smart spending

6 energy-saving projects for your home

Save on home energy bills
Save on home energy bills

You've heard the usual energy-saving advice: Buy only Energy Star-rated appliances, replace incandescent light bulbs with those curly fluorescents, shop for cheaper electric providers (if you can in your town). But numerous low-cost, energy-saving strategies escape homeowners' attention.

Energy experts say about 35 percent of heating and cooling is lost through the roof, and more escapes through the walls, windows, doors and by air leaks. "Making your home energy-efficient means starting with the basics, and the most important of these are the proper sealing of air leaks and insulating sufficiently for your climate," says Ronnie Kweller, who was spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Energy in Washington, D.C., at the time of the interview. "Those steps can cut heating and cooling bills by up to 20 percent."

Here are some of the best bang-for-the-buck ways to save on home energy bills.

Insulation redux?
Insulation redux?

Unless it's thoroughly water-damaged, fiberglass insulation rarely needs replacing, though that doesn't stop unsavory contractors from recommending changing it out. Go ahead and fluff out those areas that have been compressed from excessive attic tromping because fiberglass insulation needs trapped air to be effective.

You can benefit by adding extra insulation. If yours is less than 9 inches thick (R 30), adding another layer could deliver significant extra savings. However, any thickness beyond 16 inches (R 50), except for those living far north in America, is typically unnecessary.

With a little how-to research, installation is relatively easy, but be sure to wear a mask and gloves, and don't cover any vents -- and don't fall through the ceiling! Fiberglass insulation can range from 50 cents to $1 per square foot, but the blown-in variety can cost nearly double that.

Draft day
Draft day

"Air infiltration" is fancy lingo for "drafts." One time-tested way to detect air infiltration is to hold a lighted candle a few inches from doors, baseboards, window frames, pipes and vents -- after turning off all fans, heating and air conditioning. If the candle flickers or is blown out, sealing is needed.

Use a caulk gun (sometimes old caulk must be removed first) to seal gaps in walls and windows, and add weatherstripping under gaps in doors. Drafts around vents indicate that the vents might be the wrong size. You can have them replaced or add foam insulation around them. These efforts are best left to pros unless you're exceptionally handy.

Another avoid-the-draft tip: Use heavier drapes over windows in winter.

Tech smarts
Tech smarts

A programmable thermostat that adjusts temperatures automatically will set you back between $60 and $120, but save you about $180 a year, according to Energy Star. That's a quick return on investment.

Smart thermostats are pricier, varying from $275 to $400, but they let you change settings remotely anywhere you have an Internet connection. They're handy for folks with fluctuating schedules or who tend to entertain clients, family members and other guests at home on an impromptu basis.

Some smart thermostats have monitoring systems that track energy use in various circuits around the house, so you can make adjustments where needed. Before taking that plunge, consider smartphone apps that allow you to dim lights and control thermostats, power strips and other connected devices from your phone.

"Smartphone apps can put energy efficiency at your fingertips at a reasonable cost," Kweller says.

Slay the 'vampires'
Slay the 'vampires'

Standby power, also called "vampire" or "phantom" power, is consumed when electrical devices idle in standby mode. These phantoms can suck the life out of your energy budget, accounting for as much as 10 percent of the average home's electricity use.

Most computers, video game consoles and other gizmos with standby connections have settings that you can adjust to power-saving mode. Do so. Older power strips and adapters (typically those warm to the touch) with standby current should be replaced.

Tactical landscaping
Tactical landscaping

Strategically planted trees can literally overshadow home energy waste. The original layouts and tree positioning of most lots were governed by builders' profit models, not energy savings, so it's up to homeowners to position clusters of trees to shade windows and rooftops in summer. These natural insulators can reduce the air temperature surrounding homes by as much as 9 degrees.

Deciduous trees, which provide shade in summer, then shed their leaves to admit sunlight in winter, are the best choice in most climates. Evergreens are more effective in providing windbreaks that reduce chilly northerly winds, as long as they are positioned away from the house at a span that's from two to five times the trees' heights.

What's more, shading your outdoor air-conditioning unit can increase its efficiency by 10 percent. The U.S. Department of Energy says that such energy-efficient landscaping provides a return on investment in about eight years.

Get audited
Tactical landscaping

Consider an energy audit, especially if the energy bills are still high after you have spent a bundle on windows or on a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system. Some utility companies offer free audits that aren't as thorough as audits performed by competent private companies, which charge around $400.

A thorough audit will test the integrity of the building using thermographic imaging and air-leakage testers on windows, floors, doors, skylights and walls. The findings will indicate which areas waste the most energy and help determine how to reduce costs. But first, vet the auditor carefully with a Better Business Bureau search and online user reviews.

Certified building analyst Richard Burbank, CEO of Evergreen Home Performance LLC in Rockland, Maine, says energy audits are particularly useful during homebuying due diligence. Enthusiasm over a great price on a distressed home can be quickly dampened when the buyer realizes the house is an energy hog. "We've seen a lot of buyers who are picking from the bottom of the barrel on foreclosures who especially need to pay attention," Burbank says.

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