We all agree that the greenest piece of furniture is one that already exists. But before you refurbish your mother’s favorite heirloom, or scour garage sales for the diamond in the rough, be sure to take some precautions, especially if you’re looking to furnish a baby’s nursery.

The first step is to check for lead. If the item was built and painted before 1978, it may contain the toxic substance, which is a major health hazard, especially for children. Learn how to check for lead on the EPA’s website.

If you’re free and clear, you’re ready to get started. We’ve discussed the dangers of many popular home improvement materials, and wood sealants are no different. Many wood sealants contain harmful chemicals, so before you purchase one, take a close look at its ingredients, and only select low-emitting products.

Follow the low-emitting materials credit in LEED, which caps VOC content at 275 g/l for clear wood finishes such as varnishes, sanding sealers and lacquer. Or choose products that comply with the California Department of Public Health Standard Method V1.1–2010, CA Section 01350 (considered the most advanced testing procedure used in the marketplace). Thanks to programs such as LEED, there are a variety of options on the market for these types of materials.

Need a shortcut? Look for low-emitting products that have been third-party certified and labeled by organizations such as GREENGUARD and GreenSeal.

When you find your finish, try to keep your painting, staining and finishing work outside. VOCs and hazardous airborne pollutants are much more of a health concern when the product is still wet. Be sure to wait to bring it inside until it’s good and dry.

Learn more about creating a healthy room for your child

On Fridays, USGBC shares green home-related content curated from around the web. If you see a great article on aspects of environmentally friendly home living such as green building, renovation, energy use or cleaning, please send it our way.

  • Plates made out of leaves? They do exist. In "Kitchenware Reinvented" on greenhome.com, Matt Tomasino describes kitchen and dining ware made out of plant-based materials, as an alternative to conventional choices. 
  • If you're considering building or revamping a deck, peruse "How to Choose Eco-Friendly Decking," by Home Depot's Jennifer Tuohy. This Mother Earth News article lists the various types to consider, as well as local factors you should take into account.
  • You've probably heard of the tiny house movement—and such houses are inherently greener, with their small footprints. The Ecocapsule, profiled by Suzy Strutner in Huffington Post, takes tiny to a fun, space-age extreme.

Read more about greening your kitchen

Does your home smell like a giant ashtray? Getting rid of tobacco smoke remnants from previous (or current) tenants takes major work. A previous bad habit may leave a lasting impact on your home, leaving smelly reminders in your carpet, sofa, cabinets and even drywall. That’s because tobacco smoke takes up permanent residence in both porous and nonporous surfaces, deeply ingraining itself into upholstery, wood, plaster, floor coverings and painted drywall.

  1. Get cleaning. Riding your home of that ashtray smell won’t be easy. Invest in odor- and stain-reducing cleaners that contain hydrogen peroxide, which kills most biological organisms, such as mold and mildew. Look for products that also contain nose-pleasing essential oils.

  2. Purify. HEPA air purification may help remove the lingering smell of tobacco smoke. Be sure to install only HVAC filters that are rated MERV 8 or higher. Keep in mind that although some air filters may be effective at reducing tobacco smoke particles, they won’t remove the gaseous pollutants from tobacco smoke. Learn more about filters in the EPA’s Guide to Air Cleaners.

  3. Ban it. OK, banning indoor smoking doesn't exactly solve the issue of existing tobacco smoke in your home, but source control is the only way to fully eliminate the health risks associated with tobacco smoke. Make your smoking guests go outside, at least 25 feet from your home. If explaining the human health benefits to your smoking guests doesn’t make a difference, perhaps letting them know that restricting smoking also improves the longevity of furnishings, décor and building surfaces will do the trick. 

We are now accepting nominations for the 2015 LEED for Homes Awards. 

Did you work on a truly exemplary green home in 2015? Are you a developer or homebuilder who has gone above and beyond with LEED? If so, we want to turn the spotlight on your great work.

The LEED for Homes Awards recognize developers, home builders and projects that have demonstrated leadership in the residential building marketplace.

Award categories:

  1. Outstanding Commitment to LEED
  2. Outstanding Affordable Project
  3. Outstanding Affordable Developer
  4. Project of the Year/Outstanding Innovative Project 
  5. Outstanding Multi-Family Project
  6. Outstanding Multi-Family Developer
  7. Outstanding Single Family Project

To be eligible, the project needs to have been certified between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2015; the nominations deadline is May 27.

See last year's winners

On Fridays, USGBC will be sharing green home-related content curated from around the web. If you see a great article on aspects of environmentally friendly home living such as green building, renovation, energy use or cleaning, please send it our way.

