April 18, 2014

Building Earth: Our embarrassing hot water issue

We have a secret. A shameful, wasteful secret.

We live on the fourth floor of an old apartment building. The water heaters that provide our hot water are in the basement. In the winter it can take as long as 5 minutes of running the water in the bathtub to finally get hot water. The issue here is that old metal water pipes take a long time to heat up, so instead of the heat from the water coming out of the tank coming right up to my shower, it is “spent” heating up the pipes. And four stories worth of pipe is a lot to heat up.

Some quick googling tells me that a regular tub faucet turned on high lets out about 7 gallons of water per minute. Which means during the past 3 winters that we have lived in our old apartment building Husby and I have let 35 gallons of water run down the drain each time we wanted a hot shower. As a comparison, that is more water than I used in the average week while I was living in Tanzania. Ugh, I feel awful just thinking about it.

There are a couple things we do to try to lessen this waste. We stack our showers as often as possible, meaning that if one of us hops in the shower right after the other gets out so the pipes only have to heat up once. Or we’ll take our showers shortly after doing the dishes.  We don’t need hot water to do the dishes, so we can use the water that hasn’t heated up yet for that, and heat up the pipes at the same time in preparation for a shower.

In the summer it’s not quite so bad. The pipes aren’t as cold to begin with, so that don’t take as long to heat up. And we’re far more likely to jump into a cold shower in the summer as well.

If we had access to the pipes in our building, the other thing we could do to help lessen that amount of water would be to insulate our pipes, keeping them from getting so cold in the first place that it took so much hot water to heat them up again.

For now, we look forward to the warmer weather and do our best to reduce the amount of wasted water in pursuit of a hot shower.

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April 15, 2014

moving right along

Now that the loose ends have been tied up, I’m excited to say the macnamania family is moving.  Husby got an excellent resident position match with the University of Wisconsin Madison. And where the match decrees, so shall we go.

So Husby, Cheeks McGee, and I will spend the next month and a half enjoying our time as Detroit residents. And then we head west, with our eyes set on a more rural life in the near future as Husby learns to be a black bag doc.

Cheers to the future!

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April 11, 2014

Building Earth: Can I compost that?

Spring is in the air. The hyacinth are blooming. And you’re probably anxious to give your compost pile a turn. Or at least I am.

Have I mentioned before how much I love compost? Because I love it so much. Because it just does it. Compost just happens. And there is nothing we can do about it. Even when we try our best by putting our waste food into a tied up plastic bag and then sending that bag to be buried in a landfill, it’s still going to turn into compost – just compost that is now in a plastic bag and mixed in with all our other trash that doesn’t break down. And, may I ask, what good is it doing there?*

Have I inspired in you a love for compost yet? Are you itching to start your own pile yet? Or maybe you want to maximize the pile you’ve already started building?

There are plenty of guides on what you can or cannot put into a compost pile out there. I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Most of them are playing it safe and give you a very specific method of making your pile. This isn’t a bad thing. They will help you to build a pile and help you keep from attracting animals and upsetting your neighbors – both good things when it comes to the success of your compost. But compost just happens. Organic materials break down into humus naturally. When we build a compost pile we merely are helping it along.

So what can you put in your pile? Pretty much anything organic. What should you put in your compost pile? Well, depending on where you live and the size of your compost pile, maybe you should be a little more discerning.

Can I compost that? Residential area/small pile/community garden edition

In a residential area you probably don’t want to attract animals to your pile, because they will make a mess of it. You also probably want to keep the smells down from your pile because you’re a good neighbor. Small piles (less than 1 cubic yard) don’t really get hot enough to break some materials down quickly to prevent them from smelling, and smelly compost piles attract animals.

fresh kitchen scraps (fruits, veggies, egg shells)? yes! – chop it up and it will break down faster

produce that has gone bad? yes! it’s already started the process

lawn and garden clippings? yes! – cut it up small and it will break down faster

weeds? yes! if they haven’t gone to seed yet (otherwise your compost will end up full of weed seeds)

paper and cardboard? yes! if it isn’t dyed – tear it up and it will break down faster

cooked fruits/veggies/grains? not if they are cooked in oil, the oil will attract animals and smell

animal products (meat, bones and dairy)? not unless your ok attracting raccoons, crows, cats, dogs, etc

compostable “plastics” like those iced coffee cups? no! your pile is not big enough to properly break these down

Can I compost that? Rural area/large pile edition

If you are able to build a pile that is consistently 1 cubic meter in volume or larger, it probably has enough mass that it will get quite hot in the middle. This enables the pile to break down more complex materials quickly, preventing smelly, animal attracting results.  If you’re in a rural area, with greater distance between you and your neighbors, and plenty of wildlife around anyway, you may not care so much about the odor of your pile. Just keep it a bit further away from your house and garden.

