There are many stylish design and building principles and products that can make your next bathroom or laundry room project environmentally friendly. Here's how to approach each element of the room:
- Bathrooms have the highest water usage of any room in the house. To help minimize water consumption, choose water-saving devices such as a sensor-activated faucets and low-flow showerheads (the federal mandate is for 2.5 gallons of water flow per minute, but there are some effective units with output of only 1.5 gallons per minute). Also consider installing dual-flush or high-efficiency toilets (HETs). The federal mandate is for 1.6 gallons per flush; dual-flush units typically use 0.9-gallon of water to flush liquid waste and 1.6 gallons for solid waste. HETs use 1.3 gallons or less per flush. They can be noisy, though, so make sure you clarify this before you buy. If you have multiple males in your household, consider installing a waterless urinal—just think, no more arguments about flushing or putting the seat down.
- Keep bathtub sizing to a minimum. A bathtub for two sounds very romantic, but consider the fact that it takes over 70 gallons of hot water to fill and how often can you and your partner actually bathe together? If your household is anything like mine, the answer is once in a blue moon. And even if you’re bathing alone, you’ll need at least 60 gallons to fill that tub, and your house will need a 100-gallon water heater to fill a tub and allow another member of the household to so much as wash his hands. It isn’t very resource-efficient to have a 100-gallon water heater standing by 24/7 to fill the occasional tub. Also consider whether you really need a jet tub or if a simple soaking tub would suit your needs. If jets are a must, consider an air jet rather than a water jet tub. Not only are they quieter, but they’re also more energy-efficient and hygienic.
- Similar to kitchens, bathroom countertops and floors can be sourced from a variety of beautiful, durable and sustainable (or recycled-content) options. Bamboo is a great flooring material for a powder room but isn’t as well-suited to a bathing environment. Linoleum and tile are good options for full baths where water is likely to be left standing on the floor after a bath or shower. Tile, quartz and compressed phenolic paper all make for excellent low-maintenance countertops. It’s also possible to find beautiful pieces of natural stone slabs at resale and salvage yards (these slabs will require periodic sealing with a somewhat noxious sealer, but at least they’ve been saved from the landfill). When it comes to tile, there’s a dizzying variety of recycled-glass tile, and to go with it there’s recycled-content grout and low-VOC (volatile organic compound) tile sealants. Remember to reseal your tile grout every few years to keep your tile surfaces looking clean and new and to protect your home from water damage and mold.
- Use low- or no-VOC paints on walls and ceiling and low-VOC caulks around tubs, showers, sinks and toilets. To further protect your indoor air quality, choose formaldehyde-free cabinets made with Europly or formaldehyde-free medium-density fiberboard for the cabinet-box construction. Specify plantation-grown or sustainably harvested wood for cabinet doors and drawer fronts. And have the cabinets finished with a low-VOC water-based finish.
- The most important thing to focus on in the bathroom is ventilation. An effective fan will preserve not only your indoor air quality but your investment in your cabinets and interior finishes. In a child's bathroom, install a combination fan-and-light unit. This will ensure that the fan gets used. Timers are another good way to ensure fan use and minimize the opportunity for lights to be left on. For fans to work well, they must be turned on before their perceived need—i.e., before you can actually see steam. This allows the fan to start circulating the air and will move the steam toward the fan exit more efficiently.
- If a bathroom is part of an addition, it’s a good idea to consider electric resistant radiant floor heat as well as a tankless water heater. The radiant floor heat will add not only luxury to your bath but a degree of energy efficiency, depending on the layout or sizing of your home’s existing forced-air system and its proximity to the new addition. Heated towel bars and wall-mounted radiators are also good chill chasers that add a bit of spa ambience to the bath. For retrofits and remodels, there are floor- and wall-mounted electric plug-in models, and for new construction there are hard-wired and hydronic models. Tankless water heaters are an excellent idea for bathroom additions because you aren’t piping hot water to a far-flung corner of the house or heating standby water 24/7.
- When it comes to bathroom lighting, halogen and incandescent lighting is preferable around the sink and mirror, but fluorescent is fine in the water closet and the shower and for general area lighting. Don't miss an opportunity to daylight a bathroom with double-glazed windows and skylights (tubular skylights are great for bathroom remodels). And consider installing a dimmer switch in your bathroom because dimming the lights will save energy and you need full light capacity only when you’re shaving or applying makeup. Having a dimmer on the water-closet light allows wee-morning-hour risers to use the facilities without being jolted fully awake by bright lights.
- For the laundry room, select an energy- and water-efficient washer and dryer. Front-loading washers are 40 percent more water-efficient and up to 75 percent more energy-efficient than top loaders (not to mention more ergonomic and better for optimal space utilization, as they’re typically stackable). Front-loading machines typically spin the washed clothes "dry" so that your clothes spend a lot less time in the dryer. This not only reduces your energy consumption but also causes less wear and tear to your clothes.
- Consider attractive ceiling-mounted fluorescent light fixtures for the laundry room, and under-cabinet lighting is a nice touch, too. Use environmentally friendly or salvaged cabinetry, or think about forgoing base cabinetry and installing countertops supported on legs with open storage underneath for laundry hampers, dog beds, pet-food dishes and the like. Use low- or no-VOC paints and durable low-maintenance flooring such as linoleum and you’ll have a comfortable, efficient work space that might even inspire you to do some laundry!
Molly Erin McCabe is an associate kitchen and bath designer.
Reprinted with permission from WestSound Home & Garden magazine (Wet Apple Media Inc.)