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Practical Sustainability

Practical Sustainability: Recycle Your e-Waste

Both of our printers died recently.  Our workhorse laser printer, which started the 21st century on my desk, finally gave up the ghost, as did my multifunction inkjet printer.  When I crawled under the desk to unplug everything, I rediscovered an old desktop computer that I had decommissioned earlier this year.  And when I opened the “computer stuff” box to put away the cables, I found a couple of old cell phones and their chargers. 

If you’re like me, you know you shouldn’t throw old electronics away in your garbage (in fact, more than half of the 50 states have e-waste recycling laws), but if you don’t know what to do with the products at the end of their lives, you end up with a junkyard of old equipment cluttering your closets and drawers.  By the time we scoured our home for e-waste, we had amassed a carload of computer equipment, empty toner cartridges, cell phones and cables.

Our e-Waste
More e-Waste

When cell phones, computer monitors and other e-waste are discarded into landfills, they risk contaminating soil and groundwater with lead, bromine, mercury, arsenic, cadmium and other toxic chemicals.  And because of rapid obsolescence, the amount of e-waste our society generates is accelerating.  In “Electronic Waste Management Approaches: An Overview” published in the scholarly journal Waste Management, the authors, Kiddee, Naidu and Wong cite proper collection and recycling of e-waste as one of several strategies that are key to successful e-waste management.

So, with this in mind, I set off last weekend to find a place to properly dispose of my trove of obsolete electronics.  My daughter, my nephew and I loaded up the car and made our way across the Brooklyn Bridge to the Gowanus E-waste Warehouse run by the Lower East Side Ecology Center.

Brooklyn Bridge

The Gowanus E-waste Warehouse is a vast warehouse filled with unwanted electronic equipment. 

Gowanus e-Waste Warehouse

New electronics, like overstocked chargers still in their packaging, are sold in the warehouse store, as are movies, video games and refurbished electronics.

“Vintage” pieces are cataloged and held in an area where they can be rented as props for movie or theater productions. 

Decommissioned computers and phones are boxed or shrink-wrapped on pallets and sent off-site for recycling. 

The Lower East Side Ecology Center guarantees data security regardless of whether the donated equipment is recycled or reused.

The Ecology Center’s electronic waste program has been operating since 2003.  The organization explains, “According to the E.P.A., electronic waste contributes 70% of the toxins found in landfills, while only contributing 1% of the volume of materials in landfills…Recycling your electronic waste decreases energy and water use, reduces pollution, and keeps hazardous chemicals out of our air and water. Reusing unwanted electronics offers even bigger environmental benefits along with social benefits: creating local jobs and making technology accessible to people who might not be able to purchase new computers.”

DSC_0274.JPG

If you reside in the New York City area, consider dropping off your e-waste at the Gowanus warehouse.  If that’s not convenient, the program offers events throughout the city.  Click here to see the Lower East Side Ecology Center’s Event Calendar (or here to learn about the 12th annual “After the Holidays” E-Waste Collection Series).  And if you live elsewhere in the country, check out the US EPA’s eCycling web resources to learn about regional and state ecycling programs near you.

As you gear up for Thanksgiving, consider gathering up all of your electronic waste and taking it to a recycling center.  Or, if you have children, ask their school’s sustainability club or department to host a school-wide e-waste recycling drive. 

Let’s give thanks to our planet by keeping these materials out of the waste stream!

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Practical Sustainability: The Cost of Cleaning Green...It's Lower Than You Think!

I am the first to admit that I’ve come late to the “green” cleaning party.  I’ve been buying organic groceries and local produce for years…but I’m a creature of habit and I just haven’t found the time to look for new cleaning products.  And I also figured it would probably be expensive to make the switch to products that might not clean as well as what I already had on hand.  If you’re like me, and you haven’t gotten around to changing your cleaning supplies, it's time to think again! 

