15 Ways to Green Your Home

We've all heard about green homes and green building practices, but what are the practical steps each of us can take to save energy, reduce indoor air pollution, increase the comfort of our homes, and reduce our impact on the Earth? Here is a distillation of the best changes, upgrades, and improvements that will make the biggest difference to you and the planet:

solar panel grass house

1. Replace light bulbs with compact fluorescent (CFL) or light-emitting diode (LED) types to reduce your power consumption by at least 4-fold. Each CFL lasts up to 10 times longer than incandescent, LED even longer. Have a dark area in your home because there is no place for a window? Install skylights and solar tubes for natural light. Bring the light in from above, and save energy on lighting.

2. Replace old appliances, such as refrigerators, dishwashers, clothes washers & dryers, and hot water heaters with new, energy-efficient appliances. Older appliances use much more energy than newer ones. Energy Star® products additionally meet strict energy-efficiency guidelines set by the EPA and Department of Energy, thereby using even less energy than a conventional new appliance.

3. Plant native vegetation and irrigate minimally. Native plants are not only easier to maintain, but also reduce the need to water and fertilize as much compared with non-native plants. Reduce irrigation levels to the minimum necessary for the plants chosen, and irrigate between 1 and 5 am, when the sun is down and the soil is cool, to minimize evaporation and get the most out of the water you do use.

4. Add energy-efficient windows. Double-paned windows are the new standard, providing much more insulating capacity than single-paned windows. They will also make your home much quieter inside. Low-emittance (Low-E) glass windows can keep heat out of your home in the summer and inside your home in the winter. Be much more comfortable, and save money too! Installing windows with these features can save 20% on your energy bill. Window replacement is not at top of the list for energy savings due to their relatively high cost. Tip: avoid metal frames, and opt instead for windows with wood, vinyl, aluminum-clad wood, or fiberglass frames.

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5. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that evaporate at room temperature, and are one cause of indoor air pollution. Installing low-VOC carpets, using natural wood flooring instead of synthetic products, using formaldehyde-free insulation, and applying low-VOC paint indoors are all good ways to reduce emissions of harmful VOCs inside your home. Vacuum out debris from the attic and crawlspace to reduce toxic materials, particulates, and dust in your home.

6. Use OSB wood, FSC wood, recycled wood & engineered siding and lumber. Oriented-strand board (OSB) is an engineered wood product that can be used to sheathe roofs and walls, reducing the need to cut down trees. Hardie board siding, made from cellulose-reinforced concrete, can be cut with a circular saw, painted, and lasts 50 years. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a non-profit organization that sets standards for certification of wood products, to ensure that they come from sources that manage forests in both an environmentally and socially responsible way. Engineered wood beams and structural members are stronger and waste less wood than traditional ones.

7. Reduce carpeting by installing hard surface floors such as bamboo, linoleum, cork, or concrete instead. The weight of carpeting increases 4-fold over its life due to absorbed dust, debris, moisture, pet stains, grime, grease, etc.

solar panel cartoon house

8. Install solar panels and take advantage of incentives available to lower the cost. Photovoltaic (PV) panels have a payback period of 7-15 years. The price of installation is actually cut in half by available subsidies. For homeowners, there is a state of California rebate of 20% and a federal tax credit of 30% on the whole cost. One requirement is that homeowners work with a contractor approved by Energy Upgrade California. A list of these contractors can be found on their website: www.EnergyUpgradeCA.org. Information about rebates, tax credits, and benefits of a home energy upgrade can also be found on the website or by calling the Bay Area Energy Upgrade California Hotline at (855) 464-8484 from 8 am to 4 pm.

9. Insulate the attic of your home in the rafters or the roof plane. Insulating in the rafters above the ceiling is a cost-effective way to save money on heating and cooling costs. Even better, insulating in the roof plane turns the attic into conditioned space through which ducts can be run. Not only is it cheaper than insulating in the ceiling joists, but it is safer, as you will not be placing insulation around wiring. Insulation in the roof plane can cut your energy bill by 20%, saving you at least $120/year. When insulating in the roof plane, open-cell spray foam or fiberglass bats are best. Both of these are permeable to water, so that any roof leaks are obvious, and they can be removed and replaced if there is a leak.

