A Room-by-Room Guide to Making Your House
CBN.com Green living leads to green savings, and a less consumeristic lifestyle leads to more time with family, friends, and God. When I compare my life to the meek and humble example that Jesus set, I know that I have only taken the first few steps. Yet having an eternal benchmark gives purpose to my journey. If we can reduce our impact by 10 percent a year, we are on the right road.
GIve Your Rooms a Green Makeover
IN THE BATHROOM
If you tried a low-flow showerhead years ago and were not satisfied — try again. They’ve improved dramatically. Readily available at hardware and home improvement stores, low-flow showerheads cost less than $10, and installation is about as simple as screwing in a lightbulb. Standard showerheads use 4–6 gallons per minute. Water-efficient showerheads cut that back to 1.5–2 gallons. In one year, a family of four can save up to 18,200 gallons of water as well as the energy used to heat that water. Reduce even further: shower every other day in winter, cut back on your shower time by a couple of minutes, or turn off the water flow while you shampoo and shave.
Use a water-resistant cloth shower curtain instead of vinyl, or consider a glass door system. Plastic curtains and liners are not recyclable and end up in landfills.
SAVE GREEN: About 25 percent of the water supplied to the average American home is used for showers. Installing a low-flow showerhead can save a family of four 350 gallons of water each week — about $73 per year.
In general, baths use three times more water than showers. If you do take a bath, plug the drain before you turn on the faucet. The average tub faucet runs 3–5 gallons per minute, so savings add up fast. And scoop up the water afterward to use on your garden or indoor plants.
GO GREEN: Toilets are the biggest water users in the home. Only 3 percent of the earth’s water is fresh, yet Americans are flushing 4.8 billion gallons of freshwater down the drains every day. As much as 40 percent of our drinking water is flushed down toilets. Flush once less per day and you will save as much water as the average person in Africa uses all day for drinking, cooking, bathing, and cleaning.
Modern high-efficiency toilets use less than 2 gallons per flush. Even better are dual flush toilets — one button for big flushes (1.6 gallons) and one for small (.9 gallon).
If your toilet is leaking, get it fixed. A leaky toilet can waste 200 gallons of water every day.
GO GREEN: If every American used one gallon of water less per day, we would save more than 100 billion gallons per year. That’s enough to supply the entire population of Mozambique with water for five years.
Turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth. Savings for an average family of four? A whopping 48 gallons a day — as much as $70 per year!
GO GREEN: The average U.S. household consumes more than seventy times as much water every year as the average home in Ghana.
Only turn on the water when rinsing the razor, or try rinsing the razor in a cup filled with warm water.
Alternative: brush your teeth while you wait for the water to warm up for your shave. Water savings: up to 1,825 gallons per year, enough to fill the bathtub thirty-five times.
Matthew keeps a pitcher by the bathroom sink and collects the water that runs while he’s waiting for it to turn warm, then he uses that water for rinsing dishes or watering plants.
Instead of using shaving cream, our son, Clark, shaves with old-fashioned shaving soap and a brush. He saves money while keeping aerosol cans out of the landfills.
Speaking of landfills: stop using disposable razors. Seek out a more permanent replacement. Best bet: single-blade razors with no plastic packaging.
GO GREEN: Two billion disposable razors end up in landfills annually.
The average American spends about $600 per year on soaps, toiletries, and cosmetics. Some hair products, shampoos, deodorants, and perfumes contain active ingredients that are dangerous in high doses. Many cosmetics and health-care products contain known carcinogens — others are simply untested. There is no universal safety test for health-care products. Used in small amounts, many may be harmless, but when washed down the drain, their cumulative effect rivals that of agrochemicals.
Good news: health-food chain stores are carrying natural product alternatives (store brands), so you can protect your family’s health without spending a lot more. Before purchasing, make sure that containers can be recycled by checking for the triangular recycling symbol on the bottom.
Because I work at home now, I rarely wear makeup. When I do, my whole routine takes less than five minutes. I keep it simple — one tube that acts as foundation and concealer, one tube for lip and cheek color, and a little mascara along the tips of my lashes. If I’m going someplace fancy, I wait until my hair is 90 percent dry, and then I style it quickly with a blow-dryer. For everyday, my “style” is a low-key wash-and-wear — why fight nature? It helps to have a husband who supports a low-maintenance look: on my last birthday, when Matthew wrote me a card listing the forty-seven reasons why he loves me, number six was “You don’t dye your silver hair.”
