The Five Eco Principles – Healthy Environment

While in Chicago in April, I had a chance to visit the museum of science & industry.  The experience was great, and my friend and I thoroughly enjoyed the museum.  We were both intrigued enough to pay the extra ~$25 or so to see the smart house.  We were not disappointed, and left with some good ideas about things to re-use and things to purchase made from re-used items.  Recently, I thought it would be a good idea to share the principles with the readers, and figure out how you can best take advantage of them.  Today is the fifth one, focusing on a Healthy Environment.

Ensuring that you live in a healthy environment is paramount.  You are in your residence a significant portion of time, so if something potentially harmful to you (or your loved ones) has the potential to cause problems at best, and can be lethal at the worst.  There have been some spectacular incidents that can illustrate this problem perfectly, and show you a few:

  1. Asbestos – This used to be used in multiple products in the home (floor tiles, roofing, fire retardant) and elsewhere around the home (brake pads).  Asbestos poses no threat until its been disturbed.  During a home remodel or other disturbing event to the asbestos, the fibers can become airborne and inhaled.  This is obviously not good for you, and can lead to serious lung problems in the future.  Asbestos is no longer common in building materials, and is currently regulated by the EPA.
  2. Lead – This used to be found in gasoline and paint.  Poses huge risks to our children (those six & under), and can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems and possibly death.  This is also something that you dont want floating in the air in the place where you spend most of your time.
  3. DDT – Probably one of the most infamous products ever used in or around the home.  Typically, it was used to kill mosquitos carrying malaria.  This chemical became very popular around the home, and was eventually linked to multiple problems, such as appearing in humans, thinning eggshells of wildland creatures and showing up in the fats of fish.  It was one of the first major environmental campaigns, and was brought on by the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.

There are also plenty of modern day examples.  One of the current ones is VOC Paints.  VOC (aka Volatile Organic Compounds) are in some paints, and can seep out after the wall has been painted.  Something else that could pose a problem is your granite countertop.  Some granite countertops house uranium, which is not only radioactive, but can release radon gas, which can cause lung cancer. The amount of uranium that is most likely contained in your countertop is not suspected to be enough to pose a significant risk to your health, but are you willing to find out the hard way if that ends up not being true?

Now, think about how much time that you and your loved ones spend inside your home.  There are a few things to think about when it comes to these type of pollutants.

  1. How worried do I need to be about these products? No one really knows what the long term effects of these chemicals will be.  Do you want to be one of the first to file a lawsuit because you found out?
  2. To what degree do I want to protect myself and my loved ones? – Many of the things that can mitigate potential sickness cost more.  How much more  are you willing to pay?

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The Five Eco Principles – Water Efficiency

While in Chicago in April, I had a chance to visit the museum of science & industry.  The experience was great, and my friend and I thoroughly enjoyed the museum.  We were both intrigued enough to pay the extra ~$25 or so to see the smart house.  We were not disappointed, and left with some good ideas about things to re-use and things to purchase made from re-used items.  Recently, I thought it would be a good idea to share the principles with the readers, and figure out how you can best take advantage of them.  Today is the fourth one, focusing on Water Efficiency.

It looks like i’ve forgotten the Overview of the process, so ill give it to you here

I have written a bit about floodplains and conservation, but have yet to write about efficiency.  In the western US where I come from, water is always on everyone’s mind.  If you want to farm, feel free, but it’s going to be difficult if you dont have the water rights to your property.  (Drinking) Water is a limited and precious resource, and should be treated as such.

It is my feeling that our water is being mis-allocated and at times wasted every day.  Part of the problems is lies in ignoring the environment when designing our neighborhoods, homes and other appliances.

