Green as a National Park

Solar Panels in Denali Visitor CenterWill and I were lucky enough to travel to Alaska last month with his family and visit several amazing national parks.  Denali was probably the coolest (grizzly bears!  caribou!  huge mountains!) but I also was super impressed by the Kenai Fjords National Park with its coastal glaciers.  It’s pretty humbling being next to a giant river of ice and to watch an immense chunk break off with a loud “CRACK” and fall into the ocean.  Amazing.

While we loved the wildlife and the beautiful landscapes, we also enjoyed seeing all the ways the parks strive to be green, including quite a few renewable energy technologies.  It seemed like every building (even the outlying bathroom structures) had a solar panel on it.    Eielson Visitor Center, deep into the tundra of Denali National Park and with spectacular views of Mt McKinley, was the most impressive and is a LEED platinum building.  It’s essentially built into a hill with tundra plants growing on the roof to help it blend even further into the landscape.  One of their challenges (and motivations) is that there is no electric grid available 66 miles into the park.  So, the building uses several different energy sources (solar panels, hydroelectric generator in a nearby stream, and small propane generator) and was designed for maximal passive heating and lighting.  One advantage they have is that the center is only open for four summer months (June – September) because it is snowed in the rest of the year.

We happened to visit on the summer solstice, when the official sunrise was at 3:45 AM and official sunset was at 12:21 AM the next day (a 20 hour 36 minute day) but it never got truly dark –  just dusk-like.  You can generate a lot of electricity from solar panels on a sunny day in that part of the world!  However, they also have a lot of cloudy days so it has been an experiment to see how solar electricity and solar hot water work for the center.  I think it’s awesome that the parks are able to try out different technologies and do the best they can to have a minimal impact on some of the best natural landscapes in our country.

Electric Car for RangersIn Kenai Fjords, I snapped a quick picture of an electric car driven by the rangers.  I expect it makes a lot of sense for traveling between their two visitor centers that are about fifteen miles apart over flat paved roads (as opposed to driving through the backcountry).  We are still intrigued by the idea of getting an electric car for our household since so much of the driving we do is short distances on city streets with low speed limits.  However, it doesn’t look like it will bubble up to the top of the priority list anytime soon.  I guess we’ll let the parks work out all the kinks and then we’ll adopt the refined version.

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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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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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Up to My Arse in Wallpaper

Maggie peeling wallpaperWe’ve had the house for less than 24 hours and I’m already psyched to pull off all the crazy textured wallpaper and rip up the carpet to reveal hardwood floors.  Alas, it’s a lot of work!  We spent several hours today pulling the top layer of wallpaper off the family room walls (the backing and paste tend to stay behind).  A guy from Vectren came by to turn on the gas and told me that I should make my life simpler and buy a gallon of magical solution called Dif that supposedly takes wallpaper right off.

I looked it up and learned that Dif is a wallpaper stripper with a “unique patented enzyme formula” and “a superior, more effective blend of wetting agents” that have made it a must-have for wallpaper removal projects.

Of course, my question is, what is the environmental impact of this stuff?  I looked at the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) but it is really designed for firefighters and hazardous waste clean-up crews so there wasn’t detailed information about its overall environmental impacts.  I’m pretty sure Dif is more environmentally harmful than using hot water but I’m also pretty sure it’s a lot faster.  At what point can a person justify an increased environmental impact to save some physical labor?  For this project, I would feel a lot better sticking with the manual labor – I could use the exercise!  But the question of trade-offs comes up a lot and it’s almost always impossible to get all the information needed to make the best decision.

My dad says that someone needs to come up with a Green Consumer Reports that would crunch all the data concerning the environmental impact of how an item is produced, how it’s used during its life, and how it gets disposed of.  I keep telling him it’s a great idea except I don’t think that data even exists for most products.  But maybe someone just needs to give it their best shot and refine as they go.

Any publishing moguls out there?  I’m handy with a blog and a wallpaper scraper…

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YAAAAAAY! (Or, We Finally Bought That House After Much Harassment)

Well, we are now officially homeowners.  *zowie*  We’re excited and exhausted and a bit unsure that it really happened.  Even this morning we were getting phone calls asking us to pull up a few more bits of financial information and be prepared to sign just a couple more preliminary papers before the closing and it seemed to all be hanging by a thread.  But we managed to do the final walk-through inspection, meet the sellers for the first time (very sweet people), sign an almost endless stack of papers, hand over about one year’s salary, and we were given the keys.

It was actually a bit anticlimactic.  We signed papers for about an hour and then everyone pat us on the back and said “Congratulations!”

