When the subject of air pollution comes up, we're quick to blame gas-guzzling SUVs. In reality, the average home out-pollutes the average car. (Considering that most power plants run on coal or natural gas, this is hardly surprising.) Household appliances and electronics are no small factor. Although most of us wouldn't want to live without dishwashers and laptops (and espresso makers and TiVo), we can live with them in a more responsible way.
If you're not ready to swap your old appliances for energy-efficient ones, start using them in greener ways. For laundry, skip hot water unless the load is unusually soiled; instead, wash in cold or warm water, and always rinse in cold. (Allergy sufferers may want to continue washing sheets in hot water: Studies have found it more effective at neutralizing pet dander and dust mites.)
Don't overcool your refrigerator. Use a thermometer to check the settings: The fridge should rest between 37 and 40 degrees, and the freezer, between 0 and 5 degrees. Scrape, but don't rinse, dishes before loading them into the dishwasher, unless you're not running it right away (in which case, you should rinse briefly with cool water). Set your home computer to go into "sleep" mode after a short period of inactivity, instead of relying on a screensaver, which will still draw a lot of power.
Before replacing products, check to make sure they're working properly. Sometimes a poorly functioning refrigerator or leaky front-loading washing machine just needs a new door gasket. When choosing appliances, favor Energy Star-rated ones: They may cost more up front, but they'll yield big savings in electricity and water over time.
If you have to pick one appliance to trade in, make it the refrigerator. After all, it's on all the time, and a new one can cut electricity use by 15 to 50 percent. Side-by-side models are less efficient than those with freezers on the bottom or top; features such as automatic ice makers and through-the-door ice and water dispensers increase energy consumption.
Front-loading washers are more energy-efficient and use as much as 50 percent less water. (Chances are you'll need less detergent, too.) The next time you're in the market for a computer, ditch your desktop version and buy a laptop, which will run on one-third of the electricity.
You have efficient appliances: Now figure out how to use them less frequently. Machine wash clothes, especially outer layers like jeans and sweatshirts, only when they're truly dirty. Line dry your laundry whenever possible. (If your towels or jeans are stiff after hanging on the clothesline, set the dryer to "air fluff" and pop them in for just a few minutes.)
Open the dishwasher door before the dry cycle begins to allow the dishes to air dry. (If you're concerned about water spots on your glassware, dry those pieces with a dish towel.) When cooking or reheating small meals, use a toaster oven, rather than your full-size oven. If you're bringing water to a boil, cover the pot with a lid.
Assess the other energy "vampires" lurking in your home, such as hair dryers and cell phone and MP3 chargers. Even when not in use, their external power supplies -- the parts that make chargers bulkier than traditional plugs -- continually consume electricity. The solution? Either unplug them, or plug them all into a power strip and switch off the entire strip whenever possible. Also, unplug small appliances when they're not in use.