Saturday, July 31, 2010

Eco In The Home

*This is an article I wrote last summer whilst volunteering for an environmental program on the North Island of New Zealand. Its kind of long, but you have to keep in mind it was meant for publication in a journal and few small magazines, rather than a blog post. The topic is how to go about "greening" your home. The second half of the article (which I'll post next time) focuses on the different types of architecture for residential houses which already utilize these steps.

Eco in the Home
            It is no longer opinion or speculation, the fact is that our current way of existing is having a detrimental effect on our environment, to say the least. So we are faced with a choice. We can continue down the destructive path we’ve been on for so long, or at least attempt to make an effort to change and undo some of the damage done. Going out and joining a volunteer group may be a bit extreme for you, but that’s not the only way you can make a difference. It is perfectly acceptable to start small, and close to home. Actually, at home is the perfect place to start. This is because home is where you are a majority of your time, and all good habits should start in your home, and radiate out from there. For some the answer is easy, “Of course I can, and I will.” For others this may seem a daunting task and the words “Why?” and “How?” come to mind.

            There are many reasons for going green at home. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, there are three main advantages of living in a green home: health, cost-effectiveness, and environmental sensitivity. Using building materials that are free of toxins helps reduce indoor air pollution, which can be much worse than outdoor pollution. Unhealthy air inside can pose serious health risks for residents, like cancer and respiratory conditions like asthma. Green homes also have fewer issues with mold and mildew, due to natural ventilation and the utilization of mechanical ventilation systems to filter and conduct clean air inside and vent stale air outside. Also, having a green home is simply good economics. As reported by the USGBC, living in a house that is environmentally responsible saves money. Some of these savings are due to using forty percent less energy and fifty percent less water than standard homes. A green home is more long-lasting than most standard homes by using building materials and structural methods that are of higher quality. They also note that the worth of a green home is usually higher than that of an equivalent average home, and the market demand for green homes continues to rise. Most importantly, green homes are better for the environment than a regular home. As stated before, they use much less energy than their non-environmental counterparts. Also, the use of recycled, renewable, and salvaged building materials means far fewer natural resources are implemented in the creation of a green home. Moreover, the use of wood that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council assists in encouraging socially and environmentally favorable forestry conventions. The USGBC observes that constructing a standard 2,500-square-foot home generates roughly two tons of building waste that finds the end of its journey in landfills, whereas construction of a green home generates 50% to 90% less waste.
            How to create a green environment at home is a bit trickier than why. You don’t have to jump into this endeavor at full speed. There are many small things you can do at home to improve its energy efficiency and reduce its carbon dioxide output that aren’t too extreme and won’t break the bank. It may seem like a no-brainer, but living by the rule of 3 R’s is essential: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Keep these ideas in mind when you acquire, use, or dispose of anything and encourage your family members to do the same. You can close curtains at dusk to stop heat from escaping through the windows and turn off the lights when they aren’t needed. Having potted plants around the home can help purify the air indoors. They act as natural air filters and remove harmful chemicals such as benzene and carbon monoxide from the indoor air. Plants which are particularly helpful in improving indoor air quality include the bamboo palm, gerbera daisy, and peace lily. Only use the washing machine and dishwasher when they have a full load, using cold water to run them, and fix dripping taps. Avoid leaving appliances on standby. In a year 80% of the energy used by electronics is while they are on standby. Use power strips for your computers. Even after you turn off your computer, power continually flows to other units like printers and scanners. Power strips stop energy from being wasted and
are not terribly costly.

            If you are ready to take things a bit further, and would like to get a bit more in-depth with your home-greening venture then it would be wise to consider doing an energy audit in your home. Afterward make a list of what needs to be done to get things up to par. Take that list to your local hardware store and recruit their help in acquiring the supplies needed. When carrying out work, enlist local tradesmen to save on fuel and energy emissions. However, don’t rush into this lifestyle until you have done a bit of research.
            Start by replacing all the light bulbs in your home with compact fluorescent ones. These bulbs use 70-75% less energy than the incandescent kind and last up to ten times longer. By using 26-watt compact fluorescent light bulbs, it will save about $60 on energy costs per bulb, which can be used anywhere from five to seven years. If you can’t tolerate the light from these fluorescent bulbs in your everyday living areas, try using them at least in the hallways, outside, and in the garage. Installing a motion detector outside to replace your outdoor lighting would also be very useful. Outdoor lights that are left on throughout the night waste energy and agitate wildlife. Lighting equipment activated by motion sensors or a timer will keep an area well lit and save energy as well.
            When attempting to save water consider wearing that shirt once more, if it was only lightly worn, before throwing in the wash. If you have children, set a good example by teaching them to turn off the water while brushing their teeth and to take shorter showers. You could then install low flow showerheads to further cut down on water usage. They are worth investing in, especially if you are renting, as you can take them with you. Another way to save water is by installing a low water use toilet.

