As the Seattle Times reported last week, the city just snagged a $20 million grant for energy-efficiency home retrofits, part of the federal "Retrofit Ramp Up" awards program, which gave grants to 25 cities. The grant will pay for inexpensive ($95) home energy audits for thousands of houses, condos, and apartments.

While builders of new construction frequently incorporate the latest and greatest methods to curb leaked air, water,  gas and heat, the vast majority of homes in Seattle, as in most cities, are old and inefficient. According to Yahoo! Real Estate, the median age of a house in Seattle is 48. So there's plenty of retrofitting to go around.Energy audits and efficiency improvements are one of the least sexy but most important aspects of the debate about green housing. No, the proud homeowner who's improved their insulation or caulked or puttied or added weather stripping may not have much to show for it, the way the owner of a spanking-new green home can show off their semi-solar heating system or low-impact natural fiber carpet or their low-flow potty. But no one ever said doing the right thing was sexy.

Am I biased about the importance of audits? Yes. I had my home audited by four separate practitioners in 2008, as part of a story on variations among so-called energy auditors and the availability of the tests.

Done right, and thoroughly, the audit process is expensive ($500) and technically complex. The fellow who came to our home used a giant fan to de-pressurize all 2,200 square feet of it and measure its air leakage level in what's known as a "blower door" test. Then he trolled the home with an infrared camera that spots temperature variations around windows and doors and other nooks and crannies, which indicates where insulation maybe necessary. Then he repeated those two processes. He eyeballed our joists, attic, our home's "outer envelope," and poked around like crazy.

Sure, $500 is a lot to pay for a guy to bring some geeky gear into your home. (And it definitely makes $95 look like a deal). But considering that half of our energy leaks were $10 fixes (putting some weather-stripping behind a door to the attic, adding insulation here and there, using a special caulk called "mastic" on ducts), the expense is worth it. For some homeowners, it can prevent unnecessary energy upgrades (some of which can be quite pricey) and pinpoint the most critical ones.
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