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Practical Sustainability

Practical Sustainability: Reduce Your Impact from Plastic Bags and Films

I’m upping my recycling game in 2017.  My new year’s resolution was to divert more of our home’s waste stream and, as January draws to a close, I’m happy to say our household is off to a good start!  How are we doing it?  For starters, we have changed our use and disposal habits for plastic bags, wrap and film.

Most of us have heard of the garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean and are aware of the devastating impact of plastics on marine life.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), plastics that make their way into the oceans “do not mineralize (or go away) in the oceans and instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces,” where they can be ingested by fish and other marine wildlife and cause “irritation or damage to the digestive system…and this could lead to malnutrition or starvation” of the animals that populate our oceans. 

In a November 2016 article, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that “worldwide, as many as one trillion plastic bags are used each year and less than 5 percent of plastic is recycled.”  Beyond the obvious pollution impact of plastics, plastic bag manufacturing is heavily reliant on fossil fuels.  The EPA points out that “in the United States, we use over 380 billion plastic bags and wraps yearly, requiring 12 million barrels of oil to create.”

On the bright side, we CAN recycle plastic bags, and manufacturers use them to create plastic lumber for furniture and decking, playground equipment and even new (recycled and recyclable) plastic bags.  And by changing some of our habits, we can reduce our use of plastic film in the first place. 

So how do we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and environmental impact from these products?  Follow these simple tips for use and disposal of plastic bags and film…

  1. Carry your own reusable bags to the grocery store or ask that your groceries be packed in paper bags instead of plastic.  If you have spare grocery store bags at home, take them with you and reuse them on multiple shopping trips.  While some municipalities have enacted bans on single use plastic bags, a recent backlash against “ban the bag” laws is making is harder for lawmakers to legislate away our plastic bag habit – so it falls on us as individuals to make the environmentally friendly choice.
  2. Further reduce your reliance on plastic films by packing leftovers into reusable washable containers rather than covering them with plastic wrap or freezing them in plastic.  In December, I visited a friend whose home was stocked with stackable rectangular glass containers that she used to freeze leftovers.  To keep frozen food from developing freezer burn, choose glass containers that have airtight silicone seals.  Alternatively, consider wrapping freezer items in foil or wax paper instead of plastic.  If you’re going to freeze liquids, make sure to use a Mason jar or other canning jar, and leave plenty of head space for expansion (or your jar may burst – something I recently experienced when freezing homemade chicken broth).   
  3. If you have a pet, opt for biodegradable pet waste bags instead of plastic.  While reusing your newspaper delivery bag or grocery store bag may seem like a good idea, the plastic bag will still end up in a landfill after you pick up your pet waste.  Biodegradable pet waste bags are inexpensive and are a more environmentally conscious choice. 
  4. If plastic bags and films make their way into your home, take them to a collection center near you for recycling.  In the first three weeks of January alone, our family has collected and recycled four large bags of plastic film-based products (grocery store bags, zipper bags, plastic wrap, air pillows used as packing materials, etc.).  Curbside programs typically don’t accept plastic bags and films because their facilities are set up only to handle rigid items.  But grocery and large retail stores often have recycling receptacles where you can leave your grocery store bags, clean food wraps, dry cleaning bags and other flexible plastic films.  Check out to learn which plastic film products are recyclable and to find a collection station near you. 

Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!

Plastic bag image courtesy of foto76 at


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Practical Sustainability: Evict the Vampires from Your Home

At this year’s Greenbuild convention, the annual expo and conference for the green building industry, I attended an education session about how to control plug loads in commercial and residential buildings.  One of the session’s speakers described a case study in which a business installed TrickleStar Advanced Power Strips to tackle “vampire” loads that occur when devices that are not in use continue to consume electricity.  In fact, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “Nearly one-quarter of home energy use is consumed by vampires.”

So, when I decided recently to reorganize my home office, I felt it was a perfect opportunity to install a smart power strip to help evict the vampires from my home.  In my home office, I have:

  • A land line telephone.  The phone itself operates without electricity, but needs power to act as a speakerphone
  • A multi-port switch, which enables me to connect a networked printer and computer even though I only have one Ethernet jack in the room
  • A desktop computer with two monitors and external speakers
  • A desk lamp with a 60 watt halogen bulb (shame on me for not replacing the bulb when I did a lighting retrofit a couple of years ago)
Nearly one-quarter of home energy use is consumed by Vampires.
— Natural Resources Defense Council

To be able to quantify the savings, I enlisted the help of TrickleStar and Belkin, each of which provided products for me to test out. 

Belkin Conserve Insight™

Belkin Conserve Insight™

First, I plugged my existing power strip into the Belkin Conserve Insight™ Energy Use Monitor, a device that measures energy consumption, and converts it into an average annual or monthly cost (using an electricity rate that I was able to specify) and a cost in terms of CO2 production.  I monitored the “before” condition for several weeks and learned that my typical consumption was approximately 70 watts without the desk lamp and 125 watts with the lamp turned on.  Using the printer caused the energy consumption to spike even further.  On average, my typical use was costing me $150 and generating over 750 pounds of CO2 annually.  As an aside, the Belkin Conserve Insight has a nifty five-foot cord that connects its LCD screen to the device outlet - which saved me from having to move a file cabinet each time I wanted to check my consumption reading. 

TrickleStar 7-Outlet Tier 1 Advanced PowerStrip

TrickleStar 7-Outlet Tier 1 Advanced PowerStrip

So what happened when I swapped out my old power strip for TrickleStar’s 7-Outlet Tier 1 Advanced PowerStrip (APS) with 1,080 joules of surge protection?  The TrickleStar APS has one “control” outlet into which I plugged my computer, and four switched outlets, into which I plugged my speakerphone, monitors, and external speakers.  Whenever my computer enters sleep mode or is turned off, power is cut off from all of the devices plugged into the switched outlets. 

I left the printer and multi-port switch plugged into two outlets that are “always on” on the TrickleStar APS.  The printer is networked and available to other users in my household, so I didn’t want it to be turned off when my desktop computer went to sleep. 

When I set up the APS, I also realized that I needed to tweak the power management settings on my computer to make it go to sleep.  Simply going through this process made me aware of how poorly I had been managing the electric consumption of my home office equipment. 

My new setup, with the TrickleStar APS helping me save energy

My new setup, with the TrickleStar APS helping me save energy

So how am I doing now?  The Belkin Conserve Insight™ Energy Use Monitor now estimates I’m using approximately $80 annually and generating around 400 pounds of CO2 – a savings of almost half of my previous setup.  With a retail cost of $29.99 for the Belkin monitor and $29.99 for the TrickleStar APS (both of which are available for even less on at the time of this blog’s publication), that’s less than a one-year payback period. 

Could I be doing better?  Probably.  I’m pleased that the TrickleStar Advanced PowerStrip is helping us to control the energy usage of the computer setup, but the two “always on” devices still draw approximately 7 watts of power (when the multi-port switch is on and the printer is in standby mode).  At a cost of $0.24 per kWh (kilowatt hour), these two devices alone cost $14.70 annually.  But until I install a smart outlet that turns itself off overnight when I know nobody in my household is using the printer, I don’t have a better workaround.  Still – this is just 10% of the estimated cost of the entire setup that the Belkin energy monitor had initially measured.  And I haven't yet tackled other parts of my home where I'm sure other vampires are lurking.

NREL has created a useful guide to help you select the right type of advanced power strip for your application. 

Were there any additional benefits of installing a smart power strip?  As an added bonus, I removed a surge protector power strip that was many years old (too old to count!).  Surge protectors don’t last forever.  Each time they experience a surge, their performance degrades and over time they lose their protective capability.  While most experts won’t put an expiration date on a surge protector they do agree that surge protectors should be replaced every few years.  Click here for more about surge protector performance.

