Archive for January 2011

Peace Depends On You Too   Leave a comment

This is what we venture to say to you our brethren, to you men of this world who in any way are in control of its destiny, to you, men of command, men of culture, men of business: you must give to your action a strong and wise orientation towards Peace. Peace has need of you. If you want to, you can succeed. Peace depends also and especially on you.

Pope Paul VI, message on the World Day for Peace, 1974

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Posted January 31, 2011 by mayakey in advocacy, quotes

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Stupid Cable Box   Leave a comment

I have hated the cable box since the moment that it first entered our house. Maybe even earlier, actually. We were one of those hold-out families that didn’t  jump to digital until forced. It was a joke to me watching cable channels slowly move from the basic cable package to the digital package, and watching the price differential slowly decrease. We waited until the price differential reached $0, at the time of the digital switchover. Unfortunately, the cable box is large, and there wasn’t a good place for it in our entertainment cabinet, so it is balanced on top of the TV. The day we hooked it up was a grumpy day for me because I hated the thought of being forced to add an extra cumbersome piece of electrical equipment that would draw ever so much more electricity for no other purpose than entertainment. To add insult to injury, it is harder to watch TV using the cable box because there is now a lag between channel changes. Yes, I know I could have chosen to stop watching TV completely, but neither my husband nor myself really wants to do that.

In our old house the power strip for the entertainment cabinet was not easily accessible, so we only powered down completely when leaving for vacation. In the new house we were able to arrange the furniture so that the power strip was reachable and we could turn off the power every night. I don’t know if everyone understands phantom power. Many pieces of electrical equipment are always drawing power. Sometimes it’s obvious, like a microwave with a clock that is always lit. It may not be drawing a lot of current, but unless you unplug the microwave, it is always using electricity. Often it is not obvious, like a TV, which appears to be completely “off” when it is turned off. However, in order to be able to use a remote control to power up, the thingy that receives the signal from the remote has to be on at all times. Phantom power load can add up in a typical house: water heater, thermostat, refrigerator, freezer, microwave (with clock), stove (with clock), alarm clocks, cell phone chargers, computer power adaptors, TVs, VCRs, cordless phones, cable boxes, modems, CO monitors, doorbells, etc. To figure out your phantom power load, you can read your electric meter at night right before you go to bed when all of your lights, etc. are off. (and during a time of year that A/C and heating are not required), and then read it in the morning before turning anything on. Or do it while you are at work, or anytime that everything is “off” for several hours. In the summer of 2005 I did a personal energy audit and determined that my phantom power usage ranged from 0.15 to 0.3 kWh/hr (this did include some lights and occasionally a fan, which might explain the range). That comes to 1300 to 2600 kWh/yr. At my current electric rate that is $125 to $250 per year.

I wanted to start off on the right foot in this new house with lower energy usage, hence the reason we made sure that the power strip for the entertainment center was accessible. In the fall, after getting ourselves settled, we started turning off all of the power strips every night, including the one for the entertainment center. My husband complained a little bit about having to wait a minute or so for the cable box to reset itself the first time it was turned on each day, but considering how much heat it gives off when “off” it was obvious that it sucks a lot of electricity even when not in use. After a while, though, we started noticing that it took several minutes for some channels to come back on line; and then some of the channels didn’t come back at all. Unfortunately a couple of our usual channels got lost as either blank error screens or super-pixelated sound and picture. This week I finally got around to calling Comcast to schedule a technician. We had already tried power cycling, checking the wiring, etc. and determined that a technician needed to come out. So yesterday the technicians spent about an hour to determine that the box was broken. They replaced the box and we have all of our channels again. Unfortunately, when I asked if turning off the cable box was the culprit, he thought that it might have been. Apparently it is not uncommon for them to see this problem after a power outage.

So we now have TWO power strips for the entertainment center. One for the cable box and modem that will always be on (I’m sure the modem would be fine with shutting power off, but we use internet constantly, and often while the TV is off), and one for the TV, VCR, etc. that will be off when we are not at home. It’s not perfect, and now I really hate the cable box, but it’s what we’ve got to do for now. I just wish they could build a hard switch on appliances so that you could choose to shut off the phantom load. I’d be perfectly fine turning the TV on at the TV, and then settling down with the remote.

