6 Green Home Improvements

Updated January 2014

Going green means different things to different people. For some, it’s getting LEED certification; for others, it’s screwing in an energy-efficient light bulb. The good news is, no one is judging (well, maybe the LEED-certified folks are, just a little), and there are payoffs.

While some federal tax credits for energy-efficient improvements expired on Dec. 31, 2011, many of the federal tax rebates on EnergyStar qualified products are valid through Dec. 31, 2016. Be sure to check federal and local government resources for up-to-date, accurate information. And, since green materials create healthier homes and tend to stand up better to disasters, some insurance companies offer incentives as well. Here are six eco-friendly upgrades-with-benefits.

Geothermal heat pumps

Instead of burning fuel like a furnace does, a geothermal heat pump capitalizes on the earth’s stable temperature (about 55° F at six feet under) to provide heating, air conditioning and, in most cases, hot water. These systems will save you between $400 and $1,400 a year, but the installation price is hefty (anywhere from $11,000 to $30,000). Federal tax rebates repay 30 percent of your costs, helping a bit; check EnergyStar for more information.

Solar panels

Rooftop solar panels pack energy-saving potential, plus their cool appearance will get you instant respect from your neighbors. They typically cost between $10,000 and $20,000 to install, but a 30 percent rebate on your federal taxes, along with state and local incentives, will save you money. Expect a return on your investment in three to ten years, depending on how expensive electricity is in your area. To learn more, check out:

Bamboo flooring

Bamboo hits that eco- and wallet-friendly sweet spot in that it’s both less expensive than real wood and more sustainable (bamboo plants take five years to mature, while trees take 50). Plus, it looks simple yet elegant, and is stronger than oak. Prices will vary depending on whether you get solid bamboo or engineered.

Recycled glass tile

Want to create a gorgeous shower surround or kitchen backsplash and feel smug and virtuous? Recycled glass tiles are absolutely beautiful, come in both subtle opaque shades and bold colors and will not break the bank. These tiles are often less expensive than standard tiles but have the same quality.

Low-VOC paints, glues and finishes

Low VOC paintIn a remodeling project, every surface needs to be covered and sealed, and that means odors galore. Many products will off-gas volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for weeks, even months, after the project is complete so it makes sense to minimize the toxicity level. If you can’t afford to go green on everything, go green on a few materials. The smaller party those chemicals are having in your house, the better.

Dual-flush toilets

These nifty toilets have two buttons instead of a single lever. The smaller button disposes of liquid waste (which, of course, requires less water) and the bigger one takes care of the bigger stuff. According to the Sierra Club, a family of four can save 7,000 gallons per year by switching to a dual-flush toilet. And they don’t cost much—you can get one starting at $250.

If your home improvements don’t qualify you for a federal tax credit, inquire about incentives with your state government or local utility. Also check out the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency.  And remember, taking steps toward LEED certification could lower your insurance premiums.