BNSF, Second Largest Consumer of Diesel Fuel, Looks at Switching to CNG

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Did you know that BNSF, the railway company owned by Warren Buffet’s Birkshire Hathaway, is probably the second largest purchaser of diesel fuel in the United States, coming in only after the US Navy?

That’s a lot of diesel fuel.

With diesel prices near $4 per gallon, and natural gas (CNG) at around half of that price, the savings from switching to CNG on such a large scale become quite large.

The Wall Street Journal reports that BNSF has at least 6,900 existing locomotives that run on diesel now, which means that it could be quite expensive to convert them all. However, BNSF is working with General Electric and Caterpillar to make an engine that can run on both diesel and natural gas.

Aside from the fuel savings, another big incentive for BNSF to switch to natural gas is to be able to meet new federal air pollution standards that will hit around 2015.

One of the biggest challenges of converting diesel 18 wheelers over to natural gas is the cost of building the infrastructure to have fueling stations everywhere they would be needed. With trains, it is much, much easier to solve this problem, because trains always go on a predetermined route. So you could build fewer refueling stations and still keep everything going.

However you feel about fracking, it looks like natural gas can make a significant difference in both CO2 emissions and air pollution in general.

In fact, CO2 emissions have dramatically dropped by nearly 12 percent over the past five years, reaching levels that we haven’t seen since 1996. This is attributed largely to the switch from electric power generators moving from coal to natural gas.

Eco-Friendly Hotels: What to Look For

Eco-Friendly Hotel
Orchard Garden Hotel - CC flickr photo by DoNotLick

Choosing an eco-friendly hotel when you travel is a natural extension of your environmental commitment at home. Whether you incorporate eco-friendly products into your life because they are healthier for you and your family, because you are concerned for the environment, or both, supporting green hotels just makes sense.

What Makes a Hotel Eco-Friendly?

At first thought, you may wonder what kinds of things to look for when choosing the best eco-friendly hotels. Ideally, eco-friendly hotels should use some form of sustainable energy, such as solar, wind or hydro-power for at least some of their needs. This can be difficult for older hotels that are converting to an eco-friendly establishment. But even older hotels can use energy-conscious methods such as low-energy light bulbs.

An environmentally conscious hotel should incorporate recycling and water conservation into their program. One way hotels can conserve resources is to only change the sheets and towels in your suite when you request it. This cuts down on water and energy usage.

Eco Travel Idea: Rent an Earthship

CC Flickr photo courtesy of marvins_dad

Experience the ultimate in eco friendly winter vacations and enjoy a stay at an Earthship in Taos, New Mexico. An Earthship is above and beyond the typical environmentally sustainable built home and the ultimate in energy-efficient and eco-friendly design.

These 100 percent sustainably built structures include off-grid power, geothermal heating and cooling, rainwater collection systems and on-site natural waste water treatment facilities, creating the ultimate eco-friendly winter home vacation.

Originally designed in 1972 by architect Mike Reynolds, the Earthship Biotecture design incorporates six basic elements that sets the Earthship apart from any conventionally built “green” home on the market today. Because Earthships use naturally occurring resources like sunlight and geothermal mass, they make the perfect getaway for wintertime fun without using any fossil fuels to heat the structure during winter.

Renting an Earthship for your perfect winter vacation is as easy as making an online reservation.

One of three rentals at Earthship Biotecture, the “Phoenix” Earthship is a three bedroom, two bathroom gorgeous Earthship rental, complete with an indoor waterfall and jungle that is simply breathtaking.

But don’t bother looking for a thermostat to adjust the heat—there isn’t one! This Earthship is naturally heated and cooled with geothermal energy, so you’ll be snug and toasty without burning any polluting fossil fuels to heat the home. Rental fees for this eco-vacation home start at $120 a night.

The Corner Cottage is another Earthship that rents for $160 a night and includes a two bedroom, one bath design with a huge double atrium overlooking the scenic Taos Valley This gorgeous rental provides stunning examples of the recycled materials used to create the Earthship. Colored wine bottles and old appliance metal create a clever and attractive way to recycle waste materials into building materials.

