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Greener Living

A Darien family submits to an environmental home audit to find more ways to reduce, reuse and recycle without going to extremes

Kevin Robinson

Would you want an expert from the National Resource Defense Council to knock on your door and perform a green audit on your family and home?

I was too chicken to open my life to that kind of scrutiny. But I really wanted this writing assignment, so I looked for a friend to do it. Turns out, I didn’t have to go far. During a cocktail party at my house, I casually mentioned the idea to my pal Heidi Daileader, a Darien mom of four, and she seemed thrilled by the prospect. (I swear that was before she had any wine.)

I really wasn’t surprised that Heidi and her husband, John, wanted to get a “grade” on their greenness. As triathletes, they are poster people for a healthy lifestyle and very involved in teaching their kids (Matthew, seven; Katie, five; William, three; and Sophie, one) to be physically active. “I really want our kids to grow up feeling responsible for their health, their actions and their impact on the earth. My parents are fairly environmentally responsible. I grew up not wasting food or water, and, as a typical New Englander, not wasting heat,” the Massachusetts native explains.

On the morning of the audit, I meet our eco-expert, NRDC representative Jenny Powers, at the Darien train station in my SUV, complete with an empty Starbuck’s cup and Poland Spring water bottle in the front cupholders. Meanwhile, Heidi is experiencing some last-minute jitters:
“I checked my kitchen garbage can to make sure nothing really bad was in there,” she later revealed.

When greeting Jenny at the door, Heidi is immediately put at ease. Like any thoughtful houseguest, Jenny arrives bearing gifts: energy-saving compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs). “Darien seems like a beautiful town. Having taken the train up from Manhattan, I can say it has great access to public transportation — a great way to reduce your environmental footprint,” Jenny notes. The Daileader home is getting greener by the second.

Jenny doesn’t like to waste energy or time, so she dives right in and educates us about what a big difference a few lightbulbs can make. “The energy and pollution you’ll start saving now by replacing old incandescent lightbulbs with some CFLs far outweighs the impact of a few extra incandescents in the trash,” Jenny says. “Change the three bulbs you use most in your house to CFLs. Each will keep half a ton of carbon dioxide out of the air over its lifetime.”

And while CFLs initially are more expensive than incandescents, they last ten times longer, use 75 percent less energy, and can save $30 per year in electricity. Jenny acknowledges that the more energy-efficient bulbs do have mercury in them, unlike incandescents, but it’s such a small amount that it can’t compare to the toxins produced via incandescents.

As we move into the kitchen, Heidi winces when she points out that they have two refrigerators: one in the kitchen and one in the mudroom. “I have four kids!” she reminds us. At least she bought one with an Energy Star label, which means that the appliance is energy efficient (find out more at energystar.gov). “Roughly the top 30 percent of appliances get this governmental seal offered through the EPA,” Jenny says. She opens the kitchen fridge and notes that “the temperature range should be 38–42 degrees. And it looks like organic fruits and veggies could be more of a priority.”

The NRDC advocates that USDA-regulated organic foods (grown without pesticides or other toxins) and locally grown foods (transported from farms to your table using less energy) are better for your health. “We don’t eat a lot of organic,” Heidi admits. “I finally started buying organic milk because of all the horrible things you hear about growth hormones’ effects on girls.”

For bringing home groceries, Heidi keeps a collection of reusable bags in the car at all times. “I’m surprised at how many people don’t bring their own shopping bags to the store. I’ve been doing it for a year — at Costco, Target and Palmers.”

In addition to the reusable bags, Jenny is impressed with Heidi’s stash of refrigerated water bottles. Heidi is in the habit of filling several water bottles from her kitchen tap and chilling them in her fridge, rather than buying bottles of water for single use. “It’s a misconception that bottled water is cleaner and better,” says Jenny. “Tap water is controlled by the EPA, which has more stringent testing than the FDA-regulated bottled-water industry.”

Also, there are more questions than answers regarding the safety of a lot of the plastic we use every day. So if you plan to fill your own water bottles from the home tap, Jenny suggests choosing stainless steel over plastic (to help you navigate the current controversy surrounding BPA plastic, go to the NRDC website simplesteps.org).

After quickly closing the door on the fridge (we don’t want to let out any more cold air), we scout out the other kitchen appliances. For energy efficiency, the dishwasher should only run if it’s full and at bedtime (which Heidi does). The coffee- maker and toaster should remain unplugged when not in use to cut down on “vampire power.”

Before leaving the kitchen, Heidi admits that her family goes through about one paper towel roll in two days. Jenny suggests trying paper towels made from recycled paper (such as Seventh Generation or 365). These are pricier, but Heidi is willing to spend more money for a cleaner conscience. “I’ve completely converted my home paper product use — I cannot live without my 100 percent recycled paper towels. I love them,” Jenny gushes.

With paper on the brain, we head into the office. Heidi is quick to point out that they don’t get paper bills anymore. “What about catalogs?” Jenny asks. Not surprisingly, Heidi has already signed up on catalogchoice.org, a website that helps you reduce the amount of unwanted mail at your home. (Eliminate other unwanted mail at optoutprescreen.com or dmachoice.org/mps).
There’s no ignoring the computers: a new laptop and an eight-year-old desktop. Jenny sees the screen savers on the desktop,  with cute photos of Heidi’s kids, and says, “Kill it. You have to get rid of that.” You can tell that Heidi feels badly about it, so Jenny explains, “You could save about $50 a year if you simply put a computer on hibernation or sleep mode or shut it off.” If you have the choice between laptops or desktops, Jenny suggests that laptops are actually more energy efficient.

