a hand holding up a thermal camera to the exterior of a house, showing the hot and cold areas on the camera

After renovating homes to be completely net-zero (efficiency and solar power both the house and the electric car 100%) over the past couple of years, you can imagine many lessons have been learned.

Much of that was through trial and error, and more like trial by fire. But it all started with the goal of getting to net-zero as affordably and as easily as possible.

A lot of that included finding affordable energy efficiency products to make the biggest energy-saving (and money-saving) impact, and that’s what we’re going to talk about here.

Below, you’ll find a list of the best bang-for-your-buck efficiency tools and products that’ll help you save the most amount of energy (and money), with only a little bit of your DIY time needed.

The Energy Efficiency Process

The process generally starts with a decision tree that starts with the lowest hanging fruit. Of course, every house is different, but the process typically goes like this:

  • Air sealing and air leakage
  • Insulation
  • Examing and optimizing or replacing the HVAC and water heater systems
  • Windows and doors
  • Lighting (Swapping to LED)
  • Any other noticeable energy efficiency saving measures
  • Focus on solar or small wind turbine renewable energy generation

There’s a lot more in between the above list in terms of calculations, expertise, and building science/performance, but that’s usually a good start.

aerial view of net-zero house with solar panels on the roof
Our first net-zero house, complete with energy efficiency and solar to power the house and the electric car 100% for a very affordable cost all in.

An Explanation of How To Approach Saving Energy with Affordable Tools

In general, you want to focus on cheaper products and labor within energy efficiency first, then focus on solar as the last item to generate energy. This is because it’s usually easier to save energy vs. produce more to achieve your sustainability or net-zero goals. 

I start with the financial picture in mind when I approach a project. This includes basic investing principles such as:

  • ROI: Return on Investment
  • IRR: Internal Rate of Return
  • Payback: Total project cost divided by the yearly energy savings.

I’ve found that when you focus on the costs and make sure the project pencils out, the environmental benefits and sustainability naturally come. 

Some may disagree with my order of money before the environment. Still, in my seventeen years in sustainability as my career, I rarely see anything move forward that doesn’t make monetary sense. 

So when I list the products out below, you can rest assured that they are tried and true money, energy, and environmental savers to help you start to make your own home or project more efficient and environmentally (and monetarily) friendly. 

Let’s Get To The Energy Saving Products

With that said, let’s jump into these products that have helped me go net-zero on these projects. They aren’t in any particular order, and though the ones towards the top half may carry more weight on cost for the savings they provide. This is why they come to mind first!

Outlet Insulation Gasket Covers

While it may be out of sight and out of mind, the electrical sockets and light switches in our home are usually causing our house to be very leaky and thus very energy inefficient. In addition, because there is a huge hole in the wall for outlets and switches to give you access inside the house, huge air gaps exist throughout the house, like swiss cheese.

You can see for yourself if you take the outlet plate covers off. The electrical box will fit inside the drywall, but it’s not air-sealed around the edges, or in the back where the wires come in. This means that these openings are completely open to whatever gets inside the walls (air, bugs, dust, etc), attic, or outside the house.

Now add up how many switches and outlets you have throughout your home, and you can see how much leakage there actually is. When I’ve done blower door tests for clients and friends, you can feel the rush of air coming through these areas with your hand.

Having such open gaps in the house means the HVAC has to work that much harder all the time to keep you comfortable. And that also means your energy bills are constantly higher as well.

IR Thermometer + Iphone IR Camera Adapter

Not only are these just cool gadgets to have for many reasons, but it’s a staple tool used for energy efficiency diagnostics amongst professionals. Infrared thermometers and thermal cameras are fantastic tools to see behind walls, check temperature differentials, and effectively look at your house like an x-ray would a person.

A picture of an infrared camera showing heat gains from inside the ceiling, with a red arrow pointing to the vent where the camera is pointed.
This is an older IR camera, but you can see where insulation is missing behind the drywall in this one spot.

Houses are effectively thousands of pieces of material put together systematically. But how they come together is dependent on the design, materials used, who installed it, and all the rest. This means that it’s usually a toss-up in terms of energy efficiency basics like air sealing and insulation.

