Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Make New Year's a little greener...

We've all made New Year's resolutions. Drink less, get skinnier, get out of debt. Half of America practically follows a checklist of obligatory self-improvement goals, which, usually by mid-year, are all for naught.

This year, I'm changing it up a bit. I'm ditching the usual stand-bys and instead I've chosen two things that I'd like to do this year to make my life a little greener. No matter how lofty our eco goals, we all probably overlook some little things we could do better. After a lot of thought, I've chosen to set two goals for myself for 2008:

1. Reduce the number of plastic grocery bags in my life. Yes, I always mean to use canvas totes at the grocery and to tell the cashier to please not double-bag my gallon of milk. (It has it's own handle, why do I need a bag?) but I'm not always forceful enough on that front. I see lovely canvas totes all around, but I manage somehow to talk myself out of getting them because I don't want to spend the money. I'm giving myself a cheapache and as a result I'm up to my eyeballs in plastic bags.

2. Start composting. Indecision got me on this one. I've spent months agonizing over what kind of compost bin I should get : The fancy $200 plus one with the handy crank, a worm bin for vermincomposting, or should I build my own cheap bin and spend the rest of my life turning it with a shovel twice a week? Well, I need to decide quickly, because it's a waste to throw out broccoli stems and banana peels that, with a little love, could become FREE mulch for my vegetable gardens. American households throw away 26 million tons of food a year. Think of all the wasted landfill space. And all the free mulch.

So those are my "little change" goals for 2008. Maybe you can think of one or two little changes you'd like to make?

Exercise for your brain

I just finished compiling a list of some of compelling books that eco-geeks like me might find useful and insightful. I posted them here,and will leave a permanent link on the right under the "What I'm reading" column.

I found Supercapitalism particularly compelling. It's an economics book, but explains in plain language why it's so hard to get things done on the environmental front, even though it's good for almost everyone. And, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was a life changing read. I've bought several of these as gifts and they don't disappoint.

Check it out. Maybe you can add these titles to your post-holiday to-do list!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Baby steps into earth-friendly paints

The watchword for paint in recent years is VOC. It stands for volatile organic compounds, things like benzene and formaldehyde that are used to make interior and exterior paints. Not only are they rough on the areas around the paint factory, they tend to leach gases into your home for months after the walls are freshly painted. Luckily, a lot of companies are now producing paints without so many of those chemicals, such as low-VOC and zero-VOC paints.

Since we have a little one on the way, I thought it'd be a good idea to test one of these paints in the future nursery. I chose Sherwin Williams' low-odor zero-VOC Harmony paint.

Frankly, I was unimpressed. I'm not sure what other brands of similar paint are like. But Harmony smelled worse and stronger than regular acrylic latex paint (even though it claimed to be low odor) and the coverage was not that good. It took three coats of white to get a nice, even finish, even with primed white walls. I've had much better luck with American Tradition and Behr brands.

Harmony also only comes in gallons, so if you only need a quart, for an accent or a project, you are out of luck. Oh well. Back to the drawing board. Next time around I am going to try Benjamin Moore's brand of low-VOC paint.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Babies and climate change

It's time to come clean. We're having our first baby here at the eco ranch. We're almost 6 months along. We've made it through the tests, the scans, and all that stuff, and it looks like it's really going to happen.

I'm not a huge fan of being pregnant, which has put my hubby's campaign for a second child on shaky footing. He's an only child, he says. Only when he was an adult, and saw how much fun everyone else had with their siblings did he realize he was missing out. That, and there is increasing pressure to take care of his parents emotionally because they have only him.

But the child debate also has another side, one only mentioned in whispers because it's such an unpopular opinion. It's that parents should limit their offspring to two or less because the world is overpopulated. Bringing too many more resource-using carbon-producing first-world humans into the world isn't helping the environment.

A lawmaker in Australia recently proposed taxing parents with more than two children, to offset the carbon emissions of those extra children. Here is the news story about this

At the risk of sounding harsh, I completely agree. Sustainability is factoring heavily into my family planning.

The need to have large families just isn't there any more. 100 years ago, when you'd lose some of your children to disease before adulthood or needed them to help on the family farm? Yes, have as many as you'd like.

But now? In the modern world? We simply do not have the resources or the economic need. With ever more of the environment being poisoned to meet the current population's needs, how can we rationalize putting more people on the earth?

It's led me to feel that if you must have children, have one or two then quit. Or, don't have any at all.

We are an American middle-class family. As such, even though we're making changes to be more environmentally friendly, just by our very nature and existence as Americans, we use more energy, food, resources, etc. than citizens of any other nation. Isn't it wise to reduce the number of Americans in the next generation?

