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So … yeah. Three years between posts. My excuse? We’re just too bloody busy. So busy, in fact, that while we continue to adhere to a more or less environmentally friendly lifestyle, we haven’t really done anything new since that last post. We’re just maintaining.

That said, we have discovered a new product or two, and we’ve seen our efforts pay off in several practical directions. As winter settles over us and my hippie instincts kick into high gear (an annual occurrence for as long as I can remember), I’m feeling inspired to write about the joys of living lightly. A few quick updates:

1. Product endorsement: LED lights have taken a quantum leap forward in terms of quality and price since we bought our first one in 2007. Back then, they were hard to find, expensive (over $30 apiece, plus shipping), and ill-suited for general illumination. Today, LED “bulbs” are much cheaper ($10 to $20), readily available at big-box hardware stores, and will illuminate a room as evenly and effectively as the spiral CFLs we’ve been using since the late ’90s.

2. Solar panels: Still going strong. We still have cheaper power bills than any of our friends, and we’re still delighted with the performance of the system.

3. Chickens: Hot weather and old age took their toll on our flock, so we bought two buff Orpingtons and a barred Rock from an ol’ boy down at Broken Arrow. They’re producing well and seem to be getting along well with our rooster, Bond, who is a remarkably quiet chap.

4. Bees: We had a record honey harvest and captured an incredibly strong, productive Buckfast swarm this spring.

5. Garden: Droughts, heat waves, blossom-end rot, fusarium wilt, and an intolerably busy schedule have more or less destroyed our tomato crops every year. Someday, when I’m not a teacher any more, I will have time to baby my plants and get them through these issues. Until then, the best I can do is support the local farmers’ market.

6. Woodstove: We haven’t had to pay for heat since the ice storm of 2007. Between that and Oklahoma’s frequent tornadoes, we find a steady supply of firewood piled up on curbs, readily available to anyone with a truck, a chainsaw, and a little initiative. I just used some of the money we saved on heat to buy a ridiculously expensive teakettle from Lehman’s.

Apologies for the long delay between posts; it’s been an insane year.

Anyway, we are now getting ready for winter here at the House of the Lifted Lorax. We had more insulation installed in the attic a few weeks ago, so we should be able to stay warmer while consuming less energy this winter.

This afternoon, Ron winterized the chicken tractor by installing a little corrugated plastic around one end to block the wind while letting in the light. Here’s a picture of his handiwork:

I was cleaning the kitchen this afternoon and found a couple of styrofoam trays I’d saved, so I turned them into insulation for the outlets. If you want to try something similar, here’s a quick how-to:

1. Gather your materials. You will need styrofoam trays (the kind that come with meat or mushrooms), an Xacto knife, a pen or pencil, an outlet cover, and — if you want to be really precise — a ruler.

2. Lay the outlet cover on the tray and trace around it with a pencil.

3. Cut along the lines. You can use the ruler if you want. I didn’t bother, because the styrofoam cutout is concealed between the outlet cover and the wall anyway. To install it, just put it under the outlet cover and screw both into the wall. (The notch in the middle is for the screw to go through.)

We had the chimney serviced in September to make sure it was safe and ready for winter. Aside from a few spiders hiding out behind the stove, everything was copacetic.

I was chilly this afternoon, so I burned a little cardboard and a couple of pieces of bark in the stove. It wasn’t a big fire or a particularly hot fire, but it was just enough to warm me up and remind me of the nicer parts of winter: toasted marshmallows, slow-cooked posole in the Dutch oven, and Red Zinger brewed from water heated in the teakettle.

Emily

A classic, in honor of Earth Day.

