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Energy Efficient Home Improvement Projects

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Commonly heard and read about energy-saving advice: Buy only Energy Star-rated appliances, replace incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent twists or LEDs, and choose the cheapest electric provider. But there are many other low-cost, energy-saving strategies that can escape homeowners’ attention.

About 35 percent of heating and cooling is lost through the roof, according to energy experts—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 the weather in your area. 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

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

Your home can benefit by adding extra insulation. If your home’s insulation 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 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. Fiberglass insulation can range from 50 cents to $1 per square foot, but the blown-in variety can cost nearly double that.

Drafts

“Air infiltration” is a professional term for drafts, so don’t let the term confuse or scare you. After turning off all fans, heating, and air conditioning, a good method to detect air infiltration is to hold a lighted candle a few inches from doors, baseboards, window frames, pipes and vents. If the candle flickers or is blown out, sealing is needed.

Use a caulk to seal gaps in walls and windows and add weather stripping under gaps in doors. Drafts around vents are indicative the vents might be the wrong size. You can have either replace them or add foam insulation around them. These efforts are best left to pros unless you’re exceptionally handy.

Use heavier drapes over windows in winter. Heat from the sun is free, so you’ll want to make the most of it. Open your curtains and let the sunlight in during the day to make use of this free heat. Window shades and curtains should be kept open during the day. Closing your curtains as soon as dusk falls will maximize your home’s potential to retain that heat. When it gets dark, shut your curtains and shades, which act as another layer of insulation and keep warmth within your rooms.

Thermostat

A programmable thermostat adjusts temperatures automatically. Their cost ranges from $30 for a no-frills model to a few hundred dollars for the fancy name brand internet-enabled thermostats you can control with your mobile device. No matter which kind you choose, you can save as much as $180 a year by using a programmable thermostat, 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 when your schedule fluctuates or if you 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 when and 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. You may be able to find smart devices with the same brand that can all be controlled with the same app.

Energy Vampires

Standby power, also called vampire or phantom power, is consumed when an electrical device is idle or in standby mode. These can use up a majority 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. You should definitely change these settings. Older power strips and adapters, without standby current—especially those warm to the touch—should be replaced.

Landscaping

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. Strategically planted trees can overshadow home energy waste.

Deciduous trees, which provide shade in summer, then shed their leaves to admit sunlight in winter, are the best choice in most cases. 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.

Also, 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. Just don’t plant anything so close that it inhibits proper airflow in and around the unit.

Get audited

Here’s one of the few times an audit can be a good thing. Consider an energy audit, especially if you see no change in your energy bills after you have spent money 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.

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