I just finished Jared Dimaond's book "Collapse" as well, which is an historical review of ancient and modern civilizations that have collapsed economically, culturally, and environmentally. Overpopulation was a factor in most of them, and is used as an explanation for atrocities such as genocide in Rwanda. It's food for thought.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

How many earths does it take to support your lifestyle?

I ran across this fabulous Web site yesterday. It allows you to calculate how many earths it would take to sustain the world's current population if everyone lived like you. Fascinating stuff. I read the results of some folks who were using up 20 earths!

That couldn't possibly be me, I thought. We live in am odest house (1400 square feet), drve one car-- a 1997 Honda Civic hatchback that gets 35+MPG), grow a lot of our own vegetables in the summer, don't eat meat often, use rain barrels, work from home as often as we can, and recycle every last scrap of anything vaguely reusable.

I was smug for a minute until I realized that my total was a still 3.7 earths. Geesh. How much more do we have to do? I guess that's just another reason to keep greening the eco-ranch!

See what your score is. Feel free to post a comment about it. I'd love to hear your scores, too!

Here is the quiz

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Green flooring options...

When we moved in, the kitchen floor was a mess. It was covered in a 1960s dark red vinyl that was peeling along the seems. No matter how much I scrubbed it, or how many times I glued down the seems, there was just no saving it. So I went in shopping for a new floor.

Finding an eco-friendly option isn't all that easy. The manufacture of sheet and tile vinyl floors releases PVC into the environment and is considered by some groups to be the world's most toxic plastic. So the cheap, quick and easy fix was out... That's not even counting the glue.

Hardwood or laminate wood wasn't really an option. I've heard you aren't supposed to use that in kitchens and bathrooms because of water issues, and it would have been really hard to find something that looked good next to the home's original hardwood floor.

Natural stone was our next option. It looks good, it's natural, durable, etc. it also shows up on a list of sustainable products, although where the stone comes from and how far it has to journey to end up at your house can significantly diminish any eco benefit. Some groups suggest you only buy stones quarried near where you live. For us, that'd mean our choice was limited to sandstone, and frankly, that didn't sound too practical.

Ceramic tile is a decent eco-option. We're planning to use it in our main bathroom in the near future. And we almost used it in our kitchen until I wandered through a home show last year. That's where I discovered Marmoleum.

It's a new, high-tech linoleum product made from all-natural materials such as linseed oil, cork, and wood flour. You don't need glue to install it. It just clicks together. It's also super easy to clean, and just happens to look really nice.

It cost us about $9 a square foot without installation. The entire job ran us just under $3,000, to do the kitchen, eat in dining area and half bath. Not a small area.

This project was one whose value couldn't be measured in energy savings, like a new furnace or compact flourescent bulbs. That's usually a major criteria when deciding on eco-friendly renovations. But, we are very happy with our decision. Sure, it cost more than vinyl, but it makes us happy to know it didn't poison the neighborhood where it was made.

It also looks neat. Much different than any other flooring we've seen. Everyone who has visited us has commented on it. And, ultimately been fascinated by this new and improved floor.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The burning question: What next?

Now that the new furnace is up and running, the sod has been lain over the mud pit that was once the front yard and most of the rooms are decorated, I'm faced with the question most home improvers bump into eventually: What next?

I admit I don't have any big eco plans in the works. Frankly, we just don't have the budget for any big improvements right now and with winter just around the corner, it's hardly the time to be ripping out windows or digging up the back yard.

We also have a strict rule of paying cash for all of our big projects. We have to save up the money, then do it. No home equity loans or credit cards. It's very old-school style. Our savings account is still trying to recover from the cost of the geothermal system. Hopefully when summer comes, we will have enough saved to put in new windows. (After that, a roof and some solar panels.)

So what's a home improving girl to do? I better think of something fast or it's going to be a long winter!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Clean your house-- with plants

I ran across a very compelling study about the cleansing effects of some common houseplants. Apparently, some houseplants, such as spider plants and peace lilies, remove toxic chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde from the air inside your home. This wouldn't be a big deal except that those chemicals are major contributors to indoor air pollution and can leach into the air from common household items such as carpet, particleboard furniture and paints.

Unfortunately, the more air tight and energy efficient your home, the more likely you are to suffer from indoor air pollution. The same acts that save us money and energy-- insulating, weatherstripping, etc.-- mean less clean, fresh air can move into and out of our homes. If you live in an old, leaky house, you may not have any pollution at all.

Plants act as a living carbon filter, sucking chemicals out of the air and breaking them down into harmless compounds. Some estimate that you'd need about 15 plants to significantly reduce indoor air pollution.