It didn’t really feel real until we took my parents over and started peeling off the 70’s textured wallpaper in the living room.  I have realized that for me, the best way to make it feel real is to start making some changes, to leave my mark and claim it as MINE.  And Will’s.  Although technically I think the mortgage company owns about 95% at this point…

Anyway, it’s a relief to be done with the purchasing process.  We’ll be spending the next month doing a little remodeling (there are hardwood floors under the carpet!) and slowly moving in our belongings.  Let us know if you have any green remodeling tips!

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Dreaming of Solar and other Green Home Additions

Yes, This is The House We WantRemember how we have been trying to buy a house? Well, it looks like we’ll be closing on our new (to us) home this Friday. It seems like every day our mortgage broker calls us with one last question.  For awhile, I couldn’t think about the house without getting stressed out but now I’m excited again. We have started whispering to each other at night about how glorious life will be as homeowners.

“We can have a real compost pile!”

“And a real garden. With perennials! Maybe even fruit trees!”

“We should totally get an Energy Star on-demand water heater.”

“Oh, and we should build a solar shower in the backyard!”

It’s a lot of fun although we’ve already had a few discouraging reality checks. The sellers had originally offered us $1000 so we could fix the roof on the garage (which is leaking) and so we started thinking about putting up a metal roof and collecting all the rainwater runoff. But then it turned out that the sellers felt like they might be short-changing us so they went ahead and replaced the roof… with more asphalt shingles. We can still collect the rooftop water and use it for irrigation; it just won’t be quite as pure and clean. Ah, well.

Our latest topic of discussion has been solar panels. Financially, it still doesn’t make much sense in this land of cheap electricity, but we love the idea of renewable energy. There is also a new group in town called the Southern Indiana Renewable Energy Network (SIREN) that is creating a cooperative dedicated to alternative energy. They are just getting started so the details are murky but the idea of having a group of people right here in Bloomington all working to create solar and wind and micro-hydro systems is totally awesome.

But first we have to get the house. Keep your fingers crossed on Friday at 9:00AM (ET).

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Girl Scouts and Green Living

I’ve been helping out with Girl Scout day camp this week, teaching girls the basic outdoor skills of firebuilding and knot-tying.  I developed quite a reputation as “the lady who let us use matches.”  Pretty awesome when you’re eight years old, regardless of your gender.  I enjoyed volunteering and feeling like I did something useful in shaping the next generation.  I also enjoyed being reminded what girls are like – inquisitive, naive, stubborn, silly, intelligent, clueless, and frustrating – often all at the same time.

Day camp is filled with a variety of activities from swimming to craft-making to service project but there was one that caught my eye.  A couple of women came down from the Girl Scout office to survey the girls about what cookie sale prizes should be next year.  For those of you unfamiliar with Girl Scouts, cookie sales are a major revenue generator.  A portion of the sale of each box goes to the troop, another chunk goes to the Council (the local office) and a third chunk goes to the national organization.  There is an incentive system set up to encourage girls to sell as many boxes as possible so they can earn different prizes.  Every year there’s a theme of some sort.  Many of them involve animals – the last one I remember in detail was centered around cats.  If you sold X boxes you got a little patch with a cat, more boxes earned you a t-shirt with a cat, and even more boxes would get you a cat plush toy.

Well, this year apparently they are going with an ecological theme.  I didn’t get a close look at the prizes but it seems like they had things like stainless steel water bottles and maybe some sort of tiny solar panel.  To be honest, my first impression was “aack!  greenwashing!” but I think that was probably a harsh evaluation.  I’ve just been a little frustrated lately about all the green products being hawked and how it has become so trendy but on the other hand, it’s totally something in line with the girl scout mission and I’m excited to see the girls get educated about living more environmentally sound.

I’m just not sure we really need any fluorescent light bulb plush toys running around.

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Green Wedding Invitations

Handmade PaperWe went this afternoon to order wedding invitations from Twisted Limb Paperworks.  I really like the company and concept and think the owner/president is a very cool lady but their products are rather expensive.  Actually, I think invitations in general are ridiculously overpriced.  Will and I were planning our own invitations but my mom gave us a gift certificate to Twisted Limb and it suddenly became quite affordable.

Twisted Limb makes handmade colored paper out of used office paper, paper bags, junk mail, and grass clippings from the field behind their office.  The quality and variety are pretty impressive and we should have asked for a tour but we were busy trying to decide between the endless possible combinations.  We had to choose a cardstock color, two different handmade paper colors, two different flower mix-ins (that they add to the handmade paper while it’s being made), two different font colors, and two different font types.  We made our decision within half an hour, which impressed the owner greatly.  She says couples have burst into huge arguments in their office or have sat and deliberated for hours on the perfect combination.  We were impressed by how she guided us through the process and was supportive of our choices but obviously was not just pandering to us since she did put her foot down and told us we were not even to consider using the black plastic fasteners because it would be an ugly combination.