10. Reduce, reuse, and recycle construction materials. Recycle as much of the house and construction materials as possible during a remodel, because less transportation is needed, thereby providing an energy savings. In addition, less landfill waste is produced, saving money on disposal fees.

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11. Get a home energy audit by a reputable company. The key part of the audit is a performance test, in which air is pushed through the house, and the total amount of air leakage is calculated from the total pressure drop measured. Air leak locations are identified with "fake smoke". A typical home performance evaluation costs about $700.

From the results of this testing, all points in the house that are leaking air, including windows, doors, and fireplaces, can then be sealed properly, and the air flow can be balanced based upon the measurements and calculations. If the heating and A/C ducts are leaking, they should be sealed well with mastic, not just tape, to stop the leaks completely. The end result of the testing, repairs, and adjustments is energy savings and improved indoor air quality.

12. Tankless water heaters, which supply hot water on demand, can be very efficient and convenient when paired with recirculation pumps that get the hot water flowing when you enter the room. Open the tap, and the water is hot! These recirculation systems utilize a motion sensor to turn on, take 15-20 seconds to bring the temperature up, can be retrofitted into an existing system, and cost about $800-$1000. They do require an electrical outlet.

When choosing a hot water heater, also consider condensing storage water heaters and power-vent water heaters. Like a high-efficiency furnace, these water heaters condense water from the flue gas to recover the maximum amount of energy possible. The power-vent type provides cool exhaust which can be run through common PVC pipe over a long, non-linear run, and is a good choice for retrofitting older homes.

13. Install a "cool" roof to reflect heat back and keep your attic and home cool in the summer. Because high heat also dramatically shortens the life of a roof, cool roofs last much longer than a traditional roof as well. These roofs can simply be a lighter-colored traditional roofing material, or one of the new spray-on materials developed at Lawrence Berkeley Labs. The spray-on material is very long-lasting, but is intended only for flat or shallow-pitched roofs.

Because the original bright white color is effective but not very attractive, a new line of "cool colors" that are easier on the eye has been developed and is now available. When making your decision, consider not only their appearance to you, but to your neighbors as well, and you will maintain their happiness and property values as well as yours! For more steeply-pitched roofs, consider installing radiant barrier roof sheathing or long-lasting metal roofs that look like traditional composite shingles.

het toilet

14. Install water-efficient toilets. Toilets are by far the main source of water use in the home, accounting for nearly 30 percent of an average home's indoor water consumption. Older, inefficient toilets also happen to be a major source of wasted water in many homes. Switching over to water-efficient plumbing fixtures could save the average household as much as $50 to $100 a year on water and wastewater bills. Older toilets typically used up to 7 gallons per flush, then they 'evolved' to a more efficient 3.5 gallons per flush, and again to 1.6 gallons per flush.

Designed for water conservation, high efficiency toilets (HETs) have been defined by the plumbing industry and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as those that use at least 20 percent less water per flush than the industry standard of 1.6 gallons, i.e. 1.3 gallons or less. The WaterSense label is used on toilets that are certified by independent laboratory testing to meet rigorous criteria for both performance and efficiency.

There are two basic kinds of HETs: Gravity-fed single-flush toilets operate the same way as any standard toilet, but they use less total capacity per flush. Typical flush capacities that are available for these models are 1.1 and 1.3 gallons.

Dual-flush toilets are designed for light and heavy flushes, with light flush capacities from 0.8 to 1.1 gallons, and heavy flush capacities from 1.3 to 1.6 gallons per flush. These toilets typically operate with a handle that can move up or down, or a two-button system. One direction or button will activate the lower flow flush, while the other will activate the higher flow flush. These dual-flush types are a bit more expensive than regular toilets, starting at around $300.

Rebates are available from EBMUD to homeowners who install HET toilets: EBMUD HET rebate program

15. More information about green building practices and home energy conservation can be found in the green building section of my website: http://www.dansuich.com/green-building