So What Exactly Is Toilet Bowl Cleaner Supposed to DO?   Leave a comment

It’s not a rhetorical question, but something that I really want to figure out. Why? So that I can replace store-bought cleaner with something homemade and get the same results. My success at homemade cleaners over the last 15 years has been entirely hit-or-miss. Well, the only real success has been glass cleaner, actually.

As a kid I would have answered that the job of the toilet bowl cleaner is disinfection, duh. But that seems silly now. Why would I want to disinfect the toilet bowl? No one drinks or even touches the water, and I’m not about to advocate scrubbing the bowl after every use.  If/when Conan were to/does reach into the toilet water he’d get a good washing after regardless of whether it was dirty or freshly cleaned. So, disinfection isn’t the answer.

How about gunk removal? But isn’t that the job of the scrub brush? As an experiment, for a few weeks I’ve tried using nothing but the scrub brush. One thing that I’ve learned is that there is a reason toilet bowl cleaners are so heavily scented. (I HATE scented cleaners and soaps.) It’s not that there’s an offensive smell, it’s really just kind of watery smelling, but in our perfumed world I can see others disliking it. But the other thing is that the brush alone just doesn’t cut it. The brush does a fine job of gunk removal, but apparently toilet bowl cleaner does actually do something.

So now I’m on to film removal on the theory that toilet bowl cleaner is really just fancy scented-up soap. I think I’ll try a few different things for a while and see what I like. This week I started with a sprinkling of washing soda. I’ll try that for a bit, then maybe I’ll try baking soda, vinegar, or a simple squirt of plan liquid soap. So far, based on one trial, washing soda seems better than nothing, which lends credence to the idea that toilet bowl cleaner really doesn’t have to be some magical brew of ingredients concocted for an impossible task.

I have looked around the internet a bit at alternative cleaners. Can’t say I’m impressed. Partly because I’m an engineer so I want to know how/why they work. That’s why I washed dishes with nothing but baking soda before I washed my hair with baking soda. I needed to actually see that baking soda cuts grease. But also the most popular alternative seems to be baking soda and vinegar and then let it sit. Um, explain to me how a little fizz around the water line will do anything to help clean the rest of the bowl. Individually these are great cleaning agents, but together won’t the chemical reaction eliminate the individual cleaning powers? It also seems that there lots of people who are obsessed with needing to disinfect the toilet bowl, but as previously discussed, that seems silly to me.

My follow-up question in case it turns out that commercial toilet bowl cleaner can actually be replaced with a single simple household ingredient (ok, two for those who need to add a drop or two of essential oils for scenting purposes): If you can clean your toilet bowl just as well with a scrub brush and a squirt of the hand soap on the sink next to the toilet, then how did we let marketing people convince us that a cocktail of fancy-named compounds is necessary?

Posted April 12, 2015 by mayakey in cleaning, frugal living, home, unshopping

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A Weird New Goal of Zero Bottles in the Shower   Leave a comment

Not very long ago I was looking at my bottles on the shelf in the shower and realized that I don’t actually think I need any of them. For a long time I’ve been on a slow progression of simplifying my personal care routines (not that I was ever the stereotypical 20-bottles in the shower/over an hour to get ready in the morning woman), and it seems like I’ve reached a point where most of the rest of my products just seem pointless.

When I say slow progression, I do mean that. This story starts over a decade and a half ago, when I stopped shampooing my hair every day and switched to every other day. Over the years that became more like a couple times a week, then once a week. Then a few years ago I decided to try going shampoo free, using the baking soda and apple cider vinegar method. I had to switch back to washing my hair every time I showered (which was so hard as I had gotten so lazy about washing my hair!). Then gradually I was able to BS/ACV my hair only a couple times a week, and then weekly, while just rinsing with water in between. I’ve now reached a point where I don’t actually remember when I last used the BS/ACV, so I’m guessing I use it a couple times a year or so. When I last cleaned the shelf in the shower I realized that there’s really no reason for me to be keeping bottles of the baking soda and apple cider vinegar solutions in the shower, as I can easily mix up “single serve” batches when I feel like using them. Plus then I can customize the essential oil blends mixed in if I feel I need anything. I’ve also got a bottle of conditioner from back in my shampooing days, which I only use after getting a hair cut to make it up to my hair and restore a coating on the follicles. It’s going to take me another decade to finish that bottle, but there’s no reason it can’t join the extra bottle of shampoo for guests in the hall bathroom. So hair care: 0 bottles, 1 natural bristle brush.

