Green Your Kitchen for Less Than $1,000

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The faucet drips. The fridge seems to leak cool air. The old vinyl floor is dirty and smells like mildew. The room is lit by a blast from the lone bulb at the room’s center, and the harvest-gold paint job casts a lonely ambiance.

Sound like your kitchen–or even parts of your kitchen? Don’t despair. For less than $1,000 (maybe just a hair less) and some good old-fashioned hard work, you can create the eco-kitchen of your dreams.

White and light

Nothing updates a room like a fresh coat of paint. So kick off your kitchen project with two gallons of soft-white, nontoxic AFM Safecoat paint. The paint will reflect more of the sun’s natural brightness, reducing the need for additional lighting during daytime.

In the evening, light fixtures can serve as a kitchen’s focal point–and make a big difference in the kitchen’s efficiency–so before you buy, check the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star website for guidance. Ceiling fan lighting doubles the benefit by cutting back on air conditioning and heating bills; the Hunter Fan Company’s sixty-inch graphite Oceanus Ceiling Fan, light kit, and remote control unit offers an impressive EnergyStar rating. Screw in compact fluorescent light bulbs, then establish a few house rules for fan use, gleaned from Energy Star:

• Switch off the fan and light when you leave the kitchen. Fans don’t cool a room, they simply cool its inhabitants by circulating air.

• Use the “reverse” setting on the fan during winter to circulate warm air down into the room. Relying on existing heat means you might need to run the furnace less often.

Don’t be floored

Natural linoleum or cork make ideal kitchen floors because they’re easily cleaned, and cork especially is more comfortable underfoot. However, it’s unlikely that you can refloor your kitchen and stay within a $1,000 budget, so the next best option is to pull up the carpet or vinyl (which may emit phthalates) and peek at what’s underneath. If it’s wood–even battered wood–you’re in luck. You can strip the floor using SoyGel, a nontoxic product made from American-grown soybeans. Follow that with a coating of OS Hardwax Oil for a glowing, durable finish without toxic polyurethane.

No new appliances?

You’ve probably figured out by now that a new fridge and stove aren’t in this budget, either. However, there are a few things you can do to make your old models easier on the utility bill. Blair Hamilton, managing director of Efficiency Vermont, the nation’s first statewide energy efficiency utility offers the following tips on refrigerators:

Check the door seal. If you close the door on a dollar bill and can easily pull it out, the seal isn’t very effective. (A local handyman should be able to replace the seal for about $150.)

• Set the refrigerator compartment temperature between 38 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and the freezer compartment between 0 and 5 degrees.

• Locate the fridge in a cool place (a ten-degree increase in temperature around the appliance can result in 20 percent more energy use).

• Clean the condenser coils regularly; dirty buildup makes the refrigerator work harder.

• Cover all foods inside the fridge; humidity produced by moisture in foods also affects efficiency.

As for the stove, if your household is small enough, consider making many of your meals in a toaster oven, which uses much less energy than a full-size oven. Thaw all food thoroughly before cooking, and cook in the smallest pan necessary, as less surface area requires less energy.

All washed up

A few simple fixes can help reduce your water consumption without having to replace the existing faucet. Repair a leaky faucet by replacing the washer within ($2) and installing an aerator on the spout ($3), which reduces water flow by 40 to 60 percent while maintaining the intensity of the spray.

Ideally, you’d also invest in one of the fabulous water-saving dishwashers now on the market. But remember, we’re on a budget. So instead, follow the hand-washing suggestions in The Smart Kitchen, by David Goldbeck (Ceres Press, 1994). According to Goldbeck, “ponding”–filling one basin of a two-basin sink with soapy water and the other with rinse water–can reduce consumption to five gallons of water.

Worried about losing counter space to the dish-drying rack? Goldbeck’s Finnish Drying Cabinet–a cabinet next to the sink lined with dish racks instead of solid shelves–is a neat way to get dishes off the counter. You’ll spend less than $100 in materials for this project. And under your sink, how about a large rolling drawer to house your recycling bin?

How to read an Energy Guide label

If you have a larger budget and are ready to invest in a new refrigerator or stove, it helps to know how to read energy-use labels before you shop. Law requires that all appliances be labeled with a large yellow and black “Energy Guide” label. These allow you to shop around for the most efficient appliance.

• The upper left-hand corner lists the type of appliance you’re looking at, along with its capacity and size. The upper right-hand corner shows the appliance’s manufacturing information.

• Under the word “Guide” on the label, you’ll find the types of appliances you’re comparing this one to.

• The “Y” in the word “Energy” points to a box that lists the appliance’s annual energy use in kilowatt-hours per year, along with an energy-use comparison of similar models. The left number tells you how much energy the most efficient model of this type of appliance uses; the right number displays the energy use of the least energy efficient model. This label does not give you the make and model number of either of the comparison appliances, but a caret points out where this particular one falls along the range of energy costs.

• Finally, the label tells you about how much you can expect to spend each year in electricity costs, given the estimated energy the appliance uses. It also assumes the appliance will be operated under normal conditions.

The Finnish drying cabinet

The Finnish drying cabinet has been in use in Finland for more than sixty years but is virtually unknown in North America (although similar open wall racks were used in colonial America and are seen in English kitchens today). The cabinet’s purpose is to allow dishes to air-dry in a dust-free and out-of-sight locale.

This device is basically a kitchen cabinet that has had its bottom removed and its shelves replace by dish racks. The cabinet is generally mounted over the sink, but I mounted a metal drip pan underneath so that it can be hung next to the sink. I also added a wineglass rack. Dishes, glasses, and utensils can then be washed, placed directly in the cabinet, and left to dry off the counter. Close the doors and the dishes disappear from view as well. (Note that though the cabinet frees up counter space that is normally used for a dish rack, water will drip on the counter as washed dishes are placed in it. I generally place a dish towel on the counter to absorb the drips.)

I used pocket door hinges on the cabinet so the doors could slide into either side of it, providing maximum access when loading wet dishes. This door format is not necessary to the design, but produces a cabinet that is not only easier to use, but safer–no bumped heads on open doors. As an alternative, the doors could be eliminated entirely.

–Reprinted with permission from The Smart Kitchen, by David Goldbeck. (888) 804-8848 Ceres Press, 1994.