Aug
14
2008

Home Improvement Projects to Save Energy and Lower Your Energy Bills

The right home improvements can save you money beginning almost immediately and increase the resale value of your home, while also making your home a more comfortable place to live. In the future many home buyers are going to be much more concerned with energy efficiency and total cost of ownership.

Tighten you HVAC Duct Work – Leaky ducts that run through unconditioned attics or crawl spaces can waste huge amounts of energy.

Upgrade to an On demand Water heater – Replacing your standard water heater with a high efficiency on demand water heater could save you as much as 40% on your water heating bill. However, if you use lots of hot water, and you use it all day and all night long (got teenagers?), then your savings will be less than if you use hot water less frequently. The reason for this is that an on demand heater saves energy mostly because it doesn’t keep a big tank full of water hot 24 hours a day whether you need it or not. On the other hand, if you do have constant demand for lots of hot water, an on demand heater has the added advantage that it never runs out of hot water. The word on the street seems to be that most households will experience long term savings by using an on demand water heater, but I have not been able to verify this by way of a reliable scientific source yet.

Upgrade to a Programmable Thermostat – According to several reliable sources this may be the one home improvement that gives the most bang for the buck. Programmable thermostats are readily available in the $100 price range at home improvement stores, and are not difficult for a do it yourselfer to install. It basically boils down to this; heating and cooling your house is your largest energy expense and if you turn your heating and cooling down or off even for a few hours a day, you will save money. And, a programmable thermostat will take care of it for you like clockwork. You might have heard that this won’t really work, because the system has to work extra hard when the HVAC Kicks back on, but don’t believe it, research has proven that this home improvement really works.

Install a Water Heater Timer – Heating water is the second largest energy hog in your home so installing a water heater timer and setting it to turn the heater off during times of low demand such as over night and during the work day, will pay off almost immediately. Water heater timers are pretty simple to install and cost from $30-$100. FYI, digital water heater timers are available that allow you to have a different schedule for weekends than during the work week. Just Google for “digital water heater timer.” Of course always remember to turn off the electricity before working on any wiring, and if you have any doubts whatsoever about your ability to safely do something like this, then hire an electrician.

A common misconception is that a water heater works harder than normal to recover after the thermostat has been set back, resulting in little or no savings. This misconception has been dispelled by years of research and numerous studies. It is always best to put your water heater on a timer, as the energy lost from a hot water tank depends on the temperature difference between the surface of the tank and its surroundings. It’s a common myth that it somehow takes more energy to keep heating up a tank than it does to maintain it at a normal temperature.

Of course, as with all myths, there are a few “ifs” and “buts”. If the tank is highly insulated (so standing losses are very low) and there is an effective thermostat on the tank, then the losses caused by leaving it on all the time can be much reduced. And some people have a need for large quantities of hot water all day long, in which case they may have no alternative except to leave the heater on all the time. But in general, it is much better to install a timer. A water heater timer, can cost less than $40 and if you can install it yourself safely, could pay for itself in a few months and is an excellent investment. If you have to hire an electrician, then of course it will take longer to recoup your investment, but it can still be worthwhile. FYI, many home improvement stores will hook you up with professional installers for a fixed price. When considering the economics of energy efficient home improvements always keep in mind that the cost of energy will almost certainly continue to increase.

Add a Water Heater Blanket to your Existing Water Heater – Adding Insulation to your water heater if taken to an extreme, might be almost as effective as replacing your water heater with an on demand unit, or installing a water heater timer. However, you would be talking about an awful lot of insulation (like 12 inches or so) including the top and bottom. Just adding a moderate amount of additional insulation probably makes more sense for most people. You can get a water heater “blanket” for less than $20 at home centers and hardware stores, which is made just for this purpose, or you can simply wrap up your water heater with fiberglass insulation and plastic film. Obviously this would be a lot easier if the tank wasn’t already installed, but it’s not too difficult anyway. A nice extra touch would be to put a piece of 1/2″ EPS (Expanded PolyStyrene also known as “Styrofoam” which is a registered trademark of Dow Corning) under the water heater, although I don’t know how much it would really help. Of course, turn off the electricity or gas before you start and don’t get any insulation too close to burners, or vents.

Install Low Flow Shower Heads to Save Hot Water – Low flow shower heads are inexpensive, very easy to install, and simply reduce the amount of hot water that you use.

Upgrade to Low flow Aerators in all Faucets to Save Hot Water – Many faucets already come with low flow aerators, however retrofitting them is as simple as unscrewing the existing aerator and screwing in the new one.

Add Trickler Valves to your Showers to Save Hot Water – A trickler valve allows you to turn off or reduce the flow of water in the shower while you are lathering up or shaving or whatever without having to readjust the temperature when you turn the water back on. Some shower heads include a trickler valve.