Here is a list of some beneficial, air-scrubbing houseplants:

Hedera helix English ivy
Chlorophytum comosum spider plant
Epipiremnum aureum golden pothos
Spathiphyllum `Mauna Loa' peace lily
Aglaonema modestum Chinese evergreen
Chamaedorea sefritzii bamboo or reed palm
Sansevieria trifasciata snake plant
Philodendron scandens `oxycardium' heartleaf philodendron
Philodendron selloum selloum philodendron
Philodendron domesticum elephant ear philodendron
Dracaena marginata red-edged dracaena
Dracaena fragrans `Massangeana' cornstalk dracaena
Dracaena deremensis `Janet Craig' Janet Craig dracaena
Dracaena deremensis `Warneckii' Warneck dracaena
Ficus benjamina weeping fig

If you'd like more information, you can see NASA's original research here

Or read this simple, easy to understand tutorial from the Minnesota Extension office: here

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The side effects of geothermal

Well, the geothermal furnace is up and running. I didn't give much thought about what to do with the lawn once it was finished, however. Maybe because they were only supposed to dig up a 10 ft by 10 ft square. No such luck. Because it was raining so much the week they came to drill, they dug a trench the entire length of our yard. Now, 90 percent of my front yard is mud.

I'm not a fan of lawns. I think they're a waste of time and energy. But, my neighbors would rise up in revolt if I just left it as a pile of dirt! What to do? We tried to even it out by hand and throw down some grass seed. But even if the seed grows, it's not going to look good, like a real lawn.

I have to put my thinking cap back on. I'm thinking of calling some sod farms to see how much that would cost. We don't have a lot to spend, considering we just emptied the savings account for the furnace!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Your handy guide to recycling weird stuff

I have a pile of things I really can't bear to throw out but I have no idea how to recycle. Of course, it's all in piles in the garage. Far from ideal. I ran across this guide to recycling strange things today, and found some solutions to my growing mess. It has suggestions on everything from cardboard boxes to styrofoam packing peanuts.

Recycling strange things from Co-Op America

Friday, August 31, 2007

Who recycles? A new poll

Here's an interesting new poll from Harris Interactive about who throws out the aluminum cans with the rest of the garbage.

Harris Recycling Poll

Some highlights:
Those in the East and West are more likely to recycle (88% and 86% respectively). One-third (32%) of those in the South as well as three in ten (30%) of those in the Midwest, however, say they recycle nothing.

Three-quarters (77%) of American adults recycle something in their own home, one-quarter (23%) still recycle nothing at all. One may think that the younger generation is the one most likely to recycle, but this is not the case. Three in ten (30%) Echo Boomers (those aged 18 to 30) recycle nothing, compared to 19 percent of Matures (those aged 62 and older).

Among those who do not recycle, the reasons are very varied. One in six (15%) say they do not recycle because it is not available in their area while 12 percent each say it takes too much effort and it costs more to recycle where they live. Just one in ten (11%) say they do not recycle because they don’t believe it makes a difference while six percent say they are too busy and five percent say it is too difficult.

Almost there

The trenches are filled in, the lines are run. We're less than three working days away from flipping the switch on our new geothermal system! Of course, the house is a mess, with some drywall in the basement ceiling torn out to make room for pipes, but we're very excited to give it a go.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Little green changes that can save you a lot of money

I thought I'd post a list of handy tips that appeared in an article I wrote for the Columbus Dispatch about saving money by conserving water and energy. Most don't cost a lot of money, and I've put some into effect in my own home already...


Install a low-flow showerhead : A 10-minute shower uses 50 gallons of water. A low-flow showerhead reduces that to only 25 gallons. Low-flow showerheads cost about $12 at home-improvement stores. If you shower 10 minutes a day, the savings would be 750 gallons of water a month, or about $5 a month on your water bill.

For added savings, replace your faucet aerator. Aerators are the round disks at the tip of the faucet that control how much water comes out. Low-flow aerators cut water use from about 2.5 gallons to as low as half a gallon per minute, at a cost of about $1 each.

Watch the flush: The typical family of four uses 112 gallons of water a day, or 3,360 gallons a month, to flush toilets, at a cost of about $20 a month.

Replacing older toilets, which use 3.5 to 7 gallons of water per flush, with low-flow toilets using 1.6 gallons could reduce your water use by up to 73 percent. The cost to make a replacement starts at about $100, but you could save up to 2,450 gallons of water and shave about $14 a month off your water bill.

If a new loo is out of your budget, hanging a water displacement bag in the tank can reduce water use by 20 percent, or about 1 gallon per flush. Water displacement bags cost about $2, and could save you up to 672 gallons, or about $4 a month.

