Green Living

January 04, 2011

Caring for Cloth Grocery Bags

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Reusable cloth grocery bags are a great way to help drastically reduce the number of plastic "disposable" grocery bags that end up in landfills. Those plastic bags, which are made from nonrenewable petrochemicals, can take more than 1,000 years to decompose! Though cloth grocery bags are more environmentally friendly, their longer life spans mean they can become moldy or messy with frequent reuse. Here are some tips on storing and cleaning your cloth bags, including how to remember to use them each time you go to the store. 

Storing
Cloth grocery bags are reasonably inexpensive and don't take up much room, so my wife and I both keep several in our cars—then there's no way we can leave home without them. Storing these bags near your grocery list can be helpful too. After a while, you'll instinctively reach for the bags when you grab the list. To find a broad selection of reusable cloth grocery bags in styles and patterns you'll be proud to carry with you, visit reusit.com. Keeping plenty of these good looking and eco-friendly alternatives around will make it easy to remember to use them. 

Cleaning
Some grocery items can be messy, especially meat, produce, and frozen food. Watch out for any leaks or drips on your reusable bags that could cause mold or contaminate other foods. Even if your bags look clean, washing them every few uses is a good idea. After all, they carry the food that will end up on your plate! Many reusable cloth bags can be thrown in the washing machine alongside your clothes. Bags with plastic inserts in the bottom for rigidity should be hand washed. Because cloth bags can be made from a variety of materials, including hemp, bamboo, and burlap, check the bags for any washing instructions. When in doubt, hand wash bags in hot, soapy water and let them air dry. 

Until next time,
The Home Know-It-All 

December 30, 2010

Electric Space Heater Buying Guide

Spaceheater

A space heater eats plenty of energy, but it doesn't use nearly as much as your furnace. Place one in a drafty room to supplement heat, rather than crank up your furnace, and you'll save energy and money. Here's what to look for when buying one. 

Thermostat and Adjustable Power Levels 
Choosing a space heater with a thermostat and adjustable power levels allows you to set the temperature and power as low as possible to comfortably heat your room and avoid energy waste. 

Oscillating Blower Fan
A space heater with an oscillating blower fan warms a space quickly and efficiently. A unit with a higher heat output but no oscillating fan leaves a room feeling colder than one with a lower output and a fan. 

Overheat Protection and Tip-Over Switch
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 25,000 residential fires are started every year as a result of space heaters, leading to more than 300 deaths and 6,000 emergency room visits for burns. Fortunately, many new heaters come with great safety features. One is overheat protection, which automatically turns off the unit when the heat rises to high. Another is a tip-over switch, which shuts off the unit if it falls over. Some units even have infrared sensors that cut off power if anything gets too close to the heater—a handy feature for those with kids or pets. 

Testing Company Approved
Always look for space heaters that have been tested and labeled by a nationally recognized and reputable testing company such as the Underwriter's Laboratories Inc. (UL). Many companies manufacture cheap imitations of popular brands, but these devices are untested and possibly dangerous. 

Until next time, 
The Home Know-It-All

December 15, 2010

Ice Dam Prevention

IceDam

Nothing beats a cozy house when you're surrounded by snow. But that warm home may cause ice dams. When heat escapes from your attic, it melts the snow on your roof, and if it's cold enough outside, that melting snow may refreeze, creating ice dams. 

You know those glittering icicles hanging from your home? They're a telltale sign that ice dams are forming, and your home is losing heat and energy much faster than it should be. As they form, ice dams force water under your roof covering and into your attic or exterior walls, causing serious damage to your home. Here are some tips to keep them away. 

Prevention
The best method for dealing with ice dams is to prevent them from forming. You can do this by properly ventilating and insulating your attic. By ventilating your attic, you make sure the warm air from inside your home is being replaced with colder outdoor air and the temperature inside your attic stays as close to the temperature outside as possible. Also check your attic insulation. If it's lacking, you can try insulating your attic yourself. (It's often one of the easiest rooms in your house to insulate.) For specific instructions, visit the U.S. Department of Energy's site. 

Solutions
If ice dams form on your home before you're able to ventilate and insulate your attic, you may want to call in a licensed contractor to remove them safely and effectively. If you plan to 
remove the dams yourself, avoid getting on the roof. Instead, use a roof rake and push broom to pull the ice and snow down the slope of your roof while you're on the ground. But be careful. Removing an ice dam can be dangerous.

Never use salt or calcium chloride to melt the snow because the chemicals are highly corrosive and will damage metal gutters, downspouts, and flashings. 

Until next time, 
The Home Know-It-All

December 08, 2010

Favorite Salt Uses

With winter upon us, we in the midwest can expect plenty of icy roadways covered in salt. And in that form, salt is a mixed blessing—great for de-icing and traction, but bad for the metal on our vehicles. When it comes to household applications, however, salt is pretty much always a handy mineral. Here are a few of our favorite uses for salt. 

Sink De-Clogger
A strong salt-water solution can reduce odors, eliminate minor clogs, and cut down on grease buildup. 

Flower Freshener
Blending a little salt and baking soda with the water in your flower vase can help to extend the longevity of your bouquet. 

Coffee Pot Cleaner
Mixing salt, water, lemon and ice together makes a powerful, all-natural cleaning agent that won't distort the flavor of your coffee after cleaning and doesn't leave soap residue. 

Brass, Copper, and Pewter Polish
Dissolve one teaspoon of salt in a cup of distilled white vinegar and stir until it becomes a paste. Apply to the metal and let sit for 15 minutes. Rinse with warm water. 

Do you have a great way of using salt around your home? Be sure to visit Morton® Salt’s website to share your favorite "salt secret." You may win a $1,000 AMEX gift card!

Until next time, 
The Home Know-It-All

December 07, 2010

LEED Certification

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Building a new home that is truly “green” can be far more difficult than most would imagine. Finding a contractor who shares your vision, securing environmentally responsible materials and appliances, and juggling the typical stress of building a home can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there’s a system that can help: LEED.

What It Does
Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED gives builders and homeowners a specific framework for green construction. Encompassing all building types, the LEED system emphasizes and awards credits based on nine key areas:

  1. Sustainable Sites: discourages development on previously undeveloped land, emphasizing erosion and light pollution reduction, and minimizing impact on ecosystems and waterways. 
  2. Water Efficiency: encourages smarter use of potable water inside and outside the building.
  3. Energy and Atmosphere: emphasizes the use of renewable and clean sources of energy and energy-efficient building design and construction
  4. Materials and Resources: encourages material and resource waste reduction during the construction process and the use of sustainably grown, harvested, produced or transported products and materials. 
  5. Indoor Environmental Quality: emphasizes strategies that improve indoor air and provide access to natural daylight
  6. Locations and Linkages: rewards homes that are built near already-existing infrastructure, community resources and transit. 
  7. Awareness and Education: credits home builders and real estate professionals for providing homeowners, tenants, and building managers with the education and tools to understand how to use their home to its maximum green potential. 
  8. Innovation in Design: credits construction that uses new and innovative technologies to improve a building's performance beyond what is required by LEED. 
  9. Regional Priority: identifies environmental concerns that are regionally specific and awards credits for projects that address those concerns. 

Finding a LEED Certified Builder
If a builder is LEED certified, you can be certain that they will build your house to the highest green standards. To find a LEED certified builder in your area, visit the USGBC member directory

Until next time, 
The Home Know-It-All

November 15, 2010

Slow Drain, Natural Cures

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A stubborn drain clog can be difficult to remove, but before you head for the dangerously potent commercial drain cleaner, try these natural, easy-on-the-environment mixtures that will get the job done too. 

  • 1/2 cup salt + 1 gallon hot water: If your drain is slow to empty, this simple saltwater concoction may be enough to free up any trapped debris. 
  • 1 cup washing soda + 1 gallon hot water: For a more aggressive solution, washing soda (sodium carbonate, a key ingredient in toothpaste and glassmaking) is abrasive enough to loosen clogs. If the pipes leading from your drain are PVC (polyvinyl chloride), avoid regular use of washing soda—it can eat away at the plastic over time. 
  • 1 cup baking soda + 1 cup distilled white vinegar: harkening back to our days in grade school science class, the baking soda and vinegar "volcano" can actually be very effective at clearing clogged drains. After removing water from the sink, pour your baking soda in, follow with vinegar, and quickly plug the drain. After the bubbles recede (in roughly 30 minutes), rinse with hot water. 

WARNING: Do not use vinegar or washing soda if you have already applied a commercial drain cleaner—these ingredients can react with other chemicals, creating harmful or even lethal gas fumes. 

For more information on quick, all natural drain-cleaning tips, visit Care2.com, or for additional green living advice, drop by greenyour.com.

Until next time, 
The Home Know-It-All

November 09, 2010

Tax Credits for Energy-Efficient Home Improvements

The next time you complete an energy-saving renovation project in your home, you may qualify for federal, state, and local tax credits based on the costs of those improvements.  

Taxcredit
Understanding what you qualify for can be tricky, so here are the basics: 

  • Some tax credits—like those for installing a heat pump or water heater—include the cost of installation. Others—like those for installing insulation, doors, or windows—do not. 
  • Renovations made to rental properties or secondary homes often do not qualify for tax credits. New construction also does not qualify. 
  • If you made an improvement to your windows and doors, insulation, roof, HVAC system, nonsolar water heater, or biomass stove between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2010, you may be eligible for 30 percent of the cost up to $1,500. 
  • If you invest in a geothermal heat pump, solar panels, solar water heaters, small wind energy systems, or fuel cells before December 31, 2016, you're eligible for 30 percent of those costs with no upper limit. That means if you spend $6,000 on a small wind energy system, you'll receive an $1,800 credit on your federal income taxes. 

Visit the U.S. Department of Energy's database of state and local incentives, and check out the Alliance to Save Energy's list of federal assistance. You can also visit ENERGY STAR's website for tips on filling out tax forms and a list of ENERGY STAR products that qualify for rebates. 

Until the next time, 
The Home Know-It-All

November 05, 2010

Fridays with designer Martin Amado

Here is the final installment of Fridays with designer Martin Amado. For readers just joining us, we're bringing you the video of our interview with Martin Amado—a renowned home decor and lifestyle expert best known for hosting HGTV's Small Space, Big Style and appearing as a guest designer on that network's Decorating Cents. 

For more information on Amado's work, visit his website

Today's Question: 
What suggestions do you have for making our reader’s kitchens more energy-efficient?  

 


If you're unable to view the video, click here to watch it on YouTube.

Until next time, 
The Home Know-It-All

October 29, 2010

Fridays with designer Martin Amado

It's that time again! For those of our readers just joining us, we're bringing you the video of our interview with Martin Amado—a renowned home decor and lifestyle expert best known for hosting HGTV's Small Space, Big Style and appearing as a guest designer on that network's Decorating Cents. 

Be sure to tune in next Friday for another of Amado's informative answers to our design and green living questions. For more information on Amado's work, visit his website.

Today's Question: 
What is this year’s most unique and revolutionary green decorating product?

   

 

If you're unable to view the video, click here to watch it on YouTube.

Until next time,
The Home Know-It-All


October 12, 2010

Natural Solutions For Pet Pests

99896714 When Fido or Mittens is assaulted by fleas, it's easy to run to the pet store and grab the first anti-flea treatment you can find. However, many commercial pest solutions are pumped so full of chemicals that they may do more harm than good. Why not try putting nature to work against nature instead? Here are some natural, healthy ways to eliminate or prevent pet pests. 

Fleas
To get rid of fleas, try sprinkling diatomaceous earth on your pet's coat, bedding, and even the floors of your home. Diatomaceous earth, a natural rock dust consisting of fossilized algae, contains microscopic particles that are sharp enough to penetrate a flea's exoskeleton and dehydrate it until it dies. The product is widely available at lawn-and-garden centers. As a preventive measure, try sprinkling your pet's coat with brewer's yeast. It's disagreeable to fleas and harmless if your pet licks it off. 

