5 easy ways to make your car more environmentally friendly

If you’re reading this post in the United States, chances are pretty good that you own and drive a car.

It’s an unfortunate reality that it’s nearly impossible to reasonably get around without one if you are outside of a major metropolitan area with a good transit system, like New York, Chicago, Boston, etc.

So what’s a driver who cares about the environment to do to make driving and owning a car as green as possible? There are literally dozens of things you can do, but it starts to get overwhelming to list them all. And when people start to get overwhelmed they tend not to take any action at all. I know it happens to me all the time.

So I’ve decided to give you some low hanging fruit, with these 5 easy tips that require very little time, motivation or effort.

Read them, and then do something!

1. Check your tire pressure.

How can something so simple be so consistently overlooked? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 44 million people are driving around right now with underinflated tires!

Even worse, 85 percent of people who do check their tire pressure probably aren’t doing it correctly, according to the Rubber Manufacturers Association.

Learn how to check your car tire pressure correctly at Safercar.gov.

Keeping your tires properly inflated will give you around 3 percent better gas mileage, so you’ll be saving money too.

2. Get rid of the junk in your trunk.

Did you know that every extra 100 pounds of stuff that you are hauling around in the trunk of your car or the back of your wagon or SUV is reducing your gas mileage by up to 2 percent?

What are you dragging around in the back of your car right now that you could unload?

3. Don’t leave your car running when you aren’t driving.

This one infuriates me. I see it all the time at my local Starbucks. People just leave their car running while they go inside for five minutes to order and prepare their drink. What’s the point? We have a serious air pollution problem here in Dallas, and cars idling for no reason are not helping.

An idling car is getting ZERO miles to the gallon by definition.

And beside being bad for your gas mileage and bad for the environment, it’s just plain dangerous if you’re in a garage. Stationary vehicles are the largest source of unintentional, non-fire related fatalities, according to the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

When you stop your car for longer than a red light, just turn it off.

4. Don’t spill gasoline when filling up your tank.

It’s not just burning gasoline that causes environmental issues. Spilling gas and letting it evaporate are both big problems.

Here’s what the EPA has to say.

Gasoline vapors are harmful to you and the environment. Not only are they toxic to breathe, they contribute to ozone formation in the atmosphere. Since gasoline vapor production increases during the hot summer months, it is important to be careful when refueling your vehicle. Here are some simple measures you can take at the gas station:

Need more convincing? Here are some facts from the Alliance for Proper Gasoline Handling.

A rough estimate of hydrocarbon emissions from gasoline spillage alone is approximately 28,000 tons per year nationwide.

These releases contribute, at least in part, to the United States Geologic Society (USGS) estimate that more than 40 million people use groundwater that contains at least one volatile organic compound, many of which are components of gasoline.

5. When it’s time for a new car, go green.

You don’t have to buy a hybrid to go green. The EPA has this terrific resource for the greenest automobiles in every category.

Treehugger also has a great resource page on greening your automobile.

Worried about whether it is more environmentally friendly to keep your current car or switch to something that gets better gas mileage? Well guess what! Someone has done the math for you.

Did we miss one of your favorite tips? If so, leave a comment!

Hand Dryers versus Paper Towels

hand dryer
CC Flickr photo courtesy of sabotrax.

Hand dryers versus paper towels. What’s more environmentally friendly?

It’s a question that you have probably asked yourself in a public restroom of some sort.

I was curious too, so I decided to do a little research and see what the pros and cons of each option are. Here’s what I found.

Slate.com covered the issue in detail, back in 2008.

Their conclusion is that hand dryers win in almost every scenario:

The bottom line is that hand dryers will be the greener choice in about 95 percent of circumstances. If the choice is between using a tiny corner of recycled towel versus a 2,400-watt dryer, then the Lantern can see how the towel will win. But dryers get the nod in most other scenarios, particularly if the dryer is rated at less than 1,600 watts.

Treehugger.com looks at some of the same original data, and comes to a similar conclusion.

This also provides more evidence that one of the biggest keys to more sustainable products is greener and cleaner electricity sources. Additionally, the study notes that the use of paper towels has double the global warming burden of the hand dryer. I will probably keep drip drying my hands or wiping them on my pants, but in the event that I have to choose between paper towels or a hand dryer (based on this report at least) I’ll pick the blowier, greener choice of the hand dryer.

But there’s also the hygiene, cleanliness and health angle of paper towels versus hand dryers. And in this contest, it appears that paper towels come out ahead, at least compared to the Dyson Air Blade.

