How to Buy Eco Friendly Paint

Eco-Friendly Paints
CC flickr photo courtesy of ewan and donabel

Painting the interior of your home should be a wonderful experience. It makes everything look new again, brightens up a room, and helps you create the ambiance you envision. Common commercial paints can do all that, but at the same time cause dangerous problems from fumes that can harm both you and the environment.

What Is Eco-Friendly Paint?

Eco-friendly paints are specifically designed to do everything those other paints do, but without the toxic fumes. The most common fumes, known as VOCs (volatile organic compounds), are not only present while the paint is drying, but can last long after the paint is applied. In fact, paints that contain VOCs can release those toxins into the air for years after application.

See our previous post about our own use of no VOC paint in a construction project.

In addition to VOCs, there are other ingredients to be wary of as well. Ammonia, acetone and formaldehyde are often used in paint products and are toxic, but are not covered under the EPA’s VOC rating. Read your labels carefully when choosing your home’s paint. Check the ingredients that are used to extend the shelf life of most commercial paints. Mold-inhibitors, biocides and fungicides can also off-gas chemicals for years. These chemicals can impact your air quality and can contribute to breathing problems.

Continue reading “How to Buy Eco Friendly Paint”

Eco Friendly Furniture Options

Eco-friendly furniture
CC flickr photo courtesy of David Stanley

There are few things as satisfying as furnishing a new home, or choosing new furniture to update a home.  The items we choose to make a place feel like a home do so by creating a feeling, and by reflecting our own unique style. Home is sanctuary.  And the furniture options we have to choose from are almost limitless. However, furniture production is resource-intensive and can involve chemicals that are bad for your health.  Seeking out eco-friendly furniture can be a great way to make a difference without any sacrifice of comfort or style.

Eco-friendly choices are widely available in today’s market of home furnishings.  However, there are also many retailers using “green washing” tactics to market their goods, so it is important to know the basics before you start shopping. Continue reading “Eco Friendly Furniture Options”

Eco Friendly Flooring Options

Eco-friendly Flooring
Bamboo floor - CC flickr photo by anathea

There are two main reasons to choose eco-friendly flooring when looking for materials to renovate old surfaces or create new structures. The first reason is your family’s health. Many of today’s flooring options off-gas harmful chemicals and negatively affect your home’s indoor air quality.

The second reason to choose eco-friendly flooring for your home is to reduce the impact on the environment. Most carpet and vinyl production is energy-intensive and uses up our petroleum reserves. The dyes, adhesives, sealants, etc. used in flooring manufacturing and installation also contribute harsh chemicals to the environment.

What Makes Flooring Eco-Friendly?

Choosing eco-friendly materials for your flooring eliminates both the impact to your health, and the impact to the environment. Ideally, eco-friendly flooring: Continue reading “Eco Friendly Flooring Options”

Eco-Friendly Pet Products, An Overview

Eco-Friendly Pet Products
CC flickr photo courtesy of kevin dooley

American Pet Products Association estimates that in 2012 there are more than 72.9 million homes with pets. They are a big part of our lives, but can also have a big impact on the environment around us.

There’s a lot of waste that can be reduced effectively by choosing green pet products. Here are some ways that you can decrease the carbon footprint your pet leaves, and make pet ownership more responsible.

The Planet-Conscious Pooch

What dog doesn’t love a good game of fetch? Whatever toys your dog loves best, there are eco-friendly versions to make their play more eco-friendly. EcoChoices offers a wide selection of dog toys, from nontoxic balls to hemp-stuffed toys. Continue reading “Eco-Friendly Pet Products, An Overview”

Solar Pool Heaters: an Overview

Wondering about your options for a solar pool heater?

If you love your pool and want to use it more of the year, but don’t want the expense of using fuel to heat it, you may want to consider a solar pool heater.

Swimming pool solar heaters use the energy of the sun to warm your pool’s water. The way a solar heater works is by channeling water through your pool’s pump to the heater. The heater is a mesh of tiny, black rubber or plastic tubes that hold your pool water and maximize the amount of surface area receiving the sun’s heat. The sun heats the water and it is recirculated into your pool, warming it. Other devices such as timers and control valves can regulate your desired temperature and only run water through your filter during daylight hours. In the US, solar can extend your use of your pool to year-round in southern climates and extend it significantly if you live in a cold climate like the northeast.

Swimming Pool Solar Heater
CC flickr photo courtesy of Phil Wiffen

Continue reading “Solar Pool Heaters: an Overview”

Solar Rope Lights: an Overview

Solar rope lighting is useful and decorative. You may just string some along a pathway, or the edge of your swimming pool. And that would be sufficient, until you think of other uses for it. Maybe you’ll go a little overboard and cover your entire house with it during the holidays. Really, you could do whatever your heart desires, but before you do, there’s some things about solar rope lighting that you should know.

First of all, what are solar rope lights, anyway?

Solar rope lighting is a woven strand of Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs). It is then encased in clear plastic, to protect the LEDs. This also enables you to wrap the lights around a pole, or lay them in straight lines. A small solar collector is attached to the LEDs. During the day, the solar collector charges a small, rechargeable battery that powers the LEDs. It’s important during the day that your solar collector get enough light, or else you’ll get no light or dim light at night. A light sensor determines when light is low enough to turn your lights on. Solar rope lights comes in white, or a single color, or, festively, many colors. You can get a woven strand of LEDs, or a strand with individual lights (like holiday lights).

Solar Powered Rope Lights
CC flickr photo courtesy of Robert Hruzek

Continue reading “Solar Rope Lights: an Overview”

Solar Screens and Solar Film for Windows, An Overview

If you’re looking for a simple way to reduce home cooling costs, solar film and solar screens can be great solutions. Screens, a special mesh that blocks sunlight from reaching your window, and film, which is essentially a special tinting application that blocks heat and glare, are two cost-effective simple solutions to beat the summer’s heat. By blocking the sun from hitting windows and entering your home or office, you prevent heat from building up that will then need to be cooled by air conditioning.

Advantages of Solar Screens and Film

  • Reduces energy costs associated with cooling.
  • No additional cost after installation.
  • Many contractors will custom install screens or film; conversely, there are do-it-yourself options available.
  • Solar screens can be easily removed during the winter to allow the sun to warm your home.

Disadvantages of Solar Screen and Film

  • Most screens and films will not obstruct your view. However, they will darken your view, allowing less light to enter a room.
  • Solar screens will need to be cleaned. This usually involves a simple hosing down, although with heavier build-up, some heavier cleaning may be necessary.
  • Some people don’t like the look of screens, as they appear opaque from the outside of your home, entirely concealing your windows from the outside.
  • Solar film cannot be removed, so it will block desirable sun during the winter time.

Phifer makes a solar screen called Super Solar 90, which is a vinyl-coated polyester weave that blocks 90% of the sun’s rays. You can buy it by the linear square foot for under $4 a foot. It’s easy to work with in do-it-yourself installations. They also manufacture a PVC-coated polyester screen called Suntex 80 that provides a good balance between shade and visibility. Retailers have also started selling it by the square foot.

Solar film is much like what people install in their car windows to reduce UV rays fading their interior and to stop heat gain. The same principles apply to the tint for your windows at home.

