To improve the health of your house, bring down your energy costs and make Al Gore proud of you for being nice to the planet, try taking a trip to your local hardware store and simply ask, "What's green?"
You will be surprised how far things have come in recent years, starting with a device few have heard of — a water heater timer (works just like your sprinkler timer) that you can set to go on when you take your shower and do your dishes. That might be an hour a day to warm the water up and use it, letting it rest and stop draining your pocketbook the other 23 hours.
Water heater timers cost in the $40 to $45 range and probably pay themselves off before you get your next paycheck. The recovery rate (the time it takes to reheat the whole water heater after it's cooled off) is "quite quick," says Cathy Trower of Ashland Hardware.
Another major energy saver, compact fluorescent lighting, occupies many shelves of the average hardware store, with all kinds of new adaptations, including three-way lights, bug lights, floodlights. The specialty CFL costs you up to $5, but the old standard 60-watt lights have gotten down to $10 for a five-pack.
They "save tons of energy," says Trower, providing 60 watts for the energy use of 13 watts.
One of the cheapest fixes for cutting energy costs (and easing global warming) is to just buy a new furnace filter. They run to $25, with $8 being the average for a good one.
A good reminder is to snag one every time you change your car oil, about every three months.
In the plumbing department, it's getting harder to find fixtures that don't save water. Shower heads are readily available that run at less than 2.5 gallons a minute — and toilets that do a 1.6 gallon flush, less than half the old volume.
In the bad old days, virtually all solvents, stains, paints and such were loaded with air-unfriendly chemicals, but that's changing rapidly.
Instead of the toxic cocktail of poly-syllabic synthetic chemicals, consumers are going back to distilled white vinegar, just like people used a century ago on their windows and other surfaces. It's cheap, rinses off clean and is a naturally occurring substance.
It sits right there on the hardware shelf along with another old standard, Boraxo, a naturally occurring mineral powder that has been used for cleaning hands, dishes, laundry and tools since it first started being made it in 1891. By the way, Boraxo got famous when Ronald Reagan began pitching it in the early days of television. It's $4 for the 4-pound box.
Paints are cleaning up their act. You can get water-based latex spray paint with very low odor, that cleans up with soap and water, instead of paint thinners. It costs a few bucks more than the oil-based kind, but should come down with demand.
Any color of low VOC (volatile organic compounds, very bad for the atmosphere) is now available and you can even get water-based deck finish, that is said to do as good a job and last as long as the old kind.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.