Thursday, April 30, 2009



For when it's too darned dry

Cold air can't hold as much water as warm air. So in many parts of the country, humidity is low in the winter, making the air in the house uncomfortably dry. Low humidity dries out mucous membranes, making you more susceptible to colds. It can make your eyes and skin itch, chap your lips, and irritate your throat and nasal passages. It can cause nosebleeds and aggravate asthma and sinusitis--not to mention the toll it can take on your furniture and musical instruments such as guitars and pianos.

Dryness can even boost your energy bill. The low humidity that you welcome in summer has the same cooling effect in the winter, when you don't want it. This may cause you to set the thermostat higher.

When your lips are chapped, your skin is flaking, and your house feels like the Sahara, it's time to consider a humidifier.

When shopping, look for

  • Energy savings. Steam and "warm-mist" humidifiers use more energy than the ultrasonic, impeller, or evaporative types because they involve heating water. In-duct models generally use the least energy of any type.

  • Easy-to-use controls and hydrostat. The humidifier should have a hydrostat, which automatically controls the humidity. Why? Because too much humidity can cause serious health problems for some people.

  • The right size. Consider the area that needs to be dehumidified. If you have high ceilings, you should probably get a humidifier with a square-foot capacity that is higher than the actual square footage you wish to humidify.

  • Easy maintenance. Unclean humidifiers can breed bacteria and mold that can aggravate irritations and allergic reactions. If you think you might tend to neglect the chores associated with keeping yours clean, get an easy-care model.

Other Considerations

Some humidifiers can only cover 600 square feet, while "whole-house" models that can handle up to 5,000 square feet. Your options include:

  • Tabletop. If you need to humidify a small area, tabletops are the lowest-priced choices. They can be easily moved, but require refilling and careful maintenance. They produce humidity using five basic methods:

    • Vaporizers. The simplest type, these boil water to create steam, which kills fungi and bacteria that might otherwise live in the unit. But they are energy hogs and can tip over, especially if you have children or pets in the house.

    • Misters. These use warm water, but not heated to a hazardous level. They also require much more energy than all but the steam vaporizer models.

    • Sound waves. These generate a mist by using ultrasonic vibrations. Unfortunately, they can spew out white dust from minerals in the water and harbor unhealthy microorganisms. Filters, distilled water, and proper maintenance can solve both of these problems, however.

    • Impellers. These models create a mist with a rapidly spinning disk. Like ultrasonic humidifiers, they can harbor dangerous microorganisms. They also may require filters and distilled water.

    • Evaporators. Blowing air through a dampened wick or filter to circulate moisture, these usually have higher capacity and require less energy than steam or warm-mist models. But they need to be carefully maintained.

  • Console. These are larger than the tabletops, with a higher capacity. They're also portable, but designed to sit on the floor. They need refilling and have the same maintenance requirements as the tabletop models. They usually use the energy-saving evaporative method.

  • In-duct. If you have a hot-air furnace with a duct system, you can have a humidifier installed in the heating duct. These cost anywhere from $100 to $250, plus up to another $200 for installation. They require minimal maintenance, with a few filter changes each season, and never have to be filled by hand because they are plumbed directly to a home's water supply.

Benefits... your health
The ideal humidity is about 45%. It will make your house comfortable for your entire household--and healthy for people with allergies or respiratory problems. your wallet
Because a humidifier can protect furniture, wallpaper, musical instruments, and artwork from damage caused from parched air, the device can save on repair, restoration, and replacement costs. the Earth
If a humidifier helps cut your use of energy for heating, it may reduce your emissions of global warming gases. And, of course, if it prevents damage, it saves resources.

Common Mistakes

Overdoing it. If you get a lot of condensation on your windows, you may have to settle for an indoor humidity below the ideal 45%. Even so, try to stay above 30%.

Getting Started

Test the humidity. Before you purchase a humidifier, make sure you actually need one by checking your home's humidity with a hygrometer. These are available for $10 to $20.

Related Products & Services

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Air Sealing And Weatherization


Your holey home

Leaving cracks and crevices for air to leak in and out of your home can make life feel drafty and uncomfortable. It can allow moisture-laden air to sneak inside, increasing the likelihood of condensation, mold, and rot. It can swell your energy demand, adding 20% to your bill for heating and cooling. To avoid this fate, prepare your house for winter and other sorts of inclement weather. In other words, weatherize!

Some people worry that a tighter house means poor indoor air quality. While it's true a healthy home needs fresh air, it's important to be able to control when and where that outdoor air enters and indoor air leaves.

Many older homes are extremely leaky, and even newer homes often aren't airtight. You may be aware of drafty spots around doors and windows, but air is likely escaping in other places, too. Here's where the air leaks out in most of our homes:

Sources of Air Leakage


If you're a handy do-it-yourselfer, you can probably do the more obvious air sealing and weatherization work yourself, but it may take a pro to get at some of the less accessible spots. If you are thinking the DIY approach, be sure to check out the helpful videos at the bottom of this article from our friends at Green Dream Group in Chicago who do energy audits and weatherization work.

Top Tips

When shopping, look for
Low- or no-pollution materials. Choose water-based caulks, and choose sealants that have little or no solvents or volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

At home

  • Find the leaks. Just how leaky is your house? Here's how you can find out:

    • The paper test. Shut a window or door on a piece of paper. If you can pull the paper out intact, you've got a leak that's wasting energy.

    • The flashlight test. At night, turn off the home's interior and exterior lights, and shine a flashlight in areas where you suspect leaks in exterior walls, windows, and doors. Have a partner stand outside and make a note of where rays of light shine through.

    • The incense test. On a cold and windy day, turn off the furnace and depressurize the house by turning on any exhaust fans like the kitchen and bathroom fans. Then walk around the house with a lit incense stick, passing it close to areas where there are likely to be leaks. When smoke gets sucked away or blown into the room, you've found a leak.

  • Prioritize. Seal the largest leaks first. That probably includes 1) sealing and insulating heating and air conditioning ducts that run through garages, crawl spaces, attics, and basements, 2) installing weather stripping around doors and windows, 3) using caulk or spray foam to fill cracks and gaps around windows, pipes, and vents that pass through walls, and other penetrations.More specifically, plug leaks around plumbing and electrical conduit penetrations, joints where different parts of the building meet such as the floors and walls, at dropped ceiling areas and kitchen soffits (the lowered ceilings above wall cabinets), and in outside walls. If you see dirty spots in the attic insulation, it means that air is being pulled through it. Move the insulation aside, find and seal the leaks, and replace the insulation.

  • Do the ducts. Heating and cooling ducts are notorious for leaking around their joints and seams--either because they were sloppily installed in the first place or because they got jarred or moved during remodeling or other work on the house. Ducts typically waste more than 10% of a home's heating and cooling energy. That's a lot of your money--and a lot of greenhouse gases--going up into thin air. If the ducts only run through areas of the home that are insulated, heated, and cooled, like a finished attic or basement, it's not a big deal if they leak. But when ducts run through uninsulated spaces, it's a big problem for two reasons. Energy is wasted through air leaks in the ducts. And your home health can be compromised if the ducts run through spaces where they can pick up air from car exhaust, stored paints, and other contaminants. So it's important to make them airtight. Inspect them carefully and seal all joints and seams. Use duct mastic, a sticky putty sold in tubs in home improvement stores. Don't use duct tape for sealing ducts--it's notorious for losing its stickiness after only five years or so.Once the ducts are all well sealed, insulate them with duct insulation. Make sure it wraps all the way around the ducts; don't leave any gaps. Tape the seams with a high quality tape such as aluminum foil tape, or for an even more secure attachment, use metal fasteners designed to hold duct insulation in place.

  • Handle the hot spots. You may also need to plug gaps in the attic around chimneys and water-heater or furnace flues. But these conduits require special treatment because they get hot. Most building codes require that combustible materials be kept 1 to 2 inches away from them. Cut aluminum flashing to fit around them and block any gaps in the attic floor. Use a special heat-resistant caulk to seal the flashing in place. Check with your local building department for details.

  • Add weather stripping. Install felt, foam, rubber, or metal weather stripping to reduce air flow around the moving joints of doors and windows. You can also use weather stripping to form a tight seal around attic access hatches or doors. Metal (copper, stainless steel, aluminum or bronze) weather stripping holds up much longer than felt or foam. Vinyl performs well as a weather stripping material, but environmental and health hazards have been linked to vinyl's manufacturing and disposal so avoid using it.

