With winter around the corner, a study by the Energy Information Administration, the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy, projects double-digit leaps in home-heating costs. The Energy Information Administration, for instance, anticipates that the cost of heating oil for an average household will rise 36.3% in 2008 over 2007, and calculates that heating oil customers this year will pay an average of $2,644 to keep their homes warm. Natural gas costs are not far behind. Gas bills will go up 23.8% this year over last, according to EIA projections, raising the average cost of heating a home with gas to $1,059 per household. Not to be left out of the picture, the agency suggests that the cost of electricity will increase by 9.4%.

If all these projections hold true, consumers will be spending an additional $22 billion to heat their homes this winter, according to Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody'sEconomy.com, quoted in a story in USA Today.

The Great Escape

Surging energy costs and their effect on utility bills are behind growing homeowner interest in home energy audits. A home energy audit is an inspection, survey, or analysis of energy flows in the home with the idea of improving efficiency, comfort, and safety. An audit typically starts with an examination of HVAC systems, windows, doors and skylights, insulation, ductwork, appliances, and lighting. Inspectors develop a report from their analysis, with recommendations for improvements, which could involve anything from caulking cracks to replacing HVAC systems or windows.

Energy audits became popular during the early 1970s as a response to that era's similar leaps in home heating and power costs. Soaring utility bills make homeowners less willing to allow costly energy to dissipate through cracks, leaks, or other tears in the building envelope.

One source puts the cost of energy escaping from the average American home via air leakage at about $450 annually, though homes that lack insulation or modern energy-saving windows can lose far more than that. Indications that a home is leaking energy could include mold or mildew problems, drafts, attic or basement moisture problems, rooms that overheat, ice damming, and poor air quality. But you never know until you look.

Building Performance Contracting

Homeowners can do their own energy audits, using print or online guides. But those seeking serious savings would probably be inclined to turn to professionals. Many companies now make such services available. Rates for the services of "building performance contractors" vary from $400 to $1,000 for a visit and report, based on the home's square footage as well as location.

So critical is the need to promote conservation and stem the ever-growing demand for power and fuel that some utilities, as well as local municipalities, are subsidizing audits or are offering them to residents for free. During the last two and a half years, for instance, Washington, D.C., has audited 1,400 homes through its Department of the Environment. The District's Home Energy Rating Systemcbtardcfwwbueawrytyd (HERS) program is available to any resident who is a homeowner, and program director Willie Vasquez says that more and more people are taking advantage of it. "What we're finding," he says, "is houses without any insulation. It's not just windows."

Lately several home improvement companies have begun offering building performance inspection services to their customers, to the public, or both. In July, Sir Home Improvement, a Western Michigan siding and window company, began offering audits to customers for large-scale projects. Two company technicians, certified and accredited through a National Association of Home Builders program, will inspect for energy leaks and give homeowners a report.

"When we do a whole house of windows, or a siding job, we'll do a free analysis," says Sir Home Improvement owner Frank Mumford. Such audits, he says, would typically cost Kalamazoo-area residents anywhere from $400 to $600. Offering audits by certified inspectors sets his company apart, he says, from the many window replacement operations competing strictly on price. Such a service provides customers with "a value they can use for years to come."