This simple score can help you find an energy-efficient home
This simple score can help you find an energy-efficient home
When you're in the market for a new home, are you thinking about energy efficiency? You should be! As this article explains, Home Energy Scores are a great way to identify areas of improvement and cost savings in your new home by pinpointing issues like poor insulation or energy-inefficient appliances. Solar panels are another excellent way to boost your home's energy efficiency — Panasonic's experts can help you take the next step.
Say you’re in the market for a home. You pop by an open house and marvel at the high ceilings, the granite countertops, the mudroom and laundry room. But what’s far easier to overlook is the insulation, weatherstripping, caulking, and heating and cooling systems. These and other elements that affect a home’s energy efficiency are often hiding in the walls, crawlspaces and basements, unloved and unexamined by prospective buyers.
That’s where the Home Energy Score comes in. The metric is like a miles-per-gallon rating for homes, summing up a dwelling’s energy efficiency in a single number that people can use to compare residences in a standardized way.
Home Energy Scores fall on a 1 to 10 scale: 1 means consuming the most energy and a 10 consuming the least. Launched by the U.S. Department of Energy under then-Vice President Joe Biden in 2012, Home Energy Scores help reveal what’s normally invisible.
It’s the kind of insight into home energy that’s sorely needed. Half of U.S. homes were built more than 40 years ago, which was before building energy codes had been widely adopted in the U.S., according to the DOE. Up to half of single-family homes in the U.S. have little or no wall insulation.
Those energy-wasting characteristics harm the climate and residents. Energy-inefficient homes that rely on fossil fuels directly or via a dirty grid generate more carbon emissions than they need to – and in the process stick residents with higher bills.
Home Energy Scores were developed to help transform the residential market, making the sometimes steep cost of wasted energy more transparent to potential buyers and even renters. But not many people seem to know about the scores yet. While there are more than 80 million single-family homes in the U.S. that could get a Home Energy Score, only about 228,000 homes have gotten one so far, according to the DOE.
Still, the reach of the program is expanding. The popularity of Home Energy Scores has been increasing “much more rapidly in the last several years,” said Megan Plog, Home Energy Score manager with the Building Technologies Office at the DOE.
A small but growing number of U.S. cities are even making the scores mandatory when owners sell. In Bend, Oregon, for instance, home sellers are required to disclose their Home Energy Score as of July.
The mandate is a key tactic to implement the city’s climate action plan, said Cate Schneider, senior management analyst for the city of Bend – the fourth city in Oregon to require Home Energy Scores, after Portland, Milwaukie and Hillsboro. About 29 percent of Bend’s greenhouse gas emissions come from home energy use, she said, “so it’s a large area of opportunity.”
How a Home Energy Score works
To calculate a Home Energy Score, a certified assessor collects 50 pieces of information about a home that most affect its predicted energy usage: its size, insulation, airtightness, number of windows, home heating and AC systems, water heating and more.
The Home Energy Score assessment intentionally leaves out the wild card of who lives there and how they use energy, similar to how miles-per-gallon ratings don’t account for driving habits. The calculation instead keeps household size and preferences like thermostat settings constant between homes for apples-to-apples comparisons.
As for interpreting the score, which takes into account the local climate, a home that scores a 1 languishes in the bottom 15 percent of homes with respect to energy consumption; a 5 describes an average home; and a 10 is in the top 10 percent, but often can still be improved. Because the score reflects total energy usage, bigger homes that consume more energy – even if they have efficient equipment – will get a lower score, all else equal.
With the score, you also get an estimate of energy costs, recommendations for upgrades to improve your score, and how much the upgrades would save you in cash and carbon emissions. That prescription is similar to what you can expect with a home energy audit, which the DOE also encourages – and which the federal government incentivizes with a 30 percent tax credit, 25C. Until the end of the year, the cost of getting a Home Energy Score qualifies for the 25C tax break, according to the DOE.
But a Home Energy Score assessment is designed to be less comprehensive than a full-scale energy audit in order to be quicker (around an hour) and cheaper (average cost depends on the market, but in the $125 to $300 range). Whereas a thorough energy audit deploys tests to measure energy use and loss, Home Energy Score assessments model energy usage instead.
Besides the Home Energy Score, there are loads of green-home certifications out there, including Energy Star, LEED, Pearl and Passive House. But what sets Home Energy Score apart is its simplicity, said Beth Baxter, associate director at TRC Companies, who works in energy efficiency. “It's so clear for the consumer,” she said.
Baxter recently got a Home Energy Score report for a property she owns in Michigan. She appreciated seeing what her score is now and how she could boost it, she said. “More people should use these” scores.
For added appeal, homes with high Home Energy Scores sell for more. A 2022 study by the DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that in cities requiring Home Energy Scores, a one-point increase was associated with a half-percent boost in sales price. A home with the top score of 10 would therefore likely sell for 2.5 percent more than a home with a middling score of 5.
The Home Energy Score program does have some limitations, though. The DOE tool used to calculate the scores currently only applies to single-family homes and townhouses. And to the chagrin of climate-conscious city officials who are urging residents to swap out fossil-fired furnaces for electric heat pumps, the tool is “fuel-agnostic.” It’ll suggest upgrading to a more efficient gas appliance if that’s what it calculates to be most cost-effective.
But the agency is coming out with an update that can tabulate Home Energy Scores for multifamily units and manufactured homes. It’ll also have an electrification option to help cities and homeowners decarbonize. The DOE plans to release the update by the end of the year, Plog told Canary Media.
Finding Home Energy Scores in the real (estate) world
If you’re looking for a home, keep an eye out for Home Energy Scores in the listings. Seeing a score could sway your selection; a sunny five-bedroom house with warm wood trim and soaring living spaces loses some luster when you find out it has an Energy Score of 1. (I speak from experience.)
If you’re curious to see what U.S. homes have gotten Home Energy Scores at any point, you can check out the Green Building Registry, a site developed and updated by the nonprofit Earth Advantage. (The site allows you to filter by other building performance certifications, as well.)
And to get a Home Energy Score yourself, you can find a certified assessor by checking with your utility, searching the DOE partner map and assessor database, or scouring the web with the search terms “Home Energy Score” plus the name of your town. You could also ask about Home Energy Scores when you’re shopping for an energy audit; some utility programs and home weatherization companies offer Home Energy Scores separately or as an add-on.
Whether or not you opt to get a Home Energy Score, if you own a home, Brett Little, education manager at the nonprofit GreenHome Institute, recommends investing in energy-efficiency upgrades to increase your home’s resale value. “It's not any different than a Realtor who gives people advice like, ‘Before you sell, make sure you paint the walls,’” Little said. Add energy-efficient improvements to that to-do list, “because that's what people want.”
But getting a Home Energy Score can clearly communicate that value to homebuyers – which otherwise might be all too easy to overlook.