How to Make Your Home More Eco-Friendly
If your idea of having an eco-friendly home is separating paper from plastic, maybe it’s time to kick your commitment level up a notch—or 10.
From the curb, the new 6,900-square-foot house at 8 Kent Road in Scarsdale looks like another beautiful Colonial-style manse. But on closer inspection, it becomes a temple to eco-conscious building. Every product and material, from the reclaimed oak floors to the solid-wood kitchen cabinets to the tile grout and wall paint, is made with nontoxic or the least toxic chemicals and glues available. A geothermal system, which uses the earth’s heating and cooling properties, keeps the house comfy, while solar panels on its southern roof warm the water. A state-of-the-art air-filtration system dispatches any stray allergen or toxic intruder while pulling fresh air, cooled or heated, indoors. There’s even an electrical hookup in the garage for the Tesla sedan.
Built on spec by Healthy Home Builders, the house, which is on the market for $3.55 million, is the whole green package. “This house is about the health of the people who are going to live here,” says Jan Flanzer, the developer’s managing director, who traces her interest in green building to health issues related to toxic black mold in her own home. The house is also about saving money on energy: “Prices on heating fuels have gone through the roof. We estimate a 75- to 85-percent savings in bills from energy sources for a house built like ours versus a traditional house.”
These days, being green is easier than it used to be. Advancements in energy efficiency, nontoxic materials, and health-boosting HVAC systems give homeowners who want to go greener more options than ever.
“There is a rapidly growing awareness” about healthier homes, particularly among younger homeowners, says Judith Martin, founder and principal of Green Home Consulting in Rye. “They’ve lived in the City, worked in LEED-certified offices, and are interested in bringing those things into their homes. They’re concerned about what they’re exposing their children to.”
So whether you’re a green warrior, a cost-conscious consumer, a concerned parent―or all three—here are 10 ways you can go greener at home, from “Gee, that was easy,” all the way to geothermal.
Commitment level: LOW
A few minor tweaks can make a big difference.
Hey, every little bit helps.
See the light. Now that you’ve switched out your old-school incandescent bulbs for those curly compact fluorescents (CFL), you might want to switch again, to light-emitting diodes (LED), which produce far more light using far less energy. “A 13- to 15-watt LED is going to save the same amount of light if not more than a 100-watt incandescent bulb,” says Briarcliff resident Seth Leitman, consulting editor to the Green Guru Guides (Tab/McGraw Hill), who blogs as the Green Living Guy. Unlike CFLs, LED bulbs don’t contain mercury gas, which dims over time (thus the “warm-up” period when you turn them on) and can leak out if the bulb is broken. “LEDs are like a mini-computer in your light fixture, churning out light.” They’re three times more expensive than CFLs, but they also last three times as long: up to 22 years. “You’ll see the savings immediately”—up to 75 percent off monthly lighting costs—“and you don’t feel as guilty when you leave them on.”
Clear the air. “The number-one place we should be concerned about air quality is in our home,” says Leitman. “The dirtiest air we breathe is in our house.” It’s an ongoing assault, from the cleaners we spritz on our counters to the glues holding down our wall-to-wall carpets and the paint on our walls. “If a cleaner burns your nose, don’t use it,” advises Leitman. While paint companies have voluntarily lowered the amount of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in their products, go with a zero-VOC product, especially in a kid’s room or nursery (8 Kent uses Benjamin Moore’s Ultra Spec line of zero-VOC paints). “It might cost a little more,” says Leitman, “but you don’t have a toxic room for your kids or a room you have to air out for a month.” California has passed new standards allowing furniture makers to avoid using flame-retardant chemicals, which have been associated with everything from cancer to infertility. The quickest route to better indoor air? Put carbon-dioxide-absorbing bamboo around the house: “Bamboo generates more oxygen per square inch than an equivalent stand of hardwood forest.”
