The Curtain Rises on Green Options
The right window treatment can help turn a room from drab to divine. It can also save energy, keep you more comfortable, and even make your home healthier. If that sounds like a lot to ask of a mere shade or shutter, read on to find out just how green today’s window coverings can be.
- Go for quality. Buy the best quality window-covering products you can afford, especially when it comes to hardware like the traversing mechanisms on draperies and the spring mechanisms on roller shades. Window coverings that hold up over time are less likely to wind up in the trash.
- Keep heat out. On hot summer days, close window coverings on the east, west, and south-facing windows to keep out the sun’s rays (the north side doesn’t get direct sun). Window treatments with a light-colored backing help reflect the sun’s heat back outside. Some companies sell special solar-control shades designed to block the sun’s rays while letting in some daylight. Other good options include blinds and louvered shutters; you can tilt the slats up or down to direct sunlight back outside.
- Keep heat in. When the weather turns cold, insulated window coverings can help keep warmth inside and cut down on drafts. A curtain or shade lined with thick insulating fabric will do the trick, as long as it fits snugly within or around the window jambs so air doesn’t circulate around it. Honeycomb shades (also known as cellular shades) can also keep your home warmer: these have double or triple layers of accordion-pleated material that traps air between the layers.
- Mind your materials. Every material has environmental impacts, but some are easier on the planet than others. If you want to steer clear of petrochemical-based synthetics like polyester, acrylic, or vinyl, you’ll still have loads of options, including curtains made from cotton, wool, silk, linen, and hemp. Choose certified organic textiles when possible; if you can’t find premade organic curtains, you can buy organic fabric and sew the curtains yourself or have someone sew them for you. Other natural-fiber options include shades made from paper, reeds, bamboo and other grasses, and wooden blinds and shutters (choose FSC-certified when possible). Recycled polyester drapery fabric is another green, albeit synthetic, option. Steer clear of polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl) window treatments; vinyl has been linked to a number of health and environmental problems.
- Play it again, Sam. Giving used window treatments a second life is a great way to be green and save a little green, too. Look for used shutters, blinds, curtains, and curtain rods at salvage yards, flea markets, thrift stores, and Internet classifieds sites. But don’t buy older vinyl blinds (see “Other Considerations,” below), and be cautious about old painted shutters that may have lead-based paint.
- Exterior shading devices. Interior window coverings can help keep your home cooler in the summer, as noted above. But it’s even more effective to block the sun before it hits the window by shading the outside of the window. Above south-facing windows, an awning or overhang doesn’t need to be very deep to provide good solar control in the summer when the sun is higher in the sky. In the winter, the shallow awning or overhang will allow in the low-angle winter sun, helping warm the home. If you have a passive solar home, it’s particularly important that the overhangs not be so deep that they block daylight or winter sun. West- and east-facing windows are harder to shade with exterior awnings and overhangs because the sun comes in at a low angle; exterior operable shutters may be a better bet for keeping out heat and blocking glare. Shade trees and vines on trellises are another good green option for natural cooling.
- Lead in vinyl blinds. In 1996, it came to light that overseas manufacturers of non-glossy vinyl blinds (also called Venetian blinds or mini-blinds) were adding lead to the plastic as a stabilizer. Over time, as the mini-blinds were exposed to heat and light, the vinyl would deteriorate and lead dust would form on the surface. Young children were at particular risk of lead poisoning because they would touch the blinds and then put their hands in their mouths. Vinyl blinds made after 1996 are lead-free. If you have vinyl blinds that might predate 1996, consider throwing them away, especially if there are young children in the home. If your town has a household hazardous waste collection facility, put the blinds in a plastic bag and take them there; if not, put them in a plastic bag and discard them in the trash. Don’t put discarded vinyl blinds on the sidewalk where someone else might take them, and don’t buy used vinyl blinds.
…to your health
If you’re looking for fabric window coverings, your best bet may be to shop at a retailer that specializes in green home products. That’s because home-furnishings textiles may be treated with a variety of chemicals to reduce wrinkling, resist stains, or retard flames. Because there are no labeling requirements, it’s very hard to know what chemicals have been used on fabric window coverings. You can try asking the retailer or calling the manufacturer, but be aware that you may not be given an informed answer. Even when shopping at a green retailer, be sure to ask questions if you’re concerned about getting window coverings without added chemicals.
In urban and suburban areas, light pollution from streetlights, lighted signs, passing vehicles, or the neighbor’s porch floodlight can keep people awake at night and may even alter circadian rhythms. Disruptions of human’s circadian clock have been linked to insomnia, depression, cancer, and other health problems. To get a better night’s sleep, consider outfitting bedroom windows with roller blinds, shades, or curtains that have a light-blocking blackout liner.
Window coverings are notorious dust collectors. For better health, choose products that are easy to keep dust-free, especially if there household members have dust allergies or asthma. Plantation-style shutters with wide louvered slats, for example, are easier to dust than floor-to-ceiling velvet curtains. For curtains, choose materials that can be laundered at home instead of having to be dry cleaned.
…to your wallet
Energy-efficient window coverings can lower your heating and cooling costs. Window coverings can also protect furniture, floors, and carpets from damaging ultraviolet rays.
…to the Earth
Energy-efficient window coverings reduce your emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases. If you choose durable products, you’ll also reduce the resources needed to cover your windows over the lifetime of your home.
- Piling on the layers. Swags, valances, cornices, and multiple layers of draperies and shades may give your room a certain je ne sais quoi, but all those products take their toll on the environment, not to mention your wallet. When it comes to the environmental impacts of consumer products, less is often more.
- Letting pull cords dangle. Make sure that looped pull cords on shades, blinds or drapes aren’t within reach of young children or pets—they can get entangled in them and strangle. Avoid products that have looped pull cords, or keep the pull cord well out of reach.
You can buy the greenest window treatments in the world, but in the long run it’s your behavior that matters most. Close window coverings on hot summer days and cold winter nights to save energy.