The next simplification was a couple years ago when Conan was born. In the days/weeks after his birth I could find the time to splash my face with cold water every day, but not to use the cream cleanser that I’ve been using for years. After a while I realized that not using a cleanser and/or warm water on my face was not causing any breakouts. So why keep buying/using a cleanser? Then I started wondering if I really needed a moisturizer, and found that even my dry skin doesn’t generally demand a moisturizer if I’m only rinsing with cold water. At that point I started wondering about using oil, not a commercial moisturizer. Shockingly, when I switched to using grape seed oil on my face after showers (i.e. rinsing my face with warm water), I didn’t start breaking out. So facial care: 1 small jar of grape seed oil (the bottle lives in the kitchen for cooking), 1 facial brush.

The only thing left in the shower is the shave gel. I wax my legs, so it’s just for my underarms. Now I want to find out if we really do need special shave products as opposed to soap to shave. I suspect that it may be true for those who shave daily, and for legs, but for underarms that get shaved 2-3 times a week I suspect soap will be fine long term. If true that would mean shaving: 0 bottles, 1 razor.

Don’t worry, I’m keeping the soap.

Posted February 21, 2015 by mayakey in frugal living, goals, personal care, simple living, unshopping

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When a Dream/Plan Dies and It’s OK   Leave a comment

In 2014 I learned one big lesson (among plenty of small and medium-sized ones): adoption is expensive. In fact, out of our budget. So for all those who have heard me say we planned on “having one and adopting one”, there’s been a change in plans and I’ll have to suck it up for a second pregnancy (hopefully).

Back story: Way back when I was around age 10, I was reading my mom’s Ligourian magazines, which included lots of stories about couples trying to start families and the ensuing emotional struggles. I decided then that if I had trouble conceiving I would not feel like less of a woman, and that I wouldn’t get so obsessed with conceiving as to completely drain my finances and ruin my marriage. I also decided that I wanted to experience pregnancy and labor, God willing, but I also wanted to adopt a child. That idea has stuck around for 25 years, amazingly enough, and Mike and I had planned to go through one pregnancy and one adopted kid.

Fast forward to this past year, Conan’s second year of life. Our plan was to start looking into adoption and start the process sometime during the year. But we immediately hit a major roadblock: adoption is EXPENSIVE! A domestic adoption costs well over $10,000, what with all the fees, classes, and whatnot. I had not know that the adopting parents have to pay for the biological mother’s medical expenses, without insurance, and her maternity leave. (And if she changes her mind and takes the baby back, the adopting parents are back to square one with much lighter bank accounts.) In all my years of having this “plan” to adopt I had never even looked at the most basic information about adoption and didn’t know this in advance. So we could have adopted our first kid, and used almost all of our savings, but now we have no way to swing it.

There is fos-adopt (aka foster adoption), which is actually affordable. That is what is really pushed nowadays apparently. But, and I feel horrible saying this, I just don’t think that we could do it. And it’s not something I’m willing to gamble on.

So after 25 years of having an idea/plan/dream, it’s gone. As someone who is a planner, it has sometimes been difficult to adjust when situations change. But not in this case. I was feeling a little weird about following through on an idea first developed as a kid. The adoption process with it’s classes and waiting and counseling requirements is quite daunting. Most of all, though, is just the gut sense that it wasn’t meant to be, and satisfaction that I didn’t give up the dream on a whim but based on a confrontation with reality.