You can have a contractor install high-quality metalized film to tint your windows. Or you can buy high-quality film and install it yourself. Metalized film reflects UV rays as they come into contact with your film. Many metalized films have the added advantage of maintaining your privacy. Cheaper tinting options, such as vinyl tint, can fade, warp, streak when cleaned and become brittle with age.

Solar films come in different varieties, from dyed films, metalized films, deposit films and hybrid films. All possess a layer of dark polyester (the tint itself) and varying degrees of enhancements to make the films more effective. For a brief run-down of the nitty-gritty on each variety, check out TintCenter.com.

Solar films work at any solar trajectory (the sun’s angle in the sky). Many screens work best when the sun is angled high in the sky. Another benefit of film over screens is that an applied film can make your windows stand up to weather better. Screens can be damaged by debris carried by high winds.

When shopping for tint, look for the total heat which is reflected and rejected. “Reflected” pertains to the solar rays that are bounced off the tint. “Rejected” means the infrared light (that’s what heats your home), absorbed by the tinted window and then rejected. The lower the number advertised in either case, means the less light reflected or rejected. For further information on common jargon, you can check out SolarGard.com. If you want a tint application that will work in both summer and winter, choose one with a moderate rate reflectivity and rejection. It will keep your home cooler (though not as cool as one with higher rejection), and will allow more sunlight in during winter months to provide some heat gain provided by the sun.

One alternative option to consider are roll-down shades. They can be rolled out when you want to block the sun and rolled up whenever you want (for instance, during the winter), if you want to increase the sun coming in.

South-facing windows are a priority, as they get the most exposure to the sun. Considerations such as the climate in your area, how complicated you want to get and the money you’re willing to spend will factor into your particular screening or filming approach. Another thing to consider before going with either option is whether screens or film tinting will affect the warranty on your windows. If they void your warranty, they become less of an attractive option.

Solar screens are generally cheaper to install, whereas a commercial-grade tint can be more pricey. Either one is an effective, low-maintenance way to keep your home or business a comfortable temperature and prevent fading and discoloration of interiors.

Green Paper Products: Eco-Friendly Paper Towels, Napkins, and More

Household paper products are problematic for environmentalists. While convenient and disposable, nothing about them is compatible with conservation. They just create waste. Even more eco-friendly and “green” paper products still use energy and resources in their manufacturing and most eventually end up in a landfill.

Green Paper Products
CC flickr photo courtesy of NatalieMaynor

If this is something that concerns you, you’re not alone. Here’s our quick guide to making sound decisions for our planet, while not having to break out the fine china for a barbecue or your child’s birthday party. In a nutshell:

  • Use reusable products for everyday use
  • Choose eco-friendly disposable products for the occasional large group

Continue reading “Green Paper Products: Eco-Friendly Paper Towels, Napkins, and More”

Earthship Videos: A Roundup of the Best

Earthships are the ultimate in sustainably built homes that consume zero-energy and zero resources. They can be built in any climate, in any area of the world and all using sustainable building methods that cost as much as a conventionally built home. Besides saving money with utility-free living, they also save the planet from the unsustainably built, energy hogging homes of most average Americans live in. If you’re interested in changing the way you live, then take a look at these six life changing videos about Earthships.

The Green Home Source Visits Earthship Biotecture

If you’re unfamiliar with what Earthship constructions all about, then this video will bring you up to speed. The walk through of an Earthship built by the architect Mike Reynolds, who coined the term “Earthship”, was done by the Green Home Source at Taos, New Mexico in a beautifully built Earthship. The host explains the four pillars of a green building program and how an Earthship is better by being “Deep Green”.

Texas Earthship Tour: Finishing Touches

This Earthship video gets into more detail about the finishing stages of assembly and the engineering solutions that make an Earthship so energy efficient. Several workers explain how the roof assembly functions triple duty as a water barrier, a water collector and as a geothermal ventilation opening. The tour continues on as busy workers install flagstones, build wine bottle walls and assemble greywater equipment, showing you the finer details that go into building an Earthship.

Fishing in the Phoenix Earthship

Another cool video that shows you how an Earthship goes further than any eco-friendly home in the world with its unique water treatment facility. This Earthship actually feeds you as the young man in the video demonstrates. Upon catching a fish from the indoor water reclamation pond, they clean it and cook it along with a handful of edible herbs and fruits from the indoor garden.

Earthship Biotecture: The Hut

A great in depth explanation by architect Mike Reynolds that sets the tone when he utters the phrase “A beaver and wasp can build their own homes, but we can’t and there is something wrong with that”. As Reynolds goes into the true meaning about his Earthship vision, a couple builds the smallest of Earthships, the basic hut. Complete instructions are given during this extra long 20+ minute video.

Our Mini Earthship

Skip across the pond to jolly England when this young crew builds a mini Earthship. Building this smaller version of an Earthship would be a great way to get acquainted with Earthship construction before building the real deal. This crew quickly builds a small Earthship, showing you how easy it is to build your own Earthship, anywhere in the world.

“Earthships New Solutions” Official Trailer

This video is the official trailer for the movie “Earthships New Solutions” and shows a glimpse of what it takes for the crew from Earthship Biotecture to complete one of the most eco-friendly structures on the planet. This documentary is bound to inspire change in the building industry about the construction of Earthships.

These are our favorites. Did we miss any good videos? Leave a comment and let us know.

Eric Brennan is a second generation master carpenter with over 20 years of construction industry experience. Since 2005, Eric has also been a hard at work honing his skills as a home improvement writer. In 2009, he was given the Associated Content award for best home improvement writer. Eric is currently a featured green and home improvement writer for the Yahoo! Contributor Network and editor of Construct101. He has produced thousands of articles on everything construction, remodeling, interior decorating, green building, and many other home improvement related fields for countless websites and blogs including the DIY network, P&G Tide, DeWalt.com, AT&T, Huffington Post, and Yahoo! News.

Earth Ship Homes: Why So Few?

Flickr CC photo, courtesy of dave-friedel

According to the PEW Center on Global Climate Change, our home energy consumption needs contribute to one fifth of the United States’ annual electrical output. That’s a lot of power. But what’s even worse is our electrical bills can easily eat up $1,500 a year or more of our hard earned money — and a good percentage of that energy is lost through our homes energy-inefficiency.

While replacing your light bulbs with CFLs and insulating the old crawlspace are all good environmental practices, they are really a drop in the bucket compared to where our energy consumption rates should be. Even with today’s awareness about global warming and energy conservation, the average American’s energy consumption rates have barely decreased in the last few years.

The time to change our building industry has arrived, and we can do it by creating zero-energy, zero-environmental impact homes. An Earthship Biotecture is the perfect way to achieve a zero-energy home and still afford yourself the comforts you would expect with a conventionally built home. In fact, some Earthship homes may be more comfortable than the home you’re in now!

Best of all, Earthships can be affordable. With so many green home improvement tax credits available from Uncle Sam, your new Earthship home may be right around the corner come this April.

But you may be asking yourself, if the offer is so good, then how come nobody else is building Earthships? That’s one of the most asked questions about Earthship construction. The reason not everyone else is doing it is simple red tape. Because of local, state and national building codes and lack of knowledge about Earthship construction methods, permits are commonly denied. Throw in the fact that local deed restrictions may not permit Earthship-type structures in the neighborhood, and you can begin to see how difficult it may become to acquire permitting and permission from governing officials.