A smaller but more eclectic and colorful Earthship—aptly named the “Studio”—rents for $135 a night and is the perfect place for a couple to get away from it all. Or not. All three Earthships for rent are located in the Taos Ski Valley, home to some of the best skiing resorts in the nation.

After staying in an Earthship, you may find your interests exceed the vacation and you find you’re in the market to buy an eco-friendly home. Buying an Earthship isn’t difficult; in fact many different models are for sale around the United States.

Whether you occupy and Earthship one night or every night, it helps all of us on this fragile planet conserve the resources we have now and ones for future generations to come.

Ever stayed in an Earthship or lived in one? Leave a comment and tell us what you thought!

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.

Biking to work – a beginner’s guide

This year, June 15th was “Ride Your Bike to Work” day. When I saw other people riding to work, I decided to give it a try.

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Photo courtesy of sportpictures at Flickr.com

This is remarkable because my bike has been quietly stashed in my garage since last Christmas (when I received it as a gift). I took the bike out for a few spins, but the two of us had an understanding. If I kept it safely stored away, it wouldn’t try to buck and throw me over the handle bars.

Before June 16th, I had never ridden more than 5 miles in a day in my entire life. I’m not your typical bike rider – I’m 20 pounds overweight, I’ve never tried an “extreme” sport, and I live in one of the hottest cities of the Southwest. So, if I can commute to work on a bicycle, anyone can.

Have you considered riding a bike instead of taking your car? It’s a great way to save gas while burning calories and getting more time outdoors in the fresh air. Bicycling can help you be more productive by reducing blood pressure, stimulating serotonin, and helping you arrive at the office fully awake. Bike riders also stand out for promotion – if you’re having trouble catching the attention of management or just want to be known for your dedication, riding a bike is a great way to climb the corporate ladder.

There are some hurdles to commuting by bike. If you’re not a dedicated bike rider, these hurdles can seem impossible to overcome, but I’ve found out that there’s no reason to let fear or uncertainty keep you stuck in traffic.

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Photo courtesy of StewBl@ck at Flickr.com

Distance

For most people, distance is really a question about endurance. How far can you comfortably ride on a bicycle? It takes a lot more energy to pedal a bike than it does to press the gas pedal on a car. But it can be less draining that driving a car while giving other drivers the finger and shouting loudly (you know, the typical American commute).

Everyone has a different comfort level. For most people, a 1 mile commute is going to be a breeze, a 3 mile commute is going to be exercise, and a 5 mile commute is going to be painful (but doable). If you live further from work than 5 miles, you may want to consider multi-modal cycling. That means riding a bicycle part of the way, and using a bus or train to cover the rest of the distance. If you have a folding bike or large car, you can also take a multi modal route by using a parking garage along the way.

The best way to calculate distance is to use one of the free online mapping services. Mapquest, Google Maps, and Yahoo maps can all be used to find the shortest routes between two points, and it’s easy to avoid highways or other danger zones by altering the route. Online maps are easy to use, and in some areas they even offer real-time traffic reports along your route (that’s handy to check before you hit the road). Here are a few other things to consider when choosing a bike route.

These maps do have one weakness though – they’re primarily set up for roads. Bike trails, parks, and paths are invisible to the software, so the routes they recommend may be longer and more dangerous than they should be. That may change soon (for example, Google recently rolled out a “pedestrian” route option that can map pathways and sidewalks), but until it does, you may want to check out other routing tools such as Bikely.com.

PE - a beginners guide to biking to work -  kansasliberal FL bike lane shit happens
Photo courtesy of kansasliberal at Flickr.com

Safety

Safety is a major concern for urban cyclists. Not only are we at risk from vehicles that we share the road with, but bicyclists are also exposed to street crime and muggers. It’s important to exercise high situational awareness at all times – that is, pay attention to what’s going on around you. Keeping eyes open and looking out for trouble can prevent risks from turning into injuries.

First things first – bicycling is not as risky as you may think. Per mile, pedestrians are more than twice as likely to be injured than cyclists. Motorcyclists and drivers on the freeway also have higher rates of serious injury. Believe it or not, the more bicyclists there are, the safer bicycling becomes.

