Elements of a Green Bathroom

Faucets, fixtures and floors can save water and resources.

While kitchens use the most energy in a typical home, it's bathrooms that consume the most water.

"A lot of what makes a bathroom green has to do with water savings," says Sean Ruck, spokesman for the National Kitchen & Bath Association. "And consumers can easily incorporate a lot of items that don't look or perform any differently than traditional materials, for about the same price."

Using less water in the bathroom also means a smaller utility bill. That's always a plus -- for you and potential buyers. Here are some tips to make the water-wasting room into a winning green space:

Get eco-friendly cabinetry and reused countertops

You can also choose green bathroom cabinets. Standard cupboards are make with urea-formaldehyde, which can shoot toxins into the air for up to 15 years. Look for cabinets made from wheatboard or other low VOC (volatile organic compound) materials.

For your vanity tops, try recycled tile. The tiles are melted down from recycled glass and dyed whatever color your heart desires. If you can afford the extra cost, they're a great eco-conscious choice and they look fabulous, too, so they're sure to impress buyers.

Recycle water in the bathroom

Fido might take a sip out of the bowl, but you certainly don't drink from the toilet. So why not fill it with recycled water? Gray water devices, like the Sink Positive system, allow you to reuse water from a toilet-top sink to flush your commode.

The Toilet Tank Sink attaches to any standard toilet tank. With each flush, clean water that would normally go down the toilet is routed into the sink's faucet. As you wash your hands, the water runoff drains down into the bowl for use as toilet water on the next flush.

These systems are not allowed by all code jurisdictions, so talk to your builder and do your homework before making the investment.

Improve efficiency of hot water heater, or spring for a tankless model

Even if you're not home and no one's using a drop of hot water, a typical water heater can burn through $50 in electricity in one month just keeping the water in the tank hot.

Tankless and solar hot water heaters are great, but simple changes to your existing setup can cut your energy bills and carbon emissions by 25 percent or more. Reduce the temperature of your hot water heater to 120 degrees, wrap it in a water heater insulating blanket and insulate the first 3 to 6 feet of hot and cold water pipes. These changes should take you less than an hour and cost less than $50.

If you decide to make a bigger investment, tankless water heaters use 20 percent less energy than traditional water heaters and heat water only when you need it. Solar water heaters, with roof-mounted solar energy collectors, are another great option.

You know that water that goes down the drain while you're waiting for it to heat up? A home with 4 faucets wastes as much as 12,000 gallons this way. Hot water delivery systems, such as the D'MAND system from Uponor Wirsbo Inc., bring hot water four to five times more quickly than a conventional system.

Get a high-tech, low-flow toilet

The biggest source of water waste in the home -- and the biggest opportunity for water savings -- is the toilet. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 4.8 billion gallons of water are flushed each day.

Since 1994, federal standards have required toilets, showerheads and faucets to use less water, so if you replace pre-1994 fixtures with new ones, you'll save water right from the start. Low-flow toilets got a well-deserved bad rap for poor performance when those standards came out, but newer models have largely fixed the problems.

Manufacturers of new designer toilets use advanced computer modeling to deliver more flush power with less water, trimming about $90 from your annual water costs. If you're still worried about getting a dud, research your options at the Saving Water Partnership's list of FlushStar toilets.

Several new models feature dual-flush buttons that let you opt for a mighty 1.6-gallon whoosh or a gentle 0.8-gallon splash -- for solid waste or liquid waste, respectively.

"Dual-flush toilets are another new product that is gaining popularity," says Sean Ruck, spokesman for the National Kitchen & Bath Association. "Combined with low-flow showerheads and faucets, you'll notice dramatic water savings."

Composting toilets and waterless urinals are also good options. While not exactly mainstream in U.S. homes, they've become very popular in green commercial buildings.

Reuse or recycle fixtures

Using your old fixtures or picking up equipment at a yard sale or antiques store saves natural resources and could save you money. Be prepared to invest a lot of time searching for those perfect pieces. If you choose to have old fixtures refinished, ask for glazes or finishes with low volatile organic compounds or VOCs.

Go for low-flow fixtures

Showers account for about 20 percent of total indoor water use. By replacing a standard 4.5-gallons-per-minute showerhead with a 2.5-gallons-per-minute head, which costs about $5, a family of four can save 20,000 gallons of water per year. And we're not talking about rinsing your hair with a trickle of water -- today's fixtures are designed to conserve resources while still feeling luxurious.

Cut off water waste at the sink with an aerator attachment, which breaks the water into fine droplets to reduce water flow about 60 percent. They cost as little as $2 per sink, and they'll save major money and resources.

Electronic or battery-powered sensor controls for bathroom faucets, though generally used in commercial installations, can also reduce water waste. While you're at it, fix that leaky faucet and see the savings add up.

Let there be light!

The proper lighting makes any room look better, so why not set yours up to be efficient, too? Use fluorescent lighting paired with electronic ballasts for maximum energy savings and performance.

If a fluorescent bulb over your vanity doesn't do it for you, consider halogen options. The light they produce isn't as harsh, but the bulbs are still energy-efficient. Don't forget the natural light! If space and design permit, include an operable window for natural ventilation and daylight. Make sure the window is well-insulated.

"Any natural light you can introduce, even from a tubular skylight, will dramatically lessen your dependence on electric light," says Sean Ruck, spokesman for the National Kitchen & Bath Association.

Consider installing a skylight to bring the outdoors in while maintaining privacy. Comfort glazing, a standard feature on many skylight brands, provides insulation against heat buildup in summer and heat loss in winter.

Install the proper 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.

Don't forget to green up the shower!

To create a dramatic and eco-friendly bath, choose recycled glass, ceramic or porcelain tile to frame your shower.

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 Sean Ruck, spokesman for the National Kitchen & Bath Association.

Walk on an eco-friendly floor

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 vinyl tile products.

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