Serious About Energy Efficiency? Prioritize Your Upgrades

Electrical plug next to coins

Everybody wants to save energy, but not everybody understands which energy savings opportunities make the most sense. Fortunately, there’s a lot of buzz about energy efficiency these days. Unfortunately, different information sources offer different advice. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

At PV, we draw on building science to understand energy efficiency ROI. As a result, we group energy improvements into four different categories:

  1. Low-hanging fruit: These are improvements with low initial costs and an almost immediate return on investment. Nearly everyone should take advantage of these opportunities.
  2. More challenging, but worth it: Some energy efficiency upgrades cost more in the near-term but rarely require big equipment purchases. They’re not cheap, but you probably won’t find them prohibitively expensive either. These improvements pay for themselves over time, and you’ll likely enjoy comfort and/or safety improvements in the near-term.
  3. HVAC and appliance upgrades: Many energy efficiency updates require energy efficient infrastructure. In other words, you’ll have to buy new equipment to make these improvements. Whether it’s worth it depends on your situation.
  4. Lotta hype, not a lotta efficiency: Some products that are marketed as energy efficient aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. That doesn’t mean you should avoid them; it just means you should go into the transaction with your eyes open.

With that breakdown in mind, let’s explore some smart – and somewhat less smart – ways to make your home more energy efficient.

1. Low-hanging fruit: Lighting and HVAC maintenance

Still using old school incandescent light bulbs? Well, it’s time to ditch them. Don’t even wait for them to burn out first. The cost savings from switching to CFLs or, preferably, LEDs is substantial. You’ll probably recoup up to 80% of the up-front costs in just one year. It’s hard to get better ROI than that!

If you’re on the fence because you don’t like the light quality (or color) from some CFLs you’ve seen, take heart. It’s now possible to get CFL or LED bulbs that emit pleasant, incandescent-equivalent light. In fact, nearly all of them look good these days!

Another quick win for energy efficiency is HVAC maintenance. Heating and cooling your home is extremely energy consumptive. A bi-annual equipment inspection (and cleaning!) keeps your HVAC system running at peak efficiency all year round. It also helps you avoid major problems before they become major expenses.

If you’ve ever had to replace your blower motor, you know what we’re talking about.

Lastly, consider a programmable thermostat. If your family has a consistent schedule, programming your thermostat – and sticking to the automated settings – can help you save energy right away. Families with erratic schedules or people who don’t bother to stick with the thermostat’s program probably won’t save with a programmable model, though.

2. More challenging, but worth it: Air sealing and insulation

Ah, caulking and foaming. You know where this is going, right?

Well, maybe you do. But if you think we’re about to suggest you caulk around your windows and doors, that’s not quite where we’re headed.

As we’ve explored in a previous article, air sealing at the top and bottom of your home is the most effective way to stop air infiltration (think drafts) and keep your HVAC system from working too hard. Inside a structure, most air and heat enters and leaves at the top and the bottom. That’s why air sealing your attic and crawlspace is typically more effective than spending all afternoon circling your windows with a caulk gun.

That said, it’s still a good idea to air seal your entire house. As long as doing so is in your budget.

Before we seal the envelope surrounding your home, we like to perform a whole home assessment. This process includes air exchange readings via a blower door test and infrared camera analysis. After performing the assessment, we can pinpoint the places where the most air is escaping from your home (usually the attic and crawlspace, but it varies) and help you prioritize your improvements.

The whole home assessment also shows us whether it makes sense to pursue these improvements:

  • Adding insulation: Inadequate or inconsistent insulation allows heat to enter and leave your home at a rapid rate. After air sealing, it might be a good idea to increase your insulation levels – especially if they’re below R-40 in the attic.
  • Duct sealing: A lot of the air that you’re paying to heat and cool might be escaping from your ducts before entering your living space. Our assessment includes duct leakage testing. If you’ve got a lot of leakage, sealing the leaks can make a huge difference in your energy bills.
  • Safety modifications: In some homes, negative pressure areas, improper flue design, or chimney vents (for gas appliances) can increase your risk of a carbon monoxide leak. A healthy home is a safe home, so we always check these things at the same time we look for energy efficiency and indoor air quality improvements.

These improvements cost more than a sack full of new LED bulbs. However, in many cases, they pay for themselves over time – a period of several years, typically – so they might be worth it if you plan to be in your home for awhile.

Even when they don’t quite pay for themselves in terms of energy savings, there can be a huge payoff in terms of comfort and safety. We already mentioned CO mitigation, but sealing air leaks and ducts will also go a long way toward keeping you comfortable year round. When calculating potential energy savings and long-term ROI, keep in mind how much more comfortable you’re likely to be during the years you’re waiting for the monetary payoff.

