Tired of high energy bills? Sitting in the dark or turning off the heat is not your only option. From caulking to replacing your water heater to installing solar panels, there is a variety of projects you may be able to undertake to improve your home’s energy efficiency and reduce your carbon footprint.
If you had a hole in the middle of your window, you would fix it, right? Well, air can just as easily enter and escape around the sides of windows, doors, and vents. To determine if there are gaps that need sealing, place a piece of thread or tissue near the frames (on the interior side) on a windy day. If you see it flutter, you know air is coming in. Doors and moveable joints in windows can be sealed with weatherstripping. Fixed joints in windows and vents can be sealed with caulking. There is a variety of weatherstripping and caulking products available – talk to a hardware store employee or do research online about what is the right product for your situation. Although more expensive, if you have older doors and windows, another option is to replace them with new energy-efficient ones. Balance the cost and benefits before making a major investment.
You may be able to improve the energy efficiency of your home by increasing the thickness of existing insulation or adding it in areas where there is none. Insulating an unfinished attic is usually a fairly easy project since you don’t have to remove drywall and turn your living space into a construction zone. You can also add insulation around pipes, heating and cooling ducts, and the water heater. Of course, you don’t want to go overboard. It is a good idea to consult with a professional or do some research about the recommended level and type of insulation for different locations and elements. A helpful source of information is the Zip-Code Insulation Program, created by the Department of Energy, which provides insulation guidelines based on your location and your home’s characteristics. It can be found at www.ornl.gov/~roofs/Zip/ZipHome.html.
Heating and Cooling Systems
Heating and cooling account for about 56% of the energy use in a typical U.S. home, so updating your heating and cooling systems can have a big impact on your bill. When deciding what type of system to install, it is important to consider the limitations and needs of your home.
Ventilation (e.g., ceiling and window fans) is the least expensive and most energy-efficient way to cool a home. However, it generally is not practical as the solo cooling option in hotter climates – unless you enjoy living in a sauna. If you live in a dryer climate, you may be able to use an evaporative cooler, which uses water pads to cool the air. Air conditioning is the priciest and most energy-consuming option, but you may still be able to lower your bills by switching to a new high-efficiency air conditioner. Quality modern air conditioners use 30%–50% less energy than air conditioners made in the mid-1970s.
Most U.S. homes are heated with either a furnace or boiler. To increase efficiency, you can either retrofit or replace the furnace or boiler. Retrofitting involves making changes to the unit to increase efficiency, such as adding a vent damper, without replacing it. Whether it makes more sense to retrofit or replace depends on the expected remaining life of your heating system and the cost of each option. New heating systems can achieve an efficiency of up to 97%, whereas older furnaces and boilers typically have an efficiency of around 56-70%.
Appliances and Electronics
Running appliances and electronics account for 20% of energy use in a typical U.S. home. It probably is not cost-effective to replace things that are only a few years old, but if you still have the avocado green refrigerator and stove that the previous owner left, it may be time to get new ones. A simple way to find energy-efficient products is to look for the Energy Star label. To qualify for this label, a product must meet certain standards for energy usage set by the government. Detailed information about the Energy Star label is available at www.energystar.gov.
Insulating or increasing the insulation on your water heater tank and pipes can decrease heat loss and lower your energy bills for a fraction of the price of replacing your water heater. On the other hand, if your water heater is nearing the end of its life, it is probably a good idea to replace it. Not only can you lower your bills by getting a more efficient heater, but you won’t have to worry as much about it bursting or leaking. Tankless water heaters, which only heat water when needed, are generally more expensive than conventional water heaters, but for homes that use 41 gallons or less of hot water per day, they are about 24%-34% more energy efficient. For homes that use a significant amount of hot water, the difference between the two is considerably less.
While solar panels typically have high upfront costs, they can provide clean, free energy for years to come. To determine whether solar panels are a good investment for your home, consider the amount of sunlight you usually receive, the size of your roof, and your local building codes. You can use the Solar Calculator at www.findsolar.com to estimate the cost of installing panels and how long it will take for your investment to pay you back.
There are many options to finance energy-efficient improvements. For example, you can withdraw from your savings or take out a personal or home equity loan or line of credit. (Of course, you want to borrow responsibly and not take out more than you can afford to pay back.) You may also be able to take advantage of energy-specific programs. Contact your state’s energy department to see what low-interest loans, rebates, or other benefits are available to residents doing green renovations. (More information about California’s programs is available at www.consumerenergycenter.org.) You may also qualify for tax benefits, such as credits, for purchasing certain products. To get the most up-to-date information on tax benefits, visit the IRS’s website at www.irs.gov.
Improving the energy efficiency of your home does require spending some money upfront. But by spending a little bit of green now, you can save a lot of green later.
*Energy usage and efficiency figures come from the Department of Energy. For more facts and tips, visit www.energysavers.gov.