With Earth Day this week, you’ll be hearing a lot about ways you can help the environment, but it doesn’t hurt to save a little green in your wallet at the same time, right? So here are 10 ways to live green as well as save some green, and they don’t just apply to this week!
1. Heating & A/C
If your furnace or air-conditioner are up for replacement, then it only makes sense to opt for a new Energy Star replacement. For the rest of us, though, it’s hard to justify trashing the old furnace just to save a few hundred dollars a year on heating/cooling costs, but spending thousands to do so. But if your current unit is 10-15 years old, and you plan on staying in your home another 10-15 years, then the investment now will pay off in the long run.
When it is time to replace the furnace or A/C unit, don’t throw out your old appliance! You CAN recycle these appliances, but you don’t just stick in a blue bin. Instead, you first take it to a company certified to remove the CFCs or Freon, and then either they or you can take it to a scrap yard. There’s probably a small fee to get the chemicals removed, but some chemicals can be recycled too.
Some municipalities have “spring cleaning” pick-up days where you can put out used appliances for the city to dispose of, and the cost is already rolled into your monthly garbage fee. Call your city hall for more information.
2. Water Heaters
Surprisingly, many Americans don’t yet know the wonders of tankless water heaters. They’re a staple of most other countries in the world, but here in America, we keep 20, 40, 60 or more gallons of water hot 24 hours a day, even if we only use an hour of it or less. A tankless water heater only turns on when you demand hot water and there is no storage tank. Granted, if you live in a pretty cold climate, you’ll need more than one tankless heater in a series to heat the ground water enough, thus negating some of the cost savings.
But if you’re lucky enough to live in a moderate climate (even here in D.C.), you can purchase from a growing selection of electric or gas tankless water heaters for an average $800 uninstalled. However, that investment will save you about 50% of your water heating costs each year, assuming you don’t take longer showers because you have constant hot water.
Oh, and depending on your overall tax situation, you could take advantage of a $300 tax credit for buying a tankless heater! That certainly helps cover the added up-front cost and make tankless heaters more competitive with tank water heaters.
3. Windows & Insulation
When we moved into our home, the previous owners had already replaced the original windows with more efficient dual-pane windows. It’s good because windows are one of the most expensive replacement item in homes! If you want to lower your energy bill by up to 15%, replace your windows with dual- or triple-pane windows. However, I don’t recommend replacing all of your windows simply because you get a tiny draft. Replacing all of your windows, or even just a few, easily runs into the thousands or tens of thousands.
Instead, try caulking the edges of the windows or using thermal plastic to add an extra layer of insulation. Even more important, though, is that most of the air escapes your home through the attic, floors and walls, not the windows. Do what you can to reduce drafts or heat loss through the windows, but if you really want to save big bucks, insulate your crawl space, attic and walls better.
4. Washer & Dryer
There are only two words I need to say when talking about saving money washing and drying your clothes:
Studies show that buying an average Energy Star washer or dryer will pay for itself over the appliance’s lifetime, and with the rising costs of energy, those studies could probably be updated to show even better payback periods!
If you’re in the market, front-load washers are more efficient than top-load since they use gravity to clean the clothes. There are also high-efficiency top-load washers that have new wash systems that could do the job.
As for dryers, try to get one with a moisture sensor that will automatically shut off the dryer when it detects that the clothes are dry.
5. Refrigerator & Freezer
Again, the Energy Star label rules with this appliance. Energy Star refrigerators have more insulation, a high-efficiency compressor and more precise temperature controls than other units. If you have a 15-year-old fridge, then you can save about 50% of the energy if you switch to an Energy Star refrigerator. Oh, and freezers on top are more efficient than those on the side. Why? Because it’s easier to just push cold air down than to the side. And if you can do without a water/ice dispenser, then do so since that’s just one more place the cold air can escape.
A tip for keeping your fridge efficient: vacuum the compressor at least yearly. You might have to unscrew a plate from the bottom-back of the fridge, but keeping it free of dust means it can pull in more air with less work. When we moved into our house, I popped off the plate and saw a quarter-inch layer of dust and dog hair on the compressor! Ewww!
Unfortunately, it’s hard to find a toilet that can push down a good-sized deposit anymore, but that’s because a federal mandate took effect in 1994 that reduced the allowed water per flush from about 7 gallons down to about 1.6. But now I can’t even imagine using 7 whole gallons per flush!
But low-flow toilets have come a long way since the 1994 models. They’ve been redesigned to push more with less water, and now some toilets even have an option to flush with the regular 1.6 gallons or an economical .9 gallons. The latter option would be great for “number 1” flushes. And if you’re looking for special labels on the commode to help the purchasing experience, check out the WaterSense label. It means the toilet uses 20% less water than the current national standard.
If you want to cut your water usage in half in the shower, buy a low-flow showerhead. The newer models actually simulate high-flow units pretty well, but use 50% less water while doing so. Just like toilets, the older models turned off many users, but the newer models have redeemed themselves. Since showerheads generally don’t cost much (compared to windows and appliances), run out to the the hardware store and grab one or two for your house. Seriously, go now. You can bookmark this article for later…
8. Sink Faucet
According to the EPA, a leaky faucet that drips once per second can waste more than 3,000 gallons of water per year. That’s a quarter of the water in our pool! Just like showerheads and toilets, new models of low-flow faucets can drastically cut your water usage without seeing any or significant reductions in performance. Older models used 3-7 gallons per minute while newer low-flow models only use 2.2 gallons per minute.
(My) jury is out on whether the dishwasher is better than just washing the dishes by hand, but since we only run it once per week, it hasn’t come up for serious discussion. If you absolutely need to convenience of a dishwasher (which I won’t argue), choose a more efficient model that has a quick-wash (light use) cycle, no-heat drying option and maybe a delay-start control to make scheduling around peak-energy times easier (we use it on ours). These units cost more, but repay it all plus some in the long term.
10. Range & Oven
Last up on the list is an item that I don’t personally use often, but from which I definitely benefit: the stove. I always thought that gas ranges were more efficient than electric, but they’re not! Gas ranges have a longer life expectancy, but only 55% of the gas energy used goes directly to cooking. That’s compared to 80% for electric cooking. Wow, did you know that? (don’t answer that smartypants).
If you’re in the market for a new stove/cooktop, consider one without a pilot light. An oven with a pilot light can use double the energy per year! The downside of an electric-start oven is just that– if the electricity goes out, so does your cooking options. But this article is about saving money, not being able to cook chocolate chip cookies during the apocalypse.
The recurring theme here is Energy Star, WaterSense, low-flow, as well as good, old common sense. Don’t toss out the old appliance or spend thousands to replace your furnace, air-conditioner or windows simply because everyone is talking about how inefficient yours probably are. If you’re looking out for the environment, often the impact of making new windows and tossing or recycling the old ones just doesn’t improve the situation. Instead, only replace an item when you actually need the replacement item, and always calculate the costs and benefits of your decision.