Posted January 25, 2015 by mayakey in parenting, pre-pregnancy

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A Plug for EWG, and the Stepwise Approach to Less Toxic Products   Leave a comment

This year’s summer eco-audit was exposure. For the audit I’ve focussed on personal care products, and this year also looked at cleaning products. Previously it has been a bit of a challenge to do this audit as it was hard to find information about safety of the various ingredients in the products I was using. And what resources I did find didn’t really help with the questions “how much should I be concerned about this?”, or “what’s in this product that doesn’t list ingredients?”. But thanks to Environmental Working Group, I was actually able to do a comprehensive audit of every personal care product that Conan and I use this year because if the product itself isn’t in their Skin Deep database, I could search by ingredients. (I only had one bottle from a gift set that didn’t have ingredients listed, and I ended up tossing it anyway because the rest of the set turned out to be unacceptable.) Since Skin Deep includes a 0 to 10 ranking for each product and ingredient, as well as an indication of how much data there was on which to base the ranking, it is a great tool for getting a sense of where to focus my concerns. The Guide to Healthy Cleaning isn’t as comprehensive, but I still found the rankings to be really helpful since I otherwise have no idea if some complicated chemical name is something inert or harmful.

Overall I found that my products are generally pretty well ranked (it helped that I just tossed all my conventional makeup when Conan became tall enough to reach into that drawer, and tossed a couple other things that I had laying around when I found out the ingredients). That made me realize that my “stepwise” approach to reducing exposure to potentially harmful compounds in personal care products works better than I had expected. When I first did this I was completely overwhelmed by the list of compounds that “they” say are “bad” and not to use. Most of those compounds are also things that I would never be able to keep in my mind between shopping trips and I’m not willing to keep a bunch of wallet cards. So I focussed on a couple things at a time. Turns out you reach a point where the products that don’t contain the easy-to-remember chemicals-to-avoid, also don’t contain many of the hard-to-remember chemicals! (It might also help that I’ve all but stopped shopping for personal care products at conventional grocery stores and drug stores.)

My personal path started back in college when I decided that I wanted to avoid mineral oil and petrolatum (aka petroleum jelly) as they are petroleum products not plant products. As time went on I started to avoid D&C and FD&C colors (not necessarily an exposure thing but based on the desire to avoid compounds derived from coal tar), BHT, parabens, and “fragrance” (which is an issue because it can include anything and often includes some very toxic compounds). Lots of “natural” brands do still use the term “fragrance” on their ingredient lists, but for some of those brands I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt since they do explicitly say that they don’t use any toxic compounds (like Aveda, Dr. Bronner’s, and Toms of Maine).

My next step? Aside from “fragrance” in a handful of my products, most of which are companies that I’ll take the gamble with, the only red-flag compound in my list was retinol (vitamin A). Since I need to go to the dermatologist soon anyway, I’ll talk with her about Vitamin A. Apparently, it’s a cancer hazard when exposed to sunlight, and can bioaccumulate to the point of being a developmental toxin. I sort of knew this already from a dietary standpoint: too much vitamin A is bad since it can build up in the body, but eat all the beta carotene that you want (it won’t build up but is easily converted into vitamin A). I’m guessing that the little amount in my lipstick and under-eye concealer isn’t really a concern but I’ll follow up anyway.

I will also add that this is why we need a Safe Chemicals Act! No one should have to worry about whether the personal care products they are using contain carcinogenic or toxic compounds, and we shouldn’t be the guinea pigs used to find out.

Keeping Cool Without Breaking the Bank (Or Not)   1 comment

It’s been a hot summer here in Sacramento this year. I don’t know if it has actually been hotter than normal, but it seems like there have been more no-Delta-breeze nights with subsequent day temps near or above 100 degrees. Keeping cool has been a priority.

A few years ago I posted about some of my strategies of keeping a house cool (here and here). The first strategy is to block the sun from shining in/on the windows and exterior walls. Curtains will block sun from coming in the house but the windows and walls still heat up. Shade trees, awnings, or extended eaves keep the sun off the windows/wall so that they don’t heat up. We’ve got awnings over all of our east and west facing windows, and tall rosebushes in front of the south facing windows. The shade trees on the south side of the house aren’t yet big enough to offer shade.

The second strategy is to take advantage of breezes. At night, the breeze coming in through open windows may be able to cool the house down sufficiently to delay or prevent turning on the A/C the next day. (This strategy works great in Sacramento…when there’s a Delta breeze.) When there’s no breeze or it’s hot as blazes outside, though, fans can serve in some situations to help you cool off.

