10 Great ‘Green’ Home Improvements for 2010

Uncle Sam is handing out tax credits for buying energy-efficient products—but they expire at year-end.

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Slide Show: 10 Energy-Efficient Home Improvements

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4. Seal the ducts: Ducts carry hot or cold air to different parts of homes with forced-air heating and cooling systems. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that roughly a fifth of this air escapes through leaks. To address this headache, consumers can use duct sealant to repair leaks in exposed ducts, like those in an attic or basement. Kuperszmid Lehrman recommends that homeowners have their ducts insulated as well. "If they don't have insulation, you should add the insulation," she says. "And because that is going to be a project where you are going to need to do it in places that are going to be hard to reach, that's probably a project where you are going to want to hire somebody." 

5. Programmable thermostat: Another way to cut down on energy costs is a programmable thermostat, Callahan says. These devices—which can be found for less than $30—help prevent homeowners from wasting energy. For example, a homeowner could use this device to program the downstairs heat to lower by 15 degrees at 11 p.m., when the family is in bed, and return to its normal temperature at 6 a.m. "A programmable thermostat allows you to set back the temperature pretty significantly when you are not in the home or if you are asleep," Callahan says. "They save about 10 percent on your heating bills and your cooling bills in the summer—so they pay for themselves literally in a matter of months." 

6. Energy-efficient windows: Replacing old, leaky windows with higher-efficiency models can also make your home greener. Zuch recommends that consumers buy wood windows instead of aluminum-framed models, which can allow hot or cold air to pass through more readily. "Wood windows are great because wood is a natural insulator," Zuch says. "It just doesn't allow heat and cold to move through the frame." Energy-efficient windows typically have two panes of glass filled with a gas that works to slow down the heat that passes through it, Zuch says. Qualified energy-efficient windows are eligible for a federal tax credit, but installation costs are not included. 

7. Energy-efficient doors: Certain higher-efficiency door models also can qualify for a tax break from Uncle Sam. When looking for energy efficiency, avoid hollow metal doors, Kuperszmid Lehrman says. "Any kind of hollow door is going to be terrible because the air is going to infiltrate right through," she says. Instead, look for a door of insulated steel, fiberglass, or wood. If you'd prefer that a portion of the door be glass, look for energy-efficient components. "If you are going to go for glass, you want to make sure that you get the same sort of insulating features that you would look for in a window." 

8. Add storm windows: Storm windows can be a lower-cost alternative to a full-blown window replacement project. "Storm windows are a very inexpensive way to increase the energy efficiency of your current windows," Kuperszmid Lehrman says. But she cautions that the project makes financial sense only if a homeowner's current windows are in good condition, since rotting or leaky windows would need to be replaced sooner or later anyway. "If your interior windows are in good shape, then [installing storm windows is] a quick way to increase your energy efficiency without going through the expense and the mess of ripping out your current windows," she says. Certain storm windows and doors can qualify for a federal tax credit, but installation costs are not included. 

9. Energy-efficient heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) system: Replacing an outdated heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system with more energy-efficient models can also lower your monthly energy bills. But because the project can be quite expensive, Kuperszmid Lehrman suggests that homeowners take this step only as a last resort. Before considering this project, it's essential to make sure your home is as well sealed and insulated as possible. "If you upgrade your HVAC system but your house is still leaking, you still are going to use an enormous amount of energy," she said. Only homeowners who have properly sealed homes but old and unreliable heating and cooling equipment should invest in a new HVAC system, Kuperszmid Lehrman says. "I wouldn't call somebody to replace your heating system in the dead of winter," she says. "I would do some research and then call them when people aren't calling them for the emergency calls." Certain heating and cooling products can qualify for federal tax credits.