Here in the Northeast, the first signs of autumn have arrived: brisk evenings, golden leaves on the trees, the smell of wood smoke.  As days grow shorter and the weather colder, we’ll be turning to our furnaces and stoves to keep us warm.  Of course, we should keep in mind that however we choose to heat our homes – with wood, oil, or gas – there will be an environmental impact.

The more we heat our homes, the more money we spend, the more resources we consume and the more greenhouse gases we emit into the atmosphere.  The EPA estimates that in the United States, approximately 4 metric tons of CO2 equivalent are emitted each year from residences – a major percentage of which is related to home heating.  Since most homes rely on furnaces and boilers that burn fossil fuels, it is essential to ensure that our homes are heated as efficiently as possible, saving the individual both energy and money.  Hence, the importance of insulation!

Using conventional insulation can only go so far in achieving environmental sustainability.  Conventional fiberglass insulation is a suspected carcinogen, and is typically produced using new materials, by melting down glass and spinning it into tiny fibers.  Those fibers are painful – touching fiberglass insulation leaves an itching, burning sensation as those fibers lodge themselves below the skin.  Fiberglass insulation dust becomes airborne during installation and can become embedded in the lungs.  Finally, the chemicals used to bind fiberglass batting together are often petroleum-based and are suspected to “off-gass” toxic phenol, formaldehyde, and VOCs (volatile organic compounds).

It’s fortunate that there are several green products available that can help keep homes well-insulated (indeed, better than conventional insulation), their inhabitants safe, and are more environmentally-sustainable in their use of recycled materials.  They are exceptional products – composed of recycled paper, cellulose fibers, and blue jeans.

Three of these green products are featured below:

1. Bonded Logic Ultratouch Recycled Cotton Insulation is constructed from recycled blue jean material – and is remarkably soft.  While touching fiberglass insulation can result in pain, cotton fiber insulation is soft enough to use as a pillow.  Bonded Logic insulation in particular is chemically-treated by anti-fungals and fire retardants that are EPA-registered and environmentally sound.  The R-Value (that is, a measurement of insulation efficiency.  The higher the R-value, the better the material retains heat) is notably higher than that of fiberglass insulation – 3.5”-thick fiberglass insulation has an R-Value of 10.9, while Ultratouch is rated at 13.

The product is also LEED-certified and can installed easily at home.  Green Depot is also able to quick ship Ultratouch Recycled Cotton Insulation in pallets to specific states.  For more information on where this product can be shipped as well as all technical specifications, please click here.

2. Knauff’s EcoBatt Glasswool is an comfortable option for homeowners wanting to insulate their homes with a more familiar – and significantly safer – fiberglass option.  While conventional fiberglass insulation has any number of problems – it is energy- and material-intensive in its production, it puts out significant amounts of dust during installation, and outgases formaldehyde – EcoBatt is far more kind of people and the environment.  Constructed out of a minimum 30% post-consumer recycled glass bottle content, EcoBatt as contains no formaldehyde and is low-dust.  Conventional fiberglass uses binding materials that are petroleum-based; EcoBatt, on the other hand, uses a binder that is made from renewable organic materials.  All told, EcoBatt’s production practices and materials are more mindful of the environment and the individual – up to 70% less energy-intensive than traditional binders.

EcoBatt is also a bit more versatile than Ultratouch – it comes in a number of widths, R-values, densities, and facings.  For technical specifications, you can either visit Green Depot here, or view the product brochure here.

3. National Fiber Cel-Pak Cellulose Insulation is a third option.  Cellulose insulation is notably different from familiar batten insulation — it is fill insulation, meaning that it is pumped in with vacuums into walls, attics, and ceilings.   Cellulose insulation is made from 100% recycled newspapers and treated with non-toxic borate fire retardant.  A substantial benefit of cellulose insulation is that it fills every nook and cranny.  Batten insulation, and especially fiberglass insulation, leaves large gaps between pipes and beams that can reduce insulating efficiency for the home, costing energy and money.

