Green Technology for the “Average Homeowner”: A Guide to Earth-Friendly Products that Work (and a Few that Don’t)
Conscientious homeowners are always looking for ways to save some green – for their bank accounts and for the earth. And thanks to recent advances in “green” technology, there are tons of available options for the average homeowner interested in cutting their energy usage and helping the planet in the process.
But there’s a catch: determining which green products actually work as well as their manufacturers claim. We checked in with some of our local contractors to get their take on green home improvements. We asked them what works – and what doesn’t. And we were surprised by some of their answers.
Considering giving your home an Eco-friendly facelift? Read on to hear what our contractors had to say about some popular green products – and to view our list of four products that aren’t worth it and four products that offer a great return on investment.
Not Worth it: 4 Green Technology “Fails”
All of the contractors we interviewed told us that there are quite a few products out there that aren’t as energy efficient as they claim to be. Before you break out your checkbook to install pricy “efficient” upgrades, it’s a good idea to do some research first. Here are a few “green” products that may not live up to the hype:
1. Recycled Aluminum “Housewrap”
Why it sounded like a good idea: Although technology has rendered it obsolete, this old-school recycling technology is an example of a great environmental concept that failed in its application. Aluminum house-wrap insulation first came on the scene using recycled materials in the late 1970s. This was a novel concept – and seemed like a fantastic way to reuse all those old soda cans.
But there’s more to the story. “Recycled products can be a double-edged sword,” says Lee Mooney, director of sales for LOW-E Reflective Insulation. “While they may sound earth-friendly, sometimes they can have adverse effects.” And this was the case for this early aluminum insulator.
The problem: The aluminum did its job well, creating a barrier to prevent the sun’s radiant heat from entering the home’s living space – but manufacturers didn’t account for the additives mixed in with the aluminum that weren’t removed during the recycling process. “While the aluminum did what it was suppose to, the impurities mixed with the aluminum became hot and actually disfigured vinyl siding,” explains Mooney.
The bottom line: This exemplifies that fact that even great concepts need time to mature. On the plus side, however, this ill-fated first attempt probably helped further our collective technological understanding of the limitations of recycling. “Today you will not find any manufacturer that is using recycled aluminum unless it has been rid of impurities,” Mooney reports. His product, for example, uses 99.4% pure non-recycled aluminum to prevent this damaging heat build-up.
2. Solar Panels
Why they sound like a good idea: Solar panels convert the sun’s rays to create free electricity or even hot water for your home. Plus, today’s solar panels are watertight, durable enough to walk on, and they install just like regular roofing tiles. And did we mention “free electricity”? What’s not to love?
The problem: The downside to solar energy is right there in the name: the amount of energy that solar panels capture is limited to the sun’s availability. Obviously nighttime sees no production, but clouds and even pollution can impede the flow of electrons into the panels. Although new technologies are constantly advancing solar panel abilities and efficiencies, overcast days and evenings still typically require alternative energy sources.
Plus, homeowners often find the initial installment cost-prohibitive: Highly efficient solar cells can run about $1,000 each, and some households may need more than one. And although prices continue to fall as manufacturing grows to meet increasing consumer demand (the first solar panels commercially available in 1956 cost well over $300 per watt; in the early 1970s, the price dropped to around $20 per watt; and the 2011 cost was around $5.50 per watt), many homeowners aren’t benefiting from a return on investment.
The bottom line: We talked to Clayton Morris, Vice President of Energy Programs for DPIS Engineering, a
Tomball, TX-based company that inspects homes and performs energy analysis to help homes run more efficiently. He says that cost considerations prevent him from recommending solar panels to his average residential customers: “With current utility rates, the payback just is not there.”
3. Light Emitting Diode (LED) Light Bulbs
Why they sound like a good idea: LED bulbs are supposed to be significantly more efficient than traditional bulbous incandescent ones. Who wouldn’t want to swap out every bulb in their home?
The problem: It turns out that both bulb lifetime and bulb efficiency can vary drastically with the quality of construction and components. Over time, a poorly crafted LED bulb can begin to flicker, change color, dim, or provide uneven light. Plus, although LED bulbs are improving and prices are dropping, homeowners can still expect to pay at least $10 per LED bulb – so it can take a while to recoup your costs through the energy you save.