Green homes, green living, a more sustainable world: is there an app for that? It turns out there are several. Here are just a few of them:

  • The Silent Spring Institute created an app called Detox Me, an interactive guide to finding and reducing toxic chemicals. It gives details about toxins such as flame retardants in furniture and kids' pajamas, BPA in food and parabens in personal care products and offers simple tools for choosing products to buy, making DIY recipes and taking further action.
  • Apple and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are partnering on the Apps for Earth campaign. Through April 24, WWF will receive 100 percent of the proceeds from 27 participating apps in the App Store. These apps feature new content celebrating WWF’s global conservation work in forests, oceans, fresh water, wildlife, food and climate.
  • In About.com's About Home article "Find a Good Green App," you can browse a bunch of apps that cover choosing energy-efficient light bulbs, making sustainable seafood choices, tracking your car's fuel consumption, locating farmers' markets in your neighborhood and more. 

Check out some of our green household practices

Did you know that about 10 percent of the paint purchased each year in the United States goes unused? That means about 65 million gallons of paint is available for recycling, but much of it is either sitting in storage or being discarded each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The 46th annual Earth Day is a perfect time to think about how you dispose of your leftover paints and stains. PaintCare offers homeowners and businesses a convenient and environmentally friendly way to dispose of paint, stain and varnish. 

Paint manufacturers created the nonprofit stewardship organization to run programs to collect and recycle paint in individual states. Through PaintCare, the paint industry sets up drop-off locations for unused paint, arranges for recycling and proper disposal of the paint and conducts outreach about proper paint management.

PaintCare currently operates paint recycling programs in eight states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont. The District of Columbia program starts in September. The program is only possible when a state passes a paint stewardship law, so the paint industry is working with officials to bring the program to more states in the coming years.

In PaintCare states, many local paint retailers and hardware stores participate and volunteer to serve as drop-off locations. The program also works with waste or recycling companies and government-run household hazardous waste collection facilities.

You can drop off all brands of unwanted house paint, stain or varnish that are labeled and in the original container, whether they are new or 20 years old, at any PaintCare location.

Learn more about small steps you can take to paint smarter:

  1. Buy right: Decide how much and what kind of paint you need.
  2. Store right: Keep your paint in a dry location.
  3. Use it up: Peruse ideas for what to do with leftovers.
  4. Donate it: Find out if someone else can use the paint.
  5. Recycle it: Take your old paint to a PaintCare location.

Find a PaintCare drop-off location

VOCs: you've probably heard the term, but might be unsure about what exactly they are.

What are VOCs?

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are carbon-containing substances that easily become vapors or gases. They can be present in paints, coatings such as varnishes and cleaning products. In coatings, the solvents containing VOCs assist with the quality of application and drying, so that a substance like paint does not streak on a surface. However, they can cause respiratory and other health problems when used indoors. In addition, certain kinds of carpet, composite wood and other building materials can contain VOCs.

How do they affect the air quality of my home?

According to the EPA, the extent of health effects from VOCs can vary widely, depending on the level and length of exposure. Symptoms of overexposure to VOCs can range from simple throat irritation to nervous system damage. Levels of VOCs in indoor environments, such as the home, can be up to 1,000 times what they would be outdoors. That's why it's so important to make informed decisions about what you are putting on your walls, furniture and floors.

How can I avoid having high VOC content in my home?

  • Look for low- or no-VOC products for painting, varnishing and cleaning in your home. 
  • Open windows and allow for as much cross-ventilation as possible during and after a project.
  • Safely dispose of any leftover amounts of products you do not intend to use up soon.
  • If you are building a home, make sure your contractor is experienced in choosing safe materials.

Resources

You know the saying..."April showers bring May flowers." There’s no better time to start getting your landscape needs in order than the start of spring. In fact, April marks the official celebration of National Lawn Care Month.

There are many benefits to home lawn upkeep that go well beyond aesthetics, but finding ways to care for yours, in a safe and "green" way, can be a bit trickier. All-natural methods often get a bad rap for having slower-acting qualities, but there’s no question that they are best for you and your family, your pets, the grass, the soil and the whole environment.

Lawns absorb water, helping to reduce storm runoff and improve water quality. They also have a significant cooling effect, provide oxygen, trap dust and dirt, promote healthful micro-organisms, prevent erosion and filter rainwater contaminants. 

Here are some of the best tips we gathered to transform your lawn this season:

Improve Your Soil Quality

  • Soil testing. Conduct a soil test to check the pH of your soil. Most varieties of grass prefer a slightly acid to neutral pH (6.5-7.0). A simple soil test will tell you if your soil needs an application of lime to make it more neutral or sulfur to make it more acidic.
  • Compost. One of the most important steps you can take to improve and maintain healthy soil is to start a regular practice of top-dressing your lawn with compost or good topsoil. Apply 1/4 to 1/2 inch in early spring, and rake it down into the turf.
  • Ditch the thatch. A dense accumulation of dead roots, stems and partially decayed organic matter at the base of the grass is called thatch. Normally this material gets reincorporated into the soil by microorganisms and earthworms. In poor or biologically inactive soils, this organic matter accumulates at the soil surface and creates an ideal environment for disease. Thatch can be removed by vigorous raking or by using a power-dethatching tool.
  • Aerate. If your lawn has become compacted from heavy power mowers or from foot traffic, spring is a good time to aerate. This opens up passageways in the soil for air, water and nutrients. Use a manual or power-aerating tool.

