Low-Cost Green Strategies: HVAC & Plumbing

05/07/2009 by Andrea Sillah

A green approach to designing, building, and maintaining a facility or home need not be any more costly than conventional building and can actually have lower initial costs in many cases. Even if these individual steps are not enough to win a LEED designation on their own, they will reward building owners with various types of cost savings—from lower first cost, to reduced energy and water use, to good public relations and customer satisfaction.

The measures listed here are economical in terms of both first costs and life cycle costs. It is important, however, to also consider green strategies with higher first costs since they can often provide substantial long-term savings, not only in reduced utility costs, but in the comfort, health, and productivity of building users. Also worth noting is that a key factor in a successful, cost-saving green facility is the integration, early in the building design process, of all systems for optimal results.

HVAC Systems

Model the building and integrate all systems, including building orientation (for passive solar heat gain), siding and roofing, high-performance glazing, and insulation, to maximize energy efficiency. Right-size HVAC systems accordingly. Over-sized systems are not only more expensive, but inefficient.

The layout and proper sealing of ductwork plays a big role in HVAC efficiency. Ductwork should pass through conditioned air as much as possible. Install roof ventilation intakes in a location that is the least exposed to pollutants, such as high-traffic areas. Select control systems that can be modified in the future, as needed.


Smaller-diameter supply piping is not only less expensive than larger diameter, but brings water where it is needed more quickly and reduces waste. Instant hot water heaters can save money, depending on the application.

Relatively inexpensive carbon filters can be added to sinks to remove chemicals, heavy metals, chlorine, and many forms of bacteria and parasites. Garbage disposals are inefficient because they require running water and deposit organic materials into septic tanks and sewage treatment plants. Composting is a better solution.

Among the cheapest and easiest water-savers are low-flow shower heads and faucet aerators. Each of these devices can cut water use by about 50%, while maintaining good water pressure. When fixtures need replacing, choose water-conserving models. Toilets older than ten years might be worth replacing even if they are still functioning, as they are major water users. Some water utilities offer rebates for water-conserving fixtures.

Look for more articles in this series to come. For more low-cost green strategies, check out Green Building: Project Planning & Cost Estimating, 2nd Edition.