Ten years ago, mentioning green homes brought up thoughts of mud huts, houses built into hills and elaborate tents with no running water or electricity. Even if you had wanted to add green elements
to a traditional home, they were nearly impossible to find. Judd Kirk, president of Port Blakely Communities Inc., the company that developed the Issaquah Highlands, said at the time, it was a sort of chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. “No builders were doing it (building green), so you aren’t going to have the vendors or the supply chain,” he says. Now, however, that image of green is changing, and with that, there are more green product vendors and home builders, and consumers have a choice for both adding green elements to an existing home and buying a green home. Washington state residents have always been concerned about the environment, and were leaders in recycling. Now, the state is taking the lead in building green homes. With certification and rating programs in place, homeowners, home buyers and those tackling a remodel can find contractors who will create energy efficient, sustainable homes.
In addition to living in a green home, the largest effect one person can make on the environment is through their driving habits, says Elisa Murray, communications director of the Sightline Institute, a Northwest sustainability think tank based in Seattle. She says reducing driving by living closer to work or living in a walkable neighborhood will not only cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, it can also cut down on insurance costs and accidents. And when you have to drive, choosing a fuel-efficient vehicle can make a big difference. A hybrid isn’t necessary, Elisa says. If you don’t want to move, remodel or buy a different car, there are other things you can do at home to help reduce your footprint on the planet.
Green Tips for Your Home
KITCHEN When the time comes to replace your flooring, consider renewable, non-toxic or natural flooring such as cork, bamboo or slate. These are just as beautiful and can last just as long as traditional flooring but are easier on the environment.
Upgrade appliances to those with the highest Energy Star rating. According to the Energy Star program’s Web site, your house can cause twice the greenhouse gas emissions of a car. Energy Star appliances will cut emissions and save you money on your utility bill.
Run only full loads of dishes in the dishwasher. If you have a new dishwasher, there is no need to pre-rinse dishes.
Use non-toxic cleaners for the kitchen.
Buy local and organic foods. These are available
at farmer’s markets, community-supported agriculture farms and some grocery stores. When food comes from local producers, it is fresher and not as much energy is consumed to get products to the end user.
LIVING ROOM Use Energy Star-rated lighting. This includes compact florescent bulbs. These use less energy for light that looks like a traditional incandescent bulb light, plus, they last longer than traditional bulbs.
BEDROOM Replace worn-out synthetic carpets with natural wool carpets or bamboo flooring. These options release fewer, if any, gasses after installation, while synthetic carpeting will continue to off-gas for years. Also, wool carpets will last longer and bamboo flooring will not trap dust and other allergens like carpet can.
Have carpet installers use tacks instead of glue.
Use low- or no-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints in the bedroom
and throughout the house. These are available at many paint stores and are washable. They will be less smelly while paint is applied, and the rooms can be lived in as soon as paint is dry.
Use low-chemical stains and wood treatments on furniture. This prevents even more gaseous chemicals from being released in the home.
LAUNDRY ROOM Upgrade to an Energy Star-rated washing machine and dryer. Also consider buying a front-loading washer. They use less water and energy, and are easier on clothing.
Only run full loads in the washing machine.
Wash clothes in warm water with a cool rinse instead of hot water. They will get just as clean without using as much energy.
Avoid the permanent press cycle. If you use correct amounts of laundry detergent, the extra rinse cycle shouldn’t be needed.
Don’t over-fill the dryer.
Dry all loads back-to-back. If the dryer doesn’t have time to cool down between cycles, it will be more efficient.
Consider installing an indoor or outdoor clothesline. Clothes dry just as well using no extra energy. If clothes are stiff from air-
drying, throw them in the dryer for a minute on the fluff cycle.
YOUR BATHROOM Install a low-flow shower head.
Consider purchasing a duel-flush toilet. These toilets flush with
1.6 gallons of water for solids, and use just .8 gallons of water for liquids. Seattle Public Utilities tested the toilets in real homes, and found the toilets work wonderfully. Duel-flush toilets are available
at the Environmental Home Center in Seattle.
Try to reduce shower time by even just a minute or two, as this will save gallons of water.
Use non-toxic, natural cleaners in the bathroom whenever possible. This is better for the health of your family, too.
GARAGE The next time you are in the market for a new car, think about
buying a hybrid. There are now a number of companies that offer many different styles of hybrids.
Get out and bike. Not only is it good for the environment to bike whenever you can, it is also good for your health.
WALLS AND ROOF Upgrade your insulation. Having a well-insulated house will cut energy bills and use less energy to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Consider spray foam insulation and insulation around your water heater and pipes.
Seal windows and doors. These are often the forgotten culprits of leaking air and cause a rise in energy usage.
Consider installing solar panels.
Install a programmable thermostat. Then keep the temperature comfortable when people will be at home but adjust it when you are gone or sleeping to reduce energy use.
Use native plants in landscaping that are drought-resistant. They not
only require less water, but are also easier to care for and able to resist common Northwest pests.
