March 7, 2022
Twenty years ago, living in ways that protect the environment and conserve for future generations was called a “lifestyle choice.” Times have changed. Today, knowing the cause-and-effect of lifestyle on global climate change, living in ways that protect the environment and conserve for future generations is a moral imperative. It is the right and necessary thing to do.
Climate scientists have calculated that if the total amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) that would maintain a sustainable climate were shared equally by all the people in the world, Americans have to reduce their emissions by 90%. When people hear that, they say, “that’s impossible.” Climate activists say, “do you have a better idea?” Reducing GHG emissions by 90% is possible, it’s just not easy, quick or cheap. But catastrophic events due to climate change are even worse, much worse, financially and in terms of human suffering. And the longer we wait to make the necessary changes, the more difficult and expensive it will be to make them. The less chance we have to give our kids and grandkids a habitable planet and a livable ecosystem.
We can’t wait twelve years. We have to start now. Each and everyone of us. But where to start, and what can we do now as individuals?
REDUCE, REDUCE and REDUCE
No amount of alternative energy, solar or wind power, will ever be enough soon enough to provide the energy needs for our present energy intensive, wasteful lifestyle. Simply impossible.
But nothing is easier, quicker, or more cost effective. Reducing our consumption has greater impact on the climate than reducing our energy, water, and waste.
And we can start here now, at our home. (Many resources are for people living in our area of Cape Cod, but you can check for similar programs where you live.)
Reduce energy consumption
The audit identifies energy-efficient upgrades that will reduce energy bills. You may receive low-flow shower heads and faucet aerators, air sealing and advanced power strips at no costs. Other benefits include rebates and incentives, 75% or more off approved insulation improvements, and Mass Save low-interest Heat Loans.
A well insulated house without leaks and drafts is more comfortable even at a lower temperature setting in the winter (and higher setting in the summer). Conserving energy with a one-time fix is cheaper than continually buying or burning energy that is immediately wasted.
An energy audit will identify where the worst leaks are and which areas need insulation the most. This work may include steps to:
- Reduce air infiltration and heat losses. Air leaks in a typical home can equal to as much as a 3×3 foot hole in the wall.
- Caulk, spray foam or weather strip all cracks and gaps. Start with the largest gaps and cracks.
- Insulate attics, knee walls, crawl spaces, hot water pipes, etc.
- Install a smart programmable thermostat to minimize the amount of energy needed to heat or cool your house.
- Install curtains. Any curtains are better than none. Simple roll curtains are inexpensive and simple to install. Double honey comb shades add extra insulation at night in the winter and keep the sun out in the day in the summer.
- Install window film on all your windows and glass doors during the cold season. This significantly reduces air infiltration and heat loss. It’s inexpensive, easy to install and can be reused for several years.
Electric Heat Pumps for Home Heating and Cooling
After reducing air leaks and improving insulating in your house, consider replacing an oil or gas burning furnace and inefficient window air conditioners with highly efficient electric heat pumps to heat and cool your house. Heat pumps, sometimes called mini-splits, extract thermal heat energy from cool outdoor air and transfer this heat into your house. It works in reverse in the summer, extracting heat from the house and expelling it outdoors.
Electric Heat Pump for Water Heating
Heat pump water heaters are a recent innovation that extract heat from the air and transfer it to heat the water. They are the most efficient way to heat water, roughly 3x more efficient than conventional electric heaters, which are more efficient than gas or oil burning water boilers.
Electric Air to Air Heat Exchanger
A very tight and well-insulated house can cause indoor air to become stale and unhealthy.
An air-to-air heat exchanger, or what is more commonly called today a Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV), is an air change central ventilation system that exhausts stale air outdoors and brings in an equal quantity of fresh air to replace it, while stealing the heat from the outgoing air to warm up the incoming air.
Recover Wasted Heat From Outgoing Hot Wastewater
Water heating is typically the 2nd highest energy demand in a house, typically 20-30% of home energy consumption. Drain-water heat recovery systems are designed to capture heat that is lost in the hot water going down the drain. That hot water, instead of being lost to your municipal sewer system or septic tank, is instead used to pre-heat the cold water that enters your household water heater. Recovering part of that heat can reduce total home energy consumption by 5%.
