Apartment Dwellers: 9 Key Ways to Green Your Home for Winter

©. Alvhem

Five years ago Sami put together How to Go Green: Rentals, looking at what people who live in apartments can do to green their homes. Now, more and more people are buying condominiums or renting apartments than ever before, and it's time to look at what has changed. There are three main components of greening your apartment: Energy, Water and Health.

1. Energy

It's unfortunate but true that renters or condo owners have a lot less control and fewer options than people who live in detached homes, where they can add insulation or solar panels on the roof. But don't feel bad; all the data show that when it comes to your carbon footprint, location matters most.

Location matters most.


Lloyd Alter/ Moon over New York apartments/CC BY 2.0

It is the single biggest determinant of the amount of energy people use. That's why As Kaid Benfield has noted,

You have to take into account that households in centrally located properties and neighborhoods use far less energy and emit far less carbon for transportation than their counterparts in sprawl. And you have to take into account that, for many households and office buildings, carbon emissions from transportation exceed those emitted by operation of the building.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

So just by living in an apartment, you are way ahead of the game. It doesn't have to be in a high-rise in Manhattan either; a walkup in Montreal might be better. See:

Size matters.

Loft Andrés Borrego

© Yen Chen

Another reason that apartment living is more energy-efficient is that people are generally living in a lot less space and have room for a lot less stuff. Sami wrote:

The smaller your house or apartment, the less energy is needed to heat and light it, and the smaller its physical footprint on the land will be. Your can also greatly decrease your personal environmental footprint by sharing your home with others. Sharing energy bills, appliances and common space automatically means that more people can live with less stuff. Besides saving money on your bills, you can save money on rent, too, and have a little extra to spend at the farmers market...

Design matters.

CC BY 2.0. Air shaft in New York Dumbell Apartment/ wikipedia

Air shaft in New York Dumbell Apartment/ wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

Prior to World War II and the development of the electric fan, almost all buildings had some form of cross-ventilation, often with air shafts, because every bathroom and kitchen had to have a window. That, the solid walls, the more open and accessible stairs, and the smaller, openable windows are the reasons that old buildings are often greener than new ones.

typiclal plan

Typical apartment plan/Promo image

Now, units have floor to ceiling glass, balconies that act as radiator fins, dumping heat into the atmosphere in winter (although they can provide shade in summer) and no cross ventilation.

typical plan

typical corner apartment plan/Promo image

It is hard to decide what to do; one might recommend a corner unit because you get decent ventilation, but in modern glass buildings you get far more glass in the corner unit, more heat gain and heat loss.

In the end, it is all another argument for looking at older buildings first. Graham Hill was certainly able to build a very green modern apartment in an old walkup, all the modern comforts. If you are going into a new building, look for one that is not floor to ceiling glass.

The air up there

Radiator cover

© Radiator Labs

Another major consideration is how the heating, ventilation and air conditioning works. Old buildings often have hot water radiators and poor individual control, and it can get really hot in winter. Radiator Labs have come up with a solution for controlling the heat output of old radiators: an insulated cover with a thermostat and a fan that lets you control how much heat you let out into your space, without having to touch the old plumbing.


© Radfan

If you have the newer-style plate radiators (common in Europe but rare in North America) Radfan makes a clever add-on fan that recently won the IKEA and Phillips EarthHACK competition . Inventor Simon Barker writes that "its low power fans redirect the warm air straight out into the room and our testing shows it can increase the temperature at sofa height by up to 2 deg C."

vertical fancoil

© Zehnder Rittling

More recent buildings often have fan-coil units with either two pipes that carry hot or cold water depending on the season, or four pipes that can carry both. Given that in all-glass buildings you can be heating the east side of a building while you are cooling the west side in the afternoon, a four-pipe system is better. They usually look like this box in the corner, with the plumbing running straight up the building. There is not much you can do to make them greener other than make sure you keep the filters clean and keep the thermostat low.

Look for LEED

Olympic Village

© Olympic Village, Vancouver

Perhaps the best way to save energy in your apartment is to rent or buy one that is designed from the ground up to use less energy. There are a few buildings around that have gone for LEED or other certifications that ensure that measures are taken to reduce energy use. They are not a lot of them and they are usually a bit more expensive, but you will most likely have a lower energy bill.

Seal it up

seal it up

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

A lot of heat is lost through leakage, both in new and old buildings. Caulk, whether permanent or strippable, is the first response here. Roland at Radfan recommends:

This is definitely the most effective way to make sure your home stays warm this winter and it is really easy to do yourself. It’s best to start looking for draughts on a windy day as you should be able to physically feel the air whistling through the gaps. If you can’t seem to find them then you can always use a small tealight candle to help see the air movement (mind the curtains though if you do).
The most obvious places to start looking are anywhere where there is an opening through your external walls, windows and doors are the major offenders but you can also get draughts from around plumbing pipes, waste pipes from the toilet, extractor fans and even your TV aerial cable!

Change your bulbs

Samsung LED 13W

© Michael Graham Richard

Forget compact fluorescents that everyone complains about, they were an interim technology. Go straight to LED bulbs; they are now affordable, they last almost forever, they use a fraction of the electricity of incandescents. No mercury, either.

Consider a setback thermostat like the Nest

nest 2nd gen

© Nest Labs

It is not going to make a huge difference like it might in a house; apartments are smaller and share a lot of walls, so it won't reduce fuel consumption by very much. Furthermore, since heating costs are rarely metered in apartments, it will never pay for itself. However it will make a bit of a difference.

Put on a sweater.

Patti Page says, put on a sweater!

Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

The best energy saving advice on TreeHugger? Put on a sweater like Patti Page.

Kris de Decker of Low Tech Magazine says we should make clothing part of our energy saving strategy.

Insulation of the body is much more energy efficient than insulation of the space in which this body finds itself. Insulating the body only requires a small layer of air to be heated, while a heating system has to warm all the air in a room to achieve the same result.

Kris concludes:

The energy savings potential of clothing is so large that it cannot be ignored - though in fact this is exactly what is happening now. This does not mean that home insulation and efficient heating systems should not be encouraged. All three paths should be pursued, but improving clothing insulation is obviously the cheapest, easiest and fastest way.

It's as easy as putting on a sweater. That's the cheapest way to green your apartment for winter.