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Fun, surprising cost-saving home improvements

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(ARA) - Who wouldn't like to save money on utility bills this winter? But have you ever considered some of the more common energy-efficient home improvements - like insulating your hot water heater or replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents - and thought "dullsville"?

Sometimes the act of saving money just isn't fun enough on its own. Fortunately, you can make home improvements that will trim your utility bills and boost your home's appeal at the same time. Here are four fun home improvements that are surprisingly energy efficient as well:

1. Buy a new dishwasher - Or clothes washer. Older appliances were not only built to be less energy efficient, they can lose what little efficiency they had as they age. If your appliances are more than 10 years old, they likely use more energy and water than newer models, especially new models that are Energy Star qualified.

Dishwashers purchased before 1994 use an additional 10 gallons or more of water per cycle than a new Energy Star qualified model, according to EnergyStar.gov. And if you don't have a dishwasher at all, don't think of buying one as just a luxury. Energy Star says you'll save 5,000 gallons of water and knock $40 per year off your utility bills if you give up washing dishes by hand - not to mention 230 hours of your time.

2. Beautify your bathroom - Kitchens and baths sell homes, but they're also the rooms where the most water gets used and wasted. Old fixtures and faucets are among the top water-wasting culprits in a home. You can conserve water by turning off the tap when you brush your teeth, but that water savings goes down the drain if the toilet runs constantly when you leave the room.

Replacing leaky fixtures can reap significant water savings. Energy Star says a leaky faucet can waste gallons of water. Just one drip per second can waste up to 1,661 gallons of water in a year, according to EnergyStar.gov. You can also conserve water by installing a low-flow showerhead, which can save you as much as 5 gallons of water during a 10-minute shower. Many manufacturers now offer stylish, water-efficient faucets and showerheads.

3. Let the sun shine in - A venting skylight is a fun way to fill your home with nourishing natural light and passive ventilation, but did you know it's also energy efficient? Installing a venting skylight can help you lower your electric bill by reducing your dependency on artificial light and electric fans. Natural light has been tied to a host of health benefits, including improving mood. A skylight not only enhances the energy efficiency of your home, it adds decorating flair and could make you feel better about living there.

They're also relatively low-cost when it comes to "luxury" home improvements. You can get an Energy Star qualified "No Leak Skylight" from Velux for about $1,000 per unit for a remote-controlled electric venting model that closes automatically should it rain. Log on to www.veluxusa.com to find a local installer for a customized cost estimate.

4. Install a fireplace - Zone heating the areas of your home where you spend the most time can reduce your home heating bill by 20 to 40 percent, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association. Installing an energy-efficient fireplace or a stove is a great, appealing way to zone heat the rooms you use the most.

What's more, this type of heating can be "greener," if you use renewable fuels like cord wood, pellets or other plant-derived materials in your high-efficiency stove or fireplace. As for the fun quotient, it's hard to top a fireplace for a home improvement that adds warmth and appeal to a room.

Saving money can be doubly exciting, when you opt for energy-efficient home improvements that also enhance enjoyment of your home.