Archive for March, 2011

Clothing Swaps and Other Eco-Socializing Ideas

Seriously, this was STYLING in the 80's

I swear this was trendy in 1985

I’ve never been known for my stellar fashion sense (see photo, circa 1985) but my wardrobe has seemed particularly stagnant lately so I was excited when my friends Maggie and Siri invited me to the Second Annual Ladies Clothing Swap and Tea Party.  I don’t know how it compared to last year but this year’s event was AWESOME.  About thirty or so women showed up with bags of clothing that was quickly sorted by type – pants in one pile, dresses in another, t-shirts across the way…  The hostesses had made cute little handwritten signs for each pile and carefully propped up mirrors in strategic places around the room.

And then we all dove in.  Well, actually, it was one of those amazing instances of smooth flow without any direction or authority.  At any given time, there were some women trying on outfits while others gathered in the kitchen to drink tea and others found a cozy corner to sit and chat.  I had a wonderful time expanding my wardrobe but it was really the sense of connection with all these other women that made it an exceptional event.

I call it “eco-socializing” – an excuse to get together and strengthen the feeling of community while also achieving an ecological goal; in this case, efficiently recycling clothing by trading it with others.  Granted, a clothing swap may not be as obviously constructive as a barn raising or as altruistically beneficial as a volunteer river cleanup but I still think it’s an integral part of building a green society.  These are the kinds of events we need to be fostering in our towns and neighborhoods, along with canning parties, sewing circles, and leftover exchanges.  They don’t have to be about saving the planet; just about finding a way to spend some time with friends and neighbors while sharing resources in order to reduce waste and reinforcing shared beliefs about green living.

I suppose saving poor souls like myself from fashion tragedies is a worthy goal too.

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Nature Nerd Presents: Turkey Tracks

It’s spring in Indiana, which means the weather is playing nasty tricks on us.  Yesterday it was 70 degrees and sunny; today it was 30 degrees and snowing lightly.  That’s a bit dramatic even for us local yokels but a couple of false starts before spring truly sticks are pretty common.  I thought I’d take advantage of the cold weather to showcase some snowy footprints I spotted during a women’s retreat a few weeks ago staying in a little cabin in the woods.

My friend Lisa is actually a much better Nature Nerd than I am and was able to identify all the footprints we spotted while I focused on capturing them on film.  (Check out our flickr page for footprints from deer, raccoons, possums, and other critters.)   I was most excited by the turkey tracks because I think turkeys are super cool.  This is mostly from when I housesat for my boss out in the boonies one summer and got to see turkeys walking across a meadow at sunset, surrounded by fireflies.  They looked like little dinosaurs with only their reptilian heads sticking above the grass.

Wonder what turkeys eat in the winter?  Well, as we followed their tracks around camp we came across this pile of cracked acorns.  They look like a lot of work to me but I’m guessing turkey beaks are more efficient at these sorts of tasks than I am.  I believe turkeys also depend on different kinds of seeds in the winter, including corn or other grains from nearby farm fields.  They probably were quite happy at the camp where we stayed, which had a variety of habitat types including open meadows, wooded ravines, a lake, and nearby farm fields.  In the summer they add berries and insects to their diet.

We saw quite a few animal tracks in the snow, especially around the creek, but I figured we probably wouldn’t see any animals themselves as I am not a particularly lightfooted hiker.  We were also working hard not to slip on the icy trails and generally paying more attention to our conversation than any efforts to be sneaky.  However, an hour into our hike we came up a hill and suddenly spied a flock of turkeys running down the trail from us.  Sorta.  They were pretty far off.  Can you see them?

Here’s a cropped version of the photo where they’re a little easier to spot.  Lisa tried to get closer but they are surprisingly fast runners with their bobbing little heads.  They also seem undaunted by steep hills and underbrush that left me panting.  Guess I am not cut out to be a wild turkey!

Ah, well.  We weren’t really planning on a turkey dinner anyway so I’m just happy we caught a glimpse.  Maybe next year we’ll see that beaver…

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Solar Chargers

A Soleo solar charger left of a smaller and cheaper off-brandEven with our reduced electrical usage, installing enough solar panels to meet our average needs just isn’t cost-effective for us yet. Photovoltaic (PV) prices have dropped a lot in recent years so even though we can’t afford a big system, there are a couple of cheaper options for trying out solar energy on a small scale.

Before our first big train trip last year, I bought a small (and cheap!) solar charger for my cell phone. It’s about the size of a box of cards and has two suction cups so that it can be placed directly onto a window. Despite costing less than $30, the solar panel has a battery behind it so that you can charge the battery first and then hook up your phone later. That turns out to be a really good thing because it takes over a week to charge fully!

Something that I didn’t realize before getting this solar charger is that most solar panels require direct sunlight. When I put the charger on a south-facing window, it didn’t charge at all, despite getting indirect sunlight for most of the day. I had to place it on our east-facing window, where it got 1-2 hours of direct morning sunlight, for it to charge.

