How to Make Your Home Environmentally Friendly …
and Save Some Green in the Process
By Karen Hendricks
It was 1978. George Chorba was stuck waiting in a mile-long line of vehicles at the only gas station that still had fuel amid one of the Arab oil embargoes. He was in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., so, needless to say, it was hot.
“My pickup truck didn’t have air conditioning, and I remember looking up at the sun—I had certainly heard about solar—and I thought, ‘This solar stuff makes a whole lot of sense.’”
You could say that was his lightbulb moment.
A mason by trade, Chorba moved to Texas to be closer to several companies active in the developing solar movement and enrolled in solar engineering courses.
Today, as owner of Gettysburg Stove and Solar, Chorba is a “go-to” source for solar panels and systems, as well as hearth products (wood, pellet and gas stoves, plus fireplaces) in the greater Adams County and Central Pennsylvania region.
Solar Energy: A Place in the Sun
“What I find so appealing about doing solar is that is benefits the individual customer, but, in the long run, it benefits the earth in general because it cuts down on the amount of fossil fuels that need to be burned,” Chorba says.
The way solar panels work is simple. When they are placed for optimum exposure to sunlight, the panels’ photovoltaic cells convert sunlight into electricity.
Over the years, Chorba has installed hundreds of solar systems for residential and commercial customers—and he says 75% of his customers are motivated by potential cost savings.
It’s an investment. The average residential solar system costs between $20,000 and $25,000, but produces 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity monthly. Chorba says costs have decreased while efficiency has increased over the years.
The returns on investment are many. Homeowners immediately stop paying their electric bills, so those costs disappear. They can take advantage of a federal income tax credit. Those who installed solar systems in 2020 received 26% of their total cost of labor and installation back; the 2021 amount is 22%. And homeowners can earn renewable energy credits for every 1,000 kilowatt hours of utilized electricity per month.
Chorba describes solar panels as a “very dependable, lifetime purchase.” They typically come with a 25-year warranty.
“Anybody who’s looking at signing a mortgage for a new home should consider wrapping the cost of a solar system into that because it’s going to lower their monthly outlay, and the increase in the mortgage payment will be so slight,” Chorba advises.
The future, Chorba says, is electric.
“By the time the century turns, you are not going to see an internal combustion engine on the road unless you go to an antique car show. Every vehicle, tractor trailer, train or passenger car is going to be electric,” he says. “So I tell people you might as well get started now generating electricity in the most economical and environmentally friendly way possible.”
Wood Stoves: Keeping the Home Fires Burning
There’s a green way to stay warm through the winter.
“The most environmentally friendly thing you can do if you’re going to burn a fuel is to burn a renewable fuel—which really limits you because you basically have two,” Chorba says.
There’s much debate as to whether coal is truly a clean fuel, since it emits numerous toxins. But there’s no controversy over the merits of wood-burning stoves as a home heating source.
“When you harvest and burn wood, you’re basically carbon neutral. You’re not causing any more pollution than if a tree fell over in the woods,” says Chorba.
Numerous types of wood-burning stoves are available, including wood pellet stoves, which take the green concept a bit deeper. Pellets are created from waste, such as sawdust and wood scraps, and compressed into small cylinders. These pellets are scooped into a “feeder” and released into the stove’s fire at a predetermined rate to maintain a home’s set temperature.
This is an excellent way to keep your home toasty, Chorba says, without the constant maintenance of adding firewood around the clock.
Geothermal: A Down-to-Earth Choice
“Geo” means “earth,” and “thermal” means “heat,” so geothermal energy refers to a heat source that’s literally underfoot.
“You’re using the ground you live on—something you already have—to heat your house rather than pulling from the grid, or buying oil or gas,” says Josh Austin of Mark Austin Building and Remodeling, based in Littlestown, with a showroom in Hanover.
The family-owned business has been installing geothermal systems for about a dozen years, and Austin says the technology keeps improving.
“It’s very popular, but it does come with a substantial upfront cost that’s about 30-to-50% more than conventional systems. However, there are tax credits available,” Austin says.
