Week of 8/2/09

Dear EarthTalk: WWhat are some simple low cost improvements I can do to my home to make it greener?

—Stefan Lonce, via email

Turning the thermostat up in summer and down in winter is a simple yet oft-overlooked way to save money and energy on heating and cooling.
© Getty Images

According to consumer advocate Remar Sutton, there are many ways to save energy and other resources around the home without spending a lot of money. And taking action sooner rather than later will lead to ongoing savings on utility bills, so a little cash outlay now will more than pay for itself in the long run.

On the energy front, turning your thermostat up in summer and down in winter is one often overlooked way to reduce usage and cost. "For each degree you raise or lower your thermostat, you can save anywhere from one to five percent on your cooling or heating bills depending on where you live," Sutton reports, adding that programmable thermostats can help greatly to maximize efficiency and cut out waste.

Other ways to save energy include: lowering the hot water heater's thermostat; getting heating and cooling equipment tuned once a year; insulating hot water pipes and hot water storage tanks; caulking cracks and gaps on walls, including around door and window frames; weather-stripping air leaks around windows and doors; and replacing incandescent light bulbs with more efficient compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs.

Sutton recommends doing an energy audit to identify all the areas around the house where simple, low-cost improvements can make a difference. Your local utility may offer a free or low-cost audit, or you can do-it-yourself via the online calculator at the U.S. Department of Energy's Home Energy Saver website.

Beyond energy savings alone, Sutton offers a wealth of tips on how to reduce water usage around the house as well: Wash and dry only full loads of laundry and only wash full loads of dishes; fix leaky faucets and toilets; install aerating low-flow showerheads and faucets; turn off the faucet while brushing teeth and shaving; and take short(er) showers and avoid baths altogether. By taking some or all of these measures, you can run a much greener home without spending much at all.

Once you've exhausted ways to save energy and water around the house as it is, you might consider taking larger steps to boost efficiency more. According to Harvey Sachs of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, installing or upgrading insulation is a sure-fire way to save money over time, as your heating and cooling equipment won't have to work so hard maintaining the desired temperature of your home's interior. Planting shade trees around your home's exterior will help reduce the need for air conditioning in summer and, if they're deciduous, they"ll let sunlight through in the winter.

Also, says Sachs, upgrading to more energy efficient appliances—preferably those brandishing the federal government's EnergySTAR seal of approval—should more than make up for any cost premiums with the energy savings they"ll bring going forward. Replacing older single pane windows with new more efficient double or even triple pane varieties can significantly reduce home energy usage and heating/cooling bills as well. Be sure to get professional help when installing insulation or new windows, as improper installation can negate the benefits you're trying to obtain.

CONTACT: DOE Home Energy Saver Website; American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy; EnergySTAR


Dear EarthTalk: Where can I locate directories of environmental groups, businesses and jobs so that I can get involved in making a difference?

—Jeanette, Carle Place, NY

The National Wildlife Federation's online Conservation Directory features more than 4,200 listings, including nonprofit environmental groups and coalitions, green businesses, government agencies concerned with environmental matters, colleges and universities with environmental studies, zoos, aquaria, and grantmaking organizations.
© National Wildlife Federation

The most comprehensive directory of environmental groups—from small to large and local to international—is provided for free online by the Washington, DC-based National Wildlife Federation. The group's Conservation Directory features listings for some 4,200 groups, including conservation-oriented non-profits, commercial businesses, government entities, colleges and universities, zoos, aquariums, museums, grant-giving organizations, and related coalitions.

Each listing includes all contact information, as well as a general description of the group's work, the issues it focuses on and other relevant information. Users can search by keyword, location, issue and even contact name. Groups that aren't in the directory can easily add themselves via an online form. NWF reports that new groups are added every day.

EnviroLink, which started as a mailing list in 1991 between 20 students at Carnegie Mellon University, is today one of the best resources for green info on the web. The EnviroLink database has links to thousands of groups and resources across the U.S. and beyond, and is keyword-searchable.

Another old-standby is EcoMall, which has an extensive "activism" section listing various eco groups and their campaigns. The site allows users to search by keyword or to navigate through well-conceived listings by issue topic. While the simple design of the site may bring users back to the early days of the World Wide Web, the listings remain fresh for the most part.

Beyond organizational listings, there are many other sites where you can find various green resources. Those looking for green products or services, for example, need steer their web browsers no further than Coop America's National Green Pages. The trusted directory lists some 3,000 businesses that have made commitments to sustainable, socially just principles, including support for sweatshop-free labor, organic farms and "cruelty-free" (not tested on animals) products.

Another good online directory of environmental products, services and even related job opportunities is the Eco Business Links Environmental Directory. A couple of other excellent environmental jobs listings include 5 Million Green Jobs and the Green Jobs Network. Meanwhile, EnviroEducation.com also offers job listings, but focuses on helping aspiring students of environmental education, policy and science find graduate- and certificate-level programs to indulge their green learning muses.

Of course, in this day and age Internet search engines rival these directories for helping people find groups to work or volunteer with. An expertly crafted keyword search on Google is sure to turn up some promising results. Remember to set key phrases apart by surrounding them with quotation marks to get better results. Navigating through Yahoo's topic-based Environment and Nature Organizations page is another way to harness the power of the Internet to find environmental groups, information and resources.

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