  • Zap door gaps. If there's an air gap underneath exterior doors, install a door sweep or threshold. Most home improvement stores carry a number of threshold products; choose one that won't drag on your carpet or floor when you open the door.

  • Fix the switches. Electrical outlets and switch plates on exterior walls account for only about 2% of air leakage, but there's a cheap and easy fix. Pick up some foam gaskets designed to fit behind an outlet or switch plate at any hardware store. They take just a minute or two to install.

Other Considerations

  • Large holes and crevices can be tightly stuffed with cotton or fiberglass insulation, but it needs to be packed densely to prevent air flow through the fibers. One handy trick to create a better air barrier is to first pack the insulation into a plastic garbage bag, and then stuff it into the cavities.

  • Use caulk to fill smaller cracks and joints up to about one-fourth inch wide. Some types of caulk are paintable, some are designed for indoor use only, and some remain flexible so that they retain their seal when in contact with materials that expand or contract. Water-based caulks are healthier to work with; unlike solvent-based caulks, they don't give off noxious fumes, and can be cleaned up with water. Follow the instructions on the caulk's packaging: good surface preparation and proper use of the caulk are keys to an effective, long-lasting installation.

  • For cracks wider than one-fourth inch, use a spray foam sealant. Expanding polyurethane foam sealant expands a lot as soon as it's applied, so it does a great job of filling in larger cracks and irregularly shaped crevices. Water-based foam sealant only expands by about 25% and is good for smaller cracks and spots where too much expansion might be a problem.

  • In basements, a common spot for leaks is where the concrete or cement block wall meets the wood frame (this area is call the rim or band joist). If your basement walls are unfinished, you'll have access to these areas and can seal cracks with caulk or spray foam.

Benefits... you
You'll feel more comfortable because your home won't be as drafty. your wallet
Sealing the air leaks in your home can cut your cooling and heating bills by 20% or more, which will save you hundreds of dollars per year. If you do it yourself, the cost of basic caulking, weatherstripping, and air sealing is very low so you will be making money almost immediately! Even if you hire a pro, you will likely get your investment back in less than a year. the Earth
Air sealing can extend your home's life and reduce its maintenance costs by keeping mold and rot in check. It conserves precious fossil-fuel reserves and reduces emissions of greenhouse gases.

Common Mistakes

  • Ignoring dampness and rot. If you discover damp or wet insulation in the attic, or rotting attic rafters or floor joists, it's time to call in the pros. You may have roof leaks or structural deterioration that needs immediate repair.

  • Leaving the damper open. If you have a fireplace with a damper, make sure it's completely closed when the fireplace is not in use. An open damper wastes as much energy as an open window.

  • Can lights. Conventional recessed "can" lights are like big holes in your ceiling. They need air space around them or they'll overheat, making it tough to seal and insulate around them. It's best to replace these light fixtures with the newer ICAT (insulated ceiling airtight) recessed fixtures-they're sealed to reduce air leaks and designed so that insulation can go right over them. If replacement's not in the cards, hire a professional insulation contractor to properly seal around the cans with noncombustible materials.

Getting Started

  • If you are reasonably handy with home repairs, you can tackle many energy-efficiency and indoor-air-quality improvements yourself. This website is filled with tips for tuning up your home and we have "how to" videos below. You can also get more detailed directions on how to seal air leaks from Energy Star's free publication "A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Sealing and Insulating with Energy Star."

  • Many local utility companies offer free or low-cost energy-efficiency evaluations. They usually also have publications with tips on how to do your own energy audit and home performance improvements. Check your local electricity provider's website to see what is available.

  • Alternatively, you can hire an energy auditor or home performance contractor, who will pinpoint leaks and recommend the most cost-effective fixes. Some of these specialists will do the repair work themselves, while others will refer you to contractors who specialize in weatherization. Be sure to check the results before you pay the bill. If a company has installed weatherstripping, for example, examine each door and window to make sure none were missed. Open and close the windows and doors a few times to make sure the weatherstripping isn't loose and doesn't impede their operation.

  • Read our article "How to hire a contractor" before having somebody start work in your home.

How-to Videos

Watch Corbett Lunsford from Green Dream Group teach you how to seal gaps and cracks in your home.

Watch Corbett Lunsford from Green Dream Group teach you how to air seal your windows.

Watch Corbett Lunsford from Green Dream Group teach you how to seal holes in your home.

Watch Corbett Lunsford from Green Dream Group teach you how to seal rim joists in your home.

Watch Corbett Lunsford from Green Dream Group teach you how to seal your air ducts.

Watch Corbett Lunsford from Green Dream Group teach you how to seal your doors.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Home Performance & Indoor Air


Saving your money and your health

Is your home plagued with musty smells, condensation on windows, a clammy basement, or mold creeping up the walls? Is your home drafty and uncomfortable, with energy bills that seem too high no matter how diligent you are about turning down the heat and turning off the lights?

If these headaches sound familiar, it may be time to call in a professional who specializes in identifying and fixing home performance problems. Depending on what your concerns are, there are different types of contractors and consultants to address them:

  • Home performance contractors

  • HVAC contractors

  • Weatherization contractors

  • Insulation contractors

  • Indoor air quality or indoor environmental consultants

We'll cover each of these individually, but first here are a few general tips.

Top Tips

  • Start with your utility company. Many local utility companies offer free or low-cost energy-efficiency evaluations. They usually also have publications with tips on how to do your own energy audit and home performance improvements.
  • Hire a home contractor

  • Do it yourself. If you are reasonably handy with home repairs, you can tackle many energy-efficiency and indoor-air-quality improvements yourself. This website is filled with tips for tuning up your home.

  • Check the results. If you hire a company to do home performance work, don't pay the final bill until you're sure you're satisfied with the results. If a company has installed weatherstripping, for example, examine each door and window to make sure none were missed. Open and close the windows and doors a few times to make sure the weatherstripping isn't loose and doesn't impede their operation. If you hired a company to beef up the attic insulation, go up into the attic to see if the workers did a quality job. (See our Insulation article to learn more).

Home Performance Contractors

Although they go by different names--home performance contractors, energy auditors, home energy raters, energy efficiency specialists--most of these contractors have a similar focus: they evaluate the whole house, looking for problems related to energy efficiency, comfort, health, and safety. Home performance contractors tend to be multidisciplinary, taking a holistic approach to evaluating your home as a system made up of interacting components. They typically address the most common building-related problems that affect indoor air quality. They check for excessive or inadequate humidity, damp spots and mold, and make recommendations about how to solve these problems. They typically do combustion safety tests to find out if your furnace or other fuel-burning appliances are producing too much carbon monoxide and other combustion gases. They'll evaluate exhaust fans in the kitchen and bathroom to make sure they're working properly to remove humidity and indoor pollutants from your home.

Some common home-health concerns, such as radon, lead-based paint, and asbestos, aren't routinely addressed by home performance contractors, however. The U.S. EPA has information about how to identify these hazards and what to do about them if you find them in your home. You can also hire a contractor who specializes in dealing with these issues; contact your state or local health department for local resources.

Home performance contractors generally fall into one of three types: 1) contractors who do the initial audit as well as subsequent repairs and improvements; 2) contractors who do the audit and bring in subcontractors to do the work; and 3) consultants who do the audit and give you recommendations on what needs improving; you then do the work yourself or you hire others.

If you hire a home performance contractor, an auditor will come to your home and typically spend three to four hours making observations and performing tests using a variety of techniques and tools. He or she will look at the efficiency of your windows and your heating and cooling systems and check insulation levels (sometimes using an infrared camera that shows where air is leaking and insulation is missing). The person will also perform diagnostic tests that measure how leaky the home is and whether your ducts leak or fuel-burning appliances and equipment are introducing too much carbon monoxide and other combustion gases into your home.

Home performance contractors usually charge from nothing up to $250 for the audit. They profit from doing the repair and improvement work, not from the audit itself. If you hire an independent auditor who gives you a report with recommendations but doesn't do the tune-up work, expect to pay from $450 to $650.

