Introduction: Make Home Energy Improvements and Have the Government Pay You Back

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Many energy improvements pay for themselves over a period of a few years. The reduced rates that the improvements pass on to you in annual savings should be enough incentive to make the change when possible. But what if you could get someone else to reimburse you for all or part of the improvements? Many areas in the United States offer incentives to home owners to improve the energy efficiency of their homes.

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

Before you do anything you should see what programs cover your area, demographic, or circumstances.

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

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You can go through your home and evaluate your energy efficiency. It shouldn't be difficult to find areas that should be sealed, or note where insulation is lacking or insufficient. Check out the U.S. Department of Energy's guide to DIY energy audits.

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

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Use the recommendations from your energy audit to make improvements to your home. Keep receipts for all materials and labor for reimbursement.

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

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Adding weather stripping o windows and doors is one of the least expensive and yet effective measures that can be taken to improve energy efficiency.

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

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Working with fiberglass batts is itchy ad uncomfortable work. But when you buy your insulation you can make sure it is the right thickness, width and facing for the job. With the rigid insulation some does come with foil facing, and you can choose the thickness, but you can't order so that it fits perfectly.

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

Picture of Vapor Barrier Dirt Floored Crawl Spaces

Hot air rises. And as it does it draws in cooler air to replace the air that has risen. Think of the house as a big chimney. Where does that air come from? A good portion of it comes from below the house. Even when cooling a house, hot humid air from below is introduced to the living space.

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

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Most parts of the house you do not have access to add insulation. If you have vaulted ceilings then you might only be able to add insulation under your home. If you have no insulation in the walls seek a professional to have insulation blown in between the studs (presuming you don't want to overhaul the sheetrock).

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

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If you use rigid insulation, along two of the walls you will have to butt the foam boards up to the floor joists. You will need to fill between the joists with fiberglass batts or with pieces of rigid insulation friction fit into the openings. Be sure to seal any openings or gaps around the blocking.

Step 9: Insulate the Attic

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If you have some insulation in your attic already you can buy unfaced fiberglass batts that you can lay at a 90 degree angle to the existing insulation. In my case, there was R11 insulation between the 2x6 joists. I decided that the resulting "wave" would not give as thorough a blanket as adding directly on top of the R11. I added R38 and took care to keep gaps between pieces to a minimum.

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

Obviously there are other things which might be recommended for your audit. replacing windows, water heaters, and even a more efficient heating or cooling system might be in order. Make sure that your improvements meet the requirements of the program.

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!


Avagio (author)2011-06-18

Lots of great ideas!! But on a side note the Government does not have money, they do not pay for anything, they only borrow money and then have tax payers take care of the payments.

zieak (author)Avagio2011-06-28

Not totally true. My state is in the black.

haughpf (author)zieak2016-04-14

What does your state produce to make it profitable? Taxation is theft

zieak (author)haughpf2016-05-07

Well, Alaska has no income tax. Nor does it have a statewide sales tax. And it returns a portion of the oil and gas investments to the citizens each year. The state has oil and gas taxes and taxes the fish that are commercially harvested. It sells land and logging rights. That said, the state is no longer in the black so I imagine this program isn't available any longer.

haughpf (author)zieak2016-05-10

Yeah I live in NC, between Duke Power's rebates and the federal tax credits, it saves you some money. However, Duke Power wont give you a rebate unless you use one of their approved contractors

SolarBrokersCA (author)2014-07-29

Great initiatives by the government.

ellislake (author)2009-09-20

the simplest and cheapest insualtion is plastic bags. im gona get round to do my instrcutable on cheapest insualtion ever. all you need to do is collect plastic bags rather than throwing them away and scrunch them up a little and put them between the joists then put a flat piece of plywood over them as a floor. that way theres no issue with weight and the bagsd are free and not going to waste on a dumping ground this owrks by trapping air inside the bags and insulates the loft. its simple i have done it in my loft but only about 10% completed so far.i think i will ahve to do the instructable soon as i got some free time coming up soon what does everyone think

zieak (author)ellislake2009-09-20

The attic that i insulated had some plastic bags with packing peanuts tossed in one corner. That seemed like a good idea to me with the exception of the fire resistance. That's the biggest concern other that the ability for water vapor to escape. Showers, cooking and breathing all introduce moisture into the dwelling and a lot of it escapes to the attic where vents allow it to go outside. You might and up with water trapped in your improvised insulation.

