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Checklist: Energy-efficient retrofit

By Maggie Leslie on 03/22/2010

The average American family spends about $1,500 a year on utility bills, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute. This could be reduced dramatically by making a few adjustments and improvements. Some energy-saving measures are simple and inexpensive, while others are more complex and costly. This checklist will help you figure out where to start. Some of the cheapest, easiest retrofits will save you the most. When you are ready to get started, the Southface Energy Institute offers a free downloadable guide called "Home Energy Projects: An Energy Conservation Guide for Do-It Yourselfers." It provides a lot of information on how to perform the tasks yourself, where to get the materials and how much they will cost.

Quick fix: A Project Conserve member seals the duct work, one low-cost, quick way to improve energy efficiency.
photo courtesy of WNCGBC

Where to begin

• Determine your savings. Collect a year's worth of utility bills, and divide their total by the heated square footage of your home. According to RMI, most bills are about 60 to 90 cents per square foot. If you are in this range, or even higher, the low-cost and no-cost measures will be a great place to start.

• Assess your house. Measure the thickness of the insulation in your attic, basement and walls. What is the age and condition of your HVAC system and water heater? Is your home drafty?

• Determine the financial incentives. There are currently federal incentives for upgrading water heaters, HVAC, insulation, etc. Visit http://www.energytaxincentives.org/consumers and http://www.dsireusa.org for a comprehensive list.

• Consider a comprehensive audit. The directory includes a list of Building Performance Contractors (see "Listings"). These trained professionals will come to your home and perform an energy audit. They can recommend improvements and provide contracting services, if you would prefer not to do the work yourself.

NO-COST MEASURES
Heating and cooling

• In the winter, the thermostat is turned down when not at home or going to bed.
• Filters are clean.
• Shades are drawn on sunny days in summer and after sunset in winter.
• The fireplace damper is closed and sealed when not in use.
• The fireplace is not lit when the heat is on if it doesn't have doors. 
• Remove window air conditioning units after the cooling season. 

Water heating, lighting and appliances
• Energy-saving settings are used on dishwashers and washing machines, and heat dry on the dishwasher is avoided.
• Lights are turned off when leaving a room.
• Cold water is used for rinsing dishes, running food disposals and laundry.
• Thermostat on the water heater is turned down to 120°F.
• Refrigerator condenser coils and dryer exhaust are clean.
• Clothes washers and dishwasher are run only when full and clothes are air dried instead of using a clothes dryer.

LOW-COST MEASURES
Heating and cooling

• A programmable thermostat is installed. 
• Broken window panes are repaired.
Air filter is changed. Note: Be careful when choosing a new air filter. High MERV filters work great for air quality, but they may adversely affect the performance of your system by causing too much resistance.
Holes, leaks and gaps through walls, ceiling and floor are sealed using caulk or spray foam. Note: Some holes may be large enough that they require rigid blocking before sealing.
Electrical outlets have gaskets.
Attic hatch or door is insulated and weatherstripped.
• Vertical walls between the house and attic are insulated and have a rigid backing.
• Ductwork is sealed with mastic and heating and cooling system has had a tune up. Duct leakage can increase your heating/cooling bill by 10 to 30 percent and compromise your air quality.

Water heating, lighting and appliances
• Low-flow, WaterSense-rated faucets and showerheads are installed.
• An insulating jacket is installed on the water heater.
• A timer is installed on the water heater so it only heats water when needed.
• Leaky faucets and toilets are repaired. Note: The WNC Green Building Council has tablets available for determining if you have a leaky toilet.
• Hot water pipes are insulated.
• A rainbarrel is installed for outdoor watering.
• A toilet tank bag is installed to reduce the amount of water used per toilet flush.
• Inefficient incandescent bulbs are replaced with energy-saving compact fluorescents.
• Appliances are plugged into a power strip that can easily be turned off to reduce ghost loads.

HIGHER-COST MEASURES WITH A QUICK PAYBACK
Heating and cooling

• Ductwork is insulated to R-8.
• Insulating blinds and shades or storm windows are installed.
A blower door test has been performed to identify more leaks in the building envelope and found leaks have been sealed. Note: You may need to consider adding ventilation, depending on the air tightness you reach.
• R-38 insulation in the attic and R-19 insulation in the floors are installed (make sure all holes are sealed first!).

Water heating, lighting and appliances
• A high-efficiency or a gas tankless water heater is installed.
• Inefficient appliances are replaced with ENERGY STAR-rated refrigerators, dishwashers, washers and dryers.
• A dual flush retrofit kit is installed to reduce the amount of water used per toilet flush.

HIGHER-COST MEASURES WITH A LONG-TERM PAYBACK
Heating and cooling

• Windows are replaced with double-paned low-e windows with a U-value of less than .35.
• The central heating and air system is replaced with a more efficient model.
• Wall insulation is installed.

Water heating, lighting and appliances
• Converted to solar water heating. Note: Consider integrating it with space heating. The current tax credits available make it much more affordable than ever before.
• LED lighting is installed.
• Older toilets are replaced with a WaterSense 1.28 gallon per flush toilet.

Sources for this checklist include Southface Energy Institute, "Home Energy Projects: An Energy Conservation Guide for Do-It-Yourselfers," http://www.southface.org/web/resources&services/publications/large_pubs/Home-Energy-Projects.pdf and Rocky Mountain Institute, "Home Resource Efficiency," http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid206.php.

[Maggie Leslie is program director of the WNC Green Building Council. She can be reached at or at (828) 254-1995.]