Top 15 Green Home Improvements: Costs in 2021 – 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 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-$500 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 home 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 already the middle of 2021, so much of this work can be accomplished by a computer simulation! 😉 Once the energy audit is complete, you will not only have specific goals for the reduced utility and home maintenance costs, but also ideas for a healthier and safer interior living environment that will increase the physical comfort, energy efficiency, and dampen noise levels.

A professional home energy audit should also include any local state incentives and tax breaks you are in line to receive for embarking on energy-saving projects.

A typical home energy audit will uncover opportunities to improve energy efficiency and comfort of your home by sealing the air leaks and drafts and upgrading the level of insulation in critical areas such as crawl spaces, wall cavities, and attic where there might be thermal energy loss due to inadequate insulation.

2. Caulk the Air Leaks

caulking-to-stop-air-leaks

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 between $50 and $100 an hour, depending on the scope of the project. 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 the 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).

For the tax year 2020 (when you file your taxes in 2021), the credit is worth up to $500 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 Energy Star. 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 unless you opt for double or triple low-e glass and well insulated installation method.

Note that well-insulated (not hallow) steel and fiberglass entry doors are considered energy-efficient and cost effective.

This is where a green remodeler can really face a test of commitment to the cause. Good insulating wooden windows will cost nearly twice as much ($850-$1,500 versus $500-$650) and they might need painting and maintenance every now and then, 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 to install a tankless water heater runs from $1,200 to $2,000 a whole-house model including basic wiring and installation, to about $2,500-$4,500 for a gas-powered system fully installed.

The gas-powered system requires a constantly lit pilot light that will squash some of the energy savings. With about $100 in energy savings, you are looking at decades before your tankless water heater returns to the black in your home budget. However, the 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

There are two basic types of solar water heaters, 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 also less effective.

Active solar hot water systems will cost between $6,500 and $12,500 to install, on average, depending on roof accessibly and the overall complexity of the project. Passive solar water heaters will run around $2,500 to $5,500. Goodbye cruel grid.

There are many variables to consider in determining the upfront and cost and pay-back period for a solar water heating system, not the least of which is your home’s 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 10 to 20 years. Available incentives to switch from conventional fuel to solar and possible financing can be deal makers or breakers in the decision to install solar water heaters.

7. Drain Water Heat Recovery Systems

drain-water-heat-recovery-system

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 passive solar water heating systems. The unit 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

New Shingle Roof

$7,500
Average price
New Metal Roof

$14,500
Average price
New Flat Roof

$8,225
Average price

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If 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 rainwater can be as easy and attractive as finding an old oaken whiskey barrel or purchasing a plastic rain collection barrel for under $150. 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 storm-water 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 $3,500. 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

metal-roof-on-a-modern-farm-house

Estimated Roof Costs (1,700 sq.ft.)
Asphalt Shingles
Metal Roofing
Flat Roof
$7,500
$14,500
$8,225
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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, and flat roofs can all be made to be cool.

Did you know? A “Cool Roof rated” roofing system has been rated by the Cool Roof Rating Council. To be rated by a CRRC a roofing system must achieve a minimum initial Solar Reflection Index or SRI of 20. The higher the initial SRI number, the more of solar radiant heat a roofing surface will reflect back into the atmosphere, keeping the inside of your house cooler.

A typical cool roof surface will raise the thermometer only to about 100-120 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the SRI.

If your house needs a new roof, the extra cost of installing a “cool roof” 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 be more than offset by savings on your home energy bills, as well as 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

Yes, your house can suffer from wind chill – and you will be the one who feels it, in the pocketbook. 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 Trees for Home Comfort and Energy Efficiency

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-$85 a square foot extra, 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-$5,000 and a 20-footer for $2,500-$3,000. 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 $20,000-$30,000.

Other options include shipping containers that have been prefabricated into houses ($25,000 and up), hiring out experienced contractors who know their way around metal construction (could be $100 an hour) or massing several metal shells together. It is not unheard of to find shipping container houses on the market for over $250,000.

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. 🙂

Bonus: PV Solar Panels

Solar Panels on a two-story asphalt shingle roof

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the installation of a PV Solar Power system to augment your home’s energy needs. PV solar panels convert solar energy to clean electricity.

We include the idea of “going solar” as a bonus item, because everyone knows about solar panels, but not everyone knows that there has never been a better time to install a PV solar power system on your home’s rooftop.

Did you know? In 2008, solar costs were over $8.00 per watt installed. Today, the national average cost of going solar is only $2.96 per watt installed. There are also 26% solar investment tax credits (ITC) available from the federal government through 2022. Many states like Massachusetts and local electric utilities also offer additional energy-efficiency incentives, and rebates for the installation of a residential PV solar power system.

In terms of costs, a typical 5kW solar panels system will cost about $14,800 before the tax credits. After applying the current 26% solar investment tax credits, the total system cost is reduced to $10,952.

For a 7kW PV system, the initial upfront cost would be around $21,000, but after applying the 26% federal solar investment tax credits rebate, the final cost is reduced to about $15,600 for the fully installed solar system. Regional and local incentives in your city and state also may apply.

PV solar power systems offer a very attractive pay-back periods, especially with the federal solar tax credit incentives.

Update: The 26% solar ITC credits have recently been extended by congress through the end of 2022. Solar tax credits will be reduced to 22% in 2023.

Conclusion:

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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4 thoughts on “Top 15 Green Home Improvements: Costs in 2021 – Home Energy Efficiency”

  1. Hey, Living in an area with high winds always has me concerned with trees falling on the house. It would be beneficial to know what trees are less prone to high wind damage (falling limbs or falling over) and which can remain standing in high windy areas better.

    Also the type of soil and its saturation will affect a tree’s ability to remain standing. Just thought this is worth mentioning and maybe you could share more on how far away from a home to plant each tree type for optimal shade that would also consider if the tree fails to remain upright. Basically, I want shade but where is that line of possible costs to home repairs.

    Reply
    • Those are great questions! We already mentioned some trees that are popular and generally strong when it comes to high winds: Poplars are some of the most popular trees, growing as much as eight feet per year. Maple trees and red oaks are also energetic growers.

      Here are the trees that are well known for their ability to withstand strong winds:

      1. Live Oak is a classic shade tree, thanks to its dense foliage. Live oaks can stand up to strong winds, compacted soil, and shade. They only need about four hours of sunshine per day to thrive. Note that live oaks can grow up to 80 feet when mature. If that’s too high, consider one of the smaller trees.

      2. Flowering Dogwood. If you’re looking for a smaller tree, the flowering dogwood might be a good choice. These trees only grow to about 25 feet tall, making them a good choice for smaller yards. Flowering Dogwood trees are more gentle and won’t tolerate drought or over watering due to pooling water.

      3. Bald Cypress trees can withstand extremely strong winds. They can reach a height of up to 50-70 feet when mature. Bald Cypress trees require plenty of sunlight and can tolerate droughts and over-watering due to floods.

      Here is a nice resource on trees that can withstand strong winds: https://www.hortontree.com/5-trees-that-can-withstand-high-winds

      As far as potential repairs due to damage from trees planted too close to the house or fallen branches, it’s always a good idea to consult with a professional landscaper to get a better sense of what trees will work best for your home and how close to the house they can be planted. Don’t plant the trees too close to the house to avoid damage from roots and having your gutters overflowing with fallen leaves. Every house and plot of land is different so exact distance from the house should be recommended by the landscaping or arborist pros in your area. The estimates and consultations are generally free.

      Reply
  2. 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 $3,000 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 the heater’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 5-7 years).

    The installation 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.

    Reply
    • 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!

      Reply

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