Archive for January, 2009

We’re back!

After exactly a week of problems, is back to normal!  Although our trusty site was around the whole time, it was impossible to get to, since we’d lost our domain name.  Those of you who visited during the past week probably saw a search page suggesting that you might want to investigate porn or electronics.  Rest assured, that wasn’t our doing, although I’m now convinced that there’s a market for ecological porn.

In any case,  our domain provider worked with us to resolve the situation and we’re now back in business.  It may take a day or two for some of you to see this depending on how frequently your DNS cache updates, but we’ll wait for you.

We’ll be back with a real post soon… once we’ve dug ourselves out from under the foot of snow we got yesterday!

Thanks for reading!

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Solar Homes of Evergreen Village

Evergreen solar housesI think we may have mentioned before that we live near a neighborhood of solar homes that was developed by the City of Bloomington Housing and Neighborhood Department (HAND).  It’s called Evergreen Village and it’s a cute little development of energy efficient homes planted with rain gardens and equipped with photovoltaic solar panels (which I believe were donated by Duke Energy).  We considered buying one when we were looking for a house but decided they were too expensive.  It’s a little odd; they’re designed to be affordable housing and yet they’re priced around $120,000-$150,000.  We’ve been wondering how that’s supposed to work.

Well, as I was walking the dog today (they have a nice walking trail) I saw a “for sale” sign and decided to call the realtor.  She was very nice and explained the whole program to me.  It’s actually pretty cool.  Fist of all, if you want to buy one of the houses, you have to meet their income guidelines, which means you can’t make more than a certain amount of money.  For a couple, your combined income can’t be more than $39,100 which means Will and I would definitely qualify.  You have to take a homebuyer class through the HAND department that basically talks about how mortgages work, expectations for upkeep of your house when you live in the city, and maybe some basic home maintenance stuff.  You also have to take a special class about how to care for your solar panels, how to maximize the energy efficiency of the homes, and how to care for your native landscaping rain garden.

Then you go to the lender of your choice and apply for a loan.  Here’s where it gets interesting.  Lets say the house you’re looking at is $130,000 but the bank says they will only lend you $100,000.  The city has a special loan/grant fund to help make up the difference so if you qualify (I’m not sure exactly what the guidelines are here), they will give you the extra $30,000 to buy the house.  If you keep the house for a certain amount of time, lets say ten years, the loan from the city is forgiven.  But if you sell it after a couple of years, you have to pay back the loan, I think with interest.

When we first started considering these houses, I thought it was a little surprising that all the appliances are electric (water heater, furnace, oven).  I’ve always heard terrible things about how inefficient electric furnaces and water heaters can be.  However, I’ve read a lot of studies about how people who want to switch to solar power end up dramatically increasing the efficiency of their homes before they put on any panels because once you start trying to figure out how to make it work with solar, you realize it’s all about insulation and passive solar heating.  So even though it’s unlikely that the homes can really heat themselves year-round using PV solar panels, I’m sure they’re way better than your average home, even if it uses a gas furnace.

The ultimate goal for Evergreen Village is to help low-income families invest in really cool efficient homes for the long term and I hope the program will be really successful.  It looks like only about half the houses are currently inhabited but they were constructing the last phase (about a third) all through 2008 so it sounds like the city is just getting started selling the latest group of houses.  It’s also a crappy time of year to move so we’re figuring maybe in the spring we’ll have some new neighbors.

In the meantime, we’ll keep admiring the solar panels as we walk by.

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Gratuitous Puppy Post!

puppy with big earsWe’re slacking a bit in our blogging but thought at least some of y’all might enjoy some more pictures of puppies.  They are getting quite large and energetic.  We have acquired an assortment of toys that they enjoy pouncing on although when we try to play with them, their mama steals all the toys.  It would seem cruel except that she looks so silly romping around like a puppy while her little ones are all like “Dude, what just happened?!?”

Will suggested that I write a post about how green puppies are but I’m feeling like it’s rather a 50/50 toss up.  We are getting outside a lot more (although that’s more mama than the puppies) and getting lots of exercise, which will hopefully make it easier for us to bike and walk around.  We spend more time at home with them – excellent cheap entertainment!  They are happy to “recycle” our cardboard tubes and really any sort of food at all (Will has been feeding mama dog banana chips, among other things).

