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From flooring to paint, here's everything you need to know about greening your home.

Paint Buying Guide : A new coat of paint can do wonders to liven up a room. When you decide to redecorate, opt for an eco-friendly, low-VOC paint won?t pollute your indoor air.

Type : If you need a synthetic paint, opt for water-based latex paints, which have lower volatile organic compound levels, over oil-based alkyd paints.

Natural paints aren?t synthetic and are usually made from citrus and other plant ingredients, milk protein or clay. They?re also free of preservatives and biocides. Natural paints are best suited for drier areas, as they are less resistant to mildew and molds.

Milk paints are virtually odorless and are made using the milk protein casein and lime. They contain no solvents, preservatives or biocides, though some do have synthetic ingredients like acrylic and vinyl. They come in powdered form and once opened or mixed with water, they should be used quickly, as they can mold if left to stand for a few weeks.

Whitewashes, which only come in white, contain only lime paste, water and salt. They are a low cost alternative that, like milk paints, are more fragile and are best applied to plaster, cement or stucco walls.

Recycled paint is created when a few types of paints are consolidated into one. Because of the mixing of colors and tints, recycled paint is best suited for areas where consistent color is not required.

VOCs : Check the back of the paint can for VOC levels (you can also look online for the ?Manufacturer?s Safety Data Sheet?). An ideal paint has fewer than 150 grams per liter. These are often labeled ?low-VOC? or ?no-VOC.?

  • Buy only the amount of paint you?ll need to complete a project. If that?s not possible, store it safely or dispose of it according to your local municipal regulations.

  • When painting indoors, open all windows and use fans to vent fumes.

  • Pregnant women and people with allergies or asthma should not paint and should stay out of the area for at least 48 hours.

  • Keep all paint products in their original containers. Cover the top with plastic wrap, and store it upside down, which keeps the paint fresh.

  • In pre-1978 homes, test painted surfaces for lead before sanding. If lead is found, contact a professional for remediation. For more information, see "Testing for Lead in Peeling Paint."

  • When sanding or removing paint, wear a dust mask or respirator and keep the area well ventilated since this process generates carcinogenic crystalline silica dust.

  • Donate unused paint or exchange it with someone who can use it.

Healthy Foundations : Home-building consultant Mary has spent the last year and a half helping a family in her hometown of Indianapolis construct their dream house. The home will feature natural and local materials where possible, and nothing, from the cabinets to floorboards, will contain any formaldehyde, a probable carcinogen and a volatile organic compound (VOC) that poses a serious threat to indoor air quality.

A healthy home is important, explains Mary, who consults through her firm, Healthy Structures. "It's shelter and it affects our health as well as the environment," she says, adding that this house will be as energy efficient as possible, with a high-end HVAC system and expertly sealed ductwork.

Behforouz became acutely interested in improving indoor air quality after her mother, who had undergone chemotherapy to combat breast cancer, found herself unable to move into the beautiful new home she had purchased. The chemo made her highly sensitive to the chemicals offgassing from the conventional products in the house.

Those chemicals, which are nearly ubiquitous in the typical American home, may have included neurotoxic toluene from polyurethane foam insulation; potentially carcinogenic and respiratory-irritant VOCs from paints, glues, finishes and carpets; formaldehyde in pressed-wood products and wood finishes; and phthalates, which have been linked to reproductive problems, obesity and asthma, from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes and floor tiles.

Like Behforouz's mother, the Indianapolis homeowner says her choices were motivated by chemical sensitivities, and Behforouz says she's seeing more interest from potential homebuyers in green and health-conscious designs, due to rising alarm about global warming and concern about "sick building syndrome," in which poor indoor air quality has led to serious illness.

And it doesn't have to be expensive. All the features being incorporated into the Indiana house have added only 10 to 15 percent to construction costs.

The benefits of green building are substantial. In addition to healthier air, homeowners have less exposure to mold and other allergy triggers and save on energy and water costs. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the country's residential sector is responsible for about 22 percent of national energy use. The average American household annually spends about $1,500 on energy. However, homes could be between 30 to 50 percent more efficient, according to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), if they featured Energy Star-certified appliances or adopted readily available techniques, such as proper insulation and programmable thermostats.

Clean Your Furnace Filter

A dirty filter makes your furnace work harder, so cleaning or replacing yours can cut your heating costs by as much as five percent. Beyond the savings, clean filters keep dust and mold spores out of your house, helping reduce allergy symptoms. They can also prevent more expensive maintenance work or even the failure of your furnace.

A high-quality permanent filter may cost $100, but over its lifespan it will save far more than you would spend purchasing disposable filters, which can cost up to $15 each.
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Cleaning or replacing the filter :

Step 01: Turn off power to the furnace, either from the circuit breaker or the switch at the furnace itself.

Step 02: Vacuum around the base of furnace. The furnace blower draws air from the room, so any lightweight material around the furnace can get drawn into the filter, shortening its life.

Step 03: Remove the filter. The filter's location varies between furnace models, but a safe place to start is the service panel located at the front. No tools should be necessary, and the panel, which you should find below the return-air duct, will either lift or slide out. In some cases you may need a screwdriver to remove it. Noting how the filter is positioned, in particular the directional arrows on the filter frame, remove and inspect it for dust build-up.

Step 04: Determine if the filter can be reused. A cardboard frame indicates the filter is disposable and should be replaced with one for your specific make and model of furnace (even during periods of low use, no more than three months should pass between filter changes). A plastic or metal frame means it can be cleaned and reused. Vacuum the mesh, spray it clean with a hose and let it dry. If the plastic frame or mesh is torn, the filter should be replaced. When replacing a filter, you'll find a range of prices, but the cheapest products will be less effective. Look for a Minimum Efficiency Report Value (MERV) rating of between 7 and 13, which the EPA says is nearly as effective as a true HEPA filter (which most furnaces cannot use).

Step 05: Before installing the new filter, inspect the interior of the furnace from the access area. Using the wand end of a vacuum cleaner, remove dust and cobwebs, and try to improve your reach by removing any other furnace parts.

Step 06: Install the new or newly cleaned filter, replace the access panel and turn the power back on.
 
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