So how can you evict the vampires from your home?  Follow these five simple tips:

  1. You can't manage what you can't measure!  Use an energy monitor like the Belkin Conserve Insight™ to know how much energy your devices are drawing, even when they’re idle.  This will help you figure out what areas to target.  The likeliest candidates will be your computer and your TV/gaming console setup.  But look further afield at phone chargers, hair dryers and other appliances that may be drawing phantom power when they aren’t in use.
  2. Unplug!  Consider unplugging appliances and devices that you don’t use frequently.
  3. Use internal power management features like those on your computer to put your devices to sleep when they’re not in use.
  4. Install smart power strips like the TrickleStar Advanced PowerStrip to control the consumption of power by groups of appliances.
  5. Finally, whenever you purchase new appliances, look for ENERGY STAR models that will use the least amount of energy.

Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Practical Sustainability: Don't Flush That Medication!

This Saturday, October 22, 2016, is National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. 

Held annually throughout the country, National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day provides a safe way to dispose of medications that are no longer needed. 

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 safely get rid of them?  Whatever you do, don’t flush that medicine!

Why is this a topic for a sustainability blog? 

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

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

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.” 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.

According to the US EPA, improper disposal of prescription medications increases the risk that they end up in our rivers, and lakes and potentially into community drinking water supplies.  And wastewater treatment plants aren’t equipped to monitor or treat pharmaceutical compounds.

So, over the next few days, consider cleaning out your medicine cabinet and taking unwanted prescription medications to a drop-off point for safe disposal.  Click here to locate a collection site near you.  And help to keep our water supplies healthy for humans and aquatic life.

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Practical Sustainability: Saving Water Without Sacrificing Shower Performance

If you've been following our blog, you may remember that our very first Practical Sustainability column advocated switching to low flow shower heads.  At the time I had written about a low flow Speakman shower head, which I thought was a great product.  I had purchased my "test" shower head as a replacement for a 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm) Speakman shower head that had been a great work horse for a decade.  

In these dog days of summer, when many regions have been experiencing extreme drought conditions, I'm revisiting the topic.  In the past 2+ years, we have seen additional technological advances.  What was a good idea back then is a great idea now.  

According to the US EPA's web site, showering accounts "for nearly 17% of residential indoor water use."  Switching from standard 2.5 gpm shower heads to EPA WaterSense labeled shower heads that use 2.0 gpm of water not only saves water, but also saves on energy used to heat the water.  In fact, if every US household made the switch, we would realize nationwide annual savings of more than 260 billion gallons of water and $2.6 billion in energy cost.  For reference, a billion gallons of water is a year's worth of water for 250,000 people. 

Hansgrohe Croma Green Showerpipe

Hansgrohe Croma Green Showerpipe

For many of us, however, the term "low flow shower head" conjures up images of dreadful motel showers with barely a trickle of water.  After installing WaterSense shower heads ranging from 1.75 gpm to 2.0 gpm, I can attest to the fact that you don't need to give up performance to save water.  Sunset Green Home installed Hansgrohe shower pipes in several bathrooms.  They use Hansgrohe's AirPower technology, which mixes air with water to deliver a satisfying shower through their 2.0 gpm shower heads and 1.75 gpm handheld shower components.  They're as green as they are beautiful.  

This spring, I attended Buildings NY, a trade show for building owners and operators, and spent some time at the convention's product expo.  I happened upon the Speakman booth and showed the company reps the blog I had written two years ago.  In response, they told me about several additional technological advances and encouraged me to try a couple of their newest products. 

Speakman 2.0 gpm Hotel Pure Low-Flow Shower Head

Speakman 2.0 gpm Hotel Pure Low-Flow Shower Head

We installed the 2.0 gpm Speakman Hotel Pure Low-Flow filtered shower head in our master bathroom.  We had already swapped our 2.5 gpm shower head for a 2.0 gpm shower head two years ago, so I wasn't expecting any additional water savings.  However, I was intrigued by the Hotel Pure's ability to remove nearly all of the chlorine that is added to our municipal water supply - a boon for skin and hair (particularly for those of us who color our hair and know how much damage chlorine can do).  We haven't been disappointed. 

Speakman 1.75 gpm Echo Multi-Function Low-Flow Shower Head

Speakman 1.75 gpm Echo Multi-Function Low-Flow Shower Head

We also tried the Speakman Echo Multi-Function low flow shower head, which uses 84 individual nozzles to deliver several spray patterns.  We have been using the 1.75 gpm version with great results.  We installed it in a small shower whose 2.5 gpm shower head was so forceful that we would regularly find puddles of water on the floor outside the shower.  Now we're enjoying a comfortable shower and 30% water savings.  Three sets of house guests this summer have commented on how nice the shower is!

If changing your shower head seems like a daunting task, check out the slide show below.  Anyone can change a shower head in a matter of minutes.  It's easy!  So go ahead and give it a try.  You'll reduce your water bill and save precious resources at the same time.  Now that's what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Practical Sustainability: Check for Water Leaks…That Little Drip is More Costly Than You Think

I fixed a leaky faucet today.  The job took about three minutes to do, thanks to the simple instructions sent to me by the manufacturer, California Faucets.  It was just a little drip…but little drips can be costly to the environment and dangerous for your home. 

About a month ago, my daughter – who doesn’t live at home anymore – mentioned that the cold water tap in her bathroom was dripping.  In truth, I rarely go into her bathroom, so I have no idea how long the faucet was leaking.  But if you’ve been following my blogs, you know that I like to quantify the impact of the issues I write about, so I decided to do the same here.  I timed how long it took to fill a measuring cup to the ¼ cup mark and here’s what I got:

Actual time to capture ¼ cup of water: 4.75 minutes

Calculated time to capture 1 gallon of water: 304 minutes

Minutes in a year: 525,600

Gallons of lost water in a year: 1,729

1,729 gallons!  That’s a lot of water from a small drip.  According to the US EPA, our leak, which would represent approximately 1.6% of the water use of an average American family, is actually on the low side.  In fact, the agency estimates that 13.7% of domestic water use is attributed to leaks. 

With this back-of-the-envelope math in hand, I began to wonder…How much am I paying as a result of this leak, and does this represent the true economic cost of the problem?  This sounds like a leading question…and it is.  According to the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, NYC water costs 1 cent per gallon.  At this price, the leak in my daughter’s sink would cost me approximately $17 per year.  But if I have other undetected leaks and lose water at the average rate of 13.7% of annual water use, the cost rises to $150 annually.  However, neither one of these figures represent the true economic and environmental cost of the water leak.

The billed water cost may be somewhere in the order of $17 - $150 per year, but that’s only part of what I’m paying for.  So what is missing? 

  • If the water leak is in a hot water tap (this time it wasn’t, but now I’m speaking hypothetically), I will also be paying for the energy to heat the water.  According to the US Department of Energy, “Water heating is the second largest energy expense in your home. It typically accounts for about 18% of your utility bill after heating and cooling.”
  • What comes in must go out.  Water that goes down the drain ends up in the sewers, and in NYC, we pay sewerage fees as well.  So I’m paying for the water that comes out of my daughter’s leaky faucet and I’m paying again for that same water as it leaves my building through the drain. 
  • When I send clean, treated water into the sewer system, it returns to a sewage treatment plant where it will be unnecessarily treated again.  In municipalities where wastewater volume outstrips the ability of the system to process it, water utilities are forced to invest in additional capacity – representing a capital cost that is ultimately passed on to consumers. 
  • When a leak goes undetected for a prolonged period of time, the risk of mold growth and property damage increases.  There may be significant cost involved in mitigating the problem once it has gotten out of hand.  Several years ago, we learned that one of our shower pans had failed and was leaking into the apartment below ours.  Thankfully our insurance covered most of the cost of the damage – but we still had to pay the deductible, and both we and our neighbors had to endure the time and headache involved in coordinating and completing the repairs.

