Consumer demand for energy-efficient homes has grown in recent years. As a result, contractors nationwide are getting into the business of meeting this expanding demand. The Building Performance Institute (BPI)—which provides training for people who want to enter the energy efficiency niche—estimates that it has certified 25,000 to 30,000 contractors across all 50 states.

But sorting these players out can be confusing. The BPI number includes auditors, raters, and home performance contractors, along with some HVAC companies and remodelers. While some of these companies focus on ensuring that new homes are built to conform to current energy codes, most focus on making existing homes more efficient and comfortable.

In some areas, local and state governments have made grants available to help homeowners pay for this work. In others, the gas or electric utility will offer incentives.

But because these funds seldom cover the entire cost of the work, homeowners still want to know what they’ll be getting for their money—and it turns out that lower bills aren’t the best way to get them to open their checkbooks. “Electric rates are relatively low in this country, so most contractors market their services as a way to improve comfort and to address health concerns,” says David Trelevan, a consultant with Advanced Energy, an energy consulting company in Raleigh, N.C.

Mark Bashista, a home performance contractor in Durham, N.C., has experienced a typical interaction with homeowners when it comes to applying his energy expertise. While he does get calls from people wanting lower energy bills, many also want a more comfortable home that has cleaner air and is free of mold and mildew. “A good percentage of customers call us to solve comfort and moisture problems,” he says.

A typical audit takes about half a day and focuses on finding the home’s weak points. It includes:

  • A visual inspection of all spaces in the home, from the basement or crawlspace up to the attic.
  • A blower door test to gauge the home’s overall air leakage rate and to identify where those leaks are.
  • The use of an infrared camera to help identify hot or cold spots in walls and ceilings. These confirm the blower door results and also tell the auditor and homeowner where the home’s insulation needs to be beefed up.
  • A duct blaster test to quantify and find leaks in forced air heating and cooling ducts.
  • Efficiency and safety tests of furnaces, water heaters, and other combustion appliances.
  • Tests of bath and other exhaust fans to make sure that they are venting moisture from the house.

Bashista sends the homeowners a written report with photos a few days after the audit. The report explains the test results and includes a prioritized list of available remedies. If the homeowners can’t afford to correct all of the home’s problems, the report shows them which repairs will provide the most benefit.
First on the list is almost always air sealing. The low-cost fix, when done right, improves comfort and efficiency while reducing moisture problems and enhancing indoor air quality. In fact, skipping this step will most likely make additional insulation or a new furnace a waste of money.

The above tests are usually repeated after the work has been completed, providing the homeowners with an immediate payoff for their investment.

Costs for an audit and a written report range from $200 to $500. If the homeowner opts to have the work done, some contractors credit this expense to the total cost of the upgrades.

Homeowners in colder partsof the country tend to have more complaints about comfort and moisture problems, creating a natural demand in those areas. However, it’s ultimately up to the contractor to create demand. “It takes a contractor who is passionate about this kind of work to create a local market,” Bashista says.

Trelevan suggests that dealers talk with contractors who do this type of work about the products that they use. Some products are likely on the shelves already, including insulation, spray foam, caulk, and heavy plastic.

—Charles Wardell