© 2024 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How to make your Texas home more energy efficient and get money from the government

Solar panels on the roof of an East Austin home.
Eli Hartman
The Texas Tribune
Solar panels on the roof of an East Austin home.

As Texas summer temperatures rise, so do energy bills because air conditioners are working hard against the brutal heat. In some cases, they’re working extra to cool homes that are leaky and under-insulated. Old appliances also use more power than newer and more efficient ones.

Improving how well a house maintains its temperature and converting more appliances to run efficiently on electricity can lower bills, reduce harmful air emissions and make homes more comfortable, energy experts say.

Federal tax incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act can help homeowners reduce their tax bill. Additional federal rebates — at least some will be applied at the time of purchase — could be available for Texans as soon as 2025.

The average Texas household could save at least $481 a year by installing a heat pump to cool and heat their home, said Amanda Sachs, policy associate with Rewiring America, a nonprofit focused on electrification.

“It’s really important to make sure that folks can pay their energy bills,” Sachs said. “It’s important to make sure that we’re on track to meet our climate goals as a country, and we can’t do that without switching homes — residential buildings — to electrification and more efficient systems.”

Texas is especially vulnerable to heat, Sachs said, as climate change pushes temperatures higher. Operators of the state’s electric grid have flagged the potential for power outages this August and expect skyrocketing power demand in coming years.

Texas didn’t adopt a statewide energy code until 2001, according to the Building Codes Assistance Project. Many homes may be under insulated and leaky, said Jennifer Amann, senior fellow with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy buildings program. A state bill to create a goal for utilities to reduce residential and commercial customer electricity use by 1% failed last session.

Federal tax credits can be used year after year, so Amann said “thinking of a plan for how to do the improvement that you need to do in your home over time really makes a lot of sense.”

We’ve put together a guide to help Texans decide whether to take advantage of federal money to lower their energy bills.

Step one: Assess energy use your home

Experts recommend starting with an assessment of what’s currently in your home and how it’s working. This is known as an “energy audit.” The review might include checking the efficiency rating of your heating and cooling system, figuring out how old your appliances are or testing where air might be leaking. There are several options for this:

Hire a professional

An auditor can go through your house using special gadgets to assess its performance, looking for air leakage and whether there’s enough insulation in the walls and attic. These typically cost hundreds of dollars depending on the size of your home and where you live.

To prepare for the inspection, the U.S. Department of Energy recommends gathering copies of past energy bills.

Call your electric utility

Some local utilities do home energy assessments in person or over the phone. They also might recommend professionals for hire.

Do it yourself

The Department of Energy has a guide here for how to assess your home. You can also consider a checklist from the solar consumer website Solar Reviews.

Step two: Consider your options

Get quotes for how much different options would cost. Do you want to do the work all at once or over time? Is your goal to save money, reduce emissions, or both? Some changes you could pursue:

The house “envelope”

As with a thermos, how well your home is sealed and insulated makes a big difference in maintaining the temperature, Amann said. She recommends focusing on this first if possible. You can improve insulation in the attic or walls, seal leaks around doors or plumbing and replace drafty windows. Doing so will improve comfort immediately and might mean you can get by with a smaller heating and cooling system.

The DOE and advocacy group Environment America have recommendations for do-it-yourself projects such as caulking to stop air leaks and installing weatherstripping.

Heat pumps

A heat pump works by moving heat inside to warm a home or outside to cool it. It’s several times more efficient than a gas furnace, experts said. A heat pump runs on electricity and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. These can cost from $2,500 to $10,000 depending on the size of the system, according to Environment Texas Research and Policy Center. Heat pump water heaters, meanwhile, typically cost between $1,500 and $3,000, according to Energy Star.

Induction cooking

An induction stove works by creating an electromagnetic field to heat a pot or pan. It has added safety benefits because the stove itself does not get hot; the cookware does. It also runs more efficiently and improves indoor air quality compared with gas-burning stoves, according to the DOE. Four-burner ranges could cost about $1,000, while a single-burning appliance could cost as little as $70, according to the DOE.

Rooftop solar panels and batteries

Solar panels on rooftops generate emissions-free electricity for your home. This can reduce your utility bill because you’re buying less power; some utilities will buy extra power from you, said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas. Adding a battery to store the power generated during the day to use at night, or in case of emergency, makes this system even more resilient.

