When you live in an energy-efficient house, you’re not stuck with high utility bills and the guilt of a sizable carbon footprint. And in a time when natural disasters rage — largely as a result of climate change — living in an energy efficient home matters more now than ever.
When global temperatures rise and rainfall decreases, we not only see more intense storms, but also droughts that leave our forests one gender-reveal away from going up in flames.
Action matters. “To mitigate climate change, change has to start on an individual level. Thinking through ways to reduce environmental impact at home is critical,” Dan Hulst, Preserve Director at the Ventura Land Trust, explains.
If you want to do your part, we’ve got tons of great energy saving tips lined up for you. They don’t cost an arm and a leg, either. If you’ve put off eco-friendly home modifications because you thought they’d be too expensive or too hard to implement, now’s the time.
It might not feel that way. We know that this year has left many of us hard-pressed. With job opportunities lacking and the holidays right around the corner, it might be tempting to push home modifications to the bottom of your priority list. But there are plenty of easy, affordable changes you can make at home.
They’ll help you slash your utility bills and they might even help you save on your home insurance, too. “Consumers who are trying to reduce their carbon footprint to save the planet can also end up saving money when they ‘go green’ through insurance,” Scott Holeman, Director of Media Relations at the Insurance Information Institute (III), says. We’ll have more on that for you later in this article.
It’s also helpful to know that you have plenty of options to finance these modifications. Between incentives and rebates from the federal government and utility and home insurance savings, these energy saving tips may pay for themselves.
Let’s look at how to make your home more energy efficient.
- Top 10 Types of Home Modifications
- Let Your Homeowners Insurance Help With The Tab
- Other Ways To Save Money on Eco-Friendly Modifications
- Scale Green Home Modifications to Fit You
Top 10 Types of Home Modifications
If you put in the effort to create a more energy efficient home, you’ll reap plenty of benefits. “Green homes, on the one hand, help you live more sustainably,” Sarah Stanley, Director of Communications at the U.S. Green Building Council, says. “It’s also an opportunity for us to live healthier lives. These practices help to reduce air pollution, improve water quality, and reduce the amount of potential toxins or contaminants that go into our homes. There’s a really important health message that goes along with green homes.”
Whether you’re looking for energy saving tips to do your part to combat climate change, to keep more money in your pocket, or to make your home healthier, you’ve got options. Some larger-scale projects, like installing solar panels, will require a budget. Others, including composting, require minimal investment and are easy to start right away.
“There’s a misconception that green is luxury and means high dollars, but the industry has grown so much over the years that there are affordable, sustainable options out there,” Stanley says. We’ll explore ten of the top energy saving tips and their cost so you can hone in on the best options for your home.
If you’ve already decided which green home modifications are right for you, you can click [here] to jump immediately to our section on ways to save.
Energy efficiency options
This is one of the higher-cost options on this list, but it’s also one of the easiest green home modifications to finance thanks to tax incentives. Plus, the energy savings (read: lower bills) with solar are impressive.
As Hulst says, “Everyone has different resources available to them, but if you’re able to make a push for sustainable energy at home — specifically solar — there are a lot of arguments around why that’s a good idea.”
When you install solar panels, you can power your home (or at least part of it, depending on how many panels you install) with energy from the sun rather than pulling from your local power grid. And in some cases, if you generate an excess of energy and connect your panels to said grid, you can even sell your extra energy back to the power company.
The downside with solar is the cost of getting it installed. We’re talking $10,000 or more.
But we have some good news to temper that high cost. First, the components needed for solar energy are getting cheaper. More good news: homebuyers are willing to pay more for homes with solar, meaning this is a great way to improve your home’s value. And, perhaps most importantly, there are tax incentives and rebates to help with the cost.
For starters, there’s the investment tax credit (ITC), which allows you to deduct a portion of the cost of installing solar from your federal taxes. That’s set to end in 2022, though, so act now.
Additionally, some states offer tax credits for solar and some states, counties, and municipalities offer cash rebates.
Ultimately, installing solar is an investment, but you might be able to recoup much of that investment quickly. Then, you can kick back and enjoy the significant energy savings and increased home value.
It’s easy to forget that water is a precious resource — at least, until your water bill offers you a friendly reminder. Drip irrigation is a way to cut that bill, save water and get healthier plants.
With drip irrigation, a system you install in the ground around your plants, you get a way to deliver precise amounts of water directly to plant roots. These systems are dramatically more water-efficient than spray or rotor watering methods, plus they can help your plants thrive.
