Category Archives: apartment living

Hang Drying Laundry in the Winter

Clothes dryers are an incredibly inefficient use of electricity. The typical dryer uses in the neighborhood of 5 kWhs of electricity, even energy efficient dryers use at best around 2 kWhs during their dry cycle. (To put that in some perspective, that’s the same amount of energy as a 100 watt incandescent bulb uses in 20 hours – or in the case of my 9 watt LED light bulbs, 220 hours!) In fact, running a clothes dryer uses more energy than any other appliance in a typical American household. That’s a lot of energy just to spin some hot air around.

These days, what with cloth diapering Cheeks McGee, I’m doing a load of laundry about every other day – 4 loads a week, we’ll say. And living in an apartment, we pay $1.50 for each cycle. Which means that if we were drying all of those loads, it would tack an additional $24 onto our expenses each month. That’s $312 a year.

So in the interest of saving energy and money, we hang dry our clothes. As I’ve written about before, in the summer heat and sun, our laundry is dry within a few hours. Now that the winter has firmly decided it’s here, we continue to hang dry our laundry, but now we hang it indoors. The shared basement laundry room in our apartment complex already had clothes lines, but in the past we’ve used a folding drying rack, the backs of chairs, the shower curtain rod, and basically anywhere else we could possibly hang a piece of clothing. It does take more than 3 hours for our laundry to be dry, but never longer than 24 hours. I bet aside from sweatshirts, most of it would be dry by morning if they hung over night. And running your clothing through the spin cycle can be really hard on it, so by hang drying we get more life out of our clothing as well.

Yes, we have to think ahead more than 2 hours if we want to wear something that is currently dirty. But right now, with the frequency we are doing laundry, that hasn’t been an issue. And in a clothing emergency, the dryer is still right there.

Simple Green Homemade Laundry Detergent

homemade laundry detergent
So we moved recently, and as is often the plague of the renter, we have found ourselves with a new pay-per-wash laundry situation. The washer in our building is your standard top loader, although its basin is slightly larger than standard. The way this washer is set up, you load it up with clothes and soap, close the lid, choose your settings, and hit start. Once you hit start the lid locks. And THEN the water starts. This means that you can’t start the water and put the soap in before loading, which allows you to start dissolving the powdered laundry detergent a little bit.

You may recall from my post on cloth diapers, that we’ve been using 1/4 cup liquid Dr. Bronner’s castile soap and 1/2 cup baking soda to do our wash. We used this combination successfully for 3 years at our last place. If you have a top loader where you can start dissolving the baking soda before loading all your clothes in, I totally recommend this as a detergent. The castile soap worked wonderfully for getting our clothes clean, and the baking soda softened the water and kept everything fresh smelling. And once you turn away from the heavily fragranced store-bought detergents, you’ll suddenly realize how overpowering those fragrances are.

However, with this new setup, without the ability to start dissolving the baking soda, we were finding baking soda deposits on all our laundry. It didn’t ruin anything, but white streaks on your dark clothes that are supposed to be clean is just no fun. So I decided to switch it up, and see if we could find a new homemade laundry detergent recipe that uses less baking soda. I was also interested in trying a detergent using bar soap instead of liquid soap, because the Dr. B’s bar soap is much cheaper than the liquid.

So after doing some googling, and reading some of our homesteading faves, I decided to try out a pretty simple recipe – washing soda and grated bar soap.

What is washing soda? you may ask. Well, it’s sodium carbonate – one less carbonate than sodium bicarbonate aka baking soda. And, you can make it pretty simply from baking soda. Washing soda is a good deodorizer and water softener, like baking soda, but it is also useful for stripping oil and wax. It is a bit of a harsher chemical than baking soda, so don’t ingest it and keep it out of little hands. Unless your a grown person with little hands… Use your best judgement. You can make washing soda by taking a few cups of baking soda, spreading them on a cookie sheet, and baking it in the oven at about 400 F for an hour. The heat causes a chemical reaction that releases water and carbon dioxide, turning your baking soda into washing soda.

homemade laundry detergent components

For the laundry detergent:
2 cups washing soda
1 bar (5 oz) castile soap

  1. Grate the soap with a cheese grater or in a food processor. At first I was like, maybe I should get a special grater just for the soap. But then I realized that this is the exact same soap that I use to wash my dishes, in bar form. So I just used my regular cheese grater. And I used the second smallest holes.
  2. Mix the now powdered soap with the washing soda. The washing soda is really fine, and you don’t really want to breathe it in, so to do this I put it all in a tuperware, put the lid on it, and shake it up.
  3. Washing soda can pretty easily absorb water and carbon dioxide from the air, which turns it back into baking soda. So store your laundry detergent in an air tight container. I just use the same tuperware that I mixed it up in.
  4. For the wash, use 2 heaping table-spoons for each load.

