Julie Jacobson: Imagine a world where every home is powered by the sun…
Where every raindrop waters the yard, even on dry days. Where trash is turned into fertilizer, which is used to grow produce. This isn’t science fiction; it can be done today. Here are 15 things you can do to lessen your home’s impact on the environment, ordered by least expensive to most expensive (but most impactful).
Why does it matter? According to Energy.gov, homes and commercial buildings consume 40 percent of the energy used in the United States, the majority of which comes from fossil fuels. According to EPA.gov, the average family of four can use 400 gallons of water every day. Homes also pollute the environment; fertilizers, pesticides, automobile fluids, paint, trash, animal waste and other pollutants can end up in the storm drain system that flows into rivers, harbors and the ocean. Making your home more green can reduce waste and minimize pollutants while saving you money on utility bills.
1. Enroll in online statements and get off junk mail lists
Cost: $0 – $1
Most utility providers, cable companies and financial institutions offer the option to receive online statements instead of printed statements. You just need to log in to the company’s website to change your preferences. Another way to significantly reduce the amount of mail you receive is to opt out of unsolicited commercial mail, credit card offers and insurance offers. The Federal Trade Commission has a few simple tips to get off those lists.
Reducing the amount of mail you receive reduces your impact on the environment in several ways. First, it reduces the number of trees that are cut down to create the mail, which means there will be more trees converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. Second, a reduction in the amount of mail also reduces the amount of airplane and automobile exhaust associated with delivering the mail. Third, it reduces the need for ink, which can contain toxic ingredients, and which takes a lot of fossil fuels to produce and distribute. Finally, it reduces the amount of paper that ends up in landfills.
2. Buy low or no-VOC materials, and dispose of VOC products properly
Those “new carpet,” “new mattress” and “fresh paint” smells aren’t a good thing; those smells are from off-gassing, or the evaporation of chemicals from the material. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, many household items, including furniture, paint, building materials, carpet and cleaning supplies, contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which can irritate your eyes and respiratory tract, and may also affect the central nervous system. Studies of human exposure to air pollutants by the EPA indicate that indoor levels of pollutants may be two to five times – and occasionally more than 100 times – higher than outdoor pollutant levels. To reduce indoor air pollution in your home, it’s best to choose low or no-VOC products, which are generally labeled as such. They cost a little more, but are better for the environment and your health.
If you’ve just moved into a brand new home, or if you’ve remodeled recently with VOC materials, make sure to open your doors and windows and run fans as much as possible to air out your home. To protect the environment from these hazardous chemicals, make sure you properly dispose of products containing VOCs. Check with your city or county’s household hazardous waste collection sites for details.
3. Leave your shoes at the door
Cost: $0 – $3,000
Taking off your shoes and leaving them in the entryway of your house will not only help you avoid getting stains on the carpet, it will also reduce the toxins and pollutants coming into your home. Your shoes pick up all kinds of things that are unhealthy to breathe, from antifreeze and oil to fertilizers and allergens. These get tracked into your house and can go airborne, but can be reduced by taking your shoes off at the door.
If you don’t have much money to spend, you can neatly arrange your shoes in the entryway or purchase a simple shoe rack, which starts at around $10. If you want to invest in something that will hold coats, umbrellas, purses and other accessories, you should look into furniture designed for mudrooms, which ranges in cost from $150 to $3,000 depending on the design and capacity.
4. Switch to LED or CFL lights
Cost: $0 – $10
About 12 percent of an average home’s energy bill goes toward lighting, so a cheap and easy way to reduce your energy bill AND your environmental footprint is to replace all light bulbs (inside and out) with light emitting diode (LED) and compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) bulbs, which use 75 percent less energy than standard incandescent bulbs. These newer bulbs also last 10 to 25 times longer than incandescent bulbs, which means fewer of them end up in a landfill. Another benefit of these bulbs that is often overlooked is the amount of heat they emit. Standard bulbs emit a lot of heat, which means your air conditioner has to run harder in the summer to compensate. CFL and LED lights emit less heat, thus both directly and indirectly saving even more energy.
The bulbs have evolved over the years to fit all types of needs, from recessed lighting to dimming switches for LEDS (CFLs aren’t dimmable), and many CFLs now emit a soft yellowish light that is less harsh than when they were first introduced. Many utility companies offer programs that allow you to receive these bulbs for free or get rebates; be sure to check your provider’s website for details.
