Top 15 Green Home Improvements, Plus Costs – DIY Home Energy Efficiency

All major home remodeling efforts demand careful consideration and planning. When tackling an energy efficient home upgrade, that task can truly expand exponentially. It is imperative that you utilize a whole-house system approach to the project in order to wring the most value from your efforts.

Did you know? Home Energy savings realized in one segment of your property can easily be gobbled up by neglecting to pay attention to other energy-sapping culprits,

With that in mind let’s look at some of the popular energy-saving home improvement projects and take a stab at evaluating their value…

1) Smart Home Energy Audit

energy-audit-thermal-image via Henges Insulation

Your first step is to engage a professional energy audit of your house ($300-$400 by a trained energy expert although you may be able to wrangle one for less – or even free – from your local utility eager to reduce its power burden). This will factor into your remodel plans such vital actors as site conditions, your local climate, your home’s micro-climate, the state of your current heating and cooling environment versus your required needs and so on.

Hey, this is 2017, so much of this work can be accomplished by a computer simulation. When complete, you will not only have goals for reduced utility and maintenance costs, but ideas for a healthy and safe interior living environment that will increase your physical comfort and dampen noise levels. A professional audit should also include any local tax breaks you are in line to receive for embarking on energy-saving projects.

2) Caulk


It doesn’t get any more low-tech than a caulk gun, but home energy efficiency begins here. All those high-tech 21st century wonders are no match for treated air escaping through the cracks in your infrastructure. It is a whole lot easier to save a watt of energy than to make a watt of energy. 😉

The cost? A quality professional painter will charge you upwards of $50 an hour. A handyman can probably be had for half that price. If you decide to do it yourself, a tube of caulk can be scored at a dollar store for just that – one dollar. But, if you are asking your acrylic workmate to do a big job like trapping interior heated or cooled air, splurge for top-of-the-line caulk that will cost only a few dollars more per tube.

Silicone caulk is the sealant of choice for non-porous substances such as ceramic tile, metals, and glass; it will bond to pert near anything. Masonry caulk keeps its elasticity in any weather and will work in cracks in mortar and concrete.

And if you decide to do the project yourself, you may be tempted to use your finger to smooth the caulk into place. But keep your finger holstered and use a small brush and water to quickly work that bead of caulk into the targeted gap. Now that the house is sealed up tight we can go to work on sexier remodeling ideas! 😉

3) Buy a Programmable Thermostat

third-gen-nest-learning-thermostat via Nest

In terms of the payback period – the amount of time that must pass before an energy remodel covers its initial cost and begins to pay dividends to the homeowner – few ideas are more profitable than the programmable thermostat. The Nest Learning Thermostat was so attractive to Google that the internet giant forked over $3.2 billion for the company in 2014.

It looks like Google won’t recoup most of that investment because Nest couldn’t expand its offerings beyond that thermostat. But that won’t matter to homeowners because the basic gizmo is still a winner – by automatically modulating the temperature requirements inside a home the programmable thermostat will cut energy consumption by 10% or more. In most cases that will more than pay the $250 cost of a top line device in one heating or cooling season.

4) Doors and Windows

large-energy-efficient-windows-and-doors via Alpen

Let’s start to look at some of the remodeling projects that can fetch tax credits, formally known as the Residential Energy Efficiency Property Credit as designated by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

In 2016, this credit is worth 30% of all costs, including installation, so keep that in mind when evaluating costs. And before purchasing materials, be certain that they will qualify for the credit according to the standards laid out by the DOE. The manufacturer will have that information.

When it comes to doors and windows, it turns out our home-building ancestors were correct in using wood. It might be heavy and it might be a maintenance headache, but wooden doors and windows are your best energy-saving option. Those hollow metal entrance doors? Maintenance-free, but a highway for cold air to march into your house. Ditto with those vinyl windows.

This is where a green remodeler can really face a test of commitment to the cause. Good insulating windows will cost nearly twice as much ($800-$1,000 versus $450-$600) and they will need painting and maintenance every few years, an ongoing additional chunk of money.

And when it comes time to sell your house, if that maintenance has not been skillfully performed, the condition of your wood windows may actually detract from the value of your property. It is likely that any energy savings realized from conscientious fenestration will never pay for itself. 🙁

5) Tankless Water Heaters

Roughly one in every five pennies you spend on energy goes just to heat water in your home. Luckily, greater minds than ours have been working overtime on ways to make our water heaters more efficient.

One thing that has developed in recent years are tankless water heaters. These systems deliver hot water on-demand as needed in the house — a shower at one point and then a dishwasher and then a load of laundry.

By providing hot water in bursts of two to five gallons per minute these systems can be 30% more efficient than a standard water heater. The drawback, as you have probably already considered, is what if those uses are needed simultaneously?

