Living a Greener More Energy Efficient Life




Introduction: Living a Greener More Energy Efficient Life

Conserving energy is a great way to save money while helping the environment. This Instructable describes some of the things my family has done to reduce our energy use and overall negative impact on the environment. I will also discuss our plans to further improve our energy efficiency in the future.

Energy efficiency techniques can vary by location, and while some of the ones presented here are unique to where we live, most can be applied in any part of the world.

It is my hope that by sharing our thoughts and efforts, we may give ideas or inspiration to others, and maybe get some suggestions on how to improve on things we are doing. Please feel free to share comments, ideas, suggestions, or questions.

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Step 1: The House in General

To start with, we live in what most people would consider a very small house, which is much cheaper, easier, and more efficient to heat, cool, and maintain than a larger house would be. The most efficient house is just large enough to meet the needs of it's residents. To offset the small size of the homes interior, we have created a lot of outdoor living area.

I regularly see single people buying 3 and 4 bedroom homes with over 2000 square feet of space to heat, cool, and maintain, which seems to me like a huge waste in so many ways. Another advantage to buying a smaller houses is that it's generally less expensive, leaving more room in the budget for energy saving upgrades.

Our home was in very poor condition when we bought it, and we've tried to make energy efficient choices as we've remodeled it. We installed new dual pane windows with low-e glass and replaced the insulation throughout the house with a much higher r value. We added a radiant barrier in the attic space, and also sealed all of the airleaks throughout the house.

The orientation of the home was initially pretty poor, but by simply adding a couple of windows and re-designing one of the porches, we now have an additional heating and cooling advantage from passive solar design.

Liberal use of windows and glass block provides lots of natural light, which makes turning on the lights uneccesary during the day.

There are substantial tax credits and incentives available for making these energy saving upgrades to your home. They include everything from windows and roofing to building permit fees and water heaters. More information can be found at and

Step 2: Passive Solar Thinking

Just about any home can be easily modified to give it some passive solar benefit. It may not be as much benefit as a home designed from the ground up with passive solar features, but it can still significantly reduce heating and cooling costs.

The summer sun passes over us in a high arc, just a bit south of directly above us, while the winter sun passes in a lower arc further to the south (or north if you live south of the equator). By creating eaves or a small porch of the right size on the south of your home, you can shade the house from the suns warming rays in the hot summer months, while allowing the sun to help heat the home in the cold winter months.

Adding or enlarging windows on the south face of a home can add to this passive solar effect. Keeping the window shades throughout the home closed in the summer, and open in the winter also reduces heating and cooling costs.

If shading the entire side of a house is not practical, just installing south facing window awnings of the appropriate size will have a positive effect.

Planting deciduous trees on the East, West or South sides of the home also has a passive solar effect. During the summer months the leaves are full and provide shade to the home, and when the leaves fall off in the winter, it allows the sunlight through helping heat the house.

Our local power company offers a program where we were able to get mature trees for $8 each by simply promising to plant them in areas that would shade our home. They offer several different types of trees to choose from, all of which require very little water.

It is also possible to get even larger solar advantages using more complex designs, such as water walls, trombe walls, clerestories, sun rooms, cooling towers and more. These are all things that should be considered when building or extensively remodeling a home.

Step 3: Heating and Cooling

Living in the desert in a well insulated house with passive solar design, we rarely use the furnace, and the pilot light is kept off most of the year to further save energy.

During the summer months, we use an evaporative cooler for the vast majority of our cooling, which uses a fraction of the energy that an AC unit uses. Evaporative coolers are ideal in dry arid areas like ours, but don't work very well in humid climates. We also have an AC unit, but it only gets use during the hottest and most humid summer days.

How the HVAC systems and ductwork are installed can also have a major impact on how efficient they operate. Any ductwork exposed to the sun will significantly reduce the cooling efficiency, and any airleaks in the ductwork will have a negative effect on both heating and coolong.

When we leave home for any extended period of time, we turn everything we can off, so that we aren't wasting energy heating and cooling an empty house.

Summer cooling costs can also be reduced by choosing the lightest colored and most reflective roofing materials. If you have a flat built up roof, using the white elastomeric roof coating rather than the tan, and keeping it well maintained, can make a surprising difference in your cooling costs.

Step 4: Sealing the Airleaks

One of the cheapest and easiest ways to make your heating and cooling system more efficient is by sealing airleaks. Finding airleaks in a home can be done through a professional energy audit that uses infrared cameras and other high tech equipment, and many power companies offer such audits for free or at a discount. If yours does not, I will explain an easy way to do it yourself.

