April 10, 2008

Carbon Footprint Check-In

It's time to see how I'm doing with my carbon footprint for the year 2008. As a reminder, I've set a 2008 New Year's Resolution to cut my carbon footprint in half: from 22 tons to 11 tons.


On initial inspection, things are going incredibly well. The year to date total is just under 3 tons. Highlights:

  • Our electricity bill has remained low and steady since implementing our energy-saving projects last year.
  • Our hot water projects have helped immensely.
  • Recycling is going very well. We are producing 75% less garbage every week!
  • We have been making a conscious effort to walk more and drive less. This has significantly reduced our gas miles, which should be some of our biggest savings this year.
  • We took one trip to Cleveland earlier this year to visit my in-laws, but other than that our travel has been kept in check. We did take one vacation so far this year, but just stayed at home and enjoyed the local area. It was great.

Before I can claim victory, I have some very bad news. You may remember that 2008 is also the year that my husband and I decided to take a three month sabbatical from work to travel the world.  For us this is a one-time, chance of a lifetime opportunity.  We'll be going all over: Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Spain, England, and elsewhere in Western Europe.

Our itinerary is vetted now, and I ran it through the carbon calculator. The results are not good.


The flights we'll be taking will more than double our remaining carbon footprint. On the plus side, we won't be driving for three months, but this barely makes a dent in the result. With the flights factored in, we will only improve our carbon footprint about 33% this year.

Of course, there are lots of ways to play with the numbers to make these figures stab my conscience less. I am offsetting our travel, of course, with a company that will plant extra trees to soak up this carbon. In theory, since this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, I could amortize the carbon cost out over the next few years.

There are also justifications such as the fact that travel better connects me to the world, and inspires me to work harder towards its preservation, which is true. But the stark reality is that despite our commitment to shrinking our footprint, when our goal came into direct conflict with one of our passions, we couldn't make the sacrifice.

I have mixed feelings about this. Of course, I look at all I have accomplished so far and am enormously pleased with it. But I am also disappointed in my ability to be hardcore.

So what will I do? My current plan requires me to look beyond just myself and my measly little footprint. In order to balance the scales and achieve some semblance of my goal, I will need to find other places I can make an impact. Convince my apartment complex to switch to CFL lighting, perhaps. Maybe work with friends and family to shift their habits. Enact an energy-savings plan at my place of work.

In the end, finding other ways to prevent greenhouse emissions beyond my personal lifestyle may balance the equation on paper. But it still feels like robbing Peter to pay Paul.

April 06, 2008

The Water Audit, Part II: What is using our water?

I figured it was high time I do a more thorough water audit of our household. With the water supply in the Pacific Northwest guaranteed for the next fifty years, I've been a bit lazy about this. But understanding the world's present water crises, and how much worse it's expected to get, conserving water is still a good idea.

From a previous water audit where I inspected my bill, I generally know how much water we use per month, but I have no idea what exactly is contributing to that total.

This water audit was extremely easy, and didn't take long at all to do, maybe 10 minutes in total, spread out across a few hours.

I set out to measure the following:

  • The shower vs. bath debate. My husband showers, I bathe. Who is ultimately being more efficient with our water?
  • How much water do our various sinks pump out per minute?
  • Toilet water usage per flush?
  • How much water do our major appliances use (washing machine, dishwasher)?

In order to complete the water audit, you'll need the following:

  • A large container of known size. A gallon milk jug would be perfect. I used a large measuring cup with a two quart (half gallon) measure.
  • A portable timer or stopwatch of some sort. I used my iPod's stopwatch function.
  • Figure out where your water meter is. You'll need access to be able to note the various readings.

1. Measuring the sinks


In our condo, we only have two different types of faucets: the kitchen sink, and the bathroom sinks. To measure the flow rate of each, I put the 2 quart container in the sink, and then flipped my timer on as I turned the water off. Once it hit 2 quarts, I stopped the timer. From this, I could calculate gallons of water per minute that our faucets generate.

