Here are some ways to create a cleaner, more efficient environment for you and your family. As a bonus, some of these tips are basic upgrades that don't cost a penny -- and will save you money.
Leave grass cuttings on the lawn instead of bagging them. The water-rich blades will return moisture to the soil, reducing your need for fertilizer. (When fertilizer is necessary, choose an organic variety.) By using the cuttings, you'll save them a trip to the compost bin.
Check windows, doors, and vents to make sure they're sealed. Tiny openings around your dryer vent and poorly sealed window and door frames can cause drafts, which means higher heating bills in the winter.
Opt for a light-colored roof if you live in a sunny climate, to lessen the sun's baking effect and reduce your air-conditioning bill in the summer. Dark shingles trap heat, so if you're building or planning to reroof, consider reflective materials, such as metal. Or simply paint it white. Pale surfaces can reflect up to 80 percent of the sun's rays.
Replace your vacuum's filter about every six months to keep it running at full capacity and the exhaust virtually dust and allergen-free (vacuums can return to the air some of what you've just cleaned). If your vacuum doesn't have a HEPA filter, consider upgrading to a model that does. Two good options: Miele's S7 series vacuums have a swivel neck that enables them to lie flat (from $550, miele.com); Electrolux's UltraSilencer Green Canister Vacuum is made of 55 percent recycled materials ($300, electroluxusa.com).
Install dimmers and motion sensors to reduce your energy consumption (and bills). Lutron makes the Maestro Dimmer with Occupancy Sensor, which combines both features in one ($40, homedepot.com). Using motion sensors, program lights to turn on when you enter the room and off when you leave (they sense when you're in residence, so they won't shut off accidentally). With a more elaborate whole-house system, you can control lights and even window shades automatically, often with a wireless controller.
Moisten the air with a humidifier to relieve cold symptoms or other respiratory conditions, not to mention dry lips and skin. The 9 1/2-by-11 1/2-inch Oskar Humidifier has an integrated humidistat that lets you set the desired humidity level, an LED dimmer for use at night, and a fragrance dispenser, should you like your air scented ($160, productswithstyle.com). As with any humidifier, you'll need to clean the filter regularly following the manufacturer's instructions in order to keep it free of mold and mildew.
Clean or replace filters in heating and central-air-conditioning systems as well as window units to keep them operating at peak efficiency. With whole-house systems, there's usually just one filter, in the main duct connected to the central system. You can clean filters yourself. This should usually be done three or four times a year, but check the system manual for specifics. If you're replacing a filter, consult a plumber or heating professional about the best filter to use.
Opt for no-VOC paints and stains to avoid low-level toxic emissions that can smell bad and cause respiratory problems, headaches, and other unpleasant conditions. The options in VOC-free paints have grown -- you can buy them in just about any color and finish. Some good, easy-to-find VOC-free brands: Benjamin Moore Natura, Olympic, and the Freshaire Choice.
Apply window film to keep heat out in the summer and retain it in the winter. Heat Control films from Gila (gilafilms.com) are nearly clear, and they reflect as much as 70 percent of the sun's heat from a home's interior. They also block ultraviolet rays, so furniture, artwork, and paint are better protected. Mounting the film using Gila's application solution is an easy DIY project; a video on the company's website shows you how.
Choose Energy Star-rated appliances to cut your electricity consumption, but don't throw out perfectly good machines. A good rule of thumb is that appliances five to eight years old and in need of repairs should be replaced (for information on recycling old appliances, go to earth911.com).
Energy Star models may cost more up front, but you'll end up saving a lot. A new fridge, for example, can run on half the energy of an older one. At energystar.gov, you can calculate how much money you'll save with an Energy Star fridge. All of Liebherr's well-designed refrigerators are Energy Star-rated (liebherr-appliances.com); the one shown is a slim 24 inches wide.
Streamline your recycling with an all-in-one unit. The Mode center fits compartments for paper, plastic, metal, and glass into a space-saving 15-by-30-inch frame ($270, modeproducts.com). Step on the foot pedal to crush cans and plastic bottles, which go into an eight-gallon bin; paper goes into a five-gallon bin. An electronic feature alerts you when it's recycling day and even tells you how much you've recycled to date.
