20 ways to go green at home
August 29, 2007

source: 20 ways to go green at home

You don't have to live in the latest concept house to help save the planet. Donnachadh McCarthy has transformed his leaky, draughty Victorian terrace into a zero-carbon triumph and he's set out this simple plan so that you can do it too

1. Catch the rain

A rain harvester was one of first eco-technologies I installed. It was an extremely simple system, due to the layout of the house. The bathroom is on the ground floor, with a flat roof above it. So we diverted all the rainwater from the top roof into a small filter tank. This connected to a large storage tank on the roof above the lavatory. The water then simply runs via gravity to the bathroom beneath, and I use it for everything from flushing the loo to shaving.

I'm in the process of seeing whether a second rain-harvester is feasible for providing water for my shower and washing machine. The plan is to use a solar-powered pump for this one. In the simplest form of rain harvesting, a basic water-butt can give you everything you need for keeping your plants healthy, soaking dishes and cleaning the car. Just in case you wondered, I don't use rainwater (yet) for drinking.

If you don't have much of a garden, and don't want the space to be taken up with a barrel, you can get systems that bury the tanks in the ground, or even hide them in the eaves of the house. It is this latter system that Julia Stephenson (The Independent's Green Goddess) is having installed in her top-floor apartment in central London.

See www.envireau.com and www.rainharvesting.co.uk

2. Do your own annual eco-audit

Perhaps the most important step in turning your home green is to start recording your eco-data. Knowing how much you are consuming annually will enable you to draw up an action plan. Your key statistics are: kilowatt hours of electricity and gas; litres of heating oil and mains water used, and the number of wheelie bins of un-recycled waste produced each year.

The excellent carbon calculator on the National Energy Foundation website will easily convert your figures for energy consumption into tonnes of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that is causing the climate crisis.

Carbon calculator: National Energy Foundation, www.nef.org.uk

3: Switch to green electricity

Green electricity suppliers like Good Energy source all their power from carbon-neutral sources such as wind, solar and hydro. It costs about an extra 10 per cent on your current electricity bill, which for an average family works out at about the price of a can of cola a week. In return, you know that all the electricity your home consumes will be carbon-neutral.

Green electricity available from www.good-energy.co.uk and from www.ecotricity.co.uk

4. Pull the plug on wasting water

There's a simple way to cut your water usage by up to one-third: install spray taps on all your sinks. You can either fit new taps, install metal screw-in adapters or buy cheap rubber versions to push on to the end of your taps.

You could also fit the most efficient modern dual-flush lavatory, which uses either 4.5 litres or two litres per flush. However, you do not have to rip out your lovely Victorian loo to make it more efficient. Place water-filled plastic bottles in the tank as many as you can while still getting a flush that works. I have three half-litre bottles in mine and it works well.

You can also retro-fit an Interflush device, which will stop the loo flushing when you let the handle go and so mimics the effect of a dual-flush control. Most of us living in towns and cities will not find ourselves able to go for the ultimate eco-loo a composting toilet but pee is great for the compost heap!

Even more important, install an aerating shower-head that inserts bubbles of air into the hot water and so reduces flow by up to 30 per cent, without any reduction in force. These cost only about 30.

Hansgrohe offers elegant aerating shower heads for about 30; visit www.aquabrand.com or >www.naturalcollection.com

Interflush devices are available from www.interflush.co.uk

5. Install energy-efficient lighting

This is an easy step. Traditional tungsten bulbs use up to five times more electricity than energy-saving bulbs. At all costs, eliminate the use of multiple halogen down-lighters and up-lighters the sort of lights that are so popular fitted flush into the ceilings of our kitchens and bathrooms. Many refurbished homes with such lighting use up to eight times more energy for lighting than even the old tungsten bulbs, and up to 40 times more energy than would be used with energy-saving bulbs.

Cost is no longer an issue, as the bulbs can be found in some DIY stores and online for less than a pound. They can pay for themselves in three months. A kitchen in a house I recently eco-audited used 1,600 watts of lighting, when it would have been well lit with just three 20-watt energy-saving bulbs. My home, a period two-bedroom terrace, uses only 190 watts of lighting in total.

