How is to Live in Your Green Home
The ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS of houses don’t stop when the final coat of paint goes on or when the owners move in. In fact, even though there are significant impacts associated with the building materials, site work, and construction of your house, most of a home’s environmental burden occurs after you’ve moved in.
You can minimize a lot of the operating impacts of a home through diligent efforts during design and construction — an energy-efficient building envelope, water-efficient fixtures, cabinets that don’t offgas VOCs, and so forth. But how a house is operated will still be a major determinant of how green it is.
UNDERSTANDING HOW YOUR HOUSE WORKS—THE HOMEOWNER’S MANUAL
An increasing number of progressive homebuilders provide homeowners with some sort of owner’s manual. This is an excellent idea; if your builder does not normally provide such a manual, ask for one. The manual should include the owner’s manuals for the various pieces of equipment in the house, all in one convenient binder for safekeeping. It should list key subcontractors who worked on the house (plumber, electrician, etc.) and how to reach them. It should explain how your house works, especially if the house includes such features as passive solar heating or natural ventilation.
Some builders include a set of construction photos that can be referred to down the road if changes are being made to the house. Photos of walls before insulating and drywalling, for example, will show the location of wiring; this can prove useful if you later need to modify the wiring, or cut into a wall for some reason. By showing the location of framing, these photos will help you figure out how to hang new cabinets. By showing plumbing runs, they can help you or a plumber track down and fix a leak. You’ll be surprised at how invaluable these photos will be.
Like an automobile manual, a homeowner’s manual should suggest how frequently maintenance of various systems and components should be done. Approximate maintenance schedules might be included for exterior painting, pointing of brick chimneys or siding, tune-ups of heating and air conditioning equipment, chimney cleaning, and so forth.
If you’ve followed the advice in this site, your home will be designed and built to minimize the use of energy. To function as efficiently as it was designed and built to, however, your house and the various pieces of equipment in it have to be operated properly. Ideally, your homeowner’s manual will explain such maintenance and adjustment. If not, ask your builder what’s needed and take careful notes. Examples of the sort of maintenance that may be required include seasonal adjustment of special overhangs for solar shading, cleaning of glass on solar collectors and passive solar glazing, installation of storm windows or storm panels if the windows are so configured, replacement of filters in the furnace or air conditioner, and tune-up of mechanical equipment by service technicians.
To keep your energy use low, whenever you are buying or replacing a piece of equipment, look for energy-efficient products. This applies not only to furnaces, air conditioners, and refrigerators, but also to more common purchases like light bulbs. When light bulbs burn out, buy compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) replacements. Replacing a single incandescent bulb with a CFL will save the equivalent of 1,000 pounds of coal through energy savings over the CFL’s life. Energy-saving products can be found in this book’s companion volume, Green Building Products, and other information resources are listed in this site companion web site at <www.BuildingGreen.com/YourGreenHome>. The same arguments for energy efficiency and green design also apply to any remodeling projects or additions that you may decide on down the road. Make sure top-quality energy-conserving details are used. If you’re replacing windows or adding new ones, make sure that they have energy-conserving glazing that is appropriate for your climate and the windows’ orientations.
How you operate your house will also have a huge impact on its energy use. With two identical houses, it is not unusual for one house to use twice as much energy as the other one, based on different lifestyles, different comfort thresholds, and different living habits. Examples of a few energy-saving strategies that relate specifically to a home’s operation are listed in Figure 14.4.
This list is by no means comprehensive, but it offers some strategies for more efficient operation of your house. You can no doubt come up with lots of others.
It’s also a good idea to examine your energy bills carefully; keep track of monthly gas and electric bills and periodic heating oil or propane deliveries. By paying attention to your standard level of energy consumption, you’ll be more likely to notice a jump in consumption that could indicate that something’s wrong — such as a water pump that isn’t turning off or a faulty zone control that’s heating part of your house even during the summer months. (If you find a big jump in electricity consumption, your utility company may be able to lend you a meter that you can use to try to pinpoint the problem by plugging various appliances into it and measuring electricity usage.) And simply the process of regularly looking at your energy consumption is likely to make you more aware of how you use energy and how to conserve.
There are many ways to conserve water in and around your home. The toilets, showerheads, and faucets you install should be water-conserving models that meet federal water efficiency standards. Unfortunately, some of these products do not perform as well as they should. Hopefully, you and your builder or designer will research toilets carefully and purchase models that perform very well. You may not look into showerheads as carefully, though; most people just order what comes with the shower control mechanism. If this showerhead doesn’t perform well, replace it with a top-quality model that will deliver the performance you want—perhaps even with consumption below the 2.5 gallon-per-minute maximum allowed by law. There are some very well-designed water-conserving showerheads available, but expect to pay more for the best.
