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5 resolutions for energy savings

Roger Diez | Improvement Center Columnist | July 11, 2013

The New Year is traditionally a time to resolve to make changes for the positive. This year, in addition to the usual resolutions to lose weight, quit smoking and get along with your in-laws, why not consider reducing both your carbon footprint and your energy bills, too?

A project for every budget

There are many things you can do to make your home more energy-efficient. Some of them are quite expensive, but others are relatively cheap. Here, in order of cost, are five things you can do to lower your energy bills:

  1. Reduce power consumption
  2. Weatherize your home
  3. Install solar water heating
  4. Install a solar electrical system
  5. Install a geothermal heat pump

Let's examine each of these more closely and analyze the cost/benefit ratio.

1. Reducing power consumption

This is a project that costs next to nothing, but requires awareness and discipline. Some appliances, like TV sets, draw power even when turned off. So they should be unplugged if they will not be used for an extended period of time. Turn down the temperature on your water heater to help reduce your gas or electricity usage. Install a programmable thermostat and lower the temperature in your home when everyone is out -- and at night when you're all tucked in. A basic programmable thermostat can cost as little as $20, while more fully-featured models run from around $40 to over $100.

2. Weatherization

Over time, sealants around doors, windows, and other openings dry out, shrink, and cause air leakage. With a couple of tubes of caulking compound or silicone sealer and a little of your time, you can reseal those leaking joints and prevent heating or cooling air loss. Adding insulation to the attic can also help keep the hot or cool air where it belongs. Fiberglass batts, rolls, or blankets are the most cost-effective insulation at around $0.50 to $0.70 per square foot for material and another $0.40 to $0.50 per square foot for installation. A more costly but very effective weatherization project, if you can afford it, is to install highly efficient replacement windows. Pay specific attention to the R-value and U-value, and make sure your windows have the Energy Star label. Prices vary widely depending on materials and extras such as coating, but expect it to cost a few thousand dollars for an averaged-sized, typical home.

3. Solar water heating

Heating your water with solar power is an excellent way to reduce your energy costs, particularly if you live in an area with lots of sunny days. A 110-gallon system with electrical backup heating can cost in the neighborhood of $4,000. The good news is that such systems still qualify for a federal tax credit of 30 percent of the cost of materials and installation. Your state and local governments may also provide tax incentives or rebates. Combine that with the reduction in your gas or electric bill, and you could see a rapid return on your investment.

4. Solar electrical system

Solar photovoltaic systems generate electricity and reduce the amount of power you need to buy from your local power company. These systems also qualify for the 30 percent federal tax credit, and many states and municipalities have incentives and rebates as well. A five-kilowatt system with a 25-year warranty cost about $25,000 to $30,000 in mid-2012. However, solar panel prices are dropping as more production capability comes on line, so you might be able to negotiate a better deal. When your panels are generating more electricity than your home can use, your meter runs backwards as the excess is fed onto the grid in a process called "net metering." At the end of the month, you pay the power company for the power used less what you fed back to the grid. As of 2012 end-of-year pricing, you would get a complete return on your investment in 10 to 12 years.

5. Geothermal heat pump

A geothermal heat pump uses the stable, even heat of the earth to provide heating, cooling, and even hot water. Prices range from around $2,000 for a two-ton unit to over $8,000 for larger units with complete ground loop installation kits. Geothermal heat pumps are also eligible for the federal 30 percent tax credit, which is in effect through 2016. Geothermal heat pumps rely on electricity to run the fans to circulate air, but require no gas or electric heating elements.

Even if your self-improvement resolutions fail miserably, completing one or more of these energy-saving projects entitles you to more than a few bragging rights -- saving money and the planet at the same time are no small accomplishments.