Is your Indy contractor eco-friendly?

Is your Indy contractor eco-friendly?

Angie’s List member Cathy Weinmann considers herself a good steward of the Earth.

She doesn’t buy bottled water. She and her husband recycle, compost yard waste and use the fewest possible garden pesticides.

A company’s green practices also matter to the Indianapolis homeowner, as she’s about to start a bathroom renovation project and plans to use the List to find a green contractor. Weinmann says she’s even willing to spend a little more if energy savings translate into a return on her investment.

“Some stuff might be more expensive, but if you prorate it out, you’ll increase efficiency and use less resources,” she says.

Do your green homework

As more companies tout green products and services, experts say consumers like Weinmann should do their homework before hiring to ensure their contractor understands eco-friendly techniques and truly practices them.

Green legitimacy matters to members, as evident in a recent online poll that showed 72 percent of respondents consider green work practices important, and of those, 15 percent try to hire only green service providers. In a separate poll, however, 62 percent of respondents say they’re somewhat skeptical or consider most green claims to be gimmicks.

Jack Hope, owner of highly rated Hope Plumbing Heating & Air Conditioning of Indianapolis, represents one of nearly 1,000 Indianapolis-area service providers who’ve reported on Angie’s List their use of green products or work practices, memberships in green building organizations or various green certifications. Hope says he practices green by offering tankless water heaters and low-flow toilets, showerheads and faucets — all of which may cost more at the outset, but provide a better value in the long run.

“An initial investment for tankless is $3,000 to $4,000 for a whole house, compared to a 50-gallon tank water heater for $800 to $1,200. That’s quite a bit different. Why would a person do it?” he asks. “The tankless heater provides twice the warranty on its heat exchanger — 12 years — compared to the six-year warranty for a standard heater. Also, the tankless heater will save you $100 to $150 a year in energy costs. That’s where you get your money back over the course of 12 years.”

Jon Guy, owner of GuyCo Homes & Remodeling, a highly rated company in Avon, says the green decision driver for most of his customers comes down to cost versus value. With higher costs involved in building an entirely green house, he finds that small steps typically work best when introducing green concepts to customers.

Guy says he focuses on green progress, not perfection, so he uses low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints and EcoBatt, a bio-based insulation with ingredients including sand and recycled bottles. “We incorporate those into our standard business practices," he says.

Certifications matter

While green often means different things to different people, experts suggest researching a company’s certifications to help weed out the shady from the sincere. For example, LEED certification means that an independent, third party verifies a home meets high performance standards in sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.

Contractors certified as green professionals by the National Association of Home Builders and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry must document experience and training.

“There is no universal certification program, so consumers have to determine what is sufficiently green to them,” says Jesse Kharbanda,  executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, an environmental advocacy organization. “For some, it might be the carpet cleaner who uses genuinely biodegradable organic products, but for another it might be a plus that he drives a hybrid. Different consumers will have different standards for what constitutes green.”

Laura Knox, owner of The Best Cleaning Lady, a highly rated Indianapolis housecleaning company, says customers praise her use of environmentally friendly products. “They even say that’s why they use me,” Knox says. “The only thing I haven’t found an environmentally friendly product for is shower scum.”

For toilets, she buys the EcoLogo-certified Elements Organic Acid Restroom Cleaner from highly rated Cleary Vacuum & Janitorial in Indianapolis. She prefers lemon oil for wood, vinegar and water for floors, and baking soda and peroxide for grout. “I can save money, be environmentally friendly and be popular,” she says.

Member Doris Lineberry, a southwest Indianapolis resident, says she hired Knox because of health issues. “I can’t be around chemicals,” she says. “So I appreciate that she uses the products she uses. Not only that, but she really makes my floors shine.”

Besides plumbing, remodeling and housecleaning, experts point to windows, geothermal heating and flooring options as ways to implement green into a home.

Ask for the right products

To ensure you’re getting the most energy-efficient windows, check for a low U-factor, says Steven Smalley, president of highly rated Exterior Home Improvement in Indianapolis. He advises homeowners to verify product claims with the National Fenestration Rating Council, a third-party that certifies energy performance for windows, doors and skylights. NFRC products also include the Energy Star label.

