Extension Connection

Extension Connection

Which home energy improvements are worth it?

Photo of Kathy Sweedler

Kathy Sweedler
Extension Educator, Consumer Economics

I would like to have a highly energy-efficient home. I dream of a "sci-fi" home: one that is monitored with sensors, uses a computerized system to regulate the temperature and humidity of my home, and makes adjustments so that I am always comfortable and my energy bill is minimal. The reality is that I live in an older home and I'm the one that runs around making adjustments to keep my home comfortable.

Even though I don't live in a home like the Jetsons, I can regularly improve the energy efficiency of my home. Some changes are made slowly. For example, as an incandescent bulb burns out we can exchange it for a more efficient light bulb such as a CFL (compact fluorescent light) or LED light. One woman I spoke with during a Money Smart Week presentation shared with me that she initially was hesitant to switch to CFL bulbs but started with one, and then another, and recently looked around her home and realized all her bulbs were CFLs.

Changing light bulbs is a relatively low-cost change and one that pays back with dollar savings quickly – typically within two years. But what about more expensive home improvements such as adding insulation, upgrading windows, or replacing an old air conditioner? How do we decide if it's worth the money to make the improvements?

To explore home energy savings, there's an amazing calculator online: the Home Energy Saver Calculator at http://hes.lbl.gov. On this research-based website, you can input information about your home and then see how changes would save in energy costs. First, you enter general information such as where you live and how many people live in your home. You also can enter how much you pay for electricity and gas, or you can use the default values for the costs in your zip code. I entered this information for my home in about two minutes.

Based just on this information, the calculator predicted that I could save $855 in potential yearly savings if I made upgrades to my home. Most of these savings are in reduced heating costs.

Important step: Write down your session number now so that you can come back later to modify your information and review the results. The session number is on top, left side of screen.

If you add more details about your home, then you can improve the cost saving prediction. The next step in the calculator is to add details about your home's building design. For example, the calculator asks what type of foundation you have. Choices include:

  • Slab-on-Grade
  • Unconditioned Basement
  • Conditioned Basements
  • Unvented Crawlspace
  • Vented Crawlspace

If you're not sure what these terms mean, you can click the "?" symbol to see a definition of each of the choices.

Next you're asked about your appliances and cooling/heating equipment. Doing quick estimates, within 10 minutes I had completed this section. Using our home's characteristics, when I now calculated potential savings, we increased our annual savings by $1000. Again most of this energy savings was due to a change in heating costs.

The last step is to look at "Recommendations" for upgrades. An interactive report gives you a list of suggested upgrades. For each upgrade you're given the estimated cost to install, energy savings, payback time, and return on investment. For example to improve my home energy use, the report recommended (among other things) that I seal my home's ducts. It predicted that the estimated cost to do this would be paid back in energy cost savings within two years. Now, with this information, I can compare this upgrade with other choices (such as sealing windows) to see which upgrade makes the most sense to do. Using the Home Energy Saver, you too can come up with a personalized plan of what you'd like to do improve your home energy use.

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