March 2010 Issue
Tax credits and a green conscience make remodeling for energy efficiency a popular choice for many homeowners.
With tax day just a little more than a month away, deciphering your eligibility for credits and deductions is probably at the top of your “to do” list.
Among the tax credits getting lots of attention this year — from homeowners, at least — are the energy tax incentives included in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which give tax breaks to consumers for making energy-efficient choices when it comes to their homes. The plan covers products such as windows, insulation, doors, roofs and heating and cooling equipment in existing homes; taxpayers are eligible for a tax credit for 30% of the cost of these items, up to $1,500.
If you’re still mulling over a remodeling project, you have until December 31 of this year to take advantage of most of these incentives (costlier investments, such as wind turbines and solar panels, are eligible until 2016). But even if your home-improvement project doesn’t earn you a refund from Uncle Sam, investing in energy-efficient fixtures, faucets and other accessories will give you a break on your utility bill, not to mention a cleaner conscience over your carbon footprint. Here, some expert tips for giving your home an energy-saving makeover.
Sara Ann Busby, owner of Sara Busby Designs in Elk Rapids, Michigan, and former president of the National Kitchen and Bath Association, says that helping clients make choices that benefit their budgets and environmental sensibilities has become a key focus of her business. “Our industry has a responsibility to educate consumers about their options,” she says. “But as a business community, we have to think about what the average homeowner can do.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Web site energystar.gov, the average U.S. household spends about $1,900 each year on energy bills. Replacing older appliances and other household amenities with Energy Star products saves consumers about one-third on their annual energy bill. In most households, the refrigerator is a key energy offender.
“Your refrigerator is the only appliance in the kitchen that is on 24/7, so looking for an energy-efficient model will not only reduce your carbon footprint, but give you the most bang for your buck on energy savings,” says Busby. This is particularly true if you have an older model; energystar.gov says replacing a refrigerator from the 1980s can save you more then $100 each year on your utility bill and twice that amount for a vintage ’70s model. Busby says years ago, you may have had fewer choices in energy-efficient styles, but now “you can get Energy Star in all looks.”
Of course, the same principles apply to other kitchen appliances. Upgrading your dishwasher, particularly if your model was manufactured before 1994, will conserve both water and energy, since most manufacturers are trending toward smart technology that gets the job done more efficiently. “For example, GE’s SmartDispense system controls detergent levels, adding more during heavier cycles so you don’t have to rewash,” says Busby. In addition, most major appliance companies now offer double-drawer dishwasher models, which feature two stacked drawers that can be used either simultaneously for large loads or independently for smaller ones, conserving water.
While kitchens use the most energy in a typical home, bathrooms use the most water. Looking for the Energy Star label is one way to know your product is energy efficient, but consumers should also look for the WaterSense label, says Busby. “The EPA’s WaterSense program is similar to Energy Star, in that products that carry it meet the EPA’s standards for water efficiency,” she says. The rating can be found on toilets, faucets, showerheads, irrigation systems and other fixtures.
“It’s easy to forget that water and energy consumption are linked,” Busby says. “The more water you use, the more energy and money is needed to clean that water for reuse,” she says. According to the U.S. EPA, a family of four would save more than 16,000 gallons of water per year by replacing a traditional toilet with a high-efficiency toilet; and if just 1 percent of American homes replaced older toilets with WaterSense-labeled versions, the electricity savings could power more than 40,000 homes for a month.
Busby says low-flow and dual-flush toilets are two common choices, and both are available in almost any style. Dual flush toilets feature a dual flushing valve — push one button to release about half a gallon of water, push a second button for a flush with more force and anywhere from 1.2 to 1.6 gallons of water. Although 1995’s National Energy Policy Act mandated that all new toilets sold in the United States use 1.6 gallons of water or less per flush, if your toilet is older than that, it may use anywhere from three to seven gallons per flush.
In general, says Busby, the newer anything is in your home, the more energy efficient it is likely to be. But that doesn’t mean out with the old is always the best way to go. “If there is anything in your project that can be reused, use it,” she says. For a kitchen remodel, this could mean moving old cabinets to the garage, mudroom or lower-level kitchen. The popularity of recycled material has made shopping for pieces at architectural salvage sources or buying products made from recycled content easier than in the past, not to mention diverting your own unneeded materials from the landfill.
“If you can’t use it, take it to Habitat for Humanity,” Busby says, although generally speaking, the organization does not accept toilets, light fixtures, appliances and other materials that do not meet current standards for energy efficiency.
Still, one of the best ways to reduce your overall impact is to buy everything with durability in mind. “Buy the best you can afford — always,” she says.