I’ve used this new homemade laundry detergent a handful of times already, and it’s passing the test so far. Our clothes are coming out clean and fresh, and no baking soda streaks! And it is definitely still powerful enough to get rid of the ammonia smell of wet diapers, even though I’m using so much less.

 

moving to Madison

Settling in after Moving to Madison

Since moving to Madison 8 weeks ago, I think we finally have all our ducks in a row. We have new bank accounts, our mail is successfully forwarded, and we’ve fallen into a bit of a routine once again. Now that we’re a bit more familiar with our surroundings, I thought I would share a few of those green-living-to-dos that were on our list.

Compost

Around 35 million tons of food waste ends up in landfills every year. And while some of it does break down and get captured as methane, most of it, tied up in non-breathing plastic bags, just sits there. As I’ve mentioned before, composting is super important to me. So finding a way to compost our food waste is always on the top of my to-do list when we move.  Folks, we got lucky this time. One of the other apartment dwellers already had a compost bin set up in our backyard, so we’ve been able to share with them.  They also have a small garden plot in the yard, so they will be happy to reap the benefits of the compost pile we’re helping them build.

Energy

Madison Gas and Electric has a green power program, very similar to some of these energy companies, where for an additional 2.5 cents per kwh, we can purchase matching renewable energy for all the energy we use. MG&E’s green power is supplied by wind farms all across Wisconsin and Iowa.  When we started our service with MG&E we took a couple minutes on their website to find their green power tomorrow program and sign up for it.

Groceries

We prefer to buy as many of our dry goods in bulk as possible to reduce packaging. Unfortunately, the closest grocery stores to us do not have bulk bins. Whole foods does, but they tend to be a bit limited for our tastes. Luckily there is a food coop that is right on our way to and from the community garden that has extensive bulk bins. And, as a bonus, they mark down their produce that needs to be used right away. I think it’s pretty rad to see what they have in the marked down produce section and figure out if I could turn it into dinner for us that night or the next. We’ve also taken time to visit a number of local farmers markets and farm stands.  There are a number that are in walking distance almost every day of the week.

 

Passive Design for Lighting

One immediate way that we can cut our CO2 emissions is to just use less energy. Since our homes and other buildings are huge energy users they are good places to start. By using passive design practices, we can build and maintain more energy efficient homes by using energy from the sun or the ground instead of energy from the grid to serve our needs.

Natural Light and Proper Siting

Using the sun to provide most of our light can reduce the amount of electricity we use and can save money – both on our electric bill and in the cost of light bulbs.

The best time to think about using natural light in place of electric light is before construction. At this point, thinking about window placement can provide a building with adequate light for much of the day. In the summertime, well placed windows and an open floor plan can provide for plenty of light well into the evening hours.

To this end, siting a house properly can be very effective in providing natural light. We often think that the face of a house must be parallel to the street, but depending on the direction that the street runs, this may not be the best position for the windows and the walls. Taking into account the cardinal directions and the angle of the sun throughout the year can help determine the optimal position of windows to take advantage of natural light.

Continuing in this vein, thinking about the layout of the rooms in relation to how and when they will be used during the day before building can help optimize the use of natural light in a structure after it is built.

South facing windows

South facing windows are the workhorse of passive lighting in the northern hemisphere (in the southern hemisphere it would be north facing windows). Because of the tilt of the earth’s axis, in the northern hemisphere the sun is angled to the south. A south facing window, then, receives light throughout the whole day, not just in the morning or evening. South facing windows are put to best use in rooms that will be used all day long.

East facing windows

East facing windows receive the strongest light in the morning, and thus are best positioned in rooms that are primarily used in the morning through late afternoon, such as an office. If you are an early riser, you may prefer to have east facing windows in your bedroom. However you may not want east facing windows in a nursery if your baby wakes with the sun, or in your bedroom if you prefer to snooze a bit later in the morning or work the night shift.

West facing windows

West facing window are pretty much the opposite of east facing windows when it comes to lighting. (I’ll get into the differences in the heating and cooling sections of this series.) They are best positioned in rooms that are used in the evening, as they will provide the most light during the later part of the day. I do a lot of cooking in the evening, so I prefer to have a kitchen with western facing windows.

North facing windows

Due to the earth’s tilt, northern facing windows will receive the least amount of sunlight, and thus are useful in rooms that are used primarly during the middle of the day, or in rooms that are meant to be kept darker. An office might be the right choice for a room with north facing windows. Or maybe this means that depending on your sleep habits and preferences, north facing windows would work well in your bedroom. If you are building a basement cellar and your basement has windows on all four sides, choosing the north wall to build your cellar against makes the most sense.

