Save Money & Clean the Air with Home Energy Improvements - By Sara Baldwin
Whether you are a first-time homeowner, a seasoned homeowner, or just starting down the path to home ownership, you should care about the energy you use where you live (and in the home you buy). Why? Because home energy use impacts your finances, the comfort of your home, and your health. Home energy use also impacts the quality of the air we breathe (indoors and outside) and is a major contributor to climate change – buildings across the U.S. are responsible for 40% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Navigating your home’s energy usage and the scale of the investment required to make improvements might be intimidating. But, as with real estate, knowledge is power. Improving your home’s energy performance through investments in your home and changes in behavior can help protect you from price spikes, stabilize your energy bills, and increase the overall comfort and safety of your home. It’s also the best way to reduce harmful indoor and outdoor pollution. And now is a great time to focus on home energy improvements. With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, there are new tax incentives, rebates, and other programs coming down the pike that will help Utahns save money, while also making your home cleaner, healthier, and more energy efficient.
Get Started: Take a Home Energy Tour
The best place to start before you start making investments or changes is to do an energy assessment of your home. Take a notebook or use a checklist to keep track of what you find. For example, how many and what kind of lights do you have? What is the age of your furnace and A/C? When was the last time you changed your filter? Do you have single-pane windows? Is your attic insulated? Are your windows and doors cold to the touch in the winter (or hot in the summer)? What appliances do you have in your home and how old are they? If you’re so inclined, hire someone to do a whole-home performance assessment and give you recommendations.
If you’re in the process of buying a home, take advantage of the real estate inspection process to learn as much as you can about the energy features of the properties you’re considering: the age and state of the lighting, doors, windows, appliances, HVAC equipment, water heater, and insulation are big indicators of how much energy your home will use (and which upgrades you might want to prioritize sooner than later). These factors can tell you what you can expect once you buy the place, how much money you’re likely to spend on energy bills, and what kind of replacements or upgrades might be needed in the short-term.
Prioritize the “Low-Hanging Fruit” Energy Improvements While the big fixes and investments might seem intimidating, you can save energy and money by going after the low-hanging fruit. Here are a handful of easy, low-cost steps you can take immediately. Upgrade your lighting. Residential lighting accounts for a 10 percent of the average home’s energy usage, and most lights and lighting fixtures can be converted to LEDs for a relatively minimal upfront cost (and they last forever!) LEDs are three to four times more energy efficient than incandescent lighting, and they emit very little heat (which helps with overall energy costs during the summer). If you’re a Rocky Mountain Power (RMP) customer, they will send you free LED light bulbs as part of their Wattsmart Kit program, and they offer incentives for eligible LED lighting.
Home sealing, weatherization, and insulation are paramount, no matter the age of the home (don’t assume newer homes have everything sealed and/or properly weatherized, they may not!). Eliminate drafts and seal up any holes to the outside or into unconditioned air space. Time spent on this step will ensure your home doesn’t have to work harder to stay comfortable and will drastically cut energy bills, especially in the winter and summer. Don’t forget fireplaces, crawl spaces, and closets; all of the nooks and crannies of your home are fair game! Check out this handy guide for tips on how to weatherize your home or inquire with a professional contractor to get a bid.
Get your AC and furnace checked up at least once a year by a professional to ensure they are operating as efficiently as possible. If you have a swamp cooler, the same applies. Change your filters once every 3 months (or more frequently if there are a lot of bad air days or smoke from wildfires). Just as you tune your car periodically, treat your HVAC system the same way. It will last longer and save you money with just simple maintenance. If you have a window unit, consider upgrading to the most efficient unit you can get – although they are small, they can result in huge energy bills.
Adjust the thermostat on your water heater. Most water heaters are set by default to high, which can result in scalding hot water and unnecessary energy waste. A slight adjustment down can make a big difference and save money. This Handyman.com resource talks you through this easy step.
Get a programmable thermostat and program it for optimal energy savings. Depending on the season, you can save as much as 10% a year on heating and cooling by simply turning your thermostat back 7°-10°F for 8 hours a day from its normal setting. Remember to program it for times you are away from home so you’re not heating or cooling the space for nothing. Choose newer models that are WIFI enabled and work with an app, so you can control it remotely if needed. RMP customers can get $75 cash back on a qualifying thermostat (or ask your utility about programs if you don’t use RMP).