Twisted Limb has partnered with several area retailers to create a “green” wedding package, an idea that seems pretty cool.  The retailers on the list that I know are really serious about being environmentally conscious but many of them were things we’re either planning to do on our own (flowers) or things we’re not planning to do at all (cosmetics).  I think people often overlook the “green” option of “doing without.”  Anyway, it’s nice to have one more item (almost) checked off the list and to know we will have nice, 98% recycled invitations.

I guess we can’t really check it off until we decide what the invitations will actually say.

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Drying Laundry the Green Way

Wooden Drying RackWe had some more beautiful weather this past weekend and I felt inspired to hang my laundry outside to dry. (I also learned that April 19th was National “Hanging Out” Day and wanted to jump on the bandwagon.)

I did one load of laundry and hung it out on our back deck with a few things on the railing and a few things hanging from clothes hangers off our little porch swing. It was a little less than ideal, due partly to aesthetics and partly to one practical detail. Our deck looks out onto a greenspace shared by about eight rental units, six of which are breeders and constantly producing litters of adorable puppies. I love puppies but puppies and clean laundry are usually not a good combination.

Anyway, at first I was ready to get either a crazy antenna clothes drying rack or one of those fancy retractable clotheslines. But Will and I did a little research at the local hardware store and decided to stick with a simple wooden drying rack, which was an excellent choice since it began raining as soon as we got it home. Now we can dry clothes inside or out and I can still hang things off the porch swing when the weather is nice. We’re still looking at houses so perhaps in our more permanent home we’ll get the fanciest clothesline ever but for now at least I have some motivation to avoid our electric dryer.

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The Heart of Now, Permaculture and Greening Cincinnati

Log movingI went to Cincinnati this weekend to lead a Heart of Now experience night. The Heart of Now is a workshop that invites people to practice being honest and open with themselves and with each other, through the simple act of being present.

It’s one of those things that is simple but not necessarily easy. How often do we find ourselves lost in thought, worrying about the past or dreaming about the future or simply off on some dreamy tangent? And how often do we choose to ignore where we are right now, willing the time to pass by or stuffing down emotions we don’t want to deal with?

The problem is, when we’re disconnected from ourselves it’s even harder to connect with each other. Well, that’s one of the problems and I believe that’s why the Heart of Now has been successful and why it is often associated with permaculture and with community living. I first found out about it as part of my crash course in hippie west coast alternative living when I moved out to Oregon to take an eight-week course in permaculture and eco-village design.

Permaculture is a design theory that says we can create human settlements that will provide for all our basic needs (food, water, shelter) and also give back to the natural environment if we design them correctly, working with nature rather than against it. Many of the ideas are based on simple common sense that we seem to have forgotten, such as orienting buildings to take advantage of passive solar heating. There are many elements involved, such as sustainable agriculture, natural building practices, ecologically sound water management, and treating “waste” products as resources (e.g. kitchen scraps become chicken feed).

Eco-villages are communities that are designed to implement permaculture practices at the community level and to also support all the community members’ social and spiritual needs. As you might imagine, one of the biggest challenges of living in community is dealing with interpersonal conflict. Our class had sessions on some of the technical aspects of building an eco-village (building houses out of straw bales and cob, designing water management systems, creating forest gardens) but also all of the necessary social skills (non-violent communication, consensus decision-making, creating community policies).

The Heart of Now session I led in Cincinnati was part of a local permaculture course and it was really inspiring to see how it appealed to a group of people who are working to green a very urban landscape. Cincinnati is an old river town with a lot of history and a lot of typical urban blight issues. My host was telling me that there are houses in the poorer neighborhoods that are available for $7,000 and are often historical homes that were constructed in the late 1800’s. He has dreams of revitalizing inner city neighborhoods with gardening projects and radical community involvement.

Mostly, though, the participants were just excited to have a way to strengthen their small community that’s already working to create a small counterculture of green living in an area where the traffic never stops and 90% of the land is pavement. There’s already one eco-village going in Cincinnati and there are dreams of starting others. There are also dreams of starting farms at the fringes of the city and inviting inner city kids to come out to experience growing their own food.

I am excited to be a part of it all. Sometimes I worry that I’m not making a positive impact on the world and I wish I were out doing something radical like gardening in the ghetto or inventing the latest green technology. So I’m happy to play a supporting role in greening the city of Cincinnati as I continue striving to make a difference in my little ol’ hometown of Bloomington.

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