First close all of the windows and doors, and turn off all HVAC systems, and ceiling fans. Then locate and turn on all of the exhaust fans in the home (usually in the bathrooms and above the stove). Open one window and place a fan in it so that it's sucking the air out of the house. This will create negative pressure in the house, and draw air in through all of the leaky areas. The moving air can be easily detected using the smoke from a lit stick of incense. The best places to check are window frames, door frames, outlet and switch boxes, light fixtures, plumbing penetrations, cable or electrical penetrations, and along the baseboards. In a larger house you may need to move the fan from room to room to get sufficient negative pressure.

Once the leaks are found, simply seal them up with caulking, weatherstripping, insulation, or other appropriate materials. According to a recent government study, you should see energy savings of between 5% and 30% on heating and cooling costs.

Step 5: Water Heater

I plan on installing a solar hot water system in the near future, but for now we rely on a high efficiency gas water heater.

I added an additional layer of insulation to the outside of our water heater, as well as to several feet of the incoming and outgoing water pipes to help it maintain temperature. The thermostat has also been adjusted so that the water is just hot enough to meet our needs, and the pilot light is turned off when we are away from home for any extended period of time.

Heat traps installed on a water heater keep the hot water from leaving the tank through convection, making the water heater function more efficiently. Installing them is cheap and easy, and many newer water heaters have them built in already.

Using less hot water is also a great way to save energy. Using hot water for the first cycle of your washing machine is usually an uneccessary waste of energy.

Step 6: Water Conservation

Water conservation is importaant everywhere, but especially so for those of us living in the desert, and we have taken several steps to minimize our water use.

Low flow, efficient plumbing fixtures such as the shower head and toilet are an easy and effective way to reduce water use. Using less water also means the water heater is used less, adding to the energy savings even more. If replacing the toilet is not practical for you, simply putting some bricks in the tank will displace water that would normally be flushed, making it more efficient. Use trial and error to find out how many bricks you can put in there while maintaining sufficient flushing capabilities.

By using a mild biodegradable detergent, the waste water from the washing machine can be harvested and used to water plants in the yard. This is especially easy in our case as the washing machine is on the back porch. Some people even harvest the water from their shower.

One of the easiest ways to reduce water use is just to be aware of it, which helps to remember simple things like turning the water off while brushing your teeth.

Even though our yard is fairly lash and full of vegetation, most of the plants we chose use little to no water. We don't quite have a "zeroscape" (landscaping that requires no water), but pretty close to it. The only plants that need regular watering are the ones that produce food for us; the citrus trees, tomato plants, peppers, and herbs.

Rain is a great free source of water, and the grading and contouring of our yard directs rainwater towards the plants to make use of it.

A lot of water can also be conserved by directing excess rainfall back into the local aquifer, rather than out to the streets to be lost to evaporation. The cheapest and easiest way to do this is to direct the water to a large hole that has been filled with rocks and covered with landscape gravel. This is one way that developers here in Az are meeting the 100 year water supply requirements imposed by the state for new developments.

I also have a large steel culvert that I plan to use as a water harvesting silo as soon as I get the time. Once set up, it should cover virtually all of our watering needs for the yard and garden.

Step 7: Appliances

When purchasing appliances, we looked for energy efficient models. The refrigerator and water heater were the most efficient we could find. Both of them are adjusted to be as efficient as possible while still serving our needs.

We decided that the most efficient clothes dryer was the wind. The amount of energy saved by line drying our clothes is truly amazing, and it's hot and dry enough here, that it's just as quick as a dryer for most of the year, even in the shade. With the exception of jeans and towels, the clothes dry almost instantly during the summer.

We currently use a hand me down washing machine, but plan on replacing it with a more efficient front loader. Front loading washers use much less electricity and water than top loaders do, but typically cost a bit more to buy.

As for the dishwasher, we don't have one. While the main reason for this is lack of space in the kitchen, washing our dishes by hand saves a fair amount of electricity and water.

Step 8: Electronics

Many Instructables have already been written on this issue, so I won't go into too much detail. As you probably know, electronic items use small amounts of electricity when they are plugged in, even if they aren't in use.

To reduce this "vampire energy", we installed a switch to control the outlets for our entertainment center. This way the TV, stereo, DVD player, video game consoles, etc, only have power to them when they are in use.

