When Maria Onesto Moran and her husband moved into their Forest Park home in the spring of 2007, they were excited to use their new sunroom, a porch that a previous owner had enclosed with walls, windows and ventilation. But as the summer heated up, the room became so hot it was unusable. In the winter, they used it to cool beer.

“It got so cold, it exploded,” she said.

When Moran became pregnant last year, they decided to modernize their early 20th century home to bring it in line with their desire to conserve energy and live “green.”

“With what’s going on in the Middle East, and now [nuclear] concerns in Japan, everyone’s talking about decreasing dependence on oil, but somebody has to go do it,” she said.

They turned to Peter Matuszewski, owner of Chicago-based Green Envelope LLC, originally a solar-panels installer and now one of a growing number of firms that have moved into energy audits, weatherization and energy use reduction projects. In a struggling economy where discretionary spending has shrunk dramatically, there is plenty of government money sloshing around for weatherization. The stimulus bill set aside about $6 billion to weatherize homes owned by low-income residents.

Closer to home, cities such as Chicago and non-profit groups see reducing home- energy use as an important way to meet federal energy efficiency goals.

On its website, Chicago-based DNR Construction Inc. lists global energy independence as a selling point for weatherization.  

“Americans see security issues in the Middle East and environmental issues coming to bear, and they feel like they can’t do much about it [on a global scale],” Matuszewski said. “It makes people feel really good if they know they saved two tons of carbon.”

After starting his business in 2008 to do solar installations, Matuszewski soon realized that customers needed to reduce their energy waste before investing in expensive renewable systems. Since he began offering energy saving services last summer, his firm’s revenues have more than tripled.

Energy audits cost $350 and yield a comprehensive list of options to increase efficiency, ranging from free do-it-yourself repairs, to green attic insulation, to solar panel installation. Customers can then choose what projects to take on.

“It’s very easy to pick the low-hanging fruit,” said Matt Reckamp, a construction manager at Green Envelope. “When you have someone give you a specific list, it chops your house up into little pieces, and gives you a structure in the way you want to do things, so it’s not overwhelming.”

Among the easy fixes, Green Envelope recommends checking windows to make sure they are closed all the way. “It’s such a common thing,” Reckamp said. On a typical double sash window, people generally open and close only the bottom section, but the top section moves slightly, too, creating a leak at the top of the window. Another tactic is to put up heavy curtains.

Handy homeowners may want to tackle caulking and weather-stripping. “Air-sealing is the No. 1 bang for your buck,” Reckamp said. Strips of rubber attached to window- and door-jambs will decrease airflow. Caulking window frames and floorboards can help, too.

Some projects usually require a professional, including sealing and insulating an attic. “Your attic is going to be your No. 1 greatest source of energy loss,” Reckamp said.

The attic can act as an oven in the summer and a freezer in the winter, but putting down insulation and an airtight hatch can reduce your energy bills 10 to 30 percent. It’s not as easy as just laying down foam on the floor. “There’s significant risk of fire and a significant risk of mold” if put in incorrectly, so Reckamp stresses the need for professional installation.

Many companies, including Green Envelope, now offer environmentally friendly insulation: EcoBatt, made from sand and recycled glass, and cellulose fiber made from recycled paper pulp and boric acid, a natural flame retardant that also discourages animal- and insect-nesting.

Other places to insulate include crawlspaces, basements and walls.

When the list was presented to the Moran’s last summer, they opted for “all of the above.” Now the sunroom is so comfortable that they knocked down the wall separating it from the kitchen. And although she hasn’t run the numbers yet, Moran estimates that her energy bills have gone down by about one-third. The couple is currently busy with their newborn son but they hope to add a solar attic fan soon.

“[The house] wasn’t built to be efficient,” she said. “But my husband and I have an environmentally conscious household and we want this house to reflect the rest of our lifestyle.”