The cost of your drip irrigation system varies depending on how much you’re trying to water. If you need to irrigate an entire acre, you’re looking at a couple thousand dollars, but adding drip irrigation to a small home garden might cost $50 or less.
Recycling and waste management options
You don’t have to build an energy efficient home to reduce your environmental impact in major ways. Take composting as an example.
Let’s take a step back to understand why composting can make such a huge difference. There’s more food in our landfills than any other single material. In fact, food makes up 22% of our trash. Food should biodegrade, though, right? Theoretically, yes. But when it’s placed in a landfill, it can’t. Instead, it rots, creating methane emissions, which are even more harmful than carbon dioxide.
By composting your food scraps and food waste at home, you divert your food from the landfill. It has the chance to break down naturally, dramatically reducing your household’s contribution to methane emissions. As Hulst says, “It’s relatively easy to implement and it can make a big difference because of those gas emissions.”
The cost of composting is minimal, too. All you need is a place to compost, whether that’s a larger apparatus in your backyard or a tiny bin under your kitchen sink. You can buy small bins for around $20 or turnable backyard options for about $200.
If you want to learn more, the EPA has a composting guide to help you get started.
Composting might have another benefit, too. “If you start composting, you start to think more closely about what you’re putting in your body. The benefits are that you think more about what you’re consuming, what you’re buying and the power that making those decisions has,” Hulst says.
With landfills top of mind, let’s talk about trash compactors. These give you a way to reduce the space your trash takes up in a landfill. And, because they squish all your trash down, they mean using fewer plastic trash bags, which is an environmental win. If you do get a trash compactor, look for paper or biodegradable bags to fit your unit.
Trash compactors’ environmental impact are a bit contested, though. Some people argue that the trash gets too tightly packed to break down once it does reach a landfill.
Still, trash compacting might interest you because it can translate to quick savings. With your trash space minimized, you may be able to reduce the number of trash pickups your household needs.
If you’re thinking about a trash compactor, be prepared to spend about $1,000.
Living Area Options
Attics fans, also called whole house fans, are a way to cool your house without the major energy expenditure (and general expenditure) of running an A/C unit. You position these large-scale fans in your well-ventilated attic so they can circulate fresh air through your house.
Another pro: attic fans are generally more cost-effective than other cooling options, costing as little as $150.
If you do opt for an attic fan, make sure you get a winter cover that seals tightly and check that your attic is properly insulated.
If you’ve been wondering how to make your home more energy efficient with minimal cost and hassle, this tip is for you. Simply swap out your lightbulbs. LED and CFL bulbs can use as much as 80% less energy than incandescent bulbs. Plus, they last a whole lot longer.
An LED bulb can last 25,000 hours. Compare that against the roughly 1,200 hours of life you can expect from an incandescent bulb. While you might pay a few more bucks for your LED bulb, it will last 20 times longer. You’ll actually end up saving money long-term.
LED and CFL light bulbs are one of the cheapest ways to create an energy efficient home. The extra cost of these bulbs is just dollars — and it’s dropping. Plus, you’ll save a few bucks on your annual energy bill for every bulb you swap.
Upgrading your lighting fixtures is another option here, albeit a more expensive one. Here, look for ENERGY STAR-certified fixtures and you’ll get a light that uses 90% less energy than a traditional fixture.
We’re moving from energy saving tips to water saving ones for a moment, but you’ll still save money through a lower water bill.
And if you’re looking to green your home, it’s important to consider your toilet. The EPA says that toilets are the single biggest indoor water user for American households.
Low-flow toilets slash the amount of water you use with each flush. Swapping out your porcelain throne could mean saving 13,000 gallons of water each year. In addition to minimizing the waste of a critical resource, you can also slash your water bill but as much as $140 annually and might save as much as $2,900 over the life of the toilet.
There is a cost to consider here, though. Between the toilet itself and installation, be ready to pay about $500 for this green home modification.
Water saving faucets/fixtures
Water-saving faucets can help you save in two ways. First, of course, there’s the reduction in water consumption. But they can also help you reduce your energy consumption because with them, you’ll use less hot water. Basically, they’re a way to give your water heater and your wallet a break.
Fortunately, finding efficient faucets is easy. Just look for the WaterSense seal. These faucets will slash your water usage by about 30% without affecting your sink’s performance. You don’t have to do a full faucet swap, either. You can screw on a WaterSense aerator — which costs just a few bucks — for energy and money savings.
