home improvement

Saving energy saves money. Reducing your energy use will reduce your gas and electricity bills (which frees up funds for other, more meaningful things). It also benefits the environment and your health in a variety of ways. For example, using less electricity reduces power plant emissions from burning fossil fuels, which reduces air and water pollution, and that helps protect everyone’s health and our shared natural resources. It also reduces the emission of greenhouse gases that are contributing to climate change.

This checklist outlines a number of ways that you can conserve energy at home (or at work), by changing your household (or workplace) products and practices related to Heating and Cooling, Appliances and Equipment, Lighting, etc. Most of these strategies are easy and low- or no-cost, and saving energy helps save you money down the road.

HEATING AND COOLING

  • Program your thermostat to provide less heating or cooling at night and during the daytime hours when your home/building is not occupied. If you don’t know how to change the settings on your programmable thermostat, read the manual or ask someone for assistance. (If you’d like to have an easy-to-program, energy-saving thermostat with an elegant design, take a look at the iPod-like Nest thermostat.)
  • On hot and sunny days, cover your windows by closing the shades, blinds, opaque curtains, or shutters; and turn off any lights that aren’t needed (especially any lamps that are using conventional incandescent bulbs, as they emit a surprising amount of heat). And if you live in an area that regularly has hot summers, consider adding shade trees, awnings, or overhangs (particularly outside of west-facing windows) and putting a light-colored roof on your home when it’s time to replace the roof.
  • Avoid or minimize your use of air conditioning, when possible. Air conditioners use a lot of energy, making them expensive to use. In warm weather, try using ceiling fans, floor fans, or a “whole house” attic fan (or in dry regions, an evaporative cooler) instead of AC. These options can often provide adequate cooling.
  • Follow the recommended maintenance procedures for your heating and cooling systems. Replace or clean air filters as specified in the owner’s manuals. Have your furnace or air conditioner serviced if it isn’t operating properly or efficiently.
  • Keep your heating/cooling vents dusted.
  • Keep furniture, curtains, and other objects away from heater/air conditioning outlets, to allow conditioned air to flow freely into the room.
  • Make sure your windows close properly. Fix any broken window panes, seals, or latches.
  • Don’t leave the heat or air conditioning on if you open a window.
  • Weatherize your doors and windows by using weather stripping or seals to minimize air leaks and drafts.
  • Make sure your home is well insulated. Insulate your hot water pipes and water heater, and add insulation (if needed) to your attic, walls, or basement.
  • Hire a home performance contractor to do a home energy audit; they will inspect your home and identify any inefficiencies and seal up air leaks. In many homes, fixing air leaks can save more energy and money than installing a high-efficiency furnace. (One very experienced company that offers these services in California is Advanced Home Energy, formerly called Recurve.) You can search here for a contractor near you who has been accredited by the Building Performance Institute. If you live in California, check out the information provided by Energy Upgrade California.
  • When purchasing a new furnace, air conditioner, ceiling fan, water heater, windows, or doors, choose products that have a high Energy Star efficiency rating. (For windows, at a minimum, make sure you choose double-paned glass.)

Please continue reading. The rest of this post includes tips on lighting, appliances, electronics, and more:

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May 29, 2013
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More than a dozen of the Green Spotlight’s previous posts have referenced green products. Below is a list of many of those posts, which have covered everything from building- and home-related products to films, chocolates, and other types of goods. Many of the products mentioned in these posts would make good and useful gifts (for holidays, birthdays, etc.).

At the bottom of this post, I’ve also added links to some books for eco-minded readers.

Home/Building Products

Other Products

Books

The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, by Bernie Krause

Or if you’re interested in books on green business, check out the book listing at the bottom of our Green Business post.

You can find a wide selection of books on sustainable living from Chelsea Green Publishing and from New Society Publishers.

And here are a bunch of other books on sustainability topics.

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November 26, 2012
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Conserving water is becoming increasingly important, and it has become a necessity in areas that are suffering from drought. According to the UN, by 2025 (in less than 15 years), 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water-stressed conditions, as a result of water shortages from climate change and rising levels of water use due to a growing population.