More recently, we won a much nicer (and more expensive–$90 or so) Soleo charger as part of the SIREN Energy Challenge. This solar charger has a built-in battery with three panels attached, each a bit larger than the first charger I got. When it’s open, the charger looks a bit like a tilted flower, with solar panels for petals (you put a pencil, included, through the center to keep it upright). The advantage of this charger is that you can rotate it so that it gets direct sunlight throughout the day. The drawback is that you do have to rotate it. This one only takes 2-3 sunny days to charge (or a little less than a week if you don’t rotate it) plus it has a larger battery (more capacity).

Both chargers have a bunch of adapters for changing a variety of cell phones. The Soleo also includes a USB adapter so that it can charge or run a USB-powered device. It can also be charged by USB if need be.

We have three different devices that we’ve tried with the charges: a normal cell phone, an iPhone, and an e-reader. Neither charger has a very accurate charge indicator, so it’s hard to know exactly how well they work, but the cheap charger would charge the cell phone fully and have some juice left over or charge the iPhone by half to three-quarters. It couldn’t charge the e-reader because it doesn’t have a USB adapter. The Soleo can charge the phone about five times from full or the iPhone once or twice. It can charge the e-reader about as well as it can charge the iPhone.

Are we saving any money? Not really. Cell phones, even power-hungry ones like the iPhone, and e-readers just don’t draw that much power. Over the course of a year, each phone probably uses less than a kWH each, so even if we charged all of them by solar, we’d be saving well less than a dollar a year. And, unfortunately, we can’t charge them by solar all of the time because they run out of power faster than the solar cells charge their batteries (especially during those cloudy winter days we’ve been having).

On the other hand, the chargers provide a lot of convenience under certain circumstances. On our latest trip, Maggie forgot her phone’s power cord but was able to charge it using the solar panel. I can also leave one of the solar chargers in my bag in case I need to use my phone more than normal. The cheaper one especially could be left in a car window to charge and you’d have it handy if you needed to quickly recharge a small electronic device.

The real issue is that most of the things we use draw a LOT of power compared to the amount of electricity a small solar panel can provide, even on a sunny day. If we were willing to keep our phones off more often or to use only small LEDs for lights, a small solar charger like these two would be enough to make a significant dent in our use. When compared to the amount of electricity a television or computer uses, the difference amounts to a rounding error.

I’d recommend getting a small solar panel to most people so that they can play with it, figure out the benefits and drawbacks of solar without a huge investment, and get a better sense of how much power a kilowatt-hour actually is!

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Bring on the Spring!

south side of houseI am so ready for spring.  I can’t stop garden planning and I’m ready to run out and start DOING things if only it would be warm & dry for two days in a row (don’t want to overly compact the soil).  I also need to spend a little time creating a [sigh] budget.  I wish I were either fabulously wealthy or super skilled at transforming society’s garbage into useful structures like trellises and fences and grape arbors and outdoor showers.  But as I am neither, I have to prioritize and I’m having trouble.

So right now I’m focusing on one of my ideas that doesn’t need to be implemented just yet: planting some vines to help shade our south-facing window.  It has been lovely to have this winter (although I might try to beef up our curtains next year with some thicker insulating fabric for night time protection) but in a couple of months we’ll shift gears to keeping heat OUT of our house and this year I’d like to do it with plants.  We already have some trumpet creeper vine that grows all over the front porch railing so I think with a few well-placed structures we can coax it into a window-shading growth pattern.  Hmmm, that sounds a bit like some sort of nasty disease but I mean my goal is to have the vines grow up and over the porch to keep out the sun but I also want to maintain a view from the window to the garden plus it would be nice to have sun on part of the porch for my solar cooker.

There’s also the design challenge that our porch already has a roof overhang that is relatively low (like the ceilings in our house, about 7.5 feet).  There isn’t a good place to hang brackets to suspend wires, as suggested in the Carbon-Free Home, and I’m afraid if I put any sort of pergola on the porch it would feel really low (especially if the plants sagged at all).

front_of_house_trellis_sketch_croppedSo here’s what I’ve come up with (as translated with my crude drawing skills).  On the left is a trellis that would run east-west, creating a truly shady spot in front of our front door.  On the right is a trellis that would run north-south (perpendicular to the house), nestled in the corner next to the stairs.  I would connect them with 4 or 5 wires running parallel to the roof overhang, where vines could grow and help shade out the noontime sun but leave the southeast corner of the porch uncovered so I could set up my solar cooker.

Next step: Life-size mockups with giant pieces of cardboard lurking in my garage and some leftover bits of kite string.  I think there’s a good chance this set up might be a little too low for comfort, although we might not know for sure until we grow some vines and see how dangly they are…  But you know we’re game for experiments!

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