Strategies for Going Green in the Bathroom

Follow these energy- and water-conservation tips for the greenest bath around.

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Redoing a bathroom is a big project, but going green can make it seem even bigger. With new terms to learn (e.g., VOCs, off-gassing) and new products to consider, it can be hard to know where to start. These tips can help you plan your strategy to ensure that you get the green bathroom you crave.

Cabinetry and Vanity Tops
Look for cabinets made from wheatboard or other low-VOC materials. Standard cabinets are made with urea-formaldehyde, which can off-gas potentially harmful VOCs for up to 15 years.

Vanity tops are similar to countertops, and engineered stone surfaces — such as DuPont Zodiaq, CaesarStone and Icestone — are popular choices. Recycled tile is often more popular as a vanity top than as a kitchen counter, since cleaning grout in the bathroom is less of an issue than in a food prep area.

Lighting
Use fluorescent lighting paired with electronic ballasts for maximum efficiency and performance. If a fluorescent bulb over your vanity just doesn't do it for you, look for efficient halogen options. "And try to include a window or skylight," says Sean Ruck, spokesperson for the National Kitchen & Bath Association. "Any natural light you can introduce, even from a tubular skylight, will dramatically lessen your dependence on electric light."

Ventilation
A vent fan is a must to remove odors, airborne irritants and moisture that can lead to mold problems. To be truly effective, a vent fan should be left on for at least 20 minutes after a shower, so consider a timer that will ensure it runs long enough to remove all the moisture. Look for versions of less than one sone (a sone is the unit of measure for the level of sound put out by a vent fan). If space and design permit, include an operable window for natural ventilation and daylight. Make sure the window is well-insulated.

Tubs and Showers
Choose recycled glass, ceramic or porcelain tile for shower surrounds. Thinner grout lines with unsanded, lightly colored (not white) epoxy grouts are easier to clean and less prone to mold and mildew. Acrylic and fiberglass are easier to maintain, but are less durable and less eco-friendly from a manufacturing standpoint. And maybe your old tub would look great in your new bathroom with some professional refinishing. "Many older tubs are wider and deeper, and while that may not conserve water, a lot of people find them much more comfortable," says Ruck.

Flooring
Tile and natural linoleum are often your best choices to hold up in a bathroom environment. Cork and bamboo flooring may be an option at least in some areas of your bathroom; just make sure they can stand up to water exposure. Stay away from vinyl sheet and tile products.

Low and No VOC Products
Many caulks, adhesives and sealants made for the bathroom include some sort of mildewcide or other mold-inhibiting compounds. These make it easier to keep your bathroom clean, which means you use less potentially irritating cleaning agents. However, many also include harmful VOCs, so look for the ones labeled "Low VOCs" or "No VOCs."

GOING GREENER
In addition to the ideas above, there are a host of other options for making your bathroom even greener. While these will add additional cost, they promise a significant return on investment.

Tankless hot water heaters — While these can add several hundred dollars to your bill, tankless water heaters use 20 percent less energy than traditional water heaters, paying for the extra up-front cost in just a few years.

Reclaimed fixtures — While these may cost less than new fixtures, the investment in time spent searching for fixtures to reuse can be significant. If you choose to have old fixtures refinished, ask the refinisher to use chemicals with low VOCs.

Composting toilets/waterless urinals — Not exactly mainstream in U.S. homes, these products are becoming very popular in green commercial buildings because of the water they save. Clivus Multrum manufactures composting toilets for the home and Kohler is now making residential waterless urinals.

Greywater recycling — These systems collect and filter water from sinks, tubs, showers and the laundry (called grey water) and re-use it to irrigate landscapes or even to flush toilets. These systems range from the very simple to the very complex and are not accepted by all code jurisdictions, so do your homework first.

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