The other big hurdle when building your own Earthship is money. If you don’t have the financing for building your own Earthship, then a bank may not lend you the money. When loan officers factor in the combination of a low resale value and a low appraisal, most won’t think the loans will be viable and will quickly deny you the money.

But if you’re still keen on the idea of an Earthship and those minor hurdles are out of your way and of no concern to you, then building an Earthship can be easily done. If you’re a DIY expert and you’re ready to undertake the ultimate home improvement project, then you can start breaking ground right away. But first you need to learn about Earthship construction, and that’s easy. If you’re all about going to the source, then the original architect who coined the phrase Earthship Biotecture, Mike Reynolds is the man for you. With personal consultations and advice offered for a fee, they can help you and your Earthship get started in the right direction.

You can also find more information about other Earthship builders at U.S. Green Building Councils Green Home Guide if you’re looking for professional advice from across the country or need someone to build your new Earthship in your backyard. Whether you build your own Earthship or have a builder do it for you, the investment you make now will go a long way towards saving our planet in the years to come.

Eric Brennan is a second generation master carpenter with over 20 years of construction industry experience. Since 2005, Eric has also been a hard at work honing his skills as a home improvement writer. In 2009, he was given the Associated Content award for best home improvement writer. Eric is currently a featured green and home improvement writer for the Yahoo! Contributor Network and editor of Construct101. He has produced thousands of articles on everything construction, remodeling, interior decorating, green building, and many other home improvement related fields for countless websites and blogs including the DIY network, P&G Tide, DeWalt.com, AT&T, Huffington Post, and Yahoo! News.

Earth Friendly ways to mow the grass

lawn mower at the gas pump
Photo courtesy of AbracaDebra at Flickr.com

Everyone loves a well manicured yard, and there are a multitude of power tools that make short work of trimming, mowing, and edging. A surprising number of green options also exist, and more people are setting aside diesel powered leaf blowers in favor of lawn friendly tools.

At this minute, the majority of people use gas powered lawnmowers. It may not be a coincidence that sales of riding lawn mowers are rising along with our obesity rate. Gas powered riding mowers are the tricked-out SUVs of lawncare. The average lawnmower uses only 0.5 gallons of gasoline per hour, but self propelled mowers can use 200-300% as much fuel while delivering only a fraction of the exercise.

Even gas mowers that have to be pushed produce a lot of pollution. They emit approximately 11 times as much pollution per hour as a car. Most of this pollution is in the form of volatile organic compounds that can cause cancer and trigger asthma attacks. Lawnmowers emit nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and other harmful hydrocarbon compounds. After they settle on the yard or filter into local rivers and streams, these toxins work their way into our food and drinking water.

Most of this pollution could be avoided if the lawnmowers had catalytic converters, but very few lawn mowers include even rudimentary pollution controls. Some of the worst lawnmowers have 2 stroke engines. This older technology relies on lubricant mixed with gasoline in the fuel tank. This mixture of fuel and oil eliminates the need for a dedicated lubricating system, which makes 2 stroke engines weigh less. Since 2 stroke engines have fewer components, they are also cheaper to build. Unfortunately, these costs savings have an environmental cost. 2 stroke engines burn oil along with their fuel supply and put out far worse fumes than 4 stroke engines or electric drive trains.

Do you want to breathe diesel fumes or poison your yard with partially burned gasoline? There are much better, greener options out there. Some alternatives to gasoline powered mowers include natural gas mowers, electric mowers, push reel mowers, livestock, and even using native plants for landscaping.

Cat staring at a lawn mower and jerry can
Photo courtesy of cheryl at Flickr.com

Fuel alternatives for gas lawnmowers
Unleaded gasoline is one of the most popular fuels for lawnmowers, but mowers also exist that are designed to burn other compounds. Some mowers can be converted to use cleaner fuels. Check with the manufacturer – not all leaf blowers, edgers, and lawn mowers can burn ethanol or bio diesel. Other models are made specifically to burn methanol, propane, or methane. These alternative fuels still produce pollution, but they produce far less (especially if you have a local fuel source with a lower associated carbon footprint).

A propane riding mower - with large tanks on either side of the driver
Photo courtesy of jgoverly at Flickr.com

Electrical mowers

Electric mowers come in two varieties – battery powered mowers and plug-in mowers. If you want freedom from cords, battery mowers are the way to go. They have some drawbacks though, including limited endurance, reduced torque, and increased weight. Mowers with batteries are also less eco-friendly than plug in mowers. Manufacturing batteries is a dirty business, and batteries also waste a lot of power while charging up (20-80% depending on the type and age of the battery).

If you’re using an electric lawn mower, the source of electricity at your home determines the footprint of the mower. More than 80% of the power on the US power grid comes from coal, and that power is only slightly cleaner than gasoline. If your home is supplied with green electricity from solar arrays, wind turbines, a hydroelectric dam, or similar sources, then a plug-in lawnmower is much cleaner. You can get even more green out of an electric mower by converting it to run on solar power.

An array of solar panels, charging the 36 volt battery of a lawnmower
Photo courtesy of M.Barkley at Flickr.com

Push reel mowers
People powered lawnmowers are even more environmentally friendly than electric mowers, because they’re powered by human muscle power. Rather than burn calories on an endless climb on the stairmaster, why not use your muscles to accomplish something? Manual mowers have several advantages – they produce no exhaust fumes, they don’t ever need to be plugged in, and they are far less dangerous than other mowers. Even if you run the mower over pebbles, the slow moving blades aren’t going to throw rocks.

Push reel lawnmowers are pleasant to operate. Since they have no engine, they are almost completely silent. You can listen to birds in the trees while mowing, or bring your phone along and talk to friends while doing lawncare. If you’re an early riser, you can mow at 7am without waking up your neighbors.

A push reel mower - spinning scythe blades mounted to an axle with a long metal handle for pushing
Photo courtesy of Beaker’s Glassworks, Jewelery & Things at Flickr.com

Lawn mowing animals
If pushing a mower (of any kind) isn’t your idea of fun, you could always outsource the work. Livestock is nature’s own solution to overgrown grass. If you’ve always wanted your own full-time gardener, don’t forget that ruminants make a really cheap labor force.

Sheep and geese are happy to trim the yard, and they produce wool and down feathers as well as meat. Sheep ranchers are having a tough time with falling prices, and some are making ends meet by leasing out their sheep herds as expert mowers. If you have a larger area, cows are four legged mowing machines. In Australia, wallabies are becoming increasingly popular for their lawnmowing skills.

Some towns and HOAs have started keeping herds of farm animals instead of sheds full of gardening equipment. On the Google campus, a trial is underway using goats to keep the lawn trimmed. Several urban homesteaders have reported problems with goats though, because they’re escape artists and they can be unpredictable eaters. That means that they’ll eat some weeds while ignoring the grass, or that they’ll chew one area down to the roots while ignoring thigh high blades of grass on the other side of the yard.

sheep and geese on a lawn
Photo courtesy of albatrail at Flickr.com

Slow growing / native plants
Another way to control your landscape is to use alternative plants. Some species of grass grow at a much slower rate than the popular St. Augustine and Bermuda. These slow growing grasses require less maintenance, and they often require less fertilizer (further reducing their environmental impact). Clover and bluebonnets are popular alternatives because they naturally fertilizes the soil.

