Over the past several years, you may have noticed changes to some area homes and businesses beyond necessary repairs and changing paint colors. Then again, you may not have even noticed it at all.

That’s because home and business owners have quietly “gone green” without fanfare. While solar panels on a roof are one sign of a green change made to a building, when the panels can’t be seen from the street no one but the owners may know.

Other examples of green updates and renovations are often inside the building in the form of energy-efficient appliances, water heaters and insulation.

Whether their changes were small or implemented throughout the building, people give several reasons for making green choices. It usually comes down to a combination of wanting to make a difference to the environment and to their financial bottom line.

Greening an older structure

“I was talking with my friends in Vermont, where green energy is very big, about how to incorporate energy efficient, green practices into existing structures,” explained eye doctor Dee Stevenson of Venice. “I thought, there has to be a way to put solar panels on a barrel tile roof without making it look bad.”

The challenge was to accommodate green energy into Stevenson’s historic office building while maintaining the integrity of the older structure. To find out how, she contacted Jeff Gates of Beechwood Builders, who had remodeled several homes for Stevenson in the past. Gates suggested both photovoltaic cells and foam insulation to achieve maximum energy efficiency.

From the street, the building on the corner of Nokomis and Palermo looks just as it always has. “You have to really look to see the panels,” said Stevenson. The energy savings were apparent early on, however.

Stevenson reports saving over $250 per month on her electric bill since the changes were made. Along with the savings is the satisfaction of showing that if an older building can accommodate green changes, surely any other building can, too.

The photovoltaic cells Stevenson had installed are more commonly known as solar panels. According to the website photovoltaics.sustainablesources.com, the word comes from “photo,” meaning light and “voltaic,” meaning voltage. One side of the material is positively charged while the other side is negatively charged. When sunlight hits the positive side, it activates the negative electrons to produce an electrical current. Or, in common terms, the cells convert sunlight into electricity.

To further increase energy efficiency, Beechwood Builders sprayed foam insulation into the building’s walls and ceilings. There it expanded “to fill and seal all the nooks and crannies in a single step,” according to the company’s website, beechwoodbuilders.com. The foam reduces the cost of heating and cooling by as much as 50 percent and provides barriers against noise and drafts.

From the ground up

Instead of modifying an existing structure, another option is to build it from the ground up, incorporating multiple green products and solutions throughout. Lily and Don Kurylko decided to do just that when they moved to the area from Connecticut in 2009.

“Driving through the area, we were intrigued by an energy-efficient home advertised in Englewood, so we stopped to see it,” Don explained. “We have traveled extensively, and we noticed that people in other countries were much more conscious of how they use energy than we are in the U.S.”

Rather than buy a condo, the Kurylkos made the decision to build a green home so they could make a difference. The decision required them to make some sacrifices up front. In order to be truly energy efficient, they opted for a smaller home than they would otherwise have chosen.

Like Stevenson, they also installed photovoltaic panels, which on their home are visible from the street. The home on Poinsettia Drive also has a solar water heater (which resembles a skylight), low VOC paint, carpeting with green features, and a partially green yard of native plantings.

Using low VOC paint is an easy green change anyone can make. VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compounds, a term the EPA uses to describe the chemicals that are emitted into the air and can cause irritations to eyes, skin and lungs. Low or zero VOC paints are made with much lower amounts of such chemicals and are therefore better for air quality. There are also low VOC finishes for hard-surface flooring.

Carpet, too, is an easy green addition. Most carpet manufacturers have a green line that emits low VOCs and may be made from recycled rubber from tires or plastic bottles. Some can even be recycled over and over again.

“We knew it would take several years before the green features would pay off,” said Lily, pointing out that the longer you plan to live in the home, the more likely you will see substantial payoff from your investment in green features. A large part of the Kurylkos’ motivation to build such a house was its impact on the environment, and not just on saving money.

The Kurylkos’ 2500-square-foot home has been finished for over two years now. Although they were only home for half of the last month, said Lily Kurylko, “and we don’t heat the pool to 88 degrees either.” The couple was quite pleased with their recent $13 electric bill.

Greening inside and out

Another area couple is building their new home with green features but doing the work themselves, a little at a time. Though they are happy to talk about their home’s features in order to help others who might be interested in green alternatives, the pair keeps a low profile and does not want to be mentioned by name. The empty nesters are downsizing from their current home on an adjacent lot to the new, 750-square-foot space that’s packed with energy-wise features.

