On Friday, the New York Times Andy Revkin directed his readers to the new column, “The Green Home” by Julie Scelfo. The column he linked to, “Five Beginners’ Steps to a Greener Home,” is not terribly useful at all — indeed I would say it is counterproductive.

Only one of her five steps make part of my top 5 list. A number of readers have asked me to write more about personal energy and climate solutions. Since the traditional media is clearly not doing a good job, here goes.

The first thing to say is that the exercise is pointless if you don’t define what you mean by “green.” We aren’t — or shouldn’t be — trying to take actions to impress other people or even to make us feel good. We are trying to reduce the pollutants and resource consumption that threaten the health and well-being of ourselves, our family, the rest of the nation, the entire human race, and future generations.

Second, beginners especially should focus on that which is easy and high impact. After that, people can decide for themselves if they want to pursue hard and high impact action or easy and low impact action.

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With that in mind, let me go through the NYT’s five steps and then, at the end, offer my own. By way of a teaser: From browsing around the Internet, I see that virtually all of the lists leave off what are arguably the two most important steps to greening your home.

As an aside, the most remarkable about the NYT‘s advice is that it is based on an interview with Eric Corey Freed, the author of Green Building & Remodeling for Dummies, who was asked for “five must-do steps.”

Q: What’s the first and most important thing every green-minded dweller should do?

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A: Look at all the vampire loads that are sucking energy even when you’re not using them.

Q: You mean like the toaster with a digital clock and the cellphone charger?

A: Yes. Anything with a ready light. Collectively, vampire loads cost Americans about $3 billion a year. The biggest culprits are stereos, DVRs, game systems and plasma TVs. Simply unplug them when they’re not in use. Or purchase smart power strips, which cost about $25 and shut off automatically.

No and No. First and most important? Not even close. If we are dealing with beginners, we don’t want to start with something that is both hard and low impact. The first research on vampires began at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory funded by DOE (and EPA) I believe, starting when I was at DOE. It is worth worrying about after you’ve done a lot of the other stuff. But $3 billion is maybe one half of 1 percent of US energy consumption. Not even a vampire can get much blood out of a tiny stone.

Plus, constantly unplugging and plugging your stuff is a pain. The fastest way to convince any newbie that greening their home is hard and pointless is to ask them to do this and look for any change in their electric bill whatsoever. The power strips are a better idea, but you would probably need a lot of them since electronics tends to be scattered all over the house. And in any location where you don’t have several appliances together, I doubt the strips would ever pay for themselves.

Also, the first time Dad puts his phone into an unplugged charger overnight and ends up at work (or on the road!) with a cell phone that is out of juice — this particular green home strategy will pollute the waters for all the others. [Note to self: Doh!]

A much better idea for beginners is simply to turn off a few appliances (when not being used) that consume a lot of electricity 24/7 (like your computer or your DVR).

Q: What’s the second step for making our homes greener?

A: Take an empty two-liter soda bottle, wash it out, fill it with water, screw the lid on tightly and set it into your toilet tank, as far away from the flapper valve as possible. This prevents two liters of water from being used every time you flush.

Q: Will it leave enough water for a proper flush?

A: A new low-flow toilet uses 1.6 gallons per flush. Older toilets go up to seven gallons a flush. Two liters is only half a gallon, so there’s still plenty of water left for most bathroom visits. Besides, you can always flush twice for those rare occasions when it’s truly needed.

First, I would wager that the vast majority of the readers of the New York Times or this blog already have low-flow toilets in their houses. It is pretty much automatic for a new home or major rehab in the past 15 years. If so, you have really done most of your job in the toilet [Note to self: Poor word choice].

If you don’t live in a part of the country where there is a water shortage, this measure may not even make the top 100 list. Yes, in the future, water shortages will become the norm over most of the southern part of this country, especially the SW

But I would note that the “Water Use it Wisely” website put together by a bunch of Arizona cities has a “100 Ways To Conserve” list on which appears:

#81: If your toilet was installed before 1992, reduce the amount of water used for each flush by inserting a displacement device in the tank.

That’s right. On a website just focused on saving water for people who have chosen to live in the desert, this as Number 81.

Q: Moving right along. Your third recommendation?

A: Install an ultra-low-flow shower head. A 1992 federal law requires all shower heads to be “low flow,” which means 2.5 gallons shoot out every minute it’s on. Switching to ultra-low-flow means you could go anywhere from two gallons all the way down to half a gallon a minute.

Q: But how’s the water pressure?

A: Ultra-low-flow shower heads mix outside room air into the water so the pressure is surprisingly good. The technology has really advanced. The old stigma of not having enough pressure — do you remember the old “Seinfeld” episode where Kramer couldn’t get enough water, so he switched to an elephant hose? — that doesn’t really apply.

At least this is a water and energy saver combined. But again, you probably have a pretty efficient water showerhead already. If you don’t, then this probably might make top 10, at least in arid climates. But I just don’t see this as a place for beginners to start. It can be quite frustrating replacing your showerhead — and again the gains for most will not be huge.

What do the desert dwellers say?

#16: If your shower fills a one-gallon bucket in less than 20 seconds, replace the showerhead with a water-efficient model.

Tip #42Use a water-efficient showerhead. They’re inexpensive, easy to install, and can save you up to 750 gallons a month.

Not high on the list — but they do seem to feature it with a larger sized number and a picture.

[Note to desert-dwelling web folk: Sorry, but a list of a hundred things to do is also not terribly helpful, especially if you highlight some higher-number recommendations, leaving people with the impression that they are in fact more important than the lower number recommendations.]

Q: So far, these projects sound really manageable. What’s No. 4?

