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Auditing Energy

Checking your home’s efficiency can make it more comfortable and less expensive.

The afternoon sunlight was streaming into the French doors toward the back of Candace Lightner’s living room on Portner Road in Alexandria, a recently renovated 1941 row house one block from the George Washington Memorial Parkway. But that wasn’t the only thing pouring into the room.

“There’s a leak,” said Lee O’Neal, moving his hand across the doorknob. “It’s right there.”

O’Neal is a building science consultant with Nspects, a Chantilly-based home inspection company that specializes in energy audits. He was inspecting the home of Lightner, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker, who wanted an energy audit of her home to make it more comfortable, more efficient and healthier. First O’Neal installed a red “blower door” that sucked air through her house, using a digital manometer to measure the exiting flow of air in cubic feet per minute. Then he used an infrared camera to document where her house was leaking energy. The audit took about three hours and cost $325.

“When I bought the home I knew it was a fixer-upper,” said Lightner as the blower door hummed in the background, adding that she has done extensive renovations to the home since she bought it for $303,000 in 2002. “But if I knew then what I know now I would have done things very differently. For example, my windows weren’t installed in a way that conserves energy.”

Land records on file with the Alexandria city government indicate that the value of her land is assessed at $332,600 and the value of her building is valued at $232,400 — a total of $565,000. But Lightner has hired O’Neal because she is searching for something priceless: the ability to live more comfortably in her own home and lower her energy bills.

“I decided that I would make my house a guinea pig,” said Lightner, who organized an energy audit of her own home as part of a public-relations strategy for the United States Department of Energy. “My home will probably fail because it’s so old, but I still think this is an important thing to do because homeowners should be thinking about these issues.”

LOCAL GOVERNMENTS in Northern Virginia have been struggling to address the issue. Earlier this month, Arlington County Board Chairman Paul Ferguson unveiled an environmental initiative aimed at lowering County government carbon-dioxide emissions 10 percent by 2012 — a plan that includes county-funded energy audits for 20 households in 2007. Those interested can apply on the county's Web site under a program Ferguson has dubbed the Arlington Initiative to Reduce Emissions, a program he calls “Fresh AIRE.”

“Arlington already is a nationally recognized leader in smart growth, but we know that we can do more to conserve energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate disruption,” Ferguson said in a New Year’s Day speech on his environmental initiative. “Our Fresh AIRE program sets ambitious — but achievable — goals.”

The city of Alexandria has also been trying to make its government greener in recent days, building a new high school that uses rainwater water in its toilets, employs solar panels to save energy costs and fills 90 percent of the building with natural light. Just last week, City Council members voted to spend $15,000 to create the “environmental action plan,” effort that city leaders hope will summarize the city’s existing environmental programs in the city and research practices in other jurisdictions.

“We’ve been focusing on this issue for many years,” said Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille, who attended Lightner’s audit to bring public attention to the issue of energy audits. “It’s important for making your home more comfortable in terms of temperature, but it’s also important for making your home more energy efficient.”

ACCORDING TO STATISTICS from Smart Communities Network, an environmental sustainability advocacy group, residential buildings consume more than 20 percent of energy in the United States. In a recent report, the group documented that buildings are a major source of pollution that cause urban air-quality problems, accounting for 49 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions, 25 percent of nitrous oxide emissions and 10 percent of particulate emissions.

“Having an energy audit is a great way to know where to start making your house better,” said Annette Osso, president of the Virginia Sustainable Building Network, who attended Lightner’s energy audit to bring publicity to the issue. “It will help you know how to prioritize your energy dollars.”

In the real-estate market, Lightner said, energy audits are a way for sellers can make their homes stand out and an important source of information for buyers. She said that she plans to use the information gleaned from her energy audit to make her home more comfortable and cheaper to maintain.

"I would encourage all homeowners to get an energy audit," she said. "It's important for your home and for the environment."