Archive for March, 2008

Lazy Friday links: convertible furniture, an expensive drought, and community gardens

I haven’t been reading my blogs regularly this week, so now that I’m back home, there was a bunch of interest stuff waiting for me.

From Treehugger (a new read for me) comes mention of convertible furniture. Dwell, a British company, sells a coffee table that becomes a dinner table and a coffee table that becomes a laptop table. As Maggie and I have been looking at houses, I’ve been thinking about how much space I really need. It seems like a lot of the space we’ve got is only used part of the time. I don’t really want to do anything but sleep in the bedroom, but I hardly ever use the dining room and the living room at the same time. If there were some way to combine rooms, I could probably be comfortable with a place that’s 10% smaller. I don’t know if this table is a good way to do it, but it’s a nice possibility.

I try to keep track of my hometown news and ran across some in an unexpected place today. North Carolina has had a terrible drought for the past year, so everyone has been conserving water. My parents got a rain barrel and now use the old bucket in the shower trick. According to Freakonomics, because NC residents have cut their water usage by a third, the water utility company in Charlotte-Mecklenburg is raising prices! I know that most of the cost of water production is constant, but it’s still a weird disincentive for conservation. It makes the free rider problem even worse. Why bother saving water if it not only doesn’t help you personally, it hurts you.

It’s almost officially spring and the weather is definitely spring-like, which means it’s time to really think about gardens. Maggie has already started planning and digging with some friends. Planet Green has a short blurb about community gardening connected to a Natural Home article that I can’t find (I left Planet Green a post about it, so maybe they’ll fix it before you read this). Community gardening is a good way to get some gardening in even when you’re in an urban area. I was able to set aside a 1’x1′ plot at my last place, but don’t want to dig things up at our current place. Maggie still needs her gardening fix, so she’s helping her friends with their gardens.

There are also some actual community gardens in Bloomington, where you can sign up to use a small part of a larger plot on unused land. I love the concept because it encourages community and give novice gardeners like myself a good place to get advice. There isn’t one within walking distance but there might be if we move downtown. That’s good, because most of the houses we’ve been looking at are too shady for good gardens.

I’ll end with a mention of blog style. I really like the way that JD at Get Rich Slowly emphasizes a couple of key phrases within his articles. I’m going to try and do the same (when I remember). If I’m lucky, that might help me focus on no more than a couple of key points too!

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Green Video Challenge

Video CameraStudent Doctor Green has challenged us to make a short video clip about green living and we’re scrambling a bit to think of something good. It reminds me of a story in The Tightwad Gazette. The author said that there were a few years in the early 90’s when she was plagued with journalists wanting to cover her family’s tightwad lifestyle. Almost every one asked that she hang laundry to dry in the attic so they could take pictures. It was the only tightwad technique that they found visually interesting.

She suggested them taking pictures of her family NOT buying expensive packaged foods at the grocery and NOT stopping to eat at the restaurant but the photographers just sighed and tried to explain that you can’t take pictures of people NOT doing things.

Anyway, I think we have a good idea for our first video entry but if you have suggestions I’d love to hear them. We’re thinking this could be a fun new addition to the site, although probably not more than once a month unless it takes a lot less time than I’m picturing.  There are also some green video challenges floating around the internet, like the one through Juntoventure with a bunch of prizes, although it kinda looks like you have to be from California to enter?  I find their site confusing and it’s a little worrisome that they had to extend their deadline an extra two months because they didn’t get enough submissions.

Will used to teach a class at IU about making documentaries so I’m hoping he can pull together something a little more impressive than the wholly incomprehensible home videos my brother and I used to make. Although I should try to find some of that old footage. I’m sure there are a few treasures in amongst the hours of videotaping out the car window on road trips.

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Can compound interest save the evironment?

A stock graph bursting out from green paperThe site was down for a while this evening, so Maggie didn’t have a chance to post anything before she went to bed. In lieu of a real post, I’ll leave you with something I’ve been thinking about today. A lot of people feel like it isn’t worth changing their lifestyle because they’re just an individual, so they can’t make a real difference. Think about where we’d be if an individual could make an immediate and obvious difference, though. That world would be in terrible trouble if it was at a point where one person’s additional greenhouse gases or electrical use would be enough to plunge the world into chaos.