However, they generate an awful lot of trash.  We line their potty area with newspaper (either used or the “end roll” from our local printer) and I had originally planned on composting it all.  Then we gave them a dewormer and I got to see firsthand how puppies are filled with tiny disgusting parasites.  I did some research on pinworms and roundworms and the like and decided perhaps it was better just to throw it all away.  I am resisting the urge to buy bleach and disinfect every surface of the house but I have been using a lot of vinegar.  (A few of the pups got overly curious in their sniffing and had huge sneezing fits; it was sad but funny and they learned nothing from the experience.  Ah, well.)

I’m probably overreacting about the parasitic worms – heck, we let mama poo all over the back yard and don’t clean it up very thoroughly so it’s probably all contaminated already – but it really does give me the heebie jeebies.  This from the woman who is comfortable with all ten of Student Doc Green’s Gross Green Habits (okay, still using toilet paper).  *sigh*  What’s a puppy-loving gal to do?

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Riding the bus

A busI have an almost pathological aversion to spending actual dollars. I don’t think I’m alone; one of the favorite tactics of financial bloggers for someone who has trouble controlling their spending is to tell them to spend cash for everything. For that reason, it’s usually not a bad thing. An aversion to spending leads naturally to frugality. Unfortunately, it also means that I haven’t been riding the bus much. I know intellectually that $1 isn’t much, but my hindbrain yells to me that it’ll be $2 for the round-trip, $3 if we stop at the grocery store. And $3 is real money. I could get a shirt for that at Goodwill!

In reality, it probably costs just about as much to drive the same places, what with gas prices, maintenance, and parking. But apart from parking, I don’t have to pay that immediately and in cash. They’re disconnected from my travel experience.

The big exception to my penny pinching is travel to campus. As a student, I always hated coming in to campus because it was such a hassle. The metered spots, when they were open, had a 1 hour limit, which isn’t enough for a whole class, let along several classes. To park anywhere else, you had to have a parking pass ranging from $80 to $300 a semester. Even then, those passes didn’t guarantee you a spot. It just meant that you wouldn’t be towed if you found one. The expensive passes let you park anywhere, but the cheaper passes gave you fewer options. Many times during a semester, I had to drive around for fifteen minutes or halg an hour until someone in the right type of space drove off and I could park.

And it was stressful. If I didn’t find a parking spot in time, I’d be late for class. That’s bad enough as a student, but I lived in fear of it as a teaching assistant. My only real accident happened while I was desperately trying to find a spot on a snowy, icy day. For a while, Maggie lived in a place about twenty minutes’ walk from my building, so I’d park there and walk in when I needed to get to campus. The twenty minute walk was so much nicer than twenty minutes of circling in my car, hoping to find a place.

At the time, I tried taking the bus occasionally, but we were slightly further south than the furthest south route, so the bus only ran once an hour and took 30-45 minutes to get to campus. Depending on class times, that meant I’d often have to take a bus an hour and half early. The bus also stopped running relatively early, so I could be trapped downtown if I had other errands to run.

This semester, I’m back on campus Tuesdays and Thursdays. However, I’m also on a different bus line. This bus comes every half an hour and only takes 15 minutes to get downtown. We’re also situated right along a loop, so I have two chances to catch the bus, which makes me much more comfortable about getting to campus on time. Given all this, any my memories of car stress before, I planned to get a six-month pass. It’s a little cheaper if you use the bus quite a bit but, more importantly, I’d no longer have to pull cash out of my wallet to ride the bus. My pacified hindbrain could imagine that the whole thing was free.

The icing on the cake is that with my new ID, I actually can ride for free! The new route also uses hybrid buses, so my environmental impact is even smaller. What a great win-win scenario!

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Reader Poll: Home Improvement

It’s a new year and I’m plotting and scheming and dreaming about all the exciting projects I could work on in 2009.  We recently had our home energy audit, which generated a list of projects.  I also have some coupons for seeds and plants to improve the yard.  And of course there’s a long list of possibilities we identified when we first moved into the house last summer.

Here’s my list of projects, with a rough evaluation of the cost, greenness, and difficulty level.  Which would you prioritize?

1. Hook our house to the sewer line.  This would be expensive but easy since we would hire it out.  The hook-up fee is a few thousand dollars and the actual installation would be a few hundred.  I think the city wastewater treatment plant is slightly greener than our current septic system but the main advantage is that we could plant fruit trees and gardens without worrying about impacts to the septic field (or vice versa).