Paper towels were found to reduce the number of all types of bacteria on the fingerpads by up to 76% and on the palms by up to 77%. By comparison, the Dyson Airblade increased the numbers of most types of bacteria on the fingerpads by 42% and on the palms by 15%. However, after washing and drying hands under the warm air dryer, the total number of bacteria increased by 194% on the fingerpads and on the palms by 254%.

But that’s not an accurate assessment, according to the About.com Infectious Diseases curator.

After coming home, I looked up medical research papers on the use of hand dryers vs. paper towels and found that the vast majority of research has shown that there is no difference between using paper towels and warm air dryers in terms of removing bacteria!

A Mayo Clinic study supports the About.com guy, saying that hand dryers are clean. Although to be fair, that other study was only talking about the Dyson Airblade and not commercial hand dryers in general.

The difference was determined between the amounts of bacteria on hands artificially contaminated with the bacterium Micrococcus luteus before washing with a nonantibacterial soap and after drying by 4 different methods (cloth towels accessed by a rotary dispenser, paper towels from a stack on the hand-washing sink, warm forced air from a mechanical hand-activated dryer, and spontaneous room air evaporation). The results were analyzed using a nonparametric analysis (the Friedman test). By this method, changes in bacterial colony-forming unit values for each drying method were ranked for each subject.

RESULTS: The results for 99 subjects were evaluable. No statistically significant differences were noted in the numbers of colony-forming units for each drying method (P = .72).

So whether it is energy savings and eco friendliness, keeping trash out of the landfill, keeping bathroom trash cans emptier and keeping your hands clean, it appears that hand dryers are the clear winner. Hand dryers are green.

Most Efficient Small Refrigerators (16 to 19 cubic feet) – Top 3 Picks

A refrigerator is something that’s constantly plugged in, so it’s a great item in your house to try and save on energy costs – as appliances account for 17% of a typical home’s energy usage. We’ve looked at many different energy star rated refrigerators. This list gives you the top 3 efficient small refrigerators (all of these are in the 16 to 19 cubic feet range).

Efficiency was measured by which of these refrigerators uses the least amount of kilowatt hours per year – thus significantly using less energy per refrigerator.

If you would like to see more refrigerators beyond the top 3 that we’ve chosen, simply head over to the Energy Star Refrigerator Search, and select your search parameters. From there, you can sort your results from a variety of fashions, including kilowatt usage, % energy savings, and overall volume.

Here’s the list:


The Sunfrost R-19 is a refrigerator-only model. Instead of one large door, it features two equal sized refrigerator sections. As far as efficiency is concerned, this refrigerator is super efficient. It showcases a kwh/year usage of 204 and uses 53% less energy than the federal standard!

Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a freezer or an ice machine, you won’t find it on this refrigerator. However, a real cool feature of this fridge is that it will not need defrosting and the design incorporates a passive cooling system (it does not use any fans). Overall, it’s a solid refrigerator for your home.


The Gaggenau RC472700 is a sleek looking refrigerator that is very energy efficient. It boats a kwh/year usage of 319 and will use 29% less energy than the federal standard. It has a volume of 17.5 cubic feet and is 30 inches wide.

There are numerous features on this refrigerator, including a motorized glass shelf, multi-flow air system, temperature control, and doors that open up to a 115 degree angle!


The GE GTH17BBT is an energy star rated refrigerator/freezer combo. This one features the freezer on the top and the refrigerator on the bottom. Where efficiency matters, this refrigerator has a kwh/year usage of 324, using 30% less energy. It has a volume of 16.6 cubic feet.

Overall, this refrigerator is pretty standard. An optional ice maker is available, and it has all of the typical shelves, crispers, temperature controls, and is available in multiple colors (black, white, and bisque). It can usually be purchased for under $900, so it’s an efficient machine that is cost effective as well…you can’t beat that.

So as we’ve mentioned, a refrigerator is an excellent way to cut back on energy usage in the home. While these refrigerators here might not be the largest of the group, they will definitely help save you money and energy. Try one in your home today.

Do you feel we’ve missed one, or is there a refrigerator that falls in this range that you’re just absolutely crazy about? Leave us a comment and let us know!

Save on heating with alternative energy


Photo courtesy of Channel Myrt at Flickr.com.

Keeping warm is hard work. When the days get shorter and cold weather creeps up on us, there are many different ways to keep winter at bay. The most common sources of heat are natural gas, heating oil, coal, electric furnaces, and wood fueled fireplaces. As the costs of these heat sources skyrocket, many people are looking for alternatives.

