If you consider yourself a smart consumer, you probably read every article you see about why you should buy organic and know which organic items to buy (or not). You are not tricked by the flashy labels that say “fat free” or “low calorie.” You compare portion sizes and calorie counts. In other words, you get it!
It is much harder to know what’s right or wrong for our homes. The word “green” means a lot of things besides an equal mixing of yellow and blue. Today, green is often used to mean sustainable. So what does that mean? Sustainable is another unregulated word, and I would contend that it is becoming one of the most commonly misunderstood words in our vocabulary.
Energy efficiency is the first thing that comes to most people’s minds when they think sustainability or green, but there are other elements that truly make something sustainable. Sustainability also focuses on being healthier, more durable, more comfortable, and of course, having a smaller environmental footprint. This can all be achieved without sacrificing any quality of life. In fact, in many ways life can be enhanced by going green.
So what can the average person do? My family and I live in an older home in Belhaven, and we didn’t have the money for a complete remodel or energy retrofit to our home when we bought it. So we decided that we could do the next best thing. We would tackle things one at a time as they popped up or we had a little extra cash. And to offer a full confession, we have made some mistakes along the way. Hopefully, you can learn from these mistakes and implement some of these strategies to make your home healthier and more energy efficient.
Switch out your old light bulbs.
The very first thing we did was to tackle the low hanging fruit and replaced almost all our light bulbs with compact fluorescent ones. This simple step will pay for itself in almost one month. The new CFL bulbs are much better than the ones from years ago and they are getting better every day. You can even recycle the old ones at most home improvement stores since they have a scant amount of mercury in them.
Replace your old thermostat.
We also replaced the old dial thermostat with a programmable one. I had experience with these in the past, and I learned that while the cheaper ones work, the ones around $100 are a lot more user friendly. This simple step saves us an average of 20% a year on our utility bill.
Opt for an energy efficient water heater.
About a year later, I heard a loud hiss coming from our utility room and found water spewing from our old water heater. I shut off the water and immediately headed for the plumbing supply store. I knew how much energy our old one consumed, but I needed to do some quick math to figure out what a new one would cost to operate. We chose an on demand unit. It cost a little more up front, but it dropped our gas bill dramatically in the summer when we weren’t using our heat (sometimes, I kid you not, our gas bill is under $5). Now we only pay for the water heating that we use. It doesn’t hurt that we can take 45-minute showers without running out of hot water, and we aren’t paying to keep 60 gallons of water hot 24 hours a day. This is one decision we feel we hit out of the park.
Consider the big picture when replacing your heating/air conditioning system.
A little over three years ago I was working late one night, and I got a call from my wife. She was “very” pregnant at the time and said, “It’s really hot in here. The thermostat says one thing, but the temp is 79 degrees and rising.” Here is where I made my first real mistake. I knew we needed some more insulation in the attic, we had none in our exterior walls. There are ways to make this happen, but I didn’t have a lot of time to tackle this. We had to act fast. I bought a new air conditioner the exact same size as our old unit. Had we been able to upgrade our insulation and make the house tighter, we could have bought a smaller air conditioner that cost less and that is more efficient to operate. We did have the installers replace the outside compressor to get the full efficiencies of the new unit. This move paid for itself in less than a couple of years. I just wish we had taken a couple of extra days during the process to upgrade our insulation.
Now, if we upgrade our insulation, we will have to add a variable speed motor to our air conditioner, so that it is not oversized. When an air conditioner is oversized, it doesn’t run enough and as a result, you can have mold and mildew problems develop in your home. Ideally, we could have installed a variable speed motor to begin with and then upgrade our insulation, but this step didn’t occur to us when we were rushing to get the new air conditioning unit.
Make sure your paint is family-friendly.
Painting is something that almost anybody can do. (Doing it well is a much smaller group.) When you are looking for paint look for brands that have low VOCs (volatile organic compounds), the chemicals that make paint smell. Benjamin Moore paint has a great line of low or no VOC paint. It goes on very easily and it lasts. Wood stains, carpet, and furniture can also have VOCs, so be sure to read those labels, as well.
Proceed practically when it comes to solar and wind applications.
Adding solar panels or wind turbines is often the first thing that people think of when they want to go green, but typically, it is the last step that needs to happen to make your house more energy efficient. Solar and wind power are expensive and it can take time for them to pay off. Also, solar power is typically much more reliable than wind power here in Mississippi.
You should reduce your home’s electrical load as much as possible before installing solar power. It’s expensive and you don’t want to install more than you really need. We started small at our house and installed a solar-powered security light. It is simple, small, and very affordable, since we didn’t have to run power to our detached carport.
Jeff Seabold AIA, NCARB, LEED AP Homes is the Principal Architect at Seabold Architectural Studio in Jackson. www.seabold-studio.com He is the Chair of the Mississippi Chapter of the US Green Building Council. www.usgbcms.org He can be reached at Jeff@seabold-studio.com.