O.K., so you've been putting off weatherizing your home or replacing that aging dishwasher with an energy-efficient model. With the impact of Hurricane Katrina promising higher energy costs this winter, is it finally time to get started on all those energy-saving projects?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, if you're committed to doing your part for a cleaner world -- and willing to back that goal with your pocketbook.
No, if you're simply afraid that energy prices are going to surge, as they have at the gas pump, if you're looking for a speedy payback for what you spend, or if you expect the Joneses next door to smile approvingly at your concern for the planet. If those are your reasons, you're better off spending the extra cash to park a hybrid in your driveway.
Sure, you can do a few things to shave dollars off your household energy tab. But you'll find precious few incentives for doing so. Prices for electricity and natural gas, used for home heating except in the Northeast, which relies on fuel oil, are controlled by state public utility commissions and don't fluctuate as fast as gas-pump prices.
UNCLE SAM'S FINE PRINT. And for homeowners, the national energy bill that President Bush signed into law last month was a disappointment. While it allocates generous tax credits -- up to $3,400 -- for the purchase of hybrid and other alternative-fuel vehicles, it doesn't provide for similar windfalls for improvements around the house.
You can get a tax credit equal to 10% of the cost of energy-saving windows, doors, and insulation you buy and install over the next two years, up to $500, but no more than $200 of the credits can come from windows.
If you're willing to go whole hog and install an expensive solar hot water system or electricity-generating solar panels on your roof, you could recoup 30% of the cost, up to $2,000 for each, for a total of $4,000 off your tax bill. But if you're one of the 21% of taxpayers who will be subject to the alternative minimum tax next year, don't bother: You're not eligible for any of the conservation credits.
BIGGEST BANG. Generally, it's the quick and easy, do-it-yourself fixes that have the fastest payback. Big-ticket items like new windows and doors, or adding more insulation to your attic and walls, can cost thousands of dollars. Not only that, it'll take 15 or more years -- longer than most people own their homes -- to see much return from lower energy costs. And don't expect the next buyer to pay a premium for your efforts and investment.
You'll get the biggest bang for the buck simply by replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent models. They're inexpensive and use about a quarter of the electricity. Better yet, they last up to 10 times as long, so they're also more convenient when you use them in hard-to-reach places, such as closets, ceilings, and fixtures that aren't easily dismantled.
Programmable thermostats, which automatically adjust room temperature settings, start at $30 and can save you $100 in heating and cooling costs every year. Wrapping your water heater with insulation blankets -- available at Lowe's (LOW) or Home Depot (HD) for anywhere from $5 to $15 -- will make a difference, especially for electric heaters or those in unheated areas of your house.
THE RIGHT MOVES. If you're appliance shopping, refrigerators, washers, and dishwashers that qualify for the government's Energy Star mark often cost less than $100 more than comparable models, and that difference could be paid off in three or four years.
The best way to get an idea where you can save a little money is to do an energy audit. In the past, you'd call up your local power company, which would send a technician to pinpoint changes you could make to conserve energy. Now, armed with your utility bills, you can do much the same thing yourself, using tools found on the Internet.
At energystar.gov, use the Home Energy Analysis link to get recommendations based on a simple questionnaire about your house. For a more detailed audit, go to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Home Energy Saver.
GET ROLLING, AND FAST. About that new hybrid car. You'd better act fast -- but not too fast. To get the tax break, you can't buy or lease before Jan. 1, 2006. And the law limits the credit to 60,000 vehicles from each carmaker before it starts phasing out for that company's cars. This means that Toyota (TM), which sells by far the most hybrids, will reach its quota by next April or May. If it's a Toyota Prius or Lexus RX hybrid SUV that you've been hankering for, buy it next year.
And of course, if you have a room or two so drafty as to be unusable in the winter or if you live next to a noisy thoroughfare, you might appreciate double- or triple-paned windows for reasons having nothing to do with energy savings or economics. You'll just enjoy the space more.
By Larry Armstrong in Los Angeles