11 tips to improve your home's comfort and efficiency

By: Matt Grocoff , Contributing Writer
In: Green Renovations
I speak around the world on the topics like rethinking our energy, food, water, and democratic systems. During the question and answer period, I am frequently asked, "What can I do to make my home more efficient?"
There are many simple things you can do to improve the comfort and efficiency of your home. Some of them will cost money upfront but will save you significantly on your monthly energy bills. You don't need to do them all at once, but you should look at them as continuing investments in the comfort, health, and happiness of your family.
If you need some inspiration, you can take a video tour of my home, where we haven't paid an energy bill since March 2011, or check out this video from BLUElab at the University of Michigan about re-imagining our local water infrastructure.
Here's some things you can add to your long term list for making your home energy efficient. I've marked a few that you should consider doing immediately:

1. Replace your shower heads

This is a must. It's so inexpensive and will give you huge savings on hot water. This alone could save you 20,000 gallons of hot water every year, or about a full tank of water every day.
There are many types of WaterSense Certified shower heads, and you may need to try a few to find one you like. Only try ones rated to 1.75 gpm (gallons per minute) or lower. There are many 1.5 gpm that work just as well as 2.5 gpm.
Bricor makes one of the better showerheads, and also happen to have a great explanation about the technology that makes this a worthwhile change.
Some other 1.5 gpm models that you might want to explore are made by Hansgrohe, Moen, or Caroma (which we use). Hansgrohe also makes a great 1.75 gpm model.

2. Start changing your filters

This is very, very important. It's one of the few home maintenance things that really makes a difference in comfort and energy. If the filter is clogged, it's like the furnace is holding its breath. It can't get air to you and wastes a lot of energy trying to push its way through.
You'll have to check what size filter you need - but it should be replaced with a MERV 11.
Buy a bunch of them and store them next to each unit. They should be changed at least every three months, and should be inspected every two months. Set a notification on your calendar to remind you. Holmes would be very proud.

3. Get a smart thermostat

If you still have an older model thermostat, this is a very smart upgrade. You can use "smart thermostats" with algorithms that know your system.
I recommend getting one installed (or installing it yourself) as soon as you can. It will pay for itself within a couple of seasons.
This device will make your life much easier and save you 20% on your heating and cooling. To me - this is a no brainer and should be standard with all new systems.
The Ecobee is a bit more complex than the Nest, but it will give you more aggressive savings. Both are very easy to use. I use the Ecobee with my Waterfurnace Geothermal in my home. If you're interested in why I picked it, you can read about my decision here, and also about the creation of the Nest thermostat if that's the one you're thinking of getting. And if aesthetics is your main concern, I've covered that, too!

4. Replace your lightbulbs

As CFLs burn out, replace them with LEDs. Over the life of the bulb, LEDs are the least expensive choice when you factor in energy and replacement costs. They are a bit more upfront, but save you in the long run. And in the short run, they just make you feel better. Check out my article on finding energy efficient bulbs that don't suck to figure out which LEDs might be great for you.

5. Install lighting controls

Consider installing high-quality occupancy sensors, dimmers, and timers in key places where lights and fans are likely to be left on (Bathroom, kids bedrooms, hallways, kitchen). They are about $20 - $40 each. Avoid the cheaper ones. Both Wattstopper/Legrand and Lutron are very good brands. You can even get a great motion sensitive one for your basement. For outdoor lighting and bathroom fans, consider installing a timer.

6. Get a whole-house window fan on your upper floors and attic

This is a low-cost item that will really save on A/C costs. If you close all the windows in the house, open the two vents in the basement, then open one window on the uppermost floor and add a fan blowing outward, you can flush the hot air out of the house and draw the cool air up from the basement. It's also a good way to flush hot air in the evenings after the outside temp drops.
Here's a video on FOX where I demonstrate how this works so you can see it in action.
I think this is really great fan that will pull a lot of air (3500 cubic feet per minute). You'll need a lot of air movement for a large house.

7. Buy power strips

Wherever you have computers, TVs, stereos, and all the gadgets that go with them, you should get smart power strips. You've got a few options for how these work:
  • Find strips that will turn off all peripherals when you turn off the main device (i.e. speakers, Xbox, DVD players, all turn off when the TV is shut down), like these from Belkin, or these from Smart Strip.
  • Find strips that have a remote control. A wireless remote power switch can be placed on wall -- like this one -- and you can use that switch to turn off all devices plugged into power strip.
  • Find strips with occupancy sensors, like these. If the sensor doesn't see anyone in the room, all devices on the power strip will automatically shut down.

8. Make sure your water tank has an insulation jacket

Any one will do. Ask at Lowes or Home Depot. You're looking for something like this that helps keep the water in your water tank hot. Just make sure you know the brand and size of your tank before you head to the store.

9. Stop cold air from getting in through your fireplace

This is something you should get right away! It's called a chimney balloon, and in addition to keeping bugs, bats, and birds out of your house, it also keeps cold air from getting inside.

10. Get rope caulk to stop up window and door air leaks

You can get rope caulk in any hardware store. It's a putty-like substance that fills up any gaps around window and doors where air might be leaking in.

11. Buy energy efficient appliances

You probably already know to replace your old appliances with more energy efficient ones when the old ones finally stop working. But just what constitutes energy efficiency in your appliances? Enervee has some great information on this, as does Energy Star.

Over time, as you replace everything from your thermostat to your lightbulbs to your appliances, you'll see your energy bill drop, and the comfort and efficiency of your home increase. What could be better?