Dear EarthTalk: This winter is shaping up to be one of the coldest in recent
memory where I live. What can I do to reduce my home heating bill now and in the
future? -- Eric Lenz, Seattle, WA
Whether global warming is somehow to blame or not, much of the United States
is getting walloped this winter. The Seattle area has suffered its most
significant and lingering snowfalland lower than average winter temperaturesin
decades. Even Los Angeles is getting a nasty taste of winter, with several days
topping out at the freezing mark on the thermometer. And other parts of the
country more used to challenging winter weather have been getting an extra dose
of wind, snow and ice this year as well.
Besides the cold, another challenge this wintry weather presents, especially
during such trying economic times, is higher heating bills. Heating typically
accounts for about 28 percent of the average American homes energy use, but
this year staying warm might occupy a larger slice of the household expenditure
pie. Homeowners who take a few simple steps to make their homes more
weather-tight, though, just might be amazed to see their heating bills go down
while they languish inside their toasty and warm homes.
If youre a handy person and your draft issues are minor, you might want to
go around and assess just where cold air seems to be coming inand then caulk,
putty or insulate to your hearts content. According to the Natural Resources
Defense Councils (NRDCs) green-living oriented SimpleSteps.org website, small
gaps around windows, light fixtures and plumbing are easy to cover with caulk.
Large drafty areas that are protected from moisture and sunlight can be covered
with expanding foam sealant, while a little weather-stripping around door jambs
goes a long way toward keeping the cold out.
Beyond these easier fixes, adding or updating insulation can pay dividends on
your utility bills. NRDC says that if you do it yourself, be careful not to
cover or close up attic vents, as proper air flow is key to keeping indoor air
quality good. Replacing single pane windows with sealed double or triple pane
windows will also improve your homes energy efficiency significantly. Other
tips include insulating heating ducts and your hot water tank, and upgrading to
a programmable thermostat which allows you to heat your home when youre there
and lower the temperature when youre sleeping or at work. Switching ceiling
fans to rotate in a clockwise direction will help circulate warm air throughout
Older, inefficient furnaces can also lead to large heating bills. New models
which qualify for the federal governments Energy Star program will use far less
gas or oil and reduce your utility bill handily. The non-profit American Council
for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) rates different furnaces and boiler
options and reports on their findings for free via the consumer guide section of
For those of us less qualified or less interested in doing our own home
repair, bringing in a professional energy auditor might be just the ticket. Many
local and regional utilities offer free basic energy audits. Meanwhile, the
trade group Residential Energy Services Network, as well as the federal
governments Home Performance with Energy Star program, offer free searchable
online databases of trustworthy local contractors with experience keeping homes
in your area nice and warm.
CONTACTS: NRDC, www.nrdc.org; ACEEE,
www.aceee.org; Residential Energy Services
Network, www.natresnet.org; Energy Star,
Dear EarthTalk: My husband and I are expecting a child and were concerned
about the environmental impacts of disposable diapers. I remember the old cloth
diapers with pins that my mom used. Are there any new developments in the cloth
diapering field? -- Stephanie, via e-mail
A growing number of green-minded parents are starting to recognize the health
and ecological benefits of reusable cloth diapers over disposables. Most brands
of disposables are made from petroleum-derived plastic and wood fibersome
250,000 trees fall each year to feed Americas disposable diaper addiction.
According to The Green Guide, 95 percent of U.S. families now use disposable
diapersto the tune of as many as 8,000 per child. As a result, 3.5 million tons
of them clog landfills each year. Accompanying these diapers, of course, is
untreated fecal matter and urine that can easily contaminate the groundwater
surrounding landfills. Pathogens in this waste can be spread far and wide by
insects and animals.
Furthermore, the process of bleaching disposable diapers to make sure they
are as white as possible before they get to consumers leads to the generation of
the chemical dioxin, which besides being potentially harmful to factory workers
and the environment surrounding manufacturing facilities, can show up in trace
amounts in the diapers themselves, potentially exposing babies skin to a
Despite such drawbacks, the convenience factor still wins out for most of us.
Old memories of hard-to-fasten stinky cloth diapers collecting in a pail are
enough to drive anyone to abandon their best intentions when it comes to
diaper-change time. But heightened eco-awareness in recent years has led to a
profusion of reusable diaper choices, and enlightened consumers owe it to
themselves to take another look.
Today reusable cloth diapers come in many different styles, but the common
elements are an absorbent liner, ideally made out of organic cotton or hemp
fleece, and a waterproof cover. In some cases these two elements can be
separated and washed separately; in others they are combined into one washable
unit. Most varieties come with Velcro-style closures that obviate the need for
the safety pins of days gone by.
And diaper laundering services do still existsee if theres one near you at
but parents interested in minimizing their environmental impact on the cheap
will wash their reusables at home (without bleach) and dry them on the line.
According to Mothering Magazine, some of the best brands are Under the Nile,
FuzBaby, Oskri, LizsCloth, Cloud9Softies and PeacefulMoon.
For those who just cant give up the convenience of disposables, several
brands offer a kinder, gentler alternative to Pampers and Huggies. Disposables
from Nature Boy and Girl, Seventh Generation, Tushies and TenderCare get high
marks for their use of absorbent, chlorine-free materials and, in some cases,
biodegradability. And gDiapers offers reusable, washable cotton diaper covers
over flushable liners.
Some local health food stores will carry these brands, or look online for
e-commerce vendors such as Evo, Leslies Boutique, Cotton Babies, Green Mountain
Diapers and Nikkis Diapers, among many others.
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