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5/20/2016

Geek thing of the day! Since I wrote about induction cooking 2 years ago, the cost has come down enough now that I bought a single “burner” unit and after a week of use, the numbers are in.

As a long-time gas range cook, the switch takes some getting used to, and it only works with pots that are magnetic. But, I like that it’s fast and I can dial in the temperature fairly tightly. Of course, I didn’t trust any of the ad hype, so I got out the meters and the spreadsheet. Here are the results.

Comparison Between Gas Range and Induction Burner

Gas range, 7,000 BTU burner: time to boil 1 quart of 60 degrees Fahrenheit water was 8 minutes 30 seconds, consuming 992 BTUs of heating energy (one British Thermal Unit is approximately equivalent to the heat released by burning one wooden kitchen match).

Induction cooker: same pot, same temperature and quantity of water, the burner used 1,300 watts at the highest setting and took 5 minutes 50 seconds to boil. This works out to 0.126 kilowatt-hour of electricity and is equivalent to 430 BTUs of heating energy.

cook time comparison

If there was a 100-percent efficient way to boil water, the energy required would be about 317 BTUs. This gives us a way to calculate the efficiency of each unit.

The induction cooker is 74 percent efficient, and the gas range comes in at 32 percent. The induction cooker transfers much more heating energy to the pot. The induction method was 32 percent faster and consumed 57 percent less energy.

cooking efficiency

Because I’m off-grid, induction will be my go-to cooking method when sunshine is ample, offering an option for fossil-free cooking!

Paul Scheckel is an energy efficiency and renewable energy consultant and author of The Homeowner's Energy Handbook and The Home Energy Diet. Paul is also a speaker at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



5/20/2016

Radon test kit

As I was reading the local newspaper I saw an article on radon with an offer to get a free radon test kit. The article said that radon is colorless, odorless, and invisible but it can give you lung cancer.

Well, that certainly got my attention, since I have had asthma since childhood and I’m pretty cautious when anything may affect my lungs. Especially something I can’t see, smell, and is a gas that emanates from the ground. If you are health conscious it can keep you awake at night wondering as you breathe deeply as you sleep if you are inhaling a deadly gas. That is like telling someone that science has determined that saliva causes cancer so don’t swallow.

What is Radon?

So what is radon? Radon is a cancer causing radioactive gas that comes from the decay of uranium which is present in almost all soils. It can be found all over the USA and is more prevalent in some localities than others.

Becauseit is colorless, tasteless and odorless, it is easy to chalk it up to “nothing to worry about”. That could be a mistake, because there are 21,000 deaths attributed to radon each year (compared to 17,400 drunk-driving deaths).

Testing for Radon

It can be in any home or building and it typically leaches up from the ground. If it is trapped in a structure and builds up, it is breathed into your lungs. It is estimated that nearly one in fifteen homes has an elevated level of radon. While radon problems may be more common in some areas any home can have a problem and it is best to test. Our local county environmental department provides a free test kit - all you have to do is go get it. There is also a map that you can look at found here  where you can check your specific state and county.

When I checked our county, I found we were in a moderate zone, which means we have between 2-4 picocuries per liter of air or (pCi/L). Anything above 4 should be long-term tested or tested a second time for accuracy and if it remains over 4 pCi/L, then mitigation should be explored.

Mitigation for Radon

Radon mitigation is not difficult in most cases but simply a venting system with an exhaust fan that will keep it from building up in your home. Your home could be new, old, or anything in between and have a radon problem. You can test yourself with a free kit or one you order online, or have it tested by a professional that is well versed in radon testing and mitigation.

Radon Can Cause Lung Cancer

Radon gas decays into radioactive particles that can get trapped in your lungs when you breathe. As these particles break down further, they release small bursts of energy which can damage your lungs and lead to lung cancer.

Not everyone exposed to high levels of radon will develop lung cancer, and it may occur over a lifetime. Smoking combined with radon is a particularly serious health problem, and smokers have a much higher risk than nonsmokers. While there is no conclusive data, it is believed that children also have a higher risk due to less developed immune systems.

Who is Susceptible?