I also built a small cabinet that houses all of our chargers (phones, cameras, i-pods, etc.), which has a set of switches on the side. This way the tangled mess of cords is organized, and each charger only has power to it when it's being used.

The home computer is another large energy drain, and we have tried to make a habit of turning it off when its not in use.

Although there is some controversy regarding the net environmental impact of CFL's (compact fluorescent light bulbs), we use them throughout our house. They certainly do save electricity, but as with any fluorescent bulb, caution needs to be taken regarding their disposal. They contain mercury, which if not disposed of properly can lead to contamination of our water supply and our fish. They also will not work on a dimmer switch.

Check with your local power company to see if they offer any discount or incentive programs for CFL bulbs. Our power company teamed up with the local Home Depot stores to offer 4 packs of CFL's for $1.86, and I have heard of power companies that even give them away for free.

Step 9: Transportation

We try to ride our bikes as often as possible, which not only saves gas, but helps keep us in shape as well. We live close to the city center, so there's plenty of shopping and restaurants an easy bike ride away. My wife's workplace is close enough that she is able to ride her bike to and from work in all but the most extreme weather.

My job on the other hand requires me to drive all over town, which I do in my VW Jetta TDI. I run the car on 100% biodiesel, which is becoming more and more available throughout the country. If you have the space and the inclination, you could even make your own biodiesel from waste oil collected at local restaurants. I volunteer at a local co-op that does just that, in exchange for being able to purchase their fuel, which is better for the environment than biodiesel made from virgin oil.
I pay similar prices to gasoline, get around 42 mpg in town, and the exhaust smells like fried food rather than toxic fumes. Biodiesel made from waste oil decreases overall C O2 emissions by up to 85% and particulate emissions by 50%, when compared to fossil-sourced diesel. The car also runs smoother, quieter, and smokes less when using biodiesel.

Those living in colder climates may need to use a blend rather than 100% biodiesel during the winter, as pure biodiesel can "gel", or congeal in cold temperatures.

This may come as a shock to some, but with advances in both diesel fuel and diesel engine technologies, new diesel vehicles are cleaner and more efficient than modern hybrid vehicles, even when burning petroleum based diesel fuel. Between direct injection technology and turbo chargers, new diesels also shatter the idea that diesel cars are dirty, noisy, and slow.

The federal government has finally recognized these advances, and is now offering buyers of clean diesel cars tax incentives similar to those received by hybrid buyers. Many states are also starting to offer additional clean diesel grants and tax incentives.

More information on alternative fuel credits and incentives can be found at these websites:,,id=157632,00.html

If you're interested in more information about biodiesel, check out

Step 10: Recycling

We recycle the usual glass, paper and plastic products through the local waste management company, but we also try to take it a step further. Rather than sending many things off to be transported across country and then processed back into more products, which uses a great amount of energy, we try to find more direct ways of recycling.

We have developed a habit of asking ourselves "what else could this be used for?" every time we start to throw something away or put it in the recycle bin. The answers often bring unexpected benefits.

As an example, rather than putting our glass bottles in the recycling bin, we give them to someone locally who uses them to bottle homebrewed beer. As a bonus, he sometimes returns some of the bottles to us filled with delicious beer.

When we no longer have use for something, but think that someone else might, we try to find someone to give it to, or donate it to a charity thrift shop. We also sell and donate items to a local used building materials store.

Woodworking is one of my hobbies, and I have made some great furniture from discarded wood and other used building materials. These projects include an entertainment armoire made from partially rotten cedar I got super cheap from a small lumber mill, a bathroom vanity from pieces of mesquite flooring that had been milled defectively (free), and a wine rack out of scraps of pine and oak flooring taken out of a home being remodeled (free), and a cigar box guitar and amp, using scrap wood, cigar boxes, and scavenged electronics.

Re-using and recycling are as much being creative and having an open frame of mind as anything else.

Step 11: Buying Locally

The amount of energy used to package and transport goods to us every day is enormous. By buying products and food from local or close to local sources, we can help reduce energy consumption, as well as support our local economy.

We try to do a lot of shopping at local farmers markets, and besides being local, the produce is usually cheaper and better tasting than it would be if we bought it at the grocery store. In my mind, there is no comparison between a grocery store tomato that ripened in a truck on its way across country, and a fresh organically grown vine ripened one.

Re-useable shopping bags are an easy way to conserve resources, and many stores have started offering discounts to customers who use them. We keep re-useable shopping bags in the trunk of our car, so they are always handy, and I use my backpack to carry purchased items if I'm on my bike.

