Save money while greening your home
The road to a greener home is paved with cheap tools like power strips and caulk guns.
Cutting-edge green technologies promise to reinvent our energy infrastructure, reshape industry, and save our environment. But when it comes to saving money on energy at home, little steps can take you a long way there.
And let's be realistic: people usually need to plan for big home expenses. So before you shell out for that super-efficient geothermal pump or shiny solar panels, here's a way to think of your home's overall environmental footprint and take some steps towards green-ness.
Once you've tackled the basics, we'll tell you how you can start thinking big.
Use less juiceThe first thing to focus on is lowering energy use. Let's start with electricity.
The problem most of us face is that we're in the dark when it comes to knowing what consumes what in our homes. If you knew the lightly-used freezer in the basement sucked up 20 percent of your electricity bill, you might find an alternative.
Utilities are starting to install so-called smart meters--essentially a meter upgraded with a two-way communication card--can surface more fine-grained information on people's electricity usage. Since not everybody has access to these meters, a good rule of thumb is that the big appliances--refrigerator, air conditioning, clothes drier, pool pump--are your big energy consumers. Lighting, too, is high on the list with consumer electronics quickly rising up in the ranks. Electronics account for about 20 percent of people's electricity bills in some places.
Even before you have a smart meter installed, you can get a better read on where your electricity is flowing and, with luck, locate the energy hogs in your house. A good place to start is a cheap power meter, such as the $35 Kill a Watt which is available online. Plug something into the Kill A Watt which plugs into a socket and a small display shows your consumption. To get a picture of your whole home's usage, try an home energy monitor, which run between $100 and $200 and can also be found at online retailers.
Even without these information tools, you can cut your bills just by putting low power consumption on your list of desired features. EnergyStar is a good place to start or CNET's own efficiency rating for TVs and PCs. Everybody knows about compact fluorescent bulbs and LEDs, but you can also consider skylights or a solar tube that lets light in through the roof.
Next, attack your "vampire load." I put my computer and peripherals on a power strip and just flick it off when I'm done--no stand-by power needed. "Smart" power strips are more clever, letting you pick which electronics--DVR, lights--that you want to have stand-by power and which that you want to shut down completely when you're not around. If you search online for a "smart strip," you can find them online for about $35 or $40. U.S. households spend $100 or more a year on stand-by power alone, according to the EnergyStar program.
Cooling and heatingWhen it comes to your overall spending on energy, heating and cooling is the big item, representing 40 percent of what most Americans spend, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
Again, efficiency is the first step. The big thinkers in building science these days increasingly talk about one thing: weatherization. That means sealing the cracks in your home's "envelope" with caulk or expandable foam. Think of the seal as a windbreaker on your home. With that in place, you can lay down more insulation--the equivalent of a thicker sweater--to keep cool and warm air where you want it.
I recommend getting an energy audit, either a free one through a utility or a company that can run a blower door test with an infrared camera to spot those leaks. Running a bead of caulk along to close leaks in windows isn't very hard, but let the professionals do the more difficult jobs. As boring as this seems, we're talking real money: the EPA estimates that the owner of a well weatherized home can lower heating and cooling costs by 20 percent annually.
Replacing your windows, generally speaking, is not the most cost-effective way to better air-seal your home. And nearly all energy-efficiency measures, like getting a programmable thermostat, are subsidized either by utilities or by federal tax credits.
Alt energyOnce you get the low-hanging fruit out of the way, you can think about new ways to power and heat your home.
Perhaps the most energy-efficient way to heat and cool your home is with a ground-source heat pump, also called geothermal pumps. These systems essentially use the earth for energy storage and use a pump to send a liquid underground to retrieve it. Like any heating/cooling system, it costs a lot of money upfront but customers report significantly lower bills.
If you think you'll live in your home for a long time and have good sun, consider solar power.
A solar hot water system will have a lower upfront cost--in the $10,000 range when professionally installed--compared to solar electric (photovoltaic) panels, which are in the $25,000 range. There's now a 30 percent federal tax credit for all things solar in addition to state and utility incentives. Also, financing options are worth a look at to knock down that upfront cost. (See the CNET TV Green Show episode, "Solar Power 101"
Small wind turbines are viable although there's evidence to suggest that you need an exceptionally good location--think lots of wind and no obstructions--before these turbines deliver on manufacturers' claims.
Biomass is the other home-ready renewable energy. Interest in pellet stoves is growing, particularly in the northeast like Maine which relies heavily on oil but has lots of forests. If you do heat with wood--wood and pellet stoves range in price from several hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars--you should get an EnergyStar-approved model which will have cleaner emissions.
WaterThe other utility bill that doesn't get much press is water. But water and energy are very closely linked--it's estimated that 20 percent of California's energy use is for distributing water. One of the major technical hurdles to desalinating sea water is the prodigious amount of energy needed.
How to conserve at home? After you fix your leaky faucet, you can install low-flow fixtures like a low-flow showerhead. During my energy audit this past winter, the installer said the $1 aerator he put on my bathroom sink was the most cost-effective improvement I'd be making.
Once you reduced your in-home water use, you can look outside. This is where your choice of plantings, rain barrels, and gray water systems that recycle drain water come into play. A gadget that I'd love to have is the EcoDrain, a device that captures the heat from your shower's pipes to pre-heat your hot water.
Waste managementCutting back on household trash is clearly Earth-friendly when you consider that you're diverting what would otherwise go to methane-producing landfills or incinerators. And many of us have drawers full of old cell phones or PC equipment which should be recycled to keep nasty materials from entering the environment.
The good news on tech recycling is that there is a growing set of options, notably at retailers. The National Center for Electronics Recyclers' Web site can show you recyclers in your area and give you tips on how to choose a responsible one. For TVs, Greenpeace recommends going to the manufacturers' Web site to find a recommended recycler or finding an e-Stewards certified company.
Another old-fashioned way to reduce waste is composting which isn't particularly complicated: just throw yard waste and any vegetable waste (no meat) onto a pile. Over time, it will turn into compost, a nutrient-rich fertilizer. There are some high-tech options, such as the NatureMill's kitchen composter, which processes food scraps right under your sink. Otherwise, just buy a composter or make a bin yourself. (You can place it next to your other old-fashioned cost-saver: the clothes line).
Here's a handy online quiz for showing you how to compost.
Green goodsRemodeling a home is a good time to introduce green features, be it counter tops made from recycled material or a better insulated kitchen cupboard.
And in everyday shopping, there's a growing number of gadgets and environmentally oriented products you can choose from, everything from solar-powered lawn lights to low-impact cleaning products. The Sierra Club recently launched a GreenHome Web site with lots green-tinted products broken down by category.
Products marketed as more green can be more expensive than the status quo (think organic foods). But when it comes to powering your home, efficiency and on-site energy can appeal to both the penny-pinchers and the greenies.