Happy Earth Day! Looking for some ways to make a positive impact on your world? You can start right where you live: inside your house. Here's a room-by-room guide to greening your own little corner of the world.
IN THE BEDROOM: Recycle an old mattress to make room in our landfills.
Why? Our country's landfills are literally running out of space. In fact, it's estimated that San Francisco alone has only five years until it exceeds its capacity. One average queen-size mattress takes up a whopping 23 cubic feet in a landfill. Multiply that by 20 million (the number of used mattresses that make it into landfills every year) and the figure is frightening. In addition to taking up precious space, once there, mattresses don't biodegrade and can even create flammable air pockets.
How it works: Polyurethane foam, which accounts for around 6 pounds of a mattress's 63-pound total weight, can be reused in its original state, incinerated and converted into electricity, or recycled into other materials via modification of its chemical makeup. A good facility is able to recoup up to 90 percent of a mattress's components; the cotton goes into clothing, steel springs are reused, and the wood frames are broken down into chips that can be used for furniture. Although the benefits of mattress recycling are gaining exposure, not every city does it. Use Earth911.com's Recycling Locator to find a facility near you. In the market for a new one? Consider buying from a company such as Emattress.com, which takes back its used mattresses and recycles them at no cost.
Estimated savings: Freed up landfill space doesn't currently translate to dollars and cents saved. At the very least though, mattress recycling reduces consumption of raw materials, energy usage, and greenhouse gas emissions.
IN THE BATHROOM: Install a Low-Flow Showerhead
Why? It's simple. You'll use (and waste) a lot less water, and save valuable energy in the process. It's an uncomplicated, inexpensive, DIY way to cut costs, and you'll see results immediately: An average ten-minute shower utilizes about 25 gallons of water. Using a low-flow head shaves 12 gallons off that total, and produces 48 percent less wasted water than showering with a regular-flow fixture. Ultra-low-flow heads can conserve even more, reducing usage to just 7 ½ gallons (70 percent less wasted water) per shower.
How it works: There are two types of heads: Aerating and laminar-flow. Aerating heads force compressed air into the water, creating a misty spray. Laminar-flow fixtures draw air in, forming individual streams of water. Both limit the amount of water (measured in GPM, or gallons per minute) that's able to pass through the head at a certain pressure (measured in PSI, or pounds per square inch). More pressure equals more water.
Cost: A quality model costs anywhere from $10 to $50 at your local hardware store.
Estimated savings: All told, a high-efficiency head saves the average household about 7,800 gallons of water per year, and as much as $145 annually for the electricity it takes to heat the water.
IN THE HOME OFFICE: Connect electronics to a "smart" power strip.
Why?Vampire power, phantom load, leaking electricity. These phrases refer to the power -- totaling as much as 20 or even 40 watts per machine -- that's continuously consumed by electronics without on/off switches. Microwaves, video game consoles, and power adapters (among other appliances) all suck needless power. I could tell you to simply unplug every appliance after each use to save energy, but that's a nuisance. Instead, plug your stuff into one smart power strip, which completely stops unnecessary drainage.
How it works: Smart power strips look exactly like everyday surge protectors, act as the central turn-off switch for all your toys, and enable you to completely disconnect electronic devices when not in use. Products such as the Hi-Saver plug (for computers) and the Smart Strip surge protector (for anything) are able to sense idle time and cut off power according to a pre-programmable elapsed time period.
Cost: Expect to pay about $100 for the Hi-Saver, which has five receptacles. The Smart Strip LCG3 has 10 outlets and is priced at around $30.
Estimated savings: The Smart Strip reportedly saves you enough energy to pay for itself in as little as six weeks-a cutback of $20 per month in electricity charges. The Hi-Saver reduces the energy drained from PC peripherals from 180 watts to 80 watts, which is a 44 percent savings. Up and coming Australian product, Emberboard, by Embertec, cuts standby power while displaying a computer's energy use. In recent trials the company calculated savings of $85 a year on energy it prevented from draining from entertainment systems and $41 a year on energy that'd normally be sucked up by a PC.
IN THE LIVING AREA: Use a programmable thermostat.
Why? Because it's far more accurate than other models, it'll maximize energy efficiency. It's suited best for people who who aren't home (at work, school, the gym) during routine times throughout a given week.
How? Preprogrammed settings are designed to save you energy and money while keeping you comfortable. Because installation involves some electrical work -- albeit rudimentary -- your home's power should be shut off during this project. For a step-by-step video on proper installation, visit ThisOldHouse.com. If you need a contractor for the upgrade, find a reputable one in your area via AngiesList.com. For more pointers on helping you choose the one that's right for your lifestyle, visit the US Department of Energy website.