The first one that comes to my mind is the lawn.  Yes, I am well aware that everyone enjoys having a good looking, green front and back lawn. In some places that get plenty of rain, this isn’t a big deal.  Using rainwater supplemented by the occasional sprinkler system to keep the lawn green is fine, so long as most of the water comes from the rain.  This does not happen where I live.  There is ~12″ of rainfall per year.  An amount this small should not be wasted on making sure that everyone has a ‘nice looking’ lawn.  There are plenty of ways to keep your lawn nice looking without using scarce resources.  Xeriscaping is a great option, and can have great results.  Xeriscaping involves design with plants that are low on water, including flowers, bark, and other drought resistant grasses.  They can save water and be nice looking!

xeriscapeImage credit: www.raisethehammer.org

Also, if you’re still looking for some sort of ‘lawn’, you can plant grasses that are native to the area.  Grasses such as this have already adapted to conditions in your area, and are well suited to deal without water (in my case).

In addition to the lawn options outside the home, there are also many options for becoming more efficient with your water inside the home.   There is alot of “low hanging fruit” to harvest in regards to your water usage.  One of the first ones is to turn off the water while you are brushing your teeth and washing your hands. There is no reason to leave these on, literally throwing valuable water (and money) right down the drain.  It’s a simple step that can pay back big in water saved and money saved. If your city or water utility uses “stepped” billing, the savings could be large.  For instance, if your water utility charges you 5 cents per gallon for the first 1,000 gallons, and 8 cents per gallon for gallons 1,001 – 2,000, and removing the water waste from these habits (conducted in the home at least 2 times per day), that can add up over 30 days and can possibly move you easily under 1,000 gallons per month.  Money saved!

Another opportunity  is the toilet.  We all use them, and we all have them.  A ‘typical’ toilet uses 3.5 gallons per flush, while some of the more efficient models can use as little as 1 gallon per flush.  What really piqued my interest is the double flush toilets, and their potential for water savings.  Dual flush toilets are basically what they sound like, with the toilet having a button for ‘solids’ and a button for ‘liquids’.   According to how stuff works, the most modern dual flush toilets use less than 1 gallon per flush for liquids, and just over 1.5 gallons for flushing solids.  Over the lifetime of the toilet, this can represent a huge savings not to be ignored.  Stats from toilet abc’s show that you can use less than 1/3rd of the water of a traditional 3.5 gallon toilet.  As it says on the site, the government is looking to come up with an “energy star for toilets” rating, which will probably be a good thing, given the success of the energy star label.

dual-flushSource: Amazon.com

Now that you’ve got plenty of ideas on how to save water, where do you start? I suggest starting with the things that provide the highest return.  For example, the cost of turning off your water while brushing your teeth and washing your hands is $0, and the benefits are enormous compared to the time invested.  You will be surprised at how quickly you can form this habit.  After that, I’d move to the toilet.  You can install a double flush mechanisim for ~30, or put in double flush toilets from the get go and save some money.

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The five Eco Principles – Energy Efficiency

While in Chicago in April, I had a chance to visit the museum of science & industry.  The experience was great, and my friend and I thoroughly enjoyed the museum.  We were both intrigued enough to pay the extra ~$25 or so to see the smart house.  We were not disappointed, and left with some good ideas about things to re-use and things to purchase made from re-used items.  Recently, I thought it would be a good idea to share the principles with the readers, and figure out how you can best take advantage of them.  Today is the third one, focusing on Energy Efficiency.

It looks like i’ve forgotten the Overview of the process, so ill give it to you here

Energy Efficiency has been one of my favorite topics for about 5 years now, and I’m planning an overview style post, as well as a possible series, about different types of energy.  Just like smart design, energy can be easily manipulated to save you heaps of cash on your heating/cooling and energy bills.

As I said in Tuesday’s article, you need to treat your home as an investment, and not let recurring costs undermine your final goal (whatever that may be).  By making the investment in your home for things that can help you save on (or eliminate completely) your monthly bills, you’ll be money ahead.  One great way to do that is through energy efficiency.  There are many different ways to do this, some detailed in Mondays post on smart design, and some I will talk about below.

