Q: Lowering our energy bills would make a huge impact on our budget, but I frankly don't even know where to begin. My bigger concern first, though, is not what problems my house has, but what do I need to know before I even start figuring it all out. There is so much written about saving energy that it is simply overwhelming to me. Where do we begin?
A: I recently wrote about getting a home energy audit done to identify energy problems and possibilities in your home, but there actually are some things you ought to do first.
• Begin by thinking about how much longer you plan to stay in your current home. Do you think you'll be there for a number of years, or are you planning to move somewhere else when you retire soon or when the kids grow up or when there are other lifestyle changes you might anticipate? If you don't think you'll be there long enough to realize significant energy savings from extensive repairs, then it may not make economic sense to do some of the bigger things now (like putting in a new heating system or new windows).
• You also need to consider your budget limitations. Small energy-saving steps like caulking and weather stripping, installing an attic radiant barrier, planting some new trees to provide shade, and other things you do would fit in better with a limited budget than would new windows, major home renovations and expensive new appliances.
Keep in mind that both of these questions are only looking at the improvements from an economic standpoint. When you factor in the many nontangible improvements energy-efficiency strategies can bring to your home — better indoor air quality, less outdoor noise, enhanced comfort, etc. — then any of these improvements could make sense right now. When you caulk and weather-strip and tighten up a house, you'll be keeping out bugs, pollen and other outdoor pollutants, and keeping your heated or cooled air indoors where you want it. Energy efficiency is as much about improving indoor comfort as it is about saving money, so don't overlook the non-economic reasons for fixing up your home.
Finally, when you consider the various things that can be done, separate them into those you can do yourself and those that need a professional contractor. I often use installing insulation as an example here. I don't think it is terribly difficult for someone with reasonable fix-it skills to go up to their attic and spray or roll out insulation materials. On the other hand, there are some serious safety issues that maybe a professional could handle better than the average homeowner. Stepping in the right places in the attic to keep from falling into the living space can be trickier than it might seem. Taking care not to breathe the insulation fibers, working in some fairly confined spaces, and other considerations may make this a job you'd rather see a pro do.
Ken Sheinkopf is a communications specialist with the American Solar Energy Society (www.ases.org). Send your energy questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.