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The guide to sustainable home improvements & maintenance

Did you know that about 40% of all energy used in the United States goes to heating and cooling buildings according to Energy.gov? And buildings account for 38% of carbon dioxide emissions according to the Environmental and Energy Institute. Plus, buildings use 12% of total water consumption1. Sustainable living really does begin at home.

Our buildings are also essential to our health since most of us spend up to 90% of our time indoors2. Indoor air quality is important for all of us, but particularly for young children whose lungs and bodies are growing quickly and people with asthma and respiratory issues. But indoor air quality isn’t the only thing that matters to our health. It’s also essential that we’re exposed to good light and beautiful views, no matter where we live. When we feel good at home, we feel good. Period. And what’s more important than that?

Now that you see why it’s so important to take steps toward a healthier and more sustainable home, it’s time to take action. You’ll notice that some sustainable home improvements are easy, and others require a bit of time, money, and planning. I hope you’ll consider this as a living document to refer to as you make improvements and also as you plan for future upgrades, rather than a giant list of things you have to do today.

I’d also like to mention that the sustainable home market is growing quickly. There are new products and solutions coming out every year that are making it easier and less expensive to make your home healthy, efficient, and less reliant on fossil fuels. So think of this as the beginning of a journey, not a destination.

Make any house a sustainable home

  • Download the FREE green home checklists.
  • Get the Pocket Guide to All Electric Retrofits of Single Family Homes.
  • Learn the strategies used by LEED professionals to make your home greener, healthier, and all-electric.

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    Use renewable energy when possible

    • Ask your utility about renewable energy options – Many utilities and communities have invested in renewable energy options that homeowners and renters can take advantage. For example, in San Jose we have a program called Total Green that allows us to get 100% clean energy at home by paying a few dollars extra per month. If you’re interested in using renewable energy but you’re not ready to commit to a home solar system check with your local utility or community to see if there are similar programs.
    • Get a solar roof system if you live in a warm climate with a lot of sun.

    Related: The solar home guide for a single-family residence

    Improve energy efficiency

    • Use Energy Star appliances.
    • Use the Energy Star Home Advisor to improve energy efficiency.
    • Use the Energy Star Home Energy Yardstick to measure your energy use.
    • Get a cool roof when it’s time for a new roof if you live in a warm climate.
    • Add or upgrade insulation.
    • Use a smart thermostat like Nest.
    • Buy LED lights when replacing light bulbs.
    • Use a service like OhmConnect to help you reduce energy use during peak hours. Contact your utility to find out if a similar service is available for your community.
    • If you’re building a new home or planning a remodel consider getting a HERS rating.

    Related: Our sustainable home plan for going electric

    Cool roof front of house
    Our cool roof (above) looks like every other composite roof in our neighborhood.

    Buy and recycle appliances properly

    • Look for Energy Star-rated appliances.
    • Recycle appliances properly: Call your local waste management company to learn how or check out Earth911.org.
    • Repair and replace air conditioners properly.

    Keep HVAC filters clean

    Clean HVAC filters help improve indoor air quality and energy efficiency. Dirty filters make it more difficult for your HVAC system to push air through which increases energy demand. Full HVAC filters can only hold so much dust and air particles. So changing (or cleaning reusable filters) often helps keep your indoor air quality clean and helps improve energy efficiency. A few tips:

    • Use MERV 8 or higher air filters.
    • Change air filters every 90 days when the HVAC system is rarely used (fall and spring).
    • Check or change air filters every month during high use times (like winter and summer).

    Improve indoor air quality

    • Test your home for radon every other year.
    • Use green cleaning products.
    • Use a green pesticide and termite company.
    • Use the settings on your smart thermostat to remind you to change the air filters.
    • Run the hood fan while cooking.
    • Run the bathroom fan when showering.
    • Clean hood vents every 90 days.
    • Upgrade to an induction or electric range or cooktop instead of natural gas.

    Related: Easy and inexpensive indoor air quality solutions

    Use upcycled and sustainable materials

    • Use wood that’s Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified.
    • Use recycled or salvaged building materials when appropriate.
    • Look for Green Label Plus certified carpets and rugs.
    • Look for Made Safe certified mattresses and furniture.
    • Buy furniture you will love in the long run and that can easily be cleaned or modified.
    • Use rapidly renewable materials like linoleum instead of vinyl (PVC).
    • Use Rate it Green to find green buildings products, services and companies.  

    Related: 10 environmental problems and solutions

    Electric fireplace insert surrounded by upcycled shiplap boards.
    Our electric fireplace (above) was framed with upcycled shiplap boards that had been on the walls.

    Increase water efficiency

    • Use WaterSense certified low flow water fixtures.
    • Use Energy Star rated appliances.
    • Plant a native or water-efficient garden.
    • Use mulch in drought-resistant yards.
    • Avoid invasive plants.
    • Avoid artificial turf.
    • Check your water meter if you suspect leaks.

    Related: The guide to sustainable living

    1 "In the United States, buildings account for 39 percent of total energy use, 12 percent of the total water consumption, 68 percent of total electricity consumption, 38 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions."https://archive.epa.gov/greenbuilding/web/html/whybuild.html
    2 "In the last several years, a growing body of scientific evidence has indicated that the air within homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities. Other research indicates that people spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors. Thus, for many people, the risks to health may be greater due to exposure to air pollution indoors than outdoors."https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/inside-story-guide-indoor-air-quality
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