Lawn smarts : The average American family uses about 120 gallons a day, or 3,600 gallons a month, watering lawns and washing off driveways and sidewalks. You can reduce that by up to 50 percent by watering in the evening -- when less of the water evaporates because of heat -- and by "making sure you aren't watering your sidewalk instead of the grass," said Rick Tilton, assistant director of the city's division of water and power. Potential savings? About $10 a month.


The average U.S. household consumes about 11,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity (kWh) a year, at a cost of about $900, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs : Compact fluorescent bulbs use 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs and last up to 10 times longer, according to Energy Star, a government program that rates products by how much energy they save.

In central Ohio, it costs 95 cents to power one 75-watt standard light bulb for five hours a day for one month, according to AEP Ohio. It costs 25 cents to power a compact fluorescent for that long, a savings of 70 cents a month and $8.40 a year per bulb.

It takes only about 3 months to recoup the extra cost of compact fluorescent bulbs in energy savings, according to Energy Star.

If a houseful of new bulbs isn't in the budget, replace those in the fixtures you use most, such as the kitchen, bathroom and family room lights, Deyette said. Replacing five bulbs will save you about $3.50 a month, or $42 a year, according to AEP Ohio.

Buy a power strip : Many appliances use electricity even when they are turned off. It's called a phantom load, or vampire electricity, and the Ohio Consumers' Council says it accounts for 5 percent to 10 percent of a home's electricity use and costs Ohioans $46 to $93 a year.

Unplugging one small appliance, such as a fax machine, one computer monitor, and one television when you aren't using them will save you about $6 a month, Stroh said.

Plugging electronics such as computers, televisions and DVD players, and small appliances such as coffeemakers and microwaves into a power strip, and then turning the power strips off when you aren't using those items will save you even more money, Deyette said.

Heating, air conditioning and laundry : Heating and cooling account for 47 percent of the average household's annual energy bills, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The easiest way to cut that expense is to adjust your thermostat.

Every degree you raise your thermostat in the summer shaves 2 percent off of your energy bill, Deyette said. Every degree you lower the heat in winter, shaves 3 percent off the bill.

Install a programmable thermostat : This can lower your heating and air-conditioning bills even more, by about 10 percent, said Ronnie Kweller, spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Energy, a nonprofit group in Washington.

Programmable thermostats alter the temperature of your house at different times of the day, allowing you to use less energy when you're sleeping or not home.

"If you're spending $1,000 on A/C in the course of summer, it can save you up to $100," Kweller said. "You can still come home to a comfortable house but not at the cost of running the air all day."

They cost as little as $30 and usually can be installed by the homeowner, Deyette said.

Laundry day is another cost-saving opportunity.

A family that washes seven loans of laundry a week can save about $5.25 a month, or $63 a year, in water-heating bills by washing clothes in cold water, Kweller said.

Old-fashioned line-drying will save you even more.

"A new electric dryer can use 4,500 watts per hour," more than almost any other appliance in your home, Stroh said. Old dryers use even more.

"Hanging your clothes out to dry will knock nearly $10 a month off of your utility bill."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The $5 recycling roadblock

Every Tuesday I put my red recycling bin out on the curb. It's always so full it's spilling over into whatever other containers I can muster. But when I look around, I'm the only person on my street putting out a bin. My neighborhood overall doesn't have many recyclers either. It's so easy, I couldn't understand what was going on. So I went straight to the head of the neighborhood association. Here is his response:

"Folks don’t want to pay for it to be picked up."

Recycling in my town costs $5 a month. 5 smackers. Trash pick up is completely free, so it's not as if the $5 fee is on top of a large monthly trash bill. But free trash does send a clear message: why conserve? Throw it away. It's free!

I tried to talk the neighborhood association into doing a recycling fundraiser-- starting with something simple like aluminum cans-- because they're always trying to raise money for projects. They passed.

I know I'm the young person in a neighborhood of older people, but is there really a recycling generation gap?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Geothermal isn't pretty

The yard is a mess. I guess I wasn't expecting them to coat it with bentonite clay. They also had to dig a trench to hold excess water, because it's been raining a lot here this week. Hopefully this is the worst of it. And to think the neighbor complained that the rain barrels were unsightly!

Monday, August 6, 2007

Geothermal Green Light

After a lot of thought, we've decided to go ahead and get the geothermal heating and cooling system, even though it costs a few thousands dollars more than a traditional high-efficiency furnace. Price tag: $12,400.

Three factors made the decision for us. First, geothermal is one of the most efficient forms of conditioning the air in your home. It is up to 500 percent energy efficient, and emits very little CO2. Also, any extra heat the system generates would be used to heat our water, displacing some of the natural gas we currently use. The geothermal heat pump is also a high-efficiency air conditioner. It carries heat out of the house in summer, just as it carries it in in winter.

