Here a few quiet ways to make your home more energy-efficient. One caveat: They're not intended to impress the neighbors

by Alex Halperin

With apologies to Kermit the Frog, these days it seems like it's easy—but pricey—being green. Reducing your carbon footprint has become such a stylish hobby that accoutrements like solar panels, hybrid cars, and organic foods have become status symbols. And like many status symbols, they're expensive.

In theory, at least, a more energy-efficient car or warming the boiler with the power of the sun will eventually save users money on conventional energy costs, which can shoot higher rather quickly. (Have you looked at your heating fuel bill recently?) But the high initial costs of photovoltaic cells or a Toyota Prius (TM) can scare off potential customers.

Fortunately, there are numerous ways that homeowners can make smaller investments in their dwellings that over the course of years, or in some cases months, can recoup up-front costs. One drawback: They're not designed to impress the neighbors. A green remodeling might include a luxurious stone countertop to wow the Joneses but the real savings will come from features the Joneses probably won't notice unless you point them out.

So, in honor of Earth Day, this week "Five for the Money" takes a look at a few quiet ways to make homes more energy-efficient. Virtue—especially the environmental kind—is its own reward. The financial savings are the icing on the cake.

1. Follow the EnergyStar

A joint program of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Dept., EnergyStar is probably the easiest way to pick out energy-saving appliances. According to the program, a family using approved appliances can save up to a third on its energy bill—complemented by a similar reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Since the EPA began the program in 1992 with products that included computers and monitors it has expanded to consumer goods ranging from lights to refrigerators. The program aims to endorse products that have equivalent performance to their more wasteful counterparts. EnergyStar-approved products aren't a bad idea for businesses either.

2. Mind the gaps

David Johnston, a "recovering contractor" and author of Green Remodeling: Changing the World One Room at a Time, says the key to an energy-efficient home is controlling the holes where air and moisture can escape. "There are lots of places where a little caulk and weather-stripping goes a long way," he says. Additionally, homeowners should check the attic, especially areas near vents and chimneys where heat escapes.

Once the leaks are found, Johnston recommends using blown-in cellulose insulation, often made from recycled newspapers and a fire retardant, instead of the fiberglass variety. In the attic, it's possible to create an "insulated top hat" for the house. Drew Smith, president of green-building consultancy Two Trails, says that adding insulation to a home's ductwork is another way to ensure the hot air you're paying for doesn't escape.

3. Do a blow test

Knowing how air flows through a space—and where it gets out—is crucial to making sure the least amount of energy is used to heat or cool your home. But how can a homeowner determine that? Air, after all, is invisible and rarely gusts indoors. Nor is insulation a cure-all. Randy Hansell of Portland (Ore.) nonprofit Earth Advantage says: "insulation is good but if air goes through insulation than it's only a big filter." One way to gain an understanding of this tricky problem is through a blower door test.

To perform the test, someone mounts a strong fan called a blower door on a frame of an exterior door. When the fan gets turned on it sucks air through the house. When the house is windy, one can walk around with a smoke pencil, a small device that shoots out bursts of visible gas, and by watching where they fly the tester can find elusive holes. The process should cost a couple hundred bucks and once the holes get patched up, could pay for itself.

4. Watch your water

Homeowners who go through all the trouble of sealing their ducts won't want to waste water either. And the energy expended in keeping water hot also drains the pocketbook. Anyone can take shorter showers or run the dishwasher less often, but there are also devices that can help. For one thing, inexpensive flow reducers can reduce a faucet or shower head's output without sacrificing water pressure.

Less known is a device called the Metlund Hot Water D'MAND System put out by Costa Mesa (Calif.)-based Advanced Conservation Technology. The device recirculates water from the hot water pipes to ensure that bathers are never running the faucet waiting for hot water. As with so many tricks in the green arena, the savings are gradual but, Johnston says, real.

Dual flush toilets could also become more common. Available from several manufacturers, they allow users to decide flush intensity depending on their needs. Even with the amount of water expended per flush shrinking in normal toilets, Smith says families will quickly recoup their money with one of these commodes.

5. Upgrade windows

No, we're not talking about ditching XP for Vista. The cost savings for energy-efficient windows aren't quite as dramatic as some of the other suggestions here, but Johnston says they will have the most marked affect on residents' quality of life. Of these, the best improvement are so called low-e coatings, transparent layers of metallic oxides applied to window panes that help maintain the desired room temperature. Available in varieties for different climates, depending on if someone wants to keep the heat in or out, Johnston says they are a "noticeable change aesthetically and in your daily experience of being in your house."

According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, there are additional ways to improve windows. Panes with multiple glazing insulate markedly better than those with only individual layers. Likewise, having two panes of glass works better than one. And even some folks savvy enough to have two panes of glass won't know that a wider pocket of air between them is the next smart step.

As with every aspect of remodeling, when looking to improve a house's green credibility an owner can go as far as their heart and wallet can take them. But the odds are that some low-key, low-cost additions can have a beneficial effect on your bills.

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Halperin is a reporter for in New York.