One of the easiest (and cheapest) ways to increase the energy efficiency of your home is to plug the holes.  Make sure that you have the whole home insulated from the outside, including quality windows as well as foam or another type of insulation.  The easiest way to be energy efficient and save money is to stop it from seeping out of your house in the first place.  By keeping in the energy you have already paid for, you can use much less.

Once you have kept what you’ve already paid for inside your home to the best of your ability, then you can move on to your baseload use.  This includes things that need to be (or are, dont bother fooling yourself by saying you’ll unplug that phone charger after you take the phone off it if you know you wont) plugged in all the time.  Lowering the energy usage of these appliances (fridge, oven, computer, etc) is the next step.  Preventing them from using so much energy by upgrading to a newer model (go for the energ ystar logo) can quickly pay for itself by saving on electricity.

Next you can move back to smart design.  Big windows, sliding glass doors, sky-lights, and large sunshades can help let the light and heat in, and hold it in after the sun has gone down.  By using natural heat and light, you can save on heating and lighting costs.  This also works  in the summer, as windows can keep your home cool by allowing heat to escape and creating cooling cross breezes throughout your home.

If you have looked at all these options and are still searching for ways to lighten you energy bill and decrease your environmental footprint, you can look to green roofs (and an older post) to minimize heating and cooling costs, as well as absorb rain water and minimize runoff.  If you’re really savvy, you can turn your green roof into a garden.

Finally, there is solar energy generation.  This should be you LAST step if you are looking to be energy efficient.  It doesnt matter how sunny it is where you live in phoenix, Florida or wherever you do happen to live, if you havent reduced your energy use, your going to end up buying more solar panel(s) than you need, and will still be pushing energy right out the door, the windows and the walls. There’s no point in putting solar first on your list, when you havent done things listed above.  It would be like trying to fill up the bathtub when you dont have the drain closed.  It may begin to fill, but it’s probably not going to get very full very fast.

Energy efficient upgrades are a great way to begin saving money and lowering your house’s “carrying cost” but make sure that you pick the low hanging fruit first, and make sure that you dont “trip over dollars to save dimes”.  If you want the best bang for your buck, i’d start with insulation.

Want to get more out of the sustainablelife blog?  Here are a few tips.

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  2. Email me at info [at] sustainablelifeblog.com
  3. Follow me on twitter @sustainlifeblog
  4. Have a Comment  Party – I would love to hear your comments on my articles, and the things I talk about.
  5. Email an article to a friend, then ask them to join in the comment party.  The more the merrier

The Five Eco Principles – Material Efficiency

While in Chicago in April, I had a chance to visit the museum of science & industry.  The experience was great, and my friend and I thoroughly enjoyed the museum.  We were both intrigued enough to pay the extra ~$25 or so to see the smart house.  We were not disappointed, and left with some good ideas about things to re-use and things to purchase made from re-used items.  Recently, I thought it would be a good idea to share the principles with the readers, and figure out how you can best take advantage of them.  Today is the second one, focusing on Material Efficiency.

It looks like i’ve forgotten the Overview of the process, so ill give it to you here

  • Monday was Smart Design
  • Tuesday is Material Efficiency
  • Wednesday will be Energy Efficiency
  • Thursday will be Water Efficiency
  • Friday will be Healthy Environment

Material efficiency is important when desiging (and even purchasing) a home, or just about anything that you buy.  There’s no point in wasting materials, when building a home or otherwize.  The smart home was created with pre-fab construction, reducing the time to build and the materials needed for the home.  Saving material in the construction phase is important when constructing the house, as its typically the largest expense for the owner of the dwelling.  Not having to pay for unnecessary or wasted materials can take a portion off of the total bill.