GO GREEN: Of the many thousands of synthetic chemicals used in healthcare items, less than 20 percent have been tested for acute effects and less than 10 percent have been tested for reproductive, mutagenic, or chronic effects.
IN THE KITCHEN
Your refrigerator is the biggest energy-using appliance in the kitchen because it is on 24-7. For the last ten years, we’ve kept our refrigerator and freezer on the warmest-possible setting, with no problems beyond slightly softened ice cream. Matthew is a doctor, so I trust he would tell me if there were serious health ramifications in doing this!
Consider these other energy-saving ideas for your refrigerator:
- Decide what you want before you open the door — refrigerator gazing can cost $30–$60 per year.
- Put hot food in a cold water bath or place it outside in cold weather before refrigerating, so less energy is required to keep it cool.
- Keep your refrigerator and freezer full. Doing so uses less energy because less cooling is lost each time you open the refrigerator.
- Defrost food in the refrigerator; it will keep the refrigerator cooler.
- Make sure the seals are in good shape. Try this quick test: Shut the fridge and freezer door on a dollar bill. If you can pull it out easily, your door seals are damaged and need to be replaced.
- Give your refrigerator room to breathe. Do not jam the refrigerator against the wall, and keep at least 3 inches clear above it in order to allow for proper airflow.
- Unplug extra refrigerators (such as those in your garage or basement) when not in use.
- Disconnect automatic ice makers, which add heat to the freezer to release the cubes.
SAVE GREEN: Nearly 20 percent of homes have at least two refrigerators. The older the model, the more energy it uses. Consider giving your second refrigerator to a family in need. In addition to helping someone out, you will also be saving up to $100 per year on your electricity bill.
Most modern faucets have aerators (wire mesh attachments). If yours does not, you can install one pretty easily. These inexpensive aerators or flow valves, found at your local hardware store, can reduce your water flow by half without reducing water pressure.
There’s quite a bit of controversy over which method uses more water and energy: hand washing or the dishwasher. The average dishwasher uses more than 10 gallons of water; energy-efficient dishwashers use about half that. My family washes dishes by hand, using 3–5 gallons a day. We try to wash the cleaner dishes first, turning off the tap while we scrub and rinsing with cold water. Most of the year we collect that water in a tub and reuse it to refresh our garden.
In addition to using more water, dishwashers also require electricity to run the motor; hand washing does not. Think about it: it takes energy to power your dishwasher for forty-five minutes per cycle, whereas children who regularly participate in washing and drying dishes require zero electricity. Some of Emma’s and Clark’s fondest memories are when they’ve been making up silly songs as they do the dishes together.
GO GREEN: Dishwashers use anywhere from 331 (Energy Star) to 1,000 (conventional) kWh per year. Washing by hand can save $100 per year on your electricity bill — and it can teach your children the value of working cooperatively.
If you do use the dishwasher, run full loads and avoid prerinsing before putting dishes in — you could save up to 20 gallons of water per load or 7,300 gallons per year — as much as the average person drinks in a lifetime. Turn the dishwasher completely off when the cycle is finished. To save even more, avoid using the boosted cleaning and heated dry options and air dry the dishes instead.
IN THE BEDROOM
Buy quality products that don’t have to be replaced every few years. We pile on extra blankets in the winter so we can turn the heat off at night. Wear layers if you — like me! — get colder than your spouse. If you can afford it, purchase organic cotton bedding — you will be resting your head eight hours each night on bedding with fewer chemicals and protecting future generations from the high cost of chemical-intensive agribusiness. Looking for a cost/benefit compromise? Try bedding with “transitional cotton” — made from fields that have committed to organic growing practices but have not yet completed the organic certification process.
When it comes to clothing, less is more. My husband is the ultimate example of wardrobe simplicity. Before going on a speaking engagement, he asks me if he should wear Outfit A (the suit) or Outfit B (khaki pants, white shirt, tie, and blue sports jacket). In very casual settings, he opts for Outfit B–minus (Outfit B, minus the tie or jacket).
Alas, it’s not so simple for women. I try to stick to classic fashions and colors that work for me and consciously avoid fashion magazines so I don’t get sucked into the latest trends. I’m only too happy to accept hand-me-downs from friends and relatives. In fact, most of what’s in my closet is secondhand.
Matthew has gotten me in the habit of cleaning my closet out at least once a year. I always enlist my daughter, Emma, to help — if I haven’t worn an item in the last year, she makes sure I pass it along to someone who can make good use of it through a refugee organization, Goodwill, St. Vincent de Paul, or the Salvation Army.
