By Sarah Warwick published
On the lookout for eco home improvements? Making your home more energy efficient along with investing in renewable energy solutions can enable you to play your part in making precious resources go further. It could help you save money, too.
We’ve taken a look at the full range of eco options so you can find out how to make your house greener – including eco heating and cooling choices, solar panels, rainwater harvesting, green rooves, and the sustainable choices you can make when it comes to everything from furniture to lighting.
Read on for the lowdown and make the changes that will green up your home, and reduce your energy bills.
- See: Eco – our page dedicated to sustainable living
1. Swap to eco home heating options
In the US, heating a home uses more energy and costs more money than any other system, according to Energy Saver, an office of the US Department of Energy. Typically, that’s about 45 per cent of your utility bill, the experts reveal. Meanwhile, in the UK, heating makes an even bigger impact, accounting for around 55 per cent of energy bills, according to the Energy Saving Trust.
Upgrading a furnace or a boiler can reduce energy use and save money on bills if you opt for a high efficiency version. The efficiency of a furnace or boiler is expressed by its AFUE, the annual fuel utilization efficiency. It’s calculated by taking the efficiency of the appliance in converting the energy in its fuel to heat and dividing it by the annual fossil fuel energy consumed by the appliance. In a high-efficiency heating system, the AFUE is 90 to 98.5 per cent. In other words, nearly all the fuel provides useful heat for your home. Compare an old low efficiency system: one of these has an AFUE as low as 56 to 70 per cent.
In the UK, both new gas and oil fired boilers are now condensing models, which recover the latent heat in waste gases and are more efficient, and swapping to one of these from an old version can make your home greener and bring savings.
A further heating option is an air source heat pump. Heat from the air gets absorbed into a fluid, which causes it to become a gas, which is then compressed, raising its temperature, and this is transferred into the heating system. One of these can also be used for cooling (see below). Bear in mind that a well insulated, air tight home is required if you’re to use an air source heat pump.
Also worth considering are geothermal heat pumps, aka ground source heat pumps. These use pipes buried in the ground to extract energy, which is amplified by a heat pump into heat that’s useful in a home. A backyard sufficiently large for the pipes is required, which may rule it out as an option for some homes.
Smart tech could also help save energy. ‘Home management systems like Alexa and Google Nest have been the catalysts for this,’ says Martyn Bridges, Director of Technical Communication & Product Management at Worcester Bosch. ‘When you realize you can ask these products to do certain tasks for you, and that one of those tasks could be operating your central heating system if you have smart controls, then I think that is of interest to homeowners.’
- See: The world's most beautiful eco houses – amazing, sustainable homes
2. Find greener ways to cool your home
Air conditioning is a feature of a majority of US homes, according to Energy Saver, and uses about 6 per cent of all the electricity produced nationwide. For a greener home, upgrading to a more energy efficient air conditioner is a good idea – look out for an Energy Star-qualified version – but there are more eco-friendly ways to stay cool.
Better ventilation is the greenest strategy and can be achieved by opening windows to create a cross breeze, and using individual fans as well as whole house fans.
Less energy-hungry than AC units are evaporative coolers, which pass hot outdoor air over water-saturated pads so its temperature drops. A fan then blows this cool air into the room. Bear in mind, however, that these coolers are only suitable if you live in a low humidity area.
Both geothermal and air source heat pumps can also be used as an eco option for cooling a home in addition to heating it.
3. Invest in solar panels
Adding solar panels is an eco home improvement you might opt for in order to provide electricity or hot water for your home. As the energy comes from a natural source, it’s renewable and clean, and means you can rely less on fossil fuels to power your home.
Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology provides electricity. It’s widely available, silent and fairly low maintenance as well. Solar thermal, meanwhile, provides free hot water. The tech is simple and reliable.
‘In both cases, energy from the sun is collected via panels, usually on the roof, then converted,’ explains Christian Engelke, technical director at Viessmann. ‘That energy may be stored as hot water in a cylinder for when it is needed in the case of solar thermal, and in the case of solar PV, used to power household appliances or charge electric cars – either while the sun is shining, or later if used in conjunction with a battery storage device.
