Home Improvement

Building and Renovating

Before you remodel or design a new home, consider investing in energy efficiency or a renewable energy system that can save energy and money in the long run. If you’re renovating a home, an energy audit will help you determine what improvements can and should be made in the process.


One way to reduce impacts is to consider the source (i.e. raw, virgin) and final destination (i.e. recycled, landfilled) of your building materials. The construction of an average single-family home in the United States (at 2,000 sq. ft) is estimated to generate 8,000 pounds of construction waste. Given the 1.3 million new homes built each year in the U.S., that waste can add up. Using premium materials that are more durable and construction practices that exceed building code requirements will enhance your home’s performance, reduce maintenance costs, and raise its overall value. Examples include decking made from recycled plastic and wood fibers, durable tile or linoleum for floors, 50-year roofing materials, and fiber-cement siding.

Recycled-content and salvaged products use materials that would otherwise be landfilled, and reduce the impacts of making products from virgin materials. When remodeling, reuse and rehab as much as you can of the existing structure, trim, finishes and fixtures. If you hire a deconstruction outfit, ask if they’re a charitable organization — if so, you may be eligible for a tax deduction for the value of the salvaged goods.

Learn more about deconstruction at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Passive Solar

Passive solar homes are designed to take advantage of the sun’s energy, reducing reliance on electricity or other types of energy for space or water heating. A passive solar home uses the windows, walls, and floors to collect, store, and distribute the sun’s energy, and does not rely on mechanical or electrical equipment to function. Depending on how your home is situated, it may be well-suited for a passive solar design elements. Existing homes can also be retrofitted and renovated to incorporate principles of passive solar design. Learn more about passive solar options from Department of Energy and Passipedia.

Exterior options

Did you know you could reduce the peak cooling demand for your home by using lighter paint, siding and shingles? Energy Star roof products offer roof coatings to boost solar reflectance, counteract direct sun exposure and diffuse radiation from the sun. Such products are specifically designed and can reduce heat transfer to buildings by lowering the surface temperature by up to 100 degrees F. Learn how to save by calculating your Roof Savings.



Today, solar continues to grow as a competitive clean energy source that is reliable and affordable. Commercial and utility-scale installations are driving expansion of projects, and experts calculate 14 GW of new PV capacity was installed in 2016 (how much is a gigawatt equivalent to? Check out this webpage from the Department of Energy). This momentum can be attributed to a combination of lower costs, improved financing opportunities, and market successes.

Residential solar options vary: from rooftop panels and solar hot water systems to the solar attic fans and solar-powered outdoor lights sold at many garden stores.

Is solar right for you?

If you are considering solar for your house, the first step is to learn if your location has adequate solar exposure. A shade-free, south-facing location is best. To see if your roof will get enough sunlight, try the Project Sunroof tool.

Some other considerations to know if solar is right for you:

  • Your home is energy efficient.The more efficient your home is, the smaller and less expensive a system you will need.
  • You are willing to do a little homework. A local renewable energy company or organization, your state energy office, or local officials will tell you about local codes, how to operate the system, and technology options for your site.
  • You fully understand the upfront costs and long-term impacts on your electricity bill. Some systems can be expensive, but with costs dropping rapidly, homeowners are seeing an increasingly faster return on investment. If your utility offers net metering, electricity that is not used in the house can be sold back to the local grid, earning credit on your utility bill. To learn if you can make money producing electricity, check if your state, city, or utility offers rebates, tax credits, or other incentives. Visit the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency to find out about financial incentives in your area. If you aren’t ready to purchase a system out-right, you could lease a system (typically for 15-20 years) and pay a monthly fee for using the solar electricity and solar panels.
  • You are building a new home. Consider working with the builder to incorporate a renewable energy system into the plans.
  • You live in a remote location and your home is not connected to the utility grid. Using solar power might cost less than extending a power line to the grid, but you may also need a generator or storage system to provide electricity when the sun is not shining.