There’s a third strategy that I use but haven’t written about before and that’s to not heat the house. Sounds obvious, right? But as my husband has pointed out, most people don’t really think about it. Is it summer and the forecast says it’ll be around 100 degrees? Then don’t run the dishwasher, stove, oven, or vacuum during the day. It’ll just heat up the house and make the A/C turn on earlier. Even TVs, computers, and any other electronic appliance will generate heat. The TV on in our house for long enough for my husband to get in a game of Battlefront can raise the temperature by a couple degrees. A computer? I’ve worked from home and watched the temperature tick up as I sat in front of the thermostat (in the office) working on my laptop. Even when the A/C turns on, unless the room with the heated appliance is next to the thermostat and therefore controls the thermostat, it will still be warmer and less comfortable than the rest of the house.

We’ve managed to have a couple days early this summer when it reached 100 degrees outside and our A/C didn’t turn on because we were out of the house part of the day, didn’t turn on the TV or computers until later in the day, and moved the toaster outside for breakfast. (There are many more days when we’ve added plenty of heat load to the house, but small victories, right?) I should also mention that in summer our thermostat is programmed to 83 during the day, and my husband usually turns the cooler on manually at around 79 or 80 degrees.

One great thing about the strategy of reducing heat load is that it’s double $ savings. You’re saving money by not using electricity to power the heat-generating device(s) and saving money by reducing energy spent cooling the house. However, as we learned this year, casual applications of these strategies aren’t enough to “tunnel through the cost barrier” to borrow a phrase from Amory Lovins. I was sorely disappointed early this summer when our A/C died and had to be replaced. For a while I forgot about all the monthly savings these strategies have netted us as I stewed about having to spring for an expensive new A/C. As much as I would have loved to be able to live without heating and cooling, we’re not there yet and the new system has won me over with its super-efficiency and quiet operation.

Posted August 17, 2014 by mayakey in conscious living, energy use, frugal living, home, simple living

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Why A New Perspective on Mother’s and Father’s Day   Leave a comment

Since becoming a mother 18 months ago, I’ve been through two Mother’s Days, and the experience has really made me think about what Mother’s and Father’s Days really mean to me. I am surrounded by people who consider them to be fake “Hallmark” holidays not worth celebrating, and who emphasize that you should love your mother/father all the time and not just one day a year (a sentiment which which I certainly do not disagree). Being told to my face this year that Mother’s Day is a fake holiday got me really defensive but I didn’t have the right the words to defend it. For my entire life until now what other people think about Mother’s/Father’s Day never mattered one bit, probably because the day wasn’t about me; but now everything has changed. It can’t be just about my mom any more, and it’s certainly not just about me. This year I realized that it’s also about celebrating the role of mothers and fathers in society and their importance to the human race.

It has always been very important to me to honor my parents on Mother’s/Father’s Day, most especially my mom (yup, I was one of those kids who responded “my mom” when asked who my hero was). I have to confess that it was an obligatory celebration on at least one year for my dad as I was emotionally struggling with that relationship, but I still felt the need to do something. Growing up this was the day to make sure my parents knew how grateful I was for everything they had done for my brother and I, and how much I valued them. I’m sure I could have said “thanks” and “I love you” much more often throughout the year. Mother’s/Father’s Day was an opportunity to try to express my love and thanks and that I always felt it even if I didn’t express it every day.

For all that it was always important for me to honor my parents (and to a degree, my grandparents), it may be interesting that I didn’t look forward to my first Mother’s Day. How much that was my own neurosis vs. influence of the attitudes around me, I’m still not sure. But the fact remains that when I was pregnant I was inordinately glad that we hadn’t told anyone (except our mothers, of course) that we were pregnant yet so that I didn’t have to endure people wishing me a happy Mother’s Day when I didn’t consider myself a mother yet. Then the following year, with a 5-month old baby at home, I was dreading church that Sunday and the fact that I would have to stand up for the blessing of the mothers and have people with me a happy Mother’s Day. And yet the Mother’s Day card that my mom sent me brought me to tears and is tucked away for me to save forever. Some introspection lead to me realize that I didn’t feel like I’d yet “earned” the honor of Mother’s Day, as my accomplishments at that point included “birthing him” and “keeping him alive for 5 months” (as significant as those might be) but no teaching, modeling, or guiding, and he’s not yet old enough to be consciously grateful for comfort, security, and love. Basically, my attitude up to that point required Conan to be old enough to tell me “Happy Mother’s Day” before it would feel right to me. And that is just not right.

