The wise first step in reducing your energy use is to have a qualified energy auditor diagnose your home. A complete home-performance audit will generally take three to four hours and cost $250 to $600, depending on the age, size and design of your home. To find a qualified auditor, visit www.energystar.gov (click on “home improvement” and “home energy audits”) or www.natresnet.org (click on “consumer information” and “find a certified rater”).
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The auditor will provide a road map for improvements. Chandler von Schrader, a program analyst with Energy Star, a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, says that auditors’ top three recommendations usually include sealing a home’s exterior, sealing the ductwork and adding insulation. The work may run $3,000 to $4,000, but up to $1,500 of that can be paid by a federal tax credit if done before the end of 2010 (see www.energystar.gov for details).
Also high on the list: installing compact fluorescent light bulbs and low-flow shower heads, replacing appliances with Energy Star-approved models, and tuning up and repairing heating-and-cooling equipment. If your heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) system is in bad shape, you’ll need to replace it, which increases the total cost to, say, $5,000 to $15,000. But the tax credit applies to that, too.
Savings will vary widely. For example, a typical American family living in a single-family home spends $2,200 annually for energy, nearly half of which goes to heating and cooling. After spending $3,000 on improvements, the annual savings would be $250 to $600.
You can make gradual improvements, of course, but you should make them in the correct order, says home-performance contractor Isaac Savage, of Home Energy Partners, in Asheville, N.C. For example, tighten up a leaky house before replacing your heating-and-cooling equipment; otherwise, you may end up conditioning the air of the great outdoors -- albeit more efficiently. Plus, once the house is tightened up, you may get by with a smaller, cheaper unit.
New windows will earn you a tax credit and may increase your home’s resale value. But if energy efficiency is your goal, you’ll get a much better return on your investment by adding insulation, which is much less expensive, says von Schrader.
For a broader look at energy-efficient remodeling, see ReGreen: Residential Remodeling Guidelines, by the American Society of Interior Designers Foundation and the U.S. Green Building Council (www.regreenprogram.org).
A Brilliant Idea: Buy Better Bulbs
By 2014, all light bulbs sold in the U.S. must use almost one-third less energy than they do today. Incandescent bulbs, which cast off 90% to 95% of the energy they use as heat and last only 1,000 to 2,500 hours, won’t disappear, but they will evolve to meet the new standard. Among the current alternatives: The halogen bulb. At least 30% more efficient than an incandescent, with an expected life span of 3,000 to 6,000 hours. Try the Philips Halogena Energy Saver ($12 for two; www.amazon.com).
Compact fluorescents. 75% more efficient; up to 8,000 to 15,000 hours of use. GEÕs Energy Smart CFL offers a traditional shape ($10 for the equivalent of a 60-watt incandescent; www.elightbulbs.com).
Light-emitting diode bulbs. 75% more efficient; 25,000 to 50,000 or more hours. A ZetaLux bulb, equivalent to a 50- to 60-watt incandescent, is $40. Pricey, but great for hard-to-reach places.