by flickr user tambako the jaguar

As tightly as we might insulate our homes – filling every nook with environmentally-friendly fill insulation, and caulking every crack and draft – windows are still a major drain on heating and energy bills.

The R-value is the standard unit of how insulating a construction material is.  Conventional fiberglass battens typically have an R-Value of 10.9; some more-efficient green insulations can have R-Values up to 13.  An average glass window has an R-value of one, meaning that a significant amount of energy can pass through a standard window.  Researchers have determined that windows in the U.S. consume about a third of a building’s heating and cooling energy – roughly 4.1 quadrillion BTU of energy.

So, upgrading windows to super-insulated ones presents an opportunity to substantially reduce energy-consumption and lower the cost of heating and cooling a home.

Most LEED-certified buildings use insulated glass.  These are windows with two or three panes stacked in the frame.  The space between panes traps air and significantly increases their efficiency, sometimes providing an R-value rating of two or three.  The most efficient standard insulated glass windows have argon or krypton gas between the panes.

The most efficient type of insulated windows are vacuum glass panels under development by Guardian Industries, and expected to arrive on the market by the end of 2010.  These work on the same physical principle as a thermos bottle – by creating a vacuum between panes of glass, energy cannot transfer through by convection or conduction.  The panes are then coated with a material that reduces radiative heat transfer, providing an R-value of up to R-13. That means a vacuum-glazed window is as insulating as a brick wall, and can help add thermal energy to a house, instead of leaking it – sort of like a garden greenhouse.

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Sometimes it seems like every day that we learn about some new thing to be afraid of in our homes—items we thought couldn’t be more innocent, like baby bottles, turn out to be made of toxic materials. Fortunately, though, it’s not that hard to find healthy and eco-friendly alternatives to those that aren’t so friendly. Eco-labels can be a huge help, if you know what you’re looking for. We wrote about a few of the most highly regarded ones to keep an eye out for here, and here’s one more: CRI Green Label Plus. CRI is the Carpet and Rug Institute, and Green Label Plus is their voluntary certification for sustainable carpeting.

Many brands of commercial and residential carpeting produced in recent decades have been proven to off-gas VOCs–not only when new, but sometimes as many as 12 years(!) after installation. Among the chemicals found to be emitted from some of the most popular brands are styrene, 4-PC and formaldehyde, all of which have been associated with respiratory and neurological damage at high concentrations. Many carpet manufacturers have also been called to task for the short life cycle of their products, and their inability to be recycled—and companies like Shaw have taken huge steps to make their carpeting work cradle-to-cradle, rather than just cradle-to-grave.

In order to address their products’ VOC issues, a number of manufacturers have also stepped up to the plate by starting to make safer, non-polluting carpeting available at competitive prices. Green Label Plus is a testing program that checks total VOC emissions and individual chemical concentrations for carpet brands that voluntarily register for evaluation. Only carpeting that emits either no VOC or levels low enough that they don’t threaten indoor air quality get to carry the Green Label Plus seal, above. So the next time you’re out looking for something soft to go under your naked tootsies, you can let the Green Seal Plus symbol help you choose something that’s healthy for both you and the environment.

Among the many other green products we carry, Green Depot offers a range of Green Label Plus-certified carpeting options, in materials ranging from New Zealand wool to jute and coir.

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More On Greenwashing

October 26th, 2010 | Posted by cramcharran in Environment | Green Products - (0 Comments)

We wrote a couple weeks ago about greenwashing (the troublesome practice of marketing a product as “green,” when it may not be, to burnish its image)  here.

You can read more about greenwashing, and the troubling results of a market survey carried out by TerraChoice, an independent reviewer of green claims, in this highly informative article from Gwendolyn Bounds in today’s Wall Street Journal.

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In 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established the Design for the Environment (DfE) partnership program.  The program was created to achieve an end: to develop partnerships in the private sector and industry, with environmental groups, and with academia to reduce environmental and health risks associated with chemical pollutants found in common household products and commercial and industrial practices.