That doesn’t mean bicycling is a risk free mode of transportation. The first car accident in American history took place between a car and a bicycle – and it killed the biker. Every year, 600 to 800 cyclists are killed in America. Those death rates are among the highest in any developed country. To avoid becoming a statistic, it’s important to follow a few basic cycling safety guidelines:

1) Always wear a helmet. 75% of all deaths on bicycles occur from head trauma, and many injuries can be prevented or reduced in severity.

2) Ride with the flow of traffic
– it’s much safer to go the same direction as cars in your lane. A case study in Washington found that many fatal bike accidents involved cyclists riding in the wrong direction, where head-on collisions are much more likely to cause serious injury.

3) Yield when entering a road
. Bicycles have less visibility than cars – it’s important to follow the law and behave just like a car, but it’s safe to act under the assumption that other drivers don’t see you.

4) Check over your shoulder when merging lanes
. Even if you use hand signals, signaling does not give you the right of way. Cars behind you may not see a gesture, but it’s easy to spot an oncoming car.

5) Stay in the proper lane.
If you’re turning left at an intersection, don’t try to turn from the right lane. Yielding the high speed lanes to cars is a common mistake of beginners: instead, always go to the proper lane for your path of travel.

6) Stay visible at all times.
Wear bright clothing, use reflectors and headlights at night, and avoid riding in the blind spots of cars or other bikers.

7) Maintain your equipment.
Make sure your brakes are in working order, and that your tires are properly inflated.

It’s important to find a route where your nerves are steady. If you’re uncomfortable around traffic, that can cloud your reaction times and make you more accident prone. There’s no need to ride like an adrenaline junkie to make your way in to work.

In many cities, there are bike lanes and bike paths that insulate riders from the flow of motor vehicles. While some cyclists disagree about the wisdom of building these features (some cyclists feel that bike paths reduce attentiveness to the road and some riders consider bike paths a form of segregation) but the number of paths is steadily increasing. However you feel about the situation, it’s important to find a route that you’re comfortable with.

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Photo courtesy of jesse! at Flickr.com

Cost

Compared to a car, riding and operating a bike is cheap. You only need a bike and a safety helmet (both of which can be rented if you want to try before you buy). It can cost less than $250 to get all of the tools you need, although it’s also easy to spend more than $5,000 getting top of the line gear.

There are plenty of bicycles available at all price levels. For a commute to work, just about any bike will do. Whether you prefer a road bike, a racing bike, a mountain bike, a commuter bike, a recumbent bike, or any other style, there are many choices available in all price ranges.

Other supplies you might want to consider include biking gloves (to reduce pressure on your palms), sunscreen, exercise clothing, headlights, reflectors, blinking tail lights, a bell or horn, and a hydration backpack. In my opinion, biking gloves and comfortable clothes are one of the best investments you can make. I’ve also found that a chilled hydration pack really helps if you’re riding in triple digit weather. Oh, and good footwear also matters – you probably don’t want to bike around in sandals or high heels.

Riding a bicycle can save you money in the long term. Bike riders will generally enjoy reduced healthcare costs and fewer sick days. Contact your insurer or HR department, and ask if there’s a discount or incentive available. Healthy living programs sometimes offer reimbursement for equipment, promotional pricing on gear, and other perks. In 2009, there’s even a Federal Tax Benefit available for cyclists – you can get $20 of your monthly paycheck declared tax free:

Spearheading the campaign for a bike commuter bill was Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon. “We have legislation that is designed to promote cycling and to provide a little equity for the people who burn calories instead of fossil fuel,” he says.

PE - a beginners guide to biking to work - sportpictures FL
Photo courtesy of sportpictures at Flickr.com

Work appropriate clothing

The clothes we wear when cycling probably aren’t very well suited for work in a cubicle. Loose fitting shirts and shorts are ideal for biking, but even if your job has a casual dress code, it’s a good idea to change out of sweaty clothes. An easy way to have the best of both worlds is to bring a change of clothes with you.

If your job has a locker room, changing clothes is easy. If not, consider using the break room, gym, closet, or even the bathroom. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box – Superman used a phone booth for crying out loud.

