Easy Green Home
Making Your Home Greener and Healthier - Starting Today
How can you - without much fuss or expense - start making your home a greener, healthier, more eco-friendly place to live?
This Lens will show you some simple and effective ways to "green" your dwelling. Some you can start this minute, some need a little preparation or kick in next time you do maintenance on your home, and some are larger issues to consider as you alter your present home or plan a new one.
Let's consider your home from outside to inside - see where a few changes might green things up.
The picture there? That's Henry David Thoreau's famous cabin on Walden Pond. In many ways he (and naturalist John Muir) were the first Americans to value nature and to advocate living in harmony with it. So I'm going to consider Thoreau's House as a sort of Patron Saint's Shack for this site.
(The original illustration from Thoreau's Walden is a public domain image, here it's been colored.)
Basic Green Principles
The ideas behind making your home more sustainable are simple - to use fewer resources in building and running it! Methods to do this can also be pretty straightforward:
1) In daily living, use less (or no!) energy, water, or other resources.
2) Reduce or eliminate waste and deal with unavoidable waste in the most sustainable way.
3) In building, use less quantity of materials and use more sustainable materials that need less shipping, installed in the most sustainable manner.
USE WISELY - CHOOSE WISELY
Basically, whenever you make a choice about your home, choose the most sustainable option available to you (and your budget of money, time, attention etc.)
At least in theory.
In practice, becoming greener at home means doing some homework because choosing the green option can involve many interlocking and contradictory issues. Sometimes being green involves a bit more work, but it feels rewarding because you know it's good citizenship and good stewardship of our shared planet... and - extra bonus! - being ecologically thrifty often saves money.
That homework is all the more important because technology and legislation on environmental issues keeps changing... what building codes require as far as insulation or energy use keep getting more stringent, but the best green option the market offers today may be replaced by a much better option tomorrow!
A whole list of specific suggestions follow...
"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."
- John Muir
Books on Green Living & Building
Read up on green living and building - in a lot more detail than we can get into here. There's a book to answer any question.
Use less by needing less...
(Through using energy wisely and reducing your needs.) This is the old advice of "A penny saved is a penny earned." Still true.
Seasonal energy saving ideas.
Extra insulation just means that - like a beer cooler - your home holds its temperature better and longer. So if you're spending energy and money to heat or cool your home... you save on both.
When building a new house it's easy and cheap (one of the cheapest changes you can make!) to add extra insulation.
But even an existing home can usually have some insulation added relatively easily. The first place to look is in the attic. Replacing missing insulation batts and then adding a new top layer of fiberglass insulation is often an easy DiY job. (Remember to wear gloves and a dust mask to keep fiberglass out of your skin and lungs!) Insulation above your dwelling - like when you wear a wooly hat - is especially valuable in holding in winter heating. But when you realize how hot a summer-time attic is... it helps with cooling too.
Walls with insufficient insulation can have extra loose insulation or foam insulation blown in, though this can be a more difficult, disruptive job.
A very important part of insulating your home is making sure that doors and windows fit well. It's often easy to add weatherstripping to keep out drafts and keep your expensive air conditioning or heating inside.
Adding storm windows - perhaps seasonally in a cold climate - makes a huge difference, since glass is a poor insulator. When building a new house this is a place to budget extra money for the best windows and doors you can afford. Look for insulated glass (double panes with an insulative air space between them).
As our mothers all called out to us when we left the door open, running out to play in the snow, "We're not trying to heat the whole outdoors!"
Okay, it's just silly to think about ordering huge amounts of insulation through the internet, but there are other, little insulative items that do fit here. Weatherstripping and draft-stoppers are useful year round to cut down on air infiltration into and out of your home. But just because they're useful doesn't mean they can't be fun!
Don't forget to close off and/or insulate things like window air conditioners and pet doors too.
As the weather changes throughout the year, make seasonal adjustments to help keep your home comfortable (and to use less energy!).
SPRING and SUMMER: add or open sunshades, awnings, or sunblinds; plant deciduous trees or shady vines on the south or west of your dwelling; check and replace/repair insect screens; wash windows (just for your viewing pleasure) and consider light colored interior blinds or curtains; refurbish porches and patios for warm weather use; consider adding fans; consider summer weight "cool" colored slipcovers on sofas etc. and summery floor coverings or cool-feeling bare floors; and choose "cool" colors for decorating and painting, a pale blue ceiling is traditional for porches... and discourages wasps..