We are building Sunset Green Home to LEED® for Homes standards (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).  The house will have a very tight building envelope with minimal air leakage, which makes it more difficult for toxins that enter the home to find their way out.  So the LEED® for Homes green building program prescribes a number of ways to maintain healthy indoor air quality (read my earlier article on indoor air quality here) - including keeping toxins from entering the home in the first place.  LEED also provides strategies for keeping pollution out of our community's fresh water sources.  Combine these two elements of the LEED program, and it makes no sense to bring toxic cleaning supplies into Sunset Green Home only to have them either dissipate into the air or be flushed down our sinks and toilets.

With indoor air quality and clean waterways in mind, I recently set out to understand the availability of highly rated non-toxic cleaning supplies that are safer for the environment.  

First I took a walk down my own hall of shame and identified 10 cleaning products in my home that were given a failing grade of “F” by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit organization whose Guide to Healthy Cleaning “analyzes toxicity and safety information relevant to human health and the environment and gives cleaners a letter grade corresponding to how well or poorly they rate.”  Next, I identified a product in each of the categories represented by the products in my cleaning cupboard that had received a grade of “A” from EWG.  I looked up both products on Amazon.com, converted to a unit price (for example, price per load for laundry detergent pods), and made the price comparison (I included the cost of shipping if an item was not available in the Amazon Prime subscription delivery service).  I tallied things up across all of the categories using a quantity that represented my best guess at our household’s annual consumption. 

Here are the results (click here to open as a PDF)…

What I learned is that I can use "A" rated cleaning products for essentially the same total annual cost of using brand name products that receive failing grades.

In case you’re wondering how these environmentally friendly cleaning products stack up against the competition in terms of their ability to get the job done, all but two of the “A” graded products I used for my comparison carries a rating greater than 4 out of 5 on Amazon.com. If you want to learn more about the safety and effectiveness of green cleaning products, check out organizations like Consumer Reports, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Working Group.    

In researching this article, I reached out to Peter Graham, the Chairman of the Board of Seventh Generation, one of the leading companies in the healthy cleaning products industry.  He stressed that, in formulating its products, his company practices the "Precautionary Principle," telling me that Seventh Generation "will not use a chemical in our formulations unless it is proven safe."  The Seventh Generation Blog explains "So what is the 'precautionary principle' all about? Basically, if an action is suspected to cause harm to the public or to the environment, those taking the action must prove that it is not harmful. That means corporations or governments must take responsibility that their products and policies do not cause harm to people or to the environment. The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm."  

Seventh Generation is not alone, and the cleaning products industry is changing for the better.  The American Cleaning Institute, whose vision is to enhance "health and the quality of life through sustainable cleaning products and practices" highlights its members' sustainability initiatives and successes and provides information on steps consumers can take to make better cleaning product purchasing and disposal decisions.  

So what are you waiting for?  "Green" cleaning products work.  They’re not more expensive. And did I mention that they’re better for human health and for the environment?  So the next time you need to buy detergent or glass cleaner or multi-purpose surface wipes, make a change to green cleaning products.  The environment will thank you...and so will your pocketbook!

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Practical Sustainability: Don’t Flush that Medicine!

In honor of the Ninth National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, which will take place tomorrow, this month’s Practical Sustainability column addresses the environmental impact of pharmaceutical products in our waste stream, and what you can do about unwanted prescription and over-the-counter medicines.

Discarding unused drugs and personal care products down the toilet is a common but poor disposal method. Source: USEPA.gov

Discarding unused drugs and personal care products down the toilet is a common but poor disposal method.
Source: USEPA.gov

When you threw out your back last year, perhaps the doctor gave you a prescription for a stronger pain reliever.  Or maybe you found some bottles of unused medications after a relative passed away.  Or your kids have grown up and you don’t need pediatric cough syrup anymore.  There are many reasons why we accumulate unneeded and unused prescription and over-the-counter drugs.  You don’t want them lying around your home, but how do you get rid of them?  Whatever you do, don’t flush that medicine!

According to the University of Illinois, “Septic systems and most municipal wastewater treatment facilities are not designed to remove pharmaceutical chemicals from the water.  Different treatment techniques are successful at removing some of the chemicals, but current technology does not completely remove all pharmaceutical chemicals from treated water.  The presence of pharmaceutical chemicals in sewage sludge is also of concern, as it is often used on agricultural land as a fertilizer.” 

