Scott Stengel has installed 16 solar panels, switched to a tankless gas water heater, replaced windows with energy efficient ones, put in rain barrels to collect and hold up to 350 gallons of water off his roof, and created ponds to store other runoff in a yard certified to be wildlife-friendly.
If you go
What: 15th annual Charleston County Earth Day Festival.
When: 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday.
Where: Riverfront Park, North Charleston.
Note: Bring unused paint, electronic waste and old clothes to be recycled.
On the web: http://bit.ly/OykNbX
In the process, the 57-year-old James Island man has cut his electric usage by a whopping 75 percent. He has not only saved money on his electric bill - the total for 2013 was $530 - but on his federal and state taxes. Combining his energy-saving tax credits with other deductions, such as IRA contributions, he owed neither the feds or state any taxes last year.
And contrary to the belief that only the rich can afford to be eco-friendly, Stengel earns a modest living working as a printer for Trident Technical College. Rather, he's just driven to make his house, and his life, greener for several reasons.
"I'm an old hippie and a cheapskate," says Stengel, who traces the roots of his passion to reading "Mother Earth News" in the 1970s. "I do care a lot about the environment and find satisfaction in producing clean energy and reducing my carbon footprint, but I also like to be independent of corporations and not feel like they have their claws in me."
As the nation approaches the 45th Earth Day on Tuesday, opportunities for locals to make their homes more eco-friendly, and save money long-term, continue to grow and evolve.
Resources, including the Charleston-based Sustainability Institute and Clemson Extension's "Carolina Clear," and private businesses such as DwellSmart, Lowcountry Rain Harvesting and Sleeping Organic, provide knowledge and products to guide those with way less knowledge than the well-studied, super-motivated Stengel. The 12 ideas presented to green your home this year come from some of those experts.
1. Efficiency first
While the Sustainability Institute's Laura Addis says installing solar panels are the "sexiest and most obvious" eco-home improvement, she says the smartest approach is to make your home as efficient as possible before introducing solar.
And as South Carolinians await for more incentives and cost efficiencies for solar, they have plenty of work to do in making homes efficient.
"Our building stock is highly inefficient and we always preach energy efficiency first and then move up to renewable energy along the way," says Addis.
To that end, Addis recommends revisiting the insulation in attics and in crawl spaces with either foam board or blown insulation, the latter of which likely will require hiring a professional to do.
2. Lead with LEDs
If insulation is too daunting or already set in place, Addis says another simple step is replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs, or even better, LEDs.
"Lighting is a great way to start. It accounts for seven to 15 percent of a homeowner's energy bill, depending on the size of their home," says Addis. "LED is a little bit more expensive (than incandescent and CFLs), but it's more efficient, lasts the longest and doesn't emit heat, which is really important when it's 98 degrees outside."
She adds that homeowners should start in rooms that are naturally hotter, such as kitchen and bathrooms, or harder to reach, such as cathedral ceilings.
4. Ease the flush
Along the same lines, why are Americans still flushing waste with precious potable water?
It doesn't have to be that way, as an array of low-flow and even composting toilets are readily available. Learn more about low-flow toilets at www.epa.gov/watersense/products/toilets.html and composting toilets at http://bit.ly/1hPYziG.
3. Go ductless
Own a home long enough in the Lowcountry and you will have to face replacing your air-conditioner.
When that time comes, or if your unit is about to go, consider "mini-split" units, which do not use the ductwork of central forced air systems. The Department of Energy says that energy lost via duct work, especially in attics, can account for 30 percent of energy consumption of air conditioning and heating.
The department adds that sleek-looking mini splits offer more interior design flexibility because indoor air handlers can be suspended from a ceiling, mounted flush into a drop ceiling, or hung on a wall.
5. Power of the sun
OK, solar is sexy and it's got a bright future in sunny South Carolina. Some are ready to go now.
James Island homeowner Stengel is well-versed in solar, but he recommends homeowners with next-to-no-knowledge learn some basic solar energy terms and search online with the key words "solar" and "South Carolina." Then contact a contractor who should be willing to do a free home assessment; for example, analyzing a home's position for collecting the sun's energy and offering a plan.
Stengel has installed 16 solar panels on his home for $10,900, thanks to federal and state tax credits that returned about $13,000 of the $23,900 investment back to him. Those credits are set to expire in 2016. Stengel plans to install eight to 16 more panels with an ultimate goal to have no power bills and live off the power grid.
6. Collect rainwater
"Harvesting" rain is an old idea that is suddenly new again, especially in the Lowcountry. (Think "The Cistern" at the College of Charleston.)
And while some Lowcountry residents already are starting to collect rainwater off of home rooftops using rain barrels, the trend may soon jump back to larger capacity cisterns and newer water storing units.
After Marty Morganello installed rain barrels at his James Island home, he realized that basically no one in South Carolina was specializing in rain collection as a business, and started Lowcountry Rain Harvesting.
Morganello says products for homes and businesses range from small capacity barrels to larger capacity cisterns and rubber bladders that can be hidden from view. Cisterns and bladders require a pump. He recently installed a 1,100-gallon cistern with a pump under an elevated house on the Isle of Palms for $3,000.
