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10 Steps to Decarbonize Your Lifestyle

Why be part of the problem? By making a few changes to your home or condo, you can take giant steps toward a zero impact life.

Ten years ago, The Empire State Building had a major problem. It wasn’t terrorists, or rats. It was energy guzzling. The building was using the equivalent of 40,000 houses worth of electricity every day. 

Time for a major makeover.

10 steps-featured

Why make such a big impact on the planet, especially at home? Take a few important steps and change the world.

Upgraded windows, lighting, insulation and a new energy management system reduced its carbon emissions by 40 percent over the past decade and the building has been entirely run by renewable energy since 2011. So, what can you do to match that? 

Your home offers a prime opportunity to reduce your carbon footprint that won’t be nearly as costly or as complicated as those undertaken by the owners of the Empire State Building. According to the EPA, 13% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from residential and commercial buildings and direct emissions from buildings have increased 8% since 1990. 

Recycling, buying energy-efficient appliances and conserving water are all steps you can take that are relatively easy and can save you money in the long run, says Mike Phillips, CEO and co-founder of Sense, a provider of smart home tools to increase energy efficiency. 

“For new homebuyers, the early years in a home can be an opportunity to invest in sustainable improvements that will continue to pay off over the years,” says Phillips. 

You can also take some actions that don’t cost money at all. Here are some of the biggest obstacles you’ll need to overcome:

  1. Big Feet. Where are you crushing the Earth, and not in a good way? Figure out your carbon footprint. When you’re ready to make a personal contribution to reducing carbon emissions, you need to have a baseline estimate of your use so you can track your progress. The EPA has a personal carbon footprint calculator. You don’t need to be a math nerd to use it, either. 
  2. Break the Fever. If you’ve moved into an older home, and you’re freezing half the time, too hot the rest, you probably need an energy audit. An energy audit is way more fun than a tax audit. In fact, they’re pretty cool. You’ll find all kinds of unexpected and hidden cracks, leaks and holes that impact your comfort and your energy bill. Depending on the level of the audit you choose, you can even see thermographic images of the secrets in your walls. If you’ve just moved into a home, find out if there’s been a recent energy audit, says Phillips. If not, schedule a professional audit or conduct one yourself.  “It’s important to look for ways to tighten your home’s envelope, especially if you live in an older or larger home,” says Phillips. “Check your windows and insulation to see how you can improve.” Your local utility company may offer a free audit or you can search the Residential Energy Services Network for a local energy auditor.
  3. Outsmart Your Furnace. You spend more on heating and cooling your home than almost any other expense. Even if you don’t have the cash to upgrade to a new highly efficient mini-split heat pump, you can find a cool thermostat that you can control from your smartphone. Make a game of it. See how much you can crank down the energy use every day, every week, every month. Invest in smart home products that help you track and control energy use, including a smart home energy monitor like Sense’s, which will tell you in detail how much electricity the devices in your home are using and help you reduce waste. While replacing your heating and air conditioning is a big expense, Phillips recommends making a plan to replace an inefficient system to reduce your home’s carbon footprint over the long term. One option to consider if you’re upgrading is a mini-split ductless system such as the energy-saving option from Panasonic that also provides improved indoor air quality. Now you can fine-tune your heating or cooling controls. 
  4. Get into Hot Water. Another big energy suck in your home is your water heater. The average water heater runs about three hours per day even when no one is home, emits about a ton of CO2 and costs about $600 per household to run, according to Arcadia, a renewable energy provider. In fact, Arcadia says, if American water heaters were a country, their total emissions would be responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire nation of Belgium.
  5. Ignore Your Clothes Dryer. You know all those photos you’ve seen of charming European villages with clothes drying across a narrow alley? Those images are more than quaint, they’re part of a reduced carbon footprint. Your clothes dryer uses five times the energy of your washing machine, according to the World Wildlife Foundation, so that’s a good place to start saving energy.
  6. Slay the Vampires. Even a newly built, well-insulated house will expand its carbon footprint if you have lots of appliances and gadgets, says Phillips. Gadgets can multiply in a house with lots of rooms.  Sense’s research shows that the average household spends 23 percent of its electricity bill on devices that never turn off like consumer electronics and aquarium pumps. Power down consumer electronics completely when they’re not in use, Phillips says.
  7. Resist Mechanical Nostalgia. Don’t bring energy hogs from your last place to the new one, says Phillips. “An old refrigerator can use more energy than a newer model,” he says. “Old plasma TVs are energy hogs, too. Before lugging outdated appliances along, find out how much electricity they use and compare them to the energy ratings on new models.” Phillips recommends buying Energy Star-certified appliances from reputable companies such as Whirlpool when you’re ready to buy.  
  8. Go LED or Go Dark. While big steps like replacing your appliances will have a big impact, even smaller ones such as replacing your light bulbs with LEDs can reduce your carbon footprint. According to the Energy Department, LEDs use at least 75% less energy and last 25 times longer than incandescent lighting.
  9. Slow the Flow. Installing low-flow faucets and accessories, especially those identified with the EPA’s WaterSense label, can save you money on your water bill and reduce your carbon footprint. According to the EPA, “bathroom sink faucets and accessories that use a maximum of 1.5 gallons per minute can reduce a sink's water flow by 30 percent or more from the standard flow of 2.2 gallons per minute without sacrificing performance.”
  10. Tap the Sun. Phillips suggests that homeowners consider solar panels by checking out programs that are available to you to defray the upfront cost or get tax breaks. “Depending on where you live, you may find incentives from states, utilities, the federal government or even your local municipality,” says Phillips. “The typical payback on solar panels is eight years, so installing them early on gives you time to enjoy free power from the sun.” 

Maybe you’re not ready to be King Kong, and take on the Empire State Building, but everything you do to reduce your consumption of resources makes a difference to your bank account and your impact on the planet.