When you do the math, we're getting the equivalent of a new furnace, a new air conditioner (ours needed to be replaced), and a super efficient water heating system all with one new appliance. When you look at the price tag again, it's more cost effective to pay for geothermal than it is to buy each of those three items.

We also calculated that it will take about 5 years for us to make our money back in energy savings. For alternative energy systems, that's a very short payback time. Solar panels can take up to 30 years to pay for themselves.

Given those factors, it simply makes sense. Of course, I will have to pay to re-seed the lawn when they're finished drilling the wells. But I think that's a small price, don't you?

Monday, July 30, 2007

My personal Victory Garden

Grandma only had one story from World War II, and it involved she and my great grandma ripping up the front yard to plant carrots. I didn't get it. I thought "geesh, that's what grocery stores are for," and cataloged it into the cheapskate grandparent bin along with all the crumpled pieces of aluminum foil in their kitchen drawer and washing and reusing plastic bags.

I've since changed my tune. I saw this stat on Treehugger.com "For the average American meal [...], World Watch reports that the ingredients typically travel between 2,500 and 4,000 kilometres, a 25 percent increase from 1980 alone. This average meal uses up to 17 times more petroleum products, and increases carbon dioxide emissions by the same amount, compared to an entirely local meal."

Hmmm. Grown at home equals good for the planet. It's worth a try. My first step was to join a farm co-op. For about $200 I bought a half share, which means I get several bags of in-season produce that's grown about 40 miles from my house, from late may until the end of September.

It's the best thing I've ever done. My farmers, from Paige's Produce in Steubenville,OH, are the nicest people. I really enjoy seeing them every week when I pick up my food. And the food is 1000 times better than any produce at the local grocery. It's bred for taste, not the ability to sit for 3 days in a freight car and not bruise.

The farm also turned out to be less expensive. I thought $200 was a lot of money at first, but it's turned out to be a great value. I get a lot more vegetable for my money; it's actually cheaper than buying from the grocery every week.

But then my hubby and I decided to take it a step farther and plant our own garden. Our goal was to grow enough to live off our own vegetables and the co-op vegetables for the whole season, without having to buy any from the grocery.

Amazingly, we're almost to August and it's worked!

We spent about $20 on plants-- 3 zuchinni, 6 cherry tomato, 6 roma tomato, 2 green pepper, and some strawberry plants. We also bought some seeds for mixed field greens and cilantro.

Well, none of the seeds sprouted, but the rest are pumping out veggies. We can hardly keep up! The zuchinnis have just about run their course, producing more than 15 giant fruits so far this season. We made them into bread, into a pasta sauce, and have grilled them. We've also, of course, foisted the extras on unsuspecting friends. The cherry tomatoes have produced for about a month. We pick a large cereal bowl full every week. We'll probably have enough to get through the summer. We've had about 4 green peppers and the roma tomoatoes are about to turn pink. They make great sauce, and there looks to be enough fruit to make sauce this summer and have enough left over to can for winter use.

We're eating food grown within 100 miles of our house, so it requires less gasoline for transporting. It's not only a good move environmentally, it's good financially. For a minimal investment, we get a lot of high-quality produce for very little money.

All this from three small patches of dirt. We grow the green peppers and tomatoes in two small flower beds on either side of our house, and we grow the zuchinnis and strawberries in one of the front flower beds.

Just think how much I could grow if only I could tear up the whole lawn, like grandma...

Friday, July 27, 2007

The lazy person's water saver

You caught me red-handed. Yes, I still have a water-guzzling 5-gallon a flush toilet in my main bathroom. Sure, I've already replaced the loos in our other two bathrooms-- which we don't use nearly as much. But for some reason, I've left the one that would have the most impact if changed.

There's a simple reason: I'm lazy. The floor in that bathroom is on the "to replace" list and frankly, I don't feel like pulling the toilet out twice. once now, and once later when we decide what kind of floor to install. Can you blame me for not wanting to scrape two wax rings? That's what I thought.

So, I have a $1.69 solution. Not a cure, mind you, but it's something. I'm going to place a water displacement bag in the back of the tank, which will reduce water use by about 1 gallon per flush. It's like putting a band-aid on Niagara Falls, but hey, it's only temporary, right?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Toe-dipping into the compost pile

I shucked 7 ears of locally grown corn two nights ago. Looking at the giant heap of silk and shucks that came from those few ears, I realized a lot of our garbage comes from vegetables.