Wouldn’t you rather be where we are now, where you don’t have to make a huge difference to do some good?

It reminds me of compound interest. When you hear about Adam who invests $12k and lets it sit for 30 years versus Bob who invests $100 a month for 30 years, the obvious winner seems to be Bob. After all, Bob put three times as much money in as Adam, so he made a much bigger difference, right? Sure, if you’re talking effort. But if you’re talking results, Adam is the real mover and shaker here. His initial $12k is worth over $300k, while Bob’s take is half that even though he put in more money!

If you wait until change is forced on you, you’ll have no choice but to make a huge difference (or die off). But, if you start making little changes now, you’ll make it so that you won’t have to be a super-sacrificing Bob.

Call it the compound interest theory of sustainability.

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TV has ads?

Remote controlMy schedule is all out of whack. Maggie and I have been house/dog-sitting, meeting with mortgage lenders, and trying to adjust to daylight savings time all at once. I’m lucky I can remember what day it is!

Away from our usual entertainment, Maggie and I watched normal TV for the first
time in months. I’d forgotten how annoying ads are. No sooner would I get into a plot
than they would break it off and try to sell me something. I felt like one of those
kids they test for Sesame Street to see when they look away from the screen. As soon as
an ad came on, I’d lose focus and start looking around (usually egged on by some dogs
desparate for attention).

Unlike Maggie, I actually like TV and think it can have a positive impact. Shows like
Lost and Heroes get you thinking and can provide a fun way to
interact with other people (I’m not the only one who had Saturday evening family time to watch Dr. Who, am I?). I also have an real respect for a well-told story in
any medium. Nevertheless, our opinions mesh over advertising. It’s specifically made
to distract when you want to be doing something else.

I love that the choice is no longer TV or no TV. We have a TV (how else would I play my Wii?) but no cable and no access to broadcast channels. Although we’ve got some shows on DVD, most of our viewing is through Netflix. When we weren’t so busy, and it wasn’t as nice outside, we had two movies out at a time but at the moment we’re making do with one. I’d love to see a cable plan that let you do that.

But then I’d still have to deal with the ads, so it’s probably better this way.

At first, I had a hard time dealing with no TV. I kept wondering what was on and what I was missing. As time went on, I realized that I was using TV as a distraction. It wasn’t that I wanted to watch TV, it was that I didn’t want to do what I was doing (and couldn’t be bothered to think of something else).

Now, I’ve filled my time with other distractions. Reading, playing games, working, even writing for a blog. I no longer get stuck for hours when all I really wanted was a fifteen minute break. I haven’t noticed any social stigma either. There are enough channels and shows that nobody could watch them all, so nobody is even particularly surprised when I haven’t seen the episode they’re desperate to talk about.

I do wonder how universal my experience has been. How much would other people miss live TV shows if they only used the TV for watching DVDs or playing video games? Do people really want to watch TV or are they just looking for a distraction?

Give it a try and let me know how it works! Even if you go back to cable in a week, you’ll have skipped almost fourteen* hours of ads and that’s got to be worth something.

* That’s no typo. The average family has the TV on for almost 7 hours a day with ads for 3 out of 10 of those hours.

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Learning About Mortgages

Coin TowerWill and I went to talk to a mortgage broker today at Lotus Mortgage. We’re starting to get serious about buying a house and we figured our next step was finding out if we even qualify for a loan. It turns out that we do, which is very reassuring. We don’t make a lot of money but we have really good credit (the broker told me I have the highest credit score he’s every seen for someone under 40) and we have quite a bit of money in savings – at least as a percentage of our income.

I felt really good hearing that we’re doing all the right things financially but really bad hearing that there are a lot of people out there – of all income levels – who are not doing it right. It is very scary to me that there are people making six figures who have less money in the bank than we do. It’s especially scary as I start to hear more about increasing foreclosures and an impending recession and people being abruptly reminded that credit is not a source of free money.

I think part of the reason we’re doing well financially is that we put a lot of effort into living sustainably and in accordance with our values.  (Part of it is also an ingrained terror of debt.)  We have a strong set of goals we’re working towards and we spend (and save) our money accordingly.  It’s frustrating sometimes and a lot of times I struggle to identify my next goal but in general it keeps me going in the right direction.  I’ve also learned that not buying something very rarely makes me unhappy.  There are moments when I think “If only I had enough money to buy a fancy compost tumbler!” but they honestly don’t last that long.  And those times when I do spend $50 on something I thought I desperately wanted, I generally lose interest within a couple of weeks.

