5 Simple, Affordable Ways to Green Your Home

US News

Adding solar panels or upgrading to eco-friendly appliances can result in long-term savings, but often with a high upfront investment that not everyone can afford. In honor of Earth Day (April 22), U.S. News talked to several eco-experts to uncover more affordable ways to go green. These habits take minimal time while benefiting the environment--and your wallet.

[See 50 Ways to Improve Your Finances in 2012.]

1. Skip conventional cleaning products. Commercially available cleaning products are convenient but they aren't always your safest--or cheapest--option. "If you look at the label on most conventional cleaners, you'll see a warning: 'hazardous to pets and humans,'" says Beth Greer, healthy homes expert for Veria.com and author of Super Natural Home: Improve Your Health, Home and Planet ... One Room at a Time. That's why Greer suggests alternately spraying countertops with white vinegar and hydrogen peroxide, each in a metal spray bottle. "Using this method kills 99 percent of E. coli, the same way that your conventional cleaner does but it costs pennies and it's totally safe and nontoxic," she says.

Other household substances can serve as inexpensive cleaners as well. For instance, Greer uses half a cup of vinegar and half a cup of baking soda to remove water stains from the shower or to clean chrome and bathroom mirrors. Baking soda on a damp sponge can also be used as a scouring tool.

[See 6 Surprising Health Hazards Lurking in Your Home.]

2. Avoid air leaks. Improving your home's insulation means fewer drafts and lower heating bills. But if you're a renter or have a limited budget for insulation, you have a few inexpensive options for reducing drafts and air leaks. Shel Horowitz, author of Painless Green and founder of the Hadley, Mass.-based consulting firm Green and Profitable, suggests using outlet protectors (the kind you'd use to baby-proof a home) and foam insulating pads to plug air leaks in outlets on exterior walls.

For windows, Horowitz recommends using rope caulk to weatherproof the perimeter. "It's much more aesthetic than covering your windows with plastic, and you can keep it in a plastic bag to reuse it the next year," he says. "Particularly in old houses, this is a very easy, cheap way to prevent drafts."

3. Make the most of your appliances. Running a refrigerator can account for as much as 15 percent or more of a household's electric bill. As Danny Seo, green lifestyle expert and author of the syndicated column "Do Just One Thing" points out, "you can't just unplug it" like you could with a TV or computer when they aren't in use. However, Seo suggests defrosting frozen foods in the fridge rather on the counter. "One, the refrigerator keeps a constant temperature, which is safer [than leaving frozen meat on the counter]," he says. "Also, because it's a block of frozen whatever it is, it keeps the interior of your refrigerator cooler."

Then, when you transfer food to the oven, don't line the racks with aluminum foil, as this reduces airflow and uses unnecessary foil, Seo adds. While you're heating up the oven, why not add other items you need to bake later in the week? Horowitz suggests consolidating your baking to save time and energy. For instance, bake five or six potatoes instead of just one, and eat them over the next week.

[See 9 Ways to Cut Summer Energy Costs.]

4. Use light strategically. According to Seo, you can boost the light output and efficiency of bulbs by unscrewing and dusting them. "The dust that builds up on the top of light bulbs can be an economic hazard, since built-up dust covering the bulbs limits the amount of light it emits," he says. "It also causes the bulb to burn up faster than a clean one."

You can also maximize light without increasing your electric bill by moving floor or table lamps from flat walls to the corners of rooms. "Corners allow the light to reflect off two walls instead of one, which gives you more reflection and usable light," explains Seo.

5. Earn rewards for your eco-friendly efforts. As you develop greener habits, you could earn rewards by signing up for websites like Recyclebank.com or Greenopolis.com. Actions like signing up for paper billing, recycling at home, or using less energy earn Recyclebank users points that are redeemable for coupons, gift cards, and free offers from major retailers. Greenopolis offers points for using Greenopolis recycling kiosks. Once you've deposited enough glass, plastic, or aluminum containers into the kiosk, you can use the points you've earned for discounts or coupons for dining, travel, or other services.

"If you're gonna be doing all these green actions, you might as well get rewarded for it," says Seo. "You would never get on a plane without joining the airline's frequent flyer program. Why go green and not get points for doing it?"

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