Archive for July, 2008

Wildlife at Home

SkunkWe just returned from working on the new house.  Again.  With yet another project where we didn’t quite know what we were doing and didn’t quite have all the right equipment.  So by the end of the evening we were both hot, sweaty, tired, and more than a little snippy.  Will wanted to check to make sure our internet connection had been activated before we took off so I wandered around the house trying to generate a bit of breeze.  I happened to glance out the back window and discovered we had a visitor.

No, it wasn’t the dogs from next door, nor was it any sort of adorable baby animal like the ones that seem to grace bugsandbrooms.  Actually, it was pretty cute but somehow skunks never quite fall into the cuddly category.  We were going to take a picture but were afraid that the flash might set off a spray reaction.  So we just watched him (her?) waddle around and drink out of the plant saucer that had collected rainwater.

I think skunks are a pretty perfect example of my feelings about wildlife in general.  They’re very cute and very interesting but I’m nervous about having them too close to my personal space, for fear they might infringe on my comfort zone.  I feel a bit ashamed to admit it but it’s the truth.  Should we be protecting bears and bobcats?  Absolutely!  Do I want one living in my backyard?  Uh, no, not really.  Yet another dilemma in the life of an environmentalist.  Still, I’m pretty psyched to have a skunk in my backyard and if the day comes that I get a stinky spray of nastiness for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, at least it will make an excellent story.

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Greener links

Logo for Consumer Reports\' Greener Choices websiteAs part of making the house move-in ready, I’ve done a lot of research into efficiency and appliances. I’ve already shared one of my favorite sites with some, but I’ll post them here as well in case anyone else is in a similar situation.

The most generally interesting site is Greener Choices, which is run by Consumer Reports. It has the same great, in-depth information as the normal CR site plus information on energy consumption. Even better, all of the content is free! I’m seriously impressed that Consumer Reports is making their green information available for free in an attempt to help people figure out how to reduce their environmental impact. Kudos to them!

The Lawrence Berkeley national lab (LBL) has some great information as well. Their web-based do-it-yourself energy audit tool (the first, according to them) gives a great overview of what could improve your house’s energy profile in a cost-effective way. You do have enter in a lot of basic information, but you end up with a list of changes that you can make, what impact they’ll have, and how long they’ll take to pay back in your cirucmstances. I like that they take into account that everyone’s situation is a little different, so the right move to make will differ from person to person.For those who’d rather get some information right away, LBL also has some great numbers on energy costs for appliances. The numbers provided aren’t exact, because there is some variety within a category and electricity costs vary across the nation, but they give a good comparison between types. This page also provides the approximate cost per use in addition to a monthly and annual cost. That’s very useful when looking at something like a microwave that isn’t on all the time.

If you’ve got any websites that you visit when looking at energy usage, let me know! I’m always on the lookout for more information.

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Overwhelmed with Stuff

I moved another van-load of stuff today, bringing us to approximately 85% moved in.  Well, 85% of our stuff has been moved to the new house.  There’s still that whole part about unpacking and putting things where they belong.  Some day.

At the moment I’m really wishing I had less stuff.  I’m pretty good about getting rid of things periodically but there’s a lot I hold onto.  I have a hard time figuring out how much is enough.  I’m sure I *could* live with only three pairs of underwear, but would I really *want* to?  It’s this kind of attitude that makes me skeptical about the “100 Things Challenge”.

The concept is straightforward.  Pare down your possessions to 100 things.  Yeah, right.  I think I have 100 things in my spice cabinet.  Of course, there is still some debate about what counts as one thing.  An individual fork?  A place setting of silverware?  All the silverware?  Regardless, it seems like a bit of an extremist approach to me.

I’m more intrigued by the concept of inventorying everything I own.  I originally saw it suggested in a personal finance book with the goal of calculating how much money I spent, how much the stuff is worth now, and whether or not I’m comfortable with those spending habits.  However, I would be more interested in simply finding out exactly what I own, how often I really use it and whether or not it’s worthwhile to keep in my life.  It’s easy to ignore things when they’re packed away in a closet somewhere but they really are taking up space and energy which could be devoted to something else.  And Will and I just moved into a rather large house (by our standards) so I want to make sure I don’t start acquiring more belongings just because there’s space available.

