Week of 1/11/2009

Dear EarthTalk: This winter is shaping up to be one of the coldest in recent memory where I live. What can I do to reduce my home heating bill now and in the future?

—Eric Lenz, Seattle, WA

Whether global warming is somehow to blame or not, much of the United States is getting walloped this winter. The Seattle area has suffered its most significant and lingering snowfall—and lower than average winter temperatures—in decades. Even Los Angeles is getting a nasty taste of winter, with several days topping out at the freezing mark on the thermometer. And other parts of the country more used to challenging winter weather have been getting an extra dose of wind, snow and ice this year as well.

Besides the cold, another challenge this wintry weather presents, especially during such trying economic times, is higher heating bills. Heating typically accounts for about 28 percent of the average American home’s energy use, but this year staying warm might occupy a larger slice of the household expenditure pie. Homeowners who take a few simple steps to make their homes more weather-tight, though, just might be amazed to see their heating bills go down while they languish inside their toasty and warm homes.

If you’re a handy person and your draft issues are minor, you might want to go around and assess just where cold air seems to be coming in—and then caulk, putty or insulate to your heart’s content. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC"s) green-living oriented SimpleSteps.org website, small gaps around windows, light fixtures and plumbing are easy to cover with caulk. Large drafty areas that are protected from moisture and sunlight can be covered with expanding foam sealant, while a little weather-stripping around door jambs goes a long way toward keeping the cold out.

It may be shaping up to be an especially cold winter, but heating costs can be minimized a number of ways, including caulking leaky spots around windows and doors, adding or updating insulation, replacing single pane windows with sealed double or triple pane windows, insulating heating ducts and your hot water tank, and upgrading to a programmable thermostat.© WoofBC, courtesy Flickr

Beyond these easier fixes, adding or updating insulation can pay dividends on your utility bills. NRDC says that if you do it yourself, be careful not to cover or close up attic vents, as proper air flow is key to keeping indoor air quality good. Replacing single pane windows with sealed double or triple pane windows will also improve your home’s energy efficiency significantly. Other tips include insulating heating ducts and your hot water tank, and upgrading to a programmable thermostat which allows you to heat your home when you’re there and lower the temperature when you’re sleeping or at work. Switching ceiling fans to rotate in a clockwise direction will help circulate warm air throughout your home.

Older, inefficient furnaces can also lead to large heating bills. New models which qualify for the federal government’s Energy Star program will use far less gas or oil and reduce your utility bill handily. The non-profit American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) rates different furnaces and boiler options and reports on their findings for free via the consumer guide section of its website.

For those of us less qualified or less interested in doing our own home repair, bringing in a professional energy auditor might be just the ticket. Many local and regional utilities offer free basic energy audits. Meanwhile, the trade group Residential Energy Services Network, as well as the federal government’s Home Performance with Energy Star program, offer free searchable online databases of trustworthy local contractors with experience keeping homes in your area nice and warm.

CONTACTS: NRDC; ACEEE; Residential Energy Services Network; Energy Star

Dear EarthTalk: My husband and I are expecting a child and we’re concerned about the environmental impacts of disposable diapers. I remember the old cloth diapers with pins that my mom used. Are there any new developments in the cloth diapering field?

—Stephanie, via e-mail

Today's reusable cloth diapers come in many different styles. Most varieties have Velcro-style closures that eliminate the need for the safety pins of bygone days.© Getty Images

A growing number of green-minded parents are starting to recognize the health and ecological benefits of reusable cloth diapers over disposables. Most brands of disposables are made from petroleum-derived plastic and wood fiber—some 250,000 trees fall each year to feed America’s disposable diaper addiction.

According to The Green Guide, 95 percent of U.S. families now use disposable diapers—to the tune of as many as 8,000 per child. As a result, 3.5 million tons of them clog landfills each year. Accompanying these diapers, of course, is untreated fecal matter and urine that can easily contaminate the groundwater surrounding landfills. Pathogens in this waste can be spread far and wide by insects and animals.

Furthermore, the process of bleaching disposable diapers to make sure they are as white as possible before they get to consumers leads to the generation of the chemical dioxin, which besides being potentially harmful to factory workers and the environment surrounding manufacturing facilities, can show up in trace amounts in the diapers themselves, potentially exposing babies" skin to a dangerous carcinogen.

Despite such drawbacks, the convenience factor still wins out for most of us. Old memories of hard-to-fasten stinky cloth diapers collecting in a pail are enough to drive anyone to abandon their best intentions when it comes to diaper-change time. But heightened eco-awareness in recent years has led to a profusion of reusable diaper choices, and enlightened consumers owe it to themselves to take another look.

Today reusable cloth diapers come in many different styles, but the common elements are an absorbent liner, ideally made out of organic cotton or hemp fleece, and a waterproof cover. In some cases these two elements can be separated and washed separately; in others they are combined into one washable unit. Most varieties come with Velcro-style closures that obviate the need for the safety pins of days gone by.

And diaper laundering services do still exist—see if there’s one near you at www.diapernet.org/locate.htm —but parents interested in minimizing their environmental impact on the cheap will wash their reusables at home (without bleach) and dry them on the line. According to Mothering Magazine, some of the best brands are Under the Nile, FuzBaby, Oskri, LizsCloth, Cloud9Softies and PeacefulMoon.

For those who just can’t give up the convenience of disposables, several brands offer a kinder, gentler alternative to Pampers and Huggies. Disposables from Nature Boy and Girl, Seventh Generation, Tushies and TenderCare get high marks for their use of absorbent, chlorine-free materials and, in some cases, biodegradability. And gDiapers offers reusable, washable cotton diaper covers over flushable liners.

Some local health food stores will carry these brands, or look online for e-commerce vendors such as Evo, Leslie’s Boutique, Cotton Babies, Green Mountain Diapers and Nikki’s Diapers, among many others.

CONTACTS: evo.com; lesliesboutique.com; cottonbabies.com; greenmountaindiapers.com; nikkisdiapers.com.