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

By Brett Freeman

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 17 2013 9:45 a.m. MDT

When they first hit the market, programmable thermostats were expected to be a big energy savings tool, given that heating and cooling accounts for more than half of the average home's energy usage. Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, they didn't work, which led the Environmental Protection Agency to end its Energy Star certification program for programmable thermostats in 2009. The problem wasn't with the thermostats themselves, it was with human nature. People wouldn't bother to program them correctly, or they would bypass the program, or, because they were (supposedly) saving energy with this great new thermostat, they would reward themselves by setting the temperature when they were home a few degrees cooler in summer or warmer in winter, leading to higher energy usage.

The next generation of programmable thermostats gets around the issue of human nature by taking people out of the equation: they program themselves.

The first, and best-known, of these devices is called the Nest. It retails for $249, but it does what it's supposed to: saves you energy. The Nest programs itself over the course of about a week by paying attention to how and when you adjust it. The Nest also senses when you're gone or sleeping, and adjusts its program accordingly, and is accessible via smart phones and computers allowing you to adjust settings remotely.

There is not a ton of data available about how much energy can be saved with a Nest, but the few reviews available that include a product test showed energy usage dropping 15 to 25 percent during heating and cooling seasons, with one reviewer reporting a savings of $305 in just four months. So despite its steep price, the Nest will pay for itself in short order, and it will continue saving you energy for years.

Going green only a few short years ago was considered a costly investment reserved for wealthy environmentalists. Today it's become a priority for many homeowners. But you still have to spend some green to save some. The nice part about these strategies is that you don't have to spend a lot of green.

Brett Freeman is a freelance journalist. He also owns a landscaping and irrigation company in North Carolina. Previously he has worked as a beat reporter, a teacher, and for a home improvement company.