How many things do you own?  I’m pretty sure I’m in the thousands, if not the tens of thousands.  And I don’t believe that’s necessarily a bad thing, as long as it’s stuff that I’m using and that is supporting my dreams and goals.  I hope to do at least a cursory inventory as we settle into the new house.  The key for me is identifying and removing the stuff that is no longer serving me.  I know I have a weakness for:

1. Things that seem like they might be useful some day (cool bottles, empty canisters, bits of wrapping paper, craft materials)

2. Things that I feel bad getting rid of because I’m sure they’ll end up in a landfill even though they’re semi-functional (really old shoes, nonrecyclable containers, ancient computer equipment)

3. Practical things that I could cut back on except that I’m emotionally attached (books, clothes, art supplies) – although I’m getting better about this category.

I do know a guy who can fit all of his personal belongings into the trunk of his car but I don’t quite aspire to that lifestyle yet.  All I want is to keep my stuff from controlling me and to minimize the hassle of moving.

Or perhaps we should just never move again.

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Not a fan of APLS

Logo for Affluent Persons Living SustainablyArduous recently helped set up an APLS carnival, which sounds like a great idea. That is, it sounds like a great idea once you know what an APLS is. Apparently, APLS is a replacement for YAWNs, another acronym I’d never heard of.

YAWN stands for “Young And Wealthy, but Normal.” As news rags are prone to do, especially in election years, the London Telegraph and the San Francisco Chronicle made up a new demographic. In this case, it’s 20-30 year olds who have high incomes but live below their means.

Arduous thought this was a dumb name (and I can’t blame her) and suggested a contest for a better one. The winner was APLS, “Affluent Persons Living Sustainably.”

It’s not bad, and it’s certainly better than YAWNs, but it rubs me the wrong way. To nitpick first, I’m not a fan of “persons,” which sounds… elitist. The ‘s’ on the end also makes it awkward to talk about in the singular. It sounds fine to be a YAWN, but wierd to be an APLS.

More importantly, and I’m not alone in this, “affluent” doesn’t ring true to me. It matches the original meaning of YAWN, which is fine, but it definitely cuts out many who don’t consider themselves wealthy (like me and Maggie).

To try and salvage “affluent,” Green Bean and Arduous linked to the Global Rich List, to show everyone that they’re rich compared to the rest of the world. This is one of my pet peeves, so I’m going to bold it. Watch out!

Income isn’t wealth. The Global Rich List looks exclusively at income when determining how “rich” you are. This is a huge misconception that has serious repercussions. Lots of people feel like they must be rich because they have a high income and ignore the fact that they also have high costs, with disastrous results.In this case, it doesn’t make much sense to talk about income without talking about cost of living as well. Here in Indiana, I could live comfortably with $10,000 (top 13%). In Manhattan, I’d probably need $50,000 a year to live in similar conditions (top 0.98%). That’s a huge difference for the same standard of living.

Of course, here in the US I have a much higher standard of living than the vast majority of people living in, say, Haiti. But on the other hand, a lifestyle that would cost $1 a day in Haiti would probably cost several orders of magnitude more here in the US.

I don’t want to pick on Arduous and Green Bean too much. APLS sounds much better than YAWN as an acronym. It’s also nicer to include more people than just the young and wealthy. And the income/wealth correlation is a problem with our society in general.

And, in the end, everyone reading this is perfectly capable of making green moves. In most cases, reducing and reusing are cheaper than the alternative, so there’s always that opportunity even if you can’t afford much organic food.

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I Want a Train!

Amtrak trainI just got back from dropping my parents off at the Crawfordsville train station so they can take Amtrak to Vancouver and now I’m dreaming of train travel.  Actually, I’ve been thinking about it since last weekend when I visited my friend Scott.  He lives and works at Heritage Prairie Market, an organic farm and grocery located about forty miles west of Chicago.  The farm is in a rural agricultural area with cornfields all around but there is a commuter rail station about two miles away so we were able to ride into downtown Chicago for $5 roundtrip.  I love the idea of enjoying the rural life while also having easy access to urban amenities.

Alas, Bloomington does not have a train station.  We don’t even have a Greyhound bus station anymore since they decided it was not profitable.  All we have is a private shuttle that runs to and from the Indianapolis airport, located on the far west side of Indianapolis.  Indianapolis does have an Amtrak train station, a Greyhound bus station and a Megabus stop but they’re all downtown, about twenty miles from the airport.

I couldn’t find any mention of a connection between downtown and the airport on the airport’s website or on the convention center website but Dad says he’s sure there’s some sort of shuttle that people can take.  Just now I finally poked around on the IndyGo bus system website and discovered there is actually a city bus that runs from the airport downtown every half hour, which is awesome to know.  So now I know it’s possible to get between Bloomington and Chicago without a car.  I can take the Bloomington Shuttle ($25) to the Indianapolis Aiport, take IndyGo Bus #8 ($1.25) downtown, and then take a bus or train (~$20) to Chicago.  $46.25 seems a little steep but the real issue for me is convenience.