Example: 4 pCi/L in nonsmokers has about 7 out of 1,000 people that could get lung cancer. In smokers, that statistic goes up to about 62 people who could get lung cancer. As the pCi/L goes up, the risk goes up exponentially. Although some scientists question the precise number of people affected there is agreement among all health organizations that radon is a problem when levels exceed 4 pCi/L.

The normal level of radon in the outdoors is 1.3 pCi/L and while the authorities would like structures to have the same level it presently isn’t required or realistic. While much is known about radon, there is still apparently more to learn. What is known is that some people are susceptible to lung cancer when exposed to radon long term and others are not.

Since the test kits are either free or very low cost, it just makes sense to test your abode to see if you are in a high radon area. Mitigation can resolve issues and then there can be peace of mind and should you decide to sell at some point there won’t be any last minute surprises.

Conflicting Data Creates Confusion

I read in the newspaper article that approximately 50% of the homes in Colorado have radon. Then as I was doing research for this article, I read that could actually go as high as 70%. Putting all the material aside, it just seems that the way to be sure is to test and if needed test again.

Dealing with radon reminds me of the time the story was going around that only male mosquitoes buzz and the males don’t bite you. The females don’t buzz and, therefore, when you don’t hear anything, you should worry about getting bit. Of course, that is not entirely true, but I can see the analogy, as it could also apply to radon. It's just better to test and be sure because if you do need to mitigate it is not that difficult and then you will have a safe environment where you can live without fear.

Resources: Environmental Protection Agency's radon page

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their domestic and natural family go to www.BruceCarolCabin.Blogspot.com. Read all of Bruce's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



5/19/2016

 

Cob house

I love mud and straw buildings for so many reasons. They are sustainable (unlike log cabins, trees don’t need to be felled), inexpensive and the maintenance is a cinch. Three popular mud and straw-based natural building techniques are cob, straw bale and earthbag. People often ask me which I think is better, or greener. Each has its pros and cons.

Strawbale house

Your climate, the topography of your land, and which materials you have to hand are crucial in choosing which technique to use. Building a straw bale house when there is no straw in your area means squandering fossil fuels to ferry the bales in. On the other hand, earthbag building usually involves polypropylene bags – not exactly bio-degradable. Cob is probably the greenest method, but takes time and not the most practical if you live on a flood plain.

 

Earthbag house

11 Materials Considerations for Natural Building

So here’s a checklist of 11 points to consider when choosing between straw bale, earthbag and cob.

 

COB

STRAW BALE

EARTHBAG

 

Difficulty of technique

Cob construction is time-consuming, but fun. Patience and some know-how are necessary.

 

The interior is completed along with the exterior, so finishing is easy.

Straw bale is the fastest and least labour-intensive of the three. Bales are light compared to sacks filled with mud. You can have a house up in weeks or less. Finishing the interior may take longer.

Earthbag, is labour-intensive compared to straw bale, but the technique is pretty idiot-proof. Earthbag homes can be built fast, depending on the energy of the team. Finishing the interior may take longer.

Cost

Mud is free. Labour, time and learning the art is where you could spend money. A great technique if you have volunteers and plenty of time.

Depends if you have bales to hand or not, and on the price of the bales in your area.

The post and beam structure could be more expensive.

The materials are very inexpensive for roundhouses. Mud is free. The sacks are inexpensive. Labour is the key factor for cost here.

Insulation*

Earth has poor insulation.

Great insulation.

Poor insulation.

Thermal mass*

Great thermal mass.

Poor thermal mass.

Great thermal mass.

 

Shape

You can create any shape with cob, that’s the beauty of it.

Squares and rectangles are the most logical choice for straw bale, as the bales are cuboid.

Earthbag definitely thrives on curves and circles.

Resistance to earthquakes

Stronger than brick, as cob is one monolithic unit.

Excellent. Straw bale has been known to survive an 82-ton force on a shake table.

Almost invincible. Exceeded earthquake test limits with no visible damage.

 

In the wet

How well cob functions in the wet depends on how high your footings, and how wide your eaves. Cob can resist a fair amount of rain and weathering, but is not recommended on flood plains.

Moisture is the enemy of straw bale, but as long as you construct a decent rubble trench foundation, a high stem wall and wide eaves, straw bale can stand the rain.