This year the universe helped me out with more stories about men who won’t wish a happy Mother’s Day on their wives because “you’re not my mother”, which also just feels not right to me. But that made me realize that Mother’s Day can’t be just about honoring your own mother, as important as that may be. Following that train of thought led me to the importance of honoring the institution of motherhood. Everyone has a mother and a father, and in an ideal world everyone would grow up with a mother figure and a father figure. They are crucial to our development. It is important to recognize how important both mothers and fathers are on both an individual and societal basis. Yes, it’d be great to walk the walk as well (plenty of issues to cover from maternity/paternity leave to respect/support for both stay-at-home mothers and fathers and working parents), but you’ve got to start by talking the talk. We have special days set aside to honor vets, workers, and distinguished/accomplished individuals, so isn’t it appropriate to honor all mothers and fathers as well? I’m just sad that it took me becoming a mother to consciously realize this.

Although I still think my personal relationship with Mother’s Day will be tenuous until Conan is old enough to tell me “Happy Mother’s Day”, but that’s just my personality. And I really hope that he actually wants to celebrate both Mother’s and Father’s Day the way I did/do.

Posted June 1, 2014 by mayakey in musings, parenting

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My Water-Use Achilles Heel? Fruit Trees   Leave a comment

A couple weeks ago I finally finished the tallying of my summer 2013 water audit. Unlike my trash and energy audits where I have a good baseline from doing these audits since 2001, I have no baseline and no good methodology for a water audit. Until we moved into this house in 2010 I had never lived (as an adult) in a place where I got a water bill, and from 2010 through late 2012 those bills were bimonthly. It’s nearly impossible to use a bimonthly bill to get any sense of your water usage since you end up with summer watering mixed in with cooler months. In the past for my water audits I’ve timed how long showers last, how long it takes to wash my hands, etc. in an attempt to measure my water use. This time I decided to measure my outdoor water use since it’s all through hoses, and then just do the math for indoor use based on my bill. So I got little flow meters for both hoses, and started recording. Unfortunately I did not do a calibration check on either meter and one of them conked out before the end of the month. When I tallied up the amount I had supposedly used in my outdoor watering during the month, it was more than the total water usage in my bill.

Without having a way to calculate indoor vs. outdoor water usage, I’m still having to do this audit based on a lot of estimated numbers and various assumptions. The final tally gave my top 5 water uses as 1-watering trees, 2-showers, 3-toilets, 4-watering lawn, 5-watering potted plants. Assuming that I can use proportioning between the two water meters that were on the hoses, I was using SEVEN times more water on the trees than the lawn.

Now, I’m stingy when it comes to lawns. I don’t water during the winter (rainy season here in Sacramento), and I only water once per week in the summer. Plus we have a small front lawn and don’t water the little backyard patch-o-grass at all. But we have a couple trees in the front yard that are still young and getting established, and a quasi-orchard in the backyard (established nectarine, new apple, new pomegranate, established persimmon, established pear, established orange, established pumelo). But I was “deep watering” the trees by watering monthly and letting the hose water run slowly at the base of each tree for a while. And sometimes would forget to move the hose in a timely manner. They all started producing fruit only after I started watering them, so it is important to me to water them well, but since trees are on an annual cycle there’s no easy way to be sure that if I reduce water by x amount they will still fruit nicely.

I tried looking for suggestions of how much water to apply to fruit trees online, and didn’t get much help. Most of what I found I’m assuming is for commercial growers since it was talking about daily watering. When I did the math those suggestions weren’t far off from what I was applying monthly. I take that to mean I’m overwatering since you have to account for how much the soil can store so I may be applying as much water as the tree needs in a month but since I was doing it all at once much of that water would have been lost as excess.

For the end of last summer I switched to weekly watering for around 5-15 minutes depending on the size of the tree instead of monthly for 1 hr each. But this year with the drought and push to conserve water I’m wondering how to proceed appropriately with these fruit trees, and don’t yet have a plan that I can really feel comfortable with.

Posted May 18, 2014 by mayakey in gardening, water use

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