Granite countertops and multiple showerheads were the “it” features a few years ago, but ask today’s consumers what they’d do with an extra $10,000 for home improvements, and you’re more likely to hear about replacement windows or high-performance HVAC equipment. That’s just one set of findings in the fourth annual “Energy Pulse,” survey conducted by the Knoxville, Tenn.-based advertising agency, Shelton Group, a barometer of consumer attitudes about energy and conservation.

Among the other discoveries from this national telephone poll of 504 consumers: Words such as “green,” “sustainable,” and “conservation” are seen by consumers as having increasingly positive associations. (More than 63 percent of respondents this year reported favorable feelings toward the word “sustainable” up from 56.5 percent in 2007.) But the big winner in the 2008 survey was the phrase “energy efficiency,” which garnered an 88 percent favorability rating.

Financial worries are the most likely explanation for the distinction in semantics. “The economy is driving thinking right now,” said Shelton Group CEO Suzanne Shelton in a press preview of the survey results last week.

When asked what would most likely motivate them to ramp up efforts to conserve energy, more than a third of this year’s survey respondents said  they would do so “to save money.” This explanation topped the rationale “to protect our environment and save natural resources,” which led the charge in 2007, but fell to second place (at 24 percent) this year. Only 15.3 percent of 2008 participants said they were primarily driven by a desire “to preserve the quality of life for future generations,” compared to 26 percent in 2007 and 27 percent in 2006.

Energy efficiency has undoubtedly become a top-line consideration when it comes to big-ticket purchases such as houses and cars (more than 80 percent of respondents said they would choose one home over another based on its energy efficiency, up from 69.4 percent in 2007). 

But slight nuances in the survey language suggest that the promise of an immediate pay-off (at least for now) has more resonance than the promise of a long-term return on investment. For example, when asked to rate which factors would encourage them to spend $4,000 more for an energy-efficient home, a quarter of respondents checked “energy-efficient homes have lower utility bills,” while only 6.5 percent said they’d spend more on energy efficiency for purposes of resale value.

Budget fears also seem to be playing into consumer purchases and behaviors. Nearly 68 percent of respondents said energy conservation was an “important or very important” factor in their daily routines, and more than half reported making no-cost changes to their habits at home, such as adjusting the thermostat, or turning off lights when not in use. Those indicating that they had made low-cost adjustments such as swapping out old light bulbs for more efficient compact fluorescent or halogen bulbs, or installing programmable thermostats, fell in around 45 percent.

But the numbers reporting bigger investments (either recently made or impending) in features such as energy-efficient windows or doors, Energy Star appliances, high-efficiency water heaters, or higher efficiency HVAC systems, were fewer than 35 percent. Only five percent of participants said they were pursuing renewable energy systems such as solar panels. 

Not surprisingly, the number one reason given for not doing more was a need to curtail spending in the current economy. “They’re still not rushing out to heavily invest in efficiency,” Shelton observed.

But the data also suggest that Americans are not motivated solely by savings. “U.S. reliance on other countries for energy” was cited by survey respondents as the leading cause for energy or conservation concern, followed by “global warming,” “increasing energy prices,” and “environmental damage affecting our health.”

Nevertheless, the study points to considerable confusion and disagreement among American consumers about the nature and source of climate change. When asked if they use more electricity today than they did five years ago, 61.3 percent of participants said no (37.3 percent said yes), although the reality is that the country’s overall electricity consumption increased by 10 percent from 2002 to 2007.

And while more consumers are becoming knowledgeable about renewable energy, one-third erroneously think cars and trucks are the number one cause of global warming. Only four percent cited the actual primary culprit of greenhouse emissions: coal-fired electric plants.

Approximately 40 percent of respondents said they were unsure or disagreed that climate change is caused by human activity. 

Jenny Sullivan is senior editor, design for BUILDER.