Whenever I travel, I notice a distinct difference between traditional homes and our new high-efficiency home. Because I have lived in older, less-efficient homes for most of my life, it required a bit of adjusting when we first moved in. Our new home is heated primarily from the sun, occupants and household appliances such as the stove, refrigerator and hot water heater. Despite living in Maine, our home has no furnace and just a few baseboard heaters that turn on periodically. After living in the house for over a year, I've picked up a few tips on living in a high-efficiency house.
Open the Curtains on South-Facing Windows for Free Heat
Our house has a solar orientation and relies on passive solar gains for heating during cool weather. With three very large windows and a door, most of our glazing is south-facing. It’s very important to have the curtains or blinds open to capture this free, clean and abundant heat source, especially during the middle of the day when the sun is strongest. Even during bright cloudy days, our home warms up without using the heaters. The windows also allow daylight to stream in, making supplemental lighting unnecessary most of the time.
Change Filters on the Ventilation System
Our house is virtually airtight. To maintain the indoor air quality, we rely on mechanical ventilation. Our home has a Zehnder heat recovery ventilation system that brings fresh air into the home and captures the heat before venting stale air out. These systems can recycle up to 95 percent of the heat and run by default, although occupants can boost the system to bring in greater quantities of fresh air when needed.
The intake air on our heat recovery ventilation system is filtered before it enters the home. We vacuum our filters every three months and replace them every six to 12 months. The filters are easy to access, making this a simple task.
Use Higher MERV Filters When Necessary
Air filters have a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV rating) between 1 and 16. Higher numbers correspond with a greater percentage of particles being captured through the filter. Ventilation systems that have air filters typically have different MERV rating options.
For people with pollen allergies or who live in areas with considerable air pollution, it’s recommended to use a filter with a higher MERV rating. Our heat recovery ventilation system has a MERV 13 filter available, which can remove auto emission particles, mold, pollen, lead dust and spores.
Avoid Back-Drafting Flues
Many homes rely on exhaust fans to remove odors, moisture and fumes. Although they’re typically effective, they have some drawbacks. One potential issue is that they can create a negative pressure in the home because air leaves without the system, supplying intake air. Makeup air to equalize the pressure enters through cracks, holes and gaps in the building envelope.
In some cases, this can mean back-drafting your woodstove, fireplace and gas hot water heater or furnace. This causes fumes to enter the home, contaminating the indoor air. It’s most common with atmospherically vented combustion appliances. If your gas appliances are vented in this manner, follow these directions to test if it’s properly exhausting fumes.
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental and health journalist with an MBA in sustainable management. She lives in a net-zero house in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in midcoast Maine with her husband and two children.
Our experts share some of their favorite natural cleaning finds.
Made with charcoal, the Bad Air Sponge is an effective odor-eater perfect for closets, gym lockers or cars.
To Buy: $9, Bad Air Sponge
Dish It Out
Ecover Zero Dish Soap is an all-purpose dish detergent free of harsh synthetic chemical fragrances.
To Buy: $4, ecover
All Hands on Deck
Grab Green’s Fragrance-Free Hand Soap is made with softening aloe vera, plus it’s biodegradable and made in the U.S.
To Buy: $5, Grab Green
Orange Guard is a water-based insect repellent effective against ants, roaches, fleas and more—yet safe for pets and kids.
To Buy: $18 for two-pack of 32-ounce sprays, Orange Guard
Packaged in bottles made of renewable sugarcane, Greenshield Organic Pet Stain & Odor Remover is made of sea salt, citric acid and orange blossoms.
To Buy: $7, Greenshield Organic
Learn more about cleaning naturally in How to Solve Home Problems, Naturally.
Photo by Raya Carlisle
Building a healthy home means living well indoors and out—and designing our spaces to support the lives we want. For example, many of us love spending time in nature, yet we haven't invested the energy to maximize our outdoor spaces. This season, identify a couple of lifestyle changes you desire—whether it's spending more time outdoors, banning plastics from your kitchen, making your own art projects or making your backyard more productive—and invest some time and energy into the fun or revamping your living spaces.