Ticks
Many of the same tricks that work with fleas can be used against ticks, since both pests feed on your pet's blood. For example, adding a little apple-cider vinegar to your pet's water helps make the animal less appealing to the unpleasant arachnids from the inside out. You can also try making an anti-tick citrus solution by placing a sliced lemon in boiling water and letting it steep overnight. Use a spray bottle to apply the solution to your pet's body. Be sure to spray in problem areas—behind your pet's ears, around the head, at the base of the tail, and in the armpits. 

Mosquitoes
Mosquitoes pose a two-part problem: their bites not only leave an unpleasant itch but can also infect your pet with heartworm. Though you should keep your pet on a regular regimen of heartworm medication as prescribed by your vet, some additional topical solutions can help. For example, the vapors from Vicks VapoRub, when applied to your pet's coat, tend to keep mosquitoes at bay. There are also cedar oil sprays and shampoos sold in pet stores that function as natural insect repellents. Just be sure to use only the varieties designed for use on pets. Cedar insecticides intended for garden or outdoor use can be hazardous to your pet's health. 

Until next time, 
The Home Know-It-All

September 30, 2010

Geodesic Dome Houses

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Photo courtesy of Timberline Geodesics.

If you've been thinking of building your own home, why not build an energy-efficient, weather resistant, affordable, and totally unique one? Geodesic domes are available in manufactured kits that allow you (yes, you personally!) to build a home with only minimal construction knowledge and a handful of common tools. The structures are eye-catching and have many advantages over conventional homes. 

Weather Resistance
A geodesic dome is one of the strongest building designs because it is comprised of triangular panels that form a sphere. By its very nature, a sphere has 1/3 less surface area than a comparable box-style structure, which allows air to pass over the dome with less resistance. The spherical design also distributes stress more evenly, reducing the effect of strong winds, tectonic shifting, and large amounts of snow. 

Energy Efficiency
Because a geodesic dome has less exposed surface area than a conventional home, outside weather has less impact on indoor temperatures, making the dome an extremely efficient structure to heat and cool. Additionally, the curve of the sphere causes internal air to circulate much more efficiently. There's a reason why radar towers in Antarctica incorporate the geodesic design!

Comparable Costs
Though costs vary, you can expect to pay less than $40,000 for a 40-foot-diameter dome, which provides about 2,000 square feet of interior space. Seems like a fantastic price, right? Well, it is. But don't forget the cost of finishing the interior, wiring for electricity, installing plumbing, and all the other work that goes into making a house habitable. In the end, the cost is about the same as other homes. 

Additional Benefits
Geodesic dome houses are totally customizable—you can add windows, skylights, and additional rooms off the center sphere with little effort. In fact, most manufacturers offer to build custom designs at minimal added cost. Because there is no need for load-bearing walls to hold up the roof, the interior of your dome is open to accommodate any design or layout you can envision. 

For more information on geodesic homes, visit Timberline Geodesics.

Until next time, 
The Home Know-It-All

August 25, 2010

Replace An Old Showerhead

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It's a bit funny how we tend to overlook the things we use most often. The excess dripping of a showerhead, for instance, might go unnoticed day after day. When we do become aware of the problem, fixing it can get demoted to the bottom of our to-do list—after all, it still works, right? 

This weekend, make it a priority to treat yourself to a more enjoyable shower, lower heating bill, and good feelings from helping out the environment. Installing a low-flow showerhead can be an inexpensive repair (showerheads range anywhere from $10 to $200) that is too easy not to do. 

What you'll need:

  • Replacement low-flow showerhead
  • Teflon tape (thread seal tape)
  • Wrench
  • Ten minutes
Preparation

Firmly turn off your shower faucets—this should be a dry process from beginning to end. Next, unscrew your old showerhead. The neck of the showerhead should be flat where it meets the wall pipe—this is meant for your wrench. You may find it's a bit reluctant to unscrew, particularly if it's been in use for many years. After its removal, clean the wall pipe's threads of any residual Teflon tape or pipe compound. 

Installation

Tightly wrap your new Teflon tape clockwise around the wall pipe's threads four or five times. Applying the tape in a clockwise direction will make sure the showerhead won't work against the tape seam when you tighten it during installation. Avoid wrapping the tape above the threads, as it will show after the showerhead is installed. It might be a small thing, but it'll irk you later. 

If your new showerhead comes with a rubber washer, place the washer inside the showerhead and hand-tighten only. Over-tightening (as is prone to happen with a wrench) will force the washer into the wall pipe, creating all manner of trouble. 

If your showerhead doesn't come with a washer, tighten it firmly with a wrench. Be careful to avoid cross threading the new showerhead with the threads on the wall pipe—this is particularly easy to do with aluminum, since it's a fairly soft metal. 

Not too hard, right? Go enjoy your new shower!

Until next time, 

The Home Know-It-All

July 30, 2010

Keep Your Refrigerator Smelling New

87731330 My wife and I just moved out of our apartment, which brought with it the necessity to venture into the long-neglected recesses of our refrigerator. It quickly became clear that we had not been especially diligent in keeping our refrigerator at its cleanest or best-smelling. 

It's easy to lose track of how long food has been refrigerated, and it doesn't take long before the resulting smells seem ingrained in the very composition of the refrigerator. Here are a few easy tips for getting rid of those unwanted odors without replacing your fridge or using harsh chemicals. 

Conduct a thorough cleaning. 

Empty your refrigerator and scrub the interior with a mixture of water and baking soda. This should remove any trace of forgotten spills or food bits that have slipped through the cracks and gone unnoticed. Though it's a difficult space to reach, cleaning underneath your fridge will have a significant effect on smell too—fans under the fridge can bring outside odors in. 

Freshen the air. 

There are several ways to try freshening your fridge's air. One is to place activated charcoal in a small bowl at the back of your refrigerator to start pulling residual smells out. The traditional open container of baking soda is a tried-and-true method that works well too. Though unorthodox, you may even consider putting a small amount of clean, unscented kitty litter in the fridge as a means to absorb smells. Vanilla extract and fresh coffee grounds can also absorb unwanted scents when placed in the fridge. 

Toss the old food. 

Though it's difficult to remember the expiration dates on everything that enters your fridge, it's worthwhile to try. If something has gone bad or you suspect it has passed its prime—pitch it! The unpleasant odors in the fridge come from decomposing food—not something you want to keep alongside your future meals. 

Find out how long your food stays safe when the power goes out.

Until next time, 

The Home Know-It-All

June 29, 2010

Pest Problem? Try Green Home Remedies

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As much as we all dislike pests, most of us are leery of spraying chemicals around our homes as a means to get rid of them. Instead, here are some non-toxic, homemade remedies to send those invasive insects packing. 

Before you start trying to get rid of any pest, though, take the obvious first step—remove any attractants that are keeping them around. This includes food residue, open food sources, and any standing or dripping water. 

Roaches

Roaches are known as one of the most determinedly difficult insects to eliminate. 

Try spreading bay leaves around the house, or get a hold of some hedgeapples—the fruit of the Osage Orange tree—and leave one in every room in the house. 

Catnip—for homes without cats—serves as an excellent roach repellant. To create an anti-roach solution, simmer catnip in water and then spray it around the house. Again, if you have a cat, it would be best not to use this technique!

Ants

For ant problems, try leaving bags of mint tea, cloves, or crushed mint leaves in high-activity areas. If you can track down the ants' point of entry into your home, create a "fence" of cinnamon, coffee grounds, or cayenne pepper. Sprinkling any of these in a small line around the entry will create a barrier the colony won't cross. 

Flies

Leaving cloth scraps with a few drops of eucalyptus oil on them will keep flies away in problematic areas. Like ants, flies hate mint and cloves, so leaving some around the house will serve double duty in the fight on critters.

Keep a spray bottle of soapy water around for insect sightings too—a well-aimed shot or two will dispatch them handily. For information on repelling other species of insect pests, visit eartheasy.com

Until next time, 

The Home Know-It-All

January 28, 2010

The Furnace Saga Continues: Making a Decision

Furnace Repairman As you know, our 15-year-old furnace recently developed a hole in the combustion chamber, which left us scrambling to answer this question: Do we repair it or replace it? 

Luckily, the decision was easier than we thought. Most gas furnaces have a life expectancy of 15 to 20 years. For us, it didn’t make sense to spend $600 when the furnace would most likely last another 3 to 5 years before we would need to replace it. 

Get a second opinion. Not sure what move is best for you? Talk to your heating and cooling contractor, who can assess the condition of your furnace and give you advice on how to proceed. Don’t be afraid to ask their opinion, as they are motivated to keep you as a satisfied client.

Consider overall costs. Furnace repair and replacement is rarely a planned expense, but you may qualify for incentives. Knowing what you qualify for in rebates and tax credits is important when making your decision. It may make up the difference in being able to justify the more expensive yet more energy-efficient product. The result is the potential of reduced monthly energy costs. Just be aware that you will have to pay the purchase and installation costs upfront and wait for the rebate and tax credit. 

Research incentives. Many utilities are encouraged to offer incentives to customers who purchase energy-efficient appliances. Start your search by visiting the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency. Also contact your local utility or visit their website for additional information, or talk to your heating and cooling contractor.

Some local utilities partner with lending institutions to provide competitive loan interest rates to purchase eligible equipment. These plans vary and may include a six-month same-as-cash option. Be aware that by committing to special finance assistance, you may be sacrificing rebate incentives. Call your local utility to find out what options are available and what restrictions apply.

The Federal Government offers tax incentives for purchasing energy-efficient appliances. In 2008, Energy Star delivered cost and energy savings estimated at $19 billion. If you're considering the purchase of a major appliance or home upgrade, visit their website  to determine what meets qualification for federal tax credit. Tax credit amounts vary, but can be as much as 30 percent of the cost up to $1,500.00. The current program expires December 31, 2010. You must be in an existing home to qualify and it must be your primary place of residence.

After exploring all our options, we decided to install a new system. Thanks to the rebate and tax incentives, we were able to select a 95 percent energy-efficient, variable-speed furnace and air conditioning system (it made financial sense to invest in and install a new air conditioner at the same time, because our old one was installed at the same time as the spent furnace). Our gas usage has noticeably dropped on our monthly utility bill, so we are satisfied with the choices we made.

Until later…

The Home Know-It-All

December 20, 2009

After the Holiday

Xmas tree All good times come to an end. Unfortunately, that includes the end of the holidays and enjoyment of your tree. Your tree has most likely started to have a brown tint to it and the fragrance isn't as noticeable as it was when you first set it up. You begin wondering if there might be more needles on the floor than on the tree.

Well, it is time to take off the lights and decorations.

But what to do with the tree?

Many communities have disposal programs. Some offer curbside pick for a short period. Other communities have drop-off locations for disposal or recycling. Recycling programs will involve 'chipping' the trees for use as mulch or compost.

If you just don't want to part with the tree, you can set it up in your yard as a combination feeder/shelter for birds and other wildlife. Eventually you are going to have to let go and dispose of it, though.

Until later...
The Home Know-It-All

December 06, 2009

Christmas Tree Urban Myths

Urban myths about the tree Scared of that real Christmas Tree? Not able to sleep at night because of what you heard about the fresh tree you are thinking of purchasing? You shouldn't be. Many people have misconceptions about troubles Christmas Trees can pose. Here are some of the Urban Myths that have been flying around:

  1. Real Christmas Trees are cut down from forests.
  2. You save a tree by using a fake tree.
  3. Real Christmas Trees aggravate allergies.
  4. It's better to use a fake tree because you can re-use it each year.
  5. Christmas Trees are a fire safety hazard and frequently catch on fire.
  6. Real trees cost too much.
  7. Fake trees are fireproof.
  8. Real Christmas Trees have pesticides and chemicals on them.
  9. Real Christmas Trees end up in landfills.
  10. Real Christmas Trees are a hassle and a mess.

The National Christmas Tree Association has worked hard to bust these urban myths. To find out their responses, visit their website.

Until next time,
The Home Know-It-All

September 11, 2009

Green Cleaning Tool Kit

If I had to bet, I'd guess you have multiple cleaners, several scrub brushes, and at least one roll of paper towels lurking underneath your kitchen or bathroom sink. Am I right? If so, you're definitely not alone, but you're also wasting precious money on needless products and hurting the environment in the process. But don't worry, there's an easy solution to this problem.  