CitizensCampaign.org reports that 41 million Americans are exposed to trace amounts of pharmaceutical products in their drinking water.  According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), “Chemicals are being discovered in water that previously had not been detected or are being detected at levels that may be significantly different than expected.”  USEPA publishes a detailed diagram of how Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) can enter our water supplies.

Scientific research is underway to determine the long term effects of pharmaceutical products in our waterways.  More research needs to be done, and we need more facts about the long term human and environmental impacts of pharmaceutical disposal.  But even before all of the facts are gathered and analyzed, there are things we can do to reduce our impact when we dispose of medications.

Tomorrow, September 27, 2014 is the Ninth Annual National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day.  So clean out your medicine cabinet today, use the DEA’s online tool to find a collection site near you, and then while you’re out and about tomorrow, stop by one of the sites where you can dispose of the medications safely and know that you’re doing your part to keep our agricultural lands and waterways free of medication contaminants.

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Practical Sustainability: No More Catalogs, Please!

Did you know…

  • Each adult American receives approximately 41 pounds of junk mail annually, according to 41pounds.org
  • About half of the junk mail we receive goes straight to the landfill…unopened.  That’s over 5 million tons of unwanted ads and catalogs
  • Included in the tally are unopened preapproved loan and credit card solicitations – a boon for identity thieves
  • The industry responsible for the largest use of water in manufacturing activity is the pulp and paper industry
  • The response rate to all of this resource hogging direct mail is a paltry 4%

Fairly recently, I opened a plastic shrink-wrapped collection of catalogs from a direct mailer who claimed to be mailing all of its annual catalogs at one time in order to reduce its carbon footprint.  The only problem?  The catalogs weighed over 15 pounds in total and I dumped all but two of the multiple “books” directly into my recycling bin.  Not a very environmentally friendly marketing strategy, IMHO. 

And this is what I came home to today...2.2 pounds of junk mail (for the record, we have two adults in our household, so if every day were like today, we'd receive about 300 pounds EACH of junk mail annually):

One day's junk mail...2.2 pounds of catalogs and direct mail solicitations

One day's junk mail...2.2 pounds of catalogs and direct mail solicitations

This month’s Practical Sustainability column offers tips that you can use to reduce the junk mail you receive, shrink your carbon footprint and save our forests. 

First, tap into the direct mail industry’s free resource, the National Do Not Mail List.  Operated by DirectMail.com, a service provider to the direct mail industry, enrollment in the service takes just a few minutes.  DirectMail.com doesn’t promise that the service will eliminate all unwanted mail (they specifically don’t handle mail addressed to “owner” or “occupant”), but the company maintains the list and says that “mail-order companies don't want to waste their money sending mail to people who don't want to receive it. They'll gladly take your name off their lists when they're asked to do so.”

DMAchoice.org (which is operated by the Direct Marketers Association, a consortium of direct marketers) says its nearly 3,600 member companies “must follow the DMA member guidelines, including honoring a consumer's request to be removed from future mailings.”  The service is free if you sign up on line (there’s a small fee if you want to submit your preferences by mail).

I signed up for both services, each of which only took a few minutes.  Note that you’ll have to verify your email address when you set up your account – and the first email I received from DMAchoice.org went into my spam filter!

OptOutPrescreen.com, operated by the major consumer credit bureaus, provides a free service to manage the “preapproved” offers you receive for credit cards and insurance products.  Senior citizens, who may already have all of the credit and protection products they need, are good candidates to opt out of future mailings, as seniors are more vulnerable to identity theft and therefore may want to reduce the number of preapproved offers they receive. 

CatalogChoice.org is another free service that allows you to communicate your preferences to direct mailers.  Its parent company is TrustedID, a for-profit identity theft protection service.

Want to stop receiving Yellow Pages and other telephone directories?  Visit the National Yellow Pages Consumer Choice & Opt-out Site to opt out. 

There are several direct mail management services that you need to pay for, like StopTheJunkMail.com and 41pounds.org.  They claim to contact direct mailers individually on your behalf, so may be more effective than the free services.  As with any paid service, check user reviews before you make a purchase and understand exactly what the service is going to do for you.

