When the weather outside is extreme enough to make you shiver or sweat, your home is a retreat into cozy or cool comfort, unless your windows and walls let outdoor air seep in. But your heat or air conditioning isn't the only thing going out the window. Your money, too, will be wasted in the pursuit of warming or cooling the rapidly escaping air.
That was architect Doug Farr's problem with his drafty, 30-year-old home. A Chicagoan, Farr was no stranger to blustery winters, but he has found that an energy-efficient retrofit of his home has brought satisfaction with more than just the money he's saving on utilities. "It makes a difference on cold days, being able to sit in those rooms comfortably," Farr says. "More of our house is occupiable. The heat added to that room stays in the room, and so do we."
Old, drafty houses may keep the makers of the Snuggie in business, but they're also why so many Americans pay more for their utilities than they should. All of the air that they pay to heat and cool can go right out the windows, doors, and seams of an improperly insulated home. But it doesn't have to be that way. By making energy-efficient improvements to your house, you can lower your monthly bill and also do something for the environment. Any house is a good candidate for some tweaks, whether it's a total retrofit or an afternoon with a can of spray foam."If you're going to stay in your house a long time, it's for you," says Farr. "If you're going to hand your house off to your kids, it's for you. If your property values are increasing or holding steady, it's for you. If you want to make an investment that has a better return on it than retail investments—you can get a seven-year cash payback—it's for you."
Energy audit. The first step toward a more efficient home is an energy audit, a test to see where your home is wasting the most. To really seal up your home's envelope, as it's called, experts recommend calling in the pros. Through the Energy Star online directory, a local auditor can be found who will bring in some diagnostic equipment to test your home for places where heat or air conditioning might escape. Your auditor will probably do what's known as a blower door test, which lowers the air pressure in your home and reveals leaks. He or she may also take a photo of your house with a thermographic camera, with the red areas of the photo indicating where better insulation and sealing are needed.
If you don't want to shell out money for an energy auditor, you can perform a casual energy audit yourself. Efficiency experts recommend feeling around baseboards, windows, doors, light switches, and electrical sockets for air leaks. Air can escape or enter from anywhere two different building materials meet. Farr says another trick is to look at your roof on days when snow is falling to see how long the snow stays put compared with the snow on the ground. The faster it melts, the more warmth you're losing through your attic because of poor insulation. If the snow is melting as soon as it touches your roof, that's a bad sign.
While closing up leaks is one thing, there are several other ways that homeowners on a budget can improve their home's energy efficiency with just a trip to the hardware store. One that is universally recommended: switching out your old light bulbs for energy-efficient, compact fluorescent bulbs. A large portion of your electricity bill is from lighting, and according to the Department of Energy, using the new bulbs can cut your lighting costs by as much as 75 percent. They pay for themselves within six months.
There are also other home improvements that don't require technical expertise. One is to wrap your water heater in a custom blanket, reducing heat loss by up to 45 percent. The blankets can be found at your local hardware store and typically cost less than $20. Another is low-flow shower heads, which are easy to install and are a win-win for both power and water bills. If you use less hot water, you'll also be spending less to heat it. A programmable thermostat allows you to set the temperature warmer or cooler for times when you'll be asleep or out of the house. You can also seal leaks in the ducts of your HVAC system—ironically, not with duct tape. Several other tapes will work. Ask at your local hardware store.
Bigger projects. But some jobs are too complicated for the average homeowner, such as new windows, better insulation, or sources of alternative energy, for example. And for those, you'll need to call in the pros: home builders and contractors who specialize in energy efficiency. To find one, Jennifer Owens, manager of residential education programs at the U.S. Green Building Council, recommends that you search through any of several websites that compile and certify builders with sustainability experience, such as the USGBC's Green Home Guide or Energy Star from the Department of Energy.
When choosing a "green" builder, it is important to set goals for energy use reduction upfront. Owens recommends selecting someone who has a holistic approach to the project and looks beyond energy to other factors, such as air quality, ventilation, and pressure. In many cases, "homeowners make powerful improvements, but they haven't taken into account indoor air quality," says Owens. "Make sure you're assessing the current state of the home."