I believe a house will be a satisfying purchase.  Will and I are still debating about some of the details like which house and what features are we looking for but I’m sure we’ll figure it out eventually.  Or perhaps we’ll buy one of those charming country homes with a 1200 square foot detached garage and one of us can just live there.

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Solar Water Heating Lessons

Solar Water Heating bookI just got back from an 8-hour training in solar water heating offered through the Indiana Office of Energy and Defense.  My brain is a little oversaturated but it was a good course and I’m glad I went.  We even got a really cool book published by Mother Earth News!  Solar water heating is one of those technologies that makes infinite sense to me – capture the sun’s rays to heat our water?  Of course! – but I wanted to learn how they actually work.

The class was taught by a solar system installer from Wisconsin who is associated with the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, which is an awesome resource for sustainable living ideas in the Midwest.  They run a Renewable Energy Fair every year that covers a wide range of topics from constructing a windmill for water pumping to making window quilts to growing food organically.  There’s also a trade show featuring fascinating products like a whole range of hand-operated kitchen appliances and solar ovens that were developed to purify water in third world countries.  I’ve been twice and highly recommend it.

Anyway, in the solar water class we talked about several types of systems and their various benefits and drawbacks.   The  simple DIY version is a black 55-gallon drum enclosed in a glass box (to provide some insulation) mounted somewhere in your yard with good solar exposure.  You run pipes to carry water from your water supply through the drum (where it’s heated) and then back into your house (to your hot water tap).  It’s simple, it’s cheap, and it works pretty well during the summer.

One major drawback is that this system is very vulnerable to freezing so you really can’t use them during the fall, winter, or spring.  The solution is to set up what’s called a closed system.  Instead of running your water directly through the collector (the black drum), you run a propylene glycol solution outside to the collector and then back into the house where it goes through a heat exchanger (picture your car radiator) and transfers its heat to your potable water before returning to the collector. The gylcol solution will stay liquid to a temperature of negative thirty degrees so you can use it all winter long and take advantage of those clear, sunny, cold days.

I found the class very inspiring but I’m still put off by the cost of purchasing a professionally installed system – approximately $10,000 for a family of four.  The instructor ran some calculations showing that if electric rates keep increasing by 7% a year, the system will pay for itself within 20 years.  It’s true but 20 years seems like a long time.  So I’m rather tempted to try the drum-in-a-box version for awhile and see how that goes during the summer.  I also question their estimates on how much hot water people use on average.  20 gallons per person per day seems like a lot of hot water.  Granted, we wash our laundry using cold water and take short showers every 2-3 days so we’re definitely going to be below average but I figure we use less than a third of that.  Do you know how much hot water you use?  And how to measure it?  The book suggests that if you have a plug-in electric water heater you can use a kill-o-watt but ours is hardwired (and isn’t working very well right now anyway – I think it’s 75% full of lime) so I’m not sure what else to try.

There will be two more renewable energy classes this spring so I’m excited.  It’s not often the government throws education and books my way so I plan to take advantage of all of it.  Oh, and for those of you who are curious about the Indiana Department of Energy and Defense, my understanding is that someone somewhere figured out that one of the biggest weaknesses of Homeland Security is the fact that we’re highly dependent on foreign oil (I know you’re all shocked) so they decided to merge Energy with Defense.  I guess it kinda makes sense and if we can divert some tax money away from building bombers and towards building solar panels, I’m all about it.

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Do CFLs trigger migraines?

Red CFLThere’s been a lot of talk recently about a link between CFLs (Compact Fluorescent Lights) and migraines, seizures, eczema, and sad kittens. I think this is mostly coming from a recent Parade magazine “Medical Alert” that talks about all of the horrible things CFLs might cause or exacerbate. I can’t talk about lupus, eczema, or anything else that sounds that scary (although Dr. John Balbus puts the Parade story in perspective), but as a migraine sufferer, I feel like I can at least talk about that.

