Clear your walk, keep your car in good shape, and heat your home this season without compromising your green values -- and save on utility bills while you're at it. All it takes is a fresh approach to your cold-winter habits. Many of the ice- and snow-fighting products we've used for years present eco-issues that don't get much attention. Take the rock salt scattered on walkways. It contains cyanide, traces of which will likely end up in your flower beds come spring. Then there's antifreeze, a known poison that rarely gets recycled. Meanwhile, coal-burning power plants, outdated wood stoves, and "warming up the car" threaten respiratory health more this season than any other time of year. With these 10 tips, you'll be on your way to a healthier, greener winter.
Choose Safer Antifreeze
Just 2 ounces of the standard ethylene glycol antifreeze can kill a dog. Propylene glycol offers a much less toxic alternative (although with fossil fuel origins, it's hardly eco-friendly). Since both kinds pick up hazardous heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and chromium during use, recycle spent antifreeze to minimize impact. Ask your repair shop about on-site recycling or find a local collection facility at earth911.org.
Fight Frost Naturally
To prevent ice from covering home and car windows, rub the inside of the glass with a saltwater-soaked sponge; dry with a clean cloth. You won't see it, but a residue from the salt will remain to ward off frost. For extra oomph, spray a solution of three parts white vinegar and one part water on the outside of the glass, then wipe dry.
Use Better De-icers
Steer clear of rock salt (sodium chloride) and urea-based de-icers. Not only can they pollute habitats with plant-killing runoff, but they can also corrode concrete, destroy your lawn (even a snow-covered one), and contaminate water supplies. Better bets? Sand, which provides traction without damaging salt-sensitive landscapes, and calcium chloride, which may still hurt vegetation, but is free of the cyanide present in rock salt.
Start fires with dry kindling to minimize emissions and maximize efficiency. Feed blazes with small loads of hard woods that have aired out ("seasoned") for at least six months. (Well-seasoned hardwood offers a cleaner burn.) Never burn chemical- or pressure-treated wood. Keep flames hot and bright; low, smoldering fires pollute more. When the fireplace is not in use, close the flue to keep warm indoor air from escaping out the chimney.
Don't let your car idle for more than 30 seconds. Beyond wasting fuel, excessive idling strains cylinders, spark plugs, exhaust systems, and engines, which work best in motion -- not in neutral. The best way to warm up the car? Drive it. If your area regularly drops below 20 degrees, consider installing a block heater, which warms essential components without wasting fuel. It can cost a few hundred dollars, but you'll save gas and reduce emissions by up to 60 percent.
Upgrade Your Hearth
EPA-certified wood-burning stoves produce an average of 70 percent less particulate emissions than their old, uncertified counterparts. If your stove is more than 20 years old, it's probably time for an update. Find a certified professional who can install your new stove properly (so you get maximum efficiency and minimal pollution) through the National Fireplace Institute (nficertified.org).
Let the Sunshine In
Even in winter, the sun's rays provide a fair amount of warmth. Take advantage of this free heating by opening blinds and curtains on the windows that receive the most light (usually on the east side). At night, draw heavy insulating drapes to help preserve warmth, or invest in "low-e" Energy Star-certified windows (especially on the north side of the house). Learn more at energystar.gov.
Insulate Your Pipes
To minimize wait time for hot water to come out of the tap in the morning, insulate all accessible hot water pipes. You'll raise the temperature by up to 4 degrees, allowing you to lower the water heater setting (and save energy) without suffering through cold showers. If you don't want to do the whole house, you can still make a big impact by focusing on the 3 feet of piping closest to the water heater.
Lower Your Thermostat
The Department of Energy recommends turning your thermostat down to 68 degrees while you're at home, and setting it even lower at night or when you're gone for the day. If you turn the heat down by 10 degrees for a daily eight-hour stretch, you could reduce your heating bill by as much as 15 percent. According to Energy Star, a programmable thermostat can save up to $150 annually. What if you leave town for a stretch? Set the thermostat no lower than 55 degrees. Drain your water system before lowering it to this temperature to avoid freezing pipes.
Seal Up the Attic
Save on heating by plugging up air leaks that lead from the attic down into the main house. If you have a hatch door, make sure to weather-strip and insulate it. Also assess your attic's overall insulation, which slows the escape of heat from your living areas. For the attic floor, if insulation is at or below the top of the floor joists, you probably need more. Log on to energysavers.gov for more guidance on insulating.