Energy Star appliances, solar panels, recycled building materials. Sound familiar? If so, then you’re probably no stranger to the idea of environmentally-responsible remodeling. But instead of shelling out major money to green your house from floor to ceiling, first consider taking on a couple of smaller scale projects that could improve your home’s efficiency without the headache of a total renovation.
"There are things that if you spend some money on now by adding insulation or upgrading your HVAC, you’ll see a nice payoff on your power bills over time," says Mike Gill, HVAC specialist and co-owner of Georgia Comfort, a company that provides heating and air conditioning services in North Georgia.
Like the idea of lowering utility bills? Then keep reading for a list of cost-effective fixes that could pad your wallet through the seasons and for years to come.
Project #1: Window replacement
If you’re looking to improve the energy efficiency of your home, start with your windows. Why? Think of how many you have - and how much air flow they might permit due to their age or condition - even when they are closed.
"Windows vary in terms of material and age," says Daniel Vannoni, owner of ProperSee, Inc., a digital home improvement consulting company. "Generally, older windows are less energy efficient than newer ones, since they still tend to be single pane glass windows."
He says that newer windows are usually double-paned and have a type of gas in between the panes to make them more heat resistant. Many newer windows also have UV films on the outside that block sunlight, and therefore help to keep your home cooler.
Essentially, newer window styles provide more of a barrier against the outdoor elements, and therefore, they seal the home up tighter, Vannoni says.
And as far as window materials go, Vannoni says vinyl windows tend to be more energy efficient than wood versions because the window frames don’t expand and contract as much with changes in temperature and moisture, so they’re less prone to cracking and then leaking over time.
Project #2: Radiant heating installation under the floor
Have you ever sat in a car with seat warmers? Well, imagine that kind of heating on your feet - coming from your floors. And although you'll have to replace the entire floor to install a radiant heating system, it's an investment that has an energy-savings payoff - in addition to making your home a cozier place.
Whether you’re building a new place from scratch or just ripping up and putting in new floors, you can put radiant heating under tile or hardwood, Vannoni says.
"With radiant heating, heat is dispersed across the floor in an even manner and more efficiently than from a radiator or vent that’s in one corner of a room," says Vannoni.
And if you're looking to get the most bang for your buck, the most cost effective radiant heating system is one where heated water is pumped from the boiler and into tubing laid underneath the floor, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's website.
What's more, this energy pay-off comes with the flexibility of heating individual rooms, so you’re only heating - and paying for - the rooms you're currently using, adds Vannoni.
Project #3: HVAC repair/replacement
If you have an older HVAC system, it may be well-worth the investment to repair or replace it for better energy efficiency. That's because heating and cooling accounts for about half of your typical utility bill, says Gill.
And if you live in an older home, say from about the 1980s or earlier, chances are your HVAC efficiency is only at about 60 percent, as machinery just wasn’t as advanced then, Gill says.
"Today, systems are 95 to 96 percent efficient," he says, "So 95 to 96 percent of the fuel is successfully being turned into heat, instead of 60 percent or less in an older home."
Yes, that's a big difference in efficiency, which can make your energy bill add up quickly.
But of course, installing a new HVAC comes with a price tag, so if you can’t afford a whole new system, you have some other options. If you use forced hot air (that is heated by a gas or electric furnace, heat pump, or hydronic coil) to heat your home, for example, Vannoni says you should at least make sure your air filters are clean.
"When the filters get clogged, the blowers have to work harder to get heat and air to the rest of the building," Vannoni says. "Routine cleaning will put less stress on your system and makes it last longer."
Project #4: Siding replacement
It’s a pretty logical concept: "The tighter you seal your home, the more heat you retain," says Gill.
One aspect of sealing up your property that’s often overlooked, however, is your siding. And as air leaks out of the house through holes in your siding - your money goes with it.
So your first step should be repairing damages in your existing siding that could cause air leaks, Gill says. But if your siding is beyond repair, or you’ve got some extra money to make improvements, he says getting new vinyl or stucco siding will allow you to add what is called a vapor barrier underneath. This barrier minimizes air flow to and from your home, giving it an extra layer of protection.
Want to make certain your home is completely sealed? You can also add a foam insulation layer to block air, too.
Project #5: Insulation
Think of insulation as a big winter coat for your home: it’s the "padding" that prevents hot air - or cool air in the summer - from flowing out of the house, improving your home's energy efficiency.
And as the home construction industry has advanced over the years, with it has the quality of insulation. This means there might be better quality materials to insulate your home than when it was initially built, says Vannoni.
Your options also abound in terms of upping the insulation factor in your home. Fiberglass batt insulation, for example, looks like a roll of a cotton-type material, and it can help prevent air leaks in unfinished spaces.
Another option is spray foam insulation, where Vannoni says a contractor comes and drills a hole in your walls from either the inside or outside of the house and blows insulation inside it.
According to Energy.gov, the batt insulation is the inexpensive option. But, if you’re able to invest more in your insulation, Vannoni recommends the spray foam type. Why? Because spray foam is denser than other applications and acts as a spatial barrier by expanding after a period of time, he says.