The kitchen

advice, guidance, support, results

as any savvy builder knows, is where it’s at. If you’re lucky enough to be in on the ground floor, so to speak, why not take some extra care to make the heart of the home everything it can be?

Seize this opportunity to implement easy, low-cost ways to improve the energy and resource efficiency of the kitchen, as well as the indoor air quality. Your selection of lighting, appliances, ventilation, plumbing, water heating, flooring, cabinetry, and finishes can impact your bills and even your health. So set your sights higher than just attractive and functional; make the kitchen really work for you.

Appliances: Got kids? If they’re along for the ride when you’re appliance shopping, have them help you look for the ENERGY STAR® label. These appliances meet strict energy efficiency guidelines set by the EPA and US Department of Energy. An ENERGY STAR qualified dishwasher, for example, will only cost about $20 more than a comparable model, but because it is 25% more efficient than federal requirements, it can save you between $15 and $25 or more a year on your water heating bill.

An ENERGY STAR refrigerator uses at least 15% less energy than federal allowances, and 40% less than conventional models sold in 2001. You can expect to pay about $30 more up front; through energy savings, you’ll be earning money back on your purchase within 5 years. Calculate how much money you’ll be saving from ENERGY STAR.

Cabinetry: When selecting cabinets, be wary of cabinets constructed of particleboard or conventional medium density fiberboard (MDF), which can fall apart when wet. According to the City of Seattle’s Sustainable Building Program, these products often contain urea formaldehyde, which can emit irritating and unhealthy fumes for decades after installation. Instead, select environment and health friendly alternatives such as formaldehyde-free MDF; agricultural fiber panels, called wheatboard or strawboard, which are free from formaldehyde binders; or Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified exterior-grade plywood.

Faucets: Low flow faucets are indistinguishable from conventional water guzzling models, but they will save you money on your water and water heating bills. They can lower the amount of tap water used by up to 40%, from 4 gallons down to 2 ½ gallons per minute-and you won’t be able to tell the difference.

Flooring: Because your kitchen is usually the most used room in the house and prone to frequent spills, it should be covered in a hard, durable surface. That way, no matter how hard your kids try to mark up the floor, you can easily clean it up.

Bamboo, recycled content tile, concrete and reclaimed or sustainably certified woods are all environmentally friendly floor coverings (pdf). They are durable, attractive, and affordable.

Kitchen Waste: When designing the kitchen, allocate space for a recycling and composting center. Separate bins for trash, recycling, and compost should be easily accessible to promote recycling in the household.

Lighting: A well-designed kitchen does not need artificial lighting in the daytime. Windows, preferably high-efficiency ENERGY STAR qualified models, should provide ample lighting. Skylights or tubular skylights can be installed if more natural lighting is necessary.

Artificial lighting should be ENERGY STAR qualified. Recent advances have improved the durability and light quality of compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). They illuminate without delay, never flicker, and come in a variety of color tones so you can select the level of warmth that is right for your kitchen. Although you’ll pay up to $10 per CFL, you’ll save enough money every year to take your family out to the movies. Just switching the five most used lights in your home to CFL fixtures will save you about $60 a year. For more on smart light design, see PATH’s Lighting Tech Set (link to Tech Set #4).

Paints and Finishes: Ever notice how paints and wood finishes emit a strong odor? You’re sniffing volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are unhealthy for you to breathe. Although the smell may subside after a few days, the finish will continue to emit VOCs for years to come, albeit in lesser amounts. To keep the air in your home healthy, insist on low- or no-VOC paints and finishes.

Plumbing: Many of us can’t muster much concern about what goes on behind our walls, but we should. By using a plumbing manifold and plastic PEX piping instead of the conventional copper piping, you can use 43% less water while improving your home’s durability. PEX piping is a smart alternative to copper pipes, which are prone to pinhole leaks caused by corrosive water. PEX piping sweats less, which will help keep mold out of your house-and save time and money on the plumbing installation. Plumbing manifolds regulate the water pressure, which means no one gets scalded in the shower when a toilet flushes. To learn more about smart plumbing design, visit the Plumbing Tech Set.

Ventilation: Proper ventilation is necessary for a healthy home. It helps protect your family from dangerous chemicals and odors that build up in your home. Kitchen range hoods do a great job of removing pollutants from the kitchen, in particular excess moisture and air borne grease. Make sure that the range hood is properly sized for the range and vents directly outside. And-yes, you guessed it-specify an ENERGY STAR range hood. They are quieter, as well as being more efficient. And quiet vents tend to be used more regularly than noisy ones, which can be hard to talk over.

Water Heating: Tankless water heaters can lower your water heating bills from 20% to 40%. Conventional tank water heaters are always heating and storing hot water, even if you’re not going to use it for hours. When you do use it, the tank can empty and leave you…cold. Do you remember the last time you had to take a cold shower?

Tankless water heaters, also known as continuous water heaters, solve these issues. Continuous water heaters heat water only when you need it. They are small enough to fit into a closet, and they are more durable, usually coming with 20-year warranties rather than tank heater’s 10-15 year warranties. Up front they will cost about double that of tank water heaters, but through their increased energy efficiency, you will recoup that money within 5-10 years.

Important exception: If you plan a Jacuzzi for your home, don’t specify a tankless water heater. Current models aren’t suitable to supply enough hot water.

For safety reasons, set your hot water temperature to 120 F to prevent scalding and to save energy.

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