FALL and WINTER: now's time to remove summer's slipcovers to reveal that warm velvet sofa or to throw cozy lap blankets over that easy chair; bring in the rugs!; add a sheepskin in front of the fire; or add a fireplace (a fuel efficient one); when you can, let the sunshine in!; but for dark and cold, hang blinds and/or heavier curtains to stop drafts... maybe even curtains between rooms; bring out the heavier bed quilts; check and replace weatherstripping; add storm windows and/or doors; and choose to decorate with "warm" colors like red or orange.
"Beat the Heat: 10 Design Tips" a terrific! article about low-tech ways to fight hot weather.
Solar Gain and Shading
Your house is ALREADY a solar collector!
That west or south facing wall, if unshaded by trees, soaks up the sun's rays all day long, warming your interior. In February in Maine this may be a great idea! In Texas in August... not so much.
Figure out what your house's orientation is - where the north, south, east, and west walls are and where these are shaded or fully exposed. Then consider where and when you would like that extra solar heating and when not. For instance, one of the best things most home owners could do would be to plant a deciduous tree to the south, southwest, or west of their house. There this friendly shady tree would lower your solar heat gain (and air conditioning bill) all summer, but after its leaves fall, allow that extra sun's warm to help with winter heating. Simple. Cheap. Amazingly green.
In the same way, a carefully placed porch or awning can do seasonally cool your house. Even something as simple as planting deciduous vines on a west or south wall can help considerably. (South in the northern hemisphere, of course. On the other half of the Earth it's the north wall that needs shading.)
Another incredibly simple trick is to make sure your roof is a light color. If you want to see just how much difference color makes, visit a car sales lot on a hot sunny day: sit first in a white model car, than an identical but black one.
In a cold climate, you might want that darker roof (though the global warming argument suggest not even then). Or you might want to add a lean-to style green house to your southern exposure. Sun warmed air inside it can help warm your home well into the cooler months of fall and spring.
Shading on the outside of a window helps more than on the inside. Consider exterior shading by tree or overhang first, then installing tinted or low-e glass, to reduce solar gain through the glass itself, lastly, think about blinds for sun control on the inside.
A simple swag of canvas (or something more high-tech) can cool a lot of patio, deck, or house.
The Energy Department estimates that old-fashioned window awnings can reduce solar heat gain (the amount the temperature is raised by sunlight) by up to 65 percent at south-facing windows and 77 percent facing west.
"Shades of Nostalgia" an article about awnings.
Using water wisely is an important part of green living.
Some help can come from changing habits: turn off the running water while you brush your teeth; adjust water levels when you do laundry; and drink filtered tap water rather than buying bottled water.
Newer appliances and plumbing fixtures are much more thrifty with water than ones even a few years old. Seriously consider these frugal replacements. I'm particularly in favor of the new two-flush-option models of toilets - Big flush and Little flush as the job requires. It makes sense! It's even possible to retrofit your existing toilet with a two-flush mechanism simply and without tools. (I installed one myself easy-peasy and am finding easy to live with too.)
On the other hand, low-flow shower heads are just not as satisfying as the full-waterfall old fashioned kind... but they're getting better.
One of the simplest things is to routinely fix ANY leak or drip immediately - it's amazing how fast that drip adds up to wasted gallons.
Water Saving Plumbing
Switch out your water hog for a water miser!
Whenever you choose new materials or appliances etc. or design or redesign your house, pick the most sustainable options you can afford.
"A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone."
- Henry David Thoreau
When building, remodeling, or redecorating your home, consider using "green" materials and products.
This "green" thing is not as simple as it first seems though, because there are several, sometimes conflicting, issues to think through.
For instance, any lumber, stone, or other material or product is "greener" if it's local because that means less shipping (plus it's usually aesthetically appropriate to the region too). But wood especially should be sustainably harvested. No stolen rain-forest please! Bamboo is usually sustainable because it's so fast growing... but some manufacturers are better than others.
Or should the wood be recycled? Another good option. In fact, recycling or just plain leaving-stuff-as-it-is is often the "greenest' choice.
Another consideration is how natural versus man-made (often petroleum based) a material may be. Some materials irritate sensitive people. What nasty off-gassing of chemicals may this material have? Formaldehyde, for instance, is used in many wood products as a preservative, but can be dangerous. I highly recommend low VOC paints for this reason - they give off MUCH less smell and chemical fumes than standard paints, though they cost more.
Cost can be a big factor for most of us.
Unfortunately, there is not only a lot of confusion about what materials are or are not "green" but some out-right lying too. Don't believe all the greenwash in ads and product literature. You need to do some homework, then weigh your options.