First, the homeowners considered how to make the home as airtight as possible to save energy. They put spray-in foam insulation up against the plywood and underneath the rafters. This keeps their attic only a few degrees different in temperature from the rest of the house, so it can safely be used for storage. He also designed the roof with an extra overhang so the attic doesn’t get hotter from the impact of direct sunlight.

He installed a high-efficiency water heater and windows with vinyl frames and insulated panes. All appliances have the highest energy-star rating, and all plumbing utilizes low water flow.

The yard is also a model of efficient use of resources for the homeowners. Their aquaponics garden is fertilized organically by the tilapia they raise in a tank. Carefully selected plants naturally filter the waste water; they use no other filter on the tank. The mineral-rich water flows through a trough and into the vegetable garden. They also place rain barrels in the garden so the extra moisture is put to good use. The lettuce is particularly prolific, the homeowners say, but they have also had success with basil, tomatoes, endive and bok choy so far.

Getting Started

Home or business owners who want to consider adding green features to existing structures, or building from scratch, have several places to start.

One choice is to contact a builder who specializes or has experience in green building and remodeling. They can explain the different options that might work for different situations, the costs and potential  savings for each.

“It’s important to find out what’s best for you in your particular case,” said Jeff Gates of Beechwood Builders. Although his company strives to build green and use green products wherever possible, it isn’t feasible in every case. “It doesn’t make sense to throw something out just because you want to be green—you’re just creating more problems.”

If your 10-year-old insulation is doing its job, don’t redo it just for the sake of it, said Gates. Start by checking your doors and windows for leaks and make sure all are properly sealed. Replacing 20-year-old windows that leak with new, energy-efficient models makes sense. If your air conditioner is old, look into replacing it with a high-SEER rated system.

The Florida Solar Energy Center (www.fsec.ucf.edu) at the University of Central Florida is a good place to start for explanations of ways to make your home more green. According to the FSEC, although most people think of installing solar panels when they think of green energy, a better and more cost-effective place to start is to install a solar water heater. Since the sun will be heating your water, this will reduce the amount of energy you need—­a sensible step to take before undertaking the larger commitment and investment of making your own energy with photovoltaic panels.

The organization echoes Gates’ advice to make sure your air conditioner, which uses 56 percent of your electricity, is an energy-efficient one, replacing it if necessary before considering solar PV panels. The FSEC website has informative videos on the benefits of solar water heaters, photovoltaic cells and other ideas for green living.

Another source is Florida Power and Light. Their website, www.fpl.com, has extensive information with clear explanations of rebates customers can receive up front when installing energy-efficient appliances and materials. Take special note of the necessary specifications and expiration dates.

If you’re considering adding PV panels, look under “net metering” on the FPL website. This explains how they measure the solar electricity your system generates and how you are credited for it.

Basically, once FPL connects your system to the power grid, an inverter converts the solar energy produced to be used in your home or business. The bi-directional meter measures the amount collected and the amount you use, and any excess energy that you don’t use goes back into the electric grid. You are then credited for the excess energy by a deduction on your electric bill, or a credit towards a future bill.

Regarding the initial cost, according to FPL, “…the majority of PV systems without batteries have been ranging from $5,000 to $9,000 per kW installed,” depending on your specific requirements. Batteries, however, keep the PV system operating in the case of a power outage that interrupts the grid.

Although the initial cost of installing multiple PV panels can be a serious investment, the rebates listed on the FPL website are sizeable—up to $20,000 for a residential PV system interconnected to FPL’s grid, and up to $50,000 for a business PV system.

The average system’s initial cost is approximately $5 per watt, said Gates. A home with a 5,000 watt system, then, would cost $25,000. It would qualify for a two-dollar FPL rebate of $10,000 and a tax credit.

According to Gates, PV panels can be expected to pay for themselves in five to 10 years at current FPL rates, and to last for 20 years. Businesses can depreciate the cost over one year, thus realizing their payback sooner.

Organizations such as the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) can explain current green trends in their products, in this case carpet and rugs. Historically, synthetic carpeting has been known to emit VOCs that can have the same effects on the building’s occupants as the VOCs emitted from paint and other finishes. Materials in the carpet fibers, padding and adhesives all contained potentially hazardous chemicals.

Working with the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the EPA, CRI instituted the Green Label Program to certify carpeting that has been tested and meets low VOC standards. The CRI’s Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) was started to educate consumers on how to reduce the carpet waste in landfills by opting for recycled carpeting products.

The Bottom Line

Making green changes to your home or business can save you money and be good for the environment. It need not be an overwhelming process, but one that’s best done one step at a time.

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