I’m super passionate about sustainability, low-waste practices, and making positive environmental impacts. Home improvement can sometimes be super wasteful, but there’s also a lot that can be done to a home to make it efficient and low impact. We recently went on the San Diego Green Home Tour and it was inspiring to see so many green initiatives in practice in a variety of different homes. We saw ultra-modern new constructions as well as modest homes with a bunch of DIY projects.
It had us thinking about how many sustainable improvements we’ve done that we can be proud of, but also how much more we want to do. I’ve compiled a list of green home improvements with some info on implementing them yourself. I also put together a downloadable checklist so you can evaluate which improvements your home can benefit from. Plus, there are a few tips for renters, too!
Note that I’m not going to get into nitty gritty lifestyle changes like getting rid of paper towels (which I’m a big proponent of) but rather focus on changes that will stay with the home for years to come to make a lasting impact.
Let’s start with some of the biggest impact ones and make our way to the more accessible ones.
Solar panels & renewable energy production
Solar panels are a super effective renewable resource that homeowners can install to turn their property into functioning green powerhouses. I’m planning this upgrade now, so I’ll be back with info on this in the coming months when we plop some panels on the roof. For folks with more land, wind, water, and geothermal energy are other energy sources that can power a home. It’s one of my dreams to live entirely off the utility company’s grid.
Grey water system
Used water from the laundry, shower, dishwasher, and sink generally always goes to the sewer, but it can actually be re-used. This waste water, when free of toxic chemicals, can irrigate outdoor gardens to do double duty! You can learn more about the process here. Folks get creative with grey water, too - one of the houses on the tour installed outdoor bathtubs to enjoy bathing in the garden and then irrigate the plants when they’re done.
Natural, renewable, and recycled building materials
Opting for natural materials like woods that are free of formaldehyde and chemical coatings is definitely a green way to go. But a step further is to use more renewable materials like bamboo which grows faster than other woods - with some species growing up to three feet in 24 hours! Recycled materials also make for great “new” products like recycled glass countertops and recycled plastic decking.
Dark roofs will absorb heat making attic and homes hotter which makes air conditioners work harder to keep houses cool - they also contribute to urban heat islands. Light colored roofs are more reflective and absorb less heat making them a better solution in hot climates - but light roofs aren’t always the aesthetic of choice. So, enter the “cool roof” - an asphalt shingle that reflects the sun rays for a more eco-friendly roof available in a variety of colors. I shared more about this when we replaced our roof.
Solar water heater
Using the sun to heat the water is a great way to have an extra long scalding hot shower with less guilt. This eco-friendly system hasn’t been on my radar, so I’m no expert, but there’s a bunch of info here.
Energy Star rated appliances
The fridge uses a ton of energy as it works hard 24/7 to keep our food cool. It’s often the biggest energy drawing appliance in a house but all appliances can be guilty of using loads of energy. Many new appliances nowadays are more efficient, but looking for Energy Star rated ones ensures they are meeting (or, hopefully exceeding) energy use standards. Remember appliances also include furnaces, air conditioners, water heaters and other mechanical components.
Native or adapted landscaping
Planting native and adapted landscapes can ensure that they thrive in your climate. Picking water loving trees in a desert means more water is wasted, and they tend not to be too happy. Native landscapes also provide a natural habitat for animals that live in your ecosystem - my garden has butterflies and birds all year long. In San Diego where water is sparse, lush green lawns are frowned upon so many folks are opting for low-water plants and heavy mulch coverings to keep soil moist.
To save water, drip irrigations direct water to the roots of the plants rather than spraying it in the air where it can evaporate. If you can’t switch your irrigation system out, the simplest way to save water is to turn on the sprinklers when it’s dark rather than at high noon when water evaporated before hitting the plants.
Reduced trips to the landfill
Renovations inevitably send stuff to the dump which is pretty un-green even if the house is built with sustainable materials. Salvaging hardwoods, not tearing down old houses, and upcycling existing materials keeps junk out of the landfill for years. I shared a few examples of avoiding the landfill during our landscape project. Nothing gets me riled up like watching people on HGTV throw perfectly good cabinets into a dumpster when they could easily be installed in another home - donate that, people! Minimizing any amount of demolition reduces the impact on the landfill while also revitalizing the existing home - win win in my book.
Food producing landscape
Planting fruit-bearing plants provides organic food from the garden to feed your family a healthy meal, and reduces the carbon footprint driving to the store to buy the produce you could grow in your own back yard. My lemon tree has provided so much lemon juice that I don’t even know what to do with it all - I adore it.
A homeowner on the green house tour takes a lot of pride in doing produce sharing with his neighbors so everyone benefits from a variety of foods.
