The last couple weeks I’ve written about two of the common myths of green building: that it has to cost more to build green and that green building is mostly about materials. This week I’ll cover another myth: that green building products don’t perform as well as conventional products.
A lot of people still point to products like early water-saving toilets, compact-fluorescent lamps, and recycled-plastic-lumber decking as evidence that new-fangled green products don’t work very well. Clearly, there were some poorly performing products out there as manufacturers scrambled to respond to consumer demand and new regulations. But, for the most part, we’ve climbed up that learning curve, and current-generation products work very well.
Let’s take a look at the history of a few of these product categories.
The Energy Policy Act was signed into law in 1992 with a requirement that all toilets sold in the U.S. had to use no more than 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf) by January, 1994. That wasn’t much time for the plumbing industry to redesign their toilets, and many of those early 1.6-gpf toilets were indeed pretty unsatisfactory, requiring double flushing and frequent cleaning.
The problem was that those first low-flush toilets weren’t designed from-the-ground-up to use 1.6 gallons for a flush; they were older toilets with bowls and trapways that had been designed to use 3.5 gallons or more; the only change was a modified flush valve that reduced the flush volume. Industry got the message loud and clear, and later models were designed to flush very well with 1.6 gpf—and some with even less. A new test procedure for toilet performance (Maximum Performance or MaP testing), introduced in 2003, helped manufacturers design better toilets by more accurately measuring flush performance.
The bottom line is that complaints about new 1.6 gpf toilets have largely disappeared and, in fact, a new generation of “high-efficiency toilets” (HETs) that use even less water (HETs are defined as using at least 20% less water than the federal standard, or a maximum of 1.28 gpf) often actually outperform those 3.5 gpf toilets that were on the market in 1990. We’re using far less water today and getting better performance.
Early compact-fluorescent lamps (CFLs) used magnetic ballasts causing the lamps to blink as they switched on, then flicker 60 times a second and buzz or hum during operation. New CFLs all use “electronic” ballasts that switch on instantly and eliminate flickering and buzzing. The light quality has also improved. The phosphors (the coatings on the inside of the glass that absorbs the UV light given off by the energized mercury vapor gas and emits white light) used in most CFLs today produce warmer light that makes objects look more realistic. The light quality from the best CFLs today nearly matches that of incandescent light bulbs.
The first recycled-plastic decking was made from 100% recycled plastic–usually high-density polyethylene (HDPE). The decking planks were very heavy, usually black, got really hot in the sun, and softened to create undulating deck surfaces. Today, most recycled-plastic decking is made of a composite material, with both waste wood fiber and recycled HDPE. The wood fibers increase the decking strength and reduce thermal expansion, so sagging is less of a problem. It’s a much better product.
Early efforts to reduce the volatile organic compound (VOC) content of paints to improve indoor air quality led to compromises in performance. The solvent-based products performed much better even as they gave painters headaches and likely contributed to health problems among homeowners. Over the past 10- 15 years, though, the vast majority of R&D work going into paint technology has been focused on acrylic-based, low-VOC products, and performance has dramatically improved. Indeed, there are now zero-VOC paints that satisfy the toughest performance standards of the paint and coatings industry. New and improved products continue to appear almost monthly.
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I’ve reviewed just a snapshot of product categories here. The point is that the manufacturing industry has responded to consumer and regulatory demand for greener, more-efficient, healthier products. While there are still green products whose performance isn’t where we’d like it to be, most green products work very well today. And we can look forward to continued improvement in the years ahead.
I invite you to share your comments on this blog. Do you think “green” product performance is improving? Are there examples of continuing performance problems among green products?
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