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Add these ingredients to your grocery list and replace those toxic chemicals and tree-hogging brushes and paper towels today: 
  1. baking soda
  2. white vinegar 
  3. salt 
  4. liquid soap 
  5. spray bottles 
  6. microfiber towels 
  7. toilet bowl brush 
  8. newspaper 
  9. bucket 
  10. broom and dustpan  
Believe it or not, that's typically all you need to clean your bathroom or kitchen. With these ingredients at the ready, you can concoct one of the green cleaning recipes available here or on The Daily Green. You can also prevent poisonings, protect the environment, and free up a little space under your sink. 

Until next time, 
The Home Know-It-All 


September 09, 2009

Green Around the House Challenge: Natural Home Air Fresheners

GAHC_110pixels Any time the kitchen or living room reeked in my old apartment (my neighbors smoked in the hallway), I pulled the trigger—of bottled air freshener, that is. My trigger-happy habit lasted until I read this Time magazine article. As it turns out, purchased air fresheners contain unhealthy ingredients that can cause more harm than good. Luckily, it's possible to fight even the nastiest of odors with one of these natural remedies.

Fresh air
When I go a little heavy on the garlic while whipping up dinner, I open up my patio doors and let soft breezes air things out. After all, what could be easier than that?

Fresh flowers
Plop a bunch of your favorite posies in a vase and let their sweet fragrance waft through the room. Bonus: You'll get a pretty shot of color too.

Newspaper
Sweaty sneakers and musty suitcases don't stand a chance if you stuff them with wads of moisture- and odor-absorbing newspaper.

Vanilla extract
If you've got a nasty stench coming from your microwave, get rid of it by pouring vanilla extract in a bowl and microwaving it for one minute. To eliminate fridge odors, soak a few cotton balls with vanilla extract.

Coffee grounds
Lessen the unpleasantness of a freezer failure by leaving a few bowls of coffee grounds in the freezer overnight—it'll put spoiled food smells in their place. (According to this blog post, mixing a few grounds into hand soap can eliminate nasty food odors that reside on your hands. Sweet!)

Citrus peels
Whenever my garbage disposal smells funny, I grind leftover lemon or orange peels because it leaves behind a fresh, fruity scent.

Essential plant oils
Dab a few drops of clove, peppermint, or eucalyptus oil on a cool light bulb. When you turn the light on, the heat infuses the room with fresh fragrance. Learn how you can make your own essential oil-based air fresheners here.

Baking soda
The last time I had a mystery smell coming from my dishwasher (after it had been emptied, mind you), I ran a load with 1 cup of baking soda and was greeted with a fresher scent when I opened the door. Baking soda also works wonders if Fido has a little accident on your carpet. Sprinkle a little on your carpet, let it sit overnight to absorb odors, and sweep up as much as possible before vacuuming the rest. Also use it to stop smells in the fridge, trash can, and closet.

For more odor-eating ideas, check out this Reader's Digest article.

Until next time,
The Home Know-it-All

August 25, 2009

What We're Loving: Freecycle.org

As I'm sure you've figured out by now, we here at The Home Know-It-All love to recycle. In fact, we've already taught you how to recycle everything from your Christmas tree to your batteries, but now we're going to teach you how to recycle just about everything else

Simply visit freecycle.org. The website is "changing the world one gift at a time," by letting its members (membership is free too!) post items they're willing to give away for free. Other members can then send messages and organize a pick up time for the item. It's that easy! And your saving landfills from hundreds of reusable items—for free. (Did we mention that this is all for free?) 

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You can even post items you want, and with any luck, another member will contact you with it. So what are you waiting for? Check it out! Let us know if you snag any good finds we're always on the hunt for one ourselves. And pat yourself on the back for seeing the treasure in another man's trash.

Until next time, 
The Home Know-It-All 

August 07, 2009

Green Around the House Challenge: Green Your Cooking Process

The next time you're about to whip up dinner for friends and family, reconsider your cooking methods.GAHC_110pixels


According to this Mother Earth News article, the average family cooks 1.5 meals a day, and preparing those meals uses 30 minutes of energy. Continue that trend for a year, and you've spent $150 or more to serve up tasty meals—and that figure doesn't include the cost of food! That's why this week's Green Around the House Challenge is devoted to energy-efficient cooking ideas.

Get rid of grime. I admit it—I'm messy when I prepare meals and desserts. Think lots of olive oil splattered on my stovetop and butter splotches in my microwave. But I always clean up after myself. Here's why: Grime and spills—whether inside your microwave or on your stove's burner pans—absorb heat and reduce energy efficiency.

Size up cookware. Match pots and pans to the heating element or you'll waste energy by eating empty space. Case in point: using a 6-inch pot on an 8-inch burner squanders more than 40 percent of the burner's heat. Yikes! Another consideration: Use a pan with a slightly concave bottom that rests evenly on the burner, because the bottom will flatten out as the metal expands from increased heat. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, boiling water for pasta could use 50 percent more energy on a warped pan than on a flat-bottom pan.

Pick the right materials. Whipping up something on the stovetop? Reach for a cast iron pan or copper pan—the former retains heat better, the latter cooks faster. If you're popping a dish in the oven, use glass or ceramic pans, which reduce cooking temperatures by 25 degrees Fahrenheit with no extra time needed. Who knew?

Rethink cooking methods. If you're preparing a small- or medium-size meal, pop it in the microwave rather than in the oven. Microwave ovens can slash energy use by two-thirds compared to a conventional oven. And they generate a lot less heat—a definite plus during these remaining summer days. Another energy-efficient cooking option? Pressure cooking. It reduces stovetop energy use by 50 to 75 percent. If you hand-wash dishes, fill your sink to wash dishes rather than letting water run. Using the dishwasher? Scrape food off dishes without pre-rinsing and fully load the racks.

There are oodles of other ways to green your cooking process—just check out this Chow article for further inspiration. Need to stock up on eco-friendly dishware too? Get the scoop here.


Until next time,
The Home Know-It-All

July 31, 2009

Cool Your House Naturally

In the dog days of summer, air conditioning bills can go through the roof. And heating and cooling units can take a serious toll on the environment; the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that such units emit a half billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. Fortunately, there are several eco-friendly ways to combat the sweltering sun without shelling out for AC. Follow these simple steps and you'll have it made in the shade. 

Trees

Plant a Tree
It's a long-term project, but a full-grown tree can be a great air conditioner. When planting trees, consider which direction your yard faces. If it faces south, opt for deciduous trees. Their wide and thick canopies are perfect for shading your house in the summertime, and because they lose their leaves when the temperature drops, the sun can still warm your home in the wintertime. Evergreen trees, which maintain their foliage year round, are recommended for north-facing yards to break cold winter winds. 

When planting your tree, remember to give it room to grow, as a little sapling can turn into a giant. Plant your deciduous tree 10 to 20 feet away from your house, so when it reaches mature height, it'll provide a large and effective swath of shade. Plant your evergreens in a row, about 15 feet apart. Because they provide wind protection for up to 20 times their height, you can plant them a greater distance from your house. 

Elegant Trellises
Trellises not only serve as attractive and elegant additions to your outdoor aesthetic; they also provide great shade. While trees may take years to grow, trellises—and the deciduous vines you plant around them—can get the job done in relatively no time at all. Grape and wisteria vines grow like wildfire and shed their leaves in the winter to allow the sun's heat to warm your home. Here's a great step-by-step guide on how to build your own trellises.

Cool Awnings
The most important feature of an awning is its drop. The drop is the distance between the top of the awning and the base of the window. (The higher the drop, the more shade an awning will provide.) A drop of 60 percent or more is suggested for windows that are frequently exposed to sun. These sun-shielding awnings can save energy by dropping indoor temperatures by as much as 15 degrees fahrenheit. Check out cheapawnings.com to find an awning that matches your home's style.

Awnings

Glass Glazing
Windows on the east and west side of home naturally let in a lot of sunlight, which can raise indoor temperatures. However, window manufacturers offer heat-reflective films and coatings for windows that still allow natural light inside while keeping your home cool. As a bonus, these films can retain up to 55 percent of your home's heat during the wintertime. 

Until next time,
The Home Know-It-All

July 10, 2009

Summertime Party Recycling

Picnic

Nothing says summer quite like a backyard BBQ, but hosting one can be an eco-friendly hassle. Invites, plates, food, and garbage can give a little party a big ecological footprint. Fortunately, you have a variety of ways to recycle after your party and make your summer shindig a green affair. 

Recycle Tableware
The most eco-conscious way to set your table is to use your own dishware and wash it yourself afterward. Not every host has time to deal with that kind of clean-up headache, however, so I suggest you use eco-friendly tableware instead. Bare by Solo is a brand of plates and cups made from bamboo and sugarcane that are compostable and recyclable. I also recommend Bambu tableware made exclusively from bamboo plants. 

Green Decorating 
Forget buying streamers and balloons for your next party. They cost money and get thrown in the trash as soon as the last guest waves goodbye. Use recycled materials to make cool and unusual decorations instead. Check out the neat ideas Fun In the Making is offering up. Use an old sweater to make pennant swags or fashion quirky koala centerpieces out aluminum cans. 

Eco-Options for Your Food Scraps
After your backyard bonanza has wrapped up, odds are you'll have leftovers. If there's too much left for you and your family to eat, give some away to guests. And if you have loads of nonperishables hanging around, donate them to your local food bank. If those aren't options, turn to composting. A simple backyard compost bin helps cut down both on the negative environmental impact of landfills and your own garbage disposal bill. Check out this previous post for some composting dos and don'ts. 

Encourage Recycling
Leave clearly marked bags and bins in plain sight to give your guests somewhere to deposit cans and bottles. Grocery bags make easy and low-impact recycling bins. Have fun making the receptacles by turning it into a thrifty art project. See which member of your family can create the most colorful creation. Afterward, wheel your recycling to the curb for pick-up, or if you live in a state where bottles and cans are redeemable for cash, take them to a local supermarket or recycling center to make back some of your money. 

If you're looking for more tips to help you entertain eco-friendly style, check out our tips for throwing a green party. 

Until next time, 
The Home Know-It-All

June 25, 2009

Clean Your Dryer Ducts

Green Around the House Challenge Go green, save money, and prevent fires in one fell swoop by vacuuming out your dryer ducts at least twice a year. Clogged dryer ducts reduce airflow, causing your clothes to take longer to dry, gobbling energy, and raising the temperature inside your dryer. But that’s not the worst of it—lint-filled ducts can also cause fires. In 1998, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that clothes dryers were associated with 15,600 fires, 20 deaths, and 370 injuries.

Keep your family safe and go green by vacuuming your dryer ducts regularly. Start with the lint trap inside your dyer. Using a wet/dry vacuum with a hose, suck out any visible lint inside the trap. Then disconnect the duct from behind the dryer. Insert the vacuum’s wand into the hose and remove as much lint as possible.

While you’re cleaning your dryer, it’s also a good idea to inspect the exhaust hood on the exterior of your home. To make sure everything is working properly, inspect it while you have clothes in the dryer. The flaps should be moving smoothly, without any restrictions.

Spot a problem? Have a qualified service technician come take a look at it. Or for a more thorough inspection, have the technician clean the dryer ducts and the inside of the dryer for you.


Until next time,
The Home Know-It-All

June 10, 2009

Be a Clean, Green Dishwashing Machine

Green Around the House Challenge Ready for your next Green Around the House Challenge? You betcha!

For this one, you’ll need to head to the kitchen and get ready to tackle what may be your least favorite chore: dishwashing. With these smart techniques, you’ll save water and energy, which in turn save you money. And that can make even the most unpleasant chore a little more bearable.  

No matter if your dishwasher is a human being or a machine, we’ve got tips to make dishwashing more efficient. But you should know, dishwashers are nearly always more efficient than you, so if possible use the machine. A recent study by the University of Bonn in Germany  found that dishwashers use half the energy, one-sixth the water, and less soap than hand-washing. (I won’t hold it against you if your only dishwasher is yourself, though. After all, I’m in the same boat.)

