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For a long time, proponents of "green" living seemed sort of out there; the mere phrase conjured up granola-crunchy visions of yurts and not-so-effective toilets. Fast forward to 2011, and building materials and technologies have evolved so that what is "eco" is also effective, and often also luxe and chic.
Similarly, people from all perspectives have begun to embrace green living at home, out of concern for the planet, for their children's futures, and for their pocketbooks.
Thinking about going green at home, but not sure where to begin? Here are three different, and complementary, approaches to creating a green home.
1. Green homes are efficient. Buildings use 39 percent of the energy and 74 percent of the electricity produced every year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. And the average American household spends nearly $2,500 every year on water, gas and electricity.
Green homes can include bill-slashing, efficiency-boosting features like dual-paned windows that minimize leakage (they keep the cool in during the summer and the warmth in during the winters), low-flow toilets, tankless water heaters, and even solar energy systems.
Many of these green home features have the fantastic side effect of increased comfort for the home's residents.
Dual-paned windows and insulation minimize drafts and make extreme weather much more bearable. Today's low-flow toilets get the job done quite well, and tankless water heaters provide endless hot water without the need to keep a big vat of water heated and on the ready at all times.
In most areas, the energy utility will come out and conduct a no-cost efficiency audit to detect energy leaks big and small.
2. Green homes promote their residents' health. Many homeowners are still unaware of how toxic the emissions from paint, carpets, flooring and even furniture can actually be -- some volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by finish materials have been linked to respiratory and memory problems, and some of the fire-retardant chemicals that are applied to mattresses and upholstery have been scientifically linked to a laundry list of health woes.
On another note, homes that are not well-sealed and well-ventilated can harbor fungus and mold, to which residents may be allergic.
Paints and carpets with low or no VOCs can nudge a home in the direction of being green, as can the use of sustainably harvested natural finish materials, like bamboo flooring. And ensuring that your home's crawl space, foundation and garage are both well-sealed and well-ventilated can minimize health problems from mold and other pollutants.
3. Facilitates a green lifestyle (with a recycling center, garden, etc.).The folks at the U.S. Green Building Council, who created and administer the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification system, hit the nail on the head when they said "a home is only truly green if the people who live in it use its green features to maximum effect."
Even if you can't afford to install dual-paned windows, it's quite inexpensive to set up features that make it convenient for you to carry out nonbuilding-related green living practices like recycling, composting and even eating local and organic out of your kitchen garden.
There are dozens of other things that can make a home green, from choosing to landscape with native plants that require minimal water and energy to working with what you have to insulate, vent and seal common energy leak offenders like water heaters and electrical outlets. But you can jump start your eco-efforts by wrapping your head around these three ways to think about going green at home.
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Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman's Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Tara is also the Consumer Ambassador and Educator for real estate listings search site Trulia.com. Ask her a real estate question online or visit her website, www.rethinkrealestate.com.
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