If you haven’t already, go do something nice for the planet. A few quick, easy ideas:

Replace an incandescent lightbulb with a CFL.
Take a shorter shower.
Shut off the water while you brush your teeth.
Bring your lunch to work in a reusable container instead of ordering takeout.
Consolidate errands to reduce the amount of driving you do.
Walk, bicycle, carpool, or take the bus when possible.
Try a vegetarian or vegan recipe.
Support your local farmers.
Shop at Goodwill.
Recycle.
Precycle.
Buy a Terrapass.
Calculate your environmental footprint.
Unplug the computer when you finish using it to reduce phantom loads.
Take your own reusable cloth bag when you go shopping.
Install a water filter on your kitchen faucet and use it to refill water bottles instead of buying more.

Emily

If you haven’t done so yet, now would be a good time to think about scheduling a service call for your air conditioner. If you wait until summer hits, you’ll have to pay more for a technician to come out and check on your air conditioner — if you can get somebody at all.

Before you run your air conditioner for the first time, clean or replace the filter. As a general rule, this should be done every three months; if you have pets that shed a lot, you’ll need to do it more often. A clogged filter can seriously drag down your air conditioner’s efficiency, and it can also shorten the life of the system.

Go outside and make sure there are no obstructions around the exterior unit. If the vents are blocked or dirty, remove any obstructions and hose off the unit to make sure there’s no dirt clogging things up. You want air to circulate freely around it for maximum efficiency. When you mow, make sure the mower is not blowing grass into the vents; if it is, turn around and approach the unit from the other direction.

If you have a recurring problem with grass and dirt clogging the vents, you may want to dig a trench two or three feet wide and a couple of inches deep all the way around the unit, place some edging material around it, and lay down mulch cloth and gravel to create a clean space so the vents stay clear.

Have a service technician check the system to make sure it’s in good working order. Make sure the ducts are not leaky, and find out whether they are adequately insulated; if they aren’t, you’ll want to remedy that situation promptly.

Make sure the technician you hire is licensed, bonded and insured, especially if you are in the position of having to replace your system. If you’re buying new equipment, make sure it has the Energystar label — meaning the government recognizes it as energy-efficient — and ask your installer for advice on how to make the system run as efficiently as possible.

Our air conditioner is pretty good, but it’s by far the biggest energy hog in our house. We can’t afford to replace it right now — nor does it really need to be replaced — but we’re planning to keep the thermostat at 78 or above all summer so we don’t waste any more energy than we have to.

Emily

Here is a quick, free way to eliminate tiny drafts around the house. I learned it from my mom when I was about 4, and I’ve never forgotten it:

1. Save the polystyrene trays that are used to package meat, mushrooms, and other foods. (Polystyrene egg carton lids will work for this purpose.)
2. Take the plastic cover off an electrical outlet.
3. Use the cover as a pattern to make a polystyrene cutout the same shape and size as the cover.
4. Put the cover back on the outlet, wedging the polystyrene cutout between the cover and the wall.

Do this on all your outlets — especially those on exterior walls — to help reduce heat loss.

This seems insignificant, but it really helps, it doesn’t cost anything, and it’s an easy way to recycle polystyrene that otherwise would end up in a landfill.

If you have a lot of styrofoam trays, you could even make some of these for your friends.

In the interest of making this blog a little more useful to readers, I’m adding a “tip of the week” feature to help those who are interested in moving toward increased energy and a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. Most of these tips will be small, simple, inexpensive projects you can do to reduce your impact on the environment.

This week’s tip is about reducing phantom loads.

Wikipedia defines a phantom load as “the power consumed by any device when it is switched off.”

Some electrical appliances and gadgets use power even when they’re supposedly shut off. Televisions, for instance, constantly draw a small amount of power. Built-in digital clocks, such as those found on microwaves and VCRs, draw power. Anything with speakers is a potential phantom load. Anything with an LED that stays lit all the time is a phantom load.

You can reduce phantom loads in one of three ways:

1. Unplug these appliances when they are not in use.
2. Connect outlets to a wall switch and shut off the switch when the appliances plugged into the outlet are not in use.
3. Plug appliances into a power strip (such as the surge protectors used for computers and other electronic equipment) and switch off the power strip when the appliances are not in use.