Design for the Environment’s work is significant.  Its mission is to test the safety of both traditional and alternative chemicals in a whole range of processes, industries, and products.  And, according to the DfE’s website, the program has been something of a huge success – reducing the use of “chemicals of concern” by hundreds of millions of pounds every year.

To obtain a Design for the Environment seal of approval, the EPA must first vet products according to relatively stringent guidelines and an arduous scientific review.   These guidelines take into consideration human health concerns, environmental impacts, and the performance and cost of traditional and alternative technologies.  Determining whether or not a chemical used for a product is safe(er) for people and the earth is a long process, conducted by the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT), and organization that has been testing an analyzing chemicals for more than 30 years – so their expertise is substantial.

The OPPT first uncovers masked chemicals of concern – that is, scientists determine if environmentally-hazardous chemicals appear less harmful because they are diluted with water or other less-toxic chemicals.  If the chemical’s effects on the environment and people is not known, they study the chemical structure of the compound to understand its potential effects.  The DfE program then searches for negative interactions between chemical combinations – individual substances on their own may not be toxic, but in combination can be deadly.  Fragrances and dyes are then screened to ensure they will not pose any adverse health effects, including carcinogenic and environmentally-toxic compounds.  Lastly, the product is screened to see if any safer substitutes are commercially available, and economically-feasible for mass production.

There are over 2,000 Design for the Environment-approved products available on the market, with an easy-to-identify seal in place to allow the consumer to quickly and easily identify which products are safest for their health and the environment.  Considering that there are over 60,000 commerically-used chemicals, many of which have not passed the guidelines set forth by the Design for the Environment, seeing a DfE seal on a product really means something – not only that the product is safe, but that the company that produced the product put time, energy, and resources into making it the safest it could be.  This, of course, speaks to the ethical philosophy of the company producing the product.

Green Depot Solutions: Any green product with the EPA’s Design for the Environment seal is sure to be a sound and safe product, and Green Depot in particular produces an in-house line of DfE-approved cleaners and detergents produced locally in the New York City metropolitan area, and with a refilling station located at our flagship store on the Bowery, along with a full range of other green products and sustainable building materials.

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Radiant heat flooring warms a room by allowing warming tubes just under the floor’s surface to send heat upwards from the floor itself. At this point, it’s one of the most energy-efficient ways to heat a building, standing far ahead of conventional forced-air central heating and radiators. In fact, it so efficient that it’s recommended by the Passive House Institute, which we wrote about recently here.

With traditional forced-air central heating, warm air is blown into the room and immediately rises to the ceiling—making for a lovely warm ceiling (which nobody needs), but cold floors. Radiant heat, on the other hand, takes advantage of heat’s natural tendency to rise, making the best use of its journey upward by starting at the lowest point in the room. This process is generally far more efficient than any other form of heating, heating the room faster, keeping it warm longer, and allowing the thermostat to be set to up to 8 degrees lower than usual to obtain the same level of warmth. This results in not only lower energy bills, but less fossil-fuel consumption to provide the power that most heating systems require.

An added benefit of radiant heat is that it doesn’t dry out the air the way radiators and forced-air central heating systems do, so there’s less need for electric-powered humidifiers. But possibly the best thing about radiant heat is that it keeps your feet warm—no more freezing tootsies when you first get up in the morning!

Among its many other green products related to keeping your home warm efficiently, Green Depot carries various components for a radiant heat flooring system. The Complete Radiant Panel is an easy-to-install, modular panel with heating tubes built in, for quick sub-floor assembly. Warmboard Radiant Heat Subflooring is plywood subflooring with grooves for heating tubes pre-cut, and Tyroc is a super-insulating overlayment for cold, damp concrete floors that you can lay your radiant heat flooring panels directly on top of. And soon to be added to the lineup is NuHeat, a system of soft mats with heating elements built in—sort of like an electric blanket for your floor. Neat, huh?

