EarthTalk: What are some low-cost ways to make a home green?

August 11, 2009 By E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What are some simple low-cost improvements I can do to my home to make it greener? (Stefan Lonce, via e-mail)

According to consumer advocate Remar Sutton, there are many ways to save energy and other resources around the home without spending a lot of money. And taking action sooner rather than later will lead to ongoing savings on utility bills, so a little cash outlay now will more than pay for itself in the long run.

On the energy front, turning your thermostat up in summer and down in winter is one often overlooked way to reduce usage and cost. "For each degree you raise or lower your thermostat, you can save anywhere from one to five percent on your cooling or heating bills depending on where you live," Sutton reports, adding that programmable thermostats can help greatly to maximize efficiency and cut out waste.

Other ways to save energy include: lowering the hot water heater's thermostat; getting heating and cooling equipment tuned once a year; insulating hot water pipes and hot water storage tanks; caulking cracks and gaps on walls, including around door and window frames; weather-stripping air leaks around windows and doors; and replacing incandescent light bulbs with more efficient compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs.

Sutton recommends doing an energy audit to identify all the areas around the house where simple, low-cost improvements can make a difference. Your local utility may offer a free or low-cost audit, or you can do-it-yourself via the online calculator at the U.S. Department of Energy's Home Energy Saver Web site.

Beyond energy savings alone, Sutton offers a wealth of tips on how to reduce water usage around the house as well: Wash and dry only full loads of laundry and only wash full loads of dishes; fix leaky faucets and toilets; install aerating low-flow showerheads and faucets; turn off the faucet while brushing teeth and shaving; and take short(er) showers and avoid baths altogether. By taking some or all of these measures, you can run a much greener home without spending much at all.

Once you've exhausted ways to save energy and water around the house as it is, you might consider taking larger steps to boost efficiency more. According to Harvey Sachs of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, installing or upgrading insulation is a sure-fire way to save money over time, as your heating and cooling equipment won't have to work so hard maintaining the desired temperature of your home's interior. Planting shade trees around your home's exterior will help reduce the need for air conditioning in summer and, if they're deciduous, they'll let sunlight through in the winter.

Also, says Sachs, upgrading to more energy efficient appliances -- preferably those brandishing the federal government's EnergySTAR seal of approval -- should more than make up for any cost premiums with the energy savings they'll bring going forward. Replacing older single pane windows with new more efficient double or even triple pane varieties can significantly reduce home energy usage and heating/cooling bills as well. Be sure to get professional help when installing insulation or new windows, as improper installation can negate the benefits you're trying to obtain.


On the Net: DOE Home Energy Saver Web site,; American Council for an Efficient Economy,; EnergySTAR, .


(c) 2009, E/The Environmental Magazine
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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4 / 5 (4) Aug 11, 2009
Nonsense green rubbish - spend a dollar to save a dime. No green scheme will ever succeed in doing anything except making money for those who have gamed climate hysteria.

All of these solutions will end up costing the individual more than the equivalent amount of energy, except maybe programmable thermistats. All other modifications to a home are quite expensive.
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 11, 2009
I'm very surprised I didn't see "wipe with less toilet paper".

I did however see the phenominal combination of "lowering the hot water heater's thermostat" and "Wash and dry only full loads of laundry and only wash full loads of dishes"

One defeats the purpose of the other when you do both. Washing a full load of dishes twice takes up more juice and more water than washing two smaller loads once in hotter water.
3.3 / 5 (3) Aug 11, 2009
Ive always thought being green should save money. I turn out lights, hate to drive short distances, run full loads of laundry, etc. etc. (Ive never done any of these to be green, but rather to save money).

I looked at some printing sites recently and found the following site these guys look like they want to reduce costs while being green.

I think the green people need to approch things differently, drive smaller cars (or walk) to save money, use green print design stuff to save money, use less (you name it) to save money. Teach people how to save money, theyll become green. Teach people how to be green and you waste money and really are no more greener than you were before.
4 / 5 (4) Aug 11, 2009
(Hi Vel)

Use less toilet paper? Why stop there?
Have less children... no children!
Bike the 40 miles across the city to work every day, or better.. just walk it... what the heck.
Turn my thermostat up to 80, and just shut off the fridge. Who needs fresh cold milk, when you can get it fresher straight from a cow. I wonder how much energy is wasted on Pasteurization?
No more Monday football on a power hungry plasma TV, I'll just read Newsweek... but that's more wasted paper... ok, so I'll just stare at the sun.
Wash clothes less often... maybe shower less often, too. Heck, who needs showers, right? Half of the world gets by without them.
I'm gonna turn of my computer, cell phone, and MP3 player, too. Every e-mail and download indirectly adds to my carbon foot-print and global warming.

Do all that, and we can be "green" and brown at the same time.

I'm so tired of this Green crap-o-la. I do it to save money, too... but I don't/won't LOWER my standards of living to do it.

