Hibernation Time: Make Your Home a Safe Haven for Heat

It’s January, and that means that it’s hibernation time! In the Pacific Northwest, the weather is getting truly blustery, the trees have nearly finished dropping their leaves, and the unchained barbecues are bashing against the sliding doors in the storm. The salmon are arriving to lay their eggs, and migratory birds like the Swainson’s Thrush have long since gone. It’s time for humans to think about winter too, and this involves more than putting the snow tires on the car, if you have one.

How can you keep the heat in this winter and keep the heating bills down? I’m proud to say that every year, our heating and electricity bills have been just a little lower than the year before. We’ve done this through a combination of behavior changes and new gadgets for the home. What can you do to keep your heating bills low too?

Do a fall furnace cleaning. While we’re supposed to clean our furnace filters regularly, many of us don’t. While you’re at it, get your home air ducts cleaned too. Cleaning out a furnace can result in better air quality in the home and a higher efficiency furnace.

Get a new furnace. Now, if your old furnace is perfectly serviceable, don’t go out and buy a new one. But if it’s time, then choose a furnace that’s high efficiency. These furnaces will save vast quantities of money and energy on heating bills because they are so much more efficient than the ancient beasts many of us have in our homes.

Give your water heater a blankie. Unless you have a tankless or on demand hot water heater, you likely have a lot of water standing around getting heated all day. Winter is a time when we love to have hot baths and showers. Keep that energy in the water, not in the air of your basement by getting a water heater insulating blanket.

Go on a search for leaks around the home. If possible, get a professional to do this with a blower door test. This will reveal hidden sources of leaks, and the professional will often recommend the best ways to fix the problems and the easiest and least expensive problems to fix. Common quirks include inadequate insulation behind

Put a roof on it! Some of our attics are so poorly insulated that it’s as if you have a giant hole in your roof. It’s often very worthwhile to add insulation up there so that the heat that heats your home is not heating the air above your home as well.

Turn down the heat, sneaky-style. Use a programmable thermostat that turns the heat down when you sleep. Invest in a good quilt, some warm jammies, and snuggle up with those you love, whether human or animal companions.

House train yourself. Think of the cold air that flies in the door every time you open those doors. It’s easy to leave the door open when you’re chatting with a neighbor or taking out the garbage. Break the habit, and your furnace and your heat bills will thank you.
Get a wool sweater. Now, you don’t need to wear a thick scarf and mittens in the house, but winter is time for sweaters. Instead of walking around in a tank top and shorts at home, dress up and watch your energy savings grow!

Cuddle up for the winter in a cozy home, with some energy conservation flair. By winter-proofing a home and winter-proofing your energy conservation habits, you can save both money and energy this winter.

A Compact New Year

You’ve heard of compact cars, but have you heard of The Compact? The idea was created by a group of friends in San Francisco who came up with the not-so-crazy notion that it would be possible to live off of the refuse of modern society for a year. Aside from food, underwear and toiletries, they would only buy used items for a year. This concept has spawned a yahoo group and a number of compact-oriented blogs.

At our house, we tend to consume very little that is new. I just received a load of extruded foam insulation off Freecycle and a table off Craigslist, and I’m using them to insulate our worm bins. Freecycle is a fabulous resource for those who seek to buy used: it’s an email group that is regional in nature, where people post wanted and offered ads by the dozens. You generally need to pick up the materials that you ask for or request. The items that people want to get rid of are endless. In the past, we’ve gotten a jogging stroller off Freecycle that led me through training for a marathon. The used and free sections of Craigslist are a similar wellspring of used goodies.

In my somewhat younger years, I was a devotee of The Tightwad Gazette. I liked it not just for its emphasis on frugality but for its emphasis on creativity. Finding and using secondhand objects is an inherently creative process. There’s the thrill of the hunt, the joy of the find, and the wondering how you’re ever going to make this into something usable. Then there’s the pride in knowing that you have an old headboard standing sideways in your vegetable patch. At least, there is for me.