Replace wisely. Sooner or later, your fridge will expire, your TV will go dark, your water heater will go bust. This is your chance to replace old appliances with water- and fuel-efficient models. Refrigerators and televisions are the biggest offenders, so go for an Energy Star model, which meets or surpasses federal energy-use guidelines. (To learn more, go to energystar.gov, which is also a good source of general energy information.) If your heart is set on that high-end luxury fridge, but it’s not an Energy Star product, don’t despair. Just because it isn't labeled Energy Star doesn't mean it's wasteful: New industry standards mean that most appliances use way less electricity than they used to, says Leitman. Since electronics tend to suck energy even when they’re off, he recommends plugging them into a smart power strip like the GreenGenius surge protector by Accell, which automatically adjusts the currency level of, say, your cable box.
Get audited. Not your taxes, your home-energy situation. According to green-home consultant Judith Martin, heating and cooling your home is the No. 1 energy-gulper (followed by heating water, and your TV and fridge), so it makes sense to have an expert sleuth out leaks and wasteful spots. “A home is green if it’s energy efficient,” says Martin. “You can put in bamboo floors, but if you’re wasting energy, it’s not green.”
You can do a DIY energy audit (yes, there’s a Green Guru Guide for that), but Martin advises hiring a professional who has special gear to suss out leaks. Then you can come up with a plan for insulating, sealing, and replacing inefficient systems. “Think of it as going to a doctor’s visit when you’re sick,” Martin explains. “You want someone to tell you what to do and take steps to get better.” Energize New York, a Yorktown-based nonprofit funded by the Department of Energy and the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA), offers a free or subsidized home energy assessment to households with an income of less than $431,600. Energize New York can also help you find a certified contractor and finance your project (energizeny.gov).
COMMITMENT LEVEL: MEDIUM
An investment of a few thousand dollars or less can help you save money and breathe easier.
Seal the deal. “Make the home as tight as possible,” says Martin. “Having someone come in and professionally air-seal your home is $1,200 to $1,500—a very small investment for what could be 10 percent savings.” This means closing leaks with caulking, gasketing outlets, weather-stripping around doors and windows. But the biggest bang for your buck, she says, is insulating your attic and rim joists, where the foundation meets the masonry walls. Martin says that 25 percent of air that enters the home comes in through the cracks in the rim joists near the foundation: “Hot air rises and pulls air with it, and it goes out your roof.” Sealing the top and bottom of your house “is like putting a hat and boots on your house." A caulk gun and a few rolls of insulation can work wonders. She likes Roxul, a green insulation made of “mineral wool” that’s free of ozone-gobbling hydrofluorocarbons. The basement at 8 Kent has UltraTouch Denim insulation, made of recycled blue jeans and free of formaldehyde, fiberglass, and VOCs.
Eradicate radon. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that comes up from the earth through basements. The EPA estimates radon exposure causes more than 20,000 lung cancer deaths per year, second only to cigarettes. Even if you’ve already tested for it in the past, Martin suggests retesting. The reason? Fracking. “In this area, we have natural gas coming from Marcellus shale, and the level of radon is much higher than from the Gulf of Mexico,” she explains. A certified professional can run the relatively inexpensive test for radon (you’ll find a list of companies at health.ny.gov/environmental).
Rethink remodeling. Bigger projects like putting on a new roof, resealing your driveway, or re-siding your house present an opportunity to go greener. Tapani Talo, a White Plains architect with a passion for designing homes free of fossil fuels, recommends adding a layer of structural insulated panels (SIP) that have an R value (for thermal resistance) of 25 under the roof shingles, with a one-inch air space, as well as R-30 batt insulation between roof joists under the existing roof deck: “You get this really tight exterior skin that will improve your efficiency by half.” Meanwhile, down at ground level, the use of coal-tar sealants, which gives driveways that even black coating, have been linked to cancer and soil contamination. Big-box home stores no longer carry them, and several states are have already banned them. The driveway at 8 Kent is Belgian block and gravel. “Any rock, stone, pebble, gravel, or shell driveway is a good solution,” says Jan Flanzer of Healthy Home Builders. The house is sided, not with vinyl, “which off-gasses toxic fumes including dioxins,” but eastern white cedar shingles from Maibec Sidings.