Hand-washing:

  • Employ the two-tub method. Use one section of your sink to soak your dishes and the other to rinse your dishes. This will cut down on the amount of running water.
  • Use a green dishwashing liquid. My favorites: Mrs. Meyer’s Dish Soap ($3.99 for a 16-ounce container) and Method’s Dish Soap ($4 for a 25-ounce container).
  • Use your pots and pans economically. Why use two pots to make spaghetti (one for the noodles and one for the sauce) when you can get away with one? Simply pour the sauce over the hot noodles to warm it up. You’ll not only save energy and water, but you’ll also save time. 

Using a dishwasher:

  • Run your dishwasher only when full. It uses the same amount of water and energy no matter if it’s half or completely full. Milk it for all it’s worth by stuffing it with dishes before flipping the switch.  
  • Avoid using the heat-dry, rinse-hold, and pre-rinse settings, which all scarf energy and water. Instead, use the energy-saving cycle and let your dishes air-dry. (Your dishwasher will consume 15 to 50 percent less energy.)
  • If your dishwasher was manufactured before 1994, ENERGY STAR® recommends replacing it with an ENERGY STAR® model. You’ll save more than $30 a year in energy costs. Need help choosing a model? Check out our Dishwasher Buying Guide.


Until next time,
The Home Know-It-All

June 03, 2009

Natural Bug Repellents for You and Your Home

Green Around the House Challenge Mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and chiggers all know how to put a pesky bite in your summer fun.

And while DEET, the active ingredient in most chemical bug repellents, is considered safe in small doses, overexposure can result in skin irritation, headaches, nausea, and neurological damage. Learn more on the Green Guide. So unless you’re planning a trip to a mosquito- or tick-infested area, why not just go the natural route for keeping bugs at bay?

In honor of all the baseball games, picnics, barbecues, hikes, gardening, and other outdoor activities you’ll want enjoy this summer sans bug bites, I bring you your next Green Around the House Challenge: repelling bugs naturally. It’s easy—just follow these steps.

Dress for bug-free success Dress for bug-free success. Wear clothing that limits skin exposure, such as long-sleeve shirts tucked into pants. Skip anything dark-colored or bold-patterned, which attracts mosquitoes. (Ticks are much easier to spot against light or white clothing, anyway.) Before stepping outdoors, pull on boots or other close-toed shoes instead of sandals, especially if you’re in a particularly mosquito-heavy area. Also don a wide-brimmed hat and avoid applying heavily scented perfumes, colognes, and lotions.

Plant herbs to discourage pests Plant with pests in mind. Your beloved garden might have more bug-repelling power than you think, depending on what’s growing. Rosemary, basil, catnip, lemon balm, and rose geraniums are all smart picks for warding off insects, according to this Mother Earth News story. To use any of these plants to your advantage, crush their leaves to release their scents. Then rub the essential oil on your skin.
While you’re at it, also check out this list of herbs that repel insects (and animals too) from Dearborn Farms.

Mosquito Eliminate standing water. Mosquitoes breed in standing water—and it doesn’t take a lot before you’ve got a bug problem. Just one mosquito can lay 300 eggs in one capful of water, according to the National Park Service. Your best line of defense? Regularly check and drain birdbaths, wading pools, gutters, birdbaths, flowerpots, and any other spot where water can collect after a rain shower. Also repair leaky outdoor pipes and faucets, and get rid of any unnecessary open containers that collect water. Score more tips here for eliminating standing water.

Picnic cleanup Clean up mealtime. Bugs love feasting at picnics just as much as you. So if you’re dining outdoors, keep food wrapped up and stored until you’re ready to dig in. When you’re done, promptly pack the remainders back up. Get more bug-free picnic tips from this Do It Yourself article. When eating indoors, quickly clean up bug-attracting crumbs and sticky spots, and cover all food containers.

For easy ideas on keeping common household bugs such as ants, fleas, and cockroaches at bay naturally, hop on over to this Eartheasy article. Trust us, you’ll be glad you did.


Until next time,
The Home Know-It-All

Related Topics:
Chase Away Pests and Critters Naturally
Wild for Wildlife
Take the Green Around the House Challenge

June 01, 2009

6 Easy Steps to Improve Indoor Air Quality

Green Around the House Challenge Here’s your next Green Around the House Challenge—and it may be your simplest yet.

Did you know the air quality in your apartment or home can be five times worse than the air outside? It’s true! Inadequate ventilation, high humidity, and many household products are jeopardizing the air you breathe, and an increased number of indoor air pollutants can cause eye, throat, and nose irritations, as well as headaches, dizziness, nausea, and fatigue. They may even cause respiratory disease, heart disease, and cancer.

With all that looming over your head—and filling your lungs—it’s more important than ever to whip your air into shape, and that’s an easy, breezy thing to do. Follow these steps.

Open a window 1. Open the windows. The more outdoor air you bring inside, the better. Whenever possible, open as many windows as you can. (In the wintertime, try opening a window or two just slightly when you know you’ll be away for a short amount of time. It may be a little chilly when you get back, but you’ll breathe much easier.)
To make sure that clean air is circulated, turn on ceiling fans or strategically position oscillating fans around your house. If possible, switch on the attic fan and keep doors open to allow the air to move freely about your home.

2. Invest in houseplants. Placing one plant approximately every 10 square yards can do wonders for your air quality. Try peace lilies, bamboo palms, English ivy, mums, and gerbera daisies, which can remove dangerous toxins like formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and benzene.

3. Take off your shoes. Store your shoes in your entryway—or better yet, the garage—to avoid tracking mud and dirt through your home. It may take a bit of time to get used to, but the change is well worth it. Plus, you’ll save time sweeping and vacuuming each week.

4. Use green cleaning products. Traditional cleaning supplies are filled with toxic chemicals that leach into your air and eventually your lungs, so take our suggestions and clean with nontoxic products instead.

5. Vacuum and dust often. Sweep up all that dirt, hair, and other debris scattered on your floors at least once a week—more often if you have pets. And consider purchasing a vacuum with a HEPA filter, which sucks up even more airborne particles.

Air purifier 6. Purchase an air purifier. An air purifier can help eliminate second-hand tobacco smoke, animal dander, pollen, and mold and mildew, but before you lug one home, do your research. Check its Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR), a number based on the cubic feet of air purified in one minute. Compare the square footage of your room to the purifier’s CADR. In general, you’ll need a purifier with a CADR that’s three-fourths as big as your square footage. Lowe’s can help you do the math.

When you’re finished, take a deep breath and appreciate that clean air. And don’t forget to share with us what other steps you’re taking to improve your indoor air quality.


Until next time,
The Home Know-It-All

Related posts:
Green Cleaning Supplies
Air Purifiers
Cleaning and Sealing Air Ducts
Easy Being Green
Easy Ways to Go Green Around the House

May 19, 2009

Green Your Outdoor Power Equipment

Green Around the House Challenge For today’s Green Around the House Challenge, we’re headed outside.

Odds are, if you do much yard work, you rely on power equipment to get the job done. Many homeowners own gas-powered lawn mowers, trimmers, blowers, and more. As handy as these tools might be, they’re pretty darn hazardous to your health—not to mention the environment.

According to the EPA, emissions from lawn mowers, chain saws, leaf vacuums, and other outdoor power equipment are a considerable source of pollution. They emit high levels of carbon monoxides, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides, which can impair lung function, inhibit plant growth, and more. In fact, according to the EPA, just one gas-powered lawn mower releases 11 times the air pollution of a new car for each hour it’s operated. Yikes.

Fortunately, switching to more environmentally friendly outdoor tools is easier than you might think. Propane or electric trimmers and blowers are a more environmentally friendly solution. And a number of lawn mower options—including electric and reel mowers—make cutting the grass less harmful. While you’re researching online, learn more about why leaf blowers are bad and get the scoop on four alternatives from The Daily Green.

In some areas, you may even be able to exchange your gas-powered lawn mower for an electric one. Get the scoop on exchange programs from Consumer Reports.

And stay tuned: You may have more incentive to switch soon if the Greener Gardens bill passes. It would offer a federal tax credit of 25 percent off the price up to $1,000 of an electric, hybrid, or alternative-energy mower and other lawn gear.

Of course, you could say sayonara to emissions altogether (aside from those produced in the production and transport of your new tools) by opting for good old elbow grease. In addition to a push mower, put your rakes and handheld hedge trimmers into service to burn calories and get your yard looking great in no time. Trust me, it’s worth it.


Until next time,
The Home Know-It-All

Related Posts:
Make a Rain Barrel
Going for Gray Water
Take the Green Around the House Challenge

May 15, 2009

What We’re Loving This Week: VivaTerra Misprint Collection

I’m moving to a new apartment soon and am looking for ways to spice up the bland white walls. (Sadly, there’s a no-painting policy at this apartment. But I feel the generous square footage more than makes up for that.) So imagine my happiness when I stumbled upon the eclectic Misprint collection from VivaTerra.

Every item pops with color and distinct personality. Perhaps best of all, everything is made from misprinted or smudged sheet metal, such as soup, soda, and juice cans that would otherwise be sent to the landfill because of their initial imperfections. Learn more about the inspiration behind the Misprint collection here.

Magazine Rack There’s something for everyone in this line. If you’re an avid magazine reader like me, there’s the Misprint Magazine Rack ($89) that perfectly cozies up to any wall and stores a ton of glossies. Or if you want to brighten up your entryway and corral clutter at the same time, consider the Misprint Hooks in “Go” ($29) and “Green” ($42). Enjoy outdoor living? Then you need Misprint Lantern Misprint Hanging Lanterns ($69) to brighten up your deck or patio on warm summer nights. Heck, you can even buy a Misprint Waste Can ($35).

My personal favorite? The Misprint Kitchen Messages that spell out “Eat & Drink” ($98 for the complete set). I think these messages would be a festive, appropriate addition to my new kitchen.
Eat & Drink


Within the Misprint collection, you’ll also find messages for your potting shed and bedroom, too. And the collection appears to be growing, as new items are regularly added. I’m excited to see what’s next!

What’s your favorite item in this line?


Until Monday,
The Home Know-It-All

Related Posts:
What We're Loving: Wine Bottle Plant Nannies
What We're Loving: Egg Press Cards
What We're Loving: Amy Butler Design Gift Wrap Green Collection
What We're Loving: Itso Modular Storage

April 24, 2009

Make a Rain Barrel

Green Around the House Challenge Man oh man do I have a weekend project for you.

As I’ve mentioned before, harvesting rainwater at home is a great way to save money, save water, and keep your yard or garden looking great.

And although you can buy some pretty nice-looking rain catchers from Gardener’s Supply, you can also make your own—even if you’re not all that handy.

Trust me. If I can do it, you can do it. And I did, thanks to a build your own rain barrel workshop last summer at the Ecology Action Center in Bloomington, IL.

For this week’s Green Around the House Challenge, I’m giving you the scoop on how I built the rain barrel so you can too, after hunting down a food-grade plastic barrel and a few other supplies at your local hardware store.

