Not everyone who wants to be 'green' has a wad of bills they can throw at the latest and greatest technologies. So where should you apply the capital you do have for the greatest benefit and return? Fortunately, the biggest energy savers (and best return on investment) are the cheapest measures you can take.

The green building pyramid scheme:

If you only have $5 to spend, buy a tube of caulking; you might save $100 on heat this winter. You can then take that $100 and buy a more efficient showerhead and you may save another $100 a year on hot water.

So two years after a $5 investment, you could be saving $200 a year. Does your financial investor have a better investment proposal than that? If they do it will probably start with 'psssst....hey buddy'.

The point here is that greening your home and improving its efficiency does not have to equate to a complete overhaul or expensive reno. Do what you can when you can, and if the first steps you take are the easy ones that pay you back the quickest, you end up with more money in your pocket to take on the bigger projects later on.

Energy efficiency upgrades © Ecohome

8 Home improvements that save money: 

1. Caulking: Air leaks account for an enormous amount of heat loss in a home. In a really leaky house, a tube of caulking might even pay for itself in a day or two. On a windy day check for drafts around windows and doors, and see where your efforts are best spent.

2. Plastic on windows: If you have old leaky windows, for a few bucks per window you can put a thin sheet of plastic over them that will save you money, keep your windows free of frost, and make your house less drafty. These kits are easily found at a harware store, and put on with double-sided tape. You just have to run a hairdryer over it to tighten it up and you won't even notice it's there.

3. Plumbing fixtures and aerators: If you have older fixtures, they could be costing you a ton of money. Check to see if there is the ability to screw on an aerator; if your taps are so old that you can't get one on, then you are a prime candidate for a new efficient tap. The payback for this could be a year or two, maybe just months.

4. Low-flow showerheads: Switching to an efficient showerhead can sometimes pay for itself in a matter of months, by saving between 3 and 8 litres of water per minute as you shower. And there is no sacrifice here, it's unlikely you would notice the difference from an old wasteful one.

5. Programmable thermostats: Also known as 'setback thermostats', these allow you to lower temperatures when you are sleeping or away and will warm your home up for your return or when you wake. According to CMHC (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation) setback heating usually translates into cost savings of between  5 and 15% on your heating bill.

6. CFL and LED bulbs: The price of power keeps rising while the price of efficient bulbs keeps dropping. Efficient bulbs save a lot of energy and money in the long run. See our page all the benefits of efficient home lighting.

7. Attic insulation: The most crucial place to ensure proper insulation is your roof. Older homes may have insufficient insulation and a lot have none. For some homes, blowing a seamless blanket of cellulose (shredded newsprint) could help keep hundreds of dollars of heat inside your home every heating season. And by all means, do your walls as well if they need it but start with the attic if that's all your budget allows.

© Ecohome

8. Grey water heat recovery:  One of the most overlooked ways energy leaves a home is from hot water going down the drain, taking your money with it. The concept of grey water heat recovery is to reclaim that heat before it leaves your house. It simply involves your cold water feed taking a short detour before entering your water heating tank.

By passing through thin copper pipes wrapped around your shower drain, you can pre-heat water before it enters your water heater. It will cost you several hundred dollars, but payback is estimated at about 8 years for the average sized family.

Power pipe Grey water heat recovery unit © Ecohome

Renewable energy and energy conservation:

Geothermal: Geothermal heating and cooling make great use of heat from the ground, but may be better suited for commercial buildings given the initial cost. For a reasonably well insulated and moderately sized house, you may be dead and gone before you get your money out of this system with the average home. For any building under 5,000 square feet, you'd be much better off financially by investing those tens of thousands of dollars into insulation.

Photovoltaic solar panels (PV): It's not that they don't pay back, the problem is that they don't pay back fast, and it takes a lot of skins to get in this particular game. But like so many high-tech items, the technology keeps getting better and the price keeps dropping. In some places (Ontario for example), it makes great sense as you can feed the grid with energy and end up making a tasty little profit at the end of the day. Check out the Ontario MicroFIT program that pays a nice dividend if you have a south facing roof.

Grey water recycling: This is a great use of valuable resources. Grey water recycling means collecting water from sinks and showers, then filtering and treating it so it can be safely and practically used. Not as drinking water of course, but for toilets and irrigation. This is a marvellous concept, but expensive to set up, and unfortunately the price we are charged for water doesn't come close to its true value. So do this one for your conscience, not your pocketbook. 

Worthy of note: I have seen a number of households employ low-tech versions of this that cost nothing, by simply replacing the drainpipe beneath their sinks with 5 gallon buckets and using that water to flush their toilets. Like I said, pretty low-tech, but if you're game, it works.

These tips are specifically targeted to existing homes, but the same sort of philosophy and prioritization applies to new home construction. Check out our step-by-step building guide if you are building a new home.