5. Create a recycling and compost station
Cost: $0 – $600
Most cities will now pick up and process recyclable material, and several (including San Francisco and Seattle) will also pick up compostable food material and yard waste. But let’s face it: You won’t recycle or compost if you don’t make it easy. Make sure to have bins for trash and recycling in every room, not just the kitchen! A lot of recyclable material is thrown away in home offices and bathrooms because the recycling bin is too far away. There are a lot of programs out there that offer bins for free, and some waste management services offer classes on recycling and composting.
Half the trash that homes produce is composed of food scraps. When those go to the dump, they do nothing, but if you have a compost bin at your house, you can use those scraps to make fertilizer for your garden. Most outdoor composters cost between $100 and $600, depending on how large and secure they are. To avoid attracting pests, make sure to get one with a tight-fitting lid and a secure hatch at the bottom for removing finished fertilizer.
6. Seal gaps around doors and windows
Cost: $1 – $350
Older homes tend to have gaps around doors and windows. All those gaps add up; it’s almost like leaving a window open year round. Your (expensive) hot air in the winter and cold air in the summer is literally going out the window. Putting weather stripping around doors and windows can save you 10 percent on your heating and cooling bill, and prevent energy from being wasted. You can pick it up from any hardware store and install it yourself in a matter of hours. Most foam rolls cost around $5 for 10 feet, or you can spring for the plastic kind, which costs up to $350 but is more durable.
7. Fix leaking toilets and faucets
Cost: $100- $500
Leaking toilets and faucets may not seem like a big deal, but they waste a lot of water. According to EPA.gov, 10 percent of homes have leaks that waste 90 gallons or more per day, and the average household’s leaks can account for more than 10,000 gallons of water wasted every year. To make your home more green, you need to stop the leaks; pay attention to any dripping noises you might hear around the house, and to your water bill; often the biggest sign of a leak is an unexplainable spike in your monthly statement.
If you notice a leak, you’ll need to call a plumber to assess the situation. If left untreated, the fixture may need replacement and your pipes may need to be fixed, which can cost $100 to $500, depending on the hardware required. It’s especially important to stay vigilant if you plan to sell your home; plumbing is part of every standard home inspection. If there are leaks, it may signal to potential buyers that you haven’t been maintaining the home.
8. Collect rainwater to water your plants
Cost: $40 – $1,000+
One night of rain can dump 300 gallons of water on the roof of your house, much of which flows into the street, collecting street pollutants including oil, fertilizer, cigarette butts and animal waste. The runoff ends up in your city’s stormwater collection system, which dumps to our public waterways. Meanwhile, most homeowners use sprinklers to water their lawn and garden. It’s a waste!
Rainwater collection barrels can be part of the solution, especially in drier, drought-prone climates. To install them, you’ll need to hire a professional to clip your gutters and redirect them to pour into the barrel. You can attach a hose to the barrel, or you can simply use a watering can to move the water from the barrel to your plants or garden. Rainwater collection systems range from $40 to more than $1,000, depending on how large the tanks are.
9. Insulate your attic and install an attic fan
Cost: $50 – $2,000
Since heat rises and our roofs are usually dark colored and absorb the sun’s heat, your attic can be as much as 50 degrees warmer than the rest of your house. If your attic is properly insulated, it will act as a tight seal for the air in your house, keeping conditioned air from escaping so your heater and air conditioner don’t have to work so hard, and keeping all that extra attic heat from adding heat to your ceilings. The level of insulation that you need depends on where you live; check out EnergyStar.gov for more information. You’ll need to hire a contractor to insulate your attic properly using a variety of materials, which can cost a few thousand dollars, but many cities and states offer tax rebates to do it, which can help.
Installing an attic fan is another excellent way to reduce the amount of energy spent on heating and cooling your home, and to reduce the potential for moisture buildup in the attic. Attic fans are mounted on your roof and push hot air out of your attic, keeping it from entering your home in the summer and reducing how much air conditioning you need to cool the home. These work particularly well if your attic is already well insulated, so your conditioned air isn’t being pushed out instead of the trapped hot air! Attic fans can be programmed on a thermostat to turn on once the attic reaches a certain temperature, and there are even solar-powered options.
10. Install low-flow showerheads and toilets
Cost: $0 – $300
Older showerheads release approximately five gallons of water a minute, which adds up quickly, especially if you have multiple people showering in the house. According to EPA.gov, showering accounts for nearly 17 percent of residential indoor water use – for the average family, showering uses 40 gallons per day! Low-flow showerheads, such as those with the WaterSense label, use no more than two gallons per minute, which conserves water and cuts down your water bill. And because they use less water, they reduce demands on water heaters, saving energy as well. A lot of local utility companies give away free showerheads and sink aerators, so be sure to check with yours for details.
