Consumer IQ

6 Energy-Saving Home Improvements That Pay Off

Though snowstorms and record lows are still fresh memories for most of the nation, summer officially starts today and temperatures are on the way up. Before long, we’ll be staying inside and blasting the air conditioner trying not to sweat through the season.

Before the mercury climbs too high and carries our electric bills upward with it, we all need to do some tweaking of our home’s energy efficiency. With these six tips, you can comfortably cool your home and effectively reduce and save money on your monthly utility bills. But if you wait for the dog days of summer, it’s going to be too late to save:

1. Get an Energy Audit

I first learned about energy audits around six months ago, and it’s one of the best discoveries I’ve made as a homeowner. Most energy providers will send a rep to your house to perform an energy audit on your home – for free. At first, I wondered how effective a free analysis from the electric company could be, but I was pleasantly surprised.

My free home energy efficiency audit took a little over an hour, and the rep was qualified, informative, and helpful. He outlined at least ten innovative ways that I could improve my home and reduce my power bill. Power providers are just as motivated to reduce energy costs as homeowners are, because they have to spend more in the long run when customers overuse energy. They don’t want to spend on building more plants and maintaining high levels of output during peak hours and peak seasons.

Rather, they’re looking to help customers operate more efficient homes, which will in turn allow them to run an efficient business while serving a large number of customers. Many providers will also inform you of which green energy tax credits you can claim for any home improvements you take on.

So do yourself a favor and call your energy provider. If they provide this service, schedule an appointment. After a free one-hour consultation, you’ll end up saving hundreds of dollars and improving your home’s value. Make sure you get expert advice before the hot, expensive summer months, or you’ll regret it when you see your electric bill come August.

Pro Tip: If your power company doesn’t offer free audits, or if you can’t find an available hour for the appointment, try the DIY energy audit at EnergySavers.gov.

2. Install Weather Stripping

I used to think of weather stripping as just a “winter job.” Big mistake.

Just as weather stripping keeps out the cold in the wintertime, it keeps out just as much heat in the summertime. The rule of thumb is that if you can see daylight through any of your door frames – including the bottom of the door – you’re wasting a lot of energy and money.

Weather stripping provides plenty of benefit without a lot of investment. It’s cheap and very easy to install. If you put off this project before last winter, make sure you get it done now.

Pro Tip: Though weather stripping is inexpensive, it may not be an option if you rent. And if your only trouble area is the bottom of the doorway, you may not want to take on a home improvement project. Instead, just pick up a cheap draftstopper at a home goods store, or schedule some family craft time to make your own.

3. Replace All Air Filters

Replacing the main air filter on your air conditioning unit is a no-brainer that many people simply overlook despite how easy it can be. No frugal homeowner can afford to ignore this money-saver!

A clean air filter has a major effect on your monthly cooling bill. Your AC unit has to work much harder when it’s pushing air through a dirty, dust-filled filter. You spent plenty of money to get an efficient, powerful air conditioner, so why inhibit its effectiveness with a dirty vent?

Pro Tip: If you don’t want to take on the expense of regularly changing your filter, just keep up with regular cleanings. Every three to four months, remove the vent and clear it with a handheld vacuum or a damp rag. An easy way to remember this task is to do it on the first day of every season.

4. Clean Your Vents

Vents are almost as important as the main air conditioning unit. In my home, I have two large AC vents and several small floor vents. They cool the house much more effectively – and they provide cleaner air – when they’re unobstructed. Make sure you don’t have bookshelves or other high furniture blocking the flow from ceiling or wall vents, and move any items, large or small, away from floor vents. Remember, just because you can’t feel the air on your hand or face doesn’t mean that you’re not still in the path of the airflow. Your vents need plenty of room to work.

I’ve gone as far as having these vents professionally cleaned with an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner that sucks out all of the dust and debris. It’s a heavy up-front cost for spring cleaning, but the summer I had the cleaning done, I enjoyed my lowest electric bill ever. I’ve also re-sized filters to fit my vents, providing cleaner air throughout the house.

Pro Tip: If this year’s budget doesn’t have room for a professional cleaner, set aside half an hour to take your regular vacuum to the vents. Use a narrow extension if you have one, so you can pull up the vent and clean dust from the surface as well as any accessible part of the air duct.

5. Install Ceiling Fans

Fortunately, my house came with ceiling fans in every room, drastically reducing my energy bill. Ceiling fans recirculate cold air down into the rooms of my home in the summer (while letting the hot air rise above the fans and out), and they keep rooms warm in the winter too. Though you’ll spend on electricity to operate the fans, they use far less power than air conditioners and heaters do.

The biggest obstacle is the initial cost of purchasing and installing the fans. If you’ll be in your home for a few years, though, these fans will eventually pay for themselves.

Pro Tip: If you can’t install a major item like a ceiling fan, or if the sticker price dissuades you, try using small, energy-efficient floor fans or table fans, or put a temporary exhaust fan in the window of a room where you spend a lot of time.

6. Install a Programmable Thermostat

Finally, explore the option of a programmable thermostat. With a programmable thermostat, you can set a schedule that will cool your house right before you get home from work, instead of wasting electricity running the AC all day long. You’ll also be able to set it to turn off during the night, so you’ll save money when the outside temperature cools and you’re comfortably sleeping. Thermostats are equally effective in the winter, allowing your house to get colder while no one is home and warm up just before you get home.

Pro Tip: Simple computerized thermostats aren’t very expensive anymore, and you don’t need the bells and whistles of a complicated high-tech model. The key is that your thermostat has a timer option.

Final Thoughts

I’m always looking to keep my money in my wallet and my savings accounts. But I also like to be comfortable, particularly in my own home during a heat wave. If you’re ready to get proactive and dedicate a little time, you’ll enjoy a much more pleasant summer, minimizing sweat and save energy at home at the same time. Even better, you’ll benefit from these changes in the winter as well.

What home improvements have you made to lower the cost of keeping cool in the hot summer months?

David Bakke is a columnist for Money Crashers, a blog about financial issues including smart shopping, home improvement, getting out of debt, and achieving financial freedom.