The bottom line: As an alternative, Morris suggests compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs to homeowners looking for small ways of adding energy efficiency: “These can be up to 75% more efficient than incandescent bulbs.” That said, Morris also recommends his customers ease into this type of light: “The light is different, and some people do not like it. This is a personal preference, and I suggest trying one or two bulbs before replacing them all.”
CFLs are more efficient and last much longer than incandescent bulbs – but, like LEDs, they’re much more expensive. “They do require more upfront costs,” Morris cautions. “You can buy all the incandescent bulbs for a home for $20, however the CFLs would be about $150.”
4. Tankless Water Heaters
Why they sound like a good idea: As the name suggests, a tankless water heater doesn’t store hot water in a tank. Instead, the system begins heating water only when a hot water faucet is turned on. Tankless systems save space (they are typically wall-mounted inside the home or even outdoors in mild climates) and last longer (averaging 20 years) than tank-style water heaters – and the major selling point is that a household will never run out of hot water. Seems like a win-win!
The problem: Tankless water heaters got a lot of hype early on, but lackluster performance has many homeowners second-guessing their investment. Many of the poor customer reviews about their tankless systems stem from unrealistic expectations based on manufacturers’ claims, and some homes simply aren’t the right “fit” for a tankless system. An acceptable hot-water flow rate can be impeded by particularly cold groundwater or long pipe runs that expose the water to a lot of heat loss, with homeowners experiencing unpleasant bursts of cold water during showers. Tankless water heaters also waste a lot of cold water while waiting for hot water to reach the faucet. Circulating pumps are available to limit this wait and waste, but this is an additional cost (of anywhere from $600 to $1,400).
The bottom line: In Morris’ opinion, “Tankless water heaters are getting better, but still not the best investment.” A recent study by Consumer Reports corroborates this opinion: They calculated the tankless payback, in terms of gas savings, at about 20 years. Plus, if you’re switching from tank-style to tankless, be prepared for quite a bit of (costly!) installation labor. Installation costs run $1,500-$3,000 for replacing a tank-style water heater because homes often need bigger intake water pipes and a different venting system to accommodate the tankless system. And while your primary residence may qualify for a tax credit through the Federal ENERGY STAR program or other state-based rebates, these incentives don’t extend to a vacation home or new construction.
Keep in mind that new construction is a different story, as installing a tankless water heater in a new home doesn’t cost any more than a regular tank-style water heater and the whole plumbing system can be designed around them from the start. If you’re set on going tankless in your new construction, consider combining a few tankless water heaters with a circulating system, then design the plumbing with short runs from the water heater to each point of use.
Great Payback: 4 Green “Wins”
1. Low-Emissivity Glass
Why it’s green: First introduced in 1979, “low-e” reflects heat back to its source by utilizing an ultra thin metallic coating on or in the glass. Low-e windows help rein in your electricity usage in two ways: by keeping out the external summertime heat and keeping in your interior wintertime warmth. As a result, homeowners spend much less to condition their living spaces to a comfortable temperature all year round.
Sunlight contains visible light that enables us to see, ultraviolet (UV) light that causes damage and fading, and infrared (IR) light that we perceive as heat. Low-e glass permits visible light to pass through while blocking certain amounts of UV damage and IR heat.
When considering energy-efficient window replacements, evaluate two key performance indicators: 1.) the U-factor that indicates a window’s overall insulating value; and 2.) the solar heat gain coefficient that measures how well a window deflects incoming solar heat. A high-quality low-e window will rate at 0.30 or below for both indicators. Some glass manufacturers also suspend thin, transparent films between the pieces of glass for even greater energy efficiency.
The bottom line: Your new energy-efficient windows will be a significant investment that can run you anywhere from $300-$1,000, depending on the size, specifics, and quality of the individual window. But keep in mind that you may qualify for a 2013 Federal tax credit through ENERGY STAR. And according to Tim Carter, award-winning builder, columnist, and expert home improvement advice guru, “Low-e glass is worth the price, especially since houses tend to lose 25% of their heat through windows. Purchase the highest quality low-E glass you can afford.”