Texas electricity regulators have been testing a program to buy power from residents with Tesla Powerwalls in the Houston and Dallas areas. A Powerwall costs $9,300.

You can also subscribe to a community solar farm if you rent or you don’t want to put panels on your own roof, according to Environment America. You can compare quotes or look for community solar using their tool created with Energy Sage.

Electric vehicles

Driving an electric vehicle helps reduce air emissions. The costs of fuel and maintenance for an EV are a quarter of the costs for a standard gas-powered sedan, said Buzz Smith, interim executive director of the Texas Electric Transportation Resources Alliance. EVs can also serve as power sources themselves to charge appliances or even a whole house if the state power grid is in an emergency. “It’s pretty compelling financially,” Smith said. A 2025 Nissan Leaf starts at $28,140, or a 2024 MINI Cooper SE Electric Hardtop at $30,900.

Low-cost items

Experts recommend various ways to reduce energy use in your home at no or a low cost. These include:

  • Using LED light bulbs

  • Hanging shades on your windows to keep out sunlight in hot months

  • Turning off fans and lights when you leave a room

  • Unplugging chargers and appliances when you’re not using them or using a smart power strip

  • Washing clothes on cold cycle and hanging them to dry

  • Adjusting your thermostat or using a smart thermostat that can change it while your away

  • Maintaining your cooling system and changing filters as needed

  • Putting your computer in sleep mode when you’re done working

Todd McAlister, executive director of the South Central Partnership for Energy Efficiency as a Resource, said smaller upgrades are still meaningful and good options for Texans who can’t afford to buy big-ticket items such as appliances, electric vehicles and solar panels.

“It’s just very difficult for the average Texan to be able to afford those things,” McAlister said. “But the average Texan can go out and make sure their windows are caulked, and make sure there’s weather stripping around their doors, make sure that there's adequate insulation in their attic … and then you start adding on when you have the funds to be able to move forward.”

Step three: Consider financial incentives to make your choice

Federal and local incentives can help you get money back. Check what options are available using Rewiring America’s calculator. The nonprofit RMI also created the green upgrade calculator that allows users to see the cost-effectiveness and emission reductions expected from making specific changes to their homes or transportation.

For example, the average Texan could save around $1,350 a year on fuel by switching to an EV, according to RMI.

Federal tax incentives

Homeowners can get tax credits for 30% of certain project costs if they meet certain efficiency ratings. ENERGY STAR, which labels energy efficiency for appliances and is backed by the government, has more detail. The Internal Revenue Service also provides more information, as does the DOE. The credits include:

  • Up to $1,200 a year for projects including home audits (up to $150), exterior windows (up to $600), exterior doors (up to $500) and insulation

  • Up to $2,000 a year to buy a heat pump or heat pump water heater

  • Qualified project costs for geothermal heat pumps, rooftop solar panels and batteries

  • Up to $7,500 for a new, qualified plug-in electric vehicle, or up to $4,000 for a used, qualified electric vehicle purchased from a dealer, for people who make a certain income

Local incentives

Check with your local utility to see what incentives they offer. This could include covering all or portions of energy audits, weatherization projects or equipment upgrades. Some programs are designed for low-income residents. The Public Utility Commission of Texas provides a map with links to more information.

The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs also administers the federally-funded Weatherization Assistance Program to help pay for energy audits and weatherization (such as caulking or adding insulation). More information on how to apply can be found on the Help for Texans website by selecting “weatherization.”

Every two years, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality offers a maximum of 2,000 grants up to $2,500 each for purchasing or leasing a qualifying electric, hybrid or hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. If state lawmakers don’t eliminate or change the program, the next round of applications is expected to open Sept. 1, 2025.

Future federal rebates

The federal government earmarked $690 million for rebates for Texans to cover costs for home retrofits and appliances. Texas must submit an application by the end of January 2025 before the funding is awarded. The money will go toward two programs:

Home Energy Performance-Based, Whole House Rebate Program (HOMES)

The rebate program “incentivizes whole-home retrofits” and will give higher payments to low- and moderate-income households, according to the State Energy Conservation Office.

Home Electrification and Application Rebate (HEAR)

These rebates will cover certain appliances and will only be available to low- and moderate-income households, according to the State Energy Conservation Office.