Archive for the ‘home’ Category

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?

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

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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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2012 Solid Waste Audit Results   1 comment

My project this summer (other than enjoying pregnancy and getting ready for baby) was to do a solid waste audit. Yes, that means that we saved all of our trash for a month, and then I sorted and weighed it. Like the energy audit we did last summer, this audit only measures waste generated in our household and not solid waste generated upstream, downstream, or outside of our control. By upstream waste I mean the solid waste generated in the creation of the products we use. By downstream waste I mean particulate or solid matter in wastewater. I’m not sure how much of the soap that goes down the drain flows through the wastewater treatment plant, gets consumed in the wastewater treatment plant, or gets disposed in the sludge. Solid waste outside of our control would be stuff like the asphalt that was scraped off our street before repaving. This audit also doesn’t take into account stuff that goes into the give-away pile, or stockpiles (plastic bags to be used for garbage, receipts tossed at the end of the year, saved magazines, etc.).

I was hopeful that this year would show improvement over 2006, when I last did a trash audit. I’ve started recording on the calendar from our trash company what weeks we take our bins to the curb, and we’re pretty regular. Almost exactly monthly we take out the recycling and the trash, and that schedule is determined by when the recycling bin is full usually. It’s pretty rare for the trash bin to be more than half full. Based on weight we recycle almost 90% of our trash (that’s skewed a bit by the density of the paper and glass jars in the recycling). Last year I think we only took out the green waste once, but this year it’s been quarterly as I rip out part of the lawn and throw that in the green waste instead of compost so that I’m not spreading my weed seeds.

There were a few major reductions in weight: newspaper, organics, and unrecycleable plastic. Newspaper is out of our control as that just means the Bee is smaller than it was 6 years ago. However, I’m very happy to know that our compost pile is diverting approximately 8 pounds of waste per month. Unrecycleable plastic also makes me feel good because I think that is an indication that the attention we pay to reducing packaging is paying off. We also had a couple significant increases in weight: glass and mixed paper. Glass: well, we are eating more jarred pickles now. We’ve got a good stockpile of jars in the pantry for food storage but we go through more pickle jars than there’s need/space to store them. And the mixed paper? Oops. When we moved we completely forgot to sign onto the “do not mail” registry at our current address. We’ll be doing that now.

Overall, though, I’m happy, we had a 30% reduction in solid waste weight from 2006. That puts us only 15% more than my 2001 audit results, which was just my one-person household. Wonder where we’ll stand in 2016 with kids in the family.

Posted October 10, 2012 by mayakey in conscious living, home, resource use

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Furnishing a Nursery, My Way   1 comment

Preparations for Baby’s birth are slooooowly happening. I hope that I don’t regret the balance that I have right now between experiencing the pregnancy now and preparing for the baby. Of course one of the big tasks is getting the nursery ready. If you walk in our house, though, I have to confess that it doesn’t look like we’ve gotten anywhere on that task. But looks can be deceiving. I hope.

Decor is a third of the way done: The room was painted a year and a half ago, with no-VOC paint for the top half and very low-VOC high gloss cabinet paint on the bottom half (hopefully easy to clean). The carpet isn’t installed but I’m working with the contractor and trying with some success to not get too frustrated at the slow pace (we’re installing the same carpet as in the other two bedrooms). The curtain rod is sitting on the floor (hopefully to be installed this weekend), and I’ll order the same organic black sateen as in our room to make the back curtain. The decorative front curtain can wait; we might as well see what the kid’s personality is first. The ceiling light installation will have to wait until the highs are no longer triple digits so we can hire someone to go into the crawlspace (yes, even always-cold me is ready for temps to drop from the 90’s and 100’s). We’ll get some black construction paper and make a fun black shape mobile, eventually to be replaced by a fun colorful one in a couple months. I plan on taking the “full length” mirror that I bought in grad school, flipping it sideways and installing it somewhere on the lower wall. And I have an adorable old calendar that I’ve been keeping so I could mount the pictures and put them on the walls to make it fun for me while we wait for kid personality to rise.

