Mother Earth Living

Spend Thrift: Home Improvement Projects for Any Budget

Home improvements in key areas cover the budget gamut—from cheap fixes to smart investments.
By Jessica Kellner
May/June 2011
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You can improve your home's comfort and efficiency at any price point. Whether you just want to lower next month’s water bill or you’re ready to make a bigger investment in your home’s efficiency, key fixes in major areas will make your home a healthier, more delightful, less expensive place to live.

Healthy Indoor Air

Efficient homes save energy, but they can also trap in toxins. Ensuring your indoor air is healthy is a primary concern.

Cheap Fix: Stop using chemical-laden conventional cleaners, air fresheners and paints. Make sure all vents exhaust outdoors, and regularly change HVAC filters.

Affordable Upgrade: Remove carpet in favor of hard flooring and washable area rugs. Reduce the amount of formaldehyde you bring into your home by eliminating items with plywood, fiberboard and chemical finishes.

Investment: Improve your home’s ventilation system and whole-house filtration. Fresh-air exchangers (also known as heat-recovery ventilators) exhaust stale air and bring in fresh air. Whole-house fans can quickly suck stale air out of your house, but they can also depressurize homes, pulling lurking toxins out of the soil, walls or furnishings. You can avoid depressurization by opening windows while running a whole-house fan, letting in fresh air while removing stale air.

Water Conservation 

Saving water keeps bills low and helps save the energy used to heat it and transport it to and away from your house.

Cheap Fix: Install WaterSense-labeled low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators, and compost kitchen scraps rather than putting them in the disposal. Take shorter showers and reuse shower warm-up water or bath water to water plants.

Affordable Upgrade: Replace older toilet models with low-flow or composting toilets. Buy or construct a rain barrel to collect storm water to irrigate your landscape.

Investment: Install a graywater system to reuse household water for landscape irrigation. Buy an efficient, Energy Star dishwasher and a front-loading clothes washer.

Energy Savings 

Saving energy is one of the most important things you can do to reduce the maintenance costs of your home, increase its market value and benefit the environment.

Cheap Fix: Get or perform your own energy audit (get instructions at naturalhomeandgarden.com/energy-audit), seal your home’s air leaks and use power strips to eliminate phantom loads.

Affordable Upgrade: Make sure insulation levels are up to Energy Star recommendations. Purchase a “smart” home energy monitor to track and reduce household energy use. Add storm doors and storm windows, solar shades and overhangs. Your landscape can help improve efficiency, too. Plant shade trees where the hot summer sun hits your house and wind blocks where winter winds blow (read more: naturalhomeandgarden.com/ landscaping-for-energy-efficiency).

Investment: Consider investments such as renewable energy systems only after you’ve reduced energy use to the lowest possible levels. Because heating and cooling—at nearly 60 percent of a typical home’s energy use—are most homes’ largest energy expense, efficiency improvements pay for themselves in savings over time. Replace inefficient windows with double- or triple-pane, low-E versions. Consider replacing your HVAC system with a more efficient model, properly sized for your home. Or supplement your HVAC with alternative energy systems such as residential wind turbines, photovoltaics and/or solar water heaters, and geothermal systems.

Increasing Space 

You can add “space” to your home without expanding its physical footprint.

Cheap Fix: Create built-in storage areas and reduce “dead spaces” by installing shelving high on walls or choosing dual-purpose furniture.

Affordable Upgrade: Consider incorporating outdoor living spaces such as a patio dining area or a lounge with a shaded hammock (read more about designing outdoor spaces on page 28). Make rooms do double duty: Put an office nook in your kitchen, or add built-in shelving to create a library in the guest room. Eliminate or cut through interior walls to expand long views, open up your floor plan and create the feeling of a bigger space.

Investment: If an addition is in your home’s future, consider going up rather than out to increase your usable space without expanding your home’s footprint. If you need additional spaces only occasionally, such as a weekend hobby workshop or a guest house, investigate small, prefabricated outbuildings—you can reduce energy use by only conditioning the space when it’s in use.

Decreasing Space 

If the family has moved out or you simply have too much square footage, consider these ways to take advantage of excess spaces.

Cheap Fix: Depending on your home’s ductwork and heating system, it sometimes makes sense to shut vents in rarely used rooms, but if you have an efficient heating system, shutting off rooms can actually increase energy use and damage your system. Consult a specialist to see if you could save energy in this way. You can also save on heating costs by turning down the thermostat and using an efficient space heater in rooms you use; do the same with fans in summer.

Affordable Upgrade: Think about rearranging how you use spaces and partitioning off entire unused segments. Could the guest bedroom be moved downstairs next to the master bedroom, allowing you to shut off the top floor? Could the downstairs den be moved into the spare room upstairs, allowing you to save on conditioning the basement? A specialist can help determine how to save energy by closing off sections of your home.

Investment: Think about whether you could make better use of your excess space if it were configured differently. Knock out walls to create a large yoga or dance studio. Intensify your hobby by giving yourself an organized sewing room or artist studio. If your home has an easily separable area, such as a basement or second story with a bathroom, a contractor could add a partition wall and an exterior entry, creating a self-sufficient apartment. Add a kitchenette with a small refrigerator and sink and you can rent the space to tenants or weekend travelers. If you have a large lot and want significantly less space, consider moving into a small prefab home on the property and renting out the main house.


Resources 

Energy Savers
U.S. Department of Energy’s website for energy-savings guidelines

Energy Star
recommended insulation levels, find home energy contractors

EPA
WaterSense products
Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) program 

Regreen
residential remodeling guidelines, green product checklist and more


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