Try these steps to enviable efficiency
By Jered Friedland
Photo Credit: Jupiter Images
Photo Credit: Jupiter Images
In the Coachella Valley, we love our air conditioning. When the sun sits high in a spring sky and feels like it’s starting to melt the patio furniture, it’s a relief to be able to go inside, seal up the house, and crank up the cool.
While energy-efficient homes are saving homeowners buckets of money on utility bills, the dual-paned windows and well-sealed doors may be trapping pollutants indoors. Volatile Organic Compounds are chemicals found in paint, upholstery, carpet, cleaning products, and building materials. Even though your home looks great and feels comfortable, fumes generated from VOCs can cause respiratory illness and render the air inside well-sealed homes far more toxic than the air outside.
Small steps — such as simple modifications to reduce your home’s VOCs — are an easy entry into making your home a healthier place to live. First, get up close and personal with the contents of your cabinets. Peer back in the dark recesses and you’ll probably see canisters of toxic cleaners staring back at you. If you haven’t used them in a month, either safely dispose of them or store them in the garage or an outdoor shed. Steer away from chlorine. When possible, opt for hydrogen peroxide- or sodium percarbonate-based bleaches and cleaners. Use vinegar and water when possible, instead of ammonia-based products, to clean glass and mirrors. Many of your favorite cleansing agents may be replaced with nontoxic, biodegradable, environmentally safer cleaners that do a bang-up job and don’t pollute your living environment. They usually cost a bit more, but the good news is that most grocery stores now keep them in stock. In the bathroom, get rid of PVC-based vinyl shower curtains, which release toxic gases, trap moisture, and breed mold and mildew. Replace them with white nylon curtains that can be tossed into the washing machine.
Once you’ve worked toward a VOC-free zone, you’re ready to tackle more significant alterations to create a less toxic and more energy-efficient household. Here, we’ve put together five more steps to get you started:
Step One: Go Solar
Harnessing solar energy remains one of the most effective ways to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Many solar energy companies attest that the technology will enable you to recover your financial investment within 10 years. Open Energy Corp. offers Solar Save‚ roofing membranes that cleanly, safely, and efficiently convert energy from the sun into energy that powers the systems and appliances in your home. They also manufacture solar roofing tiles that perform the same function, come in different colors, and are designed to look like their nonsolar counterparts. Based in the Bay Area, iPower offers the first polysilicon solar membrane system in California. As part of this building-integrated photovoltaic system, solar cells are embedded in the roof of a new or renovated building. GenSelf claims its system will gain you credits on your next electric bill and make your electric meter spin backward. With tax credits and rebates, converting your home to solar energy may not only make environmental sense, but could prove financially advantageous as well.
Solar energy requires no additional fuel to run and is pollution-free. According to www.livescience.com, drawbacks of solar energy include high initial cost and the need for large spaces. Also, for most solar energy alternatives, productivity is subject to the whims of air pollution and weather, which can block sunlight from reaching the cells. Information: www.openenergycorp.com; www.ipowercorp.com; www.genself.com
Step Two: Energy-Efficient Insulation
If you happen to be in the building stages of your home, energy costs can be cut 40 to 60 percent upfront by opting for building panels instead of traditional wood or steel construction. Green World Construction, Inc. manufactures a building panel system that dramatically decreases construction time, labor costs, material costs, equipment costs, loan-carrying costs, and long-term heating and cooling costs. The panels, consisting of a foam core with a wire mesh cage penetrating and surrounding it, contain 60 percent recycled materials by volume (40 percent by weight) and are 100 percent recyclable. Once erected, the panels are ready for concrete application. These panels have an insulation performance factor of R40, and can also be used to build floors, privacy walls, interior (soundproof) walls, roofs, and even pools. (The R-designation gauges how efficiently the substance traps radon gas. A higher R factor means thicker insulation.) If your home is already constructed, you can still improve its insulation. NCFI manufactures a spray polyurethane foam that expands to form an adhesive bond that insulates and seals the surface. It is comfortable, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly. While initially more costly to install than fiberglass, the thermal performance adds up to 40 percent more monthly savings on energy bills that soon recover the cost difference and cost far less in the long term. Information: Green World Construction, (877) 343-4036; NCFI Polyurethanes, www.NCFI.com
Step Three: Bulb-Free Lighting & Energy-Saving Blinds
How much energy do you use every month to brighten up darker areas of your home? Let natural sunshine flood every room with light during the day without turning on a single bulb. Solatube manufactures a revolutionary skylight that provides brighter sunlight for more daylight hours than conventional skylights. Their compact design sheds some serious light on a small area, such as the bathroom, a hallway closet, or your home office. With kits for fast and easy installations, you can make a weekend project out of it.
