Eco-Friendly Home Guide

Saving energy and money

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With the average family spending about $1,900 a year on home utility bills, it's unfortunate for both the environment and your wallet that a large portion of that energy is wasted.

The U.S. Department of Energy says that the key to simultaneously saving money and helping the environment is to take on a "whole-house energy efficiency plan." Taking a whole-house approach to saving energy will not only make your home more comfortable and eco-friendly, but also yield long-term financial rewards, such as reduced energy bills and an increased home value.

Calculating your energy use

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The first step to saving energy and money through a whole-house efficiency approach is to pinpoint the areas in your house that use the most energy. This can be done through a home energy audit, which can be conducted by yourself, your local utility, or an independent energy auditor.

An energy audit involves checking insulation levels; seeking out any holes, gaps or crevices in your walls, windows, doors, and ceilings that can leak air into our out of your home; assessing the amount of upkeep and maintenance that your appliances and heating and cooling systems are receiving; and studying your family's energy use patterns, especially in high use areas such as the kitchen or living room.

After assessing the areas where your home is losing energy, ideas for cost-effective energy improvements will be much easier to navigate and act on.

Insulation

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Checking your home's insulation is one of the quickest and most cost-effective ways to reduce energy waste and make the most of your money. Although insulation can be made from a variety of materials, it typically comes in four types:

Rolls and batts - Also known as "blankets," these are flexible products made from mineral fibers such as fiberglass and rock wool, which are available in widths conforming to standard spacing of wall studs and attic or floor joists.

Loose-fill insulation - Typically made of fiberglass, rock wool or cellulose, this type of insulation is formed into loose fibers or fiber pellet, which are blown into spaces where it is difficult to install other types of insulation.

Rigid foam insulation - Although foam insulation tends to be more expensive than fiber insulation, it's very effective in buildings with space limitations and where higher R-values (the level of resistance to heat transfer) are needed.

Foam-in-place insulation - This variety of insulation is blown into walls and reduces air leakages around windows and door frames.

When installing insulation, it is important to consider factors such as your climate, building design and budget.

Air leaks

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Warm air leaking into your home during the summer and out of your home during the winter can waste a lot of your energy dollars. Caulking, sealing and weatherstripping all seams, cracks and openings to the outside is one of the quickest dollar-saving tasks you can do.

Start out by testing your home for air tightness by carefuly holding a lit incense to possible openings. If the smoke stream travels horizontally, you have located an air leak.

Some common sources for unwelcome openings in your house include dropped ceilings, water and furnace flues, window frames, recessed light, air ducts, electrical outlets and switches, attic entrance, door frames, plumbing and utility access, sill plates and chimney flashing.

There are many ways to patch up an air leak, depending on what kind of leak it is. For electrical outlets and switches, install foam gaskets behind the wall plates. For insulation leaks, seal the holes with a low-expansion spray foam made for this purpose. When the fireplace is not in use, keep the flue damper tight closed. For new construction, reduce exterior wall leaks by installing house wrap, taping the joints of eterior sheathing and comrehensively caulking and sealing the exterior walls.

Heating and cooling

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Heating and cooling uses more energy than any other system in your home, and typically, it accounts for 46% of your utility bill. Luckily, there are ways to cut your energy use and environmental impact from up to 50%. Here are a few tips to get rolling:

  • Set your thermostat as low as is comfortable in the winter and as high as is comfortable in the summer.
  • Turn off exhaust fans (such as those in the kitchen or bathroom) within 20 minutes of cooking or bathing.
  • If exhaust fans needs to be replaced, look for high-efficiency, low-noise models.
  • In the cooler months, keep curtains open during the day to let warm sunlight in and closed at night to reduce the chill from cold windows.
  • In the warmer months, keep curtains closed during the day to prevent solar gain.
For long-term savings, select energy-efficient products when you buy new heating and cooling equipment. Your contractor should be able to give you energy fact sheets for different types, models and designs to help you compare energy usage.

Air ducts

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One of the most important systems in your home, though it’s hidden beneath your feet and over your head, may be wasting a lot of your energy dollars. Your home’s duct system, a branching network of tubes in the walls, floors, and ceilings, carries the air from your home’s furnace and central air conditioner to each room.

Unfortunately, many duct systems are poorly insulated or not insulated properly. Ducts that leak heated air into unheated spaces can add hundreds of dollars a year to your heating and cooling bills.

