Green Homes—Online Planning Tools

Homeowners have access to a growing variety of interactive green tools, on websites of government agencies, organizations, and businesses, that can be used to estimate potential financial and environmental returns.

By Maureen Blaney Flietner | Updated Nov 12, 2013 7:51 PM

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What ifs” can be a great way to get the ball rolling on home energy-efficiency projects: What if you added more insulation? What if solar thermal heated your water? What if your old refrigerator was replaced with a more energy-efficient one?

Now homeowners have access to a growing variety of interactive green tools, on websites of government agencies, organizations, and businesses, that can be used to estimate potential financial and environmental returns. The tools cover many areas and their results include tips and resources. Before you log on, gather basic information about your home, including:

  • Electricity and fuel usage. Utility companies should be able to provide you with the amount of fuel (oil, natural gas, or propane) that you used last year, as well as the number of kilowatt-hours (kWh) you used either by the month or the year. Note the price that you pay per kWh.
  • Square footage.  Measure the length and width of your house. For example, a two-story house with an unconditioned basement might be 25 feet wide and 40 feet long. Multiply those numbers to get one floor’s square footage (25 x 40 = 1,000). Multiply that number by the number of floors of conditioned space (1,000 x 2 = 2,000) to get an approximate figure.
  • Appliance information.  Check your water heater, refrigerator, stove, clothes washer and dryer for such information as age, estimated amount of energy consumed, size, brand name, model number and any variable settings such as temperature on the water heater.
  • Window details.  If you purchased your present windows, look up the paperwork. Note their age and frame composition and whether they are double pane or have low-E argon gas. Count how many windows you have, get their approximate sizes, and note which directions they face.

The Home Energy Saver
Get a good start on what you can do to save money by using the Home Energy Saver, provided by the U.S. Department of Energy. The Home Energy Saver was the first Internet-based tool for calculating residential energy use. Nearly a million people visit the site each year; 90 percent of them are homeowners and renters.

Enter your ZIP code and general estimates of potential energy use and savings opportunities immediately pop up. Enter more details and click the calculator. A summary outlines areas that could need improvements and possible savings you might see. You can vary the energy-efficiency assumptions and retrofit costs as well and recalculate the table. The final detailed report is a good starting point for gathering specific costs and savings for your market.

Energy-Efficient Rehab Advisor
This tool, which also links to the Home Energy Saver, was developed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help improve energy efficiency during rehab and renovation. Brian Sullivan, HUD supervisor for public affairs, says the tool can be used as a “blunt instrument to help determine cost savings” on home improvement projects. Sullivan noted that prices will vary anyway, depending on where people live.

The Advisor first asks for basics and lets you select a project. Choose “Whole House,” for instance, and it provides informative measures that would fit many homes of that age and type in your region. At the bottom of the page, there are links to other earth-friendly improvement tasks and other resources.

Energy Star Home Energy Yardstick
This yardstick will estimate the energy efficiency of your home. Enter basic information, including your utility bills for the year. In seconds, a quick efficiency ranking compares your home with homes similar to yours. It can be a real eye-opener and project motivator if your home is among the less efficient.

The yardstick’s quick summary also provides suggested energy-efficiency and savings targets and includes advice for how to obtain them. The various tips, such as “heat and cool efficiently” or “seal up your home,” then link to more detailed information. The site can help you understand your home’s possible problems and what you might consider to correct them—and save yourself money.

Personal Sustainability Calculator
Score your current level of personal sustainability with Greenprint, an interactive online tool that helps you identify and prioritize practical options for improving sustainability at home, at work, and in your vehicle. Johnson Controls, a global leader in automotive experience, building efficiency, and power solutions, partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council to launch this tool.

After you sign in with your gender, age, ZIP code or country, Greenprint challenges you to commit to new energy-efficient or sustainable behaviors. Data collected will be tracked to observe trends and to better understand how to accelerate change.

Solar Calculator
If one of your “What ifs” involves a form of renewable energy, this is one of the more user-friendly sites.

Thinking about PV panels for your home? After entering some information, a guide pops up listing incentives available, a system size range to handle part or all of your needs, and possible costs and benefits. The summary can link you with solar pros in your area who can do an actual site assessment to obtain a precise cost- benefit analysis.

The site’s calculations rely on solar radiation data by ZIP code from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Utility Calculator
Your utility’s website may be a good place to check for eco-friendly online tools. For example,Wisconsin Public Service (WPS), a natural gas and electric utility serving parts of Wisconsin and Michigan, provides both cost and savings calculators online for its customers.

The site’s savings calculators look at approximate energy usage and costs of refrigerators, heating systems, clothes washers and dryers, central and room air conditioners and offer advice about resources, costs, and energy savings of replacements. You can determine potential savings, addjust your online thermostat to see how you can cool that outflow in utility payments, and look at what money could be saved by installing energy-efficient light bulbs.