Today's homeowners are more aware than ever of the demands their appliances, lawns and heating and cooling needs have on the planet's limited supply of fossil fuels. Likewise, steady increases in the cost of those fuels mean that those homeowners often feel the cost of inefficient home energy use where it hurts the most: in their account balances after monthly energy bills are paid.
Many homeowners are looking for ways to make their homes more eco-friendly. Whether this stems from a wish to help the environment or a desire to cut heating and cooling costs, the steps are often the same. Some eco-friendly home improvements are small, simple, inexpensive steps. Others require more time, money and expertise. Here, we'll look at 10 popular home-efficiency tips that can fit almost any budget. While the best combination for your home's needs may vary, these home-improvement options include a number of projects and possibilities that could mean energy and cost savings for you and your family.
Know Your Home's Energy Weak Points
This is a tip almost any homeowner can follow, regardless of budget: Have a home energy audit. A home energy audit is essentially a thorough inspection of your home, in which you (or a professional inspector) examines such things as air leaks, sites where insulation could reduce energy transfer from outside and the efficiency of your appliances and electrical system [source: U.S. Department of Energy]. A professional energy audit, if it's in your budget, can include higher-tech assessments such as thermal imaging and precise airflow measurement. These tools refine the audit, helping the inspector pinpoint exactly where your home's energy weak spots are and how much they're costing you in terms of heating and cooling bills.
A home energy audit is a wise first step in making your home eco-friendly. Whether you hire a contractor or do it yourself, the audit will help you develop an effective gameplan of projects that can cut your energy needs and save money.
Control the Airflow
Drafts around doors and windows can waste a tremendous amount of energy. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that roughly 20 percent of the energy used to heat or cool the average home literally creeps out the doors or windows [source: Energy Star]. For an older house with poor seals under the doors or old, ill-fitting windows, the costs can be much higher. If you're on a budget and want to find a project that will make a big difference in your heating and cooling bills, controlling airflow is an excellent place to start.
Warm or cool air leaking into or out of your house is not the only airflow problem that can cost energy. Air creeping in from a cool room, such as your basement, or from a warm area to a cooler one, can cause additional problems. Interior doors, improperly sealed ductwork and even small gaps around switches and electrical outlets can lead to energy-consuming air leaks [source: Energy Star]. Be sure to check these areas as well.
Repairing these air leaks requires a variety of techniques and tools. Caulking can seal gaps that don't need to be opened. Something as simple as a draft-catcher placed under a door or along the base of a leaky window can help control airflow through these openings [source: Howard].
Watch the Windows
If your budget allows, upgrading windows to better-sealed and better-insulated models can pay huge dividends in the fight against high energy costs [source: Energy Star]. Energy-efficient windows typically use a number of features to separate the climate-controlled air in your home from outside air. Your budget may allow you to install multipane windows, in which the space between panes is filled with an insulating gas, such as argon [source: Efficient Windows Collaborative]. Insulating windows in this manner improves their U-factor, a measure of how well the windows prevent heat from escaping. A lower U-factor number identifies a more efficient window [source: Putnam].
The glass on these efficient windows is often tinted or treated with a glazing material that reduces the solar energy allowed into the home [source: Efficient Windows Collaborative]. This not only reduces glare, but also improves the windows' Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC), a measure of how the windows prevent sunlight from raising the home's indoor temperature [source: Putnam]. As with U-factor, a lower SHGC value identifies a more efficient window.
Often, multipane and tinting or glazing technologies are combined to produce custom windows that meet the specific insulation needs of a given house. If your budget doesn't leave room for the top end of the efficient window spectrum, something as simple as selecting windows with nonmetallic frames (the metal transmits heat through the wall) can provide some savings at a more reasonable cost [source: Efficient Windows Collaborative].
A Positive Reflection
The sun's effect on your home's energy usage doesn't stop at the windows. If you live in a home that heats up too much in the warm, sunny months, reflective insulation may be a cost-saving upgrade to put high on your to-do list.
Reflective insulation is designed to control solar radiation, the sun's heat-producing energy, which passes through your roof and walls to heat the air inside your home. Some types of reflective insulation can prevent wayward airflow inside, while others simply bounce the solar energy away from the interior (hence the "reflective" label) [source: U.S. Department of Energy]. Reflective insulation is often a thinner material than the thermal insulation used to keep heat from escaping from the home. It usually consists of a reflective material, such as aluminum, bonded to thin wood or another type of backing. It's typically used along with thermal insulation as part of a comprehensive project: Combining this type of insulation with the options described in the following section can provide year-round protection from the outside temperature [source: U.S. Department of Energy].
Batting, blown fill and rigid sheets of insulation provide energy-conscious homeowners with a number of benefits. These materials prevent the heat transfer that can occur through building materials such as wood, drywall and masonry. They can be installed to act as air dams, preventing airflow inside walls and energy-stealing drafts in attics and crawlspaces. And they provide some of the easiest DIY projects for improving the eco-friendliness of your home [source: U.S. Department of Energy].
Installing insulation can be as simple as unrolling fiberglass batting between rafters in your attic or studs in an unfinished garage wall. Covering blown fill with sheets of lighter insulation can be an effective way to insulate an overhead crawlspace. The use of a reflective barrier as an outer envelope against the inside of a wall or roof adds to the insulation's effectiveness without adding significant time and cost to the installation. More complex installations, like blowing cellulose fill into the space between studs of a finished wall, takes more specialized equipment, and may be best left to contractors [source: U.S. Department of Energy].
Regardless of whether you install insulation yourself or hire someone to do it, it's wise to consider the chosen insulation's R-value when planning your project. R-value is a measure of an insulation product's ability to insulate. The higher the R-value, the less energy is transmitted through the material [source: U.S. Department of Energy].