Data to quantify these additional costs is hard to find.  But the argument for detecting and repairing leaks still makes sense.  So here’s what we can do to minimize our water consumption from leaks:

  • Periodically check your toilets for leaks.  Pour a teaspoon of food coloring into the tank of your toilet.  Wait 10 – 20 minutes and then look to see if the colored water has leaked into the toilet bowl.  If the water in the bowl is colored, you have a leaky flapper that may need to be replaced.  Some utilities and municipalities (like New York City) provide free test kits with dye tablets that you can drop in your tank. 
  • Check your faucets for leaks on a regular basis – particularly in rooms that don’t see much use.  In the case of my daughter’s bathroom sink, I called the faucet manufacturer, California Faucets, and learned that I had a lifetime warranty on the faucet cartridge.  The company’s customer service was excellent – they not only sent a new cartridge, but also emailed step-by-step instructions that enabled me to change the faulty cartridge myself in less than three minutes (check out the slide show below to see how easy it was to fix the leak). 
  • Look under your washing machine and dishwasher, and at the pipes inside your kitchen and bathroom sink cabinets for dripping or pooled water that indicate you have a leak.
  • If you have an automatic irrigation system for your lawn or garden, check for puddles or areas where water seems to be bubbling up from the ground.  And check where your garden hose attaches to the hose bib.  If water is leaking at the connection, apply some plumbing tape to create a better seal.
  • Review your water bill to see if your consumption patterns have changed.  If you can’t explain why your water consumption has increased, you may have a leak that you can’t see and that may need to be reviewed by a professional. 

Adding leak detection to your home maintenance routine makes good sense.  Leaks can often be repaired for little or no cost, and can save you money and headaches in the long term.  Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability.

Practical Sustainability is a periodic column that provides practical, low-cost tips for living a more sustainable life.



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STOP! Before you throw it away…

...Check the warranty and call the manufacturer!  You may very well be able to fix it for free or at a minimal cost.

In this month’s Practical Sustainability column, I advocate for reaching out to the manufacturer before you replace something that you think might be irreparably broken.  Think of "Repair" as an add-on to the familiar "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" adage.

Last month, several of our plumbing fixtures developed problems.  This came as little surprise to me.  After all, our fixtures are now 14 years old, dating back to 2002 when we purchased and renovated our apartment.  And we live in a 100 year old building with hard water.  Our fixtures have been workhorses and have served us well all this time.  But after a decade-and-a-half of use by a family of five, our fixtures started to show some wear and tear.

I believed at a minimum that I’d have a really expensive visit from the plumber and that I’d potentially have to replace my kitchen faucet.  But then I gave some thought to calling the manufacturers, and here’s what I learned:

  • My Grohe kitchen faucet, whose spray function recently stopped working, has a lifetime warranty.  Grohe sent a new faucet head, and all I had to do was unscrew the old one and screw in the new one
  • Our daughter’s bathroom sink faucet by California Faucets was also under warranty, and so the company offered to send a new cartridge to stop a drip that had developed on the cold water side (stay tuned for a post dedicated to quantifying the environmental cost of the leaky faucet)
  • While our toilet tank filler was no longer under warranty, the technical customer service representative at Toto was able to pinpoint the issue and then sent me links to the exact replacement part I needed ($25 from Toto or $12.50 by a third party).  In the interest of full disclosure, after a robust conversation about sustainability and why New Yorkers don’t seem to be as concerned about water conservation as Californians, the Toto representative sent the part to me for free.
All the parts we needed to repair two faucets and a toilet - sent under warranty by the manufacturers

All the parts we needed to repair two faucets and a toilet - sent under warranty by the manufacturers

So why am I writing about this as a Practical Sustainability topic?  For a couple of reasons…

  • Repairing, rather than replacing, an item minimizes the amount of waste you send to landfill.  I have consulted with manufacturers for warranty repairs on everything from the lid of my favorite sauté pan to a number of parts on my Weber barbecue grill to the plumbing fixtures described above.  In each case, a short phone call resulted in my receiving the parts I needed to make a simple repair and extend the life of my product.
  • There’s an embedded environmental cost (“embedded energy” or “embodied energy”) in all physical goods, which derives from the energy used to manufacture them, the resources expended to transport them, etc.  Avoiding a complete product replacement is a more environmentally friendly choice.
  • Specifically where plumbing is concerned, some of us may live with a small leak longer than we should out of concern over the disruption and cost of having to schedule a plumber’s visit.  By emailing photos of the fixtures to each of Grohe, California Faucets and Toto, I was able to diagnose the issue and have the replacement part on site in advance of calling the plumber.  In fact, I am planning to make the repairs myself, as the manufacturers also sent installation instructions to me – so the total dollar cost of fixing the issues will be zero.  But if you feel more comfortable calling on a plumbing professional (or other contractor, depending on what you need to have repaired), at least you can minimize the cost and hassle by having the right parts on hand before the appointment.

So the next time you think about replacing an item, considering repairing it instead to minimize the embodied energy and cost of doing so.  And when you're making a product purchase, consider the terms of the manufacturer's warranty and the company's record for customer service.  Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!


Practical Sustainability is a periodic column that provides practical, low-cost tips for living a more sustainable life.

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Practical Sustainability: Clean Your Filters!

Spring has sprung!  So it's time for spring cleaning.  And that means cleaning or replacing the filters in all of the equipment and appliances in your home that use them.  You'll find filters in your heating and air conditioning system, ventilation system, refrigerator, vacuum cleaner and elsewhere.  Dirty filters reduce the performance of your systems and cause them to use more energy as a result.

Clogged filters not only reduce the energy efficiency of your HVAC systems, but they have the potential to affect the quality of the air in your home.  According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, filters, "if loaded to excess, will become deformed and even “blow out”, leading to clogged coils, dirty ducts, reduced indoor air quality and greater energy use."

When Sunset Green Home's whole home ventilation system – a Zehnder ComfoAir 550 – was commissioned last fall, the intake and outflow of the system was tested and adjusted so that each room was receiving the amount of fresh air required by the system design.  Our LEED Green Rater, Rich Manning, recently stopped by the house and retested the air flow, which he found to have dropped below the design parameters.  His recommendation...change the air filters. 

Check out how easy it was to change the filters:


Where to Look for Filters in Your Home

Look for the following filters and make sure to replace them as part of your spring cleaning:

  • Refrigerator.  If you have an ice maker or a water dispenser on the door of your fridge then you likely have a filter.  You may have noticed that your water dispenser has slowed to a trickle.  That's an indicator that your filter is clogged.  You can easily order a new filter and replace it yourself.  You should find instructions on how to do it in your user manual.
  • Air Conditioner.  Whether you have a portable window unit, a through-the-wall installed unit, or central air conditioning, you will have filters – and they need to be cleaned every two or three months when your air conditioners are in use.  For window and through-the-wall units, it’s easy to clean the filters yourself – just open the front panel and remove the (washable) filter.  Clean it and replace it.  If you have central air conditioning and are somewhat handy, you’ll generally find air filters at the air handling units and potentially behind your return air grilles.  Remove the old filters and replace with new filters (which you can order on line from a number of sources).  Make sure to turn the A/C units off before replacing the filters.
  • Vacuum Cleaner.  Even the best quality vacuums can’t do their jobs if their air filters are clogged.  You want your vacuum not only to pick up larger bits of dirt and dust, but also to trap small particles that you may not be able to see.  One set of new filters is generally included in the package when you purchase new bags.  Don’t forget to install a new filter each time you open a new box of vacuum bags.
  • Ventilation System.  If you have a separate whole home ventilation system, make sure, as I described above with our Zehnder ERV, to change the filters regularly.  Check out the slide show above to see how easy it is!
  • Furnace.  Like your central air conditioning system, your furnace will also have a filter near its intake/outflow blower fan.  Turn the furnace off, slide the filter out of its housing, insert a new filter and close the access panel.
  • Kitchen Hood.  The range hood over your stove may have washable baffles or metal mesh filters.  Make sure to clean them regularly to keep your fan from having to overwork to clear the air.  Follow the manufacturer’s instructions – mine go right into the dishwasher!
  • Dryer Lint Filter.  While you’re at it, make sure to check the lint filter in your dryer (which you should clean before every load in order to reduce the risk of a fire).

