Advertiser Disclosure

7 Green Home Upgrades with a Quick Payoff

Nov. 13, 2012
Energy, Gas & Water, Utilities
NerdWallet adheres to strict standards of editorial integrity to help you make decisions with confidence. Some of the products we feature are from partners. Here’s how we make money.
We adhere to strict standards of editorial integrity. Some of the products we feature are from our partners. Here’s how we make money.

While a mortgage tends to be a fairly predictable expense, you can easily reduce the size of the utility bills that your house generates. Unlike some other expenses, money spent wisely on upgrading your house continues to pay you back, year after year, long after you’ve forgotten about the initial outlays of time and money. As usual, however, a little effort spent considering your options will ensure that your time has been well spent. Here are some things you can try – and some you may want to avoid – to maximize your energy dollar.

Compact Fluorescent Bulbs

Have you tried to buy an old-fashioned incandescent light bulb lately? Don’t bother. Except for odd sizes and special applications, such as lamps for your oven or refrigerator, they’ve been replaced by cheap compact fluorescents (CFLs), which are subsidized by your local power company. A 75-watt equivalent goes for 49 cents at my local hardware store; it promises to last as long as ten incandescent (that’s ten years at three hours a day) and save me $60 while doing so. For a home with 25 light bulbs in play, that’s $12.25, at today’s prices, to start racking up a savings of $1500. You may have forgotten how to change a light bulb by the time they start to fail!

The only question remaining is whether you should unscrew every bulb in your house right now, or wait for them to go out individually. Your choice, but at 49 cents apiece for replacements it’s hard to make a case for keeping the old ones. But not impossible: these CFLs contain mercury, and you can’t just toss them in the trash. Take them to a chain store like Ace Hardware and Ikea for recycling.

A Visit From Your Utility

My power company was happy to send someone out to give my house the once-over, and they took care of some of the least expensive upgrades while they were here. In addition to giving me estimates of how much my major appliances were costing me each year, they installed weather-stripping around all of my exterior doors, recommended CFC’s, and left me with a pile of little foam gaskets to prevent drafts from coming in around my wall outlets and light switches. It was quick and dirty, but clearly a good place to start.

Get the Whole Picture

Sometimes the upgrade advice you get depends more on who you’re talking to – and the cost of the thing – than its actual value to you. A good place to start once you’ve covered some of the basic procedures mentioned here is to get a full energy audit from a technician who has nothing to sell except his expertise. Bill Holland of Green Estate Consulting in New York City is one of a growing number of experts who use the computerized Home Energy Rating System (HERS) to evaluate the projected energy efficiency of everything from construction plans to vintage Victorians – and to point out how things can be improved. One nice bonus: a HERS rating can be a big plus when you sell your home.

Watching the Water

People find it hard to get excited about conserving something that’s still relatively cheap and plentiful. But a leaking toilet can cost you hundreds of dollars a year, and a steadily dripping faucet comes in a close second. If your troublesome toilet’s not a low-flow model, this is a perfect time to replace it, and putting in a new faucet washer is a skill everyone can master.

The most cost-effective fix is a flow restrictor for your shower. Unscrew the showerhead and check for a little plastic button where it meets the pipe. If there’s not one there, call your water company. My shower had a flow restrictor and still provided a blast that was well beyond luxurious. Turned out I was missing an $85 pressure-reduction valve that the building code required anyway – and I’m sure it paid for itself in a few months.

Choosing the Moment

Electricity’s not like water, which costs the same at midnight as it does at noon. When everyone turns on their air conditioner in the middle of a heat wave, your power company has to pay more for electricity – and they pass the cost on to you. Paying attention to how you heat or cool your house when everyone’s wants to do the same thing can lower your utility bill considerably. You don’t have to turn off the A/C when it’s broiling outside, but it’s wise to consider whether you really need every degree of coolness you’re paying for. And right then, when everyone’s paying top dollar for power, is a good time to turn off energy hogs like your clothes dryer and your hot tub.

Insulating Your Attic

If you live where it snows, you can tell the homes that haven’t done this fairly inexpensive upgrade: they’re the ones with the dark, bare roofs where the snow has melted off. If you’d rather heat your living room than the great outdoors, you have several options for insulating your attic. A popular choice where attic space is limited is to have insulation blown in. It’s done in a day or two, and your savings in heating bills can pay it off in a couple of years.

Be Wary of Windows

Everybody knows about double-paned windows, and if you have to replace a window anyway, going that route is a no-brainer. But should you retrofit your whole house? Bill Holland of Green Estate Consulting suggests a bit of caution: “This is generally an expensive proposition, which might cost a typical homeowner between $8,000 to $12,000. However, the payback in energy savings is quite long, and there is no guarantee that a better window is installed properly. Improper installation negates potential efficiencies.”