Performs the best out of the three in the wet. With a gravel foundation and a decent stem wall, earthbag can survive a flood.

In the cold

Earth works very well with passive solar construction (for those in the northern hemisphere that means south facing windows which draw in the sun’s heat which is then absorbed by the earth walls).

 

Takes a while to heat up.

Excellent. The high insulation factor means it’s easy to heat a straw bale home.

Earth works very well with passive solar construction (for those in the northern hemisphere that means south facing windows which draw in the sun’s heat which is then absorbed by the earth walls).

 

Takes a while to heat up.

Maintenance

Easy.

Easy.

Easy.

 

Longevity

Cob houses have been standing for hundreds of years in the UK.

With large eaves and the correct moisture protection, straw bale is estimated to last a life time, at least.

 

An earthbag structure with proper foundations is estimated to last at least a century.

Other quirks to note:

 

 

Mice can live in the walls of straw bale homes.

Walls can swell and shrink in areas with drastic seasonal moisture/heat changes. This affects window and door frames.

What’s the Difference Between Thermal Mass and Insulation?

Insulation is the ability of the house to slow down heat loss (or cold air loss). Straw insulates. In practical terms, this means you can heat or cool your house quickly and it will retain that temperature. If you are in a building that you only use once a week, say a church or a meeting room, or you live in the arctic, you need a high insulation factor. Straw bale is the way to go.

A building with high thermal mass takes longer to heat or cool, but retains the temperature for hours. Mud buildings (cob and earthbag) have high thermal mass values. But what does this mean? In winter, earth walls slowly absorb heat in the day, and then release it back into the house at night.

In summer, they absorb the cool in the night and release that cool back into the house in the day time. Earth buildings are perfect for hot, dry and Mediterranean climates. They are also work well in temperate climates where people live in the house the majority of the time.

Round vs Square

I may field some criticism from the straw bale and earthbag purists, but in my humble opinion, if you want a round, oval or curved house, then earthbag is the obvious choice. If you want straight lines, then straw bale is for you.

It is true, people have built round straw bale houses, and square earthbag houses. But this takes greater time, requires a higher level of know-how, and utilizes more resources. Straight earthbag walls have to be buttressed. Round straw bale homes need more adjustment and increased plaster. Why make life difficult?

The Bottom Line

Whichever of the three mud and straw natural building techniques you choose, you will have a more comfortable, healthier, greener, better ventilated, and more soulful home, than if you build using the mainstream construction materials of today (Portland cement, foam, fibreglass, plastic, chemical-based paints and plasters). Your home will breathe rather than sweat. And most importantly, you will smile every time you look at it.

Straw bale house photos by Sophie Hunter.

Atulya K. Bingham is an author and natural builder. She lives in Turkey in her beloved earthbag house. She runs The Mud Website which offers plenty of earthbag building information, a window into Atulya’s off-grid life, and sustainable living tips. She is also currently giving away The Mud Earthbag Building PDF. Mud Ball, Atulya’s popular personal story of building her earthbag home, is available from all major online stores. And read all of Atulya's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



5/11/2016

Whether you have a driveway gate for the security of your home, the safety of your livestock or just for the aesthetics, the chances are you’ve grown pretty tired of getting out of your vehicle to haul the gate open, getting back in, driving through and then getting back out again to close it.

If so, the idea of an automatic gate opener has probably crossed your mind each time. And if the perceived expenses of getting an automatic gate opener, plus having an electrician come and install power for it, have prevented you from adding this time-saving convenience to your life, there is good news.

DIY Installation

Installing a gate opener is actually a pretty straightforward do-it-yourself project. Plus, if you opt for a solar panel to power it, then there’s no need to hire an electrician and you won’t see a spike in your electricity bill. 

Simply attach the solar panel to the gate or a nearby pole and run the wires into the battery. The solar panel works by hooking into the automatic gate opener's battery, replacing the 110v low voltage plug that would normally connect it to an outdoor outlet. A solar panel can also be retro-fitted onto an existing opener if you already have one installed.
 

Getting a Residential Tax Credit

You can also get a 30-percent federal residential tax credit toward the cost of a new solar powered gate opener, accessories and installation, as long as you do it before December of this year. Additionally, your state may have some applicable credits to offset the cost even more—check the Database of State Incentives for Renewable and Efficiency.