Supplies:

  • One food-grade 55-gallon plastic barrel
  • ½-inch female sillcock (spigot)
  • Two #15 O-rings (little black rubber rings)
  • ¾-inch flat washer (we used grade 8)
  • ½-inch brass pipe nipple (this is the threaded pipe that passes through the barrel and connects to the spigot/sillcock)
  • ½-inch brass lock nut
  • Downspout adaptor
  • ¾-inch pan head screws
  • Hacksaw or jigsaw or sabresaw or Sawz-All
  • 4-inch hole saw
  • 7/8-inch hole saw
  • 1¾-inch hole saw
  • Drill

Steps:
   1. Use the 4-inch hole saw to cut a hole in the top of the barrel for your downspout.
   2. Use a 7/8-inch hole saw to cut a hole 3 inches up from the bottom of the barrel for your spigot/sillcock.
   3. Also use the 7/8-inch hole saw to cut a hole about 2 to 3 inches from the top of the barrel. This will be at the narrow part of the barrel and is where you will start to cut off the top of the barrel with your saw.
Cut off the top
   4. Use the hacksaw or jigsaw or sabresaw to remove the top of the barrel.
   5. Wipe any residual oil or liquid from the barrel. (We used newspapers to absorb the liquid. It worked well but it can get incredibly messy.)
   6. Use the 1 ¾-inch hole saw to cut a hole about 2 inches below the open top of the barrel. This will be for the overflow.
Install the spigot-sillcock
   7. Screw the pipe nipple into the spigot/sillcock.
   8. Place an O-ring on the pipe nipple, as close to the sillcock as possible.
   9. Push the pipe nipple through the outside of the barrel to the inside. The spigot/sillcock is now outside, with the pipe nipple inside.
  10. Have someone hold the spigot outside while you place an O-ring on the pipe nipple inside the barrel.
  11. Place the metal washer over the pipe nipple.
  12. Thread the brass lock nut (or the steel conduit locknut) over the pipe nipple. Tighten it by hand as far as possible. Tighten another 1.5 turns with a wrench to secure it.
  13. Take the 4-inch plastic disc that you cut out of the top of the barrel and use a saw to cut it in fourths, like a piece of pie.
  14. Screw the pieces to the sides of the barrel near the top, with at least 1 inch protruding above the barrel.
  15. Place the lid of the barrel back on the barrel. The little plastic pieces will keep it centered. The lid usually only fits one way; line that up by referring to the hole you drilled near the top of the barrel when you cut off the top.

Completed rain barrel After your rain barrel is complete, all you have to do is position it near your downspout. It’s a good idea to stack some bricks beneath the barrel so it’s raised off the ground—this makes it easier to get to the spigot when it's time to hook up the hose or fill up your watering can.

Depending on where you position your rain barrel, overflow may be a concern. If you don’t want all that excess water shooting out the overflow hole you drilled in your barrel, you can place the male connector end of a sump pump hose, pointing outward, into the overflow hole at the top of the barrel. A trap adaptor will secure it to the inside of the barrel. The sump pump hose will connect to the outside of the barrel.

Another option is to purchase a downspout diverter, like this one from Garden Water Saver. That’s what I did, only the gutter wasn’t very cooperative and, to be honest, I’m not sure that it’s a very reliable setup. So I may be going back and drilling that overflow hole, then sticking with the original downspout adaptor after all. We’ll see—the rain we’re expecting this weekend will be the test.

If you’re looking for more step-by-step info on making a rain barrel, watch Sherry & John in action over at This Young House as they build their own. Or search online—there are plenty of other ways creative folks have made their own rain barrels.


Until Monday,
The Home Know-It-All

April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day!

Green Around the House Challenge Exactly 39 years ago today, Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, established the first nationwide environmental protest. For the first time ever, 20 million people stood in unison against oil spills, toxic factories, pesticides, wildlife extinction and much more. Today, hundreds of millions of people and more than 180 countries participate in the Earth Day celebration.

Whether it’s organizing a neighborhood cleanup, mailing letters to our congressmen and women, or riding a bike to work, we here at The Home Know-It-All can’t wait to do our part this year! Want to know how you can get involved? The Earth Day Network can point you in the right direction.

It’s also important to remember, however, that environmental activism isn’t something that can happen once a year. Go green year-round by following some of our green living suggestions and choosing the right products. Here’s a list of our favorite eco-friendly companies:

Trex: This manufacturer of composite deck, railing, and fencing materials is one of the nation’s largest users of recycled grocery bags. You’d never guess by looking at the beautiful decking that it’s made from plastic sacks.

Simmons Natural Care by Danny Seo: Affordable and eco-friendly, these mattresses seem too good to be true. But they’re not. They’re made from natural latex, soy-enhanced foam, and sustainably harvested wood—and they only cost between $2,500 and $4,500. (That’s almost half the price of other eco-friendly mattresses!)

The Body Shop: Since it opened its doors in 1976, this cosmetic company has sold only ethical, eco-sensitive beauty products. By providing suppliers in developing countries a decent wage and promoting social and environmental integrity in all dealings, The Body Shop is not only eco-friendly—it’s also socially friendly.

Kohl’s: This department store buys 236 million kilowatt-hours of green power each year, making it the second-largest retail purchaser of green power in the country. Kohl’s has also recently announced a solar initiative to power many of its stores by the sun.

Have a good one!


Until tomorrow,
The Home Know-It-All

April 16, 2009

Going for Gray Water

Green Around the House Challenge The average American household consumes 90 gallons of fresh drinking water each day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And a good portion of that water goes to waste.

But it doesn’t have to, which is why today’s Green Around the House Challenge is getting serious about conserving—and reusing—water. Specifically, it’s all about gray water.

Water you use at home for dishwashing, showering, washing hands, and laundry—called gray water—comprises 50 to 80 percent of residential water waste, according to Graywater Central. But gray water doesn’t have to go to waste. Instead, it can be used to water your yard.

A gray water system includes a surge tank into which all gray water drains, a filter to remove particles that might clog the system, and irrigation pipes or lines that move the gray water from the house to your plants. You can learn more about gray water basics from this helpful Natural Home article.

Yet you don’t have to install a complex system to reuse water. Simply leave a bowl in the sink or a pail in the shower to catch water for giving thirsty plants a drink. Or collect and reuse water from your dehumidifer. Another common method, according to the Colorado State University Extension is to drain your washing machine water directly onto outside vegetation (although, admittedly, this method is illegal in most states).

Gray water systems, which can capture and recycle as much as half of your daily household water, are growing increasingly common in newly built homes and are being retrofit into many existing residences. Yet many areas regulate the use of gray water—and some even ban it. So before you spend the cash on a gray water system, be sure to check state and local gray water laws and policies. If gray water systems aren’t allowed in your area, perhaps you can start a movement to change policymakers’ minds.

Wondering whether it’s good to use “dirty” water on your yard? The UMass Extension offers some handy guidelines for safely using gray water. Some of their pointers include:

  • Use the right soaps. Although soap and detergent is biodegradable, it can cause problems if you use gray water for a long time (because excessive amounts of sodium salts, present in many cleaning agents, can damage soil and plants). In particular, avoid detergents with “softening power,” phosphates, boron, and chlorine.
  • Know how much gray water your yard can handle. A square foot of well-drained, loamy soil can soak up about a half gallon of gray water per week.
  • Opt for shower and bathtub water first. Next up, use water from the bathroom sink, utility sink, washing machine, kitchen sink, and dishwasher in that order. UMass Extension actually recommends not using kitchen sink or dishwasher water because it may contain higher levels of grease, food particles, and other materials. And whatever you do, don’t recycle water from a washing machine used to wash baby diapers or water from the toilet.
  • Stick with fresh water for vegetable gardens. The gray water is great for ornamental plants and shrubs, but you should use fresh water for the food you’ll eventually eat.
  • Apply gray water directly to the soil surface rather than splashing it around or pouring it all over plants.
  • Rotate gray water and fresh water applications to avoid contaminant buildup.
  • Use gray water only on established plants, not seedlings.

If you’re interested in learning more about watering plants the gray way, visit the Greywater Guerillas website or check out this article from Natural Home magazine that covers the nuts and bolts of gray water use.

Or if you really want to get serious, read Create an Oasis with Greywater or The Builder’s Greywater Guide.

If you’d rather not pour used water on your plants at all but would still like to conserve, here’s another use for your gray water: toilet flushing. It’s easy with the Aqus system, which captures water from the bathroom sink, filters and disinfects it, and sends it into the toilet for use when flushing. The savings are considerable: in a two-person household, using the Aqus can reduce metered water usage by 10 to 20 gallons a day, according to the manufacturer.

What else do you do to conserve water around the house? Leave a comment here!


Until tomorrow,
The Home Know-It-All

April 08, 2009

Remodeling Recycling

Green Around the House Challenge You may find it hard to believe, but you can recycle almost everything that comes out of your home during a remodel. It’s true! With the right planning and preparation, you can practically skip ordering a dumpster.  (And that’s a good thing! Currently 136 million tons of waste is transported to landfills from renovation projects a year.)

Plastic, glass, cabinetry, batteries, doors, trim, sinks, tubs, and much more can all be recycled. Just think deconstruction, not demolition. That way you can keep everything in good working order. And before tearing things apart, try to arrange a new home for the item. Perhaps you can repurpose it back in your renovated space, but if not, check with the following companies to see if they’ll accept your donations.

Habitat for Humanity.
In addition to providing housing for needy families, Habitat for Humanity also owns retail outlets called Habitat Restores. The stores sell used and surplus building materials donated by supply stores, contractors, demolition crews, and individual homeowners. Call your local Restore to see if they’ll take your used materials.

Gifts In Kind International.
Gifts In Kind is the 12th largest charity in the United States, and it also will accept your product donations to redistribute to needy individuals. Click the “Donate Products” link to see how you can help.

Local Charities and Second-Hand Stores. These independent salvage yards are popping up all over the place, and because they don’t operate to fill the needs of a certain consumer, they accept a wider variety of building materials. Check your phonebook to find one in your area.

So what do you get out of this? Besides feeling the joy of diverting waste from landfills, you also help those less fortunate than yourself. On top of that, you receive a tax deduction equal to the price for which the items are sold. So be sure to keep your receipts! 

For more information on recycling after a remodel, see what the Professional Remodeler has to say.


Until tomorrow,
The Home Know-It-All

March 25, 2009

Turn off the lights. Turn up the savings.

Green Around the House Challenge Want an easy, green project for your Wednesday afternoon? Replace your light switches with occupancy sensors! You’ll save big bucks on your energy bill and decrease the number of light bulbs headed to the landfill. Plus, you’ll never have to remember to turn off lights again. 

An occupancy sensor is a device that automatically turns the light on when you walk into a room and off when you walk out. They’re best suited for spaces used less often—like the garage, basement, or utility closet. And because they prevent you from accidentally leaving a light on for an extended period of time, many folks reduce the energy their lights consume by up to 90 percent. Typical reductions range from 35 to 45 percent, according to the California Energy Commission.

What does all this mean for you? A dramatic decrease in your energy bill. And if that’s not enough incentive for you to switch, installing occupancy sensors is as easy as pie. First, turn off the power and unscrew your current light switch from the wall. Then, detach the wires and reconnect them to your new sensor using wire nuts. Gently push the new switch into the wall box and attach it with mounting screws. Finally, screw in the outlet cover and switch the power back on.

For more in-depth instructions and description of how occupancy sensors work, read this article from Electronic Construction & Maintenance magazine

Until tomorrow,
The Home Know-It-All

March 19, 2009

Green Your Toilet

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If your toilet has been around since before 1995, it probably uses as much as 3.5 gallons of water per flush. And if it happens to be a pre-1980 model? You’re looking at 5 gallons headed down the pipes every time it’s used. That’s a lot of water, particularly since the National Energy Policy Act of 1992 mandated that toilets use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush—and some of today’s models use considerably less than that.

Although purchasing a low-flow toilet is probably the best way to reduce your toilet water use, you don’t have to fork over the cash for a new one to save. Lucky you, today’s Green Around the House Challenge shows you how to cut back on the water use, waste, and pollution that originates from this bathroom staple.

Look for leaks. Americans use 5.8 billion gallons of water to flush their toilets every day — and that doesn’t include how much water is wasted from leaky toilets. Although leaks often go unnoticed, figuring out whether your toilet leaks is pretty easy. Add a few drops of food coloring to the tank and avoid flushing. If color appears in the bowl within 15 to 30 minutes, it’s time to repair. (Common culprits: a faulty flapper or worn plunger ball.)

Displace water in the tank. This is an easy one. Simply rinse out a half-gallon juice jug, add a couple of inches or sand or pebbles to weigh the jug down, then fill the rest of the jug with water. Screw on the lid, flush the toilet, and place the jug in the tank. Displacing just that half-gallon of water with each flush can end up saving you more than 240 gallons of water per month. (I just added a jug to one of our toilets this weekend and so far no one has even noticed!)

If it’s yellow... Yes, I know. The rhyme “If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” causes many people to cringe. But it’s true! Not flushing when there are just liquids in the bowl saves gallons of water each day. (But if you don’t want to do it, I won’t tell.)

