Driving a car, making dinner, heating water and turning on the air conditioner — our everyday actions emit some of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
But sustainability experts say there are ways we can make these daily tasks more climate friendly. By using home appliances and vehicles that run on electricity, we can help reduce our carbon footprint and leave more fossil fuels in the ground. While these individual moves won't reverse climate change, they are smaller steps that each of us can take to help solve the larger problem.
Making these upgrades to your home and lifestyle will cost money — and you will need to plan ahead, says Joel Rosenberg of the nonprofit group Rewiring America and the author of “Electrify Everything in Your Home.” So don't feel like you have to change out your appliances overnight. Instead, buy them as your existing machines wear out. He offers a catchy phrase: “When it starts dying, get electrifying.”
Here are six climate friendly purchases you can make, along with low-budget and easy-to-implement options.
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Cook with an induction stove
About 38 percent of U.S. homes use natural gas for cooking. These stoves emit potentially harmful pollutants into your home. While their greenhouse gas emissions are relatively small, they're connected to a vast system of pipelines and equipment that leaks methane, a gas that has at least 25 times the climate-warming power of carbon dioxide. If you have a gas stove, you're contributing to that system.
Cooking with electricity looks different than just a few years back because more induction stoves are available. These use magnetism to heat a pan and consume less energy than a traditional electric stove.
They may look like the more familiar glass-top electric stoves, but they're not. Consumer Reports has tested cooking stoves and finds that induction ranges outperform gas and traditional electric ones. That includes simple tasks like boiling water, says Shanika Whitehurst, associate director for product sustainability at Consumer Reports. “We've gone from it taking 20 minutes to it taking under 90 seconds.”
There are a few limitations to getting an induction range. If you have a gas stove now, you might need to pay an electrician to install a special outlet to deliver enough electricity. And all your pans have to be magnetic to work on an induction stove.
Induction ranges are also generally more expensive. The top-rated induction stove at Consumer Reports costs about $1,000 more than the top electric or gas models, but there are some government subsidies available. Check with an appliance store, state energy office or local utility company for details about what's available.
Budget option: If buying a new stove is out of the question, there are cheaper alternatives. Induction burners are available for less than $100. These sit on your counter and they can be a good way to test induction technology to determine if it's right for you.
Control your climate with a heat pump
Keeping your home at a comfortable temperature uses a lot of energy. Heating and air conditioning is responsible for about half the energy consumption in buildings. That's likely to increase as the climate gets warmer. The U.S. Department of Energy predicts air conditioner energy consumption will grow faster than any other category.
Buying an efficient furnace and AC can cut your utility bills, but you'll probably have to pay more up front. Just how much depends on your current setup. If you already have a furnace that blows air it'll be cheaper because ducts are already in place. But if you have a boiler and radiators, costs can be high because you'll have to install air ducts.
"[On] the low end you might be able to get away with $5,000, and on the high end, it might be $50,000, to get your whole home to run entirely on a heat pump," says Rosenberg.
"Heat pump" is a technology that comes up a lot when talking about energy efficiency. They are used for heating and cooling for a range of appliances. Essentially, they move hot air around to where you want it through a process similar to what a refrigerator uses. And they require less energy to do the same job.
Budget options: There are cheaper ways to cut heating and cooling costs, like using portable heat pumps, which can cost as little as a few hundred dollars. These can be good for an apartment or for just one room in your house. An even simpler solution is to raise your thermostat a few degrees in summer and lower it a few degrees in winter, so your air conditioner or furnace doesn't run as often. Or consider a smart thermostat that connects to your phone. These give you more control over when your system runs and some will automatically go into an energy-saving mode when you leave home.
Upgrade your water heater
Maybe you don't think about that water heater in your basement or closet, but you should. It accounts for about 18 percent of a home's energy use.
Consumer Reports ranks water heaters that use heat pump technology as better than gas or traditional electric ones, though they cost more than twice as much. The cheapest heat pump water heaters are $1,000, while traditional electric and gas ones are about $400.
“But if you look across all of the years of ownership, it levels itself out maybe after about two to three years of use,” says Whitehurst. Since they're two to three times more efficient than most electric water heaters, they can help save money on utility bills.
If you're sold on getting a heat pump water heater, plan ahead. These heaters are taller, so if your water heater is in the basement, you'll need to check and make sure it'll fit. They can't be in a super cold place because they move heat from the room into the water. They also dehumidify the environment, so you'll want to think about whether that will be a problem. And if your current water heater is powered by gas, you'll need to get electricity installed.
Budget option: Cheaper and easier-to-install alternatives are available too. Rosenberg suggests screwing more efficient aerators onto your sink faucet or shower head to reduce water flow. That comes with an extra benefit, he says. "When you use hot water, you're using less of it and therefore less of it needs to be heated to replace it."
Look for dryers with the ‘Energy Star’ label
For clothes dryers, or just about any appliance, there's a federal program that'll help you save energy. It's called Energy Star. Manufacturers that have made efficient appliances get to use the label — just look for that and you know you're getting some of the most climate friendly appliances available.
Energy Star clothes dryers use about 20 percent less energy. If all Americans switched to Energy Star dryers, that would collectively save $1.5 billion in energy costs and avoid about the same amount of pollution as 2 million cars, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Just like furnaces and water heaters, there are heat pump clothes dryers available now too. These recycle hot air rather than vent it outside. But clothing can take longer to dry and the appliance can cost twice as much as a conventional dryer.
Budget option: The simplest way to save energy and money is to dry clothes the way generations did before us. “Growing up, we had a clothesline outside and it's one of the options you always forget about,” says Whitehurst. If you can't hang a clothesline outside, there are inexpensive drying racks you can use indoors.
Drive an electric car — or take the bus
Transportation is now the largest source of emissions in the U.S., eclipsing even the power sector.
“The ideal, if you need a car, is to get an electric car,” says Rosenberg. “Every year, more and more cars are being manufactured that fit many needs, from pickup trucks to electric bicycles.”
Electric vehicles are also getting more affordable. A small EV, such as the Nissan Leaf, starts around $30,000. That's $10,000 more than a comparable gas car, but the federal government has $7,500 incentives for car purchases and leases. Some states offer subsidies on top of that.
Installing a charger at home adds to the cost but some utilities offer incentives, such as cheaper charging during off-peak hours.
As with most climate friendly purchases, even baby steps are helpful. If an EV isn't the right choice for you, consider a hybrid car. The gas-and-battery combination improves gas mileage, which saves you money at the pump. Hybrids do cost more regular cars, but Consumer Reports finds the average payback period from gas costs has declined, from eight years to four since 2015.
Budget option: Rosenberg recognizes that most Americans still rely on cars to get around. But if your city has great public transportation, take the bus or subway when you can. It's cheap and saves energy.
Addressing climate change involves a lot of changes across the globe. Mistakes are going to happen. If you've recently made a big purchase only to learn it wasn't the most climate friendly choice, Rosenberg says don't beat yourself up. “Nobody should feel guilty. What we are strongly in favor of is that you try to commit to not buying any more fossil fuel appliances,” he says.
This episode of Life Kit was produced by Carly Rubin and edited by Sylvie Douglis. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. The visual producer is Kaz Fantone.
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A version of this story incorrectly labeled an image of an electric glass cooktop as an induction stove. The image has been removed and updated.