  • Our kitchen sink hit 2 quarts exactly at the 15 second mark, meaning it's a 2 gallon per minute faucet.
    Our bathroom sinks hit 2 quarts at exactly 20 seconds, meaning they are 1.5 gallon per minute faucets.

These are both pretty efficient faucets, and already have aerators installed in them to put more air in the flow. The bathroom sinks could probably get a little more efficient. We'll discuss this in a later project.

2. Measuring the toilets
We have two identical toilets in our apartment. If you have multiple toilets, you'll want to test each one out. All you need to do is note the reading on your water meter. Then flush the toilet. Note it again, and take the difference to get a "gallons per flush" reading.

Our toilets used somewhere between 1.8-1.9 gallons per flush. I was a bit surprised by this since all toilets installed after 1982 are supposed to be 1.6 gallon low-flow toilets. Ours are not quite as efficient as they should be. Perhaps an opportunity for optimization.

3. Showering vs. bathing
I am a religious bather. My husband hates baths, and only takes showers. Who is more efficient?

Measuring this is just like the toilets: make sure nobody runs the water during that morning's showers and baths, and note the water readings on the meter. I also timed the shower independently to get a gallons per minute reading.

Filling my tub to the level I like it used 33.3 gallons of water. That's quite a lot of water. Dang, I think I might lose this one.

Contrast that with my husband's shower which only used 2.1 gallons of water a minute. Now, unfortunately he takes 15 minute showers. So that brings his water usage up to 31.5 gallons. But I can see how a shower might ultimately win out against the bath. Something for me to contemplate. And in the meantime, don't tell my husband, ok?

To put this water usage in perspective, in many developing nations, that one shower or bath would constitute their water usage for three full months.

4. Water use by dishwasher and washing machine
This took the longest to measure, simply because I had to wait until I had full loads to run the machines. Measurement goes just the same - note the meter before and after. Do try to make sure no other water is running at the time you are measuring.

  • Dishwasher (on energy saver setting): 6 gallons
  • Washing machine on high - 35.9 gallons
  • Washing machine on medium - 30.6 gallons
  • Washing machine on low - 24.9 gallons

The most interesting thing about this experiment was that I washed full loads in my washing machine each time, with the low-med-high water setting set differently each time. There was no noticeable difference in the cleanliness or dampness of my clothes from the low to the high setting. Maybe even my full loads should be washed on "low". I'm not certain if I risk damaging the machine though here. More research is needed.

Again, I'm impressed with how efficient my dishwasher is. Filling my kitchen sink just once uses ten gallons of water. Dishwashers really are pretty environmentally conscious.

I'm queuing up a bunch of water projects as the result of this audit. If you have some ideas, please suggest them!

April 01, 2008

How to build your own solar-powered hot water heater


Take a look at this fellow in Florida that built his own solar-powered hot water heater for only $160 in materials. The construction is surprisingly straightforward.

One note: the design that he builds doesn't include anything that prevents the pipes from freezing during the winter, so it's impractical for a Pacific Northwest home like mine, but it still provides some great inspiration for simple, green construction techniques!  Read the article.

March 23, 2008

Please Participate in Earth Hour 2008

Earth Day was established almost 40 years ago, and many would argue, has outlived its usefulness. It's almost laughable to suggest that the entire world focus their environmental efforts on one particular day, when the environmental threats we face are so extreme. We need to consider the impact of our actions on the environment every day. Not just once a year.

This is one of the reasons that this year I'm throwing my weight behind Earth Hour. "Wait a sec," you say. "Earth Hour? Didn't you just say a day is not enough? So you're going to reduce it to an hour?"

Earth Hour is an event that began in Australia last year. The entire city of Sydney turned its lights off for one hour. Everywhere. Even those that weren't in favor of the environmental movement were subjected to it. It was a symbolic statement. A tipping point. It got the message out, raised awareness. It got people thinking about energy and convenience and what was really necessary in their daily lives.

This year, Sydney is looking to expand Earth Hour to be a global movement. Dozens of enormous cities worldwide are participating. Major US landmarks will go dark for an hour. Businesses are committing to shut down their lights.