Furniture is two thirds of the way done. Rocking chair? Check, I have the one my parent’s bought when we lived in Costa Rica. Comfy chair? Check, we have the love seat from the old sofa set that has a few more years in it. Dresser? Sort-of-check. We’re not going to get a dresser right away. I have a hanging sweater rack that seems like it would be really convenient for storing the “clothing that fits right now”. And we’re going to move our old TV cabinet into the nursery to provide additional storage. Changing table? Sort-of-check. We have an office table that we were using as our dining room table when we moved into this house. I’m going to cover it with organic cotton batting (which I have), and a fabric cover (which I need to order still). It’s big enough to be able to fit a changing pad and have room to lay out the diapers and stuff.

The only big-ticket items that we don’t yet have are the crib and bassinet. The crib has been ordered but there’s a three-month lead time. We’re getting a solid maple wood crib, handmade in Oregon, with a low-VOC finish. In a week or two the mattress should be here: an organic cotton and wool mattress. The wool puddle pad and fitted sheets (Fair Trade organic cotton with natural dyes and no formaldehyde or other problem finishes) have already arrived.

The bassinet has been a sticking point. I have found some absolutely adorable Amish-made wooden ones, but they cost the same as a full-size crib. I’m really struggling with spending almost a thousand dollars on something that’ll only be used for a few months. I have looked into the Arms Reach bedside sleeper, and I’m thinking that we might go that route if I can see one in the bedside sleeper configuration first. It is plastic, but according to their FAQ it is nylon and polyester, not vinyl. I just need to confirm that I can get an organic and untreated mattress for it. It’s a trade off. I’d rather not be buying something plastic and probably-not-low-VOC paint, but it doesn’t really look like there’s a really practical alternative. And our bed is a conventional mattress anyway, which I’ve been sleeping on throughout the pregnancy, so I think this is a choice I can live with as one that doesn’t make a situation worse but only maintains the status quo.

Posted October 3, 2012 by mayakey in fair trade, home, organic, pregnancy, shopping, simple living

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Drinking Water Quality Confirmation   1 comment

One of the tasks recommended in The Complete Organic Pregnancy to do before getting pregnant is to have your water tested. For city dwellers served by a community water system the primary concern, unless you have taste and odor problems, is lead. I, however, had made the decision that I didn’t think it was worthwhile. I read the annual Consumer Confidence Reports produced by my water agency, and so I know that there aren’t any major concerns with the tap water that I receive relative to drinking water regulations. The concern for lead in water is due to leaching from pipes. Since we live in a house that was built in 1979, I’m not worried about old lead pipes anywhere in my tap water distribution system. Hence, feeling that there just wasn’t enough reason to pay for a tap water test. Then I actually got pregnant, and had a very strong fear about being wrong in my assumption. Considering how much unfiltered tap water I drink (that’s all I drink at home), it could add up to a not-insignificant exposure of my unborn baby to lead. So we had our water tested.

I feel lucky that I’m an environmental engineer and so to some degree this is what I do for a living, because I found that there’s just no good detailed information available online for typical laypeople. There’s a circular string of links talking about testing your tap water for lead without ever describing HOW to do so. Everybody just links to the EPA drinking water pages, which could certainly be more complete. The lab where we got our bottles did provide a one sheet printout describing what to do, and confirming that the sampling method I planned to use was correct. I’m not even sure how an average homeowner would find a lab; I used a local lab that I have used for work, and that is certified under the state laboratory certification program. For lead we wanted a first flush sample: the water that first comes out of the pipes after sitting for several hours. So first thing in the morning I turned on the kitchen cold water tap, let the water run for a few seconds and then filled my bottles. I put them in a box with ice and delivered them to the lab on the way to work. We sampled the kitchen tap because we really don’t ingest much water from the bathroom taps, and we only sampled cold water because we only use cold water for drinking and cooking (to avoid increased risk of contamination in hot water from pipe leaching or crud in the water heater). First flush samples are a worst case scenario for lead and copper because there is more time for leaching from the pipes. To be thorough we could have tested all three sinks, collected samples after the water had been running for a while in addition to first flush, and collected both cold and hot water; but that would have really been overkill.