Interested in seeing what typically happens when a Home Performance Contractor visits your home, check out the video below from our friends at Green Dream Group in Chicago.

HVAC Contractors

HVAC stands for heating, ventilating, and air conditioning. These contractors are the folks to call if your heating or cooling system needs maintenance or repair, if you're getting dust blowing into your home from the ducts, if the furnace seems to run too often or too loudly, if certain rooms are getting too much or not enough warm or cool air, or if it's time to replace your old equipment.

Besides servicing the HVAC equipment, they install, inspect, and clean ducts and install programmable thermostats. Some HVAC contractors also provide services similar to the home performance contractors described above, although they may not have the same level of training in whole-house performance.

Weatherization Contractors

Weatherization basically means caulking, sealing, and weatherstripping all unwanted cracks, gaps, and other openings to the outside. Much of this work can be done by a handy homeowner, or you can hire a contractor who specializes in weatherization (also called air sealing).

Weatherization contractors don't usually perform the kind of systematic testing, diagnostic, and repair work that home performance contractors do, but they can locate air leaks that are wasting your money. If your house isn't well sealed, having a contractor do thorough air sealing can lower your heating and cooling costs, as well as improve your comfort. In some areas, low-income households may be eligible for free or low-cost weatherization services; check with your local utility company. Some weatherization contractors may also install insulation (see below). Read our Air Sealing and Weatherization article to learn more.

Insulation Contractors

If the insulation in your home is spotty or nonexistent, you may be able to beef it up yourself in certain areas, such as an accessible attic. But for walls, crawl spaces, and other hard-to-reach areas, you may want to call in pros with the right equipment and training.

When interviewing insulation companies, ask about green insulation options. Also talk to the installation contractors about how they ensure quality, especially when insulating areas that are out of sight, like inside walls (some contractors check quality by using an infrared camera that shows where insulation is missing). Shoddily installed insulation can reduce the product's effectiveness by as much as 30%, which means you won't get the comfort or energy savings that you've paid for. See our Insulation article to learn more.

As with any contractor, get several written quotes before signing a contract. Make sure the quotes include the installed R-value (an indication of the material's resistance to heat flow), so you can fairly compare them. Some insulation contractors may also provide weatherization services.

Indoor Environmental Consultants

If you have indoor-air-quality concerns that go beyond the relatively common issues detailed above, you may want to hire an indoor air quality (IAQ) or environmental health consultant with more specialized expertise. Before hiring a consultant, check with your state health department about whether the state certifies or licenses companies that do indoor-air-quality work; Although some states regulate companies that do mold assessment or remediation, for the most part the industry is unregulated, so you may have to do extra homework to make sure the consultant you hire is reputable.

Some tests are relatively inexpensive to conduct, such as testing for lead-based paint or elevated formaldehyde levels. But it can be costly to bring in an IAQ consultant to do a broad-based investigation of your home, such as trying to pinpoint specific kinds of VOCs that might be present in your home.

Benefits... your health
If something in your house is making you sick, a home performance contractor or indoor air quality expert can help you figure out what it is and how to fix it. A person with this kind of expertise can also make your house quieter and more comfortable. your wallet
These contractors can help you save big bucks on utility bills. They can also lower your home's maintenance costs and increase its value. the Earth
A high-performing home will be energy- and water-efficient, radically reducing your emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

Common Mistakes

Falling for a slick sales pitch. As in any industry, the home performance industry has many reputable, reliable contractors and a few bad apples who pocket your money and then do shoddy work--or don't do the work at all. When hiring contractors and other tradespeople, follow commonsense practices to make sure you won't be cheated. For advice, see our "What to Ask Your Contractor" article.

Getting Started

Use the Energy Star Home Energy Yardstick to assess your home energy use and compare it with similar homes in the United States. It's an easy-to-use online calculator that takes 10 to 15 minutes to complete. (You'll need to have your past 12 months of utility bills on hand.) The yardstick won't tell you specifics about how you are using energy in your home, but it's a good way to get a handle on whether your home is an energy hog, an energy star, or somewhere in the middle. Your utility may have a similar online calculator that shows how your home's energy use stacks up against other homes in your area.

Windows, Skylights & Doors


Open up to new technology

Windows let in light, air, and a view of the world. But inefficient windows--as well as inefficient skylights and entry doors--are like holes in your walls and roof. They let out too much heat in the winter and let in too much heat in the summer. And that boosts your energy bill.
Windows, Skylights, & Doors

The good news is that window technology has made huge strides in the past couple of decades. Today's energy-efficient windows can be twice as efficient as those sold only ten years ago. They usually have two panes of glass separated by an air gap that helps keep heat from moving between indoors and outdoors. They also block sound, so you won't be as bothered by Bowser barking next door. Additional features include energy-efficient window frames and heat-blocking coatings for glass.

If you add it all up, today's energy-efficient windows can reduce energy costs by as much as 15%, depending on where you live. For the average household, that means savings of between $130 and $460 a year for replacing single-paned windows or between $30 and $110 a year for replacing old double-paned ones.

Top Tips

At home

  • Caulk first. Be sure to plug leaks and reduce drafts. Even the best window can't do you much good if you have holes in your house.

  • Consider storm windows or shades. Storm windows can be a good, less-expensive alternative to new windows. Also, insulating curtains or shades can reduce drafts.

  • Add skylights? A skylight can brighten a dark room and reduce the need for electric lights. Tubular skylights are great for small rooms, bathrooms, and hallways. They're easier to install, less expensive, and more energy efficient than regular skylights.

  • Keep the doors. Fiberglass and insulated steel entry doors are much more energy efficient than solid wood doors. But replacing your door is expensive, and it won't cut your energy bill by much. It's more cost effective to block drafts with weather stripping and door sweeps. Adding a storm door is another low-cost way to boost an entry door's efficiency.

When shopping, look for

  • Energy-efficient window frames. Those made of wood are energy efficient but can be expensive, and the exteriors need frequent repainting. Many now come with a protective covering of metal on the outside to make them more weather resistant. Vinyl frames are as energy efficient as wood and much less expensive, but they can expand and contract in hot or cold weather, compromising the window's performance. Some manufacturers blend vinyl with other materials to make them more stable. The biggest downside is that vinyl manufacturing and incineration creates dioxin, a highly carcinogenic chemical and so its use should really be avoided. Fiberglass frames are also energy efficient and don't expand or contract, but are more expensive than vinyl. Aluminum frames are inexpensive but the least energy efficient. It's best not to use them except in the mildest of climates.

  • Coated glass. Low-emissivity or "low-e" coatings are a microscopically thin, transparent coating on the glass of energy-efficient windows. Standard low-e coatings help keep the room's heat inside, making the room feel more comfortable when it's cold outside. In cold climates, low-e windows can cut heating costs by more than 30% compared with single-pane windows. Other kinds of low-e coatings keep heat in and also block much of the sun's heat from entering through the windows. This feature can reduce cooling costs by nearly 40% in a hot climate, but is less desirable in cold locations.

  • Gases in the gap? In some window products, the gap between the panes of glass is filled with a colorless gas, such as argon or krypton, that's an even better insulator than air. It's not clear whether these gas-filled windows are worth the extra money, since there's no way to tell if the gas leaks out over time.

  • Energy Star label. Windows, skylights, and exterior doors with an Energy Star label are certified to meet energy-efficiency guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Energy. You can browse the Energy Star website to see how well products will work in your particular climate zone. It's also worth checking out the NFRC (National Fenestration Rating Council) labels, which offer even more detailed comparisons.

Other Considerations

  • New windows are expensive, so replacing single-pane windows with energy-efficient windows won't necessarily be cost effective based on energy savings alone unless you plan to live in your home for years to come. However, there are other reasons to replace your windows including making your home quieter and more comfortable. If you've done all the easier, less-expensive tune-ups and still have high energy bills, replacing the windows might be the next step.

  • If you decide to replace your windows, the least expensive option is installing a new window designed to fit the old window frame. This is commonly done when replacing double-hung windows. But if the frame is in poor condition, you'll need a new window and frame.

  • If you're remodeling or building a new home, be thoughtful about the size, number and placement of windows and skylights. In hot climates, too much glass on the west and east sides and overhead can drive your air conditioning bills through the roof. In cold climates, glass on the building's colder north side will make your heater work harder. A good architect can help you design your home properly.

