Making Your Home More Sustainable

Stories by Meg Holden, Molly Moore, David Pferdekamper and Jillian Randel

In sustainable building and remodeling, terms like “conservation” and “efficiency” are thrown around a lot. But how does the difference between efficiency and conservation affect the sustainability of your home?

Simply put, conservation is using less of a resource. Efficiency is using the same amount of that resource to get a higher output. Think of it in terms of water. Not running the sink while you brush your teeth is an example of conservation. Collecting your dishwashing water and using it to flush your toilet — using the same water twice for different uses — is efficiency.

Conservation and efficiency are both important to consider in sustainable building, but neither one is necessarily better than the other. It all comes down to your sustainable building goals and practices. What matters is using your budget, time limits and space constraints to create a more environmentally responsible home.

On the Web: Tax Incentives, Credits and Rebates

City and state utility rebates on toilets, faucets and shower heads:

2011 federal tax credits and incentives on items such as solar energy systems, biomass stoves, geothermal heat pipes, insulation, roofs, small wind turbines and more:

Residential energy efficiency tax credits for items such as insulation, doors, windows and heating systems:

Doing-It-Yourself Workshops

Transition Initiatives is a great way to get involved in do-it-yourself energy efficiency activities. They host workshops for free or nominal prices and neighbors often work together to complete projects. Find an initiative near your community at

The North Carolina Wind Energy program at Appalachian State offers a variety of energy efficiency home-improvement workshops. Visit

Warren Wilson College in Black Mountain, N.C., is a hub for green campus initiatives and the school offers a variety of year-round energy efficiency projects for homeowners:

Getting Green Machines

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, lighting, refrigeration, and cooking are responsible for over 40 percent of a home’s energy use. If you add in a washer and dryer and other large appliances — well, it’s a good thing many new appliances help conserve more energy than ever. But what should you look for in a new appliance to make sure it’s as green as possible?

The most important element is energy use. Products with an Energy Star sticker are at least 20 percent more energy-efficient than the national standard and have performance consistent with consumer expectations. Some appliances even go above and beyond Energy Star specifications. Many Bosch appliances have a “Sabbath Mode,” a feature that enables an oven to keep pre-cooked foods hot for extended periods — such as the Jewish Sabbath — without being actively on.

An appliance’s size plays a huge role in how much energy it uses. Compact washing machines use much less water than full-sized machines and are perfect for those who live alone or just don’t wash their clothes often. By using more energy-efficient appliances, thousands of people have shrunk their carbon footprint. Follow their example, and yours will shrink, too.

Start Conserving and Stop Flushing Your Money Away

Remember the explanation of conservation versus efficiency? Buying low-flow shower heads and toilets and an aerator for the sink can save thousands of gallons of water each year. According to National Geographic, a seven-minute shower with a low-flow shower head uses only 14 gallons of water. New, water-conserving dishwashers are also eco-friendly alternatives to old water wasters.

In the kitchen, many appliances combine energy efficiency and conservation. To prevent heat loss, induction cooktop stoves use electromagnetic energy to disperse heat throughout the pan rather than just through the bottom.

And finally, the ultimate efficient appliance: The one you don’t have. Going without a microwave, coffee maker, dryer or other appliance is more space- and energy-efficient than using one. Plus, it’s free.

Getting Rid of Old Appliances

What should you do with those energy hogs after replacing them with their more efficient cousins? Don’t drop them off at the dump — put it back to work! Goodwill and other thrift stores often take old appliances as long as they are in working condition.

Even broken appliances are worth something. Someone might be interested in your old dryer for parts, an art project or to repair it themselves. Check with your local landfill or visit to learn how to recycle appliances in your area.

Weatherization Helps Low-income Families Save Money

WAMY Community Action Network, based in Boone, N.C., has a program designed to help low-income families save on their energy bills. Their Weatherization Assistance and Heating Appliance Repair and Replacement programs, like similar programs around the country, help families replace insulation, heating and air conditioning systems, apply caulking and weather stripping to windows and doors, tune-up water heaters and assess efficiency of home energy appliances. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that weatherization reduces heating bills by 31 percent and overall household energy bills by $358 per year.