That is why tankless water heaters are recommended for households that consume fewer than 41 gallons of water a day. If you install an on-demand heater at each tap you can be expected to save $100 a year on water bills, maybe more.

The cost, however, runs from $1,000 for an electric, whole-house model, plus rewiring to about $3,000 for a gas-powered system.

And, the gas-powered system requires a constantly lit pilot light that will squash much of the energy savings. Even with the 30% tax rebate, you are looking at decades before your tankless water heater returns to the black in your home budget. But that additional storage space in the utility room is worth something also.

6) Solar Water Heaters

solar-hot-water-system-on-a-standing-seam-metal-roof via Whidbey Sun & Wind

Two basic types here, active and passive. As the name implies, active systems circulate fluids through the home via pumps and controls. A passive system collects heated water for distribution through the house; it is less expensive to install but less effective. Active systems will cost between $6,000 and $17,000 to install, depending on complexity. Passive solar water heaters will run around $2,000. Goodbye cruel grid.

There are many variables to consider in costing a solar water heating system, not the least of which is geographic location and access to the power of the sun. Houses in tropical locations can realize a payback in just a few years.

Homeowners in less sunny and hot climes may not see a return on their money for some 15 to 20 years. Available incentives to switch from conventional fuel to solar and possible financing can be deal breakers in the decision to install these water heaters.

7) Drain Water Heat Recovery Systems


You’ve spent all that money to heat some water, you use it briefly and it flows away down the drain with plenty of energy left inside it. You are literally sending your money down the drain. But what if you could capture some of that precious energy and use it to pre-heat the cold water in your house, so it doesn’t require as much energy to heat for the next use?

That’s the concept behind drain water heat recovery systems. This play works especially well with the aforementioned on-demand and solar water heating systems. The price can range between $300 and $500, but the cost of installation from a plumbing professional can be pricey in a remodel. Depending on how difficult that installation goes, you can expect a payback time of anywhere from three to seven years. Not too bad.

8) Rain-Water Collection Systems

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As long as you are remodeling your home to recycle used water you may as well consider designing a system to collect that water in the first place. Harvesting rain water can be as easy and attractive as finding an old oaken whiskey barrel or purchasing a plastic rain collection barrel for under $100. Cisterns have been in use ever since prehistoric man realized that drinking water would, from time to time, drop out of the sky.

From that simple premise harvesting rainwater has evolved to systems that can contain stormwater runoff on your property and store it for later use in irrigation, pressure washing, car cleaning or even drinking water if purified.

A full blown rainwater catchment system, complete with 5,000 gallons worth of storage tanks, can run upwards of $3,000. Normal home use will likely never recoup that investment, but if you have major irrigation needs, experience frequent droughts or need to control drainage problems on your property, a water collection system will be worth more than dollars and cents.

9) Cool Roofs


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Are you wearing your slimming black colors in the middle of a July heat wave? Probably not. Think of your roof the same way. A dark covering is absorbing the punishing rays of the sun and passing them along to you inside the house. In the middle of a typical summer day the temperature on a standard roof will reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

There are several ways to go about making a roof “cool” – use white paint or paints speckled with special reflective pigments, install heat-absorbing layers and membranes, or utilize specially prepared protective coatings. Metal roofs, shingled roofs, wooden roofs, flat roofs can all be made to be cool. A typical cool roof will raise the thermometer only to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

If your house needs a new roof the extra cost of installing “cool” will be negligible. There is a slight upgrade in the materials and perhaps a bump in the expertise required of your roofer — both of which will likely more than be offset by savings on your energy bills, possible rebates and tax credits. On the other hand, tearing off a perfectly good “hot” roof in pursuit of a cool roof is a costly venture. 😉

10) Windbreaks

windbreak-trees-for-homes via Fannin Tree Farm

Yes, your house can suffer from wind chill – and you will be the one who feels it, in the pocket book. You can counter this sapping of energy funds with a strategic remodel of your landscape. Planting of dense evergreen trees and shrubs, usually to the north and northwest of the house, will beat back those nasty winter winds that force your heating system to work overtime.

You want to plant the shrubbery close together and you can augment the protection with a stone wall or a packed-earth berm. Plant close together with shrubs that will block the marauding wind from ground level to the treetops. As a rule of thumb, the windbreak should be located at a distance from your walls of two to five times the expected mature height of the trees.

Buying relatively bulky specimens can be expensive, costing a couple hundred dollars per plant in some cases. Retrieving your investment dollar for dollar on reduced heating costs alone will be difficult, but you can very well come out ahead in the long run by increasing your home’s value with an eye-pleasing landscape plan.