  • What to do with your old windows, exterior doors and skylights? Call your local building materials reuse store (aka salvage yard or junkyard) to see if they'll take them off your hands. If your windows or doors are vintage or have unique architectural features, they'll be more likely to want them--or you may be able to sell them. Or get creative: old doors can be used as desktops, and old windows can be used as cabinet doors (don't use them on lower cabinets where there's a danger that someone could break the glass with their foot or knee).

Benefits... you
No more avoiding sitting next to the window or under a skylight because it's too cold in the winter or too hot in the summer. Energy-efficient windows, skylights, and doors make your home more comfortable. Energy-efficient windows are also less likely to be fogged with condensation on winter mornings. Special coatings on windows and skylights block UV rays, protecting fabrics, wood, and artwork from fading. the Earth
Energy-efficient windows, skylights, and entry doors reduce fossil-fuel use and greenhouse-gas emissions.

Common Mistakes

  • Overheating. In hot climates, large clear skylights may introduce too much heat. Choose skylights with special coatings designed to reduce heat gain, or install small tubular skylights that bring in daylight without as much heat.

  • Messing with lead paint. Installing new windows and doors often involves scraping and sanding old paint around the window opening. Take precautions when dealing with any lead-based paint.

  • Blocking the winter sun. It's usually not a good idea to plant evergreen trees on the south side of your house. You'll get year-round shading and won't be able to take advantage of the sun's warmth in the winter. Deciduous trees and vines, on the other hand, will shade you in the summer and bring more heat and light into your home in the fall, when they shed their leaves. (Plants are also champs at absorbing CO2.)

Getting Started

  • Check with your local utility company--some offer rebates to homeowners who install energy-efficient windows and exterior doors.

  • Choosing windows and skylights can be intimidating. Not only do you have to think about style, materials, and cost, there's also a wide range of performance issues to consider. A new window or skylight will affect a home's comfort and energy costs for many decades so it's important to choose well. Unfortunately, not all architects, builders, or window salespeople have a good grasp of energy-efficient window technology and the pros and cons of various options. If you can't take the time to become a window expert, at least spend some time tracking down a knowledgeable window professional. Ask local green building organizations or green builders for recommendations.

  • If the window frame is in good condition, you can buy replacement windows designed to fit within the existing frame. You can install them yourself if you're handy, or you can have them professionally installed by a builder or window dealer. If the window frame is damaged or rotting, or if you want to change the shape or size of the window, you'll need to buy a full-frame window that includes new sashes (the part of the window that includes the glass and the framing pieces directly attached to the glass), the frame (the fixed perimeter that the sashes are set into), and the casing (the molding around the window's interior and exterior that covers the space between the wall and window frame). Full-frame replacement should be done by a window professional unless you are experienced with building construction.

  • Tubular skylights are much easier to install than larger conventional skylights. A professional skylight installer, builder, or handy DIYer can put in a tubular skylight in a few hours.

  • For general advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our "What to Ask Your Contractor" article.

  • If you decide you want to study the detailed information on windows, skylights, and entry doors provided by the NFRC (National Fenestration Rating Council), you may encounter some unfamiliar terms. Here's a decoder:

    • Air leakage tells you how much air will pass through the entire window assembly. A lower number means less air leakage. Manufacturers of lower-quality windows may not include an air leakage number.

    • Condensation resistance is a measure of how well the window will resist the formation of condensation on the inside of the glass. A higher number is better.

    • Solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC) indicates how much of the sun's heat will enter through a window. The higher the number, the more heat will enter your home. An SHGC of 0.40, for example, means that 40% of the sun's heat gets through the window.

    • U-factor tells you the window's resistance to heat flow. The lower the U-factor, the better the window is at keeping warmth inside your home. (Those low-e coatings mentioned above help lower a window's U-factor.)

    • Visible transmittance tells you how much light (as opposed to heat) the window lets in. Lower numbers mean more daylight is blocked.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Water Wise Toilets


A better flush

Watch this video from GoGreenTube to learn how to identify if your toilet is water-wise or not!

Let's talk toilets. They use more water than anything else in our homes, accounting for as much as 40% of indoor water consumption. Since 1994, federal law has mandated that new toilets use no more than 1.6 gallons per flush. All toilets sold in the U.S. are low-flow toilets, although in the toilet trade they're actually called "ultra low flush toilets" or ULFTs. If you go toilet shopping and the salesperson tells you a ULFT is something special, don't be fooled. It merely meets the minimum legal requirements for a john.

The government has gotten tough on toilets because freshwater shortages are looming, especially in the western United States. But it's not just Westerners who are worried about where tomorrow's water is going to come from. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that water managers in 36 states expect water shortages in the next 10 years, even under normal, non-drought conditions.

If you want to help preserve our finite freshwater supplies--and bring your water bills down--you can do better than just meeting the government's minimum low-flush standards. Look for what's called a "high efficiency toilet" or HET for short. HETs use no more than 1.3 gallons per flush--20% less than the federal standard.

Top Tips

When shopping, look for

  • WaterSense. The government's WaterSense program is similar to its Energy Star program, except it covers water instead of energy. Toilets with the WaterSense label use 20% less water than the federal standard while providing equal or better performance. WaterSense-labeled toilets have been independently tested and verified to meet the program's criteria for water efficiency and excellent performance.
  • Water-wise Toilets

  • Dual-flush toilets. Popular in many parts of the world since the 1980s, dual-flush toilets are a great way to save water that is still unknown to many Americans. They use no more than 1.3 gallons per flush (gpf) on average and have two buttons or levers for flushing: for liquid waste and paper, there's a low-volume flush (typically about 0.9 gpf); and for solid waste, there's a standard flush (no more than 1.6 gpf). Replacing a regular 1.6-gpf toilet with a dual-flush toilet can save a family of four about 7,000 gallons per year. The savings will be even greater if replacing an older toilet.

  • Performance. Some of the first generation low-flow toilets from the 1990s didn't work well--and truth be told, a few of the low-flow toilets sold today aren't up to snuff. Double flushing, blockages, and too much "streaking" on the bowl have made low-flow johns the butt of jokes and even prompted federal lawmakers to attempt, unsuccessfully, to repeal the low-flow mandate. Fortunately, toilet technology has advanced and there are many low-flow and HET models that offer excellent performance. Look for the WaterSense label--those toilets have been tested to meet the program's criteria for flushing performance as well as water efficiency. If you have your eye on a toilet that doesn't have the WaterSense label, look up the toilet model on the MaP testing report. MaP stands for Maximum Performance, a toilet testing protocol that measures how good the toilet is at bulk removal, in other words, how likely it is to clog. Download the MaP testing results from the California Urban Water Conservation Council's website.

  • Better bowls, trapways, flush valves. Better toilets typically have redesigned bowls, so that there's a larger surface area of water in the bowl. They also have improved trapways (the S-shaped drainage pipe) to prevent clogging. Some models have a larger flush valve between the bottom of the tank and the bowl (3 or 3 ½ inches wide rather than the usual 2 inches), which provides a more forceful flush. And smoother porcelain surfaces keep the bowl cleaner.

Other Considerations

  • When shopping for a new toilet, you'll discover that there are three flushing technologies used: gravity (the most common), pressure-assisted, and vacuum-assisted. All are available as HETs, and there are good (and sometimes bad) performers in each category. Pressure-assisted toilets tend to have a more powerful flush than gravity toilets, but they're much noisier. They can make a startling "whoosh" when flushed. Gravity toilets work well even if the home's water pressure is low, while pressure-assisted models require good water pressure (at least 25 pounds per square inch). Vacuum-assisted models tend to flush very quietly, a plus if your home is small or the bathroom is located near public areas of the house.

  • Urinals aren't common in homes, but they can be water savers if you choose a high efficiency model. These use as little as one pint (0.125 gallons) of water per flush. Even better, choose a waterless urinal. They've been used in commercial buildings for more than 15 years and are starting to turn up in some homes. Waterless urinals typically have a low-density sealant fluid that sits in the urinal's drain, letting urine pass through while keeping odors from coming back up through the drain.