As for your windows, cover them with shades that protect against heat loss in winter and heat gain in summer. Hunter Douglas boasts that its window fashions can reduce heating and cooling costs by as much as 25 percent. The new Duette Architella Collection of shades is designed with a honeycomb-within-a-honeycomb construction; the air pockets aid in temperature regulation of the room. The look, in 12 colors, is relaxed and textural. Most of the company’s product lines also offer UV protection to lengthen the life of furnishings, fabrics, and floors. Information: www.solatube.com; www.hunterdouglas.com
Step Four: Water Conservation
The most obvious ways to conserve water have already been adopted by savvy home buyers and builders nationwide. “Smart-water” washing machines and dishwashers have joined the ranks of low-flow toilets and showerheads to effectively cut down on water consumption. Drop your water usage further by replacing thirsty, sprawling lawns with desert-tolerant vegetation that doesn’t require four sprinkler cycles daily. Or get water-free lushness with the substitution of synthetic turf for natural grass. EasyTurf has a 20- to 25-year life expectancy, is said to increase the resale value of your home, and is pet-friendly. While initially pricey to install, the company says the homeowner’s savings on landscaping and water costs will add up to the cost of installation in a matter of a few years. The lawn includes an eight-year warranty against fading, discoloration, and problems with materials and workmanship. Installation time for an average landscaping area is a mere two to three days. Information: www.easyturf.com
Step Five: Clean-Air Cabinets
Some forward-thinking companies are manufacturing eco-friendly materials, finishes, furnitures, and fixtures for household applications. One such company is Hunter Creek, Inc., which fabricates formaldehyde-free custom cabinetry in a variety of colors and styles. “Urea formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and has many proven health risks associated with it,” says Todd Wilmotte, owner/president of Hunter Creek. “It still amazes me how often I hear or read about eco-friendly, ‘healthy living’ homes being built and marketed as such only to discover that the cabinetry was either a particle board or MDF [medium-density fiberboard] core product that will not only poison the indoor air quality, but also poison the landfills when the product is eventually replaced and discarded. The formaldehyde-free product line is an option we offer at our standard price for premium-quality, custom cabinetry. We would love to only design and build all formaldehyde-free cabinetry that is zero or near-zero VOC; but until more awareness or state or federal regulations are imposed to strictly regulate formaldehyde-laden building products, it isn’t going to happen. For those who are environmentally conscious and/or understand the inherent health dangers associated with urea formaldehyde outgassing and other VOCs in cabinet products, we do offer custom-made products built at our Spokane, Wash., facility and shipped direct to Southern California that are nearly 100 percent formaldehyde-free and near-zero VOC at no additional cost to the consumer.”
California is about to be one of the first states to start regulating and enforcing cabinet manufacturers and material suppliers to build products at very low levels of formaldehyde or products that are rated “formaldehyde-free.” Regulations are to go into effect in 2008. On April 26, an important decision will be made in California Legislature that could drastically affect the construction industry and mandate a significant reduction in formaldehyde emissions in plywood and composite panel products. Information: www.huntercreekinc.com; www.formaldehyde-free.org
Those who are motivated to transcend the boundaries of green living at home and reach out on a global level can join an ever-increasing number of like-minded organizations. Global Green USA, the U.S. affiliate of Green Cross International, is endorsed by dignitaries and celebrities including President Gorbachev, Ted Turner, Michael Douglas, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Charlize Theron. The environmental organization aims to address global climate change by creating green buildings and cities; eliminate weapons of mass destruction that threaten lives and the environment; and provide clean, safe drinking water for the 24 billion people who lack access to clean water. Information: www.globalgreen.org
On a more local level, make plans to attend the second annual ExperienceGREEN Expo in Palm Springs in mid-October. Last October’s event, coordinated by ExperienceGREEN owner Wesley Cole, was marked by participation from architects, designers, developers, suppliers, and green vendors. Cole says he expects 100 exhibitors this year, making it more of a “green lifestyle expo that goes beyond green building and hybrid and electric cars.” Information: www.experiencegreen.com
Going green from top to bottom is a lot to think about. To drastically change your daily routine in favor of a healthier planet can be complicated, costly, and overwhelming. When approached in small increments, however, the concept can soon become a comfortable reality. Take the first step and participate in Cole’s “Green Friday” concept. On the first Friday of each month, Cole urges residents of the Coachella Valley and beyond to leave their cars at home by biking, walking, or carpooling their way around town, conserving energy and water, and even wearing green. But it doesn’t need to be a Green Friday to more judicious with water, electricty, and gas, and give your major appliances the day off. Information: www.greenfriday.org