Yesterday I mentioned that home improvement projects are making a big comeback. It’s going to be a good year to remodel, renovate, fix up, or update your home, but the common thread between all the most common projects is eco friendliness and sustainability. If you’re looking to green your home this year but aren’t quite sure where to start, here are a few types of “green home” upgrades to help you figure out where your home is doing well, and where it can stand to improve.
Energy efficiency is the big one you have power to control in a pre-existing home (rather than new construction), and something that especially older homes suffer from. Energy efficiency encompasses everything from your light bulbs to your water heater, and can be addressed in a variety of ways. My first, best piece of advice is to go get a home energy audit, stat. It will give you a report encompassing all aspects of your home’s energy efficiency (or inefficiency) and let you know right away what areas are most in need of improvement. Home energy audits are also best done in the winter, when cold air seeping into your home is most visible to an infrared camera. Much of what you’ll find out from a home energy audit is stuff you’ll need to hire someone else to fix – like insulating your duct work, replacing your furnace or air conditioner, or replacing your windows with better sealed, more weatherproof windows. But there are also many smaller projects that can really add up:
- Change Your Air Filters. Air filters are meant to be changed or cleaned regularly, at least once a month. When left unattended, they fill and clog, forcing your heater or air conditioner to work harder, wasting energy and wearing out these most-expensive appliances, as well as lowering your indoor air quality.
- Replace Your Light Bulbs. Environmentalists have been singing this tune for years, but newer CFL, efficient incandescent, and LED bulbs last longer, use significantly less power, and produce a similar color and quality light (unlike early models, which gave off light with a bluish tint).
- Get A Programmable Thermostat Already. If you haven’t heard the arguments, you might be in the dark. This small, inexpensive upgrade gives you greater control of your heating and cooling, meaning comfortable temperatures when you need them and no wasted energy when you’re asleep or away from home.
- Update Your Appliances. A home energy audit will definitely bring these to light, but chances are you know already – if your refrigerator, dishwasher, washer, dryer, furnace, air conditioner, or water heater are old or out of date, they’re using more energy than they should. When upgrading always always look for Energy Star (and WaterSense!) ratings to ensure you’re getting the most efficient machine possible. This counts for lamps and other lighting fixtures and electronics, too!
- Consider Alternative Energy Sources. For the first time it’s becoming truly viable for the average family to get their energy from things like personal solar panels or even tiny wind turbines. These are a pricier option, but can help offset your home’s power consumption while significantly reducing your carbon footprint.
Water efficiency audits are less common than energy audits for the simple reason that water leaks are often much more catastrophically noticeable than air leaks. But water savings are often much easier to make, especially as part of a larger remodel, and can add up to a significant reduction in your monthly utility expenses – both your water and your sewage costs. So take a look at all the water-consuming fixtures and appliances in your home. Chances are, if any of the fixtures are more than 5 or 10 years old, you can do much better.
- Low Flow, Dual Flush Toilets. I’ve talked about low flow toilets a bit before, but in case you’re new here: they’re better than they used to be. Dual flush toilets especially allow you to cut water use by up to 40% without losing flush-effectiveness. If you’ve been holding on to an older toilet, look for new, innovative models like those from INAX that are specially designed to maximize flush power while minimizing water use.
- Fix Up Your Faucets. In both the kitchen and the bathroom, faucets are getting a major facelift – redesigned with ceramic plates and special aerators that reduce the flow of water without reducing the apparent water pressure. Plus, the ceramic plates will prevent drips and leaking over the life of the faucet.
- Slow Down Your Shower. One of the things people are most reluctant to change to save water is the shower head. After all, no one likes a wimpy, low-pressure shower (and I can admit, I’m a little guilty of this myself). But newer shower heads are better, employing the same technology as faucets to create the feel of a torrential downpour while actually lowering the amount of water you’re using.
- Stop The Drip. If you have a leaky faucet or shower head, repair it or replace it, period.
- Check Your Appliances. Usually when you’re talking about water efficiency the conversation is more or less limited to the bathroom. But your dishwasher and washing machine can be among the biggest water hogs in your home, especially if you have an older model. Look for major appliances that have a good WaterSense rating as well as an Energy Star one to maximize your water savings.
- Landscaping. Now, this is a touchy subject I know – people are attached to their green lawns and having lush landscaping has a direct effect on the value of your home. But especially in arid climates, keeping grass green year round takes a LOT of water you probably aren’t too happy to be paying for. If your grass is hard to keep up, consider xeriscaping, or incorporating local plants and mulch that will thrive in your climate without excessive water.
Indoor Air Quality
Finally, I’d like to leave you with a little note about indoor air quality. It’s often the most overlooked aspect of the green home movement, for reasons that are easy to see. After all, saving energy and water are both tangible acts with concrete results (not the least of which being the bottom line on your monthly utility bills!). But indoor air quality is something that’s almost impossible to notice, despite the fact that a poor indoor air quality can actually make your family sick over time. What do you do about it?
- Low Or No VOC. VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are toxins that are released into the air in your home over time by everything from the paint you use to the furniture you buy. When shopping for new furniture, picking your new paint, or even household cleaners, look for ones clearly marked as having low or preferably no VOCs.
- Watch Your Ventilation. Your home energy audit might have you thinking that the biggest problem with your ventilation system is that it’s leaky. But one of the drawbacks of having a100% weatherproofed, air-tight home is that any bad stuff in the air inside stays and builds up inside. So make sure that if you’re opting for double paned windows and extensive weatherization, that you also make sure your air is adequately ventilated and that you have a good way to get clean air inside.
Many of the changes and green upgrades you can make to your home are simple and inexpensive, and will start saving you money immediately. So whether you intend to do a major remodel this year, or if you just want to pick a project or two, consider making your choice a green one. What green features does your home have? Which ones do you WISH it had?