From the looks of our trash can on the curb every week, you wouldn't peg us as big throw aways. I always secretly wonder how our neighbors, most empty-nest retirees, manage to completely fill to overflowing their giant city-issued cans every week. We usually have three bags in our bin, which means it's about 30 percent filled.

The recycling bin, however, is always overflowing, and I usually have to put out another container full of recyclables with it on collection day.

But we could do better. It's time to start shopping for a compost bin. It's the next logical step in our "save the polar bears" action plan.

One compost site, called Black Gold, said composting vegetable waste saves CO2 emission from garbage trucks and saves precious landfill space for non-recyclable items. You also don't have to spend as much on garden mulch every spring.

So I'm going to shop around for a bin. I'll let you know what I find, as well as how hard it is to get the compost process "started."

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

rain barrel update

So far this summer, we have kept 640 gallons of stormwater out of our local sewer system, thanks to the rain barrels. Of course, that also means we've haven't paid the city water department for the 640 gallons of barrel water we've used to water our vegetables and flowers, a net savings of about $4.30!
At least the plants seem to love it....

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The geothermal heating estimate

I'm sure I already mentioned the belching monster of a furnace we have in our basement. I'm sure it was state-of-the-art in 1956. And I certainly admire that it was built well enough to work for 50 winters without so much as a hiccup. But it has to go!

We just got our gas bill yesterday, and it looks like our annual natural gas consumption was 1200 CCF. I plugged that into a carbon-footprint calculator and got a little dizzy when I found out that 1200 CCF produces about 14,000 pounds of carbon dioxide every year. Holy Cow!

That furnace really has to go!

One furnace option we're really keen on is the geothermal heat pump. It consists of a network of underground pipes hooked to a high-efficiency electric heat pump. It is highly efficient because the temperature underground is steady year-round. A traditional furnace pulls freezing air from outside, then heating it to a comfortable indoor temperature. Geothermal pulls the air from the underground pipes, and because it is a steady temperature, expends less energy heating it up to heat your house.

They can also be retrofitted to heat half of your hot water, and to act as an air conditioner in the summertime. So really, it's a furnace, air conditioner and auxiliary water heater all in one. It is also considered one of the cleanest, least CO2 producing furnace options.

We got an estimate from (maybe our one and only) local installed. Looks like it'll cost $12,400 to convert our house to that system. I still have to crunch all the numbers, but it seems promising. The installer estimated the pay-back time at about 5 years. If it cuts those $350 plus heating bills in the winter, it may just work out.

In the meantime, I have a lot more homework to do.

How much do you really save with compact flourescent lightbulbs?

I love the earth but admit I am a cheapskate. My palms get a little sweaty when I head to the hardware store to buy lightbulbs, and the 6-pack of compact flourescents cost $10.

So let's do the math. How much does a compact flourescent bulb really cost you, compared to a regular light bulb?

It costs $2 to use a a 13-watt compact fluorescent light bulb 6 hours a day for one year, and $18 for the typical 60-watt bulb, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. So every incandescent bulb you replace with a compact flourescent will save you $16 a year.


Flourescents also last longer, up to 7 years, than other bulbs. Of course, they are more expensive. But in this case it looks like paying more upfront will save me cash in the long run.

It's easier when I think of each little lightbulb in the bubble package as a $16 a year bonus.

But let me be clear that I'm not going crazy buying cartloads of them either. I've read that it's best to just buy one package to start, and use it to replace the bulbs in the fixtures you use the most. I figure that's the overhead light in the bathroom, above the kitchen sink, in my bedside lamps, and the two floor lamps in the basement and living rooms. I've also read that it's good to keep a few extra on hand, and use them to replace egular light bulbs as they burn out. In theory, within a year or so, you'll have a house full of energy-sipping conpact flourescents without the expense of buying them all at once. (or wasting perfectly good, normal light bulbs.)

Looks like I have another weekend project....

The argument for a laundry line and air-drying your clothes

Laundry lines aren't the most glamorous topic, but they are more interesting than you might think. Especially if you're trying to reduce your carbon footprint. Oh, and save money.

Your clothes dryer is one of the most energy-intensive appliances in your home. BY some estimates, they cost about $85 a year to operate and emit an average of about 3.9 pounds of carbon dioxide every day (according to the Sierra Club).

No wonder line-drying has become rallying cry for environmentalists. Yes, there are now laundry-line activists who are fighting to overturn municipal ordinances and homeowners association bylaws against line drying. (Visit them at LaundryList.org)

It's a compelling argument. We installed a laundry line this spring. And we hang out our laundry maybe three times each week. I admit that sometimes it can be a hassle to lug the laundry up the stairs and outside. Line drying definitely takes more time-- there's the lugging, the hanging, and of course, the fingers-crossed hope-it-doesn't-rain-before-my-clothes-dry dance. Oh, and line drying makes your clothes a little "crunchy", which is remedied only by lugging them back to the laundry room for a 5 minute tumble in the dryer to soften them up.