While you’re at it, check out your shower. Perform this quick test from Energy.gov: Mark a one-gallon line on a bucket. Put the bucket under your shower and turn it on. If it takes less than 20 seconds to hit the gallon mark, your household could see water and money savings with a low-flow showerhead.
Again, look for the WaterSense seal here. A WaterSense showerhead could help your household save 2,700 gallons of water each year. You can choose your own adventure here: a basic WaterSense showerhead could cost you as little as about $40, or you can spend a few hundred for a fancy option.
Adding insulation where needed
If you’re wondering how to make your home more energy efficient, it’s time to perform a heat loss check. You can spring for a full-blown thermographic inspection or you can go the DIY route. Energy.gov has a guide you can follow for your inspection.
Heating and cooling loss is a major obstacle to an energy efficient home. When your house can’t stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer, you work your HVAC system overtime.
Fortunately, improving your insulation can undo this problem, helping you save big on your utility costs. Making this change can help you slash your energy bills by 10%.
Once you identify where your home is losing heat, it’s all about correcting it. That might mean:
- Insulating your attic
- Sealing and insulating your basement or crawlspace
- Sealing around your windows and doors
- Putting plastic over your windows in rarely used rooms
The cost for this project varies depending on what tasks you have ahead of you. Caulking around your windows won’t cost much, but expect to pay as much as a couple thousand dollars to insulate your attic.
Upgrade your roofing
Making a change to your roof is one of the energy saving tips with far-reaching implications. Not only does a better roof help you lower heat loss and improve your home’s energy efficiency, but it also improves your home value and can potentially lower your home insurance premiums. In fact, you might be able to reduce your home insurance costs by as much as 35% with a new roof.
If you’re going to get a new roof, look for ENERGY STAR-certified roof products. This will give you a roof that’s great at reflecting the sun’s rays, keeping you cool in the summer and maintaining indoor temperatures, therefore keeping you warm in the winter.
This is the most expensive of the energy saving tips we’ve recommended. A new roof can cost you around $10,000, and you’ll likely pay more if you opt for ENERGY STAR-rated shingles or other products.
Let Your Homeowners Insurance Help With The Tab
If you want to green your house, your homeowners insurance might be able to help. “There are opportunities for homeowners to save some green with eco-friendly policies. Options include premium discounts for LEED-certified homes,” Holeman says, adding, “Homeowners may also want to consider endorsements for eco-friendly replacement materials, which are offered on some standard homeowners policies. That means that after a loss, policyholders are allowed to replace or rebuild with more sustainable materials.”
What, exactly, is LEED? It’s short for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, it’s the global standard for green building design. And you can get your home LEED-certified.
“Since 2008, we’ve had more than 1.6 million residential units that have taken steps toward using LEED,” Stanley says. “We have about 500,000 that have certified, and most of them are in the U.S. We’ve seen the largest growth within the last couple of years. There was a 19% increase in the number of LEED-certified homes between 2017 and 2019.”
LEED certification is feasible if you’re taking on a new build and you want to build an energy efficient home or if you’re starting a major remodel. In those cases, getting LEED-certified may seem like just another to-do on your list, but it could help you save on your home insurance premiums.
Travelers, for example, offers a green home discount. “With that discount, policyholders can save up to 5% on their premium if their home is certified by LEED. We offer that discount to incentivize environmentally responsible behavior,” Angi Orbann, Vice President of Personal Insurance/Property at Travelers, explains.
That’s not your only option for leveraging your home insurance to go green, either. Orbann says that Travelers knows that “green materials are a little bit more expensive.” To help, they offer an endorsement (basically, additional coverage) for green homes. “If a customer is interested in and committed to building green, if something were to happen to their home, that endorsement allows extra money in the event of that loss to help them rebuild or repair with green materials and processes,” she explains.
Three home insurance companies to check out for green home savings are:
- Travelers: For the 5% green home discount and optional green home endorsement we just explored.
- Farmers: Farmers offers Eco-Rebuild coverage, which gives you an additional $25,000 after a covered loss to replace materials and appliances with green ones. They also offer discounts for LEED certification, ENERGY STAR appliances, and more.
- Allstate: Allstate doesn’t offer any specific discounts for green homes as far as we can tell, but they do offer green improvement reimbursement, or additional coverage to help you rebuild green after a covered loss.