2. Replace our water heater.  We currently have an ancient electric water heater that is functional but not very efficient and we fear may croak at any minute.  We could change to a gas water heater but it would have to be replumbed to be located on our back porch instead of the crawlspace, probably to the tune of a couple thousand dollars.  Another option would be a passive solar water heater but that would still require a back-up electric or gas water heater so we’d be looking at several thousand dollars.  Definitely green!

3. Build a passive solar backyard water heater and hot tub.  This is a bit of a lark but I’ve been thinking perhaps I should scrounge up materials to put together a ramshackle passive solar water heater in the backyard and hook it up to an old jacuzzi tub so I can have the hot tub I’ve always dreamed of but without the chemicals or electrical usage.  Price tag is probably a few hundred dollars, depending on my scrounging skills.  Greenness is dubious since it’s totally a luxury and it would use quite a bit of water (like a gigantic bathtub).

4. Insulate our attic.  This was the number one recommendation from our home energy audit and he suggested renting a machine to blow in cellulose fiber (about $60/day).  Probably a good home project as long as we can do it without putting any holes through the ceiling and as long as I don’t get too claustrophobic, since as the small person I will undoubtedly be the one in the attic.  Price tag is probably a few hundred dollars.  Greenness is excellent for insulating qualities, pretty good for cellulose.

5. Seal up our crawlspace.  This was the number two recommendation from our home energy audit.  It would involve less green materials (foam board and sheets of poly plastic) but would have great energy efficiency results.  It also sounds like an easy project to do ourselves without huge expense.

6. Build a passive solar air heater. Oh, I really want to build some sort of solar collector and install it on the south side of our house but it sounds intimidating!  Still, might be worthwhile in terms of energy efficiency and building handyman skills the down and dirty way.

What do you think?  Which project would you do first and why?  And how does one successfully recruit one’s father or other local handyman to help out?

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No podcast

Last week, we recorded our podcast in the living room because it was easier to keep an eye on the puppies. Unfortunately, the mic that we use (a tiny thing that plugs into my laptop) got lost in the shuffle. We’ll work something out for next week, but that means no podcast this week!

Instead, I recommend that you check out arduous’ posts on feminisim, environmentalism, and gender roles: part 1, part 2, and part 3.

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Our energy audit

Our energy kitWe’re actually doing reasonably well in terms of electrical usage and heat. According to Vectren, we’re using about 77% of the natural gas that other similar houses in the area are using. Since only about 5% of that is for cooking, our primary difference has to be heating. During the day, we keep the thermostat at 66. If I didn’t work from home, we could go cooler, but that’s about as low as I can be comfortable for long periods of time. We used to go down to 59 at night, but Maggie read that a difference of more than 4-5 degrees overtaxes the furnace, so we changed it to 61. I think that you could warm the house in stages to avoid that problem as well, but it turns out that with a gas furnace it’s not as large an issue.

Even though we’re doing pretty well heating-wise, we wanted to make sure that the house doesn’t have any major issues. There have been a lot of improvements since the late 1960s! The local Duke Energy provides a free service called Home Energy House Call, where a technician comes through and examines your house for energy problems. Maggie’s parents had to wait months for their appointment, so we signed up last week and got ready to wait. Luckily, a slot opened up yesterday, so Maggie and I got our energy audit remarkably quickly!

The beginning of the audit consisted of a series of basic questions. How big is the house? How old is it? How many people live here? After that came energy-specific ones. Do you use CFLs? Do you wash your clothes in cold water? I’d guess that most people who get an energy audit answer yes to these, since they’re aware and interested in energy conservation.

Once we had those out of the way, the auditor inspected the house, including the crawl space. He felt along the windows and external outlets for drafts. The bedroom windows were really drafty, which we knew, so he suggested using “great stuff” insulating foam. He also checked the windows themselves, but most of ours are double-paned, which was fine. He looked around external doors for gaps around the edges for weatherstripping, but only found a little piece on one of the back doors.

More importantly, he said that around here, our attic should be insulated to R38, which is about 10 inches of blown insulation. We only have about 6, so that’s a big issue. Heat rises, so a poorly insulated attic is killer in the winter. The auditor suggested that we use cellulose rather than fiberglass. It insulates about 50% better, which means we wouldn’t have to add as much. For either, we can rent a blower and buy bags of insulation and do the job ourselves, so it’s a relatively cheap project. We also need to insulate the panel that leads to the attic, since right now it’s not insulated at all.