Use recycled toilet paper. Recycled toilet paper options are becoming increasingly available — and they do the job just as well as other types of TP. And swapping toilet paper brands is an easy change that yields big results: If every household in the United States replaced just one roll of virgin fiber toilet paper (500 sheets) with 100 percent recycled ones, we could save 423,900 trees, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). When shopping for TP, just be sure to verify the percentage of post-consumer waste (PCW) in the product. And, while you’re at it, make certain the toilet paper was processed chlorine-free (PCF), which means it wasn’t whitened with chlorine bleach (a nasty pollutant that ends up in water supplies). You can learn more about picking the right toilet paper from A Shopper’s Guide to Home Tissue Products by the NRDC.

Stop flushing prescriptions! If you’ve heard that flushing old prescription drugs down the toilet is the best way to dispose of them, think again. Recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency surveys have found trace levels of more than 100 different pharmaceutical drugs in water samples, including drinking-water sources. Those traces harm streams, the fish that live in them — and, in high doses, even human health.

Instead of tossing unused drugs, check with your local pharmacy to see if they have a take-back program. Or check for a hazardous-waste collection program in your area. And if you must use the trash? Follow the guidelines of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy for proper disposal (available in this downloadable PDF).


Until tomorrow,
The Home Know-It-All

March 11, 2009

Eco-Friendly Painting

Green Around the House Challenge You’ve heard it here before: Painting is one of the easiest, most affordable ways to spruce up your home. Nothing says hello spring (or winter or fall or any season for that matter) like a fresh coat of paint on the walls, on a favorite piece of furniture, or even on a canvas hung on the wall.

That’s why today’s Green Around the House Challenge is all about greening your painting routine.

The first and most important step to painting greener is to select low- or no-VOC paint. Lucky for you, I’ve written on that very topic before. So all you have to do to understand why it’s important to paint VOC-free (and where you can find paint sans VOCs) is read this post.

But what about the tools you use?

Green painting

The greenest option is usually the reusable option. When it comes to protecting your floors and furniture, do you have any old sheets you aren’t using anymore? Throw them down as drop cloths. Or buy a heavy-duty canvas drop cloth, which can be used over and over again. If you’re looking for a temporary fix, check out Trimaco’s Eco Drop biodegradable paint tarps, which are available for $3 at many Lowe’s stores. Or try an all-purpose cotton drop sheet from Reaves, which is made from 90 percent post-consumer recycled content, is washable, and will decompose when you decide it’s time to toss it. Or to avoid having so many drips in the first place, consider purchasing a Drip Catcher.

Moving on to paint trays, you can’t beat a quality, reusable metal paint tray. New models that are coated with Teflon make cleanup even easier—and they’re a cinch to find at stores such as Ace Hardware. Another option: biodegradable disposable paint trays made from recycled pulp fiber from Bio Pulp Works, also available at Lowe’s.

When it comes to paint brushes or rollers, opt for quality, durable supplies that can be washed and reused. Or if disposable is a must, look for options made from recycled materials, such as the Worktools Whizz Green Brush with a renewable bamboo handle and the Whizz Green Roller made from recycled post-consumer waste. Then there’s the Envirobrush, which features disposable bristles that lock into a reusable (and recyclable!) plastic handle.

Once you have your supplies, hop on over to this post on painting basics to study up before you begin. And after the fact, check out our painting cleanup pointers to make life easier. Then sit back, relax, and enjoy your new color!


Until tomorrow,
The Home Know-It-All

March 05, 2009

Track Your Energy Use

Green Around the House Challenge This week’s Green Around the House Challenge is all about energy. And for good reason. The typical American family spends about $1,900 a year on home utility bills, according to the U.S. Department of Energy—and a good portion of that energy is needlessly wasted.

There are plenty of easy steps you can take to reduce your energy use today, including greening your water heater (last week’s challenge), replacing standard incandescent bulbs with CFLs, and
getting rid of phantom loads.

But one of the most important moves you can make is actually tracking how much energy your family uses. It’s the first step to making meaningful changes in energy consumption, which leads to less reliance on fossil fuels, yes, but also reduced energy bills (and more money in your bank account). And it’s effective: studies estimate that just knowing about your household’s energy consumption can lead to a 5 to 15 percent reduction in your energy bill. Hooray for awareness!

A number of gadgets make gauging your energy consumption easy. Some of my favorites include:

  • Kill A Watt. To find out which small appliances consume the most energy, plug this device into a power outlet and then plug the appliance (or a small electronic item) into the Kill A Watt. An LCD display on the meter shows electricity consumption so you can calculate how much energy each item uses per day, week, month, or year. (Hint: You can save 50 percent on the purchase of a Kill A Watt if you buy it now at Amazon.com!)
  • Power Cost Monitor. Track your home’s electricity use in real time with this easy-to-install digital monitor. An attachment placed on the face of your power meter reads the meter and sends info to a wireless display located inside your house. Once it’s set up, try making an easy energy-saving move, then see how it affects the data on the display. Learn more (and order one) here.
  • TED Model 1001p The Energy Detective (TED). Yet another device for keeping an eye on your home’s energy use, TED can help you save 10 to 20 percent on your energy bill. Simply install a transmitter in your breaker box, plug the display unit into an electric outlet, and you’re ready to get readings on current energy consumption in kilowatts, current energy costs, energy consumed (and how much it costs) this billing cycle, historical data for the past 13 months, and more. The transmitter is so sensitive that you’ll see the jump in energy use simply by turning on a light or opening the refrigerator. Plus you can attach TED to your computer for real-time data logging, graphing, charting, and more using TED Footprints software.
  • Google PowerMeter. You already knew you could search the Internet, check your e-mail, and more with Google. But did you know Google can help you monitor your energy use too? It’s true—almost. Google is working on the PowerMeter, which will receive information from utility smart meters and energy management devices to show you your electricity consumption in real-time (for free) right on your iGoogle homepage. It’s still in prototype mode, but guaranteed I’ll be trying it out the second it goes live.
  • Home Energy Audit. Performing your own home energy audit (or, better yet, hiring a professional to do one) can give you clues about where exactly you’re losing energy around the house.

What other tools do you find useful for monitoring home energy use? Leave a comment here to share your ideas with your fellow The Home Know-It-All readers!


Until tomorrow,
The Home Know-It-All

February 27, 2009

Green Your Water Heater

Green Around the House Challenge Here’s a little factoid to convince you to participate in today’s Green Around the House Challenge: Water heating accounts for up to 15.5 percent of the energy used in your home—second only to HVAC systems in regard to residential energy consumption, according to ENERGY STAR®.

Part of the reason is that although you probably use hot water infrequently (for hand-washing, bathing, and dish-washing), your water heater is always hard at work keeping water warm so it’s ready for you on demand.

Fortunately, slashing your water heater energy consumption is easier than you might think. Here are three moves you can do this weekend, plus info on water heater upgrades that will save you considerably in the long run.

Make a Difference Turn down the temp. This is the easiest green move on the list. Head to your water heater, figure out where the temperature setting is, and turn it down to “normal” or 120 degrees. For every 10 degrees you reduce your water heater temperature, you can save 3 to 5 percent on energy costs according to the U.S. Department of Energy. (Bonus: Turning down the water heater to 120 degrees is a smart safety move that prevents scalding.)

Buy a blanket. Wrapping your water heater in an insulation blanket can reduce water heating energy consumption by 4 to 9 percent. Not sure if your water heater needs the extra insulation? Touch the tank. If it’s warm to the touch, it’s time to insulate. (It’s also a good idea to check your owner’s manual first, however, as some specifically state that the tank shouldn’t be insulated.)

You can purchase a pre-cut jacket or blanket for $10 to $20 from your local hardware or home improvement store. Some utilities sell them too—and may even install them for you. If you’re tackling installation yourself (don’t worry, it’s a piece of cake), the U.S. Department of Energy provides a handy guide that shows you how.

RUGreen Insulate your pipes. While you’re in insulation mode, why not take care of your water heater pipes too? It’s an incredibly easy way to improve energy efficiency. All you do is measure the circumference of the intake and outtake pipes. Then head to the hardware store and buy insulation (usually $2 to $4 per strip), a utility knife, and acrylic or duct tape. According to Greenyour.com, the process is as easy as cutting the insulation to fit the length and diameter of your pipes, slipping the insulation onto the pipes, and securing the insulation every foot or so with tape. Pretty darn doable, eh?

Buy ENERGY STAR. If you’re in the market for a new water heater this year, you’re in luck. As of January 1, 2009, you can purchase ENERGY STAR® water heaters. There are five different technologies that have earned the ENERGY STAR rating and, depending on which technology you choose, you’ll reduce your heating bills anywhere from 7.5 to 55 percent. Here’s a rundown on each, thanks to information from the U.S. Department of Energy.

  • High-efficiency gas storage water heaters work much the same as standard gas storage water heaters but benefit from improved insulation, heat traps, and efficient burners.
  • Gas condensing water heaters are similar to gas water heaters, but to increase efficiency heat from the combustion gases is transferred to the water instead of being vented outside.
  • Whole-home gas tankless water heaters heat water similarly to standard gas water heaters. The big difference: they don’t have a storage tank. That means that water is heated only when you need it—a big energy saver over standard water heaters that lose energy during standby operation.
  • Heat Pump Water Heater (HPWH) technology uses liquid refrigerant to move heat from the surrounding air to the water in an enclosed tank rather than generating heat directly.
  • Solar water heaters use the sun’s thermal energy to heat water and can be used alone or with a backup conventional water heating system. Learn about the different types of solar water heaters here, then make sure the one you ultimately choose has an ENERGY STAR label to guarantee even more savings.

Happy energy saving!

Until Monday,
The Home Know-It-All

February 18, 2009

Greener TV Buying

Green TV I’m the lucky owner of a brand new LCD TV. (Check it out here) And even though it’s only a 32-inch, I’m proud of it—not only because it saved me big bucks when I bought it but also because it’ll save more moolah when it comes to my electricity bill.

Sounds like the perfect Green Around the House Challenge for you if you ask me. Want to know why you should undertake it?

Bigger isn’t always better. Your TV should be no bigger than 40 inches. Any bigger, it’ll waste substantially more energy than a smaller size. Not to mention it takes more energy to produce.

LCD is the way to be.
Both LCD and plasma TVs are made with icky nitrogen trifluoride, a chemical that contributes to global warming, and even though in a smaller size a plasma TV wastes only a sliver more energy than an LCD, the bigger you get the more energy a plasma wastes. LCD TVs, however, are available in smaller sizes, making them the lesser of the two evils and saving you up to $115 more per year to operate. But if you still have an old cathode ray tube hanging around, stick with it—it’s the greenest of all TVs.

ENERGY STAR® Approved.
An ENERGY STAR ® TV uses 30 percent less energy than standard units. That’s why I made sure my shiny new one came with the approval. You can find it on most types of units.

Want more proof you should green your TV? Read what ENERGY STAR® and TreeHugger have to say.

Now go forth and conquer yet another Green Around the House Challenge. And when you get that TV, we can tell you how to mount it.


Until tomorrow,
The Home Know-It-All

February 17, 2009

Flea Market Finds

Lately I’ve been obsessed with blogs like Daily Danny and Design*Sponge that teach you how to recreate a flea market find into a stunning interior-decorating masterpiece. Just check out some of these and you’ll be riproaring and ready to head to the flea market too.

Problem is when I’m at the thrift store, consignment shop, or what have you, I don’t see these “finds.” Sure, I see them, but I must not really see them, or I’d see the potential. You see?

The solution: I’ve put together a guideline that’ll help me spot these makeovers-waiting-to-happen. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. Find your shop. From garage sales to estate sales to even rental furniture outlets, there are lots of places to purchase pre-owned merchandise. But it’s not likely that all of these locations will suit your fancy. For some, the mere thought of the crowd and rows and rows of vendors at a flea market is enough to make them shudder. A rental furniture outlet’s quiet warehouse of no longer rentable furniture might make more sense. And if you hate the thought of bargaining at an estate sale, perhaps an online auction is more up your alley.