Posted January 29, 2011 by mayakey in energy use, home

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Compost Trials: The Pit   4 comments

I don’t know how my dad did it. I’m about ready to throw in the towel on this whole pit composting thing. Or “soil incorporation” as the composting book that I got from the library called it. This is the form of composting that I am most familiar with, having grown up with it; although we knew it as “French composting”. During my entire childhood kitchen scraps and yard trimmings not slated for mulch or firewood would be dumped into “The Pit.” “The Pit” was basically a hole that snaked its way through our back yard eternally. The design was fairly elegant, actually, although the last decade has fuzzed my memory a bit. It was maybe 3 feet deep, with two flights. On the leading edge the top flight was always slightly more excavated than the bottom flight so that there was a step. The process went: dump organic waste into the back of the hole, dig out some of the leading edge to cover the waste, repeat. So the hole never got filled since the leading edge was always excavated in order to fill the back.

When we moved into our house this summer and I committed to composting all compostable material (defined as kitchen scraps, yard trimmings, and tissues), I defaulted to pit composting as a TEMPORARY method. Especially after discovering that 5-gallon buckets don’t make good composting bins. We didn’t have compost bins, and to be completely honest there are more important things that we need to spend our money on right now. Pit composting has the wonderful “free” feature. Unfortunately “free” means “labor-intensive”. Digging dirt is not easy, especially when the ground is baked in the summer and saturated in the winter. I don’t have the discipline that my dad had, so my process is more like: dig a 1 foot deep hole that is just over a shovel width wide and long enough for the amount of organic material to be composted, dump the bucket into the hole and hope that it is not more than 4-6 inches deep, cover it with the dirt I just excavated.

Since most of our back yard is concrete and I refuse to do this in the front lawn, the square of grass that we don’t have plans for yet in the backyard is perfect for the pit. In the summer the ground was really hard. I could not figure out why it was so hard to get the shovel through the first horizon since the grass was all dead. And once I was past the top few inches I could never get a shovel-full without having to bend down and pull out a large rock or chunk of concrete. Then fall came, the ground became moist and more easily dug, and I discovered that there is a plastic mesh about 3 inches below the surface. That’s what makes it so hard to get the shovel through! Someone please tell me that it is not normal to put plastic mesh under lawns. So I started peeling back a strip of “sod”, pulling out the mesh, digging my hole, and then filling it and replacing the “sod.” Then winter came with rains. And now the ground is saturated. I try to hold off on digging, but when our holding bucket and compost bowl are both full, there’s nothing for it but to dig mud. Mud is HEAVY! And I can’t find the plastic mesh in the mud to remove it, either. But at least I also can’t find any rocks.

So far I’ve made it through less than 10% of the grass patch, but I seriously doubt I’m going to make it too much further. It’s not all bad; in addition to the composting, there have been advantages. Namely removing buried rocks and concrete chunks, removing the plastic mesh, finding irrigation pipes and other pipes, and hopefully adding some health into what appears to my inexperienced eyes to be poor unhealthy soil. I am officially declaring “no more digging mud” and just piling the scraps when it is raining (or when I just don’t have time to dig, or when my back hurts). Since I have no intention to water the grass in the summer (and will therefore have baked soil again), the only times of year when it is even practical to compost this way are spring and fall. It’ll be a while before we actually have landscaping plans for the back yard, and I think the grass patch will stay as a grass patch, so there’s no aesthetic conflict with the pit yet. Whenever that aesthetic conflict does occur, though, it will be the final death-knell of the pit.

Posted January 25, 2011 by mayakey in gardening

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Desperately Designing Curtains   Leave a comment

It’s funny how sometimes you can know something and forget it at the same time. I know that I do not sleep well at night when it is not completely dark. However, I seemed to forget that when I prioritized our wish list in our new house, and ranked curtains for the master bedroom as “luxury” items. It took an outside view to point out the “duh” considering that we have a street light that streams into our master bedroom window making it so bright that I could probably read at the window if I tried. At my doctor’s office last week our discussion focussed mostly on what I could do for the various contributing factors to my current minor depression so that my doctor could determine if she needs to adjust my supplements. She asked me to list some things that I could do to treat/take care of myself, and I mentioned the curtain project that sort of started at Christmas. Then I mentioned the street light. Installing curtains is now assigned as my homework to be done in 1 month. After all, not sleeping well night after night for over 5 months could certainly contribute to depression!