Clearly, home insurance providers are starting to think through supporting homeowners with green priorities. “From an insurance perspective, we know that those materials do cost more and it’s important for customers to consider that when they’re purchasing insurance,” Orbann says. “If they’ve got solar panels or higher-end green materials in the home, it’s important they share that with their agent because that goes into the total amount of coverage that they have.” In other words, if you do make green home modifications, talk to your insurance agent about them to make sure they’re properly covered.
Other Ways To Save Money on Eco-Friendly Modifications
This is just the beginning. ENERGY STAR has a tool you can use to explore other ways to make your home greener while keeping more green in your wallet.
Let’s explore some of your options for paying for these changes:
- Tax credits: Tax credits for home energy efficiency mods have been extended through December 2021, which means now’s the time to make any changes you’ve been considering. You might be able to get a tax credit for 10% of the cost (up to $500) of your energy-efficient central air conditioner, furnace, or water heater or new insulation or roofing. And if you have solar or geothermal energy, you can submit Form 5695 to the IRS to claim your residential energy credits.
- Mortgage options: If you’re buying a new home and you’ve got sustainability in mind, there are mortgage programs that can help. An Energy Efficient Mortgage (EEM) can help you get a larger mortgage to green your home. Similarly, the FHA PowerSaver program allows you to borrow as much as $25,000 for green home improvements.
- Weatherization Assistance Program: The U.S. Department of Energy offers this program to low-income households. This program can help you implement measures at home to save water and energy. If you’re interested in this program, check out the application guide here.
Clearly, you have options for financing a green home purchase or making green home modifications. You can use this tool to explore incentives and programs in your home state.
Scale Green Home Modifications to Fit You
Ultimately, you have all the power when it comes to making eco-friendly home modifications. You can choose low-cost, low-effort ones like swapping out your lightbulbs. Or you could act on the solar tax incentives available right now and install panels at your house. Ultimately, you can explore home mods that make sense for you, knowing that any you choose can help reduce both your carbon footprint and your utility bills.
As Hulst says, “Individuals can make a difference. It starts with small changes at home. If enough people are doing those in your neighborhood, city, and state, it all adds up.”
Ask The Experts
- Why is it important for people to think through ways to reduce their environmental impact at home?
Green homes, on the one hand, help you live more sustainably. For those who are focused on their environmental impact and climate change, green homes give you a way to do that in your personal life. Another factor in that is that environmental health is very connected to our personal and public health. When you’re thinking about sustainable practices, the benefits extend beyond just doing good for the environment. It’s an opportunity for us to live healthier lives. These practices help to reduce air pollution, improve water quality, reduce the amount of potential toxins or contaminants that go into our homes. There’s a really important health message that goes along with green homes. The third thing, which I think tends to be the ultimate deciding factor for people, is cost. There’s a misconception that green is luxury and means high dollars, but the industry has grown so much over the year that there are affordable, sustainable options out there. You just have to be willing to look for — and demand — those choices. For a cost perspective, what we see from a residential side is that any extra costs that go into building a green home are usually recouped pretty quickly through operational savings. When you think about it from the perspective of the family who’s living in there, these homes are more efficient, which means you’re using less energy and water, which means lower utility bills. In low-income and vulnerable communities where budgets are stretched, building green homes is a way to provide some relief.
- What are the benefits of implementing eco-friendly modifications?
People hear green or sustainable homes and they think environmental benefits. But sustainability is also really about health and wellness — it’s about responsible development.
- What are the top eco-friendly home modifications you recommend? Why?
There are a couple of ways to look at this. I’m renovating my home, pulling it back to the studs, what do I need to do? Certainly, more efficient heating and cooling systems and water systems can have huge benefits. If you’re not in that position, some of the easier things to think about are using green cleaning products, looking at paints that have low VOCs, putting water-sense faucets, and when you need to buy that new dishwasher or refrigerator, it’s making sure that’s an Energy Star product. There are simple things people can start doing today.
- How do homeowners get their homes LEED certified?