Skylights

Skylights can go a long way to lighting a room in the middle of a house. Depending on the direction they are positioned, the pitch of the roof they are installed in, and how far north or south the building is, they will provide different amounts of light during the day or evening.

So directionality and placement of windows is something that can be considered before a structure is built, but afterwards can be quite costly to change. Here are a couple examples of what can be done to improve passive lighting in your already built home or business:

Curtains

Using sheer and light colored curtains during the day can allow light into a room while still providing a bit of privacy. They can also help temper the strong rays of a rising or setting sun on east and west facing windows.

Mirrors

Well placed mirrors can help spread light into darker areas of a room or into a windowless hallway.

Wall paint

Light colored paint will reflect more light around the room, whereas darker colors will absorb more light. So if you are partial to bold wall color but don’t want to greatly reduce your ability to use passive lighting, put the color in a room with south facing windows or with windows on multiple sides. Dark and light colored flooring can be used to the same effect.

Are you looking for an introduction to passive design? You can find it here.

Oh, hey, Building Earth has a facebook page now.  Keep up to date on posts and other interesting green news by liking us!

Trying to green our move

Let’s face it, packing up an apartment’s worth of furniture, furnishings, and stuff and hauling it across the country is not really easy on the earth by any stretch of the imagination. But between all the packing materials and that big truck there are a few ways we’re trying to make our move a little less resource consuming.

1. Reduce!

We have a couple weeks to pack up, so we have plenty of time to go through our stuff and donate, sell, recycle, or toss anything that we don’t need anymore. It means less boxes to move and more space for us at our next place, which happens to be a little bit smaller than our current apartment.

2. Packing in storage bins, luggage, drawers, etc

We’ve had four of those big plastic storage bins hiding in our apartment for the past 3 years. They each held a few things, but none of them were full. In fact, one of them was where we kept our empty duffle bags. So those came out, got filled with clothing, and the bin got filled with dishes. We’re also using the drawers of our armoir to pack books in. The drawers are sturdy, and just the right size so that they won’t be too heavy when packed with books.

3. Reusing boxes

As far as I can tell there is no reason for anyone to purchase boxes specifically for their move. Between the car seat and stroller boxes, a couple recent amazon purchases, friends, and grocery stores or liquor stores, we have been able to collect enough boxes for all our remaining packing.

4. Using cloth to pack our fragile items

We have plenty of light blankets, tablecloths, cloth napkins, towels, and socks that make the perfect packing materials for surrounding our dishes and other breakables. This saves us from having to use paper or plastic packaging materials that we would end up needing to dispose of after we unpacked.

5. Reserving a truck that’s just the right size

For this move we’ll happen to be caravan-ing with a couple cars as well, so we took that into account when picking out the truck we will be renting for the move. Uhaul gives recommendations based on the size of the place you are moving out of. We used that as a base, and then considered the extra trunk space we would also have to pack in and evaluated if we could safely downsize.

Growing Fruit Trees From Seed

Husby and I have this dream where someday we have an orchard full of fruit trees. In our wildest orchard dreams we also have a greenhouse orchard with tropical fruit trees as well.

I mean really, delicious fruit and natural carbon sequestration? What could be better?

Because we try to live life in the now, (and because we’re a little bit crazy) we’ve already sprouted a number of our hopeful future orchard trees, which means we’re going to be moving with a car full of potted plants.

We’re currently working on sprouting pawpaw, mango, and avocado trees.

What’s that? You’ve never heard of a pawpaw? Well let me tell you about this delicious fruit. Pawpaws are native to the eastern United States. They thrive in USDA zone 6, although we’re hoping to grow some cold hearty pawpaws in zone 5. The fruit is about the size of a small mango, with a similar thick green skin. The fruit is described as an “American banana”. Inside the skin is a white fruit with a soft, custard-like consistency, with a number of dark brown seeds about the size of a grape inside. The flavor is similar to a ripe mango. Actually, the best comparison fruit is a cherimoya or custard apple, which you may have seen among the tropical fruits in your grocery store.

So why have you never heard of a pawpaw? Unfortunately, the fruits are delicate and don’t travel well, so by the time they would get to the grocery store many of them would have bruised or broken. They also have a short season (late September to early October depending on how far south they are growing).

Husby has been on the hunt for a pawpaw tree and the fruit for the past 4 years. We finally tracked down some trees last fall at one of the local state parks, and managed to find one small unripe fruit. Then, much to our surprise, the Detroit Whole Foods got a small shipment. We snatched up a couple of them, enjoyed the delicious fruit, and saved the seeds.