‘Solar thermal can be used to great effect all year round, in conjunction with traditional heat sources, such as modern gas-condensing boilers, where they can reduce fossil fuel energy consumption by around up to 35 per cent if used for central heating and hot water, or with renewables.
'This is a significant step to reducing household environmental impact, particularly when used with an energy-efficient boiler with the latest controls. Solar PV systems can cover much of the electricity required to power a ground or air source heat pump and can support properties going completely off-grid for their heat.’
4. Harvest rainwater
Harvesting rainwater allows it to be re-used so you take less from municipal water or the mains. It’s an eco-friendly option, conserving precious supplies at a time when shortages are a growing issue.
The rainwater that’s harvested can be used to irrigate the backyard; it might be used indoors for flushing toilets and the washing machine; and it’s even possible to meet all the demands of a home with a system where the water is properly filtered and disinfected.
The size of the system that needs to be installed will depend on whether it’s for the backyard alone or for use inside the home, when a sizeable storage tank will be required.
5. Create a green roof
Green rooves are a growing trend for commercial buildings, and one that’s increasing in popularity for homes as well. Covered with vegetation such as sedums, they’re attractive, but they definitely aren’t just green in a literal sense.
‘Green rooves offer a wealth of benefits, such as aiding biodiversity, improving air quality, regulating internal temperatures, and prolonging the lifespan of a roof,’ says John Carter, Head Buyer at Roofing Megastore.
A green roof can absorb heat from the sun and contribute to cooling your home in summer and even provide some insulation in winter. It will also absorb carbon dioxide. It can also reduce the rainwater run-off so it stays out of the local system.
Pick from systems that are lightweight and low maintenance with some types of grasses, mosses and sedum, or intensive versions with a thicker layer of soil with a selection of grasses together with herbs, flowers and even shrubs. One of these could even create extra outdoor space. There are also systems somewhere in between these two poles.
See: Eco-friendly garden ideas – expert tips on creating an eco-friendly backyard
6. Shop for your home sustainably
What you buy to furnish your home and backyard can also contribute to making it greener. Think sustainable products, energy-efficient appliances and electronics, and solar-powered options.
If you’re shopping for a new appliance, look out for the Energy Star label which shows it meets specific standards for energy efficiency. Look, too at the EnergyGuide label. In the UK, meanwhile, new energy labelling now rates washing machines, washer-dryers, dishwashers, fridges, lighting and TVs from A to G. This replaces the A+++ to G scale.
See: Rewilding – how to return your garden to nature
Switch to energy-efficient light bulbs, too. LEDs are the top choice for saving electricity. There are also LED lights for outside your home, or you could opt for solar-powered outdoor lighting to illuminate paths, steps and other areas. They’ll charge up by day to illuminate the backyard after dark.
For the bedroom, pick a mattress made with wool, cotton, bamboo, or plant-based foams or latex for a greener choice.
When it comes to furniture, going for designs made with reclaimed materials, or picking upcycled pieces is one option. If you’re buying new wooden pieces, look out for FSC certification to be confident that the wood comes from a forest that meets the highest environmental standards.
See: Wildlife garden ideas – expert tips for attracting wildlife to your garden
Etsy is one place to search for sustainable buys. ‘More than ever, shoppers are looking for eco-conscious options for their decor and Etsy is home to millions of items, many of which are sustainably made,’ says the site’s trend expert, Dayna Isom Johnson. ‘From upcycled furniture to accents made from eco-friendly materials like recycled plastic, cotton or glass, it's easy to find something that not only looks great, but also does a world of good for the environment.’
Sarah is a freelance journalist and editor writing for websites, national newspapers, and magazines. She’s spent most of her journalistic career specialising in homes – long enough to see fridges become smart,
decorating fashions embrace both minimalism and maximalism, and interiors that blur the indoor/outdoor link become a must-have. She loves testing the latest home appliances, revealing the trends in
furnishings and fittings for every room, and investigating the benefits, costs and practicalities of home improvement. It's no big surprise that she likes to put what she writes about into practice, and is a serial house revamper. For Realhomes.com, Sarah reviews coffee machines and vacuum cleaners, taking them through their paces at home to give us an honest, real life review and comparison of every model.
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