After finding a contractor, it's time to get to work. Chances are, insulation will be the first update recommended. If you're building an addition and thus tearing down walls anyway, your contractor may recommend installing rigid foam-board insulation, but if you'd like to add insulation in the least invasive way possible, a contractor will opt to drill evenly spaced holes in your wall for a spray-foam nozzle to fill the spaces behind your drywall. Experts say adding insulation is the best energy upgrade homeowners can make because of an immediate improvement in the temperature of the home, and it's also a project that pays for itself quickly. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, the average amount that consumers paid for insulation in 2007 was $1,457, which, relative to other factors in your home, can be recouped within a few years.
After insulation, it may be time to consider upgrading windows, depending on their age. Farr recommends Energy Star windows with a low-emittance coating and double panes filled with argon gas. Windows are pricier, though, costing homeowners an average of $2,790, and it generally takes longer to see a return on investment varying with the age of the old set.
Next, look at the heating and cooling mechanisms of your home. Sealed combustion furnaces are the most efficient and use more than 90 percent of the air they heat in the home without wasting it, according to the Department of Energy. For air conditioners, look for a unit with a seasonal energy efficiency ratio of 16 to 21, which is the highest level of efficiency. Another option is a geothermal heating and cooling system, which utilizes pipes running from the more stable, ambient temperatures found 5 feet underground year-round into your home, where they pump heat in or out, depending on the season.
You can also think of ways to modify your home's structure for efficiency. Brian Castelli, executive vice president for programs at the Alliance to Save Energy, built an energy-efficient home in Falls Church, Va., that has windows with an overhang. The angle of the window cover is calibrated to keep the sun out in hot summer months but let it in during winter months when the sun is lower in the sky and can heat rooms passively. You can work with a landscaper to plant trees that will serve the same purpose.
The final step. To achieve a superefficient home, the next step is alternative energy. The most common form is solar power, but it can include the rare residential wind turbine. Farr estimates that installing a solar hot-water system, which is cheaper than installing a photovoltaic system to generate power for the entire home, has a payback of seven or eight years. However, solar panels may elicit complaints from neighbors, who may consider them to be an eyesore.
If you've gone as far as adding an alternative energy source, you may be interested in third-party certification of your green home. LEED, the pre-eminent certification standard, does not have a separate category for renovations, but if a home has had a full retrofit, it may be eligible for LEED residential certification. The National Association of Home Builders also offers a certification for renovations.
But if you're looking to renovate to increase your home's value along with its efficiency, think again. While certain features, like an extra bedroom, can be added in an efficient way, an energy retrofit alone will not significantly raise the value of your home, because there aren't enough data yet to determine how much more an energy-efficient home is worth than a regular home. "Lending agencies and appraisal providers are less willing to put a value on these things," says Kevin Morrow, program manager for green building standards at the NAHB. But he says the industry is catching up.
That's not to say that there aren't immediate benefits for homeowners. Not only will you see immediate savings in your utility bills, but you can also take advantage of a number of tax credits for energy-efficient home purchases (story, Page 64). "The government is clubbing people over the head to do it now," says Farr. "The economy needs your dollars."
For Ryan McConnell, a Fort Worth homeowner, an extensive energy retrograde earned him tax breaks and has helped him to save hundreds each month on air conditioning. But the savings aren't his only motivation."For us, it's a matter of doing the right thing over the long term," he says. "We know it will pay out over the course of our lifetime. We've started to look at our house as something that will be here longer than us."
Chris Redmond, an architect with the New Hampshire-based Little Green Homes, agrees. "Some people feel strongly about wasting, whether it be energy or paper towels," he says. "In my family, we try not to waste things, period, and there's a good feeling about that. We're not burning fuel that is going out the window."
And no one wants to waste money. An investment in an energy-efficient home could ensure that from now on, utility bills will be no sweat.