Our favorite food scrap growing resource, Don’t Throw It, Grow It!, recommended using Long Fibered Sphagnum Moss to start sprouting avocado seeds, and we’ve found it to be useful for a number of different fruits. In the case of the pawpaws, the seeds needed to rest for the winter before they would sprout, so we mixed them into a gallon sized zip-lock bag of damp sphagnum moss, and tossed the bag in the back of the refrigerator (to simulate winter inside our apartment). For avocados and mangoes, which like a more tropical climate, we buried the seeds in damp moss and placed the bag in a sunny, warm window.

In mid March, about the time that a pawpaw seed would naturally start to sprout, we planted our seeds in these root trainers, which are basically deep seedling starters, using Coconut Coir Brick for soil.  The pawpaw seeds developed roots first and now, two months later, are starting to push up sprouts.

The mango seeds and the avocado seeds we just saved from fruits that we ate. We placed them in the bags of sphagnum moss about 4 weeks ago, and every week or so have been checking on their progress. Earlier this week we saw two of our mangoes had sprouted leaves already, so we took them out of the moss and planed them in pots.

We put plastic bags over the pots to try to keep the environment humid for them, like they would experience in their natural habitat.

The avocado seeds have started sprouting roots in their sphagnum moss bag, but we’re supposed to wait until the roots are about 4 inches long before planting them in a pot, so they are continuing to sit on a warm window sill.

If you’re interested in other good edible gardening books, my favorites are Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces, and The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, 2nd edition. I come back to these books year after year for instructions, tips, and tricks on organic edible gardening. Much like a well loved cookbook, my copy of The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible is soil stained and water marked from it’s time by my side in the garden.

Next we’re excited to try lemons and other citrus fruits!

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Oh, hey, Building Earth has a facebook page now.  Keep up to date on posts and other interesting green news by liking us!

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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Recycling in Midtown Detroit

Recycle

Recycling.

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.

Reuse

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.

Reduce

Reduce.

I know it is the most important imperative in the well-known triplet “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, but in our consumer driven world it is also often the most difficult to practice.

Husby and I often reminisce about living in Tanzania. One of the things that I loved was the lack of pressure to have more stuff.  The cultural differences and terrible transportation options that came with living in a rural mountain village made it pretty easy to say no thanks to bringing anything other than the bare necessities home. This practice toward minimalism has stuck with both of us now that we’re back living in the States, but we certainly haven’t achieved it in its full expression.

But with the goal of reducing our impact firmly in place, we do have a few areas where we feel like we are succeeding.

Space

We currently live in a modest, one bedroom apartment.  It certainly wouldn’t be considered small by NYC standards, but it’s not a giant space either.  Because of this, many of our rooms serve multiple functions.  Our office area shares a room with our dining area, and our “nursery” minus the bassinet occupies a corner of our living room. And the new baby shares a bedroom with us. Our lease will be up soon, and we will be moving when it is, but we hope to be able to find another modest, one bedroom apartment when we do. Our old apartment also features two tiny closets – not much storage at all. To help us stash out of season things away, we have a few of those large storage bins serving double duty. One poses as a coffee table and two stacked on top of each other are just the right height for plants to enjoy our windows.

Location

We live in a pretty walkable neighborhood.  There is a grocery store just a couple blocks away and plenty of restaurants and boutiques within spitting distance. I can even walk to my hair salon and my CrossFit gym. Husby is a big fan of walking, so we also frequently walk the couple miles downtown and to the riverfront.  Because of this we are able to maintain a single car household even when both of us work outside the home.

Energy

I’ve written before about how we reduce our electricity use, and about Husby’s obsession with unplugging electronics that are not in use to reduce phantom loads.  Additionally we hang dry our laundry. When Husby had to do some traveling this past winter, he often chose to take the Megabus rather than renting a car or flying to his destinations.

Stuff

Certainly this is the hardest area for us to work on reducing, but also the area that provides the most opportunity. We work hard to reduce the amount of packaging we bring home. That means that we bring cloth bags with us to the grocery store, as well as bring our own refillable containers with us to stock up on bulk goods. We buy items that we use consistently and frequently in bulk – like buying our liquid soap by the gallon. We also are working to choose quality over quantity. Saving our pennies for higher quality clothing, furniture, and cookware to ensure that it lasts longer, and stretching the life of what we already have in the meantime.

One thing that helps me to focus on reducing the amount of stuff that we have is to constantly have a “to donate” pile.  We’ve been making frequent trips to the Goodwill to drop off goods that we no longer have any use for. Keeping a donation pile going reminds me to constantly edit my possessions and work towards reducing the accumulation of possessions in the first place.

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