Why am I a little nervous about buying into The Compact? For one thing, I am a bit concerned about the useful objects that I planned to invest in during the new year. I am hoping to get some dimmable compact florescent light bulbs or new dimmable LEDs to replace the incandescent bulbs in our dimmers. Until relatively recently, we could only use energy-wasting bulbs in these fixtures, but that’s going to change. I might be able to find them used, but chances are I will get them new. The energy savings are worth it. Some investments in our home are hard to get used, yet they will pay back in energy and water savings. They’re an investment in conservation, even though they don’t follow the “buy used” rule.

I am also striving to go car-free for a couple of months in the new year. For many years, I purposefully had no driver’s license until I realized that people were making two round trips to pick me up, and that sometimes it would make more ecological sense for me to drive myself. At the moment, I am the proverbial lady who drives to church on Sunday, I use a car only on the weekend, and we’re striving to carpool to church in the new year. The problem? Generally Sundays are also my free and used stuff run, when I pick up used needful things on my way to or from our other errands. So I’ll need to think of other, more creative ways to get my used stuff; maybe I’ll find ways not to need it at all.

This new year, I’m looking at ways to make our life more compact; to use less and to use what we need and adapt what we have. Here’s to a Compact new year, whatever your iteration of it. Whether you’re planning to reduce your car usage, eat locally, buy used, or get clever at adapting what you already have, here’s to some compactness in your life, whatever form that might take.

Take the Train: Reduce Your Holiday Travel Emissions

The busy holiday season is a big traveling time for many folks. If you’re worried about the environmental impact of your travel and want to reduce your carbon emissions, considering taking the train!

Train = Reduced CO2

It’s obvious by now that any mode of transport (other than walking and biking, pretty much) will result in increased carbon emissions, but the train has proved to be the lesser of environmental evils when compared to the automobile or plane. There are several calculators out there that will give you side-by-side comparisons to make the picture clearer.

Fact is, the train is the best choice for the ecologically-minded traveler. Here in the US, passenger train travel is provided by Amtrak. Unfortunately, the US rail system is quite underdeveloped compared to those of other countries (Japan, and all over Europe), but most major cities are served by Amtrak. Check out Amtrak’s website for route information and price details. They typically have special deals advertised on their website, so you may find that your travel is discounted, as well.

Other train travel benefits

Despite how much longer it takes to get anywhere on the train, there are many benefits to train travel other than reduced carbon emissions. When was the last time you took a plane and it actually departed on time? Do you look forward to the tedious security before even getting near the airplane? The train is an overall much more pleasant traveling experience with its lack of frequent delays and overbearing security. Do you suffer from jet lag? Although the train is slow, you have time to relax and adjust to changing time zones. Not only that, you get a great view of the countryside during your journey.

Every winter, I take the train from Illinois to New York to visit family. It is a two day journey. However, I never worry if my train is going to be delayed, or if I will be harassed by security officials. When I sit on the train, I can sleep and relax, and watch the sights. The whole experience is incredibly less tense than taking a flight. (Did I mention the seats are roomier on a train, too?)

Ultimately, the choice is yours. Perhaps you’d like to do something different and take the train this holiday seasons. Consider the smaller carbon footprint you’ll have as a result!


Creating Copenhagen: Holding A Mini-Climate Summit At Your House

The Copenhagen Climate Summit has arrived. World leaders are talking about climate change. What are they talking about? We’ll hear some of the details, since they’ll be splashed all over the news. Many of the discussions will be play-by-play accounts of who signed what and who said what to whom. Gory details about how long Obama stays at the conference and who storms out. Details about protests and concerns about a climate change hoax.

Then there are the other discussions, the ones we’ll never hear about. Is Canada really going to buck up and crack down on greenhouse gas emissions? Should we ask developing countries to move on their greenhouse gas emissions, or is that unfair? What about using the soil as a carbon sink? Are cow toots really a dangerous source of methane?