COMMITMENT LEVEL: HIGH
A renovation is a great time to make the switch to sustainable, non-toxic materials and a green heating and cooling system.
Don’t renovate—reinvent! When realtor Gerry Angel decided to gut and expand her White Plains ranch, shes says, “It was a no-brainer to renovate my house green. I feel we all have to try and create a more sustainable lifestyle and reduce our carbon footprint.” The contractor, Murphy Brothers, recycled demolished materials, used non-toxic building materials and added a rainwater capturing system to water the lawn. The biggest shift was changing her heating system from pricey oil to geothermal and solar. “I have no fossil fuels coming into this house or on my grounds,” she says. She’s also seen energy bills plunge to under $100 during certain months, “for everything.” She recommends homeowners who want to follow in her low-carbon footsteps have a plan that they can implement in stages, if necessary. “If you can’t afford to do it all at once, break it down over time."
Harness the sun. If you’ve gotten a cold call or a mailing from a solar company, then you know solar heating is hot. One reason is that the federal tax incentives for adding solar panels expires in 2016, and companies want a piece of the action now. And the technology is improving at, well, light speed. For example, Dow Powerhouse Solar Shingles are applied like regular roof shingles, but work like solar voltaic panels without being an eyesore. (For info, contact Murphy Brothers Contracting in Mamaroneck at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Not everyone qualifies for solar. You need decent credit and a house that gets plenty of sunlight. Trees can be an issue. (Some hard-sell cold callers will pull up your house on Google Earth to look at the roof exposure—while they have you on the phone.) When you’re ready to commit, you can go with a national company like SolarCity (chaired by Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk), which installs roof panels for free, and you essentially lease them for 20 years. “Instead of buying the panels, you’re buying the power that those panels make,” says Leon Keshishian, east coast regional vice president for SolarCity, which has Westchester offices in Elmsford.
Or you can hire a specialist like Sunrise Solar Solutions in Briarcliff Manor to build a custom system. “People go green because it makes incredible financial sense,” says Sunrise president Doug Hertz. “Not only are you doing something positive for the environment, you’re saving an awful lot of money”—around 75 percent less than what you’d pay to a utility over the life of the system. They’ll also do the incentives paperwork required to get your rebate. It’s worth the effort: Hertz estimates that for a $30,000 solar system, purchased in cash, the homeowner ends up paying around $7,500. “If you did it for cash, you’d be cash-positive in four to five years. You’d get free energy for the next two decades.” Alternatively, new subsidies from New York State allow for solar panels to be installed at no charge, and the loan appears on your utility bill, at around 50 percent savings.
Tap the source. As commitment goes, it doesn’t get much deeper than installing a geothermal heating and cooling system. First, a truck with a giant drill bores a well into the earth until it hits about 500 feet—though a large house might need two wells or more, says Gary Stromberg, president of General Solar Systems in Orange County, New York, which put in the solar and geothermal system at 8 Kent. Well water is pumped into the house via copper tubing, where energy is exchanged via a geothermal heat pump, and cooled or heated water is then circulated through the home via a closed loop. While an existing home can be retrofit for geothermal, Stromberg says it’s best for new builds, since you can create the system from scratch (it’s a messy business). “There’s no sense taking an old unit out that’s working properly and installing geothermal.” It ain’t cheap: A small system can cost up to $40,000. But owners can recoup that “pretty fast because of oil costs,” he says, particularly if the house is well-insulated. “The first line of defense is insulation,” he says. “Button up the house, insulate it, get rid of air leaks. You won’t need as many wells, and you just cut the price 30 percent.”