Here are 21 projects to implement in your home this year to make it more efficient and help you live a greener lifestyle.
Use energy-saving appliances. Refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, furnaces, heat pumps, air conditioning units and water heaters all have high-efficiency models. Before buying a new appliance, compare labels to find one that uses the least amount of energy and water and has the lowest operating costs. Look for the Energy Star label, which ensures appliances are 10 to 50 percent more efficient than standard models, saving you up to 30 percent on your electric bill. The biggest energy-hog in the kitchen is the refrigerator. Replace ones that are 10 years or older as they consume up to 1,200 kilowatt hours each year. Newer models consume less than 400 kilowatt hours per year. When buying a new refrigerator, look for new energy-saving features such as a power-saver switch and improved insulation materials, which can cut energy consumption by as much as 15 percent. Consume less water by using a dishwasher instead of washing by hand. If your dishwasher has water-miser and heat-free dryer settings, use them. Small households that don't use many dishes can cut energy use with drawer-sized dishwashers that use less water.
Install tubular skylights. More economical and able to give more light than regular skylights, tubular skylights capture natural sunlight from the rooftop and send it down a highly reflective tube. Some models even fit between the rafters and ceiling joists of your home, requiring no structural modification, making it an easy DIY project.
Install a tankless water heater. Heat water on demand at the source and save up to 50 percent in energy use. Because they are smaller than standard water heaters, tankless water heaters use less water and 10 to 20 percent less energy.
Use timers and motion sensors. Motion and occupancy sensors save money by automatically turning lights on and off as needed. They are inexpensive and can be mounted in standard switch boxes. Install photoelectric controls or timers on outside lights to make sure they're turned off during the day.
Mind the gaps. Cold air leaking into your home from the outside is your heating system's greatest enemy. Some of the worst air leakage areas in the average home are exterior wall outlets (20 percent), the soleplate (25 percent), the duct system (14 percent), exterior windows (12 percent) and fireplaces (5 percent).
Seal the gaps around windows and doors. Use storm windows, which can reduce heat loss through windows by 25 to 50 percent, and doors, and keep them tightly closed. Add weatherstripping and caulking around all doors and windows, including attic entryways, to reduce air leaks. When buying new windows, choose dual-pane ones. Install door sweeps to inside doors adjacent to the garage and the outside. Stop cold air infiltration from electric switch and plug outlets by using draft blockers. Purchase inexpensive, pre-cut insulation gaskets or install the ready-made foam insulating pads inside your receptacle and switch plate covers to seal out the cold air. Use weatherstripping around all attic stairwells and insulate the attic door with rigid board insulation to reduce heat loss. Fill all cracks and gaps with caulking or weatherstripping. Caulk around foundation walls, pipe outlets, clothes dryer vents and any other gaps on the outside of your house. Tape or cover unused keyholes. Add caulking around baseboards, where walls meet walls, ceiling or floor and around exterior faucets. Seal cracks in your basement walls and floor to keep heat in and cold air out. Seal all air gaps between your air conditioner and window. During winter months, thoroughly cover the unit outdoors with sturdy plastic and tape. Use an inside cover to further eliminate drafts and cold surfaces.
Turn it off. Lighting accounts for 15 percent of a typical residential utility bill, so turn off the lights when not in use. Household electronics account for more than 25 percent of home electricity use. Chargers for MP3 players, cell phones, etc. draw electricity even when not connected, so they should be removed from sockets as soon as they are powered. Anything with a standby light, like a TV, should be plugged into a power strip that is shut down when not in use. Activate the “sleep” feature of equipment (PC, fax, printer, scanner, monitor, coffeemaker) so it automatically powers down when not in use.
Pick the right light. Compact florescent lighting, or CFLs, are safer, use 70 percent less electricity, produce as much (if not more) light and last up 10 to 15 times longer than incandescent bulbs. CFLs. LED lighting, which is newer to the market, promises long life and extremely efficient operation, but it is not widely available and can be pricey. Install dimmer switches to save energy and extend the life of light bulbs.
Wrap it up. Your home's HVAC duct system may be wasting a lot of energy. Inspect it to be sure it's properly connected, sealed tightly and well insulated. Insulate your hot water heater with a jacket. An extra layer of protection will help to keep heat from being lost through the wall of the tank. Insulate pipes or ducts that run through unheated areas.
Know your numbers. The numbers you set for your air conditioner, thermostat, hot water tank and refrigerator are all critical to energy-efficiency.
Heating and air conditioning, in particular, account for nearly half the energy used in our homes, so every little bit saved is worthwhile. First, install a programmable thermostat that can be set to raise or lower the temperature in your house automatically according to your needs. Try setting the temp between 65 and 68 degrees during a winter's day. For sleep hours, set the temperature at least 5 degrees lower. If you consistently set your thermostat back at night 10 degrees, you may reduce your heating bill by 10 to 20 percent. As little as 1 to 3 degrees makes a noteworthy difference in energy consumption. When away from home for more than a few hours, set your thermostat at 58 degrees. Set the air conditioner temperature control no lower than 78 degrees F. A 75-degree setting costs 18 percent more, and a 72-degree setting costs 39 percent more. Turn the temperature on your water heater from the standard 140 degrees F to 120 degrees. It will save you money and slow mineral buildup and corrosion, prolonging the life of your tank. Set the refrigerator temperature between 35 and 40 degrees F and your freezer between 0 and 5 degrees for most efficient operation. You can check the temperature with an outdoor thermometer.
