When you picture an eco-friendly home, do you imagine solar panels that are something of an eyesore, or maybe those Earthship solar houses from the 70's? Green homes get a bad rap sometimes, but there are modern green technologies that pretty much anyone can incorporate into a home.
And there's good reason to try some. The average U.S. household uses about 32 kilowatt hours of electricity [source: U.S. Energy Information Administration], and 400 gallons (1,514 liters) of water a day [source: WaterSense]! So, not only does saving on power and water conserve natural resources, but as a homeowner you'll see a return on your investment in lower monthly energy bills.
You don't have to go to extreme measures to make your home more eco-friendly either. Whether you're looking to build a new space or thinking about upgrading your existing one, we've got lots of green technologies that you might want to consider. Some of these innovations require a big budget, and others are more of a weekend project. Let's begin with one that can save a whole lot of money.
Solar Hot Water Heater
Conventional water heaters use electricity or natural gas power to heat the water in your home for everything from showers to washing clothes and dishes. Every time you use hot water, that's energy and money down the drain.
A solar hot water heater uses the sun's heat and energy to heat your home's water either by actually using the sun's heat or by collecting energy with solar panels to heat your water. The heated water stays in an insulated tank -- much like with a conventional water heater -- until you're ready to use it [source: Energy Savers]. While they cost more to install than traditional water heaters, you could save 50 to 80 percent on your water heating bills.
The drawback to solar water heaters is that it's often tough to use the sun's energy to heat enough water for a typical home. There's a salon that I like to visit when I'm in south Florida that uses a solar water heater, and if you get an appointment too late in the day, chances are they'll have to wash your hair in cold water before your cut. That's not a huge deal in the salon, but when you're getting ready for work in the morning, a cold shower is a bit more of a problem. That's why many home solar water heaters use a backup system – either electric or gas – as a supplement.
Whether you're growing food or flowers, that garden requires watering if you want it to stay alive. Trust me. I have killed more than my fair share of plants by just plain forgetting to water them. Outdoor water use, such as watering your garden, is a major factor in a home's overall water usage, and it's also an easy one to fix with a rain barrel or two and a garden irrigation system.
A rain barrel is just what it says it is – a big barrel for collecting rainwater, often with a spigot at the bottom. You can purchase rain barrels at a hardware store or make your own. If you're planning to use your rain barrel to water your garden, I recommend putting it up on concrete blocks. The extra height uses gravity to give your hose some extra water pressure.
To make your rain barrel even more efficient, it's a good idea to set it up under your gutter's downspout. This way, rain water gets funneled off of the roof and right into your barrel. This isn't terribly difficult to do yourself. Just set the barrel up on a corner of your house, measure how tall it is, then saw off the gutter so that you can fit the barrel underneath it.
Solar Panels for Electricity
Solar panels have come a long way since the 70's! Modern solar panels are more efficient than their predecessors, and some companies are making panels that are downright beautiful.
You can install solar panels on your own or hire a contractor to do it. Some states have solar leasing programs, where you sign up with a company that puts the panels on your roof and maintains them [source: Shahan]. They basically are your new power company. The panels on your roof and roofs in your area produce power, and you and others in the program buy that power from the leasing company.
Worried that solar panels will be an eyesore? Sure, you can still get old school panels that mount onto your roof or a stand in the back yard, but new solar shingles can blend right in to your existing roof [source: Pandolfi]. You're basically replacing a portion of your roof's tiles with solar roofing tiles that tie into your home electricity system to generate some or all of your home's power.
Geothermal Heat Pump
Maintaining a comfortable indoor temperature can use up to half of your home's energy [source: Energy Star]. That means green technologies that can help reduce your heating and cooling bills will have some of the quicker returns on investment.
If you have central heating and air in your home, the way it maintains the temperature is by exchanging air inside of your house and with the air outside. In the summer, that means your HVAC unit pumps out hot air as it cools the air inside, and in the winter it takes heat from outside and transfers it into your home. This is not the most efficient system, since in summer the outside air is hotter than you want and in winter it's usually much colder. A geothermal heat pump works the same way, but its heat exchange apparatus is buried underground, where temperatures are a lot more stable. This type of system can might cost you more in the beginning for installation, but it can reduce your heating and cooling costs by as much as 30 to 40 percent [source: Consumer Energy Center]!
Not only is a geothermal heat pump more efficient, but it's quieter than a conventional HVAC system, and it lasts a lot longer. Since none of the system is exposed to the elements, there's less chance of damage from weather or from vandalism and they are virtually maintenance-free [source: Energy Savers].
Backyard Wind Turbine
Depending on where you live, a backyard wind turbine might be a good green home technology. A backyard turbine looks similar to the ones at big wind farms, just scaled down. It uses the wind's energy to generate some of the electricity you need to power your home.
