The Green House Effect
Even if you've never given a hoot about spotted owls, succumbing to the green-house effect is a worthwhile cause. Eco-conscious living offers finacial rewards and is easier than ever.
by Gary Legwold

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Creating a "green" home is like opening a bag of potato chips, only better for you. Just as that first salty bite inevitably leads to another, your first step toward energy efficiency -- such as replacing a standard incandescent light bulb with a compact-fluorescent lamp that uses one-third less electricity -- makes so much sense that you'll soon be searching for even more ways to make your home and lifestyle more ecologically friendly.

Even if you've never given a hoot about spotted owls, succumbing to the green-house effect is a worthwhile cause. Eco-conscious living offers finacial rewards and is easier than ever, thanks to gobs (forgive the "eco" jargon) of new green products constantly entering the market. Best of all, the environmentally responsible approach is good for your house, your health and even your heart. With a few new products and simple lifestyle changes, you can pursue DIY projects without poisoning the water, compromising your wellness or plundering the planet. Doesn't that do your heart good?

A healthy investment
You don't have to consider yourself a tree-hugging do-gooder to make a difference in your environment -- and therefore the environment -- as you make improvements at home. Interest in building green is growing because of widespread concerns about health and energy bills. Some traditional building materials have been shown to produce asthma-triggering mold and allergy- and cancer-causing off-gases. And considering rising energy costs, who isn't willing to learn about products such as safer insulation and energy-efficient windows?

Green building's time has come, and to help you get started on the path toward a greener home, the following pages offer a primer on green building. Check out our suggestions, make a change or two and let the green-house effect sweep you away. Before long you may even find yourself shopping for all-natural organic potato chips.

Bathroom remodeling
The most obvious way to make a bathroom greener is to install a new toilet. Replace older toilets that use 3 to 5 gallons a flush with ones that use only 1.6 gallons or less. Before throwing out the old toilet, check with your community recycling program: Some municipalities use crushed porcelain in road construction.

- When remodeling, recycle, reuse or send to a salvage store sinks, door and window casings, baseboards, lumber, etc. This makes more economic sense than renting a roll-off container for disposal.

- Use formaldehyde-free insulation on exterior walls. On the warm side of the insulation, put up a vapor barrier to stop moisture from contacting the floor, ceiling or walls. Add insulation around the tub area.

- Save on heating costs by moving outside-wall plumbing to inner walls. Use a low-toxicity sealant such as Dap Acrylic Latex Caulk around plumbing fixtures.

- Install double-pane windows with reflective or low-emission film that blocks heat in the summer. Windows, skylights and solar tubes can brighten bathrooms so you don't have to turn on lights as often.

- To control mold and mildew, open windows and install a bathroom fan of adequate size to ventilate the room. Run the fan for 10 to 15 minutes after showering. Don't use wallpaper in bathrooms because moisture can get behind it and cause mold. Use fiberglass or hemp shower curtains that naturally resist mildew instead of plastic curtains, which get moldy.

- Avoid particleboard or medium-density fiberboard (MDF), which can off-gas formaldehyde for as long as five years. If you use these materials, you can help to reduce off-gassing by applying a low-toxicity sealant such as a water-base paint or one that contains little or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

- Finish wood trim with a low-or no-VOC and formaldehyde-free paint. Wood should have Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. The FSC promotes responsible forest management and use of rapidly renewable woods versus old-growth timber or tropical hardwoods. (Harvesting these precious resources destroys forests, potentially accelerating climate changes.)

- Install ceramic tile and stone products, which don't require paint and are durable. Use low-toxicity grout and low-VOC adhesives and sealers. Avoid carpeting, which traps dirt and moisture and often contains toxic bonding materials, dyes, backing glues and fire retardants that off-gas. Recycled-content ceramic tiles, terrazzo, stone floor tiles (especially if locally produced or salvaged) and natural linoleum (made from linseed oil, jute and wood dust) are green, but avoid vinyl flooring, which off-gases chloride fumes and can trap moisture.

- Treat your feet -- and save energy -- by installing radiant-floor heating, which heats coils on the subflooring. When properly insulated, a room with radiant- floor heating does not need an additional heat source.

Kitchen remodeling

Green kitchens conserve energy, so buy refrigerators and other appliances bearing the EPA's Energy Star label.

- To maintain indoor air quality and avoid toxic combustion gases, choose an electric range rather than a gas-fueled model. If you do choose a gas stove, use an exhausting vent hood (not one that filters and recirculates air) whenever burners are on.

- The efficiency of refrigerators has improved, but they are still the kitchen's biggest energy drain. Buy one that's no larger than is necessary, and don't keep your old one for storing beer. Water and ice dispensers often go unused and make refrigerators less efficient. Choose a more efficient style with the freezer on top or bottom rather than on the side, and don't place it near heat sources such as a stove.

- Buy dishwashers that conserve heated water. Limit your use of the heat-drying feature, and try using the water-saving cycle.

- If your kitchen contains a clothes washer and dryer, consider investing in one of the horizontal-axis models that are emerging in North America. They use less water and detergent, wash more effectively and spin faster to remove more moisture from the load, reducing the energy necessary for drying.

- Use task lighting, energy-saving fluorescent and halogen lights (as well as dimmers to create an intimate dining area) and recessed lighting labeled "IC-AT," which means it is designed for direct insulation contact and airtight housing.

Room additions
When adding a room, choose a location that optimizes sunlight and wind exposure and does not damage existing trees and landscaping.

- If you tear down a wall or part of the roof, reuse or recycle the deconstructed materials, and reuse the soil that's displaced during excavation projects.

- Use recycled-content fly-ash concrete in the foundation; it improves durability and limits moisture migration. Use energy-efficient insulated concrete forms (ICFs), or insulate the foundation with foam panels.

- For exterior walls, consider ICFs or autoclaved concrete, which insulates better than standard concrete blocks, is insect-proof and can be cut with a circular saw. Structural insulated panels (SIPs) are made of a rigid foam core between panels of oriented-strand board (OSB). OSB can be made from chips of fast-growing trees and with little waste of the tree. SIPs dampen sound, are quick to install and are energy-efficient because only a small amount of wood conducts heat to the outside. Panels can be more airtight than stud walls, and there is less waste with construction in the factory than in the field.

Avoid using foam insulation that contains chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or hydrofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which deplete the ozone layer. Expanded polystyrene-foam boards minimize ozone-depletion. Use formaldehyde-free, recycled-content fiberglass insulation to avoid the health hazards of phenol-formaldehyde binders. Cellulose insulation, made from recycled newspaper (which keeps papers from glutting landfills), is mixed with borate, a fire- and pest-retardant, and low-toxic binders and is then damp-sprayed into stud and joist cavities.
This insulation adds to the air-tightness of the house and is comparable in R-value to high-density fiberglass batts.

Follow framing standards that conserve wood, reduce costs and create more insulation space. Place studs 24 in. OC instead of 16 in. -- because plywood, OSB and rigid insulation sheets are 4 x 8 ft., 24-in. spacing better fits the panels (which means less waste as well as less lumber). In addition, using fewer studs allows for more insulation and less thermal bridging. (However, critics contend that this construction method isn't as durable and shortens the life of buildings.)

Though many of these ideas may not be practical for your home, making even one or two small changes will help you to start thinking greener. Next year you might feel like trying a few more new products or ideas, followed by more a year later. As you do, you'll see that making your house more energy-efficient, creating less waste, saving natural and financial resources and using fewer toxic materials is well worth your time and effort. The bottom line is simple: Building green makes sense.

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