May 29, 2012

Take the Rabbit Trail

Most of us travel a lot by vehicle, and we typically take the most "recommended" ways according to our GPS or Google Maps. I've been driving to a soccer tournament that is 110 miles from where I live, and yesterday I took the recommended route and accomplished it in about 2 hours. On the way back along the same roads, I stopped counting the State Police cars at 20. Today I engaged something my grandfather taught me, which was "never travel the same path twice in a row, lest someone catch and punish you."

I would be remiss to not share that he was referring to the fact that he imprinted that on my mind since I was a very young boy. I will drive to the grocery store on one path, but return by another. I noticed it yesterday because I took the same path back that to used to get there, and stopped counting the state trooper cars when I got to 20. Today I decided to get off the highway and take some rabbit trails (back-country roads) instead. I saved the $7 tolls by not taking the highway, reduced my mileage by 20 (which is one gallon of gas on my vehicle, saving me $3.55), only increased my travel time by 28 minutes, and that presented me with some discoveries about the surroundings of where I live.

What I discovered today by doing that:

  • A drive-in movie location that has been operating since the 50's that is showing the CURRENT releases. Yeah, I'm going there next weekend to watch the new Three Stooges & Avengers double header.
  • Stopping on a side road, I got to watch a mother opossum and her 2 babies walk across the road
  • I spied a man on a scaffolding of 3 ladders lashed together by rope in the back of a pickup bed, freshly painting a Mail Pouch Chew ad on the side of a barn built in 1816.
  • A diner that started in a 1950's streetcar trolley that is still open and offering breakfast all day long. It had a police car from the 50s on the roof.
  • Stopping on the road apron to watch 2 bulls butting heads. It was a TRUE bullfight. They were butting heads, locking horns and really going at it. Have YOU ever seen that happen?
  • A true "home-made" frozen custard stand. Yeah, I'm not a big Dairy-Queen fan, but you give me frozen custard, I'm ALL about that. And it was served from the same building in the shape of a cone that became popular in the 50's.
  • The main production of Heinz ketchup is less than 70 miles from where I currently live. To quote some web research and based on the fact that Heinz is headquartered where I grew up:
Heinz is headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the company has been located since 1890, and the company's "keystone" logo is based on that of Pennsylvania, the "keystone state". However, a majority of its ketchup is produced at a factory in Fremont, Ohio.
So, in summary, I suggest that you look at your atlas (instead of relying on the GPS), find a rabbit trail, and take it. You'll discover a lot more about what is going on in life around you by doing that... Life is about experiencing and discovering... not about just getting the job done...

May 18, 2012

ZAP!!! Saving Electricity

As mentioned in Save the Earth vs. Utility Bill Reduction, this is about ways to reduce electric usage. Reducing usage benefits the environment because the power plant can cut back on generating it so they don't deplete the coal, oil, or natural gas they use. Fortunately other ways are being used more with renewable sources like wind turbines, solar panels, and water wheels. Another benefit means more $$$ stays in your wallet. The key items that use electricity in a house fall into one of three categories: lighting, climate control, and appliances. What small things in each category would help reduce usage and save some $$$?

I learned a lot of common sense things from grandparents that lived through the Depression. I often heard "turn off the lights when you leave the room, don't turn one on just to walk through a room, use a nightlight in the hall at night instead of turning on the overhead, hit the switch off and open the drapes." All of them are great ways to start diminishing usage of lights. A few more suggestions:
  • Use natural sunlight as much as possible by opening the blinds or drapes in the most used areas.
  • In large rooms, use a focused lamp for any work or reading instead of using an overhead. A floor or table lamp uses one light bulb while overheads typically use several.
  • Switch from incandescent to compact fluorescent lamps or LEDs. More detailed info is available on the CFL vs Incandescent entry.
Climate Control
The Save the Earth vs. Utility Bill Reduction entry already mentions that the largest energy drain is due to heating and cooling. It also explains that changing your air filters, installing a programmable thermostat, and closing vents in unused rooms can help reduce energy use. An air conditioner makes sense for how it draws electricity, but "I have a gas furnace." Guess what? It uses electricity too. Keep in mind the furnace recommendations on the Thermostat Settings. The point is to turn the furnace down to save energy and $$$, and put on a layer of clothing.

The more you set back, the more you save

Set back 8 hours
per day
16 hours
per day
24 hours
per day
A key understanding about staying cool, is that air circulation creates the feeling of staying cool without requiring a lot of energy to do it. Ceiling and floor fans consume far less electricity than an air conditioner. Estimates show that the average ceiling fan uses 90% less electricity than the A/C unit. So does opening windows and creating a cross-draft of air through the living space. The Thermostat Settings entry recommends temperature settings for both the furnace and the air conditioner. To save even more electricity, if you are going out, turn off the fans. They don't truly change the temperature of the room, the air moving across your body makes you feel cooler. Leaving them on while you are gone is a waste of electricity. 

