When Shelley Dunbar set out to build a new four-bedroom home outside of Boulder, Co. she had one goal in mind: "To be off the grid; to be carbon neutral," as she puts it.
At 4,800 square feet of house, that took some doing. The house required 48 solar panels for electricity, special energy efficient panels for insulation and seven wells for geothermal heating and cooling. The added cost for going green? About $200,000 ($40,000 of which will be refunded through a government-funded rebate program.)
"Hopefully, we won’t ever be dependent on fossil fuels to heat our home," says Dunbar, a former professional rock climber, who located her outdoor and travel accessories company, Sea To Summit, within the city limits so employees could bike to work. "My primary interest is doing right by the planet."
Shelly and husband Andrew plan to occupy their house later this summer and estimate it’ll take 14 years to break even on their solar and geothermal investment. "It’s not so bad considering this is our dream home and we plan to have this house for the rest of our lives," says Dunbar, noting she hopes to see more eco-friendly homes in her community soon. "I have the will and I’m lucky enough to have the money to be able to afford to do this, but it is expensive."
Not to worry, says Jessica Jenson, CEO of the consumer website lowimpactliving.com. There’s plenty homeowners can do to reduce energy consumption – and reduce their monthly utility bills -- without breaking the bank.
"I think a lot of people get it stuck in their minds that they have to go solar to have an impact and at $20,000 to $30,000 [for a solar powered electrical system] that’s cost prohibitive to many people," she says. "It doesn’t have to be expensive."
Heat And Hot Water
For example, it doesn’t cost a thing to simply turn down your water heater’s thermostat setting. "Most people run their water heater too high anyway," says Jensen.
Most homeowners should keep their water heater at about 120 degrees, she says. If you have a high, medium and low settings, keep it on medium. "If it’s any hotter, you end up mixing it with cold water anyway so it makes sense to just lower the temperature," says Jensen.
For each ten-degree reduction in water temperature, you’ll save between 3 percent and 5 percent in energy costs, according to the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) online consumer’s guide from the Department of Energy.
And don’t forget the outside of your water heater either. A simple insulation blanket costs just $10 to $20 and can reduce standby heat losses by up to 45 percent, saving you up to 9 percent a year in water heating costs.
Why spend money heating or cooling your home when you’re at work or gone for the weekend?
For a one-time cost of about $300, you can purchase a programmable thermostat. It adjusts your home’s temperature using preset information that triggers your system to turn on just before you get home so the house feels comfortable.
The Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing, a volunteer group of homebuilders, product manufacturers and federal housing agencies, notes you’ll offset the cost of the thermostat in one to two years through savings on your energy bill.
By setting your thermostat to 78 degrees or higher in the summer and 62 degrees or lower when you’re not at home, it notes, you’ll save roughly 10 percent a year in energy costs.
At a cost of just a few extra dollars, replacing your incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs (which use 30 percent less energy) wins the no-brainer award.
If every homeowner in America replaced his five most frequently used light bulbs with ones that have earned the ENERGY STAR rating, the nation would save nearly $8 billion each year in energy costs -- as well as prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions from nearly 10 million cars, according to ENERGY STAR, a joint program of the Energy Department and Environmental Protection Agency.
Jensen also urges homeowners to consider light-emitting diode, or LED, lighting. "LED technology has made great strides in recent years so they’re ten times more efficient than even compact fluorescent lights," she says.
In the battle to reduce energy waste, sustainable landscapes provide an equally big bang for the buck. It’s all about plant selection and placement.
Homeowners in the arid south, for example, can significantly reduce water consumption (and destructive erosion) by replacing a portion of their lawn with landscape beds filled with native plants and mulch. Once established, native plants are low maintenance and do not require fertilizers, pesticides or watering.
In other parts of the country, planting deciduous trees, (which lose their leaves in the fall) on the south side of your home, can also help shade your house during the warm summer months, while letting the sun shine in during winter.
Though the upfront cost of a landscape make-over can be pricey, the EERE reports most homeowners see a return on investment in less than eight years due to reduced heating and cooling costs. Additional tips are available here.
According to ENERGY STAR, the average home spends roughly $1,900 a year on energy costs.
By changing to appliances that have earned the ENERGY STAR seal of approval, they could save $80 a year in energy costs, while doing good for the environment.
Need more incentive? If just one in 10 homes used ENERGY STAR appliances, it would be like planting 1.7 million new trees.
Click here for ENERGY STAR’s searchable database of qualified appliances, including clothes washers, dehumidifiers, dishwashers, refrigerators and room air conditioners.
Jensen adds homeowners who keep a second refrigerator on hand for drinks and overflow food should kick the habit as soon as possible. "That’s a huge energy drain," she says.
Homeowners also should eliminate as many dryer loads of laundry as they can. "ENERGY STAR doesn’t even rate clothes dryers because they are so hideously inefficient," she says. "Get a simple clothing rack and hang your clothes to dry. I used to do a couple dryer loads a week and now I do maybe one a month."
For $40 or less, you can significantly reduce water consumption in your home with a low-flow showerhead and be no worse for the wear. Not only will you achieve water savings of between 25 percent and 60 percent, but you’re also reducing the energy it takes to heat that extra water.
According to the EERE, there are two basic types of low-flow showerheads: aerating, which mix air with water to form a misty spray; and laminar-flow, which form individual streams of water. Lowimpactliving.com offers a comparison of 10 different efficient water fixtures on its website.
Insulating your home is another cost effective way to improve energy efficiency while making your house more comfortable.
ENERGY STAR estimates that a skilled homeowner or contractor can save up to 20 percent on heating and cooling costs -- or up to 10 percent on the total annual energy bill --by sealing and insulating their home. Click here for a do-it-yourself guide.
It notes homeowners should focus on sealing leaks around doors and windows, as well as those in the attic space and foundation. They should then add insulation with appropriate R-values (which indicates thermal resistance) throughout the house, from attic to crawl spaces.
Higher R-values mean more insulating power, but different R-values are recommended for various parts of your home. Here’s a look at what ENERGY STAR recommends.
The EERE also provides a consumer’s guide to the various types of insulation available, and the advantages of each.
For its part, lowimpactliving.com recommends insulation made from recycled or reused materials, like shredded newspaper (cellulose) and denim.
Many state and local governments offer tax incentives for insulation installation, says Jensen, so check with your local utility for information.
If you’re really serious about going green and want to take more aggressive steps to minimize your impact on the planet, you can also hire an environmental technician to conduct an audit of your home’s energy use and recommend a plan to reduce waste.
According to the EERE, many state or local governments maintain a database of residential energy auditing services, which may charge from $100 for a basic inspection to more than $500 for infra-red analysis. Some electric or gas utilities also perform the service for free.
Says Dunbar, homeowners needn’t think of eco-friendly living as a sprint to the finish line but rather a marathon that begins with a few simple –and low cost -- steps.
"Recycle, reuse, replace," she says. "It’s so easy to do that it seems silly everyone doesn’t. Our resources on this planet are precious and we have to take care of them."