Regular maintenance is essential to ensure longevity of your house and the components in it. A well-built house should last more than 200 years, but not without periodic maintenance. Mechanical equipment in the house won’t last anywhere near 200 years, but if well-maintained, most furnaces, water heaters, and ventilation equipment should last 20 years or more.
Exactly what maintenance is needed will depend on specifics of your house and equipment. Any painted or stained windows, exterior walls, and trim will require recoating every 5 to 15 years, depending on the material and the detailing used during installation. Bathroom and kitchen tile may require re-grouting or sealing of grout periodically. Wood floors may require refinishing or waxing. Stone countertops in the kitchen may need to be resealed. The cathodic protection rod in the water heater (a sacrificial metal rod that protects against corrosion) should be checked periodically and replaced if necessary to increase your water heater’s life. If you have an in-ground septic system and reasonably water-efficient fixtures, the septic tank will need to be inspected and pumped every 5 to 10 years.
When you need to repaint a bedroom or refinish a wood floor later on down the road, be sure to use the same considerations that you used in the original selection. You probably won’t have the benefit of an environmentally conscious builder or architect to guide you in product selection, so this may entail some additional research.
SELECTION OF FURNISHINGS
From an indoor air quality standpoint, furnishings, curtains, shower curtains, bedding, and the like can be as significant a source of VOCs (including formaldehyde) as your kitchen cabinets. Look for furniture made with non-formaldehyde particleboard or MDF, or use solid wood. Some furniture is now being made with straw-based particleboard that contains no formaldehyde. As with wood products in new construction, look for FSC-certified wood or salvaged wood when you select furniture.
Many experts on indoor air quality recommend avoiding wall-to-wall carpeting, both because of chemicals that may be emitted from the carpet, carpet pad, or adhesive, and because the carpeting can provide an environment where allergy-causing dust mites, mold, and other biological contaminants may live. Natural-fiber area rugs are generally preferred. Area rugs are available made from cotton, wool, sisal, ramie, and other natural fibers. If possible, buy products that haven’t been treated with pesticides; products from developing countries may include residues from pesticides that are banned in North America. A big advantage of area rugs, as opposed to fixed wall-to-wall carpeting, is that the area rugs can be removed for washing and dust removal. Hanging a rug on an outside line and beating it — just as your grandmother probably did — is still usually the best way to clean dust out of a rug.
With bedding and towels, if your budget allows, consider unbleached, organic cotton. Even though cotton is a natural product, conventional cotton farming in the United States uses tremendous quantities of fertilizer and pesticide. Fabric dyeing also carries significant environmental burdens. Buying sheets, bedspreads, and towels made from organically grown, unbleached, or naturally dyed cotton is an excellent way to minimize your total environmental footprint.
Avoid vinyl (PVC) products such as inflatable plastic chairs and most shower curtains. A typical vinyl shower curtain may lose a third of its weight over a period of years as the plasticizers leach out into the air — into the air you and your family are breathing! That’s what you smell with a new vinyl shower curtain: plasticizers — usually phthalates, a class of chemicals recently implicated in various health and environmental problems.
Cleaning products are introduced into your home’s indoor air or wastewater every time you clean your house, or wash clothes or dishes. Select cleaning products carefully. Look for products that won’t add a lot of VOCs to your indoor air. These may be easiest to find from catalog retailers that specialize in “green living” products. You might also be able to use some common, environmentally safe household products such as vinegar and baking soda in place of products whose ingredients you need a degree in organic chemistry to understand.
Also look for laundry and dishwashing detergents that won’t introduce phosphates into your wastewater. Phosphates cause problems in streams and other surface waters by supporting excessive algae growth. Even if your wastewater goes into the ground through an on-site wastewater system, most of the phosphates will end up in the groundwater and will eventually flow into streams or lakes.
DEALING WITH WASTE
Americans generate more waste per capita than just about anyone else. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, in 2003 each of us produced over 1,600 pounds of municipal solid waste (household and office waste) — that’s 4.5 pounds per day. Of the 236 million tons of municipal solid waste produced in the US in 2003, a total of approximately 72 millions tons, or 31%, was recycled or composted. For a few materials, the recovery rate is higher — 48% for paper and cardboard, 56% for yard trimmings. But there is clearly plenty of room for improvement. The easier and more convenient we can make recycling in our homes, the faster our national recycling rate can grow.
In thinking about how to manage waste in your home, consider first how to reduce the amount of waste your family produces. Look at your buying habits. Are there opportunities to buy food and other goods in bulk to minimize packaging? Try to select products with minimal packaging waste; let store owners know why you are choosing the less-packaged products; encourage them to shift their buying habits and relay feedback to manufacturers and distributors.
In addition to reducing waste generation through more careful purchasing, you have huge opportunities to reduce the amount of waste that actually ends up going to a landfill. A reasonable goal for a green household is to reduce outgoing trash by 80%. A family that used to generate five bags of trash per week should be able to get that down to one bag.
