by Cathy Little
There’s a lot of talk these days about Going Green, but how much of it is reasonable and useful to do? Can we be kinder to the environment and reduce our utility bills without spending too much green to go green?!
Due to industry innovation many green technologies have improved in efficiency and have seen a reduction in price over the last few years. Others are not yet practical options for Northern Virginia.
The feasibility of solar energy is getting better all the time, and in areas of the country where electricity costs more and/or there is plenty of sunshine, it is beginning to become a viable option for everyday use. The return-on-investment (ROI) isn’t significant until you pay 18 cents or more per kilowatt hour. In Virginia, we pay about 10 cents, so we’re not quite there yet. (However, in the custom homes we build, we beef up the roofs and install conduits so that panels can be added in the future.) Solar hot water heaters are also not quite ready for large commercial use in our area. Their ROI is still producing substandard results.
It is far more important to give your custom built home a cozy blanket; that is, maximize the insulation in your attic and replace the inefficient windows. We recommend Renewal by Andersen for high-quality windows – well-built, long-lasting, and highly-efficient green homes; therefore, a great ROI on your solar energy purchase. The more well-sealed your new custom home is, the more it makes sense to add items like solar panels.
Light bulbs have garnered a lot of attention in regards to their efficiency. When the incandescent phase-out was announced in 2007, it was a scary prospect. Even when the deadline was extended, it was too late for manufacturers like the GE factory in Winchester. They were one of the last places to make incandescent light bulbs and had already closed their doors at the initial announcement.
But true to America’s innovative heritage, industry stepped up and is creating some excellent alternatives. In attending the builder’s trade shows and talking to vendors, we’ve seen the price of LED fixtures drop from $200 down to the $60 range. For new homes this is very affordable. Retrofitting your existing home, if you flat out hate fluorescents, is also now well worth the investment. Our current favorite is the Cree LED (available at Home Depot). It lasts 20 years and uses 15 percent of the energy of the equivalent incandescent. Unlike fluorescents, they are dimmable and compatible with existing dimmer switches. The best part is that they don’t have the ghastly overtones of fluorescent lighting.
In regard to plumbing, products continue to improve. We recently replaced a traditional toilet with a dual-flush version, which uses as little as .8 gallons in a half flush and 1.6 gallons in a full flush compared with older conventional toilets which can use five or more gallons. They have improved greatly over the last decade. So if your home was built in the early ‘90’s, consider replacing those poorly made, first-round, low-flow versions.
Remember those first water-saving showerheads? You couldn’t get the shampoo out of your hair. Nowadays, new technology has provided much-improved models. I wondered why that was the case and learned that basically it works by injecting air into the water stream, which increases the space between water molecules giving it more volume and making the water seem softer. Additionally, if you have hard water, a water-saving showerhead will make your water seem softer and enable you to use less soap. Older showerheads use between 5 and 10 gallons per minute. A water-saving showerhead, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Star Program, will only use from 2 to 5 gallons per minute. In case you’re wondering, the Waterpik PowerSpray+ is our current favorite (also available at Home Depot). If you live in a jurisdiction with metered water, these water-saving devices are really a big money saver. If you’re on well water, you still save in electricity costs and are conserving that precious water for the future.
In short, there are plenty of alternatives that do make a difference and make sense. Just be aware of the ones that aren’t yet practical. I’m betting that ingenuity will make them feasible one day soon.
Cathy runs the popular blog, The Builder’s Wife, for Loudoun County-based Fairhaven Homes. Fairhaven Homes has built custom homes since 1997. Please visit our website for more information – www.4Fairhaven.com.