Money Talks, So Should You

Does going green at home really save you money?

Marie Gentile
by Marie Gentile, Staff Writer (@dimespring)

It may not be easy being green, but is it cheap? 

When it comes to doing right by the environment at home, we all know the basics: recycle glass and paper, turn out the lights when you leave a room, keep the thermostat in check. Conveniently, these small, simple changes also happen to save us money. But when it comes to investing hard-earned cash in making our homes more eco-friendly, many wonder: does it make financial sense? Let’s take a look.

Low-E Argon Windows

How It Works: Low-emittance (low-E) windows have a thin, invisible coating that blocks heat flow through the window, keeping your house cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. 

Cost: Low-e coatings can run you from $500-$1500 per window, depending on size and model. While some window frames allow you to simply pop out the old window and pop in the new insert, others require professional installation, which can be pricey. 

Verdict: Reflecting heat or cool back into the house can help lower your monthly energy bills, but the high cost of the windows means a slow return on investment — up to 10 years for total payback, some experts say. Unless your windows are broken or damaged, they’re probably not worth the replacement. The better investment is caulking windows to seal off air gaps, which can usually be done for only a few hundred dollars. Another more cost-effective option is installing inexpensive materials like plastic sheeting or weather stripping to improve window efficiency, said Linda Perillo, senior vice president and associate broker with Heddings Property Group.

READ: Green Car Guide: High mpg cars

Low-Flow Showerheads and Faucets

How It Works: Low-Flow showerheads limit excess water use by restricting the flow of water while maintaining pressure. Many also come with a shut-off valve that allows you to stop the water flow while soaping or shaving.  

Cost: Depending on the fixture, low-flow showerheads can run from $15 to thousands, but most home models max at $50. Like regular showerheads, most are easy to install yourself, meaning no installation fees. 

Verdict: The overall payoff of low-flow showerheads varies by location. In drier areas like California, where water is scarce and therefore expensive, switching to low-flow can make a big difference in your monthly water bills, said Dan Taddei, director of education and certification for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. But in water-rich areas like the Midwest, the financial benefits will probably be limited. 

Home Solar Panels

How It Works: Solar panels capture the sun’s radiation and convert it into electricity, lowering home energy usage and costs. 

Cost: In a word: yikes. Depending on house size, solar panels can put you back anywhere from $15,000 to a whopping $50,000. They also require professional installation, converters and a transfer switch, which hike up the price tag even more. The panels degrade over time and have an average lifespan of about 25 years, meaning they will eventually need to be replaced. On the upside, a federal tax credit covers 30 percent of the costs for qualifying candidates and several states offer financial incentives of their own, offsetting a portion of the cost, said Ed Schwartz, a certified energy and sustainability consultant and co-founder of Green Living Solutions. For example, Gary Best, a homeowner in Sharon, Mass., purchased a solar panel system for $25,000, but after Massachusetts state rebates ended up paying only $17,000 out of pocket. 

Verdict: While the panels do lower or even eliminate utility bills, it’s a long payback — up to 20 years, depending on state rebates. Also, for the panels to be effective, households need to reduce their total energy footprint to as low as possible, meaning big lifestyle changes. If you’re looking to dramatically minimize or even eliminate your environmental footprint solar panels are one of your best bets, but from a purely financial standpoint it just doesn’t make sense yet. 

READ: Savings made simple with seven easy tips

Compact Fluorescent Lights

How It Works: CFLs use up to one-third the electric power of incandescent bulbs while giving off the same amount of light.

Cost: CFLs do cost more than incandescent bulbs, but at around $1.80 each compared to 75 cents, it’s hardly a big financial leap. 

Verdict: CFLs can cut overall electricity bills by around 8 percent and last up to 15 times longer than incandescent bulbs. ENERGY STAR-certified CFL bulbs pay for themselves in about 6 months, and save around $40 for each bulb over its lifetime. With a low investment and quick payback, these are a no-brainer.

ENERGY STAR Appliances and Electronics 

How It Works: ENERGY STAR is a service mark placed on energy-efficient products, such as appliances, electronics and materials. 

Cost: ENERGY STAR appliances, such as refrigerators, dishwashers and washing machines, can run a few hundred dollars more expensive than non-certified products.

Verdict: Depends. For some appliances, such as refrigerators and washing machines, switching to ENERGY STAR can knock 10 percent off your electricity bill instantly, equaling a quick payback. For others, like most electronics, it’s probably not worth investing in until your current model wears out, Schwartz said. 

Programmable Thermostat

How It Works: Programmable thermostats allow you to set schedules to regulate your home’s temperature so it uses less energy when you’re away or asleep.  

Cost: The average cost for a quality programmable thermostat is around $50 to $100, plus installation. 

Verdict: This easy, low-cost move can save 15 percent on heating and cooling bills, Schwartz said. That can add up to about $180 a year — well worth the initial investment. 

Marie Gentile is a personal finance reporter and content producer at Dimespring. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Marquette University. A native Midwesterner, Marie is now living in Atlanta and adjusting to life below the Mason-Dixon.