Natural gas is one of the most widely used energy sources inside homes – about half of all American houses use natural gas to stay warm, and that number is increasing as natural gas systems dominate in newly built homes. Natural gas is available in many parts of the country, it burns relatively clean, and natural gas systems don’t require much maintenance. The price of natural gas has stayed low for several years, although lately the market price has been volatile. In the last six months, natural gas has traded between $6 and $14 per million British Thermal Units (BTUs). A typical home will use about 111 million BTUs during the winter, so heating a home for the winter would cost between $700 and $1,500, plus monthly service charges.

Heating oil is very popular in the Northeast. For instance, 80 percent of the homes in Maine rely on heating oil to keep warm, and the average home uses more than 800 gallons per winter. Heating oil is not a very clean burning fuel, and it releases plenty of CO2 and particulates. With the price of heating oil going up sharply in the last several months, price is a major concern. As I write this, heating oil is selling in the range of $3.40 – $3.70 per gallon. That adds up to a heating oil bill of about $2,500 to $3,000 for the winter, plus delivery costs. Delivery costs can be substantial, and typical customers will need 2-4 deliveries.

Coal furnaces are also widespread. Coal is cheap and it’s a domestic energy source, but there are some serious downsides. Coal furnaces cost more than other heating equipment (three times the cost of natural gas heaters), they require constant supervision, they’re messy, and they create obscene amounts of pollution. As the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, “From mining to processing to transportation to burning to disposal, coal has more environmental impacts than any other energy source.” The price of coal is also up sharply this year, with the price of the cleanest burning types of coal rising the most. The average cost for a ton of heating coal has tripled – a ton of coal with 25 million BTUs of energy costs between $140 and $180 as I write this and is expected to go up further. Heating an average house at these prices will cost $600-$900 this winter, plus delivery.

Electric furnaces are commonly found in areas with mild winters, and they are built onto many air conditioning systems as a backup. These central heaters are very expensive to operate – they generally have very poor efficiency, and the price of electricity has been rising along with the price of natural gas and coal (these are the primary fuels that electric power stations use). A typical electric heater can convert 1 kilowatt of electricity into about 3,300 BTU. Assuming electric costs of 12-20 cents per kilowatt, heating a home with electricity over the winter would cost $4,000 to $6,600, plus service fees. (To estimate the cost based on your utility rate, multiply your cost per kWh by 33,000).

Firewood is still used to hold off Old Man Winter (especially in parts of the country where trees outnumber people). The carbon produced by burning wood is the same amount that’s stored within trees as they grow, so sustainably harvested firewood is carbon neutral. It’s often possible to find “free” firewood – many industries have to pay to dispose of their wood scraps and will appreciate your help transporting their waste away. Try checking in with landscapers, tree surgeons, carpenters, and local recycling centers – but make sure to choose wood without varnish or paint. Treated wood can release toxic fumes when it’s burned. Dried (aka ‘cured’) cords of firewood have the highest energy content per pound. Green wood has less than 6 million BTU per ton, while cured firewood has approximately 13.5 million BTU per ton. Cords of firewood cost from $150-$250, so heating a home with cured firewood can cost $750 to $1,300, plus substantial transportation costs.

For the most part, these heat sources come from non-renewable sources. Using lumber from deforested areas and fossil fuels from the ground contributes to climate change while also damaging air quality. The US supply of oil and natural gas is inadequate for current demand – huge amounts of these fuels are imported every year. Heating oil depends primarily on foreign sources – more than 60% of all heating oil comes from imports. About 85% of all natural gas is produced in the US, and most of the remainder is imported from Canada.

Consumers and scientists are experimenting with various ways to reduce the cost of heating a house. There are plans to produce natural gas from landfills, and pilot projects are testing to see how biodiesel performs as an additive to heating oil. There are also long-term projects to clean up coal and produce electricity from green sources. Those developments are years or even decades away, so here are some alternative heating options that you can try out today:

1) Consider a pellet stove.

If pellets are available in your area, you may want to consider this unconventional stove to cut down on your bills and reduce your carbon footprint. Pellet stoves burn waste material that’s been processed into convenient pellets – the compressed sawdust and wood chips look a bit like animal feed. Pellet stoves are designed for particular fuels, and there are even some pellet stoves that burn pellets made from corn husks, cherry pits, and other agricultural waste. By matching a pellet stove with a cheap fuel source in your area, you can cut costs and intercept trash before it makes it to the landfill. Ash from a pellet stove also makes an excellent fertilizer. A pellet stove burning premium (low ash) wood pellets currently costs about $1,000 to $1,600 plus transport fees to heat a home through winter.

