Energy Efficiency Upgrades, Pt.1: What Actually Works

Green living and energy efficiency are hot topics in areas as wide as scientific journals, construction best practices manuals, and even blogs like this one. But, one major ingredient to moving green building into the mainstream is by individuals making informed choices about how to implement ways of reducing their draw on the energy grid.

Ryan Boots, a resident of Houston Texas and a dedicated DIYer and homeowner, talks about his specific experience in this, the first part of a two-part series about upgrading a home for energy efficiency. In this segment, he talks about what worked best for him when upgrading his house in line with a vision for a green, energy efficient home.


My personal experience with home energy efficiency stretches back a decade. I’m a native of Houston, and my wife and I lived in Arizona for seven years, where we bought our first two homes. We’re not exactly greenies, but when you live in two of the hottest places in the country, you have an awful lot of incentive to keep utility bills to a minimum.

And we’ve gotten great deal of practice on our current home in Houston. A foreclosed property we acquired from the bank in 2007, it needed a ton of repairs. In the process, we decided to do upgrades here and there to attempt to keep cooler over the summer. One thing led to another, and during the last four years we’ve ended up trying nearly every energy efficiency upgrade you can think of. Some have worked better than others, but here are the upgrades that, to me, are absolute no-brainers.

(Quick caveat: we haven’t been even minimally scientific in measuring the actual results of these projects, in terms of either money or kilowatt hours saved. Some of these things are just common sense fixes; others produced a near-immediate improvement in interior comfort.)

So, without further ado…

Programmable thermostat

Different thermostats offer different features, but the general approach is that the temperature automatically adjusts when nobody is home, meaning your air conditioner or furnace runs less to conserve energy. Many of these units have separate settings for winter and summer (i.e. the temperature rises during the summer and drops over the winter), and many also offer separate profiles for the work week and the weekend.

Different systems require certain types of thermostats, so check with your local home improvement store to make sure you buy the right kind of thermostat for your HVAC system. As with many home improvement projects, experience helps but isn’t crucial. I have some experience with electrical wiring and sheet rock anchor installation, but even if you don’t I believe these units are still fairly simple to install.

Dollar for dollar, it seems to me this is the first place to go if you’re looking to save money on your electricity bills. Even if you end up hiring somebody to install it, this upgrade should pay for itself almost immediately.

Water heater blanket

I’m ashamed to admit that, for some inexplicable reason, we didn’t consider this particular upgrade until we moved to our current house. The premise is obvious: bundle up your hot water heater to retain energy! The blanket is made from the same fiberglass material as your attic insulation. You’ll probably need a buddy to help you get it properly wrapped around the water heater, but it’s dead simple to install.

Ceiling fans

Of course, there were already several throughout the house when we bought it. But we gradually ended up replacing nearly all of them, and even installed a few in places where they didn’t previously exist. So with the exception of the bathrooms, every room in the house now has at least one ceiling fan, and some rooms even have two.

I’m particularly pleased with the fan over the staircase. Due to the staircase we have a high ceiling in the entryway, so lots of warm air collects there during the summer. One of the issues we’ve had is the heat in the second floor; during the worst part of summer we avoided even going upstairs when possible. Obviously the fan helps during the summer, but it also helped during the winter (we switched directions on the fan to pull cool air upward and push warm air lower). Installing it was a hassle, but overall it was well worth it.

Radiant barrier

I won’t mince words: this was the single most expensive upgrade in this list (around $3,000), which is why I pushed back when my wife suggested it. It was also the one that produced the most dramatic difference in the overall comfort level in the house, so props to the missus for making the case!

As noted, we had a lot of problems with the heat levels upstairs during the summer; there was a minimum 5°F difference, making it feel like you were ascending into a mini heat wave when going upstairs. After getting the radiant barrier installed, that temperature difference practically vanished. It was expensive, but well worth it.

Window film

This was another project my wife wanted to do. It helps if you’ve ever hung wallpaper, because the same basic approach applies. It can be kind of messy, you’ll need a buddy to help out, and I’m certain a professional could have done a cleaner job. But applying this to the windows that get hit with the most sun definitely seemed to help the comfort levels, especially in upstairs rooms.

It was a bit more time consuming than we might have liked, but ROI is very reasonable. So this was another case where I did well by listening to my wife. (Now if I can just make sure she reads this…)

The results of energy efficiency upgrades

So having thrown all these energy upgrades at our house, what have the results been? Between all these projects and switching to a cheaper Houston electricity company, we’ve been able to reduce our electricity bill from around $250 at the worst part of the summer to around $150. But the really important thing to us is that the house is just cooler during August and September. Summers in Texas are bad enough – we’re trying to make it a little more bearable.

In my next post: some projects that, for energy efficiency, will probably take a little longer to pay off.


Thanks, Ryan!

In addition to being a dedicated homeowner, Ryan Boots is a web professional based in Houston, Texas.

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