Home upgrades to save big money

Shannon Lee | Improvement Center Columnist | July 2, 2015

You could be saving money right now, this very moment. You could lower your utility bills with a few minor upgrades -- the kind of upgrades that cost just a few dollars. If you have a bit more time and money, you could be saving thousands over the long haul.

How can you do it? It all comes down to pinpointing the areas of your home that draw the most energy, then figuring out how to lower that usage. And the best news is that it's actually much easier than you might think.

The usual line-up

You probably already know that the appliances in your home draw a great deal of power, but do you have any idea how much? Some of them use a whopping amount of energy, and that shows up in dollar signs on your monthly utility bill.

  • Furnace fan. Your furnace fan is constantly pushing cool or warm air through the ducts of your home. But did you know that an older fan can account for up to 10% of your total utility bill? Remedy that problem with brushless permanent magnet models, which can cut usage down to around 4%.
  • Pool pump. Most pool pumps are running nonstop during the summer months, and your utility bills skyrocket because that tiny pump uses seven times the energy your refrigerator does. An Energy Star pump with multiple or variable speeds cuts energy use by up to 80%.
  • HVAC system. You already know this pulls a huge amount of power; how much depends upon how often you use it, as well as how well-insulated your home is. Upgrade to an energy-efficient model, caulk and seal all the holes in your walls, around your windows, and and around your doors, perform regular maintenance, and of course, install a programmable thermostat to cut costs even further.
  • Water heater. It sits there and heats water -- all the time. It winds up wasting up to 14% of your energy costs just to keep that water hot. A tankless water heater can cut down significantly on the energy it takes to provide hot water, especially if you use natural gas or propane.
  • Refrigerator. It might feel wrong to replace a refrigerator that is working just fine, but keep in mind that newer models have a serious edge on energy efficiency, which can save you money in the long run. When you do get a new model, run it between 35 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit for maximum efficiency.
  • Washer and dryer. These must-have items can make up 6% of a home's energy use, but you can reduce that with a highly efficient washer that cuts down on water usage, as well as a dryer that employs moisture sensors to cut off the heat when the clothes are done.

Eradicate the vampires

Even when they are turned off, "vampire" electronics are still sucking power. These include the smaller things in your home that are constantly on stand-by, such as your television, computers, copiers, game consoles, and the like. According to Forbes, the greatest vampire draws in your home are usually related to satellite and digital cable. Buying Energy Star products can help, but even with the best energy-efficient products out there, vampire power still adds up.

Fortunately, the remedy to this situation is quite simple and inexpensive: It's a power strip. Plug in those things that draw phantom power and turn them all off at once with the flip of a single switch.

Keep in mind that when you do this, you are giving up the benefits of stand-by power. That simply means that your television, cable service, computers and the like might not be ready to start up immediately, as you are accustomed to -- it will take them a few minutes to "warm up." The good news is that for savings of up to 10% of your total energy bill, a bit of extra leisure time is a very small price to pay.

Consider the power source

Most of us get our power directly from the power company, and dutifully pay our bills every month. But what if some of the energy that came into our home every day was the result of our own solar panels? What if the heating and cooling in our home was due to geothermal energy drawn from the earth, rather than relying solely on the utility companies?

Yes, these options are pricey. The geothermal system can cost between $20,000 and $25,000 for a 2500-square foot home, while solar panels can run between $15,000 and $40,000, depending upon the size of the installation. That's before any tax incentives, which can save you up to 30% of the total cost. The savings over time add up significantly, but you must plan to live in your home for many decades in order to recoup your investment.

On the other hand, how much is peace of mind worth? What kind of price can you put on helping the environment? These energy savers, whether simple and inexpensive or complex and a big outlay of cash, can help you do your part in making the world a better place -- all while putting money back into your pocket.

Photo credit to Myryah Shea

About the Author

Shannon Lee is a freelance writer and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she's not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.