            One of the biggest areas of energy wastefulness in standard homes is heating and cooling both air and water. Invest in a high-efficiency HVAC system that is Energy Star certified and install it in your home. This will reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted. It will also trim quite a bit off of your energy bill. Be on the lookout for products with a higher SEER rating. This means that the product in question meets strict government criteria required to be certified “energy efficient.” The standard is 13 SEER, but many heating and air conditioning products have a rating up to 18 SEER. A dirty air filter will obstruct the air flow and cost you more to run your system. Regularly clean out or replace your air filters. When not a home, adjust the thermostat to correspond to the shifting temperatures outside. Consider purchasing an automated thermostat. They are well worth the cost because, as with almost all eco friendly investments, you will get back what you spent on it in lower energy bills. You save an estimated 3% of your heating costs for every degree you lower your thermostat during the winter and up to 6% for every degree you raise it during the summers. You should also place more fans in your home. Exhaust fans can pull unwanted heat and humidity from bathroom and kitchen spaces during the summer months. Ceiling fans can help reduce your dependence on air conditioning during the summer and they are also helpful in the winter as they can push heat down from the ceiling. Keep in mind that your roof color and the type of materials used can help lower attic temperatures. Energy Secretary and Nobel laureate Steven Chu recommends painting flat roofs of homes and corporate buildings a heat-reflecting white. He says, “Making roads and roofs a paler color could have the equivalent effect of taking every car in the world off the road for 11 years.” This reflected sunlight could help delay some of the effect of global warming. If white is not your taste, there are other reflective paints out there with the same effect. Light colored tile roofs out perform the shingle ones when it comes to decreasing temperatures.

            Another great way to heat your home is through radiant heating. Forced-air heating sends air at you from vents in your walls and floors, and directing air through all those ducts results in lots of heat and energy loss in the process. Radiant floors can heat the home with less wasted energy in some cases. There are two forms of radiant heating, electronic and hydronic. Electronics carry heat using electricity running through cables under your floor and hydronics warm the home using a series of tubes containing hot water which circulate beneath you. For smaller areas the electronic method would be best, but for those with a larger area it would be a smart choice to use hydronics. Under floor heating raises the room’s mean radiant temperature, which causes the habitant to be able to occupy a room with a lower temperature without a loss of comfort. The lowest air temperatures in the room usually are present right beneath the ceiling. This causes reduced heat loss though the ceiling insulation and results in lower heating cost. A great aspect of hydronic heating is that there is no noise, and it is a very clean method of heating your home. It creates very subtle air circulation through the home, therefore those with allergies would highly benefit from this type of heating as opposed to a forced air system. Another benefit of hydronic flooring is that is can be used in reverse, to cool in the summer, whereas electronics cannot.

            A typical hot water heater will run constantly to keep the water hot all the time, which makes this appliance one of the most costly to operate in your home. You could install one of the newer models that only heat water on demand rather than continuously. Models which are tank-less work very well and can save up to 50% of what an older model would cost to run. There are also solar powered hot water heaters for the ultimate in energy efficiency. Natural heating and cooling is important. Solar heating depends on the sun’s warmth for heat and it converts sunlight into electricity. This is most practical if you live in a warm climate. This can reduce a need for heating by 30-50%. Solar panels just sit on your roof and collect energy without requiring you to add any fuel or replace any parts. If you want to invest in solar panels, consider buying ones that have been previously owned. They are quite a bargain and even after they are upwards of twenty years old they still generate a good percentage of the power that was produced when they were brand new.