Appliances account for nearly 20% of electricity bills. Many appliances (stereos, DVD/VCRs, computers, toasters, lamps) draw a trace of electricity even when not in use or are turned "off." Unplug any appliances and electronics that are not being used to more significantly reduce electricity usage. If you are going to be gone for a while, unplug the microwave, coffee maker, radios, etc. until you get back. Sure, it isn't a ton, but if you have several unused items plugged in, it adds up.
In the kitchen, consider how much you are going to cook and the "tool" that you will use. There is a large difference between cooking a small dish on/in the stove, using a crock pot or slow cooker, and even a toaster oven for small pizzas or casseroles. See the Toaster Oven vs. Crock Pot vs. Stove entry for more detail. Baking in the stove during the summer means that your kitchen will heat up causing your air conditioner to run more.
Computers are also in this category. Turning on and off a computer takes less energy than when it is left running for a long time. Most new computers and hardware have energy-saving settings to automatically turn off if they have not been used for a certain period. Computers should be turned off if they aren't used for more than 2 hours, including overnight. A lot of people use laptops on battery supply only, and they go into sleep/standby mode. But guess what? You will eventually have to plug them in to charge, so they really don't "reduce" electricity usage.

In summary, the majority of the things we have in our homes depend on electricity (even the natural gas furnace and hot water heater). By saving every little bit, it adds up to a lot of energy savings and keeps more in your wallet. Some other minor suggestions are:
  • Use an insulating blanket around the hot water heater
  • Install foam insulation tubes around exposed water lines
  • Keep the refrigerator coils clean. Build up of dirt/dust prevents them from working efficiently
  • Buy EnergyStar products
  • Change the air filters for the furnace and air conditioner
  • Unplug what isn't used or won't be used for a while 
It isn't easy, trust me. But if you tackle only a few things per month, it will make noticeable changes. But my main point is that it all adds up in the end, look at the big picture about saving the planet for the future for the kids, and keeping a little in the pocket for you.

May 16, 2012

Saving Water

As mentioned in the Save the Earth vs. Utility Bill Reduction, this is about ways to reduce water usage and keep some more $$$ in your wallet. When looking at a satellite image of the Earth, it would appear that we have an abundance of water, but less than 1% of it is available for human use. That is why some regions have droughts or experience water alerts. It also demands a lot of energy to transform freshwater into water that is available for use. There are demands on energy in a home to heat water which accounts for 19% of home energy use. Keep in mind that 14% of the water that you pay for is never used, it goes down the drain. So what are some of the things we can do to reduce water use and energy demands (which keeps more usable water available and reduces our water bill)?

Change your kitchen and bathroom faucet to EPA WaterSense approved low flow aerators. Most kitchen faucets are 2.0 to 2.2 gallons per minute (GPM) flow rates, meaning 2-2.2 gallons of water flow per minute. I switched mine over to the WaterSense approved ones that have a rate of 1.5 GPM. I got them from a local home supply store, and I didn't even need a single wrench to do it.

Change your shower head. There are a LOT of them available (with the  WaterSense stamp) that reduce the amount of water needed for a shower, yet still maintain the pressure that you like. Also reduce the time used to shower. Get in, get soaped, rinse, get out. Yeah, sometimes we linger because it just "feels" good, but paying attention to the GPM and the duration helps save water and energy demands, plus keeps some money in your pocket.

Change your toilet or at least update the fill valve in the tank. "Back in the day," my grandfather taught me to fill a half gallon milk jug with sand and water and place it in the tank to reduce the amount of water to fill it. Newer toilets were made to use less water, but even technology is progressing. For only a few dollars and about 30 minutes, consider updating to a dual flush one. Dual flush means that you turn the handle one way for liquid and the other way for solids. The valve uses half the water for liquids. This replaces the old phrase "if it's yellow, let it mellow...if it's brown, flush it down." Even if you have a very old toilet, there are conversion kits that will convert it. Most local Home Depot, Lowe's, and local hardware stores carry them.

