What constitutes a green home? In general, it's a home that uses less energy, less natural resources and fewer toxic chemicals. It may have been constructed with environmentally sensitive and sustainable building materials, include eco-friendly furnishings, promote healthy indoor-air quality, and feature water and energy efficiency.
So if you want to "regreen" your existing home, where do you begin? Here are 10 things you can do right now:
* Start with an "energy audit." Homeowners should start with an energy audit done by their local utility company or some independent energy consultants. You can also visit Home Energy Saver, a web-based energy audit site, at http://hes.lbl.gov. Audits can help pinpoint problem areas and measure energy savings after you improve your home's efficiency.
* Put a damper on things. An open damper in a fireplace can increase energy costs by 30 percent, and attic doors and dryer vent ducts are notorious energy thieves. The National Trust for Historic Preservation says the best way to counteract this is by installing fireplace draft stoppers, attic door covers, and dryer vent seats that only open when your dryer is in use.
* Become a draft dodger. One of the easiest ways to save money around the house is to seal off drafts. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that this alone can reduce energy usage 5-30 percent. Keep doors and windows airtight by weather-stripping or caulking the cracks. And don't forget to insulate the attic, basement and crawl space. About 20 percent of energy costs come from heat loss in those areas.
* Install a programmable thermostat. A programmable thermostat costs less than $50, is easy to install, and will pay for itself in one year through energy savings. By maintaining more constant heating and cooling levels, and automatically turning down the heat at night, the average family will save $150 a year, according to the EPA.
* Paint a masterpiece with healthier paints. Conventional paints contain solvents, toxic metals and volatile organic compounds (VOC) that can cause smog, ozone pollution and indoor air quality problems with negative health effects. These unhealthy ingredients are released into the air while you're painting, while the paint dries and even after the paints are completely dry. Opt instead for zero- or low-VOC paint, made by most major paint manufacturers today.
* Fix those leaky faucets. A dripping faucet or pipe joint can really add up to substantial water waste. One faulty faucet wastes 3 gallons of water per day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Sometimes a leak is just a matter of a quick tightening with pliers or a pipe wrench. Other times a leak may be more complicated. In those cases it is worth calling a plumber. Not only will you see lower water bills over time, you decrease the risk of mold, a serious threat both to home value and indoor air quality.
* Install low-flow showerheads and toilets. Older toilets waste large amounts of water. This is like flushing money down the drain, no pun intended! More than 30 percent of indoor residential water comes from toilets. New, low-flow models now use less than a gallon of water per flush vs. five gallons on older models. You can also save water and money, and still have ample water pressure, with a low-flow showerhead, which can slash bathing-water consumption 50 to 70 percent.
* Let there be (energy-efficient) light. Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFLs) use 66% less energy than a standard incandescent bulb and last up to 10 times longer. Replacing a 100-watt incandescent bulb with a 32-watt CFL can save $30 in energy costs over the life of the bulb.
* Buy Energy Star Appliances. When buying appliances – anything from dishwashers to refrigerators to ovens – look for the blue-and-white Energy Star label. It assures you that the appliance is at least 10 to 50 percent more efficient than standard models, depending on the type of product. That means lower energy bills and less pollution. A home fully equipped with Energy Star products will use about 30 percent less energy than a typical house, saving $600 a year. Go to www.energystar.gov to see qualified products and learn more.
Don't forget your yard. You may be surprised, but planting trees can make a difference in our energy usage. Evergreen trees on the north and west sides of your house can block winter winds, and leafy trees on the south and west side provide shade from the summer sun. And while we're on the outside of the house, remember to use light paint for your home's exterior. Lighter colors reflect heat better than darker ones.
A real estate veteran with more than two decades of experience, Rick Turley is the president of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in the San Francisco Bay Area.