Lighting and Electricity
There are several aspects to green lighting. The first question is whether you can't make daylight work for you? Can you open up blinds or add a window or skylight so that, during the day, you need little or no supplemental light? As part of this - especially when building or remodeling - consider whether you can get natural morning light into an area you use in the morning, for instance, like eastern morning sun in a breakfast room.
If/when you do need electric light, what task lighting do you need? Versus what ambient or general lighting? And where? It's not uncommon for a bathroom, say, to have a bright overhead light that just casts shadows on the face of a man trying to shave his face. Lower watt lights located each side of the mirror might take less energy, yet give more useful illumination. Think through every room in this way. Kitchens are often terribly lighted. Other rooms may work better with a few table lights instead of a central ceiling fixture.
Whatever the light fixture, consider switching from old fashioned incandescent bulbs to the new (color corrected) fluorescents: they use much less energy.
With the same care, evaluate all your electrical appliances and, when you can, replace them with lower energy models. Look for EnergyStar TM appliances.
If you have electric heat, be aware that this is an inherently inefficient method, so try to minimize its use if you can. Turn any thermostat warmer in summer and cooler in winter to save energy. Nothing is greener than wearing a sweater!
Soda Bottle Lighting
Low Energy Use and Solar Lighting
Fluorescent and especially LED bulbs take less store-boughten energy that conventional incandescent bulbs. But I think LED is going to win the competition... if only because they aren't so hazardous to get rid of.
And what could use less than a solar powered light fixture?
"Do not worry if you have built your castles in the air. They are where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."
- Henry David Thoreau
Several things effect indoor air quality.
One is the off-gassing of building materials. The fumes of drying paint are obvious, but the new-car-smell from carpeting, fabrics, vinyl flooring, adhesives etc. can add up to a headache... or much worse for susceptible people. And this off-gassing goes on for months after the obvious smell dies away.
Another issue is dust. Clean air filters and ducts make a big difference. (Quick! Change your air filter - it probably needs it!) Carpet is a terrible dust collector - for this reason, asthmatics often remove it from their homes.
Mold and mildew have been over-hyped by the media as a danger. but they do create a real problem that can be hard to eradicate. The biggest issue is to first remove any source of moisture - dry up the mildewed area - and thoroughly clean and seal it. Sunlight and movement of clean, dry air, if you can get it, will keep the mustiness from recurring.
In today's tighter homes, stale air can become a problem. Be sure that you're getting enough outside air into your system. (Not a problem in a nice, drafty old house!)
Having houseplants can really clean up indoor air quality! But only if they are carefully tended and watered so their pots and surroundings don't become the source of the mildew.
There are - every day - more and more ecology-friendly green cleaning products available, from recycled-paper towels to biodegradable cleaning formulas. Aim for the low-impact choices.
Use the simplest, gentlest cleaning materials you can find. Scrubbing with baking soda - plus a little salt if needed - works well as a sink cleanser... and costs less too. Vinegar is another good old-fashioned cleaning material. Try vinegar and newspaper to clean windows; vinegar to scrub mildew; vinegar and baking soda to foamy-clean drains; more vinegar to clean pretty well anything except polished marble. (It etches.)
It's easier to recycle - and you're more likely to do it! - if you take a little time and thought to place recycling bins where they'll be convenient to use. And if you find/make/buy bins that will be comfortable to empty or drag to the curb. Think it through. Make it easy.
Gotta have 'em. All those bottles and cans and plastic and paper has to wait around - neatly - for recycling day.
"Beware of all enterprises that require a new set of clothes."
- Henry David Thoreau
No good building an environmentally friendly house... then filling it with chemical pesticides!
Try to use low toxicity pest control methods. For instance, scattering borax along baseboards really discourages roaches - so does not leaving out pet food (or any other food) overnight. Leave a few spiders - whatever they find to eat, you didn't want in your house anyway.
Old fashioned methods include: humane mousetraps; using cedar and herbs like cloves, lavender, bay leaves etc. to chase away moths; citronella candles to chase off mosquitoes; borax scattered at baseboards to discourage roaches; vinegar wiping counters frequently to (slightly) discourage ants; and seriously! putting away ALL pet and of course people food at night to discourage everything.
Terrific Source for "Green" Building Advice
The U. S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is THE leading group in the "greening" the American building industry. This is where architects, builders, and planners look for guidence on these sometimes complicated issues.
Check out their advice page!
- Green Home Guide
The USGBC website's Q & A page.
"God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools."
- John Muir
A few places to look for other green ideas...