My hubby was the driving force behind the laundry line. I admit I was slow to warm to the idea. But now that we're in the groove, I love it. There is something relaxing about slwoing the pace of my over-booked life long enough to pin up each sock and towel as squirrels scurry in the trees above me. Something invigorating about the fresh air.

And something great about slightly lower electricity bills, although it's hard to tell how much of that is laundry and how much is our switch to compact flourescent bulbs. (That's another story.)

Even though our neighbor protests, insisting that laundry lines are low-rent (A common perception, despite all of them growing up with mom's who line-dried), we aren't alone in our laundry lining.

Here are several news stories on the issue:
This Story in the Boston Globe

A story in the CS Monitor

We like it so much we're thinking of upgrading with two high-tech laundry lines, one outside and one in the basement laundry room. (Check these out:http://www.clotheslineshop.com)

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Truth About Rain Barrels

I apologize for the angry rant about my complaining neighbor. I am quite steamed about the whole incident.

But allow me to back up. We bought two rain barrels from the Friends of Big Darby Creek, a nonprofit attached to one of our local watersheds. They subsidized the barrels, bringing down the cost to about $30 each-- quite a lot cheaper than the usual $100 to $120 price tag. We're having some problems with swelling rivers after major storms, and it turns out houses with gutters like mine are contributing a lot to the problem.

Our gutters do not run off into the grass. Instead, they are connected to a series of underground tubes that funnel the water directly into the sewer, which then drain into the closest river. Apparently it's better for the water to run directly into your grass.

Enter the rain barrels. We can reduce our environmental impact two ways if we use them-- the first, involves not taxing the watershed. The second: Using tap water for gardening is not only bad for plants (They don't like the chemicals in the water), it strains our city's water-treatment plants.

And, it'll save us money. We have quite the vegetable garden brewing, and when we water with tap, we pay twice-- once for the water itself, then an equal charge for sewer volume. (The utility assumes the water you use will end up in the sewer).

Our barrels hold about 80 gallons each. Including water and sewer charges, it'll save us about $5 on our bill every time we use about 750 gallons of barrel water on gardens. It's not huge, but it's nothing to sneeze at, although the number of barrels we use each summer depends on how much rain we get, and so far it looks as though we are headed for a drought.

We installed one on each side of the house, on the gutter closest to our vegetable and flower gardens. Each comes with an overflow hose, to direct water away from the foundation if the barrel is full, and a spigot that attaches to a standard garden hose.

Here is the Wikipedia entry for rain barrels, with some interesting facts and links to information on how to install and build your own barrels. Check out Wikipedia's entry

It seems like an eco- and a pocket-book win-win to me, despite the protests of our less-than-sunny neighbor. Heck, maybe I should crunch the numbers and make the economic case that he too should install one!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Our first complaint from the neighbors

I suppose it's bound to happen. You want to make changes that are better for the environment, and for some reason it ruffles the feathers of the neighbors.

My father-in-law installed two rain barrels, one on each side of my house, this weekend. Last night, we found an index card with our neighbor's phone number on it and a "please call me" note stuck in our front door.

So we called. He said our laundry line and our rain barrels were "unsightly and disturbing all of the neighbors."

Needless to say, we were furious.

The laundry line is in the backyard. This neighbor is the only one who can see it, and only from his back upstairs window.
The rain barrels are hidden behind trees and cannot be seen from the street. They are also smaller and less offensive than our trash cans, which sit right outside with them. (All of our neighbors keep the trash cans outside.)

We are disappointed, to say the least. We don't want problems with our neighbors. We have good relationships with most of them. The hubby plays bridge with one older woman across the street, another watches the house while we are out of town, and another comes over to share the numbers for plumbers, electricians, and other handy people, or to chat about their grandchildren.

This neighbor in particular has always been frosty to us, so I shouldn't be surprised.

But as much as I like being nice to the neighbors, we are standing our ground. The rain barrels will stay up and our laundry will dry outside. I just have my fingers crossed that this is not the first in a long string of futile battles over the "green" ranch project

Friday, June 8, 2007

Summertime = furnace?

Now that it's 90 degrees outside I've been thinking about my furnace.
That might seem weird, but hey, who wants to replace their furnace when it's 20 degrees outside? Not me.

