Like most homeowners, I want to lower my energy bills. And I don’t suspect I’m atypical in not knowing exactly where to begin.

When we bought our house just outside St. Paul, a smallish place built in 1922, the first place I looked was the windows – the original, drafty, clunky old wooden windows. I gathered estimates – as high as $14,000 – to outfit the entire home with new, vinyl high-efficiency windows.

The high cost, not surprisingly, relegated that project to the back burner, and, as is the custom in these parts, I simply seal the windows shut with removable caulk and plastic film every winter.

So now what. Insulate the walls? Replace the doors? Commission Christo to wrap the whole place in fabric?

Come to think of it, how do I really know whether the house is inefficient at all?

A few weeks ago, I decided to eliminate the guesswork and have an energy audit performed. My utility, Xcel Energy, has a program that splits the cost, so a full analysis, including infrared scans, can be done at a cost of only $100 to the homeowner (there are lower-frills options available for less money). The auditor provides a report with specific recommendations, as well as information on additional rebates from Xcel to complete the repairs. Many utilities in other areas have similar programs.

For starters, we learned that our house is pretty average in terms of energy use. But we still have some work to do.

The audit helped pinpont a few specifics – for instance, the infrared scans revealed that some of the loose-fill insulation had migrated partway down the angled ceiling on the second floor. The picture below shows a section of ceiling in an upstairs bedroom (the dark areas are colder, the temperature reading is the surface temperature where the bullseye is pointing).

Also, part of the wall on the first floor was insulated during a kitchen remodel, and odder still was this strange section of wall that seemed partially filled with something – we’re guessing vermiculite, which contains asbestos. That’s a handy thing for a contractor to know before they start punching holes in the place.

As an experiment, I had the auditor point the infrared gun at three different windows in the house – two of the original wood windows, one with plastic on it and one without; and a newer vinyl window in the kitchen. Interestingly, all three windows showed the exact same temperature, showing little difference in their insulating qualities (although, the vinyl window deserves a handicap since it’s on the north side of the house). What really matters is how tightly sealed they are, and it seems the caulking gun is the most effective weapon in that fight.

So now, we’ve got a good sense of where to deploy our money. For around $3,500, we can add insulation to the roof and walls, along with caulking and insulating around the foundation, with a payback period of around 5 years. Xcel even maintains a list of recommended contractors to do the work.

Knowledge, they say, is power. And it’ll make it a lot easier to learn to love regard fondly put up with those old wooden windows for a few more years.

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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