When choosing plants, think about using native species. Native plants are very well suited to the climate and wont run out of control like invasive plants. Xeriscaping your yard will also reduce the amount of water needed to keep the landscape lush and green in the middle of summer. Cactus and wildflowers aren’t the only native plants to consider – moss works surprisingly well and prairie grass also has great eye appeal.

Native grass growing in Lurie garden with skyscrapers in the background
Photo courtesy of one2c900d at Flickr.com

How to use solar power without installing a solar panel

solar-water-heater-london-permaculture-fl
Photo courtesy of London Permaculture

Under new Federal laws, you can get tax credits for 30% of most solar panel installations. Some states have additional incentives, and many utilities are also encouraging customers to install solar panels so that they don’t have to build new coal power plants.

Even with these incentives, photovoltaic panels are pricey. In these tough economic times, it’s important to remember that there are many other ways to take advantage of energy from the sun. Here are a few low-cost options:

Install a solar water heater – Passive solar systems cost a fraction of what solar panels cost and they are much more efficient at heating water (because they generate heat directly, without the need for inverters or battery storage of energy). Solar water heaters are also eligible for a 30% tax credit, the same amount that photovoltaic panels can earn. There are many different designs for solar water heaters, and some are more suitable for different parts of the country.

Use a clothesline – For the cost of a sturdy rope and some clothespins, you can unplug your electric clothes dryer. Even on a cool day, a gentle breeze will suck the moisture out of clothes. Clothes that are dried on a clothesline last longer (there’s less wear and tear from tumbling in the dryer), they smell better, and they’re naturally sterilized by UV light from the sun. Switching to a clothesline can cut your electric bill by 10-15%.

Turn out the lights – When the sun is shining, there’s no reason to keep the curtains closed. Instead of using a couple of hundred watts of electricity to power lightbulbs, turn off those lights and let the sunlight in! If Peeping Toms are a worry in your neighborhood, install slats or polarized window coverings for privacy. These window treatments will also filter out UV light and reduce carpet fading. Or, you can plant a window box full of kitchen herbs and obscure the view with tall plants while still letting in natural light.

Build to take advantage of the sun – When drawing blueprints or choosing a place to live, remember that a building’s layout can make a major difference in the amount of air conditioning and heating that’s needed. One thing to consider is orientation – building short walls on the east and west sides reduces the surface area that’s exposed to early morning and late evening sunlight. Another thing to consider is solar massing – using thick, heat absorbent materials like adobe can insulate a building against hot weather during the day and cold weather during the night, cutting heating costs by up to 65%.

Use trees – Trees provide wonderful natural shade, and they also capture solar energy the old fashioned way, by converting sunshine into firewood. Tree choices can also complement the way that buildings capture sunlight in the winter and block sunlight in the summer. One popular landscaping choice is to plant deciduous trees on the east and west sides of a building. That way, the leafy trees block sunlight in the summer (when leaves are full) and let sunlight through in the winter (after the leaves fall off).

Try a solar cooker – Sunlight is a great way to boil water and cook food. It’s easy to focus sunshine with collectors, and simple solar cookers can be made for less than $15 using just about anything and aluminum foil. Here are instructions for making a solar cooker out of a used pizza box. There are compact solar cookers tailor made for camping and larger models suitable for crock pot cooking.

In many developing countries and off-grid locations, solar cookers are reducing indoor air pollution by replacing firewood, charcoal, propane, and other fuel sources. These solar cookers can save thousands of lives each year, while also reducing deforestation and reducing conflict over limited resources. Since sunlight is free, solar cookers drastically cut the cost of boiling water for sanitation purposes. If you want to take advantage of sunlight without buying a solar panel, here’s a great recipe for Solar Baked Brownies!

solar-cooker-rangorang-fl
Photo courtesy of AIDG

Mulching with recycled rubber tires

tires-tyres-vagawi-fl
Photo courtesy of Vagawi

Every year, approximately 1 Billion tires are replaced due to wear and tear. Many of these tires end up in landfills, but the majority are burned or converted into Tire Derived Fuel. A growing number of tires are being recycled after they have reached the end of their useful lifespan.

Recycling tires is a tricky process, because tires are a hodgepodge of many different things:

A typical passenger tire contains 30 types of synthetic rubber, eight types of natural rubber, eight types of carbon black, steel cord, polyester, nylon, steel bead wire, silica and 40 different kinds of chemicals, waxes, oils and pigments. They typically contain 85% hydrocarbon, 10-15% iron (in the bead wire and steel belts) and a variety of chemical components.

Discarded tires are mostly inert, but their effects on the environment are largely unknown. When discarded in landfills, they pose a significant fire risk and they take up a lot of space. Even before they reach the landfill, a lot of tire rubber flakes off into the environment from normal wear and tear. The effects of this worn tire rubber haven’t been widely studied.

Old tires are a cheap and plentiful resource, so many different ideas have been proposed to put old tyres to practical use. In the 1970’s, several attempts were made to build artificial reefs out of discarded tyres. Those plans didn’t work out very well, because chemicals in the tires repelled marine life. Now, millions of tires are rolling around on the ocean floor and even causing damage to natural coral reefs.

More recently, tire recycling companies stepped in and found commercial uses for tire scraps. More than 80% of dead tires end up getting turned into Tyre Derived Fuel. When tires are burned along with coal and wood scraps, they can actually reduce emissions of some pollutants.

There are other uses for recycled tires – they’re used as an ingredient in road construction, as a replacement for pavement, to make rubber flooring, and as artificial mulch. A blend of liquid asphalt and “Fine Grind” tire rubber lasts about 25% longer than other road surfaces, which cuts down on maintenance costs for highways nationwide. Crumb rubber is also widely used on running tracks and playgrounds for children. It provides excellent cushioning and prevents injuries for children and adults alike. Rubber chips are also offered as mulch.

Rubber mulch is a controversial product. Some gardeners swear by it as a long lasting weed suppressant and low maintenance landscape surface. Other gardeners steer clear of rubber mulch, due to concerns about chemical leaching, fire hazards, and smell.

Here are some of the benefits of using rubber mulch instead of wood mulch:

  • More durable (rubber lasts 5+ years vs 1-2 years for wood mulch)
  • Uniform look and color
  • Does not attract termites or other insects
  • No risk of mold or fungus infestation
  • No effect on wood allergies
  • Resistant to flooding and high winds
  • Cushy and comfortable to walk on
  • Helps dispose of used tires
  • Here are some of the problems with rubber mulch:

  • Some brands contain metal wire or nylon scraps
  • Smells like rubber, especially on hot or humid days
  • Potentially flammable (but so is wood mulch)
  • Risk of chemical contamination
  • Breaks down into inorganic components
  • Heats unevenly in the sun, killing sensitive roots
  • May contain carcinogens
  • The jury’s still out, but recycled rubber mulch seems safe to use in certain applications. What do you think? Do you have any experience using rubber mulch in your garden or greenhouse?