  • You're not alone if you don't know what a bidet is. Common in some cultures but relatively unknown to Americans, bidets are used for a sit-down wash after you've used the toilet. It doesn't use energy, but could be a small drain on your water resources (unless it allows you to take fewer showers). More frivolous yet are toilet add-ons like heated seats and automatic air dryers.

  • A few of today's greenest homes use rainwater or graywater for toilet flushing instead of clean drinking water. If you're the first in your community to take this step, you may have some local permitting obstacles to overcome. Another option is going waterless with a composting toilet. Rare in cities and suburbs because of permitting issues but more common in rural areas, composting toilets convert human waste into compost that can be safely used to fertilize plants. Most experts advise against using composted "humanure" to fertilize food plants.

  • If buying a new toilet isn't in your budget or you can't convince your landlord to replace your old toilet, try modifying it to use less water. Place a water-filled plastic bag or bottle or a brick in the tank to displace water volume, install toilet dams to hold back some of the water during a flush, or install a flapper that closes before the tank completely empties. Some old toilets won't work well with a reduced water volume, but these modifications cost little or nothing and are easily reversible, so it's worth a try. Savings range from 0.5 to 1.5 gpf. That won't make an older 3.5 gpf toilet as good as any new toilet on the market today, but it's better than nothing.

Benefits... your wallet
The U.S. EPA says that if a family of four replaces its older toilets with WaterSense models, it will save more than $90 each year in reduced water costs--that's $2,000 over the toilets' lifetime. If you use well water instead of municipal water, reducing your toilet water use will reduce the energy used to pump water.

More and more manufacturers are offering HETs, including dual-flush models, so you don't necessarily have to pay more for water savings. Nor is a higher price necessarily an indicator of better performance. Many water utility companies offer rebates for purchasing high efficiency toilets. the Earth
The U.S. EPA says that if every U.S. home replaced its older, inefficient toilets with WaterSense labeled toilets, it would save nearly 640 billion gallons of water per year. That's more water than flows over Niagara Falls in two weeks!

Common Mistakes

Making do with a water-wasting toilet. If you can afford it, make the change to a more efficient toilet now. Government rebates can help lower the cost.

Getting Started

Low flush, ultra low flush, high efficiency--the nomenclature can make your head spin. When shopping, remember the number: look for a toilet that uses no more than 1.3 gpf. And look for the WaterSense label.

Related Products & Services

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Water Wise Faucets


Not just a drop in the bucket

[youtube][/youtube]Watch Sierra Club's Owen Bailey install a low-flow showerhead.

Seventy-five percent of the Earth is covered with water but only 1% of that is available for human use. Water supplies are finite--there's the same amount of water on the planet now as there was 2 billion years ago. But demand for freshwater keeps climbing as human population soars.

Freshwater shortages are already an urgent problem in many parts of the world, including the western United States. But it's not just westerners who are worried about where tomorrow's water is going to come from. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that water managers in 36 states expect water shortages in the next 10 years, even under normal, non-drought conditions.

In the face of a global challenge like this, what difference can a little screw-on faucet aerator make? More than you might think. Faucets account for more than 15% of a typical household's indoor water use and showers 17%. That adds up to more than 2.2 trillion gallons of water in the United States every year. Cutting that by 40% would save 880 billion gallons of water. Every year.

Watch this video from GoGreenTube to learn how to install a low-flow aerator!

Top Tips

At home

  • Turn off the tap. Don't let the faucet run when brushing your teeth, shaving, or answering the door. Turning it off while you're brushing your teeth can save as much as 3,000 gallons of water per year.

  • Don't be a drip. Repair leaky faucets. If you ignore the problem you can easily waste 3 gallons a day--or 1,095 gallons a year.
  • Water-wise Showers and Faucets

  • Measure your flow. Faucet and showerhead flow rates are measured in gallons per minute, or gpm. Some fixtures have the gpm marked on the faucet spout or showerhead. If yours doesn't, here's how you can measure it. You'll need a bucket that holds at least a gallon (and has the gallon level marked on it) and a stopwatch or watch with a second hand. Turn the tap or showerhead all the way on, and see how long it takes to get a gallon. Divide the number of seconds into 60 and you have your gpm. (So if it takes 20 seconds, the fixture has a flow rate of 3 gpm). Today's high-efficiency faucets, faucet accessories, and showerheads provide 1.5 gpm or less, reducing water use by 40% or more while providing excellent performance. If you don't like your old low-flow showerhead, check out today's improved products.

  • Install. It's easy to install a new showerhead. Unscrew the old one, pull away the plumbing tape, wrap on new plumbing tape (it helps provide a tight seal), and screw on the new showerhead. Ta-da!

When shopping, look for

  • WaterSense products. WaterSense is similar to the government's Energy Star program, except it covers water instead of energy. Products with the WaterSense label have been independently tested to make sure they meet the program's criteria for high efficiency and high performance. It's a new program, so right now it covers only bathroom faucets, bathroom faucet aerators, and high-efficiency toilets. Look for showerheads and kitchen faucets to be included before long. WaterSense-labeled bathroom faucets and aerators (little devices that screw onto the tip of the faucet to reduce flow) use no more than 1.5 gallons per minute, and some use only 0.5 to 1.0 gpm. If you don't need to replace your old faucet, just get an aerator. They cost only a few dollars and screw right onto the tip of the faucet's spout.

  • A store that aims to please. Not all showerheads are created equal, so buy from a store with a good return policy in case you want to exchange it for a different brand.

Other Considerations

  • Low flow is the law of the land. Since 1994, federal regulations have required that new showerheads and kitchen and bathroom faucets have a maximum flow rate of 2.5 gallons per minute. But millions of older homes still have water guzzling fixtures, and even if your fixtures meet the 2.5 gpm standard, you can do much better.

  • You don't have to spend a lot to get a good faucet. Consumer Reports tested 16 brands ranging in price from $80 to $600 and found little difference in performance or durability.

  • Manufacturers use two different technologies to reduce flow: aeration and laminar flow. They can provide the same water savings. Aerators restrict flow but add air to the stream of water to beef it up. Not everyone likes the feel of aerated water or the way it can splash in the sink. Laminar flow fixtures and screw-on tips don't add air. Instead they produce dozens of parallel streams of water that come out in a wide, solid-looking stream. It flows silently and doesn't splash when it hits the sink.

  • Tired of waiting for the hot water to reach you? If you live in a large home where the water fixtures are far from the water heater, a demand-controlled hot water circulation pump may solve your problem. When you want hot water at a faucet, shower or bath, you push a button next to the fixture. The button activates a small pump that delivers hot water fast. The cool water that's been sitting in the hot water pipe gets rerouted back to the water heater instead of going down the drain. Don't confuse a demand-controlled circulation pump with a continuous circulation system.Continuous circulation systems waste a lot of water heating energy because they constantly circulate hot water through your home's pipes. Demand-controlled systems deliver hot water only when you need it.

Benefits... your wallet
Using less water reduces your water and water heating costs. Replacing an old showerhead with a high-efficiency model can pay for itself in a few months due to lower water heating energy and water costs. A 1.5 gpm showerhead costs no more than a 2.5 gpm model and will save $300 to $500 in reduced energy and water costs over its lifetime. the Earth
Water-efficient faucets and showerheads help preserve the nation's water resources and reduce demand on aging municipal water supply and treatment systems.

Common Mistakes

  • Shower towers. Showers with multiple heads and body nozzles circumvent the federal mandate of no more than 2.5 gpm per fixture. Some of these "shower towers" use a whopping 20 gpm--so much volume that your water heater might have a hard time keeping up with it. (If you have a septic system, that could be overwhelmed too.) Unless you have a graywater system and are using the shower wastewater to irrigate your garden, leave the shower tower in your fantasy house.

  • Look, Ma, no hands! Faucets that come on automatically when you put your hands under them may seem like a water saver. But Environmental Building News, which reports on the green building industry, says these motion-sensing faucets often increase water use because they remain on longer than needed. They may also turn on inappropriately, for instance, when you put a dirty dish in the sink but aren't ready to wash it. If you don't want to touch the handle when using your sinks, have foot-pedal or knee-operated controls installed.

Getting Started

Recycle old faucets and metal showerheads rather than giving them away. It's best not to keep water-guzzling fixtures in circulation.