“A qualified solar power system installed in your home on or before the end of the year can potentially result in a tax credit of 30% of the expense of the upgrade,” says Andrew Schrage, co-owner of Money Crashers Personal Finance. “This is different from a tax deduction – the money is subtracted directly from your tax obligation. And the amount of the credit has no cap.”

Schrage adds, “On average, you can expect to save roughly $1,000 per year by going solar, although this does depend upon the scope of the upgrade and what part of the country you're located in.”

The automatic gate opener is also a great example of how simple and convenient it can be to use solar panels to power all types of tools and equipment. Wiring a solar panel into battery-powered items is relatively easy, as this Treehugger.com article illustrates.

While solar power hasn’t caught on as quickly as most environmentalists would like, using it in these small, incremental ways is sure to help people understand how convenient, inexpensive and simple to use this clean source of power is.

Jennifer Tuohy is a gadget geek who loves using technology to be more sustainable and eco-friendly. As more solar products come on the market, Jennifer provides advice on how they work and if they are worth buying. To see the solar-powered driveway gate opener options that Jennifer talks about in this article, visit The Home Depot. Read all of Jennifer's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



5/3/2016

It's past time to say that conversations on eco-friendliness, sustainability, and green living are abound. Going green isn't a fad. It's a lifestyle, a smart lifestyle that has found its way into the hearts of many homes--and rightly so. As homeowners continue to discover more environmental benefits of sustainable living, at home and at work, the rest of us are benefiting thanks to the countless  ideas to improve the “greenness” and quality of our living space. If you’ve been doing some research on your own, you’ve  probably read about compact fluorescent lamps, programmable thermostat, and even the advantages of growing houseplants.

However, no matter how well you equip your home to increase its eco-friendliness, there’s always room for improvement. Here are a few unique eco-friendly remodeling ideas you might want to tackle in your next project:

 

Explore Green Flooring Options

Investing in earth-friendly flooring does not mean that you have to kiss the classy wood floor goodbye. Instead, homeowners can make a huge difference by hiring remodeling contractors/companies that holds the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification.

FSC is an international non-profiting organization that seeks to promote responsible forest management. To be FSC-certified, companies have to satisfy all 57 FSC criteria, which include respecting native cultures and economies, restricting clear-cutting (removal of all trees in a forest), and using minimal pesticide.

But sustainably harvested wood is not your only option either. As Green Home Guide points out, the market offers homeowners a wide variety of flooring options that range from linoleum to cork.

Of all the alternatives out there, Bob Vila has singled out bamboo flooring as an exotic but inexpensive solution. Bamboo is an abundant renewable resource from Mother Nature. Whereas your typical oak, ash, and maple regenerates in about 40 to 50 years, bamboo takes just seven years to reach maturity again.

When it comes to longevity, high-quality bamboo floor generally lasts as long as your traditional hardwood floor. The big difference is that a bamboo floor can be easily cleaned with a mop and a bucket of water. It does not need any special treatment to maintain its charm.

Upgrade Your Bathroom

With water shortage plaguing different parts of the world, conservation and smart water usage are keys to future enjoyment. Besides stopping a leaky tap and installing a low-flow showerhead, you can save plenty of water by investing in efficient toilets.

According to 150points.com, toilets account for approximately one-third of our daily water use. While the U.S. has taken the initiative to ensure that toilets meet the 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf) federal standard, older toilet models (particularly the ones from the pre-1980s) still consume more than 5 gpf.

If your family already owns a standard single-flush toilet (1.6 gpf), consider upgrading to either a dual-flush toilet or a pressure-assist toilet. Dual-flush toilets give you the option to flush solids with 1.6 gallons of water, and 0.8 to 0.9 gpf for liquid flushing.

The pressure-assist toilets utilize pressure to achieve 1 gpf every single time. One huge advantage of this model is the water is contained in a plastic tank located inside the ceramic tank. The design effectively eliminates the potential for condensation (sweating) on the outside of the tank, saving you the trouble of cleaning up any dripping on the floor.   

