Monthly Archives:June 2007

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Weekly DIY: Rain Barrels

Elizabeth RedmondPhoto Credit: Elizabeth Redmond

I've been wanting to put in a couple of rain barrels at my house this year. We put in some garden plants this weekend, and they are going to need to be watered. Rain barrels are great because they help conserve water and cut down the amount of potable water that needs to be used. Rain barrels are commercially available for around $100 (or more). These are more "decorative" (if you find a piece of plastic molded with a wood barrel pattern decorative), but with a drill, some silicone sealant, and a couple of basic parts, you can build a rain barrel of your own.

It is important to remember that this is not drinking water that you are collecting. Without further treatment, there are too many possible problems, from dust and dirt to chemicals (from roof materials) to microorganisms that may colonize an available water supply. There are rainwater catchment systems that are designed for potable water use. These are more involved, and need to have other elements in the system beyond what is being discussed here.

It is also important to make sure to prevent the standing water from becoming a mosquito breeding facility, either by closing the barrel with a screen (like a window screen) or by using mosquito dunks (a time release tablet that contains a bacterial agent that kills mosquito larvae, but do not affect people, fish, animals or plants).

Rain barrels can collect a surprisingly large amount of water. "For every 1000 square feet of roof space being used to capture rain you can expect to catch around 600 gallons from one inch of rain fall (at a theoretical 100% catch rate). Some larger roofs can easily be 2000+ square feet." (The Sietch) Conversely, if you have a 100 square foot garden, you can figure that you will want to supply 60 gallons of water for every inch of rainfall you are trying to make up. So if you collect and use five 55-gallon barrels of rainwater, that's approximately 5" of additional effective rainfall that you've supplied to your garden. With a typical 55-gallon barrel size, you are only likely to capture a fraction of the total water that falls on your roof. But this could be increased by putting barrels at several corners, to capture the rainfall at multiple downspouts.

June 27th

New Lighting Technology?

<p><br /><img src="/files/images/Ceravision1_72-080207_0.jpg" width="300" height="170" alt="Image courtesy of Global Witness" />We've all heard about how much better compact fluorescent lights (CFL) are over incandescent bulbs for most general lighting tasks. The articles about LED lights are interesting, although there aren't readily available, affordable LED replacements for ordinary lighting purposes. But recently, I've seen some discussion about a new light source that has some interesting features. The <a href="">Ceravision</a> light contains no mercury (the biggest drawback in compact fluorescents), and is highly efficient in producing light (the biggest drawback with incandescent lights).<br /><br />Hank Green over at <a href="">EcoGeek</a> first brought the Ceravision light source to my attention last week. And since then, I've seen some <a href="">other writers</a> <a href="">picking up on it</a> as well. The technology behind it is interesting. It is not a new breakthrough so much as it is a development of existing technologies:</p><p></p>

June 25th

Weekend Grub: Grilling with Chimney Starters

Joshua Thompson via WikipediaImage Credit: Joshua Thompson via Wikipedia
This week's Weekend Grub is less a recipe for what to cook than some suggestions about how to cook it. If you're looking for recipes, check out yesterday's post on vegan BBQ.

Summer is here, and for many, that means time to start cooking outdoors. For some, bottled gas (propane, most commonly) is a preferable choice for a number of reasons, while many others prefer to cook over charcoal. I'm not going to get into a long debate about which is the best. It's something like the 'paper-or-plastic' debate. Given some of the issues around the extraction and processing of propane, as well as it's non-renewability compared to wood charcoal, I think that it's possible to make the case either way.

If you choose to cook over coals, there are some considerations that can help make your grilling a greener experience. A chimney starter is a simple, inexpensive, easy-to-use tool that quickly gives you coals ready for grilling. Most importantly, there is no need to rely on starter fuels to get a good fire for grilling. I was introduced to the chimney starter by a good friend several years ago. I was immediately drawn to the simplicity and efficiency of it. It concentrates the heat to start the coals more quickly and evenly than just lighting them in the grill. (Cooking celebrity Alton Brown famously even uses a chimney starter as a kind of concentrated mini-grill for quickly searing tuna. I haven't tried this myself yet, but I plan to, when I have a suitable opportunity. The recipe for Chimney Tuna Loin is fairly quick and easy, but requires a high quality piece of tuna.)