While this article addresses the catalogs and direct mail solicitations that clog your physical mailbox, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) publishes information on how to stop unsolicited phone calls and emails as well.  You can access their report here.

By reducing the volume of junk mail you receive, you’ll be saving our forests and our water supplies, and will reduce the carbon emissions from manufacturing and transportation.  Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Practical Sustainability: Hello Sunshine! Goodbye Dryer...

Laundry on the line in Dubrovnik, Croatia

Laundry on the line in Dubrovnik, Croatia

We just returned from our summer vacation, where we visited friends and stayed at private homes booked through AirBNB.com in several European towns and cities.  Each of our homes-away-from-home had one thing in common: they had washing machines, but none had dryers.  Once I got used to having to wait a day for dry clothes, I started to wonder if it might make sense to import this practice back to the USA, where over 83% of American households own a dryer, according to a report published by the US Census Bureau.

So what does drying our clothes really cost in environmental terms?  It turns out that a clothes dryer is the third biggest energy-hogging appliance in most US households (behind water heaters and refrigerators).  By ditching our dryers, which use 71% of the energy required for a load of laundry and produce 127 million tons of CO2 per year, we could eliminate the equivalent carbon emissions of approximately 30 coal-fired power plants annually.  And while eliminating or reducing our dryer use will clearly help the environment, there are other benefits to hanging our clothes to dry:

  • Saving energy means saving money.  According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a typical US household spends $100 on its annual utility bill to operate an electric dryer and $40 to operate a gas dryer.  But our household is not typical and we estimate our costs to be significantly higher.  In fact, I calculated our per load costs based on my utility bill using this calculator and discovered that depending on whether or not I amortize the utility connection fees and taxes in my calculation – it costs between $0.30 and $1.30 to use our gas dryer for 45 minutes (or $0.70 $0.90 if our dryer were electric).  Multiply that by the number of loads you do in a year, and that represents real potential for savings.
  • Reduced dryer use translates to less wear and tear on your clothes.  Have you ever thought about the lint in your filter?  That's a layer of your clothing literally tumbling away.  And heat causes shrinkage.  Hanging your clothes to dry will protect them from shrinking.
  • There are indirect savings to be captured as well.  If you hang your clothes indoors in the winter, you'll have a free source of humidity as moisture evaporates into the air.  And if you forego the use of your dryer in the summer, you will save on the cost and environmental impact of your air conditioners as well.

What if you just can't bear the thought of ditching your dryer?  Or you live in a community that doesn't allow you to hang your laundry outside to dry?  There are things you can - and should - do to reduce the environmental impact of your laundry practices...

If You're In the Market for a New Dryer

If you're in the market for a new dryer, consider a highly energy efficient unit.  According to a report released last month by the Natural Resources Defense Council, simply raising US dryers to standards already in place overseas, Americans could save $4 billion dollars annually on their utility bills. By switching to the most energy efficient dryers, American households could prevent 16 million tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere every year.  That's equivalent to the carbon dioxide sequestered by nearly 12 million acres of US forests per year (I used this EPA calculator).

Until 2014, heat pump dryer technology – the most efficient available, and already commonplace outside the US – wasn't available here.  That seems to be changing with LG's announcement of its model DLHX4072V heat pump condensing dryer. According to LG, “using a heat pump to preheat the air coming into the dryer recovers this heat and saves electricity, because it takes less electricity to move the heat than to create it with a conventional heater…In conventional dryers, all the energy that is used to evaporate the moisture in the clothes is vented outside and lost. The hybrid dryer technology is able to recover some of this wasted energy and use it to evaporate more moisture, saving energy.”  According to Consumer Reports, energy savings for the LG model may be as high as 50% versus conventional dryers. 

Starting next year, clothes dryers will be able to seek ENERGY STAR certification, which will require that they be 20% more efficient than standard models.  At a minimum, look for an ENERGY STAR rating when you’re shopping for your next dryer.