For basic maintenance, be sure to regularly check your ducts for air leaks. Look for sections that should be joined but have separated and then look for obvious holes. If you use tape to seal your ducts, avoid cloth-backed, rubber adhesive duct tape, which tends to fail quickly. Researchers recommend other products to seal ducts: mastic, butyl tape, foil tape, or other heat-approved tapes.

Passive solar heating

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Using passive solar design techniques to heat and cool your home can be both environmentally friendly and cost effective.

Passive solar heating techniques include placing larger, insulated windows on south-facing walls and locating thermal mass, such as a concrete slab floor or a heat-absorbing wall, close to the windows.

In many cases, your heating costs could be more than 50% lower than the cost of heating the same house that does not include passive solar design.

Passive solar design can also help reduce your cooling costs. Passive solar cooling techniques include carefully designed overhangs, windows with reflective coatings, and reflective coatings on exterior walls and the roof.

A passive solar house requires careful design and site orientation, which depend on the local climate. So, if you are considering passive solar design for new construction or a major remodeling, you should consult an architect familiar with passive solar techniques.

Natural gas and oil heating

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If you plan to buy a new heating system, ask your local utility or state energy office for information about the latest technologies available to consumers. They can advise you about more efficient systems on the market today.

For example, many newer models incorporate designs for burners and heat exchangers that result in higher efficiencies during operation and reduce heat loss when the equipment is off. Consider a sealed combustion furnace; they are both safer and more efficient.

You can save as much as 10% a year on your heating and cooling bills by simply turning your thermostat back 10% to 15% for 8 hours. Using a programmable thermostat, you can adjust the times you turn on the heating or air-conditioning according to a preset schedule. As a result, the equipment doesn’t operate as much when you are asleep or when the house, or a part of it, is not occupied.

Air conditioners

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Buying a bigger room air-conditioning unit won’t necessarily make you feel more comfortable during the hot summer months. In fact, a room air conditioner that’s too big for the area it is supposed to cool will perform less efficiently and less effectively than a smaller, properly sized unit.

Sizing is equally important for central air-conditioning systems, which need to be sized by professionals. If you have a central air system in your home, set the fan to shut off at the same time as the cooling unit (compressor). In other words, don’t use the system’s central fan to provide circulation, but instead use circulating fans in individual rooms.

Set your thermostat as high as comfortably possible in the summer. The smaller the difference between the indoor and outdoor temperatures, the lower your overall cooling bill will be. Avoid setting your thermostat at a colder setting than normal when you turn on your air conditioner. It will not cool your home any faster and could result in excessive cooling and, therefore, unnecessary expense. Consider using an interior fan in conjunction with your window air conditioner to spread the cooled air more effectively through your home without greatly increasing your power use.

If your air conditioner is old, consider purchasing a new, energy-efficient model. You could save up to 50% on your utility bill for cooling.

Landscaping

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Landscaping is a natural and beautiful way to keep your home cool in summer and reduce your energy bills.

A well-placed tree, shrub, or vine can deliver effective shade, act as a windbreak, and reduce your energy bills. Carefully positioned trees can save up to 25% of the energy a typical household uses for energy.

Research shows that summer daytime air temperatures can be 3° to 6° cooler in tree-shaded neighborhoods than in treeless areas. A lattice or trellis with climbing vines, or a planter box with trailing vines, shades the home’s perimeter while admitting cooling breezes to the shaded area.

Water heating

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Water heating is the third largest energy expense in your home. It typically accounts for about 13%–17% of your utility bill. There are four ways to cut your water heating bills: use less hot water, turn down the thermostat on your water heater, insulate your water heater, or buy a new, more efficient model.

While buying a new energy efficient water heater may cost more initially than a standard water heater, the energy savings will continue during the lifetime of the appliance. Also, consider installing a drain water waste heat recovery system. A recent DOE study showed energy savings of 25% to about 30% for water heating using such a system.

If you heat water with electricity, have high electric rates, and have an unshaded, south-facing location (such as a roof) on your property, consider installing an Energy Star qualified solar water heater. The solar units are environmentally friendly and can now be installed on your roof to blend with the architecture of your house. Solar water heating systems avoid the greenhouse gas emissions associated with electricity production. During a 20-year period, one solar water heater can avoid more than 50 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Windows

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Windows can be one of your home’s most attractive features. Windows provide views, daylighting, ventilation, and solar heating in the winter. Unfortunately, they can also account for 10% to 25% of your heating bill. During the summer, your air conditioner must work harder to cool hot air from sunny windows.