GO GREEN: After food, clothing has the highest environmental impact of any consumer activity. Nearly 40,000 gallons of water are used in the production and transport of new clothes bought by the average American household — each year!
Bring an accountability friend (or daughter) when shopping and help each other say no to any impulse purchases. Never shop just for fun; always have a purpose, and stick to it. Try to buy used whenever possible, and always combine trips. If you are considering a major purchase, wait a month. In most cases, you’ll find that you forgot about it, or can do without.
GO GREEN: Globally, one-quarter of all pesticides are used on cotton crops.
When Matthew and I first married nearly thirty years ago, I tried to buy cotton fabrics because I assumed they were more natural. Not necessarily so. Although synthetics such as nylon, polyester, and Lycra are made from fossil fuels, natural fibers are not always the best answer. I’ve since learned that cotton is the most chemical-intensive crop — each pound of cotton uses ten to eighteen applications of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides and 3,800 gallons of water. Wool requires even more water — 22,400 gallons of water per pound — and causes soil compaction and habitat loss due to fertilizer-dependent pastures. And hybrid fabrics, such as polycotton blends, are impossible to recycle.
What to wear? When possible, look for chemical-free organic cotton, linen, wool, and hemp fabrics. Even in discount stores, you can now find clothing made from “transitional cotton.”
Jesus told us to be more like the birds and the lilies; it’s what’s in us — not on us — that matters. Our family buys a large portion of our clothes from secondhand stores. Buying used means less land must be used to grow crops for clothing, and new items don’t need to be manufactured and transported. Look for quality items that will stay in style and last a long time.
I rely on polar fleece (mine is made from recycled pop bottles) for warm layering. As I write this, I’m wearing my $5 polar fleece from Goodwill, which has kept me toasty for years and still looks nearly new.
At a recent faith and environment conference, I looked at our daughter, Emma, and realized that everything we both were wearing was from a secondhand store. I unashamedly tell people that the majority of the clothes in my closet are from Goodwill, including my favorite traveling dress, which happens to be an Ann Taylor design.
Before clothes became a fashion statement, people wore layers to survive in a world with no artificial heat or air-conditioning. Clothes are the most efficient form of insulation. If you live in a colder climate, warm your body, not your entire house. Each morning, I check the weather and dress accordingly.
Like secondhand clothing stores, secondhand furniture also can save resources used in the manufacturing and transportation process. Check out http://www.craigslist.org for local furniture listings. When buying new, look for furnishings with labels saying that they are made from sustainably harvested wood or recycled materials rather than from veneer-covered particle board, which can cause indoor air pollution through noxious off-gassing (the evaporation of volatile chemicals that you may continue to breathe in for years).
At this moment I am writing at the oak desk that Matthew and I found in a used furniture store when we first got married. Matthew, a carpenter at the time (how handy!), refinished the desk, and I’ve been using it now for nearly three decades — with the hope of enjoying it for three more. It’s been through nine moves with us and has endured a myriad of projects — college and graduate school papers, Matthew’s medical school applications, bills, the kids’ homework, manuscripts, and paperwork for our nonprofit organization, Blessed Earth. This desk has been central to every season of our lives together. It’s more beautiful than ever — the water glass rings just add a bit more character (and fond memories) to the wood someone first planed a century or more ago. Our dining room table and chairs, Matthew’s desk, Clark’s bed — they all have similar stories. Most of the other furniture in our house was handmade by a friend who manages his wood lot using draft horses — the least harmful way to harvest lumber — ensuring that his land will be both beautiful and financially productive for generations to come.
THE GREEN ROOM
Want to shop for sustainable furniture online? These sites will get you started:
Always be sure to check for the Forest Stewardship Council seal of approval, which certifies the use of sustainably grown lumber. This seal ensures that the wood was harvested from a healthy forest, and not clear-cut from a tropical rainforest or the ancestral homelands of forest-dependent indigenous people.
Nearly all carpet is petroleum based, with the exception of wool. Carpet making is water and chemical intensive, even before the dyeing process creates millions of gallons of polluted wastewater. But the worst part of carpet manufacturing is the volatile organic compounds in the adhesives — benzene and toluene. These are well-recognized health hazards, adding to indoor air pollution. In addition, because of mold and dust mites that are impossible to fully remove no matter how often you steam clean, doctors advise that people with allergies or asthma avoid carpeting their homes.
