Going green on a budget: 3 inexpensive ways to increase home efficiency

By Brett Freeman

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 18 2013 3:54 p.m. MDT

Greening up your house doesn't need to be expensive. True, the big ticket green renovations like adding solar panels, low emission windows, or a tankless water heater can be pricey and take a while to pay for themselves. But there are other options.

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Editor's note: This article originally ran on the website Improvement Center. It has been reprinted here with permission.

Greening up your house doesn't need to be expensive. True, the big ticket green renovations like adding solar panels, low emission windows, or a tankless water heater can be pricey and take a while to pay for themselves. But there are plenty of relatively inexpensive projects that are good for the environment and your bottom line. Here are three that will pay for themselves in months, not years.

1. Take your temperature

The first, best thing you can do to improve your home's efficiency, particularly if it's more than 10 years old, is to identify where energy loss is occurring, and a valuable tool for doing this is an infrared (IR) thermometer. Until recently these handy devices were mainly a tool for professionals, but several companies have introduced home models, and they're now available at most home improvement stores for $50 to $100.

An IR thermometer allows you to take temperature readings on your external walls and around doors and windows (this is best done on a particularly hot or cold day). If you find hot or cold spots on your walls, this probably means your need to blow in some insulation. Around windows and doors you'll be able to see where seals are failing, allowing air to flow in and out of your house. This can be fixed with caulk and weather stripping.

2. Grass isn't greener

Have you ever wondered why we have lawns? Would you believe the French are to blame? Louis XIV commissioned some of the first lawns as part of the gardens of Versailles, and lush, manicured lawns became a symbol of status among European aristocrats in the 17th and 18th centuries. The trend spread quickly to England, and accompanied the English to the New World. George Washington's home at Mt. Vernon had a lawn, as did Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.

Of course, back then people with large estates also generally kept livestock, so having a lawn was to some degree practical. The grass would keep your sheep and goats fed, while your sheep and goats would keep the lawn trimmed and fertilized. Nowadays, instead of sheep and goats we have chemicals and lawn mowers. And water. Lots and lots of water. Landscape irrigation accounts for more than 30 percent of residential water usage in the United States, and twice that much in some southern states. So if you're looking to green up your house, the lawn is a good place to start.

One good lawn alternative is to establish planting beds and fill them withnative plants. If you don't go with native species, you end up in a situation similar to having a lawn, where you have to use supplemental water and fertilizer to keep alive something that was never intended to grow there in the first place. Planting beds are also easy to establish, and you avoid the monumental chore of having to dig up your sod: simply cover the grass with landscape fabric, add topsoil and mulch, and you're ready to plant. And as a final benefit, you can switch from sprinklers to drip irrigation, which is much more efficient.

For areas that don't need to accommodate foot traffic, you can establish lawn alternatives or ground cover such as creeping thyme or liriope, both of which require much less care. Again, make sure that you're replacing your grass with native species.

Other lawn replacements such as decks and hardscapes involve more of an investment on the front end, but little or no maintenance cost going forward. Gravel beds are a lower-cost alternative to hardscapes and a relatively easy DIY project, but you will need to replenish the gravel every couple of years as it settles.

3. The cool way to stay way cool

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