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8 ways renters can make their homes greener

Renting a house or an apartment can make living more sustainably challenging. These small, inexpensive changes are better for the environment — and your wallet.

Improving a rented home’s energy efficiency can start with switching out your existing appliances, washing clothes in cold cycles and helping your air conditioner with the use of a ceiling fan. (Photo illustration by Grassetto/iStock)
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If you’re one of the millions of Americans who rents your home, living more sustainably can feel daunting. Many of the suggested improvements, such as solar panels, energy efficient appliances and improved insulation are permanent changes that cost a significant amount of money — which means they can’t be done by renters.

However, there are still actions you can take to make your rented house or apartment greener.

“There are quite a few things that we recommend to people that are not permanent,” said Ben Kolo, an electrician with almost three decades of experience and the owner of Mr. Electric of Central Iowa.

Focus on major appliances

The first step should be improving your home’s energy efficiency, as reducing electricity usage is good for both your wallet and the environment. Although buying new appliances or installing improved insulation is out of the question, there are a number of techniques that can help reduce your overall electric consumption, saving you money while being better for the environment.

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While switching out your existing appliances isn’t an option, there are actions you can take to maximize their efficiency. If you don’t have a high efficiency washer, Kolo suggests running a second spin cycle to cut down on drying time. Heating water accounts for about 90 percent of the energy used by a washing machine, so opt for cold cycles whenever possible. For your dryer, make sure that your lint trap is clean, as that prolongs drying time.

In the kitchen, make sure that your refrigerator isn’t overfull, as blocked airflow reduces its energy efficiency. “A refrigerator is roughly 13 percent of your appliance usage,” Kolo said. For your dishwasher, one way to cut down on energy use is to stop after the wash cycle, open the door and let the dishes air-dry.

Watch out for ‘vampire power’

“Vampire power,” also known as standby power, refers to the energy used by gadgets and appliances when they are plugged in, but not in active use. Vampire power alone costs consumers about $3 billion per year and is responsible for approximately 10 percent of residential power usage, according to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The best way to cut down on vampire power is by unplugging devices when they are not in use. This can be made easier if you buy a power strip, which will let you turn off multiple devices at once.

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Conserve water

When it comes to conserving water, there are plenty of small actions that can really add up. Some of the actions that the Environmental Protection Agency recommends include turning off running water when you are brushing your teeth; taking showers instead of baths; using a dishwasher instead of washing dishes by hand; and scraping your plate before putting it in the dishwasher, rather than rinsing it.

Give your air conditioner some help

To maximize efficiency, it’s a good idea to run the ceiling fan in addition to your air conditioner. “A ceiling fan can help adjust your temperature setting by as much as four degrees,” Kolo said. “A ceiling fan costs about 1 cent an hour to run, while an air conditioner can be as much as 36 cents per hour.”

If you like to set the temperature to 72ᵒF, running a ceiling fan can let you run the air conditioner at 76ᵒF without a noticeable difference. It’s also a good idea to change the filters regularly, as that helps the air conditioner run at an optimal efficiency.

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Ask your landlord to use LED lights

As Kolo points out, not only do LED lights use 70 to 80 percent less electricity than conventional lightbulbs, they also last longer. Although LED lights are more expensive, your landlord may be amenable to making the switch, since on their side, this means fewer trips to replace dead lightbulbs. “There’s also a maintenance factor to replacing conventional lightbulbs with LEDs,” Kolo said.

If your landlord refuses, and you are planning to live there long enough, it may be worth making the swap yourself, as the reduced energy consumption will save you money. (If you choose to do that, you can save the conventional lightbulbs, replacing them just before you leave and taking the LED lights with you.)

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Incorporate sustainable personal habits

When it comes to your personal habits, there are a lot of environmentally friendly actions that don’t require expensive modifications to your living space. This includes avoiding single-use plastics, whether it’s carrying a water bottle, using reusable tote bags or drinking your coffee from a reusable mug.

Opting for solid-bar soaps and shampoos can also cut down on plastic use while conserving energy, with one study showing that liquid hand soaps require five times as much energy to make and 20 times as much energy to package, compared to bar soaps.

Other habits include recycling whenever possible, and composting food scraps. If you are short on space, there are composting options that can be done in a confined space. Some cities also have municipal compost programs.

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Consider installing window tints

Although you can’t replace your windows as a renter, there are some low-cost ways to make sure they are as energy efficient as possible. One way is to install window tints, which are a low-cost alternative to energy-efficient windows. Tints will keep your home warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer, which will help save on energy costs.

Installing window tints can be a DIY project, although “I do recommend that if you’ve never done it before to call a professional,” said Ken Fisk, the director of technical services at Window Genie. “The tricky part is getting the window clean and getting the film on without getting any creases in it.” In his 21 years working on windows, Fisk has installed window tints for a number of renters.

The added benefit of window tints is they will protect your furniture from sunlight. “It doesn’t stop the fading, but it definitely slows it down,” Fisk said. “I’ve seen it a lot in the past, where one cherry table looks like a pine table and the other one is dark cherry.”

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Try secondhand stores to furnish your home

One way to help the environment is to shop secondhand, whether it’s for clothing, kitchenware or furniture. Fast fashion is one of the major causes of pollution, with the EPA reporting that 11.3 million tons of textiles ended up in the landfill in 2018, which is almost twice the amount of textile waste from 2000. When it comes to furniture, buying secondhand helps limit deforestation and plastic production.

Going to your local thrift store will keep these items out of the landfill while avoiding the environmental impact associated with production.

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