Cut grass to no less than 2 inches, unless it is bentgrass, then mow to
“Grasscycle”: Leave clippings in the yard after you mow, as they are great fertilizer for the yard. Grasscycling can provide up to one-fourth
of the needed nutrients in a lawn each year. Lisa Yost, garden manager
at the Club, says
mulching lawnmowers work great for this. They push
clippings into the yard so you don’t have to rake. And, Lisa says, she
fertilizes less often.
Use organic fertilizers and pesticides. Or choose slow-release options. Slow-release formulas won’t leach when it rains, so plants get almost all of the nutrients and the fertilizer won’t pollute surrounding water. Organic versions are better for humans and pets, too. Traditional pesticides have been linked to higher rates of cancer.
Water only when the yard needs it, and do it early in the morning. This prevents water from evaporating during the mid-day heat and also lets topsoil dry out before nightfall, which discourages pests. A good test to know if your lawn needs water—step on the grass. If the blades bounce back, you don’t need to water. If they stay bent, water the yard until
an empty tuna can placed in the yard is full. These longer waterings let moisture penetrate farther into the soil, creating deeper grass roots and a healthier yard.
Consider starting a compost pile.
Use rain barrels to collect rainwater runoff from the roof, and use this water to give plants and grass a drink.
How to Compost
Composting turns organic waste products such as yard scraps and some food waste into nutrient-rich fertilizer
for your yard. There are a lot of ways to compost, and a plethora of information can be found online or through
a gardening center. The basics for simple composting
follow. Yard waste is the easiest thing to compost, as it is less likely to smell and won’t cause pest problems that food scraps can cause. To compost yard waste, choose a spot in the yard (not on a driveway or sidewalk where liquids will run into storm drains) that will be out of the way,
but is easily accessible for adding leaves, twigs, grass
clippings and other items. A bin is not necessary, but a homemade or purchased bin will keep everything neat and can prevent the pile from drying out or getting too wet. Bins can be found online or in gardening stores, or you can make one with some wood and wire fencing. Once you have your location, you can start adding yard waste to the pile. Anything that comes from the yard can go in the pile except animal waste, plants treated with herbicides, insect-infected or diseased plants, weed seeds and spreading weeds (like ivy), sawdust from treated wood, coated paper, colored paper and waxed cardboard. There are additional items to keep out if you choose to compost food scraps, such as meat products. Some key things to remember when composting is
to keep ingredients small, as they will break down faster, and add equal amounts of “green” and “brown” items. Green items, which add nitrogen to the pile, are such things as grass clippings, fresh garden trimmings and houseplants. Brown items, which add carbon, include autumn leaves, twigs and shredded paper or cardboard. When the two are present in equal amounts, the pile shouldn’t smell. If it is smelly, it might have too many green items. Healthy piles will also be hot in the middle. If the pile is not heating up, it might have too many brown items.
Compost piles should be around three feet high by three feet wide, and need to be kept as wet as a damp sponge. You will also have to stir the pile once in awhile, adding the outside items to the middle of the pile and vice versa. If you only use yard trimmings and the environment in the pile is healthy, you should have compost in six to 18 months. Food scraps are more difficult to compost, simply because they must be buried in the pile each time they are added to prevent animals and other pests from trying to eat them. Whether you choose to add food scraps to the pile or not, don’t layer too much of one item at a time. Layering different kinds of materials and stirring the pile provides the organisms with plenty of air and variety to break down the pile. Once your compost is finished, it can be spread around the garden as a fertilizer, or mixed into the topsoil of the lawn. Seattle Public Utilities has a PDF available on their
Web site about composting (www.seattle.gov/util/Services/Yard/Composting/index.asp), or visit www.compostguide.com. This Web site includes a trouble-shooting table for your compost pile.
How to Control Garden Pests Naturally
Attract good bugs. Some bugs, such as ladybugs, are good for the garden, as they eat bugs that cause damage. Dandelions, for instance, attract ladybugs which then eat aphids.
Bait slugs. Slugs are a common problem in the damp Northwest. To keep them out of the garden, consider installing a copper barrier around plants. Slugs won’t cross copper. Or use beer. Yes, beer. Bury a small jar or empty yogurt container in the yard, leaving an inch above ground. Add some beer and check it in the
morning. The slugs are attracted to the beer,
and drown in the jar.
Overseed and aerate the lawn. This will promote a healthy turf that deters pests. Compacted soil should be aerated in the spring or fall.
Accept a few weeds in the yard. For problem weeds, consider pulling them by hand—many garden stores have tools available so you don’t have to stoop to get weeds. Or spot-spray weeds. Just make sure to read the label carefully so you are using the correct product for the weed, and keep children and pets away.
Let nature take its course. With healthy lawns and gardens, there will be some pest damage, but nature should eventually come to the rescue. Instead of jumping into action at the first signs of damage, wait and see if it goes away. Crane flies, for example, are often eaten by birds.
Protect plants with plants. Planting mint, onions, garlic or marigolds around infected plants might keep some pests at bay.
Find like-minded professionals. If you use a gardening service, consider hiring one that uses organic practices.
To have specific questions answered, you can call the Natural Lawn and Garden Hotline at 206-633-0244.
