Approachable, Sustainable Ideas to Save Money in Your Home
March 21, 2019
When we use the words “sustainable,” “green building,” or “eco-friendly” to describe design, people might assume that means added cost, or that the project will be expensive. In fact, we hear frequently that cost is the biggest deterrent for building green. It can scare folks away who are seeking cost-effective options so they can stay within their budget. This is completely understandable, and it is hard to argue with that on the surface.
But, instead of thinking that spending less money now means less money overall, we encourage our clients to dig deeper into the long-term costs of a project and to start asking more detailed questions (which we can help with!). Often times, that can lead to a greater understanding and a new design approach. We don’t want to force our clients into building green — we want everyone to understand the benefits of incorporating these ideas into their projects, to know why it’s important to think about the lifecycle of a product, or the embodied carbon* of concrete, with the ultimate goal of helping our clients love their projects while helping to save the planet.
*What is embodied carbon? It’s the carbon that is released into the atmosphere from the production and transportation of a product. Whereas "operational carbon" is the carbon released into the atmosphere for using the product. These have a big impact on climate change, and by building sustainably you can offset that carbon and lessen the damaging effects!
Building green means different things to different people. You might want the most tech-savvy, energy efficient system on the market and don’t care about the costs. Or the non-toxicity of the materials might mean the most to you, to ensure the health of your family. Or, you might care the most about saving money on energy costs. We’re here to give you some tools to easily approach sustainability in your own home.
A very common question we get is, “How much does that cost?” While we can tell our clients how much an item costs now, that doesn’t show the full picture.
Here are some other questions to ask:
- What is the cost of this item over the next 50 -100 years?
- What is the cost to the environment?
- How much carbon am I dumping into the atmosphere, adding to global warming crises?
- What is the cost to my health?
- What is the cost to my safety?
- What is the cost to operate this product?
Well, what if I told you that building green will give you a home that will last 50 – 100 years, help our environment, help our atmosphere, create a healthier and safer environment for you, and cost less to operate? On top of that, over the life of the home, you will also save a ridiculous amount of money in maintenance.
Here are five sustainable ideas you can implement into your project.
Some of these are easy fixes that won’t cost you much at all and you can do yourself. Some require the help of a designer and more out-of-pocket costs, but the monetary rewards of these are substantial. Below, we'll take a look at each in terms of a problem to solve, a potential solution, and the takeaway lesson.
- Mechanical Systems
- Air Tightness
- Low Energy Consumption
- Low Flow Fixtures
- Quality of Materials
We'll also include some products you can check out for each of these categories. We are not paid by these companies and do not receive benefits in any way. We just want to share with you some cool things we’ve seen work for our clients. We encourage you to also do some of your own research and make sure these items are right for you as well.
Problem: It's not uncommon that your old home has a very inefficient mechanical system burning a lot of energy and costing a lot to operate. Often times, if you switch out your system, you can save money on operational cost and run at a much higher efficiency. If your furnace is over 20 years old, like a lot of homes around the Seattle area, your system is most likely only 78% efficient or less. Current furnaces and heating systems you can incorporate into your home are easily 95% efficient and higher. They also have much lower operating cost as they use very little energy.
Solutions: We currently like to use ductless mini-splits like this one.
We use this in main rooms, like living rooms and larger spaces. We then use radiant electrical ceiling panels in places like bedrooms and other small rooms, like offices and bathrooms. I like these guys, Mighty Energy Solutions, a lot.
Then, to get the proper airflow we put in wall HRV’s like this one from 475. We install these two-thirds of the way up the wall to get it off the ground where the dust is, helping you get fresher air.
Conclusion: We like this combined system because it is easy to retrofit into any house. It is ductless, and that makes it easy to install. Also, the operating costs are minimal and when combined with solar, it can be free to operate. This is a very cost-effective solution. You get healthy fresh air throughout; in the bedrooms, you get the radiant panels, which keep dust from blowing around; and you have the mini-splits that are very energy efficient and can cover a large area.
Problem: A lot of older homes have leaky walls. (We don't mean in terms of water, but air.) The problem with this is that you lose all your hot or cool air through the walls. Also, it's hard to control the relative humidity when you have a leaky house. Not to mention, old windows are the worst for air tightness. If your windows get condensation building up on them, you can basically assume that the same thing is happening in your walls.
Solutions: Tighten up your envelope. If you are replacing the siding, then you can add exterior insulation and updated vapor barriers. Products like Gutex are carbon negative, meaning they keep carbon from being released into the atmosphere. If you plan on keeping all of your siding in place, you can add an interior air barrier instead. This air barrier is designed for interior applications and it’s "vapor smart," meaning that if it gets really wet, it opens up so it can dry out. This is great for tightening up old, leaky homes.
Another thing to think about are the windows. These will make a huge difference in your home’s performance. There are many options that work great. Like HH Windows and Doors, Glo European Windows, Unilux, Zola, and many many more.