That last one was mine. But honestly, there is a lot of discussion about climate change out there, and much of it will never make it into our living rooms unless we ask it to do so. We can feel pushed and pulled and downright incapacitated by all of the discussion, fear, and the coming regulations that may or may not make sense to the average person. So this December, I am asking. I’m holding a mini-climate summit that involves only three people, me, my husband, and my daughter. We’re doing some talking, and we’re committing to actions that will have an impact on our own greenhouse gas emissions.

What have we discussed so far? Well, we eat very locally, so we’re fairly good on that account. And I am not giving up chocolate, so that is not on the table. In the last few years, we’ve also steadily decreased our use of natural gas every month. We combine trips and use public transit a lot. We could do a little better on that account, though.

We’ve placed LED lights on our Christmas list.
We’re going to continue our adventures in composting and reduce the gases released when our food waste goes to the dump to get burned or buried. We’re looking into a Nature Mill composter as a possible next step, since our large backyard composter is not officially allowed in our townhouse complex.
We’re going to get my husband to pick up our daughter on the evenings when I work, reducing the trips that her grandparents need to make to return her to our home.
I’m going to refuse to use the extra car that we have access to, making it available to use only one day a week.
I’m seriously debating doing The Compact, at least for the first two months of 2010. This involves buying used materials to avoid the waste and emissions produced when we buy new. Since we already buy almost entirely used, this shouldn’t be too hard, and it will get us to question our consumption patterns.

So families across the nations, I urge you to take part in a mini climate summit of your own. What negotiations take place are entirely up to you. The world awaits your results.


The Zero Mile Diet: Local Seeds for Local Climates

In the West Coast Seeds catalog, there is a category for The Zero Mile Diet. Click on it, and the buyer is immediately transported to a host of locally-adapted seeds: lettuce greens, peas, and beans that are perfectly suited to the Vancouver climate.

Inspired by the 100 Mile Diet of Vancouverites Alisa Smith and James Mackinnon, companies and individuals are jumping on to the locavore bandwagon with vigor. A new wave of victory gardens is sweeping the nation, this one a citizen response to the need to become more sustainable and more local in their eating. These new victory gardens are sprouting on the front lawns of the suburbs and on the balconies and rooftops of the urban core.

In North Vancouver, British Columbia, the organic gardening program called GardenSmart started more than ten years ago with small fanfare. Now, edible gardening workshops fill up the day that they are advertised. People are eager to learn how to help their fruit trees grow and how to turn their lawn into a thriving garden. Last year, the response from would-be urban gardeners was so overwhelming that the organization had to run many more workshops than they had planned.

Where is all of this interest going to lead? While some might say this is a passing trend in response to the local eating movement, others see it as the harbinger of a greater change. Neighbors are teaching neighbors and the elderly are teaching the young. We’re passing down gardening knowledge from one generation to another. That’s critical. These days, the grandchildren of the victory gardeners are learning how to grow food of their own, this time to sustain a healthy community in the face of environmental change.

As we adapt to local eating and local growing, we need to learn how to save seeds. One of the deep needs in the local growing community is locally-adapted seed that gardeners can also save year to year, building valuable skills for self-sufficiency. Companies like West Coast Seeds, Salt-spring Seeds, and Seeds of Change fill that need to a degree. All of their seeds are suited to the wet climate of the temperate rain forest.

In the world of seeds, there are two very different sorts available. Hybrid seeds are the offspring of two diverse parents. They are engineered to grow with high yield, but this is often at the expense of hardiness. This means that hybrid seeds rely more on infusions of fertilizers and pesticides to remain vigorous throughout the season. When you grow hybrid plants in your garden and save the seed, the seed may be sterile or may not breed true.

Open-pollinated seeds are tough. For thousands of years, farmers have saved these seeds, knowing that they will grow again next year and continue to be vigorous over time. These seeds also adapt to the local climate and tend to have a better flavor, too! Why don’t we have access to more open-pollinated seeds? Well, these seeds are not useful for seed companies. Gardeners need to purchase hybrid seeds every year, while open-pollinated plant seeds can be harvested and saved, so the gardener may not pay for seeds next year.

