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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.

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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

The House of the Lifted Lorax got a little publicity in yesterday’s Sand Springs Leader. The article isn’t online, but the lead story in the homebuilders’ guide that ran in yesterday’s paper was all about our efforts at sustainability here in Red Fork. The story starts with a well-written little riff about me turning the compost pile, and it goes on to talk about our chickens, bees, lightbulbs, solar panels, Energystar appliances, etc., etc., etc. It’s a pretty lengthy article, with several photographs (including shots of a CFL, an egg, a red wiggler worm crawling around on my hand, and two images — one color and one black and white — of me turning the compost while decked out in tie-dyed hippie regalia) and a list of tips for making your own home more energy-efficient.

If you happen to be in Sand Springs in the next couple of days, you might pick up a copy. The article contains lots of good information.

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.

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As I think we’ve mentioned before, we keep a half-dozen backyard hens here at the House of the Lifted Lorax. We usually keep them in their chicken tractor — a kind of portable henhouse — to give them access to fresh forage while protecting them from the neighborhood cats. (You can see our chicken tractor to the right in the photo above.)

During extreme cold, the hens need a little more protection than the tractor offers, so with forecasts calling for temperatures in the teens on Tuesday night, we spent this afternoon finishing up a project I started a couple of months ago: a passive-solar, biodegradable henhouse.

We started by arranging six hay bales  to form three thick walls:

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(You can see another view of the chicken tractor to the left in the picture above.)

Next, Ron cut a piece of half-inch plywood to fit over the top. I think the dimensions were something like four feet by five feet.

henhouse1.jpg

I used some leftover spray paint from other projects to seal the plywood, which hopefully will help keep it from delaminating in wet weather.

Using L-brackets and T-brackets, I screwed some 1x2s together to form a simple frame that’s reinforced in the center. I attached two hinges at the top and stapled some half-inch hardware cloth to the back side of the frame to make a screen door. (You could probably use chicken wire, but we thought the hardware cloth would be a little sturdier.)

I screwed the hinges to the plywood, we put two more hay bales on top, and — voila! — a little house:

henhouse3.jpg

I will run out to the hardware store later and pick up a roll of clear Frost-King plastic and a couple of cinder blocks. I’ll use about a yard of plastic to cover the door, stapling it to the plywood to make a flap we can raise and lower as necessary to regulate the temperature inside the henhouse. The cinder blocks will be used to secure the door, as there’s not much way to attach hardware to hay bales to make a latch.

I’m guessing our girls are probably the only hens in Tulsa County who will be spending the coldest nights of the year in a passive-solar house with an R-value somewhere in the neighborhood of 45. 🙂

I’ll pick up a couple of thermometers at the hardware store this afternoon and take some readings inside and outside the henhouse to get an idea of how it will perform. Stay tuned….

Emily

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

The days grow shorter, but in the past 31 days the solar array has generated 158.5 kilowatt hours of electricity. That’s 5.11 KWH per day, which is about equal to the previous month.

That’s all attributable to good weather. It’s been remarkably sunny and pleasant, with almost no rain at all. At one point, during a three-week period, we used just 24 KWH from the electric company. Nearly 90 percent of our electricity came from the sun.

And, yes, the new electric meter is still going backwards on clear days.

For those of you who may have missed the solar tour on Saturday, I put together a sort of virtual tour of our home, indoors and out, to give you an idea of some of the things we’re doing to reduce our environmental footprint. You can view the slideshow here.

Emily