Home efficiency upgrades can be a rewarding pursuit in every sense of the word. For many projects, you start seeing the return on investment from your energy efficiency efforts immediately in the form of improved comfort following tasks like adding insulation and replacing old weatherstripping.
Beyond making your house a cozier place to live, many efficiency upgrades can help your bottom line as well by saving enough money on your utility bills to cover the cost of the investment over time. The actual time to payback for energy efficiency improvements will vary depending on where you live, the age of your home and your heating and cooling habits, as well as the specific products you purchase to perform the upgrades. Read on to see some examples using a 2,000 sq. ft home from 1975 that showcase how quickly certain basic energy efficiency projects can start putting money in your pocket.
Air sealing can encompass the entire envelope of your home, from weatherstripping drafty doors and windows to sealing electrical and plumbing holes in walls, between floors and even with lighting fixtures and wiring in your attic. While hiring an experienced contractor to seal up your home could cost in the neighborhood of $1000 or even more, most of these jobs can be accomplished using caulk and expanding foam, which will run you more like $100 plus your time and effort. In our example house, if we can save $50 each year through air sealing, the time to payback for our home energy efficiency upgrade would be 20 years, while if you put in the work yourself, you could see the payback occur in as little as two years.
In the 1970s, crawlspaces were built with venting under the guise of providing air circulation to help keep them dry. Today we understand that venting actually increases moisture in the crawlspace by allowing the outside humid air in. Consequently, houses with vented crawlspaces often have humidity problems involving mildew, mold and especially rot in the floor. Sealing or "encapsulating" the crawlspace fixes this problem and improves your home energy efficiency.
One of easiest and cheapest ways to prevent moisture infiltration is to put down 6-mil polyethylene plastic sheeting across the crawlspace floor to stop dampness from the soil from rising into the space and eventually entering your living area. Overlap and tape all seams by 12 inches, and seal the sheet six inches up the crawlspace walls. You'll notice the reduction in humidity within 24 hours, which will cut the cooling load on your air conditioner, improve air quality (meaning fewer respiratory illnesses), reduce flooring heave problems and rot to house framing, and cut energy bills.
A contractor might charge you $2,000 for both basement and crawlspace insulation. If you see a yearly savings of $175, the energy efficiency ROI would take about twelve years. But since the cost of the materials is rather low, completing this as a DIY project means you could see your efforts paid off in a single year.
Keeping your attic ventilated helps reduce your air conditioning costs in summer, and it also helps cut down on moisture during winter. If you see damp wood or frost on the inside of your attic in winter, you could be facing mold growth, water damage to insulation and rafters, and potential ice damage to your roof— all of which can be painfully expensive.
The building code requirement for proper attic ventilation is one square foot of net free vent area per 150 square feet of attic area to be vented. Fortunately, retrofitting ridge vents is actually a fairly easy job, and the air flow will begin cooling the attic immediately. DIY installation of a ridge vent for a 40-foot roof costs less than $200, while hiring a contractor could run between $400 and $500, depending on local prices and roof pitch. In addition to reducing your cooling bills, you will see ROI from venting your attic in the form of avoiding damage and repairs to your roof.
Adding attic insulation provides immediate effects on your heating and cooling bills. Paying a contractor to install insulation to the attic might cost $1,300, but purchasing the Department of Energy-recommended R49 level of materials would only cost about $215. You could see $100 in yearly savings, which would mean 13 years to break even if you pay a professional or just over two if you do the job yourself.
If your house was built after 1975 and already has double-paned windows, you won't see a huge savings from upgrading your windows – perhaps only $7 a year. With new, LOW-E Argon Energy Star windows that can cost over $1000, you're looking at a payback time of 142 years, which is beyond the horizon that most homeowners want to shoot for. However, if you have old, drafty single-pane windows, you can expect better energy efficiency with a far quicker return when you purchase replacements.
Sealing your HVAC ductwork can save you money because about 20 to 30 percent of the air that moves through the duct system is lost due to leaks, kinks or loose connections. That can add up to $500 a year for some homeowners. Aluminum tape, caulk, and mastic cost under $50, and the DIY work doesn't require you to be a total expert. In that scenario, you'd see a return of 10 times your investment in a single year!
Install blinds or curtains around all your windows so you can block the sun from shining directly in your home and bringing up your indoor temperature. You can also take this project one step further and install exterior awnings over the windows that get the most sun. This will create a shady spot for your windows and reduce their exposure to sun and heat. Doing so can lower the temperature in your home by a few degrees, saving you substantial money over time on your cooling bills.
Programmable thermostats allow you to set the temperature for your home to be hotter when you are away and cooler when you are about to return home. You can save energy and money by not cooling an empty house, and you'll still enjoy the same familiar comfort when you arrive home. The exact ROI you'll see from a programmable thermostat depends on how diligent you already are about your home temperature settings – the more hands-off you prefer to be, the more you will save by letting the device do the work for you.
A clean air filter helps your entire air conditioner run more efficiently, reducing energy usage and lowering the risk of unit failure. Follow the manufacturer instructions in regard to replacement frequency, which typically call for a new filter every one to three months. You'll be happy you spent the $10 or so per filter change if it buys you a few extra years of service from your furnace.
Landscaping can be an important aspect of home energy efficiency. Simply planting trees on your home's south side, especially the southwestern aspect, to provide shade can easily reduce your summer air conditioning bills. Plus, planting a wind break along the north side of your home helps reduce winter wind's chilling effects around your home.