2. Educate yourself. If you’re in the market for a new dining room table, consult furniture stores to see what a new version goes for, and then check out Craigslist, eBay, or GoAntiques to learn the going-rate of used pieces and see what’s available. (Online shops are often a great place to start not only because they’re informative but also because listings are typically posted by the owner, cutting out the middleman and lowering the price.)

3. Dress Appropriately. In this case, think jeans and a t-shirt. If you go too dressy, you’ll be uncomfortable and a seller might increase his price because he thinks you can afford more. (It’s sad—but true!)

4. Get there early and come back late. At flea markets, auctions, and other day sales, the true bargains are often gone by the time 9 a.m. rolls around, so if you want to spot a true find, go early. Prices are often steeper in the morning, however, so be sure to check back later in the evening when the seller’s only choice is to sell it or haul it home.

5. Inspect. Think you’ve found a steal? Examine it from top to bottom before buying. Although it’s unlikely you’ll find a piece of furniture in mint condition, be sure the damage is something you’re able to repair affordably.  

6. Don’t limit yourself. Although in your head you know you need a TV stand, the piece of furniture you purchase doesn’t necessarily have to be a TV stand. Perhaps you repurpose an antique chair or end table to fit your needs instead. Make a list ahead of time of everything you need. When you spot something you think you like, consult your list to see where it could potentially work.

7. Avoid electronics. With the exception of lamps, which can easily be rewired, avoid anything fueled by electricity—unless you have the know-how to repair it.

8. Get inspired. Scour magazines, websites, and books for ideas. Home Envy has some great advice, as does the DIY Network. Flea Market Finds & How to Restore Them ($7.98) and Flea Market Style ($20.90) are both filled with tips and tricks on decorating with “found” objects. And, of course, it never hurts to look around you. Restaurants, shops, and others’ homes are fantastic motivators.

Let me know how it goes! And I’ll be sure to post any furniture makeovers of my own.


Until tomorrow,
The Home Know-It-All

February 12, 2009

Choosing the Best CFLs

CFLs We here at The Home Know-It-All are big proponents of Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs). And it’s easy to see why: These gems use 75 percent less energy than standard incandescent bulbs and can last up to 10 times longer. Plus, you can save at least $30 in energy costs per year over the course of each bulb’s lifetime. (And who isn’t all for saving money right now?)

So you can imagine our surprise when we recently learned that not all CFLs are equal—even those bearing the Energy Star label. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), some CFLs have a lower mercury content than others, and some last longer than others, making them a better, safer lighting option.

Because mercury is something you don’t want to mess with—it can cause brain and kidney damage—EWG is pushing for lower mercury content in CFLs and believes product labels should disclose the specific mercury content in each bulb. Read all about EWG’s Lighten Up in ’09 campaign here.

Curious to see how your existing CFLs fare? EWG identified seven CFLs that outweigh the competition. These bulbs contain minimal mercury and last anywhere from 8,000 to 15,000 hours. Use this guide the next time you go shopping for light bulbs.

If your CFLs made the list, congrats. But if not, you don’t need to rid your house of them—any CFL is better than a standard incandescent bulb. Just make sure that you properly dispose of it at the end of its lifespan so harmful mercury vapor isn’t released. Earth911 explains how to safely recycle your spent bulbs. Should you happen to break a mercury-containing bulb, keep people and pets away and open a window. Then immediately follow these steps.


Until tomorrow,
The Home Know-It-All

February 03, 2009

Green Bedding Basics

Green Around the House Challenge Although many folks would argue it’s still not enough, we snooze more than a third of our lives away. That’s a lot of time in bed! So it makes sense that we look for bedding that’s comfortable and durable. Thankfully, we’ve pretty much got you covered in that department. (Visit Buying Bedding Basics and Bed Pillow Buying Guide to refresh your memory.) But there’s something more important than those two qualifications, and it’s essential to your health.

Your bedding should also be organic. We’ve already stressed the importance of an organic mattress, but experts agree that your sheets, pillow, and comforter should also be natural.

Icky pesticides and fertilizers are sprayed on cotton crops, tainting our environment and causing your cotton covers to off-gas—or release volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are known to cause allergies, asthma, and even cancer. If that’s not enough to cause you to toss your unnatural sheets, consider this: Non-organic fibers are often harvested overseas, where no fair-labor laws exist. On top of that, once the bedding is made, it’s often coated in formaldehyde—a probable carcinogen—to minimize wrinkling.

To ensure your covers pass the natural test, look for “organic” cotton, which means the fiber was produced without pesticides or genetic engineering. (“Green” cotton isn’t necessarily organically grown, but it is cheaper, making it the next best option.)  Pesticide-free wool is another alternative, and because it’s a breathable fabric, it’s a good choice for warm sleepers. However, you should avoid polyester, which is largely made of non-renewable petroleum.

Here are a few suggestions:

Comforter
Try: Natura Organic Wool Comforter ($352.50-$535.00); Organic Inspirations Organic Cotton/Wool Comforter ($320.00-$470.00); or EcoBedroom Natural Pure-Grow Wool Comforter ($324.00-$462.00).

Sheets
Try: Native Organic Cotton Sheets ($120.00-$180.00); White Lotus Organic Cotton Sheets ($150.00-$285.00); or Sage Creek Organic Jersey Sheet Set ($105.00).

Pillow
Try: Wheat Dreamz Buckwheat Pillow ($40.00-$50.00), Abundant Earth Organic Cotton/Wool Pillow ($29.95-$65.95), Natura Organic Wool Pillow ($79.99-$117.99).

For more eco-bedding options, visit EVO’s site.


Until tomorrow,
The Home Know-It-All

January 29, 2009

Cool Green Tools

Conserving water and energy at home is an ongoing task for two groups of people: the ecologically-minded and the budget-focused. Whether you categorize yourself as one or both (as so many folks do these days), it never hurts to have a little help on your conquest to conserve.

That’s why I tracked down these cool tools designed to help you reduce your use. Try one—or all—of them as part of The Home Know-It-All’s Green Around the House Challenge and start saving!


Black & Decker Thermal Leak Detector Black & Decker Thermal Leak Detector
Hunting down air leaks is as easy as pointing and shooting this handy tool. Shine the leak detector light on the wall to set a reference temperature, then point it at different areas around your house. The light turns blue to indicate a cold spot and red if it’s hot, so you can easily identify leaks. Then all you have to do is seal and insulate to reduce your heating and cooling costs by up to 20 percent! Price: $39.99. Learn more: blackanddecker.com

Belkin Conserve Energy-Saving Surge Protector Belkin Conserve Energy-Saving Surge Protector
Plugged-in home electronics suck energy even if they’re not in use. But unplugging all those appliances and gadgets all the time can be a real pain. And who wants to unplug the DVR when you’ll miss recording your favorite shows, anyway? Lucky us, both problems are solved with the Belkin Conserve. Plug everything into this surge protector and all you have to do is switch it off with the included remote control to stop power flow. Best of all, two of the plugs stay active even when the others are shut off, so you can keep items such as clocks, wireless Internet routers, or your precious DVR box on all the time. Price: $50–$60. Learn more: belkin.com/conserve


Watt Stopper Passive Infrared Wall Switch Watt Stopper Passive Infrared Wall Switch Vacancy Sensor
It happens to the best of us—you rush out of the house only to discover hours later upon your return that you left all of the lights in the house blazing. Fortunately, forgetting to switch off the lights when you leave the room isn’t a problem anymore if you install this sensor. It switches them off automatically after a room has been vacant for 30 minutes—and you can still flick the switch yourself whenever you please too. Price: $36. Learn more: wattstopper.com


Versaline Disappearing Clothesline Versaline Disappearing Clothesline
One of the easiest ways to save energy when it’s laundry time is to stop using the dryer altogether. As GreenYour points out, air-drying some or all of your wet laundry saves you as much as $135 in energy costs every year, prevents tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere, and results in less wear on your clothing. Plus line-dried clothes smell so darn good. The problem is, some of us don’t have a yard for or don’t want the permanence of an in-ground line. Fortunately, the Aussies know what to do. They created this disappearing clothesline, which can be mounted any distance apart up to 16.5 feet and disappears out of sight when it’s not in use—just remove it from its brackets and store it in the cupboard. Price: $180–$200. Learn more: clotheslineshop.com


Brondell Perfect Flush Brondell Perfect Flush
This one won’t be available until May, but I wanted to share it with you anyway because it’s going to be worth the wait. When installed (which should take less than half an hour), this handy gadget turns your everyday toilet into a dual-flush model. A two-button control allows you to dispense less water to flush liquids and more for solids, which can cut your household water use by up to 50 percent. Price: To be determined. Learn more: brondell.com


Until tomorrow,
The Home Know-It-All

January 27, 2009

Green Candles

Green Around the House Challenge Sure, green-hued candles are nice. But green candles—as in, environmentally friendly pillars and tea lights adding ambience to your home—are even nicer. And that’s what I’m talking about in today’s Green Around the House Challenge.

What’s wrong with standard candles? Plenty. Let’s start with paraffin, the most common candle ingredient. It’s a petroleum byproduct—in other words, even if you ride your bike to the store to buy those pretty candles to burn, you’re relying on fossil fuels.

And if your candles are scented, you’re also putting your health at risk. That’s because many scented candles contain synthetic fragrances. (Specifically, they contain chemicals such as phthalates, which have been shown to disrupt hormones.)

Another dangerous culprit in these seemingly benign products: the wicks. Not all wicks are bad, but some candlewicks contain lead and release soot and toxins into the air when they’re burned. (And, as Umbra points out, like anything that burns, candles give off particles and vapors that can irritate your respiratory system.) In the United States, candle manufacturers voluntarily stopped using lead wicks for this very reason. But if your candles weren’t made in the United States, they may still have lead in the wicks. (Click Umbra’s name above to learn how you can test your wicks to see if they include lead.)

So what’s a candle-lover to do? Never fear, because you don’t have to forsake your candle habit altogether. As is the case with much of what we’re including in our Green Around the House Challenge, you just have to shop smarter:

Buy natural candles. Beeswax candles are naturally fragrant, nontoxic, soot-free, and allergen-free (just make sure you’re buying candles made from 100 percent beeswax). And, as long as the bee population doesn’t diminish anymore, beeswax is a renewable resource. Soy is another candle option that’s biodegradable, vegan, soot-free, and long-lasting. Or look for clean-burning wax made from palm oil (palm oil comes from coconuts, so no living plants are destroyed in the making of the oil).

Watch out for synthetic scents.
Your best bet is to purchase unscented candles. But I’m a realist and I know that part of the allure of candles is the wonderful scent they give off (even when they’re not burning—the soy candles sitting in the sconces on my dining room wall emit a wonderful aroma every time I walk by them). So if you can’t do without yummy smells, at least opt for those light sticks that get their scents from essential oils.

Avoid lead-containing wicks. Enough said.

Recycle. Yep, you read that right. Although they may be made from paraffin, recycled candles are an environmentally friendly option because you’re reusing candle wax that was already produced rather than buying new. So make your own or buy recycled. Some candle-makers—like my friend Cara who sells her Mary Marie line of candles at Etsy—even use old glass jars, mugs, and the like for containing their candles. Now that’s eco-friendly!


Until tomorrow,
The Home Know-It-All

January 19, 2009

Heat Things Up With Pellet Stoves

Green Around the House Challenge Lower winter energy bills, heat individual rooms, and reduce the amount of waste that goes to the landfill—all at once. Sound too good to be true?

Actually, it isn’t, thanks to a little something called a pellet stove. Think of it like a fireplace insert or freestanding stove—these devices typically heat individual rooms rather than the entire house (although they can do that too), so that you can turn down the thermostat. But instead of wood, they burn pellets: compressed sawdust, corn, wood shavings, and other wood waste that would normally go to the landfill.

A charming alternative to gas or electric heating, pellet stoves don’t require EPA certification because they emit so little pollution. Seriously. And unlike your standard hearth, pellet stoves produce zero creosote.

Here’s how they work: You pour pellets into a refillable hopper. From there, a motorized auger feeds these pellets into a burn pot, where they combust. And that generates much-needed heat. Want to get more technical? Home expert Don Vandervort digs into the intricacies of how a pellet stove operates.

