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Go green and save green?

Like any home improvement project, a green remodeling job will cost you upfront. But besides being eco-friendly, a green makeover can pay you back over the long haul in a couple of ways.

First, a green home saves energy and cuts water consumption, saving you money on your monthly utility bills. Second, in addition to being cheaper to run, green homes offer eco-friendly amenities like superior indoor air quality. Third, green remodeling could give your home equity a boost by making your place more attractive to potential buyers if you put it on the market.

“If you can make your home more affordable to operate over the long term, it will be more desirable when it’s time to sell,” says Kevin Morrow, senior program manager of green building programs at the National Association of Home Builders, or NAHB.

Green remodeling typically deals with energy efficiency, water conservation and indoor air quality. The NAHB has four levels for its National Green Building Standard: Bronze, Silver, Gold and Emerald.

Follow their LEED

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Picking the right remodeler is a good first step to a successful green remodeling job. Fortunately, there is help available for homeowners trying to judge a builder’s credentials.

Some remodelers may tout that they are a Certified Green Professional, or CGP. This designation means the builder has completed a green education program developed by the NAHB.

Other remodelers may have LEED AP status. The acronym stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional. The LEED AP program is administered by the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, D.C.

The remodeler may begin with a home energy rating analysis. This is essentially a review of how energy efficient your home is. It involves checking for problems like drafty doors and windows or leaks in your ventilation ducts. This will provide ideas on where you should concentrate your efforts.

A typical new home has a home energy rating of 100, and existing homes typically have a higher rating, which actually means they are less energy efficient. Lowering your home energy rating from 100 to 85 would represent a 15 percent improvement in energy efficiency, according to the government’s Energy Star website, which targets energy efficiency in home appliances.

The air isn’t free

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Much, if not most, of a home’s energy use goes toward heating, ventilating and air conditioning, or HVAC. Making sure that your HVAC system is as energy efficient as possible is likely to be a major focus of any green remodeling project.

One term you should familiarize yourself with is SEER. It doesn’t refer to a fortuneteller, but rather it stands for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio. It’s a Department of Energy rating that measures how efficient your home’s air conditioning system is. The higher the SEER, the more efficient your air conditioner is. In 2006, the U.S. adopted a minimum SEER rating of 13 for all new air conditioners.

But remodelers stress that you don’t necessarily need a new system to improve efficiency. Philip Beere, LEED AP, and founder of GreenStreet Development in Phoenix, the first company to earn an Emerald rating on a home remodeling project, says even minor fixes can yield major gains. On one historic-home remodeling, “we increased ventilation in the bathrooms and vented the clothes dryer to the exterior,” he says.

Besides reducing the need for air conditioning, these changes also improved indoor air quality.

Treat your window pain

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Where there is light, there’s heat, at least when it comes to sun rays streaming through your windows. If new windows are part of your green remodeling plan, you’ll find value in knowing your windows’ U-factor.

The U-factor, or U-value, typically falls between 0.2 and 1.2. The lower the value, the greater the resistance to heat flows, thus providing greater insulation. Another gauge for windows is called the Solar Heat Gain Coefficient, which measures how well the window blocks heat from the sun. Both are ratings adopted by the National Fenestration Rating Council, a trade group.

Up in the attic, green ideas include using radiant barrier paint on the underside of the roof and perhaps spray foam insulation with an R-value, which measures heat resistance, of 39. For an uninsulated attic, an R-value of 30 to 60 is considered good, according to the Energy Star website.

Finally, enlist Mother Nature’s help and plant some shade trees. “This isn’t talked about a lot, but it’s a low-budget item that is very effective,” says Beere.

Do the light thing

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Here’s a green remodeling idea that’s light on the wallet: Replace your old incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs.

These bulbs use 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs, and they last up to 10 times longer, according to the Energy Star website. If your budget allows it, replacing age-old appliances with newer models can reduce overhead in your kitchen and laundry room.

When appliance shopping, look for Energy Star labels. Energy Star is a government-backed program that supports energy efficiency in home appliances and consumer products. Energy Star standards are set by the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy. Among other things, the agencies measure how well the machines do their job, not just their energy efficiency. Also, if an appliance costs more than a less-efficient model, it must justify the added expense by proportionately lower utility bills.

How big are the savings? According to the Energy Star website, replacing a washer that’s 10 years old or older can wring $135 from an average family’s annual utility bills.

Slow the flow

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Cutting water use doesn’t mean letting dirty dishes pile up, taking fewer showers or tolerating dead grass.

Michael Strong of Houston, a builder who holds CGP and LEED Green Associate designations, is expecting a 30 percent reduction in water consumption in a remodeling project called The House That Love Built, which will be run by a charity that helps homeless single mothers. The project ws completed in March at a cost of $440,000.

“We installed tankless water heaters and replaced all the plumbing fixtures with WaterSense fixtures,” he says. WaterSense is an EPA program that certifies fixtures based on their water efficiency.

Water saving isn’t just for indoors. Beere made use of an irrigation system that recycles water. In some areas, he replaced grass with pavers and concrete. He estimates that these moves will cut water consumption related to landscaping by 65 percent.

Breathe easy

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Your air quality issues aren’t over just because you installed an energy efficient HVAC system. Green remodeling also takes into account indoor, air-quality standards, particularly those involving volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

These compounds are often emitted as potentially dangerous gases and can come from paints or certain building materials. They are suspected of being linked to multiple health problems and can produce unpleasant odors.

One solution is low- or no-VOC paints. Beere says soy stain is an eco-friendly alternative to hardwood floors. On other surfaces, he uses no-VOC paint. An additional VOC-reduction strategy: “We replaced all carpets with hard surfaces.”

Strong uses VOC-free paint and also makes use of clay with a naturally pigmented finish on some walls. He takes advantage of local materials by purchasing all of his tiles within a 500-mile radius of Houston.

Additional resources

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For more information about real estate, check out these stories at Bankrate.com:

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