It’s that easy!  You’ll feel better knowing that your filters are trapping the contaminants in your air and water, and your equipment will run more efficiently. 

Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Practical Sustainability: Landscape Maintenance for Longevity and Sustainability

As a new homeowner, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to control my cost of home ownership – and making the connection between maintenance and sustainability.  After all, if we can make our possessions last longer by maintaining them in good working order, we will have to replace them less frequently – and that’s better for the environment. 

But why am I writing about landscape maintenance in January?  We live in the northeast, which experienced a major snowstorm a week ago.  As the storm was approaching, I called Marcus Stinchi of Stinchi Landscaping and asked what we could do to protect the new trees and plants that had been installed as part of the LEED® Platinum certified Sunset Green Home project. 

Marcus recommended that we:

  • Install tall stakes up the driveway to mark the border between the driveway and the adjacent planting beds to prevent snow plows from accidentally damaging the young plants that are still low to the ground
  • Spray anti-dessicant on broadleaf evergreen trees when the temperature will be above freezing for at least 24 hours.  Organic anti-dessicants provide a protective waxy coating that prevents moisture loss through the leaves and needles during dry, windy and cold winter conditions.  According to Marcus, "Anti-desiccant protects the trees from the harsh winds and salt. Often the 'burning' you see on trees is from them drying out from harsh winds or salt damage from the ocean."
  • Wrap newly planted trees in burlap to protect them from the drying effect of high winds predicted to arrive with the storm.  We may not need to provide this same level of protection once the trees have had a couple of years to establish themselves, but Sunset Green Home has a number of recently planted native evergreen trees.  Protecting them with burlap is akin to purchasing an insurance policy for them. 

The most sustainable strategy for native landscaping is to preserve what is already planted.  Trees and plants need time to become established and can take many years to grow to mature size.  So when harsh winter conditions threaten, it makes sense to give some thought to winter landscape maintenance. 

Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Practical Sustainability: Offset Your Carbon Footprint

In describing the unusual weather patterns we’ve experienced recently, today’s New York Times reports,

“This El Niño, one of the strongest on record, comes atop a long-term heating of the planet caused by mankind’s emissions of greenhouse gases. A large body of scientific evidence says those emissions are making certain kinds of extremes, such as heavy rainstorms and intense heat waves, more frequent. Coincidence or not, every kind of trouble that the experts have been warning about for years seems to be occurring at once.”

Each month my Practical Sustainability column recommends small actions that individuals can take to reduce their impact on the environment.  Over the course of this year, I have recommended such actions as growing a vegetable garden, reducing consumption of meat products, washing clothes in cold water, using biodegradable pet waste bags and replacing bathroom fans with ones that are more energy efficient. 

But, try as we might, it is impossible for most people to have zero impact on the environment.  So, this month’s Practical Sustainability column advises that we learn about our individual carbon emissions and then consider purchasing carbon offsets to bring down our carbon footprints.

Carbon footprint calculators abound.  Try the calculators at such non-profit web sites as The Nature Conservancy or Foundation.   Or on the web sites of companies like TerraPass.  Or visit the US EPA web site where you can use a calculator on line or download it into Excel.  According to the Nature Conservancy calculator, my household’s carbon footprint is 32 tons of CO2 annually, which compares favorably to a US average of 80 tons per year, but is considerably higher than a world average of 17 tons annually (carbon footprints of households in developing economies are much lower than in those of developed nations). 

Once you know your individual or household carbon footprint, consider purchasing carbon offsets. explains it this way: “Carbon offsets let you help build projects in communities across the country that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions beyond what you can achieve through individual action. Carbon offsets are purchased to fund these projects and diminish the impact of your own GHG emissions, even though the projects are located elsewhere. Carbon Offsets make environmental and economic sense- for emissions that are impossible to reduce, you can use funds to help reduce emissions elsewhere.”  You can invest in carbon offsets by supporting organizations like the ones mentioned above whose projects reduce carbon emissions through renewable energy and reforestation. 

Make sure to support organizations whose projects are verified by third parties and whose results are audited for accuracy.  The Natural Resources Defense Council provides some helpful guidance for identifying and evaluating carbon offset projects.

So, as 2015 comes to a close, think about what you can do in 2016 to reduce your environmental impact…and then consider carbon offsets for the balance of your carbon footprint.  Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Practical Sustainability: Reduce Your Meat Consumption

This month's Practical Sustainability column proposes that you consider reducing your meat consumption for a direct impact on greenhouse gas emissions. 

According to a 2013 study published by the United Nations, Tackling Climate Change through Livestock, 14.5% of the greenhouse gas emissions related to human activity are generated by the global livestock industry, with beef and cattle milk responsible for the greatest emissions (41% and 20% of the industry sector's emissions respectively) by animal species.

Earlier this month, I attended the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, an annual event for sustainability professionals.  James Cameron, filmmaker and environmentalist, was the keynote speaker at Greenbuild’s opening plenary session.  He presented a compelling case for reducing our consumption of meat and animal products for environmental reasons.  His vegan diet (which avoids all animal products) may not be for everyone.  But it did get me thinking about what would happen if each of us made a small change in our dining habits.     

So what adjustments can we, as individuals, make to reduce our consumption and our impact and what is it worth in environmental terms?  According to the Environmental Working Group, "If everyone in the U.S. ate no milk or cheese just one day a week, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles - or taking 7.6 million cars off the road." 

For me, this looks like a day that begins with soy or almond milk in my coffee, oatmeal with blueberries for breakfast, a salad at lunchtime made with greens, chick peas, carrots, walnuts, beets and avocado, and a tofu stir fry with green beans and mushrooms for dinner.  This isn’t a sacrifice in terms of enjoyment or nutrition.  So I’ve been cutting out meat and dairy two to three days each week since I learned how easy it can be to make an immediate impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

There are health benefits to a non-meat diet as well.  Vegetarian diets tend to be higher in fiber and lower in fat and cholesterol than meat-based diets.  According to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, there is some evidence that vegetarians are at lower risk of heart disease, certain types of cancer (particularly colon cancer, whose only “convincing” dietary association is with consumption of red meat) and Type 2 diabetes.

So when you get up tomorrow morning, think about drinking your coffee black and making it a day with no meat or dairy.  Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!



Image courtesy of Sura Nualpradid at

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Practical Sustainability: Take One Action Today

I live in an apartment building, so I don't see my neighbors over the backyard fence.  Instead, my chance encounters tend to take place in the elevator.  And yesterday morning I had an unsettling conversation with one of my neighbors in the elevator as we were both heading out to work.  It went something like this:

Me: "Did you see the front page article in the NY Times about the melting ice sheet in Greenland?"

Neighbor: "I did.  Those poor people up in Greenland.  They're losing their country."

Me: "Yes.  And the rest of us...all that melting water is affecting us too.  I feel like we're leaving a legacy of a ruined planet for our grandchildren."

Neighbor: "That's true.  Some scientists are going to have to work really hard to try to fix this"

Me: "And us too.  People are going to have to change their habits."

