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Here’s how start, while barely lifting a finger.

By Gia Miller

When it comes to making your home more environmentally friendly, the lengthy (and potentially expensive) “to do” list can be paralyzing. Do I install a heat pump first? Invest in solar panels? Buy new appliances or get a “smart” thermostat?

The answer to all these questions is “no.” Instead, start small and simple. 

“It can be really easy to green your home,” says realtor Jessica Watts, a certified NAR’s GREEN realtor with Rand Realty who is an expert in green construction and sustainability. “You don’t need to turn it into a smart home or get LEED certification to make changes that have a big impact. There are so many simple things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint and your bills.”

And by simple, Watts means things that require almost no effort or money, then working your way up to things that require very little of each.

 Here’s how to get started.

Effort level: Green without even trying

Do you have “leaky” windows? Do they offer an uninvited cool breeze when you walk by in the winter and an equally unwelcome burst of stifling heat during the summer? You can address the problem by doing almost nothing.

“Put your blinds down,” says Watts. “It’s a simple solution. Blinds act as a barrier to coldness. And even though you haven’t completely remedied the problem, less cold air will enter your room, saving you money on heating. And if you have blackout blinds, keep them down in the summer to eliminate some of the heat coming in. Windows are very powerful.”

Next, let’s talk chimneys. They’re even less sexy than windows, but they’re just as important. An open damper does the same thing as a leaky window: it brings a cool breeze into your home. But an open damper is worse.

“You’ll see noticeable savings on your monthly heating bill if you take care of your chimney,” says Watts. “For example, you lose 70 percent of your heat if you always leave a damper open. It’s basically an open window.”

For your yard, there are two “zero effort” things you can do without even stepping outside. All you need to do is… nothing.

Have you heard of “No Mow May?” It’s exactly what it sounds like: don’t mow your grass for the entire month of May.

“We have a lot of beneficial insect species that are still dormant at the beginning of May, so the idea is to let them flourish,” explains Jenn Cipriano, co-owner of Copia Home and Garden in South Salem. “When you let your grass grow, these species can wake up and lay their eggs. You’re giving them protection and providing them with an early food source of dandelions and other native flowers.” 

Your grass may get embarrassingly long by the end of the month, but bare areas will often get filled in—no grass seed or fertilizer necessary. 

“It also gives you the opportunity to get used to a slightly different aesthetic and let the idea of not mowing sink in,” Cipriano says. “By the end of May, many people begin to realize they don’t have to mow as often.”

And that segues perfectly into another thing that requires no effort: stop mowing your entire lawn. 

“Really think about the amount of ‘utility space’ you need, especially if you have a larger property,” Cipriano suggests. “How much space do your kids or dogs need to run around? Only mow those areas. In the other areas, let it go.”

Over time, your yard will become a natural habitat for our local ecosystem, full of beautiful and diverse layers of wildflowers, bushes and trees that protect and feed themselves, as well as the animals in and around them.

Effort level: Green without breaking a sweat

So, you’ve adjusted your window treatments, closed your chimney damper, and you’re actually sitting back, literally watching your grass grow. You’re saving money and helping the environment. Not bad, right?

Ready to put forth the tiniest bit of effort? Excellent. Let’s talk indoor lighting.

Head to your local hardware store and pick up enough light timers for all the frequently used lights in your home. Then, program them.

“If you have kids and pets and a job, your life is a bit crazy—how are you going to remember to turn that light off,” Watts asks. “Timers make it so easy.”

While you’re picking up timers, get some LED (which stands for light-emitting diode) lightbulbs. It’s another easy and affordable change you can make.

“If you want to begin switching your conventional products for more eco-friendly options, LED light bulbs are a very simple way to start,” explains Tami McCarthy, a sustainability and eco-conscious lifestyle advocate and the owner of Soulful Lounge in Bedford Village. “They’re much more energy efficient.”

In fact, LED bulbs can last up to 25 times longer than incandescent ones, are more durable and offer similar (or sometimes better) light quality compared to other types of lighting. If you purchase LED bulbs with an Energy Star rating, you’ll use at least 75 percent less energy.

Next, let’s address your drinking water.

“If you’re someone who buys a lot of plastic water bottles, consider switching to reusable water bottles,” McCarthy recommends. “If you can’t drink your tap water right out of the faucet, there are ways to consume water safely and make more conscientious choices. You can buy a variety of good water filtration pitchers at places like Target.” 

Or place a filter on your faucet and keep a pitcher of filled and chilled water in your fridge.

What about the outdoors, you wonder? We’re glad you asked. When fall rolls around, you can create your own mulch with very little effort.

“I see people spend a lot of money on mulching, yet the earth gives us this wonderful mulch every autumn called leaves,” says Cipriano. “You can either rake your leaves and distribute them amongst your beds, or if you want it to look a little tidier, you can purchase a small, inexpensive grinding machine that makes your leaves look similar to mulch. Spread it on your grass and beds, especially the areas where you have trouble with weeds, and you’ll give your beds something that’s actually better for them. Leaf mulch adds a lot of good organic nutrients and matter to the soil.”