Fix that Sink

Are you tired of waiting around for hot water to arrive at your kitchen or bathroom sink? It’s not fun to stand there and watch fresh water flowing down the drain, not to mention the energy it consumes to heat up the water in the first place. Recirculating your pump allows you to have hot water on demand.

According to Energy Star.gov, this method solves the problem of waiting for hot water, while enabling homeowners to save money, energy, and water. When you install a recirculating pump under the sink you allow the pump to recirculate cooled water that has been sitting in the hot water line and send it back to the water heater through the cold water line. The process repeats until the water reaches its temperature. The setup saves both water and energy.

Paul Kazlov is a metal roofing expert and has grown Global Home Improvement to be the Mid-Atlantic's largest installer of residential metal roofing, saving the everyday homeowner money on energy costs. He has installed more than 1,000 metal roofs and more than 2 million square feet of standing seam, metal slate, and metal tile, helping the Philadelphia-New Jersey-New York area. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulKazlov. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



4/20/2016

Order your zero net energy home from a catalog? Well, kind of ...

Sears, Roebuck & Co. was not a revolutionary home builder, but its mass production of homes through their mail-order Modern Homes catalog was. Now, PulteGroup has its eye on something that could be revolutionary when it comes to building sustainable homes, more specifically net zero energy (ZNE) homes that could eventually come into mass production.

I recently interviewed Brian Jamison, PulteGroup’s National Director of Procurement, about PulteGroup’s zero net energy prototype home in Brentwood, California, in their Botanica by Pulte Homes community set for completion in May 2016. And here’s why you should be excited that a major national home builder is jumping into the eco-friendly homes market.

exterior home

A Net -Zero Home is All That and More

If you were to rank sustainable homes primarily based on their energy efficiency, ZNE homes would rank extremely high. They’re pretty cool. And complicated. In a recent blog about ZNE homes, I explained the complexities of designing these homes — not only do they need to be incredibly energy efficient, but must also be designed to create as much (and hopefully more) energy than it uses, hence establishing a zero net energy use from the grid.

Net-zero homes achieve their energy efficiency by working from the very start with this goal in mind. There are two sides to this equation — the home design must be as energy-efficient as possible so they require less energy, and then it must maximize the use of on-site energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal so they produce enough energy to power the home on their own, achieving a net zero in-take of grid energy.

All "off-grid" homes are net zero, but net zero encompasses a larger category, since zero energy homes are typically attached to the energy grid. There may be times that a net-zero home pulls more energy from the grid than it is producing, although it will make the difference up during periods of lower energy use.

PulteGroup Infographic

Testing the Prototype Net-Zero Energy Home

PulteGroup selected California to build and monitor this home prototype and for very good reasons. According to a comparison completed by Wallethub, California ranks in the top 10 states of the most costly energy bills. And according to Mr. Jamison, California also hosts some of the most eco-conscious consumers. Both of these factors make building the prototype in California a logical location selection, before branching into other regions.

During construction of the prototype home, Pulte has learned a lot about materials and techniques for energy efficiency. For example, “We are learning quite a bit about the methods and products for insulation.

Cathederalizing the attic insulation is a tool in which you place the insulation up near the roof rather than the floor of the attic. Cathedralizing turns the attic space into a partially conditioned space. Your attic is much, much cooler or warmer, which is closer to the indoor living temperatures and the energy efficiency of the duct work in that space increases too since it is not exposed to the extreme temperatures some attics experience.

Also, an airtight home (sealed very tight) creates a need to provide indoor fresh air as well as exhausting the air. This becomes very important to design as a house has to breathe — if a house doesn’t breathe it will struggle.”

Cathedralizing

Using a high-efficiency solar system will greatly reduce the need for an abundancy of solar panels. The Pulte home prototype is expected to earn all of its energy needs through a high efficiency set of 4‑kilowatt 14 panels system.

Once the house in completely built a family will live in the prototype home for 12 months while the home is monitored for its energy performance and consumption and overall functionality. Some ways in which this monitoring will occur is by including twice as many circuit breakers as a typical home, viewing the energy use at a “myopic level.”

instruction

exterior insulation

Mass Distribution of Zero-Energy Homes

As one of the top three home builders in the USA, PulteGroup’s success of this prototype creates the potential for mass distribution of zero energy homes and can have a significant and positive impact for the sustainable home movement.

