No matter where you live, the total cost of climate control in the home — heating, cooling, and humidity control — likely accounts for a meaningful share of your monthly budget. Eisenbach Consulting, an energy management company, finds that the average American spends anywhere from about 1% to more than 4.5% of household income on home energy usage, depending largely on prevailing utility rates.
Fortunately, reducing climate control costs is possible without life-altering sacrifices of convenience or comfort. The process often begins with a professional or DIY home energy efficiency audit. Data from the U.S. Department of Energy suggests that homeowners who act on the findings of their audit can reduce their home energy costs by as much as 30%.
And some post-audit projects could help you build equity in your home. Generally speaking, energy-efficient upgrades such as new windows, new combustion appliances, and new roofs all boost home appraisal values.
If you’re planning a DIY or professional energy audit in the near future or eager to maintain the momentum created by a just-completed evaluation, you’re ready to begin thinking about home improvement projects that could reduce your utility costs and energy consumption in spring, fall, winter, and summer alike.
How to Improve Your House After an Energy Efficiency Audit
Post-audit projects fall into two broad categories. On the one hand, there are relatively simple projects that you can probably complete on your own, provided you have enough time, some initiative, and possibly some tools or access to a tool-lending library. Because you don’t have to pay anyone to help you, these DIY projects almost always cost less than professional work.
On the other hand are projects that, whether due to their complexity or the amount of time required, are best completed with the assistance of a professional.
Although professional work costs more than DIY, there are plenty of ways to trim expenses. For instance, some contractors are fine with clients purchasing their supplies upfront (at their direction) so that they can show up with only their tools and still get the job done. Likewise, it’s frequently cheaper to forgo retailers’ appliance installation offers and hire a freelance handyperson using a sharing economy platform such as TaskRabbit — although this can backfire if doing so voids the appliance’s warranty.
For either type of project, always check with the Department of Energy and your state environmental authorities for the latest information about renewable energy and home efficiency tax credits and rebates, which can dramatically reduce your upfront investment.
Common DIY Fixes and Upgrades
Although they can be time-consuming and monotonous, these projects don’t necessarily require special knowledge or skills. Tackle them first after your home energy audit.
1. Fix Drafts and Air Leaks
- Cost: Approximately $350 to $600 in an average-sized home (2,500 square feet), according to Fixr.
- Potential Savings: Comprehensive sealing of drafts and air leaks can reduce net utility costs by about 10%, according to the federal Energy Star program.
Although it’s not exactly stimulating and does require an eye for detail, fixing drafts and leaks calls for no specialized knowledge and little innate handiness. Caulk is the material of choice for plugging cracks or gaps between stationary objects, such as foundation corners and exterior water lines. Weatherstripping is better suited for gaps between movable objects, such as windows and doors.
There are many different types of weatherstripping and caulk, so consult the Department of Energy’s weatherstripping and caulk guidelines to determine which makes sense for your windows and doors. As an example, polyurethane and resin caulk work well in most common indoor and outdoor applications, while water-based foam sealant is only appropriate around windows and doors.
2. Add or Repair Insulation
- Cost: Widely variable depending on R-value (insulation levels), insulation type, and project size, but typically $0.15 to $2 per square foot, per HomeAdvisor. Insulating an entire attic can cost about $2,000.
- Potential Savings: Comprehensive insulation coupled with air sealing can reduce net heating and cooling costs by about 15%, according to Energy Star.
Adding to existing insulation in attics and basements requires little to no handiness or specialized knowledge. Before you begin, make sure you’re using insulation with an adequate R-value (insulating ability), and that any insulation you install near hot or combustible areas such as furnace vents and fireplaces is fireproof.
To address inadequate vapor barriers, use vapor barrier paint or plastic, fastening the plastic in place with wood staples or other fixtures as recommended by the manufacturer. To remedy inadequate or deteriorated insulation, purchase fiberglass roll insulation with appropriate R-values and apply as directed after removing the old deteriorated insulation.