Environmentally speaking, he says, collecting rainwater eases stormwater runoff pollution in area waterways and helps the depletion of freshwater sources, such as the South Edisto River.
Morganello adds that using filtered rainwater as a potable water source also is on the horizon.
7. Make your own dirt
And while one won't want to use compost from a toilet to fertilize food plants, making your own fertile dirt at home requires little more than a compost pile, organized either in a bin or in a container, and an easy change of habit. Instead of putting vegetable, fruit and other nonmeat kitchen scraps in the garbage and bagging grass clippings for public works staffers to haul off in exhaust-belching trucks, just combine the two in a pile in the backyard and turn the mixture from time to time.
In nine months to a year, a homeowner has bags of free dirt for plant and tree beds.
Clemson Extension offers great tips for composting at http://bit.ly/QrCmvD.
9. Detox your home
One of the main reasons Mary Gatch started DwellSmart, a home store specializing in green products, was because she had difficulty finding nontoxic products for her own home. Now, DwellSmart, located on upper Meeting Street adjacent to the Tattooed Moose, is a literal showroom of some of the latest and greatest eco-friendly products on the market. She is particularly proud to offer nontoxic products, such as cleaning supplies and "no VOC (volatile organic compound)" paints.
"Energy efficiency is important, no doubt, but that's not the whole equation," says Gatch.
She adds that locals also should be mindful that the products that go down the drains of their homes eventually end up in local waterways, where fish and other wildlife already deal with other toxins in the environment.
8. Permeable 'pavement'
Being residents of the coast, another eco-friendly practice is to minimize the amount of paved, impermeable surfaces on lots, according to Guinn Garrett and Kim Counts, water resources agents for Clemson Extension Service's Carolina Clear program.
During storms, rain on hard surfaces washes pollutants such as oil, pesticides and fertilizers, pet wastes and plastics into drains and out to local waterways. Allowing water to seep naturally into the ground's soft surfaces helps filter those pollutants. So instead of paving with concrete or asphalt, Garrett and Counts suggest using pavers, with spaces between hard surfaces, or better yet, putting mulch down to cover areas of the yard for walkways and driveways.
10. Electric mowers
Besides being loud, dirty and frustrating to maintain, gas-powered mowers emit as much pollution as up to 34 cars, according to state health officials last year.
A cleaner and quieter solution is a rechargeable, battery-powered mower. In the past decade, the mowers have evolved to be more powerful, reliable and available, as well as more affordable. Both your neighbors and wallet will appreciate scrapping a gas mower for an electric one.
11. Sleeping organic
Most of us spend close to a third of our day sleeping, so another key, nontoxic option that has arisen in recent years is bedding products, including mattresses and coverings, made from organic and natural materials.
Plenty of options are available at DwellSmart in Charleston and Sleeping Organic in Mount Pleasant.
12. Plants matter
What you choose to plant in your yard also plays into the "sustainability" of your home.
Planting fruit-bearing trees and bushes offers perennial food for your family and the wildlife.
Garrett and Counts at Clemson Extension also recommend native plants as ornamentals because they require less irrigation and pesticides. They add that yards with native plants also have 29 times more biological diversity than yards without them.
"That's especially important as Charleston becomes more urban and suburban," says Counts.
They also add that residents who border waterways should leave an unmowed buffer of at least 10 to 15 feet, which tend to fill in with natives such as seaside goldenrod and ox-eye flowers, to filter pollutants that could be washed into water. For a list of plants native to the South Carolina coast, go to http://scnps.org/ and click on "education," then "homeowners" and scroll down to "SC Coastal Native Plant List."
Reach David Quick at 937-5516.
DwellSmart, located near The Tattooed Moose on upper Meeting Street, stocks an array of nontoxic products for both the home and yard.DavidQuick/Staff×
One nifty zero VOC "paint" is American Clay, a U.S.-made clay plaster that helps regulate humid air and temperatures inside buildings by absorbing and releasing moisture naturally. The plaster, available at DwellSmart, is 100 percent natural and nontoxic. David Quick/Staff×
Lowcountry Rain Harvesting installed a 1,550 gallon cistern at Mitchell Elementary School to irrigate its gardens.×
The technology for low-flow and composting toilets has advanced so much that both are worthy options for homes and rural cottages. This composting toilet is available at DwellSmart in Charleston. David Quick/Staff×
An array of organic fertilizers for the garden are now available.×
The Sustainability Institute of South Carolina has an office in Charleston and a home in North Charleston that features an array of energy efficient devices, such as this cistern. Provided×
The alternatives for collecting rainwater for irrigation off of rooftops range from one or more rain barrels to cisterns and rubber bladders.×
Air-conditioning "mini-splits" save up energy because the technology requires no duct work, which is responsible for up to 30 percent of energy loss.The Sustainability Institute×
Battery-powered mowers not only don’t use gas and oil, or require spark plugs and filters, but are relatively quiet and light to operate.×
Image converted using ifftoany×