Home appliances

Sylvia's home has a new roof, storm windows, and good insulation, so Michelle Madden, CEO of GreenYour.com, says her first eco-investment should be updating her 30- to 50-year-old appliances with Energy Star–qualified models. She'll benefit from the new federal stimulus program that allocates money to reimburse consumers for energy-saving appliances. The refunds vary by product but will likely run from $50 to $250.

Refrigerator: Annual energy savings of about $176 would mean Silvia will recoup the $630 purchase price in three and a half years. Assuming she keeps the appliance for ten years, she'll save $1,760 on her electric bills. And that's without the government rebate.

Dishwasher: With energy savings of about $35 a year, it would pay for itself in seven years. Washing a full load of dishes by hand can use ten times as much water as washing them in a new Energy Star–compliant dishwasher (some models use as little as 3 gallons for a full cycle). To be most efficient, run the dishwasher only when it's full, and don't use the dry cycle. The newest machines use about 1 kilowatt-hour per load—30 to 80 percent less than older machines.

Air Conditioner: With savings of about $30 a year, the machine would pay for itself in seven years and produce $300 in energy savings over ten years. (Double these numbers if she buys two.)

Washing Machine: A new front-loading model will cost about $16 a year to operate, and annual savings will be about $100 a year (new models use about half the water of older machines).
  • Michelle encourages Silvia to use the cold-water setting; up to 90 percent of the energy spent washing clothes comes from heating the water.
  • She also recommends natural laundry soap, now available at Walgreens and Target. The key difference between conventional and eco-friendly laundry detergents is that the latter do not contain phosphates, they have low toxicity (they don't contain chlorine bleach, phenols, optical brighteners, or other toxic ingredients), and they're easily biodegradable.

When Silvia starts decorating, Michelle advises her to avoid conventional paint containing VOCs (volatile organic compounds). The concern over VOCs is both environmental (they contribute to air pollution and some VOCs are greenhouse gases) and personal (they give off fumes at room temperature). Zero-VOC paint is now comparable in price to premium conventional paint ($35 to $50 per gallon). Recommended non-VOC options: Benjamin Moore Natura, Sherwin-Williams Harmony, AFM Safecoat.

Recycle batteries. Go to Earth911.com , where you can put in your zip code and find places near you that accept them. Better yet, use rechargeables.

Voltaic backpacks and messenger bags have the first built-in solar panels powerful enough to charge a laptop. They also come with adapters to charge cell phones and most other handheld electronics ( VoltaicSystems.com ).

Electronics consume 10 to 20 percent of their energy when they are "off"—what Michelle calls vampire use. An improvement on power strips are smart strips: You plug in the stuff you wish to synchronize in shutdown. For example, before you go to bed, you turn off your TV and it automatically shuts off the other items on the strip (DVD, stereo, laptop). In two years you'll recoup the cost of the strip ($40 on Amazon.com ). After that, free money.
Flower illustraion

  • Garbage and sandwich bags that are 100 percent biodegradable and compostable? Yes, says Michelle, they're made from cornstarch and other renewable resources ( BioBagUSA.com ).
  • Cleaning scrubs and scouring pads from Goodbye Detergent!, says Michelle, use the abrasive powers of ground peach pits, corncobs, and walnut shells to tackle household cleanup ( GoodbyeDetergent.com ).
  • Silvia likes to entertain, so she and Michelle discuss reducing her use of plastic (i.e., petroleum) tableware. Michelle suggests disposables that can be composted or that biodegrade easily: Bare (from bamboo; $37 for 180), Stalk Market (from sugarcane fiber; $53 for 500), or Earth Shell (from potato starch; $29 for 240).
Cold weather illustration

In an average home, about 20 percent of heat is lost through windows and doors. Use the touch test to see if yours are letting in cold air. If they are, caulk and weather-strip the edges (cheapest solution), or invest in glazed windows with the lowest U-factor (measure of heat transfer) you can find. The Department of Energy says that U.S. homeowners who replace single-pane windows with Energy Star–rated windows save an average of $126 to $465 a year.
Skoy cloth illustration

Instead of paper towels, Michelle tells Silvia, use a Skoy Cloth. One can last as long as 15 rolls of paper towels; made from wood pulp and cotton, they're 100 percent biodegradable and available at many retailers ($6 for four; SkoyCloth.com ).
Bathroom faucets

Federal law requires that new faucets not exceed 2.2 gallons per minute, but older faucets can emit 3 to 6 gallons per minute. Michelle calculates that the average homeowner can reduce her annual water usage by two-thirds if she installs a 1-gallon-per-minute aerator—that's nearly 15,000 gallons a year saved (enough to fill a 16-by-32-foot swimming pool).

Judging from Silvia's teal toilet, tub, and tile, the bathroom hasn't been touched since the house was built in 1951. Toilets made before 1980 can use up to 5 gallons per flush, while post-1994 models are required to use no more than 1.6 gallons (many states offer residents a rebate to replace toilets; see SaveWaterAmerica.com ). By switching to low flow, Silvia could save 6,000 gallons of water a year. For now, she can use a Niagara toilet tank bag ($1.50; ConservationMart.com ) to save 0.8 gallons with every flush.
Reclaimed wood

Silvia wants to build a deck. Michelle suggests using reclaimed wood: Terramai.com sells several varieties, including teak ($25 per square foot), for less than virgin teak from other suppliers.

For her yard: Michelle says the best eco-practices minimize the need for water and pesticides and are adapted for the local climate. Grasses best suited to the Northeast, where Silvia lives, include a mix of 50 percent Kentucky bluegrass, 30 to 40 percent red fescue, and 10 to 20 percent perennial ryegrass ( Seedland.com ).

O's Make Me a Ten! Makeovers: Read Silvia's story

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