Using national averages in the calculator from the NEOPERL website for just faucets, shower heads, utility charges, and household members, the following table shows what the savings would be for just changing the aerators and shower head. It doesn't include how much more would be saved by converting the toilet.
Annual Estimate Current Usage Switch to Super Water Saving
Kitchen faucet flow rate: 2.20 Gal/Min 1.50 Gal/Min
Kitchen faucet water usage: 12,526.80 Gal 8,541.00 Gal
Bathroom faucet flow rate: 2.20 Gal/Min 1.00 Gal/Min
Bathroom faucet water usage: 16,911.18 Gal 7,686.90 Gal
Shower flow rate: 2.50 Gal/Min 1.50 Gal/Min
Shower water usage: 12,574.25 Gal 7,544.55 Gal
Annual water usage: 42,012.23 Gal 23,772.45 Gal
Annual water cost: $168.05 $95.09
Annual water saving:
Annual energy usage: 4,901 kWh 2,773 kWh
Annual energy cost: $588.12 $332.76
Annual energy saving:
Annual water & energy savings:

I recommend that you go to that calculator or the one on the EPA website [link] to calculate YOUR potential savings. Some other ways you can increase your savings and reduce your water usage are:
  • When washing dishes by hand, don't let the water run while rinsing. Fill one sink with wash water and the other with rinse water.
  • Run the clothes washer and dishwasher only when they are full to save up to 1,000 gallons a month.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables in a pan of water instead of running water from the tap.
  • Collect the water used for rinsing fruits and vegetables, then reuse it to water houseplants.
  • Designate one glass for drinking water each day or refill a water bottle. This reduces the number of glasses to wash.
  • Soak pots and pans instead of letting the water run while you scrape them clean.
  • Turn off the water while brushing your teeth and save 25 gallons a month.
  • Listen for dripping faucets and running toilets. Fixing a leak can save 300 gallons a month or more.
  • Turn off the water while shaving and save up to 300 gallons a month. 
Watch for more entries about savings achieved in electricity and natural gas around the household.

Save the Earth vs. Utility Bill Reductions

People tend to fall into one of three camps. One group want to save the Earth, some tend to be in the "how do I keep my own $$$ by reducing my monthly bills." The last group want to do both. This is a compromise of saving the Earth and money by paying attention to energy used for utilities. Reducing energy demand saves the planet AND reduces your monthly utility bills (which saves you $$$).

Most households use a combination of water, electricity, and natural gas. Reducing your usage of EACH of those effectively reduces the demand on the earth for fossil fuels and your monthly bills. A "win-win-win" for all 3 groups, and it helps bring us all closer together.

The biggest demand on energy is through heating and cooling your home. Yearly inspections and tune-ups by an HVAC professional will help you keep your furnace and air conditioner in the most efficient condition. If they aren't performing at their peak, they will demand more energy which depletes both the Earth AND your wallet. But, there are some simple things you can do on your own:

Change your air filters. Both the furnace and air conditioner depend on air flowing through them to perform best. It is recommended to change them every month in the summer (for the air conditioner) and every 3 months in the other months for the furnace.

Install a programmable thermostat. It will adjust the demand of energy of the furnace/air conditioner for times that the home is unoccupied and overnight. Also lowering the temp in the winter and raising the temp in the summer reduces the energy demand and increases the money in your billfold.  Refer to Thermostat Setting entry for more details. Even if you can't install a programmable one, most thermostats are easy to change manually (like I have to do).

Closing the vents in rooms or areas of your home that are rarely used improves the way the air flows to the parts of the home that ARE frequently used. Obviously, if you live in an area that has dramatic weather in the summer or winter, this is difficult but the majority can consider this.

This is an overview but there will be separate entries about water, electricity, and natural gas. Check back occasionally to keep up with ways you can reduce the dependence/cost of them. "Going Green" helps both the Earth and your wallet.

May 13, 2012

Summer and the Flag

As May progresses rapidly towards Memorial Day and the Fourth of July celebrations, I've seen a lot of flag decorations appearing in honor of those days. I had a conversation with my teenage son about what he has learned about the US flag. "They've never talked about it in school." That floored me. I promptly scooted his chair next to my laptop, and began guiding him to understand the flag. I recommend (United States Title 36 Chapter 10 codes), Wikipedia,  and Flags On Cars (if you want a more basic explanation) about respecting the flag. Most people today have LOST their respect for the flag because the history of it isn't taught much.

The discussion with my son reminded me of what I learned about our flag when I was in elementary school, Boy Scouts, my grandfather, and when I had it on my right shoulder. The reason I started guiding him to learn something was because I was getting frustrated with the way a lot of people display the stars and stripes.

When I was young, we were always taught how to display a flag. Always with the union (blue field) to the upper left of the OBSERVER of the flag when horizontal, upper left when vertical. My suggestion? If you are going to hang a flag in the front window of your house, go outside and look at it from the view of people that go past it. Hang it the right way. Might be reversed if you look at it from inside your house, but it is more respectful to hang it the way MORE people see it.

