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Your Guide to an Eco-friendly Home

Amanda S. Creasey

We’re all familiar with the traditional means of going green: Turn off the water when you brush your teeth, wash clothes in cold water, hit the lights when you leave a room, recycle. Yet there are many more ways we can increase our positive impact on the environment and decrease our carbon footprint, not to mention save money, right in our own homes.

1. Efficient Appliances and Fixtures

Water-Saving Toilets

Flushing your toilets could account for 30 percent of your home’s indoor water use. In fact, in most homes, toilets use–and waste—more water than other appliances. Replacing your old toilet, which may use up to six gallons of water per flush, could save you an estimated 4.72 gallons of water every time you flush, nearly 13,000 gallons of water a year. In fact, many WaterSense labeled toilets use 1.28 gallons or less—even better than the current federal standard of 1.6 gallons. Installing a WaterSense labeled toilet not only conserves water, but can also save you an estimated $110 per year, and more than $2000 over the life of the toilet. You can use the EPA’s Product Search tool to easily find WaterSense labeled products for your home. A knowledgeable do-it-yourselfer comfortable with toilet installation should be able to easily put in a WaterSense toilet, as should any local plumber.

Water-Saving Shower Heads

The average American family uses roughly 40 gallons of water per day showering, accounting for 17 percent of indoor home water use. Standard shower heads use 2.5 gallons of water per minute. You can save an estimated 2,900 gallons of water each year by replacing your standard shower head with a WaterSense labeled shower head, which uses a maximum of 2.0 gallons of water per minute. You can search for them just like you would a WaterSense toilet, with similar labels, using the EPA’s Product Search tool. Use this same tool to determine whether or not your current shower head or other appliances are WaterSense labeled.

LED Lighting

LED stands for light-emitting diodes. For you, it means energy savings and a more efficient home. LEDs use 20 to 30 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs, and last eight to 25 times longer. While they do cost more upfront than incandescent bulbs, the purchase price of LEDs has dropped dramatically over the last decade, and switching to LEDs in your five most frequently used light fixtures is one of the fastest ways to save money—about $75 a year. You can enjoy even more savings if you switch out all your bulbs, a very real possibility, since screw-in LEDs should work with any existing fixtures. The only hiccup you might encounter comes with dimmers. While LEDs can work with dimmer switches, some may buzz or flicker. You can prevent this by swapping out your old dimmer switch with one designed to work with LEDs. Plus, many LEDs, such as the Hue from Phillips, offer smart technology that allows for a range of color options and can be controlled from your phone or tablet. If you can screw in a light bulb, you can have LEDs in your home.

2. Sustainable, Organic Gardening

Rain Barrels

One way to conserve water in your yard and garden is by using a rain barrel (or several) to store water. Outdoor watering needs account for up to 40 percent of household water use during the summer months, according to the EPA. One summer rainstorm can produce over 700 gallons of water that can oversaturate your lawn, wreak havoc on your home’s foundation and pollute nearby waterways by washing soil and pesticides into streams and lakes. Instead, you could use a 25- to 54-gallon rain barrel to collect and store stormwater, later using it to water your garden or lawn. You can dip buckets or a water can into the barrel.

When you use your hose and outdoor spigot to water your lawn or garden, you are using the same water that flows to your sink and shower—water that undergoes an extensive treatment process in order to be potable. When you use water from a rain barrel instead, you help save your local water treatment plant both money and energy. That translates into savings for you, as well—roughly $3 to $12 per year. That may not sound like much, but consider the fact that your rain barrel could help conserve 1,300 gallons of water each year, and you could make a big difference to the environment. You can purchase rain barrels online or in some retail stores. Alternatively, some counties offer rain barrel workshops where, for a minimal fee, you can assemble your own rain barrel with guidance from a county official and materials provided at the event.

Greywater Recycling

Greywater recycling irrigation systems use water you already used paid for to water your garden or landscaping: Pay for the water once, use it twice. Graywater is water used in showers, washing machines, and other places in the home (but not the toilet). Graywater may have bits of food in it, for example. You wouldn’t want to drink it, but you’re plants don’t mind. Although you will want to review your local codes and policies before installing a greywater recycling system, the process can save both water and money.

You don’t need additional water to irrigate your lawn or garden, as you are re-purposing water you already used. While larger plants like trees, shrubberies, and berry bushes are logistically best suited for this type of irrigation system, you can use greywater recycling to water any thirsty plant, even those you plan to eat, so long as the greywater does not come in contact with the part of the plant you plan to consume. Three greywater recycling options include a laundry-to-landscape system, a pumped system, and an automated pumped system for drip irrigation.

A laundry-to-landscape system is the simplest and easiest to install greywater system. It uses your washing machine’s internal pump to force used water out to your garden through a hose hooked up to the drain. Anyone familiar with basic plumbing and landscaping is likely capable of installing this type of system themselves for between $75 and $200.

Skilled do-it-yourselfers are likely capable of installing a pumped system on their own, and can expect to spend between $100 and $600 on materials. While more complicated and costly to install, these systems work well for landscapes with some elevation changes, which may require a pump to force the water up and downhill.

The highest end option, an automated pumped system for drip irrigation, is best installed by a professional, and will likely cost between $5,000 and $20,000. Aside from periodic cleaning of the filtration system, automated pumped systems are low-maintenance. These systems work well if you plan to use drip irrigation, as they filter debris from the greywater, thus helping to avoid clogs in hoses or pipes, but are recommended only if the majority of the landscape to be watered is elevated above the greywater source.