2. Oriented Strand Board (OSB)
Why it’s green: Here’s an environmental solution for “unusable” wood. This green building material is an engineered wood particle board formed by bonding together layers of wood strands, and much of the material would otherwise be discarded as scrap. OSB’s mechanical properties make it suitable for load-bearing construction applications, most commonly as sheathing in walls, flooring, and roof decking.
OSB came on the scene in the early 1990s as an alternative to plywood. And today it’s widely available at most neighborhood lumber retailers, almost as common as plywood. (Unless you work with it a lot, you might not even know the difference!) OSB is similar to plywood in appearance, application, and performance.
The bottom line: On the whole, OSB is cheaper than plywood – sometimes as much as $5 per sheet lower, meaning that a homeowner can save $700 on a 2,500 square-foot new construction by choosing OSB instead of plywood sheathing. Plus, OSB is a stronger, more consistent product.
3. Certified Green Label Carpeting
Why it’s green: The discovery of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in newly installed products spurred a movement towards “healthier” carpeting. These harsh toxins put homeowners at high risk of poor indoor air quality (IAQ), a very important environmental consideration that might be easily overlooked. But just think: the average person spends 90% of time inside!
“Choose products that help prevent VOCs from off-gassing into your home,” Morris urges. “Carpeting, carpet padding, and even glue can be purchased that are better for the environment.”
One way to ensure that your floor products are “healthy” is to look for the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI)’s Green Label, introduced in 1992 (and recently enhanced to “Green Label Plus”) to identify carpets, cushions, and adhesives with very low VOC emissions. In order to qualify to carry the Green Label logo, carpeting products must pass stringent emissions testing.
The bottom line: Green Label thoroughly tests for 13 different chemicals in carpeting and 15 different chemicals in adhesives – and performs the tests three times (right after manufacture and twice thereafter) to verify for off-gassing at different stages in the product’s life. Green Label has such a positive impact on IOQ that the American Lung Association approves its use in its Healthy Homes programs.
Once you’ve installed your new Green Label-certified carpeting, consider recycling or reusing your old carpeting. Dodge the landfill by finding a local carpet reclamation partner. Plus, the old padding makes a great mud-free pathway in your garden!
4. Reclaimed Products
Why they’re green: “With ‘green’ products, the most cost-effective and environmentally efficient way to do something is using ‘reclaimed’ materials. ‘Reclaimed’ means to use something that someone else is throwing away,” Morris says. While not a “product,” per se, the category of reclaimed products deserves recognition as a green success story.
How much greener can you get?!? Rather than ending up in a landfill, that replaced clawfoot tub or superfluous container of assorted bolts can find a second life. The old adage, “Another man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” has come full-circle with the rise of environmental consciousness and thrifty consumerism. Local consignment shops and nation-wide donation-based retailers have become commonplace.
Looking for reclaimed products? You’re in luck: they’re pretty much available to anyone, anywhere. Here are a few starting points:
- Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore is a fantastic example of donation-center-turned-home-improvement-goldmine. These nonprofit, donation-based home improvement stores sell home accessories, furniture, appliances, and building materials to the public at a fraction of the retail price – and some items are brand-new. They accept unwanted items from remodeling projects, cleaning out, down-sizing, including restaurant rehabs and going-out-of-business events. Need a new toilet? You can often find one there!
- Goodwill Industries International is another community support agency with a massive network of retail thrift stores that operate on a donation basis. While it doesn’t specialize in home building products like ReStore, many homeowners find the proverbial diamond in the rough thanks to a constant, daily turnover of merchandise.
- Craigslist and Freecycle are a wildly successful Internet-based “swap meets” that operate locally. Plus, Internet auctioneers (like eBay) make it possible to buy reclaimed products from a previous owner anywhere world.
The bottom line: You can save a lot of money – and help reduce waste and the overall carbon footprint by considering reclaimed products for home renovation products at these types of venues.
If you’re deciding to “go green,” jump on the Eco-bandwagon with caution. Some of these Eco-products sound great but are not time-tested well enough yet – and may actually have adverse effects – while others are proving real worth to homeowners. Just like every other home improvement investment, you need to determine which products best suit your needs.