It’s all about the water

Thinking about greening your bathroom means considering how you use water in terms of consumption and energy. According to the American Water Works Association, your humble toilets are the thirstiest water users in the house, accounting for 27% of consumption. This fact inspired conservation schemes like placing something hefty in the toilet tank to reduce flushing capacity, and those low-flow toilets that too often didn’t flush what needed flushing.

A more successful approach is the dual-flush toilet. It has two flush buttons, one for light work, one for heavy. Long a mainstay in Europe, dual-flush toilets are available in the U.S. for $250–$400, a price in line with top-quality conventional toilets. A dual flush toilet can save 17,000 gallons of water a year—about $50 off your water bill. If you wish to keep your old toilet (a very green decision), you can retrofit it with a dual flush mechanism costing only $70.

The shower is another squanderer of water. Showers use 16% to 20% of a home’s water, most of it heated. The flow rate of a typical showerhead is 2.5 gallons per minute. Switching it out with a low-flow head of 1.5 to 2 gallons per minute still offers adequate cleansing power with a substantial savings in water usage. (If you cherish a really forceful blast of hot water, consider a full-flow showerhead with a lever that lets you shut it off while you lather.)

In addition to conserving water, you’ll want to take a close look at the way your water is heated. Second only to the kitchen, the bathroom is your home’s most intensive energy user, with most of that energy going towards those nice hot showers and baths. Curbing wasted energy can be as simple as adding an insulating blanket to your tank-type heater (reducing energy use by 4% to 9%) and insulating all accessible hot water pipes. In addition, most water heaters are set to 140 degrees; you can turn down the water heater temperature setting to a still-toasty 120 degrees and save up to $60 per year on energy costs.

If your old water heater is nearing the end of its 15-year life cycle and you’re considering investing in a new water heater, you can achieve some handsome energy savings. One smart option is a condensing storage water heater. Using technology similar to that of high-efficiency furnaces, the condensing heater puts nearly every possible BTU into the water instead of sending it up the flue. Currently, a 50-gallon gas unit costs $1,700 (versus $380 for a standard tank-type heater), a price that is expected to drop as demand takes hold. Installation costs are around $400, slightly higher than that of standard units. Those higher costs are offset by a $300 tax credit and an EPA estimated annual fuel savings of more than $100.

A tankless water heater heats water only as it is needed, avoiding the heat loss that occurs with a conventional tank. A unit costs about $2,000 installed, and your annual energy savings will be $70 a year. Be aware that these units take some getting used to; expect a shot of cold water before the hot kicks in.

Move that air

A bathroom remodel is an excellent time to consider installing a new exhaust ventilator fan to remove odors, moisture, and mold spores. Many bathroom fans only vent to the space between ceiling joists, creating an environment for mold and dampness that can damage walls and ceilings. Make sure your new fan vents completely to the outside of your house.

Unfortunately, even properly installed fans that push the moist outdoors can carry away a lot of heated air as well. A clever solution to this problem is a heat-exchange ventilator that uses outgoing air to warm the cold incoming air. Such units cost about $250 uninstalled, twice the price of a standard fan. Whatever fan you have, avoid an on-off switch; it’s too easy to forget to turn it off. Replace it with a timer switch or, better yet, buy a new fan unit with a motion- or humidity-sensing switch.

Selecting green materials

A green bathroom remodel need not stint on style. Classic ceramic tile comes in limitless colors and patterns, and is a green choice due to its low maintenance, durability, and low toxicological impact. Some tiles have high recycled content; recycled glass tiles are a lovely way to do the right ecological thing. Not buying something new can be good green idea too. Consider refinishing your old tub or sink. Use the pros for the best results. Expect to pay $500 for a tub, $300 for a sink. You’ll save as much on installation costs.

LED illumination now produces pleasing light quality in fixtures that sip only 2 to 15 watts, emit little heat, and have a life span of 15–20 years. They cost about three times as much as conventional fixtures but use so little electricity that the payback can be as short as a year.

Paint and vinyl coverings often come loaded with VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that threaten indoor air quality. Look for building materials with Green Seal certification. Green Seal is a non-profit, independent organization that certifies products claiming to be environmentally friendly. Low-VOC options in paints and adhesives can be found at your local home center.

Waste not

Much of our landfill (estimates range from 22% to 40%) comes from construction debris. Any steps that reduce landfill potentially reduce the chance of ground water pollution, the odor and unsightliness of a local landfill, and in some cases the high cost of shipping waste elsewhere. Much of the debris that comes from a remodeling tear-out is not salvageable, but old toilets, sinks, light fixtures, medicine cabinets, and vanities can be donated to an organization like Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore. In fact, it may be just what someone is seeking for their own green remodeling.