    Here’s another way you might want to consider to recycle old tires – they make great insulation for earth friendly homes. Crumb rubber also shows promise as a water filtering medium. In Arizona, state law makers are exploring another way to dispose of old tires: filling abandoned mine shafts to eliminate dangerous pitfalls. A few million years from now, who knows – those mine shafts might fill up with black gold!

    tires-oil-derrick-and-solar-panesl-road-dog-fl
    Photo courtesy of Road Dog

    How to plant a victory garden

    victory-garden-sunfell-fl
    Photo courtesy of Sunfell at Flickr.com.

    Everything old is new again. This is doubly true for trends that never went completely out of fashion, like vinyl records and Victory Gardens. Originally conceived during World War I as a way to ensure food supplies for troops, these community gardens took off in a big way during the second World War. By 1944, up to 40% of the vegetables on American tables came from a Victory Garden.

    Now, with the rising price of staple foods, increasing awareness of the environmental cost of industrial farming, and increased interest in self sufficiency and independence, Victory Gardens are making a serious comeback. The Smithsonian Institute has a new exhibit on Victory Gardens, and vegetable rows are replacing ornamental bushes nationwide.

    Modern-day Victory Gardens look a little different – gardeners are now blogging about their successes and even using Twitter to send gardening updates!

    Success with Victory Gardens is snowballing into more awareness of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Urban food pantries are stocking up with fresh fruit gleaned from “ornamental” trees. Believe it or not, some HOA’s are embracing community gardens. There’s even a campaign to start a Victory Garden on the White House lawn:

    Benefits of a victory garden:

    • Cut grocery bills
    • Gain access to fresher food
    • Boost vitamins in your diet
    • Increase the health of your soil
    • Insure against food shortages
    • Reduce exposure to pesticides and other chemicals
    • Avoid disease (or ensure access to your favorite veggies if an outbreak occurs)
    • Preserve oil supplies / reduce dependence on foreign oil
    • Grow produce for sale or gifts

    So, let’s say that you’ve been bitten by the Victory Gardening bug. Where to begin?

    It can be a bit daunting to start your first Victory Garden. There’s a lot to learn about soil, planting seasons, and local weather conditions. Hit the books! The library is a good place to start – a little bit of research can go a long way in getting the best results. As the old saying goes, an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of perspiration. Your state’s Extension Office can also be a good source of information and expert advice.

    Try looking for help from your neighbors – local gardening clubs often know the best times to plant and which species do best in your area. Find a local Gardening MeetUp, and you’ll find a pool of knowledge and maybe even people willing to lend you seeds or cuttings from their favorite plants. No matter which plants you choose, PBS is a great resource for beginner gardeners.

    In the past, Victory Gardens were all laid out from a universal template. That didn’t work out very well for people who tried to grow the same plants in California as they did in Maine and Florida. Instead of a cookie cutter layout, you should tailor your garden to local conditions. Work with your climate to choose the best plants. For example, even if you love rice, it may not make sense to grow rice if you live in the middle of the desert.

    We’ve learned a lot in the last 50 years, and it’s easier to start a vegetable garden in your yard than ever before. Incorporate this knowledge in the layout and composition of your victory garden, and you can achieve amazing results. Our grandparents didn’t have much practical experience on designing to minimize erosion or using cover crops that naturally fertilize the soil, but there’s a wealth of useful information on these techniques. Here are some other research topics that you might want to consider:

    Even if you have limited space or no yard, Victory Gardens can be grown in containers and indoor planters. Hanging planters can turn any patio or balcony into a vertical garden.

    If you don’t have a patio, many plants will thrive in window planters or grow boxes. There are also light boxes and grow lights that can turn the deepest, darkest basement into an oasis of life. Indoor plants not only make rooms beautiful – they also can help reduce sick building syndrome by providing fresh air and absorbing indoor pollutants.

    Not a gardener? No problem. There are entrepreneurs eager to turn other people’s yards into gardens. Also, there are other steps you can take to promote food safety and sustainability.

    victory-garden-mentalmasala-fl
    Photo courtesy of mental.masala at Flickr.com.

    10 Steps to a Healthy Ocean: Protecting our Oceans from Pollution

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    Photo courtesy of Webzer at Flickr.com.

    The ocean covers more than 70% of the earth’s surface, and it’s a major part of the ecosystem that we rely on. Phytoplankton are responsible for about half of the oxygen produced worldwide. More than 1 billion people rely on fish for a significant part of their diet. The ocean provides food, recreation, clean air, carbon mitigation, inexpensive transport, and many other things that we take for granted. Yet, we’ve been treating the ocean like a dump for centuries. That may have been fine when society produced trash on a very small scale and all of things we threw away were biodegradable, but technology has changed that.

    There are thousands of phantom fishing nets that keep killing fish after being abandoned. Sunken ships leak millions of gallons of oil and billions of styrofoam cups end up in the water every year. Even when these events happen thousands of miles away, they have a ripple effect that’s felt worldwide.

    The ocean is one continuous body of water. Each sea and bay is connected by strong currents and migrating animals. That means damage done to one part of the ocean will eventually affect all the connected bodies of water. After oil spills happen in the Arctic Ocean, traces of petroleum spread to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans too.

    The oceans are one of many areas around the world where the environment has a direct effect on human health and industry. For example, the rain forests convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and affect climate. Coral reefs nurture schools of fish and they offer passive protection to ports. The organisms that make these areas work are resilient – they’ve survived centuries of natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires. Yet some of these areas are under constant stress caused by humans.

    Stress factors that threaten wildlife include contamination of water supplies, climate change, human development, and invasive species. Abandoned mines are leaching hazardous chemicals into rivers and lakes. Mangrove forests are being cut down to build beach resorts. River deltas are clogging up with invasive species like zebra mussels and Wakame kelp.

    In the face of all these threats, what can we do? Here are a few steps that anyone can take to help protect the health of our oceans.

    1) Restore damaged ocean habitat

    In areas that have been fished out or poisoned by industry, native species have often been wiped out. But, that doesn’t mean that Cod have been permanently wiped out in the Atlantic, or that scallops will never return to the Virginia fisheries. Jennifer Rich is planting sea grass in an effort to restore the scallop breeding grounds of her home state. She led a volunteer effort off the coast of Virginia to replant eel grass in environmentally damaged areas. Her effort is ongoing, and similar replanting projects could use your help. Wetlands and mangrove forests are especially valuable because they filter sediment, pesticides, and fertilizer runoff before they get to the ocean.

    If you’d like to get your hands dirty in another way, plan a beach vacation off of the beaten path. Once a year, the Ocean Conservancy does a worldwide project to remove trash from the shore. Last year, volunteers cleaned up more than 30,000 miles of shoreline. In a single day, more than 7 million pieces of trash were collected for proper disposal. Check with your City Hall – many towns are happy to supply trash bins, rubber gloves, and even boats to anyone who wants to clean up local waterways.

    2) Protect natural buffer systems.

    Biosystems are nature’s utilities – they desalinate water, absorb carbon, liberate nutrients from the ground, and provide other services free of charge. The plants and animals that make up these systems are often treated as commodities, but killing the goose that lays golden eggs will only put food on the table for a day. Protecting biosystems can pay dividends for years to come.

