At Laurie's suggestion, Debbie has timed her family's showers. Mark is the worst culprit—11 minutes—"and he doesn't even have to use conditioner," Mary protests. Low-flow showerheads would be a big improvement. "If they're well designed, the pressure should still feel good," says Laurie, "and for every two minutes you shave off your shower, you save 10 gallons of water." Delaney agrees that she can turn off the faucet while brushing her teeth. But the whole family winces at the prospect of giving up their three-ply toilet tissue for the scratchier stuff made from postconsumer wastepaper (printed material that's been recycled). This is okay with Laurie. "Being green is not about being miserable; it's about being conscious," she says. "It's not about perfection; it's about everyone trying to do something." Still, despite the initial hesitance, Debbie reports a week later that everyone has actually adjusted to the new TP. It's like switching from whole milk to skim: After a while, the beloved original seems over-the-top.
With six people living in almost 3,000 square feet, there are dozens of appliances in the house—TVs, computers, hair dryers, toasters, coffeemakers, lamps, cell phones with chargers—and each is drawing electricity when plugged into a wall socket, even when it's not in use. This is called phantom power—a little like a vampire sucking out energy. It's estimated that the amount of electricity used nationally each year by idle equipment roughly equals the output of at least 12 power plants. "The idea is to connect the dots," says Evelyne Michaut, the NRDC green building consultant who has accompanied us. "Think of each device as plugged into a coal mine." A power strip makes it easy to turn off up to half a dozen appliances at once.
An old refrigerator can cost up to 50 percent of your monthly bill, according to power company Con Edison. The Perezes have two fridges, the second one in the garage, considered indispensable because the family stores food for an orphanage in Mexico. When they're ready to replace this ten-year-old model or any other big-ticket appliance, Evelyne and Laurie direct them to look for the Energy Star label, which indicates that the product meets government energy-efficiency standards. Meanwhile, nobody should be standing in front of any open fridge trying to decide what to eat. The Perezes' washing machine is relatively new, but choosing cold water and doing only full loads will definitely benefit both the environment and their budget: More than three-quarters of the energy used to launder clothes comes from heating the water, and the hot water cycle generates five times more greenhouse gases than cold. Laurie scrapes a big handful of lint from the dryer's filter—it builds up after every cycle, reducing the machine's efficiency. And living in Southern California, with a backyard, the Perezes have the perfect opportunity to hang a clothesline. "Air-dried towels are fantastic," Laurie raves. "Everyone in the family will be fighting for them."