Invest in high quality insulating blinds or thick curtains for your windows that block heat from the sun in the summer. Be sure to use passive solar (via your windows) to heat your home during the winter months during the day but remember to close the blinds at night to trap any heat you have in the house.
Use ceiling fans or portable fans whenever possible to circulate the air and minimize the amount of energy you use for heating or cooling. Be mindful of the direction of the fan during the summer and winter.
For a more extensive list, check out these helpful resources.
Go Big on Energy Savings: Invest in a Clean, Electric, Efficient Home
While most homeowners tend to focus on more cosmetic upgrades to their home, energy-related upgrades also add value to a home and make it cleaner, healthier, and more comfortable (all huge selling points for prospective buyers down the line). While Utah enjoys lower than average electricity and gas rates than other states, our prices are expected to increase, making now a great time to start investing in your home’s energy efficiency and energy performance. In addition, the use of natural gas in our homes contributes to Utah’s poor air quality and is highly harmful to our health. Whether you’re motivated by climate, clean air, the health of your family, or your energy bills, these energy upgrades have a huge impact on all of them:
Energy-efficient exterior doors
High-efficiency heat pump water heaters
High-efficiency all-electric appliances, including washers, dryers, dishwashers, and induction stoves
Solar and/or energy storage
These upgrades combined can be quite costly if done all at once, so plan for gradual investments and replacement over time. Make note of which appliances or equipment are oldest, as they will need to be replaced sooner. Consult with professionals in advance of needing to replace them, so you can take the necessary steps to make the upgrade. If you’re switching from a gas stove to an induction stove, you may need to have a new 220-V outlet installed. If you’re installing a heat pump water heater, you may need to upgrade your home’s electrical. Everything takes time and more steps than you think, so prepare yourself with early research and discussions. Your home and your pocketbook will thank you.
Free Money! Take Advantage of Incentives
As you work to upgrade your home, take advantage of all available incentives.
Utility Incentives and Program: Check with your utility providers about what they offer and for which technologies. Make sure you spend time upfront to ensure you are familiar the requirements, process, and order-of-operations.
Federal Tax Incentives and Rebates for Greening your Home:
Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) includes $4.3 billion for direct consumer rebates for whole-home efficiency measures designed to help households save from 20% to over 35% of their energy usage.
States will be responsible for allocating new rebates for low- and moderate- income households, which are eligible for between $4,000 and $8,000 per household for efficiency upgrades, depending on the level of energy savings. There will also be direct rebates for efficient electric appliances up to $14,000 for low- and moderate- income households. (See Table)
Higher income households can receive rebates ranging from $2,000 to $4,000, and funding is available for multifamily home upgrades as well.
The IRA increases the residential tax credit for qualified energy efficiency improvements to 30% of the costs, with an annual credit limit of $1,200 and $2,000 for heat pumps. The credit can also cover the cost of home energy audits (up to $150) and electrical panel upgrades necessary for efficiency improvements (up to $600).
The IRA also extends the 30% federal tax credit for rooftop solar installations, and home battery systems will also now qualify for the 30% tax credit.
Don’t Waste Energy or Time, Get Started Today
Empower yourself to make your current or future home more affordable, safer, healthier, and more climate- and clean-air friendly. Check out more resources and don’t delay; get started on your home energy renovation today!
Building Decarbonization Practice Guide, Forward Dining Solutions
Electrify Everything in Your Home: A Guide to Comfy, Healthy, Carbon-Free Living, by Joel Rosenberg – A Rewiring America Publication
A Pocket Guide to All-Electric Retrofits of Single-Family Homes, Redwood Energy
Electrify Everything! A Practical Guide to Ditching Your Gas Meter, GreenTech Media
About the Author: Sara Baldwin is a homeowner, landlord, Utah native and long-time Salt Lake City resident. She is Energy Innovation’s Electrification Policy Director, where she leads the firm’s electrification policy practice area. She served for six years as Vice President of Regulatory for the Interstate Renewable Energy Council and ten years as a Senior Policy Associate for local non-profit, Utah Clean Energy. She was named an “Innovator and Influencer” by Solar Power World in 2017 and one of “Utah’s Enlightened 50″ by the Community Foundation of Utah in 2012. She is a member of GridLab’s advisory board, and she hosts Energy Innovation’s Electrify This! Podcast. She is a University of Utah alumna and a long-time Salt Town Realty client and friend!