If You Can't Part with Your Existing Dryer

If replacing your current dryer isn't an option, then take the following steps to be as environmentally mindful as possible:

  • Use a drying rack and hang as much to dry as you can.
  • Clean your lint filter before every load.  Yes...EVERY load.  Pushing hot air through a clogged lint filter uses as much as 30% more energy than is required by a dryer with a clean filter.  It's that simple.
  • Use the highest spin setting on your washing machine that your clothes can tolerate.  Washing machines are much more efficient than dryers.  If you take the water out of the clothes with the washer, your dryer won't have to work so hard.
  • Use your dryers moisture sensor setting and remove the clothes when they're just slightly damp.  Your clothes will last longer than if you over-dry them.  And, if you hang them up right away, they'll require less ironing.
  • Dry multiple loads in succession.  It costs less to dry two loads one after another because you're able to use the heat you've already generated in the drum to dry the second load.

Weve been back for two days now and Ive cycled quite a number of loads of our familys laundryand have happily hung our clothes out to dry.  Go aheadgive it a try.  Hello sunshine!  Goodbye dryer

 

Practical Sustainability is a monthly column that offers ideas and tips for things we all can (and should!) do to live a more sustainable life on a limited budget. Past articles have addressed low flow shower heads, LED light bulbs, and cleaning the air filters on air conditioners and household appliances.

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Practical Sustainability: Clean Your Filters Before You Use the A/C

There is evidence everywhere around us that spring has sprung.  Flowers are blooming, the trees are in full leaf, and my asparagus patch is almost finished for the season.  And…it’s been warm enough on a couple of days already that we’ve started to use our air conditioning.

And this reminds me that it’s time to clean my filters.  Clogged filters can lead to higher energy bills, excess strain on air conditioners and other appliances that require air filtration, and a drop in indoor air quality.

So here’s my mea culpa.  I am guilty of allowing filters all over my home to get unbelievably nasty.  And that’s why this month’s Practical Sustainability column is about spring cleaning…of all of the filters in my home.

I started with the window air conditioner from my home office, whose filter was almost completely clogged.

My home office window air conditioner filter before...

My home office window air conditioner filter before...

...and after.

...and after.

And then I moved on to my daughter's through-wall air conditioning unit that contains two side by side filters.  I cleaned the one on the left.  Before I did so, it looked just like the one on the right.

Two filters from my daughter's through-wall air conditioner - one before and one after cleaning

Two filters from my daughter's through-wall air conditioner - one before and one after cleaning

And this is what my refrigerator coils looked like.  Not so bad, since I had a service call a couple of months ago and the serviceman vacuumed the condenser area. 

The refrigerator condenser fins before...

The refrigerator condenser fins before...

But the fan side was still pretty dirty and the coils definitely needed some vacuuming.  The serviceman warned me to turn the refrigerator off before cleaning, and to be careful not to crush the condenser fins while cleaning them.  Here it is after a careful vacuuming with the dusting attachment of my vacuum.

...and after cleaning

...and after cleaning

Most of our apartment is served by a central air conditioning system, whose washable filters are located near the two air handlers.  I replaced those as well.  And cleaned the dishwasher-safe baffle filters of my range hood.  I replaced the filter on our water jug.  I even cleaned the filter on the back of our hair dryer to make sure it was running smoothly.  And lastly, I replaced the vacuum cleaner’s filter! 

The best part of this month’s Practical Sustainability activities?  It cost me nothing and took only a few minutes of my time.  The LEED green building program recommends replacing heating system and air conditioner filters every 3 – 12 months (and according to manufacturer instructions). 

So what are you waiting for?  Look around your home for everything that has a filter.  And then go clean it!  You’ll breathe easier.  Your appliances will thank you.  And your energy bill will reflect the effort.

Happy cleaning!

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Practical Sustainability: It's Time to Change Your Lightbulbs!

You've heard about LED light bulbs.  But you're still using incandescent bulbs?  It's time to make a change!

When most of us think about "going green," we imagine ripping open our walls to accommodate new insulation, spending thousands of dollars on solar panels, or perhaps hiring an electrician to install smart thermostats. 