Related Products & Services

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Water Heaters


Hot showers without guilt

Heating water in our homes accounts for 17% of all home energy use in the United States. The first step in shrinking your water heating energy is to conserve. The less hot water you use, the less you'll pay for energy and the smaller your carbon footprint will be. To do this, you don't need to endure cold showers--you just need to use your hot water wisely. And when it's time to replace your existing water heater, step up to a high-efficiency model. You'll be amply rewarded in savings of energy and money. [youtube][/youtube] Watch Sierra Club's Owen Bailey teach you how to wrap your hot water tank to save money!

Top Tips

At home

  • Take it easy. Don't run the hot water tap longer than necessary and don't use hot water for tasks that are accomplished just as well with cold water, such as washing clothes.

  • Fix leaky pipes and faucets.

  • Install low-flow faucets and showerheads.

  • Buy efficient appliances. When replacing clothes washers and dishwashers, choose water-efficient models--the less water these appliances use, the less water heating energy you need.

  • Turn down the heat. Lower your water heater's thermostat to 120°F (about the midpoint between the low and medium settings, if degrees aren't marked on the thermostat). That's plenty hot enough for all household uses, unless you have an old dishwasher that doesn't have an internal booster heater. And when you're going out of town for more than a few days, turn the water heater's thermostat to the lowest setting.

  • Blanket your tank. Cut energy use by wrapping the water heater tank with an insulating blanket. Blankets, or jackets, as they're sometimes called, can reduce the operating costs of older models by 4% to 9%. Here's a rule of thumb: if the outside wall of the water heater feels warm to the touch, it needs a blanket. They're inexpensive, available at most home improvement stores, and easy to install if you follow the directions that come with the blanket.

  • Insulate all accessible hot water pipes. This reduces heat loss and provides faster delivery of hot water to your taps, which also saves water. Home improvement stores carry foam insulation designed to fit snugly around pipes.

  • Get faster delivery. A demand-controlled circulating hot water system can reduce hot water waste and speed up the time it takes hot water to reach the tap.

  • Trap the heat. Heat rises, so hot water has a tendency to rise up in the inlet and outlet pipes above the tank, which wastes heat. To prevent this, many newer water heater tanks have "heat traps," small check valves added to the pipes above the tank. If your water heater doesn't have these traps, a plumber can add them. A set of two costs about $30 plus labor and can save $15 to $30 annually on your water heating costs.

When shopping, look for

  • An Energy Star. In January 2009 the government's energy efficiency program will start labeling the most efficient water heaters as "Energy Stars." Only the five most efficient types of water heaters will be eligible: Gas storage, gas-condensing storage, gas tankless, heat pump, and solar. Energy Star will not cover the least efficient water heaters: electric storage and electric tankless.
  • Water Efficient Water Heaters

  • The right fuel source. First, find out what's available where you live and how much it costs. Options include electricity, natural gas, fuel oil, propane, solar energy, and even heat stored in the ground. Heating water with natural gas, propane, or fuel oil is usually more energy efficient and less expensive than heating with electricity. The sun's energy is free, of course, but you have to be able to handle higher upfront costs of the system. Pumps that tap the heat stored in the ground may be cost effective, too, depending on your climate and other factors.

  • A high "EF." Storage, tankless, and heat-pump water heaters are rated with an Energy Factor (EF). The higher the EF, the more efficient the unit is. (Solar and indirect water heaters use different measurements of efficiency.) The EF is a good way to compare heaters within the gas-fired group. But it's misleading when comparing gas versus electric. The EFs of electric water heaters are higher (.90+) than those of gas water heaters, but don't reflect significant energy losses when electricity is generated and distributed.

  • Appropriate size. The system's size depends on how many people live in your home, the amount of water used and the kind of equipment you are using. Keep in mind that if you make an effort to conserve hot water, you may be able to get by with a smaller, less expensive model.


  • Electric water heaters. The least efficient options are electric storage and electric tankless water heaters. If electric heating is your only option, consider a heat pump water heater.

Other Considerations

When a water heater gives out, most people replace it with a similar unit. That's fine if you have a gas water heater and you buy one of today's high-efficiency models. Beyond that, things start to get complicated. Solar water heating is the greenest option. Apart from solar, the most energy-efficient choices are gas-fired tankless water heaters with electronic ignition, heat-pump water heaters, combined space and water heaters, and gas-fired condensing storage water heaters.

  • Heaters with tanks. Most water heaters are "storage water heaters." The water is heated, then stored in a tank until needed. Eventually the water in the tank cools down and has to be reheated. Some 15% percent of a water heater's energy can be wasted this way--it's called "standby heat loss." More insulation in the tank's walls helps reduce standby heat loss.

    • In 2009, Energy Star high-efficiency sealed-combustion gas storage water heaters will have to have an EF of .62 or greater. In 2010, that goes up to .67 or greater. Also known as "power-vented" or "direct-vented," sealed combustion means that pipes bring outside air directly to the water heater's combustion chamber and vent the exhaust gases directly outside. Sealed combustion water heaters do a better job of protecting home health because there's no chance that combustion gases can get drawn into the house.

    • To increase your energy savings more dramatically, consider a gas-fired condensing storage water heater. Energy Star condensing heaters will have an EF of .80 or greater. These units are more expensive to buy and install than a high-efficiency non-condensing gas water heater. They save energy by extracting heat from gases in the flue before they are vented outside. This cools the water vapor in the flue gases to the point where it condenses into a liquid. These units require special venting and a pipe to drain the condensate to the wastewater line.

    • Electric storage water heaters are much more expensive to operate than gas (although some electric utilities offer special low rates for electric water heating).

  • Heaters without tanks. These devices (sometimes called "demand," "instantaneous," or "flash water heaters") heat water only as needed, eliminating the problem of standby loss. They provide a continuous stream of hot water, take up a lot less space, and are about 10% to 20% more efficient than storage heaters. But they're expensive--costing two to four times more to install than storage water heaters--and tend to work best for smaller households or low water users.

    • Tankless water heaters don't deliver hot water instantly. The time it takes for hot water to reach a tap is a function of how far the tap is from the water heater.

    • Each model provides a specific flow rate. Units with lower flow rates may not deliver enough hot water when there is simultaneous demand, such as when a shower and dishwasher are running at the same time. Gas tankless heaters also have a minimum flow rate and some won't turn on if you just have the tap open to a trickle.

    • Choose a gas tankless model with an electronic ignition to avoid having a pilot light on all the time wasting gas. Energy Star gas tankless water heaters will have an EF of .82 or greater.

    • Electric tankless heaters are usually the least green option, unless you have a bathroom that's infrequently used and located far from the main water heater. Then it might make sense to install a small electric tankless heater in that bathroom rather than run pipes all the way from the main heater.

    • If switching from a storage heater to tankless, the size of the gas supply line may need to be increased or the home's electrical service may need to be upgraded and new wiring installed.

  • Other options. Conventional storage water heaters dominate the market, although installations of tankless units have been growing in recent years. Some other, less common systems are listed below. To find out more about them, talk to an HVAC professional.

    • The majority of U.S. homes are heated by a forced air furnace, but if yours is heated by a boiler, consider an indirect water heater. Instead of relying on combustion to heat the household water, these units have a heat exchanger that draws heat from the boiler. Well-designed indirect water heaters can be more efficient than conventional storage water heaters.

    • Integrated space and water heating systems take the indirect water heater concept one step further. Configurations vary, but these units integrate a high-efficiency boiler and a hot-water storage tank into one appliance to provide household hot water and space heating. These units tend to cost more than separate water heaters and furnaces, and due to the complexity of their controls, some require installers with specialized skills.

    • If you have no choice but to heat your water with electricity, consider a heat-pump water heater. It uses one third the electricity of a standard electric water heater. But there are downsides: it will be much more expensive to buy and uses refrigerants that deplete the ozone layer and produce greenhouse gases. If you use a heat pump to heat and cool your house, you may be able to have it modified to also heat your water.

Benefits... your wallet
Energy-efficient water heaters typically cost more upfront but less in the long run when you factor in reduced energy bills. A tankless heater can reduce your water heating energy costs by 10% to 20% over a storage heater. the Earth
Using less hot water and choosing more efficient water heaters reduces fossil fuel depletion, CO2 emissions, and air pollution. Tankless heater and smaller storage heaters offer an additional benefit: they use less material to manufacture than large tanks.

