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Making that old house energy-efficient

It's the home-improver's old lament: You can't afford to. You can't afford not to.

The same dilemma faces many homeowners who'd like to reduce their fat utility bills but may not have the means to latch onto the latest energy-saving materials and gizmos.

Certainly, you can't afford to bore holes in the walls of a drafty, 30-year-old tract home to reinsulate it, and perhaps can't replace that antiquated air-conditioning system to save what might just be the monthly equivalent of a dinner tab at a casual diner.

But there are some relatively easy moves that even the most cash-strapped homeowners can make that will yield an immediate payback.

And for those committed to a more capital-intensive remodeling or addition, there are a few new lending programs that credit owners for anticipated future energy savings.

Simple, cheap energy tricks
While pondering the energy-mortgage plunge, consider a few interim savings tricks that even the most adamant "can't-do-it-myselfer" can actually do.

Buy a programmable thermostat, especially if a home is vacant during the brunt of the daytime hours, says Harry Misuriello, Director of National programs for The Alliance to Save Energy. "It's about 50 to 80 bucks in a blister pack at your home improvement center and most people can install it themselves," he said. "Set it to turn on a half hour before the first person gets home ... It pays back pretty quickly."

Also add more energy-efficient insulation to your attic, preferably with a resistance rating of R-21 to R-30, Misuriello says. "It's pretty easy to roll on."

Plus, caulk over cracks around windows and invest in a few weather-stripping kits if you've got drafty doors, Misurielle said. A quarter-inch gap at the bottom of a standard door can equal the energy loss of a 3-inch-by-3-inch hole in the wall, energy experts say.

Lighting can be a drain, as well. Compact fluorescent bulbs are much more energy-efficient than standard candescent bulbs and usually last for years instead of months, said Dana Bres, research engineer for the Washington, D.C.-based Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing.

"They cost more but typically produce the equivalent amount of light with about a fifth of the power,"' he said. "At 12 to 15 watts, you get the equivalent of 60 watts, and they will last from 7,000 to 15,000 hours, consume little power and generate little heat, so you're not paying your air conditioner a lot of money to remove that heat." (Side note: Keep some standard bulbs around for reading to avoid eye strain.)

High-end energy efficiency
Also illuminating are potential savings from Energy Star labeled windows. Energy Star windows, which can save up to 15 percent of a home's energy bill, are twice as efficient as the average window built just 10 years ago, and are thicker and block out more sound, say energy consultants.

But replacing windows can run into thousands of dollars, as can optimally efficient new appliances or that major capital offender, a new central-cooling/heating system.

Next: Your savings may vary.
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