Shrink Your Bills and Your Carbon Footprint
Why work hard at making your home energy efficient? So many reasons! You’ll shrink your utility bills and your carbon footprint. You’ll probably be more comfortable — imagine no more drafts. And you might even increase your home’s value. A large California study showed that green certification added an average of 9 percent to the sales price.
All very appealing, right? But no matter how dedicated you are, it’s a tall order to get super efficient all at once. Like homeownership, energy efficiency — and sustainable living in general — is a journey. As you can imagine, the older your home is, the more complicated and expensive it could be to make it efficient. But by the same token, your efforts will make a bigger difference.
Just get started and enjoy everything the trip will teach you about your home and your relationship to the energy we all depend on.
Here’s what we’re going to cover:
- Where you’re spending your energy
- 9 ways to get more efficient in an evening or a weekend
- Top project: your attic and basement
- Replacing inefficient appliances
- How landscaping can save energy
- Home energy audits
- The ultimate: “net zero” energy use
- Paying for upgrades: government incentives
Where’s All That Energy Going?
First things first: understand your consumption. That will help you set priorities. Here’s how it breaks down in US homes overall, according to eia.gov:
- Space heating, 42%
- Appliances, electronics, lighting, 30%
- Water heating, 18%
- Air conditioning, 6%
- Refrigeration, 5%
Interesting facts: In the last few decades, there’s been a lot of migration to the South. That’s one reason why energy use for air conditioning has doubled since 1980. Also, with multiple TVs, game systems, and computers now common, electronics are taking a larger share of energy than they used to.
The Little Things Mean a Lot
You may well need to pursue big projects like insulating. But there’s a lot you can do, for little or no money, to make your home and your life more energy efficient in just an evening or a weekend. Or just by editing how you do everyday things. Here are some simple yet meaningful to-dos. For more detail, visit energy.gov.
1. Install a programmable thermostat. You could save 10 percent a year on heating and cooling costs, just because you won’t forget to adjust the temp. The new smart thermostats learn your habits and adjust themselves based on humidity and other conditions. Check out Consumer Reports’ thermostat buying guide.
2. Work with the sun. Use curtains and blinds to block the sun’s heat when you don’t want it and let it in when you do. You’ll reduce heat gain the most with a reflective or light-colored lining. Try this to skip the air conditioning: let cool air in at night, and then keep it in by closing all your windows during the day.
3. Maintain heating and cooling systems. Annual professional maintenance is a must. Be sure to replace the air filters regularly. What that means depends on your system, the type of filter, whether you have pets, and so on. Check the manufacturer’s recommendations and ask your pro.
4. Seal windows and doors. A typical home loses 25 percent of its heat through its windows. Winterize older ones with caulk and heat-shrink plastic. Plastic can reduce heat loss even on newer ones. If you have modest carpentry skills, you can build your own “winserts” — interior storm windows — with wood, plastic, and tape.
5. Reduce water heating. Lower the temp on your water heater to 120 degrees and install low-flow showerheads. (If you want a hot-tub-hot bath one night, just turn the heater back up for a while beforehand.) Wash clothes in cold water. Yes, cold water works, and it can cut the average household’s carbon emissions by up to 350 pounds every year.
6. Use a clothesline. The dryer is one of the biggest energy hogs in your house. If you don’t have an outdoor line, a fold-up indoor rack will work. Here is the coolest umbrella-style outdoor drying rig we’ve seen. It slides in and out of the in-ground base with ease, so you have the option of stashing it in the garage or on the porch when you’re not using it.
7. Dry smarter. When only a dryer will do, follow energy-saving practices. Number 1: Use the fastest spin cycle to get the max amount of water out of the clothes.
8. Get LED bulbs. Start with your most-used lights. Replacing just five bulbs could cut $75 from your electric bill. Plus, LEDs can last more than 20 years. Some states have programs that offer free bulbs or rebates. Check out the database at DSIRE. Your utility company might be helpful too.
9. Mind your devices. All kinds of equipment and appliances, including chargers, use energy even when idle. Devices on “off,” standby, or sleep mode are now said to account for 25 percent of residential energy consumption! Turn your computer off when you’re not using it, and choose a laptop when you can (desktops use far more energy). Use power strips to turn things off for real, at the outlet.