For installation, material, and safety specifications, you can click here.

(Autumn house photo credit to  ktylerconk)

The dog days of summer are upon us, and many of us are sweltering in the heat. If you live in a big city, you may feel worse than your country cousin due to the “urban heat island effect”. In an urban heat island, temperatures may be 6-8ºF warmer than surrounding rural areas, fields, or woodlands.  Urban heat islands are caused by a combination of factors:

  • Loss of vegetation that shades buildings and cools the air through evapotranspiration
  • Hard surfaces (buildings, streets, and parking lots) that absorb solar radiation and radiate it back to the air/atmosphere
  • Waste heat from electrical use, water heating, car & truck exhaust, and other thermal and mechanical sources

The temperature differentials are worse at night, when hard surfaces like asphalt pavement, brick, and concrete radiate the heat they absorbed during the day back into the air. Calm air also makes it worse.

The urban heat island effect causes a number of problems. It exacerbates normal summer discomfort for everyone—causing people to crank up the air conditioner (and yes, generate more waste heat), and it makes elderly or sick people more susceptible to problems brought on by heat waves. It’s tough, and sometimes dangerous, for athletes and for those who work outdoors–such as construction workers, roofers, police officers and highway workers. Higher temperatures also increase smog formation, which boosts health risks to the elderly, children, asthmatics, allergy sufferers, and those with respiratory problems. Finally, stormwater runoff from paved urban areas causes excess warming in creeks and lakes, which can damage ecology in those environments.

There are a number of green building materials and practices that urban individuals and organizations can use to mitigate or reduce the heat island effect:

Plant trees. In summer, they create shade which reduces air conditioning loads on a building, and in winter, they shield buildings from wind and unwanted heat loss. They also produce oxygen, and create bird & animal habitat.

Green roof with walking path

Install green roofs and walls. These are vegetated, carefully engineered surfaces that support plant life, and keep the building cool. They provide other benefits, too, including improved drainage (protects underlying roof and reduces stormwater runoff), recreation for employees or occupants, and even herb or vegetable growth. Green roofs also improve air quality because plants convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, and filter out other contaminants. Although green roofs may cost $10-$15/sf more than traditional roofs, these costs are offset by energy savings, longer roof life and reduced maintenance costs, and by various grants and tax incentives.

GAF green roof system, showing drainage mat & moisture barrier

Green Roofs have enjoyed increasing popularity in Europe over the last decade, with government incentives stimulating a multi-million dollar industry.  North American planners, builders and consumers are also beginning to consider green roofs for malls, schools, hospitals, and homes. In New York State, green roofs have been installed at the Bronx Zoo, Cornell University, Pace University, the Bronx County Courthouse, and at Rockefeller Center Roof Gardens.

White roof coated with Bulldog Durex.

Install a white roof to increase reflectivity (albedo), so that solar radiation is not absorbed by your roof to be re-radiated later. For flat roofs, Green Depot recommends Bulldog Durex Elastomeric White Roof Coating.  It’s a flexible, mildew- and UV-resistant waterborne roofing topcoat made with 100% acrylic resins. It reflects heat from the roof surface: lowering cooling costs, and extending the life of roof membranes and surfaces. It can be used over a variety of existing roof surfaces, including metal, asphalt, masonry, and EPDM.

To learn more, visit Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory’s Urban Heat Island site, or the independent site Urban Heat Islands, or the US EPA’s site on the Heat Island Effect.

In a previous post, I talked about how allergy sufferers can get some relief by using green products including air purifiers in the home. Today, I’d like to talk about diagnosis and prevention. Sure, it’s great to have more access than ever to over-the-counter and prescription medications to control allergy symptoms (the inventors of Zyrtec are my heroes), but it’s also important to learn exactly what allergens you’re most at risk from so you can avoid or treat them.