Neighbor: "If it would only help..."

With that we left the building and headed our separate ways.  And I've been mulling over that conversation ever since.  Do we, as individuals, really believe we can't have any impact on greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change?  Does our inaction reflect an overwhelming sense of if our individual actions can't make a difference?  In truth, I had never really though of it this way.  I guess I have always chalked individual inaction up to narcissism or selfishness or a sense that this is someone else's problem.  But never that it reflected a sense of hopelessness.

Three years ago today Hurricane Sandy pummeled the east coast and left our home uninhabitable.  And I was feeling pretty hopeless.  But today, three years later, our new green home has just been completed, we're finalizing the paperwork for our LEED certification, and making sustainable choices no longer feels's just part of how we live.

So in this month's Practical Sustainability column, I offer some facts as an encouragement for individual action.  Think about what you can do...and then multiply that by the number of people in your family, the number of families in your community, the number of communities in your state.  

  1. Replace incandescent bulbs in the lights you use most frequently with LED bulbs.  According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, you can save up to $70 on your electric bill.  And if you replace five 75W bulbs with LEDs that use a quarter of the energy, you will save the equivalent of the CO2 emissions from burning 1,820 pounds of coal.
  2. The next time you fill up your gas tank, fill up your tires as well.  The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that more than 25% of cars suffer from under-inflated tires of 8psi or more below the manufacturer's recommended level.  Under-inflated tires can lower gas mileage by 0.3% for every 1 psi drop in pressure. For a car owner who drives 15,000 miles per year in a car that earns 20 mpg, proper tire inflation can provide the equivalent carbon sequestration as that of five trees grown for 10 years.  
  3. Install a power strip and use it to power down your computer, printer and accessories at the end of the day.  In the US alone, idle electronics account for the equivalent annual output of 12 power plants!
  4. Use cold water for your wash loads.  90% of laundry energy use comes from heating the water.  Consumer Reports estimates that a family can save $60/year on average by reducing its wash temperature.  And by only running loads when you have enough to fill the machine, you can save up to 3,400 gallons of water annually, according to the US Department of Energy.

The numbers add up very quickly.  Take heart!  Your small individual actions can make a world of change.  Now that's what I can Practical Sustainability.


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Practical Sustainability: Grow Your Own!

Monday night was my night to make pickles.  My garden cup runneth over where cucumbers and dill are concerned, and my father-in-law had brought five pounds of beans over to me from his garden.  As I was busy pickling, I started to do some mental math about how much money I was saving and the impact of my gardening activities on the planet.  It all added up to a simple conclusion: gardening saves money and natural resources and – as an added bonus – provides me with the comfort of knowing where my food comes from and what has gone into its production (here’s a hint: just water…no chemicals).

In one evening, I pickled 10 quarts of beans and cukes.  At $8 or $9 per PINT for gourmet pickles in the market, that’s over $150 in pickle value.  And what did it cost to make?  Less than a dollar each for the reusable canning jars, just a few dollars for vinegar and spices, and less than $3 each for packets of organic bean and cucumber seeds.  And our bean and cucumber plants aren't nearly finished producing yet!

Cucumber vines and dill heads in the Sunset Green Home garden

Cucumber vines and dill heads in the Sunset Green Home garden

I can’t help but factor in the environmental impact of having my own organic garden.  I didn’t have to burn any fossil fuel driving to the market to buy my pickles, and no fossil fuels were consumed in transporting the pickles to the store to be sold. 

Even if you don’t have space for a full garden, consider planting an herb garden.  Have you ever traveled to the market, purchased a bunch of parsley or cilantro or dill for a couple of dollars, used a fraction of it and then had to throw it out when it turned into a soupy mess at the bottom of your fridge?  Now consider harvesting just the amount you need from your herb garden.  Nothing goes to waste!  Herbs like sage, tarragon, thyme, chives and rosemary are perennial in my region - so I can plant them once and keep on harvesting year after year!

Sunset Green Home's perennial herb bed

Sunset Green Home's perennial herb bed

I’m looking forward to harvesting some peppers, tomatoes, squash and eggplant this weekend, and snipping a few herbs for a nice ratatouille.  And come Monday, I’ll be pickling another batch of beans and cucumbers – which I’ll put into storage for our family’s enjoyment all winter long. 

Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Practical Sustainability: Wash in Cold Water!

Sunset Green Home's water-efficient ENERGY STAR Samsung laundry machines have just been delivered...and that has me thinking about sustainable laundry practices.  Even if you're not planning to replace your laundry machines, you can still adopt greener laundry habits to save energy and water.

Sunset Green Home's Samsung Laundry Machines

Sunset Green Home's Samsung Laundry Machines

In a Practical Sustainability column last summer, I advocated for saving energy by hanging your laundry to dry.  This month's Practical Sustainability column tackles the washing side of your laundry equation.  To save energy and water, consider three small changes to how you do laundry.

1. Use the cold water cycle

In 2014, Good Housekeeping and Consumer Reports both conducted tests on detergents promising good results for cold water washing, and found that they live up to their claims.  Lowering the temperature of your wash load saves on energy required for water heating (90% of laundry energy use comes from heating the water).  Consumer reports estimates that an average family can save $60 annually by reducing the wash temperature.  Cold water washing puts money in your pocket and benefits the environment at the same time.

2. Wait until you have a full load before you run the machine

A load of laundry uses energy and water regardless of how many articles of clothing you're washing.  Consider waiting until you have a full load before you run your machine.  The US Department of Energy estimates that you can save 3,400 gallons of water annually by running only full loads.

3. Use a high spin cycle when possible

If you must put your clothes into the dryer, use a high spin cycle in your washer to extract as much water as possible before transferring the load to your dryer. 

Adopt these three practices and you'll reduce your laundry's energy and water use without investing in new appliances.  Now that's what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Practical Sustainability: Stop Using Plastic Bags for Pet Waste!

My kids roll their eyes when, in conversation, I ask someone if he or she has read Alan Weisman’s book “The World Without Us.” It’s a fascinating and well-researched book whose chapters each tackle – from a different angle – the question of what would happen to the earth if humankind disappeared tomorrow.  And, I suppose, my enthusiasm for the book has at times led me to speak about it frequently enough to elicit the eye-roll from my offspring!

In “Chapter 9: Polymers Are Forever,” Weisman describes the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a 20 million square kilometer area that is home to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a swirling mass of floating refuse mainly comprising plastics.  Where does all this plastic come from?  Weisman writes, “80 percent of mid-ocean flotsam had originally been discarded on land. It had blown off garbage trucks or out of landfills, spilled from railroad shipping containers and washed down storm drains, sailed down rivers or wafted on the wind, and found its way to this widening gyre.”

Plastic does not biodegrade.  National Geographic discusses the dangers to marine life of high concentrations of plastic in the gyre:

“Marine debris can be very harmful to marine life in the gyre. For instance, loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellies, their favorite food. Albatrosses mistake plastic resin pellets for fish eggs and feed them to chicks, which die of starvation or ruptured organs… Marine debris can also disturb marine food webs in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. As microplastics and other trash collect on or near the surface of the ocean, they block sunlight from reaching plankton and algae below. Algae and plankton are the most common autotrophs, or producers, in the marine food web. Autotrophs are organisms that can produce their own nutrients from oxygen, carbon, and sunlight.”

So what does all this have to do with this month’s Practical Sustainability column?  If you’re been following our monthly column, we try to make simple low-cost recommendations for how you can reduce your environmental impact.   It’s springtime, and I’ve seen lots of people walking their dogs in the lovely weather.  Our Practical Sustainability recommendation this month is that you consider replacing your plastic pet waste bag with a biodegradable bag that will have a reduced impact on the environment. 