Reducing your water use will not only lower your water bills and help prevent potential water shortages. It also reduces the strain on municipal water systems and infrastructure (e.g., sewer, water treatment and distribution), which helps reduce the energy, maintenance, and the associated taxes required to run and expand those systems. Using less water can also save you money on your energy bill, because electricity or gas is used to heat your water. Water conservation also leaves more water available for critical uses, such as drinking, growing food, and fighting fires; and it keeps more water in lakes, rivers, and streams for aquatic species.

These are some of the ways that you can reduce your household water use, both indoors and outdoors:

INDOORS:

  1. Replace your toilets, faucets, and showerheads with high-efficiency (WaterSense labeled) plumbing fixtures, or at least add aerators to your faucets, and if you have an old toilet, put a small water bottle (filled with water, with the cap on) into the toilet tank for displacement. Switching to high-effiiency fixtures results in significant water savings.
  2. Do not let faucets run longer than is necessary for your task. And when you turn a faucet off, make sure that it is turned all the way off.
  3. Try to take short showers, or don’t take a shower every day (if you aren’t really dirty—from work, exercise, recreation, etc.).
  4. When using a clothes washer or dishwasher, only wash fairly full loads (or select a light-load setting for small loads). If you’re buying a new washer, select a high-efficiency, water-saving model. Front-loading washing machines are typically more efficient than top-loading machines.
  5. Wash dirty dishes immediately or soak them before hand-washing, so that they can be washed off more easily and quickly (requiring less water).
  6. If a faucet is dripping or if your toilet is running (for too long after it has been flushed), have the leak fixed right away. A leaking toilet can waste more than 50 gallons of water each day, and a dripping faucet or showerhead can waste up to 1,000 gallons of water per week (according to ResourceVenture.org). Also check for washing machine or dishwasher leaks (usually found where the hose is connected to the machine or at the shut-off valve). Familiarize yourself with the water shut-offs behind your toilet, sinks, and washing machine, as well as the water shut-off for the entire house, so that you know how to turn off the water when needed.
  7. As the saying goes, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” There’s generally no need to flush a toilet after it’s only been peed in one time. Hold off on flushing until the toilet has been peed in 2-3 times or has been used for “doing #2.”
  8. Compare your water bills (or water meter readings) from month to month and from year to year, to monitor the results of your conservation efforts and to look for any sudden spikes in water use, which could be caused by leaks.

OUTDOORS (yard / lawn / garden):

  1. Water your yard/garden during the coolest and least windy time of the day (usually early morning) to avoid losing a lot of water via evaporation.
  2. When you add new plants, trees, or other vegetation, select drought-tolerant or native/adapted plants that require little, if any, irrigation. To get information on how to choose the best plants for your area, click here.
  3. Putting mulch (including raked leaves or wood chips) on your garden or landscaped areas can help the soil retain moisture longer.
  4. Turf grass typically requires much more water than groundcover or shrubs, so the less lawn area you have, the less irrigating you will need to do. If adding or reseeding grass areas, select a drought-tolerant grass variety or consider replacing the grass area with groundcover. As an added bonus, most types of groundcovers and some types of grasses will only grow a few inches tall, so they would rarely if ever need to be mowed.
  5. If you are installing an irrigation system, choose a high-efficiency irrigation system. Drip, micro, and bubbler irrigation systems are more efficient than spray or sprinkler irrigation, because they deliver water directly to plants’ roots, minimizing evaporative water loss.
  6. If you have an irrigation system or sprinklers, make sure that all spray or drip spouts are oriented in such a way that they are watering planted areas only and are not watering the sides of buildings, pathways or other paved areas. In addition to wasting water, allowing water to pool up on pavement can make it slippery to walk on an can degrade the pavement over time.
  7. Also, for irrigation systems, perform (or have an irrigation specialist perform) regular system checks and maintenance, to make sure there are no leaking heads, pipes, or valves. Make sure the irrigation system is not watering the lawn/yard/garden during (or immediately preceding or following) rainy days. Even on dry days, make sure the system is not over-watering the plants or over-saturating the soil. If the irrigation timer runs on a battery, make sure it is working and change the battery as needed; if the battery is dead, the system could allow non-stop watering (which would waste a lot of water). Re-program the system seasonally and as necessary to adjust to weather conditions. Winterize the system before the first frost of each year. If issues arise, consider hiring an irrigation professional to do an irrigation audit.
  8. Consider adding rainwater collection barrels/tanks at downspouts (or a bucket in your shower or yard, or a greywater system) for use in watering your yard/garden.
  9. Sweep your sidewalks and driveway (and other paved areas), rather than hosing them down.