Better options? Area rugs that can be vacuumed on both sides and shaken out, wool carpet, and carpet made from recycled materials. Even better, use bamboo, cork, wood, or other natural materials. Look for labels indicating that these materials were grown sustainably.
SAVE GREEN: One of the things that motivated us to select our 1960s ranch-style home was its real oak floors. We removed the stained carpet in two bedrooms and revealed the wood floors beneath — they look great and will last several more lifetimes.
We have ceiling fans in the three main bedrooms of our home, as well as in the family room/kitchen area. When the fan in the family room needed to be replaced, we chose an Energy Star model.
SAVE GREEN: Stay cool all night for less — consider installing a ceiling fan over your bed. It costs sixteen times more to run a room air conditioner than a ceiling fan; it costs forty-three times more to run a central air conditioner than a ceiling fan.
We made a rule long ago — no TVs or computers in the bedrooms. Placing TVs and computers in children’s bedrooms promotes separation, not unity. Falling asleep with the TV running is a huge waste of energy.
GO GREEN: Most video recorders and cable boxes stay on 24-7. Even in standby mode, they consume 85 percent of the power that they use while turned on.
IN THE FAMILY ROOM
Only open the fireplace damper when you are using the fireplace. If possible, burn wood from a sustainably managed wood lot — we get our wood supply from fallen trees. Let your neighbors know that you are happy to saw (or hire someone to saw) their fallen trees as well. When a storm knocked over our neighbor’s maple last week, it resulted in a one cord windfall for us!
SAVE GREEN: An open damper can allow 8 percent of your home’s heat to go up the chimney. In summer, an open damper can add about $100 to your cooling costs. Adding a chimney balloon could save you $200 or more on energy costs.
Wood-burning stoves are far more efficient than open fireplaces. If you have a fireplace that is never used, close the damper and stuff it loosely with fiberglass batting, or insert a balloon especially designed for this purpose. Either option will allow some air movement while still preventing major heating or cooling losses.
GO GREEN: Because a chimney damper is frequently heated and cooled, it can warp or break over time, causing cold drafts to enter your home and heat to escape. An inflated chimney balloon, also called a chimney pillow, prevents this heat loss by acting as a plug, saving you money, heat, and comfort. Google “chimney balloon” and “chimney pillow” to learn more about sources and proper sizing.
Use matches instead of lighters. About 1.5 billion disposable lighters end up in landfills and incinerators each year. The plastic casings and butane fuel from lighters are made from petroleum products. Petroleum products are finite — and are quickly becoming scarcer, as evidenced by rising fuel prices.
SAVE GREEN: If you do use a lighter, invest in one that can be refilled.
You can reduce the amount of junk mail you receive by registering at https://www.dmachoice.org. (It costs $1 if you register by mail; it’s free if you register online.) I reregister every couple of years and also whenever we’ve moved. If a company sends me a catalog, I call the toll-free number and ask them to unsubscribe me. We recycle the junk mail we do receive, including envelopes with plastic windows.
For more ways to reduce junk mail, visit www.newdream.org.
SAVE GREEN: Eliminate the source of temptation: the average household could save $1,400 per year by banning mail-order catalogs from the house. To decline unsolicited credit card offers, visit www.optoutprescreen.com.
Purchase recycled paper. Paper that contains 30 percent postconsumer waste costs about the same as regular paper; 100 percent recycled will cost a bit more, but saves trees for your children to enjoy. Just as important — recycling your paper uses much less water and energy than making new paper.
Refilled ink cartridges cost far less than new ink, with identical results. Many offices and schools now collect used ink cartridges as fundraisers. If you aren’t recycling your ink cartridges, try http://www.fundingfactory.com, which has already doled out $10.5 million to schools and nonprofit organizations. FundingFactory can help you recycle cell phones for profit as well.
Our family has made the switch to laptop computers because they use significantly less energy than desktops. Kick the habit of leaving the computer on all day, and always be sure to shut the computer down completely at night.
SAVE GREEN: Work from home? Replacing existing office equipment with Energy Star–qualified products can cut annual energy bills by 30 percent.