A pellet stove burning Biomass pellets can cost even less. Compressed corn straw pellets (where available) cost about a third as much as premium sawdust pellets. A pellet stove running on biomass can cost $300 to $1,000 to fuel. Many pellet stoves come with self-feeding hoppers that can go a day or so without supervision, but storage of the pellets takes a lot of space and can add to the cost. Pellet stoves are in short supply though, so you may want to check non-conventional sources to pick up a used one.


Photo courtesy of lisatomt at Flickr.com.

2) Apply dark paint to your roof and outside walls.

Dark colors do a great job of soaking up the sun’s energy, and paint is a low cost way to heat up your home. Many town recycling centers have partially used buckets of paint available for free. Blending these paints will usually produce a heat absorbing brown paint.


Photo courtesy of lolla_sig at Flickr.com.

3) If you use electric heaters, ask your utility company about a time of day meter.

Electric heaters run most often during the night, when demand for electricity is low. Some utility companies offer discounted rates during these off-peak hours and you can cut your bill simply by installing the right kind of meter.


Photo courtesy of Fragments of Eternity at Flickr.com.

4) Install a geothermal loop.

The temperature 50 feet underground stays fairly constant year round. Even when it’s snowing, you can tap the warmth of the ground to heat your house. Geothermal loops work by running water through underground pipes and up to heat exchange units. Not only can they cut heating bills by 30-70%, but they can also be used to cool your house in the summer.


Photo courtesy of tomm12723 at Flickr.com.

5) Add insulation.

Honestly, this should be the first item on the list. Insulation is cheap, easy to apply, and it cuts costs by reducing the need for heat. For the best results, use a thermal imager to identify “hot spots” – the places of your home that are leaking the worst and focus on insulating them.


Photo courtesy of abrunglinghaus at Flickr.com.

Make eco friendly choices at the cafeteria


Photo courtesy of Drunken Monkey at Flickr.com.

When you visit the buffet line, how often do you think of the planet? If you visit the cafeteria on a regular basis, the choices you make can really add up.

At the soda fountain, are styrofoam cups the only option? Each cup weighs about 10 grams – that means a cup a day adds up to about 5 and a half pounds of styrofoam per year. You can keep that styrofoam out of landfills by bringing in your own cup, or suggesting that your cafeteria offer re-usable cups (you might even be able to get a promotion – just point out how much the company can save on materials and waste disposal costs).

The way that you fill your plate can also make a difference. If you fill your plate halfway and then go back for seconds on a fresh plate, that doubles the amount of water needed to wash your dishes. It’s best to make just a single trip and give your stomach time to settle. That way, you wont be in the middle of eating a second plate when your hunger runs out. Wasting food can have a huge impact on the environment too – for example, a quarter pound burger can take 100-1,300 gallons of water to produce.

Some college cafeterias are even getting rid of lunch trays. By eliminating trays, they expect to save megawatts of power and millions of gallons of water that are normally used to wash the trays. There’s also a hope that diners will be encouraged to take smaller servings from the cafeteria line, reducing waste, overall food costs, and health issues related to weight gain.


Photo courtesy of Tkrecu at Flickr.com.

The right power cords save power and money



Photo courtesy of abrunglinghaus at Flickr.com.

Many of us have a blind spot for extension cords. We tend to treat these power cables as interchangeable parts, but not all extension cords are the same.

Length is important. The longer the extension cord you use, the more energy is lost in transmission. If you only need to add 5 feet, it doesn’t make any sense to use a 100′ cord!

The thickness of the wire is also important. Thin cords lose power faster, and they can also heat up dangerously with heavy power loads. When using extension cords, it’s important to make sure that the wire is thick enough to safely and efficiently conduct electricity. Wire thickness is often referred to as “gauge”.

Gauge numbers are rather tricky. Even though it seems counter-intuitive, thicker wires have a low gauge, and thin wires have a high gauge. Many power cords are available in 18, 16, 14, and 12 gauge sizes. Of these choices, 18 is the thinnest and 12 is the thickest. Thicker wires are generally more expensive, but they can save substantial amounts of electricity. Thick electric wire can also handle higher amperages than thin wires without bursting into flames. That’s good to know if you want to avoid burning your house down or melting your tools.

So, know your cords! Pay attention to cord gauge and length, and they’ll pay you back with a reduced electric bill.



Photo courtesy of ClintJCL at Flickr.com.

The Sahara desert is reaching north into Spain



Photo courtesy of DanielKHC at Flickr.com.