Estimated savings: Up to $180 a year in energy costs-as long as proper settings are maintained. If you continually override the settings on particularly nippy days, you won't reap benefits.
In the Kitchen: Save water by scraping-not rinsing-dishes before washing.
Why? It's a big, fat waste of -- you guessed it -- water and time. Just five minutes of pre-rinsing wastes 20 gallons of water per dishwasher load. Maybe your mom got you in the habit of pre-rinsing, but it's not necessary anymore. Today's dishwashers are more capable than the one you had growing up: They'll competently scour crusty glasses, dishes, and silverware with ease. Consumer Reports' testing on newer dishwasher models even revealed that prerinsing doesn't improve cleaning.
How? Remove stuck-on bits of food with a quick scrape, then load up.
Estimated savings: The average household washes 27 loads of dishes per month (or 325 loads per year). Washing a full load of dishes costs about $1 per full load, so you'll potentially save some big money-upwards of $300 annually via inaction alone.
IN THE BASEMENT: Wrap up your water heater.
Why? It keeps heat from escaping from gas and electric water heaters; thereby lowering the amount of energy they consume to maintain the preset thermostat temperature.
How does it work? Depending on its level of thickness and density, an insulation blanket will resist heat flow, and is defined by an R-value. Installing more insulation in your home increases R-value, and therefore, resistance to heat flow. If you're not sure of your heater's R-value, touch it. If it's warm, it needs additional insulation. Buy a blanket with R-value of at least 8; most come pre-cut, with straps and tape. If you're having trouble finding one, doubling up two R-5 blankets works just as well. Installation is quick and easy; simply follow the manufacturer's instructions.
Cost: Blankets can be found in most hardware and home improvement stores for about $15 to $20.
Estimated savings: Insulation blankets reduce a water heater's energy consumption by four to nine percent, and will pay for itself (saving you $14.95) in about a year.
Why? Adding attic insulation is one of the easiest, most cost-effective ways to make a home more comfortable year-round. It's especially recommended when a home has hardly any (or no) existing insulation, or if attic, floor or wall cavities are left bare throughout a lengthy renovation. Insulation helps maintain a uniform temperature throughout the home, keeping walls, ceilings, and floors warmer in winter and cooler during summer.
Cost: You'll save considerably less by installing insulation yourself. Costs for roll-out batting range from $100 to $500, but vary according to R-value and attic size. A contractor will likely charge 50 cents to $2.25 per square foot for materials. So that's $400 to $1,800 for an 800 square foot space, with cost of labor averaging $750 to $1,100.
Estimated savings: Increasing levels of insulation from two or three inches (an R5 rating) to 8 to 14 inches (R30 rating) could save you $95 to $145 annually, for every 1,200 square feet of ceiling area (about 5 to 25 percent on total heating and cooling costs). Once you've recouped installation and materials expenses you'll save even more, which is especially important as energy rates continue to increase.
IN THE LAUNDRY ROOM: Wash clothes in cold water.
Why? This no-cost solution instantaneously reduces the amount of energy required to run a washing machine.
How does it work? Hot-water heating uses about 90 percent of the energy utilized by a typical washer; its motor uses only 10 percent. Turning the dial (or pressing the button) to begin washing in cold water means you'll instantly see savings. And you'll also eliminate 1,600 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions that are generated annually by your household.
Estimated savings: Between $52 and $145 each year.
IN THE ENTRY WAY OR MUDROOM: Wipe muddy feet on an eco-friendly doormat.
Why? Every square foot of the Andersen Company's WaterHog Eco mat prevents four ½-liter plastic drink bottles from reaching landfills.
How does it work? It's made of 100% post-consumer, recycled polypropylene, it traps 1 ½ gallons of water per square yard, it's fast-drying, and it features a non-slip rubber backing made from reclaimed tires.
Cost: From $40 for a two-foot by three-foot mat to $90 for a three-foot by five-foot mat. It might seem a bit steep, but think about the energy you'll save each year for a replacement. A quick hose-down and air-dry also offsets costs incurred from machine-washing and drying.
Estimated savings: Approximately 60 plastic bottles are recycled per every three-foot by five-foot mat. Since recycling one plastic bottle conserves enough energy to keep a 60-watt light bulb lit for up to six hours, one WaterHog generates enough electricity to keep the bulb lit for 15 days straight. WaterHog production also reduces landfill waste by over 400 tons per year. And for every ton that's diverted, avoided disposal costs are about $30. That's $12,000!