These days, many homeowners are interested in going green. But can you protect and preserve the environment and save money too? Although many eco-friendly improvements (like buying new energy efficient appliances) can be expensive, there are many ways to green your lifestyle that can actually save you money. While some may involve a small investment up-front, they'll pay off quickly. Here are some ideas on how to get started.
Get a Home Energy Audit
What better place to start your new green living than at home? It is the place where you and your family probably spend most of your time. And a quick walk through it may clue you in to a few simple changes that will save you cash. Here are a few things to check:
- Weatherstripping. Repair weak and damaged weatherstripping and caulk around windows, doors, and other entry points. (To be effective, weatherstripping should provide resistance when you open and close the door.) This will keep warm air from escaping in the winter and cool air from escaping in the summer.
- Light bulbs. Much is made of the difference between traditional and compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs, and the numbers speak for themselves: According to the Energy Star website, if every American home replaced just one light bulb with an Energy Star qualified CFL, we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year and more than $600 million in annual energy costs. CFL light bulbs cost slightly more than regular bulbs, but they use about 75% less energy and can last up to ten times longer.
- Electrical outlets. Anything plugged in to an electrical outlet sucks energy even when not in use -- unless you either unplug them or plug everything into power strips that you turn off when you're not using them. You'll make up the cost of the strips with your reduced energy bills.
- Thermostat. Lower your central air temperature two degrees in the winter and let it go up by two degrees in the summer and you could save up to 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, all while lowering your energy bills.
- Furnace and air conditioning filters. Keeping your furnace and air conditioning filters clean will help them function efficiently. An electrostatic filter will cost more up front than a paper or fiberglass one, but can be cleaned and reused.
- Water heater. Turn your water heater down to 120 degrees -- and even less when you're out of town. Wrap an insulating water heater blanket around your unit to help reduce heat loss by 25-40% (unless it came with its own built-in insulation, as some newer units do, or the manual says not to use an insulating blanket). If you have an electric water heater, install a timer that will shut it off when it's not being used -- for example, in the middle of the night.
- Toilet tank. You can save water with a low-flow toilet, but it will probably cost you around $300-400. A cheaper option: displace the water (a gallon plastic jug with some rocks should do the trick), and you'll use that much less with each flush.
To maximize your savings, you could hire an energy auditor, a professional who comes to your home and evaluates its energy efficiency. The auditor will help you locate weak weatherstripping, ineffective insulation, and more. While energy audits usually cost $300-400, they can pay for themselves over time as your energy costs decrease.
We spend a great deal of the energy in our homes just trying to keep the place -- and ourselves -- clean. There are ways to do this while helping the environment and saving money. Here are a few suggestions:
- Hang laundry. Skip the dryer and buy a clothesline. Use it particularly during warm summer months.
- Wash your clothes in cold water. About 90% of the energy used for washing clothes is used to heat the water. Modern detergents don't need hot water to work, and stains that won't come out in cold water probably aren't going to come out in hot water either -- in fact, the hot water may set them. (If, however, someone in your house is allergic to dust mites, you'll need to plan some hot water washes in order to kill the mites -- especially important with items that sit around picking up dust, like curtains and bedspreads.)
- Get rid of fabric softener. Save a little cash by skipping fabric softener (which contains environmental toxins), choosing an eco-friendly detergent with soy-based softener, or throwing vinegar into the rinse cycle to soften your clothes.
- Use the dishwasher. Modern dishwashers tend to be more efficient than handwashing, since they use less than ten gallons of water per load. And they're effective enough that you can feel justified in not pre-rinsing your dishes, which wastes water. Wait to run the dishwasher until it is completely full, and let dishes air dry if you can.
- Get a low-flow showerhead. It will still have good water pressure, but will release (and waste) a lot less water. While you're at it, shorten your showers and avoid water-hogging baths altogether.
- Make your own cleaning products. Cleaning products can be full of environmental toxins that pollute our air (according to the EPA, the air inside the typical home is on average two to five times more polluted than the air just outside) and harm the environment. But it can be easy, cheap, and effective to replace these products with homemade varieties. Some common household supplies -- like vinegar, baking soda, and lemons -- work wonders. A quick search on the Internet will give you lots of ideas on how to do this.
Believe it or not, not everything outdoors is green. Here are some easy and inexpensive changes to your outdoor space that are environmentally friendly.
- Go native. When planting new flowers, bushes, or trees, choose native varieties to limit water consumption.
- Water grass carefully. Watering lawns and gardens accounts for 50-70% of home water use. You can easily reduce your consumption by watering early in the morning and keeping grass three to four inches long. This prevents evaporation. Better yet, replace grass with native plants, which will also help you avoid the harmful environmental effects (and cost) of using a gas mower. Instead, enjoy the grass in a local park -- your tax dollars are paying for it!
- Plant trees. Trees can add beauty and color to your landscape, but they serve another important cost-saving function: they shade your home, reducing the temperature in warm spring and summer months. Deciduous trees will drop their leaves in the fall, too -- letting sunlight in and potentially lowering the heating bill. Visit the Arbor Day Foundation's website at www.arborday.org -- an affordable annual membership gets you ten free trees.
- Mulch. Trap moisture in the soil by covering it with a layer of organic material, such as bark. Mulch will prevent weeds from sprouting and keep the ground cool in hot summer months.
- Compost. Instead of throwing organic materials in the trash, make a natural soil amendment by composting. You'll reduce waste and enrich and improve soil for little or no cost. Find out more at the Environmental Protection Agency's website's Composting at Home page.
- Grow your own fruits, herbs, and vegetables. Get the absolute freshest available at low cost. And, if you convert lawn to garden space, you'll help reduce water waste, too. If you don't have space, check the neighborhood for a community garden.
If you implement these few strategies, you'll be doing the planet -- and your pocketbook -- a big favor. And, if you're thinking of making major changes, like remodeling, read Nolo's article Green Remodeling: Eco-Friendly Home Improvements.