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Green on a budget: 3 ways to increase home efficiency

Time was you had to have a fat wallet to go green. These days, you can do a lot for a little.

By MSN Smart Spending editor Sep 17, 2013 5:08PM
This post comes from Brett Freeman at partner site Improvement Center.

ImprovementCenter logoGreening up your house doesn't need to be expensive. True, the big ticket green renovations like adding solar panels, low emission windows, or a tankless water heater can be pricey and take a while to pay for themselves. But there are plenty of relatively inexpensive projects that are good for the environment and your bottom line. Here are three that will pay for themselves in months, not years.

Recycle (© Comstock Images/Jupiterimages)1. Take your temperature
The first, best thing you can do to improve your home's efficiency, particularly if it's more than 10 years old, is to identify where energy loss is occurring, and a valuable tool for doing this is an infrared (IR) thermometer. Until recently these handy devices were mainly a tool for professionals, but several companies have introduced home models, and they're now available at most home improvement stores for $50 to $100.

An IR thermometer allows you to take temperature readings on your external walls and around doors and windows (this is best done on a particularly hot or cold day). If you find hot or cold spots on your walls, this probably means your need to blow in some insulation. Around windows and doors you'll be able to see where seals are failing, allowing air to flow in and out of your house. This can be fixed with caulk and weatherstripping.

2. Grass isn't greener
Have you ever wondered why we have lawns? Would you believe the French are to blame? Louis XIV commissioned some of the first lawns as part of the gardens of Versailles, and lush, manicured lawns became a symbol of status among European aristocrats in the 17th and 18th centuries. The trend spread quickly to England, and accompanied the English to the New World. George Washington's home at Mt. Vernon had a lawn, as did Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.

Of course, back then people with large estates also generally kept livestock, so having a lawn was to some degree practical. The grass would keep your sheep and goats fed, while your sheep and goats would keep the lawn trimmed and fertilized. Nowadays, instead of sheep and goats we have chemicals and lawn mowers. And water. Lots and lots of water. Landscape irrigation accounts for more than 30% of residential water usage in the United States, and twice that much in some southern states. So if you're looking to green up your house, the lawn is a good place to start.

One good lawn alternative is to establish planting beds and fill them with native plants. If you don't go with native species, you end up in a situation similar to having a lawn, where you have to use supplemental water and fertilizer to keep alive something that was never intended to grow there in the first place. Planting beds are also easy to establish, and you avoid the monumental chore of having to dig up your sod: simply cover the grass with landscape fabric, add topsoil and mulch, and you're ready to plant. And as a final benefit, you can switch from sprinklers to drip irrigation, which is much more efficient.

For areas that don't need to accommodate foot traffic, you can establish lawn alternatives or ground cover such as creeping thyme or liriope, both of which require much less care. Again, make sure that you're replacing your grass with native species.

Other lawn replacements such as decks and hardscapes involve more of an investment on the front end, but little or no maintenance cost going forward. Gravel beds are a lower-cost alternative to hardscapes and a relatively easy DIY project, but you will need to replenish the gravel every couple of years as it settles.

3. The cool way to stay way cool

When they first hit the market, programmable thermostats were expected to be a big energy savings tool, given that heating and cooling accounts for more than half of the average home's energy usage. Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, they didn't work, which led the Environmental Protection Agency to end its Energy Star certification program for programmable thermostats in 2009. The problem wasn't with the thermostats themselves, it was with human nature. People wouldn't bother to program them correctly, or they would bypass the program, or, because they were (supposedly) saving energy with this great new thermostat, they would reward themselves by setting the temperature when they were home a few degrees cooler in summer or warmer in winter, leading to higher energy usage.

The next generation of programmable thermostats gets around the issue of human nature by taking people out of the equation: They program themselves.

The first, and best-known, of these devices is called the Nest. It retails for $249, but it does what it's supposed to: saves you energy. The Nest programs itself over the course of about a week by paying attention to how and when you adjust it. The Nest also senses when you're gone or sleeping, and adjusts its program accordingly, and is accessible via smart phones and computers allowing you to adjust settings remotely.

There is not a ton of data available about how much energy can be saved with a Nest, but the few reviews available that include a product test showed energy usage dropping 15 to 25 percent during heating and cooling seasons, with one reviewer reporting a savings of $305 in just four months. So despite its steep price, the Nest will pay for itself in short order, and it will continue saving you energy for years.

Going green only a few short years ago was considered a costly investment reserved for wealthy environmentalists. Today it's become a priority for many homeowners. But you still have to spend some green to save some. The nice part about these strategies is that you don't have to spend a lot of green.

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