Home Improvements that Require Some Spend, but Will Pay for Themselves Quickly via Lower Utility Bills
Last updated December 2020
Most of us want to reduce our energy usage, regardless of upfront costs, but limited budgets prevent many homeowners from buying expensive improvements such as solar energy systems or large-scale green-oriented renovations. Here are affordable-to-most projects that will, in relatively short periods of time, pay for themselves via lower utility bills.
Keep in mind that making simple repairs or improvements and changing wasteful habits will yield enormous energy savings for most families. Click here for a discussion of basic steps you can take that cost nothing or little but fix common sources of home-energy waste.
Most of our estimates of typical energy usage and cost savings for a sample Chicago area home were calculated using the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) excellent Home Energy Saver pro tool. Because every building is unique, and even small differences in features of various residences can sharply change how much energy each uses—and potential savings—our estimates won’t apply exactly to your home. Click here for further info on our sample home and how we calculated estimates of energy use and possible savings.
Get (and Actually Use) a Programmable Thermostat
- Cost: Free if you already have one and don’t program it; Nest’s popular models run $169-$219; a professionally installed thermostat will cost $300-$400.
- Our energy savings: $584 per year.
- Cost: $100-$300 per fan, add $200-$300 for installation by a licensed electrician.
- Our energy savings: $68 per year.
Fans consume very little electricity compared to air conditioners. And by constantly circulating air, ceiling fans reduce heating and cooling costs. Spin the blades clockwise in winter to pull cooler air up to the ceiling, which pushes the warmer air down the walls to you. During the summer, flip the switch to turn fans counterclockwise.
- Cost: Attic insulation jobs typically cost $2,000 to $2,500. Project costs to add wall or floor insulation depend heavily on access; the best time to do that work is during a renovation or when replacing siding.
- Our energy savings: $161-$492 per year.
All structural elements enclosing your home’s living spaces should be insulated. It’s most practical to add insulation when a home is built or during renovations. Otherwise, accessibility drives costs and often determines what’s worth doing.
Because warm air rises, your attic is the frontline in the battle to conserve energy in the winter. And because most attics are unfinished and contain a lot of empty space, adding a thick layer of insulation is an easy job.
In this region, the DOE recommends attics be insulated at R-49 or better. Check what type of insulation you already have (loose fibers, granules, batts, etc.) and measure its thickness. To achieve an R-49 rating, loose fiberglass particles should be laid at a thickness of about 20 inches, rock wool particles at 17 inches, cellulose (looks like shredded newsprint) at about 13 inches, and batts (blankets that come in rolls) at about 15 inches.
How much you’ll pay to improve attic insulation depends on how much you need to add—and whom you hire to do it. For one sample job, to add insulation to increase the rating of an unfinished attic from R-11 to R-49, Chicago area contractors quoted Checkbook undercover shoppers prices ranging from less than $1,500 to more than $3,500 for the exact same job.
If you hire a reasonably priced company, the energy savings from adding insulation will eventually pay off project costs. For our sample home, improving attic insulation from R-11 to R-38 would generate utility savings of about $161 per year, which would recover a $2,000 project cost in about 12 years.
Unheated areas underneath ground floors like crawlspaces and basements are also good candidates for added insulation. Crawlspaces should be dry year-round (moisture causes insulation to deteriorate), and a vapor barrier should be placed on the floor of the crawlspace.
If your home was built in the 1970s or later, its exterior walls probably have adequate insulation. If your home is older, it might be worthwhile to install it or improve what has deteriorated. To do so, installers have to drill access holes between each pair of wall studs, blow in insulation, and then patch and reseal the openings. As you can imagine, this is much more time-consuming, messy, and costly than insulating an open unfinished attic, basement, or crawlspace. But if you’re doing a major renovation or replacing siding, it’s worth adding this task, if needed: For our sample home, adding R-11 of insulation to exterior walls was one of the biggest energy savers among the sealing and insulating projects we analyzed, saving us a whopping $331 per year.
If You Can’t Repair an Appliance, Spend Extra for an Efficient Replacement
- Cost: With so many models for sale at wide price-point ranges, we can provide only rough estimates, but compared to less efficient, comparable models, Energy Star-certified refrigerators typically cost $200-$280 more, dishwashers $275-$350 more, clothes washers $90-$125 more, and dryers $325-$400 more. Rebates from your utility company might offset any price step-ups.
- Our energy savings: $8 per year for refrigerator, $18 for dishwasher, $37 for clothes washer, $63 for dryer.
Unless your refrigerator is an ancient electricity hog, the expense of replacing functioning appliances with new, more energy-efficient ones seldom nets you financial savings. But if an existing appliance needs repair, compare the repair cost to the price of a replacement minus expected energy savings. Calculations at EnergyStar.gov let you compare annual operating costs of efficient and inefficient appliances according to how much you use them and how long you expect the new unit to last, among other variables. When doing this math, make sure to factor in any rebates you can get from your utility.