Instead of purchasing plastic waste bags or reusing grocery store bags as poop bags, consider taking your grocery store bags to a recycling drop off point (as of March 1, 2015 stores over 10,000 square feet in New York State must accept plastic bags for recycling) and then purchase biodegradable pet waste bags to take with you when you walk your dog.  Aquatic animals in the Pacific will thank you!

Now that's what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Practical Sustainability: Green Landscaping Ideas That Won't Break the Bank

Daffodils in Bloom

Spring has (finally!) sprung...

After the long, cold winter of 2015, it's nice to see the crocuses and daffofils pushing their way out of the ground and the trees budding into leaf.  In honor of spring's arrival, this month's Practical Sustainability column focuses on sustainable landscaping ideas that won't break the bank.

  1. Compost!  When you do your spring cleanup, consider adding the leaves you rake up to a compost pile or compost bin.  Save money by making your own compost, and then use it to feed and mulch your plantings.  Click here for compost solutions you can build yourself.
  2. Fertigate!  If you have an automated irrigation system, consider adding a "fertigation" solution - like EZ-FLO -  to your system.  Plants absorb nutrients better when fertilizer is "watered in."  For a few hundred dollars, your irrigation system can deliver low doses of fertilizer to your landscape with greater efficiency and less risk of runoff than if you use topical fertilizers.  
  3. Set Timers!  When you start your irrigation system back up this spring, consider setting automatic timers to water early in the morning when evaporative losses will be lowest, and adjust sprinkler heads to make sure that you aren't sending water onto the sidewalk or into the street in front of your home.
  4. Use Drought Tolerant Grass!  While overseeding (the practice of adding new grass seed to an existing lawn) is best undertaken in the fall months, some people practice overseeding in the spring.  If you can't overseed in the fall and choose to do so now, consider a drought-tolerant grass variety that, once established, will be less thirsty than a typical lawn.
  5. Capture Rainwater!  If it's legal in your region, consider capturing rainwater from the April showers to water your May flowers.  Adding a rainwater catchment system is as easy as installing a rain barrel at your gutter downspout, and then installing a filter and pump so you can use the water in your planting beds or lawn.  By capturing rain water, you're also protecting the environment against the negative effects of storm water runoff.  Click here for simple DIY rain barrel instructions. 
  6. Plant Drought Tolerant Ornamentals! Pick your ornamental plants carefully.  Consult your local Extension service for a list of drought tolerant and native/adaptive plant varieties that will thrive in your region with lower water use.  Cornell's extension division publishes plants lists for many regions, including Long Island where Sunset Green home is located.
  7. Choose Perennials!  Substitute perennials into beds where you typically plant annuals.  Perennials live longer and establish deeper roots. You'll spend less on your plants, and will save water throughout the season.

Planting season is here.  Use sustainable practices to minimize water use and reduce your impact on the environment!

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Practical Sustainability: Take Off Your Shoes!

Image courtesy of PANPOTE at

Image courtesy of PANPOTE at

This month’s Practical Sustainability column describes how you can save money and improve the healthiness of your home – with zero investment.  All it takes is a willingness to take off your shoes when you come in from outside.

While we occasionally relax our “no shoes inside” habit when we host a dinner party, for our family taking our shoes off before we come inside is the norm.  But what does this have to do with sustainability, you might wonder?  The answer is a whole lot! 

Removing your shoes at the door extends the life of your carpets and floors.  Tiny pebbles between the treads of our sneakers can scratch our wood floors.  And dirt on the bottoms of our loafers will rub off onto our rugs and floors.  By reducing the wear and tear on our floors and carpets, we’re extending their life span – and delaying the time until they need to be recycled or sent to a landfill.

Because our rugs and floors generally stay cleaner if we remove our shoes before entering, we’re spending less time vacuuming and mopping.  We’re using less electricity to run the vacuum, and purchasing fewer cleaning supplies for mopping and stain removal.  While the financial benefits of reduced maintenance might be hard to quantify, we know intuitively that we’re keeping a few dollars in our pockets by having cleaner floors.

Most importantly, by keeping our “outside shoes” beyond the threshold of our home, we are contributing to a healthy indoor environment.  Nine years ago, our dog Ginger came into our lives.  And that was a real eye opener!  I am more aware now of what has been deposited on the city sidewalks just outside our home.  All you need is to experience one case of canine giardia and that’ll have you wiping your dog’s feet every time she comes in from a walk!

If you live in the suburbs, what you track inside on the bottoms of your shoes may be different from the toxins that lurk on city sidewalks, but they’re still potentially harmful.  Pesticides and weed killers can remain on your lawn for up to a week after they are applied.  As you walk across the lawn, your shoes are picking up those toxins.  You may also track pollen and other allergens inside after a walk in the neighborhood.  When you pass through your garage to get into the house, you may pick up oil and other contaminants form the garage floor.

The LEED for Homes green building program awards a point toward certification to projects that “design a shoe removal and storage space near the primary entryway, separated from living areas.”  The area must include seating and storage space for two pairs of shoes for each bedroom in the home.  According to the LEED® for Homes Reference Guide, “debris carried into the house from shoes often contains lead, asbestos, pesticides, and other hazardous materials…One of the most effective approaches to reducing indoor contaminants is removing shoes upon entry.”  Good Morning America found that shoe soles were “dirtier than a toilet seat” in a 2008 study conducted by the ABC News production.

Taking off your shoes at the door is common sense and costs you nothing.  But it could save you time and money on home maintenance, and can lead to a healthier indoor environment.  So what are you waiting for?  Take off your shoes at the door when you get home from work today. 

Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Practical Sustainability: Swap Out Your Old Inefficient Bathroom Fans

If your home is like mine, it has old bathroom fans that make a terrible racket when turned on.  They may or may not clear the humid air from the room when you shower.  And, in all likelihood, if they’re more than a couple of years old, they use a lot of energy when you run them.

For this month’s Practical Sustainability column, we swapped out all of the bathroom fans in our home – and challenge you to do the same. 

Why do Bathroom Fans Matter Anyway?

Bathroom fans are important for maintaining healthy indoor air quality.  Moisture is a home’s enemy.  Particularly in a bathroom, where the humidity level rises significantly when a shower is in use, excessive moisture can lead to cracking paint, damaged wall board, warped cabinet doors and deterioration of structural framing.  Unchecked humidity provides conditions under which mold, mildew and other bacteria can grow and cause occupant health problems. 

When we think about proper bathroom ventilation, we need to consider how a fan:

  • Protects the structural integrity of a home
  • Promotes healthy indoor air quality
  • Contributes to occupant comfort, and
  • Delivers energy efficiency

Bathroom fans are specified using several performance measures:

  • Amount of air they move in cubic feet per minute (cfm)
  • Noise level, expressed in sones (a measure of how loud a sound is perceived to be).  The sone scale is linear: four sones is perceived as twice as loud as two sones
  • Energy use (generally expressed in watts, or watts/cfm when comparing models with different fan speeds)

Our Challenge

We live in a 100-year-old apartment building where our only access to the bathroom fans is from below the existing ceiling.  When we purchased the apartment 13 years ago, we installed ducts to the outside and added fans to each bathroom.  But the fans were extremely noisy and were energy hogs.  While the fans did a good job of clearing the air during our showers, we had one bathroom in which we experienced some mildew growth on the ceiling.  Our challenge was to replace all of the bathroom fans with quieter models that use less energy.  And, most importantly, we had to complete the retrofit without undertaking a major renovation.  After all, this is Practical Sustainability, and – if you have been following this series – we try to provide practical ideas that don’t require major investment.