And the results are (drumroll, please): good! Lead was not detected at the laboratory reporting limit (the lowest level at which the instruments can reliably detect and measure the concentration). Copper was detected at 88 parts per billion, relative to the EPA’s level for no adverse health effects of 1,300 parts per billion.

I also had our water tested for disinfection by-products, compounds like chloroform and dichloroacetic acid that are created in the process of drinking water disinfection (usually by chlorine), for my own curiosity. Again, our results were good with no compounds detected above the laboratory reporting limits. I did not test for chlorine itself because I know that there is a residual concentration in tap water. Water agencies are required to maintain a chlorine residual in order to ensure that the water stays disinfected all the way to the tap. I already have a chlorine-removing filter on our showerhead so that we’re not breathing massive amounts of chlorine while showering, and I’m not so concerned about chlorine right now that I want to deal with the hassle of filtering our water. Maybe some day I’ll collect a couple samples to confirm that the chlorine filter in the shower really works, but today I choose to stick my head in the sand at the possibility of exaggerated marketing.

Posted August 30, 2012 by mayakey in environment, home, pregnancy, water use

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Two Years After Installing Flooring   1 comment

Two years ago we installed new flooring before moving into our house. I blogged about our three choices, carpet, Marmoleum, and cork back then. At the time we left one room undone, the nursery. It was convenient, as it gave us an extra place to pile stuff while the flooring was being installed in the rest of the house so that we could overlapping the cleaning/prepping phase and the moving phase. It was also convenient to put off paying for the flooring and installation in a room that wouldn’t be used for a while. Fast forward to today, when we need the nursery carpeted. This got me thinking that this would be a good time to write about our experience with our flooring choices.

I’ll actually start with the one choice that we didn’t make: tile. About a third of the house (kitchen/dining room/entry, and both bathrooms) was already tiled, and we didn’t left it in place. The tile in the bathrooms is just fine; except that the grout wasn’t sealed. It’s easy to care for, and would really be perfect, except that the grout isn’t sealed so it doesn’t get clean. The rest of the tile was really nice, and really poorly installed. It is the kind of tile that is meant to be installed edge to edge without grout spacing between; instead there’s variable spacing between tiles and they aren’t flat.  It makes cleaning difficult since the edges scrape stuff off the mop or broom and into the crevasse between tiles. Plus, the tile wasn’t sealed. Break a bottle of margarita mix on the floor? The spill will be visible forever, or at least until we get around to refinishing and sealing the tile. But for all the problems cleaning it and the weird feeling of the edges underfoot, in summer the cool tile is really nice in a place like Sacramento. Our first winter here I was afraid that our heating bill was going to be crazy since a third of the house is tile, but the tile didn’t seem to act as a heat sink. Maybe when we eventually seal the tile and have the cracks filled in I’ll really like it.

Our favorite of the flooring choices we made is definitely the carpet. It is an undyed wool carpet with cotton/hemp, jute, and rubber backing. Since there are no adhesives or synthetic materials, there’s no offgassing to create “new carpet” smell or cause headaches. Why do we love it? Well for starters it is sooooo soft! There’s a good thick wool carpet pad underneath, so it feels so comforting underfoot. It also feel soft against skin, not scratchy. The color is a beautiful mottled dark brown (wool from a black sheep) that does a good job of hiding any debris between vacuuming. The only drawback is in the care. The beater brush of the vacuum shouldn’t be used on wool carpet. Something about the fibers being shorter than synthetic fibers. We’re not really consistent about using/not using the beater brush, partly because vacuum cleaners just don’t seem to work very well without it. As a result I can tell the difference in the surface where there’s more traffic and vacuuming relative to areas that are rarely vacuumed. But overall, I give wool carpeting two thumbs up. It’s awesome!

We also like the Marmoleum that was installed in the outer part of the master bathroom. Marmoleum is a brand of true linoleum (made from linseed oil instead of the modern vinyl stuff). It’s easy to clean and hides dirt well. The pattern may actually be too good at hiding things, since water drops visually disappear immediately. Unfortunately it’s a little slippery when wet, or when the foot stepping on it is wet. But otherwise, again, I give true linoleum two thumbs up!