Composting Garbage Disposal

Soon, your garbage disposal may prove invaluable to your sustainable gardening efforts. With support from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and NASA, students at Rice University developed the BioBlend attachment, which works with your current garbage disposal system to separate compostable food waste from anything else that ends up down your drain. The device stores food waste in a separate bin you can empty once full, as well as data about how much food you’re composting, which you can then access online. Although not yet available, BioBlend’s creators predict it will cost less than the garbage disposal to which it will attach.

3. Landscaping for Insulation and Shade

No matter your climatic region, you can make eco-friendly landscaping choices that save energy and money. A well-planned landscape designed for maximum efficiency can pay for itself in less than eight years by reducing your heating and cooling costs through its ability to shield your home from winter winds, insulate it from winter cold and shade it from summer sun. Careful landscaping decisions could cut your summertime air conditioning costs by up to 50 percent.

If you live in an area with hot summers and cold winters, consider planting deciduous trees to the south of your home. Because these trees lose their leaves in the winter, they will allow sun to reach and warm your home in the cooler months, while shielding it from 70 to 90 percent of the hot sun in the warmer months without blocking the breeze. Planting short trees and shrubs to the north/northwest of your house can create a windbreak to help insulate your home in both summer and winter, as well as reduce the impact of wind chill on your home.

If you live in an area prone to drifting snow, low-lying shrubs such as junipers or dwarf Japanese plum yew, both evergreens that stand between one and three feet tall, on the windward side can stop the snow before it drifts against your house. A study in South Dakota found that windbreaks could cut a home’s fuel consumption by an average of 40 percent.

4. Energy-Saving Window Treatments

Thermal Curtains

Thermal curtains are available in most retail stores and online. They look just as fashionable as regular window treatments, but help insulate your home by reducing heat loss through your windows. A high-quality thermal curtain can increase your window’s R-value, which refers to the ability to resist losing heat. These curtains usually consist of two or three layers, with a thick, insulated backing. The glass-facing side often features a protective coating to guard against sun damage. During cooler months, keep thermal curtains open on windows that receive direct sunlight to maximize your solar heat gain, closing them at sunset to retain the heat in your home, potentially reducing heat loss by up to 10 percent. And curtains are an easy DIY hanging project.

Blackout Curtains

Like thermal curtains, blackout curtains are available online or in brick and mortar stores. People typically purchase them to keep rooms dark during daylight hours. A common use for them is helping to facilitate napping babies—dimming what might otherwise be bright daytime sunshine — or kids’ sleep, when daylight runs long or light from the street hits the window. These curtains can also help insulate your home from unwanted solar heat gain in the warmer months. Curtains with a light colored backing will more effectively reflect light, and can decrease your home’s heat gain by 33 percent during the summer months, according to The Nest. In these warmer months, draw the curtains before the sun shines directly into a window, and keep them drawn throughout the daylight hours to best minimize heat gain.

Solar Film

Solar film is an after-market, retrofitted film that can be applied to your home’s windows to help prevent solar heat gain, similar to tinting the windows of your car. Though installing solar window film on double-paned windows can void their warranty and is thus not advisable, installing the film on single-paned windows can be a wise investment. Whereas ultraviolet light-blocking drapes can run over $100, a roll of solar film costs between $6 and $14, and is easy to install yourself.

5. Home Energy Production

Photovoltaic Cells (Solar Panels)

While the average cost of electricity rises an estimated 3 percent annually, the cost of installing solar panels to convert sunlight into electricity has been consistently dropping, and helps reduce dependence on coal and oil. These solar panels generate clean energy and can last for 20 to 25 years—or even longer—with little to no maintenance. While a system can cost $12,000 to $15,000 to install, it usually pays for itself within 5 to 10 years. The only cost you may incur is the need to replace an inverter, the device that converts direct current (DC) power into alternating current (AC) power, the type of power that runs household appliances. You’re not likely to face that cost more than once.

The average American home consumes 1 kilowatt of energy every hour, and the average American roof receives four full hours of sunlight each day—enough sunlight for one 250-watt solar panel to produce enough energy to power your home all day. When deciding whether or not your home could benefit from solar panels, there are several factors to consider, such as placement. In general, the south-facing side of your roof will provide optimal placement, but to determine the best placement, angle, and orientation, you will need to contact a professional who can assess your home’s particular situation.

Solar Shingles

If you cringe at the idea of large solar panels installed on your roof, but still have an interest in solar power, solar shingles could prove a more aesthetically pleasing option for you. One solar shingle produces 50 to 200 watts of energy, and an entire roof of them can power your whole house. These shingles, which resemble traditional roof shingles and are installed in a similar manner, generate electricity while they protect your home from the elements. Because they play the role of both a roof and solar panels, they cost more to install—around $30,000—than solar panels alone. To decrease your cost, you might replace a small section of shingles, as opposed to your whole roof. The most cost-effective route to installing solar shingles is to wait until you need to replace part of the roof anyway. If the replacement is due to roof damage, companies that offer Green Rebuilding Coverage may help offset the cost of installing solar shingles, or provide additional coverage for green repairs and replacements.

READ MORE: Electrics, Hybrids and Gas-Sippers: Understanding Your Green Driving Options

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