If you need help calculating the payback from these upgrades, check out Green Building Advisor’s payback calculations guide to see which factors might impact your ROI.

3. HVAC and appliance upgrades

Here’s where things get trickier. Not because it doesn’t make sense to buy energy efficient equipment, but because purchasing energy efficient equipment is a delicate balancing act. You’ve got to have the need, the budget, and the psychological wherewithal to spend a little more (or a lot more) in the name of lower energy consumption.

Here are some things to keep in mind when making major energy efficiency investments in your home :

  1. HVAC and electric water heaters are the biggest offenders. These systems typically use more energy than anything else in your home. That’s especially true if you’ve got a traditional electric water heater. If you’re prioritizing which equipment to replace, these are the top two.
  2. If your bills aren’t too high, you can wait until there’s a need. Unless you’re trying to reduce your carbon footprint as quickly as possible, you can often wait until your old equipment stops working or repair costs become untenable. If your bills are really high, though, it probably makes sense to replace the system right away. That way you can take the difference in energy savings and apply it toward the cost of new equipment. Speaking of…
  3. It might not be as expensive as it looks. The great thing about HVAC equipment is that some companies (ahem… like PV) offer great financing options that help you reduce the overall cost of an energy efficient system. For example – and yes, this is a real possibility – say you finance a $20K HVAC purchase at 0% interest for 5 years. Just use the extra cash flow from your reduced energy bill to pay off the loan. Over time, that’s better ROI than your favorite index fund! We also offer a wide range of replacement possibilities. If you’d rather pay in cash, there’s an option for that.
  4. Other appliances might present opportunities. If your refrigerator was manufactured before 2001, replacing it with a new one offers pretty quick ROI. In some cases, you’ll recover the expense within a few years. Many people also notice lower electric and water bills when they switch to a front-loading washing machine. If you aren’t quite ready for a new HVAC system or a heat pump water heater, upgrading these appliances might be a smart move.

In the event you are ready to replace your heating and cooling equipment, today’s variable speed compressors and variable airflow blowers are light years ahead of what you’re used to! The energy savings will be apparent right from the get-go. And since they provide longer run times with less on/off cycling, you’ll feel cooler (and drier) all summer and warmer all winter.

There’s a lot to love about energy efficient HVAC equipment, assuming you’re ready to invest in it!

Upgrading HVAC also gives you an opportunity to make additional improvements, like adding zones or installing a fresh air system. Changes like these will further optimize indoor comfort while increasing your energy savings.

Just be aware that you might not make up the costs right away, or even after several years. With these upgrades, you’re actually investing in comfort as well as monthly cash flow improvements. You’re buying a better product because it’s a better product.

4. Lotta hype, not a lotta efficiency: Replacement windows

Replacement windows are nice for several reasons. Vinyl, in particular, won’t rot and you don’t have to paint it. Low-e and argon-infused glass keeps you comfortable when you sit next to a window and prevents UV rays from “bleaching” your carpet.

So are replacement windows more energy efficient than your old ones? On paper, sure. The specs are convincing.

But remember: most of the air and heat inside a structure enters and leaves through the ceiling and the floor. That’s why it makes more sense to air seal and insulate at the top and bottom of your living space before bothering to do it anywhere else. With the exception of skylights, windows live on the side of your home, not the top or bottom.

Therefore, energy savings from replacement windows isn’t very significant. Even if you drop thousands on windows with great specs, you might not notice any efficiency improvements.

If and when you do replace your windows, do a full-frame replacement instead of the more common “pocket” replacement. A lot of contractors just pull out your old window and stick in a vinyl, foam-filled one without modifying the space around the window, which is typically a bunch of fiberglass stuffed inside a crack.

By opting for a full-frame replacement, you have the opportunity to take out the entire frame and add low-expansion foam between the new window and the framing. In the scheme of things, it’s a small air sealing job. But if you’re already going to the trouble (and expense) of replacing your windows, you might as well do it!

Efficiency is awesome, but…

It’s not everything. Comfort, safety, and equipment longevity are important, too.

When considering which energy efficiency improvements to pursue, try to strike a good balance among:

  • Short-term expenses vs. long-term savings
  • Overall costs vs. overall comfort gains
  • Need for new products vs. desire for new products

In the end, you’re trying to create a comfortable home environment that keeps energy consumption to a reasonable minimum. That balance will be different for everyone. By prioritizing improvements according to needs, budget, and realistic ROI expectations, you’re sure to make smart choices.