Home Renovation: Low-cost Energy Improvements

Taken together, low-cost energy improvements can add up to significant savings.

Duct tape
(Photo: Cliff Zenor)

For many homeowners, energy costs are one of the biggest household budget items. Low-cost improvements can help owners of vintage homes reduce those energy bills, providing savings that last all year.

One of the best times to identify areas for improvement is during the cold and windy winter months, when air infiltration is easiest to detect. Air infiltration is a leading cause of higher than necessary energy use. An easy DIY first step is to detect air infiltration around doors, windows, plugs, switches and plumbing pipes.

On a cold and windy day, feel around these elements or use an incense stick to generate smoke that will help you see air movement. Install insulated covers for plugs and switches on outside walls. Caulk the small holes and cracks you identify from your survey. Pay particular attention to air ducts, pipes, exhaust fans, vents, sink and bathtub drains, and under countertops. If you have previously replaced weather stripping on your doors and windows, it is worth taking another look. Those materials do wear out over time and need replaced.

Electric usage is another simple area for DIY improvement. As a first step, get a sense of what generates the electric demands in your home. Using an inexpensive device such as The Kill A Watt tool, available online or at local retailers, you can measure the energy use of any device that plugs into an outlet. Though costlier and perhaps beyond your budget, if you replace outdated appliances with more efficient units, you’ll recoup the cost in savings over time.

Eliminating the phantom demands — chargers for cell phones, tablets, K-cup coffee makers and similar devices are common culprits — adds up in savings. Compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) have been on the market for some time and help reduce lighting costs. The cost of LED bulbs have dramatically dropped and offer significant savings benefits. They are now available for table lamps, ceiling fixtures or even can lights. They come in a wide variety of color tones to fit the proposed use. If you have older can lights, there are affordable LED retro-fit kits that plug in and help seal the old can light with a fitted lens.

If you have not investigated options for lower-flow shower heads and faucets, you owe yourself a trip to the supply store. Gone are the days of unattractive shower heads with frustrating water delivery. Designs on the market today offer water savings and attractive designs. Dual flush toilets cost a little more but offer savings in water usage bills. Even homes on wells can benefit from such improvements as the reduced water usage results in lower electric use by the pump.

Finally, take a look at the items related to heating and air conditioning. A setback thermostat can be an easy swap and helps reduce heating bills without noticeably impacting indoor comfort. There are a wide variety of options from simple once-a-day setback units to web-enabled smart thermostats. Pay some attention to the air ducts running from your furnace to living spaces. You want to keep the conditioned air in the ducts until it reaches the registers. Any conditioned air that escapes along the way is wasted energy. Using mesh tape specifically engineered for duct sealing (not duct tape), seal the exterior seams of the ductwork. If you have a hot water or steam system, install pipe wrap around the pipes to reduce the convection of the hot water to the outside air on its way to the radiators. Beware: some vintage home ductwork or hot water-steam pipes were taped or sealed with asbestos. If you suspect that your system has asbestos tape or wrap or are unsure, contact a professional for evaluation and removal.

Taken individually, these simple low-cost steps won’t save a lot. Taken together, the total savings can be significant.

This article first appeared in South Bend Tribune.

Sign up for our e-newsletter.

Stay up to date on the latest news, stories, and events from Indiana Landmarks, around the state or in your area.