Whether you live in an 1890s Victorian, a 1950s ranch house or a 1990s townhome, chances are you’d like to reduce your energy bills. Why not get started today? Many energy-saving improvements require little or no effort, while others involve basic DIY skills or the expertise of a building professional.
If you’re feeling daunted by the prospect of reducing your home’s energy bills, it can be helpful to think about it in terms of these three approaches:
Change your habits. For many of us, this is the easiest place to start. These actions are easy—success is mostly just a matter of reminding ourselves (and other members of our household!) that these small steps really do matter. Start with turning off lights and electronics when they’re not in use. Dial down the thermostat before you go to bed or leave the house. Wash laundry in cold water and use the dryer’s moisture-sensing setting if it has one (or use a clothesline if you can). Set your dishwasher’s defaults to the water-saver and no-air-dry settings. Unplug that second refrigerator in the garage or basement.
These are just a handful of suggestions. Try sitting down for 10 minutes and brainstorming about energy conservation ideas that make sense for your household. You’ll probably come up with dozens of easy ways in which you can make a dent in your monthly energy bill.
Change your home. Changing your energy consumption habits is the right place to start, but it will only get you so far, especially if you live in an older home with single-pane windows, minimal insulation or decades-old heating and cooling systems. Even relatively new homes can benefit from energy efficiency improvements.
Many home energy improvements are easy to do and don’t involve much time or money, like replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents, putting weatherstripping around doors, or choosing energy efficient models when buying new appliances and home electronics. Other improvements, like beefing up the insulation in your attic, may require some DIY skills and a modest outlay of money to buy products readily available at home improvement stores. With a larger financial investment and the help of building pros, you can make major improvements like outfitting your home with high performance heating, cooling and water heating systems.
Change where your energy comes from. Once you’ve kicked those energy-wasting habits and tackled some home energy improvement projects, you might want to go the extra mile and turn your home into an energy producer instead of just an energy consumer. Depending on how much energy you use and how much sun falls on your property, solar water heating and solar electric systems can be good investments, especially in light of rising energy costs. Right now, wind energy doesn’t make sense for most homeowners, but someday it might.
Renewable energy systems are expensive to buy and install but rebates, tax credits and innovative leasing arrangements are making them more affordable.
Reaping multiple benefits
For most people, saving money on each month’s utility bill is the major motivation for improving their home’s energy efficiency. But energy improvements actually provide multiple benefits. When making a decision about whether to move forward with an energy upgrade project, be sure to factor in all these benefits.
Lower your energy bill. Energy efficiency improvements can cut your utility bills month after month, year after year. Some improvements pay for themselves more quickly than others. A $20 low-flow showerhead will likely pay for itself in a matter of months. A $20,000 solar electric system, on the other hand, could take many years to pay for itself.
Reduce maintenance time and replacement costs. Many energy efficient products are longer lasting or simply better made than their conventional counterparts. Compact fluorescent light bulbs last 8 to 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs, so they rarely have to be replaced, a real plus for hard-to-reach light fixtures. Energy-efficient appliances are typically made with high quality materials and advanced technologies.
Increase your property value. Energy efficiency upgrades and other green home improvements can make your home more attractive to prospective buyers. A 2008 article in SmartMoney.com said that green homes typically appraise for 10% to 15% higher than comparable conventional homes.
Be more comfortable. Energy upgrades don’t just make your home more affordable, they also make it more livable. Improvements like adding insulation, eliminating air leaks, installing high performance heating and cooling systems, and replacing windows can reduce drafts, eliminate hot and cold spots, and keep your home’s rooms at more even temperatures. Insulation and double-pane windows help block noise from the outside. Sealing ducts and other air leaks can help keep dust and other indoor air contaminants out of your home.
Help your community and the environment. The actions you take to cut your energy bills also have global repercussions—using less energy means you’re helping fight climate change and reducing air pollution caused by energy production. And by cutting your demand for energy, you help reduce the potential of energy supply interruptions and slow the rate at which we need to develop new energy sources or build new power plants.