Get a new High efficiency Heating and cooling system – If your HVAC is worn out or obsolete, then a new high efficiency professionally installed system is one of the ultimate home improvements for energy savings. Shop around and educate yourself about the different types of systems and how they are rated for efficiency. Go to the effort to find a quality installer too. The best system there is will be lackluster if improperly installed. Keep in mind that you usually get what you pay for as far as quality equipment and workmanship.

Install More insulation – Any time you get the opportunity to add insulation to your home you should do so, at least until you have achieved the high end of the industry standard for your area. If you have any under insulated areas of your home which are still accessible, such as unfinished attics or crawl spaces, you should have them upgraded at least to a level which is appropriate for your area. If you are going to replace or install new siding on your home, you can usually have a layer of insulation installed under the siding for a very reasonable cost. If your exterior walls don’t already contain insulation, then it can be blown in to the cavities, and the holes can easily be patched and covered with the new siding. Otherwise, adding insulation to already enclosed areas (like exterior walls) can be cost prohibitive, but it can be done. Holes can also be cut in drywall from the inside of a house, and patched after insulation is blown in, however the drywall repairs will probably cost more than the insulation work unless you do it yourself. However, this kind of drywall repair is something that actually can be done by a determined do it yourselfer.

Install a Radiant barrier in your Attic – A radiant barrier is basically a reflective layer (more or less like aluminum foil) which augments your attic insulation. It can be installed either directly on the bottom side of the roof decking, on the bottom side of the rafters with an airspace between the roof deck and the radiant barrier(the best way), or directly on top of the attic insulation (the worst way, because it will quickly get dusty and loose it’s effectiveness). A radiant barrier is mostly useful for reducing the cooling load on your air conditioner, therefore should probably mostly be considered only if you live in the sunbelt. According to where you live, and the kind of attic that you have, this could be a very cost effective do it yourself project. Lots of technical information on this subject can be found at DOE radiant barrier fact sheet and Florida Solar Energy Center – radiant barrier fact sheet.

Tighten Your Thermal Envelope – The “Thermal Envelope” is the exterior walls, attics, and foundations of your home which contain (or should contain) insulation, and which keeps the heat inside in the winter, and outside in the summer. Air Infiltration can account for a huge percentage of your heating and cooling bill, and tightening up the thermal envelope of your home is one of the most economical and economically rewarding tasks that you can do yourself. Arm yourself with a caulk gun and plug up every hole, crack, or gap you
can find inside and out. Then remove plug and switch covers and install foam gaskets on all of them, while you have them off, also caulk between the drywall, and the box that the wiring device is in, and also any holes in the box and around where the wires enter the device box. Put one of the plastic safety plugs that you find in the Baby Proofing section of the home improvement store into every receptacle that doesn’t have something plugged into it. You can also take down lights (without disconnecting the wiring) and seal around the wiring device box that they are mounted on, and the holes in the boxes where the wires come in. Always turn off the electricity before working around wiring. Give this same treatment to all lights or plugs that are on the outside of your house. If you are competent to work around electrical equipment take off the cover of your electrical panel (if it is inside of the heated space of your house) and seal the gap between the panel and the drywall. But be aware that you can not normally de-energize the entire inside of the electrical panel, so leave the cover on it unless you are sure that you know what you are doing. According to the Canadian Government “Simple Caulk and Seal” can save as much as 30% on your heat bill.

New windows – If your house has old worn out windows, or windows of an obsolete design, then new or replacement windows may be called for. By the way, there is quite a difference between new (New Construction that is) and replacement windows. New construction windows require the replacement of all parts of the old window, including all interior and exterior trim. The advantage to using new construction windows (if it is possible,because it isn’t always) is that you can do a better job of installing and sealing the window to the house. Replacement Windows usually don’t require replacing interior or exterior trim, because the existing trim remains in place and the replacement window occupies the space vacated by the sashes. Some kind of trim work is usually required on the exterior, but it is pretty minor compared to using new construction windows. Installing replacement windows is much quicker and easier than installing new construction windows, and is probably more suited to the needs of a do it yourselfer. In either case, even if you decide to install new windows yourself, I would reccomend that you have the window dealer measure for them, because a small error in measurement can be a big mistake. Also, remember that you will usually get what you pay for, and look for windows that are energy star compliant.

Storm windows – Storm windows might be an economical way to improve the energy efficiency of your existing windows. They are relatively inexpensive, and easy to install. However, storm windows installed over old leaky windows will never be as good as high quality replacement windows, cleaning your windows will be much more of a hassle than with replacement windows, and storm windows will not have much positive impact on the resale value of your home (if any). Nonetheless, if storm windows are all that you can afford, they might make a difference in the heating and cooling costs for your home by reducing air infiltration. However, according to the Florida solar energy research center, storm windows are probably not cost effective in the semi tropical Florida climate.