Top Project: Your Attic and Basement
In cold climates, every home is up against the stack effect. As hot air generated by your furnace rises, it pulls any cold outdoor air that’s coming in the leaky basement up through the house to the leaky attic, where it escapes. So to really stem the flow of heat out of your house, you’ll need to button up both attic and basement. It’s way more important than insulating your walls. To make sure you get this big one right, consider consulting a professional energy auditor (see below).
Replacing Inefficient Appliances
First up: Turn a cold eye to the fridge. It’s your most insatiable appliance. The older it is, the more energy you’ll save if you replace it. But new doesn’t always equal efficient for any appliance. You’ll have to do your homework on brands, types, and models.
Research tip: Whatever the appliance, it’s best not to rely only on Energy Star labels. The Energy Star system can be confusing, and lots of excellent green products don’t participate. Check out Consumer Reports for tough testing and real-world energy usage info. A month’s subscription is just $7.
Rebates: Check around for cash incentives to replace old, inefficient appliances with new ones. Places to start: your utility company and the DSIRE database.
Recycling: It’s great to reuse parts or metal, but in addition, some appliances contain toxic substances that should be disposed of properly. The store you buy your new appliance from might recycle the old one for you for free. Other places to try: your city department of public works, your utility company, appliance repair shops (they can use the parts), and this Environmental Protection Agency lookup page.
To Use Less Energy Inside, Look Outside
You can significantly cut energy use with well-placed trees and bushes that provide shade, direct cool breezes into your home, or break winter winds. Learn more at the Zero Energy Project.
Remember not to plant too close to the house. Some trees make a mess or have concrete-busting root systems (see our tips for choosing trees). And any plant that touches the house can create a bridge that invites insects inside.
Great Investment: An Energy Audit
Ready for a serious assault on your home’s energy profile? Before launching into a large project, you want to make sure you don’t waste significant time and money or even create new problems. So consider starting with a professional whole-home assessment and energy audit.
Any building is a complicated system of interrelated parts, and it’s easy to make a costly mistake when you start messing with it at the system level. Which is what serious energy efficiency often requires. Pros trained in building science can accurately diagnose energy issues and prescribe the best fixes, and the right order to do them in. And it probably helps that they’re not trying to sell you anything. Individual contractors (insulators, for example) might not give you the best advice. It’s not that they’re trying to rip you off — they just naturally have a narrow view.
What could possibly go wrong? Well, take moisture. If you’ve read Smart Start’s “Let the Home Maintenance Begin,” you know that moisture is perhaps your home’s worst enemy. When you start sealing and insulating your house better, it’s critical that you do it right, because you risk trapping moisture inside and setting yourself up for nasty mold and air quality issues.
Your utility company or your state might offer free audits, and that’s a great place to start. Such programs are sometimes tied to rebates and incentives for LEDs, insulation, and more, and you would want to get in on that in any case.
However, the quality and thoroughness of free assessments can vary a lot. If you’re looking into significant insulation work, it could be worth the $300 to $400 it will cost for a more expert, more thorough analysis of your home, complete with blower-door test and infrared camera. Look for an audit professional certified by the nonprofit Building Performance Institute or the Residential Energy Services Network.
Here’s what you can expect from a full-on home energy audit. Be sure to talk to the auditor about your needs and goals beforehand, and what that might mean for the audit.
The Ultimate: Net Zero
“Net zero” and “net-plus” (or “energy-plus”) homes are finally hitting the mainstream. They’re so efficient that, when you balance it out over the course of a year, they produce all or more of the energy they need with renewable energy — usually solar panels. In other words, they use zero fossil fuels. Wow!
It’s good to know what’s possible, but before the energy geek in you gets too excited, realize that retrofitting an existing building down to zero can be tough. How low can you get with your home and your budget? Links to explore:
Net zero on a budget.
Get inspired by this zero-focused DC couple who cut their fixer-upper’s energy use in half for less than $500.
7 steps to success.
Visit Green Building Advisor for retrofits in a nutshell.
Most people don't have the right roof for solar. But community solar arrays that you can buy into are springing up around the country.
Leased solar panels?
Be careful. Long-term contracts can have surprises buried in them. Besides, low-interest solar loans are making buying more and more sensible.
Paying for Upgrades: Work the Incentives
Before you do anything significant, check for federal and state incentives that might help you pay for insulation, efficient appliances, and more. Three places to look:
A comprehensive database of government incentives and policies.
Another place to search for federal and state financial incentives.
Local WAP agencies
Visit the NASCSP lookup page to find an agency in your area that works with the US Department of Energy Weatherization Assistance Program.