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Green spring: 3 exterior home improvements

Karen Lawson | Improvement Center Columnist | September 6, 2013

Spring has sprung and the robin singing outside of your bedroom window is telling you it's time to start your spring home improvement projects. It's possible to save energy and money with energy-efficient projects such as installing solar shingles, replacing some or all of your lawn with xeriscaping and installing or repairing your sprinkler and drip systems.

1. Solar

Using the sun -- the ultimate energy source for powering everything from your home water heater to the water features in your back yard -- is a great way to boost your enjoyment of your home while saving on energy costs.

Installing solar shingles is an energy-efficient method of reducing or eliminating electric bills and replacing ordinary shingles or even older solar panels that aren't working well any more. Solar roofing materials are now made to closely resemble traditional shingles.

While installing solar shingles requires a significant up-front investment, local utility rebate programs and federal tax credits can help defray the cost. Depending on your climate and local utility policies, it may be possible to generate enough solar energy to eliminate your electricity bill and even sell electricity to your utility company. Roofing contractors specializing in solar roofing can help you determine your best option.

If you're not ready for solar roofing, solar lighting and water features can add to your home's outdoor appearance and add atmosphere for outdoor entertaining and dining. Solar lighting illuminates landscaping without the expense of electricity and safety hazards sometimes associated with DIY outdoor electrical wiring.

Whether you install solar spotlights for accentuating specific plantings, or pick up a few spike lamps for lining a path or driveway, solar lighting is widely available and an energy-efficient choice for exterior home improvement.

2. Xeriscape

Can your summertime water bill be mistaken for the national debt? If so, your lawn and non-native landscaping could be the culprit. If you're wondering why anyone would replace a lush green lawn with cactus and gravel, you haven't seen today's xeriscaping options.

Landscape contractors, nurseries and your area's Cooperative Extension Service can recommend hearty, water-thrifty shrubs, trees and accent plants for your front and back yard. Rocks, paths and ground covers complement plantings without obscuring them. Water-saving landscaping is typically low-maintenance; xeriscaping uses plants native to your area, which reduces or eliminates the need for pesticides and fertilizers. If you're one of those types who can kill a plant just by walking past it, you might appreciate the easy care and tough constitution of a xeriscape.

3. Irrigation

If you don't already have an automatic irrigation system, consider installing one. Don't let the term "irrigation" bring visions of expansive farm fields;The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that about 13.5 million U.S. homes use automatic irrigation systems.

The water-saving ability of today's automatic irrigation systems can help you avoid such problems as over-or under-watering, runoff and evaporation. Automatic irrigation systems can be programmed according to desired watering times and factors such as weather conditions and assigned watering days.

Improve the efficiency of your irrigation system with a WaterSense-labeled irrigation controller. This is another "smart" product that turns your system on or off depending on water needs. According to WaterSense, a partnering program of the EPA, a drip-line irrigation system can reduce water usage by 20 to 50 percent compared to pop-up sprinklers.

No matter what your budget or the scope of your exterior home improvement projects, the time and effort you invest should create more enjoyment of your outdoor living space while lowering water and energy costs. Pleased with the results? Take some of the savings and buy that noisy robin a solar-powered bird bath.

About the Author

Karen Lawson is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about home improvement and gardening. She earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in English from the University of Nevada Reno. Karen lives near Reno,Nevada and is usually working on home and gardening projects with "help" from her four dogs.