Energy-saving bulbs are available from www.ebulbshop.com

A smaller (but very cheap) range is available from www.lightbulbs-direct.com

There is a small range of dimmable bulbs available from

6. Learn to use your heating controls

The single largest source of wasted CO2 emissions I come across as an eco-auditor is also one of the easiest to solve.

We've tended to hide the meters and controls of our heating and electricity systems away in darkened cupboards. As a result, the vast majority of my clients in homes and businesses don't have a clue how their controls work. Either the previous occupant did not leave clear instructions, or the manual has been lost. I often find central heating systems left on 24 hours a day, set at 5-6C above the recommended background temperature of 19C, and hot-water systems heating the water at up to 20C higher than the recommended 60C.

If you do one thing as a result of this article, make it a resolution to find out how your heating controls work and to programme them to the most efficient settings.

In the retro-eco house, we should put the controls where they can be seen and operated with ease. This goes for the simple controls we all have, but also for the additions you may make in greening your home. When I had my solar hot-water system installed, I had the control panel put on the kitchen wall so I can see the temperature of the water and plan when to use the washing machine or shower so that I won't need to use additional power.

Similarly, I have solar panels that generate electricity. The system has a digital display telling me how much electricity the house is taking from the National Grid and how much is being produced from the roof panels. I put that display on the wall in the living room, so I know when I can use free, home-produced, carbon-neutral electricity.

Contact the manufacturers' names you'll see labelled on your heating and hot-water systems via the internet and get the instruction manuals.

7. Let the sun heat your water

People think there's only one kind of solar panel: the kind that generates electricity (solar photovoltaic systems). But there's a simpler variety, designed to heat water. About 18 months ago, I had a solar hot-water system installed. I'm delighted with it. Over the year, it supplies about 70 per cent of my hot water. Since the end of March, it has supplied all of it. The average installed system costs about 4,000. Whether or not you can retro-fit is really a matter of luck; if it's a south-facing or flat roof that's not overshadowed, you may be OK. But you don't need a modern home it was fine on my 1840s Victorian house. For advice, and to see if you qualify for a grant, visit www.lowcarbonbuildings.org

8. Take the Earth Summit Pledge

The next step is the taking of the Earth Summit Pledge, which commits you to turn off lighting, heating and air conditioning in rooms you are not using. Simply installing eco-gadgets will not make your home carbon-neutral unless you adopt an eco-lifestyle at the same time.

Taking the pledge was one of the first things I did, more than a decade ago, as I set out to make my home a carbon-neutral home. It means that the rooms I use are heated, and that the room I'm in is lit, while all other rooms have their lights off and heating turned off in winter. Heating empty rooms in case we want to use them is no longer ethical, with the urgency of the climate crisis.

Like any habit, for the first couple of months it takes some effort as you reprogramme your formerly wasteful habits, but if you do it consistently for six weeks, it will have settled so deep into your DNA that it will become subconscious and automatic.

I am now almost physically unable to leave a room without turning the lights off. This step costs nothing and can actually save you more than half of your lighting and heating bills.

9. The green recipe for success

Although I've applied eco-logic and thought to reducing the energy I use in cooking, I am only now looking to install an eco-cooker. It's amazing how little we hear about efficient cookers. I reduce energy by ensuring that I either roast everything, or cook everything on the hob. One result has been a steamer, so that I can boil potatoes, steam vegetables and heat a sauce all on one gas ring.

You can take this further by getting a steam oven. I'm now looking at a wood-burning cooker. In winter, I am already able to boil the kettle, heat soup and cook poached eggs and toast on the wood-burner in my living room, but obviously it would be easier to do this in the kitchen. You can get wood-burning stoves; will one of those by my next acquisition?

www.orchardovens.co.uk and www.broseleyfires.com supply domestic wood-burning stoves

10. Treat yourself to a new fridge

While the mantra in an eco-home should be to reuse everything you can, and try not to replace unnecessarily, I broke this rule when I bought new white goods but for a good reason. I bought the most energy-efficient small fridge and washing machine on the market. As a fridge is on 24 hours a day, it's crucial that you buy the most efficient possible. The EU energy-rating marks make this easy A+ fridges use up to 25 per cent less energy than those rated A. Efficient washing machines use less water, detergent and electricity, so they're crucial too.