One way to do this is to visit an allergist, who may conduct scratch tests to determine what your allergenic or asthmagenic triggers are, and lung function tests to establish a baseline for your pulmonary heath. Allergists can customize a desensitization injection regimen to directly attack the things you’re allergic to: different types of plant and tree pollen, animal dander, etc., and they keep an extremely close watch over your dosing frequency and levels. They can also advise you on what materials or places to avoid, or how to allergy-proof your house. For example, if you’re very allergic to dust, they might suggest that you limit the amount of carpeting or curtains in your house, as these attract and retain dust, or that you purchase hypoallergenic linens and bedding.  The American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology can help you find a board-certified allergist. Your health insurance company or primary care doc can provide referrals, too.

Another way to get a handle on your risk is to test your house for common allergens. The Family Air Care  Indoor Allergens and Mold Test Kit tests for 5 common triggers of asthma and allergies:

Family Air Care test kit

Family Air Care® Indoor Allergens and Mold Test Kit

  • Cat allergen (carried indoors on clothing, it can be present even in homes without cats)
  • Dog allergen (also carried on clothing, although to a lesser extent)
  • Dust mite allergen
  • Cockroach allergen
  • 13 species of mold—evaluated using EPA’s American Relative Moldiness Index

The kit was developed by National Jewish Health in Colorado—the nation’s leading respiratory hospital—and retails for $299.

Since we spend 90% or more of our the time indoors, it pays to determine which allergens bug us most so we can try to eradicate or control them. The FAC test kit is easy to use: you just attach a small filter to your vaccum to collect a sample, mail it in, and view your house’s results on-line using a private access code.

The results will tell you whether the levels of the 5 types of allergen above are high, medium, or low in your house. Then you can decide what type of green products to buy to control them. I’ll discuss these in subsequent posts. For now, I just want to emphasize that getting your body and your home tested is a diagnostic combination that packs a punch.

If you’re like me, the dog days of summer usually find you toting around a box of tissues, clinging to your Allegra or Zyrtec bottle like a security blanket, and blushing each time you sneeze loudly in a public place. There are so many allergens we’re routinely exposed to—dust, pet dander (on our friends’ clothing—even if not in our own houses), tobacco smoke, cleaning chemicals, molds, and a host of flower and tree pollens.

Quick: before the ragweed blooms

When I was a kid, my mom uttered the word “ragweed” like it was a swear. There was venom in her voice directed at this feathery plant who made her kid wheeze and sneeze uncontrollably. Turns out I have a lot of company. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, 30 to 60 million Americans suffer from ragweed allergies—many miss school and work due to their discomfort, and many have trouble sleeping. The ubiquitous plants bloom from mid-August through October, each one releasing around a billion potent pollen grains, making us miserable in what can seem like a billion different ways. Itchy throat. Watery eyes. Coughing. Sneezing. Sniffling. Aggravated asthma.

Thankfully, there are a host of green products and practices that can bring us relief. Top among them is closing the windows, and cleaning your indoor air with an

Austin Air HealthMate Jr. Alen Paralda air purifier air filter

Healthmate Jr, and Alen Paralda

air purifier.  We really like Austin Air’s HealthMate Jr. that uses 6.5 pounds of activated carbon and over 30 square feet of medical-grade HEPA to filter 125 cubic feet of air per minute. It will remove chemicals odors, pollen, dust, mold spores, and other allergens. Put one in the bedroom with the door closed to give you (or your sneezy kid) a good night’s sleep.  Larger models are available for open areas like greatrooms and kitchen-dining.  If you want

Allerdust allergy dusting aid

Allerdust Dusting Aid

something with a bit more style, check out the Alen Paralda purifier.

You can also tackle allergens that have settled on furniture and hard surfaces in your house by using these cool products from Allersearch, such as dusting spray, carpet treatments, and upholstery spray that neutralizes allergens on contact.

In a future post, I’ll take on vaccums with HEPA filters, and test kits that can help you determine the allergy levels in your home. For now, check out those air purifiers and allergen neutralizers, and get yourself some summer relief.