I contacted Broan, Delta and Panasonic, three top manufacturers of bathroom ventilation, and asked each company how we might address our needs.  Each company sent several bathroom fans for me to try out – ranging from their top-of-the-line models to their entry-level models.  Although they make fans of many sizes, each company also sent fans that could use practically the same “footprint” as the fans that we were replacing, just in case we encountered problems in our ceilings that would make it difficult to modify them for a larger fan.

John Hite, the owner of New Jersey based Hite Construction, has been a friend for over 20 years and, when I told him what I planned to do, he offered to send his crew to my apartment to oversee the work.  John does the vast majority of his work in New York City, where there are no quirky conditions he hasn’t yet encountered.  While adding bathroom fans to existing apartments isn’t always possible (some buildings, and occasionally the NYC Landmarks Commission, prohibit making penetrations through building facades), John says that most renovations will include bathroom fans where possible.  The greatest concern he hears from homeowners and design professionals is noise minimization.

Our Results

I was very happy to have Isai and Mike from Hite Construction along to help me with the retrofit.  We tried a fan from each of the three manufacturers in each of three bathrooms. Here are the results:

Bathroom #1: Broan Model 690 Bath Fan Upgrade Kit

In a 100-year-old building, where you’re accessing everything from below the ceiling, you can’t always choose an ideal placement during construction.  For some reason, our bathroom fan had been installed up against a corner of a niche in the shower.  And the fan was installed before the walls and ceiling were tiled with 12” x 12” marble.  When we investigated replacing the bathroom fan, we discovered that we could not remove the old housing without removing the wall and ceiling tiles from around it – and that was a can of worms we were not willing to open up.

Thankfully, Broan NuTone had included the Model 690 Bath Fan Upgrade Kit with the fans they had sent us.  The 13-year-old fans we were replacing were Broan model 688 fans, which are still manufactured today and are typically used by contractors for their low cost and ease of installation.  But the fans are noisy at 4 sones, and only draw 50cfm.

The upgrade only took five minutes to complete and the result for us was improved performance at 60cfm with a noise level of 3 sones.  In truth, had we not had to keep the old fan housing, we would have used one of the much quieter and more energy efficient fans that Broan offers.  But, we were fortunate that Broan makes an upgrade kit for our old fans, and we are much happier with the reduced noise level and increased air flow inside the shower. 

Bathroom #2: Delta Breez Model SLM50

We removed the grille from the old fan in our sons’ bathroom and discovered that the housing had been plastered into place.  In addition, there were gaps around the fan that meant the fan was drawing not only the air from the bathroom, but also some air from within the ceiling plenum (the space between the structural ceiling and the dropped ceiling of the bathroom). Our hypothesis was that this bathroom had mildew on the ceiling because the fan wasn’t solely removing air from the room itself. 

We had just painted the ceiling in this bathroom and were trying to replace the fan without damaging the ceiling in any way.  Isai carefully chipped away the plaster and then used sheet metal scissors to cut away the old housing, which had been installed between two metal studs in the ceiling and attached with screws that we couldn’t access from below the ceiling (the old fan had been installed before the gypsum ceiling had been put in place). 

With metal studs less than 8 inches apart on two sides of the ceiling, we determined that we would have to use a fan whose housing had the same footprint as the old fan we had just removed.  Delta had sent its BreezSlim Model SLM50, an ENERGY STAR qualified fan with quiet operation at 1.0 sone, and an identical housing size to the one we had just removed. 

As per the instructions for a retrofit installation, we attached the housing itself to the metal studs up inside the ceiling (we used sheet metal screws).  The rest of the installation was easy.  Once the fan’s blower was in place, we used duct tape to seal the edges around the housing so that the fan would only draw air from within the bathroom (as opposed to pulling air from the plenum space as the old fan had been doing). 

The result: a quiet, energy efficient bath fan (rated at 8 watts) drawing air only from inside the bathroom.

Bathroom #3: Panasonic EcoVent Model FV-07VBA1

After having watched Isai and Mike swap out the fan in my sons’ bath, it was time for me to try a retrofit on my own.  I removed the fan from my daughter’s bathroom and found the same metal stud setup that was in place in my sons’ bathroom.  Once again, I’d have to use a fan whose housing would fit between the two metal studs. 

Panasonic had sent its EcoVent fan, whose housing has been designed to make retrofitting from below the ceiling extremely easy.  Moreover, the housing has an innovative flange around its perimeter that creates an air barrier and ensures that air is only drawn from within the bathroom and not from up in the ceiling plenum (we would not need to add duct tape to seal around the edges). 

I had to use a drywall saw to enlarge the opening slightly (the EcoVent is approximately half an inch larger than the old fans I had removed), after which the housing slipped easily into place.  Attaching the vent and junction box was straightforward (it is very important that you turn the electricity off at the circuit breaker before attempting an installation of a bathroom fan or any electrical appliance or equipment!).  In less than an hour, I had installed the bathroom fan, without causing any damage to the ceiling (again, I was hoping not to have to repaint after completing the retrofit).

Because of the size of my daughter’s bathroom, I set the fan at its standard 70cfm speed, but it comes with a booster switch that enables it to operate at 90cfm if needed.  This is particularly useful for homes that must meet stringent ventilation standards required by ENERGY STAR, LEED and other green building programs.

I had used a watt meter to check the electric consumption of the old fan in my daughter’s bathroom and learned that it drew a whopping 144 watts of electricity.  The new Panasonic fan is rated at 20 watts, and has quiet operation of 1.0 sone. 

Lessons Learned

If I can do it, so can you!  Our ceilings were problematic, but we replaced all of the fans without damaging the ceilings in any way.  Each of the three manufacturers had a product that addressed our bathrooms’ unique challenges.  The price tags on the models we used were well below $100 per unit.  And given our usage patterns, with the energy savings of the two ENERGY STAR models that we installed, we predict that the fans would pay for themselves in a short two to three years.  We can’t emphasize enough the intangible benefit of having quiet fans; while we can’t assign economic value to it, occupant comfort is still an important consideration.  We’re confident that the quality of the fans coupled with our airtight installation will result in improved indoor air quality as well.

But That’s a Challenging Retrofit…What Would We Have Done If We Were Unconstrained?

As I mentioned, each of the manufacturers sent a retrofit solution that they felt we could use if we encountered problems in our ceilings (which we did!).  But they also sent multiple models that could be used for new construction or for less constrained retrofits (for example, in a home where the bath fan housings could be accessed from the attic).

So what is the state-of-the-art in bathroom ventilation?  Today’s best bathroom fans are very quiet (<0.3 sones), are extremely energy efficient, and include advanced technologies for sensing humidity or occupancy.  Here are some of the models that we might have used if conditions permitted (in alphabetical order by manufacturer):

  • Broan Ultra Green multi-speed fans.  With virtually silent operation (<0.3 sones), Broan’s Ultra series fans come packed with features.  Users can choose from amongst several fan speeds that can be adjusted according to room size and humidity conditions.  With optional occupancy and humidity sensors, the fans may be set to operate continuously at low levels and then automatically adjust their speed when conditions call for more power.  The fans come with a mounting frame that can be used for retrofit installation in 2x8 framed ceilings. And best of all, these feature-packed fans deliver using <8 watts of electricity.
  • Delta BreezSignature series.  Delta BreezSignature fans also deliver practically silent (<0.3 sones) operation, variable speed controls and optional humidity or motion sensors – all at a very low energy consumption that tops out around 8-10 watts.  Because they’re so quiet, the fans include LED lights to let users know that the fans are operating. 
  • Panasonic WhisperGreen Select fansPanasonic has designed its WhisperGreen Select series with “Plug ‘N Play” modules that allow a single fan to be customized in up to three ways – with a night light, a multi-speed sensor that allows for continuous operation at a lower speed with boosted speed when needed, and either a humidity or a motion sensor.  At 110cfm, the fans use less than 10 watts of electricity.