Open-pollinated seeds are our seed inheritance. As we move into winter, the time for seed catalogs galore, take note of whether you can save your seeds next year. Building this skill is an important foundation for local food security and the self-sufficiency of our communities.

Cap and Trade - Is It Really The Answer?

After doing a lot of research on Cap and Trade, I have actually changed my mind about it, from supporting it to Not supporting it. After finding out the other day that the “Cap and Trade” scheme was originally designed by those great guys at Enron and Goldman Sachs, an imediate red flag went up and I thought to myself, “what is this cap and trade really all about”. The answer is MONEY…. not helping the environment as I once thought.

In theory Cap and Trade is a great idea and would definitely work to curb carbon emissions, but the devil is in the detail, and the details of the proposed cap and trade is what makes it a very bad idea. Instead of trying to explain everything in writing, I think this little cartoon will do a better job than i ever could, so check it out and leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Rumford fireplaces: the most efficient open fireplace

I was excited to learn about Rumford fireplaces recently. As you may or may not know, an open fireplace is typically one of the most inefficient ways to burn wood for heat. Many fireplaces are a mere box in the wall that only allows wood heat to project directly straight outwards. Even worse, some fireplaces are sunken behind a short brick wall, completely blocking any possible radiant heat from reaching your feet!

A Rumford fireplace addresses many of the inefficiencies of a typical open fireplace. Rumford fireplaces are unfortunately somewhat uncommon, but they are very easy to construct. Most are built of brick, but you can use stone, or even cob. You can even build them outdoors, replacing your backyard fire pit with an even more efficient (and beautiful) fireplace to warm up with your friends.

A Rumford fireplace is designed to let heat project outwards at a wide angle, producing far more radiant heat than a boxy fireplace. Not only that, Rumfords burn more cleanly, providing more heat for less wood. The chimney opening in a Rumford fireplace is very small to increase the updraught, creating a cleaner and less smoky fire.

If you have any reliance on open fireplaces for winter heat, you may consider converting your current fireplace to a Rumford. It may take a little bit of engineering, but the results should surely be worth it.

Ultimately, Rumford fireplaces make for warmer bodies for less wood!

Art from Trash

November 15th is “America Recycles Day,” and what could be a more inspiring way to reduce waste in your household than to encourage your children to recycle trash materials and objects into art?

Plenty of modern and contemporary artists use unusual materials and objects in their art creations. You’ll find all kinds of scrap materials and useful objects that can be reused in art projects, if you look around your house. Junk mail, kitchen containers, scraps of gift-wrap or wallpaper, old magazines, and all kinds of other objects will come in useful.

Artist’s Principles

As an artist, your materials should be treated with respect. Save scrap materials in large boxes, making sure they are clean and dry before storing. In the same way that you would respect and value materials that you bought from an art store, you should value the scrap materials and trash objects that you are going to incorporate into your art.

When you work with any materials, including trash, keep your art creativity environment clean and tidy. Wash your tools when needed, and have a good supply of paper towels for cleaning up as you work.

Creativity can be just as much about discovering new and different ways to use and incorporate novel materials into your art as about the end result. Encourage your child to enjoy the process of making his or her artistic creations. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to make art, and while your child may enjoy following instructions in order to create something designed by someone else, encourage out-of-the-box thinking and teach your child to value his own ideas as much as any ideas he finds in a book or on a website.

Creating Art Collages

Incorporating collage techniques into art paintings is a great introduction for young children to the idea of using different materials. Most children are familiar with drawing using crayons, and painting with poster paints, and creating art collages is a wonderful new approach that can build on your child’s existing experience.

Your child will be in good company when using art collage techniques! Early users of modern art collage in paintings included Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Braque started by pasting pieces of rough wallpaper onto his charcoal drawings, and Picasso incorporated oilcloth and other fabrics into his paintings. Picasso also produced a series of musical artworks using music sheet paper, cloth, newspaper, and other scraps, often cut into the shapes of musical instruments.

Why not introduce your child to Picasso’s art in the form of his music collage art paintings, provide some large pieces of cardboard, glue, paints, and scraps of material, and see where your child’s artist inspiration takes him?