If you decide to replace a busted appliance, go for an Energy Star-certified model. Although they are more expensive than comparable less efficient options, your energy savings will make up for that difference.
When Your Furnace Dies, Replace It with a 98 AFUE Model
- Cost: It costs about $1,500 more to install a 98 AFUE gas furnace instead of an 80 AFUE model, but the federal tax credit and rebates from some area utilities can reduce that to $1,150 or less.
- Our energy savings: $360 per year.
The efficiency of furnaces is rated by annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE). Simply said, a 90 AFUE furnace uses 90 percent of its fuel efficiently and wastes 10 percent.
New furnaces sold in this region by law must have a minimum AFUE rating of 80, which means a lot of the gas bought to fire even brand-new units goes up chimneys instead of heating homes. More efficient equipment is available—the most efficient residential furnaces have AFUE ratings of about 98—but because more efficient equipment costs more money, many homeowners replace broken-down furnaces with minimally efficient models.
In this area, that’s often a short-sighted decision, as the resulting energy savings from buying an efficient model will quickly pay off its extra cost. For example, a new 90 AFUE furnace usually costs about $250 more than an 80 AFUE model, but for most homes it will take only a year or two for the energy savings to recoup that higher upfront expense. And while a very efficient 98 AFUE furnace initially costs about $1,500 more than an 80 AFUE one, a federal tax credit ($150 for 2021) and utility company rebates for some area homeowners ($275 for Nicor, $200 for North Shore Gas and Peoples Gas) cut that extra expense to $1,150 or less, which will in about three years be covered by lower gas bills.
When selecting a furnace, also consider adding features like variable-speed blowers and two-stage burners. These setups have higher price tags, but operate furnaces at different output levels, depending on need. By helping maintain consistent temperatures throughout different areas of homes, they can decrease heating and cooling waste by about 10 percent, plus minimize systems cycling on and off, which contributes to wear and tear.
Consider Heating and Cooling One Room at a Time
- Cost: $800-$1,500 for one room.
- Our energy savings: Not a practical retrofit for our sample house, but ductless units typically consume 30 percent less energy than conventional A/Cs and heat pumps; then save even more if you use them only as needed.
Portable heaters are very inefficient. If you want to improve heating or cooling in one room or floor, or if you’re planning an addition, consider installing a mini ductless unit. These devices, common in Europe and hotel rooms, allow you to control temperatures in just one space. Because they use very little electricity and don’t lose a lot of energy transmitting air through ductwork, they are highly energy efficient. And by heating and cooling rooms only when in use, you’ll see significant savings.
Buy a Heat Pump Water Heater
- Cost: Heat pump models are $300 to $500 more expensive than comparable conventional units. But a federal tax credit of $300 (for 2021) reduces or wipes out higher price tags.
- Our energy savings: $87 per year.
Heat pumps work like air conditioners or refrigerators but in reverse. Some water heater models use heat pumps to extract warmth from the air around them and dump it into their tanks. This is a far more energy-efficient process than generating heat from a gas burner or electrical resistance. By replacing an old unit with a heat pump-equipped water heater, most homeowners will cut water-heating costs by half, compared to a new gas model, and by two-thirds, compared to electric. Although the purchase price for a heat pump-equipped unit is higher than conventional models, utility savings and rebates quickly recoup extra costs. Given their enormous potential benefit, it’s disappointing so few companies recommend these energy-thrifty devices to their customers.
Because they require more space than conventional models—they must have at least 1,000 cubic feet (usually 12 feet by 12 feet) of unoccupied space around them—not all homes can accommodate them. And because heat pump models have a slower recovery rate than electric or gas ones, if your family uses up what’s in the tank, you’ll have to wait several hours for a hot shower.
If You Don’t Have Space for a Heat Pump Water Heater, Replace a Broken Water Heater with an Efficient Model
- Cost: $175-$300 more than less efficient models. But a federal tax credit of $300 for installation wipes out higher price tags.
- Our energy savings: $37 per year.
While Energy Star-certified water heaters cost about $175 to $300 more than comparable non-certified ones, a $300 federal tax credit (for 2020) wipes out that extra expense; even without an incentive, the resulting gas or electricity savings over their lifespans will easily pay off a higher upfront price tag.
- Cost: Depends on how much you do and setting of home.
- Our energy savings: The Home Energy Saver tool couldn’t calculate savings for scenarios we tried.
If you plant trees that lose their leaves each autumn near the southern and western sides of your home, they’ll provide shade during the summer and, after leaf drop, during the winter will allow sunlight to help warm the joint. Planting shrubs or evergreen trees on the northern side of your property will provide a windbreak and reduce heating costs.