At a broader level, two of the most effective ways to reduce water use (indirectly but significantly) are: to reduce your energy use (because the generation of electricity typically requires enormous amounts of water), and to reduce or eliminate your consumption of meat (because raising meat animals, especially corn-fed factory-farmed beef cows, requires enormous amounts of water).

For more information on water conservation, visit these websites:

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August 30, 2012
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Most conventional paints and coatings contain and emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Some types of VOCs contribute to smog, and many VOCs are emitted or “offgassed” indoors and contribute to indoor air pollution. VOCs can cause respiratory problems and some are known carcinogens.

I have written a 4-page overview of VOCs and other toxicity issues related to paints and other types of coatings. For the free download, just click on this link:

How to Select Less-Toxic, Low-VOC Paints, Primers, Stains, and Coatings [PDF]

Fortunately, almost every major paint manufacturer (and retailer) now has a low-VOC or zero-VOC product line. Most of these products are also low-odor, as some VOCs are responsible for to that noxious “new paint smell.”

I maintain an online product listing of Low-VOC and Zero-VOC Wall Paints, which I recently updated. The listing includes natural paints (e.g., plant- or mineral-based), as well as more conventional synthetic (e.g., latex/acrylic) paints.

A few paint manufacturers, such as AFM Safecoat and YOLO Colorhouse formulate their entire line of paints and primers to be low- or zero-VOC and low-toxic. While most low-VOC paints are interior paints, some brands (including those two) also offer low-VOC exterior paints.

My listing indicates which paint lines have been Green Seal certified or SCS Indoor Advantage Gold certified. GreenGuard also certifies paints; it has a basic Indoor Air Quality Certified program, as well as a more stringent Children and Schools Certified program. All of these certification programs are primarily focused on testing products’ VOC emissions.

Unfortunately, synthetic paints often contain other toxic compounds, beyond VOCs, such as phthalates (which are endocrine-disrupting chemicals), propylene glycol and glycol ethers (PGEs), certain heavy metals, and toxic biocides or fungicides. (Green Seal’s certification standard prohibits the use of some of those compounds.) See this Pharos article for additional information on paint toxicity.

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September 26, 2011
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Homeowners (and renters) are increasingly interested in making green home improvements, and they’re particularly interested in knowing which improvements have a low cost and a clear payback—i.e., a decent Return on Investment, or ROI. Here are some commonly agreed upon suggestions for relatively easy and economical projects that reap surefire savings (in energy, water, and dollars):

  1. Switch to LED and/or compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs. (Note: When buying CFLs, look for low-mercury products. Also, because CFLs contain mercury, they cannot be thrown in the trash; they must be recycled by a hazardous waste facility. Some stores, such as Home Depot, collect used CFLs. You can find other places near you that take used CFLs on Earth911.com.)
  2. Switch to WaterSense plumbing fixtures (e.g., dual-flush or other high-efficiency toilets, and ultra-low-flow faucets and showerheads). [MORE INFO here.]
  3. Switch to Energy Star appliances and electronic equipment when it’s time to replace old units. Install an Energy Star ceiling fan(s), to reduce or eliminate your use of air conditioning.
  4. Insulate your hot water pipes and water heater; and add insulation to your attic (and/or walls and basement).
  5. Have a home energy audit done to check for air leaks and identify other inefficiencies; a home performance contractor should then make the needed improvements. More and more companies are springing up to offer these services. (One very experienced company in California is Advanced Home Energy, formerly called Recurve.) You can search here for a contractor near you who has been accredited by the Building Performance Institute. If you live in California, check out the information provided by Energy Upgrade California.

