time - the length of time needed before the investments pay for themselves through money saved on utility bills.

Some audits are programmed to indicate which energy improvements may be eligible for tax credits.

Home energy audits provide a thorough and inexpensive evaluation of the energy deficiencies and strengths of a house. Each audit is a ''personalized'' assessment of the unique characteristics of one house.

These home surveys offer expert advice to homeowners like Tom and Lana Oliver who need help getting started on making their homes more energy efficient.

Homeowners who need guidance in planning additional improvements, or who want an assessment after energy improvements have been completed, can also benefit from these audits.

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