Make your own fizzy water to save money, and to keep plastic bottles from ending up in a landfill. Countertop carbonators, such as the Soda Stream, turn water into seltzer ($150, sodastreamusa.com). When you're finished with the carbon dioxide cartridge -- one yields up to 110 liters of soda -- mail it back to the company to be refilled.
Purify your water with a filtration system. Under-counter systems, such as GE's Full Flow Water Filtration (from $80, geappliances.com), attach to the cold-water line beneath the sink, delivering purified water directly to your tap. A plumber can install one in minutes, and each filter will last about six months, depending on the water quality in your area. Installed systems are more expensive than pitcher filters and those that attach to a faucet, but they are less costly in the long run. Drinking tap water saves about $500 per year and hundreds of plastic bottles.
Switch to smart power strips to save electricity and protect your electronics. Belkin's Conserve surge protector has two "always-on" outlets and six more that you can control with a desktop button ($50, belkin.com).
Any device that must be programmed, such as an answering machine, a cable modem, or an alarm clock, should be plugged into an always-on outlet. But everything else -- computer and phone chargers, printers, lamps -- can go into the "switchable" outlets. The same logic follows if you use one of these strips in the living room: Plug the television and stereo into a switchable outlet, but plug the DVR into an always-on outlet.
Choose low-flow fixtures to cut water usage. Even a small reduction in your daily shower (say, by a half gallon a minute) can result in nearly 2,000 gallons saved a year for each person in your family. Today's low-flow showerhead options are vast, including Kohler's modern sphere, a traditional square design from Symmons, Waterpik's sleek handheld, and this deluxe rain can from Moen. And you can do the installation yourself with a pipe wrench and some Teflon tape, wrapping it around the threads of the pipe to form a waterproof seal.
Toilets are another major water waster. If you're renovating, look for a dual-flush toilet. Depending on the size of your family, this can save 8,000 to 20,000 gallons of water annually (2 to 5 1/2 gallons per flush). American Standard, Gerber, and Kohler make highly-rated, reasonably priced options. If you aren't ready to replace your toilet, consider an inexpensive converter kit, such as the Controllable Flusher, which fits into any standard two-part toilet and takes minutes to install ($36, realgoods.com).
Experts' concerns about the proliferation of fragrances have to do with their potential effects on our health. We'll show you how to be savvy about fragrances and transition to unscented or botanically scented products -- some of which might even benefit your well-being.
Reacquaint yourself with plant fragrances by incorporating these health-enhancing essential oils into your life. At natural-foods stores, look for personal-care products that contain them (not their artificial counterparts), or buy the oils themselves and try our do-it-yourself suggestions.
Here's a nontoxic but effective way to clean your tub: Add one teaspoon of liquid soap and several drops of an antibacterial essential oil (such as tea tree, eucalyptus, rosemary, or peppermint) to one cup of baking soda. Add just enough water to form a paste, and use it with a sponge or brush to scour bathtub surfaces.
To beat the heat and keep allergies at bay, we often seal ourselves inside our comfy, climate-controlled homes, not realizing that the air in there may not be much better. According to the EPA, indoor air pollution levels are typically at least twice as high as levels outside.
Despite skyrocketing fuel prices and diminishing resources, household energy use and its consequential pollution continue to climb. A few strategic shifts can reduce your home's impact on the environment -- we're talking thousands of pounds of greenhouse gas emissions -- while saving you hundreds of dollars on energy bills and more in taxes.
Think a greener floor means chilly stone, scratchy gray wool, and a budget in the red? Not anymore. Today's eco-flooring choices boast competitive prices, rich colors, and varied surfaces from smooth linoleum to warm cork -- and all of them spell good news for your health.
To reduce hot-water consumption (and energy needs), federal legislation mandated improved showerhead efficiency for models made after 1994. Replace older models with ones that spray no more than 2.5 gallons per minute.
Potential annual savings: $145, plus 370 pounds of emissions
Single- and even some double-pane clear-glass windows can force heating and cooling systems to work overtime. Energy Star-qualified windows with insulating glazes, gas fills, and better framing materials deliver the best results.
Potential annual savings: $95 and 2,200 pounds of emissions