            You wouldn’t want to put all this time into heating and cooling your home effectively just to let it all escape to outside. This is why good insulation is essential to an environmentally responsible home. Doors and windows are two obvious areas of concern. Install an aluminum-clad storm door. This type of door will help insulate the entryway of your home, especially when used along with weather-stripping. Double-paned windows have argon or krypton in between. They block sound and insulate better than regular windows. While you’re working on windows, you might also want to think about window tinting to reduce the glare of the sun. It will reduce heat loss in the winter and heat gain in the summer. Tinting will also eliminate up to 99% of damaging ultraviolet rays and reduce fading of your fabrics and furnishings. Put in glass doors for your fireplace. They are not only safer than screens, but they reduce the amount of heat that escapes from your home through the chimney. Use your fireplace only for special occasions because it sends valuable heated air directly out of your home. You should also add insulation to your hot water heater if you don’t invest in a tank-less version. Take care in choosing the kind of insulation you will use in your home. Use formaldehyde free products to avoid health risks. Fiber glass and cellulose are good alternatives. Cellulose is 75% or more recycled newspaper and is non toxic. It is also insect, fire, and mold resistant. Foam insulation comes in rigid sheets or can be sprayed between wall studs and joints to expand and set, afterward surplus foam can be skimmed away.
            After taking all these steps to make the shell of your home eco-smart, you might wonder, “What about the inside?” Many people associate becoming environmentally aware with a sacrifice of style, this quite frankly just isn’t so, but a little tweaking of the mindset of what “in style” is may be in order. Beginning with the walls, avoiding the use of petrochemicals and solvents can make your choice of which paints to use much easier. Environmental paints use traditional materials such as linseed and citrus peel oil. Look for items with a low VOC content.
            For flooring you have a few options. Cork flooring is becoming trendier as green living is embraced by the general public. It naturally produces a waxy material called suberin. This substance causes cork to be a great insulator and resistant to mold and mildew. Cork is an extremely regulated industry. A cork producing tree must be at least 25 years old before its bark can be removed to make products like wine bottle stoppers. Many floor tiles are made out of discarded bottle stoppers and other cork products. The bark grows back over time which is why it is considered a renewable resource. Bamboo is also very eco-friendly as it is rapidly renewable. Bamboo grows quickly and is resistant to insects and disease. This plant is considered far superior to trees because, when you cut bamboo it does not require replanting. The roots stay in place and the plant continues to grow. Also, it matures in about three years which is much faster than trees. Yet another benefit of bamboo is that is contains an antibacterial and pesticide complex called “Bamboo Kun” often making chemicals unnecessary. Amazingly, this compound is retained in the wood even after it is processed. This gives your floors the benefit of being anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, anti-fungal, and even odor resistant.

            If you need something a bit more durable, try tile. It can be made out of a variety of materials including ceramic, glass, or stone and is perfect for high traffic areas. The best thing about tile is that it is a great conductor. When using radiant heating, it can easily warm your home, and it helps keep your home cool in the summer with or without the aid of under-floor cooling. As for carpeting, modular is the way to go. Many companies offer stylish carpet squares that use non-toxic dyes and are made using recycled materials. Carpet squares are a great d├ęcor option because when one gets irrevocably soiled; you can replace one square, rather than an entire floor of carpet. You can even send the marred square back to the manufacturer to be recycled. The best part is how very little labor is involved to install and remove them.
            Fifty years ago your grandparents may have bought a living room set and lived with it for twenty years, with a bit of maintenance when needed. Today we are expected to get the latest look and replace our “outdated” furniture every couple of years. Make a conscious effort to think about the long-term. Choose furniture of a high quality grade that will age well and adapt to your evolving lifestyle. Sofa’s with removable covers are great because they are much easier to clean, and can be swapped for a different fabric and color should you decide to change the color palette of that particular room, without buying an entirely new piece of furniture. It’s a good idea to choose shapes that will work well in different rooms. Making yourself think long-term will help eliminate impulsive decisions.
            Being green doesn’t have to stop inside. Why not take it outdoors as well? Create a garden and grow some of your own food. You can even use your decomposable food waste to help maintain it by making a compost pile. Find a private spot in your yard to house it. Mix food waste with dirt and use a shovel to turn the pile over every other week or so to give it some air. This turns your throwaways into something useful.
            So if you’re thinking about making your home a little greener, take it to the next level and make it happen! Start small or go all out, it’s up to you really. Regardless, anything done in an effort to create a more sustainable future is a step in the right direction. If everyone puts a minimum of effort in it really adds up, and if we all made a conscious decision to make our living practices eco friendly in as many aspects as possible, it would put a huge dent in our environmental problems. There is no reason not to go green in your home, to save everyone’s home, our beautiful and irreplaceable Earth.


  1. Wow, so many good ideas here! I'd so love to have solar panels. Also, LOVE bamboo. I think we should use it--and hemp--for all kinds of things. Paper, cloth, etc.

    I've had bamboo in my yard, and I can attest to the fact that it's impossible to kill. And it grows SO fast!

    Great post!

  2. I appreciate you taking all the time to read that beast of a post. : )

    I'm glad you got a bit of inspiration. I use this article as a jumping off point for all the things I hope to do to my future home. I'm just so fascinated by green living.

  3. Simple trick to cut your electric bill by 75%:

    Want to know how to easily produce all of the renewable energy you could ever want right at home?

    And you’ll be able to make your home completely immune from power outages, blackouts, and energy grid outages
    so even if everyone else in your area (or even the whole country) loses power, you won’t.


  4. I have just installed iStripper, and now I enjoy having the hottest virtual strippers on my desktop.


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