Editor’s note: These tips were adapted from recommendations from Amanda Little, author of Power Trip: The Story of America’s Love Affair with Energy. Check out her website for more energy-saving ideas and information.
These days it’s hard to turn a corner in your supermarket or turn on your television without seeing a new, green product – one that promises to reduce our dependence on oil, cut paper waste, eliminate toxins, recycle more, and use less. While the importance of preserving our natural resources may sound like old news to you, it’s an essential message to pass on to your kids. Here are some ways to shrink you carbon footprint and enlighten your family (bonus – most of these tips will save you money in the long run, too):
Screw This Up
By now, you should have had the talk with your kids – that is, the talk about why you’re taking all the plain-old light bulbs out of your household and replacing them with funny, noodle-shaped ones. The benefits of the swirly bulbs, more officially known as CFLS or compact fluorescents, have been well publicized in the news. Here’s some info if you’re not up to speed: though they cost slightly more than conventional bulbs, they’re about 75 percent more efficient and last 10 times as long. You’ll end up saving between $55 and $65 over the life of the bulb. If every home switched just one regular bulb for a CFL, over $600 million would be saved in energy costs – the equivalent of taking 7 million cars off the road. And now with new technology that makes the CFLs give off a warm and mellow light, there’s no reason to hold back.
The In(sulate) Thing
With the rides to and from school, work, playdates, or sports practice, it may seem like your car is the biggest energy guzzler. But what about the money you spend on air conditioning, hot water, refrigeration, cooking appliances, and lighting in your home? It all adds up to high energy demands. Your house actually emits about double the amount of CO2 as the family car. This problem might need more than just a simple switching off of the AC, though. Most homes have cracks in the walls and seams, plus poorly insulated attics, cellars, and doorjambs, especially if your house is old. With a little caulking, weather stripping, and insulating, you can seal up those cracks and improve your home’s efficiency by 20 percent.
Windows are also a major culprit of energy waste. Look for windows with a Low-E or Energy Star label, which can save you about 30 percent of your energy bill. Visit the web page of your local utility to find professionals to help seal up your home or visit the Simply Insulate website.
A Star-studded Home
Between dirty dishes, stained clothing, and all those juice boxes and fresh vegetables you want to keep cold, chances are your appliances get a ton of use throughout the day. Save some cash on utility bills and feel better about the planet by investing in furnaces, boilers, refrigerators, washer/dryers, dishwashers, and more with the Energy Star label. These models get about 20 to 50 percent better efficiency than their conventional counterparts. Visit Energy Tax Incentive to learn more about the Department of Energy’s $1500 tax incentive for investments in energy-efficient homes and appliances.
If that’s not in your budget, a good first step is wrapping your boiler with insulation (the second biggest energy guzzler in your home, after your air conditioner). Another great step is getting a programmable thermostat that automatically dials down your AC while you’re out or your family is asleep. The thermostat typically costs about $100 for installation, but pays for itself in savings in less than three months.
Solar panels are the go-to renewable energy for homes, but they’re expensive or impractical if you don’t have the right sun exposure. If you have a yard and want to get greener, cast your sights downwards to geothermal energy.
A system of pipes is embedded in your yard about 20 feet below ground, where the earth stays about 50 to 70 degrees year-round. Fluid in the pipes absorbs this ground temperature and is pumped back in the house, keeping it the same temperature as the earth and taking the pressure off boilers and air-conditioning units. This system costs several thousand dollars, but it pays back quickly in energy savings.
Stray from the Meat Market
Here’s how even what you eat guzzles energy: Livestock consume roughly eighteen pounds of grain for every one pound of meat they produce, and growing these grains takes fossil fuels. To transport and store all that meat, trucks need energy-intensive refrigeration. On top of that, livestock makes a load of poop, which isn’t just smelly, but is also dangerous for the environment. All this “fertilizer” produces methane, a greenhouse gas, which contributes to global warming.
If you eat meat, try designating one or more meat-free days a week. Check out Babble’s The Family Kitchen for some nutritious, kid-friendly vegetarian meal ideas.
Grow Your Own
Don’t be surprised if the bananas on your kitchen table have more stamps in their passports than you. Much of the produce you find in your grocery store has traveled 1500 miles from farm to market, and tropical and off-season fruits even more. Buying local and seasonal produce cuts down on the energy used to transport food, and supports members of your community (beware, though, of locally grown food in greenhouses, which can use lots of energy to control the climate).
Step up your efforts even more by getting your own hands dirty in the backyard (try Earth Boxes if you’re lacking in green yardage), eliminating all miles traveled from the ground to your family’s mouths. Late summer and early fall isn’t too late to start – try planting carrots, chard, kale, peas, potatoes, radishes, or spinach.
Till up a section of your yard, add compost, and plant some veggies, herbs and fruits. It won’t take more than an afternoon to get started. Check out The Family Kitchen’s guide to growing your own peas for one example of a crunchy snack that kids can pick right off the vine.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Aside from saving resources, these practices cut energy use. Roughly 5 percent of total annual U.S. energy consumption comes from the fossil fuels used in making plastics alone. Producing plastic products from recycled materials rather than from scratch uses much less energy. Another number to think about: recycling aluminum cans saves 95 percent of the energy needed to produce aluminum from scratch. Recycling a ton of glass saves the energy equivalent of about nine gallons of fuel.
Involve the kids by decorating a recycling bin with them and encourage them to think of new uses for their items before throwing them out. Try personalizing a canvas tote bag with them that they can take to help with grocery shopping. Visit Recycle Bank for info on the most innovative recycling methods in the nation.
It’s a Key Issue
Perhaps its time to take a page from our friends across the pond – as Americans, we use 4 times more gasoline per year, about 550 gallons per person. Why? We tend to drive ourselves in favor of public transit. The average driver in the U.S. travels between thirty and forty miles a day, racking up nearly 14,000 miles on their odometer per year. At that rate, you could circle the equator every two years.
If your city’s got a good transportation system, check out schedules online or at transit stations. If possible, try walking or biking with your kids to school, the post office, or the store.
The best way to improve fuel efficiency is to switch out your clunker for a more efficient model, but most people can’t afford to immediately. So if you can’t be with the energy-efficient car you love, love the car you’re with: keep the tires inflated (this move improves gas mileage by about 5 percent). Get rid of the camping gear, extra stroller and sports equipment in the trunk until you really need it, because all that extra weight drags down mileage. If possible, slow down on the highway: your fuel efficiency nosedives at speeds more than 60 miles per hour. Keep your driving smooth, as rapid breaking and acceleration uses a lot more gas. If weather permits, turn off the AC, roll down the windows, and belt out a Beatles song with your kids in the back on a sunny day – nothing’s better.
Technically, the average domestic plane does better on fuel economy than your car: it gets 85 miles to the gallon, compared to the average car’s 25. However, because the distances while flying cover a lot more ground than the average car ride, tons of jet fuel is used to transport people all over the world. One person flying 15,000 miles – just over four round-trips between New York and Los Angeles – amounts to hundreds of gallons of jet fuel. Taking a “staycation” is not only helpful when the budget’s tight, but also reduces your family’s fuel use. Taking a few days to explore nature with your kids will up your family time – and you might only have to travel as far as your back door.