Common Mistakes

Waiting for your water heater to fail. If your hot water dries up on the eve of your in-laws' visit, you might jump into a hasty purchase that you'll pay for in higher energy costs for years to come. Most storage water heaters last about 15 years (tankless should last about 20). If yours is approaching or has passed that age, consider replacing it now rather than waiting for it to fail. A plumber can give you an estimate of how much longer it's likely to last.

Getting Started

Choosing the most appropriate, efficient, and cost-effective water heater is a complex undertaking. The Department of Energy's Water Heating website has detailed information and worksheets that will take you through the details.

Related Products & Services

Friday, April 24, 2009

Water Filters


Water Filters

Get out the lead, and more

Most drinking water in the United States tastes good and is good for you. There's no need to filter it. But some people don't like the way their water tastes. And others have reason to believe their water is contaminated with lead, pesticides, arsenic, or other unsavory substances.

If you drink bottled water because you're concerned about water quality or taste, switching to home filtered water is usually easier on your wallet and on the planet (52 billion plastic bottles and jugs wind up in U.S. landfills and incinerators each year). Many of today's water filters are easy to use and inexpensive. If you plan to use a filter, here's what you need to know.

Top Tips

At home

  • Improve the taste. If you don't like the taste of your water, a simple activated carbon filter (either a carafe filter or a device installed on or near the faucet) will likely improve it. An even simpler way to eliminate the chlorine taste is to let a uncovered pitcher of water sit in the refrigerator overnight. The chlorine will be gone by morning.

  • Investigate contaminants. Because different filters remove different kinds of contaminants, you first need to find out what's likely to be in your tap water. Some substances, like arsenic, radium, and radon, occur naturally in the water in some areas. Others, like pesticides or nitrates from fertilizer and animal waste, make their way into water supplies from agricultural or industrial activities. Call your water company or read its annual water quality report, which must be sent to customers every year. The report will list recent water quality violations and disclose which contaminants may be a problem in your area.

    If you're among the 15% of Americans who rely on well water, the U.S. EPA recommends you have it tested annually for impurities such as coliform bacteria and nitrates. Ask your local or state health department for a list of state-certified testing labs. If you don't want to have the water tested, at least ask your health department about the types of contaminants likely to affect local well water.

  • Choose a filter--or not. After reading the municipal water report or having your well water tested, you might decide you don't need a water filter. But if there are tastes or specific contaminants you're concerned about, here are your choices:

    • Carafe filter. These pitchers have disposable filters. Most use granules of activated (positively charged) carbon to attract and trap contaminants. Cost: $15 to $25.

      • Improves taste. Reduces chlorine (some models also reduce chloramine, a disinfectant used by some water agencies instead of chlorine). Some models reduce lead, pesticides, or other contaminants; check label. Filter needs regular replacement. Convenient if you don't drink a lot of water and don't want filtered water for cooking.

    • Faucet, showerhead, refrigerator, countertop, and under-sink filters. Most use blocks of activated carbon to attract and trap contaminants. Some use fabrics, ceramic screening, or fiber as the filter. Cost: $20 to $500.

      • Improves taste. Reduces chlorine (some models also reduce chloramine). Some models reduce lead and other heavy metals, parasites, VOCs, pesticides, radon, or other contaminants; check label. Filter needs regular replacement. More economical than carafe filters if you drink a lot of water or want to use filtered water for cooking.

    • Reverse osmosis. Uses pressure to force water through a semi-permeable membrane, leaving behind contaminants. Cost: $150 to $900.

      • Improves taste. Kills bacteria and viruses. Removes lead and other heavy metals, nitrates, certain parasites, and many chemical contaminants (such as pesticides and petrochemicals); check label. Installed under sink. Filters require periodic replacement. Delivers water very slowly. Wastes three to five gallons of water for each gallon produced (because there's "reject water" that carries the concentrated contaminants, and is typically plumbed to the sink's drainage pipe).

    • Distiller. Boils water and collects the recondensed, purified water vapor. Cost: $100 to $2,000.

      • Kills bacteria and viruses. Removes lead, and other heavy metals, nitrates, radium and most chemical contaminants; may not remove some gases such as VOCs or radon; check label. Low-capacity distillers sit on the countertop. High-capacity devices are large freestanding units. Delivers water very slowly. Uses a lot of electricity. Removes water's natural minerals; may taste flat.

    • Water softener. Reduces hardness in the water by replacing calcium or magnesium ions with potassium or sodium ions. Cost: $400 to $1,600.

      • Reduces scale (calcium and magnesium mineral deposits) on plumbing fixtures and pipes and makes lathering up easier. Removes radium and barium. Installed as a whole house system. Filtration medium must be periodically regenerated with salt or potassium chloride; regeneration process wastes water.

    • Ultraviolet disinfection. UV light disinfects water, reducing microorganisms. Cost: $70 to $800.

      • Kills bacteria and viruses. Installed under sink or as whole house treatment, often combined with a carbon filter. Uses electricity (a 40- to 100-watt ultraviolet lamp remains on continuously).

When shopping, look for

  • Certification. Make sure the water treatment product you buy has certification from NSF (formerly the National Sanitation Foundation) International, Underwriters Laboratories, or the Water Quality Association. (An EPA registration number is not a performance certification; it merely means the product is registered as a device that contains antimicrobial agents.)

Other Considerations

  • Maintenance. All water treatment devices need regular maintenance to work properly. Follow the manufacturer's directions. With some systems, failing to replace filters or follow maintenance procedures can lead to the buildup of bacteria or other contaminants on the filter. With some systems, the yearly cost to replace filters can be two to three times the initial cost of the device.

  • Whole house or point of use? Whole house treatment systems are installed where the main water line enters the home, so all the water gets treated, not just your drinking water. That's a plus if you're trying to eliminate scaling or staining problems. But if it's just drinking water you're concerned about, a point-of-use filter at the kitchen sink will meet your needs. Point-of-use filters come in a variety of configurations, depending on the type of filtration system: some require no plumbing and screw right onto the faucet or sit on the countertop; others go under the sink and require some basic plumbing work.

  • Lead pipes. Water that's free of contaminants when it gets to a house can pick up lead from certain types of old pipes. Some house built before World War II still have their original lead-based water pipes. These should be replaced. Copper pipes installed before 1988 may have lead-based solder that can leach into the water. Have a plumber inspect the joints, or have the water tested for lead, especially if there are children in your household. Children are particularly susceptible to brain and nervous system damage from lead poisoning. If lead turns up in the tests, you can install filters certified to remove lead (or replace the pipes, but that can be pricey). Here's an alternative that doesn't cost anything: If the cold water tap hasn't been turned on for a few hours, run it for three minutes to clear out any water that may have picked up lead. Lead is more likely to leach into hot water than cold, so if you know there is lead in your pipes, never use water from the hot tap for cooking or drinking.

  • Emergency treatment. If a natural disaster such as a flood contaminates municipal water supplies or your well water, boil the water for a full minute to kill microbes (three minutes if you live at a high altitude). Store the water in a clean, covered container.

Benefits... you and your health
If your water has an off-taste, a basic carbon filter will usually improve it. If you're worried about specific contaminants, a filter or other treatment device can deliver healthier water--provided you install the right filter for that particular contaminant. your wallet
In most cases, a home filtration system will be cheaper than bottled water. Initial costs range from $20 carafes to systems that cost thousands of dollars. the environment
Switching from drinking bottled water to home-filtered water reduces the number of petroleum-based bottles that need to be manufactured, the amount of plastic waste that winds up in landfills and incinerators, and the fuel expended in delivering bottled water to homes.

Common Mistakes

Buying bottled water. Many studies have shown that bottled water isn't necessarily any healthier than tap water. In fact, the bottled water industry is less regulated than municipal water supplies. More than a fourth of bottled water brands are merely repackaged municipal drinking water. And tests have come up with a number of brands contaminated with bacteria, arsenic, and other potential hazards.

Getting Started

  • Faucet-mounted filters take only a few seconds to screw onto the faucet. Under-sink filters are fairly easy to install, although a reverse-osmosis filter takes a bit more effort because it needs to be hooked up to the sink's drain to discharge wastewater. A whole-house filter may take a few hours to install and typically involves cutting into the water supply line, but won't be hard for a handy DIYer.