    Forests are an essential buffer for the oceans. Old growth trees neutralize the pH of rain and absorb harmful chemicals before they reach the ocean. Trees that grow in estuaries and along riverways are especially important, but those areas also face increased development pressure and they are easy for loggers to access. Shoreline habitat is being destroyed to build giant shrimp farms and resort hotels. Luckily, there are now sustainable forestry and aquaculture options available. Sustainable logging allows limited harvesting of resources without destroying the natural processes that we benefit from. The next time you buy lumber or land, do some research and check for certifications of sustainability.

    3) Substitute organic fertilizer in the place of chemical fertilizers.

    When a lawn is overfertilized, the excess fertilizer will usually wash off into the surrounding environment. Fertilizer pollution causes eutrophication in waterways – it saturates the water and promotes algal blooms in nearby lakes. A significant amount of fertilizer runoff will eventually make it out to sea, where it can cause red tides and elevated amounts of harmful bacteria. Surprisingly, residential property has higher levels of fertilizer runoff per acre than agricultural land – possibly because farmers are smarter about how they use fertilizers.

    “12-50% of all surface water pollution originates with urban runoff. Additionally, whereas agricultural runoff tends to be limited to nutrients, runoff from roads and parking lots contains a wide variety of additional pollutants including oils, road salts, nutrients, and sediments, as well as hazardous and solid wastes.”

    Using organic fertilizers, mulch, and compost can reduce these problems. Not only are these fertilizers slower releasing, but they also contain nutrients in forms that are more easily absorbed by plants. Chemical fertilizers have other problems too. They can form a crust on the top of soil that repels water (blocking soil absorption, increasing runoff, and promoting erosion). Some chemical fertilizers will also kill soil fungus, soil bacteria, earthworms and insects, all of which play a vital role in aerating the soil and helping anchor it to the ground.

    4) Landscape with native plants

    Plants have evolved to live in just about every area of the country. These native plants are adapted to local soil and weather conditions, so there’s very little need to fertilize or water them. Many beautiful native plants are available. A yard landscaped with unusual plants can really stand out, especially during a drought when all of the neighbors yards turn to dust.

    Using native plants to conserve water is known as Xeriscaping. It can be a very effective way to cut your yard’s pollution footprint, and xeriscaped lawns also offer natural habitat to native animals and migrating species. Since native plants are heat and drought tolerant, they also work year round to trap dust, block wind, and prevent erosion.

    5) Replace impermeable groundcover

    When rain falls on bare ground, about 90% of the water is normally absorbed in the first 30 minutes. On developed land, the surface is usually covered with impervious materials such as asphalt, concrete, and cement. For every 20% of the ground that’s covered with impermeable surfaces, the amount of runoff will increase by roughly 100%. These impervious materials block water from soaking into the ground, but the water has to go somewhere. As a result, residential areas are prone to flash floods and rapid erosion which harm the water quality of nearby rivers and lakes.

    You can use this information to make smart landscaping decisions. Instead of putting a sidewalk in your garden, consider using flagstones or building a gravel pathway. If your driveway needs to be resurfaced, check into using permeable cement. There are even companies that build living rooftops – these green roofs not only help insulate your house, but they also protect your roof from heat damage, hail, UV degradation, and animal damage. Permeable areas act as natural buffers to pollution because they help contain runoff.

    6) Improve landscaping

    Runoff is often caused by poor landscaping. Many older homes have design flaws that cause water to flow much faster than necessary. Not only are these flaws easy to fix, but reducing the speed of runoff will also protect your home from flood damage and erosion. On sharp slopes, you can grow plants with deep roots like prairie grass. Other solutions include placing bales of hay on the slopes to soak up the water or installing terraces. If your building has rain gutters, installing silt fences on the gutters will slow the speed of drainage and reduce the energy of flowing water before it reaches your foundation. If you want to make an even big difference, consider putting a rain barrel or rainwater garden under your downspouts.

    When planning these projects, make sure to check local building codes. It’s also important to schedule construction projects for months with low rainfall. While the projects are underway, there will be a lot of exposed soil that can be carried away. Tarps can be used protect bare ground, and sewing quick growing plants will quickly cover up any worrisome spots.

    7) Clean up after pets

    Housepets are another major source of pollution – pet waste has concentrated forms of some toxic chemicals as well as harmful bacteria that can do serious damage to the ocean. Even the nutrients found in sewage can cause problems because they promote the growth of anaerobic bacteria. Anaerobic bacteria create an Anoxic zone of seawater, where all of the oxygen has been depleted and many organisms are unable to breathe.

    Dog droppings and cat poo contain many of the same pathogens that human waste does, such as e coli and salmonella. While human waste is at least partially treated in sewage processing plants, dog waste is often left to decompose wherever the dogs leave it. When it rains or the sprinklers turn on, harmful bacteria in pet waste is spread over the surface of your whole lawn. Runoff will carry this bacteria down the storm drains and eventually out to sea.

    One way to reduce the impact of pet waste is to bag up the poop and flush it down the toilet. Septic tanks and sewage systems use good bacteria to breakdown waste into harmless material. It doesn’t matter if the waste comes from a person or a pet – the treatment processes they use can handle almost everything. One thing that you shouldn’t put down the toilet is soiled cat litter. Cat litter is not biodegradable and can also cause damage to pipes.

    If you have a cat, you might want to go a step further and change your cat litter. The most common types of pet litter is made from bentonite clay and silica. Not only is do these materials prevent decomposition, but they are also produced by strip mining (and strip mining causes water pollution in its own right):

    “Clay-based cat litters are not a by-product of the manufacture of something else, but produced by strip mining. The clay, known as bentonite, is found under several layers of soil, which are removed in the mining process. The first few inches of clay are discarded, and the final clay is removed and processed into cat litter.”

    There are natural alternatives to conventional cat litter. Check with your local pet store, or consider making your own cat litter with shredded paper, sawdust or wheat bran. Also, some cats prefer not to use kitty litter. Cat droppings on the ground can be scooped up just like dog poop.

    If you use biodegradable pet litter or scoop up pet poo, then you may also want to try composting the pet droppings. There are tumbling composters and vermicomposters (worm composters) made especially for pet waste. It’s important to keep pet poop separate from food scraps and grass clippings. That’s because the harmful bacteria in pet waste are largely inactive and they will only multiply if there’s an available food source. A Pet Waste Composter is effective at quickly reducing pet droppings into useful fertilizer.

    8 ) Take endangered species off the menu

    It’s not easy being tasty. Our search for exotic flavors has pushed many different species to the edge of extinction, and fish are in serious trouble. Fishing trawlers are catching fish faster than they breed, which means that the fish available at the supermarket are getting younger and thinner. Some species, such as Swordfish and Orange Roughy are frighteningly rare in the wild. As certain species of fish disappear from the ocean, they leave a gap in the foodchain. The things that they feed on will multiply because nothing is controlling their numbers, and the fish that feed on the missing species will be stressed as well. The biodiversity of the ocean is in jeopardy, and people who rely on fish for a major portion of their diet face starvation due to overfishing.