They may cost more, Smalley says, but consumers will recoup their investment through energy savings. “I believe you get what you pay for if you do your homework correctly.”

Zionsville member Ron Swan says he chose Exterior to install new energy efficient windows in his home after reading the company’s claim on the List of being a professional who uses green products. “To me it is a sign that the company cares about what they are doing,” he says.

Not doing the requisite homework on a company may result in a consumer falling prey to “greenwashing,” a term used when a company falsely proclaims to be eco-friendly, says Valerie Davis, co-founder of the Greenwashing Index, an Oregon-based watchdog group.

“When green  marketing went mainstream, so did some bad marketing practices such as using words like ‘green’ and ‘Earth friendly’ without anything backing it up,” Davis says. “It’s not the words ‘green’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ consumers need to be wary of; it’s the lack of support behind those words.”

To address concerns raised in 2009 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that the Energy Star program lacked effective controls to prevent fraud and abuse, the EPA and the Department of Energy made significant changes. They include expanding product qualification and verification testing, updating program requirements, and piloting a program to promote the most efficient Energy Star products. New third-party certification procedures to qualify products took effect in January.

While greenwashing is an issue, says green NAHB senior program manager Kevin Morrow, he thinks it will diminish over time. “As consumers and professionals get more educated about the genesis of products and the whole life cycle of them, there will be less greenwashing,” he says. In the meantime, he advises consumers to check a service provider’s green credential and  then check out the organization that provided it.

Larry Dorfman, owner of highly rated Dorfman Design Builders in Indianapolis and executive director of NARI/Central Indiana Remodelers, expects interest in green remodeling to blossom in Indiana in the next 10 years. A recent NAHB study shows green homes comprised 17 percent of the overall residential construction market in 2011 and could grow up to 38 percent by 2016.

“While it’s growing relatively slowly here now, younger people ask lots more questions,” Dorfman says. “They are far more knowledgeable about and interested in sustainable products.”

Motivated to think green

Many Indiana residents don’t realize their hiring decisions affect the environment, says Kharbanda of the Hoosier Environmental Council. “People’s first impression is that the stakes aren’t too high because they see reasonably clear skies and reasonably clear water,” he says. “But when they hear about issues facing us, that’s when they think consciously about being better stewards.”

He links algae blooms in Morse and Geist reservoirs to runoff from phosphorus-laden lawn fertilizers. Individual homeowners can help protect water quality, he says, by questioning their lawn-service providers about their products and choosing low-impact options.

A new baby motivated member Teresa Trinosky of Southport to choose a low-impact option when hiring highly rated Eco Carpet Cleaning of Indianapolis to clean her carpets. Company owner Randy Carter says his customers appreciate his use of plant-based solutions, which only cost him “pennies more” than harsher cleansers and require less water.

“I have kids and I have to be around these products all the time,” Carter says. “Also, we use the customer’s electricity, so we don’t have a truck that’s running for long periods of time.”

While Angie’s List members seem more engaged to find green options, Carter laments the fact that only about 10 percent of his customers ask him about cleaning with eco-friendly products. He thought his green focus would attract even greater interest when he opened his westside company more than two years ago.

Angie’s List member Andrea Neal says she paid 1-800-Got-Junk $350 to haul away several items last summer because member reports mentioned the highly rated Indianapolis company’s policy of recycling whenever it can. “I liked the idea of someone saving what could be reused,” says Neal, who lives in the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood in Indianapolis.

Randy Wheeldon, a partner with the franchise, says his crew takes castoffs to Goodwill, community recycling programs and collectors of old furniture and artwork. “We try to recycle or donate 60 percent of everything we pick up,” he says. “Once we load up and the customer pays us, I tell them we’re only half done. We don’t just dump your stuff somewhere.”

While some customers say they don’t care what happens to their discarded items, Wheeldon says, “seven out of 10 like the idea that we’re recycling as much as we can."

— with additional reporting by Gretchen Becker

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Homeowners should confirm green credentials before hiring a contractor who advertises eco-friendly building and remodeling.

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