Individually, phantom loads don’t seem like a big deal. But together, they add up … and it’s galling to think about paying for electricity to power something that you aren’t even using.

Do the environment a favor: Pick up a power strip next time you’re at an electronics store and use it to eliminate a phantom load or two around the house. It’s an easy, inexpensive way to make your environmental footprint just a little smaller.

Emily

So I was surfing the Internet on a cloudy Friday morning when the doorbell rang.

It was a serviceman from American Electric Power-Public Service Company of Oklahoma, aka AEP-PSO.

“I’m here to replace your power meter,” he said. He warned me that if I had any computers running, I should shut them down and let him know when it was OK to begin his work.

The visit wasn’t unexpected. When we’d installed our solar panels in July, an AEP-PSO representative said it was likely that our power meter would be replaced with a digital model. When nothing happened for months, I figured it was simply the slowly turning wheels of AEP-PSO’s bureaucracy. No big deal — our solar array would work fine, new power meter or not.

After taking care of the computers, I went into the back yard to let him know he could proceed.

“So,” I said, “are you putting in a digital meter?”

“No,” he said, “we’re replacing it with the same model. We’ve been told your meter’s running backwards, and we’re putting one on that should work correctly.”

After a stunned pause, I said: “No, the meter’s fine. The reason it’s running backwards is because I have solar panels on the roof.”

The serviceman stepped back a few feet, gazed up at the roofline where the nine Sharp photovoltaic panels were lined in a row, and half-grinned. “Oh, that explains it.”

I realized what had happened. About three weeks ago, I’d received an AEP-PSO bill nearly triple of what it should have been. That’s because it was estimated, based on data from our home’s electricity usage since taking occupancy in 2004. (AEP-PSO conducts actual readings every other month.) But the estimate failed to consider our drastically decreased utility usage since the solar panels were installed in July.

I immediately checked the actual numbers on the meter and called AEP-PSO’s customer service line. I explained that we’d installed solar panels during the summer and that the estimated usage needed to be lowered. I briefly mentioned that the meter even ran backwards on sunny days. He seemed to understand, and said a revised bill would be mailed.

Weeks later, the revised bill had not arrived, and here was an AEP-PSO serviceman, thinking the meter was malfunctioning. The customer-service rep that I talked to obviously had filed an erroneous report.

The serviceman, even after seeing the solar array, was still determined to replace the meter. “It shouldn’t run backwards,” he said. “The solar panels should slow the turning, but it shouldn’t run backwards.”

I explained that this was a grid-tied system. When the sun was out and electrical use in our house was low, the meter would turn backwards. When the sun went down, the meter would resume its normal pace.

He nodded, but insisted the meter shouldn’t go backwards. I shrugged and let him swap out the device. It wasn’t like it was going to cost anything.

He also was startled when I told him that even before installing a solar array, our electric bill was as low as $32 a month.

Apparently AEP-PSO personnel have little experience with home-owned alternative energy.

He installed the meter and went on his way, convinced the problem was solved.

A few minutes later, I saw the sun peeking slightly through the clouds. I went outside to check the new meter.

It was running backwards.

So much for the so-called “repairs.”

Emily and I are very happy with our solar power array. However, we’re always looking for ways to cut back on our consumption so that solar power provides a bigger percentage of our electricity.

We found one power-sucker that we decided to eliminate. Ever since we bought the house, there was a backyard light that automatically burned from sundown to sunrise. We figured that was a plenty of unnecessary consumption, especially when there was no switch to turn it off.

Second, it didn’t have a motion sensor. So its security value was OK, but not that good, either.  And the constant burning at night made it a party for insects.

So we took down the backyard light and installed a solar security light (above), made by Smart Solar and sold by Gaiam. The light comes from two sets of LEDs. It’s activated for 30 seconds by a motion sensor.

The small solar panel (above) that comes with the light charges the batteries during the daytime.

There’s a lot to like about this security light. The lights can be set at many angles, and the fixture can be mounted on even a corner. It’s bright enough to see about 30 feet in front of you. The batteries need only about five hours of sunlight a day to remain charged.

