Living in an older home can be charming, but it often comes with high energy bills due to poor insulation and inefficient appliances and fixtures. Making upgrades to boost energy efficiency can get expensive fast. However, there are ways to improve the efficiency of an aging home on a limited budget. With some strategic upgrades and DIY projects, you can make your old house more efficient, comfortable, and affordable without breaking the bank.
Perform an Energy Audit
The first step is performing an energy audit to locate air leaks and identify problem areas. This will show you where you can get the most bang for your buck with efficiency upgrades.
To conduct your own energy audit:
Examine windows and doors for air leaks. Feel for drafts and look for visible gaps, rotten seals, and broken hardware. Make note of problem areas.
Inspect the attic and exterior walls for insufficient insulation. Look for areas where insulation is thin or missing.
Check the age and efficiency ratings of appliances like the refrigerator, washer, dryer, and water heater. Older appliances can be very inefficient.
Take inventory of light bulbs throughout the home. Incandescent bulbs waste a lot of energy.
Evaluate the home’s heating and cooling system. Old systems often have low SEER and AFUE scores, indicating poor efficiency.
Examine the age and condition of the roof. Poor insulation and leakage can lead to substantial heat loss.
After the audit, you’ll know where you can get the most efficiency gains for your dollar. Focus there first.
Seal Air Leaks
One of the best ways to boost energy efficiency in an old house is sealing air leaks, which can account for up to 40% of heating and cooling loss according to the Department of Energy.
Some common trouble spots include:
- Attic hatches
- Electrical and plumbing penetrations
- Fans and vents
- Baseboards and moldings
Use caulk and weatherstripping to seal gaps and cracks around windows and doors. Apply spray foam sealant to plumbing and electrical penetrations. Install gaskets on attic hatches and replace broken glass in windows. Duct sealant can be used to seal leaking ductwork.
This air sealing stops drafts and helps retain conditioned air. Focus first on the accessible, easy-to-deal-with leaks identified during your energy audit.
After sealing air leaks, adding insulation can further boost efficiency. Target areas identified as insufficiently insulated during your energy audit.
The Department of Energy recommends these minimum insulation levels:
- Attic insulation: R-30 or higher
- Exterior walls: R-13 or higher
- Floors over unheated spaces: R-19 or higher
For attics, use roll or blown-in insulation. Batt insulation or rigid foam boards work for walls, and batts can insulate floors. DIY cellulose insulation is a lower-cost option.
If certain areas are difficult to access, hire an insulation contractor to blow in insulation. Prioritize the attic first, as heat rises and leaks out through the top of the home.
Proper insulation helps regulate indoor temperatures and reduces heating and cooling costs.
Upgrade Light Bulbs
Replacing all light bulbs with LED bulbs can make a big dent in home energy use. LEDs use at least 75% less energy than incandescent bulbs and last 25 times longer, according to the Department of Energy.
Replace bulbs as they burn out for an easy, low-cost upgrade. Or, for more immediate impact, swap out all bulbs at once. Though LEDs cost more upfront, they produce savings on electric bills that offset the difference. Plus, with their long lifespan, you’ll avoid frequent bulb replacements.
When shopping for LEDs, look for the Energy Star label to ensure quality and energy efficiency.
Install Smart Thermostat
A programmable thermostat reduces heating and cooling costs by automatically adjusting the temperature when you are asleep or away at work. Smart thermostats take this a step further by optimizing heating and cooling operation based on home occupancy patterns and environmental conditions.
Smart models like the Nest, Ecobee, and Honeywell Home can be controlled remotely via smartphone. They come with sensors to detect occupancy and temperature adjustments in different rooms. Studies show smart thermostats can reduce heating costs by 10-12% with proper use.
Look for rebates from energy providers or state efficiency programs to offset the $200 to $300 cost of a smart thermostat. The investment often pays for itself within 2 years through energy savings.
Upgrade HVAC System
If your home’s heating/cooling system is over 15 years old, upgrading to a newer high-efficiency model can create significant efficiency gains. Replace very old window AC units first. For central air, target a 14+ SEER rating for the condenser and 80%+ AFUE for furnaces.
While a full HVAC replacement costs $4,000 to $12,000, rebates and tax credits can offset 30% or more of the investment. Get quotes from multiple HVAC contractors to find the best rate.
Proper sizing and installation also impact efficiency. Seek an ACCA certified contractor to ensure the work is done right. Over time, the energy savings will help cover the upfront cost.
Weatherize Doors and Windows
If your home has old leaky windows and doors, weatherizing them can stop drafts and improve insulation. Options include:
- Caulking and weatherstripping windows/doors – DIY for $3-$30 per opening
- Plastic window film – Reduces heat loss through glass for $1-$4 per window
- Window/door repairs – Fix broken panes, rotted sills, and damaged frames
- Storm windows – Double layer windows reduce air leaks for $30-$300 each installed
- Door sweeps and seals – Block drafts at base of doors for $10-$30
Even low-cost options like caulk and film provide payback through energy savings. Storm windows offer the highest return on investment. Prioritize upgrades based on your audit.
Insulate Hot Water Pipes
Insulating hot water pipes reduces heat loss as water travels to fixtures, allowing your water heater to operate more efficiently. For a simple DIY project, purchase pre-split foam pipe insulation for $1 to $5 per 6-foot length at home improvement stores. Install on exposed pipes within 5 feet of the water heater.
Proper insulation lowers water heating bills by 2-4%, adds up over time, and helps pipes avoid freezing in cold temperatures.