I request that my readers participate as well. Go to my page on the Earth Hour site to sign up and voice your commitment. Tell your friends and neighbors. Ask your business to participate.

Earth Hour 2008
This Saturday. March 29th. 8-9pm
What: Turn off your electricity. Your lights, your tv, your computers. Don't drive. Don't use energy.
Sign Up: http://earthhour.org/user/WDOa

March 20, 2008

Water Project: How to check your toilet for leaks

With our water supply secure until 2050 in the Pacific Northwest, we don't focus on water saving projects as much as we ought to. Fact is, a global water crisis is looming, and even those of us swimming in H2O riches need to consider conservation a priority.

Toilet leaks can be one of the most wasteful sources of water in a home. A bad toilet leak could cycle through 300 gallons of water a day, whereas more subtle toilet leaks might just go through 5-10. We should all get in the habit of checking our toilets for leaks 2-3x/year.

It's incredibly easy, and kind of fun. Here's how:

1. Get some food coloring
Any color will do. I chose red and green for our two toilets because blue water isn't very exciting and yellow water...well...you can guess the rest.


2. Put 4-6 drops of food coloring in the tank
Open the thing on the backside and drop 4-6 drops of food coloring in that water. Don't worry, it won't stain the bowl or anything.


For some reason, one of my toilet tanks had the stillest water you could possibly imagine. The red food coloring just hung there in a cloud, not dispersing in the least after several minutes. It was a little bit creepy.


3. Wait
Wait 10-15 minutes. Don't flush! Once the time is up, peek into the bowl. Water still clear? No leak. Water have some color in it? Uh-oh, you have a leak.

I had no leaks. Yay.

4. Enjoy flushing the next 2-3 times
The next 2-3 times you flush, your toilet bowl water will be a purty color.

5. Have a leak? Fix it
If you have a leak, get it fixed ASAP as most toilet leaks get worse with time. The problem could be a lot of things: deteriorated flapper, high water level in the bowl, corroded float ball, etc. It's best to have a professional look at it.

March 19, 2008

Wind or Solar? Which Renewable Energy is Right for You?

Let's say you already purchase green power from your power company, but you want to go one step further and start generating renewable electricity yourself. First off, let me shake your hand. I can now add you to my list of personal heroes.

But where do you start? How do you know what's best for your area and home?

1. Try the MyWatts Estimator
The MyWatts Estimator is a tool offered by ChooseRenewables.com that will let you plug in your address, and pop out a recommendation on the wind and sun situation in your area. It will also let you know whether there are any wind and sun incentives available in your region.

Unfortunately for me, both solar and wind are poor in my area, though solar is the slightly more viable option.

2. If you are considering Solar:

  • Go to FindSolar.com to begin to understand what size and scope of solar system you'll need to complement your current energy usage. You can also leverage them as a starting point to find a contractor.
  • The US Department of Energy has a checklist to help you figure out what solar system will work for you, and important information on permits.

3. If you are considering Wind:

  • Spend some time in the Small Wind Toolbox from the American Wind Association. It will walk you through some of the steps and considerations for implementing wind in your home.
  • The US Department of Energy has a checklist to help you figure out what wind system will work for you, and important information on installation and permits. Their Wind Powering America program also offers per-state guidelines and support groups to help you decide on how to proceed with wind.

4. Make sure you understand your power company's policy on Net Metering.
When you install your system, you'll have two options: to be off the grid, or to be on the grid. If you stay on the grid for those cloudy or windless days, you'll probably have the option to participate in a Net Metering program. This means that you can sell any excess power that you generate back to the power company in some shape or form. Give your power company a call and see how it works in your area.

March 18, 2008

Scary and New: Cleaning my Fridge Coils

Today I did something I've never done before. To be perfectly honest, it was a bit scary, though I don't know why I should be nervous over something so trivial. But trying new things is always a bit scary. Especially when it involves what lurks underneath your refrigerator.

I've read in several sources that cleaning the coils of your fridge two times a year can help your fridge run 6% more efficiently. More if it's really dirty.

