How to Create an Energy Efficient Home: Keys to Auditing & Upgrading Your Space

A home with solar panels

What this article is all about:


The Case for Energy Efficient Homes

While reducing your energy consumption has positive environmental impacts, many homeowners are pleased to find that there are also financial incentives to creating a more efficient living space.

The average American family spends at least $2,200 a year* on home utility bills. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, implementing upgrades identified in a home energy audit could result in savings of anywhere from 5 to 30 percent on your monthly energy bill. When applied strategically, these home improvements will pay for themselves over time.

Energy efficient upgrades could also help sell your home. According to the 2015 National Association of REALTORS® Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends Report, 36 percent of all buyers consider heating and cooling costs a very important feature in their home search.

Whether you’re preparing to sell or building your dream home, follow this guide to create a comfortable, efficient, and money-saving space.


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How to Measure Your Home’s Energy Efficiency

The first step in improving the energy efficiency of your home is evaluating its current state. There are several DIY assessment options, or for a thorough evaluation, consider hiring a professional energy auditor.

DIY energy assessment

Perform a quick check of your home’s energy consumption using the Environmental Protection Agency’s Home Energy Yardstick. This tool provides insight into your energy usage compared to similar homes and tips on reducing your consumption. You’ll need to supply basic details about your home’s size and composition, as well as information from your last 12 months of utility bills.

You can also perform a DIY energy audit by examining a few key elements of your home. If you answer “no” to any of the following questions, you may be wasting energy (and money):


Professional energy audit

To achieve optimal results, invest in a professional energy assessment. A professional auditor will have the tools and expertise to identify energy leaks a DIY evaluation might miss. A typical audit will cost $300-$500 and may take several hours to complete, depending on the size and location of your home. Your audit may include:


When you’re ready to select an energy auditor, find one who can help you understand the cost of recommended upgrades and prioritize those improvements based on your expected return on investment. Consider choosing an accredited auditor for extra peace of mind. Both the Building Performance Institute (BPI) and the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) have certification programs for energy raters.

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Improving Your Home’s Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency improvements need to be tackled in a particular order for maximum impact. Follow these steps to get the most from your investment.

1.) Improve your home’s shell

Before you begin installing ENERGY STAR appliances or solar panels, it’s essential to improve the outer shell of your home; this includes your walls, windows, doors, and attic. Failure to reinforce these areas means your home will continue leaking energy, making any other improvements much less effective.

Start by fixing air leaks. Windows and doors are obvious culprits since their primary function is to provide an opening to your home. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a gap of just 1/8 of an inch along the underside of a 36-inch door is equivalent to having a 2.4-inch wide hole in the wall. Closing that gap not only reduces energy consumption, but will also provide a more stable and comfortable climate in your home. You can seal the perimeter of moveable parts with weatherstripping. Caulk should be used to secure fixed elements on exterior walls like door and window frames. Both may be found at your local home improvement store and are fairly easy to install.

When checking for leaks, don’t forget your air ducts. In a typical home with a forced-air system, up to 30 percent of your heated or cooled air may be lost to leakage. Work with a professional to identify leaks, seal your ducts, and improve your airflow. According to, the average cost of sealing duct leaks is $450, with a payback horizon of just one-and-a-half years.

Next, properly insulate your walls and attic. Loose fill, or blown-insulation, is an excellent option for existing exterior walls. This involves using pneumatic equipment to blow small particles into the wall cavity. Areas with clear access, such as an attic floor, often do well with rolled insulation. Existing interior walls can be trickier to insulate retroactively; take advantage of any upcoming renovation projects that involve opening the walls to evaluate and install fresh insulation.

When it comes to the actual thermal resistance of your insulation, there isn’t a single best selection. All insulation is given what’s known as an R-Value; the higher the R-Value, the better that particular piece of insulation will be able to protect your home from temperature variances. The R-Value you need is based on your home’s geographic location, as well as the section of your house being insulated. For example, homes in areas with extreme high or low temperatures require higher R-Values than ones in more moderate climates. Use the Department of Energy’s R-Value Calculator to determine what your home requires.

