Residential energy efficiency retrofitting can have many benefits. Obvious benefits include energy savings, monetary savings and shrinking one’s carbon footprint by reducing energy consumption. Beyond that energy upgrades will improve comfort and safety of the home, and increase resale value. And with the incentives currently available through utilities and state governments, energy efficiency measures are more affordable than ever.

Because energy savings will help pay the cost of improvements, homeowners should get started as soon as possible. Money that would otherwise be spent on monthly energy bills can be applied to pay off the improvements and increase property value.

To get started homeowners should contact a home performance contractor who can provide whole-home energy audits as well as single measure estimates to evaluate a home’s floor, wall, and attic insulation, along with ventilation, air sealing, HVAC equipment, windows and doors, and water heating. After scheduling an audit or estimate, a technician will send the homeowner a report or proposal for home improvements including applicable utility incentives and state tax credits. Some contractors can provide financing or recommend lenders with good terms for energy improvements.

One can think of a home as a living, breathing unit with its various pieces working together to provide a safe, comfortable living space. Like living things, homes are not always in tip-top shape. An energy audit – like a medical exam – is the best first step to identify and prioritize energy efficiency treatments. By taking a whole home perspective, a home performance technician makes recommendations that guarantee homeowners get the most for their money in terms of safety, comfort, and efficiency. Home performance contractors offer a detailed understanding of how one improvement, like attic insulation, will impact even seemingly unrelated areas of the home, like bathroom ventilation.

With a home energy audit, the homeowner gets a diagnostic baseline that can be used to measure the impact of any improvements made. For example, air leakage is measured before work begins and again after air sealing work is completed. The measured difference will quantify how much energy will be saved. If one has the bandwidth to attack energy inefficiency from all angles there are advantages in completing a whole package of energy efficiency measures at the same time:

  1. The work can be completed in such a way that projects are done in the right order and potentially avoid additional costs. For example, air sealing and more insulation will reduce the heating and cooling “load”. If a new furnace or air-conditioner is needed, a smaller unit can be purchased. An appropriately-sized system not only costs less to purchase, but will be more efficient to operate.
  2. There is less impact and disturbance for the homeowner. Upgrades require some degree of mess and having contractors in and out of the home can be a nuisance. By at least knowing what projects the homeowner wants done in the future, they can plan accordingly. For instance, installing wall insulation or windows requires touching up exterior paint afterward, so one wouldn’t want to install wall insulation, repaint the house, then replace windows later only to have to paint again.
  3. Creating package deals may lead to larger discounts through the contractor.
  4. The home will be more efficient earlier in the process and energy savings will begin accumulating sooner.
  5. If a loan is required, it’s better to fund all the work with one financing package. This maximizes the monthly savings that can then be applied to pay off the loan. A larger loan amount may garner better financing terms. Look for special energy improvement loans, such as Fannie Mae’s HomeStyle loan. Contact your local electric utility about plans that allow the loan to be paid through your monthly bill.

If the work can’t be completed in one big project, it can be implemented over time. This may be preferable to spread the costs over time or to allow a do-it-yourself approach for some of the simpler improvements, such as air sealing and lighting upgrades. The incremental approach may allow homeowners to learn how each measure affects comfort and energy consumption before proceeding to the next.

The most cost-effective measures depend on the individual home, and tend to require an assessment taking variables into account such as the age of the home and any upgrades or remodeling that has occurred. In general, the most cost-effective measure would be to install wall insulation where there is none. Without wall insulation, about 35% of a home’s heat loss occurs through wall cavities. Adding attic insulation is probably the second most cost-effective way to make your home more comfortable and efficient. Aside from insulation measures, updating the furnace, air-conditioner, or water heater may be the most cost-effective change to make. For homes with electric heat, adding a ductless heat pump system can cut energy consumption by over 50%. Similarly, replacing a standard electric resistance water heater with a heat pump water heater reduces water heating costs.

There are quite a few incentives available for residential energy retrofits such as insulation, heating systems, water heaters, and windows. First, contact the electric or natural gas utility that provides the fuel used for space heating. This “primary” utility may have incentive programs for general energy improvements or specific equipment upgrades. Next, check with state and local government agencies about their programs. A good source of information is the DSIRE website, which lists financial incentive programs across the U.S. Find out if there is a local-to-you property assessed clean energy (PACE) program. If so, the project could be eligible for 100% financing at an attractive interest rate. If not, it may be a good time to start a PACE program for your area.

Energy-saving upgrades improve comfort, save money, improve the longevity, and increase the value of existing homes. Better yet, money saved helps pay the cost. Now is the time to get started.


Sara Holman, GreenSavers

2016 and 2017 ENERGY STAR Contractor of the Year: GreenSavers is a home performance contractor providing energy audits and estimates for insulation, HVAC, windows, seismic, and solar in Portland and Bend, Oregon.