Best Home Energy Efficiency Improvements

PV panels and wind turbines might have a lot of sex appeal, but they can also be pricy. If you're on a limited budget, here are some recommendations for affordable home energy efficiency upgrades that will pay for themselves in short order.

| August/September 2010

home before remodel

Jefren Olson’s home in Madison, Wis., before the energy upgrades.


Have you thought about making energy retrofits to your home? It’s a great way to make your home more energy efficient and reduce your carbon footprint. Home energy efficiency improvements are good for your bank account, too, because money you invest in energy efficiency or renewable energy systems will pay off over time in reduced energy bills. That’s especially true right now, because the federal government currently offers big financial incentives for purchasing solar panels, wind turbines, efficient windows, added insulation, woodstoves and more. It’s also possible to finance home energy upgrades with a loan specifically designed for energy conservation. These loans are usually called energy improvement mortgages (see “Resources,” below). However, it’s not always easy to determine what energy improvements you need. Which projects make the most sense for your home? Which are really worth the money? And if you can’t do all of them, where should you start?

Imagine You Had a Little Extra Dough …

Each home is different, and how much you could benefit from a particular project depends on many variables, including the age and design of your home, your financial situation, and your personal priorities. To help focus on what you really need and want, consider this hypothetical scenario: You have been given $5,000 to spend on home energy improvements. What would you do with the money?

Some of the projects that may come to mind first, such as solar-electric (photovoltaic) panels and wind power systems, are outside that budget. For example, if you were to purchase a residential wind turbine, you could expect to spend at least $10,000 and easily as much as $50,000. Solar panels usually fall into a similar price range. Energy-efficient windows come with a big price tag, too. They can cost between $200 to $800 per window. Add the cost of installation, and depending on the size of your home and the number of windows, you could easily spend $10,000 or more.

Can you make significant energy improvements to your home on a more modest budget? Absolutely! You could add insulation, buy a new, high-efficiency furnace, or purchase a new energy-efficient refrigerator. The big question is how to decide which of these energy improvements will provide the biggest benefits for you.

Regardless of your home’s age, most residential efficiency experts recommend a home energy audit as a first step. An energy audit costs about $300, although low-cost or free audits are sometimes offered by local utilities. George Twigg, the deputy policy director at Efficiency Vermont, a state organization that connects homeowners with qualified auditors and contractors, explains how this process works: “The contractor will help guide the homeowner through the most cost-effective things that can be done to save energy. Often it’s sealing air leaks and other ways to tighten up the house. Those strategies have a reasonably fast payback, as opposed to windows, which have a fairly long payback time.”

A “payback period” is the time required for the improvement to save enough fuel or energy to pay for itself, and it’s a useful tool in determining which high-dollar home improvements will yield quick results. For example, for home insulation upgrades, a payback of three to five years is not unusual, while for energy-efficient windows, a payback period of more than 10 years is common. One thing to keep in mind is that you shouldn’t rely too heavily on payback period estimates from product manufacturers. Look for estimates from sources that don’t have a vested interest in the results, such as a state energy agency or an energy auditor (especially an energy auditor who isn’t also proposing to do the repair work he or she recommends.)

3/5/2015 2:38:51 PM

Green Home Improvement projects are not as difficult as one may think. Here are some easy ideas that will make an impact right away

9/21/2013 10:22:45 PM

If you are looking for a low cost, energy saving product (especially for hot and humid areas), you need to check out the products from the Larson Fan Company. They are on-line.

4/27/2013 8:42:22 AM

Stevanamber...look up the "Queenslander", traditional Australian airy weatherboard house up on stilts, for hot , humid climates! (Should be the norm for Houston and similar places!)

4/26/2013 9:06:19 AM

I wish there had been an example of someone in the south that did energy improvements. It seems to be hard to find as much info on energy upgrades for warmer humid climates.

tom cox_2
2/20/2011 9:02:40 AM

We started with what is probably a "near-worst-case" situation, an older mobile home. So far, we have installed a wood stove ( and, after some research, had a "real" roof installed over the thin, sheet metal "turkey tent" that was there when we moved in ( and ( It's been hard to judge the results by heating costs, because we have had two of the worst winters in decades, in terms of snow and low temperatures, but we feel subjective improvement in comfort. And, the new roof doesn't rumble and leak!

kurt johnsen_2
8/6/2010 3:36:05 PM

Dear Mother Earth, In ex #3: From efficiency to renewables, Mr Carlin either got bad advice from the energy experts or he ignored it. The story says he replaced his heat pump "in 2007 ($11,069) resulting in a 10 percent savings on the electric bill". He later went on to make 24,000 in other improvements (windows, doors, insulation, etc) which reduced the heating and cooling loads. His results were an overall 41% reduction in energy use. So his heat pump is now roughly 30% to big for his house renovated house. Not only did he pay (30% ?) too much for the heat pump but it will now cool the house too quickly for moisture removal which will make it feel hotter in summer and colder in winter requiring it to run more than would otherwise be necessary, wasting energy over it's lifetime. Carlin also mentions planning to save 10,000 in 20 yrs with his 5.3-kilowatt solar PV system. If he doesn't get more than $100 / yr worth of electricity per kilowatt, then something (else)is wrong.

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