That little green or red light emitted by your TV, DVD player, stereo, or computer means that the system is still partially on, thereby causing what is known as a phantom load (energy consumed by products even when they are turned off). About 5 percent of a household’s energy is wasted on phantom loads, costing U.S. consumers about $8 billion annually. Even in standby or sleep mode, appliances can be using up to 85 percent of their full power. In fact, audio equipment in America actually uses more energy when it is off than when it is on. When you are not listening to music (most of the time!), your equipment is still partially powered; even a little bit of energy being used 24-7 adds up to a lot. Avoid phantom loads by purchasing smart power strips that allow you to turn the power completely off at the source. Unplug infrequently used electronics.
GO GREEN: In the average household, eight appliances are left on standby mode at any one time. The typical TV is left on standby seventeen hours per day.
We keep two heavy polar fleece blankets in the family room to stay warm and cozy even when the heat is turned down. Remember — the point is to warm your body, not your whole house.
GO GREEN: Need another reason to invite friends over during the winter? Each person in your home generates the same amount of warmth as a 100-watt heater.
IN THE LAUNDRY ROOM
Energy-efficient washing machines use about one-third less electricity than conventional washers. We have an energy-efficient front-load washer, which not only saves electricity and water, but also spins out most of the moisture, so clothes dry much more quickly. I use the coldest water setting that gets the job done, and I only run full loads. Be frugal with detergent (use no more than the recommended amount), and don’t wash items such as pants, skirts, dresses, and sweaters every time you wear them — they’ll last longer and you’ll save time, water, and energy.
GO GREEN: About 80 to 85 percent of the energy used to wash clothes goes toward heating the water.
When we first went green, I resisted hanging our clothes on the line. We were living in a postcard-picture-perfect town on the coast of Maine, and no one in my upscale neighborhood used a clothesline. Besides, I didn’t want the towels or my jeans to feel stiff. Spoiled me — as if Jesus (or my grandmother) had needed a clothes dryer. Talk about confusing a want with a need!
Matthew led by example, stringing a line in the backyard despite my objections. It didn’t take long for me to start feeling bad about my already hardworking husband doing all the laundry — so I joined in. And then the kids started helping. And we realized it’s not such a hardship after all to go outside a few times a week and listen to the birds while hanging clothes on the line. Now I look forward to hanging clothes, a welcome break away from my desk and a time to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation in my own backyard.
Dryers are one of the most energy-intensive appliances. We’ve intentionally lived without one for more than six years now. In summer, we dry our clothes outside on the line. In winter, we use a line strung in the basement — it saves us from using a humidifier, too, because the damp clothes add moisture to the dry air.
If you do use a clothes dryer, make sure you purchase one with a moisture sensor, which allows the dryer to automatically turn itself off when the clothes reach a specified level of dryness. Always run full loads and keep the lint filter clean. Switch your dryer off when the load is finished since the dryer still uses power while on standby.
I try to avoid purchasing any clothes that must be dry-cleaned. Dry cleaning with perchloroethylene, or “perc,” is associated with environmental and health risks. I’ve found that many clothes can be hand washed, even when the labels say dry-clean only. And alternative professional cleaners are becoming available, including wet cleaning, liquid carbon dioxide, and Green Earth methods. The only item I recall dry cleaning in the last five years is Matthew’s sports jacket (once!), which he wears constantly for business trips.
I don’t do nearly as much ironing as I used to — hanging clothes on the line takes care of most of the wrinkles. When I do iron, I begin by ironing fabrics that require the least high temperature — so I can use the iron before it reaches peak heat. Then I turn the iron off shortly before finishing and iron the last couple of items on residual heat.
GO GREEN: Every American creates 4.5 pounds of trash per person, per day. Over the course of a lifetime, that adds up to 90,000 pounds of garbage for every one of us.
5 Green Laundry Hints
Instead of ... Do this
1. Putting stained clothes in the hamper
- Wash out spills right away. Never iron stained clothes — heat sets the stains.
2. Washing clothes to remove lint
3. Washing lightly worn clothes
- Hang them up immediately and let them air out for a day before returning them to the closet.
4. Pressing suits
- Hang in the bathroom while you shower to remove wrinkles.
5. Dry cleaning
- Wash gently by hand and then dry flat. (Use discretion! Delicate fabrics and most suits still need to be dry-cleaned.)
Nancy Sleeth is the co-director of Blessed Earth, a faith-based environmental nonprofit that focuses on creation care. Following a spiritual and environmental conversion experience, Nancy and her family radically altered their ecological footprint, reducing their electricity use to one-tenth and their fossil fuel use to one third the national averages. Prior to heeding this calling, Nancy served as a director for a Fortune 500 company and as an educator and administrator at Asbury College.
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