Cold climates

Use a heavy-duty, clear plastic sheet on a frame or tape clear plastic film to the inside of your window frames during the cold winter months. Install tight-fitting, insulating window shades on windows that feel drafty after weatherizing. Close your curtains and shades at night; open them during the day. Keep windows on the south side of your house clean to let in the winter sun. Install exterior or interior storm windows; storm windows can reduce heat loss through the windows by 25% to 50%. Repair and weatherize your current storm windows, as needed.

Warm climates

Install white window shades, drapes, or blinds to reflect heat away from the house. Close curtains on south- and west-facing windows during the day. Install awnings on south- and west-facing windows. Apply sun-control or other reflective films on south-facing windows to reduce solar gain.

Installing, high-performance windows will improve your home’s energy performance. While it may take many years for new windows to pay off in energy savings, the benefits of added comfort and improved aesthetics and functionality may make the investment worth it to you.

Lighting

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Making improvements to your lighting is one of the fastest ways to cut your energy bills. An average household dedicates 10% of its energy budget to lighting. Using new lighting technologies can reduce lighting energy use in your home by 50% to 75%.

Indoor lighting

Use linear fluorescent tubes and energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) in fixtures throughout your home to provide high-quality and high-efficiency lighting. Fluorescent lamps are much more efficient than incandescent (standard) bulbs and last about 6 to 12 times longer.

Today’s CFLs offer brightness and color rendition that is comparable to incandescent bulbs. Although linear fluorescent and CFLs cost a bit morethan incandescent bulbs initially, over their lifetime they are cheaper because of how little electricity they use. CFL lighting fixtures are now available that are compatible with dimmers and operate like incandescent fixtures.

Outdoor lighting

Many homeowners use outdoor lighting for decoration and security. When shopping for outdoor lights, you will find a variety of products, from low-voltage pathway lighting to motion-detector floodlights. Light emitting diodes, or LEDs, thrive in outdoor environments because of their durability and performance in cold weather.

Appliances

Appliances account for about 17% of your household’s energy consumption, with refrigerators, clothes washers and clothes dryers at the top of the consumption list. When you’re shopping for appliances, think of two price tags. The first one covers the purchase price — think of it as a down payment. The second price tag is the cost of operating the appliance during its lifetime. You’ll be paying on that second price tag every month with your utility bill for the next 10 to 20 years, depending on the appliance.

Refrigerators

Look for a refrigerator with automatic moisture control. Models with this feature have been engineered to prevent moisture accumulation on the cabinet exterior without the addition of a heater. Don’t keep your refrigerator or freezer too cold. Recommended temperatures are 37° to 40°F for the fresh food compartment of the refrigerator and 5°F for the freezer section.

Dishwashers

Most of the energy used by a dishwasher is for water heating. Check the manual that came with your dishwasher for the manufacturer’s recommendations on water temperature; many have internal heating elements that allow you to set the water heater in your home to a lower temperature (120°F). Be sure your dishwasher is full, but not overloaded, when you run it. Avoid using the “rinse hold” on your machine for just a few soiled dishes. It uses 3 to 7 gallons of hot water each time you use it. Let your dishes air dry; if you don’t have an automatic air-dry switch, turn off the control knob after the final rinse and prop the door open slightly so the dishes will dry faster.

Laundry

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About 90% of the energy used for washing clothes in a conventional top-load washer is for heating the water. There are two ways to reduce the amount of energy used for washing clothes — use less water and use cooler water. Unless you’re dealing with oily stains, the warmer cold water setting on your machine will generally do a good job of cleaning your clothes. Switching your temperature setting from hot to warm can cut a load’s energy use in half.

Some other ways to lessen your laundry's eco-impact include washing clothes in cold water whenever possible; using the appropriate water level setting that corresponds with the size of your load; drying towels and heavier cottons in a separate load from lighter-weight clothes; not over-drying your clothes (if your machine has a moisture sensor, use it!); and air-drying clothes on a clothesline or drying racks.

When buying a new washer, look for the Energy Star label. Energy Star washers clean clothes with 50% less energy than standard washers and use only 15 gallons of water per load, as compared to the 32.5 gallons used by standard washers.