Years lived in this apartment: four. Number of times I've cleaned the fridge coils: zero. I have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy with whatever is under my fridge. I don't try to figure out what's under there, and whatever is under there pretty much keeps to itself. It's an arrangement that works for both of us.

But that all changed today when I found an opportunity to save energy. Here's how to clean the coils under your fridge:

1. Switch off the power to your fridge
This is just a precaution since you're messing with its inner workings. Don't bother taking out all of the food - it will only be unplugged for 20 minutes or so.

If you can pull the plug, great. Mine is inconveniently located in the back, so I opted to use the circuit breaker. Now there's another thing that I haven't touched in four years. For instance, I didn't know that I have a "garbulator" (Canadian for garbage disposal, I think?). And why is my dishwasher circuit locked into place?


Whatever. I flicked the fridge switch and went to verify that the lights in the fridge were off. It worked!

2. Take out the kick plate
I double checked my fridge manual to figure out how to get the kick plate out. Mine just pulls out when I yank on it, which was nice. On inspection, even the kick plate itself was coated in dusty goo, so I knew that had to be a bad sign for what was to come.


3. Scream in horror
::Cringes:: This is pretty gross. I'm wishing a bit I could go back to my "ignore it, and it doesn't really exist" policy. Not only are there dust bunnies everywhere, but there's a build-up of gunk and residue all over the springs and tubes in there. I'm not sure which are the coils, but I'm certain everything needs cleaning.



4. Vacuum with your "skinny" attachment
Screaming completed, and neighbors subsequently mollified, I grabbed the vacuum and put on the skinniest attachment I had. This is a small area we're talking about. I did as much vacuuming as I could and was able to suck out a lot of the dust. I couldn't get a lot of the caked-on grossness though.


5. Clean with dish soap and water
If it's really caked on, like with mine, you may need to get down there with a rag and some dish soap to get it squeaky clean. This was an absolute must in my case. Here's a shot of it starting to look a little better.


6. Put the kickplate back on
I admit it. This took me twice as long as the entire rest of the exercise. I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to fit it back onto the fridge. It turned out that I had to open both my fridge and freezer doors to slide it on, and once I did that, it fit quite handily.

7. Turn the power back on
Flick! Lights? Check.

8. Do the happy-energy-saving dance!
For those of you not in the know, this dance looks something like the Cabbage Patch and is an important part of the process.

Seriously, cool! I did something I've never done before. And it won't be hard or scary next time.

By doing this regularly, my fridge will run about 6% more efficiently. I estimate my fridge uses about 700 kwh/year, so I'm saving 42kwh/year. That's enough energy to power a standard CFL lightbulb for 125 days.

Carbon saved? 40 pounds, or about the same amount as if I'd planted a seedling tree and let it grow for 10 years.

It's a small change, but one that took very little of my time. Give it a shot in your own home!

March 17, 2008

St. Patrick's Day: Ireland losing its Green


Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

I considered celebrating by providing the obligatory look at how to green your beer (both in the literal sense, and in the environmental sense, here, here, and here), but it's been done before.

Instead, let's take a peek at what's happening in the country that's nearly synonymous with the color near and dear to our hearts: green ol' Ireland.

Yesterday, the Irish American Climate issued a detailed report outlining how Ireland's landscape is projected to look with the onset of climate change.

Ireland's climate trends look very similar to those impacting my native Seattle: extreme increases in rainfall in the winter leading to bad flooding and significant agricultural challenges, followed by summer droughts where dry river beds are the norm and the green fields Ireland is known for go brown.

"The lush greens could turn to brown and the soft rains that people talk about as a blessing - 'May the rains fall soft upon your field' - those soft rains could turn harsh," said Kevin Sweeney, an environmental consultant who directs the climate project. "It really is changing the look and feel of Ireland".

Among other findings, the report said:

  • Potatoes, the quintessential staple of Irish agriculture, might cease to be a commercial crop under the stress of prolonged summer droughts;
  • Dried grasses in summer and autumn would change hillsides from green to brown;
  • Pastures could be saturated until late spring, making it impossible for livestock to graze; instead, farmers would plant row crops to grow animal feed, a change in the look of Ireland.