    What can you do? The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a great pocket guide to bring with you to the supermarket. This guide lists many fish that are abundant, and offers alternatives to endangered species that you can eat with a clear conscience. Greenpeace publishes a Red List of fish which should not be eaten under any circumstances. These are fish that are critically threatened by overfishing, disease, or habitat loss. There are many other fish that are in the gray area – hundreds of species are at risk but not necessarily endangered. Memorizing these lists is a bit tricky. If you have a less than photographic memory and your wallet doesn’t have room for a cheat sheet, another way you can shop for fish that are plentiful is to look for the Marine Stewardship Council eco-label.

    Some species that are at risk in the wild are being raised in fish farms to supplement wild stocks. Farmed fish account for an increasing percentage of total fish caught. There’s some controversy over whether farmed fish or wild seafood are more sustainable though. The footprint and operating procedures of fish farms vary considerably between different locations. Some aquaculture operations are very earth friendly, while others turn pristine shoreline into industrial farmland and introduce devastating diseases that affect nearby wild populations. It’s important to research where your food comes from and choose responsible suppliers.

    9) Reduce CO2 Emissions.

    When most people think of pollutants, they picture ooze pouring out of factory pipes. Due to environmental regulations and pressure from consumers, almost all of these pipes have been cleaned up. Yet we still affect the environment by releasing chemicals with less immediate effects. Greenhouses gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are changing the way that our planet heats up and cools down. If the greenhouse effect is left unchecked, we could see drastic changes in the temperature of ocean water, reductions in ocean salinity as the polar ice caps melt, and shifts in the paths of major ocean currents (which would cause further temperature changes).

    In addition to climate effects, CO2 emissions can have a huge direct impact on the health of ocean life. New research suggests that salt water is becoming more acidic as it absorbs increased amounts of carbon from the air. Changing temperatures and increases acidity are some of the many factors bleaching coral reefs. Elevated temperatures increase the effect of acidity by boosting the rate at which carbonic acid dissolves calcium. Changes in the pH balance of the ocean are also affecting the metabolic rates of various animals, making it harder for many fish to breathe. That’s bad news on top of overfishing and other forms of water pollution. Even highly adaptable species like the Humboldt squid are showing changes in their behavior.

    10) Reduce Noise and Light Pollution

    Loud noises and bright lights cause major disruptions in the natural world. Animals rely on their sensitive ears and sight to evade predators and find food, yet the oceans are becoming a deafening, blinding place. All creatures have natural rhythms based on the sun and moon, day and night. These rhythms control sleep, breeding, migration, and hibernation, yet the natural rhythms are being disrupted by constant mixed signals due to human activity. The homes of many nocturnal animals are lit up 24 hours a day by beach floodlights and fishing lure lights, and the ocean is filled with the noise of motors, sonar, and mining activity. All this noise and wasted light is a serious form of pollution.

    Every year, we waste hundreds of millions of dollars worth of electricity on light that goes in unintended directions. Globe and acorn shaped streetlights are a prime example – they send light out in all directions, yet only 15-25% of that light reaches ground level. The efficiency of these spherical streetlights can be vastly increased by putting a simple reflector dish on the top, and replacing the light with a lower wattage bulb. Redirecting the light can save 75% on electricity costs, and it will also protect animals that are already endangered by human development.

    Skyglow and light trespass are also nuisances to human beings. These effects of errant light were first noticed by astronomers and other night owls, but an increasing number of people are finding that they can’t turn off the lights at night. Light pollution has a direct effect on human health, it drags down property values, and it destroys the natural beauty of the night sky.

    Some cities, states, and countries have started passing laws to protect wildlife from luminous pollution. These laws will likely become more stringent over time. Unfortunately, there are many sources of light pollution in the ocean, and very few of them are regulated.

    Here are some things you can do to reduce light pollution:

    • Upgrade exterior lights to full cut-off fixtures and other dark-sky friendly products
    • Install bulbs with lower wattage lamps
    • Turn-off lights when you’re not in the area
    • Replace automatic timers with motion detectors
    • Discuss the issue with your family, friends, and neighbors
    • Use curtains on all of your windows (this can also pay dividends in insulation)
    • Campaign for regulations that protect against photopollution in your town
    • Demand strict enforcement of light control ordinances

    Every year, thousands of sea turtle hatchlings and young seabirds are killed by lights on the beach. These lights cause reflections on sand that look just like moonlight on water, disorienting the young animals and causing them to wander away from the ocean. Instead of going for a swim, baby turtles and birds are hit by cars, eaten by predators, and die of exhaustion. Reducing light pollution can save many species from extinction.

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    Photo courtesy of Luca5 at Flickr.com.

    Sound pollution also kills many wild animals every year. The scale of the problem is unknown, and scientists are just beginning to study the effects of man-made noise on wildlife. Early results show that loud motor sounds can deafen animals who rely on their sensitive hearing to find food and evade predators. These noises can also drown out mating calls and distress signals. There is suspicion that navigation systems such as sonar are responsible for an increasing number of whale and dolphin beachings. High intensity sound waves can cause internal ruptures and induce symptoms similar to the bends.

    Water conducts sound waves much better than air does, so loud noises can travel much further in the ocean than they would on land. This is worrisome, because the noise level in the ocean is increasing rapidly. Between 1948 and 1998, the average volume of sound in the ocean increased about 15 decibels. 15 decibels may not sound like much, but that’s the difference between the amount of noise in a regular office and a busy street.

    So, how can we reduce noise pollution in the oceans?

    • Move shipping paths away from marine sanctuaries
    • Install noise baffles on boats and ships
    • Reduce the use of high intensity sonar
    • Protect sensitive habitat from oil and mineral exploration

    So, that wraps up a ‘quick’ ten-list. But, there’s one other thing you can do to save the oceans.

    Buy from environmentally responsible companies

    The policies that companies follow can make a huge difference on the health of our oceans. Since the United States put pollution controls in place, we’ve seen remarkable recovery in many of the worst affected waterways:

    “Oxygen levels in New York Harbor, for instance, are now 50 percent higher than they were 30 years ago. In the Southern California Bight, off Los Angeles and San Diego, inputs of many pollutants have been reduced 90 percent or more over a 25-year period, and the ecosystem there—including kelp, fish, and seabird populations—has greatly recovered. “

    A lot has been accomplished, but we can still do better. Comparing modern emissions to emissions from the 1970’s, is sort of like comparing a Boeing 777 to the Wright Flier – we’ve come a long way in a short period of time, and we should expect major improvements. Unfortunately, many companies are still stuck in the seventies and see nothing wrong with dumping wastewater directly into rivers that feed into the ocean. Not all of our factories and processing plants are using best practices, but it’s easy to find companies that devote resources to improving their environmental record.

    When you make purchase decisions at work or for your home, are you buying from companies that publish an independently reviewed environmental report card? If you can convince even one of the companies you do business with to adopt these guidelines, that will multiply the effects of your choices. Here’s a list of the a top polluters in the United States: these are companies that might reconsider their record if large numbers of customers demanded that they act responsibly to protect the oceans.

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    Photo courtesy of HckySo at Flickr.com.

    Are you a cheapskate? Living green can be thrifty too!

    Piggy Bank -FLA.jpg
    Photo courtesy of **CRT** at Flickr.com.