It's probably worth noting that bathroom fans now come with "bells and whistles" that don't impact air quality or energy efficiency - but that some users may want to consider nonetheless.  Most of the fans that I mentioned can be purchased with LED lighting modules for bathrooms where the fan needs to double as the room's light source.  And for music fans, Broan now offers its Sensonic fan, complete with high-fidelity speakers that can pair with most Bluetooth enabled devices.  

So consider swapping out your old, noisy, inefficient bathroom fans.  With great fans like these on the market, you can’t go wrong selecting from any of the three major brands!

Now that's what I call Practical Sustainability!


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Practical Sustainability: Check Your Tire Pressure – Save the Planet and Keep Yourself Safer on Snowy Roads

Image courtesy of dan at

Image courtesy of dan at

A blizzard of historic proportions is expected to hit the northeast this week.  If you’re filling your gas tank in preparation for the storm, consider checking your tire pressure while you’re at the gas station.  Most of us know that a car whose tires are properly inflated will handle better under less-than-ideal road conditions.  But did you know that underinflated tires also represent a significant environmental problem?

According to the US Department of Energy, “you can improve your gas mileage by up to 3.3% by keeping your tires inflated to the proper pressure. Under-inflated tires can lower gas mileage by 0.3% for every 1 psi drop in pressure of all four tires. Properly inflated tires are safer and last longer.”  Gas prices may be low this winter, but who wouldn’t want to save up to 6 cents per gallon just by keeping their tires properly inflated?

A report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that more than 25% of cars and a third of light trucks in the US suffer from underinflated tires of 8psi or more below the manufacturer’s recommended level.  According to Experian Automotive, there were just under 250 million cars and light trucks on the road in 2013.  So we’re talking about tens of millions of cars whose tires are underinflated.

Doing a little “back of the envelope” math, suppose 10 million vehicle owners (representing about 15% of the cars whose tires are underinflated) bring their tire pressure up to recommended levels.  If those owners drive an average of 15,000 miles per year and get 20 mpg, they could save a whopping 250 million gallons of gas annually.  Stated differently (and using my favorite EPA equivalency calculator), that’s akin to eliminating 2.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide or the amount of CO2 emissions by the electricity use of over 300,000 homes. 

So, when you head to the pump to fill up your gas tank, consider filling up your tires as well.  Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!

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Taking Stock: How a Year of Sustainable Changes Improved Our Bottom Line

In 2014, I set out to make some changes that would reduce our family’s impact on the environment and – hopefully – result in some financial benefits as well.  During the year, we took the following actions:

  • Replaced about 60% of the light bulbs in our home with LED bulbs
  • Swapped out our 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm) shower heads for 20% more efficient WaterSense fixtures (with a flow rate of 2.0 gpm)
  • Drastically reduced our use of the clothes dryer (which we now use only for towels and post-vacation laundry pileups)
  • Cleaned all of the filters and coils in our air conditioning and refrigeration equipment
  • Changed to green cleaning products that received an “A” rating from the Environmental Working Group (replacing several products that received a grade of “F”)
  • Took steps to reduce the number of catalogs and direct mail solicitations received by our household
  • Recycled our electronic waste (which included about 20 old cell phones that had been accumulating in random drawers throughout our home)

I can’t quantify all of the financial benefits of having made these changes.  We live in an apartment building and don’t have separate metering for water use.  And the economic benefit of eliminating catalogs doesn’t accrue to us.  Still, I’ve been curious about how some of these changes have affected our utility bill.  So I pulled out three years of gas and electric bills to see if there have been any measurable changes. 

To establish a baseline and to identify any “outliers,” I reviewed our utility bills over a two year period prior to having started my “Practical Sustainability” campaign.  The chart below shows our household’s monthly electric use in kilowatt hours (kWh) over the three year period from 2012 – 2014. 

We expected to see some decrease in usage as one of our children moved away to start college in September 2012, and an increase when another one of our children graduated college and moved back home this summer.  We also identified a significant efficiency loss (i.e., a spike in usage) in the summer of 2013.  Our central air conditioning failed because the exterior air intake had become clogged with dryer lint – which forced the A/C unit to work harder to try to draw air inside. Note: do not locate dryer vents near A/C intakes (we had no choice, as we live in a 100+ year old apartment building)! 

What is important to note is the steady improvement in our electric usage following each of the “Practical Sustainability” actions we implemented in 2014.  The chart below shows the same data in another format, which allows for a year-over-year comparison of monthly electrical usage.  For every month, our 2014 usage is below – and in some cases significantly below – the same month’s usage in 2012 and 2013, despite the fact that we have more people living at home in 2014 than we did in 2012. For example, in late February 2014 and through March, we changed our light bulbs from incandescent and halogen to LED.  Our electric use following those actions declined significantly.  Despite the increase in our household’s size in late summer 2014, we have kept our electric usage lower than the prior years' baselines.

I also evaluated the per kilowatt cost of electricity.  We live in New York, where the 2013 cost per kilowatt-hour of residential electricity was second only to Hawaii.  The chart below shows a steady increase in our unit cost of electricity (I included all taxes and access fees from my electric bill).  If we hadn’t made any changes in usage, we would have seen our electric bill increase by 10% simply as a result of climbing utility rates. 

But the chart below summarizes the value of the changes we made this year.  By decreasing our electricity usage, we lowered our electric bill by over $1,100 in 2014 despite the 10% rate increase.  How did we do it?  By decreasing our usage by 34% from 2013 to 2014. 

We’re happy to have kept $1,100 in our pockets this year.  But we don’t want to lose sight of the environmental impact of our actions.  By reducing our electricity consumption by over 5,100 kWh, we kept nearly 4 tons of carbon dioxide out of the environment, according to the US EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.  And that’s equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 8,375 miles driven by an average passenger vehicle or 1.3 tons of waste sent to the landfill.   

Keep an eye out for more Practical Sustainability columns on this year.  For this month’s column, we’re getting ready to replace several 13-year-old bath fans.  Bath ventilation technology has come a long way in the past decade, and I am certain we’ll see another drop in our electric bill…

Now that’s Practical Sustainability! 

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Practical Sustainability: Get Smart About Your Thermostat!

School’s out for Winter Break.  The holiday season is in full swing.  And, like many, you may be heading south for a touch of sunshine.  Or north to find a “White Christmas.” Or away to visit family in another part of the country.  When you’re making a pre-travel vacation "to do" list, make sure to include “Change the Thermostat” as one of your entries. 

According to the US Department of Energy, “heating and cooling account for about 48% of the energy use in a typical U.S. home, making it the largest energy expense for most homes.”  Not only does heating and cooling impact your wallet, but it also takes a toll on the environment in the form of excess electricity that needs to be generated and additional carbon-emitting fossil fuels that are burned to generate the warm or cool air.

Smart or programmable thermostats are everywhere these days.  Standard features include the ability to handle multiple settings per day and special schedules for weekends or vacation times.  Many will let you monitor and change your home’s temperature from your smart phone.  Some, like the Nest Learning Thermostat, are even smart enough to learn your habits when you don’t have time or inclination to set up a program.

By using a smart, programmable thermostat, you may be able to save 10% - 20% on your heating and cooling bills (savings calculators abound on the Internet - just search "programmable thermostat energy savings calculator" and have your utility bill handy so you can enter your fuel costs into the calculator). 

Many of us remember the old TV announcers imploring “don’t touch that dial!”…well this time, I say go ahead and “touch that dial.”  Set your thermostat to turn down the heat when you sleep or when you are away at work.  If you live in an air conditioning climate, do the opposite. 

And, this holiday season, remember to change the thermostat when you leave your home on vacation.  You’ll see a difference in your bottom line and make a difference for our planet.

Happy New Year and safe travels from Sunset Green Home!

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