First, though, I need to point out that migraine sufferers often have different triggers. Some people can’t have even a little caffeine without getting a full-blow migraine. Not only can I have soda, I often find that a little caffeine helps relieve the headache faster. My primary triggers are lack of sleep, lack of food, and… bright lights.

Since bright lights are a trigger, you’d think I’d hate CFLs. And, in fact, I do. The “daylight” CFLs are terrible and start giving me problems right away. They’re not as bad as car headlights (and for some reason, nobody is trying to dissuade people from using those…), but they’re pretty bad. A while back, we accidentally got some for our kitchen and it hit me so hard that I had difficulty sitting in the next room without starting to get symptoms.

Luckily, “daylight” is only one type of CFL. The “soft white” CFLs are amazing. I love their light even better than incandescent bulbs. The difference is that “daylight” CFLs and incandescent lights have a lot of light in the blue area of the spectrum, more like sunlight. “Soft white” CFLs have light closer to the red spectrum, which gives it a warmer feel and, in my case, a much better chance of avoiding migraines. “Hard white” CFLs fall somewhere in-between.

I can’t speak for everyone, but even if you have difficulty with certain types of light (even fluorescents), it’s worth trying the different types of CFLs and seeing if the others are better. If you do have trouble with them, you can always put them in the garage or an out-of-the-way closet!

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Fame, Green Living, and Oprah

Oprah Going GreenWe don’t have cable (or even rabbit ears) so I’m many years behind in my television viewing but my mom periodically updates me on the programs she watches, especially the Oprah Winfrey Show. As far as television shows go, I think Oprah’s is one of the more palatable ones. I like Oprah. I think she’s an intelligent, caring, motivated woman who is working hard to achieve great things in life. As celebrities go, I believe she uses her powers predominantly for good and that she tries to share her values and beliefs with her audience. However, she has also drifted into the high ranks of the rich and famous and seems pretty disconnected from masses that form her fan base. She went on a road trip last summer and it was revealed that she doesn’t even know how to pump gas. Come on!

Anyway, sometime I dream of a life of riches and celebrity and I figure my best shot for television glory is to be featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Perhaps I could replace the tiny stylish woman who currently pimps green living tips on the show. People could ooh and ah at my stories about driving a greasecar or feeding my table scraps to my worms. They would shudder at the idea of conserving water by flushing less frequently. Oprah would listen respectfully and applaud my efforts while reassuring her audience that pee certainly wouldn’t be allowed to linger in HER household. Washing and reusing ziplock bags? Yes. Cutting back on hot showers? No. Using cloth toilet paper? I can only imagine her look of horror.

However, I like to picture myself captivating the audience with my tales of green living and voluntary simplicity. In my moment of glory, I would like to turn to the audience and encourage them that the best thing they can do for the environment and their personal well-being would be to turn off their televisions. Yes, even the Oprah Winfrey Show. Instead, go out into the world and interact with your neighbors. Find out more about the millions of opportunities out there for making a difference. Start paying attention to the way you live your life – everything from where your food comes from to how you interact with strangers. It would be a powerful transformation.

Alas, I don’t think my message would be heard. Television is a great medium for entertainment and flash but it’s amazingly hard to get across substance and depth. Can I really condense my way of life into a ten-second sound bite? Will a few minutes of videotaped footage of my home reveal the choices I make? Is there any way to actually connect with people and have them feel what I feel?

Of course, the upside of television is that it reaches millions of people so even if I only convince 0.01% of the audience to reexamine their lives, that would still be tens of thousands of people. And that’s why I still love the idea of being on Oprah. Well, that and the free gifts she gives out.  And perhaps we could become part of her vast network of TV, radio, magazines, books, and websites along with (which actually seems pretty cool).

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Climbing the mountain: sustainability one step at a time

Living Like EdNow that my big work push is over, I have a little more free time to catch up on my reading. I’ve started with a book Maggie got at the library last week, Living Like Ed: A Guide to the Eco-Friendly Life. It’s by Ed Begley, Jr (yes, the Ed Begley, Jr. of Mighty Wind and Best in Show) and basically goes through all of the green things he’s learned to do in thirty years (!) of becoming more sustainable.

I’m not done yet, but overall the book is pretty good. It covers very simple things (recycle) as well as more labor or capital intensive things (buy a wind turbine), interspersed with comments by Begley’s wide with an “everyday joe” perspective. However, an analogy Begley makes at the beginning has really stuck with me because it resonates with some things I’ve been thinking recently.

