Energy improvements help more than your monthly utility bill. The environmental implications of making changes like these are significant as well.
Step 1: Find Programs
In most cases you'll need to own the home that you're making the improvements to. If you're a renter consider talking to the property owner about the improvements. Perhaps you can negotiate a trade by doing some of the labor if they buy the materials. They can knock your rent down in exchange for the work, you get lower utility bills and when they advertise to the next tenant they can brag about those lower utility rates and the energy efficiency.
The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficienc is a great place to start in the U.S. Canada has an energy efficiency program for those using the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation or check out the ecoENERGY retrofit program for making improvements to your home.
There is a wide variety of programs available. Everything from local utility companies offering rebates for the purchase of compact fluorescent light bulbs to federal tax credits for the purchase of a vehicle that uses alternative energy.
Once you have found a program on the DSIRE site then make sure the information is up to date by contacting the agency or checking their website.
Step 2: Have an Energy Audit Completed
Some programs require a certified audit before and after your improvements to provide a measurable outcome from the improvements. A home energy rating certificate will need to be submitted to show the existing energy efficiency, then you make the improvements (or pay someone to make them), finally you have another audit completed. If you make the required improvements then you can submit for reimbursement for your expenses.
Step 3: Make Improvements
Chances are pretty good that the improvements you will need to make will largely involve insulation and sealing air leaks.
I have taken advantage of two different programs for two different houses in the last 9 years. The first we put insulation in the floor and attic and sealed gaps and earned a lower interest rate on the loan. The interest rate reduction was significant enough that within three years the interest rate alone made up for the cost of the materials (we did the work ourselves). The improved energy savings probably bumped the break even point to just one year.
Recently, I qualified for up to $5,500 in reimbursement for my current home. The recommendations primarily included adding insulation to the attic and the crawlspace. I paid a few friends $10 an hour to help me get the work done but that expense was not reimbursable. (Strange that if i had contracted the work out entirely those costs would be reimbursable - paying some friends a few hundred dollars probably saved the state thousands.) But with the saved expenses i'm able to make even more improvements to the house that will save me money over the long run.
Step 4: Seal Gaps and Openings
Sealing openings in the floor, crawlspace or basement wall, and other areas will also help. A bit of fiberglass insulation works well for very large openings. Expanding foam works for small holes. Caulk for even smaller rifts. And finally tape can be used to make sure air isn't transferring.
Step 5: Measuring and Cutting Rigid Insulation
I found the following tricks handy for measuring and cutting rigid insulation.
First, have a friend or two to help you. Cutting is best done where you don't have the space and mobility limitations of a crawl space.
Measure the height from the ground to the floor or the bottom of the joist. Measure that height to cut a four foot piece of the material. You can set the tape measure to the desired length and then lock it. Use the casing of the tape measure to slide along the outside of the foam and the hook part of the tape measure to score into the foam. Use that line to cut on.
I found that a reciprocating saw with a long blade worked well for cutting the sheets. It did leave foam sawdust everywhere though!
Step 6: Vapor Barrier Dirt Floored Crawl Spaces
An important method of improving air quality in the home is to add a vapor barrier. This step is not likely to be covered in energy efficiency programs but it makes sense to take it on while you're under the house and improving the value of your property.
An increasing practice in construction is to insulate the walls of a crawl space instead of between the floor joists. This allows the area under the house to safely contain plumbing without fear of freezing. Un-vented and "conditioned" crawl spaces result in better moisture control in the home. Overlap the layers of vapor barrier and then tape the seams. Duct tape probably will not work - you should fork out the big money for a tape designed for the purpose.
Step 7: Insulate Walls
But fortunately we generally have easy access to our basement or crawl space walls. Check out the EERE guide to crawlspace insulation and determine the best option for your situation.
Add as much insulation as you can afford. Cutting 4 inch thick rigid insulation will take just as long as 2 inch but provides twice the R value. It will cost twice as much though!
Step 8: Insulate Between Floor Joists
Step 9: Insulate the Attic
Remember to wear proper protective equipment when working with fiberglass insulation. and try to keep all of your weight on the joists - or use planks on top of the joists to keep from going through the drywall.
Step 10: Follow Up Audit and Documentation
Determine how much the energy efficiency has improved for the home by conducting another energy audit. By installing insulation with the markings visible you ensure a faster and more accurate audit.
Follow the documentation provided by the agency for your reimbursement.
Bask in your warmer (or cooler), more energy efficient, less carbon producing pad!