A: Install a gray-water system that collects soapy water and diverts it to the toilet. Instead of clean water, you flush with soapy water. WaterSaver Technologies (watersavertech.com) makes AQUS, a $300 system that installs under the sink.

Q: Is there a simpler way to capture and use gray water?

A: Actually, there is. It’s a toilet-topped sink called SinkPositive (sinkpositive.com). You replace the toilet’s heavy porcelain lid with this sink basin, which has a built-in faucet. When you flush, fresh water comes out of the faucet and you wash your hands with it. The soapy water collects in the toilet tank for the next flush.

Q: Forgive me for asking, but how does the SinkPositive look?

A: Like something you might find in a dentist’s office.

No and no — and another “no” just for good measure. Seriously, Scelfo and Freed — maybe one water-saving measure in your top 5. Or perhaps two, but only for those people living in a drought. But three?

And this one is so obscure it doesn’t even make the desert dweller’s top 100 list. Why? Because you don’t use bloody much water when you wash your hands. So why go to all the trouble of buying a $300 (!) device to reuse it.

I’m gonna call this recommendation a “green home newbie killer.” It is guaranteed to suck the life out of almost anyone’s newfound green enthusiasm.

Q: What’s the final step people should take?

A: This is probably the most important: replace old thermostats with a programmable one. It’s kind of like a TiVo of thermostats. It lets you turn the heat down when you sleep and back up before you wake. It can also tell the difference between Monday and Friday, so you can turn down the heat while you’re at work. A good one costs about $20, and saves about $180 a year on energy bills.

Q: So we don’t need to go home and install solar panels or put down bamboo flooring tonight? That’s a relief.

A: These five projects aren’t sexy, but everybody can do them.

Uhh, is dealing with vampires “the first and most important thing every green-minded dweller should do” as Scelfo asked in #1 or is this the most important?

In any case, this isn’t the most important, although it could make (part of) a good top-5 list.

On the other hand, I have a programmable thermostat, but I didn’t even remember to include it on the long list of things I do to reduce my carbon footprint (see “Is Climate Progress ‘low carbon’ and does it matter?“).

I certainly do recommend that people get a programmable thermostat, but of course most of the time you can just turn your thermostat up and down without much difficulty. The main benefit is that it means you don’t have to think about what you’re doing and you can start warming your house before you get up or get home.


Let me offer my suggestions. It is, however, hard to create a one-size-fits all list, since it so much depends on your individual circumstances — where you live, do you have children, are you planning a major remodeling anytime soon, and so on.

For instance, if you do live in an area suffering from drought, then should probably take some water saving measures. But, of course, if you do, you probably already are.

#1. Get your home tested for dangerous pollutants. This goes double if you have kids. I’m talking lead (and other things) in your water, radon in the air, a carbon monoxide detector. Yes, you probably don’t have one of these problems, but if you do, it is infinitely more important to abate this problem than save the planet. And the tests are very cheap. Sometimes, some of this testing is done when you purchase a home, but sometimes not.

Unless you know the house has been checked for all of these when you bought it or since, this should be your top “green” priority.

Once you’ve eliminated dangerous pollutants in your home, the most dangerous pollutants you want to address are the air pollutants associated with power production, which cause cardiovascular illness, mercury poisoning, and dumber kids (see “Study: If you want smarter kids, shut coal plants“). And, of course, the same power plants that emit those pollutants are in the process of causing catastrophic global warming which will incalculably harm the health and well-being of the next 100 billion people to walk the planet (see here and here).

So the remaining “first steps to a greener home” should focus on greening your energy use.

#2. Buy 100 percent renewable power for your home with as much coming from new renewables as possible. No, this isn’t the cheapest thing you can do, but it is certainly the highest impact and easiest — assuming that you live in an area where such green power can be purchased.

You can find service providers in your state from the Green-e. However, do NOT buy renewable energy certificates (RECs). Those are basically rip-offsets (see “Schendler Part II: Good RECs vs. Bad RECs“).

#3. Green your appliances. If you have a really old refrigerator in your basement or garage, start there — replacing it could save you $150 a year. In fact, you should probably replace any appliance that is more than 10 years old with an Energy Star appliance.

#4. Wrap your hot water heater. This is just the simplest and fastest-payback first step in greening your heating and cooling system, which is probably 40 percent of your home energy bill. If your existing equipment is old, upgrade them with highly efficient (Energy Star). The average US home has 5 squre feat of leaks, including the ductwork. Sealing cracks, penetrations, and heating and cooling ducts can provide savings of 10 percent or more.

#5. Get ceiling fans. This is part of a strategy of changing your temperatures setpoints. With a ceiling fan, even an 80°F setting on the AC can be comfortable. I have 4. Okay, you can throw in a programmable thermostat here — but only after you get the ceiling fans.

#6. Compact fluorescent lightbulbs. But then you’ve already done that haven’t you?

#7. Turn off your computer (and DVR) at night. And don’t used a screen saver — your screen doesn’t need saving anymore and it’s just wasting energy. This single step will probably save you more money (and much more angst) than unplugging and replugging your other electronics.

#8. Do some water-saving stuff. Yeah, go back to “Water — Use it Wisely” and pick a couple of favs. Tip #2 is “When washing dishes by hand, don’t let the water run while rinsing. Fill one sink with wash water and the other with rinse water.” When you need a new washing machine, be sure to get a (good) horizontal axis washer — it saves energy, water, and detergent.

#9. When you repaint the roof, use Energy Star white (or high-albedo) paint, especially if you have a flat roof. How else can you do “geo-engineering and adaptation and CO2 mitigation” all in one? While we’re on paint, do use low-VOC paint for any new work around the home.

Okay, I overshot 5 and didn’t cover everything — I will do a later post on how to lower your carbon footprint.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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