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Does going 'green' pay off?

Writer evaluates successes and failures of her two-year attempt to be gentler to the environment. But did she save any money?

By Teresa Mears Oct 25, 2010 11:36AM

We hear a lot about expensive houses that incorporate the latest "green" technology and people so dedicated to the environment that they will recycle 400,000 cans to pay for their wedding or will grow all their own food.

But how do the costs and benefits compute for your average busy homeowner living in a small house, with limited DIY skills? Do environmental moves such as reusing "gray water" and installing solar panels really pay off?


Susan Carpenter of the Los Angeles Times, who cares enough about the environment to spend thousands of dollars over two years retrofitting the small bungalow she shares with her 7-year-old son, decided to do the math, or at least some of it. The results weren't pretty.


She wrote:

Although everything I retrofitted seemed wise at the time I did it, hindsight tells a different story. … The idealist in me finds value in every improvement, but the realist can't deny that some have been far better in terms of payback -- if not financially, at least morally. The systems that easily fold in to my busy life are the ones I've enjoyed most.

She didn't rank the improvements entirely on financial factors because some of the measures she deemed most effective were expensive and will take years to pay off financially.


For example, she lists as her top success "gray water" (routing the wastewater from her washer, bathtub and bathroom sink to irrigation). But she spent $1,988 for plumbing and has saved only $95 on water so far, though she expects to save an additional $39.60 per year in lower sewer charges.

She doesn't list the financial results from the $5,939 she spent on solar panels and the $500 she spent on three rain barrels and installation, both of which she deems a success. We've seen rain barrels for a lot less money.


She lists as her greatest failure trying to grow her own food ("Cost: Outrageous"). "Having transitioned my low-water ornamental landscape to edibles, I'd say this is a project for people with time, money and a love of gardening and cooking," she wrote. "It isn't a job for single mothers with high-stress jobs who'd rather not spend their precious down time watering, pulling weeds and bringing in their harvest."


Raising chickens also was a failure, because the hens were eaten by raccoons.


The readers didn't necessarily agree with Carpenter's conclusions. They encouraged her to try again with edible landscaping and chickens in a more secure coop.


One reader, "freedabet," wrote that her story should be called "What I like and don't like about eco living." The reader said:

You fully admit that your favorite item, gray water recycling, is pretty lame. You spent thousands to save pennies and totally ignored what it cost (ecologically) to manufacture the 'hardware' you needed. You don't particularly like the solar electric panels even though they are the most successful of your projects in every way, and even legal! But you over-water (clean) the panels, wasting precious water you're spending a fortune to save elsewhere.  The simple stuff is best -- more insulation or insulated windows, more fuel efficient or alternative fuel cars, newer efficient appliances, then worry about solar panels or other high tech schemes.

Carpenter ends her piece with suggestions on three easy and inexpensive ways to live greener:

What energy-saving or money-saving ideas have you tried at your home? What has worked and what hasn't?


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