Which brings me back to my simple dream – I wish Bloomington had a train station!  There used to be one, many years ago, but now if we want to take the train anywhere, we have to take a car or a bus to another city.  The two closest train stations are Indianapolis (an hour away) and Crawfordsville (an hour and a half away) but the main train route to Chicago comes through Indianapolis at 5:00AM and Crawfordsville at 7:30AM.  They picked Crawfordsville so we could sleep until 5:30 rather than 3:30.  Still, I dream of the day when I can ride my bike to the train station…

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Summer Gardening Thoughts

Riesenstraube Cherry TomatoesAugust is rapidly approaching and the summer harvest bounty is rolling in.  Alas, my gardening efforts this year have been pretty minimal.  I planted a pot with three Riesenstraube cherry tomato plants and two bigger pots with some sort of hybrid variety that Mike gave me that are supposed to taste like grapes.  I’m still a bit befuddled as to why anyone would develop tomatoes that taste like grapes but I am also intrigued.  The Riesenstraubes started to form fruit last week but then they went unwatered for three days…  I believe they’ll recover but it’s going to be a late harvest.

Luckily for me, my mom is leaving town right as her garden goes into overload so I should have tomatoes, cucumbers, and green beans coming out my ears.  I’ll probably stock up at the farmers’ market as well and see if I can “put away” some tomato sauce, green beans, fresh corn, and whatever else looks good.  (BLUEBERRIES!)  Last year I canned some pickles and some applesauce but this year I think I’ll focus on freezing because I’m lazy.

My mom had a garden for a long time while I was growing up as well as several fruit trees.  We even had some grape vines although mostly it was just an area of the yard where you were likely to get attacked by bees.  As we grew older, the garden became less important.  I think it was a combination of being busier and having more disposable income.  Well, that and the fact that the white pines along our property line grew into towering giants, shading the garden pretty thoroughly.

So a couple years ago, when I had moved back home (for the fourth time?  Thank Heavens for welcoming parents!) I convinced my parents to build a garden in the sunny part of the yard.  The major feat was getting Dad to help construct an eight-foot deer fence.  Sadly, even that is no match for our friendly neighborhood deer.  But we manage to get a reasonable crop most of the time although my parents still sometimes mutter about getting a dog who will keep the deer at bay.  (The cats are no use at all.)

Last year I helped plant some berry bushes and fruit trees but this year I haven’t done much at all.  Well, I did plant one crop.  Remember those potatoes I was going to grow in a trash can?  Well, I kept procrastinating until the little seed potatoes had sprouted all over the place so I finally asked Mom if there was a spare corner of the garden and I plopped them in.  They will be a late crop but hey, it’s better than no crop at all!  And I should be able to mooch quite a bit of other produce from local gardening friends and neighbors.  Now I just need to find a good pizza sauce recipe to go with Will’s fancy dough

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A painted wallI’m sorry for all of the late and low-content posts, but the end is in sight! We plan to put up trim and paint over the next two days and move into the house this weekend. And not a moment too soon. We’re getting pretty tired of being stretched between two (or more, with house-sitting) places.

Right now, we’re focused on paint. We went to the local paint shop to meet with the designer on Monday and she was very helpful. I’ve been taking copious pictures, so we printed up copies of some good ones of the rooms we’re painting as well as our couches. The blue of the couches turned out to be a problem, since they’d combine with most strong colors to be overwhelming but white is just too boring for us.

We were a little worried that there’d be no low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints available in the colors we wanted, but Benjamin Moore’s Aura line is low-VOC and works with the lighter half of their color line. We’re not the only ones to run across it. Reading reviews leads me to believe that it’ll be a great paint. Not only is it more environmental than most paints (although not the most environmental), it should last 3-4 times as long as a cheap paint, the color is supposed to be amazingly vibrant, it’s self-priming, touches up well, and dries quickly.

The plan is to check out the different finishes and then order the paint at the Benajamin Moore event at the paint store tomorrow. Maggie will report back once we’ve actually used the stuff.

The drawbacks are that it’s expensive (although it doesn’t seem out of line compared to other premium paints) and that it’s only low-VOC rather than no-VOC, especially when pigment is added. We’re not the only ones wrestling with green remodeling. Tearing stuff out has been reasonable. We’re re-using most of the trim and we’re passing the old carpet along to a local woman who can use it for pond beds or mulching.