The hubby and I have decided that the furnace is the first big project we're going to tackle. It makes sense. The darn thing has been chugging along in our basement since 1957. (My guess is it wouldn't make the grade for an Energy Star rating). It also costs us a huge bucket of cash to use. In the winter, we bundle up in sweaters and keep the thermostat on 60 degrees, yet we are still paying north of $350 a month to "heat" our 1,400 square foot house.

Here's the catch: We aren't quite sure what to replace it with. So I've been poking around on the Internet.

I read a compelling story about new micro-CHP furnaces. Basically, they not only heat your house, but use the extra energy to generate electricity. They are used widely in Japan, but have just made their debut in North America. (Here is a link to that story:http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/1114/p01s02-usec.html)

Then there is geothermal, a series of underground tubes that transfer heat into and out of your house. It is incredibly efficient and emits almost no CO2. Alas, we have a small lot, so I'm not sure if it's an option for us. Plus, I'm not sure if there is an installer near us, or if it's going to be prohibitively expensive. (for more info: http://www.geoexchange.org/)

The least sexy option is merely to upgrade the furnace we already have. I mean, a new, normal furnace would still have to be significantly more energy efficient than the 50-year-old monster that's chewing up natural gas at our house every winter, right?

We are budgeting between $7,000 and $12,000 for this project. It makes my palms sweat a little bit because that's a lot of money.

But that's about how much we are budgeting for each of the major system/structural upgrades to our house: The furnace, the roof, the windows, and maybe if we're feeling frisky, a net-metered solar power system to top it all off.
Our plan is to tackle one big project a year, to spread out the costs.

So let the shopping begin.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The $20 earth-friendly makeover

I bet you've never given a second thought to your faucet aerator. Faucet aerators are the little disks in the mouth of your faucet that regulate how much water comes out when you turn the handle. If you're like me, it's something that never even occurred to you. And who would have thought that those little buggers could be replaced with more efficient models? Once again, not me.

But after a short investigation, I discovered that I was sending 2.5 gallons a minute down the drain. Multiply by two bathroom faucets, and well, it just seems like a bit much. So I spent my first $4.30, plus shipping, for the earth.

That was enough to get me two ultra-low-flow faucet aerators. They only use a half a gallon a minute.(You can see what I'm talking about here

It only took about a minute to install each one, and much to my surprise the faucets still have plenty of water pressure.

At this point, I'm already feeling mildly smug. It feels good to save a polar bear, one gallon at a time.

So what about the other $15 or so? While cruising the aisles at Lowe's I splurged and bought a low-flow shower head. My hubby was skeptical. Until his morning shower today.

That showerhead seems to have not only made us "greener" but also saved him, the daily late-waker, the unhappy shock of a cold morning shower. Who could resist that?

I'll admit. These first two "projects" are probably the easiest we are going to encounter on our journey. But hey, I'm not too proud to admit that the cheap and easy path is a great place to start.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Where we are and where we want to be

I suppose the first step of any meaningful transformation is a realistic assessment of where you are right now.
We bought this house about a year ago. At 1,400 square feet, it's modest. It's a great house, but let's face it, it's as green as a mid 1970s coal-burning power plant.

We've got leaky, single-paned aluminum windows, and the original 1956 gas furnace is pumping away in the basement. The roof needs to be replaced, and the air conditioner looks like it was fresh out of the box in 1982. Not the formula for energy efficiency. But at least I won't feel bad ripping out the old stuff. It'd be a lot worse trying to "green" a house if the systems were just new enough that it'd be a waste to replace them.

So that's where we are. Here is what we'd like to do.

We want to reduce the amount of CO2 we're generating. Suspect No. 1 is the furnace. It's so old, that it's the biggest offender. Because of it's age it has to be terribly inefficient. Sadly, we keep the thermostat on 60 all winter and our heating bill is still more than $300 a month. It's got to go.

Part 2 of reducing CO2 is to reduce our dependence on coal-burning power plants. Electricity is cheap in Ohio. Very cheap, but our utility generates 80 percent of its power from coal plants. Most were built before tough pollution standards were in effect which equals EEK! A lot of river towns around here are practically condemned because of the pollution these plants generate. So once the furnace goes, tackling this will be the next big project.

We'd also like to reduce the amount of water we use, recycle more, and reduce the amount of waste we produce.

And here are the rules:
We aren't rolling in money. All of our projects have to pay us back in some way. Either they can be cheap, but provide a significant boost to quality of life, or if they require a big bunch of cash, they have to save us money somehow.

We're hoping our journey can act as a guide to other Midwestern homeowners. And let's face it-- the Midwest is the land of the price-conscious value shopper. If it doesn't pay off, people here won't do it! That said, we'll probably do a lot of price comparisons between traditional products and earth-friendly, just so you guys can see the math and decide if it might make sense for you.