The word "green" has been part of our vocabulary for years.
\We know we need to reduce, reuse, recycle -- but for most of us, there's a disconnect between what we know and what we really do.
It's easy to forget to turn down the heat when we leave the house. It's less expensive to buy regular tomatoes than organic ones. It's so much tastier to sip bottled water than it is to drink water from the tap.
It's true: Going green isn't always convenient. But it's a lot easier than it used to be -- and more affordable. In just the past two or three years, eco-friendly choices have become more accessible and less expensive, and going green is no longer just for the dedicated environmentalists and the wealthy.
We talked to Jennifer Schwab about the best ways to go green this year. Schwab is director of sustainability for Sierra Club Green Home, an online resource center that the Sierra Club set up to help people make their homes more sustainable. (Find it at www.sierraclubgreenhome.com.)
With her help, we've come up with ways you can help save energy, water and landfills this year -- without a lot of pain.
Here are 10 ways that you can make your home (and, therefore, your life) more eco-friendly and energy-efficient.
1. Install a programmable thermostat. You can set it to automatically adjust the temperature while you're at work or sleeping, and you'll save energy and money.
Your heating and cooling account for about 55 percent of your energy use, according to TXU Energy in Dallas. And the efficiency folks at Energy Star estimate that the average household could save $180 a year by switching to a programmable thermostat and using it properly.
How does a programmable thermostat work? You can set it to, say, cool off at night while you're sleeping, then warm back up in the morning. In the summer, you can set it to keep the AC off during the day while you're at work, then cool the house down by the time you get home. Some thermostats let you program a different schedule for each day of the week.
2. Track your energy use. Nothing makes you want to save energy like seeing the hard numbers. You can use a software program to analyze your home's energy use -- or you can even track it live online.
There are several programs available that help you get a handle on your energy use. One we like: Microsoft Hohm, an application that launched last spring. It's a free download. The program asks you to enter information about your home, your appliances and your habits. Then it draws up a personalized energy report: You'll find out what's sucking up the most energy in your house, whether your energy use is above or below average for your area, and what you can do to make your numbers better.
And find out whether your energy provider offers a way to track your energy use online. If TXU is your provider, for instance, you can have a programmable thermostat installed and then connected to the Internet. The iThermostat program allows you to check and adjust your thermostat from any computer online.
3. Switch to renewable energy. You might not even have to change providers. Many traditional companies offer customers the option to use renewable energy. The rates are slightly higher, but the impact on your carbon footprint is amazing.
The electricity that goes to your home doesn't change; it still comes from the grid that lights us all up. But when you have renewable power, it means your money is designated for renewable energy. The more people who pay for wind instead of coal, the more of that big grid will be powered with wind instead of coal.
4. Invest in efficient appliances.
You have no idea how much energy is sucked up by old, inefficient refrigerators and other appliances. So if you have to (or want to) replace an appliance this year, go with the Energy Star designation. Energy Star appliances require a lot less energy -- which, in turn, requires a lot less money. An Energy Star refrigerator, for instance, uses at least 20 percent less energy than a standard fridge.
How do you know if what you have is adequate? Energy Star has guidelines. If your dishwasher was made before 1994, it's sucking up energy at an alarming rate. If your washer was made before '98, it's a drag on the system. And if your fridge has been around since the Reagan era, you could be spending an extra $100 each year just to keep your milk cold.
5. Seal up your doors and windows. Especially if you have an older home, you're likely to have some drafts and some air leaking in around your doors and windows. Go around your windows and see if you can feel the spots where air is moving through. You can find sealants at your nearest home-improvement store for less than $5.
If you think you might have a lot of leaks, consider hiring an energy auditor.
"They have special instruments that can show you areas where there are air drafts," Schwab says.
6. Limit your home water use. If you install a few tools to help you use less water, you might not even notice the difference.
If your faucet doesn't have a low-flow aerator, add one. Screwed onto the end of your faucet, it'll reduce the flow of water -- sometimes down to a half-gallon per minute. Meanwhile, it adds air to the flow so you won't notice a reduction in water pressure. You can find a good aerator for less than $5.
And consider a low-flow shower head. Since 1992, new shower heads sold in the United States can't use more than 2.5 gallons per minute, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. But you can find low-flow shower heads that use 2 gallons, 1.5 gallons or even less.
7. Rethink your garden. This spring, save water: Don't plant tropical plants or flowers that require constant attention and watering. Instead, look for native plants to fill your garden.
8. Vow to use less plastic. Yes, plastic is easy, but it's not always the greenest option. So promise yourself that you'll use less of it. Use glass containers to store and heat food. Take your own bags to the grocery store to avoid taking home those filmy plastic bags that can't go in the recycling bin. And commit to stop filling the fridge (and the trash) with water bottles. If you're opposed to tap water, get a filtered pitcher or attach a filter to your kitchen faucet.
9. Dispose of things responsibly. If your city offers recycling pickup at your home, that's great. If not, though, you can take your recycling to a nearby drop-off station -- as long as you know where it is. This year, find out. And learn, once and for all, where to take all that what-do-I-do-with-this? hazardous stuff that shouldn't go to the landfill: batteries, motor oil, electronics and old compact fluorescent light bulbs.
10. Try your hand at composting. Yes, you can divert household waste from the trash and do something good for your garden.
"Composting diverts so much unneeded waste from the landfill," Schwab says. In the past few years, composting has gone a bit more mainstream -- and it's easy to find bins of all kinds (and at various prices) at home-improvement stores.
And if you want to go high-end, Schwab recommends the NatureMill composting bin, which she uses in her own kitchen. The compact bins can be used outside, but they fit easily into a kitchen cabinet. You drop in food waste and the bin does the rest: the turning, the mixing, the maintaining of moisture. Every couple of weeks, a red light tells you the compost is ready for emptying.
"It's a lot less involved than making your own" compost pile, Schwab says, and it looks good enough to leave out in the kitchen.
(Warning: They're not cheap -- models range from about $300 to $400.)