Tim Ziegler paid $3,800 to install a solar water heater in his State College home last fall.
It’s a very green move, since power from the sun is clean and renewable. Surprisingly, Ziegler said it was also a good financial move for his family of four.
After tax credits and a state rebate, “I calculated in a decade I’d have the system paid off and be collecting free electricity (to heat my water),” he said. “It’s a long-term investment.”
With more green products hitting the market every day it’s easier than ever to make choices, big and small, that will positively affect the Earth, your family’s health and your bottom line.
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“Green is this path, it’s a journey and everyone can do something green,” said Shaun Pardi, founder of Envinity Inc., the State College-based green design and building firm that installed Ziegler’s solar system. “It’s a continuum.”
Sounds simple, but in a world of low-flow faucets, vegetable-based cleaners and spray insulation, it can be hard to decide where to start. So here are a few of the most accepted ways to make your home more green.
Use the sun
Before a shovel is in the dirt, the greenest thing a builder can do is look at the sun and incorporate it in the design.
South-facing rooms will be naturally heated and lighted, so the living room, kitchen and other rooms where occupants will spend the most time should face that direction. Install overhangs or shades to shield the summer sun.
“One way to take advantage of the sun for no cost at all is during the winter time open up the window treatments in the morning and close them at night, and vice versa in the summer,” said Andy Lau, associate director for Penn State’s Center for Sustainability. “That can make a huge difference and lead to having a better connection with the daily and seasonal weather patterns.”
Little or no sun access? Try tubular skylights. They look like inset ceiling fixtures but they’re a more modern version of skylights. Once they’re installed, it’s free light.
Local, responsible materials Central Pennsylvania is full of hardwood and many highly managed forests, so one green idea you can boast about to your desert-dwelling friends is to use local wood for floors, cabinets and building.
“We have a tremendous resource all around us in local woods that we like to use for our timber framing when we can,” said Jerry Learn, the lead timber framer for Envinity. “If it’s being harvested in a responsible manner it’s renewable in that there’s a lot available.”
Hickory, ash and white pine are a few of the local woods Learn purchases from Amish mills and other small Pennsylvania lumber yards.
If your contractor doesn’t use local wood and you want to make sure the trees going into your new kitchen cabinets come from a responsibly managed forest, check for Forest Stewardship Council certification. The nonprofit group certifies everything from paper to wooden toys.
Or skip wood altogether and go with bamboo. While hardwood forests must grow for 50 to 100 years before harvest, it takes only a few years for fast-growing bamboo to mature.
Bamboo is shipped from other countries, mainly China, and some say there’s a lack of responsible management of those forests but it’s becoming more popular.
“It’s often a matter of what your preferences are and what your priorities are,” Lau said. “Most people want to do good in their purchasing or what to use in their home but you can’t do that without good information.”
Water is not everywhere
Shutting off the water while you brush your teeth and using a dishpan while you wash dishes not only saves money, but those early life lessons taught to us by mom reveal an important green principal. Conservation is king.
Already have those habits? Good. Now go shopping.
An Energy Star dishwasher may use less water than hand washing. Low-flow faucets, toilets and shower heads are a must.
Tankless water heaters will save energy. This product will instantly heat water with either electricity or natural gas, but only when it’s needed. That means water isn’t continuously heated in a tank in the basement and no one waits for a hot shower again.
Find the leaks
Energy audits are good for new and old homes alike.
“We all want to know we have a well-built home,” said Thomas Songer, a managing partner in the local Torron Group Development firm. “If you’re building a new home and the contractor knows there’s an audit being done, they’re less likely to cut corners.”
A professional will use equipment such as blower doors and an infrared camera to detect leaks, and will give the homeowner a detailed list of suggested improvements and the estimated energy savings from each.
An audit on Songer’s nearly 40-year-old home convinced him to install a zoned heating system, a computerized water heater, energy-efficient windows and new insulation, thereby cutting his energy footprint in half.
What do churches, government offices and Victorian mansions have in common? They often last more than 100 years because the materials used were high quality and the work was done carefully. Why not use the same sustainable thinking when it comes to our homes?
Talk to your builder or contractor about the materials they’re using. Ask how long the siding will last, how easily it can be cleaned and whether your cabinets were made with a biodegradable finish so they can be recycled when you remodel.
And get a professional. Those Energy Star windows and doors you just purchased may do little good if they’re not installed properly.
“It’s about technique,” said Dylan Wadlington, a local contractor who is a certified green professional through the National Association of Home Builders. “It’s whether you take those extra few minutes to make sure you’ve caulked right.”
Getting off the grid
This is a biggie right now with energy prices rising and a greater awareness of the importance of clean, renewable sources. The federal tax credit on sustainable home energy systems and the Pennsylvania incentive program for solar devices haven’t hurt their popularity either.
Besides solar water heaters, local consumers are installing products that produce electricity from the sun and heating and cooling from the ground’s natural heat.
When Brennan Glantz, president of Bosak Construction, built his home in Bellefonte he chose a geothermal heat pump for hot water, as well as for heating and cooling.
Geothermal pumps use 25 to 50 percent less electricity than traditional heating and cooling systems, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, and use one of the most sustainable and clean forms of energy on the market.
Glantz’s system has pipes that reach 200 feet below his home, where the water is heated to the natural underground temperature of about 55 degrees.
Heat is extracted from this warm water to make hot water and warm the air in the winter. The process works in reverse during the summer.Another effective, long-term investment is solar photovoltaic panels.
It was a sunny day late last summer when Mercedes Lakhtakia, of State College, hooked up her panels and watched the gauge on her electric meter go backward.
“We were generating more than we were using so the extra electricity is going back to the grid,” said Lakhtakia, a Penn State meteorology instructor. “So nothing gets wasted, and that’s so cool.”
She now relies on the sun for a quarter of the electricity used in her home. “It’s such a great thing to do because we’re a little bit less dependent on fossil fuels and a little less dependent on the grid.”
Recycle, recycle, recycle
To reduce the amount of trash your new home or renovation will send to the landfill, recycle anything that’s biodegradable.
Glantz buried some of his organic material in the yard of his new home. Others are recycling everything from clean concrete and asphalt to non-chemically treated wood and yard brush at the new Glenn O. Hawbaker Recycle Center in State College, which charges less per dump truck than most landfills and will turn the waste into construction fill or mulch. Scrap metal is accepted for free.
ReStore is a shop in Bellefonte that allows you to make a tax-deductible donation of new and used material from home building, renovation and repair projects.
The products — everything from lighting to bathtubs — are sold to the public and the proceeds benefit Habitat for Humanity of Greater Centre County.