So, why does the Army use a reversed patch on the right shoulder? Part of the respect is because the union is always supposed to be moving forward. This concept stems from when the US flag first appeared with the cavalry attached it to a pole and had a flag bearer to carry it into battle, even in a windstorm. A modern understanding of that is to look where and how the flags are affixed to diplomatic vehicles while driving. As it passes you, the flag on the fender of the passenger sides shows it. This is also in the code mentioned above. Seeing stickers on the passenger side of cars and semis that aren't reversed, has bugged me a lot. Is a little bit of disrespect.

Okay, on another note. I did learn something as an adult because I didn't pay attention in class when I was young. Many roller derby refs have the flag patch on their uniform, as did I for a week before it was ripped off by a random Velcro event with a skater. As I was reading the two websites listed above, I "learned" that:
No part of the flag should be used as an element of a costume or athletic uniform.
Okay, that made me feel guilty, because a lot of referees in derby have a sticker on their helmets or patches on their shirts. I'm not sure if it "applies" to refs (I can't confirm it), but because I view it as an athletic uniform, I will not be putting a patch on my shoulder again, and have peeled the sticker from my helmet.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all about supporting the US and the flag that represents it, but it is my responsibility to be respectful. My final suggestion? Check out the websites above, and nudge others to learn maybe just a little more about the flag.

May 11, 2012

The Last Straw

My other entry about using the tab on a soda can to hold your straw and keep insects out of your drink, made me think about something from my youth. Yeah, from spending time with my grandparents. I spent a lot of time with them in the kitchen, so there were always a lot of "drinks" around. And, the best way to sip them was through a straw. When was the last time you made and enjoyed a Black Cow? Since there were a lot of glasses around, my grandparents had a lot of straws. Usually they were they were the inexpensive plastic ones, but since my grandfather used to work in a bar, he actually had some made of glass. So, I decided to do some research about current "trends" in straws.

To summarize, I'll keep it less technical and more informative. According to what I've read about the history of straws, the first ones were made from paper or reeds found in the local marsh. Things evolved, and they were eventually made from glass and metal. And yes, like you get at any local fast food restaurant, plastic. Did you know that McDonald's give away nearly 52 million plastic straws per day? And they are all thrown away. Not to be remiss, how many packages of plastic straws do YOU buy every week?

Okay, to get on the hippie soapbox and make a statement. Remember that most plastic straws are made from petroleum and then you throw them away after one use. With today's cost of oil, why continue to use a disposable item that increases the draining of the oil fields? And, when they are disposed, they end up in the dump, where they will never truly degrade. Not to mention how many toxins plastic emits (while you are drinking that beverage or when you dispose of it).

Pic from Glass Dharma
I guess I'll just summarize that because of my concern about the Earth (reducing the use of oil and the toxins in the dump) and because I am a fairly retro kind of guy, I'll be ordering some glass straws from the following sites. They come with a cleaning brush and are dishwasher approved (so I'll know they are sterile). And some sites have the different sizes available for different drinks. Yeah, technology progression is a good thing...

Decide where you stand on being more organic...and happy sipping... The following links are to sites that provide you the option of having non-oil/toxic straws. They might not work for the "thread the soda can tab" thought, but they can be decorative, personalized, straight and bent, reusable, a cost savings, and most important - life enjoyable.

Where to get straws:

May 7, 2012

Soda Can Ideas

The weather was finally nice enough yesterday for all of my neighbors to venture out and sit on the patios and fire up the grills. As we were sitting around chatting, we were talking about how being outside in the summer is sometimes painful because of the yellowjackets and the open cans of soda they are attracted to.

One of my neighbors said he once took a sip of a can of soda and was stung on the inside of his mouth because a bee had gotten into the can. Another neighbor showed us a simple trick to help prevent it. Simply turn the tab on the top around, and they can't get in.  Or if they do manage to slip in, that will prevent them from getting into your mouth when you take a sip. And yeah, that trick won't stop any ants or small flies that are attracted to the sweet drink, but at least they won't sting you if you swallow them.

That brought something to mind that I learned from my grandfather. Ever notice that if you use a straw in a can of pop (yeah, that's what we call it here), that it will rise up and fall out? My grandfather showed me that turning the tab and threading the straw through it, the tension prevents it from floating up and falling out. I never thought about just turning the tab to keep the insects out.

It also brought to mind something my dentist hygienist told me. She told me that using a straw when drinking a pop or sugary drink helps keep more sugar off of your teeth because people tend to swallow faster when using a straw. Keeping sugar off your teeth is important to help prevent cavities.

So as the "bottom line," when outside, turn the tab on the can of pop you are drinking and use a straw. It helps prevent yellowjackets and sugar from hurting your inner mouth.