To find out if your area is a good candidate for wind power, check out the U.S. Department of Energy's wind map. You can click on your state to see more detail on wind speeds in your area. You need wind speeds of around 5 miles per hour (8 kilometers per hour) or more to generate a decent amount of wind power [source: Liscano]. In windy states like Texas, home wind energy is starting to become more popular as conventional energy prices rise.
As with solar power, residential wind energy typically doesn't provide all of the electricity that you need to power your home, but it can supplement your power use and help reduce those energy bills. Unlike solar panels, however, wind turbines aren't quite so accepted. Some homeowners associations (HOA) forbid wind turbines, so make sure you check with your HOA before installing one. Turbines can be noisy, but wind turbine technology has come a long way, and there are low noise turbines on the market now [source: Bottero].
Dual Flush Toilets
Did you know that your humble toilet uses more water than any other fixture in your house? Depending on how old your toilet is, it can use as much as 27 percent of the water in your home [source: WaterSense]. Upgrading from an older toilet to a newer one can drastically reduce your home water use, but even better is a dual flush toilet.
You don't need to upgrade any of your plumbing to install a dual flush toilet, but you may need a plumber to do the deed for you. Basically, a dual flush toilet has two flush options: one for liquid waste, and one for...er..."solid waste." You don't need as much water to flush away liquid, so why use the same amount every time you flush? Dual flush toilets also use a different mechanism to flush waste away which means they're even more efficient in handling solid waste than a conventional toilet [source: The Energy Conscious.
If you can't swing a whole new toilet right now, you can also find kits at the hardware store and online that can convert your current toilet to a dual flush. These are very simple, and chances are you can install them yourself.
Energy Star Appliances
Energy Star is an Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy program that rates appliances for energy use. The standards for Energy Star ratings vary by product, but in general an appliance needs to be more efficient than its conventional counterparts to receive the Energy Star rating. For example, an Energy Star refrigerator has to use at least 20 percent less energy than other refrigerators on the market [source: Energy Star].
When you do need to replace older appliances in your home, an Energy Star model can help reduce your power bill, but there is some debate about whether it's better to replace old appliances or wait for them to break before replacing. If your goal is to reduce your overall footprint, you can actually reduce your impact by running those old appliances into the ground before replacing, because the materials and shipping costs for a new appliance outweigh the potential energy savings [source: Reichman].
Smart Power Strips
Have you heard of vampire power? All of those devises that plug into the wall, like your TV, DVD player, and video game systems actually keep using energy even when they are in the off position, because they don't actually turn off. Instead, they go into "standby mode," which constantly uses energy, even in the "off" position. TV vampires suck blood. Energy vampires suck power.
Before smart power strips caught on, the only way to stake these vampires was to unplug appliances when you weren't using them. Not so convenient!
Smart power strips work by using a control device to cut all power to these energy vampires. You're probably already using a power strip for your home entertainment center. All you need to do is replace that strip with a smart power strip, and you're ready to save! When you turn off your "control" device, your smart strip cuts power flow to all of the other devices on the strip, so they're fully turned off rather than still using electricity in standby mode.
The key to saving energy with a smart strip is choosing the right control. We have our entertainment set up with the receiver as the control. Since our TV, DVD, and game systems are all routed through the receiver, we wouldn't be using any of them without turning that on first. When the receiver is off, none of those devices can steal power from the wall. Most smart power strips also have a few outlets that are always hot, in case you have devices that you want on that strip but don't want to power off when you turn off the control, like the DVR.
Home Energy Management Technology
One of the best ways to conserve energy at home is to figure out where you're using the most power, and a home energy monitor puts that knowledge at your fingertips. Whether you opt to monitor your power use outlet by outlet or go for a home energy management system with all the bells and whistles, knowing how much power you're using and where can help you cut your energy use to save money.
Like most green technology, home energy monitors run the gamut from simple to complex. You can buy simple monitors to track the energy use in a single outlet or install a full-on home energy monitoring system. You plug the monitor into a standard outlet and it communicates with your smart power meter to tell you how much energy you're using at home, in which room, and at what times of day. Some can even track it down to the individual outlet [source: General Electric].
The device sends all of that data to your computer, so that you can see where you're wasting the most energy. Some home energy monitoring systems can even send energy data straight to your smart phone and allow you to wirelessly control devices to reduce your home's energy consumption on the fly [source: Ellis].
Do you remember to turn the heat down at bedtime or bump the thermostat up before you leave for work, so you're not cooling an empty house? A programmable thermostat remembers to control your HVAC system, so that you don't have to. It can also help you save on heating and cooling without sacrificing comfort.
There are a few different sorts of programmable thermostat, but they all work in basically the same way. You tell the system when to adjust the temperature, and it does all of the work. The type of programmable thermostat you need depends on your schedule. There are three options:
- 7-day – This is the most expensive type, but you can have different schedules set up for every day of the week.
- 5+2-day – You can set two schedules: one on Monday to Friday and one for the weekend.