Growing your own food is also a great way to reduce energy use and waste. We live on a small lot in a city center, but still manage to grow some food for ourselves. We grow citrus, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs, and the satisfaction gained from using food you grew to make a delicious meal is truly unparalleled.

Step 12: The Workplace

Most of us spend a huge portion of our time away from home in a place of work. If you're self employed, this is yet another area you can save some money while conserving energy. If you work for someone else, it could be an opportunity to impress your boss by saving the company money.

While the energy saving techniques we've discussed so far have been targeting our homes, most of them apply to any building. Also keep in mind that everything a business does to conserve energy is also an opportunity to advertise the ways it is being "greeen", which can attract customers, and give an edge over competitors. I know that my efforts to be "green" have certainly secured some clients for my business.

Part of my work requires me to store documents for long periods of time, as well as print a lot of documentation. By printing on both sides of the paper, and storing as many documents as possible electronically, I save a lot of paper, money, and valuable space. Sending as many documents as I can via e-mail, rather than fax or post mail, not only saves paper but also saves time, long distance phone charges, and postage.

A little creative thinking is all it takes to come up with unique ways to conserve energy and save money in any workplace.

Step 13: The Road Ahead

As I mentioned in the beginning of this instructable, we still have progress to make. We have plans for several more projects to further reduce our energy use, and our environmental impact.

The next project on the list is building a rainwater collection system using some gutters and a large steel culvert. It will give us over 800 gallons of storage, and should cover most of the water needs for our yard.

I found some used solar powered attic vents at a used building materials store that I plan on installing when I redo my roof next year. These will use solar power to vent the hot air out of the attic space in the summer, and help keep the house cooler.

We also plan on installing a solar hot water system within the next year. Between the amount of sunshine we recieve here in Az, the estimated energy savings and the sizeable incentives, it should pay for itself relatively quickly. I will be able to sell the REC's (renewable energy credits) to the local power company for $750, we will receive a state tax credit for 10% of the total cost, a federal tax credit for 30% of the total cost, and the building permit fees and sales tax on the materials will be waived.

To see what alternative energy incentives and tax credits you may qualify for, check out and

I have recently been researching composting, and will probably be implementing what I learn in the near future. I'm sure our small garden will appreciate it when I do. There are several good instructables on this site regarding composting.

We would also like to install a photovoltaic solar electric system someday, and while the overall cost after rebates and incentives is manageable, the up-front cost is out of reach for us right now.

Step 14: Conclusion

You may notice that many of the ideas I've presented overlap, and that some of them are a little vague. Being energy efficient is in many aspects a way of thinking, and the more concious you are of energy use, the more energy conservation will seep into the different aspects of your life. The best way to be energy efficient is different for each individual household, but by being aware of how energy is used, and making concious desicions, energy efficiency will come naturally.

By changing our way of thinking, and just a few of our habits, we can save money, reduce energy use, and help our environment. None of the ideas I've presented here are new, but I feel obligated to share them because they work, and have improved our lives. If we all make just one minor change in the way we use energy, it will make a huge impact on the world we live in.

I hope you've enjoyed my first Instructable, and that it has given you an energy saving idea or inspiration. Please feel free to leave comments or ask questions.

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    6 Discussions

    Cardinal Fang
    Cardinal Fang

    5 years ago on Step 8

    In the last years or so, LED bulbs have started to come in in a big way. These are about as energy efficient as energy saving fluorescent bulbs, but do not contain mercury or other toxic metals, and don't have that dull "warm up" time that fluorescent bulbs often have. They also last ages. As your fluorescent bulbs die, think about replacing with LED bulbs


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Hey, In my opinion harvesting water is one of the easiest and most impacting ways to live more eco-responsibly.. Like mentioned above you can add a simple rain barrel for hand watering or get more complex with drip irrigation systems. If you have questions about this process or just want to join the discussion, check out our <a rel="nofollow" href="">rainwater harvesting</a> community. <br/>


    10 years ago on Step 14

    All of your ideas/suggestions are wonderful. In regards to water heaters; changing to a tankless system is also an option. Especially for individuals who live in condos and are not able to install a solar system.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    It's good to see "what we did" as a change from "what you can do". I'm interested in your power company offering a program where you were able to get mature trees for $8 each by simply promising to plant them in areas that would shade your home - are they using this as some kind of carbon-offset? L


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    I'm not sure what the exact impetus for the program was, but the literature mentions "meeting energy saving objectives". Here is a link to the programs website which has more detailed information. [ ]