Trending: energy-saving home improvements

Brett Freeman | Improvement Center Columnist | September 6, 2013

In what seems to be an historic first, American consumers have recently begun to favor "smart" over "sexy"--at least with regards to their homes. As the home renovation market continues to recover after years of stagnation, homeowners are increasingly passing up the "wow" factor in favor of upgrades that lower energy costs and pay for themselves over time.

According to the latest American Express Spending & Saving Tracker, nearly three out of four Americans are planning a home renovation project this year. Of those, half say they are planning to include green improvements. The American Express survey also found that in the past two years spending on energy-efficient improvements such as window replacements, insulation and solar panels has increased by more than 50 percent. What could be contributing to this momentum? Factors such as these:

  • tax incentives
  • better-quality products
  • lower-priced, energy-efficient products
  • uncertainty over future energy costs

But we're also undergoing a major cultural shift: You are no longer considered a tree hugger if you embrace green technology--you're financially savvy to want to lower your energy bills.

Stop throwing money out the window

If you think new windows lack the "cool" factor, you may not have been paying attention. Listening to someone discuss the features of modern windows brings to mind a panel discussion of alien weapons technology at Comic Con. You are likely to hear words and phrases like "krypton," "argon," and "transparent steel" being tossed about.The evolution of window technology over the past few decades is nothing short of amazing.

Older windows have two major failings--they let too much heat in, and they let too much heat out. Stand in front of those windows on a hot day, and you start to feel like an ant under a magnifying glass. Do the same in mid-winter, and you'll soon start shivering.

Gene Granelle, owner of Energy Conservation Solutions in Mooresville, N.C., recalled his introduction to southern U.S. heat soon after he first moved to North Carolina from New York. He and his wife had hung candle sconces on the wall in between the three windows of their living room, and on the first hot day of spring they came home to find that the heat from the windows had melted the candles.

Granelle ended up replacing his windows with low-e--low emissivity--windows, which are coated with reflective metal film that allows light in but reflects UV rays. These double- or triple-pane windows also have argon or krypton gas between the panes, which further prevents heat transfer through the glass. The net result, Granelle says, is that you can stand in front of his windows on the hottest day of summer or the coldest day of winter, and if you touch the glass, it's room temperature.

The California Energy Commission, a state agency, estimates that high-quality, low-e windows can reduce energy costs by 30 percent. That isn't enough for a quick payback on low-e windows, which Granelle's company sells and installs for, on average, $350 to $450 each, but there are other ways to defray the cost. Many utility companies and municipalities offer rebates on installations of low-e windows, as well as low-interest or even zero-interest loans.

Attic inferno: how to beat the heat

While the problem with older windows is that they usually let heat in or out, the problem with your attic is that it can allow a tremendous amount of heat in--and then hold it prisoner. The temperature in your attic can get above 150 degrees on a hot day, and the heat can seep into your house, driving up cooling costs. But there are ways to avoid that. Renovating your attic to prevent radiant heat from building up is a relatively inexpensive home improvement project, one that could pay for itself within a few years.

The critical component of this project is a radiant barrier, which is essentially a metallic, heat-reflecting foil installed over the rafters in your attic. The radiant barrier is left open near the peak of the roof, allowing the hear trapped between the barrier and the roof to escape via your roof's soffits and ridge vents. However, soffits and ridge vents are not particularly effective at circulating air--if they were, there would be no need for radiant barriers in the first place--so you might want to install a solar-powered vent fan to improve circulation.

Prior to installing a radiant barrier, you should also consider replacing the insulation in your rafters with spray foam insulation. This breathable foam can be significantly more efficient and durable than regular insulation. The net effect of these improvements can reduce your energy bill by up to 10 percent during warm months. You could also lose less heat through the attic in winter, leading to some modest savings, as well.

Granelle, whose company also sells and installs solar systems, says that one of the first things he tells prospective customers is that it's cheaper to save energy than to produce it. His point? Your money is well-spent improving your home's energy efficiency. These improvements could end up paying for themselves in time, making going green as much about saving money as it is about saving the environment.

About the Author

Brett Freeman is a freelance journalist. He also owns a landscaping and irrigation company in North Carolina. Previously he has worked as a beat reporter, a teacher, and for a home improvement company, and he used to own a bar/live music venue.