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 toilets use as much as six gallons per flush, while newer, more efficient toilets use 1.28 gallons or less. The average family can reduce water used for toilets by 20 to 60 percent, and save $110 per year in water costs by replacing old toilets with newer WaterSense labeled models. Low-flow WaterSense toilets are typically priced around $100 -$300.
11. Use native and adapted plants to landscape your yard
Cost: $100 – $1,000+ (depending on size of yard)
Make your home more green: literally. Using native trees and plants to landscape your yard is one of the best things you can do for the environment. According to EPA.gov, approximately 30 percent of water consumed daily in the United States is devoted to outdoor uses, especially irrigation. In addition to using water, maintaining your yard requires the use of fertilizers, pesticides and gas-powered equipment, all of which further pollute the environment. Native landscaping is low maintenance and beautiful, gives a sense of geographic place more than a generic grass lawn, and the local insects and wildlife will enjoy it. Another option is adapted plants, which are not native and not invasive, but are able to thrive in the local climate and soil conditions.
Most nurseries have a native and adapted plants section, and the costs are comparable to non-native plants (which require a lot of water). In desert areas, rock gardens may be expensive at first, but it’s a one-time cost that will pay for itself over time from the reduction in water and maintenance costs. Many cities and utility companies have “cash for grass” programs, where they will pay homeowners to pull out lawn and put in low-water options instead.
12. Practice smart irrigation techniques
Cost: $14 – $150
If you can’t afford natural landscaping that doesn’t require irrigation, the next best thing is to conserve water as much as possible. The most efficient way to water your yard is manually, with a hose (starts at $14), which results in 33 percent less water usage than automatic irrigation systems. If you need to use automated sprinklers, choose drip-type or in-ground systems, and water-efficient spray heads.
You should keep your sprinkler system maintained so nozzles don’t spray on concrete streets and sidewalks or other useless areas. According to RedBeacon, sprinklers cost around $112 on average to repair. You should also program the system to run in the mornings or evenings, where the heat of the day won’t evaporate the water. Another great way to conserve water is to install rain sensors that prevent sprinklers from turning on when it rains, or soil moisture sensors that activate sprinklers only when needed.
13. Purchase energy- and water-efficient appliances
Cost: $460 – $6,000
If you need to replace your household appliances, including dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, ovens and refrigerators, look for Energy Star labels. Energy Star is a partnership between the EPA and appliance manufacturers; the label shows consumers that a third party has verified that the product is low water and low energy. A lot of utility companies and states offer tax rebates for purchasing these types of appliances and other products that make your home more green. They cost a little more at first, but are offset by rebates as well as lower water and energy bills.
14. Maintain (or replace) your water heater
Cost: $100 – $2,000
Old water heaters use gas to heat 50 to 70 gallons of water at all times, even when you’re most likely not using it. If you turn it down a few degrees, from 110 to 105, and put an insulating wrap around it, you will save a lot of energy. A tankless water heater is a better option; it only heats water when you need it, using electricity only when it’s engaged. And because it’s electric, it will work well with solar panels.
Gas water heaters only last 12 to 15 years, which means millions of them are dumped in the landfill every year. Tankless water heaters are much smaller and last about twice as long, so there’s less landfill waste. They run about $1,500 to $2,000 installed. Since it lasts twice as long and uses less energy, the payback period is considerable, and you can get a tax rebate.
15. Install solar panels
Cost: $10,000 – $50,000
Solar panels are an excellent way to make your home more green, and the costs have plummeted in recent years, thanks to a variety of factors. According to CleanTechnica, the upfront costs of installing solar cells averages $17,056 in the United States. While that may seem like a lot, the panels will pay for themselves over time, and there are a lot of tax rebate and incentive programs.
As a homeowner, you have a couple of options for solar panels: You can buy them or lease them month to month. If you lease them, you will have to make a down payment plus pay some interest, but the company will monitor and maintain the system during the entirety of your lease. If you buy them, you don’t have to pay interest, but the maintenance is your responsibility after the initial term of the contract runs out. Note that if you sell your home while leasing, the buyer will need to take on the obligations of the lease.
In most cases, the lease payment is less than your electricity bill, and if you purchase them, you won’t have an electricity bill! However, you may have to pay a small fee to your utility provider each month to connect the panels to the utility grid. Solar panels are an excellent way to conserve energy by producing your own, and can pay for themselves within 10 to 20 years.