Repair leaky doors – If your exterior doors are in good shape, but they leak air around the door panel, then repairing the weather strips and threshold can give you results as good as replacing the entire door and jamb system, but for a lot less cash outlay. Once you have caulked and painted it, your door will be as good as new. To make the job easier, take some samples of the old weatherstrip with you to the home improvement store, and match it as closely as possible. Usually you can get material that is a perfect replacement, but even if you can’t, the store will have products that are “universal fit” which will still yield excellent results if you do a good job of installing them. One word of caution though, in most cases adhesive alone will not attach the new weatherstrip well enough to give a trouble free installation, so consider “peel and stick” to be more of an assembly aid than anything.

Install storm doors – Unlike storm windows, installing a high quality storm door over an existing door can give you a better result than a brand new replacement door by itself can. Top quality storm doors are not cheap, but you get what you pay for in both quality, and looks. A top quality storm door also looks good. A cheap one just looks cheap. However, even a cheap storm door will drastically improve the thermal performance of an exterior door if it is well installed.

Ceiling fans – Ceiling fans can save you energy in two ways. In the summer, they can make you feel cooler and allow you to set your thermostat at a higher temperature thus saving money on air conditioning. In the winter, they can help to prevent heat cavitation near the ceiling, and actually make the air near the floor warmer than it would be, especially if you have higher ceilings. As a general rule they should probably be turned off when the room isn’t occupied. Consider looking for energy star compliant fans.

Dehumidifiers – In some circumstances a dehumidifier can save you money. If your house is humid then you will have to air condition to a lower temperature in order to feel comfortable. This often is the case if your AC is sized too big, because it will “short cycle” and not run long enough to properly dehumidify your home. Try to put your dehumidifier as close as possible to the main air return grill so that dehumidified air is pulled directly into the system and distributed throughout your home. Then you can set your AC thermostat to a higher temp. Many dehumidifiers are quite noisy, so try to get one that is as quiet as possible, and look for the energy star logo.

Replace obsolete appliances – Nothing lasts forever, and technology generally improves over time. Try to anticipate the need to replace an aging appliance, and shop around so that you can become informed. The alternative is to have to buy a new refrigerator before everything in the old (broken) one spoils. Unless you work best under pressure, you probably won’t make the best choice in that situation. Pay attention to the energy ratings, and look for energy star compliant appliances.

Repair appliances that aren’t ready for replacement – Many appliances can be renovated to considerably extend their useful life span. The seals on refrigerators and freezers should be tight enough to clamp down on a strip of paper at all points. If your clothes seem to be taking longer to dry, your electric clothes dryer may just need a new heating element, or the exhaust duct may be clogged or crushed. Oven door seals can often be easily replaced. Some repairs can be easily done by the homeowner.

Compact florescent bulbs – You should make a vow to never buy another incandescent light bulb. They now make high quality compact florescent bulbs that are suitable for almost any fixture, and even though they are a lot more expensive up front, they can pay back in only one year, and they can last for up to 7 years. Look for energy star compliant bulbs. The really cheap ones from the discount club stores often have thermal ballasts and don’t last all that long.

Energy efficient landscaping – Careful placement of the right trees, shrubs and vines can contribute to the energy efficiency of your home. Deciduous trees (those that drop their leaves in the fall) can shade your house in the summer, and allow the sun to shine on it in the winter, thus helping year round. Evergreen trees which are planted to block the prevailing wind can improve the microclimate around your home in the winter. Vines growing on a trellis can accomplish the same things in a shorter period of time. Never plant any tree or shrub close enough to the house to crowd the foundation or hang over the roof though. Either condition will often foster rot and insect damage. The same goes for vines actually climbing on the house. Don’t allow it. Obviously large trees and evergreen windbreaks are long term investments that require careful planning and consideration, and poor choices of species or locations can actually do more harm than good. Also, don’t fail to consider the maintenance requirements of plants. Some require very little maintenance, and some require quite a lot. Look into it before you plant.

Get an Energy Audit – A profesional energy audit will let you know how you are doing, and will highlight what you still need to do, and there is no substitute for it. In a complete audit they will install a blower door, which is just a door with a fan built into it. The blower door will make the house leak anywhere that it can. Then they will use an infrared camera to find where all of the leaks are. A complete audit will also include a similar test of your HVAC ducts to find if you are leaking conditioned air into the attic or crawl space through leaky ducts. Call your electric utility provider, and ask them how you can get an energy audit. Some utilities offer energy audits free to their customers. Ask about it.

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