Another point of material efficiency is the materials used for construction.  Taking this into consideration during the build and design phase can save you more money than you realize over the lifetime of the house.  The main reason that these materials are not used is due to thier (traditionally) high up-front cost.  Using a Solar Powered water heater is one of those things.  The solar water heater is more expensive at the beginning, but if you add in the energy used by your traditional water heater, as well as possible replacement due to old age or (hopefully not) catastrophe, then the solar option becomes cheaper.  I am fully aware what happens when you are building your home.  You are concerned with the rising price tag, and start to think of the initial bill (or loan amount) as opposed to the lifecycle cost of the itme.  If you come across this problem, ask yourslef this question: Why should I shortchange future financial and environmental benefits to save a small amount now? This home can be considered an investment, and any effort to lower operating costs will help you in the future.  If you plan on being in the home 20+ years, then why  go cheap now?

Just as important as using materials for greater financial efficiency and cost savings is taking into the inputs that have the lowest environmental impact.  Over the last 2-3 years, there have been great strides in making recycled and other low impact items very decoratively tasteful.  Here is a sample of offerings from Vetrazzo, whose countertops are made from recycled glass.  Who knows, some of it could be your old pasta sauce jars, beer or wine bottles.

Recycled Glass CountertopsImage from www.trendir.com

If you decided to build a bookshelf, dresser or anything else, would you waste wood, nails, screws or any other input into your shelf? If the answer is no, then make sure that your builder or future home doesnt either.

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The Five Eco Principles – Smart Design

While in Chicago in April, I had a chance to visit the museum of science & industry.  The experience was great, and my friend and I thoroughly enjoyed the museum.  We were both intrigued enough to pay the extra ~$25 or so to see the smart house.  We were not disappointed, and left with some good ideas about things to re-use and things to purchase made from re-used items.  Recently, I thought it would be a good idea to share the principles with the readers, and figure out how you can best take advantage of them.  Today is the first one, focusing on smart design.

Design is important for plenty of reasons.  No one would want to live in an eco-friendly house if it looked like a huge eyesore.  I dont care how much you are interested in saving the earth, you wouldnt want to live in an ugly house.  So, one of the prime things an eco friendly house needs is good (looking) design.  You should not need to sacrifice looks to be eco-friendly, and you wont need to.  Having lots of windows will allow for more heat in the summer, but also keep your place cooler in the winter.  Opening windows will allow for a nice cross breeze that can cool your house down quickly, which can save you more on cooling costs in the summer.  Adding fans is also a good way to keep the temperatures under control.  Force the heat down in the winter and change direction in the summer to move the warm air out.

Alot of the smart design principles are important, but one of the easiest to appease is probably the location of windows.  If you have south facing windows, you can leave the windows open for natural light, cutting down on your electricity.  Not on this, but everyone loves windows (as long as you’re not living in a ‘fishbowl’), and they can be beneficial as they cut down on artifical light, as well as heat your home.  Things like this arent rocket scientists, but the large developers dont give them consideration because they are not the ones paying the electrical bills.

Smart Design is not limited to just the inside of the home.  Where I grew up in the Western United States, water was our primary concern.  When it rained (not often) water can be caught in a rain barrell or encouraged to seep into the ground to water grass or flowers.  This is to protect the rivers and drainage basins that storm drains empty into, as the runoff can carry toxic chemicals and other materials that can alter the natural balance of the river or lake ecosystem.  One of the best ways to combat this effect is to have paths of woodchips or gravel, as opposed to cement.  The gravel and woodchips can absorb the water, as opposed to letting water run off, as cement does. You can save on walkway construction costs and will not have to sacrifice anything on design either!

While it is still quite expensive, solar energy is also worth considering.  There’s a 20% federal tax credit on systems, and many states (and some counties) have credits as well.  The payback period is still around 20 years, depending on quite a few factors, but is well worth it, espically if your house was designed well and is not an energy hog in the first place.  The lower your baseload (typical energy usage) is, the smaller number of solar panels you’ll need, recuding your system cost.

Good, eco-friendly design can easily be as visually appealing (or more so) than non eco-friendly design.  It’s also a great starting point, as you can design in many energy saving features, such as lots of windows. Seriously thinking about the lifecycle costs of many decisions made reguarding your home can allow you to live in a more eco (and wallett) friendly way.  Who wouldnt want that?