To find a program like WAMY in your county, visit the National Community Action Foundation website, or call 202.842.2092.

Improving your Prefab’s Performance

By Molly Moore

Mobile homes typically use more energy per square foot than their conventional counterparts. But because these manufactured homes are often built similarly, energy-efficiency retrofits are just as attainable.

Jackie Rader is Weatherization Coordinator for Coalfield Community Action, one of thirteen West Virginia community-action agencies working to increase efficiency and lower energy bills for low-income residents. Of the 434 homes her agency has weatherized, 200 are mobile homes.

According to Rader, the most common weaknesses are the sub-floor insulation and bellyboard. Bellyboards are strong tarps that keep insulation wrapped tightly to the heating ductwork beneath a mobile home. Some older mobile homes lack bellyboards altogether, and others are torn by rodents. Once a bellyboard is compromised, insulation begins to fall out. Eventually, the heating system can be breached and the ductwork itself can fall.

Rader’s team is trained to work on bellyboards and insulation, but some homeowners are capable of doing these repairs themselves. She cautions that this work needs to be done carefully, however; insufficient insulation around the ductwork will cause condensation to build up within the structure and lead to future problems.

Some steps concerned residents can take to control air leaks include weatherstripping around doors, sealing mobile home windows with window clips (available at most hardware stores), and closing gaps around pipe entry points with foam sealant. Dryer vents should be securely attached and operate completely outside of the home to prevent moisture buildup.

Federally-funded weatherization agencies such as Coalfield Community Action offer free weatherization services to qualifying low-income residents. On average, homeowners see their energy usage drop by about 25 percent.

Johnny Scores a Royal Flush

By Jillian Randel

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, toilets account for nearly 30 percent of an average home’s indoor water consumption, which makes them the biggest culprit of a homeowner’s water usage. There are many options when shopping for eco-friendly toilets. But it is also possible to keep things simple and make a toilet at home, like Foscoe, N.C. resident Cory Alexander Kornegay did with his sawdust composting toilet.

“To make our toilet we took a five gallon bucket and built three pieces of wood around it and added a toilet seat on top,” says Kornegay.

Kornegay recommends The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins as a reference. The book details the science behind composting human waste and includes a guide to building your own composting toilet.

“The key is to rotate out the buckets,” explains Kornegay. “Dump them onto your compost pile over the course of a year. Every time you dump it, cover it up with straw or more sawdust. After the compost pile sits for another year, it is ready to use as humanure.”

For homeowners who are not quite ready to take the extreme toilet approach, there are plenty of other options available on the market. Low-flush toilet models boast a water-usage as low as 1.25 gallons per flush (compared to 3.5 gallons per flush or more on older models). New low-flush toilet prices range from $196 to $264.

Dual flush toilets, used widely in Europe, are designed with two flush options — one for solid waste and one for liquid waste. They save up to 67 percent more water than an average toilet. Prices start at $219.

For homeowners who want to go green but are worried about costs, low-priced conversion kits are available. A dual flush retrofit conversion kit can be purchased for as low as $40.

Many local utility companies offer rebates and vouchers for water-related appliances — an added bonus for consumers. Low-flow shower heads, energy efficient washing machines, dishwashers and low-flow sink appliances are all available with tax incentives.

Whether you are ready to start composting or invest in a low-flush toilet, there are plenty of options. Below is a list of websites to help make your shopping experience a bit cheaper, or visit to start building your own toilet now.

Take a Sunshower!

Few hygiene routines are as refreshing as watching butterflies flit by while you scrub yourself under the summer sun. Solar showers can be as simple or complex as your bathing fantasies, and plenty of designs and prefabricated options are available online. But you can construct the most basic models with little more than scrap wood, household tools, a black trash can, a garden hose, and a nozzle with a “shower” setting. Consider that routing a shower’s drainage toward a garden patch waters the plants every time you bathe, and you might find yourself more motivated to get clean.


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