Refrigerators and Freezers
A refrigerator consumes on average about 7-10% of total home energy. More, of course, if you have more than one refrigerator and freezers in the house. New refrigerators use 33% less energy than models that are 15 or more years older. Models with a freezer on the top are more efficient than those with freezers on the bottom. Double-door refrigerators are the least efficient. Making ice is very energy intensive. Icemakers use 20% of the fridge’s total energy. Only 25% of that energy is used to freeze the ice cubes; 75% of that energy goes into heating the motor and mold, so that the ice cubes can fall out in the storage tray. Do we really need a glass full or any ice cubes in drinks? Often ice cubes remain after the drink is consumed and are wasted, thrown down the sink.
Most of the energy goes into cooling food down, not keeping it cold. Avoid putting warm foods in the fridge. Cool them first. Don’t keep food from the fridge out longer than necessary. Think before you open the fridge door. The cold air from the fridge goes into the room which then needs then to be reheated in the room, while warm air from the room goes into the fridge and needs to be cooled again.
Add insulation to the outside of your refrigerator to slow down the heat absorbed from the warm room. Use rigid foam if you have enough space, or use double bubble reflective foil insulation if space is limited. Be sure not to cover any vents where hot air from the fridge is expelled, or cover any outside warm surfaces where heat is radiated out.
Replace Gas Appliances with Electric Ones
Replace gas stoves, ovens, furnaces and fire places with electric ones ASAP. Burning gas gives off toxic fumes similar to car exhausts, such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide and formaldehyde, all major health risks, especially for children. These emissions can sometimes occur even when the appliances are not in use. Small leaks at gas pipe connections have been found in the majority of homes. The indoor NO2 levels while cooking can be 2-3 times higher than the allowable outdoor standard of NO2 emission exposure. And these pollutants linger, enter your lungs and spread through the whole house. They have been found even in bedrooms when the doors were closed. California and other states are making legislation to prohibit gas appliances in buildings.
Use a small toaster oven instead of a large oven for any dish that can fit.
Replace all non-LED bulbs with LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes)
Non-electric clothes drying
Hang laundry to dry on drying racks or clothes lines. It’s common in the Netherlands to have laundry dry on racks hanging over the railing at the top of the stairs, where the air is warmest. Often indoor air is too dry in the winter, so a little extra humidity is welcome. In the summer, laundry can dry outside in the open or consider an area that has a roof, like corrugated fiberglass, with or without walls, so the clothes can stay out of the rain .
In short: Live in Ways That Use Less Water, Waste Less Water and Produce Less Water Pollution
Even in places that don’t have a shortage of fresh water (like where we live on Cape Cod), it’s rare to find sources of water clean enough for drinking or fishing. The world is in a clean fresh water crisis, either because of drought, overuse, or pollution. Our ponds are polluted and a lot of our groundwater is too. We used to get clean drinking water from our wells, for free. Now water has to be pumped great distances to a water filtration plant, where pollutants are removed and water is disinfected and pumped back to our homes. This all comes at a great cost for infrastructure, maintenance, operation, and energy. Each gallon of water used or wasted has an significant, inherent carbon footprint. Each gallon of hot water used or wasted has an even larger carbon footprint.
Here are some ways to reverse this trend:
- Install water-conserving appliances
Efficient clothes washers use 30-50% less water, and 50-60% less energy. Efficient dishwashers use about 6-10 gallons of water per load of dishes (some use as little as 3.7 gallons) compared with 20 gallons for hand-washing. Only run machines with full loads.
- Install water-conserving shower heads
These fixtures conserve water as well as the energy needed to heat the water. Efficient shower fixtures use two gallons/minute, instead of 5-10 gallons for a conventional shower head. And by all means, take shorter and fewer showers.
- Install water-conserving faucets
Cut water usage from your household sinks by up to 30% by installing low flow faucets or faucet aerators. Turn off water while brushing teeth. With a little extra attention, most tasks at the sink can be performed with less water.
- Reduce water leaks
The average North American household wastes about 10,000 gallons of water from household leaks every year. At least 10% of homes have leaks that waste 90 gallons or more/day. A dripping faucet can waste 11 gallons per day. A constantly running toilet uses 2,000 gallons per day.
- Replace standard flush toilets
Old toilets might use 5-7 gallons of water (GWF) per flush. After 1980, regulations required that toilets could use no more than 3.5 GWF. Since 1994, new toilets could use no more than 1.6 GWF.