For many people, concerns about cost can be a stumbling block to making home energy improvements. Many upgrades involve spending money upfront in order to reap savings over the long-term. How long it takes to see those savings depends on a lot of factors.
A faucet aerator, for example, costs only a few dollars and takes almost no time to screw onto the tip of a faucet. Your savings in water heating energy and water consumption will likely pay for that aerator in three months or less. More complex energy improvement projects typically involve longer payback periods, but are usually good investments. A building professional with expertise in energy efficiency, such as a Certified Green Building Professional or a GreenPoint Rater, can help you evaluate those payback periods and determine if the improvement makes sense for your situation.
Not all energy efficiency improvements will save you money, however. For example, if you live in a mild climate and don’t use a lot of energy for heating or air conditioning, replacing single-pane windows with double-pane windows may not pay back for decades. That’s because the energy savings are likely to be modest while the cost of buying and installing new windows is high. But you might choose to make the switch anyway because of other benefits, like blocking noise from outside or reducing drafts.
To lower the cost of energy upgrades, take advantage of efficiency rebates offered by local power and water suppliers. Also, for a limited time, Energy Upgrade California is offering rebates available through participating contractors that can save California homeowners thousands of dollars on upgrade projects.
Special financing, tax credits and lease arrangements may also be available for renewable energy systems. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (www.dsireusa.org) has a comprehensive list of financial incentives for efficiency and renewable energy upgrades.
Planning for energy efficiency
Your home energy improvements are most likely to be successful if you plan for them ahead of time rather than treating them as an afterthought to other home improvement projects. Any time you embark on a home improvement project, no matter how small, think about whether there are energy upgrades you can make at the same time. If you plan to paint a room, for example, that’s a great time to seal gaps with caulk, replace old weatherstripping around windows and doors, and maybe even add a ceiling fan.
If you suspect your water heater is reaching the end of its life, don’t wait for it to fail. In your haste to have a hot shower again, you might settle for replacing it with an inefficient model. Instead, consider your options beforehand (see our know-how feature on Water Heating), shop around for efficient products and knowledgeable plumbers, and get your new energy-saving water heater installed before the old one gives out.
If you are working with an architect, builder or other building professional on a larger remodeling project, let them know from the start that energy efficiency is a priority and ask them to review with you all of your energy efficiency upgrade options. California’s Building Energy Efficiency Standards, or Title 24, as they are commonly called, establish minimum energy efficiency requirements for all new building construction and major remodeling projects in the state. When you build a new home or remodel an existing one, Title 24 dictates the minimum amount of insulation required in new walls, minimum performance specifications for new windows, the size of a new furnace, and much more.
Simply meeting code, however, isn’t necessarily the best path. Efforts such as upgrading insulation beyond code requirements, choosing higher efficiency heating and cooling equipment, and using fluorescent lighting throughout the home can further reduce energy consumption and related greenhouse gas emissions, as well as reduce utility bills.
Going with pros vs. DIY
If you are a do-it-yourself type, there are many resources available to help you plan and carry out home energy improvements. Start with the Green Pointers on this website, and with information offered by energy efficiency websites such as Energy Star (www.energystar.gov), Flex Your Power (www.fypower.org) and your local energy supplier’s website.
If you need professional assistance, choose building professionals with expertise and training in energy efficiency improvements. Build It Green’s Certified Green Professionals Directory can help you locate trained Green Building Professionals and GreenPoint Raters and Advisors.
Also, Energy Upgrade California (www.energyupgradeca.org) can connect you with contractors who can help you complete certain types of energy upgrades and obtain limited-time rebates that may save you thousands of dollars.
Related Green Pointers
- Building performance
- Carbon monoxide and combustion safety
- Faucets, showerheads and toilets
- Heating and cooling
- Insulation and weatherization
- Kitchen and bathroom ventilation fans
- Lighting and daylighting
- Renewable energy
- Structural improvements
- Water heating