Finally, consider upgrading your windows and doors. The most energy efficient windows are typically comprised of multiple panes of glass filled with a gas, like argon, and finished with a coating known as “low-e.” Doors made of fiberglass, steel, or wood cladding can be used to replace older, less-efficient entrances. Whenever possible, opt for one with a polyurethane foam core, which provides an extra measure of insulation.

You can also look for product ratings from the National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC). While the NFRC doesn’t endorse any particular product, they independently test and evaluate the performance of windows, doors, and skylights so you can select the ones best for your needs. You’ll want to pay attention to two rating factors in particular:


Your ideal U-Factor and Solar Heat Gain Coefficient are dependent on the climate where you live. The U.S. Department of Energy provides a detailed map, as well as energy efficiency guidelines, so that you can choose products that are suited for your region.

2.) Upgrade major systems, lighting, and appliances

Once your home’s shell is repaired, you can begin improving everything else. While it may be reasonable to update lighting immediately, it is typically most cost effective to wait until existing appliances and major systems wear out to upgrade those features.

Your home heating system should be a primary target of improvements, as this is the largest energy expense in the average U.S. home – about 45 percent of energy bills. The efficiency of combustion heat sources, like boilers and furnaces, is measured using the Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE) scale. An older heat source will likely range between 56 and 70 percent AFUE, but a newer high-efficiency unit will range between 90 and 98.5 percent AFUE. Air source heat pumps are measured using a Heating Season Performance Factor (HSPF) rating. For this, you’ll want to target an HSPF of 8 or greater.

Like most energy products, there isn’t a single best heating system on the market. The fuel sources available to you, the climate of your region, the size of your home, and your existing setup will all help determine the best system for your particular home. Due to the complexity of the decision, it’s a good idea to work with a professional when selecting a new heating system.

Old central air conditioners should eventually be changed out for more efficient units. These are evaluated using the seasonal energy efficiency rating (SEER); the higher SEER number, the more efficient the unit. The U.S. Department of Energy requires all central air conditioners made after January 23, 2006 to have a SEER rating of 13 or higher.

Don’t forget about hot water heating. On-demand, or tankless, water heaters are gaining popularity due to their energy efficiency and long life expectancy. Although these systems cost more to set up, the U.S. Department of Energy reports that they can cut energy use by as much as 30 percent. If you prefer the lower cost or continuous heating provided by a traditional storage tank water heater, choose one with insulation or retrofit it with an insulated water heater blanket.

Upgrading your existing water fixtures to low-flow varieties can result in additional savings, since less hot water will be consumed with every use. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends selecting fixtures with the WaterSense label. These products are guaranteed to perform as well or better than less efficient fixtures while improving water efficiency by 20 percent over category averages.

New appliances can help you save money and energy as well. When your refrigerator, dishwasher, clothes washer, or dryer reach the end of their lives, choose replacements carefully. Look for products with the ENERGY STAR label, as these items are designed to reduce energy consumption and save money without sacrificing appliance performance.

3.) Consider alternative sources

If you’re serious about energy efficiency and have already secured your home’s shell and upgraded interior features, it’s time to consider alternative energy systems. The options that could be most feasible for you will be largely determined by the location of your home.

Solar is probably the most widely recognized method of clean energy generation. Solar panels – typically installed on your roof – transform the sun’s rays into energy for your home. Nowadays, they can be purchased at home repair stores, and are even available in DIY kits. The most important factor when deciding to leverage solar energy generation is obviously sunlight. You’ll want to consider your area’s solar insolation rating as well as your home’s specific surroundings.

Wind power may be harnessed using small turbines if you have at least one acre of land and a sufficient wind resource. The Wind Energy Foundation reports that a single 18-foot turbine is enough to power a small home, and costs may be recouped in as few as six years. Wind flow can be dramatically impacted by local terrain variances, so it’s important to evaluate your site prior to investing in a turbine. While professional measurement systems provide the clearest evaluation of your wind profile, you can start by checking out the U.S. Department of Energy’s wind resource maps.

Geothermal systems for the home don’t generate energy, but they do conserve it. These installations reduce the amount of work your existing heating and cooling systems have to do by tapping into the consistent temperatures underground. According to Popular Mechanics, you could recoup the cost on an average retrofitted system in 12-15 years; new installations could pay off in as few as three years.

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