Grow a Low-impact Lawn
Think for a moment about the energy that goes into a typical home's yard. Fossil fuel powers lawn mowers and string trimmers, creating harmful emissions. Fertilizers used to grow lush green lawns and bountiful gardens leach into groundwater, creating a pollution problem that can affect drinking water quality. And poorly managed rain runoff can lead to sewer overflows and flooding [sources: The Jonah Center for Earth and Art, Manfredini, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency].
One of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to grow an eco-friendly lawn is to use native plants as ground cover, rather than bagged grass seed. Try changing your landscaping to frame a small lawn with beds of native wildflowers, rather than growing a lawn big enough for a soccer pitch. The reduced water and fertilizer needs of the native plants will reduce the amount of chemicals you release into the environment, saving both the groundwater and your lawn care budget [source: The Jonah Center for Earth and Art].
With a smaller amount of grass, you may be able to upgrade from a gas-powered lawnmower to an electric or manual model, which can save in fuel costs and emissions [source: Manfredini].
Smart, eco-friendly landscaping can have a positive effect on your home's energy use, as well. By strategically placing shade trees, you may be able to protect your home from excessive solar heating on sunny days.
Install Pervious Pavers
Uncontrolled rain runoff can cause serious problems for your community's environment. Impervious surfaces such as roofs, streets and driveways don't allow soil to absorb rainwater. Instead, the water gets channeled through often-aging sewers and culverts, then dumps into local waterways that evolved to accommodate much lower amounts of water during rain. As a result, erosion from excess runoff damages local streams and rivers, and low-lying communities become more prone to flooding [source: Hillsdale County Community Center].
As a homeowner, you can make a big difference in your community's runoff problem. Pervious pavement allows rainwater to soak through to the underlying soil. The soil then releases the water into local streams at a measured rate, filtering it and preventing the floods that develop when too much water hits the stream at once [source: Lake Superior Streams].
Some pervious pavement materials can be poured like concrete, while others are modular bricks or tiles that you can arrange into attractive patterns. The type of material you choose depends on the amount and type of use the surface will see, as well as your taste and budget. A tiled patio may be a weekend project within your reach, while replacing your asphalt driveway with a pervious one may be best left to a professional contractor. Either way, you'll finish the project with the satisfaction of knowing you've put the soil under your property to a very important public use.
Watch the Water
Some estimates suggest that heating water accounts for roughly a third of a home's energy consumption [source: Consumer Reports]. Whether you're building a new house or trying to make your current home more eco-friendly, improving your water heater's efficiency can be an effective investment.
Understand one thing, though: This type of home improvement can be an expensive undertaking. Tankless water heaters, which heat water as needed rather than storing it in an insulated chamber, are some of the most efficient heaters available. However, they can cost two to five times as much as a traditional tank water heater, and installing one in an existing house can require costly upgrades [source: Tennessee Valley Authority]. Still, if you want a very efficient water heater and can afford it, a tankless water heater is a good option.
For homeowners on a tighter budget, there are other ways to save on water-heating energy costs. For starters, make sure your water heater is the right size for your home. While a too-small heater may not meet your needs, an oversized water heater will waste energy. Check the heater's First Hour Rating (FHR), a measure of its ability to produce water during high-demand situations, to get a sense of how well it meets your needs [source: Consumer Reports].
Another measure to consider is the heater's Energy Factor (EF). This standard measurement can give you a sense of how efficient one heater is when compared to another. The higher the EF, the more efficient the heater [source: Consumer Reports].
Timing is Everything
Imagine having a personal assistant who made sure you had hot water just in time for your morning shower, warmed or cooled your house to the perfect temperature at the end of every day and monitored the cost of energy to make sure you only ran your power-gobbling appliances when gas and electricity were at their cheapest, non-peak rates. Thanks to a new generation of "smart" thermostats, this level of control is increasingly available to tech-savvy homeowners.
Thermostats have become much more than temperature-activated switches for heating and cooling systems. Many models can now monitor factors such as the energy use of individual appliances, the cost of energy at a given time of day and the functionality of appliances. Some of the more advanced models are able to contact you via e-mail if something goes wrong with an appliance, and they can be adjusted from your office computer or mobile device [source: Gaulkin].
These thermostats can run appliances when it's least expensive to do so. And when no one's home, they can easily turn off energy-hungry appliances, such as water heaters, and program them to restart in time to provide hot water in the evening [source: Gaulkin].
This level of control comes at a price, however. Smart thermostat units are much more expensive than their old-technology counterparts, and installing them in your home may require broadband or phone line upgrades to allow the devices to communicate properly. But the payoff can be significant: No matter how efficient your appliances are, you can save even more energy with this precise, instantaneous level of control.
Home appliances are tools. And like any tool, your washer, dryer, water heater and dishwasher will eventually wear out and need to be replaced. This fact of homeownership is also a great opportunity: When a major appliance wears out, some smart shopping can lead to major energy savings with an efficient new model [source: Energy Star].
The first step to making an energy-conscious appliance purchase involves learning how efficiency is measured for that appliance. Knowing what an appliance's ratings mean can help you shop smarter and faster.
Likewise, make sure you know what size appliance you need. Buying an air conditioner that's too small will lead to hot summers and a constantly running appliance. But a too-large air conditioner might not adequately remove humidity in your home and will waste energy when it's running [source: Energy Star].
Once you've found your new appliance, check to see if there are ways you can save energy through better installation. Can your water heater be moved to shorten the length of your hot water pipes? Are your air conditioning ducts properly sealed and insulated? Now is the time to address these issues and maximize your energy savings.
New, efficient appliances aren't always cheap. But evaluating your needs and researching your options can help you strike a balance between price and performance that will improve your home's eco-friendliness, regardless of your budget.
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