Can I get a federal tax credit by upgrading the large appliances in my house, which are probably 20 years old? I mean the refrigerator, washer, dryer, and water heater. Even without a tax credit, I'd like to upgrade at least one of these energy hogs. If can't do them all at once, which would be the most cost- and energy-saving one to upgrade?
–Sam in Santa Fe, New Mexico
There are indeed federal tax credits available for some appliances, and for quite a number of other home improvements ranging from windows to roofs to geothermal heating setups. Given our perennial wailing about high taxes, it's a shame we don't hear more about such benefits. According to Energystar.gov, qualifying products purchased up until December 31, 2010 are eligible for a rebate of up to 30 percent of the product's price. And since you live in a sunny state, you might consider solar water heaters, some of which are eligible for a 30 percent credit with no limit on cost. But the water-heater credits (and some others) do expire at the end of this year, so don't procrastinate unless you're sure we can whip Congress into shape and get extensions soon. To find out more about eligibility, click here. Your tax dollars at work—cutting your taxes.
A variety of other rebates are available from utilities and manufacturers that partner with EPA's Energy Star program; click here for more information.
With regard to prioritizing your replacements, a lot depends on the actual condition of the appliances, but I'd start with the refrigerator or the clothes washer, because they use more energy than any other appliances, and huge improvements have been made in their efficiency. For example, a refrigerator made prior to 1993 can use twice as much power as a new model; replacing one that’s more than 10 years old can save you $135 per year. To get more precise savings estimates for appliances, see the EPA's online calculators here (fridge) and here (washing machine).
Next, look at the water heater. Efficient new ones can use 10 to 50 percent less energy than older models, but because it's easy to drastically cut hot water use, I'd make cuts first before getting a new water heater. Simply washing with cold water when feasible can work wonders. You can get further reductions by installing low-flow shower heads and filling the dishwasher completely before running it. Once you've got all that down, then look into new heaters. A tankless or on-demand model is often the most efficient (but expensive) choice, because it doesn't have to keep the water constantly heated.
Dryers get the lowest priority. They generally burn less energy than fridges or washing machines of the same age, and most of the time you don't even need 'em. “Solar drying” on a clothesline or indoor drying on a clothes rack is far more efficient.