Use the Right Stuff: Material and Mechanical Considerations for an Eco-friendly Home

Good design and construction will help you improve efficiency by limiting the amount of heat that can transfer through the exterior, but a good green home also takes usage into consideration. Your home has a long life span. Start it off right with sustainable systems and materials that enable you to keep your environmental footprint small while still living comfortably in the modern world.

  Eco-friendly options are almost always available and have become equal or nearly equal in cost...

Eco-friendly options are almost always available and have become equal or nearly equal in cost...

MATERIALS

Building elements are made up of all sorts of materials, and some are more eco-friendly than others. In addition to having a negative environmental impact, poor quality building materials can also affect your indoor air quality and the healthiness of your home. 

Make sure your builder uses materials that are labeled no- or low-VOC and do not have added formaldehyde. Some of the materials that might have unwanted toxins include:

  • Insulation
  • Adhesives
  • Sealants
  • Caulk
  • Flooring
  • Carpet
  • Countertops
  • Plywood
  • Sheathing
  • Paint and polyurethane 

Eco-friendly options are almost always available and have become equal or nearly equal in cost, but if your builder doesn’t know that it is important to you, they might use whatever they have on hand or the cheapest option.

PLUMBING

Water consumption is an important part of living a sustainable lifestyle. Low-flow fixtures and toilets help reduce water use during daily activities like washing dishes and showering. Virtually all major manufacturers offer low-flow solutions so you can choose from a broad range of fixtures to match your style. The technology has improved over the years so most of the time you aren’t even aware that you are conserving water. 

Water reclamation systems that reclaim greywater from sinks, dishwashers, tubs, and showers are a great way to conserve water, especially in areas that are subject to drought. However, these systems tend not to be cost-effective in New England because water shortages are rarely a problem. Of course, water conservation is always a good practice, so if you want to invest in these systems it is always an option. 

APPLIANCES

Energy Star is the benchmark for energy efficient appliances in the United States and it is not difficult to find a broad range of options from almost every manufacturer. Although Energy Star appliances sometimes cost more to purchase, they will save you money on utility costs over the life of the equipment, and you can sometimes immediately save with local and national rebate programs. 

Energy Star certifies almost every type of appliance, some types of building products, and various electronics. Many people choose Energy Star for major kitchen appliances like refrigerators and dishwashers, but do not necessarily think about other certified products, such as: 

  • Air purifiers
  • Televisions
  • Telephones
  • Heat pumps
  • Ventilation fans
  • Ceiling fans
  • Light fixtures and bulbs
  • Computers and peripherals
  • Water heaters
  • Washing machines 

A notable exception is that Energy Star does not currently certify residential ovens, ranges, and microwaves. 

LIGHTING

The humble light bulb has come a long way since its invention. Modern bulbs are designed to consume considerably less energy while producing the same amount of light and lasting substantially longer. Recent improvements in light quality and the ability to dim have made non-incandescent bulbs a viable option in virtually any setting. Energy efficient alternatives to traditional incandescent bulbs include compact fluorescent (CFL) and light-emitting diode (LED) light bulbs. They might come with a slightly higher price tag in the immediate future, but they can last for years and will help you save significantly on utility costs. 

MECHANICAL SYSTEMS

After you have created a super tight home with air sealing, thick walls, and added insulation, it’s important to ventilate it properly. Natural ventilation, which is achieved by simply opening the windows, is best because it allows stale air to flow out and fresh air to regularly flow in without requiring any energy. However, if you live in New England you know that natural ventilation is not possible in the wintertime and can bring in unwanted humidity in the summer months. The solution is mechanical ventilation. Traditionally, home ventilation has been managed with familiar systems like exhaust fans in the kitchens and baths. Today, improved ventilation technology is also available, such as heat recovery ventilators (HRV) or energy recovery ventilators (ERV). 

Exhaust fans remove stale, moist air from the bathroom after showering and from the kitchen while cooking, but as you do this, air is pulled in from the outside through all the remaining holes in your house, wherever they may be. HRVs and ERVs bring in fresh air from the outside in a very controlled way and pass it through a heat exchanger that transfers heat from the conditioned indoor air that is being expelled. This allows you to get fresh air in your home from a safe source without using a lot of energy to bring it to the desired temperature. 

Heating and cooling mechanical systems are also important for any home. In a green home, you want these systems to consume as little energy as possible without sacrificing comfort. A tightly sealed home that is properly insulated requires much less heat input to keep it comfortable because all of the warm air stays in the home and does not escape through cracks and gaps. A lower heat load means that you can use smaller, more efficient systems (such as a triple-efficient electric heat pump) instead of an oversized fossil fuel burning furnace. 

Heat pumps work in the winter by transferring heat from the outside air to the air inside your home. In summer the process reverses and heat is transferred out of your home to the air outside. You get the benefits of heating and cooling with one system, which means you don’t have to purchase an air conditioner to feel comfortable on the occasional hot summer day in New England. Heat pumps also cost less to run than standard electric heating systems or furnaces.