Make Your Own Art Prints

Polystyrene is used as packaging for all kinds of products, particularly foodstuffs, and can be used in art projects to make prints – a much more creative and positive use than sending it straight to the landfill site.

A really simple way to start out printing with kids is to make art stamps using old Styrofoam trays. You’ll need:
Old Styrofoam trays (if you use ones that were used in raw meat packaging, be sure to wash them carefully with soap and hot water)
Large plastic bottle caps – the bigger the better
Paintbrush or roller
Sharp scissors
Water-based inks or thick poster paints

Cut circles out of Styrofoam to fit onto the tops of the bottle caps, then stick the circles onto the caps and allow to dry.

Use the pencil to create a drawing or pattern on the Styrofoam. Press firmly, as you need to make the grooves quite deep.

Carefully coat the stamp sparingly with your chosen ink or paint, using a brush or roller. The idea is for the ink to cover the flat part of the stamp without going into the grooves that make up your pattern.

Press the stamp firmly onto the paper and see your printed art pattern!

An Art Hobby for Your Child?

Once you have introduced your children to the idea of using trash for art, you may well find that they are inspired to continue with new and more ambitious art projects. To help them on their artistic road, here are some final tips:
Provide your child with a space to work. A large desk in a quiet part of the house is ideal. The kitchen table may be your only option, but if at all possible, a dedicated place where your child can leave his tools and materials easily accessible is the best option.
Save plenty of boxes and other containers for storing art materials and scraps.
Encourage your child to think of new and interesting ways to incorporate trash and scraps into his art, paintings, collages, and craft projects.
Always praise your child’s efforts and remember that it is the enjoyment of the process that is the most important part of art!


Wreaths of Hope: Crafting a Local, Ethical Christmas

Use less, and buy it locally: these are two of the mantras of the movement towards a lower-carbon life. For those who strive for a more local and less consumer-driven Christmas, social enterprise can create a meaningful connection between employees, gift givers, and recipients. In Vancouver’s downtown eastside, an organization called Emerging Hope fuses local, ethical consumption with handcrafted Christmas gifts.

A look in my closet would reveal that I’m a gift-a-holic. Summer thrift store finds and relics from fall craft fairs are secreted away in The Gift Closet, ready for Christmas. I try to temper my obsession with gifts with my desire to buy ethically and to buy less. We have an abundance of material wealth in our society, and often at Christmas I feel overwhelmed by this abundance. Even the children have so much. The elders in our family love to receive gifts, too, but they don’t need “stuff.”

Yet at Christmas we’re called to give, and give again: to charities, as a volunteer, to family. For the past five years, our family has supported a local organization called Emerging Hope, a landscaping company that is also a social enterprise. It’s a simple but innovative concept: hire people who have barriers to employment and link them to the rush for Christmas gifts in a meaningful and beautiful way.

Emerging Hope is located in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, the poorest postal code in Canada. The area has an amazing history – it has been a center of the logging industry, a thriving Japan town and China town, and it is now a slowly gentrifying and very diverse cultural and economic community that arcs along the side of Vancouver’s central business and tourist district. The town that is to be the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics is known for its mountains, its oceans and for the variable reputation of the downtown core, as portrayed in television shows like The DaVinci Code.

Into this scene comes the organization Emerging Hope, a social enterprise with a simple, beautiful, and very fragrant mission. For those who are struggling with multiple employment barriers, it can be difficult to find and keep a job. Addiction, mental health, and a history of homelessness all pose challenges to reentering the workforce. There’s a need for detox centers, retraining programs, and so much more. The need can feel overwhelming. While Emerging Hope is a small enterprise, it has become an inspiring example. Every year, the organization provides over 1300 hours of paid work for people on the Downtown Eastside. In the spring, employees make planter boxes. In the fall, they go on an annual Cone Quest to harvest the bounty of the pine trees for Christmas wreathes.