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Check the back of nearly any conventional cleaning product, and you are confronted with an entire paragraph of confusing words for unknown chemicals – sometimes, hundreds of them.  It would take a huge amount of research to know which of those chemicals could be harmful to you, your family, or the environment.

Using conventional cleaning products in small amounts, and in well-ventilated areas, likely won’t cause any harm to the individual.  However, when we clean our homes we typically use a whole range of products for specific purposes – glass cleaners, countertop cleaners, floor cleaners, shower cleaners… the list goes on.  The more chemicals we use in our homes, the more exposure we receive to them, and that can add up over time, week in and week out.

Many conventional cleaners contain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.  We’ve written before about VOCs in paint.  VOCs are the source of the headache-inducing chemical smell that is produced when using a cleaner at home.  These chemical compounds are used to cheaply improve the performance of a product, but can have serious consequences for human health – they have been linked to neurological disorders and kidney failure in laboratory animals, just to name a few consequences.  VOCs linger in the residue of cleaning products, even when they’re not visible – they continued to be inhaled even after cleaning is finished.  As Grist reports, home air fresheners contain significant amounts of VOCs and have been linked to a 25% increase in headaches and 19% more occurrences of depression in homes where they are used, versus homes where they are not.

Even smaller amounts of cleaner can have detrimental effects on the environment.  Dishwashing detergents often contain phosphates, which soften water and are a cheap way to make dish detergents more effective.   But the environmental cost is substantial.  When phosphates enter the watershed they enrich the water with nutrients that algae feed on, producing huge “blooms” of algae that consume all oxygen in the surrounding water.  Water that is depleted of oxygen – or that is hypoxic – is uninhabitable by most marine life.  The consequence is huge “dead zones” where there is no sea life, apart from algal blooms.  One of the largest and most infamous dead zone is in the Gulf of Mexico, which is fed by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from the Mississippi River.  While that dead zone is fed largely by agricultural runoff, home fertilizers – and home cleaners – also contribute.

this graphic, from the new york times, depicts the hypoxic zone in the gulf of mexico -- a phenomenon produced, in part, by the runoff of phosphates, often found in conventional cleaners

There are more environmental consequences than hypoxia: conventional cleaners use chemicals that can disrupt the endocrine systems of marine life; some chemicals can affect the alkalinity of water, harming marine organisms; and others contain chemical compounds such as DDBSA that are corrosive to metal and organic tissue, including human tissue.  If cleaning chemicals can produce these harmful effects on marine life, are they products that the consumer wants in their home – that not only release the chemicals into the home environment when they are use (and inhaled!), but linger and offgas for indeterminate amounts of time?

For the sake of personal health and the environment, then, it becomes imperative to use green cleaning products, and other green products that are free of the kinds of pollutants and toxins which poison our bodies and land.

Fortunately, numerous alternatives are available.  Some are more effective – both in terms of cleaning power and in healthfulness – than others.  Some, in particular, are pure greenwash – while they profess to be “all-natural,” they are indeed chemical and potentially dangerous.  There are no federal criteria to regulate products advertized as “all-natural” and packaging can therefore be terrifically misleading.  Some “all-natural” cleaners are made from petroleum-derived products – all-natural because petroleum is naturally-occurring.

So, we should choose green cleaners because they are kinder on our health, our homes, and our environment.  And we should ensure we choose green products that are legitimately green, and not just greenwash.  There are, fortunately, truly ecologically-sound alternatives available to the consumer.

These products, contrasted to their conventional counterparts, are plant-derived, rather than petroleum-derived; they are biodegradable, meaning they won’t linger in waterways and contribute to hypoxia; and they are effective, meaning the consumer does not have to sacrifice performance for health and environmental benefits.

Green Depot carries a huge catalogue of green products, and produces its own line of green cleaners (locally-produced in the New York City area).  They are even refillable at our station on the Bowery – meaning you won’t even have to recycle your old bottles.

photo credit to flickr user hypoxia&eutrophication.

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