By: Jill Hamilton
Making your house a cleaner, greener space will save energy and resources, create a healthier, safer home environment, and save you money. You'll be helping out in the big picture too. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, houses account for 20 percent of all energy used in the U.S., are responsible for 20 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and use more water than other kinds of buildings.
As you start making your home greener, you can do as little or a much as you'd like, going deeper as you go along. Taking a green action can be something as easy and inexpensive as opening a window to improve indoor air quality to a more elaborate project like installing a gray water collection system for recycling household water. Here are some ideas for getting started:
Heating and cooling:
• Figure out where energy is being wasted by having a professional energy audit, using an inexpensive radiometer to do an infrared scan of your house to reveal hot/cold air leaks, or do your own inspection for drafts under doors, and leaks and cracks around windows. Pile on the insulation in walls, under floors, and in the roof and attic, using organic and/or recycled options where possible. Upgrading insulation to R-50 standard can save up to $900 a year. Replace energy-leaking single paned windows with double paned or high-tech triple-paned glass with uber-tight seals and insulating gas between the panes.
• Take advantage of passive solar energy with design and planting choices. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, passive solar energy design can reduce heating and cooling bills by 50 percent. Planting deciduous trees by south, east, and west-facing windows will let sunshine in during winter and the leaves will provide shade during summer. Keep an air conditioner unit cool by shading it with a (non-messy) plant or tree. In summer, open windows during cool nights and circulate air with box and ceiling fans. On hot days, close blinds or curtains and shut windows to keep cool air in and warming sunlight out. In warmer climates, wide roof overhangs and covered porches will keep a house cooler and painting the roof a light color will reflect sunlight instead of absorbing it. In cooler climates, pine trees can create a windbreak and building materials like concrete, brick, stone, and tile will retain the heat of sunlight and radiate it back out slowly.
• Keep heating and cooling systems regularly serviced and make sure ducts are in good repair and filters are clean. When purchasing new units, look for Energy Star-rated models to save 10-50 percent more energy. Keep thermostat above 78 degrees in summer and below 68 degrees in winter and use a programmable thermostat. Lowering your thermostat two degrees will save $23-$38 a year.
• Install low-flow toilets to use less than half the water of older models or re-jigger the float valve in an existing toilet so that less water enters the tank. Fixing a leaky toilet will save you about $100 a year. Install aerators in faucets and low-flow showerheads to cut your water consumption by 50 percent—just one low-flow showerhead can save $32.50 per person, per year.
• Outside, opt for native plants and low-water use landscaping. Water gardens with a drip hose and do watering during cool early morning hours. Consider a rain barrel system to collect rainwater for watering to save $100-$300 a year.
Improve indoor air quality:
• When a house is sealed tight for maximum energy savings, it can create a new problem—poor indoor air quality that can be 10 times worse than the air outside. One of the easiest ways to combat the problem is to simply open some windows and air out the house. Houseplants can also improve indoor quality naturally. According to NASA, the best plants for filtering indoor air include: peace lilies, spider plants, rubber plants, bamboo palms, and English ivy.
• Reduce sources of indoor air pollution by using non-toxic and renewable materials. Use flooring made from a renewable resource like bamboo, low- or no-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paint, and choose new furniture, textiles, and building materials that don't emit harmful materials like formaldehyde.
• Use natural cleaning materials, opting for plant-oil based disinfectants and detergents. Or make your own with simple recipes using common and safer household materials like vinegar, baking soda, borax, lemon juice, and washing soda.
• Replace incandescent light bulbs with halogen incandescent bulbs (25 percent energy savings), CFLs (75 percent savings), or LEDs (75-80 percent savings). Changing out just 15 bulbs could save you $50 a year, according to the Department of Energy. Use lights on dimmer settings, put lights on timers and/or install motion sensor switches that turn lights off when a room is empty. A light tube, a small, cylindrical skylight, is an option for adding natural lighting to closets or dark hallways.
• Water heaters are one of the largest energy expenses in the home, generally running $100-$200 a year. . Set the water temperature to 120 degree to save 6-10 percent a year. Insulating an older water heater with a heater blanket (look for one with an R-value of 8 or higher) will save you $5 to $20 per year. When buying a new heater, opt for tank-less or solar models.
• Installing an 8 kilowatt solar power system will give you 90-100 percent of the power you need, and with state and federal incentives can cost less than $10,000. Solar panels work best on south-facing rooftops that get all day sun exposure. If panels are out of your budget range, some power companies offer customers the option of purchasing green power created from renewable resources.
• Consider solar options for outdoor lighting, water heaters, and indoor fans.
• Plug electronics into power strips, then turn them off at night to save up to $100 a year on “phantom electricity,” the power used to keep electronics ready to power up instantly,
Whatever you choose to do, a well-planned green home will do its good work on its own, while you can sit back and enjoy the financial and energy-saving benefits.