If home solar is not for you, you can buy electricity made from renewable sources from your utility. Some states allow “green pricing” programs that ensure a portion (or all) of your home’s power is provided from renewable energy sources. The Department of Energy offers more information about buying clean electricity 

Types of solar solutions

Solar panels: The most recognized solar power system is a photovoltaic (PV) system. This active solar approach allows a home to generate some or all its electricity onsite. In many states, owners of PV systems connected to the utility grid can sell excess electricity back to the utility. Home PV systems are becoming affordable, efficient, and durable. Learn more about PV solar energy options from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

Solar hot water systems use the sun’s thermal energy to heat water. According to ENERGY STAR you can save $140 annually or $2,900 over the lifetime of the water heater. Most systems consist of a solar collector mounted on the roof and a storage tank. The collector builds up heat as a fluid like antifreeze passes through tubes and transfers heat to the water in the storage tank. The heated water resides in the storage tank until it is ready for use. Learn more about solar hot water systems from the Department of Energy.


Geothermal energy solutions are a clean and efficient home heating option that provides consistent and unlimited temperature regulation 24/7. On a large scale, geothermal plants generate less than 1 percent of total U.S. electricity but have the potential to generate as much as 10 percent of the U.S. energy needs. Compared to traditional fossil fuel power plants, geothermal plants emit 99 percent less carbon dioxide.

Energy savings are significant as geothermal heat pumps use 25-50 percent less electricity than traditional heating and cooling systems. Geothermal heat pumps use a very small amount of electricity in the heat-to-electricity conversion process but are still extremely efficient. For example, for every unit of electricity geothermal heat pumps use, three units are generated as heat from the earth, which makes the system less costly to operate and maintain than conventional heating or cooling systems. Other benefits of geothermal heat pumps include:

  • Low environmental impact
  • Free or reduced cost hot water
  • Low maintenance
  • Year-round comfort
  • Design flexibility
  • Durability

Depending on the size of the system, the cost to install geothermal heat pumps varies. A large system can be as expensive as $25,000 out of pocket, whereas smaller systems can cost much less. State incentives or an energy efficient mortgage, coupled with the energy savings over time, can help pay for the system in 2-10 years.


Wind turbines collect kinetic energy and convert it to electricity. Wind is a renewable energy source with no use of water or pumps, and emits low-to-no greenhouse gas emissions. The potential of wind energy in the U.S. is significant and could generate as much as 35 percent of electricity by 2050. Already, 20 states generate more than 5 percent of their electricity from wind.

Onsite (or distributed) wind power systems can serve commercial, industrial and residential sites. Small wind systems can be used for many situations–and a 10 kW system is enough to power a family home or business. The average cost for a small system ranges from $3,000-$8,000 per kilowatt of capacity, but upfront costs can be reduced with renewable energy incentives. Homes with wind power can expect to see energy bills reduced by as much as 50-90 percent.

To learn more about small wind systems, visit the Department of Energy.

Paying for Upgrades

You don’t have to finance home energy projects on your own. Several financing options are worth researching:

Energy Efficient Mortgages are available through both government-insured and conventional loan programs and enable homeowners to borrow money to cover the upfront costs of energy efficiency improvements. To learn more visit the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET).

Federal Tax Credits for Energy Efficiency can reduce costs of home energy improvements, efficient vehicles, solar energy systems and fuel cells.

A variety of state incentives exist, and can be found at the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE).

PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) programs are available in some cities and counties. PACE programs can help residential and commercial property owners finance energy efficiency, renewable energy, and water conservation improvements. PACE funding can finance the full project and be combined with other financing programs or incentives. These loans are affixed to the property, which means the PACE loan will transfer to a new homeowner if the property is sold. For more information check out this video and PACE factsheet.

The Department of Energy Weatherization Assistance Program provides grants to states and local governments to help low-income families make their homes more energy efficient.


C2ES thanks the Alcoa Foundation for its support, which allowed us to develop our Reduce Your Carbon Footprint content. This important work is helping people take action to tackle the climate challenge. As a fully independent organization, C2ES is solely responsible for its positions, programs, and publications.