fresh kitchen scraps (fruits, veggies, egg shells)? yes! – chop it up and it will break down faster

produce that has gone bad? yes! it’s already started the process

lawn and garden clippings? yes! – cut it up small and it will break down faster

weeds? yes! if they haven’t gone to seed yet (otherwise your compost will end up full of weed seeds)

If you have a big, hot pile it can handle weeds that have gone to seed. The heat will kill the seeds.

paper and cardboard? yes! if it isn’t dyed – tear it up and it will break down faster

cooked fruits/veggies/grains? yes! your big pile will take care of the smell

animal products (meat, bones and dairy)? yes! but don’t put chicken or fish bones into the pile unless they are ground up. These bones can shatter and be very dangerous if eaten by loved pets or wildlife

compostable “plastics” like those iced coffee cups? no! your pile is not big enough to properly break these down

Wait! Compostable plastics shouldn’t go in either of the types of compost piles mentioned above? It’s true, unless the cups are going into huge scale compost piles – like the kind that are built from city-wide compost projects, the pile does not get big/hot enough to break down this material and actually compost it. Otherwise the cup will break apart, but the flakes of plastic will remain intact in the humus.

*Actually, all that food/organic matter that gets thrown into our landfills is finally being put to use in some places. As the matter breaks down it releases methane, and some landfills are starting to harvest that methane to use for energy. Like the bio-gas I wrote about previously in Michigan’s Green Currents program.

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April 8, 2014

Building Earth: Recycle

recycle here detroit


I’ll admit it, we’re probably a little bit more nutty about recycling than most. Detroit doesn’t have city recycling, so we have to bring it in to a center ourselves. And at our particular center, when we drop off our goods, we have to sort them into the appropriate bins. The first few times we brought our recycling in, we had put all our recyclables into the same bag and then had to sort the bags at the center. This meant we were running all over the place when we would suddenly find a aluminum can in the midst of all our 1s and 2s plastic.

So we decided to switch our method and sort at home as we set aside our recyclables.  This doesn’t really take up any more of our time, but it does take up a good deal more space to keep a separate bag for each material. In fact we have a whole wall of our small apartment devoted to our recyclable bags. Also, Michigan has deposits on beer and pop containers (both bottles and cans) so we keep those separate from our general recyclables, because they will get returned to a different location to collect the deposit money.

Recently my mom came to visit.  Between the regular trash, the compost, all the different bags for the recycling, and the deposit recyclables, I think she had our system all figured out by the time she left, 2 weeks later.

All this to say, we’re a bit jealous of cities that have single source recycling. But you make time (and space) for what is important to you, and keeping our waste out of landfills (or in the case of Detroit, the incinerator) is important to us.

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April 4, 2014

Building Earth: Reuse


The great thing about working to reuse things is that it also helps contribute to our ability to reduce. Reuse helps keep goods out of landfills for longer, and depending on what you are reusing, helps to reduce the number of less favorable by-products of manufacturing.

Husby and I are always pleased when we can get at least a 2nd use out of something.  Some quick examples of things we reuse regularly

• Cloth diapers for our newest family member

• Lots of hand-me-down baby clothes, blankets and toys. We requested for our baby shower that gifts be 2nd hand and got some of the sweetest, well pre-loved gifts to share with Cheeks McGee

• We bring our styrofoam style egg cartons back to the farmers we buy our eggs from. (Cardboard style egg cartons get torn up and added to the compost)

• I love to can produce, so each year I am able to reuse the jars and screw-tops for our pantry items

I mentioned in my post on reducing that we use reusable grocery bags and bring our own containers for bulk items.  I know this is an action that is always included on lists of how to “go green” and yet so many times I’ve heard friends and family mention that they just never remember to bring their reusable bags along with them to the store.  Honestly, I don’t always remember either, but I’ve developed a couple habits that have helped get those bags to the store with me.

• I try to always keep a reusable bag or two in the car, so if I find myself making an unplanned trip to the grocery store after work, it’s with me.  To help remind me to restock the car, I put the grocery bags right by our apartment door.  We have a small entry way, so there’s not much room there for extras, which means the bags won’t go unnoticed next time I’m headed out.

• Since the grocery store is walkable for us, we make it a Sunday afternoon outing.  Having a set routine helps us to remember the bags.

• We also buy milk that comes in returnable glass bottles.  Those bottles have a hefty deposit on them, making it worth our while to bring them back, and bringing back the bottles gets us to bring the bags along as well, to carry the bottles with us.

As for bringing our own containers for bulk goods, when I’m making my grocery list on Sunday morning I try to put the appropriate container into my grocery bags as I add it to the list. We also have a set spot in the kitchen where all of our empties go, so we know to pack them all with us for our trip to the store.

I think that bringing so much with us to the grocery store in the way of reusable containers and making planned, regular trips helps us remember it all and be sure to bring our shopping bags along as well.

There’s always room for improvement though. Around here we’re working on remembering to take those shopping bags with us to non-grocery stores as well.

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