Painting, on the other hand, is pretty ridiculous. In addition to the paint itself, we had to get roller covers (plastic, basically), caulk (not the most environmental thing), insulation (pretty much the worst thing environmentally), plastic paint trays, and a big plastic drop cloth. We’ll be able to use most of it again, but it’s still disheartening to see how much waste this will produce.

To be honest, we probably could have gotten better stuff if we’d looked harder. The alternatives are so overwhelming, though, especially given our time constraints. If we had weeks to look, we’d probably get some samples of no-VOC paint and try them out to see how they work. Without that time, we’re just not willing to try a no-VOC paint and have it end up not working well for us.

Still, it’s easier than it would have been even 5 years ago and it seems to be getting better. And my next project (installing a ceiling fan) will be leisurely enough that it’ll green enough to make up a little bit of the difference.

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Geothermal rebates

The Indiana Office of Energy & Defence Development (the OED, not to be confused with the dictionary) just released their grant programs for fiscal 2008-2009. There’s some interesting stuff for small-scale demonstration projects and a variety of things for non-profit and commerical, but really only one program for residential, the aptly named Geothermal Residential Rebate program.

This program allows you to apply for $1500 toward installing a new geothermal heat pump or $1000 if you’re replacing an existing heat pump. A geothermal heat pump would still be several thousand dollars more than a traditional furnace, but it helps make it more attractive.

The OED also released a PDF of the results of last year’s program. It’s a very cool look at the economics of geothermal heat pumps in Indiana. The report gives the average cost (including installation) of each size of heat pump (from 2 to 6 tons) that got the rebate last year. Even better, it compares those costs with the cost of a different type of furnace over several years.

In the final analysis, they find that geothermal heat pumps have under a 6-year payback no matter what the alternative is. If you’re using heating oil, it could even pay for itself in under 2 years!

According to the report, the OED calculates that every dollar spent in rebates has saved consumers two to three dollars and stimulated spending within the state (since geothermal heat pumps are local business).

Maggie is making fun of me for thinking about this when we haven’t even painted the front rooms of the house yet. I figure that now is the time to start saving money so that we’ll be able to afford it when our current furnace fails. Until then, at least a natural gas furnace is the second-best option!

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Henry the Weed-Eating Dog

Henry, the weed-eating dogThis is Henry, one of the four dogs we are watching this week.  They are all very sweet and generally mild-mannered but we have noticed that Henry is special.  Henry is a weed-eating dog.

His owners have carefully planted a selection of tomatoes and peppers in big pots (well, some of them might be labeled as “five-gallon buckets” by the unimaginative) out on their back deck.  They told us to enjoy the bounty this week so we’ve been munching on cherry tomatoes as we sit around the pool (oh, the perks of housesitting).  We happened to look over yesterday and saw Henry carefully eating the grass out of the containers.   He showed no interest in the tomatoes or peppers but was very thorough in his grass annihilation.

As an amateur organic gardener, I am always looking for new tricks, tools, and secrets.  I don’t think it gets much better than a weed-eating dog in terms of environmental friendliness and minimal labor.  Plus you get the companionship of man’s best friend!  Alas, I have no idea how to actually train a dog to eat weeds.  That would be the million dollar trick.   Pretty much all the dogs I know will eat grass sometimes.  However, Henry has access to an entire lawn so I’m not sure why he prefers to eat his grass out of the tomato planters – perhaps it is sweeter and better fertilized?  Whatever his doggy logic may be, I am quite impressed and hope one day to have a weed-eating dog of my own.

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Dog sitting and a house update

I’m dog sitting tonight and Maggie is out of town, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to write a proper post later.

On the house front,  we’ve talked to a plasterer and he thinks he can just scrape most of the glue off and then cover the rest with a thin layer to make it smooth.  He’s going to come in on Monday to do that and replace the mirror with drywall.  If Nathan and I can remove all of the paneling from the front bedroom by then, we’ll also see if we can get him to do that.

We thought about taking out the plaster entirely and re-insulating, but it seems like such a waste to get rid of so much plaster that’s still in pretty good shape.  It’s also been remarkably cool in the house despite the big windows and lack of A/C.  Of course, we also don’t have any people or appliances producing excess heat either, but hopefully it’s a good indication that the current amount of insulation is sufficient.

Apart from that and painting, we’re just about ready to move in.  The current plan is to make the big move next weekend, which will be neat.  If you have any green decorating tips, let us know.  We have a lot more room than in our current place, so we’ll have plenty of spacet experiment on.

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