There is, however, no room in a retro-eco home for a tumble drier. These are voracious consumers of energy, using up to 4KwH of electricity each time you put a load in. If you have one, stop using it, now. A clothes horse costs less and will last longer.

www.naturalcollection.comsupplies wooden overhead clothes driers approved by the Forest Stewardship Council

11. Heat your home with an eco-fire

My most recent step was the one that finally helped to achieve the dream of a carbon-neutral eco-house: I bought a high-temperature wood-burning stove. These can be used in urban smoke-free zones. Mine, installed last October, has provided about 95 per cent of my space-heating since. As all the wood used was waste collected between here and my corner shop, it is completely carbon-neutral.

Now, the electricity I export to the National Grid more than makes up for the fossil-fuel gas I use for cooking. I am officially therefore not only carbon-neutral but climate-positive which sounds better than carbon-negative. The exciting thing is that I have proved that a Victorian home does not have to destroy the planet through CO2 emissions. This is hugely important. If we are to slash UK emissions, we cannot depend on new-build homes. All our existing housing must also become "retro-eco homes". And it has to be done fast.

Oh; and if you think this costs a fortune, my green lifestyle has saved me tens of thousands of pounds. The cost of all the eco-technologies I've installed comes to less than the first year's depreciation on a 4x4 BMW!

For wood-burning stoves, go to www.clearviewstoves.com. They cost up to 3,000 installed. Wood burners and wood-burning central heating boilers have to be installed by HETAS-regulated installers; see www.hetas.co.uk

12. Use salvage yards

Up to 20 per cent of a house's carbon footprint will be generated in the manufacture of its building materials, and in its construction. The same applies to refurbishing existing homes. The most important part of a refurbishment is to think about whether it's necessary in the first place. The number of perfectly good fitted kitchens that are ripped out after five years is appalling.

If you need a change of scenery, paint your units a different colour, or just replace the cupboard doors with a different style, rather than ripping the whole thing out.

The second thing to think about is to see if you can use architectural rescue materials. People love these yards. They are fascinating places to wander through, and they give a home much more character and history than buying something new that's been churned out in the Far East. Buying at salvage yards can also supply some of the more mundane but essential items, such as wooden bath panelling, shower head and glass walls of a shower unit. I even found some replacement timbers for a new roof when I had to have my bathroom refurbished.

The Salvo website has a list of architectural rescue yards in the UK: www.salvoweb.com

13. Stop cold draughts

Sealing up gaps in your doors, windows and roof is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to reduce heat-loss. Heating uses more energy than anything else in a home; it's the source of 60 to 70 per cent of most homes' CO2 emissions. Self-adhesive insulation tape closes gaps in windows and doors and costs only a few quid and it's easy to do a tidy job. Put draught excluders at the bottom of all outside doors and make sure there are no draughts from letter-boxes and keyholes. I have seen modern, double-glazed homes with winds whistling through gaps in the front door.

Close up unused chimneys and seal gaps in ground-floor floorboards. Check for gaps around piping emerging from the house. One elderly lady who contacted me had a freezing kitchen; we tracked it down to the large gap around a pipe leading from under her kitchen sink to the outside. Curtains with thermal linings also help to keep heat in.

Strip insulation, insulated letter boxes and door-brushes are available from your local DIY store.

14. The eco extension

The best eco-extension is, of course, the one that's never built! I have found, when talking through proposed extensions with some of my eco-audit clients, that they weren't often necessary. One client realised that a major extension was being considered not for practical purposes, but because it had become a fashion on their street to put one in, despite the houses already being palatial. In another case, we found that by changing the way existing rooms were used, there was no need for the new extension. This saved the clients thousands of pounds and also saved tonnes of CO2 that would have been used for the construction of the extension.

If the extension is absolutely necessary, ensure that Forest Stewardship Commission-approved timber and organic paints are used, and take the opportunity to install ultra-energy-efficient lighting and water-efficient equipment. Site any new radiators on internal walls, so they don't leak the heat through to the outside.