On the plus side, the South East of Ireland will have more of a Mediterranean climate. Maybe decades from now, St. Paddy's Day will see us exchanging our pints of Guinness for green-colored Irish wine. Let's hope not.

Irish American Climate Institute Report

Bellevue rolls out the "Carbon Yeti" to schools

Carbonyeti_2 In a case of only-in-the-Pacific-Northwest, the City of Bellevue has rolled out an animated carbon footprint mascot called the "Carbon Yeti".

I'm not really sure why they chose the Yeti, which is the Himalayan Bigfoot, rather than the native Sasquatch, but Carbon Yeti has been designed to teach kids how to reduce their footprint. (Get it? Because Yeti have big feet.)

Carbon Yeti will be touring local sixth grade classrooms in the weeks to come. He is accompanied by a colorful book that asks families to pledge certain actions that will create a small footprint. The book is actually pretty cute and has a number of useful suggestions for how to reduce your footprint. Check out the "Smaller Footprint Pledge Book".

March 14, 2008

What do I do with: Printer Cartridges

Printer_cartridge My inkjet printer stopped printing colors the other day. This was pretty inconvenient since we were trying to print boarding passes at the time, and nothing came out looking right. We bought a replacement cartridge (man, those are expensive!) to remedy the immediate problem, but I sat for a while staring at the old cartridge trying to figure out what to do with it.

Since it was an HP cartridge, I first went to the HP website. They have a recycling program for cartridges where you print out a postage-paid label, and send the cartridge in for recycling. Well, downcycling really. They shred the materials and put them in auto parts and other products.

I printed out the label, but immediately noticed that in order for my cartridge to be recycled, I have to mail it to Tennessee. From Seattle.

Let's think about this a moment: does that make sense? Won't we lose more in energy shipping it such distance back to HP than we gain out of the recycling process? We can figure this out.

Let's assume a semi-truck, 2800 cubic feet of space, drives straight to Tennessee, at the semi-truck average of 6 miles per gallon. My printer cartridge, individually packaged in a standard-size UPS box, is about 1 cubic foot, so let's say the truck has 2800 cartridges on it. Tennessee is 2500 miles from my home, so we're looking at 417 gallons of gas to get there. That's about .15 gallons of gas per cartridge to ship it back to HP. Best case.

On the flip side, it takes 2.5 quarts of oil to make a new printer cartridge. That's .42 gallons of gas. We don't know how much oil is conserved by the downcycling process, but given other similar recycling programs, let's put it at 40% efficiency. That means that recycling the cartridge will save .16 gallons of gas.

.15 gallons to ship it, .16 gallons saved in the recycling. It's not a very compelling argument for recycling. And that's even assuming that once the cartridge gets to Tennessee that it doesn't get shipped anywhere else to be processed.

I figured there must be some other options. And there are!

Refill until you are forced to recycle
Most printer cartridges can be re-used 4-7 times before they reach end-of-life and need to be recycled. Many companies, including Walgreens and Staples perform refill services. Lots to beware though. Some programs ship the refills out, so you should ask where it is going before you sign up.

Also, the quality of refilling is a bit dicey. Depending on the health of your used cartridge, it might not work as well as a new cartridge. Still, since refilling is significantly cheaper than buying a new cartridge (25-50 dollars cheaper per cartridge!) it's worth the risk of trying it.

Check with your local waste utility
Checking with King County Waste led me to a Kirkland-based business called Eco Cartridge. They are experts in refilling and re-manufactured cartridges and guarantee the quality of their work. They refill cartridges in-store in 10-15 minutes, and have a handy set of guidelines for keeping your cartridges working at their peak. They also work with local recycling agencies once the cartridges are no longer viable.

Finding a local resource like this is valuable since it keeps the miles down on your recycling effort.

Whatever you do, don't consider home refills
While home refill kits exist on the market, it's extremely difficult even for an expert to perform a cartridge refill with home equipment. One of the reasons for this is the compression needed in the cartridge for it to work properly. There's not a good way to replicate this at home. If you try it, your results could be rather...disturbing.



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