Going Green: A Guide to Eco-Friendly Home Modifications

Your home is your castle, but that does not mean that, as a responsible homeowner, you can make any and all changes that you want. As you consider ways to improve, update and upgrade your home, it's also important to consider the environmental impact of those choices you are making. Here are some "green" changes you can make to your home, and a look at how much you can save and what return on investment they may bring.

Going Green Outdoors

One of the first places to look to make your home more eco-friendly is actually outside your home. From adding solar paneling to creating landscaping that works with the environment, instead of against it, there are several modifications you can make to the exterior of your home to make it more "green." Here are some of the best.

Solar Paneling

Adding solar panels to your home can help you turn the sun's energy into electricity for your home. According to the Solar Power Authority, solar paneling can generate as much as 10 watts of power per square foot. If your utility company allows, you can actually send some of the energy your solar panels generate back to "the grid," potentially zeroing out your electric bill.

Solar panels cost between $7 and $9 per Watt to install. While that may not seem like much, you will need several kilowatts to be effective. A 5 kW system can cost between $25,000 and $35,000 to install. To make the system cost effective, look for rebates and incentives to help offset the cost of installation. This modification is best for a home you pan to stay in long-term. It takes around 20 years for the average solar panel system to pay for itself.

Water Catchment System

In Dallas, 37.54 inches of rain fall every year, on average. In Austin, the average rainfall is 32.15 inches. A water catchment system lets you catch and use that water in your landscaping. Rainwater collecting systems are not costly or difficult to install or use, but they can add up to a lot of savings on your water bill when you stop putting water from the tap on your garden.

The average 25-foot by 40-foot roof on a home will shed about 600 gallons of water in one hour of rainfall at a moderate rate. That's a significant amount of water. Your downspouts can divert up to 300 gallons of water towards a rain barrel, so in just one hour of steady rain, you can have 300 gallons of water to use in your irrigation.

You can buy a rain barrel system or make one on your own. All you need is a transport system to carry the water from the downspout into the barrel, and then a barrel with a spigot to collect the water. Place the barrel on cinder blocks so you can access the spigot and get the water out. A rain barrel and downspout can be installed for around $100, and lower your utility bills by about $35. Just two rainy seasons will allow the barrel to pay for itself.

New Roofing

A new roof is an instant upgrade to your home's value, but many homeowners are surprised that a new roof can also be a green addition. Energy-efficient roofing has a high solar reflectance, which means that it reflects the sun's energy away from the home. This can limit heat gain in the attic and the home.

In addition, roofing can have an insulating effect on the home. A roof with a high r-value can help keep heated or cooled air in your home, where it should be. Look for roofing with the Energy Star label. Energy Star roofs will lower the temperature on the surface of the roof by as much as 100 degrees. With the hot, sunny weather in Dallas and Austin, this is a significant benefit.

Irrigation for the Yard

If you're spending your summers watering your lawn with a sprinkler, you are spending money and precious water unnecessarily. A better option is to invest in drip irrigation.

Drip irrigation places water directly in the soil, rather than sprinkling it into the air where much will evaporate or run off. Using drip irrigation with soil moisture sensors will allow you to keep your hard beautiful without being wasteful. If you attach the irrigation to your rainwater catchments system, you will be in great shape to keep your yard and garden looking its best with very little financial investment.

Going Green in the Kitchen

After you're improved the features outdoors to make your home more green, it's time to move inside. The kitchen is a good place to start your upgrades, because a minor kitchen upgrade, including new cabinet finishes, appliances, countertops, sinks, paint and hardware, can reap an 82.7 return on investment at a future sale date. Here are some green options you can consider.

Choose Energy Star Labeled Appliances

Start your upgrades in the kitchen with your appliances, if they are old and outdated. Some appliances use a tremendous amount of energy, and you can upgrade to Energy Star labeled appliances to start saving instantly. These appliances use at least 20 percent less energy than the allowed federal standard. As an added bonus, appliances are one of the first things people notice when they look at a home's kitchen, so this will bring great dividends at a future sale date. With efficient appliances, you will save on energy bills now and get more return on your investment when you sell in the future.

Purchase a Trash Compactor

A trash compactor reduces waste by as much as 80 percent, so this is a wise investment for your home. While it won't save you money directly, unless you pay extra on weeks you have a large garbage pickup, but it will impact the environment by keeping a smaller amount of garbage in the landfills.

 Choose Eco-Friendly Countertops and Floors

If your kitchen upgrade means new countertops, either consider refinishing your existing ones to save money and materials, or invest in a more environmentally-friendly countertop option. Some popular options include: 

  • Recycled aluminum
  • Bamboo
  • Recycled paper or glass
  • Sustainable wood

The same consideration should be made for kitchen flooring. Sustainable flooring is made from woods that are easily replaced, while low-VOC floors are created in such a way that they do not off-gas dangerous chemicals into your home. Consider these options:

While new flooring won't bring a return on investment in energy bill savings, it will improve your return on investment for your kitchen remodel.

Going Green in the Bathroom

The bathroom is another area where giving some attention can reap big rewards. A smart bathroom remodel can yield a 62 percent return on investment at a future sale, so it is money well spent. Focusing on "green" updates will help you attain an even higher return on investment.

Low-Flow Toilets

When you flush a standard toilet, you are flushing money down the drain. The EPA estimates that upgrading to a WaterSense labeled toilet can save nearly 13,000 gallons of water a year, which adds up to $2,200 over the toilet's lifetime. The toilet itself will cost between $100 and $325, so it will pay for itself easily over the standard lifespan.

Water-Saving Faucets and Fixtures

The toilet is just one area where water is wasted in the bathroom. The faucet in the sink and the showerhead in the shower are another area. Here, WaterSense labeling is also important.