Toilets are the single biggest water users in the average home, and can account for more than a third of the water used in the home every day. Flush toilets use between 4,000-12,000 GFW per person per year to transport 135 gallons of human waste per person per year out of the house! Yes, that is right, one adult person only produces 15 gallons of solid waste and 120 gallons of urine per year, but uses 4,000-12,000 gallons of drinking water to flush it away. Depending on the type of toilet, that could mean a family of four could use 32,000 gallons of pure drinking water per year, just to flush away waste. The flush water is used solely as a method of transporting the human ‘waste’ out of the house and into a septic tank or to a sewer treatment plant. This can all be eliminated by replacing standard toilets with an eco-toilet.
If that’s not possible, consider that dual-flush toilets use only 0.8 GWF for urine and 1.6 GWF for solids. The water savings might pay off the cost of the installation of more water efficient toilets in a few years.
If replacing your standard toilet isn’t an option, consider installing a Fill Cycle Diverter. They cost about $50 and save about 0.5 GWF, or about 3 gallons per person per day.
Check out http://mwra.com for MA water conservation and efficiency rebate programs.
Eliminate nutrient waste by recycling food and human nutrients back to agriculture
Food waste in landfills and wastewater account for 30% of methane emissions in the USA. Methane is 30 times more potent than CO2 in trapping heat in the atmosphere. The United States discards more food than any other nation. Food takes up more space in US landfills than anything else. Wasted nutrients from food and human waste produce pollution, algae blooms and dead zones. Wasted food also wastes a lot of water and energy to grow and transport the discarded food.
Green homes are only as ecologically green as the actions and habits of the people that inhabit them. Reducing and reusing food wastes are the easiest and least expensive lifestyle changes one can make towards reducing one’s carbon footprint.
- Remove Garbage Disposal
Besides the modern flush toilet, the most wasteful appliance ever invented might be the garbage disposal. What a waste, using water, electricity and an appliance to throw food down the drain. Putting all that solid ‘waste’ into a septic tank means more costs for more regular pump-outs. Either way, with or without a septic tank, the food waste from a garbage disposal end up at the treatment plant where, together with all other solids, they have to be removed at great cost from the wastewater and trucked off as sludge to a landfill or an incinerator. Each step of the way, this contributes large amounts of GHG emissions that cause climate change.
- Recycle Kitchen Scraps
The average American household throws away an astounding 30-40% of their food or about 200 lbs per person per year. Kitchen scraps contain valuable nutrients that should be composted and returned to the soil. There are many composters on the market, sized for patios, decks, backyards and even indoors kitchen counters. We give our food scraps to our chickens and they convert them into eggs, which creates food for us and manure for the garden.
- Nutrients in Human Waste
Here is the big elephant in the room no one wants to talk about: the unimaginable environmental costs of human “waste.” An estimated 98% of what we eat, we excrete. (An adult excretes about 10 pounds/year in urine alone.) Except for the water and the calories we burn or store as fat, only a small fraction of the minerals, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, etc. in the food we eat is used to maintain our bodies. The rest is excreted.
Nitrogen and phosphorus in human waste, primarily in urine, become serious pollutants when entering fresh water bodies, estuaries, and oceans. Septic tanks leach these nutrients into the groundwater, which eventually pollute fresh and saltwater ecosystems. Sewer plants remove or blow off some of the nitrogen at a great cost, as much as $200-300 per pound of nitrogen. Some of the remaining nitrogen stays in the sludge which then must be buried or incinerated, while the rest is dumped in the ground in the wastewater effluent. All at great environmental, energy, and financial cost.
Neither septic tanks or sewers recover and recycle waste nutrients safely back to agriculture, where they originated. Not only is this “flush and forget” system incredibly wasteful and ecologically harmful, it is also unsustainable. Phosphorus, which is abundant in human urine, is a non-renewable resource, essential for food production. It’s being depleted in an alarming rate globally because our sewer systems dump these nutrients as wastes in landfills, rivers, lakes, and oceans, where they are no longer accessible for agricultural production. Recapturing phosphorus from the wastewater stream is extremely difficult, energy intensive, and too costly for most communities. But sooner or later, we think it will be mandated and your sewer bills will go up substantially.