  • Alternatively, you can buy a system and have a plumber install it, or purchase a filtration system from the plumber.

  • For general advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our "What to Ask Your Contractor" article.

  • For more details on specific filters, use the online NSF guide.

Related Products & Services

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Solar Hot Water


Let the sun do the work

Solar water-heating systems are different from the solar systems that make electricity. Collectors on your roof still grab energy from the sun, but in this case the energy is used to heat water. Of course not everyone has the right roof or enough sun to do the job. But the average U.S. household spends 11% of its energy budget heating water. So why not investigate your home's potential to provide you with a hot shower or warm pool from this abundant, free source?
Solar Hot Water

Solar water heaters for indoor water use save the most money if your household uses a lot of hot water--and if you use it from late morning through early afternoon when the solar collectors have maximum exposure to the sun. Smaller households that use hot water mostly early in the morning and in the evening can benefit, too, but the savings will be smaller.

Once the solar collectors heat the water, it's stored in an insulated tank until needed. When the sun isn't shining, the water in the tank slowly cools down, and a back-up water heater kicks in to boost the temperature.

By the way, if you had a solar water heater in the 1970s that didn't hold up, don't hold it against today's products. There's been a dramatic increase in reliability and efficiency since then.

See the very end of the article for more details on pools and hot tubs.

Top Tips

At home

  • How low can you go? Using less energy is always less expensive than producing energy--even if that energy comes from the sun. So before you make a move to solar heating, look for ways to reduce your hot water use. Take shorter showers, and showers instead of baths. Install water-saving faucets and showerheads. If you're buying a new dishwasher or clothes washer, choose a water-efficient model. Set your water heater temperature to 120°F, and turn it to "low" or "vacation" mode if you're going to be out of town for more than a few days.

  • Blanket your tank. Cut hot-water energy use by wrapping the water heater with an insulating blanket. They're inexpensive and readily available at home improvement stores.

  • Back it up. For regular household needs (kitchens, bathrooms and laundry), solar water heaters provide water from 110°F to 180°F when the sun is shining. To ensure plenty of hot water first thing in the morning and during cloudy stretches, however, most solar homes have a back-up fossil-fuel-fired water heater. The back-up heater can either be a conventional water heater or a tankless heater.

When shopping, look for

  • Certification. Choose a solar water heater system that's certified by Solar Rating and Certification Corporation (SRCC) an independent organization that verifies the performance of solar equipment.

  • An Energy Star. The government's labeling program for the most energy-efficient appliances and equipment, Energy Star, will begin covering solar water heaters in 2009. To earn the Energy Star label, a solar water heater must have certification from the SRCC and a "solar fraction" of at least .50. A solar fraction is the portion of the water-heating needs served by the solar system rather than the back-up water heater. A solar fraction of .50 means that 50% of the hot water is supplied by the solar heater and 50% by the back-up equipment.

Other Considerations

  • If you are adding solar water heating to an existing home, you'll need to consider whether the roof can take the added weight, whether you have adequate unshaded south-facing space, and whether there's room near your existing water heater for an additional storage tank and pipes. A solar designer or installer can evaluate these considerations for you.

  • Solar water heaters are most cost effective in sunny climates. In cloudy climates, you may need a larger, more expensive system.

  • For ideal performance, the solar collector should be located in an unshaded area that faces south. It should be tilted at an angle close to the latitude (a 37° angle for 37° latitude). But any orientation within 45° of south and any tilt from 15° to 60° will work well enough. If you have a pitched roof, you can mount the collector flush with the roof rather than having it jut out. Most solar water heaters today are streamlined and look like skylights on the roof from the exterior.

  • If your home is heated with hot water circulating in tubes under the floors, look into going solar. You need hot water anyway, so why not solar? In such radiant-floor heating systems, a solar water heater is backed up by a conventional one.

  • Check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) for information about incentives and rebates for solar water heating.

Benefits... your wallet
Solar water heating is much less expensive than solar electric and usually pays for itself in four to nine years. Most systems cost from $2,000 to $4,500. A typical household with an existing electric water-heating system could save up to $500 a year by going solar. If you have gas water heating, the savings are lower and the payback longer. But as natural gas supplies decline and prices rise, solar water heating will become a hedge against rising energy costs. the Earth
Solar water heaters reduce greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and demand for fossil fuels. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, replacing an electric water heater with a solar water heater offsets the equivalent of 40% to 100% of a typical passenger car's CO2 output.

Common Mistakes

Doing it yourself. Some very experienced DIYers buy solar water heating components and do the installation themselves, but it's not a project for the faint of heart. Most people have the systems professionally installed.

Getting Started

Here are some basic terms you'll encounter when you dip your toes into the world of solar water heating.

Most solar water heater systems have two basic parts: a collector and a storage tank. The collector sits on the roof (or another sunny location), and the storage tank usually sits next to the home's conventional water heater. Although most residential systems have a separate storage tank just for the solar heated water, some systems have tanks where the solar-heated and conventionally heated water mixes.

  • Flat plate collectors are the most common. A pump circulates liquid through the collector, which typically looks like a shallow glass-covered box. When the sun is shining, it heats up the liquid in the collector. When the liquid is hot enough, the pump comes on and moves the hot water to a storage tank. In some systems, the liquid is potable water that's stored in a tank that feeds into the home's hot water pipes. In other systems, the liquid is an antifreeze solution that flows through a heat exchanger to transfer heat (but not liquid) to the home's potable water.

  • An evacuated tube collector also uses a pump to circulate water. It's more efficient than a flat plate collector, but a lot more expensive. Water is heated inside a vacuum, so there's less heat loss than with flat plate collectors. Rather than looking like a glass box, the collector has rows of metal fins. As with a flat plate collector, the heated water is stored in a tank, usually next to the conventional water heater.

  • Batch collectors are considered passive water heaters. They don't use pumps, which reduces electricity use and maintenance. But they require the storage tank to be placed higher than the collector, so weight can be an issue if the collector and tank are on the roof. When water in the collector gets hot enough, it naturally rises and is replaced by cooler water from the storage tank. Batch collectors are best in mild climates where freezes are rare (in cold climates, they need to be drained for the winter months).

  • Before hiring a contractor, ask the following questions:

    • Does the solar professional have experience designing and installing the type of system you want?
      If you are in the market for a solar pool heater, for example, don't hire a contractor who has only installed photovoltaic systems.

    • How many years has the contractor has been in the solar business and how many installations have they done? Solar is booming in many parts of the country; be cautious about hiring a newbie contractor.

    • Is the contractor licensed? Some states require solar contractors to have special licenses; check with the contractors' license board in your state about requirements.

    • What specific services will the solar contractor provide? Most offer a "turnkey" service: they'll analyze your site and energy needs, design an appropriate system, procure the equipment and materials, handle the utility company and rebate paperwork, obtain any necessary permits, and install the system.

    • Are the bids you received based on comparable information? When evaluating bids, make sure they are for the same type and size system. The bids should include all costs associated with buying and installing the system, including hardware, installation, permits, and grid connection (for PV systems). For PV systems, the bids should state the expected energy output in kilowatt-hours. Bids for solar hot water systems should include an estimate of how much energy will be saved in kilowatt-hours or "therms" (which each contain 100,000 Btu).

    • For general advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our "What to Ask Your Contractor" article.

Pools and hot tubs

Solar pool heaters represent the majority of solar water heating systems installed in the United States. Solar pool heaters are simple technologies that require little maintenance and are cost effective. A typical solar pool heaters costs $3,000 and $4,000, and will pay for itself within two to seven years.

There's no need for a storage tank since the pool provides storage. The pool's existing pump circulates the water between the pool and the collector. The collector size needs to be 50% to 100% of the pool's surface area (the larger the collector, the longer you'll be able to extend the swimming season), but the collectors are more streamlined and unobtrusive than the solar collectors used for household hot water. In cold climates, the collector is usually drained for the winter so that water in it doesn't freeze.

You can also get a solar hot water system designed for use with a hot tub. As with a solar pool heater, the hot tub's pump circulates water between the hot tub and the collector. When the water in the tub reaches the desired temperature, the pump turns off. Solar hot tub heaters can be ground-mounted or roof-mounted.

Related Products & Services