But this excitement doesn’t come without some hurdles: cost and marketing to the masses.

Zero energy homes are often costlier and more difficult to build than a typical home of equal size given the level of modeling and expertise required upfront to design a custom home as well as the implementation of specific energy producing systems (solar, wind, geothermal, etc…) and building materials to match the climate and regional needs.

Not unlike the Sears Modern Home designs which had the ability to use mass production as a means to lower manufacturing costs and passed on those savings to the homeowners, mass production of zero net energy homes could very well do the same.

kitchen

Marketing to the masses will also be essential to convey to new home buyers the environmental benefits and energy savings that can offset higher up-front costs. With the help of companies such as VivaGreenHomes, one of the largest databases of eco-friendly home listings nationwide, hopefully marketing eco homes to the mass consumer will also become mainstream. Fingers crossed.

So from your modern day Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogs (a.k.a websites), sit back, pick out your Tesla electric vehicle from their website and select your next eco-friendly home from VivaGreenHomes, featuring zero net energy homes listings among thousands of other eco-friendly homes for sale across the country. If PulteGroup is successful with their next line of ZNEs, you’ll have even more green home options to choose from for your next purchase. Read more about PulteGroup’s zero net energy home project.

Photos by PulteGroup

Kari Klaus is a Northern Virginia Realtor and founder and CEO of Viva Green Homes. In addition to working on establishing Viva Green Homes as the most popular sustainable homes site, she also is volunteering and working with local animal rescue groups in Mexico. Read all of Kari's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



4/18/2016

green deck photo

Building a deck is a wonderful way to enjoy your outdoor space. If you are covering a water-thirsty grass lawn with a deck, you are already a step ahead in the green game. However, to keep up that eco-momentum, make sure to choose an environmentally friendly material when building your new deck.

According to energy-efficient experts Direct Energy, “Building with sustainable materials helps the earth because you’re not wasting resources. It also helps your budget because you can reduce long-term maintenance costs. By working with sustainable materials when building, you’re lowering the chance that your family and the earth are exposed to toxic products.”

As with many green choices, the “right” one is not always clear-cut. The most eco-friendly option for you will depend on a lot of factors, including your location, the climate you live in and your budget.

6 Environmental Considerations for Decking

When choosing the best green option for you, keep in mind the following factors. If you can achieve at least four out of the six, you can feel pretty good about your new deck:

1. Local. The further your decking material has to be shipped, the greater the cost to the environment. In many cases, locally produced materials will outweigh most negatives.
2. Manufactured Cleanly.
Choose a material made without the use of any toxic chemicals and that doesn't create any toxic by-products.
3. Sustainable Future.
Make sure the material is harvested responsibly and is not a finite resource.
4. Green Maintenance
. Check that you can maintain the material without the use of toxic chemicals.
5. Longevity.
Pick a material that will last as long as possible. Longevity is a key part of being green. The longer a product lasts, the less impact it has on the environment, no matter how much material or chemical was used in its initial manufacture.
6. Recyclable.
Choose a material that can be easily recycled and/or is made from recycled or reclaimed products.

Read on for a rundown of your decking material options and their green credentials.

Wooden Decking

The traditional option for a deck is wood, and while it’s fast being replaced in popularity by composite decking (see below), it is still a good one, especially if you live in an area with extra hot summers. The plastic in composite decking can mean the material becomes too hot to walk on. 

Wood is long-lasting and the most economical of decking materials. While it requires more regular maintenance, it trumps all other options in terms of longevity because it can be refinished year after year. All wood decking needs to be cleaned and resealed every year or two to maintain its original color and prevent splintering and warping. Some hardwoods, such as redwood and cedar, are naturally resistant to rot and insect damage, so don’t need to be treated with chemicals. Other softwoods, such as the popular southern yellow pine, must be pressure treated with chemicals to imbue them with similar properties.

If you opt for wood, your location will determine your most environmentally-friendly option. While Forestry Stewardship Council certified wood guarantees your product hasn’t been harvested from endangered rainforests, non-FSC certified wood grown locally could be the greener option when the cost to the environment of shipping is factored in. Below is a look at the best options based on your location.

