Ed Begley’s Better World: 10 Ways to Save the Planet

Ed Begley, Jr. is talking on the phone in his San Fernando Valley home when his wife, Rachelle, bursts into the room.

“Are we married or what?” she asks in a tone of slightly theatrical exasperation. “You come home, I never see you!”

“I’m doing an interview, honey,” Begley explains. “I’m on the phone.”

Realizing her indiscretion and the resemblance this moment bears to a scene from Living with Ed, the couple’s eco-reality show, Rachelle Carson-Begley laughs and leaves the room.

It’s another day at the Begley residence, a two-bedroom ranch in Studio City. It’s here—in a home powered by solar panels, where an all-electric car is parked in the garage, and a gray water system recycles shower, tub, and laundry run-off to water Begley’s fruit trees and vegetables—that Ed and Rachelle film Living with Ed.

The series, now in its third season on the Discovery Channel’s Planet Green Network, is a 21st century version of The Bickersons, the old radio comedy starring Don Ameche and Frances Langford as battling spouses. Although a well-known actor, here Ed is playing no role but himself—the relentless eco-warrior, constantly searching for ways to reduce his carbon footprint and make his house more eco-friendly. Rachelle, an actress and Pilates instructor, thinks saving the earth is fine—but not if comfort and esthetics get tossed out the energy-efficient windows.

For example, the rain barrel: In Season One of Living with Ed, Rachelle pitched a fit when she came home and found a barrel-shaped container—bright orange, no less—designed to catch and conserve rain water. “Either this goes or I go!” Rachelle demanded. (The barrel went.) Then there was the solar oven, which used reflective panels to concentrate heat radiation in a central chamber. Rachelle rejected it as just plain ugly: “Ed’s never concerned with how it looks,” she said.

Begley agrees, but he loves pointing out that his mode of living isn’t merely politically correct. “If you make the right decisions and do things in the proper order,” Begley writes in his new book, Ed Begley, Jr.’s Guide to Sustainable Living, “you can put money in your pocket, reduce waste and pollution, reduce dependency on Mideast oil, and lead a healthier and more toxin-free life.”

Today, the solar paneling on the roof of his 1,650-square foot home is so extensive that he’s able to live almost totally free of the public-utility grid. His attic is insulated with batts of recycled denim, which reduces heat loss just as efficiently as fiberglass.

He installed low-flow showerheads and toilets (1.3 gallons per flush). Begley’s weekly amount of nonrecyclable trash, he boasts, would fit in a glove compartment. And the all-electric car in his garage, a 2002 Toyota RAV-4, runs 80 miles off each charge.

A working actor for 42 years, Begley, 60, is best known for his recurring characters on Six Feet Under, St. Elsewhere, and Arrested Development, not to mention a recent appearance in Woody Allen’s Whatever Works.

But acting comes in a distant third to his responsibility as an environmental activist, which in turn places second (usually) to his role as a devoted husband.

Rachelle met Begley in 1990 through a mutual friend, but gave him the brush-off when he spontaneously called her at 9:30 p.m. and asked her out for dinner. “That’s highly inappropriate,” she replied.

“I thought, This is clearly an angry woman,” Begley remembers. “Won’t be calling her again.” But three years later they met again, started dating, and “hit it off big time, right away.” Their daughter, Hayden, was born in 1999.

It’s the Begleys’ animated sparring, their humor, and their lack of inhibition that make Living with Ed a pleasure to watch. What you see is what you get; it’s not an act.

10 Easy Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

1. Light bulbs. Start using compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) instead of the incandescent bulbs. They last about nine times as long and save on energy and money. “A typical incandescent light bulb converts only about 5 percent of the electricity it consumes into light.

2. Windows. Investing in double-pane or triple-pane windows will dramatically reduce heat transfer and noise, and reduce your utility bill. “If windows are old, loose, and leaky,” a U.S. Department of Energy report says, “they can account for 25 percent of a home’s energy usage.”

3. High-efficiency toilets. On average, toilet flushing accounts for 28 percent of the water usage in your home. Low-flow toilets use as little as 1.3 gallons per flush. The EPA estimates that if all low-efficiency toilets were replaced in American homes, it would save nearly 2 billion gallons of water per day.

4. Bottled water. “Is it good for us to be drinking water that’s stored in plastic bottles?” Begley questions. “Industry estimates say 80 percent of bottled-water containers still wind up in landfills. Invest in a water filtering system that attaches to your kitchen sink.”

5. Conserve water. Turn off the faucet when you brush your teeth. For shaving, heat water in a tea kettle first, then fill the basin. Take shorter showers. Replace your lawn with drought-resistant landscaping. Buy a rain barrel to catch rainwater off your downspouts and distribute that water to your garden.

6. Insulate. Update the insulation in your attic, basement, and walls. Over time, most insulation in exterior walls will settle to the bottom. In newer homes, builders often install the least (and least expensive) insulation they can. Avoid fiberglass insulation; most of it contains formaldehyde.

7. Paper or plastic? Plastic bags are an environmental horror. Opt for paper each time. Better yet, buy your own canvas or string shopping bags and keep at least one in your car.

8. Thermostat. Consider a thermostat that programs your heat and air-conditioning to run only when you need them (e.g., wake-up mode at 7 a.m., leave mode at 8 a.m.).

9. Phantom Power. A lot of household objects, electronic in particular, consume 25 percent of their power in standby mode. Unplug the cell phone charger, TV, DVD player, computer, and printer when not in use.

10. Appliances. “The refrigerator is the most power-hungry appliance in the kitchen,” Begley writes. Replace that energy hog with an energy-efficient refrigerator (look for the ENERGY STAR rating). Many utility companies will buy your old refrigerator. You can also get tax credits for energy efficiency. Check out energystar.gov.