ellislake (author)zieak2009-09-20

well in my house its ok with water vapour because the floor of the attic is insulated with normal glass fibre rolls and so is the floor of the first floor.the plastic bags are used in the actual apex of the attic underneath the tiles if you get what i mean.its a sheild against the cold air etc ????????

tswain4 (author)2009-05-08

I amplanning the vavop barrier in the crawl space but was wondering about the wall insulation you added. My crawl space is cinderblock. So you think this would create a moisture problem between the wall and the pink board? And just a comment. I have a real estate license in North Carolina and have been to many inspections. I have always seen paper backed insulation used under the house. The paper is installed facing the ground and rods are used to hold it in place, but I've never heard my inspectors say insulation is not good in this area. But, I guess we don't get as much rain? And as an added benifit, if you have a water leak you can usually find it cause it falls down or gets water stained.

zieak (author)tswain42009-09-20

Sorry that I never replied to your comment. I saw illustrations on a federal website that showed vapor barrier installation in a cinder block crawlspace. I didn't pay too close attention though because it didn't apply to me. A google search should find the answer for you.

BettyinMaine (author)2009-02-06

I live in the northeast, Maine, and recently had all the windows replaced in my nearly 100 year old house. I was amazed at the savings this improvement has already generated in regards to heating the house. So, it does make a difference and is well worth the expense. (author)2009-02-01

When sealing pipe/electrical chases, you may be required by fire/electrical codes to use fire barrier material. Dap and Great Stuff both have fire barrier foam. Both are an orange foam, for easy ID after installation. When sealing a chimney chase, use steel flashing to bridge the gap between framing and the chimney, and close the final gap between chimney and flashing with high-temp silicone sealant (not a latex/silicone combo).

zieak (author)

Great bit of information - thank you.

unsernetz (author)2009-01-23

Had an energy audit years ago, the auditor said that the whole replace the windows to save energy was marketing BS. Until the windows are the only thing left to replace leave them alone, other problems leak heat much faster than the glass panes. You need to fix the 'air' leaks before you worry about the radiant leaks. Even then it makes no sense to put high R windows into a low R wall, you won't get an ROI.

jumpfroggy (author)unsernetz2009-01-30

Just a personal anecdote, here in the Northeast a lot of houses have a certain type of really old window, and they never seem to seal well at all. My then-fiance had all the windows replaced on her house, and the results were drastic. The problem was all the air leaks, which could have been addressed with foam tape constantly being reapplied or the (more traditional here) shrink-wrap plastic taped over the window. But replacing the windows, while expensive, did make a huge difference for the house. It's probably not great in terms of straight ROI, but it can make a huge difference for old houses with bad windows. Just an anecdote, I don't think it really negates your point at all. I was just surprised how much a difference new windows made on a seemingly ok house.

MD_Willington (author)2009-01-29

I can only dream of having a nice clean crawl space like that...

zieak (author)MD_Willington2009-01-30

Mine was disgusting and i regret not taking any before pictures. There was cat feces, old plumbing (the house had switched from a well to municipal water and a septic system to the city sewer), rocks, wood, and all kinds of trash. I spent a good 10 hours just clearing out the detritus. The friends i had helping me joked that it was so nice - i was adding an apartment.

lil_brown_bat (author)2009-01-29

Energy audits and the like don't do that much if you have an older home. Yes, "there are programs" for insulation and such, but they generally require a homeowner to put up half the cost, and you have to clean up all old wiring and who know what all first. Bottom line, you'll be significantly out of pocket and will only get a fraction back. It's nice if you got the money, but...

zieak (author)lil_brown_bat2009-01-29

I think it is important to consider not just the cost of the improvements but also the return on the investment. A good audit will determine what the most cost effective improvements are. Insulation in my crawl space should pay for itself in two years. But in my case, the state is paying for it so that's two years that the heating cost will stay in my pocket! When i installed on-demand electric water heaters the cost was a little more than twice the cost of a new tanked heater. But when i started to do the math and determine the longevity of the tankless heater (estimated to last twice as long as a tanked heater) then every dollar saved on the electric bill is a dollar in my pocket. When i bought them i didn't know about the tax rebates available so that was just icing on the cake. Doing what's best for you in the long term financially is what is probably most important.