I doubt that I am the only person who unintentionally discounts things like the effect of the street light on my well being. There are lots of things that we *know* will help us to feel/be better/healthier, like exercising and not overindulging in fat/sugar/salt, but that we deliberately do anyway. This is a whole other class of things that aren’t necessarily commonly known, and that are great indications of how we tend to not pay close attention to our bodies and minds. Things like sleeping in true dark, drinking lots of water, or even not sitting with crossed legs. The negatives effects are subtle, and unless you have a commitment to listen to and care for yourself, they go unnoticed or ignored. Sometimes I wish there was such a thing as a “subtly unhealthy” audit to help bring them to the fore.

Now that I’ve had my “duh” moment, I am scrambling to get curtains. I spent a week visualizing curtains and shades and discussing my ideas with my husband to figure out what would work best. I did some online browsing for pre-made blackout curtains, but most of them are made of PVC, and of course none of them use organic fabrics. So I’m going to follow a suggestion that I saw somewhere a while ago, and do 2 or 3 layers of a fabric like velvet. Now I need to find fabrics. The local fabric store does not sell organic fabrics, so I’ve ordered swatches from some online organic fabric vendors. I also need to find hardware to make sure that we can actually hang the double tab-top curtains that I have in my mind.

Posted January 24, 2011 by mayakey in conscious living, health, home, self-care, shopping

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The Rediscovery of The Spray Feature   Leave a comment

As I’ve now mentioned here a couple of times, we just had to replace our kitchen faucet in order to fix a leak in the supply line. It was one of the few easy purchases in life because (1) no real research was required and (2) the plumber supplied the new faucet. I take that back about the research since I’m doing it retroactively as I write this post. Before the purchase I assumed that there are no faucets made in the US, and that the lead content in the faucets wouldn’t vary much. We perused the aisles at Home Depot and Lowe’s to get a feel for the cost of replacing our faucet with something similar, and that was the extent of my research. I wanted to talk to the plumber about the choices for water efficiency. It turns out it is a very good thing that we got the faucet through the plumber, because otherwise we probably would have made what I would later consider “a bad decision.”

The first thing that came up was that some manufacturers responded to California’s reduction of allowed lead in faucets/piping/etc from 8% to 0.25% by switching from metal to plastic faucets. If we had bought the faucet on our own we probably would have bought a plastic faucet without even realizing it, since those would be the slightly cheaper ones. But there is a much higher risk of contaminants leaching out of plastic compared to metal, just based on the molecular structures. And metal is recyclable in perpetuity, whereas plastic is usually not recyclable and can usually only be recycled once if at all. It is important to consider the entire lifecycle of a product, and that includes disposal.

After the faucet had been installed I rediscovered the spray feature, which we would not have gotten if we had bought the faucet ourselves. It has been so many years since I had a kitchen faucet with the spray/stream selection that I had completely forgotten it. When we perused the hardware store aisle we looked at the buttons on the sprayers for some of the faucets and decided that we just wanted something simple: no buttons that will break. The faucet that the plumber supplied had the buttons, though he insisted that they won’t break. After he left I played around with the new faucet and I tried the buttons. It was a head-slapping moment. One is the pause button, and the other is the spray/stream toggle. We can now save water in the kitchen! Yay!

Using the spray feature is great for washing-type tasks because it reduces the water use. By the rules of physics, forcing the water through the smaller spray holes means higher velocity of water. So for the same velocity of water coming out of the faucet, less total flow (volume) is required for spray vs. stream. Since high water velocity is what you need when washing/rinsing things, using spray requires less total water flow than stream. With the toggle switch it is easy to switch to stream for tasks that require water volume, like filling a glass or a pot.

Now we just have to get used to not having to pull the handle out quite as far.

Posted January 20, 2011 by mayakey in conscious living, home, water use

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Personal Mantras   Leave a comment

Everyone should have a personal mantra or two. Or more if that’s your style. This week’s Mark and Angel Hack Life post is a mantra for each week of the year. I don’t think I could handle one for each week, but I have found that having a few mantras embedded in my being serves as a very good touchpoint and certainly helps keep me going.

My long-term mantras include:

  • Nothing bad every happens. It may hurt like hell, but that doesn’t make it bad.
  • I am a competent person, and I can do it. (whatever it is)
  • Everything in moderation, even moderation.

The list of my short term mantras is longer, and I can’t remember every mantra I’ve ever used, so I’m not going to try. Sometimes you just need a mantra to repeat for a few days, weeks, or months, and then you are ready to move on.

According to the dictionary, “mantra” comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “instrument of thought”. In practical terms a mantra is a word or phrase that is repeated in order to get some benefit like centering, motivation, or comfort. Mantras, and their use, are also very personal.