Droughts are a worldwide problem, with water in short supply in many different countries. Australia and Spain are both suffering through record breaking droughts right now. It hasn’t gotten much attention in the US, but rainfall in Spain is at its lowest level in 40 years. This comes at a time when population is booming and per capita water use is rising.

Water use is a very emotional issue in Spain, and tensions are running high between neighboring cities and regions. Opinions are divided largely along geographic lines; many people living in the southern provinces favor redirecting water from the north (where the drought is less severe). No one in the North wants to sacrifice their water rights to support wasteful behavior though, and water redirection projects face strong opposition. To break this logjam,

…the government is building more desalination plants, adding to the more than 900 already in Spain – the largest number in any one country outside the Middle East.

There is some concern that these energy intensive desalination plants will drive up the price of water while also creating even more climate change. It’s a no-win situation, like trying to prevent an avalanche by running a snow maker.

Leaders in Spain are looking for a better solution. The country is currently hosting the 2008 World’s Fair in Zaragosa, and the theme of Expo 2008 is “Water and Sustainable Development”. New technologies are on display, including water saving fixtures for the home and agricultural techniques that conserve water. Government programs are encouraging people to adopt these innovations with tax rebates and grants, and if the Spanish are successful in conserving their water, they may be able to stop the desertification of their country. Otherwise, climate change will devastate the environment, with lasting effects on the economy.

If you get a chance to visit Zaragosa, you’ll see an alternative vision of the future, with clean technology offering jobs and climate security. The best vantage point to view the fairgrounds is atop the 250 foot tall Water Tower building.



Photo courtesy of Paulo Brandão at Flickr.com.

Tax laws are causing a solar installation frenzy, trying to beat end of 2008 tax credit expiration


Photo courtesy of
M.Barkley at Flickr.com.

At the end of this year, an elevated tax credit for for alternative energy projects is set to expire. These federal tax credits will decline from 30% of the total construction cost to just 10%, and several alternative energy groups have been lobbying Congress to extend the benefit. Even though some states and local power companies offer additional incentives to invest in alternative energy, the reduced Federal tax credits will have wide ranging effects. Industry experts and analysts expect companies who sell solar, wind, biogas, microturbine, and fuel cell technologies could be wiped out by reduced tax credits:

Without the credits, “I’ll essentially be out of business,” Tamas said. “Solar will be dead, other than for a little bit of residential.”

Congress was expected to renew these popular tax credits, but the Senate and House have gone into recess without doing so. Since many of these projects require months and months of construction time, there could be a lag in construction even if the credits are renewed in September. In the near term, the uncertainty is creating a solar building boom.

Many big retailers are attempting to complete green energy projects before the tax credits expire on December 31st. Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, Whole Foods, Safeway, REI, and BJ’s Wholesale club are just a few major companies that are accelerating their solar installation plans to beat the deadline. This means that solar workers are pulling overtime and likely to see big bonuses this year, but they may be getting pink slips in the spring.


Photo courtesy of
EGL Energy at Flickr.com.

In the news: reducing your AC bill, earn cash through recycling and more


Photo courtesy of
Mayank Austen Soofi at Flickr.com.

Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture here. This week, a lot of exciting things are going on.

The news is full of stories about practical ways to save money. One easy way is to save energy and cut your air conditioning bill.

Here are 4 websites that help you earn money from recycling everything from old cell phones and digital cameras to glass bottles and old cars. Recycling e-waste is a double win – with commodity prices sky high, the copper and gold in old electronics are worth some serious cash, and keeping heavy metals out of the landfill is key to protecting the environment.

“We generally see about a 100 percent increase in recycling in mid- to affluent neighborhoods,” says [RecycleBank CEO Ron] Gonen. “In lower-income neighborhoods, it can be up to 1,000 percent, because the recycling rates are so low there.

Also, the shipping industry is taking huge steps to reduce their fuel bills. Surcharges are running out of control, and the profit margins of commercial transport companies are under pressure. In addition to driving slower, truckers are saving fuel with an Auxiliary Power Unit. APUs are widely used in airplanes to provide electricity without running the engines, but their high price has kept other industries from adopting APUs. With high oil prices, and new pollution controls that outlaw idling engines in residential neighborhoods, that could change quickly.

Due to climate change, farmers are now using sunblock to protect certain produce. Presumably, sun ripened tomatoes aren’t on that list.

Could you live a month without buying any plastic? A British Blogger is trying to do just that, and its tougher than you might think.

Is the future going to be human powered? Clubs and fitness centers from Portland to London are adding devices that harvest kinetic energy to power the lights, sound systems, and HVAC. There are even plans for a floating gym that will travel back and forth on the Hudson river under human propulsion.