One 60W Cree LED bulb in each of the bedside lamps and three 75W Cree LED bulbs in the overhead fixture

One 60W Cree LED bulb in each of the bedside lamps and three 75W Cree LED bulbs in the overhead fixture

These may all be worthwhile investments.  But they’re projects that take planning and motivation.  And the LEED for Homes program (in which Sunset Green Home is participating) rewards projects for both large and small sustainability measures.  So in this month's Practical Sustainability column, I say start with something easy.  There’s one thing that you can do today - right now, even! - to reduce your impact on the environment without breaking the bank. 

What I'm talking about is changing your light bulbs.  And I don’t mean CFLs.  Frankly, I've never been a fan of them.  And they still come fraught with disposal problems (and woe to you if you break one and have to deal with a mercury spill). I'm talking about LED light bulbs.  They've come way down in price, emit light that is comparable to your existing incandescent bulbs, and - if you happen to be a card-carrying member of the AARP - they'll last long enough that you may never have to change your light bulbs again!

Between February 2012 and March 2013, the US Department of Energy conducted a three-part study that evaluated the life-cycle impact of LED replacement bulbs versus CFLs and traditional incandescent lamps (you can read a summary of the study here).  On almost every dimension evaluated, LED light bulbs come out ahead. 

On an apples-to-apples basis, life-cycle energy consumption of LED bulbs (including the energy used in manufacturing, packaging and transporting the bulbs, in addition to the energy consumed when they are in use) is roughly equivalent to mercury-containing CFLs, and only one quarter that of traditional incandescent bulbs.  2015 LED performance targets, if met, would decrease their life cycle energy use again by half, making LED bulbs the clear winners in terms of energy consumption.

We are choosing LED light bulbs for the Sunset Green Home project for several reasons.  In addition to their energy efficiency, LED light bulbs produce light without the heat of incandescent bulbs.  Less heat means a lower cooling load, and that will enable us to reduce the size of our HVAC equipment.  So, we'll save money over time with the lower energy consumption of LED light bulbs and we'll save money up front by purchasing less cooling capacity in our air conditioning system.

I have been trying out LED light bulbs in my apartment so that I'll know what to buy when the Sunset Green Home is completed. I've replaced my incandescent light bulbs with Cree's soft white (2700K) 60W and 75W equivalent standard LED bulbs, and TCP's 40W equivalent candelabra LED bulbs from Homedepot.com (I also tried 3000K LED bulbs from a "big box" store, but I prefer the Cree and TCP bulbs' color and light quality; there are still many brands that I haven't tried). My dimmer switches are over 10 years old, and I've had no problem dimming any of these bulbs. These bulbs cost me on average less than $10 apiece.
In fact, although this article was scheduled for later this month, I was motivated to publish it now because I just learned that Homedepot.com is having a sale on the Cree bulbs that have worked so well for me! Click on the image or the link below to take advantage of the sale on Home Depot's 6-pack of 75W equivalent Cree LED bulbs.
Cree 75W Equivalent Soft White (2700K) A19 Dimmable LED Light Bulb (6-Pack) BA19-11027OMF-12DE26-1U110

My parents visited me recently and were impressed with the look and light quality of the LED bulbs in my apartment. When my mother, who is in her 70s, described placing a step stool on top of their mattress and then trying to keep her balance while changing the bulbs over her bed, I thought "never again!"  We walked to my local Home Depot and bought her some of the Cree LED light bulbs so that she can replace the bulbs over her bed and in her kitchen recessed light fixtures – and I can rest easier knowing that I won’t get a phone call about how she broke a bone falling off a ladder while trying to change a light bulb!

If you’re looking for justification for changing to LED light bulbs, here you go:

1.     They’re more energy efficient.  Over their lives, they’ll save you money

2.     They’re friendlier to the environment than CFLs and even traditional incandescent bulbs

3.     LED light bulbs should last for years – so putting them in hard-to-reach places is a “no brainer” – you may never have to change the bulbs again…and this is great news if you are more “senior” and don’t want to risk falling from a ladder!

Having had such success replacing my incandescent bulbs, I have decided to replace the light bulbs in 22 recessed low voltage halogen fixtures too.  These bulbs are more expensive, but I've had trouble with the halogen bulbs' light output and dependability (not to mention that they're energy hogs!), so I'm eager to try something different, and LEDs appear to be the best option.  At around $30 per bulb, I'm going to replace them in batches, starting with my recessed kitchen fixtures.  I'll report back when I have a final result!