Some things that infrared tools can help within energy efficiency:

  • Seeing behind walls to see where insulation is missing.
  • Seeing where warm or cold air is sneaking through gaps and getting into the house.
  • Learning where other material is missing or not connected correctly.

There’s more, but all the above lead to a constantly less-efficient home and higher energy bills. Here are a couple of handy tools at different price ranges that you can buy to diagnose your own house. The thermometer will be a lot less expensive but only gives you the temperature reading itself.

The camera will give you a complete visual like the image above, and you can take screenshots and do a lot more with it. And if you have an iPhone – the Lightning adapter allows for seamless integration at a lower cost while saving weight at the same time.

Home Energy Monitoring Devices

Often, you can’t know how to save energy unless you’re monitoring what you’re actually using. It’s also very cool to understand precisely what each electrical circuit is doing in your home and allows exact diagnosis or troubleshooting as well.

That’s what these tools are precisely used for. We’ll talk about the main ones here are the Emporia Vue and the Sense monitors. I think these are the two best, and the most popular ones.

The Benefits of Home Energy Monitors

  • Track energy usage on each individual electrical circuit
  • See where you can improve on savings and where energy waste is coming from
  • Diagnose devices or appliances that may not be working right
  • Monitor circuits to see that lights or things are left on
  • Disaster avoidance – set alerts for critical device usage when they turn on, like sump pumps, well pumps, and more.
  • Use real granular data for your energy efficiency and renewable calculations

Beyond the list above, it’s just a lot of fun to be able to see every single circuit and what power you’re pulling at any given moment. On a more nerdy/hobby/professional level, I use these calculations to figure out exactly how to get to the lowest payback/highest ROI on these net-zero renovations and home projects.

I use the Emporia Vue because it’s pretty much half price of the Sense and works well. Here are some install pictures, along with a picture of what the app looks like –

a picture of the Emporia Vue app showing a bar graph of daily energy usage
The Emporia app showing daily energy usage on the whole house.
a picture of an open electrical panel with the Emporia Vue installed
This is the Emporia Vue installed in the electrical panel. It took maybe under 30 minutes or so to get it all hooked up and working with the wifi. It’s been super solid for over a year now!

Where to Buy Energy Monitoring Devices

If you like the Emporia Vue option, I recommend going with the one with 16 sensors (meaning it can monitor 16 different circuits). I originally got the 8, but it wasn’t enough for my three-bedroom home. Maybe look at how many breakers you have in your home before choosing the 8 or 16.

Though the Emporia is less expensive, I believe the Sense looks much better and more intuitive on the app itself. I haven’t personally purchased Sense, but it seems more polished.

Sense has a few different versions, so we added them below. Their FLEX system allows for more monitoring on 240v, generators, solar, or 400am split service. They also have a Solar version as well if you have a solar electric system for the house.

Plug-In Energy Reader

Another option to easy read and monitor your plug-in devices is to buy a plug-in electricity meter. These are going to be much cheaper than the ones you install in your electrical panel, like Emporia Vue or Sense above, but they will only read the things you’re plugging in.

This can be a fun exercise to see what your appliances, computers, light fixtures, TV’s, and other things are pulling. This is a bit of nerd fun, but I’ve created a spreadsheet of all plug-in devices in my homes, and use it for calculations on going net-zero as well. When you think of all the items plugged into electrical powerbars and wall outlets, it adds up quick!

LED Lighting

Swapping out your old bulbs and light fixtures (if the light is integrated) is one of the best things you can do to drop your daily energy use immediately. I can speak with conviction on this one because I built up an energy-efficient commercial lighting company in my previous life.

What Are the Benefits of Energy Efficient LED Lighting?

The bottom line with lighting, whether it be residential or commercial, is that swapping out the old technologies with LEDs will save anywhere from 50-90% on your energy usage. There are many more benefits, including better light quality, brighter output for the same wattage used, less heat, longer-lasting lamps, and of course, the energy savings.

LEDs came on the scene about 6-7 years ago. Back then, they were super expensive, unreliable, heavy, and had weird color output, among other things. These days, all those concerns have been largely solved.

