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To Buy Green Or To Be Green?

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By Kristina Anderson
August 28, 2012 

Whether to buy green or to act green is a common conundrum for the environmentally-friendly consumer. Should you buy a newer, more efficient appliance? Or would it be better to buy a used one? Or does it make the most sense to keep what you have? Which is more environmentally responsible?

To be perfectly honest, this is complicated. What is needed to answer this question is the lifecycle analysis paradigm, which looks at the environmental impact involved in the creation, transportation, use, and disposal of a given product during its existence. There is more lifecycle impact data out there for some products than for others, but we can always learn enough to make an informed choice. Here Sierra Club Green Home takes a look at the pros and cons of replacing five common household appliances: washing machines, air conditioning, showers, light bulbs, and toliets.

Washing Machines

The most efficient way to wash laundry is to do it by hand or have it washed for you at a laundromat. However, many people have neither the time nor the resources for these two options. I admit that I could not imagine life without a washing machine!

Washing machines consume the most energy during use, as opposed to production. Buying a newer, more efficient machine is a great option environmentally-speaking. If you buy a new washing machine, make sure it has the Energy Star label and spring for a front-loading model if you can. Front-loading models use less water and overall power due to their orientation. Be sure to recycle or sell the old one to avoid having it contribute to our ever-growing landfills.

Efficiency Tips:

  • Wash full loads, but do not overfill the machine. Full loads allow the machine to run at its top peak.
  • The hotter the water, the more energy that needs to be put towards heating the water. Even reducing the temperature of the wash by a few degrees makes a difference.
  • Skip washing your clothes in hot water altogether and use cold water instead. You can find special detergents designed to work with cold cycles.
  • Add an extra spin cycle. This will ring more water out of the clothes, making for less time that your clothes need to spend in the dryer.
  • Make sure your screens are clean. Your washing machine has two hoses and there is a screen in each, and keeping them clean will allow the machine to run faster cycles.

Toilets

A toilet that has been around since 1992 is going to be considerably less efficient than a more recent toilet, thanks to regulations passed that year. So if your toilet is from Generation X, it is probably best to upgrade to a newer model. Your old commode, should you choose to update, can be recycled locally or donated to Habitat for Humanity.

Efficiency Tip:

  • You can increase the efficiency of your current toilet by simply using it less. You don’t need to flush your toilet every time (just exercise good judgment).

Light Bulbs

Light bulbs have a relatively short life, so use what you have until they burn out. If it is time to buy more bulbs, there are a number of options to consider.

Incandescent light bulbs are far from efficient, but they do not take as much energy to produce as CFLs (compact fluorescent lights). LEDs (light emitting diodes) are by far the most sustainable, albeit expensive, option. You can expect this illumination heavyweight to last around 50,000 hours. LEDs don’t contain mercury, and they can (and should) be recycled.

Efficiency Tip:

  • You can make your existing bulbs more efficient by simply turning them on less often. There really is not any reason to turn lights on during the day. Read your book near the window. Maybe the natural light in the bathroom is not super bright, but what do you really need bright light for when using the facilities? Also, many homes have installations for lighting where it is not necessary. Just because your hallway has three ceiling lamps doesn’t mean you need to turn them all on. Think logically, and make a game out of being as efficient as possible.

Showerheads

Buying a low-flow showerhead is not a bad idea. A low-flow showerhead can reduce your water consumption during showers by over 50%, according to our friends at The Daily Green. This will also reduce your water bill. There is a paucity of means for recycling showerheads but, if you want to get creative about it, many people have suggested letting your kids use the old one as a microphone.

Efficiency Tips:

  • Take shorter showers! Less time in the shower means less water. Make it a game and time yourself. How fast can you get squeaky clean?
  • Shower less often. I am not suggesting you get all smelly, I am just saying that many people do not need to shower every day.
  • Take “military” showers. My grandfather was in the navy, and he has touted this method for years. Turn on the shower and get wet. Then turn the water off while you soap up and do all the other stuff that you do not necessarily need water for. When you are done with that, rinse off and hop out!
  • Take cold showers. As I mentioned in the washing machine section, it takes energy to heat water. If you can stand it, take colder showers. This may also motivate you to get out faster!
  • Sharing is caring. Shower with your significant other. Not only is it bonding, but you will save water in the process.

Air Conditioning

It takes a lot of energy to build an air conditioner and, no matter what, they use a lot of energy when they are switched on. If you are using central air, you are going to need an Energy Star-certified system and please replace it no less than every 13 to 14 years. This will balance the new system’s energy efficiency with the environmental impact of producing it.

Window units are far more environmentally-friendly, as they take less energy to manufacture and to run, and they allow you to cool one room or area at a time.

Ceiling fans are really the way to go though, as they utilize just a fraction of the energy used for either of the aforementioned options.

For information on recycling any of these products, call the municipal department of public works in your area.

Efficiency Tips:

  • For all three cooling options, turn them off when you are not home.
  • For air-conditioners, make sure the air filters are clean. Dirty filters means a harder working a/c.
  • Where ceiling fans are concerned, make sure the blades are rotating in the correct direction. If it is not sending heat away from you, it is not working right.
  • For more cooling tips try this Web site.

I hope these tips have given you some guidelines for when to replace appliances versus when to make do with older models. So, is the greenest product the one already in existence? Well, we hope you can now use lifecycle analysis to decide!

Acting Green vs. Buying Green
(Infographic source: eLocal.com)

For related articles, see:
Water Conservation with Shower and Faucet Tips
Environmentally Friendly Lamps

© 2012 SCGH, LLC.

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