Living sustainably,Begley writes, isn’t a sudden change. Instead, it’s like climbing Everest. You go up a little, then stop and get acclimatized before you head up some more. When you change your lifestyle, make some achievable changes then live with them for a while. You’ll usually find that it’s not a big deal. Once you’re there, you can make some other achievable changes. Eventually, you’ll be much higher on Everest that you ever could have imagined.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid pushing yourself, just that you shouldn’t look at the distance to go and give up. Even if you just change a little, it’s still making a difference. I’ve found that it’s easiest to combine different types of changes. Do something easy (putting in CFLs), habit-changing (cook more lunches), handy (making a worm box), and something long-term (save towards small solar panels). That way, you can really feel like you’re achieving something while you’re working towards the harder goals. It’s a lot like the concept of a debt snowball and I think it can work really well.

Even though I haven’t finished the book, the parts I’ve read are really good. Begley has a whimsical tone that compliments the more serious subject matter. Maggie also liked it, although I think she found most of the advice old hat.

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Filtering Used Vegetable Oil (or How I Spent My Saturday)

Maggie filtering veggie oilYa know those projects that you keep putting off for months and months because they sound intimidating and then when you finally get around to it, it ends up being quite easy? Well, that was my experience this weekend when I put together a little filtering system for my greasecar. As you may recall, I love my greasecar but find one of the biggest limitations is filtering the used vegetable oil. Used veggie oil is pretty gross and it’s pretty heavy. There’s also the catch that it’s very bad to get water in your veggie oil fuel so anything that is washed also has to be thoroughly dried. Anyway, I have considered building a really fancy filtration system and have lusted after electrical veggie oil pumps but so far can’t justify the cost, so I have been using cloth filter bags from They’re pretty cool but it has been challenging figuring out how to get the oil through them with a minimum mess. So after much deliberation, I built myself a little bucket filtration system!

Step one was cutting a hole in a bucket lid to accommodate the filter bag. Plastic buckets (and lids) actually cut pretty easily with a boxcutter although it took me awhile to figure out that it’s most efficient to just score the cut and then snap off the plastic rather than cut all the way through. (It also felt safer, as in less likely to cut off any of my fingers by accident.)

Filter bag in lidMaggie drillingStep two was drilling a hole in the bottom of the filter bag bucket. This is a two-bucket system, with the filter bag taking up the top bucket and the lower bucket storing the filtered oil. My goal was to let the veggie oil flow slowly into the lower storage bucket. I wasn’t sure how big to make the hole. I had brief flashbacks to my engineering hydrology classes at Purdue but decided to go with the trial-and-error method of hole-sizing, which meant starting small (it’s a lot easier to make it bigger).

Step three was cutting a larger hole in the lid of the bottom (storage) bucket. I wanted to make it big enough to let the oil drip cleanly through from the top bucket but small enough that the lid will still be able to support the weight of the top bucket even when it’s full of oil. I was amused to notice the recycling symbol on the bucket lid and realize that I can throw the plastic bits in with my recycling. Yay Bloomington Recycling!

Veggie Oil Close-UpBucket Lid with Recyclable signStep four was putting it together and testing it out. As you may have noticed, my jug of used vegetable oil sprung a leak at the bottom so I decided to “pour” it out of that end. I think the slow release was probably a good thing. The cloth filter bags are very effective but the flow rate is pretty slow, especially when the oil is cold. It was about 50 degrees out, which felt fantastically warm to me, but the oil was still a little thick. I hear that fancier folks have special veggie oil heaters to improve filtration rates. Maybe some day.

In the end, I managed to filter all 5 gallons of veggie oil with only a few minor spills. Then I poured the bucket of clean oil into the storage tank in my trunk, with a few more spills. Bleah. Alas, that one has to be chalked up to user error. I drove out to my aunt’s house last night but my engine never heated up enough to switch to veggie oil. I suspect there may be a problem with my thermostat since it never seems to heat up like it used to but that is another project. For now, I’m pretty happy with my new filtration system. It’s very satisfying to complete a little project and feel that I actually am a handy person. Next up? Figure out a way to decommission my dying water heater in a way that the landlord will HAVE to come fix it…

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