    Around the country, times are tough. The US economy is losing more jobs than it’s creating, and retail sales are down sharply from last year. There’s been a run on piggy banks and belts are getting tight. If you’re looking for ways to be frugal without sacrificing hard earned comfort, here are a couple of ways to help the earth while trimming your budget at the same time:

    Eat Local-FLA.jpg
    Photo courtesy of debaird at Flickr.com.

    1) Shop local!

    Have you ever looked at the labels in your pantry and tried to figure out where your groceries came from? With high gas prices, we’re starting to see transport costs reflected in the cost of food. Vegetables that travel across the country (or across the planet) often cost far more than local produce, and that cost reflects the carbon footprint of transporting the goods. If you drink less Fiji water and eat fewer bars of Belgian chocolate, you can save some serious green. Local foods are often fresher, free of dangerous pesticides, and more connected to our roots. As a bonus, local foods are often grown by our friends and neighbors, so buying local helps build community and food independence.

    Shop thrift stores-FLA.jpgPhoto courtesy of KVBPhotos at Flickr.com.

    2) Shop at salvage stores

    Did you know that stores throw out millions of pounds of food, cleaning supplies, and seasonal items every year? When a can gets bent or a product is discontinued, grocery stores often take these ‘less desirable’ items off of their shelf to make room. While some of these supplies really are junk, there are times where the blemishes are purely cosmetic.

    Surplus items often end up at charity or salvage stores where you can get amazing deals. When was the last time you went to a Goodwill, Salvation Army, Dollar Store, or other business with a grocery list in hand? You my be surprised by the savings – imagine paying 5 cents for a family sized can of soup where the only problem is a torn label, or $5 for a new and unused cooking pan that someone got for their birthday. Just keep an eye out for your own safety – there’s no law against selling expired foods, and if cans are crushed enough that the metal comes in contact with other metal, that can pose a health risk.

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    Photo courtesy of donkeycart at Flickr.com.

    3) Re-use items to get the most life out of them

    Before you throw something into the recycle bin, have you tried thinking outside of the box? For example, plastic bottles can easily be turned into bird feeders, and you can cut down on ziplock bags by reusing airtight food containers. Just because a manufacturer claims that an item is single use, that doesn’t mean it should be thrown away. Some common items that can be used more than once include dryer sheets, rubber bands, shoe laces (when you throw out one pair of shoes, save the laces!), and even car oil!

    Try finding new uses for packaging and other trash. Popsicle sticks are great for craft projects, and twist-ties from bread bags are a great way to organize your computer cables. Those junk mail envelopes can be saved from the trash too – just put a label over the barcodes and you’ll never have to buy letter envelopes again!

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    Photo courtesy of susiepie at Flickr.com.

    The right power cords save power and money



    Photo courtesy of abrunglinghaus at Flickr.com.

    Many of us have a blind spot for extension cords. We tend to treat these power cables as interchangeable parts, but not all extension cords are the same.

    Length is important. The longer the extension cord you use, the more energy is lost in transmission. If you only need to add 5 feet, it doesn’t make any sense to use a 100′ cord!

    The thickness of the wire is also important. Thin cords lose power faster, and they can also heat up dangerously with heavy power loads. When using extension cords, it’s important to make sure that the wire is thick enough to safely and efficiently conduct electricity. Wire thickness is often referred to as “gauge”.

    Gauge numbers are rather tricky. Even though it seems counter-intuitive, thicker wires have a low gauge, and thin wires have a high gauge. Many power cords are available in 18, 16, 14, and 12 gauge sizes. Of these choices, 18 is the thinnest and 12 is the thickest. Thicker wires are generally more expensive, but they can save substantial amounts of electricity. Thick electric wire can also handle higher amperages than thin wires without bursting into flames. That’s good to know if you want to avoid burning your house down or melting your tools.

    So, know your cords! Pay attention to cord gauge and length, and they’ll pay you back with a reduced electric bill.



    Photo courtesy of ClintJCL at Flickr.com.

    Conserve electricity with an induction stove


    Photo courtesy of
    PålLøberg at Flickr.com.

    The cost of electricity is rising quickly due to increased demand. This summer, we can expect high bills from running the air conditioner and charging batteries. The best way to get on top of the problem is to get ahead of the meter reader by trading in your prehistoric stove for an induction stove.

    Unlike other stoves, which cook using radiant heat from gas or electric coils, an induction stove cooks using magnets. It generates a magnetic field that rapidly heats up metal pots and pans, delivering heat right where you need it. In the process, induction stoves consume about half of the energy that conventional stoves use. They also deliver quicker results, heating up cookware in half the time because more of the heat is going where it should:

    Induction cooking uses 90% of the energy produced compared to only 55% for a gas burner and 65% for traditional electric ranges.

    Best of all, saving power in the kitchen has a multiplier effect! When heat is wasted, it has to go somewhere. With conventional stoves, the waste heat warms up your house (which isn’t great in the middle of summer) and then has to be cooled down with energy intensive air conditioning. When you use an induction stove, you save power twice!

    As an added bonus, you can use all your steampunk cast iron and stainless steel cookware – aluminum and glass wont even heat up on the stove.


    Photo courtesy of
    theTeaLeaf at Flickr.com.

    Want to win a green dream home?

    HGTV Green Home Giveaway 2008

    It’s that time of year again – HGTV is giving away a custom built home with amazing features. This year, the dream home embraces a number of green technologies.

    These features include:

  • A deep concrete pad designed to take advantage of the soil as a heat sink
  • Gypsum wallboard made from waste material
  • Extra insulation on the walls windows
  • Solar panels that provide up to 50% of the energy needs
  • A tankless water heater
  • Low flow water faucets and showers
  • Stormwater cisterns that capture 100% of rainwater for irrigation and toilet use
  • Energy Star appliances, including a front loading washing machine
  • Low VOC paints and hardwood floors for healthy indoor air quality
  • On the HGTV website, there’s an interactive map of the green home, video tours, and links to more information about energy and water saving innovations. Oh, and you can also enter to win the home. Good luck!

    Save Energy with a Thermal Imager


    Photo courtesy of krstl_blu at Flickr.com.

    Most of the energy our homes use is spent heating and cooling the air to a comfortable level. By some estimates, 50-70% of energy is used on HVAC systems.

    So, one of the best ways to cut energy use is to add insulation and seal any cracks in the home. But, how do you identify where insulation is needed, or where a draft is sneaking in? Rather than use subjective means, it’s now possible to use a Thermal Imager to spot energy leaks. That way, you can apply insulation and caulk in only the places where it’s really necessary, and you can limit the use of more expensive housing improvements to the places where they’ll do the most good! Here’s an example of what a leaky door looks like:


    Photo courtesy of CBC || Thermal at Flickr.com.

    If you don’t have a thermal imager hanging around in your closet, your friends may have one you can borrow. Alternate places to check include your local fire station, housing association, or community college. Many such organizations have equipment available for check out or rental. If nothing else, you can buy a camcorder with a thermal function from an electronics store, use it for an energy audit, and then pay the restocking fee to return the camcorder. Not that we recommend such shifty behavior, cheapskate.


    Photo courtesy of CBC || Thermal at Flickr.com.