Build a better/cheaper mousetrap, and I'll buy it. But don't try selling me a green one.
3 / 5 (2) Aug 13, 2009
Greenism is an avenue to totalitarianism for modern governments whose need to maintain dominance over their populations is reaching a crisis.

All modern governments are obsessed with control because in order to force their agendas through they must overcome deep traditons and ancient laws. Anything that comes along that promises to give the state more control (nationalized health care, green taxation and rationing, supra-national government) is latched onto and almost comically promoted by those who realize the potential for power.

Those in power have demonstrated they will do absolutely anything to maintain their power, and to do this populations must be displaced from constitutional protections and forced into permanant dependence to the state. With this depedence will come obedience. This will contain human mobility and prevent natural cycles that brought liberty and renewal to our societies.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 13, 2009
I'm so tired of this Green crap-o-la. I do it to save money, too... but I don't/won't LOWER my standards of living to do it.

There are three types of "greenisms" out there.

1) True greenism - mainly conservationism. It's a reasonable use less, use proper materials, build things to last and not contaminate their environment, typically suggesting minor modifications in lifestyle with little to no change in lifestyle impact.

I have many friends of this vein and I'd consider myself among their ranks. Simple things like carpooling, using less water when you shower, reasonable purchases, reduction in waste by reuse and repurposing, etc. These are the true greens, the guys who care about the world. Probably 90% or more of all greens fit this category.

Then theres consumerist greenism, for example companies that change their packaging from 10 % recycled to 15% recycled and call the product "Green" and charge an extra buck or two. These guys are just real scumbags. They're the ones who are purposefully lining their pockets by taking advantage of the relative level of ignorance in mainstream America. I consider all NIMBYists (Not In My Back Yard) to be of this character. Prime examples: Al Gore, Ted Kennedy. Al Gore is fairly self explanatory. He's a movement profiteer. He could care less about the planet as long as he's rich enough to ignore offenses. Big Teddy earns this rank due to his rallying for years and years for GE as a special interest in wind technology, then tossing everything he had against the Cape Wind project to preserve the "scenic view" from his Hyannisport complex. This is probably 9% of the movement if you consider the radical groups like Earth First and PETA among their number. I personally class those groups as terrorists.

Then there are the Hollywood Greens. This is one of the smallest groups, maybe 1%, maybe. It's the trendy jet setters who have no problem telling you to do utterly ridiculous things, like use a single square of toilet paper to wipe your ass, or save Darfur meanwhile millions of Americans are starving to death. Usually they can be characterized by their actions. Seen running from one cause that's no longer in the public eye, to another trendy cause. These people are more concerned with how they appear to the public than anything else. Prime examples are Sheryl Crow, Tim Roberts, etc. I despise these people the most. These are the people, like the genuises at GM, who would drive a hybrid if and only if "It says something about them as a person" because there's a giant sticker on the side showing the world how "environmentally concious they are". These people are like the girl you meet at the bar who's spiritual but not religious. Just pure jackassery. The redeeming value to these people, and their only saving grace, is that while they run from issue to issue they are at least informing other people, albeit in a skewed and often spun fashion, about relevant world issues such as human rights, food crises, water crises, disease outbreaks and so on. If they could just stay with a topic rather than running off when the fad goes cold I'd be far more impressed with their character.

Now the nastiest thing is how closely the conservationist/environmentalist movements mirror crinimal corporate infrastructure. Basically Group 2, the scumbags, get together and figure out how to make some money off environmentalism. They find an issue, engineer a fix and start marketing by getting the word out to group 3 and leveraging their popularity in the public eye. Group 1 sees this on television and in most cases the less informed that viewer is, the more likely they are to pick up the cause.

Now in some cases this is great. People are making money, a cause is being addressed either by a change in lifestyle, product usage, or manufacturing changes, and the world is better for it. Unfortunately, that is not often the case for there is more money to be made in prolonging a problem than solving it. Simply ask any one in a services industry. The ethically vacant will always prolong a problem if there's money to be made in it.

Now I can't say that AGW is completely false (I may have done so in fits of frustration prior), as NO ONE has enough information to say it's true or false. Climatology is a relatively new field, and the AGW debate has created a giant market for jobs, research, student involvement, lifestyle engineering, social engineering, and governmental/corporate reform. I'm with that, I greatly agree with it, and I'm damn glad it's doing all of the above. My issue with AGW as it stands today, there was a lot of early duplicity used to bring us to where we are now. The hockey stick, Inconvenient Story time with Al Gore, T Boone Special Interest, and the Saudi Oil Shell Co. game really tossed the entire discussion into the trash for a long, long time. They turned each and every one of us into propaganda forwarders. I'm just as guilty of this as anyone else, we all did it. So let's give 'em the finger and have the real discussions, review the papers based on their merit, and further each other's understanding so these cronies on both sides can't dictate our role as puppets of their ideals.
4.5 / 5 (2) Aug 15, 2009

All of these solutions will end up costing the individual more than the equivalent amount of energy, except maybe programmable thermistats. All other modifications to a home are quite expensive.