If you can, incorporate a passive solar design. This is when windows and walls are positioned to maximise the heat provided by sunshine. In winter, it will cut heating costs, as will maximum levels of insulation in the walls and ceilings. Another key element is to use architectural salvage building materials.

15. Insulate walls and roofs

Up to 50 per cent of heating is lost through the walls in our homes and 30 per cent via the roof. There are grants available to enable anyone on benefits to have roof and cavity wall insulation installed. For older properties, wall insulation can be expensive, and I have managed to achieve carbon-neutrality in my house without it. Double glazing is also costly. A compromise is to only double-glaze the windows in the most-used rooms and double glaze existing windows.

www.energysavingtrust.org.uk has a post-code search engine to find grants for insulation. For double glazing on existing windows, call Sash Window Workshop (South-East only) on 0800 597 2598 or Express-serve (nationwide) on 0800 581 500

16. Green fingers

If you're lucky enough to have a garden at your home, as I do, use it as an invaluable eco-resource. An eco-garden will be a refuge for nature and a source of peace and quiet for your household. It will also help to recycle kitchen waste through a composter and could provide you with fruit, herbs and vegetables, helping to reduce your food miles and packaging waste.

It is not to be concreted or decked over and illuminated with floodlights and warmed by patio heaters. If you need security lights outside, ensure that they have movement sensors. If you want lighting, small lights with built-in solar panels are very cheap, and you don't have to worry about the cost of wiring them up.

For composters that take all your food waste, visit www.greencone.com. The www.wildlifetrusts.org website has information on how to make your garden wildlife-friendly. For solar-powered movement sensor security lighting, visitwww.nauralcollection.com

17. Become an eco-thinker

I define eco-thinking as thinking about whatever you are doing and seeing if you can do it in a less environmentally damaging way.

In tackling my home's environmental footprint, I discovered we almost invariably use over five times the actual resources necessary to do any of our daily tasks. This is symbolised for me by toothbrushes. Every decade, over 600 million toothbrush handles are thrown away in the UK. I use a toothbrush with a replaceable head instead. When I need a new one, I replace just the head, which clips on to the same handle, cutting the resources used by over 80 per cent.

While you're watching TV, have a look at what lights are on. You need only a single low-wattage lamp, but you may have half a dozen standard lamps switched on, burning away pointlessly.

Replaceable head toothbrushes available from www.naturalcollection.com

18. Use green paints

The usual poisonous petroleum-based paints from your local DIY store are filled with VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which are carcinogenic and result in massive toxic wastage in the chemical production process. They are a health risk to professional painters and are the source of those awful decorating fumes. The fumes continue to be emitted for years after the paint has been applied in your home.

The eco-house uses only organic paints when redecorating. I have frequently used Ecos gloss and emulsion paints, and I love them. I also use citrus-oil-based paint thinner and solvent-free brush restorers.

Eco-friendly decorating materials are available from www.ecospaints.com and www.greenbuildingstore.co.uk

19. Go retro

There is not a stick of new furniture in my retro-eco home; every piece was inherited from friends or relatives or sourced second-hand. If you have to buy new, ensure that the wood is sustainably sourced.

eBay and www.freecycle.org are great sources of used furniture

20. Power to the people

The biggest investment in the creation of my retro-eco home was installing a solar panel for electricity (a solar photovoltaic system). That was way back in 1997. As I have learnt to be more efficient in how I use electricity, it has provided an increasing proportion of my power.

A few years back, I finally succeeded in exporting more electricity to the National Grid than I imported, which was a cause for much celebration. Today, a similar 2KwH solar system will cost about 12,000, and the government grant (which was slashed in Gordon Brown's last Budget) now stands at 1,500 per system.

By the way, the domestic wind turbine experimentally installed on my roof 18 months ago has been a failure, producing just enough power for one energy saving bulb.

For advice visit www.lowcarbonbuildings.org


Donnachadh McCarthy works as a business and home eco-auditor and is the author of Saving the Planet Without Costing the Earth (www.3acorns.co.uk)