So you're saying you shouldn't do anything?

gormly (author)toekneebullard2009-01-29

No, that is not what he is saying. But unfortunately that is what way too many people are only willing to hear. lil_brown_bat speaks the absolute truth. If you have the means you should absolutely go for it, if you do not, the cost doesn't pay off. What he is saying is what is sorely lacking in the rush to be green, and that is financial considerations and honest cost/benefit. It does no good to: 1. Give unrealistic expectations. 2. Make people feel guilty about something. 3. Offer dishonest solutions for given guilt that they cannot afford. It helps more to: 1. Inform people of what they CAN do right now (like no cost recycle) 2. Give them HONEST cost/benefit analysis of things. 3. Get rid of the guilt. While I commend zieak, the "government" does not offer any significant programs that would pay for improvements, and by pay for, I mean pay for.. not a $300 tax credit on a $1000 purchase or something like that. I mean PAY for.. there are no government programs that do that. This is an AWESOME instructable no doubt, but it isn't something everyone can or should do.

zieak (author)gormly2009-01-29

gormly, You're not quite right about the government paying for programs. I had an energy audit done. It cost me $325. I will be reimbursed for $325. That audit qualified me for up to $5,500 toward improvements that would bring the house up two "steps" (for instance making a 3 star a 4 star - half stars are steps also). I am working on completing the work. When i finish i can submit my receipts for up to $5,500. Since i am doing the work myself i won't be reimbursed for my time or the time i have paid friends to help - but a contractor's bill would be fully reimbursable. I'll have a closing audit done and if my improvements make the necessary steps i will receive up to $5,500 plus one half of the cost of my closing audit. I'll be out my time, the $300 i paid friends to help, and $162.50 for the closing audit plus a few stamps and long distance faxes. Not bad for thousands of dollars in improvements that the property assessor won't know about, increased home value when looking for equity or a sale, and above all, lower energy bills! My program is through the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation.

gormly (author)zieak2009-01-29

zieak, So you are saying your out of pocket is $462.50 for $5500 worth of work? I didn't see that in the instructable. What gives? I think you might be leaving something out? If true congrats to you, but honestly what's the catch? Only in Alaska? Only for a native? Ony in Oil rebate Checks? Or is this a foreclosure fix'er up special? Seriously, not being a jerk here but in the rest of the 49 States you do not get reimbursed all of your expenses to make energy efficient installations. Also, just so you know, my original comment wasn't a dig at you it was a dig at the increasing number of people who dont put any thought into anything. The kind that blurt out things like "So you should do nothing?"

zieak (author)gormly2009-01-29

Yes, this program is just in Alaska. And just for one year. Last year when the oil prices were really high the state had a huge budget surplus so implemented the plan. No, this certainly isn't in the instructable because i knew that would only apply to a very small number of users. I've taken advantage of anothe Alaskan program when i was financing my first home. I made similar changes that scored me an interest rate reduction that made the improvements worth while in just one year. And i have received tax write offs for other improvements from the federal government. These programs are constantly renewing and changing so doing research and checking up frequently is best. You say "This is an AWESOME instructable no doubt, but it isn't something everyone can or should do." And i agree... but there are not many instructables that everyone can do!

I think what lil_brown_bat is saying is that for the older homes the task is somewhat impractical for the purpose of having the government reimbursing the costs.

lordzion (author)2009-01-29

I just want to point out that in one photo you have insulation between the ceiling joists in the attic the second layer should be running opposite of the first, I'm glad to see there are some people that care about this !

zieak (author)lordzion2009-01-29

You're right. I would have put the second layer running perpendicular if the first layer had reached the top of those joists. I figured that the gaps that would form in the voids next to the joists would make the insulation less efficient. The R38 was so thick that i couldn't push it clear out to the outside edge of the roof or it would be prone to wicking moisture from the roof sheathing. That opening would allow the cold air in the attic (or warm if that's a concern!) to work between the insulation and the living space just where the joists forced the insulation away from the old insulation. If i ever put more up I'll be sure to go at 90 degrees. Or, i could have bought twice as much insulation at say an R20 value and been able to fill between the joists and then lay a second row across and perpendicular to the first. (slaps head) That would have been the best option!

bbmerc (author)2009-01-29

Thanks for lots of good ideas and info. People should also check, form 5695 for tax credits on certain energy saving improvements. These are mainly for solar, geo-thermal and wind energy.They do change from year to year. 2 years ago I got pretty good tax credits for insulation and a tankless water heater. By the way, I don't see any mention above of tankless water heaters which really do save on your monthly bill because it's hot water on demand rather than keeping the water heater hot 24/7.

zieak (author)bbmerc2009-01-29

You're right - i should have included that. I have on-demand heaters at my house and definitely enjoy the lower energy usage. I'll add that in my next set of revisions.