Southwest/Rocky Mountain Region: Redwood, which grows extensively along the West Coast, is the strongest natural decking material available. It is resistant to rot, decay and termites, and the wood naturally fades to grey over time. (If you want to keep the color, you will need to stain it.) This is the best choice for those who live in California, Colorado, Utah, Nevada or Arizona, as it will be harvested in your region, meaning less energy expended in shipping.

Northwest: If you live in Washington, Oregon or Idaho, cedar is a good choice. It has similar properties to redwood, although it is not as strong, it is durable and naturally resistant to rot and insect damage.

East Coast: Southern yellow pine is a widely available softwood that is grown predominantly in the southeast. However, softwoods are not naturally resistant to rot or insects in the way hardwoods are, therefore they must be pressure treated (a process of forcing chemical preservatives deep into the wood). You also still need to stain or seal pressure treated wood to protect it from weathering, but it is generally the least expensive option. The toxic, arsenic-based chemical that was used in pressure-treated wood until 2003 has been replaced with copper-based alternatives that are not absorbed by the human body.

An alternative to pine is sustainably harvested ipe. This South American hardwood is dense and heavy, naturally resistant to moisture and bugs and has a fire rating similar to concrete. Be sure to choose FSC certified ipe however, as the irresponsible harvesting of this and other tropical hardwood options, including Cumaru and Tigerwood, is largely responsible for the deforestation of Amazon rainforests. Shipping is a major black mark, however, but that is somewhat offset by the longevity of the wood and the lack of chemicals needed to preserve it.

Another relatively new option in the wood realm is bamboo decking, which has comparable properties to hardwood without the disadvantages of slow growth cycles. However, to be durable enough for decking, bamboo needs to be "strand-woven," which requires the use of toxic adhesives.

Composite and Plastic Alternatives

Composite (wood fiber and plastic) and plastic decking materials have become a very popular choice in recent years due to their ability to emulate the look of wood without the ongoing maintenance issues: they resist stains, cracks and warping, and insects are definitely not interested. Additionally, they can be made with recycled materials. Be a savvy consumer, however, and look for the highest recycled plastic content to ensure a green choice. The biggest ecological downside of composite and plastic decking is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to recycle responsibly, so you need to offset that by using largely recycled product in the first place.

While low-maintenance is the biggest selling point for plastic and composite decking, it does still need to be cleaned. A pressure washer is almost a requirement to ward off mold and stains, which are much harder to remove than in wood. Additionally, composite costs almost twice as much as wood and because it’s not as strong as wood, you may have to spend more money on supports during installation. However, Direct Energy notes that this a worthy trade-off: “While eco-friendly composite decks can be more expensive than wood, they are worth the price simply because you’re lowering the amount of forests being cut down for your backyard play area.”

Non-Wood Composites

Following the success of Trex, the leading wood/plastic composite decking manufacturer, numerous companies have sprung up that use different, eco-friendly materials for decking, including powdered paper sludge, dried rice hulls, and recycled carpet fiber. Nearly all of these require the use of polyethylene or plastic in their manufacture, but if the material is all recycled, then they are a good green option.

Aluminum Decking

If you don't need or want a wood look for your deck, consider powder coated aluminum. Strong, fire, water and insect resistant, and recyclable, aluminum has many benefits. It is also lightweight and requires no maintenance. However, it is a very expensive option, and while it is a natural resource, extraction and manufacture of aluminum is energy-intensive and very negative environmentally. Unless you can find recycled aluminum, your deck will be contributing to a substantial release of greenhouse gases.

Whichever material you choose, the longer your deck lasts, the better it is for you and the environment. One of the key components to ensuring a long, happy life span for your deck is to keep it dry. All of the materials listed above (with the exception of aluminum) will suffer from long-term exposure to water. Limit that exposure as much as possible by ensuring your deck has proper drainage when installed, and consider an awning or cover for your deck area. Keeping the water off as much as possible will result in less maintenance, a longer life and a greener deck, no matter what it's made of.

Jennifer Tuohy is an eco-conscious mom who writes about green DIY projects. Jennifer presents tips for knowing which decking materials are best for the environment. To see a selection of the composite deck options that she talks about in this article, visit The Home Depot. Find her on Google+, and read all of Jennifer's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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