In my experience, the definition of mantra could be stretched a bit to include an emotional repetition as well, even if it doesn’t have the same phrase attached. An example in my life would be from back in my teen/early twenty years when (like most teens) I used to think I was really ugly. In order to overcome that I changed my mentality to be positive instead of critical when I saw myself in the mirror, and in short order I was able to recognize my beauty. There wasn’t really a set phrase, but rather an emotional action. The constant repetition forced to me change the way I was thinking overall and had a profound long-term impact.

Posted January 17, 2011 by mayakey in centering, psychology, spiritual practices

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Constant Hot Water Is a Good Luxury   Leave a comment

Last week we got a new water heater, and all-in-all that should be a very good thing for our comfort, our wallet, and our carbon footprint.

When we moved into this house, we found that we had to keep resetting the water heater (electric) every day or two, because it would short out and we’d stop getting hot water. Luckily the home inspector had figured out the problem and showed me the (temporary) solution. We figured that we would give it a couple of months just in case constant use would make the problem go away after it had sat unused for 2 years. That was not the case. Then at the beginning of winter I started doing a survey of energy vampires around the house and discovered that the water heater was probably being a ridiculous energy hog. I tested the temperature of the water at the kitchen sink and found that it was over 150 degrees F! That confirmed the palpable fear of scalding that I had felt nearly every time I used the hot water in that sink. So I started adjusting the temperature setting down and checking it every couple of days. There was no change. I got down to the “vacation” setting and still measured the temperature at the sink as 150 degrees. At least that explained why the thing kept shorting out: it was essentially a fully open circuit. We figured that soon it would go kaput and we’d replace it. Until the plumber pointed it out, the thought that it was a fire hazard hadn’t occurred to us.

When we finally got a plumber out to the house for the kitchen faucet problem, he was also able to do the water heater replacement. I had done no research on water heaters, though, and all of a sudden I had to decide on replacing the water heater in a couple of hours time. I wanted tankless, he said that wasn’t possible. I said OK, then I panicked and called him back asking for tankless. He checked with the supplier at the warehouse and told me that wasn’t possible, they don’t make electric tankless water heaters. I didn’t believe him so I looked online. Well apparently he was correct. There are plenty of options for point-of-use electric tankless water heaters, but not for whole-house electric water heaters. When I looked further on webpages advertising whole-house electric tankless water heaters, all I found were point-of-use electric tankless water heaters. As well as I can piece together, whole-house electric tankless water heaters were inefficient and extremely expensive so manufacturers stopped making them. Since our entire neighborhood is electric-only houses, we’re stuck with a tank water heater. I’m very disappointed.

On the bright side, though, we should save soooo much energy with this new water heater:

  1. It’s a working water heater, not a fully open electric circuit, so it will only draw as much electricity as it actually needs.
  2. It’s a working water heater with temperature controls. Instead of using all that extra energy to heat the water to 150 degrees, we’ll be heating the water to only 120 degrees (as measured at the kitchen sink/dishwasher; slightly higher at the water heater to account for temperature loss in the piping).
  3. It’s sized to code. For whatever reason, previous homeowners decided to install a 75 gallon water heater. I knew it looked large, but I didn’t realize just how large. Code dictates 50 gallons for our size house. An oversized water heater just means extra energy needed to heat/keep heated that much more water. The codes take into account how much hot water will typically be used by house size, and honestly if you need more hot water than that it’s probably past time to consider using less hot water.

There’s a reason for the 120 degree temperature setting. That’s the temperature at which water scalds skin, which is generally considered something to be avoided. So for health and safety, there is no reason to risk injury at the faucet by having the water heater set higher than that. If you have a dishwasher, though, you need really hot water, so setting the temperature to 120 degrees is a good compromise. If you don’t have a dishwasher you could probably turn your water heater down even lower to save money/energy. Many water heaters have a temperature setting dial that gives numerical values, but personally I like to do a double check at the point of use. To check the water temperature, turn on the hot water in the kitchen sink or the sink nearest to the water heater (depending on whether you have a dishwasher or are just checking for health/comfort) and let it run for a few minutes. You want to get the pipes up to the same temperature as the water to minimize energy loss through the pipe walls during transport and check the maximum water temperature at the point of use. Keep in mind that the effective hot water temperature will be lower at more distant points-of-use because of heat loss through the pipes. Eventually the temperature would probably reach the same maximum, but it might take longer than the duration of water use.

Posted January 16, 2011 by mayakey in energy use, home

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