June 23rd

Better Daylighting

<p><img src="/files/images/sol.jpg" border="0" alt="Advanced Glazings, Ltd." width="279" height="186" /><strong>solera : </strong>Image Credit: Advanced Glazings, Ltd.Lighting for buildings is a major part of their energy use. Increasingly, green building design is recognizing the importance of providing natural daylight as a means of lighting the building and reducing energy use. Not only does natural daylight reduce the building's energy use, but it also increases comfort for the people in the building. The LEED system includes credit for providing at least 75% of the spaces in the building with natural lighting and views, and the credit is increased if 90% of the spaces are naturally lit.<br /><br />Windows are good for providing views to the exterior. Skylights can be used to bring in more daylight, but they are not without issues. The problem with skylights is that they tend to create glare. The high contrast between areas where the daylight is streaming through the windows and other parts of the space that are not directly lit is visually (and sometimes even literally) uncomfortable. There's either too much light or too little. Diffuse light is more even and comfortable, and avoids areas of deep shadow and sharp glare. This is why so many older buildings had north oriented skylights or clerestory windows (or south-oriented in the southern hemisphere), and why those spaces were so well thought of as artists' spaces and galleries. The <a href="">light quality is much better</a> when it is from an indirect source.<br /><br />Most diffuser options do little to spread the light around. Typical etched or frosted glass has little effect. The light patterns are a little bit softer edged from frosted glass than they are from clear glass, but when it is directly lit, it is little better than clear glass. Advanced Glazings, Ltd. offers much better performance for incorporating daylighting into buildings with a line of insulated glazing called <a href="">Solera</a>. Architects have known of <a href="">Kalwall</a>, another company that has been making translucent panels for many years. Kalwall is a panel of polyester and fiberglass that offers translucency and some insulation.</p>

June 20th

Renewable Energy Plan for Michigan

State of MichiganMichigan Wind Power Map: Image Source: State of MichiganA proposed 21st Century Renewable Energy Plan was introduced last week for the state of Michigan. This is something that the state badly needs. Other states have been pushing forward programs to develop their energy efficiency and renewability, such as the Million Solar Roofs in California, or the western states' "Transitioning the West to Clean Energy and Energy Security." As I mentioned earlier, Michigan, with it's present building code, has one of the worst energy standards in the country. One aspect of this new legislative proposal is to "promote energy conservation through updated construction codes and consumer tax credits for energy-efficient appliances."

The key elements of the plan:

June 18th

Weekend Book Review: The Rough Guide to Shopping with a Conscience

<p><img src="/files/images/rough_0.jpg" border="0" width="240" height="369" />There are layers upon layers of complex issues to be faced when one deals with a question of grave importance such as, &quot;What coffee should I buy this morning?&quot; Ethics are hard to keep straight when so much of the information about a product is a mix of marketing, spin, and carefully crafted image. The truth is often well concealed (and usually deliberately so). To be a conscientious consumer is not easy, with the marketplace stacked against any revelation of the truth the way that it is.</p><p><em><a href=";;tag=greeopti-20&amp;linkCode=ur2&amp;camp=1789&amp;creative=9325">The Rough Guide to Shopping with a Conscience</a><img src=";l=ur2&amp;o=1" border="0" width="1" height="1" /></em> looks to provide some guidance for getting behind the layers of obfuscation and presents the issues that need to be considered in many of these decisions. The book is divided into three parts. Part I: <em>Issues</em> lays out the alternatives and some of the standards for ethical decisions. Part II: <em>Products &amp; companies</em> goes through different categories in more detail. And Part III: <em>Find out more</em> deals briefly with sources for further information.<br /><br />The <em>Issues</em> section looks at five approaches to ethical decisionmaking: Going green, Fair trade, Boycotts, Selective shopping, and Buying locally. The authors recognize the complexities in all of these issues, and point out the (sometimes conflicting and contradictory) arguments that can be made about deciding one way or another. In most circumstances, they lay out the different viewpoints, but do not offer any definitive answer, because no such solution exists.</p>

June 16th

Home Energy Audits

Take Dad Hiking!
I had the chance to learn more about evaluating home energy efficiency at a seminar about energy rating for homes. This is particulary valuable here in the State of Michigan because Michigan is in the bottom 5 states for energy efficiency in home construction. According to the EPA, only Hawaii is worse than Michigan. There is new legislation being introduced in the state to address some of these issues (which I will be writing about shortly), but, at present, the state requirements are very lax, and saying that a house meets the building code for energy doesn't mean all that much.

Production homebuilders would rather save a few hundred dollars so that they can keep their costs low and sell homes at the lowest price they can. They are unconcerned about the operating cost of the home, and many homebuyers are following them and only asking about the seling price. The cost of this negligence arrives in high energy bills for these homes, which buyers must deal with year after year.

