Turn your bathroom into an eco-friendly sanctuary.
Though small in size, the bathroom can make some pretty big environmental demands, with water consumption and energy use topping the list. But the good news is that greening opportunities for this highly trafficked room are on the rise as new products advance sustainability without sacrificing functionality and style.
Focus on Water
According to the EPA, toilets are a home’s main source of water use, accounting for nearly 30 percent of indoor water consumption. Before the 1992 Energy Policy Act mandated the manufacturing of water-efficient versions, toilets were using up to 3.5 gallons per flush (gpf). The launch of low-flow options in the ’90s was a greening milestone but in practice the units disappointed, leaving consumers wary.
The good news is that flush systems have greatly improved, spearheaded by the dual-flush toilet and its two flush volumes: full for solids and reduced for liquids. Most leading manufacturers even offer replacement tanks for converting single flush models to dual.
Choosing an efficient toilet was made even easier by the release of the EPA’s WaterSense label. Whether single (1.28 gpf or less) or dual flush (1.6 gpf full/1.1 gpf reduced), WaterSense toilets use 20 percent less water than the current federal standard of 1.6 gpf without any trade-offs in flushing power.
The EPA’s rigorously tested label is also a helpful guideline for showerheads and faucets. WaterSense showerheads use no more than 2.0 gpm (gallons of water per minute) compared to the standard 2.5 gpm. Similarly, WaterSense faucets use a maximum of 1.5 gpm instead of the standard 2.2 gpm. For existing faucets, an aerator can lower the flow rate to more reserved levels.
Heat & Humidity
Alan Abrams, principal of Maryland-based Abrams Design Build and a passive house consultant, prefers natural gas-powered water heaters for their efficiencies. For high-volume lifestyles, he’s impressed with the A.O. Smith Vertex 100 Water Heater and its helical heating coil. With a 96 percent thermal efficiency rating, its operation eclipses the 78 percent efficiency of other conventional tank-style water heaters.
With hot water comes humidity, and moisture problems in the bathroom can lead to mold and mildew as well as structural damage and rot— requiring too-soon repairs or replacements. Operable windows coupled with a high-efficiency ENERGY STAR exhaust fan are essential for proper ventilation. Using vapor-proof housing for recessed lights prevents dampness from escaping into the ceiling cavity, adds Abrams.
With a little research, it’s possible to outfit a bathroom in a variety of green building materials.
"We love it when clients are driven in this direction," said Robert Cole, principal of Washington, D.C.-based interior design firm ColePrévost. "There’s an ever-increasing amount of recycled products on the market, including re-purposed products," he relates.
Cole asserts that countertops made from recycled polycarbonate resins perform well in the bathroom’s wet atmosphere. Another unique, hard-wearing choice is PaperStone, a composite made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, compressed and embedded in resin.
Tile is common to bathrooms, and one attractive yet eco-conscious option is Debris Series Recycled Tile from Fireclay Tile in California. Available in an array of colors and shapes, they are made from 70 percent post-consumer recycled material: granite dust (a byproduct of asphalt production) and glass from curbside recycling.
Keep volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in mind as well, noted Cole. Besides considering non-VOC paints, opt for cabinets crafted with VOC-free adhesives and finishes. Also, ensure that cabinets and other included woods are certified. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification is the best indicator in the U.S. that wood was harvested responsibly.
From big-picture systems to smaller detail items, the bathroom can operate efficiently from top to bottom. Guidance from professionals and pre-project research will enhance your sustainable choices.