Photo courtesy Nora Griffin
The Great Outdoors
Creating enticing outdoor spaces will make your family much more likely to drift outside on balmy evenings, and alluring outdoor rooms don’t have to cost a fortune. On her blog Just Make Stuff, Nora Griffin details how she transformed her backyard into a casual oasis by spreading 2 tons of gravel and building this bright, multicolored DIY brick fire pit. Now, she says, “I can’t help but be out there every day puttering around, trimming plants and sprinkling some water on something. We just go sit outside for no reason at all...which really is the perfect reason.” Find the project on Nora's blog.
Photo courtesy Nora Griffin
Living Al Fresco
Eating outdoors is an easy way to help our homes flow effortlessly into outdoor space. But a lovely idea can turn into a headache when you are stuck running between the kitchen and the table for every little thing. Streamline eating outdoors on a whim by stocking a tray with everything you need to dine. When the mood strikes, simply add a pitcher of water and the plates of food, and carry your dining caddy out to eat in the wild.
• Cloth napkins
• Salt and pepper
• Kitchen towel
• Citronella candle and matches
• Sturdy glasses
Indoor-Outdoor Living Projects
You can boost your daily time spent in nature by enhancing your outdoor spaces through changes big and small. Take inspiration from this list of potential projects.
DO IT TODAY
• Make your own insect repellent (see below)
• Add an outdoor rug
• Hang a solar lantern
• Rig up wind chimes
DIY Bug spray:
Mix 2 tablespoons each vodka and neem oil with 50 drops each lavender, tea tree and rosemary essential oils. Store in a spray bottle and spritz regularly, avoiding eyes.
INVEST A LITTLE
• Add pavers, gravel or large stone steps
• Hang a hammock or comfortable swing
• Install outdoor lighting (torches or LEDs)
• Build a fire pit
• Install walk-out doors
• Build a small deck or patio
• Screen in your porch
• Add a large grill or masonry oven
Rarely get to enjoy the outdoors? You're not alone. American’s spend 90 percent of their time indoors, as reported by the EPA. It may come as a surprise that the concentration of pollutants indoors are much higher than the outdoors. With so much time spent indoors, it's important to be mindful about what we bring in with us. Additionally, many common products and home furnishings are full of chemicals and toxins that could potentially cause health risks. But you can minimize the level of pollutants by decorating with natural fibers, solid wood and organic upholstery. You don’t have to sacrifice style to be eco-friendly. If you’re ready to take another green step forward, here are a few ideas.
Photo by Shutterstock
The number of companies distributing environmentally-sensitive products has grown so much that you'd be hard-pressed to find a product that doesn't have an eco-alternative...and that includes rugs. When shopping for rugs, remember:
• Natural fibers like organic cotton, jute, seagrass, sisal, coir and either untreated or minimally-treated wool are best
• Make sure the rug has non-toxic backing and underlay pads sewn (not glued) to the backing—wool, jute, or natural latex are recommended
• Even if a rug is made from natural fibers, it could have been treated with stain, insect, or flame repellents, so make sure the label says it is organic, untreated, minimally-treated or non-toxic
• Know about certifications that guarantee renewable resources were used
For more details, Apartment Therapy's guide "How To Shop for an Environmentally-Friendly Rug" outlines everything you need to know.
Natural Window Treatments
Design and architecture magazine Freshome explains that natural light and healthy living go hand-in-hand; natural light helps the human mind, body and spirit connect with the outdoors. Additionally, the Lighting Research Center reports that natural light can even improve health and increase comfort and productivity. Of all the places you should find comfort, your home is perhaps the most important. Instead of blocking natural light from coming through the windows with heavy, dark-colored draperies, look into green and eco-friendly shades that are designed with sustainable materials like bamboo and grass, which still allow natural light in, but reduce glare and heat absorption.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, many commercially-produced couches and other upholstered items are filled with harmful toxins including flame retardants that can pose serious risks to health. But did you know that you can buy toxin-free couches, beds and other furniture? More and more furniture makers and manufacturers are changing their standards to make products non-toxic, but the changes will take time. If you're in the market for new furniture now, check out this guide from the NRDC to see where the recognizable brands stand (e.g. La-Z-Boy, IKEA) in their transition away from flame retardant use. To make the search for sustainable products easier, the Sustainable Furnishings Council website allows you to search for eco-friendly companies in four categories: materials, furnishings, stores and designers. Aside from upholstered furniture, anything made from wood should be either recycled or FSC-certified, which means the forest it came from was managed in a way that did not disturb the natural ecosystem.
