Personally, the pandemic reinforced the meaning of the adage “necessity is the mother of invention.” However, I would add innovation to this old refrain. In addition to inventing new ways to get around the pandemic, such as the popularity of using “zoom,” we also had to make some innovative changes to get by. For many of us, this innovation was necessary to save resources, save money, or increase our efficiency at home, work, or both. For example, when the hardware stores closed, I developed ways to use materials I already had at home to fix and/or jerry-rig some things.
In this same vein, I recommend finding ways to further the cause of sustainability by starting with some household modifications and upgrades. We all slowly but surely begin to understand the immediacy of protecting the environment. For me, this became apparent with the impact that minority and low-income people suffered at the pandemic’s hands. In addition, homelessness, poor living conditions, and polluted neighborhoods underscore the poor state of our cities and communities and the lack of social justice concerning the aforementioned members of our communities.
Now, we can all wait for the government to clean the air, water, brownfields, and so on. Or expect that recycling and using reusable canvas bags for grocery shopping are sufficient steps, but we truly need to be more proactive as soon as we can. And one way to accomplish this is by starting at home. Some of the adjustments to our homes, as well as our habits, can add up granularly to big changes, such as:
Electricity use efficiency and Renewable Energy
Though I am a fan of cooking on a gas stove, studies have shown that natural gas is not as clean as efficient electrical power. Furthermore, in November of 2020, San Francisco officially banned installing natural gas lines into new construction projects, which means that whole new homes and buildings will use electricity alone for stoves, furnaces, and water heaters. Thus, we can volunteer to change the aforementioned appliances to natural gas for those of us grandfathered into the old natural gas supplies. In fact, it has been proven that tankless electrical water heaters are much more efficient than the old gas-powered ones.
Of course, one huge step we can take is using solar power. Not only do we reduce our carbon footprint, but the cost savings are substantial in the long run. Initially, there will be a sizable investment to install the solar panels on your roof, which gets partially offset by tax credits. Still, over time, depending on your electrical power use, the reduction in your electrical bill will pay off the initial investment. Unfortunately, recent studies have shown that it takes anywhere from 6 to 10 years for solar panels to pay for themselves.
Use of eco-friendly materials and products
Every time we shop, we have the option to purchase products and materials that can impact our environment or not. For example, cleaning products, which contain chemicals, can be replaced by eco-friendly ones. Or we can even use common household items, such as vinegar, lemon juice, and others, as cleaning solvents. Additionally, we can acquire bigger ticket items, such as furniture, fixtures, and flooring that are less impactful to our environment. For example, we can buy used items instead of buying new and disposable furniture from big retail box stores. In fact, the former are often made of real wood as opposed to particleboard.
For larger projects, such as remodeling a home, there are many salvage stores all over where you can purchase doors, windows, wood flooring, lumber, and so on. They are often made of good quality wood, metal and, if built decades ago, will be more decorative than many newer materials you can buy at large hardware stores.
Waste Management (including Recycling)
Though recycling is great, we need to strive to avoid having too many items to recycle. I am always surprised by how much packaging we go through in a household consisting of only three people (two adults and one child.) Of course, certain things, such as milk and other dairies and other foods and toiletries, need to be packaged. However, there is a lot we can do to minimize the amount of plastic, carton, and paper we waste regularly. For example, more and more progressive stores, such as Rainbow, one of the pioneers, sell food items in granular form. Patronizing these establishments help eliminate many packaging wastes, as do butcher shops that will place your orders in your own containers.
Water Use Reduction and Rainwater Management
By now, most people have replaced their toilets with low-low ones, have water-efficient showerheads and faucets, and appliances that use water, such as clothes and dishwashers. However, toilets still account for almost a third of household water use, easily replaced with rainwater, especially in areas with enough rain. And although we go through drought in the Bay Area, rainwater harvesting, storage, and use for toilets and landscaping add up to tremendous savings. In general, it is recommended to have a storage tank large enough to hold 1,000 gallons, which translates to a volume of approximately 5’x5’x5’. Then, depending on the topography and home design, the water can be accessed through gravity flow or, when not feasible, using a water pump to feed the water reservoir in the toiles or irrigate the garden.
Rainwater management, just like solar panel installation, requires upfront costs and effort, but just like solar panels, a rainwater harvesting system will pay for itself in a few years. For example, a 1,000-gallon water tank can cost between $800 and $1200, and the water pump and piping vary based on water flow needs and the lift height from the tank to the toilet(s,) but in general, the costs run from $2,000 to $5,000. That said, a typical water bill for a family of four in San Francisco is currently at $140 approximately. Therefore, it can take 2 to 6 years for a rainwater harvesting system to pay for itself.
Jorge Romero, PE, LEED AP, PMP, of PM Workshops is a licensed civil engineer in California and an accredited professional in sustainability. Feel free to contact him if you have any questions or comments regarding this article and/or for inquiries regarding consulting and training in LEED certification, as well as general sustainability methodology.