How you manage recycling in your home depends to a large extent on how recycling is handled at the municipal level. In some towns and cities, curbside recycling is available for a wide range of materials: newspaper, office paper, cardboard, glass, various types of plastics, and metal cans. In other locales, all these materials can be recycled, but homeowners have to bring the materials to centralized locations where the recyclables are put in separate bins. In some places very few types of materials can be recycled. Contact your municipal solid waste department to find out what your recycling options are.
It is usually necessary to carry out some level of separation of recyclables in the home. If you have weekly curbside pickup of recyclables, your storage areas for these materials can be quite modest. In municipalities where you need to drive to recycling locations, it makes good environmental sense to plan for fairly long-term storage of recyclables so that your auto trips to the recycling center are minimized. If we have to use up a gallon of gasoline to recycle a bag of old newspapers or soda bottles, we’ll be no further ahead for the recycling.
The key to success with recycling is convenience. If recycling ends up being inconvenient, it may lose favor in your home.
COMPOSTING ORGANIC WASTE
Along with recycling all waste that can be recycled, consider setting up a composting system to deal with organic waste. A well-managed composting system will both dramatically reduce the volume of organic matter (because most of it is converted into carbon dioxide and water vapor) and produce a very good soil amendment. You should be able to get much useful information on composting from a county agricultural extension agent or your local library.
Buy durable outdoor composting bins with latchable lids to keep animals out. Keep a closable composting container in the kitchen so that you can collect a few days’ worth of compost before dumping it in an outside bin. It is usually beneficial to have two outdoor composting bins: one that you are adding material to and a second bin that is able to sit for a while after being filled until you spread the compost on the garden.
Most kitchen scraps and leftover food scraps can be composted, although experts usually recommend against composting of meat scraps.
Many people assume that composting simply means throwing organic waste into a compost bin and leaving it alone; these people are often disappointed with the results. To be most successful, composting involves a layering of different types of organic matter and periodic aeration or mixing of the pile. If most of the compost is food scraps, it may be too high in nitrogen and need more carbon for optimal breakdown; yard waste, such as grass clippings and weeds from the garden, can be added to achieve a better mix. Also, oxygen is needed to break down the waste; without enough oxygen, the compost may begin to decompose anaerobically, resulting in odor problems. Special implements are available for aerating the pile.
If outdoor composting won’t work because of raccoons or other animals getting into your bin, you might want to consider a worm bin in your basement. This may sound gross, but the process is actually quite clean and fairly easy. Worms eat the organic waste, producing a clean fertilizer ideal for adding to your garden. You will need a special worm bin and an out-of-the-way, dark location where the temperature stays above 60°F. You may also have to chop up waste to some extent so that the worms can consume it more easily.
INVOLVE THE WHOLE FAMILY IN WASTE MANAGEMENT
Recycling and composting should involve the whole family. Children who grow up in households that recycle and compost waste will probably grow up being better environmentalists. Provide incentives for your kids to play a part in your recycling efforts — or put your kids in charge! You may be surprised at the creative approaches they come up with and their sense of ownership of the program’s success.
Your household environmental impacts aren’t limited to your home. How you get around also has a big impact on your overall environmental footprint. If you’re lucky enough to have easy access to light rail, that’s a great way to commute, but relatively few of us have that option. If taking the train or subway isn’t possible, consider riding a bicycle, walking, taking a bus, or carpooling instead of driving a single-occupancy automobile.
For these alternatives to be used, they should be as convenient as possible. Make sure bicycles are conveniently stored, for example, so that family members can easily get a bike out and easily put it away. If you want to jog or bicycle to work, try to convince your employer to provide showers and a changing area. Covered, secure bicycle parking is also a big help.
Or consider working from home. Telecommuting can save hundreds of gallons of gasoline a year, and it can be a whole lot less stressful. With today’s e-mail, high-speed Internet connections, and high-tech telephone switching options, telecommuting is easier than ever. The fact that you are working in your slippers and bathrobe out of a home office can be totally hidden from your business associate on the other end of the phone. The company receptionist patches the call to you, and the caller assumes that you’re in a conventional cubicle surrounded by filing cabinets and fellow office workers. Unless your dog starts barking, there need be no clue that you’re in your home.
ENJOY THE OUTDOORS
Spending time outdoors is good for you (as long as you don’t get too much direct sun on unprotected skin). An important part of living in a green home is appreciating why you went to all that effort to create a home that would sit lightly on the land. Whether weeding your garden, enjoying an outdoor meal with your family, reading a book on the front porch, or working on your laptop under a tree out back, being outdoors will put you in closer touch with nature. It may help remind you and your family why it’s important to keep the air clean and the nearby woodlands or prairies healthy and diverse.