According to Vandevort, pellet stoves can be complicated and require occasional maintenance and regular attention, so you might be better off signing a service contract rather than trying to maintain the stove yourself. Another drawback: If you don’t have a thermostat in every room, the heat from the stove might trick nearby thermostats into thinking the temperature in the area is at the set level. Nearby rooms become cold, and you end up raising your thermostat anyway.

Want to see what they look like—or find one that would suit your home? Check out the pellet stove buying guide at Planet Green. When shopping for a pellet stove, opt for one with a built-in thermostat—this feature ensures better temperature control.

You’ll also want to hop on over to Consumer Reports, where you’ll find all kinds of important considerations for selecting the best stove for your heating needs. For instance, you’ll want to determine fuel costs in your area and whether or not it makes sense to purchase a self-contained firebox insert or a freestanding stove. And just so you’re as informed on the topic as possible, I also recommend reading the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy guide to wood and pellet heating.


Until tomorrow,
The Home Know-It-All

January 13, 2009

Green Your Shower Curtain

Green Around the House Challenge Get excited! It’s the first week of the Green Around the House Challenge. And as promised, our first challenge is greening your shower curtain. Why? This everyday object might be causing more problems than you think, starting with air pollution.

I have to admit, I certainly wasn’t thinking green when I bought my shower curtain a couple years ago. I was thinking blue, as in my blue bathroom color scheme. Fortunately, my chic blue-and-white embroidered curtain of choice was made of cotton. But the shower liner reeked of PVC.

Yes, reeked. My bathroom is teeny-tiny, so the liner’s icky, plastic-y odor infiltrated the space within minutes—and lingered. And that’s when I wised up to the dangers of PVC. Here’s why you should too:

The Problem Plastic Revealed
As I mentioned above, that unmistakable stench coming from your shower curtain is polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a (sadly) popular plastic also known as vinyl. PVC is produced with toxic additives that can evaporate or leach out of the product. And it enters your body when you least expect it, whether through inhalation or direct skin or eye contact. This not-so-pleasant plastic has been linked to a slew of nasty health and environmental problems, including cancer, liver damage, and reproductive and immune system problems.

Delightful, eh?

It gets even worse. A recent study by the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, a grassroots environmental organization based in Falls Church, Virginia, revealed disturbing facts about PVC shower curtains—that’s why it’s called Volatile Vinyl. (Download the Volatile Vinyl report here.) According to the report, PVC shower curtains can release as many as 108 volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) into the air you regularly breathe. What’s more, some of these chemicals were found in the air 28 days after a PVC shower curtain was opened and hung. No wonder I got a headache while putting on makeup in the bathroom each morning. That’s a long time, folks!

End the Toxic Relationship—For Good
So, aside from that unmistakable stench, how can you tell if your shower curtain is made from PVC? Look for a “3” within the plastic recycling symbol or check to see if there’s a “V” stamped in the plastic.

If you recently purchased a PVC shower curtain, let it air out for a month before hanging it. Or, if you’re in the market for a new shower curtain but haven’t purchased one yet, shop for an eco-friendly cloth version—try organic cotton or linen (just make sure you have good ventilation to ward off mildew). Another option? Hemp is durable and naturally mildew-resistant. Or try recycled polyester plastic. When shopping for liners, opt for one made of nylon. Launch your search for eco-friendly options at Gaiam, Health Goods, Pristine Planet, and IKEA.

It’s becoming easier than ever to find non-PVC shower curtains and liners, because many major retailers and manufacturers are pulling the plug on the pesky plastic. IKEA, for example, phased out PVC shower curtains 11 years ago, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Of course, once you set your sights on a newer, healthier shower curtain, another issue arises: getting rid of the old one. PVC shower curtains clog already-full landfills because they don’t break down. And they don’t play well with other plastics, making them a challenge to recycle. Green Daily offers some ideas for putting that old vinyl curtain to good use.

Here’s to healthy breathing and safer showers.


Until tomorrow,
The Home Know-It-All

January 08, 2009

Great Indoor Planters

Whether lined up in a row, clustered in groups, or standing solo, planters are an easy way to spruce up a deck or patio. But they also add charm indoors too—especially during winter. And there’s no better time than winter to give your décor a boost with plants and herbs housed in decorative containers. Here are a few of my favorites:

\Wirework cachepots White delight.
As you very well know by now, I’m a fan of classic style. And that’s why I can’t take my eye off the simple, timeless Wirework Cachepots from Gardener’s Supply Company ($44.95/set of three). The watertight steel pots feature a crisp white finish and are accented by a simple scalloped wirework design. Plus, each planter in the set is a different size—small, medium, and large. The result? A grouped display that adds dimension.

Modern-minded. If your style is more cutting-edge contemporary, then you’ll like the sleek style of the column-shape Self Watering Cubico Flower Pots from Indoor Flower Pots.com (prices range from $29.90–$289.95 depending on size; if you want the sub-irrigation system included, add $60.85). These pots come in a variety of glossy or metallic hues, such as silver, espresso, and scarlet red.

Indoor living wall Living art. Whether you hang it above your sofa or place it in your entryway, the Indoor Living Wall Planter from Gardener’s Supply Company ($189) is quite the conversation starter. The planter comes in two forms: an indoor kit, which hangs on the walls, and a freestanding kit, which is a floor display. Both create instant drama. Bonus: watering is easier than you think. Water trickles down from the top reservoir into each pocket, and excess water collects in the bottom tray—not on your furniture.

Au naturel. For a rustic tabletop plant display, try the Carved Wooden Cachepots from Pottery Barn ($24–$34.00, depending on size). Made of renewable solid mango wood, these hand-carved planters add simplicity and warmth.

Powell Contemporary Merlot Plant Stand Taking a stand. Okay—plant stands aren’t exactly containers. But they corral several plants at once and therefore save space. I like the deep finish of the Powell Contemporary Merlot Plant Stand from Stacks and Stacks ($95). It fits neatly in any corner, and there’s a shelf underneath for extra display space.
If you’re really short on space like me, there’s the diminutive Bamboo Tabletop Shelf from Improvements Catalog ($19.97, on sale). Like its name suggests, the tiered shelf’s metal frame resembles bamboo, and its got three shelves to hold your favorite petite plants.


Until tomorrow,
The Home Know-It-All

January 06, 2009

Take the Green Around the House Challenge

Go Green Whether you believe in making New Year’s resolutions or not, you have to admit that the start of a new year is a great time to contemplate positive improvements to your life—and the place you live. That’s why we’re going to present you with a project that we’re calling the Green Around the House Challenge.

Here’s how it’s going to work: At least once every week in 2009, you’ll see a post on The Home Know-It-All related to going green around the house. Some of these ideas will be easy tips you can do in minutes. Others will require a bit more manpower or money. But all will be geared toward making your home a healthier, more environmentally friendly place.

The goal with the Green Around the House Challenge isn’t to overwhelm you with eco-friendly to-dos. That’s why there’s only one per week. We’re all busy with work and family and friends and DIY projects. But one green challenge a week? You have to admit, that’s pretty doable.

We’re going to roll out the first challenge next Tuesday, when Katie fills us in on how to green our shower curtains. And the week after that? Stay tuned for cool green tools that can help you detect air leaks around your house and more. And that’s just for starters.

So get ready to get green. And be sure to share your going green success stories—not to mention the challenges you might face—in the comments section below each blog post. We really do want to hear from you!


Until tomorrow,
The Home Know-It-All

December 29, 2008

Post-Holiday Recycling

Holiday wrapping paper recycling Whew—you made it through another whirlwind Christmas. How did it go? Gauging by the mound of garbage at my door, I’d say things went pretty well here. But this year instead of chucking it all in the trash, I’m going to recycle. And you should too. Everything from your cardboard boxes to your Christmas tree can be reused. So gather it up and get ready to save the planet.

Boxes

If you’re lucky enough to have curbside recycling, it’s likely the program will accept both flat and corrugated cardboard. Break down all those boxes from your new electronics and toys and send them to the curb. No curbside recycling? Visit The Recycling Center’s website to find a center in your town, or check with local grocery stores to see if they accept boxes. And don’t forget egg nog and other cardboard food containers—just give them a good scrub before dropping them in the recycling box.

Batteries

Because of all the toxic metals in rechargeable batteries—think mercury, lead acid, nickel cadmium, alkaline, and nickel metal hydride—it’s important that you dispose of them properly. And thanks to the Battery Act of 1996, recycling rechargeable NiCard, NiMH, Lithium-Ion, and sealed lead-acid batteries is easier than ever. The next time you’re out and about swing by a local retail store like Home Depot, Wal-Mart, or Target to drop off your dead rechargeable batteries to be recycled. The best part? It’s free! 

Wrapping Paper

Not all wrapping paper is recyclable. If it has metallic specks or is very thin, you can’t send it to the recycle center. Rather than throw it away, pass it through the shredder and use it as filler for other presents. Or if you’re feeling mighty crafty, try your hand at paper beads. For more ideas on how to recycle gift wrap, head on over to Craft Stew.

Christmas Tree
And finally, you can’t forget the tree. We filled you in last year on how to recycle it, but just in case you’ve forgotten how, read all about it here.

So what else are you recycling this year?


Until tomorrow,
The Home Know-It-All

December 19, 2008

Green Insulation

Wool insulation We’ve talked about the importance of insulating your home to save energy and money. While you’re at it, why not go a step further—for the good of the environment and your health—with environmentally friendly insulation? There are a lot of options available right now. Here are a few.

Recycled. Keep waste out of the landfill and stay warm by opting for recycled insulation. Recycled insulation may be made from a number of materials, including melted minerals and sand or recycled glass (fiberglass), recycled newspaper (cellulose, paper), recycled steel slag (rockwool), and mill waste and low-grade and recycled cotton (cotton). Learn about the pluses and minuses of each at Greenyour.com.

One recycled-content insulation that has received quite a lot of press lately is UltraTouch Natural Cotton Fiber Insulation, produced by Bonded Logic. This insulation is made from 85 percent post-industrial cotton (think denim manufacturing scraps). It’s treated with a natural fire retardant, is 100 percent recyclable, and is VOC-free.

Hemp. HempFlax insulation mats are made from natural hemp fibers with some polyester fiber for reinforcing. They are available in several thicknesses for insulating roofs, walls, and floors. Hemp processing is clean and low on dust.

Sheep’s Wool. Thermafleece sheep’s wool insulation is produced by Second Nature. Sheep’s wool is safe and easy to handle and, unlike traditional insulation, won’t cause itching and skin irritation. Plus, wool captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which, according to the company website, gives Thermafleece a negative global warming potential.

Spray-In Foam. Spray-in foam starts out as a liquid and, once it is sprayed, expands and solidifies, working as an air barrier to stop more than 90 percent of air infiltration and minimizing allergens and pollution in your house. Some spray-in foam is loaded with chemicals, but others, like Icynene, are water-blown and don’t offgas nasty chemicals. (Icynene is free of formaldehyde too.)

Soy. Another spray-in option: soy-based polyurethane, produced by BioBased Insulation. It’s made with soybean oil, so there aren’t any petrochemicals, and you won’t have to worry about mold growth (or pests eating it). Soy-based polyurethane is also free of CFCs and VOCs. BioBased Insulation was the first polyurethane spray foam insulation to earn GREENGUARD certification. Learn more about it from this Fine Homebuilding video.

Mushrooms. OK. This insulation isn’t made solely from mushrooms. But Greensulate is made from agricultural waste products—think rice and buckwheat hulls—combined with mycelium, which is a fibrous network created by mushrooms. The petroleum-free insulation is priced similar to standard rigid board insulation (like Styrofoam) and has a comparable R-value. And, perhaps best of all, when you’re done with it, Greensulate will rapidly break down, enriching the soil and even helping nearby waste breakdown too. The only catch? You’ll have to wait a while to try it out—it probably won’t be available as insulation until the end of 2010 (although you can buy other Greensulate products, such as coolers, now).

What great green insulation options did I miss? Let me know!


Until Monday,
The Home Know-It-All

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