A recent survey shows that we’re a nation of backsliders when it comes to making energy-efficient improvements to our homes.

Last year, when gas was more than $3 a gallon, financial institutions were crashing, and banks were failing, a majority of consumers told pollsters for The Shelton Group’s annual Energy Pulse survey that they would choose to replace the windows in their home or upgrade their HVAC if they suddenly were handed $10,000 for home improvements.

In September 2009, the fifth year Shelton has done the survey, those choices fell to number three and number four at 31% and 23% respectively among the 504 consumers surveyed. Instead, the first choice was refinishing the kitchen or bathroom (37%), followed by replacing carpet or adding hardwood or tile (33%).

Let's face it: Consumers think it's just not as much fun to buy insulation or a new HVAC unit as it is to replace that mildewed turquoise-and-black tile shower stall with a marble-wrapped soaker tub, and they responded accordingly to the Energy Pulse survey.

“Quite frankly, we think it’s sort of about old habits and a little bit of recidivism,” said Lee Ann Head, Shelton’s director of research. “Ultimately, what people love to do to their homes are the things that make their homes prettier.”

She also said that homeowners may want to do more aesthetic home improvements at the moment since they may feel somewhat "stuck" in their current home given the economic and housing downturn. “There’s that whole [idea of] 'Since I’m stuck with it, what’s going to make me happier to live in it?'” Head suggested.

The 2008's Energy Pulse survey revealed a considerably different mindset. “I think everyone was panicking last year, when we were in the market with the survey,” Head said. “I think there was sort of a realignment of priorities going on in the marketplace.”

On a higher note, consumers in 2009 didn’t backslide completely toward favoring aesthetic rather than energy-conscious home improvements. The percentage of those who said that they would make energy-conscious choices was higher in 2009 it has been in the first three years of the survey, Head said. After all, 31% of respondents said they would use the money to replace windows, which is only two percentage points behind those who would replace flooring with the money.

The results also suggested that there is likely growing demand for solar power among consumers.

The poll asked this question: "How likely would you be to buy a solar electricity system for your home, knowing that a mid-size system that would provide around 63 percent of the average household's electricity, costs $35,000 to $40,000 that could be offset by a $2,000 federal tax incentive along with additional rebates in many states.”

More than one-fourth (28%) said they would be likely or very likely to buy such a system.

Of course, surveys during the past five years, including this year, show consistently large discrepancies between intentions and actions. Every year, for example, around 20% or more consumers say in the Energy Pulse survey that they’re planning to get an energy audit. Yet the percentage of U.S. homeowners who've actually gotten one has languished in the 10% to 15% range.

“That’s why we now refer to home energy audits as the ‘colonoscopy’ of energy efficiency,” Shelton said. “Everyone knows they should get one, but too few actually do.”

As builders know, it sometimes takes a great deal to get people to spend on energy-efficient improvements. Consumers are willing to watch their energy bills go up more than 70%, on average, before deciding to make energy-efficient home improvements. Shelton’s survey respondents said their bills would need to go up an average of $129 a month before they would undertake renovations.

“We call this phenomenon the ‘Apathy Gap,’ the price people are willing to pay to do nothing,” Shelton said. “Here consumers are willing to waste more than $1,500 a year, or more than $4 a day, before they’ll take action. For that same amount, a homeowner could install insulation or purchase one or two new Energy Star to start seeing immediate savings.”

Teresa Burney is a senior editor at BUILDER and BIG BUILDER magazines.

Energy Pulse Results, Then and Now

Question: If you were suddenly handed $10,000 for home improvements, what would you do?

2009 Refinish the kitchen or bathroom (37%)
Replace carpet or add hardwood or tile (33%)
Replace windows (31%)
Replace HVAC/furnace (23%)

Replace windows (35%)
Replace HVAC/furnace (27%)
Remodel kitchen or bathroom (26%)
Replace carpet or add hardwood or tile (25%)