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Energy tax credits abound, but windows may be cheapest

While cashing a federal tax rebate check is the easiest way get some of the federal stimulus funds, probably the next easiest is to get a tax rebate for work you were going to do on your home anyway.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 has plenty of energy provisions to save taxpayers money while helping to save the environment, but most look like they're expensive for consumers to afford.

There are tax credits for residential alternative energy equipment, such as solar hot water heaters, geothermal heat pumps and wind turbines. Ever get a quote for a wind turbine? They're not cheap. There are also tax credits for plug-in electric cars, which cost a lot of money, too.

Probably one of the best deals, at least in terms of tax credit for money spent, is getting back 30% of the cost of improvements by homeowners for energy savings, called the Residential Energy Property Credit. The credit applies to improvements such as adding insulation, energy-efficient exterior windows and energy-efficient heating and air-conditioning systems.

The new law increases the credit to up to $1,500 for improvements made in 2009 and 2010, equal to 30% of the purchase price. In other words, you'd need to spend $5,000 on energy-efficient windows, doors, a new heater or whatever to get the full $1,500 tax credit.

It's a credit that not many people know about, although they'll probably learn quickly if they go shopping for windows. And even with the tax break, spending $5,000 or more on windows is still a costly home improvement, although cheaper than buying a wind turbine.

"A whole house replacement is not a cheap alternative," Susan Roeder, corporate affairs manager at Andersen Windows, said of getting new, energy-efficient windows.

Even in a recession, homeowners are still making such large purchases, Roeder said, mainly because the energy-efficient windows will lower summer cooling costs by 70% and lower winter heating costs by 45%.

The Internal Revenue Service offers guidance on how to determine if the windows you're buying meet the federal guidelines for Energy Star efficiency, but Andersen is trying to make it easier with its EcoExcel package of windows and doors that exceed the federal standards.

Its windows, for example, have glass technology that lets sunshine in, keeps heat build-up out and blocks 95% of harmful ultraviolet rays.

If you've ever had new windows installed on your home, as I have, you'll quickly notice the difference in less air spilling out or in, and how much more quiet they'll make your home. Add on a tax break, and it's a good time to do it before the tax break expires at the end of next year.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Reach him at www.AaronCrowe.net

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