So what are you waiting for?  This is Practical Sustainability...It’s time to change your light bulbs.  And LED light bulbs are the answer!

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Practical Sustainability: Change To Low Flow Shower Heads

One of my subscribers recently commented that she hoped I would post some practical tips for making an older home more energy efficient and environmentally friendly.  So today I’m launching the first of a monthly series I’m calling “Practical Sustainability” – things we all can (and should!) do on a limited budget.  This month’s column is all about showers - specifically, changing to low flow shower heads.

Our newly installed low flow shower head

Our newly installed low flow shower head

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), showers account for 17% of residential indoor water use.  If your shower heads were installed prior to 1994, their flow rate may be as high as 5 gallons per minute (gpm), or 2.5gpm if they were installed after 1994 (and nobody tampered with their flow restrictors).  Today’s water-saving low flow shower heads that have earned the EPA’s “WaterSense” label have a flow rate of no more than 2gpm.  If each member of your family of four takes an eight minute shower, you could save as much as 16 gallons of water PER DAY if you swap out your old 2.5gpm shower head for a WaterSense shower head.  That’s almost 6,000 gallons of water annually…

Now that I have your attention, what does this really mean in terms of your impact on the environment?  First, if you’re like me, you probably prefer a warm shower to a cold shower!  And that means you’re using energy to heat all of that water.  The EPA estimates that if every household in the US installed WaterSense low flow shower heads, we’d save $2.6 billion in energy costs for heating water alone.

And now think about where that wasted water comes from and where it goes after it heads down your drain.  If your water comes from a municipal source, the water was treated at a water treatment plant and then piped to your home.  By using less water for showers, you’ll reduce the size of your water bill and lower the stress on our treatment and sewer systems.  California and other western states are experiencing a severe drought this year – a continuation of the conditions that earned 2013 the dubious honor of being the “driest year in recorded history for many areas of California.” So, saving water isn’t only about the impact on our wallets – but it’s also about recognizing that water is a scarce resource that we need to conserve.

And yet…haven’t we all encountered a cheap plastic hotel shower head that barely provided enough pressure to rinse the shampoo off a bald person’s head?  And is THAT what we’re signing up for if we switch to WaterSense labeled shower heads?  I recently embarked on a very unscientific search for an answer. 

As it turns out, we had a leak a couple of months ago from our master shower into the apartment below us.  We had to demolish the shower in order to replace its leaky shower pan.  We had renovated our apartment about 10 years earlier and had installed – and were very happy with – 2.5gpm Speakman Anystream shower heads in all of our showers.  Unfortunately, for some inexplicable reason, our shower head started spraying water from the perimeter of its faceplate following the shower stall repair.  Since we need to select shower heads for the Sunset Green Home, I decided to look at this as an opportunity to “test drive” Speakman’s low flow 2.0gpm Anystream shower head (Sunset Green Home will earn one point under the LEED® for Homes rating system by installing shower heads whose average flow rate is 2.0gpm or less).

I’m an Amazon.com junkie (ever since I purchased their Amazon Prime service, which gives me free two-day shipping on nearly everything).  So I turned to Amazon, where I found the S-2252-E2 low flow shower head for $66.48 (a 34% discount from the list price…and as of the date of this article the price has fallen even further, so I'm about to purchase a second one for my children's bathroom).  It came with plumbers’ tape and took about 45 seconds to install.  All I needed was a set of pliers.

And while my trial of a single shower head certainly can’t claim to be representative of an entire product class, I’m happy to report that the low flow Speakman Anystream shower head delivers on its promise.  It provides a stream of water that handily rinsed the shampoo out of my long thick hair.  Did I notice that the water flow is lower than with my old shower head?  Yes.  But did I find it problematic?  Not at all.

So go ahead…change to low flow shower heads.  Do something for the environment that won’t break the bank.  And check back next month for another Practical Sustainability column!

Leave a comment and share which low flow shower head works for you!

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