Upstairs, the bedrooms are so tidy that you wouldn’t believe four kids live here. Heidi says there isn’t a lot of clutter because they constantly donate what they no longer need to Person-to-Person, located at St. Luke’s Parish in Darien. Jenny thinks that’s a great way to reuse and recycle.

Jenny says it’s critical to paint a nursery with a low- or zero-VOC (volatile organic compound) product. “And look out for kids’ bedroom furniture that has particle board, which contains toxic formaldehyde,” warns Jenny. Regarding baby care and personal grooming products, “Over 80,000 chemicals haven’t really been tested for their effects. A lot of the products we use every day don’t even have to list all of the ingredients,” she notes. Heidi and I wonder if Ivory soap is a better way to go. “That worked for generations,” Jenny says. “I still use all sorts of mass-market products every day. But more and more, I’m finding green products that work just as well.”

As we chat about the eco-luxe radiant floors (which efficiently heat from the ground up) in Heidi’s new master bathroom, we realize that we’d better get into the nursery before it’s time for Sophie’s nap.

After Sophie is successfully tucked in, we address the small flat screen in Heidi’s bedroom. “We have a bigger flat screen in the family room, though not huge, a tiny old-fashioned one in the kitchen and a huge old-fashioned one in the basement.” Jenny’s TV recommendations: Buy Energy Star whenever possible; don’t leave them on as background noise; plug them into a power strip; and recycle them properly (for more check out recyclenow.com).
Some of Jenny’s heating and cooling tips:
  • Caulk and weather-strip windows to seal off air leaks. The gaps around the windows and doors in an average American house are the equivalent of a three-by-three-foot hole in the wall.
  • Look for other air leaks you can seal, such as those around plumbing penetrations or ceiling-mounted lighting fixtures.
  • Stop air from escaping under doors with “sweeps” or “shoes” attached to the bottom.
  • Cover bare floors with padded rugs for added insulation.
  • Get a programmable thermostat, which you can customize to heat or cool your home according to your schedule.
  • Set the thermostats in your home to a level that doesn’t waste energy. In the summer, set it at 78 degrees. In the winter, set it at 68 degrees in the day and 55 at night.
  • Insulate your water heater with a specialized blanket. Water heaters work most efficiently between 120 and 140 degrees.
  • Take advantage of ceiling fans, which don’t use a lot of electricity, to circulate air.
  • Keep your air-conditioning and heating systems properly maintained by changing air filters regularly and keeping air conditioner coils clean.
On our way back downstairs, we pop into one of the boys’ rooms. “Another thing
I am teaching the kids,” says Heidi “is to reuse their pajamas. I realized that they were putting them in the laundry every morning, and we’ve cut way back on that.” If the Daileaders are ever in the market for a new washer and dryer, Jenny suggests front-loading models: “Laundromats have always used them; they require half as much water.” And of course, there is always air-drying, especially in the warm summer months. “I do beach and pool towels that way,” notes Heidi.

In the garage the talk centers on the Daileader’s two cars. Heidi’s, a 2005 Toyota Sequoia with about 45,000 miles on it, and John’s, a ’96 Infiniti with about 60,000 miles. “We both believe in driving a car until it’s no longer economical to fix it or safe to drive,” she says. John drives to work in Rye. Jenny commends them on getting the most out of their cars, but she’d prefer that John commute via Metro North. “Using public transportation cuts down on the number of cars on the road and can reduce the transportation sector’s emission of pollutants, which means less smog, global warming, acid rain, and negative health effects,” she explains.

Jenny’s other car tips:
ù Keep your car in good condition. Get your engine tuned up regularly, change the oil, and keep your tires properly inflated. Proper maintenance can increase your car’s fuel efficiency by 10 per- cent and reduce emissions.
  • Plan your errands wisely. Each gallon of gas your car burns releases about 22 pounds of atmosphere-warming carbon dioxide. Cutting your driving by just five miles each day would contribute to keeping tons of carbon dioxide from entering the air.
  • Carpool: If every car carried just one more passenger on its daily commute, 32 million gallons of gasoline (and the pollution produced by it) would be saved each day. For more information on green automobiles, check out “Green Your Ride” on page 76.
The conversation turns to gardening and how our quest to have the lushest-looking lawn in the neighborhood doesn’t necessarily translate into being eco-friendly. Jenny’s lawn-care tips:
  • Landscape in tune with the natural environment. Use plants that are native to your area, which can save more than half the water normally used to care for outdoor plants.
  • If you must water your lawn, water early or late in the day or on cooler days to reduce evaporation.
  • Allow your grass to grow a bit taller to reduce water loss by providing more ground shade for roots and promoting soil water retention.    
After the lawn-care discussion, I realize that it’s time to pick up my kids at school, and I say my good-byes. I leave feeling very inspired by Jenny, who was so knowledgeable and helpful, and by Heidi, who is just as busy as any mom in town yet has made consistent efforts to put simple green systems in place that her husband and kids can follow.

Some things that she does I want to replicate at my house, such as the battery bag (Heidi keeps old batteries in a plastic bag until she has enough to make it worth the trip to Darien Town Hall for recycling); the kids-have-to-color-on-both-sides-of-the-paper rule; and the reusable Tupperware juice boxes that her kids bring to school. I don’t think my gang is quite ready for composting just yet, but it’s all about taking steps without going to extremes. Maybe I’ll even start bringing my own mug to Starbuck’s.

Many thanks to the National Resources Defense Council for help with this article,
especially to Jenny Powers for making the trip to Darien and providing green guidance without the guilt. For more easy lifestyle tips, go to simplesteps.org or nrdc.org.