How expensive is caulking? How many dollars are you throwing away to infiltration (letting cold air in to a heated space / hot air into a cooled space)?

Gaskets on your outlet covers

Color choices on interior and exterior walls

Strategically located trees

Efficient use of appliances (e.g. full dishwashers)

Water Heater insulation

Use of power strips to eliminate parasitic electricity by gadgets that use energy even when "off".

Frequent cleaning of air filters in central heating systems.

Air-drying of clothes.

I could go on if you want . . .

And if somebody wants to spend a dollar to save a dime, and the accumulative effect of such decisions helps our society get a handle on our energy usage, who the hell are you to object?
4 / 5 (2) Aug 15, 2009
And if somebody wants to spend a dollar to save a dime, and the accumulative effect of such decisions helps our society get a handle on our energy usage, who the hell are you to object?

The problem isn't the people who want to.

The problem is the people who try to make others do as they do without justification.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 15, 2009
OK then. It's good to know that vigilant people like you and Arkaleus are out there protecting those potential victims from the evil, greedy contractors.

Sarcasm? You tell me.

And the following makes no sense; is there a typo here? As it stands, this is clearly a false statement:

"Washing a full load of dishes twice takes up more juice and more water than washing two smaller loads once in hotter water. "

Also, why would anybody wash a load of dishes twice? What a silly strawman argument!

Plus your energy analysis appears to ignore the savings due to less energy to keep the water heater at the higher temperature.

If you want to take a political stance on this stuff, go ahead. But I would suggest you leave the energy analysis to others.
not rated yet Aug 15, 2009
"Washing a full load of dishes twice takes up more juice and more water than washing two smaller loads once in hotter water. "

Also, why would anybody wash a load of dishes twice? What a silly strawman argument!

Because they're still dirty? Remind me to never come over for dinner.

It's not a strawman argument or fallacious. It's a poke at the generalization in the article.

I'm guessing you haven't read your dishwasher manual otherwise you'd agree. There's a set temperature for most water based appliances were they work at optimum efficiency in power and water use. If you deviate to a relevant degree outside of that you'll have dirty dishes. So what do you do when your dishes are dirty? Wash em again.

Secondly, most dishwashers have multiple settings to prevent waste when washing smaller loads. This reduces freshwater use and the resultant energy used to pump the water to your house.

FYI: if you insulate your water heater properly, it takes very little energy to keep the water in the storage tank warm. Just a tip.

I've spent a good amount of time trying to increase efficiency in my household to prevent wasted money, after all, electricity and water only cost me money so it's a tangible "right now" benefit. The less electricity and water I use, the less I pay. So what benefit would I receive attempting to spread disinformation to you?

Efficiency is all dependent on infrastructure. My household infrastructure runs more efficiently when I keep my water heater at it's current setting, and my appliances are used within manufacturer specification. If I deviate, the cost goes up, which means my usage went up.

Do you have a baseline for your household? Have you done an energy evaluation, (typically provided by your fossil-fuel supporting power and water companies at cost)? So who benefits?

Them telling you how to use their utilities that you have to pay by volume for or me, who doesn't really care how much money you have to spend, but also has nothing to sell you?
not rated yet Aug 15, 2009
OK that's starting to make more sense.

I left the "insulated water heater = less concern for elevated temperature" issue open for you as a test, well done. (No sarcasm)

Me? I've got an ancient POS dishwasher that works great. I simply take the time to rinse the dishes of food first, and the dishes come out clean every time. That's one alternative to running them twice. And I would question the effectiveness of running them twice, if the first time just bakes on the food particles in the dry cycle.

I also am on a well (with a very stable water table), with waste going to a septic tank. So water usage is not really a concern cost-wise or environment-wise.

But hey, what works for you and what works for me are different. It looks like we're on the same page as far as that goes.

But I still am not convinced that the extra energy for the hotter water is necessarily overtaken by the extra usage for a full load. Hot water costs a LOT more than running the electric motors etc. How much less water does a partial load use? More than 50%?

Believe it or not, I'm not here to argue, and yes I confess that I saw your post as an attempt to spread dis-information. There's a lot of that going on these days, you know. I apologize.

I am having trouble parsing your last paragraph, but I would answer that indeed there are plenty of people out there trying to help folks lower their energy use without having a direct commercial interest.

Utilities that effectively promote energy conservation don't need to build as many generating facilities.

It's called being socially aware: thinking about a bigger picture than one's own limited self-interest.
not rated yet Aug 15, 2009
It's called being socially aware: thinking about a bigger picture than one's own limited self-interest.
I wouldn't say I've ever met a utility company that was socially aware.

Each washer is different, mine is one of the whirlpool models with the variable intesity setting as well as mode seleection, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Basically I can use low, 50%, meium, about 80% and heavy 100%. The energy savings on the washer is in skipping the dry cycle. It's just superheated steam. Speaking of which, there are some washers that have their own (usually inefficient) water heater in the unit which really kicks up the costs. Try to stay away from those.

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