Instead of turning on the AC to cool a house that has the sun beating in on it, I like to keep the house cool naturally. We keep our solar shades pulled down in the summer all day, and even pull the roman shades when it’s extra hot. During the chilly months, I open them up to let the sun in.
When we re-landscaped, we planted a tree in front of the windows of the hottest room of the house. Planting a deciduous tree to provide shade in the summer and let sun rays in when the leaves drop in the winter is the ultimate natural air conditioner.
Low-flow faucets and toilets
When replacing a toilet, shower head, or faucet, looking for a low-flow one will help prevent water waste. They are designed to disperse the water so it feels like you aren’t losing pressure or water, but it’s actually conserving it. Low-flow toilets reduce the amount of water with every flush, but if you can’t swap out yours, put a brick in the tank to prevent it from using so much water.
Gas free landscape maintenance tools
Gas-powered landscape tools are major pollutants - they are almost worst than cars in California! Switching to electric ones are not just quieter, but greener. I like the ones with batteries so I have mobility without being tied to a cord.
Upgrading a thermostat to a smart one, or even taking a few minutes to adjust your current thermostat can save lots of energy year-round, not to mention it helps the pocket book not heating/cooling an empty house.
Smart insulation and ventilation
Air leaks mean your air conditioned or heated air are escaping outside and going to waste. Not only are you losing the climate controlled air, but the AC/heater have to work harder to keep heating air that just ventures outside. When replacing insulation, look for ones with a high R value which means they are denser and provide a better barrier from the elements. Over-insulating, however, can cause problems, so ventilation is key - don’t go too crazy sealing the house. There’s a bunch of smart vents on the market, too for vents, attics, basements and more.
There’s a billion options for a trillion types of needs, but I have a couple of quick-fix favorites for the winter. I hear the StopGap is a great solution for keeping out drafts in old double hung windows. Natasha uses curtains over her doors during her northeastern winters.
Did you know double hung windows are meant to have both sashes opened at the same time in the summer? They are designed so cool breezes come in through the bottom sash and hot air gets pushed out the top. Genius! If your old wood windows are stuck, I like to use this simple tool to cut out paint that makes old windows hard to operate.
Harvesting rain water is a great way to avoid water use. We have a rain barrel to collect rain from the roof, but I also attached a pump to the air conditioner to collect free water instead of sending it to the drain, too.
Paint has come a long way from being chock-full of lead not that long ago, but it still isn’t the greatest thing to sniff. Paints have VOCs (volatile organic compounds) which make them bad for the environment and the painter. But now many paint manufactures are creating paints without VOCs and since this type of paint is so easy to come by, there’s no reason not to grab no-VOC cans. If you’re able to hunt around, you’ll find even more non-toxic paints out on the market made from more natural ingredients, too.
First we had incandescent bulbs, then CFLs (the twisty looking ones) came on the market as a low-energy alternative, but now we have LEDs. They’re the most efficient lighting option out there and they are getting cheaper and coming in all sorts of designs - they even make them to look like the old fashion Edison bulbs. In addition to using less energy, they also last years and years so the days of swapping bulbs constantly are over. Instead of wiring my porch light on a timer, I just keep the LED bulb on all the time and it takes barely any energy for the illumination.
It’s incredible how much a few shifts in daily life can affect our home and environment. A few favorites that I’ll get into another time are using non-toxic cleaners and reusable cloth, composting, buying organic/natural furnishings, not bringing single-use items home, and taking reusable housewares out and about to replace disposable cups/bowls/utensils while on the go.
Keep materials in the house
There’s nothing eco-friendly about replacing old house materials with brand new ones. Please don’t replace your old windows with new ones! There are so many ways to embrace the existing materials in a home without tossing them. But, if they end up being removed, donate them so someone else can enjoy them. Nobody enjoys old house parts when they’re in a landfill.
Don’t forget to check for rebates!
Green improvements tend to be more cost effective in the long run, but there are many savings up front, too! Many Energy Star rated appliances have rebates that you can redeem online or in-store. Solar panels and renewable energy production have federal and state tax credits to save a chunk of change during tax time. In my water sparse region, rain barrels and low-water appliances/plumbing/irrigation have rebates. Check your local/state/federal rebates to save some serious dough.
While some of these improvements seems inconsequential, they aren’t - every. single. thing. helps. How many of the checklist item can your home check off? If you want to wander around your home and do an inventory, you can print my downloadable checklist and make some satisfying checks on those boxes. I printed mine off and put it in my home binder where I keep invoices, manuals, and other documents so I refer to it throughout the years.