You want the world for your kids so why not help them keep the world for their future by getting them on board with some eco-friendly, energy efficient changes around the house. Maybe your child has already come home with a plan; children love helping to make the world a better place. Here are some tips to help your junior Al Gore take small steps to creating a better place to live.
Put on an Energy Auditor Hat
You may not welcome an audit in any other area of your life but when it comes to energy consumption, bring out the welcome wagon. You can pay people a lot of money to get a professional energy audit of your house but there are some simple steps your family can take for free or very low cost. Get your kid a contractor hat and get busy.
A first, easy step to take is to go on the hunt for drafts. Armed with a burning incense stick, you can spot air rushing around windows, electrical outlets, door and window frames, fireplaces, attic hatches, vents, and fans. You could also just use your hands, but who wouldn’t want to try summonsing spirits while auditing your energy usage. You can also use online energy tools like this Energy Yard Stick to gauge how much energy you are using in your home.
When you have your assessment ready to go, there are many items that you can take care of as a family. For drafty windows and doors, you can add weather stripping. To seal up outlets, take off the faceplate and install foam gaskets around outlets (just adults for this one please). And if you find that your chimney is sucking the life out of your energy budget, consider installing a chimney balloon to stop drafts up your chimney when not in use. You will, however, have to remember to take it out when you DO have a fire. And if you find leaks in hatches, vents, and the like, add caulk (be sure to use no VOC caulk like Garner and Gibson Smart No VOC Caulk). Kids will have a great time with that one.
Take a look at your appliances next. You may find that the energy savings of a new energy star refrigerator, coupled with potential tax benefits, pay for your new appliance in a very short amount of time. Or, to take it a step further, try some super under-charged refrigerators like Summit CP171 that uses 358 kWh/year compared to the average 600 kWh/year for an average Energy Star refrigerator. Water heaters are also a huge energy suck so consider going tankless; if that is not in your budget, simply turning down your water heater can help a lot too.
And of course, examine your heating and cooling efficiencies. Investing in a new programmable thermostat (or the Nest, that basically programs itself) could save a lot more than you might think. If you choose a smart thermostat like the Nest, you and the kids can also track energy usage online or on your smart phone (almost as fun as Angry Birds!)
But the most evident energy consumption in your home comes from lighting. It is also the easiest to change. Although it only consumes about 10% of your house’s energy, it is the one area that your children will most easily grasp. Even changing your Compact Fluorescents (CFLs) to LED will cut your lighting costs down by more than half. The good news is that LEDs are much cheaper than they have been in the past, they have several color temperatures and shapes and are dimmable.
Design with Green on the Brain
Now that your house is all air tight and cozy, you may wonder what kinds of fumes are trapped inside. And for good reason. According to the EPA, “a growing body of scientific evidence has indicated that the air within homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities.” They also cite that we spend about 90% of our time indoors. In a nation alive with plastic, pressed wood “products,” and flame retardants, it is difficult to avoid toxins in our homes. But not impossible. So when you feel like your house needs a design facelift, use these tips to help you choose furniture and home improvement products to help you all breathe a little easier.
First, be warned that some products that advertise themselves as being good for the earth can still be harmful to your family’s health so be careful. MDF is one that is sometimes touted as saving the trees because it is made by pressing wood waste together to form boards. But to keep those pieces together, a lot of adhesive is used and much of that adhesive is laden with VOCs and formaldehyde. So check product details carefully or call the company to confirm. Some do advertise as formaldehyde-free. For my money though, I would suggest planning your purchases to be long term and invest in solid wood (even if it says solid wood there can be sneaky MDF, like bookcase backings, so do your homework) that will stick around for a long time. Teaching kids early about picking safe and healthy toys and furniture will help make it second nature to them in the future.
Painting is one of the easiest ways to freshen up an interior. To keep the air fresh too, opt for NO VOC (as opposed to low VOC) paints. There are so many no VOC paint options that you can feel safe about having kids chip in and paint some walls (instead of drawing on them with crayons). You will still want proper ventilation, however, since No VOC does not mean you want to huff the stuff nor do you want to encourage licking of paint (despite its delicious pink color). It is still house paint. And when choosing no VOC paint, be sure to check if just the base is no VOC or if the tints are also no VOC. There are a few out there with no VOC tints like the Natura line by Benjamin Moore or all paints by Yolo.
Try an Eco-Remodel
Often, the best way to achieve an eco-friendly, family-friendly house is to remodel. And sometimes, like in the cases where the layers of lead paint on your kitchen cabinets leave you wondering what flakes are joining the frosted ones, it is the only option. Big or small, there are ways to get the whole family involved. Here you have a golden opportunity to get it right from the get-go.
Your remodel will most likely begin with some sort of demolition. As much as your kids may revel in wielding a crow bar, leave the demo to the adults and preferably not you. Demo is messy. Don’t get me wrong, I have done it, but when I witnessed the pros taking care of business for a small fee (in the great scheme of contractors, demo is cheap) I saw the light. If you do demo yourself, move out for a couple of days while the dust settles, especially in older homes with dust that may include lead, asbestos, or cement.
Whether you tackle demo or not, when re-building walls, consider materials that will not off-gas for years to come. Traditional dry wall mud has an alarming amount of toxins that off-gas for an equally alarming amount of time. There are alternatives, one being Murco M100. It takes a little more work to apply and if you hire the job, you may hear complaints from the peanut gallery but it is totally worth it. This stuff is non-toxic enough that you can mud while junior crawls on the floor. Again, no eating but if your kiddo tries it out as a hair gel, no worries. Older kids can also pitch in on the initial application (more skill will be needed to smooth it out unless you have a budding sculptor on your hands).
Another important area to pay attention to is the use of adhesives and finishes for flooring, sealing, and tiling. You may have more or less control depending upon how involved you are, but these days contractors will use whatever product you want them to use, if you supply it. For any adhesive needs, you can usually use No VOC caulk. No VOC tile adhesive is a bit tougher to come by but check locally for a supply of Merkrete 720 or other appropriate Merkrete products. This is the first tile adhesive that I have used to have virtually no smell and no VOCs. And for floor finishes, run for the hills at the mention of “Swedish Finish” or you will be huffing that for months. Instead, opt for water-based finishes.
These tips are just the tip of the iceberg as new products both green and not so green are released every day. No longer does a green home just mean that you use eco-friendly cleaning products (though that helps too). With a little research you and your whole family can save energy and strive for a non-toxic abode.