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updated 10/2/2008 3:49:12 PM ET 2008-10-02T19:49:12

Compact fluorescent light bulbs, FSC-certified wood, low VOC paint —understanding the language of greening the home can require the services of an eco-translator. But the lingo is just the beginning. Picking and choosing what aspects of my home will receive a green upgrade is another challenge.

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Do I focus on reducing my energy output or decreasing my water use? Should I put my time — and money — into improving indoor air quality or into outfitting my linen closet with organic cotton sheets and towels? Any earth-conscious improvement I make to my home is surely a step in the right direction, but where do I start?

Instead of bumping blindly around my hardware store in search of the perfect energy conscious bulb or non-toxic gallon of paint, I enlisted the guidance of an expert. Meghan Lopez is an instructor in sustainable interiors at Berkeley Extension (the university’s continuing education program) and an associate designer at San Francisco-based design firm Brayton Hughes, where she specializes in creating green buildings — think hotels and offices as well as personal residences.

I was blown away by Lopez’s wealth of knowledge and even more dazzled by the way she simplified the process of greening any living space. She has convinced me that transforming my home from an energy sucking, water-wasting vortex into an earth-conscious retreat requires a nothing more than a couple of weekend Home Depot runs and a little bit of know-how.

Here’s Lopez’s cheat sheet:

Create a waste management program.
“It is essential to understand the basic metabolism of trash,” she says. “By separating material that can be composted from material that can be recycled or sent out as trash you’ll reduce what goes into the landfill and maximize what can biodegrade and go back into the ground.”

Enlist a water management system.
The average American uses between 60 and 70 gallons of water a day, says Lopez. “Purchasing a low flow shower head or faucet can reduce water flow from seven gallons per minute down to 2.5 gallons.” She also recommends purchasing a hot water on demand system. “You can’t imagine how many gallons of water people waste by turning on the faucet and waiting for it to get hot.” Capturing rain is another reliable method of conserving water. “Get a big wine barrel and install an additional drain that come down your house and flows into the barrel. You can use the water for plants in the summer.”

Image: A compact fluorescent lamp (CFL)
Buying compact fluorescents? Now that's a bright idea.

Reduce energy consumption.
“Capitalizing on natural light can save 30 to 60 percent of your energy use for lighting,” says Lopez. She suggests using window treatments — thick-lined drapery fabric is best — to block heat gain during the warmer months and to keep the warmth in the house during the winter. Doing so is eco-friendly but also wallet-friendly as it will help to lower your household’s heating bill.

Energy use can also be controlled by trading incandescent or conventional light bulbs with compact fluorescents, she says. The bulbs aren’t perfect as they’ve been created with mercury, but Lopez believes that a proper method of disposal will be developed in the near future. She also suggests adding dimmers or occupancy sensors to the lights in your house to reduce energy use.

Improve indoor air quality.
“People spend about 90 percent of their time indoors,” Lopez says. “Foot traffic brings in dust and debris from outdoors which can cause respiratory problems, headaches and dizziness.” She suggests putting a welcome mat outdoors to reduce pollutants that come in the house.

And if you’re considering new flooring, hardwood floors are the way to go as they can be mopped (carpets trap pollutants). Choosing paints and sealers that are low VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds or contaminants that cause bad indoor air quality) also helps to keep indoor air safe. “Homeowners often don’t think about understanding what products are made of,” she explains. “Don’t be afraid to ask manufacturers about the finishes on a product and to find out how it is packaged.” This thinking can be applied to mattresses too. “Look for a mattress made from natural latex and cotton padding instead of synthetic latex,” Lopez suggests. And when purchasing cleaning products turn to the many non-toxic options available today (she recommends the Shaklee line of cleaners).

Freecycle.
“One of the greatest attributes of the Internet is Craigslist.org,” says Lopez. She suggests using the site to find furniture and to give away pieces that you no longer want (hence “freecycle”). “The idea is to get the longest life cycle out of the product as possible,” she says. “And when you do purchase something for the home, look at the product’s durability. You don’t want something that breaks down after six months. We are trying to reduce what ends up in the landfill.”

Go organic and renewable.
“If you can specify fabric on furniture look to organics instead of synthetics,” Lopez suggests. “That also applies to drapery fabric. You can find organic cotton that is lined.” Turning to rapidly renewable resources is also important. She recommends bamboo, cork, or linoleum for flooring and seeking out wood products that have received FSC certification. “The Forest Stewardship Council gives a stamp of approval to wood products, evaluating the entire process from manufacturing to transportation,” she explains. And if you insist on using carpet, Lopez says, look for carpet tiles (Interface is a reliable brand). “If someone spills red wine on one tile you only have to replace that one, which reduces the amount of waste we use as consumers.”

Marisa Belger is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience covering health and wellness. She was a founding editor of Lime.com, a multiplatform media company specializing in health, wellness and sustainable living. Marisa also collaborated with Josh Dorfman on “The Lazy Environmentalist” (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), a comprehensive guide to easy, stylish green living.

Please note: Neither Marisa Belger nor TODAYshow.com has been compensated by the manufacturers or their representatives for her comments or selection of products reviewed in this column.

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