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click to enlarge The rooftop garden of CCI's South Side building - HEATHER MULL
The rooftop garden of CCI's South Side building

"Green living" has become more than a buzzword for many homeowners.

To conserve energy, many are taking such small but concrete steps as switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs, setting thermostats lower and washing only full loads of dishes. When you use less of the fossil-fuel energy that generates most of our heat and light, you're saving money and reducing your household's contribution to greenhouse-gas emissions. But what are the next steps for homeowners seeking a higher level of green?

Conservation Consultants, Inc. has been a local leader in helping the public use energy smarter for nearly 30 years. The nonprofit group's South Side headquarters is itself a case in point: A formerly vacant old building, it was completely revamped with solar panels, state-of-the-art lighting and energy systems, and innovative building materials. Partially powered by renewable energy, it serves as an environmental hub and education center, housing several non-profit groups dedicated to resource conservation and other environmental issues.

Like many Pittsburgh structures, CCI's headquarters was built a century ago. Retrofitted, it uses just one-third of the energy of a similarly sized average Pittsburgh building. But with 96 percent of Western Pennsylvania homes still heated with natural gas, what can homeowners do to waste less energy if they can't afford a total green makeover?

The first step, CCI suggests, is to seal the attic. Homeowners should check for the dark spots that form on pink fiberglass insulation when warm air gets through cracks or holes, then seal the openings with foam, caulk or fiberboard.

In fact, sealing cracks and insulating throughout the house is a cheap way to make a big difference. "We estimate that if you took all the holes and cracks in your house and put them together on a wall in your house, it would make a four-foot-square window," says CCI Executive Director Ann Jones Gerace. "Think of that being open all winter long, and how much natural gas is getting out."

The second thing to consider is the efficiency of your furnace. Two-thirds of the natural gas used in the average home goes for heating. Many older furnaces are only 30 percent efficient due to malfunctioning, poor care or inefficient design. New furnaces can approach 100 percent efficiency. (CCI's is at 96 percent.) Such furnaces can lower bills so much that homeowners can recoup the purchase price in less than two years.

Meanwhile, a common misconception is that replacing old windows is a cost-effective way to save energy. CCI disagrees: "We don't do windows," quips Gerace. Rather than replace old windows, it is much more cost-effective to add storm windows instead.

Landscaping is another, and perhaps less obvious, way to save energy. Planting evergreen trees in rows on the north side of your home creates a windbreak against winter winds. Deciduous trees, planted on the south and southwesterly sides of your home, can create shade in the summer. According to Pennsylvania's Residential Builder's Guide, this can lower roof and wall temperatures by up to 20 degrees, thereby reducing air-conditioner use -- one of the biggest factors in most electric bills.

On Sun., Oct. 12, CCI offers the Get Energy Smarter Community Expo, featuring free conservation tips and giveaways. (You can also trade up to three of your old incandescent light bulbs for three energy-saving new CFL bulbs.)

For additional help deciding how to conserve energy, CCI offers its Esmart3 Energy audits. For a fee, a trained professional will assess the energy consumption in your home and create a prioritized list of what is in most need of weatherization. It's another way to go from lime to evergreen.


Conservation Consultants, Inc.'s Get Energy Smarter Community Expo 1-5 p.m. Sun., Oct. 12. 64 South 14th St., South Side. Free. 412-431-4449

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