Choose recycled materials or renewable options for flooring and countertops. Some new materials are made from more eco-friendly materials and mimic the look of traditional designs. Countertops made from composite materials like post-consumer recycled paper or plastic resins are monitored to ensure they don't release harmful levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and are formaldehyde-free yet look like high-end solid surface countertops. Other materials, like reclaimed wood from its original site, butcher block countertops or glass tile surfaces, are also increasing in popularity. Some new options for flooring come from rapidly renewable resources like bamboo and palm, which look beautiful, wear well and grow back much faster than old-growth forest trees. Cork, which is harvested from the bark of cork trees, is also a great choice. Made of natural materials like linseed oil, rosin and wood flour, linoleum is making a comeback because it is durable, easy to clean and inexpensive.
Lower the VOCs. Volatile organic compounds or VOCs are linked to health problems and are considered greenhouse gases. Indoor air quality is affected by VOCs as well as formaldehyde found in carpeting, plywood, subflooring, paint and furnishings. Choose lower-VOC options when remodeling. Look for eco-friendly paints, stains and finishes. Choose paints with water-based finishes and “no VOCs” on the labels. Choose wallpaper with low- or no-VOC compositions and glues. And don't forget the low-VOC caulks, adhesives and sealers.
Go solar. Solar radiation can be harnessed to heat and cool homes (passive solar), heat water, cook food (solar cookers) or to make electricity from photovoltaic (PV) panels. The most efficient and direct use of solar radiation is to heat water. Three percent, or 1.5 million homes and businesses, of all U.S energy consumption is for hot water heating. If your house has good southern exposure and lots of sunshine, solar heating is a great investment.
Install high-efficiency fixtures and faucets. A typical home uses about 100,000 gallons of water each year. Water-saving showerheads and faucet aerators, which inject air bubbles into the water stream to achieve the same pressure with less volume, save up to 50 percent on your water use. Install low-flush toilets to save water. Install recirculation pumps keep hot water at the tap, saving hundreds of gallons per year by eliminating the need to run the tap while the water gets hot.
Insulate. More than half of the energy used for heating is lost through walls, floors, ceilings and attics that are not insulated. With spray foam insulation, liquid polyurethane is pumped through pressurized spray nozzles and expands on surfaces to form an insulating barrier.
Unlike traditional insulating materials, spray foam insulation can seal tiny cracks and seams you can't even see. Foam insulation also helps control moisture condensation, it won't shrink or settle, and it's fire- and insect-resistant. Denim insulation, which is made from recycled material with a flame retardancy that comes from borate, an organic substance, it's another safe, eco-friendly insulation alternative.
Conduct a whole house energy audit. An energy audit is one of the best ways to determine the most cost-effective measures for reducing energy bills in your home. It can locate areas where energy is wasted and can determine the efficiency of your heating and cooling systems. Energy audits vary in complexity. You can perform a simple audit yourself by examining your home for obvious leaks or ensuring that appliances work efficiently. More thorough audits can be conducted by "house doctors," who usually work in teams using special equipment such as blower doors, infrared cameras, furnace efficiency instruments and surface thermometers. They may also analyze previous energy bills and implement some energy efficiency measures at the time of the audit. This type of energy audit, however, may be relatively expensive. Some utilities offer energy audits for free or for a nominal charge. The extent of these audits varies. Auditors from utilities may or may not use special equipment such as blower doors and infrared cameras, and they may or may not check the performance of your heating system.
Know your material. Where does it come from? Is it made locally? How is it delivered? What are its by-products? Purchasing local products, for instance, saves the fuel needed to transport them.
Remodel with recycled materials. More and more, recycled materials are being introduced into remodeling. You can now find countertops (as well as backsplashes) made of recycled aluminum or glass. Ones made from recycled paper or hemp, which are extremely durable and easy to clean, are also available. If you prefer a tile countertop, look for tiles that are either recycled from previous installations or made from recycled material. You can even find a quartz composite known as engineered stone. The wood in most cabinetry contains urea-formaldehyde which contains VOCs. Look for cabinets made from solid wood, or alternative materials such as wheat board, and with nontoxic finishes. For carpets, wool and other natural materials are good choices. Even mainstream manufacturers are becoming more eco-friendly with carpets made from recycled products like old plastic bottles and organic materials like corn.
Encourage an update to the power grid. A new electrical grid would let consumers sell unused energy back into the grid. Excess electricity is fed back into the grid. Homes that use a decentralized renewable energy source like solar panels can sell excess power back to the public utility provider.
Clean and maintain. Clean equipment in good-working condition saves energy and extends its life. Heating, ventilation, air conditioning and water systems all need tuning up periodically. Time between checkups and who should perform the task varies. Some tasks, such as replacing a furnace filter, are do-it-yourself jobs while professionals should be brought in for other tasks such as full furnace checkups. Make sure furnace filters in forced air systems are clean. Dirty furnace filters restrict airflow and increase energy use by making the fan work harder. Cleaning them, or swapping them out each month during the winter, can save you up to 5 percent on your heating costs. Repair all leaking water faucets, especially the hot water faucets. One drop per second can add up to 165 gallons a month, or what one person uses in two weeks. One tips to save energy: Drain a quart of water from your hot water tank every two months to remove sediment that impedes heat transfer and lowers its efficiency. Clean condenser coils on the back or bottom of your refrigerator every three months with a vacuum cleaner to allow for maximum heat transfer and to keep the condenser from overworking. Dust prevents the fans from working efficiently. Keep hot water and electric baseboards clean so they run at maximum efficiency.
Ventilate. New ventilation control systems—sometimes called “energy recovery ventilation systems” or ERVs—reduce energy consumption and improve indoor air quality (IAQ) by capturing and recycling building energy to humidify, pre-cool or dehumidify incoming air. Half of all illnesses are attributed to indoor airborne contaminants, leading the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to declare indoor air quality a public health priority. Ventilation with outdoor air can reduce the levels of all indoor pollutants.