When removing or applying insulation, wear appropriate safety equipment, including gloves, and make sure the space is properly ventilated. Realize that applying insulation can be a messy, sweaty job, so don’t hesitate to break larger projects into more manageable chunks or call in a professional. To insulate cracks or small voids that are too large for solid caulk or weatherstripping, use expanding foam caulk, which is typically found in a spray can with a long nozzle.
3. Replace Old Appliances
- Cost: The average new oven costs about $2,000, per HomeAdvisor, although higher-end options cost significantly more. The average new refrigerator costs $1,000 to $2,000, per HomeAdvisor. A new clothes dryers costs between $200 and $1,200 depending on size and features, according to Kitchens.com.
- Potential Savings: Varies by appliance type and model. Use Energy Star’s Flip Your Fridge calculator to calculate potential savings from a new refrigerator. Energy Star-rated dryers reduce energy costs by about 20% on average, according to Energy Star.
Older home appliances tend to be less efficient than new ones. For energy-intensive appliances, such as refrigerators and clothes dryers, replacements can pay for themselves within a few years.
It’s generally possible to install new appliances yourself — some are basically plug-and-play, while others require light utility work such as connecting a dishwasher to a water line. However, depending on your ability to move large objects and your comfort level with following printed installation instructions, some appliance installations — for example, a new oven range — are best left to the professionals. Many appliance retailers offer free delivery and installation with a minimum purchase.
4. Switch From Electric to Gas Appliances
Because natural gas is often cheaper than electric power, gas appliances can cost less to operate over time. If you dry clothes and cook often, switching your clothes dryer and cooking range from electric to gas can produce noticeable savings.
However, gas ranges and dryers usually cost more upfront than comparable electric appliances, so don’t expect to recoup your investment right away. It’s probably not worth it to make the switch until your appliances start failing anyway.
5. Replace Inefficient Lighting
- Cost: LED bulbs cost as little as $1 per bulb when purchased in bulk packs of 12 to 24, but expect higher prices when purchasing in smaller quantities. Smart LED bulbs, which connect to the Internet and can sync with smart home systems, cost $15 to $20 and up.
- Potential Savings: LED bulbs use 75% less energy than incandescent bulbs, according to the Department of Energy.
Incandescent light bulbs remain marginally cheaper than LED light bulbs, but they use far more energy, which means their lifetime operating costs are usually higher. Plus, they don’t last as long as LEDs.
Accordingly, try to get in the habit of replacing burned-out incandescent bulbs with LEDs. Avoid compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) when possible because CFLs contain mercury and can harm the environment when improperly discarded. Use the Department of Energy‘s efficient lighting primer for guidance on proper replacement bulbs.
6. Invest in Smart Home Systems
- Cost: Varies by system and product, but expect to pay $150 and up for learning thermostat systems and at least $150 and up for starter smart lighting systems (plus $15 to $20 per smart bulb).
- Potential Savings: A study by Nest found that its smart thermostat systems reduce heating costs by 10% to 12% and cooling costs by about 15%.
Although they can require a significant upfront investment, smart devices and systems can dramatically improve home efficiency, eventually paying for themselves several times over.
Popular smart home systems include learning thermostats — such as the Nest Learning Thermostat, which automatically adjusts its settings based on the users’ routines and preferences — and smart lighting systems that automatically turn lights on, off, or into intermediate states (or “moods”) based on users’ activities and preferences.
However, not all “smart” systems need to be connected to the Internet — for example, common motion sensors can reduce the cost of lighting outdoor and seldom-used indoor areas.
7. Change Habits and Practices
This “fix” demands no handiness, elbow grease, or upfront investment, but it’s also difficult to quantify. Relatively easy changes that can reduce home energy use include powering down and unplugging appliances — especially electronics, such as computers and printers — when not in use, raising or lowering the thermostat when no one is home, running air conditioners on “energy saver” mode at all times, air-drying clothes whenever possible, running larger laundry and dishwasher loads, and turning off lights in unoccupied areas.
