Getting Started Reducing Your Carbon Footprint By SUSAN STELLIN Published: February 15, 2013 8 Comments Facebook Twitter Google+ Save E-mail Share Print Reprints
Many people believe that Hurricane Sandy made the consequences of climate change painfully clear, so it might be tempting to think that stricter emissions standards and renewable-energy investments could lead to a less stormy future. But while these high-level policy initiatives are important, changes on the home front matter, too. Enlarge This Image Illustration by Phil Marden Related More Getting Started Columns » The New York Times Real Estate App A free iPhone app offering in-depth property search tools and mobile features to help you navigate the real estate market. Available on the iPhone App Store » . Connect With Us on Twitter For news and features on real estate, follow @nytrealestate. . Readers’ Comments Share your thoughts. Post a Comment » Read All Comments (8) » “Residential housing accounts for 29 percent of all the energy used in New York State,” said Frank Murray Jr., the president and chief executive of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which goes by the acronym Nyserda. That includes a lot of home printers with their power on 24/7 and lights illuminating empty rooms. If the virtue of reducing your carbon footprint is not enough of an incentive, the United States Department of Energy estimates that the typical American family spends about $2,000 a year on utility bills. Changing some energy habits might not drastically reduce your total bill, but even small savings add up over the years — and your home would be less of a drain on the grid. Turn Down, Screw In, Unplug Many energy-saving strategies are free or inexpensive, and technology makes it easier to follow through on advice most people have heard, but don’t always heed. ‘Smart’ power strips, for example, automatically shut down power to electronics that aren’t in use — like your printer or DVD player — but also have outlets marked “always on” for devices that need continuous power, like a DVR. Other advanced power strips come with a remote control, so you can switch them off without crawling around on the floor. A quick scan of your home is likely to reveal appliances that can be unplugged, like a window air-conditioner in the winter or a gaming console the kids no longer use. Adjusting temperature controls is also an easy task. According to Nyserda’s recommendations, a typical home water heater should be set no higher than 120 degrees, a refrigerator should be around 35 to 38 degrees and a freezer at 0. Chris Olert, a spokesman for Con Edison, says the refrigerator is the top energy-consuming appliance in most homes. Cleaning the condenser coils of dust and grime can also help reduce its energy use. A programmable thermostat should be on your hardware shopping list if you don’t already have one, and washing your clothes in cold water is much more energy-efficient than choosing warmer cycles. Mr. Olert says lighting is another big source of residential energy waste, especially in the summer when the heat from traditional bulbs adds to cooling costs. “Incandescent bulbs throw more heat than light, and compact fluorescent lamps throw more light than heat,” he said. New federal standards require incandescent bulbs to operate at a lower wattage for a similar light output, but energy-saving LED bulbs and compact fluorescent, or CFL, bulbs have come down in price and are generally more efficient. Nyserda’s “bulbology” page provides a good overview of your options, and advice on deciphering lighting labels. Do an Energy Audit If you live in a one- to four-family residential building in New York City and your annual household income is below $130,000, you qualify for a free home energy audit, Mr. Murray said. For households with incomes of up to $260,000, the audit costs $50 to $320. The audit assesses how you can save energy, what any recommended improvements will cost, and the return time on your investments. A typical audit involves evaluating appliances and lighting, checking insulation, and looking for air leaks around doors, pipes and windows. “They bring a door with them and they put it in your front door and create a suction that allows them to identify where the leaks are occurring,” Mr. Murray said. Many utility companies also offer free or subsidized home energy audits. Con Edison charges $50 for customers who live in a one- to four-unit home; that price covers a free smart power strip and CFL bulbs. If you don’t qualify for one of these programs, the Building Performance Institute lists accredited contractors you can hire to perform a similar audit. There are also online tools that guide you through the process of doing your own energy evaluation. The Home Energy Saver calculator, created for the Department of Energy, provides a customized list of tips based on information you enter about your appliances, home construction and energy use. Tackle Home Improvements Once you know how you’re wasting energy, the challenge is fixing those problems. Some of the easiest chores you can tackle are caulking, weatherstripping doors and windows, and sealing gaps around heating and cooling ducts. Ronda Wist, vice president for preservation and government relations at the Municipal Art Society of New York, said people living in older homes should consider repairing rather than replacing things like windows. “People often think that new is better,” she said. “The problem with new windows is that there are often gaps between the window frame and the masonry.” The Municipal Art Society, working with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, recently published a Green Rowhouse Manual of energy-saving advice for residents of older buildings, which make up much of the housing stock. A lot of the advice in the guide also applies to newer homes, but residents of buildings subject to landmark restrictions face hurdles when contemplating improvements. Last spring, New York City passed the “Zone Green” amendment, which relaxed zoning regulations to remove some barriers to environmentally friendly home improvements. For instance, it is now easier to install awnings, solar panels and green rooftops, thanks to more flexibility on things like what can be put on a roof. Before making any improvements, investigate what rebates, tax credits and other incentives you might qualify for, either from government sources or utilities. “There are all kinds of incentives for heating, cooling and lighting upgrades,” Mr. Olert said. “There are even some for changing out your shower heads to save on hot water use.” Federal tax credits for investments like solar energy systems and residential wind turbines can be found at energystar.gov. Another site, DsireUSA.org, offers a searchable database of state, federal, local and utility incentives that support energy efficiency. For New York State residents, a program called Green Jobs — Green New York provides low-interest loans for undertaking recommendations emerging from an energy audit. “You end up paying back that loan through the energy savings on your utility bill,” Mr. Murray said. “Your annual loan payment is calculated so it doesn’t exceed the amount of money you’re going to save.” A version of this article appeared in print on February 17, 2013, on page RE6 of the New York edition with the headline: Reducing Your Carbon Footprint.