Innovative solutions for creating healthy, efficient, eco-friendly homes

While you might be thinking of putting off that kitchen upgrade

While you might be thinking of putting off that kitchen upgrade or bathroom remodel in light of the challenging economy, there are some home improvements you may not want to postpone.  In fact, home makeover projects that go beyond the surface — including things like replacing an old furnace or adding extra attic insulation — can actually put money back into your wallet.

With the new enhanced federal tax credits that were part of President Obama's economic stimulus package, replacing windows, upgrading an outdated air conditioner or swapping out an inefficient water heater is more affordable than ever.

To help tackle a home makeover that goes beyond just the aesthetics of a home and to help make your home a little more eco-friendly, Smart Homeowner suggests focusing on the following key areas of the home:

    * The Attic. A little extra padding in the attic can go a long way to reducing energy consumption.  According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), roughly 80 percent of older homes (those built before 1980) can benefit from additional attic insulation.  If the insulation in the attic is level with or below the attic floor joists, you probably need to add more.  Properly insulating and sealing a home can cut heating and cooling bills by 10 percent, according to the DOE, and tax credits are available for up to 30 percent of the cost, up to $1,500, for qualifying insulation products.

    * The Heating and Cooling System. While fluctuations in the cost of home heating oil and natural gas can impact your home heating bill this winter, an older, less efficient furnace or boiler may also be the culprit when it comes to high energy bills.  According to Chris Spencer, an energy efficiency expert at Lennox Industries, the average lifespan of a heating system is 15 years old.  By replacing an older furnace that is 60 percent efficient with one that is 95 percent efficient, homeowners can save approximately 57 percent on energy bills and up to $5,513 over a five-year period, says Spencer.  The new tax credits can further offset the cost and installation of a new high-efficiency furnace, as well as an air conditioner or heat pump, by 30 percent or up to $1,500, making now a good time to buy.

    * Windows.  While window treatments are typically a focus in many home makeovers, the actual windows themselves are often overlooked.  However, upgrading old single-pane windows with ENERGY STAR-qualified windows can save on average between $126 and $465 per year on energy bills, and some new windows qualify for the federal tax credit.  ENERGY STAR-qualified windows may have two or more panes of glass, warm-edge spacers between the window panes, improved framing materials, and low-emissivity (Low-E) coatings, which are thin coatings that help keep heat inside during the winter and outside during the summer.

    * The Water Heater.  Heating water is another major energy expenditure and accounts for approximately 17 percent of a household's energy bill.  Jenifer Evans, owner of a Mr. Handyman franchise in Dallas, recommends replacing a water heater if the existing one is more than 10 years old, as it probably is operating at an efficiency level of 50 percent or lower.  New tankless water heaters qualify for the new federal tax credits.  "If the existing water heater isn't that old, you can still save energy and money by insulating the water heater with a water heater jacket that can be purchased at most hardware stores or by lowering the temperature setting on the water heater," Evans said. 

While these areas of the home aren't the most visible, they are important to consider when embarking on a home remodeling project.  You'll not only save money in the long run, you'll also be doing something to help protect the environment.