- Replace Flush Toilets With Waterless Eco-Toilets
An advanced waterless eco-toilet captures all the residual nutrients from human “waste.” From one person, the solids (about 15 gallons, or the volume of a kitchen trash bin) are composted in the receiving vessel and produce about 8 gallons of compost after about 2 years. This compost is safe to be used as an soil amendment in the landscape or vegetable garden. The urine (about 120 gallons/person/year) can be safely used after 6 months storage.
Urine, or as we call it, “liquid gold,” contains a lot of nitrogen as well as phosphorus and other trace minerals. One person’s urine provides about 10 lbs of nitrogen per year, enough to fertilize 3,000-4,000 sq.ft. of lawn or grow 5-10 bushels of wheat. One bushel of wheat is enough to make 60 loaves of bread. Just think about it: one person’s urine provides enough fertilizer to grow enough wheat to make more than 350 loaves of bread per year! One person’s urine also provides about 0.8 lbs per year of the non-renewable resource phosphorus.
Prices of nitrogen fertilizers as well as phosphorus are skyrocketing. Some have tripled in the last year!
Urine-based fertilizer, containing all the minerals needed for plant growth, is free and available daily. No mining or manufacturing needed. It’s how nature intended it.
To achieve net zero energy, a green home has to produce enough electricity to supply the energy needs of the residents. Reducing demands depends on implementations of the various strategies described above and lifestyle changes as simple as turning off lights, not heating or cooling rooms that are not used, wearing a sweater instead of turning up the heat, etc.
Producing your own electricity provides financial stability and energy security. As long as there is some sun, you have free electricity.
There are state and federal residential incentives, tax credits, rebates and low income loan programs available for solar electricity generation.
To achieve energy resilience, meaning the home has power when the grid goes down, some kind of power backup or storage needs to be available. This can be in the form of a gas powered generator, storage batteries, or an electric vehicle.
The latest electric vehicles, such as the Ford Lightning, are set up with a battery in the car that can be connected to a house for emergency power supply for a few days.
To achieve water resilience, the home either has to have a reliable well with clean drinking water or depend on rainwater.
Rainwater catchment, storage, and filtration systems are widely available. The size of the system depends on the number of people in the household, average rainfall, the size of the roof, applying the conservation strategies described above and lifestyle changes as simple as taking fewer and shorter showers, turning off faucets while brushing teeth, running dishwashers with full loads, etc.
Town water can be used as backup to refill storage tank in case of prolonged drought. A specially designed valve prevents any infiltration from the rainwater storage tank to the town water supply.
Together with rainwater storage, growing and preserving food gives an incredible feeling of security.
Americans are not accustomed to seeing stores with empty shelves, but it can happen quickly. Big cities like New York only have at the most a two day supply of food at any given time. Any disruption in the supply chain due to weather, crop failures, pandemic, fuel shortage, or war, means higher food prices or empty shelves in the stores and no food at home.
You can become more food secure by changing that green lawn into vegetable garden. Even if you don’t have a lot of outdoor space, you can grow food in a sunny window or solar-heated greenhouse. Pots and boxes can be placed on decks, balconies, blacktop or gravel surfaces. And wherever possible, buy your food as close to home as you can.
Here are some tips for outdoor gardening:
- Manage Your Landscape to Absorb More CO2
1) Replace some of your lawn with trees and shrubs. Any plant, including lawn grasses, will absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and slows climate change, but multi-layered trees and shrubs store more carbon than grass.
2) Help your soil absorb and store carbon by leaving grass clippings and leaves on the surface to decompose and be absorbed by soil life.
No matter how “green” a house is, without significant human lifestyle changes, it will be impossible to reduce the carbon footprint and GHG emissions enough to avoid catastrophic climate change. What we eat, how much and how we travel, and what goods we buy all have huge climate consequences. A trip cross-country or overseas could undo all the energy savings achieved in a year by greening the home.
A vegetarian diet is good for the climate, and your health. Consider that 100 grams of protein from beef emits the equivalent of 50 kilograms of carbon dioxide, compared to the same amount of protein coming from plants, 2 kg from tofu or 0.5 kg from peas and 0.25 kg from nuts.
We have 12 years. Can we do it? If we all are willing to stop the leaks, stop the waste, travel less, eat responsibly low on the food chain and green our homes, the answer is yes. So let’s do it, for the sake of future generations.