The array of green products, practices, labels, programs, rebates, and lingo can make anyone’s head spin. How does a homeowner go about assessing their needs and taking the right course of corrective action? I would suggest beginning with your pain, and then reaching for the low-hanging fruit. This process will help you get to know (or perhaps just see with fresh eyes) the quirks of your home, help you attain better fluency in green speak, and better understand how to view your house as a system instead of a collection of independent components – a perspective that will be necessary for when you are ready to tackle those larger projects.
Most of us don’t think about our homes as sources of pain – but very often poor layouts, aging materials, leaky shells, and improper equipment can prevent us from being comfortable in our own home. They can also cost us money and energy. How many of these questions apply to you?
-Are parts of your home too hot, or too cold?
-Is there uneven heating across the different rooms or floors of your home?
-Is your indoor air too dry? Too humid? (Not sure? Do you find your skin itchy, your windows moldy, your breathing raspy, or your allergies worse when you come inside?)
-Is your house too dark in places?
-Do you have drafts at your doors, windows, or fireplaces?
-Have you thought about how much electricity you pay for just to have appliances and electronics plugged in, even when they aren’t being used?
-Are your utility bills painfully expensive each month?
-Do you have to wait for several minutes for the hot water to reach your faucet or shower?
Since the house is a system, many of these sources of discomfort (and wasted energy and money!) are interconnected. It can be overwhelming to think about bringing an existing home up to today’s expectations for technology, comfort, and efficiency. To get over that “it’s too big to tackle” response, let’s look at the low-hanging fruit. There are plenty of small changes you can make without breaking the bank or committing to live in an earthen berm underground home.
Before you buy a new state-of-the-art air conditioner and furnace, think about how often you change your ventilation filter, how leaky your doors and windows are, and check on the insulation levels in your attic. Double check that your flue is closed, or add ceiling fans for convection cooling in summer. A whole house fan is a fantastic addition in our climate; we have the cool evenings most summer nights to reduce the house temperatures significantly in a matter of minutes. Another simple upgrade for your indoor comfort is to install a new bathroom exhaust fan with a humidistat – or even simpler, replace the switch to your existing fan with one that has a humidistat built-in. This allows your fan to run long enough to clear out the excess moisture in the air after a bath or shower, and then turn itself off to save energy.
If you are ready to update your HVAC system, first invest in a home energy audit (usually around $500) to find out how leaky your ducts are, where you are losing heat, and what simple steps can be taken to remedy those problems. These solutions will lower energy use, save money, and make your home more comfortable to be in – and none of this can be accomplished by installing a new HVAC system alone.
Not yet ready for a gray-water system? Reduce water (and energy) consumption by insulating your water heater (and pipes if you can get to them), lowering the water temperature to 120 degrees, installing aerators on faucets, and adding a recirculating pump to send cold water back to the heater while you wait for your hot water to arrive at the faucet (this is an easy installation). Add weather-controls to the sprinkler system and replace part (or all!) of your lawn with native plants or a vegetable garden. Check for leaky faucets, add a timer to your shower, and wash laundry only when you have a full load (using cold water for laundry will save energy costs as well).
Before you plan out your PV solar grid, consider easy ways to lower your energy loads, so that you need fewer panels to be installed (and save money on your bills to boot, whether or not you plan to install a PV system). Hang laundry to dry, skip the heat cycle on your dishwasher, add a kill switch to appliances and electronics with stand-by modes, install a Solatube to add light to dark corners, switch to fluorescent bulbs, insulate your attic and close up those darn drafty windows and doors! Research local government and utility rebates when it’s time to update your appliances – dishwashers, refrigerators, and clothes washers have all come a long way and there are rebates for choosing efficient models of these appliances. You’ll save money buying them and using them.
By treating our homes as a system, we can address the larger discomfort and inefficiency issues in simple, logical ways. Larger remodels can address the larger pains, but there is a lot you can do in the mean time. The steps suggested here are all good groundwork for more complex solutions as well – and by taking these steps first, you’ll start to enjoy your home more before having to invest in that solar array for your rooftop.