Common Projects Best Completed With Professional Assistance
These home improvement projects can really save energy. However, they are beyond the capabilities or patience of most non-professionals.
8. Install New Windows
- Cost: Including labor, new windows cost about $650 per window, per HomeAdvisor, or up to $10,000 for an average three-bedroom house.
- Potential Savings: Varies based on location, home size, and the number and type of windows being replaced. Energy Star has a city-by-city guide to potential savings from this project.
It’s certainly possible to install new windows without professional help. However, improperly installed windows can be less efficient than the old windows they replace, and can look bad besides.
Unless you’re really handy, this is a job for the professionals. Look for energy-efficient options — for instance, double-paned windows with spacers to reduce heat transfer — even if they cost more upfront. If you have lots of windows that need replacing, try to do them all at once because buying in bulk can reduce your per-window costs. The upside is that energy-efficient windows generally boost home resale value in addition to reducing energy costs.
9. Replace Old Mechanicals
- Cost: Furnace replacement with installation costs anywhere from about $2,000 to $10,000, per HomeAdvisor, depending on furnace type and size; gas is more expensive than electric. Water heater replacement with installation costs $900 average for a storage water heater and up to $3,000 for tankless, according to HomeAdvisor.
- Potential Savings: Varies based on location and efficiency of the old mechanical appliance. CenterPoint Energy, a local utility serving parts of the Midwest and South, estimates lifetime savings north of $1,000 from a furnace replacement. The Department of Energy estimates savings of up to 50% from replacing a storage water heater with on-demand (tankless) heaters.
Today’s home mechanical systems are far more efficient than their predecessors. If you plan to stay in your home for a few more seasons, or want to do the next occupant a favor, consider proactively replacing mechanicals as they near the ends of their suggested service lifespans.
Look for local, state, and federal tax credits that reduce mechanical replacements’ upfront cost but be mindful that many such credits are temporary. For example, a popular $150 federal Energy Star credit for super-efficient boilers was not renewed after its expiration in 2016.
Solicit quotes from multiple contractors and look for special deals that can greatly reduce your replacement costs. For instance, some HVAC companies offer “buy one get one” deals to customers who purchase new furnaces and water heaters simultaneously, although these mechanicals’ prices are typically marked up dramatically from what you’d spend in a home improvement store.
10. Revamp Your Home Heating or Cooling Systems
- Cost: For a radiant heating system, $6 to $15 per square foot, or up to $22,500 for a 1,500-square-foot house, per This Old House. For a central air conditioning system, $3,500 to $4,000 for a 2,000-square-foot home with existing forced-air heating ducts, and up to $8,000 for a similarly sized home without existing ducts, according to This Old House.
- Potential Savings: In-floor radiant heating systems can reduce heating costs compared with traditional forced-air heating by 75% or more, according to HomeAdvisor.
If your budget allows, mechanical replacements may offer an opportunity to more drastically rework your home’s climate control system — for instance, by closing off your ducts and swapping your forced-air gas furnace for a boiler that feeds a more efficient radiant in-floor heating system, or by installing a central air conditioning system.
If you went through the trouble of hiring an energy auditor or conducting your own DIY home energy assessment, you were hoping to identify opportunities to reduce your electricity and climate control costs. Hopefully, you achieved that goal.
It’s what you did next — or do next — that really matters. Any significant home improvement project, even if fully managed and executed by professionals, is mentally and financially draining. And many of the projects most likely to produce dramatic energy savings are downright disruptive. Just ask anyone who’s had to replace an entire house’s worth of windows or replace a broken furnace in the dead of winter.
Should you allow concern over the costly, disruptive nature of your post-audit to-do list to win the day? I say no. The sooner you get to work on the most impactful of the efficiency-enhancing projects on that list, the sooner you’ll notice a positive difference in your utility bills — and the more time you’ll have to enjoy a cozier, more comfortable home.