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April 27, 2009

Invest in your own comfort! Get the most bang for each buck

Laura As consumers we're used to splurging on something like the latest flat-screen TV or a great pair of new shoes.  We splurge on the luxuries because we're worth it.  But when it comes to our own comfort at home, a lot of times we just make do with what we have - an annoying draft in our favorite room, a heater that we know is past its prime, etc.

Well, instead of tolerating a room that's not comfortable, or complaining about it, I think now is the time to do something about it!  This is especially true if your budget is around the price of that flat-screen TV.  If you are thinking about projects costing less than $3500 then there's extra incentive to do something now.  Energy-efficient projects on your home will reduce your heating and cooling bills, help you enjoy your home better, and will probably earn you both a credit on next year's taxes and increased property value when it's time for you to move.

So where do you start and how do you get the most out of the project? 

Based on my experience in greening my own home in Elmhurst and the resources available to me as an EcoBroker Certified real estate agent, I've got some practical tips to help you prioritize your own green home improvement projects.  I think it's a great time to focus on the projects that are eligible for tax credits including new insulation, furnace, air conditioning or windows.

First, even though it's not eligible for a tax credit, I highly recommend starting with an energy audit.  Make sure you hire someone who conducts a Blower Door Testand an Infrared Scan (available seasonaly).  You'll end up with objective data on where you can make your home more energy-efficient and understand how long it will take for projects to pay back for themselves through reduced utility bills.  Also, since energy auditors do not sell the product solutions you'll get some honest advice on how much any one project will do (ie, should I upgrade windows or add insulation?) and how your desired projects might (or might not) work efficiently together.  RESNET is a great organization to find an local energy auditor

Once the audit is done, I would recommend tackling air sealing and weather-stripping.  This too is not covered by the tax credit - but can usually be completed as do-it-yourself projects.  Energy Auditors Green Dream Group has a series of great how-tos:  http://www.youtube.com/user/GreenDreamGroup.  The State of Illinois has a really helpful brochure as well called Keep Warm Illinois: Home Tightening, Insulation and Ventilation.

So once you know what the priorities are and you've tightened your home, the projects covered by the tax credit will perform much more effectively.  Here are some great resources if you are shopping for qualifying products:

*  High-efficiency furnace or AC:  Use this checklist to determine if it's time to upgrade:  http://www.energystar.gov/ia/products/heat_cool/GUIDE_2COLOR.pdf

*  Add to or upgrade insulation:  Check out the insulation and windows section of the very helpful Green Remodeling Series from the City of Chicago. 

*  Upgrade windows:  I listed this last because while drafty windows are not good, they can be expensive with a long payback period.  If you have had the audit, sealed leaks and added insulation and you still need windows then the Efficient Windows Collaborative has great tools to help you select the right window.  Pay attention to the requirements for windows geared for Chicagoland's weather seasons.  More useful info on the pages for glossary and NFRC (the label with all the window specs on it).  Finally, check out the Windows Technologies tab for a 101 on all the parts that come together to make an efficient window. 

Be sure to double-check Energy Star for tax credit requirements before you buy.  For example, for windows the ratings you are looking for are U value less than .30 and SHGC less than .30.

Good luck.  Be sure to share your favorite links for these projects too!   

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