Every green-minded homeowner dreams of solar panels, high-efficiency windows and low-flush toilets. The reality check can be a discouraging one: These features, while great for the environment and money-saving over time, can come with a sobering price tag. There is good news for the determined, however. A green home can happen in small, inexpensive steps, and the homeowner won't need a costly contractor for most of them.
Reducing the home's water consumption is an easy and important green step. Low-flow faucets, aerators, and showerheads are very inexpensive, easily installed and make for effective water-savers. These devices can save you money on two fronts: by lowering the water bill and lowering energy costs by reducing the amount of water that needs to be heated.
The EPA's WaterSense program certifies and labels bathroom faucets and faucet accessories as meeting the program's strict water-saving standards. A growing list of faucets from Delta, Moen, and Price Pfister are available for the homeowner looking to replace a water-hogging faucet with one that meets or exceeds WaterSense's 1.5 gallon per minute (gpm) standard. Delta's Lahara line of bathroom faucets boasts four models that carry the WaterSense label, with prices ranging from $130 to $230 per faucet set.
For a more affordable alternative, an aerator or spray flow device might be the way to go. WaterSense-certified aerators and flow regulators from NEOPERL are easily installed and can be purchased for as little as $4. Bill Davis, founder and president of Utility Savers, in St. Petersburg, Fla., insists that water-saving faucet accessories is one of the quickest devices to payback: “We have a hotel that is saving 20 million gallons of water a year just by using a water-saving aerator,” says Davis. With faucet accessories that reduce water flow to as little as 0.375 gpm, a household can experience payback in less than a month. Furthermore, the aerator is one of the easiest products to install. “It takes less than a minute,” adds Davis.
Low-flow showerheads, although slightly more expensive, are another easy way to save water and money. These products reduce a typical 2.6-gpm shower experience to 1.0 or 1.5 gpm with little or no reduction in quality and can cost under $20. They require a little more DIY know-how, but the average homeowner should find it's a project that can be completed without help from the plumber.
For an even less expensive water-reducing shower accessory, homeowners should consider a pressure-compensating shower control valve, which works with the existing showerhead to reduce water flow to anywhere from 2.0 to 1.5 gpm. These products can be found for as little as $9.
Landscaping alterations can vastly reduce water usage, as well. “Hardy and native landscaping features can be low-maintenance and water-saving,” says Kathleen O'Brien, author of The Northwest Green Home Primer, a guide to building, remodeling, and buying green. In her Northwest region, dry spells that stretch as long as five months are common. These regional climate considerations are important when selecting lawn and garden alternatives that can survive on very little rainfall over a long-term period.
Indoor Air Quality
Indoor air quality (IAQ) has become a widely acknowledged pillar of a green home. Unlike energy and water-saving improvements, however, IAQ investments do not see a “payback” by way of reduced utility bills. In fact, some homeowners may feel hard-pressed to see any reason at all to write checks for improvements to something that can't be seen and probably won't impress the neighbors. But with asthma cases on the rise and increased awareness of off-gassing products and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), more consumers are considering the health (and health-cost) implications of the home's IAQ.
The GREENGUARD Environmental Institute certifies a wide range of IAQ-related products within the home, from construction materials to furniture. Replacing a home's entire existing insulation or flooring with GREENGUARD-certified alternatives may not be the most budget-friendly approach to greening up the home, but selecting a healthier paint can be. ECOtrend offers a line of indoor paints that is one of only a few to earn the GREENGUARD label. The ECOtrend paint is made with collagen from the inner membrane of eggs, which acts as the main binding ingredient and replaces many of the harmful VOCs and heavy metals found in other paints. “Our paint is also antibacterial and releases negative ions, which both also benefit the air quality,” says Anthony Bak, sales manager and vice president of the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company. Starting at $32 a gallon, ECOtrend's indoor paint sits on the cheaper side of the higher-end paints but is also far less expensive than many of the competing green paints on the market, which can cost anywhere from $40 to $60 a gallon.
Inexpensive Energy Savers
Energy savings are always a focal point in a green home. Purchasing Energy Star-rated appliances is an easy step to take, but it's not necessarily the easiest on the budget. Before a homeowner considers changes to the home's energy-consuming devices and systems, an energy audit should be completed.
“Homeowners need to have a diagnostics done on the home,” says O'Brien. “For $500, an auditor can evaluate the whole home to determine where energy is being lost.” The Building Performance Institute (BPI) trains and certifies contractors to understand a home's performance and interconnected systems. Through the institute's Web site, a consumer can locate a BPI-accredited contractor by ZIP code and specialty (such as HVAC, Building Analyst, Shell/Envelope, etc.). Evaluating the home's overall performance will help prioritize energy-saving steps and provide a plan toward longer-term improvements. “Addressing the building envelope is 50 percent of the battle,” says O'Brien. Free energy audits can be added to the growing list of incentives that many cities and towns have in place for green-minded homeowners. A call to the local utility companies will determine if a complementary examination of the home's energy system is available.
Sealing up the home can be an easy and inexpensive energy-saving project. The Energy Star web site is a great resource and guide for locating and addressing a leaky or a drafty house. Replacing or adding insulation can be easy or hard on the wallet, depending on the type and amount of insulation, but sealing up air leaks might only require caulking or spray foam, which is certainly affordable.
Weatherstripping is another effective and fairly inexpensive energy-saving step. DIYers will require a short list of tools (hammer, utility knife, tape measure, self-adhesive foam), and the less tool-savvy can usually turn to a weatherization contractor and have the job done for a reasonable cost.
If you're still using a mercury thermostat, make the switch to a programmable replacement. The initial $100 investment can see payback in half of a heating season and can save thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the product. The electronically challenged might seek the help of an electrician for installation, though the actual process is fairly straightforward and do-able by those with even the most basic knowledge of the home's electrical system.
Greening up a home doesn't happen with the snap of the fingers, but it shouldn't require breaking the piggy bank, either. With a little time and a little money, any home can be well on its way to saving energy, water, money, and the environment.