The wreaths from Emerging Hope are large and fragrant and delivered several weeks before Christmas, ready to bestow seasonal scents on those who enter each home. They’re a perfect fusion of nature, art, and ethics, and it’s locally-created, not imported. However, it’s the personal connection with an organization that makes these wreaths special. At Emerging Hope, the creator of the wreath signs her creation, and the wreaths are hand-delivered by volunteers who chat with those who receive the gift. While the wreath may be a way to support local, ethical business, the true gift is the human connection: the heart behind the organization and the participation of its employees and volunteers in recreating a meaningful Christmas.

Tree climbing for kids

Climbing trees is great fun, and a wonderful way to get kids enjoying the outdoors and appreciating nature. Adventurous kids love the challenge of climbing a new tree, many quiet children love the feeling of getting up and away into a private world of branches, and kids of all ages can learn a greater respect for trees by climbing.

While nearly all children used to climb trees in the days before computer games and myriads of supervised activities, that’s no longer the case. Many parents are understandably nervous about a ‘dangerous’ activity like tree climbing. However, the truth is that if your child has been taught to climb trees safely with your help and approval, he will be at much less risk of injury than if he never learns to do it properly and then climbs in the park when you’re not there, without understanding the limitations of either the tree or his own strength.

Climbing Up!

Be sure to start in dry weather – wet trees can be very slippery. Find a tree with lots of nice, sturdy branches. The tree should look healthy. Growing branches are strong and can withstand much more weight than dead branches. Encourage your child to do a few stretches before starting to climb, to limber up his muscles.

The most important skill when climbing up a tree is to be able to confidently select safe footholds. As a rule of thumb, a branch that is thicker than your forearm should be able to hold your weight. But teach your child to always test each new foothold before putting his full weight onto it. The strongest point is usually where the branch joins the trunk.

Teach your child the importance of having multiple “anchors” at any one time. Committing your entire weight to a single branch without having extra holds on the tree is not a good idea. For example, if you’re standing with both feet on the same branch, you should simultaneously be using your hands to hold onto another branch that you could dangle from if the first branch were to break.

If your child climbs higher than you’re comfortable with, call out and have him stop at that height. On the other hand, many children are nervous of going too high, so please don’t ever push him to climb higher than he wants to – it’s the experience that counts, not the height he reaches!

If your child progresses to climbing tall trees, it’s a good idea to have him wear a hard hat – just in case.

Enjoying it!

Many children enjoy simply sitting in a tree, enjoying the view, and getting that close-to-nature feeling that is so sadly lacking in many kids’ lives today. A familiar tree that a child feels safe climbing can be a wonderfully peaceful place to escape from grown-ups and be alone.

Animal lovers will enjoy looking for birds and squirrels, which may get accustomed to you and come quite close, if you sit very quietly.

Some kids will be keen to build tree-houses or make other ‘modifications’, so be sure to teach your kids the importance of respecting the tree as a living being. For families fortunate enough to have a tree in the garden that is suitable for a tree house, this would be a great project for kids and adults to work on together. The best way to build a tree house without harming the tree is to have a structure that rests on the ground, using the tree itself only for secondary support, and without hammering any nails into the living tree.Getting Down!

Usually it is safest to climb down facing the trunk. Your child should always be sure of his next foothold before letting go with his uppermost hand. As with climbing up, try to have four different contact points with the tree as you progress downwards.

Some children get scared coming down, even though they were perfectly okay going up. If this happens, try to have your child take a breather and relax while in a safe spot. Then encourage him to look at the tree and his hands and feet, rather than downwards. Calmly talk him through one step at a time, reassuring him that you are there to help. Most of the time, if your child was able to climb up, he’ll be successful at climbing down, and will just need some reassurance and encouragement.

Taking it Further…

If your child gets enthusiastic about tree climbing, he might like to progress to climbing with ropes. The basic technique usually involves the use of a harness, a double rope thrown over a branch, and knots. Care with regard to equipment safety is vital, as your child will be entrusting his weight to the rope and harness rather than directly holding onto the tree. Professional tree-climbing training courses can be a great way to get into this activity as a hobby.