Lauren Topor is a multimedia journalist and alumna of Arizona State University. Her professional work has appeared in notable publications, including HuffPost Arts & Culture. When she's not writing you can find Lauren training for her next marathon or posting to her blog.
Clear the plastic clutter! Keep your kitchen storage options lean and kind—to the earth and your body. These hardworking, multipurpose food-storage options should cover every need—and won’t leach plastic chemicals into your food.
Widely available, cheap and versatile, Mason jars are perfect single-serving containers for leftovers. They’re also great for storing bulk groceries such as rice or beans.
To Buy: Sets for $7 to $16, Ball Fresh Preserving Store
Storing food in squared-off shapes can help maximize fridge space. This Pro Glass 10-Piece Food Storage Set with snap lids has you covered.
To Buy: $20, Bed, Bath & Beyond
Just pop these glass containers straight into a preheated oven to warm up leftovers (sans lid, of course). Try a 14-piece Pyrex set to accommodate leftovers or prepped food.
To Buy: $45, Pyrex Ware
Pack leftovers straight into your lunch container and save a step. This stainless ECOlunchbox Three-in-One tiffin set includes three storage boxes that click together for easy transport.
To Buy: $26, ECOlunchbox
Gulp on the Go
Bring beverages on the road with Aquaovo’s Therm-O Terra double-walled glass bottle. It includes a built-in stainless-steel tea infuser, but will keep any beverage insulated and toxin-free.
To Buy: $27, Aquaovo
BPA-FREE: What does it mean?
As bisphenol-A, or BPA, has gained notoriety for its tendency to leach endocrine-disrupting chemicals, more and more plastic products are being labeled BPA-free. But are BPA-free plastics safe? Studies have shown that many types of plastics, not just those that contain BPA, can leach chemicals into food and water—and BPA replacements such as bisphenol-S (BPS) and bisphenol-F (BPF) appear to have similar or worse endocrine-disrupting effects. In a study by the Center for Environmental Health, two labs tested 35 children’s sippy cups and found that nine labeled BPA-free yielded moderate to high levels of estrogenic activity. The best choice is to avoid plastic chemicals when it comes to food prep and storage and instead opt for glass, ceramic or stainless steel. If you do use plastic, choose polypropylene; look for recycling number 5 and the initials PP on the bottom of the food-storage product.
Bonus product! The Black+Blum Thermo-Pot stainless-steel vacuum food flask keeps contents hot for six hours and comes with a magnetic spoon, cork lid and 10-year warranty. $42, Black+Blum.
Men get a cave. Why can’t women? You deserve a place to work, dream, create, and just “be.” Maybe you want to chill out once the kids are gone. Maybe you just need a place to relax and get your yoga on. Whatever your reason for wanting or needing a space that’s all your own, these six simple tips will transform that spare room into the perfect “mom” or “girl” cave in no time.
Photo by Fotolia
Add a Personal Touch
This is your place—your area to get away from it all. Highlight your deepest and most personal values with items that are strictly for this space, and no other. You should make the place your sanctuary.
You could go all DIY if you want, but you don’t have to. If the room is mostly finished, it may not need much. Maybe all you need is a bookshelf and books, your favorite sewing machine and craft supplies, or a cozy reading area. Whatever you choose for this room, make it personal.
The Container Store is this amazing place where everything gets organized. It’s no secret that we love space—the more, the better. The problem is that once we’re done taking over the bathroom and the walk-in closet, we still seem to need more space. How many times have you opened your shoe drawer or closet and nearly drowned in an avalanche?
Your woman cave should be where any spillover goes and, in fact, you should try to move a lot of your stuff out of the hubby’s closet and into your new space. Use racks and closet inserts to dramatically increase the space of just about any storage space. From there, pegboards and racks that hang on the wall can provide you with a nearly endless amount of space for hats, shoes, dresses, jewelry, and pretty much anything else your little heart desires.