How to Go About Changing Out Your Lighting for Energy Savings

Here are some quick tips on how to go about swapping your lighting. This assumes we’ll be mostly switching out many different types of bulbs in your house. I’m also shooting for cheaper solutions like the non-smart bulbs and fancy wifi or smart home ones.

The energy savings will come from swapping out old technology only if you’ve bought LEDs already, congrats! You’re already enjoying the energy savings.

The old technology to change out will be either incandescent or CFL bulbs. And yes, even these days, LED’s will save 20-50% over CFLs, and will last longer.

Unscrew the bulb in your current fixture and take a picture or write down the label or part number on it. This is what you’ll use to match up your new LED bulb.

It may say things like A19 or R30 or weird combos of numbers and letters. This labor is the type of bulb it is.

Note the Kelvin Temperature on the bulb as well. This label is shown as something like 2700K, 3000K, 4000k, 5000K, etc. Here is a handy Kelvin temperature chart so you can pick the right color for your home. In general, I personally like 4000K or close to it. It’s a bright, clean enough white color with a slightly warm feel.

a color chart of the Kelvin temperature ranges of light bulbs, with orange yellow colors fading to white blue colors on the right side

You can see that warmer orange/yellow output will be closer to 2700K or 3000K. For a more bright-white look, shoot for 5000K. If you go much higher beyond 5000K, it’ll start looking blue, which is not ideal for residential homes.

For nighttime and on the exterior of the house, I like 5000K. It provides a brighter light naturally and mimics natural light for nighttime vision.

Also a fun fact, the sun itself is 5,780 Kelvin.

Where to Buy LED Lighting

Since the options are near-endless for bulbs and lighting, it’s best to follow the guide mentioned above and to take an inventory of what you have in your house already, then find the LED matching bulb.

The big-box stores all carry LEDs locally now.

There’s a lot to lighting, but I hope this helps you kick start that part of your energy-saving journey!

Caulk & Spray Foam for Air Sealing

Both caulk and spray foam are relatively cheap and are usually the best products for air sealing different areas in the home.

Using Spray Foam and Caulk for Energy Savings

Going back to the theme of spending the least for the maximum energy savings, caulk is a great tool. It’s flexible as a material to seal the smaller gaps. And remember – anywhere there’s a gap in the home, air can get in and escape as well. So caulk can be great in sealing areas such as:

  1. Cracks in drywall or paint
  2. Between the baseboards and your floor (attic air (and bus) can go down the walls and out through this gap)
  3. Around windows and doors
  4. Around cabinets
  5. Around electrical outlets (when you take the cover off)
  6. To seal holes in the wall where plumbing comes through from the inside of the wall
  7. Around air vents (when you take the cover off)
  8. And much more

I can’t possibly list out every place to air seal in a home, but you get the idea. Any kind of sealing will help let you regulate the air in your home more and help the HVAC run much less typically.

Here are some pictures of the air and gap sealing I’ve done on our own net-zero renovation projects:

Where to Buy Caulk

The cheapest way to pick it up at a home improvement store. You may want to note the area where the caulk is going on to save yourself some headache or maintenance down the road. Regular caulk can go on anything, but you may want to pick specific types like:

  • Silicone for areas where the material may expand and contract (need flexible caulk)
  • Window and door-specific caulk for those areas.
  • Bathroom and kitchen-specific caulk so it doesn’t yellow or stain over time as water gets on it.

There are more types, but you get the idea!

Wrapping it Up

While there could be an endless list, I hope that this gets you started. Of course, the energy-monitoring devices can help you diagnose (and have a cool factor to show your friends), but the rest of the items have a real return on investment for not a lot of money.

There’s a good chance you could implement all the items above and easily save 10-20% on your yearly utility bill, and it’ll give you a more regulated, comfortable home as well. I’ll add some more items as time allows, but for now, good luck!

One Comment

  1. How wonderful that you mention that insulation is part of what helps with energy efficiency. I am building a new home this year and helping out with some of the details. I will find a great low GWP insulation service in the area for this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *