Feature

Green living for renters

G Magazine (issue #26, May/June 2010)

A lease needn't be a green leash. These eco-living solutions for the renters among us are practical - and landlord friendly too!

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You'd be surprised how many non-permanent green improvements you can make to a rental property.

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Perhaps you dream of the day you will own your ultimate eco-home. In the meantime, though, there are lots of simple, non-invasive ways to green your place that will keep even the grumpiest landlord happy - and heaps of organisations that are happy to help.

Know your rights

As a renter, the law allows you to make any changes you like to your landlord's property that aren't permanent and don't alter any fixtures. Basically, as long as you leave the place as it was before you got there, you can make the changes you want.

Don't be afraid to ask your landlord about long-term solutions such as solar hot water or rainwater tanks, especially if you've been living in the one spot for a while. You can offer to volunteer your time or cash to make the deal sweeter for them; just make sure you get their permission in writing in case there's a problem later.

Be aware that even though it's your landlord's responsibility to replace fixtures, you can ask that they be eco-friendly.

Also, almost every state offers a range of rebates to encourage homeowners to make energy-efficient decisions when choosing appliances - don't be afraid to mention them to your landlord. After all, who doesn't love a discount? For more details, see G's Rebate guide for renters.

Things you can change

You'd be surprised how many green improvements you can make around a rental property. Here are some handy tips to get you started...

The whole property

* Purchase the highest percentage certified GreenPower you can afford. (See our Instant Expert on GreenPower here for more info.)
* All rooms can benefit from a switch to energy-efficient LED light bulbs. You could replace them with standard compact fluorescents when you move - or pay it forward and help the next tenants on their green path.
* Blackout curtains (thick curtains that block all light) are also a great idea for any windows on your property - they're super easy to make, or may be found at op shops. Just be sure to keep any blinds or other coverings you remove so you can swap them back before you leave.
* Installing pelmets (covers that sit on top of your curtain rods) is a bit risky as they don't come down cleanly. Placing a draught snake on top of your curtain rods is just as effective and unlikely to cause trouble.
* Windows, skylights and glass doors can all be cheaply insulated using bubble or cling wrap. Simply stick bubble wrap to glass using tape, or give cling wrap a blast with the hairdryer. In winter months, laying aluminium foil along the length of windowsills will help to trap reflected heat and warm the whole room.

Kitchen

You probably can't replace your hot water heater, but you can make it more energy efficient by insulating it effectively. Wrapping outlet pipes in an old towel held in place with tape is an excellent start, but the heater itself will need special protection from non-flammable materials. If you can afford it, the easiest way is to buy an insulting wrap for between $60 and $100. Your local hardware or automotive store is a good place to start.

Too often, composting is seen as an outdoor-only activity with a big space requirement, but it needn't be. If you're in a flat, a Bokashi Bin is a space-effective, low-odour compost solution for your kitchen.

You can also make small changes by adjusting the appliances you already have. "If you don't have the money to upgrade [to more energy-efficient appliances], you can still improve efficiency by making sure that the fridge is set between three to five degrees - and get rid of any spare fridges," says Roland Dillon from Just Change, a not-for-profit that provides expertise in reducing home energy use.

Bathroom

Single-flush loos are a huge water waster, but can easily be converted for greater water-efficiency. Check your local hardware store for gadgets that will change the toilet's mechanism to reduce flush time. The less DIY-inclined can simply place filled 600 ml plastic bottles in the toilet cistern to save water flushed.

You can try flushing your toilet with greywater. Just disconnect your cistern from the water line and fill it with wastewater from the shower or kitchen. The toilet should flush as normal and you'll save a bucket of water per half flush.

While you might not be able to install new showerheads, you can pick up flow restrictors or tap aerators for around a dollar from your local hardware store. They're easy to install and can nearly halve your water usage. Don't forget to do your kitchen sink and any laundry or outdoor taps while you're at it.

Living room

This room can be an eco-challenge, with older-style fittings in particular posing an insulation nightmare. So, try a little creativity: if your place has a disused fireplace, stuff an old doona or blanket up the chimney; stick some cardboard over any vents in the walls; and Blu-tack is a great option for filling in fiddly nooks and crannies.

Draught-sealing is the renter's alternative to caulking (filling gaps in joints with sealant). "A roll of weather stripping costs about $5 and it's easy to install around windows or doors that let draughts in," says Roland Dillon. If you can convince your landlord to give you permission, though, caulking is a great way to make sure your house stays cosy for you and future tenants.

If your landlord has opted for energy-hungry halogen downlights in living spaces, try to limit your use of them. Pick up a few lamps from your local council clean-up or op shop, fit them with energy-efficient light globes and go for mood lighting instead.

While a few lamps might be a good option, it's important not to fill your new home with lots of new furnishings. US research shows the average renter will spend almost $4,300 on furniture for each new property. Think about what will end up in landfill and consider whether each purchase is really necessary.

Try more creative options like painting or re-upholstering old furniture, or scour op-shops and council clean-ups for recycled charm. If you buy new, choose multi-function furniture and look for quality rather than the latest season must-have.

Bedroom

Renters aren't at too much of a disadvantage when it comes to bedroom interiors; greening up here is more about good decisions than it is about structural change.

Furnishings made from quality, sustainable materials and organic linens are a good start. In the colder months, remember that a hot water bottle or a nice, thick doona are cosy eco-alternatives to energy-zapping heaters or electric blankets.

Courtyard or balcony

It doesn't matter how small the space, there's always room for a garden. Plant herbs or vegies in containers so that you can take them with you when you leave. And while you might not be able to install a rainwater tank, you can place a couple of buckets outside to catch downpipe run-off and use that on your new plants.

Kath Smalley from Melbourne garden design consultancy Small Spaces says the key to balcony gardening is to choose drought-tolerant plants that won't mind the lack of moisture that comes with being up high. "Use a decent potting mix and plant out into as big a pot as you can get - it'll mean your plants are less likely to dry out," she says. "I like to use the corrugated iron cut-outs from rainwater tanks. With one of those, you can get a really good herb garden happening - moving on from basics like thyme to rocket, spinach and seasonal lettuce."

These areas are also ideal locations for a worm farm to compost food scraps.

Garage

Those with a car can use their garage as a space to set up good habits. Put green bags in an accessible location so you'll remember to grab them when you leave for the shops, or leave your bike near the door to remind you that there's a greener option.

If you don't have a car, a garage can also be a fantastic place to expand your gardening and composting activities. You could also try putting up a washing line to reduce dryer usage.