Just the other day I got a phone call from the owner of a 1930s Dutch Colonial home who was complaining about her high energy bills. Paying over $500 a month to cool a 2,000 SF home is understandably not enjoyable to anyone.
While I listened sympathetically to her plight and how she had gotten quotes from window replacement companies for north of $100,000 with promises of lower energy bills, the whole time I was thinking “It’s not the windows!”
For some crazy reason we have all been conditioned to think that the primary reason for high energy bills is inefficient windows. The ads are everywhere promising big savings of 25%, 35% or more on your high energy bills by replacing your drafty old windows with new energy efficient windows. They have become so ubiquitous that most of us just accept the claims as fact.
Windows Are Not The Biggest Energy Loser
Before you get too far down the path of spending $100,000+ on replacing your windows you should do more research then simply listening to marketing madness because there are better and cheaper ways to reduce your high energy bills than by replacing your windows, especially considering that the lifespan of most replacement window is only 15-20 years before they need replacement again. Let’s look at some high ROI options to save you money.
#1 Energy Efficient Shingles
Let’s start at the top. If you have a black or dark grey colored asphalt roof then one of the best ways you can bring energy costs down is to replace that roof with a more energy efficient option. I’m not talking about a Tesla roof or solar panels, though if you can then by all means go for it.
What I’m talking about is simply changing the shingles from a dark color to a light color which will reflect more heat rather than absorbing it. Some of the best color options for this are below.
- Light gray
- Light tan
Maybe your house would look silly with a white roof. Fair enough, so there are options by most of the major manufacturers that help you find cooler shingles than the cheaper options out there. The way you can compare the cooling ability of an asphalt shingle is through a measure called the Solar Reflectance Index (SRI).
SRI is calculated on a scale of 1 to 100 that is a measure of a roof’s combined thermal properties. It is defined so that a standard black is 0 and a standard white is 100. The higher the number the more efficient the roof is. Some manufacturers have SRI ratings on their shingles though they may be hard to find without a bit of digging.
Your best option is to check with a local roofer and select a EnergyStar rated shingle for your house. From personal experience I can tell you that even a slight change from black to a mid-gray color can make a big difference in energy costs.
Or an even better option would be to go with a highly reflective metal roof which can reduce cooling costs by about 25% and last 50+ years.
#2 Insulate the Attic
According to EnergyStar.gov the number one place to start insulating and air sealing is the attic. The energy savings are incredible in this area. Begin with air sealing around light fixtures, electrical and plumbing penetrations in the ceiling and then insulate that attic as much as you have room.
The typical attic in America has just 1-2 inches of old insulation on the floor, but it really could fit closer to 1-2 feet of blown-in insulation as well as adding batts to the underside of the roof. If you install insulation correctly the savings can be huge and the payback is almost immediate, especially if you do it yourself.
Even when paying a professional to insulate your attic you’ll make your money back in just a few years rather than a few decades with window replacement, which is one of the last options EnergyStar recommends for energy savings.
#3 Plant Shade Trees
This one is a long game and won’t yield any savings for quite some time, but the effectiveness cannot be ignored. Having a roof that is shielded from the afternoon sun by a towering oak tree can cut energy bills by 50% in my experience. It’s crazy!
This is something you do for the next guy though. Unless you’re young and living in your forever home, you likely won’t get much benefit from this, but pay it forward and give the next resident a glorious shade tree close enough to provide them with a little bit of cooling help. Your energy bill won’t be any better, but your mood will be much improved and so will your home’s future.
#4 Add Window Shades
Before you start writing checks to the replacement window companies let me challenge you to think about adding energy efficient window shades. First, they are FAR cheaper to install than replacing your windows which means you start realizing the savings sooner.
Second, if they don’t provide sufficient savings or comfort for you then you can always replace those windows later and get the benefits (and beauty) of the shades with your new windows as well. Chances are you’ll see enough payback from the shades alone.
There are multiple kinds of window shades and blinds you can choose from. I’ve written a more in-depth post about energy efficient window treatments that you should read if you’re unsure which direction to go.
#5 Upgrade Your AC
How long does your AC system last? Most live about 15 years before giving up the ghost, and during those years they become less and less efficient with each passing season. A 15 SEER unit from 2013 is probably functioning like a 10 SEER due to all the dirt and wear and tear it has suffered through. a 20-year old unit, if it is still alive, is probably working at a stunning 4-5 SEER rating.
Is it expensive to replace an AC unit? Darn skippy! Is it cheaper to replace 1 or 2 AC units compared to replacing 20-30 windows. Heck yeah! Plus, you can get major rebates and tax credit for upgrading to a higher efficiency AC unit that are better than the credits available for window replacement.
Not sure what SEER rating you should get? Read this post all about SEER ratings to help you make the right choice.
#6 Seal Your Ducts
You’ve got that new AC unit churning out ice cold air super efficiently, but it doesn’t really make much difference if you’re blowing all that air into the attic due to leaky ducts. As a part of air sealing that attic or in conjunction with the replacement of your AC unit you may be well served with new ducts or at least air sealing your ducts to prevent wasted air.
Critters can wreak havoc on your ductwork as well as poor installation resulting in leaks and missing insulation around the ducts so a through inspection is definitely called for to determine the best course of action and bring down the high energy bills.
If you implement some of these options you’ll start seeing savings far quicker than replacing windows regardless of how old or in what condition your windows are. And the great thing about several of these 6 options if that they are something you’ll likely need to do in the near further anyway.
Roofs are replaced about every 15-20 years just like AC units and so if you are approaching that replacement time then simply choosing a more energy efficient option will cost you only marginally more than you would have been paying anyway.
The point is, don’t be penny wise and pound foolish. Make sure there is a return on your investment for any energy efficient upgrades you. They should save you money in the end, not end up costing you more than the energy savings will be.
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.