Saving energy and money, lowering your carbon footprint and conserving natural resources does not have to be a major project. Try these things you can do right now, but experiment with them one at a time. If you take on all these projects at once, you will get overwhelmed and discouraged.
1. Replace your incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs). According to the Energy Star website (http://www.energystar.gov/), CFLs use 75% less energy and last 10 times longer for energy savings of $30 over the life of one bulb. They also produce less heat, which will reduce your cooling costs in summer. They are most effective in rooms that are used often, such as kitchen and living areas, or where lights are on more than 15 minutes at a time. Call your electric company for possible rebates or reduced prices on CFLs. Some communities are banning incandescent bulbs, so now’s the time to get used to the change!
2. Buy energy efficient appliances when it’s time to replace them. Do NOT go out and buy green appliances (or anything, for that matter!) just to be eco-conscious. That is unnecessary energy use and waste, and it’s the opposite of what you want to accomplish. Wait until something needs replacing, then research the most efficient and eco-friendly according to your needs.
Energy Star appliances typically use 10-15% less energy and water. An Energy Star washing machine can cut your energy bill by 1/3 and your water use by half. Refrigerators have historically been energy hogs, but they now use half the energy they did in 1993. An Energy Star refrigerator uses 20% less energy than required by federal standards and 40% less than a 2001 model. Check the Energy Star website (http://www.energystar.gov/) for details.
3. Use native plants or drought-tolerant adaptable plants. Native plants need no extra care, since they are in their natural environment. Adaptable plants tolerate local conditions well, even though they are native to another region. Install a drip irrigation system to save water. Sprinklers waste water, because they soak outside the targeted area. Water is also lost to evaporation. If you are building new, save as many native trees as possible, and disturb as little of your lot as you can.
4. Collect rainwater from your roof. This can be an elaborate system of catchment and filtering for indoor use, or as simple as 5-gallon buckets for watering outside. For domestic water, install gutters along the edge of the roof, and place downspouts on the corners. They lead to an underground cistern, then a pump sends the water through a filtering system in the house. This water needs to be tested regularly for human consumption. I have friends with this set-up, and their water is fine to cooking and drinking.
For outdoor irrigating, run downspouts into 55-gallon drums with spigots at the bottom where you will attach a hose. Several drums can be connected to catch overflow. I have 5-gallon buckets lined up in the flower gardens under the roofline, and I carry them to the garden or just scoop water out for specific needs. Sometimes I just dump them out right there to water the flowers! Your hair and your plants love the pH of rainwater!
5. Insulate your ceiling. Heat rises, and the first place it will leave your house is through the ceiling and roof, increasing your heating costs. It is estimated that 45% of your heat can be lost through a ceiling with no insulation. Summer sun beating on the roof can heat up your house increasing your cooling bills. Ceiling insulation will keep you comfortable and keep your energy bills low year round. Consider using cellulose insulation, which is shredded newspaper that is blown in. This is a great way to recycle!
6. Install window coverings to keep heat indoors in winter and outside in summer. You can get insulated shades in custom sizes, or put up drapes or heavy curtains. The point is to create an air space between your room and the window. Even energy efficient windows need to be covered at night.
Speaking of windows… replace old windows with low-e windows. Whether you are remodeling or building new, place new windows where they will receive enough natural daylight to cut down on the need for daytime lighting. Place them in a south-facing wall for passive solar gain and free daytime heating. If you have objectionable views to the south, consider a trombe wall for radiant heat or a clerestory window.
7. Replace water-wasting toilets with low-flush or dual flush. When I remodeled, I bought low-flush toilets at Lowe’s for $44. Not a lot of money to cut your water use by half! A dual-flush toilet has two ways to flush, depending on how much water you need. If you insist on flushing pee, you can save water doing so with a dual-flush toilet.
8. Add a solar thermal system for domestic hot water and/or radiant floor or baseboard heat. My domestic system cut my gas bill from $1000/yr to $200/yr. It will pay for itself in about 6 years and last about 20. Or more. A solar thermal system preheats the water in your hot water heater, reducing the need for gas or electric to heat the water.
9. Add a solar PV system to produce electricity. Net metering is the cleanest method of solar electricity. The home is tied to the electric company’s grid. The system creates electricity during the day and sends it to the grid, reducing the need for coal-generated electricity. At night, the home draws from the grid for power. There is no need for batteries to store electricity, making net-metering a cleaner power source.
Never feel like you are not doing enough. If you replace one incandescent bulb with a CFL, you can save ½ ton of CO2 from going into the atmosphere. You don’t need to do a lot, but please do something.