All the talk of Cash for Caulkers and the government's willingness to reimburse homeowners for part of the cost of retrofitting our homes to boost energy efficiency leaves one wondering.

How does a homeowner with underdeveloped DIY-skills and little energy savvy know where to start?

One of the best ways to discover where your home is leaking energy is through a home energy audit. A thorough audit can help assess how much energy your home uses "” and loses "” and can evaluate measures you can take to improve efficiency, advises Angie's List, which compiles local consumer reviews on local contractors and doctors in more than 500 service categories.

Most important, it can also help homeowners prioritize solutions to get the biggest bang for their energy-saving bucks.

A typical audit is usually about $400 according to Chris Dwyer of Emotiv Energy Audits of Oakley, a former teacher who has been doing audits about five years. "The full reports, with photographs, solutions, estimated costs of repairs and estimated savings, can then be taken to a bank for an energy improvement loan or an energy efficient mortgage," he says. (An EEM is a mortgage that credits a home's energy efficiency in the mortgage itself and lets borrowers finance cost-effective, energy-saving measures as part of a single mortgage).

It's not a clean business. "I get dirty," he says, "crawling around attics and squeezing into crawl spaces" to access a home's hidden trouble spots.

Most energy audit companies use the blower door fan test (closing off the house and putting a fan in the front door that pulls the air out of the house lowering the air pressure. The higher outside air pressure then flows in through all unsealed cracks and openings to pinpoint air leakage) as well as infrared tests (a camera measures approximate surface temperatures) moisture meters, gas leak detectors and borescopes or optical devices with flexible tubes to see into inaccessible areas.

To discover the basics of an audit we first went to www.duke-energy.com, easily signed in to access our account and got an online audit that tracks our home's energy use over the last 12 months pinpointing by percentage, among other things, what household uses were sucking away the most electricity and natural gas. No big surprise "” heating ate up 81 percent of natural gas. Cooling, food storage, lighting and "other" took equal shares of electricity. We could see a month-by-month tally and compare our home's costs with others the same size. But we wanted advice beyond the helpful energy tips at the site.

Duke offers a basic audit, A Home Energy House Call, free to homeowner/customers who have lived in their homes at least four months. It lacks the fancy gadgets and infrared cameras of the audit firms but was surprisingly thorough and helpful. The auditor, Owen Burns, was from Thermo-Scan Inspections, and he knew his stuff.

The specialist analyzes total home energy use, checks for air leaks, examines insulation levels, reviews appliances and heating/cooling systems and from the information collected provides a custom-tailored report delivered on the spot (as in my case) or within 10 days, detailing steps to increase energy efficiency and reduce your energy bill.

Burns started with a sit-down lifestyle interview to determine how a family uses electricity, water and natural gas, recording house stats like age, the type of heat, the average thermostat setting in winter and summer (they recommend 68-70 in winter and 75 and up in the summer), the age of refrigerator, dishwasher, washer, dryer, water heater, whether there's an extra fridge or freezer.

"We're trying to get an understanding of the age, the condition of the house, appliances or anything that affects your billing," says Burns, as well as any improvements you may be considering.

Then we moved on to the weatherization of the house, examining the shell of the house, the cap or top and the basement or foundation.

THE SHELL

"The whole idea is that you want the shell to be as airtight as possible," says Burns, who lists inexpensive fixes anyone can do to doors and windows, the biggest leakage points. That includes weather stripping, caulking, sealing trim and installing foam back-plates to switch-plates on outside walls.

Doors should shut snugly with no play. They can be adjusted from time to time. There should be absolutely no light coming in around the edges, and windows should be at least double pane and ideally triple pane.

"Caulking around windows is always the first thing a homeowner can do," says Burns, and should be checked and re-done every other year if necessary. Exterior light fixtures should be sealed where they meet the house and garage framing should be airtight, two things homeowners can easily do themselves.

"The rule of thumb is that prior to 1975, most houses built probably didn't have wall insulation since it wasn't even invented until the 1930s," he says. "And back then insulation was considered an upgrade. Heat and fuel was cheap and abundant. The energy crisis in the '70s prompted builders to re-evaluate and start putting insulation in walls."

Given Cincinnati's older housing stock, a failure to find sufficient insulation is not unusual.

In older homes "I explain how they are losing energy and point out several options from pumping cellulose into walls or using a foam injection method which is the most popular today." The average cost is about $2,000 per level but Burns points out the tax credit, the comfort improvement, the decrease in energy costs and the boost to re-sale value. "It eventually pays for itself," he says.

THE CAP

The "cap" of the house or attic should have a minimum of 6 to 10 inches of insulation to be considered adequate providing an R-30 value. "But the game is changing," Burns says. "Because we're on the fringe of another energy crisis, it's suggested homes in our region of the country have an R-49 rating and that's about 16 to 24 inches of insulation.

THE BASEMENT/FOUNDATION

Several things penetrate the house, usually in or near the foundation including electric, gas and cable lines, plumping, vents, power lines. "You need to make sure all these are sealed at the entry points or air gets into the house," Burns says.

Depending on the construction of the house, ceiling insulation in a cement crawl space might be suggested as well as lining outside walls with foam board insulation. And installing a water heater wrap can help cut energy bills as well. Furnaces should be checked to make sure seams are sealed and foil tape should be installed around air ducts to prevent leakage, another easy DIY chore.

After the walk-through Burns went over a list of possible suggestions and marked what should be done, providing a printout of materials needed and guesstimates on costs.

"Most recommended projects are DIY Saturday afternoon projects," Burns says.

He also left an Energy Efficiency Kit with CFL light bulbs, a roll of weather stripping, an energy-efficient showerhead, a kitchen faucet aerator, a needle spray bathroom faucet aerator and switch and outlet energy seals.

Duke's Home Energy House Call was started in 2007 and has evaluated about 10,000 homes, according to Rick Mifflin, manager of residential energy efficiency products for Duke, who says homes are generally targeted by direct mail. Scheduling is done by area and the goal is to reach respondents within about 45 days.

Making customers more energy efficient frees up energy for other needs, he says. "For example CFL bulbs use 25 percent less energy than an incandescent bulb, freeing up kilowatt hours and a generating capacity that can be used elsewhere."

A pilot program is now being tested offering a more comprehensive audit for about $99 that will have the ability to take customers to the next level of actually getting the suggested work done through a Duke connection with contractors. "The intention is to look deeper and help homeowners act on the findings," Mifflin says. It is expected to start in August or September.