Green Kitchen Updates

Turn your power-hungry kitchen into an energy-saving space buyers will love.
Open-Plan Kitchen in the Basement

Basement Kitchen Appliances

The compact space accommodates a bar and also features an Energy Star-rated dishwasher and dual zone wine cellar from Kenmore’s Elite collection.

The kitchen may be the heart of the home, but it's also the resident energy hog. Plus, your kitchen contributes its share of indoor air pollution through cooking fumes and gases from flooring, paints and countertops.

The good news: Earth-friendly products are available in a wider range of styles and costs than ever before, letting you go any shade of green you desire. Here are some tips to take your kitchen to the green side.

Look for the Energy Star Label

Outdated appliances should be the first thing to go. New ones should be fairly easy to choose -- just look for the Energy Star logo. These models are anywhere from 10 to 50 percent more efficient than standard models, so you'll still need to do some research to find out which ones are the most efficient.

At the top of this list is the refrigerator," says Jennifer Roberts, author of Good Green Kitchens. "If it's more than 10 or 12 years old, it's time to replace it with an energy-efficient model. These days you can get a really great refrigerator that will consume less than 400 kilowatt-hours per year, which is low." (Older fridges consume as much as 1,200 kilowatt-hours per year.)

Induction cooktops are another smart green trend. The high-tech cooking surface uses electricity to produce a magnetic field that reacts with pans to heat the cookware. The process is 50 percent more efficient that gas or electric, and is safe to touch as soon as the pan is removed. The downside? It's pricey.

Don't forget the dishwasher; it's another great place to save energy. Small households that don't use many dishes can cut energy use with drawer-sized dishwashers, Roberts says, "but if you create a lot of dirty dishes, one big model is best. I've seen some luxury homes that have two or three of the drawer-sized models, and that's not saving energy." 

Get Eco-conscious Cabinets

The wood in most cabinetry contains urea-formaldehyde, which can be harmful to your health. Look for cabinets made from solid wood or alternative materials such as wheatboard, and finished with nontoxic finishes from companies like Neil Kelly Cabinets and Humabuilt.

"Cabinetry is still tricky," says Scott Martin, founder of Blue Plum Design, a kitchen design firm in San Francisco that specializes in green kitchen renovations. "There aren't a lot of green options out there and you're most likely going to pay a premium in this area."

Purchasing cabinets made with sustainable woods is another way to make your kitchen eco-friendly. Bamboo, for instance, is one of the world's fastest-growing plants, taking just three to six years to grow large enough to harvest. Bamboo doesn't require pesticides, which means less chemical pollution and cleaner air. Eucalyptus is another good option.

If you're remodeling, save resources by updating only the front of the cabinets. You'll save money and still get a new look. You can also shop for recycled hardware at flea markets, or buy lightly used cabinetry at a building salvage shop.

Dead set on traditional wood cabinetry? Use a local craftsman that harvests his lumber responsibly. You'll get the cabinets you've always dreamed about, and save on fuel and transportation costs. 

Get Creative With Countertops

Granite's not the only way to go; there are many eco-friendly surfaces that look great, too.

Countertops made from recycled paper or hemp are extremely durable and easy to clean, but the color selection can be limited. Squak Mountain Stone looks and feels like natural soapstone, but it is actually made of more than 60 percent post-consumer and post-industrial waste, including recycled paper, recycled glass, coal fly ash and Portland cement. The result is an environmentally friendly product that weighs 50 percent less than traditional concrete slabs of similar size, but is just as durable.

If you prefer tile surfaces, look for pieces that are recycled from previous installations or made from recycled materials.

Natural stone countertops can also be considered green because of long life. "Think about things that won't end up in landfills and they're probably green," advises Linda Woodrum, interior designer for HGTV's Green Home and Dream Home. "You don't see people pulling out granite counters and throwing them in the local landfills."

If you select stone or granite countertops, get locally mined ones so fuel isn’t wasted on trucking. 

Work With What You Already Have

"People think making a kitchen 'green' means you have to go out and buy new stuff and throw out what you've got," says Jennifer Roberts, author of Good Green Kitchens, "but the greenest approach is actually to try to work as much as possible with what you already have."

Think "refresh," not "remodel." New paint and updated hardware for cabinets can give a new look without producing the landfill waste that remodeling generates. The less you spend to get the job done, the more likely you are to get a return on your investment when you sell.

Most major paint manufacturers now make zero- or low-VOC paints, which means they emit fewer volatile organic compounds. VOCs are linked to health problems and are considered greenhouse gases; the fewer in your home, the better. 

Don't Forget to Ventilate

One of the first things to consider is indoor air quality. Since we spend the majority of our time in the house, making sure the air is clean is priority No. 1.

"With today's homes being built tighter, proper ventilation is a necessity," says Sean Ruck, spokesman for the National Kitchen & Bath Association.

One simple way to improve air quality is to install a range hood.

"A range hood that exhausts to the outside is the best strategy," says Ruck. Your architect or contractor should know how to size your range hood, and most manufacturers will help DIYers get the right one for the kitchen. 

Add a Built-in Recycling Center

When you're mapping out your cabinet space, leave a spot for recycling bins near your trash can. The easier it is to recycle, the more likely that you and future residents will make the effort. 

Save Water Where You Can

Though the bathroom is the biggest water hog in a house, the kitchen uses its fair share of agua for dishes, cooking and cleaning.

Choose faucets with aerators, which inject air bubbles into the water to get the same pressure with less volume. Adding a recirculation pump will keep hot water at the tap, so you won't need to run the water while the temperature rises. 

Get Eco-friendly Flooring

Many hardwood floors are made from old-growth trees, stripping forests of these towering creatures. Luckily, there are attractive alternatives that keep the forest intact. Flooring materials like bamboo or cork, for instance, can be quickly replenished.

"The newer engineered versions of bamboo are great," says Scott Martin, founder of Blue Plum Design, a kitchen design firm in San Francisco that specializes in green kitchen renovations. "They stand up to abuse from pets, high heels and heavy weights better than the old bamboo products."

Linoleum is enjoying a comeback, largely due to its green properties. Made of natural materials such as linseed oil, rosin and wood flour, it is durable and easy to clean. 

Light Up the Room With LED or Fluorescent Bulbs

Green living doesn't stop at the ceiling. Avoid recessed cans, unless they use fluorescent bulbs and are airtight, to keep air from escaping around the can and into the attic. Add long-lasting fluorescent bulbs to your fixtures, or invest in pricier LED lighting.

Motion and occupancy sensors save money by automatically turning lights on and off as needed. They are fairly inexpensive and can be mounted in standard switch boxes. Scott Martin, a green kitchen designer from San Francisco, also recommends dimmers, which will save energy and prevent flickering. 

Add the Finishing Touches Without the Toxins

Thanks to companies like Ecos, AFM Safecoat and Yolo, eco-friendly paints, stains and finishes reduce exposure to these harmful volatile organic compounds. Seek out water-based finishes with "No VOCs" on the label.

Eco-friendly wallpaper products are also available, with low- or no-VOC compositions and glues. Look for papers from Mod Green Pod, Phillip Jeffries and Woodson & Rummerfield. Don't forget the low-VOC caulks, adhesives and sealers.

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