Eco-terms aren't really as complicated and obscure as they seem, says Monica Gilchrist of the Green Building Resource Center in Santa Monica. Here's a primer:
Dual-flush toilet -- A type of water-conserving toilet that is relatively common in the commercial sphere but is only now becoming available for the home. After each use you have a choice of low flush (using as little as 0.8 gallon) or a more powerful flush (about 1.8 gallons). Energy Star (www.energy star.gov) -- An energy-efficiency rating system sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency. A high Energy Star rating means that the product -- from small household appliances to entire homes -- is designed to minimize its energy consumption. Using as little energy as possible helps protect the environment, conserves fossil fuels and saves you money on the electric bill. Forest Stewardship Council (www.fsc.org) -- A third-party certification for wood, wood products and forests. The FSC tracks the wood from its forest of origin all the way through the chain of custody to where the product is sold. If a product is FSC certified, you can count on its having been harvested and produced in a stringently eco-sensitive manner. Formaldehyde -- A toxin found in many adhesives, such as those in plywood and panel board; it also can be found in paints, caulks and other building materials. The World Health Organization recently upgraded it from a possible carcinogen to a known one. When present in the home, it tends to "off-gas" and pollute the indoor environment. These days there are plenty of formaldehyde-free alternatives, such as nontoxic paint and the plywood alternative wheat board. Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (www .usgbc.org/leed) -- Developed and administered by the U.S. Green Building Council, the LEED rating is the most widely known and accepted green certification program. LEED for commercial projects was unveiled in 2000, and since then more than 167 building products have been certified. A LEED certification for residential projects is scheduled to be available in mid-2005. Life cycle analysis -- The process of tracing a product, material or practice from its origin through its final disposal or reuse, from factory to landfill or recycling plant. Ask yourself questions like: Where does it come from? How much energy was used to create it? What will it do to your home environment? Does it off-gas? What happens to it when you can no longer use it? Looking at the whole picture is a tenet of green philosophy. Linoleum -- A natural and eco-sensitive alternative to petrochemical-based vinyl. Linoleum is typically made from the renewable materials jute (used for backing), linseed oil, pine resin and sawdust. Eclipsed by vinyl in the 1960s and '70s, it's now experiencing a revival; it comes in both sheets and tiles, in a wide variety of colors. Low-flow faucets and shower heads -- Installing low-flow fixtures is a simple and cheap way to conserve water. If you're in love with your current faucets and shower heads, you can instead choose to amend them by installing aerators, which slow the flow and disperse water. These simple steps can reduce water use by about 10%. Off-gassing -- Also known as outgassing, this is the emission of chemicals from building materials, furniture, textiles, bedding or other products in the home. Many of those "new house" smells that we've come to enjoy are actually hazardous to our health -- they accumulate in the bloodstream and have been linked by some scientists to the increasing rates of asthma and some cancers, particularly in children. The best way to avoid off-gassing is to look for natural products that don't contain toxins such as formaldehyde. Recycled content -- Refers to the amount of recycled (reused) material in a given product. There is post-industrial recycled content, which refers to the use of scraps from industrial manufacturing, and post-consumer content, which is the reuse of products that consumers have used and thrown away. Solar -- Simply put, solar processes harness energy from the sun. The solar panels that most of us associate with solar energy are called photovoltaic panels; they transform the sun's rays into usable electricity. Solar thermal processes can be used to heat our hot water. Technological advances in recent years have made both photovoltaic and solar thermal systems amazingly effective. And prices are more affordable nowadays, in part because many utility companies and local governments offer rebate programs that lower the initial costs of purchase and installation. Volatile organic compounds -- The toxic or noxious chemicals that are found in or released from paints, stains, adhesives and sealants. Whenever possible, look for products labeled as having low, no or zero VOCs.