If changing isn’t an option, you can also bring clothes to put on over your workout clothes. Bike in an undershirt, and then put a dress shirt and jacket over the undershirt. Bring a hat to cover helmet hair, or dress pants to put on over biking shorts. Or, you could change your standard of “work appropriate” clothing.

PE - a beginners guide to biking to work -  5150fantast FL bike pimp
Photo courtesy of 5150fantast at Flickr.com

If you’re a manager and would like to encourage workers to start riding bikes, here’s a great bullet point list of ways to build a bike friendly workplace.

Save the planet with motor oil

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Photo courtesy of kendrak at Flickr.com

Eco-conscious drivers pay a lot of attention to how much gasoline their cars use, but what about the motor oil? When cars are properly maintained, they use far more gasoline than they do oil, and driving a car requires more trips to the gas station than the service station. An unfortunate side effect is that our attention is focused on gasoline and oil isn’t something that the average driver thinks about unless there’s a problem.

Let’s say that you’ve got your ducks in a row. You’re driving a fuel efficient car and getting the best mileage possible. Even if you’re a fuel frugal hypermiler, there are still a few things you can do with your oil to reduce your car’s impact on the planet.

Oil is not a generic product – there are oils with different viscosity, oils made from different sources, and oils with more endurance than others. Here’s a good primer on the different types of oil out there. Of note:

Group IV oils… flow more freely at extreme low temperatures and don’t break down at very high temperatures. As a side benefit, they generally can be specified one or two grades lighter than a mineral oil, which consumes less energy as friction inside the engine and saves fuel.

When was the last time you changed the oil in your car? 6 months ago? 5,000 miles ago? The frequency of oil changes can have a huge impact on the environment.

On the one hand, excessive oil changes are wasteful and use up a limited natural resource. On the other hand, changing oil infrequently can cause damage to a cars engine, increasing pollution from your engine and causing additional pollution from the factory that makes replacement parts. Finding that sweet spot is important.

The majority of drivers play it safe and change their oil more than necessary. Roughly 70% of drivers surveyed changed their oil too often. This results in excessive consumption of oil, magnifies disposal problems, and hurts the pocketbooks of drivers nationwide.

A major cause of this overconsumption is the idea that cars should have their oil changed every 3,000 miles. At the service station, mechanics often put a sticker on the windshield reminding drivers to return for their next oil change in 3,000 miles. When you see that sticker, bear in mind that it was put there by someone who will make money every time you buy more oil. Consumer Reports studied taxi cabs in New York City and found that extending the interval did not affect performance or wear on the engines. They also found that oil additives had no noticeable effect on engine wear or oil endurance.

There is no catch-all rule for drivers to follow – every car has different needs and requires oil changes at different intervals. Read the owners manual for the best information about your specific car, and follow its guidelines. If the manual suggests changing the oil every 7,500 miles, changing the oil every 3,000 miles will only drain your pocket book. Many cars now have an oil change sensor that will notify you when the oil needs to be swapped out.

About half of the oil changes in America are performed by do-it-yourself mechanics. Many drivers change their own oil, or rely on a friend who knows how to change oil. There’s a problem though – few people know about the harms caused by dumping their oil down the drain or bagging it up in the garbage.

Every year, more than 300 million gallons of used motor oil are disposed of improperly. Oil that ends up in the sewer or landfill often seeps out into the water table. Just one gallon of oil can contaminate 600,000 to one million gallons of fresh water. That’s enough drinking water to supply 50 people for a year! The amount of oil in an average car can contaminate 4 acres of farmland and make it useless for a century.

This is a big problem. Less than 5% of used oil is currently recycled. The majority of used oil is burned for fuel or dumped. That’s an easily preventable waste, because there are more than 30,000 oil recycling centers nationwide!

The best way to dispose of used motor oil is to take it to a chemical disposal facility. It’s easy to find a disposal location – find an oil recycling site near you at Earth911.com. By recycling the oil, you’ll reduce the need for drilling for oil and help protect local waterways from pollution.

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Photo courtesy of Spiritwood images at Flickr.com