After doing the inside, we headed outside to get into the crawlspace. Unfortunately, I sustained a back injury in the line of duty from slipping down our icy steps. My sore back is a reminder that we need to de-ice our steps as well as insulate our attic.

Perilous as it was, the trip to the crawlspace as worthwhile, since it was the worst offender on the tour. Although our ducts are insulated, nothing else in the crawlspace is. Even worse, our vents are still open so we’re basically sitting on an ice box. The crawlspace under the addition, which is where my office is, is properly insulated although the vents are still open.

Our home inspector had told us to insulate the crawlspace when we could, but we’ve heard conflicting things about how exactly to do it. According to our auditor, we should put down plastic sheeting and insulate the walls, but not bother to insulate the floors. During the summer, we can keep the vents open to prevent moisture problems but in the winter, that’s not an issue. When the weather gets cold, we should close the vents and put insulation behind them and reverse the process when it gets warm.

In addition to these tips, our auditor left us with some weatherstripping, a low-flow showerhead, a faucet aerator, some light switch and outlet insulating pads, and some CFLs. Over all, not a bad return for half an hour of our time!

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Puppies: The Ultimate Exercise and Baby Preparation Tool

Obama the Pit Bull PuppyFor those of you who missed our Friday podcast, our big news is that we are currently fostering a mama pit bull with nine puppies.  We have had them for one week but somehow it feels much longer…  Happily, we are enjoying their company and the puppies are now starting to sleep through the night.  (There was a day or two when they first learned to bark and wanted to practice it whenever they were awake.  It’s hard to sleep when your house sounds like a zoo – sometimes monkey-like, sometimes bird-like, and only very occasionally recognizable as tiny dogs.)  All the puppies were named after presidents and the one with the white head is named Obama.  He is a cutie although he can be a bit of a whiner.

Saffron, the mama dog, has started me on an intense exercise routine that involves a 4-block brisk walk in the morning and a 1-mile brisk walk at lunch.  I’m sure she’d like about four more walks a day but it’s plenty for my schedule and stamina level.  She seems pretty content overall.  We are working on some leash training skills but it’s slow going.  Today’s leash lesson was entitled “Don’t Pull Me When We’re Walking On Ice Or We’ll Both Fall Down, You Dumb Dog” but happily we both made it through the day unscathed.  (Will is the one who might have bruises tomorrow from his trip down our front stairs.)

The puppies themselves aren’t a very good exercise tool since they sleep about 20 hours a day but they are giving us a crash course in what it must be like to be a parent.  However, they grow much faster than human babies.  I think every day of puppy growth is equivalent to a week of human baby growth, or maybe two.  The first day we had them, their eyes were barely open and they couldn’t really walk.  The next day they seemed aware when we came in the room but couldn’t really see us and didn’t do much more than stand up and turn around.  On day three they seemed to see us and could wobble around a little.  Day four started the barking and walking.  On day five they started barking (or growling) at us and playing with each other a little.  Yesterday they figured out how to get past the high tech puppy barrier (a 3″ tall piece of cardboard across the door) so today they have been moved into puppy prison where they can romp more freely without romping onto our carpet.

Will has struggled more than I due to sleep deprivation from puppy yowls although I’m the one who has been getting up to let mama dog out in the middle of the night.  (She has to eat constantly to keep those little guys fed, which means she also has to go to the bathroom pretty often.)  We’re both a little snappish and are wondering how people with human babies keep a healthy relationship and don’t get totally overwhelmed.   We’ve decided that the first step is to avoid having nine babies.  Of any species, really.  Still, we’re adapting and  I think we’ll be fine for the rest of our fostering commitment (they go back to the Bloomington Animal Shelter in four weeks) but I’m not sure we’ll offer to do it again.

On the other hand, they are awfully cute.

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Podcast: Resolutions and Presidents

In this podcast, Maggie and I talk about how to make New Year’s resolutions work. We also talk about some of our favorite Presidents.

The “guy with the shovel” that we mention is actually this guy and his sweater-wrapped sledgehammer. It’s a cool example of de-commercializing an arena that’s been taken over by business (exercise).

Sorry for the delay in posting, but I spent yesterday sick.

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