45 Ways to Green the Not-So-New House

September 9, 2009 By U.S. Green Building Council

As seen in This Old House magazine

[Download this article as a PDF]

There’s a reason so many builders are leaning green these days. After all, who doesn’t want a home that’s healthier, keeps energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions in check, and doesn’t squander water and other natural resources? But you don’t have to build from scratch to turn your not-so-new house into a dwelling that’s eco-friendly and more economical to run.

Whether you own or rent, the following 45 simple ideas can help you save money (and the planet) today.


UPFRONT COST: $ Low or none | $$ Moderate ($50–$500) | $$$ High ($500 plus)
RELATIVE BENEFITS:  Modest  |  Moderate  |  High


Lint hint

Saving energy doesn’t get any easier than this: Lower your energy bill by cleaning your clothes dryer’s lint trap before every load to improve air circulation, therefore cutting down on energy-wasting drying time. $


Power to the people

Reduce your carbon footprint (and maybe even your waistline) by using human-powered appliances and equipment. Think reel mowers, good old-fashioned manual can openers, carpet sweepers, whisks and wooden spoons instead of electric mixers. $


Good day, sunshine

On cold sunny days, open window coverings to let the sun warm your home. On hot days, close window coverings on the south and west sides to keep your home cooler. $


Washing day

Save $30 to $40 per year in water heating costs by washing and rinsing clothes in cold water. You can also save more than 3,400 gallons of water per year, according to Energy Star, by washing full loads instead of partial loads. $


Fridge shui

Refrigerators blasted by the sun’s rays or subjected to heat from an adjacent oven or heating vent have to work harder to chill your food. If possible, relocate the fridge to a cooler spot, or close window coverings to keep the sun off. $


Rock-a-bye computer

Enabling your computer and monitor’s power management features so they go into sleep mode when idle can save from $25 to $75 each year in energy costs, according to Energy Star. Also, turn off computers and peripherals at night. $


Wrap it up

In the winter, room air conditioners installed in windows can be a source of cold drafts. Remove window units during cold months or insulate them with tight-fitting A/C covers, available from most local home-improvement stores. $


Battery recycling

Recycle your old cell phones and used portable rechargeable batteries from cordless power tools, laptop computers, digital cameras, and other devices. Find a drop-off site. $


Run the numbers

Use the U.S. EPA’s online emissions calculator to find out how many greenhouse gas emissions your household is responsible for. Spend 10 minutes entering your data, and you’ll get a rough estimate of your total CO2 emissions, plus action steps to go on a carbon diet. $



Think globally, buy locally

Choosing a product that’s harvested or made locally reduces transportation energy use and helps sustain your community’s economy. $



Nix the night lights

Install motion sensors, photocell controls or timers so outdoor lights are only on when needed. Reduce light pollution and keep the night sky darker by using light fixtures that direct light downward instead of toward the sky. $


Dim that bulb!

If you have incandescent light fixtures where you can’t or don’t want to use compact fluorescent bulbs, install dimmer switches. Dimming shaves a bit off an incandescent bulb’s energy use and makes the bulb last longer (Note: Most compact fluorescent bulbs can’t be used with dimmer switches). $


Hung out to dry

Many newer clothes dryers have moisture sensors that shut off the heat when they detect that the clothes are dry. If your dryer lacks this feature, try not to overdry your clothes. Operating the dryer for an extra 15 minutes per load can cost as much as $34 per year, according to Energy Star. $


Wipe your paws

Worried about toxins in the home? The Washington Toxics Coalition reports that using entryway mats can reduce the amount of pesticide residue on carpets by 25% and the amount of dust on carpets by 33%. And homes where shoes are removed at the door, according to the WTC, have 10 times less dust than homes where shoes are worn. $



Paint your home green

The air in our homes can be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air. One of the major culprits? Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are released from paint, particleboard, and other home-improvement products. Most major paint manufacturers now make low-VOC paints, and some offer zero-VOC paints. $


Compost happens

Food waste that winds up in landfills generates methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Take charge of your greenhouse gas emissions by composting food scraps (except meat) in a backyard composting bin or even a worm bin. A bonus: Your plants will love the nutrient-laden finished compost. $


Prevent energy-wasting air leaks

To stop drafts, install weatherstripping around doors and caulk cracks around windows. Check the heating and cooling systems’ ducts to make sure all joints are connected and well sealed. Use a mastic sealant or foil-backed tape to seal ducts. $


Keep it in the garage

If your garage is attached to the house, fumes from car exhaust and stored chemicals can enter living spaces through gaps around doors or cracks in the ceiling and walls. Make sure the door between the garage and house seals tightly, and caulk or seal any cracks or openings between the garage and house. $


Breathe easy

Carbon monoxide is called the silent killer because it’s colorless and odorless. If you have a fuel-burning appliance inside the home, such as a gas stove, furnace, water heater, fireplace, or clothes dryer, be safe and install a UL-listed carbon monoxide detector on each floor. $


One man’s trash is another’s treasure

When you’re through with an item, sell or Freecycle it rather than throwing it away. $


The M word

To keep mold at bay, use your bathroom and kitchen ventilation fans. To be effective, fans need to vent to the outdoors, and Energy Star products are more efficient, quieter and last longer. $—$$


Automate it

Reduce energy bills by as much as $150 a year with a programmable thermostat that adjusts the temperature when you leave the house or go to sleep. $—$$


Audit it

A  home energy audit helps you assess how your home uses energy and prioritize actions you can take to make it more efficient and comfortable. To get started, try Energy Star’s Home Energy Yardstick. $—$$$


Water is the new oil

Consider repurposing water for irrigation. Graywater systems typically recycle wash water from sinks, tubs, showers and clothes washers. Rainwater harvesting systems direct rainwater from the roof into barrels or above- or underground tanks. $—$$$



Cool-down upgrade

An old refrigerator or freezer in the basement that’s just cooling its heels and a few cases of soda may be costing you as much as $100 each year. If it’s more than 10 years old, recycle it and replace it with a new, high-efficiency model. $—$$$


Once is not enough

Choosing salvaged, secondhand, or antique furnishings, doors, trim, fixtures, and other items that have been around the block a few times is often a smarter use of natural resources than buying new. One caveat: Steer clear of single-pane windows, old toilets, and used appliances that waste energy or water compared with their newly manufactured counterparts. $—$$$


Be rid of radon

Radon in indoor air is responsible for 21,000 lung cancer deaths in the United States each year, according to the EPA. To check for it, DIY tests are available from home improvement stores or from the National Safety Council for $20 or less. If unsafe levels are detected, the cost for reducing radon ranges from $800 to $2,500. $—$$$



Light at the end of the tunnel

Brighten up dark hallways, bathrooms and other spaces with tubular skylights. They let in daylight without the excess heat and are relatively easy and affordable to install. $$


Plant it again, Sam

Plants like bamboo that can be harvested and grown again within a short time ease demand for slower-growing trees and nonrenewable resources like petroleum. Check out great bamboo alternatives for floors, cabinets, built-ins and furniture. $$


Be an Energy Star

Sometimes to save a lot, you have to spend a little. Energy Star-qualified appliances may cost a bit more than standard models, but they incorporate features like high-efficiency compressors and motors and better insulation. And they use 10% to 50% less energy and water, which means more money in your pocket year after year. $$


A truly green landscape

Waterwise, landscaping doesn’t have to resemble a desert scene, thanks to today’s high-efficiency irrigation products. Drip and bubbler irrigators and smart controllers determine when and how much to water based on moisture sensors, historic local weather data, or a signal from a weather station. $$

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