But, there are some federal incentives that encourage the building of more efficient homes. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 includes a $2000 credit (not just a deduction) for home builders for the construction of a home that meets energy efficiency targets. (The deadline on the Energy Act is presently January 1, 2008, but it is expected to be extended by Congress very shortly.) "Home builders are eligible for a $2,000 tax credit for a new energy efficient home that achieves 50 percent energy savings for heating and cooling over the 2004 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) and supplements. At least 1/5 of the energy savings must come from building envelope improvements." — (EnergyStar link)

June 13th

Driving Cars of the Future

This is part 2 of my series of posts about visiting GM Headquarters in Detroit for the ChallengeX program and to meet with some GM executives. I attended this event representing both and, and these articles are cross-posted to both sites. Previous story here.

Several of the vehicles were available to be driven at the ChallengeX event. Of the vehicles that were there, I was most interested in driving the University of Waterloo's entry. Most of the teams (12 of the 17 competitors) were using a B20 biodiesel blend as their fuel and all but one of the others used some form of internal combustion with E85 ethanol or reformulated gasoline. But the University of Waterloo team took a different approach.

The Waterloo vehicle was powered by a hydrogen fuel cell (with onboard batteries for backup) and propelled by front and rear electric motors. When I sat down behind the wheel, my guide from the Waterloo team explained that some of the things in the vehicle that are different from the way we're used to driving a car. There were a number of different sounds, coming from the front and the rear, as various systems came online to start the fuel cell system in operation. Matt Stevens from the Waterloo team explained the whole sequence of operation to me this way:

June 12th

ChallengeX – GM Supports Alternative Vehicle Research

<p><br /><img src="/files/images/gm%20012_0.jpg" border="0" alt="Terrence Williams from UC-Davis (Team Fate) plug-in hybrid" width="240" height="320" /><strong>Terrence Williams from UC-Davis (Team Fate) plug-in hybrid</strong>I had the opportunity last week to visit General Motors' headquarters in downtown Detroit for an event with the <a href="">ChallengeX</a> program. ChallengeX is a program co-sponsored by GM and the US Department of Energy. Teams from universities across the US (and one from Canada) were given a stock Chevrolet Equinox to use as the base vehicle platform and were challenged to improve its efficiency and reduce its fuel use. &quot;Seventeen teams have been challenged to re-engineer a GM Equinox, a crossover sport utility vehicle to minimize energy consumption, emissions, and greenhouse gases while maintaining or exceeding the vehicle's utility and performance.&quot;<br /><br />This is a multi-year program, which has already gone through two years of evaluations and awards. And, while the initial information I had about the program was that this was the conclusion of the challenge, I learned that there is going to be a fourth year to the program, which will focus on consumer acceptability issues.<br /><br />The top three programs for this year's competition were Mississipi State (1st place), University of Wisconsin (2nd place), and Virginia Tech (3rd place). The vehicles went through a multi-day testing at GM's proving grounds, and were judged on numerous criteria. More information about the ChallengeX results can be found on <a href="">GM's FYI blog</a>.</p>

June 11th

What About Your Corn Footprint?

USDA/Wikimedia CommonsImage Credit: USDA/Wikimedia CommonsAmericans eat a lot of corn. Sure there's cooked corn and corn chips and corn flakes and cornbread and the myriad other varieties found in the average American market. And, with the arrival of summer, there is now corn-on-the-cob (though here in the upper midwest: the sweet corn at the local supermarket right now is trucked in from Florida, not locally grown).

But in addition to its recognizable forms, where the corn is recognizable as corn, there are untold numbers of additional places where we don't recognize it, but where corn forms the substance of our diet. And most of that has been highly processed.

I've been reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan recently, and it has been a very enlightening read. One of the most shocking things to discover was just how much corn is suffused throughout the typical American diet.

June 6th

Green Building Elements: Evacuated Solar Tubes

Silicon Solar Inc.Photo Credit: Silicon Solar Inc.We are pretty familiar with most of the ways solar energy is collected. There are photovoltaic panels (PV) which directly convert sunlight into electricity. Solar hot water systems are another widely known system. Water circulates through a series of tubes or through a pipe to be heated by sunlight. And solar concentrators use mirrors to focus sunlight on a narrow area, either for direct heating, or to boil water to make steam for electrical generating purposes.

Evacuated tube heaters are another method of collecting solar energy. Rather than running the water through a long circuitous course, each tube is a separate heat collector. It is made of a clear glass cylinder which allows sunlight to pass through, and a central heat collector tube. The evacuated tube insulates the collector element, which makes it more efficient in colder environments. The collector itself is typically filled with an antifreeze mix rather than just water. The top of the tube has a heat exchange element which is prevents contamination of the water being heated. The tubes are collected together in an array, with a manifold across the tops, containing the heat exchangers.

June 4th