Four is the magic number for energy efficiency improvements to pay off
Homeowners need to complete an average of four energy efficiency upgrades, such as insulation or high-efficiency windows, to see their utility bills decrease, according to a new survey released Tuesday. Homeowners who completed only 2.3 improvements actually saw their bills increase 10% to 30%, according to the 2011 Energy Pulse Survey by the Shelton Group, a Tennessee-based marketing group focused on sustainability that polled 1,502 Americans.
"[M]ost homeowners are more likely to start with a low-risk, low-investment improvement such as CFLs or programmable thermostats that create a 'quick win' — fast results with minimal effort. Since quick wins reduce resistance and increase motivation, this should put them on the path to additional behaviors," the study says. "However ... many homeowners start and end with CFLs. The motivation to move on to the next activity doesn’t seem to occur naturally."
Just 42% of the survey's respondents had installed high-efficiency windows, 39% had added extra insulation, 37% had installed a higher-efficiency heating or cooling system and 24% had upgraded to a higher-efficiency water heater.
The No. 1 reason homeowners make energy-efficient improvements is to reduce their utility bills, the survey found. Yet the high cost and slow return on investment of the most valuable improvements has been a stumbling block. Replacing old, inefficient windows can lower energy bills 7% to 15%, but the payback period is between 10 years and 30 years, according to the study, citing Department of Energy research. Improving insulation can save 10% on an annual energy bill, but the payback period is 12 years to 26 years.
"The top energy-saving driver for the vast majority of Americans continues to be about dollars and cents," said Suzanne Shelton, president of the Shelton Group. "It's a green decision to save energy -- but for consumers, it's the green in their wallets that matters most."
The highest-income and best educated Americans were most sensitive to utility bill increases and likely to take action. Those earning $100,000 or more annually said their monthly bills would need to increase an average of $113 to prompt an energy-efficient home improvement such as window replacement, whereas those earning less than $25,000 said their monthly bills would need to increase $120. Those with graduate degrees said it would take a $98 increase to trigger an energy-efficient upgrade, whereas those with a high school degree or less said the bill would need to increase $122, the study found.
-- Susan Carpenter
Photo: Solar film is installed on the window of a Culver City Home. Credit: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times