For the sink, a WaterSense sing will use a maximum of 1.5 gallons of water per minute, compared to an average of 2.2 gallons for a standard faucet. This is a 30 percent savings. The average family can save 700 gallons of water annually by replacing their inefficient faucets and showerheads with WaterSense labeled options.

Going Green in the Living Areas

The kitchen and bath have some obvious areas where you can "go green," but what about the rest of your home? Here are some more general areas where you can make green changes. 

Upgrade the Lighting

Lighting is something you should attend to in every room of your home. Today, you have two eco-friendly options, CFL and LED bulbs. Of the two, LED bulbs are the most efficient. They are also significantly cheaper than they once were, can last as many as 25,000 hours (23 years) and cost only $30 to run for their entire lifespan. Compared to incandescent bulbs, which cost $200 to run for 25,000 hours, and CFL bulbs, which cost $48 to run for the same period, you will save significantly with this upgrade.

Install an Attic Fan

If your home has poor airflow, you may find yourself relying on the HVAC system to cool your home on days when the outdoor temperature is actually quite comfortable. This is a huge waste of money! Installing an attic fan, also known as a whole-house fan, allows you to suck some of that outdoor air in, effectively cooling your home without turning on the A/C.

An attic fan draws between 200 to 700 watts when cooling your home, which is only 10 to 15 percent of the average central air conditioner. Also, a whole-house fan does not need to run continuously. Sometimes all you need is a little bit of a head start on the cooler temperatures in the morning or evening, and you can switch off your whole-house fan after your comfort level has been attained.

Upgrade the Thermostat

Your thermostat is your first line of defense when it comes to improving the efficiency of your home's heating and cooling systems. With the right thermostat, you can set schedules that allow the system to automatically adjust to a higher or lower temperature during those times when you aren't home, ensuring you never forget to turn up the air when you are leaving for work.

How much could you save? The answer depends on how well you use the thermostat, but consider this: if you turn the thermostat down by just one degree for the eight hours you sleep at night, you will use 1 percent less energy. So, if you reduce the temperature by 10 degrees, you'll also save 10 percent on your energy bills. Now, installing new thermostat does not automatically earn you these savings, but installing one and learning how to use it well will. By adjusting the thermostat appropriately, you can save as much as 20 percent on your utility bills.

Going Green for Upgrades and Remolding

Some upgrades are considered fairly major, and if you are tackling a remodel or opting to upgrade a major system in your home, you want to make eco-friendly choices. Here are some areas where you can save, and also reap rewards when you sell your home later.

Upgrade the HVAC System

Heating and cooling is responsible for about half of all energy use in the average home. If your home's system is around 10 or more years old, it's time to consider an upgrade. An older system operates around 65 percent annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE), whereas a newer, high-efficiency system can have an AFUE rating of over 90 percent. Upgrading from 60 AFUE system to a 95 AFUE can yield 33 percent energy savings. Find out how efficient your system is, and consider upgrading. To help offset these costs, you can get tax breaks for choosing a highly efficient HVAC system.

Adding Insulation

If your home is not properly insulated, you are losing money out your walls, floors and roof. Most homes are not sufficiently insulated, and even those that were when they were built need additional insulation over time. Insulation is fairly easy to install and affordable to purchase, and it can save you excellent money. Consider these facts: 

  • Insulating the ducts in your home can cost between $150 and $300, but yields around $200 a year in energy savings, meaning you will recoup your costs in less than two years.
  • You will spend between $250 and $750 to insulate your home's walls, and save over $300 a year on heating costs.
  • Investing $250 to $375 in insulating your attic will save you $120 a year, for a return on investment in a maximum of four years.

Replacing Windows

On average, about 20 percent of the energy leaks in a home are due to the home's windows. Windows are a big drain on energy, and older, single-pain windows are particularly inefficient. Replacing these with Energy Star labeled windows will decrease those air leaks around 75 percent. To make windows even more beneficial, remember that you won't experience drafts common with older, inefficient windows, and homebuyers like to see new windows when shopping for a home.

Federal Rebates and Incentives

The federal government wants to encourage energy efficiency, and as such several rebates and tax incentives are available to those who invest in energy-efficient upgrades to their homes. Some of these include: 

Rebates and Incentives in Austin

If you live in Austin and are considering making some eco-friendly upgrades to your home, there are some rebates and incentives available to you. Consider: 

  • Solar Photovoltaic Incentive - If you are considering installing solar panels, Austin Energy will help cover some of the cost of the panels and installation. The amount of this rebate varies depending on several factors.
  • Heat Pump Water Heaters Rebate - Austin Energy provides a rebate of $800 for homeowners who choose to install a heat pump water heater.
  • Air Conditioner Rebate - Install a new, efficient air conditioner with a registered contractor to receive a rebate from Austin Energy.
  • Power Partner Thermostat - If you install an internet-connected thermostat, and allow Austin Energy to access it to adjust temperate settings during high demand times, you can receive an $85 rebate.

In addition, if you are considering making a major renovation, it's worthwhile to consider the incentive that comes from your return on investment. Here is a calculator specific to Austin that could help.

Rebates and Incentives in Dallas

 If you are a Dallas homeowner, check out these rebates and incentives: 

  • ONCOR Solar Photovoltaic Program - This program may allow you to save significantly on a grid-connected solar PV system installation.
  • ONCOR Home Energy Efficiency - ONCOR's Home Energy Efficiency program offers an unspecified incentive to homeowners who invest in insulation, duct sealing, caulking, weather-stripping and replacement of HVAC systems to improve efficiency.


For return on investment information specific to Dallas, check out this return on investment calculator.