Conclusion: Having a tighter envelope will help with loss of heat or cold air. This will help with energy savings and with the health of the individuals inside. Having a home with good air filtration will help protect you and your family from the effects of bad air quality outdoors as well!
Problem: Many old homes are energy hogs. From the light bulbs, to the furnace, to the old washer and dryer.
Solutions: Use LED lights and all Energy Star appliances. I have seen anywhere from 50 – 75% less energy usage by switching old appliances to Energy Star replacements. There are even hybrid dryers that use 4-8 AMPs instead of the average 30 AMPs. This dryer uses 5 AMPs and it is ventless, so you don’t need to vent to the outside, which allows you to have an even tighter envelope.
Another way to save energy is to put outlets on switches. When you have something plugged in, such as your phone cable, that draws power from your outlets even if it’s not in use. If you add outlets to a switch, you can kill the power to it and save even more energy.
Let’s not forget about installing solar. There are many options to purchase, and even more incentive programs out there to help with financing these systems. Seattle gets a bad rap for solar energy, but you can still run a net zero home, meaning you make as much power as you use. We don’t produce as much as California, but we still have defused light. Because of the defused light, you can lay the panels flat, or even on the west side of the roof, and still do ok producing energy.
Conclusion: There are many different options out there for appliances, lighting and other products that use less energy. Small changes can add up and you will start seeing the effects on your energy bill. If you have the ability, solar is something to consider. It is becoming more cost-effective and certainly pays you back within a few years and over the life of the home. Remember, even if you are not going to be living in this house from more than five years, you will be adding value to your home and helping out the environment in the long run.
Low Flow Fixtures
Problem: Old homes waste a ridiculous amount of water, especially the toilets, faucets, and inefficient hot water connections. If you’re on an old system, you could also be wasting water as you wait for things to heat up.
Solutions: Get low flow, dual flush toilets. For comparison, old toilets typically use 3-5 gallons, and as high as 6 gallons, of water per flush. The current federal standard is 1.6 gallons per flush and it is easy to get an effective, efficient toilet that will work in your space.
Also, we encourage you to look for low flow faucets for your shower and sinks. These are readily available and will help you save money with little upfront investment.
If you install an on-demand hot water heater or a recirculating system, you can save on wasted water because your water heats up instantly, and you aren't just sending it straight down the drain while you wait for it to warm up.
Another way to save on water is to put in a gray water system. There are different ways of setting this up. You can collect rainwater and use that to water your garden or flush toilets. Or, you can set it so that the water that leaves your house from certain sinks, the washer, and the dishwasher goes through a filtration system directly into your garden. There are some really cool things that you can do with these systems! Keep in mind that it seems like the rules about these change every five minutes, so make sure to verify the current code first, before moving forward with one of these options.
Conclusion: It is easier than ever to save on water usage, and saved water is also saved money. A lot of this stuff is plug and play and you don’t have to get too complicated with it. It will save resources and it will save money. It’s a win-win!
Quality of Materials
Problem: Often, less expensive materials are of poor quality. You want to purchase quality materials that will last for a long time and will be low maintenance. I am not sure who said it first, but I love this quote: “Those who are less financially stable cannot afford to be cheap.” This is so true to buildings, as well. If you build with cheap siding, you will be replacing and maintaining it every five years, which could add a lost of cost. If you build with cheap tiles that crack easily and need to be replaced, you most likely will see the new tile stick out like a sore thumb and the value of your floor goes to zero. No one wants it.
Solutions: Build with the highest quality materials, even if that means that you get less house or not exactly all the components of your desired remodel. Quality should not be compromised. There is a new siding called Kebony: this is wood that is treated with plant material to basically expand the wood and make it super hard. It’s insect repellant, rot repellant, and so incredibly stable. If you install it properly as siding, you can get a 30-75 year warranty. That is basically unheard of. The alternative to this is that you could use a cheaper material like Hardie panel, but then you will have to paint it every 5-10 years. If you think of the cost difference, it really is cheaper to go with the Kebony in the end. If you are interested in learning more about Kebony, you can reach out to Greenhome Solutions here in Seattle.
Conclusion: Quality is very important when you are looking at any kind of project. Also a quick warning: just because something is expensive does not mean it is the highest quality. Look deep into the product, look at the warranties, look at the maintenance — think about what happens if it gets a scratch, think about spills and dragging furniture over it. Homes should be durable and easy to maintain. You should not have to worry about something failing. In my experience, this is how you get the biggest return on investment. Quality over quantity!
A few closing notes about approaching sustainable design for your home.
In general, when you approach sustainable design, it’s important to think of long-term cost vs. upfront costs. For the health of yourself, your family, and the environment, you want to think of the big picture costs and the cost to the planet.
There are new things hitting the market every day, and we stay on top of the latest and greatest products and systems in order to help our clients reach their goals and preserve the environment. We ask all the deep dive questions to make sure we are hitting target goals and doing the right thing for the planet and future generations.
We’re always here to help and answer questions, and to help you reach your sustainable and aesthetic goals!