davethegiant (author)2009-01-23

In step 8, you recommend that the space between floor joists should be insulated. In my personal experience this is NOT a good idea. Trapping moisture between the crawlspace and the carpet is not a good idea. I have repaired a house that did this same thing with R-19 faced rolls. Within 7 years of the home owner installing the insulation, the floor joist ends rotted and the entire south end of the house sank 2 inches. The repair was long and extensive and required hydraulic jacks, sledge hammers and some finesse. Once again, this was with fiberglass insulation, not with rigid foam, however I think I can speculate this same end with different insulation.

zieak (author)davethegiant2009-01-23

Thanks for pointing that out. I should clarify that the insulation between the joists is up against the outside wall of the crawlspace and not between the joists against the floor (although the second photo does depict some blue insulation there). The idea is to insulate the crawlspace from the outside instead of insulating the floor from the crawlspace. I live in a rainforest and get about 10 feet of rain annually. So moisture control is a pretty high priority for me. Insulating the floor isn't a bad idea but you can't do it with faced insulation - it definitely should be unfaced and use chicken wire, string, landscape fabric, or special hangers used to retain the insulation between the joists.

Nesagwa (author)2009-01-22

Most electric companies will offer a free energy audit of your home so you can just call them and schedule it. Youll get a professional certified audit done at no cost to you.

zieak (author)Nesagwa2009-01-22

Neat! Good suggestion. Naturally, my power company doesn't offer them but other readers will benefit from that - I'll add it.

jeff-o (author)2009-01-21

The governments of Canada and Ontario also offer pretty large reimbursements for energy efficiency improvements. Typically the process is to get an evaluation done, then do your upgrades, then have another evaluation. Then just sit back and wait for the cheque to arrive!

zieak (author)jeff-o2009-01-22

I found and included links to two major Canadian programs that are appropriate for this Instructable. Thanks for pointing out the Canadian parallel!

jeff-o (author)zieak2009-01-22

Great, thanks! I will soon be calling them up for my second audit - hopefully I'll be getting some cash back in my pocket!

zieak (author)jeff-o2009-01-21

I'll see if i can find links to those programs to add to that step!

unjust (author)2009-01-21

one important thing to note is that older homes are not *designed* as a system to be as air tight, and sealing them up can cause serious problems. most of this you can do yourself if you're marginally handy, but look into how your home was designed to function, and where you need to maintain ventilation to keep it healthy.

i.e. the 104 year old house i just bought is *designed* to let heat melt the snow off it's roof. were I to insulate between the roof joists i would get serious moisture problems, ice dams, and possibly even roof collapse as it's not intended to take a full snow load all winter. insulating *inside* of the joists and adding roof vents with strategically placed electric snow melt cables will save me buckets of energy, but is not nearly as simple as tacking in a vapor barrier and fiberglass batts. (it's on the list of projects, but there are other issues more pressing)

shooby (author)unjust2009-01-21

A very good point. Newly constructed houses in general (in the US) tend to be too air-tight. Consequentially, a typical problem with these houses is the development of mold due to high moisture and heat levels. Mold doesn't just grow on things, it eats through them, and the result is often a very costly repair bill, especially when floor joists have to be replaced.

zieak (author)shooby2009-01-21

Quite true about the ventilation problem. Diligence in checking your home and the advice of a few good professionals goes a long way. My auditor had some great suggestions for improving the ventilation in my home. Considering the audit cost $325 and will be fully refunded it sure is money well spent!

zieak (author)unjust2009-01-21

Good points. A good energy auditor (required for all rebate programs that i'm aware of) would probably be aware of these issues. I'm considering a solar powered attic ventilation fan but they are really expensive up front. And my auditor told me not to seal the house any more because i was decreasing the air quality by doing so. He suggested a continuous use fan with a humidistat in the bathrooms. I'm trying to find out if i can get those paid for with the program i'm using now.

webman3802 (author)2009-01-21

Very well written. You might want to add some information about sealing leaks inside the house. There are big-ticket improvements that can be made, like replacing single-pane windows with energy star-compliant ones, but also cheaper tricks like weatherstripping (which you did mention), outlet cover gaskets, water heater blankets, etc. I'm not sure if these would be covered under the government program, but they also would pay for themselves fairly quickly.

zieak (author)webman38022009-01-21

Good idea - I've done some of those so I'll dig up photos and add those sections!

gmoon (author)2009-01-21

These are great tips. We've always considered our home well-insulated, but relative to how long it's been since insulation was added, it's time to reassess the situation.

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