For other ideas and helpful cost/benefit assessments, check out this new book: Green Sense for the Home: Rating the Real Payoff from 50 Green Home Projects, by Eric Corey Freed and Kevin Daum (Taunton Press, April 2010). Here’s the publisher’s description of the book: “When does a green home project make financial sense? The authors of this book provide the answer to this and other questions relating to the cost (and relative value) of environmentally friendly home improvements. They evaluate a wide array of projects, including insulating pipes, weatherizing doors and windows, composting and recycling trash, installing a solar hot water heater, installing green countertops, upgrading appliances, building with reclaimed materials, and installing radiant heat.”

Other recent books include Green Home Improvement: 65 Projects That Will Cut Utility Bills, Protect Your Health & Help the Environment by Daniel Chiras, PhD (RS Means) and This Green House: Home Improvements for the Eco-Smart, the Thrifty, and the Do-It-Yourselfer by Joshua Piven (Abrams).

A number of federal, state, and local tax credits, rebates, and other financial incentives are available for installing energy-efficient equipment or renewable energy (e.g., solar) technologies at your residence.

For a more comprehensive checklist of ways to save energy, see our new post [added 5/2013]: Tips for Saving Energy

 

For additional tips on green home improvements and retrofits, these are some useful online articles and websites, most of which feature lists of cost-effective improvements:

If you’d like assistance with choosing and implementing your green home improvements or remodeling strategies, I am a green advisor who can provide this type of assistance through email consultations (or phone or in-person consultations). Click here for more info.

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May 6, 2010
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GreenDollarSignThe following are key online resources for information on federal, state, and local environmental tax credits, rebates, and other financial incentives. Most of the incentives that are available are for installing energy-efficient equipment or renewable energy (e.g., solar) technologies.

FEDERAL

These are good directories of federal income tax credits, grants, other incentives for energy-efficient products—for consumers, as well as businesses, builders, and manufacturers:

Click here for a clear summary of the main tax credits currently available: essentially 30% of various energy-efficiency improvements (up to $1,500) and 30% of the cost of solar energy installations. For info on federal grants (to organizations and agencies), go to Grants.gov.

STATE AND LOCAL

Check out the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency for a compendium of options, organized by state. Also check with your municipality (city and county governments) and local utility companies. Many offer their own green rebates and incentives. And this is a great summary of energy-efficiency grants and funds provided to state and local agencies by the 2009 economic stimulus/recovery bill (ARRA).

CALIFORNIA

For those of you who are in California, there are numerous entities offering green rebates and other incentives. Take a look at these resources:

If you know of other useful directories or resources related to green financial incentives, or if you have made use of energy tax credits or other green incentives, please share your experiences or suggestions by leaving a comment below.

NEW (added 1/19/10): Also check out the directory of energy rebates and tax credits at EnergySavvy.com. Enter your zip code and the site will give you a list of applicable state, local, and federal incentives.

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November 16, 2009
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Image by Matt FarrarENERGY STAR is an energy efficiency rating program developed by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Most people are familiar with ENERGY STAR labeled home appliances and light bulbs, but many people may not be aware that the label is applied to more than 60 different types of products (for residential use as well as commercial building use), including heating and cooling equipment, roofs, and many types of electronics. (Note: Heating and cooling are the largest sources of energy consumption in homes; they account for almost half of a typical home’s energy consumption and energy costs.)

Energy StarSpecific examples of products for which you can find ENERGY STAR qualified models include: air conditioners (central or room), ceiling fans, exhaust/ventilation fans, furnaces, boilers, thermostats, water heaters, refrigerators and freezers, dishwashers, clothes washers, insulation, windows, skylights, roofs, doors, light fixtures and bulbs, as well as TVs, DVD players, phones, computers, monitors, printers, copiers, etc.

To find out which brands and models of a particular product have earned the ENERGY STAR label, or to compare the levels of efficiency among different models, go to the ENERGY STAR Qualified Products website. Also, check with your utility company to see if they offer rebates for purchasing energy efficient equipment or appliances; many utilities do.

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March 28, 2009
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