Home Improvement: The Truth About Going Green

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Shutterstock / Chones

When it comes to green home improvements, a lot of people are stuck in black-and-white thinking. Either you install solar panels or you might as well continue to gobble fossil fuel. Either you use sustainable materials or you destroy old-growth forests. The reality, of course, lies someplace in between. That's why it's worth taking a closer look at some widely held assumptions about green improvements. The truth may surprise you.

Green Assumption No. 1: Sunlight Is the Answer
Solar energy may very well be the answer for the future, but until photovoltaic panels become more efficient and easier to manufacture, they won't be a cost-effective solution for most homeowners. The real reason to reconsider this truth is that, despite all the promise of solar energy, creating an airtight home and improving insulation values is the quickest and most cost-effective path to a more energy-efficient housing stock. Remarkably, the most underrated aspect of green building is simply quality framing and construction that will provide an airtight home for decades. (Find highly rated professional insulation contractors in your area.)

Green Assumption No. 2: Renewable Materials Are Always Green
Too many people think that the only way to be green is to use materials that are recycled and/or renewable. True, we need to avoid consuming materials past the point of sustainability, but the energy consumption associated with the transportation of building materials is a far more urgent environmental hazard.

Take the example of bamboo. Bamboo is considered a "green" building material because its insanely fast growth rate means it is quickly replenished. But the energy consumption associated with transporting it from far-off Asian countries can wipe out any renewable benefits. A better solution may be to use locally sourced timber from a tree farm that follows sustainable practices, or imported timber stamped with the Forest Stewardship Council logo, which certifies that the wood has been harvested from an environmentally responsible source. (Find highly rated carpenters in your area.)

Green Assumption No. 3: Green Is Incompatible With Luxury
Conserving materials, energy, and water are the three touchstones of the green revolution, but that doesn't mean you have to give up luxuries for the sake of the environment. To some degree, consumption can be offset by nifty innovations. Consider a solar water heater and insulating blanket to save energy with your in-ground pool, for example. And rather than restrict your furniture choices to those built with renewable materials, look for furniture with a collapsible design that can be shipped flat, saving space and transportation costs.

Unfortunately, offsetting choices will only get us so far. It's also necessary to change some ingrained habits. Cable boxes and satellite systems, for example, can use nearly half the power of energy-efficient refrigerators, even when you're not watching TV. Leaving these so-called "energy vampires" plugged in adds convenience, but at a cost to your utility bills and to the environment. (Find highly rated professionals in your area who specialize in energy efficiency projects.)

Green Assumption No. 4: Incandescent Lightbulbs are Dead
Arguably, no area of green home improvement is evolving as fast as lightbulbs. It wasn't that long ago that people were saying that incandescent bulbs were going the way of VCRs and 8-track tapes. Now there are incandescent bulbs that use 30 percent less energy than conventional versions. That's not as good as the 75 percent savings offered by compact fluorescent bulbs, but it's good enough to meet more stringent federal regulations. High-efficiency LED lights, too, are getting better and more affordable each year.

With all these options, you may want to vary your lighting schemes. For example, use high-efficiency incandescent bulbs for the bedroom, dining room and living room, where you want the warm quality of incandescent light. But in basements, garages, and other areas where light quality is not that critical, go with the extra energy economy of compact fluorescent bulbs.

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