5 Green Home Improvements That Really Pay Off

These easy tips will let you save money, be environmentally-friendly, and stay warm this winter.

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You don't need a $30,000 array of solar panels or a rooftop wind turbine to go green and save money on your utility bills. In fact, sometimes the smallest changes can make the biggest impact on your home.

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During a recession, home improvements that can help make your apartment energy efficient, and therefore save money, are always more popular and economical than a kitchen remodel or pool addition. After all, small do-it-yourself improvements that immediately start paying you back become much more appealing when times are tight.

So among the many home improvement ideas out there, which are the cheapest and greenest that will pay off the most? Let's take a look at some of the best money-saving options, most of which are affordable, DIY projects:

1. Seal Leaks

According to the National Resources Defense Council, the average American home has enough leaks to equal a 3 foot by 3 foot hole in the wall. That's a lot of expensive air escaping every minute! The good news is that there are some inexpensive ways to seal leaks around your home to make it more energy efficient.

Caulk and spray foam usually costs less than $5 a container, and using it to seal cracks can save up to 20 percent on your monthly heating bill. Focus on windows and doors first. Also, it's easiest to seal leaks on a cold, blustery day because you can use your hand to easily feel the drafts.

2. Add Insulation

Properly insulating your attic can save 10 percent to 30 percent off your monthly heating bill. How much insulation do you really need? This handy map put out by Energy Star shows you the R-values you'll need, based on your specific location. Costs of insulating an attic vary widely, depending on what type of insulation you choose.

If you decide on blown cellulose, you're going to spend around $175 to do it yourself or $630 if you pay a contractor (for an 800 square foot attic). For a cheaper alternative, consider using batt insulation, which is fairly easy and can usually be done for less than $100.

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3. Install a Programmable Thermostat

The U.S. Department of Energy says most homeowners can save at least 10% on their monthly heating bill simply by turning down the thermostat 10-15 degrees for 8 hours a day. This is easy to do when you're at work, and a programmable thermostat will bump the heat back up right before you get home. An average programmable thermostat costs around $70.

4. Seal Heating Ducts

Most homes lose 20 percent of their heat through leaks and poorly sealed connections in heating ductwork. Have you ever turned your heat on full blast only to feel like your house still isn't warming up? If so, then you might have some leaky ductwork.

You can easily seal exposed ducts in your attic, basement, crawlspace, and garage with duct sealant (also called duct mastic). Taking the time to seal your ducts can pay off big-time in the long run.

5. Change Your Furnace's Air Filter

Many people leave their furnace's air filter in all winter long. But when filters become clogged with dirt and dust, your furnace has to expend more energy to force the air through. This, in turn, raises your electric bill.

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Consumer Reports recommends changing your furnace filter once a month during the winter months. And some experts say that this can improve your furnace's efficiency by up to 20 percent, even without some of the other methods you can utilize for energy efficient heating as well.

Last Word

Improving your home's energy efficiency doesn't have to cost a fortune. And since more people are starting to choose to stay in their homes instead of selling, these small improvements can make a big difference in your budget over the long run.

Do you have any additional home improvement tips?

Heather Levin blogs about "saving money and going green" on The Greenest Dollar and is also a top contributor for the Money Crashers personal finance blog.