While the debate over climate change rages on, energy-efficient features have become a key attraction for today's home buyers. The National Association of Realtors' 2009 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers found that nearly 90 percent of buyers considered heating and cooling bills important, and more than 70 percent wanted high-efficiency appliances. "One of the things that we as advocates of energy efficiency have been encouraged by is a change in home buyers' and homeowners' attitudes towards energy efficiency," says Kateri Callahan, the president of the Alliance to Save Energy.
And why not? Energy-efficient home features help lower your bills while reducing your carbon footprint. On top of that, Uncle Sam is now handing out tax credits worth up to $1,500 when you purchase certain energy-efficient home products. But if you're planning on going green, you had better get moving, says Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, deputy home editor at Consumer Reports. "All the tax credits expire at the end of 2010," she says. "So this is the year to do a lot of those things because Uncle Sam is going to help you pay for it." To assist consumers who are considering making these upgrades, U.S. News spoke with a number of experts to compile a list of 10 Great Green Home Improvements for 2010.
[Also see 10 Ways to Save Cash and Go Green.]
1. Energy-efficiency audit: Before you can make your home more energy efficient, you need to know where you currently stand. A so-called energy audit, in which an energy professional inspects your home to determine where efficiencies can be created, is a great way for homeowners to figure out which parts of their property need attention. "That is the very first step that any homeowner should take," says Karen Thull of the Energy & Environmental Building Alliance. "[An energy-efficiency audit] is a great way to kind of measure where there are inefficiencies." Homeowners can contact their energy company or a contractor about conducting an energy audit, which may be free in some cases. "I'm an energy guy, but I even called my local utility and had their auditor come out [to inspect my house]," says Randy Martin, the former director of energy-efficiency services at the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities.
2. Seal it up: Ensuring that your home is tightly sealed is a key component of energy efficiency. "You can talk about the future of the smart home and all of that," says Meg Matt, the president and CEO of the Association of Energy Services Professionals. "But it really does come back to the basics of sealing what I call 'the leaky house.' " Plugging up the leaks that allow cold air to slip into your house—and drive up your heating bills—is an important first step. Such leaks are often found near doors and windows, but they can also spring up in your basement or attic. Certain materials used to seal these leaks—such as caulk, spray foam, or weatherstripping—can qualify for federal tax credits. "It's something that homeowners can do easily," Thull says. "And there are a lot of different products out there that are able to do [it]." For more specific information on eligibility and the tax benefits associated with different products, visit this site.
3. Insulate upstairs: Adding insulation can help keep your home comfortable year-round. "It turns out that about half of the homes in the United States are underinsulated," Callahan says. "If your home was built before about 1980, you should really look at it to see if you have got the proper level of insulation." For those adding insulation, Callahan recommends starting with an easily accessible part of the house, such as the attic. "In the attic spaces, a lot of times, the insulation over a period of years will reduce down to maybe 3 or 4 inches where you are supposed to have like 10 inches of insulation," says Paul Zuch, the president of Capital Improvements. "A lot of the insulation companies promote going in and blowing an additional 10 inches of insulation in your attic. That really helps." Certain insulation products can qualify for federal tax credits.
4. Seal the ducts: Ducts carry hot or cold air to different parts of homes with forced-air heating and cooling systems. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that roughly a fifth of this air escapes through leaks. To address this headache, consumers can use duct sealant to repair leaks in exposed ducts, like those in an attic or basement. Kuperszmid Lehrman recommends that homeowners have their ducts insulated as well. "If they don't have insulation, you should add the insulation," she says. "And because that is going to be a project where you are going to need to do it in places that are going to be hard to reach, that's probably a project where you are going to want to hire somebody."
5. Programmable thermostat: Another way to cut down on energy costs is a programmable thermostat, Callahan says. These devices—which can be found for less than $30—help prevent homeowners from wasting energy. For example, a homeowner could use this device to program the downstairs heat to lower by 15 degrees at 11 p.m., when the family is in bed, and return to its normal temperature at 6 a.m. "A programmable thermostat allows you to set back the temperature pretty significantly when you are not in the home or if you are asleep," Callahan says. "They save about 10 percent on your heating bills and your cooling bills in the summer—so they pay for themselves literally in a matter of months."
6. Energy-efficient windows: Replacing old, leaky windows with higher-efficiency models can also make your home greener. Zuch recommends that consumers buy wood windows instead of aluminum-framed models, which can allow hot or cold air to pass through more readily. "Wood windows are great because wood is a natural insulator," Zuch says. "It just doesn't allow heat and cold to move through the frame." Energy-efficient windows typically have two panes of glass filled with a gas that works to slow down the heat that passes through it, Zuch says. Qualified energy-efficient windows are eligible for a federal tax credit, but installation costs are not included.
7. Energy-efficient doors: Certain higher-efficiency door models also can qualify for a tax break from Uncle Sam. When looking for energy efficiency, avoid hollow metal doors, Kuperszmid Lehrman says. "Any kind of hollow door is going to be terrible because the air is going to infiltrate right through," she says. Instead, look for a door of insulated steel, fiberglass, or wood. If you'd prefer that a portion of the door be glass, look for energy-efficient components. "If you are going to go for glass, you want to make sure that you get the same sort of insulating features that you would look for in a window."
8. Add storm windows: Storm windows can be a lower-cost alternative to a full-blown window replacement project. "Storm windows are a very inexpensive way to increase the energy efficiency of your current windows," Kuperszmid Lehrman says. But she cautions that the project makes financial sense only if a homeowner's current windows are in good condition, since rotting or leaky windows would need to be replaced sooner or later anyway. "If your interior windows are in good shape, then [installing storm windows is] a quick way to increase your energy efficiency without going through the expense and the mess of ripping out your current windows," she says. Certain storm windows and doors can qualify for a federal tax credit, but installation costs are not included.
9. Energy-efficient heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) system: Replacing an outdated heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system with more energy-efficient models can also lower your monthly energy bills. But because the project can be quite expensive, Kuperszmid Lehrman suggests that homeowners take this step only as a last resort. Before considering this project, it's essential to make sure your home is as well sealed and insulated as possible. "If you upgrade your HVAC system but your house is still leaking, you still are going to use an enormous amount of energy," she said. Only homeowners who have properly sealed homes but old and unreliable heating and cooling equipment should invest in a new HVAC system, Kuperszmid Lehrman says. "I wouldn't call somebody to replace your heating system in the dead of winter," she says. "I would do some research and then call them when people aren't calling them for the emergency calls." Certain heating and cooling products can qualify for federal tax credits.
10. High-efficiency water heaters: These can drive down home energy costs as well. "Water heating makes up anywhere from 15 to 25 percent of the annual energy usage in a home," says Steve Koep of Marathon Water Heaters. High-efficiency water heaters conserve energy by keeping water hot for longer than traditional water heaters. "You start saving money on a monthly basis, and that technology will generally pay for itself in anywhere from three to five years," Koep says. Certain water heaters can qualify for federal tax credits.