3 cheap energy-efficient home improvements to save you money

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | January 15, 2015

No matter how old you get, in your head you may still hear your parents telling you to turn the lights off when you leave a room. These days an entire Greek chorus might be singing backup, reminding you to unplug your chargers, turn off your computer, and reset the thermostat. Saving energy is no longer just a sign of being frugal; it's also a matter of global concern for many.

Like turning off lights you're not using, you can implement plenty of other commonsense, energy-saving actions that require nothing more than the time it takes to execute them: running full loads of laundry or dishes, for example, or keeping your freezer filled, even if it's just with bags of ice for your next party. Regardless of whether your reasons to stop using excess energy are social or economical, you might like these three energy-efficient home improvements that can cost you less than $150 and save you as much as 10 to 20 percent year round on your utility bills, according to Energy.gov.

Plug air leaks to save energy consumption

Your house probably is not airtight, so heat leaves in winter through the cracks in its armor and enters the same way in summer. For a very small investment, both caulking -- especially where you can feel cold drafts or see light coming in -- and new weather stripping around doors and windows go a long way to save much more costly heated and air-conditioned air.

To check for cracks where there can be air leaks, you can do a visual inspection outside where foundations, chimneys or water spigots meet the siding or masonry and at all external corners. Indoors, inspect for gaps around the following areas:

  • electrical switchplates and outlets
  • all types of vents to the outside
  • gas, cable, and phone lines
  • fireplace dampers
  • weather stripping on doors and windows
  • baseboards

You can also have an independent energy auditor do a building pressurization test, but you can perform a version of the test yourself on a cool, windy day. Close all the windows, doors, and fireplace flues and turn off any combustion appliances such as those that are gas-powered. Turn on all exhaust fans, the clothes dryer -- and anything that will suck air out of the rooms and blow it out of the house. Then hold a stick of incense near all areas mentioned above. If incense smoke blows into the room or ripples, you know you have an air leak there. You can also have someone shine a flashlight on the suspect areas from inside the house at night while you stand outside and look for cracks of light to appear.

Replace your light bulbs with LEDs or CFLs

If you hoarded incandescent bulbs and still have not changed them out for LEDs or CFLS, you could be leaving as much as $75 a year on the table. Although the initial cost for the more efficient bulbs may seem expensive, the price has actually come down to where the cost equals about a dollar or less per year over their lengthier lifetimes. Options in color temperature have improved by leaps and bounds, so if you bought either the LEDs or CFLs just a couple of years ago, you could be pleasantly surprised by their quality. Some of the LEDs are rated to last up to 20,000 hours and the CFLs, 10,000 hours. You may never have to change another light bulb again. If you have a lot of fixtures and lamps and want to minimize initial costs, start by replacing only the most used bulbs. Max out on energy-efficiency by using timers and motion sensors.

Install programmable thermostats to regulate heating and cooling

Digital or electromechanical programmable thermostats allow you to preset the desired temperature at which you want to keep your home throughout every day of the week. Depending on the model, you can preset up to six time slots per day to coincide with the hours you are at home or away, choosing the most energy-efficient and comfortable temperatures for each period of time depending on your usual activities. If your spouse likes it hot for his morning shower while you practice Bikram yoga in the bedroom, you can set the thermostat to turn up the heat in the dark of winter before the alarm rings. If you need a cool down after sweltering on public transit or in your carpool during summer evening rush hours, set it to crank up the a/c before you walk through the front door. When necessary, you can temporarily override the setting without changing the program.

The secret to saving energy with this strategy is that you have to set the thermostat higher or lower than normal for at least one eight-hour block of time each day -- and for at least 10 degrees warmer in summer and 10 degrees cooler in winter. The likely times to take advantage of aggressively raising and lowering the thermostat are while you are away from the house at work or when you are sleeping. With this strategy you can reduce your energy use from 5 to 15 percent per year. Digital, programmable thermostats average $120 but can be found for as little as $20. More expensive models feature touch screens, wi-fi, and smartphone control, and the Nest Learning thermostat for $249 "learns" to adjust automatically to your customary comfort levels according to time of day, temperature, and humidity.

You may not be able to afford an alternative energy system or save the world, but with these cheap home improvements you can make a difference in your energy bills and do your bit.

About the Author

Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.