While new efficient appliances have a higher upfront cost, they can produce major energy savings over time. When old appliances need replacing, buy Energy Star models.
Some affordable options:
- Refrigerator – Look for top freezer models starting around $700
- Clothes washer – Front loaders start around $600
- Dishwasher – Models with a dry boost heater start around $400
- Dehumidifier – Energy Star models start around $200
Rebates through energy providers and tax incentives like the federal ENERGY STAR Tax Credit help offset costs.
Prioritize the refrigerator first, as it’s the largest electricity user. Then target frequent-use items like dishwashers and washing machines.
DIY Water Heater Blanket
Installing a water heater insulation blanket is an easy, low-cost DIY project. Pick up a pre-cut blanket for $10 to $30 and install following directions. Adding an R-11 blanket can reduce standby heat losses by 25-45% per the Department of Energy. This preserves heat in the tank, allowing the water heater to function more efficiently.
Combined with pipe insulation, a blanket helps maximize your current system’s efficiency. Make sure to leave the thermostat and top induction vent exposed.
Use Smart Power Strips
Plugging multiple devices into one outlet can lead to energy drain from idle gadgets in standby mode. Smart power strips automatically shut off power to inactive devices, preventing this wasted “vampire” energy use.
Install strips for home entertainment systems, home office setups, and other device clusters. The average smart power strip costs $30 to $40 and can lead to savings of $40 or more per year.
This simple upgrade prevents up to 10% of home energy waste from vampire loads. Look for strips with an Energy Star rating and occupancy sensor.
Upgrade Lighting Fixtures
Beyond bulbs, upgrading fixtures like dome lights and fluorescent tubes to LED can further boost efficiency. LED fixtures last years longer and provide brighter, better light quality than outdated lighting.
Target frequently used fixtures first. Indoor LED fixtures start around $15 and may require minor wiring modifications for installation. Hire an electrician if you are uncomfortable doing the wiring yourself.
Rebates from utility companies often offset 50% or more of lighting fixture upgrade costs. Save on energy bills and maintenance costs over time.
Install Low-Flow Fixtures
Replacing outdated faucets, showerheads, and toilets with low-flow models can reduce hot water usage and associated energy costs. Low-flow showerheads start around $15 and restrict water flow to 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm) or less while still providing strong pressure. High-efficiency toilets with 1.28 gpm flush use 20-60% less water than older 3.5 gpm models.
Installing WaterSense labeled models ensures quality and efficiency. Savings add up over years of use.
Use Appliances Strategically
Simple changes in usage habits can boost appliance efficiency. Only run full loads in the dishwasher and clothes washer. Air dry dishes instead of using heated dry cycles. For the refrigerator, avoid over-packing items that block airflow. Unplug spare fridges or freezers if possible.
Wash clothes in cold water instead of hot. Run ceiling fans to spread cooling in summer. Close fireplace dampers when not in use to prevent heat loss.
These minor usage tweaks make your appliances work less to achieve the same results, cutting wasted energy use.
Change HVAC Filters
Regularly replacing dirty HVAC air filters allows your system to run more efficiently. Clogged filters cause strain, increase energy consumption, and can lead to breakdowns.
Inspect filters monthly and replace per manufacturer guidelines, about every 1-3 months. Buy filters in bulk for $3 to $15 each to save on costs. Proper filter upkeep improves energy efficiency by 5-15%, protects HVAC equipment, and improves indoor air quality.
Insulate Water Heater Tank
A quick and easy way to reduce standby heat loss from your water heater is wrapping it in an insulation blanket. Pre-cut tank wraps cost $10 to $20 and can be installed in about 15 minutes. Follow manufacturer directions to wrap your specific tank model.
Leave the thermostat and top induction vent exposed. Insulating electric water heaters can reduce standby losses by 4-9% per the Department of Energy. This simple upgrade maximizes efficiency and pays for itself through energy savings in less than a year.
Leaking ductwork can account for 20-30% of conditioned air loss. Sealing ducts often provides a quick payoff in boosted HVAC efficiency. Start by inspecting visible duct runs for detached segments and loose tape. Feel for leaks near connections and joints.
Use UL-approved duct sealant (around $6 per tube) to patch joints, seams, and connections. Avoid potential fire hazards by hiring an HVAC pro for any major duct repairs needed. Proper sealing reduces leakage, allowing ducts to distribute heated and cooled air to your home’s rooms as designed.
Install Ceiling Fans
Adding ceiling fans to commonly used rooms improves comfort while allowing you to raise thermostat temperatures in summer and lower them in winter. This reduces AC and heating runtime, providing efficiency gains.
Look for Energy Star rated models with blade pitches optimized for air movement. Prices start around $120 for basic models and installation runs $100 – $300 depending on complexity.
Fans allow a thermostat increase of 2-4° F with no reduction in comfort. Any model helps, but aim for the highest cubic feet per minute (CFM) airflow your budget allows.
The upfront cost of efficiency upgrades can seem daunting. But following the above strategies can significantly improve the performance of an aging, inefficient home without breaking the bank.
Focus first on easier DIY projects like air sealing, insulation, lighting, and strategic appliance use. Then move to bigger upgrades like HVAC replacements if budgets allow. Any energy savings add up over time to help pay back costs.
With some smart improvements, you can make your old house more comfortable while reducing energy waste and monthly utility bills. Over time, you’ll recoup upgrade costs through lower heating, cooling, and electrical expenses. And you’ll gain peace of mind knowing your home operates efficiently with minimal environmental impact.