Now we come to our problem child: the cork. We installed a floating cork floor in the living room, hallway, and office. It is has a layer of cork under a paperboard core, with a layer of cork on top and then a decorative cork veneer on top. There are what I see as “design flaws” that are compounded by less-than-ideal conditions. The veneer is really really really thin, and the edges crumble, so a portion of every box cannot be used. The veneer is also easily damaged, say, by the feet of a sofa, leaving black scars in the floor. The edges of the tiles are unfinished, and have to be perfectly snug against the adjacent tile. Since I helped install it I know that we made sure that there were absolutely no gaps between tiles, but a year down the line and there are very small but visible gaps between the edges. Unfortunately if water gets between the tiles the paperboard can expand and cause the boards to deform. That’s probably also why the instructions say to put down a moisture barrier when installing on slab-on-grade concrete. Neither of the contractors that we got quotes from included moisture barrier in the quotes, and when I asked our contractor I was told that he’d never done it before and never had a problem. Well, we have had major problems with buckling and cupping of the individual tiles. Unfortunately, I mopped the floor for the first month or so, so I can’t pin the blame solely on the installer. Before choosing this flooring we didn’t do our full due diligence and read the care instructions, which say no wet mopping or damp mopping. After almost two years of dry mopping only, I so desperately want to damp mop to get rid of the buildup and smudges. We’re working with the contractor finally, after way too long procrastinating, to figure out what can be done. This brand of cork was expensive, so replacing it is not an option. Final verdict: pretty and feels good underfoot, but be careful about how it is installed and how to maintain. I’d recommend something with beveled edges, not straight edges. Glued-down might be a better choice than floating planks, and be careful about veneers. If you don’t keep your house at a constant temperature, don’t even bother with cork. This is definitely the one flooring choice that has been a disappointment (and a learning experience).

Posted July 25, 2012 by mayakey in home

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Clothesline, Finally   Leave a comment

This past weekend, with the impetus of spring cleaning, we finally finished our clothesline. It’s been on the wish list since we moved in, but we just didn’t get around to it, until this year. We started putting in the posts in winter, after weeks of dry sunny weather, and then it started raining. So this weekend we finally got up the crossbars and lines so that we could dry the comforter, mattress protector, and pillows way way faster than a dryer can do.

Disclaimer: This was another one of our cheap, winging-it DIY projects; we weren’t designing/building something to last 20 years or more. We started with a couple 4×4 posts that came from the makeshift awning the previous owners had on the side of the house. There was some discussion over where to put the line, taking into account sun exposure, wind direction, clothing flappage allowance (no lines located inches from the fence), fruit-tree access, prevention of knocked foreheads, and the as-yet-unplanned layout of play and gardening space when we get around to ripping out concrete. Then we  hand augured a couple holes through the hard clay (good thing Mike has good upper body strength or it might have taken me all day!). We dug down roughly 2-feet, giving us about 6-feet aboveground, and then filled the holes with concrete around the posts. As I mentioned before, then it started raining so the concrete cured for at least 4 months before we moved on to step 2.

For our crossbars we used a 2×4 from the old awning, cut into roughly 3-foot lengths. It’s an arbitrary length, picked because we had one piece of wood that was 70-inches long, and everything else was much longer. With eyebolts spaced at just under 1-foot we have 4 lines plenty long enough for a couple loads of laundry, with space to move between them while hanging/removing clothes. We’re both most familiar with plastic coated metal lines, but at the hardware store all we found was nylon clothesline so we’re giving it a try. I’m assuming we’ll have to tighten the lines at least a couple times in the first month as it stretches.

The clothesline withstood the first weekend of laundry, and it was so nice to hang up the comforter and come back a couple hours later to find it dry rather than repeatedly have to reposition it in the dryer. We’ll see how this goes in the future, and how long the lines last. I did a search and found a Mother Earth News article that recommends using 8×8’s buried to 4 or 5-feet with knee braces.

Posted May 15, 2012 by mayakey in energy use, frugal living, home, simple living

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