Off-the-Wall Green Options
The very walls of your home also present opportunities for eco-friendly options.
“Some of the ways to achieve really good energy efficiency in new construction, or even when retrofitting old houses, is with foams,” Austin says. “Spray foam stops and seals the drafts. However, it can be argued that these products are not all the way green because they’re oil-based.”
Austin says his company has used wool bats or recycled cotton insulation bats inside walls for some clients, but they’re expensive.
He finds inspiration in green options popular in Europe, such as grass roofs and the use of concrete. Many people overlook concrete as a eco-friendly option, Austin says, yet it’s comprised of natural ingredients from the ground.
His company recently built an entire house with insulated concrete form (ICF) walls because the client wanted to focus on energy efficiency.
“They’re like Styrofoam Legos,” Austin says. “I get excited about technology and projects that are unique—not run-of-the-mill.”
Going Green in the Garage
Innovative new home construction projects are often designed with a green eye on the future. For example, Austin encourages homeowners to include electric car chargers in their design plans.
“For $300 to $400, it’s wise to run power into the garage versus a couple thousand to retrofit down the line. Electric cars are our future, so it’s much better to be ahead of the game,” he says.
Throw Some Shade: Go Green … Outdoors
When considering green practices around your home, don’t overlook the obvious—your yard.
“Trees are nature’s factory for taking carbon out of the air,” says Steve Zimmerman of Zimmerman’s Azalea Gardens and Landscaping, an environmentally conscious business that does not use pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.
Zimmerman is also co-chair of the Gettysburg Green Gathering, founded eight years ago “by a bunch of us old hippies and musicians because we felt like Gettysburg didn’t do enough to celebrate Earth Day,” he says. The group’s motto? “Be part of the solution, not the pollution.”
Currently, their priority projects are community tree plantings. Zimmerman encourages all homeowners to consider the benefits of trees, from shade protection and aid in cooling the home to adding property value and providing habitat for birds and insects.
He recommends planting native trees such as oaks, maples, sweet gum, birch, sycamore, and dogwoods.
“Diversity in the types of trees you plant is also important, because diversity creates strength and is a defense against fungus, blight, and insects,” Zimmerman. “Overall, you can’t go wrong with planting trees.”
There are additional eco-friendly ways to keep your home cool in the hot summer sun. Chorba, at Gettysburg Stove and Solar, also installs retractable awnings for homeowners.
“They’re an energy efficiency item. People use them for shading, which decreases the air conditioning load in the summertime,” Chorba says.
Eco-Friendly Food for Thought
“I think one of the biggest things people can do to be environmentally conscious is to stop and think before they purchase anything and bring it into their home,” Zimmerman says.
He advises people to recycle and reuse items when possible and reduce their use of single-use plastics.
Now, during the cold winter months, is the perfect time to plan a spring garden. Growing some of your own food is another green habit, with delicious and healthy benefits.
“Organic gardening focuses on feeding the soil, not the plant, because the soil is the key,” Zimmerman advises. “It’s working with nature instead of trying to control nature.”
A Little Green Goes a Long Way: Top Tips for Homeowners
Small eco-friendly steps can make a big difference in boosting a home’s efficiency, reducing bills, and showing some love for Mother Nature. Josh Austin of Mark Austin Building and Remodeling shares some of his top tips:
- First, look at your utility bills to evaluate where you need to trim costs. Then think about green practices that will bring those bills down.
- Install faucet aerators on showers and faucets to reduce water flow—and water bills.
- Flip the switch on all-LED lighting. This will lighten up electric bills and impact on the power grid.
- Upgrade appliances to energy-efficient models to save money in the long run.
- Consider replacing windows and doors with better insulating options. “In an old house, this can especially make a big difference,” Austin says.
- “Nobody wants to update an HVAC system for the fun of it, but when it’s time to do so, a couple extra dollars for a high-efficiency system is worth it,” Austin advises.
Gettysburg Stove and Solar
2218 York Road (Route 30), Gettysburg
Mark Austin Building & Remodeling, Inc.
Showroom: 4 York St., Hanover
Gettysburg Green Gathering
Adams County Builders Association