How to Install Solar Panels
Although Washington state might not seem to be a likely place for solar energy, it does work. If you are considering installing solar panels on your home, know that they will contribute to your energy supply and there are both state and federal incentives available. Solar panels, however, cannot supply all of your home’s energy year-round. Instead, extra power is given to the power company, which you can then get back when you need it. But first, you need to know if solar energy is right for you. Start, says Aquila Velonis, solar project manager for Environmental Building Supplies in Portland, Ore.,
with taking a look at your home site. For solar panels you need a south-facing roof that is free of obstructions. A large tree shading the roof, for example, will not work
for solar panels. The equipment on the roof needs full sunlight to work effectively. If you aren’t sure if your
roof will work, find a contractor that is experienced with solar panel installations. That person can do a site assessment and see if solar energy will work for you. Another consideration during the assessment process
is the age of your roof. If your roof will need to be replaced in a few years, it might be better to wait until you replace the roof and install solar panels at that time, or to replace the roof a bit early when the solar panels are also going up. If you are given the go-ahead, it’s time to get a few bids from contractors on outfitting your home. Make sure you know what each person is offering as far as the size of the system, type of system and the warranty. During this time, it is also important to learn about the various incentives that are offered for using solar energy. Your solar contractor should be able to help inform you about incentives and make decisions with those in mind. If the contractor is not familiar with incentives, says Aqulia, it’s time to find a different contractor. In Washington state, incentives are higher if you use equipment made from Washington-based manufacturers. Make sure you also get a net metering contract with the utility company. Net metering is simply using a meter
that rolls both ways. When you are producing more solar energy than you are currently using, that energy goes to the utility company and your meter runs backwards. When you are using energy from the utility company, your meter runs forwards. The utility company will pay for extra energy you produce. More information can be found at Puget Sound Energy’s Web site, www.pse.com. Once you’ve verified your system qualifies for incentives, your contractor can go to work. On average, says Aquila, it will take a week to install your new solar system. Besides the panels on the roof, which will require installation of a racking system on beams, there will be
a conduit line running from the roof to the breaker box. This line might be in the attic or might have to run along the outside of the house, depending on the room available. Inside the house, you will need an area about four feet by three feet where the breaker box is to place the inverter (which changes the DC electricity produced by the system into AC electricity that can be used throughout the house), safety disconnects and other necessities. A licensed electrician should do the final hookup, where the new system is connected to the existing. Once your system is in place, you should receive a
lesson from the contractor in maintenance. This usually involves cleaning your panels on a seasonal basis and removing any obstructions that might land on them. Aqulia says even covering a panel by just 10 percent, from branches or leaves, for example, can reduce its efficiency by 70 percent. Most solar modules have a
warranty of 20 to 30 years, though solar panels that
were made 40 years ago are, in some cases, still in use. Although most people hire a contractor to install a solar system on their home, it is possible to do most of
it yourself. Aquila recommends taking a class about installing solar systems, and also says you should check with your utility company. Sometimes to get incentives, an experienced, licensed contractor must install the
system. Even if you do the install yourself, however,
a licensed electrician should do the final hook-up to your existing power grid.
Hybrid cars are gaining popularity, with the Toyota Prius remaining No. 1. New models from Honda, Ford, Saturn, Mercury and Lexus are now on the market, and more companies are slated to join the ranks of green vehicles in coming years. A hybrid car has both a traditional gas-powered engine and an electric engine. The electric engine gets its power from a battery that is charged by the brakes and the gas engine. There are two main categories of hybrids, the first of which Toyota uses. In this
system, the battery is used to get the car moving while the gas engine only kicks on when more power is needed. The other type of hybrid is used by Lexus and Honda. In this kind of set-up, the electric engine is just used to increase power. Hybrids do get better gas mileage than traditional cars, and of the hybrids, those with the Toyota system save
the most gas when driving in the city and in stop-and-go traffic. In these kinds of cars, it is possible to forego using the gas engine at all, since it is only used when more power is needed. So is a hybrid right for you? That depends on a number of things. First, determine the majority of the driving you do. If it’s mainly in the city and in stop-and-go traffic, a Toyota Prius might be a viable option. If most of your diving is at higher speeds, consider the other type of hybrid, like the Lexus. Also remember that hybrids have
a lot of new technology, and while your regular mechanic can still do the routine maintenance, some things will have to be done at the dealer. And so far,
no one is quite sure how long a hybrid battery will last. When the battery does die, it will most likely be expensive to replace. Hybrids are more expensive than traditional cars; in those that have a gas-only counterpart, the hybrid is anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 more. Although you might be able to make up that difference in the gas you’ll save, it could take more than six years. Overall, it seems that those who choose to drive a hybrid do so because they want to reduce their emissions when driving. Your attitude about driving and the environment might be the single largest factor in determining if this type of car is right for you. If you do want to consider a hybrid, most models
have a waiting list of anywhere from a few months to
a year. Hybrids currently available: Ford Escape, Honda Accord, Honda Civic, Honda Insight, Lexus GS 450h, Mercury Mariner, Saturn Vue Green Line, Toyota Camry, Toyota Highlander, Toyota Prius
Some photos courtesy of Dream Lofts & Condos magazine.