11) Shade

The other side of the coin for landscape plants is shade. While the sun is doing all kinds of good things for your water it is also heating up your house. We have seen how you can remodel your roof to ease this onslaught but trees that protect vertical surfaces from the summer heat will serve as nature’s air conditioning. In fact, trees will drop the surrounding temperature by six degrees.

Unlike evergreens for windbreaks, shade trees need not be densely planted but you want deciduous trees with spreading crowns. Few budgets have room for mature 30-foot shade trees so do your research and find trees that are rapid growers. Poplars are one of the most popular, growing as much as eight feet per year. Maples and red oaks are also energetic growers. Make sure you find trees that will thrive in your soil and micro-climate. And like windbreaks, you will take a long time to enjoy enough relief from your heating bills to cover their costs but the curb appeal of your property will surely be enhanced.

12) Underground homes

If you don’t want to bother with planting mini-forests to battle the wind and sun, how about going underground? A well-planned house built below grade can still have abundant natural light and even project an open feeling. Toss is a courtyard and strategically placed windows and you have the ultimate in back-to-the-earth living.

Remodeling to move underground takes considerable planning, especially with regard to drainage and potential leaks. Expect to pay about a 20% premium on construction costs, about $60 a square foot, depending on your location. From there, however, you can start checking off the dollar savings – lower electric bills due to increased insulation, lower maintenance bills due to unexposed walls, lower insurance premiums due to protection from storms and those tall trees you planted falling on your house. It may be harder to sell your underground castle, however, as you wait for a buyer who shares your sense of the unconventional.

13) Bermed Houses

Maybe moving totally underground is too big a step. A bermed house exposes one or more sides (usually the south-facing one to admit heat and light). If you want a radical remodel of your existing house you can build up earth around the surfaces while leaving the doors and windows uncovered. Your costs for a bermed house will not be as dramatic as moving underground but you will still need to make allowances for soil and waterproofing.

14) Architecturally Recycled Houses

One way to be energy efficient is to eliminate the resources involved in building a house on your property altogether. Meet the Intermodal Steel Building Unit, or as everyone calls it, the shipping container. You can buy a good, gently used 40-foot steel shell for about $4,000 and a 20-footer for $2,500. From there, it is simply a matter of making it your home. Homeowners who are handy and working from their own plans can make that happen for less than $10,000.

Other options include shipping containers that have been prefabricated into houses ($15,000 and up), hiring out experienced contractors who know their way around metal (could be $100 an hour) or massing several shells together. It is not unheard of to find shipping container houses on the market for over $200,000.

15) Tiny Houses

One way to make your current house more energy efficient is to downsize it – literally. Many people find themselves living in way more space than they need – do the people own the house or does the house own the occupants? Reducing your living space immediately cuts the amount of energy you consume.

Tiny houses do not usually come with tiny price tags. To realize those energy savings requires some ingenuity and often custom-built appliances and fixings. When a normal-sized home costs about $100 per square foot a tiny house will often cost about $150 per square foot. But, the finished product is more along the lines of 400 square feet home rather than 2,000 sq. ft. “monstrosity” most of us are so used to. 🙂

This is a quick primer on remodeling with an eye to energy savings. Remember to approach your new footprint-shaving lifestyle with an eye to holistic house strategies. Your home is a spiderweb of interdependent systems that work silently in concert and only by considering them all can you find the optimum energy efficient path that maximizes cost effectiveness.

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  1. I am a retired general contractor and have installed a number of thankless water heaters. They have been the norm in Europe for many years. They do cost about $3000 more than the normal system. We live in a 5bd/4ba, 6100 sq. ft. home that we built. I installed one 14 years ago. Water is running hot within 10 seconds or less from any spigot in the house.

    Tankless water heaters come with their own recirculation pump, or you can use your existing pump. If your existing pump goes out, just unplug it and switch on the Heather’s pump. All the hot faucets can be turned on at once and can run indefinitely, forever. There are not pilot lights.

    Tankless water-heaters run at 99% efficiency. Exhaust pipes are plastic because very, very little heat is exhausted.

    The standard tank-based hot water heaters will only last some 5-7 years. I know this from 50 years experience. Even if you have a 10 or 15 year warranty, they only replace the one you have (which will also fail in 5-7yrs.). The labor costs much, much more than the heater, and you will be responsible for that. Every home should have a bidet and a tank-less hot water! Like I said, these are the norm in Europe and have been for a long time. Thanks for reading and hope this helps someone make a better decision.

    1. Hey Mark,

      Thank you very much for sharing your experience and perspective on water heaters. I’m sure a lot of homeowners will find this helpful!

    2. There’s nothing about Europe that we in the US should necessarily copy for the sake of “they’ve been doing this in Europe for decades”. The continent is failing on so many fronts.

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