Greening Your Home On A Budget 

Today’s favorite buzz word, “green” is really making the rounds. From fully sustainable commercial buildings to consumer tips in Home & Garden Magazines and even specialty retail items like hand bags woven from salvaged gum wrappers, the concept of going green has finally crossed over into the mainstream!

For those of us in the building industry who have fervently nurtured these changes over the last decade, the fact that green is fashionable is thrilling. Better access to affordable, eco-friendly products, information and services means homeowners can derive big benefits from making greener choices for their homes and reduce their carbon footprint at the same time.

THE CHALLENGE IS WHERE TO BEGIN? How does a typical homeowner decipher all the new and often conflicting information out there to serve both home and pocketbook? The onslaught of rapidly changing eco-science, along with a multitude of new businesses spun from green rhetoric can make selecting ideal options for you and your family confusing at best.

The good news is that there are some relatively low cost building modifications that can help without breaking the bank. If you do not have the budget to tear down your house and rebuild it to cutting edge, green standards with a 20 year payback, you may want to consider some of these alternatives.

WHERE TO START: Measure Twice, Cut Once
1. Start by measuring what your home uses now. Get out your old utility bills and determine your yearly consumption. Many utility companies now offer consumer records online along with comparisons to other homes in your area. Use this as a benchmark to contemplate making the changes that are ideally suited for you.

2. Consider getting an energy audit done on your home. The beauty of this low cost whole house inspection (between $300-500) is that it pinpoints the weak spots and allows you to prioritize fixes that get the biggest bang for your buck. Even without an audit, typical home construction provides us some low hanging fruit that you can pluck right away.

KEY AREAS: Exploring Your Built Environment
Be aware that there several types of changes that you can make. Some are behavior based, I.E. they require you to live differently than you might now (like lowering the thermostat and wearing a sweater). Others adapt your infrastructure or “built environment” to perform better. Building science shows us that some components of your home are more likely to waste energy than others and can be easier to fix. Consider the following areas.

• Your Lighting and Electronics
• Your Home’s Thermal Envelope
• Your Heating and Cooling System & Appliances

Try starting here and prioritize projects based on the amount of time and money you want to invest. Since your house operates as a system, upgrading all areas will provide the best result, but modifying one or two can net you savings within the first year.


Consider replacing your old incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents. (cost per bulb = $2-3) They use a quarter of the energy and last 13 times as long. If every U.S. household replaced just one conventional bulb, we could conserve enough energy to light 3 million homes for a year.

A new kind of bulb that uses light-emitting diode (LED) technology is also now available. These bulbs are even more energy-efficient than compact fluorescents and last 10 times longer! The upfront cost is higher than CFL’s (about $25-60) but should drop as technology and demand improve.

HEADS UP! Be sure to get clear on the pros and cons of each bulb type before you buy replacements for every fixture in your home. There are distinct differences that may matter.

Use Motion Sensors, Timers, and Dimmers
Devices that turn off fixtures automatically such as motion sensors and timers, help minimize waste. Dimmers allow you to regulate the brightness of your lights, control how much power they consume and can improve bulb and fixture life.

Residential electronics are responsible for approximately 15% of your household electricity use. The average cost just to power your devices on standby is $100 per year! The typical home has two TV’s (with game boxes), three telephones, one or two computers a DVD player, and phone chargers. Consider getting Energy Star rated devices the next time you buy new and use power strips to turn off your current equipment when it is not in use.


Think of your house as a space enclosed by a large envelope built for thermal protection from the elements, (your walls, roof, etc.) It has become clear that the old ways of thinking about this area are obsolete. In the past installing fiberglass insulation alone was seen as the best way to keep out the cold. Thanks to building science we now know that AIR LEAKS in your home’s thermal envelope minimize the effectiveness of insulation and significantly increase how much energy you lose (and use.)

Consider that a one inch hole in a second floor ceiling to an unconditioned attic space generates as much heat as leaving a hair dryer running continuously there for a year. Finding and sealing up leaks not only substantially reduce your utility bills, but greatly improves thermal comfort for you and your family.

Two typical weak links in the structure of a house are the:
•Attic & Roof- Check for updrafts using a candle or smoke stick. Focus on perforations for pipes, wiring and ceiling fixtures.
•Basement & Crawl spaces - Check the bond joist (where the foundation wall meets the bottom of the first floor).

If you do nothing else, fix these areas first. Fill all joints, cracks and holes BEFORE you insulate. If you are remodeling, be sure your builder understands the need for a tight building envelope.

Other areas to consider for air sealing include:
•Windows: Leaks here are especially common in older homes although new windows-improperly installed- can leak badly too. Replacing all the windows in your home can be costly ($8000-28,000 and up) and can take years to recoup. Unless you plan to change your windows because they are in disrepair, consider installing storm windows or drapes to hold heat in and adjust the window sashes for obvious leaks. Run your hand slowly around the inside window trim and caulk spots where you feel cold air.
•Install tempered glass doors on your fireplace and keep the flue closed. Consider getting an energy efficient insert. When in use, traditional fireplaces can send 24,000 cubic feet of air per hour up the chimney including 90% fire’s heat.
•Examine all exterior doors. Install door sweeps and weather stripping to close the gaps. Be sure to address the hidden space under door sills too.

Since your house acts as a system, before you air seal be sure you have proper whole house ventilation to avoid problems. At a minimum, your HVAC system should have a dampered fresh air intake tied into the return air (approx. $200-400 to install) and a properly sized make-up air system (about $300-800 to install) to compensate for air exhausted from the house. Failing to do so can lead to bad indoor air and can dramatically affect the efficiency of your home.

Insulating your home’s thermal envelope can pay big dividends. Whole house retrofits range from $2000-4500 depending on your home’s size, construction and type used. Pay backs average between 4 to 8 years depending on fuel prices. Foam insulation (Icynene or Polyurethane) are best because it flows around minor obstructions inside the wall and expands into cracks. The next best option is blown in cellulose which has some air sealing ability and pumps fairly easily into existing walls and cavities. Where ever you use fiberglass, be sure to seal all air leaks before installation to maximize its effectiveness.


Your refrigerator accounts for about 20% of the energy you use each month. If you are replacing it, look for an Energy Star product. If not, consider turning down the setting a notch or two and keep it stocked. The compressor works harder to cool the air inside rather than the contents.

Average water heating costs are $400-600 per year. If you have a conventional water heater over 10-15 years old, consider getting it replaced with an Energy Star model ($300-700) and save 15-30% in operating costs. You can insulate the tank with a premade blanket from the hardware store ($25-50) to save another 4-9%. Before you buy a conventional unit, explore some of the newer technology on the market that could offer better incentives and paybacks.
If your furnace is over 15 years old, consider replacing it with a high efficiency, Energy Star unit ($3000-5000) to reduce operating costs by 20%. Be sure to seal all the ductwork connections and insulate ducts located in unheated spaces. Duct sealing is relatively inexpensive and can lower your entire heating bill by 15-20% alone. (for boiler and hydronic systems, see links below)

Consider getting a programmable thermostat that automatically lowers temperature settings at night or when you’re at work. Typical models cost about $100 and can cut your heating and cooling bills by 20%. Ideal settings are 65-68 degrees during high use hours. Once you get to a setting that feels comfortable, try reducing it by two degrees and see if you can adapt. Each degree lower saves you another 3% per month.

FACT: According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. residential sector accounts for 22% of the total energy consumed in the country, 74% of the water used, and 21% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

By: Debra C. Moore
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