Switch to Organic Fertilizer

  • Be patient. If your lawn is used to chemical maintenance, it can take some time for it to adjust to new methods of care. But fear not! Once your soil and grass are truly healthy, there isn’t much need for supplemental fertilizer anyway. Consider the climate in which you reside when choosing, and start with low-nitrogen fertilizer options.
  • Use sparingly: annually or semi-annually. Organic fertilizers release nutrients slowly over time to provide long-term nutrition and improve soil life. They also provide vital nutrients that your lawn needs only in minute quantities. Leaving grass clippings where they fall also adds free nutrients and organic matter to the soil. 

Control Weeds

  • Consider it exercise! Afterward, reseed the area and water lightly every day until the grass seed germinates and the roots get well established.
  • Signs of lawn in trouble from Gardeners.com:
    • Moss indicates a shady, acid and infertile soil.
    • Nutsedge indicates that the soil is too wet and poorly drained.
    • Crabgrass indicates that the turf is not dense and healthy and that you may be mowing the grass too low.
    • Dandelions may indicate a potassium deficiency.  

Use Proper Watering and Mowing Techniques

  • Water deeply or not at all. Naturally, we sway toward avoidance. uggested watering times are up to 2–4 hours at a time for best growth, but this is simply not sustainable. Additionally, going back and forth, or choosing to water your property at random, actually weakens and stresses the lawn. In other words, it's best to let nature do its thing.
  • Rise and water. Daytime watering is lost to evaporation; get it done first thing in the morning.
  • Sharpen those blades. A dull blade injures your lawn by tearing rather than slicing the blades of grass. It carries the potential to pull out new growth.
  • “Mow high” and often. For better drought resistance and to help shade out weed seeds, try "mowing high," which means keeping your lawn at a height of 2 1/2–3 inches.  Additionally, mow your lawn before it grows too long. The more leafy material that's removed, the more the grass will be stimulated to replace it by using food reserves stored in the root system.

 Now you can get outside and enjoy the simple pleasures of your very own property—clean and chemical-free!

On Fridays, USGBC will be sharing green home-related content curated from around the web. If you see a great article on aspects of environmentally friendly home living such as green building, renovation, energy use or cleaning, please send it our way.

  • If you're getting ready to do some spring cleaning, first read "Spring Cleaning Can Be Even Healthier Using Green Products" on the EPA blog to learn about finding "Safer Choice" products that will help keep your home (and the environment) free of toxic chemicals.
  • Your home can be green in more than just construction materials. Have you thought about how to be more sustainable in your decorating choices? In "Going Green: 5 Eco-Friendly Home Decor Tips," Kelly Rae Smith offers tips on ways to upcycle that make your home pretty, as well as save resources. 
  • Growing your own vegetable garden is becoming more and more popular. Even the White House has its own kitchen garden! School and community groups of 25 or fewer may take a tour. See the details on the White House website. It could interest kids in doing some planting of their own—and there's even a beehive.

See our recipe for DIY kitchen cleaner

There are a variety of options for permanently sealing and waterproofing butcher block wood countertops, commonly used in kitchens. When considering sealers, there are two types available: penetrating and topical. A penetrating sealer soaks into a substrate such as wood, concrete or stone, and it seals the pores from the inside. Once it cures, moisture is not able to penetrate the surface.

Natural oils are excellent penetrating sealers, and they’re nontoxic, easy to use and make the wood look rich and luxurious. When there's a scratch or gouge, or the wood begins to look aged, it's relatively easy to spot repair by sanding and blending a little oil into the remaining wood to bring it back to life.

Topical sealers, on the other hand, have won homeowners over because they create a thin, protective film on the surface that is resistant to scratches, keeps out moisture and dirt and (supposedly) lasts a long time. Sounds like the obvious choice, right?

Not so fast! Made from a variety of chemicals such as urethane, polyurethane, epoxy, varnish, acrylic, aluminum oxide and various combinations of chemicals, topical sealers can off-gas VOCs for months or years after they're applied. While there are some new water-based products on the market that have low VOCs, most still contain solvents and dryers that are hazardous to your health. This is certainly not what you want on your kitchen countertops.

Not only that, but a topical sealer is nothing more than two to three layers of clear plastic that can be scratched and eroded over time. While they may seem tough, their skin can be pierced by sharp objects or strong acids and alkaline foods. Once the skin is pierced, moisture can get underneath the surface, which can cause mold and mildew.

The real issue with topical sealers is that they're difficult to spot repair. That's because sanding through the surface and recoating makes the area stand out and look completely different from the rest of the woodwork. In that situation, the only solution is to completely resand the wood and recoat it, which is time-consuming and expensive, as well as having health and environmental implications.

An alternative solution is to use a product that combines natural oil and beeswax, which creates a penetrating inner seal and water-resistant finish.

As always, be sure to read the label on all products, and look for a third-party certification by highly respected organizations such as GREENGUARD and GreenSeal before you purchase.