Does the spare room look a little drab? Spruce it up with wallpaper. If you get the “paste the wall” type, you save yourself a lot of time and frustration. Wallpaper is cheap, it can look amazing and if you buy vinyl it’ll last a really long time. It’s also pretty easy to change if you ever feel the need to mix things up or get sick of it.
Add a Desk
Desk space: Who doesn’t want more of that? The dining room table is fine for paying the bills, but it’s not enough for the things you really want to do, like answer emails, play on Pinterest, sew, finish that craft project that’s been collecting dust, read, or work on that fantasy novel you’ve been dreaming about.
Create a Spa-Like Environment
If you need a place to relax and unwind after a long week, create a spa-like environment. Consider installing a nice chandelier, a chaise lounge, and a fireplace (even if it’s just a faux one). Add some scented candles for a touch of aromatherapy and drapes that block sunlight when pulled closed. Create a reading corner with a built-in or freestanding bookshelf and fill it with your favorite books. If you’re a tech-nerd, maybe all you need is your Kindle, Nook, or iPad and a small table.
What is calming to one person may be different for another, and the possibilities are endless. Use your imagination and create the room of your dreams! The most important thing about creating this kind of environment is to make it as relaxing as possible.
Throw Some Pillows
Throw pillows are so versatile that they can replace the need for a couch or chair, if you have enough of them. Set down a blanket, or a bean bag chair, and just start piling the pillows on top of it or around it. Instant hangout corner.
At the end of the day, this will become one of your most treasured and favorite places. Here, you don’t have to listen to kids screaming. You can get away from the boys and their shenanigans. You can center your soul and just enjoy it.
Marie Lewis is an interior decorator who likes to share her insights online. You can read her articles on many home improvement and DIY websites. Get home décor supplies at Graham & Brown, along with more inspiration and advice.
Indulge your traveling house guests with these aromatic handmade soaps that will help relax their mind and body. These Asian-inspired guest soaps are simple to make using clear melt and pour soap, coloring, essential oils and a few kitchen utensils.
The three essential oils used in this blend are obtained from plants that are used extensively in Asian cuisine and easily grown in warm climates. When combined these essential oils make a therapeutic blend with a refreshing scent.
Ginger (zingiber officinals) is a tender creeping rhizome. The essential oil is extracted from the root by steam distillation. This oil contains components that will help an upset stomach due to traveling and lower back pain from sitting.
Lemongrass (cymbopogon citratus) is a grass with clumped bulbous stems that have long leaf blades. The essential oil is extracted from the leaves by steam distillation. This oil has properties to disinfect hands, stimulate the digestive system and re-energize the tired soul.
Mandarin Orange (citrus reticulate) is an evergreen fruit tree with thorny, slender twigs, broad or slender leaves and peels that are bright-orange or red-orange when ripe. This essential oil is extracted from the peel. The oil has the ability to help with jet lag and insomnia, and can induce happiness.
Asian-Inspired Guest Soap Recipe
What a magnificent style of like soap displays! – Francis Ponge, Soap
• Clear melt and pour soap
• Coloring: gold, green, orange
• Essential Oils: ginger root, lemongrass, mandarin orange
• 1 quart glass Pyrex measuring cup
• 3 small glass Pyrex bowls
• Parchment paper
• Tray with edges
• Cookie cutters
1. Melt 2 cups of cubed soap on half power in the microwave for approximately 3-1/2 minutes, stirring halfway. (Need approximately 1 to 1-1/2 cups of melted soap.)
2. Divide the melted soap equally into the three microwavable glass bowls.
3. In one bowl add gold coloring, stir, then add the ginger essential oil and stir. In a second bowl add green coloring, stir, then add the add lemongrass essential oil and stir. In the third bowl add orange coloring, stir, then add the mandarin orange essential oil and stir. If the soap starts to harden in the cups re-microwave for a few seconds and stir.
4. Cover trays with parchment paper. Pour each cup of melted soap, using a swirling motion, onto parchment paper to create a thin layer of soap. Allow soap to harden a few minutes.
5. After hardening, place a cutter on the soap, push straight down and twist a bit to cut out the shape.
6. Place the soaps in a small dish for guests to use in the bathroom.
Desiree Bell is a natural lifestyle creator who explores, blogs, inspires and teaches people to be resourcefully creative. Find more inspiration on her blog.