Effort level: Green with just a little elbow grease

We begin this section by revisiting your leaky windows and drafty chimney.

To truly fix a leaky window, you’ll need to spend a little time sealing the gaps (the same goes for a leaky door). And if you have old, single-pane windows you aren’t ready to replace, Watts recommends purchasing inserts that can act as a double-pane window.

Regarding your chimney, if you still feel cold air blowing in, you may need new inserts.

“Get your chimney swept and cleaned annually, and they’ll check for problems, especially if you use a reputable company,” says Watts. “A friend of mine came to one of my talks, and afterwards, she got her fireplaces cleaned out and installed new inserts. Now she’s seeing noticeable monthly savings on her heating. Inserts can be expensive, but they’re worth it.”

Switching to eco-friendly cleaning products is another minimal-effort step, and it’s also better for your health, as you won’t breathe in those toxic chemicals.

“You can find many large brands, like Mrs. Meyer’s, pretty much everywhere these days,” says McCarthy. “But there’s a local brand I love called Distil. It’s made by some great women, and I like that you can refill your empty bottles instead of buying new plastic bottles.”

The last two things you can do will benefit both the inside and outside of your home: planting trees and composting.

Strategically planting trees to shade your home in the summer can increase your energy savings and provide food, shelter and protection for our local birds and animals.

“You don’t need to pay $4,000 to plant a tree; get a sapling,” says Watts. “They’re inexpensive, and it’s an incredible experience to watch that tree grow with your family. You will get benefits from saplings. When you plant a sapling, it’s estimated you’ll get about four percent energy savings if it’s planted in the right spot near your home. Once it matures, you’ll get about 12 percent from that one tree.”

Cipriano recommends planting deciduous trees, which lose their leaves in the winter. This way, she explains, the sun will shine through the branches and help heat your home.

She also says composting is at the top of her list of ways to green your home.

“It’s one of the easiest things to do,” she notes. “You don’t need to buy an expensive composter; you can purchase some lumber or even just a galvanized metal garbage can and drill holes so air can flow through. Then elevate it on a couple of bricks, and you have something to hold your kitchen scraps, which you’ll mix with some brown matter.”

And there you have it, several simple, minimal-effort ways to green your home.

“There’s something to be said for just starting,” says Watts.

“My motto is to do one green thing,” McCarthy adds. 

This article was published in the March/April 2024 print edition of Connect to Northern Westchester.

7 more ways to green your home

1. Use more rags, fewer paper towels. Cut old shirts and towels to your preferred size and toss them into your washing machine when dirty. Let them join your next load so you’re not wasting resources on water, detergent and electricity. Bonus: You’ll save money!
2. Get “smart” or programmable power strips to reduce your electricity use and cost. Devices like your TV, cable box, router or computer (known as “vampire appliances”) continue sucking in energy even when they are turned off. To prevent this, either unplug your devices when not in use, plug into a “smart” power strip that cuts off power to designated devices or use a programmable strip that allows you to shut off devices remotely.
3. Save energy by running your dishwasher in the middle of the night. Did you know there’s a “delay” button on your dishwasher? It’s there so you can set your dishwasher for a start time hours later. If you’re on the Day-Night Rate plan with NYSEG or the Time-of-Use Rate plan with ConEd, running your dishwasher in the middle of the night will also save you money.
4. Purchase sustainable fabrics. “Bedding is an easy switch to make,” says McCarthy. “You want to look for sustainable fabrics – such as organic cotton, bamboo and hemp, with natural dyes. They’re super breathable, very soft and comfy, and much more environmentally friendly. It’s a better option compared to materials made with synthetics and chemicals.”
5. Shop vintage. When you need new furniture, shop at local stores like Piece Revival in Cross River or Bedford House in Katonah, that sell previously loved items. You’ll reduce your carbon footprint, and remove the risk of breathing in that “new furniture” smell, which is actually your furniture releasing, or off-gassing, harmful chemicals known as VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that can impact your health.
6. Use eco-friendly paint. Did you know off-gassing happens with paint, too? If you need to paint a small area or an entire room, purchase low-VOC or no-VOC paint. It’s just as beautiful, but with the added benefit of being free of harmful chemicals.
7. Properly insulate your attic. “Insulating your attic will give you the most bang for your buck,” says Watts. “You’ll save about 15 percent on heating and cooling costs. These days, there are some great low-VOC insulators, or you can use soy foam for a no-VOC experience.”

Editor-in-Chief at Connect to Northern Westchester | Website | + posts

Gia Miller is an award-winning journalist and the editor-in-chief/co-publisher of Connect to Northern Westchester. She has a magazine journalism degree (yes, that's a real thing) from the University of Georgia and has written for countless national publications, ranging from SELF to The Washington Post. Gia desperately wishes schools still taught grammar. Also, she wants everyone to know they can delete the word "that" from about 90% of their sentences, and there's no such thing as "first annual." When she's not running her media empire, Gia enjoys spending quality time with friends and family, laughing at her crazy dog and listening to a good podcast. She thanks multiple alarms, fermented grapes and her amazing husband for helping her get through each day. Her love languages are food and humor.