LEED was developed about 20 years ago. It was created bc people started to become more aware of their impact on the environment. There really wasn’t a standard across the board that people were using. Being green was kind of all over the map. LEED was designed to establish best practices and also, to do so in a way that’s raising the bar and pushing the industry to continue to do better. In terms of residential certification, that was first publicly launched in 2008. Since then, we’ve had more than 1.6 million residential units that have taken steps toward using LEED. We have about 500,000 that have certified, and most of them are in the U.S. We’ve seen the largest growth within the last couple of years. There was a 19% increase in the number of LEED-certified homes between 2017 and 2019. LEED is a great indicator that the home is efficient, built with their health in mind, and will help them save money. The idea of certification in general is: a project registers and they use the LEED rating system as a roadmap throughout the project. It’s a holistic approach and it looks at all of the aspects that go into a building and its systems. LEED homes do have certain benchmarks. They have to deliver at least 15% in energy savings, but we’ve had some report up to 60% savings. It also delivers 20% in water savings. It’s been a really important roadmap to help define and make the right decisions in terms of the best way to reduce the impact on the environment, save money, and create healthier indoor environments. Major renovations can be certified.
- Is there anything else people should know about the LEED program or USGBC?
The rating system is available on our website, as is the scorecard. Everything’s available for free to download. That being said, there’s no substitution for actually getting the certification because that indicates the home has gone through the third-party verification. These tools can guide you and help you think about the steps you can start taking. We also have a blog called Green Home Guide that has really practical advice for greening your home.
- Anything else?
One of the things we try and talk to people about is that the tools are here to help us green our homes. Part of helping to accelerate that is consumer and family demand. We need to be asking for these kinds of things in the homes we’re buying. Do they have Energy Star appliances? Is this home LEED certified? The same can be applied to apartments. Whether you’re renting or buying,
- Why is it important for people to think through ways to reduce their environmental impact at home?
I want to point out that to beat climate change, to mitigate it, change has to start on an individual level. Thinking through ways to reduce environmental impact at home is critical bc legislatively, governments around the world can make changes for businesses. But individuals can make a difference. It starts with small changes at home. If enough people are doing those in your neighborhood, city, state, it all adds up. I think it’s important for people to think through because change starts with the individual.
- What are the benefits of implementing eco-friendly modifications?
There are a lot of benefits. Mostly, it relates back to small changes that add up. By making small changes in your home, you can contribute to combating climate change. There are also health benefits to it. When people are trying to make change and improve their daily life, health benefits do come out of that. If you start composting, you start to think more closely about what you’re putting in your body. The benefits are that you think more about what you’re consuming, what you’re buying, the power that making those decisions has.
- What are the top eco-friendly home modifications you recommend? Why?
I do love the idea of composting. I think there’s some really awesome data out there on the gas release from throwing away food waste, both on an individual level and on a commercial level. It’s relatively easy to implement and it can make a big difference because of those gas emissions. Everyone has different resources available to them, but if you’re able to make a push for sustainable energy at home — specifically solar — there are a lot of arguments around why that’s a good idea. Renewable energy generation at the home is a great modification. CA, Germany both requiring some level An easy at-home modification is trying to drive less. Driving is one of the biggest factors. If you’re parking a bicycle in your garage rather than a car, that can make a huge difference. Be mindful of consumption. Obviously, recycling is great — but if you’re just not buying those things in the first place, that’s better. Look for alternatives to a heavily packaged item. The less you’re shopping online, the bigger difference you make by not having to ship something.
Vice President of Personal Insurance/Property at Travelers
- Tell me a little about Travelers’ green home discount program.
We’ve got the green home discount. With that discount, policyholders can save up to 5% on their premium if their home is certified by LEED. We offer that discount to incentivize environmentally responsible behavior. To get that discount, people just need to talk to their agent and provide their copy of their LEED certificate.
- Why did Travelers choose to reward people for going green?
It’s really a part of our broad suite of products. We really do want to incentivize and reward people that have this environmentally responsible behavior where we can. Other things we offer are hybrid vehicle and boat discounts. How would we do this for home?
- How can homeowners insurance help with the cost of making green modifications?
In addition to the discount, we have an endorsement for green homes. So, what it does, if a customer is interested in and committed to building green, if something were to happen to their home, that endorsement allows extra money in the event of that loss to help them rebuild or repair with green materials and processes. If you had a loss that we would normally pay $10,000 for, if you had that endorsement, there would be an extra thousand dollars to replace materials with green ones. Green materials are a little bit more expensive. From an insurance perspective, we know that those materials do cost more and it’s important for customers to consider that when they’re purchasing insurance. If they’ve got solar panels or higher-end green materials in the home, it’s important they share that with their agent because it goes into the total amount of coverage that they have.