The setup contains all the hardware you need. The only tools I used were a drill, a Phillips screwdriver, a marking tool and a hammer — all for the installation. It took me less than an hour to set the whole thing up. And Smart Solar provides easy-to-follow illustrations for installation instead of written directions.

From a strictly mathematical standpoint, our new grid-tied solar panels did not give the environment the biggest possible bang for our buck. Donating $10,000 worth of CFLs to the Salvation Army to distribute to needy families probably would have made a much bigger impact. But part of my motivation in shrinking our personal environmental footprint was to serve as an example to those who operate under the mistaken belief that taking care of the Earth means sacrificing all your creature comforts and running away to live in the woods with the Rainbow Family.

A year or so ago, I arranged for John Miggins of Harvest Solar to give a presentation on alternative energy to Tulsa’s local Mensa chapter. It was a great presentation, and most of the members asked good questions and had interesting things to say. But John and I were thoroughly dismayed by the reaction he got from a member who claimed to be an environmental science teacher, but whose comments on the subject made Jim Inhofe look like Gaylord Nelson.

When I described for this woman the simple changes I’d made to reduce my environmental footprint, her response was something between pity and raw contempt. It was pretty clear that she thought I was living in a hovel unfit for human habitation, and no amount of explanation was going to convince her otherwise.

Her attitude and ignorance were appalling, but they made me realize the desperate need for real-life examples of ordinary people living ordinary lives without wreaking havoc on the environment in the process. I realized that every dinner party I threw, every basket of produce I took to the office, every bouquet of flowers or jar of honey I shared with a friend could serve as a testimonial to the benefits of doing right by the environment.

Life is good here at the House of the Lifted Lorax. As I write this, our power meter is running backwards, watermelon is ripening on the vine behind the back fence, and Scout and I are enjoying an omelet Ron made for us out of the eggs our hens laid yesterday. I just brought in five enormous cucumbers, a dozen ripe tomatoes, a half-dozen hot peppers, and a handful of fresh okra pods from the garden.

Last night, I canned a gallon of homemade salsa made from my heirloom tomatoes and peppers, and this evening, I’ll bake a blackberry cobbler — sweetened with honey produced by our bees — while I put up pickles and hot sauce. I need to scrub down the dehydrator so I can dry some basil and peppermint.

We’re going to get in Ron’s Honda Insight and take a Sunday drive in a little while, because I want to check out the LED lamps and camping gear at the Bass Pro Shop. (I’ve got a couple of energy-saving ideas I’m experimenting with; more on that later.)

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to collect photos and sounds for a virtual open house that will give all our blog readers a glimpse into the realities of life in the carpool lane. I’ll also be doing a series of posts on simple ways to reduce your environmental footprint.

Stay tuned. 🙂

Emily

In case any of y’all were doubtful of my earlier post about how light- or dark-colored roofs can make a difference with your home’s climate control, here is this report from KRQE.com in Albuquerque, N.M.

A reporter flew over the city and took infrared photographs to find out where the hot spots and cool spots were.

One of the cool spots was a water park, in which jets and mists of water help keep the local kids cool. Other cool spots were where grass and trees were planted. Albuquerque is planting 2,000 trees a year in medians, parks and golf courses in a long-term effort to cool it down.

On the other hand:

One of many elements affecting the temperature of the city is by the colors chosen for the tops of the buildings.

In the United States, 90 percent of rooftops are dark colored.

The sun’s rays are absorbed making buildings and surroundings much hotter. That also drives up energy use.

Two neighboring houses recorded from Skyranger illustrate the difference: The infrared camera shows the home with the dark-colored roof as white, hot, while the white-colored roof is recorded as dark and cool.

That 90 percent number for dark-colored roofs is a startling statistic. Maybe there ought to be a public campaign to inform the public about how energy-sucking dark-colored roofs are, especially in the Sun Belt.