For the energy-conservation-minded homeowner on a budget, it’s difficult to know which upgrades or home improvements will achieve the greatest results for the best price.
The market is filled with an ever-increasing number of ever-improving products that will make the average home more efficient and more comfortable, which is positive, but can be a little overwhelming.
The first thing to remember is there’s really no such thing as the average home. Families of different sizes lead different lifestyles, own different appliances, and live in houses of different ages built by different contractors. So it follows that everyone’s energy efficiency project list going to be in a different order. But in all cases, the best upgrades are those that strike a balance between efficiency and affordability.
To figure out which improvements you should make first, Ron Nardozza, a home energy rating system and Energy Star verifier with Four Walls Inc., recommends starting with the home envelope then working your way in.
“Air sealing is often the best place to start,” he said. “It’s a high value, low-cost project. I’ve seen people cut their energy bills by a third just by sealing the voids and cracks in their homes.”
Go from room to room and walk the perimeter of your home and you’ll find that heat-sapping air gaps are everywhere. They’re around your light fixtures, your heater vents, where your walls meet your floors and more. Sealing up the accessible ones is usually pretty easy, affordable, and well worth the time. But it can be time-consuming, so make sure you set a day aside to get it done. Homeowners with carpeted floors will notice a substantial improvement if they seal the gaps below the drywall at the baseboards with backer rod.
Next, check the insulation levels in your attic. In our climate, it’s effective to go up to R-60, anything more than that is overkill. But you may not be able to install that much if your home has a low-sloped roof. Whether or not you add insulation, be sure baffles allow for proper airflow from the soffit vents.
If your home uses an electric furnace or electric wall or baseboard heaters, upgrading to a heat pump or ductless heat pump can substantially reduce winter electric bills. Plus, these units provide affordable air conditioning in the hot months, making your home more comfortable year-round. Nardozza recommended paying extra attention to the unit’s heating system performance factor, or HSPF, to ensure they’re purchasing an efficient model. But he cautioned homeowners to consult with a competent professional on big projects and get multiple bids to ensure they’re getting the right size and best value for their homes.
Speaking of energy leaks, the biggest ones in your home could be plugged into your walls. Many people use older refrigerators or freezers in the garage or basement. Today’s most efficient refrigerators use about 350 kilowatt-hours per year. Those made in the mid-2000s used about double that. Those from the 1990s consume about 1100 kWh.
Today’s dishwashers and washing machines are also substantially more efficient today than they were even just a few years ago. If yours are more than 15 years old, you may be missing out on substantial savings in both water and electricity.
Even if you’re not yet in the market for appliance upgrades, it’s smart to be aware of new technologies like heat pump water heaters and induction cooktops. Oftentimes, homeowners wait until an appliance stops working to replace it, and then it’s urgent and there may not be time to research the balance between initial replacement cost of energy-saving models and lower operating costs for the many years to come. Knowing your preferred replacement for major appliances before it’s time to upgrade can help ensure your new appliances are both functional and efficient.
Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.