- 5-1-1 – This one has three schedules: Monday to Friday, Saturday, and Sunday [source: Energy Star]
Installing a programmable thermostat can be pretty simple, depending on what your wiring is like now. A battery-powered progammable thermostat is simple to install if your current thermostat has two wires feeding into it. If you have three wires, you may need an electrician to do the installation [source: Marques]. Remember: Before messing with your thermostat, turn the power off at the breaker!
Green Roofs And White Roofs: Low Tech Ways To Save Tons Of Energy. Keep reading to learn about Low Tech Ways To Save Tons Of Energy.
Author's Note: Top 10 Green Technologies for the Home
I am a stickler for conserving energy and water in our house, so researching this article was sort of like a dream shopping trip for me. I'm constantly turning off lights in rooms we aren't using and unplugging "wall warts" -- cell phone chargers and other small energy vampires -- from the outlets in our house. My husband may or may not sometimes call me "energy cop." Of course, I know that this comes from a place of love.
Our home doesn't have any fancy alternative energy-saving gadgets or monitoring gizmos right now, but my dream home would definitely be decked out with all of the green home technology in this list! For now, my husband and I have opted for more DIY energy- and water-saving solutions. He and his dad installed a pair of rain barrels to water our garden, and we've got smart power strips in pretty much every room of the house. I'm so nerdy about green technology that I called my mom the day we replaced our existing toilet with a dual flush.
- How Smart Windows Work
- 10 Technologies Used in Green Construction
- What's the oldest green home in America?
- 10 Eco-friendly Home Construction Options for Any Budget
- Budget-friendly Ways to Green Your Home
- 10 Historic Green Homes
- Top 10 Ways to Make Your New Home Green
- Top 10 Green Heating and Cooling Technologies
- Which are better for the environment, geothermal heating systems or geothermal cooling systems?
- Bottero, Kiva. "How to Pick the Riht Wind Turbine for Your Property." Wind Power Authority. December 30, 2011. (April 17, 2012) http://windpowerauthority.com/how-to-pick-the-right-wind-turbine/
- Consumer Energy Center. "Central HVAC." California Energy Commission. (April 2, 2012) http://www.consumerenergycenter.org/home/heating_cooling/heating_cooling.html
- Ellis, Michael. "Home Energy Management Takes Center Stage at CES 2012." Greenbiz.com. Jan 17, 2012. (April 2, 2012) http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2012/01/17/home-energy-management-takes-center-stage-ces-2012
- The Energy Conscious. "Dual Flush Technology" (April 17, 2012) http://www.theenergyconscious.com/duflbasa.html
- Energy Savers. "Benefits of Geothermal Heat Pump Systems." U.S. Department of Energy. February 9, 2011. (April 2, 2012) http://www.energysavers.gov/your_home/space_heating_cooling/index.cfm/mytopic=12660
- Energy Star. "Heat & Cool Efficiently." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (April 2, 2012) http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=heat_cool.pr_hvac
- Energy Star. "Refrigerators for Consumers." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (April 2, 2012) http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=about.ab_index
- Energy Star. "Which programmable thermostat is right for me?" U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (April 2, 2012) http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=thermostats.pr_thermostats_features
- General Electric. "nucleus." (April 2, 2012) http://www.geappliances.com/home-energy-manager/
- Liscano, Miguel. "Rooftop solar, backyard wind turbines catching on in the suburbs." Statesman.com. July 3, 2011. (April 2, 2012) http://www.statesman.com/news/local/rooftop-solar-backyard-wind-turbines-catching-on-in-1579685.html
- Marques, Lance. "How to Install a Programmable Thermostat." (April 2, 2012) http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/how-to/intro/0,,20339398,00.html
- Pandolfi, Keith. "Solar Shingles." This Old House. (April 2, 2012) http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/article/0,,1205726,00.html
- Reichman, Trevor. "Trusty Old Robots vs. Energy Star Appliances." Treehugger. July 26, 2009. (April 2, 2012) http://www.treehugger.com/culture/trusty-old-robots-vs-energy-star-appliances.html
- Roberts, Jeanne. "GE Home Energy Monitor Goes it Alone." Earth Techling. March 15, 2012. (April 2, 2012) http://www.earthtechling.com/2012/03/ge-home-energy-monitor-goes-it-alone/
- Shahan, Zachary. "Over 70% of Calufornians Go Solar Using a Service (Don't Buy Their Solar Power Systems)" CleanTechnica. March 28, 2012. (April 2, 2012) http://cleantechnica.com/2012/03/28/over-70-of-californians-go-solar-using-a-service-dont-buy-their-solar-power-systems/
- U.S. Energy Information Administration. "How is electricity used in U.S. homes?" February 22, 2012. (April 2, 2012) http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=96&t=3
- WaterSense. "Indoor Water Use in the United States." (April 2, 2012) http://www.epa.gov/WaterSense/pubs/indoor.html