Gas and Electricity in Detroit

Our apartment is in an old building in midtown Detroit. I’m not exactly sure when it was built, but if I had to wager a guess I’d say probably 1920s or before. This guess is based on the fact that my dad’s house was built in the early 1900’s and there are a lot of similarities between our building and his house.

heating an old apartment in Detroit

The building is heated with radiators. I was really excited about living in a building heated by radiators when we first moved in because I tend to feel cold all the time, and radiant heat said to me “This building will be hot all winter long, in fact, you may very wastefully decide to open the windows in the middle of January to bring it back down to a comfortable temperature.” This turned out to be not the case. Our building is chilly all winter long. But, in addition to the radiators, all the units are also equipped with a gas fireplace. This allows us to give our apartment a warm glow on cold winter’s nights.

heating an old apartment in Detroit

Being conscientious about our energy use, we do try to limit our indulgence in the use of the fireplace to nights or weekends when it is quite cold outside.  The chill in our apartment generally isn’t too bad unless the temperature outside drops into the teens or below. We plastic over our windows to keep the drafts at bay. And, since we live on the top floor, we also get to reap the benefits of our lower level neighbors using their fireplaces. When we do use our fireplace we close all the doors to the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom so that we’re only heating up the living room and dining room.

We also try to be pretty conscious of the electricity we’re using as well. Admittedly, Husby is much better about this than I am. But generally, if we’re not using it, it’s off. And in many cases, not just off, but also unplugged. Unplugging our electronics prevents them from drawing phantom loads even while they are off.

Southeast Michigan is supplied its gas and electricity through DTE. DTE offers a program called Green Currents, which Husby and I have opted into. Basically, we pay a little extra per kilowatt-hour to get our energy from renewables rather than from coal and drilled natural gas.*

Currently in Michigan, the Green Currents program gets about 90% of their energy from bio gas, and 10% from wind power. Our energy costs a little bit more than it would if we weren’t a member of the Green Currents program, but spending the extra dollar or so each month helps us tell DTE that it is important to us that they continue to invest in renewable energy solutions, as well as helping to reduce the overall use of fossil fuels in Michigan. It’s one of the ways that Husby and I choose to vote with our dollars.

Bio gas is methane collected from cattle farms and landfills – both naturally occurring as a product of the breaking down of organic material.  When methane is freely released into the atmosphere it is a very potent greenhouse gas, but it is also a very efficient fuel. Methane produces more energy per unit than coal. When it is captured and burned for energy the by-products are carbon dioxide and water. Carbon dioxide is obviously also a greenhouse gas, although it is less potent than methane. So bio gas isn’t a perfect solution to reducing our carbon footprint, but it is a way to use energy from a more potent greenhouse gas and convert it into a less potent greenhouse gas.

*Being a member of the Green Currents program does not necessarily mean that the exact energy that we are using comes from bio gas and wind power, as these energy sources are currently limited by geographical area. It means that for every kw-h of energy that we use, DTE is supplying that much energy in bio gas and wind power to someone who lives in the areas that have access to these sources. It’s a matching program.

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Apartment Living

apartment livingI am so excited to own property. I am excited both to indulge my house decorating dreams, and also to invest in a living space that is focused on efficiency and sustainability. I have been excited for this prospect for years, but it hasn’t been in the cards yet. Husby and I are hoping to make an investment in this direction in the next year, but for the past 3 we’ve been happily apartment living. And we’ve been seizing on every opportunity to decrease our negative impact on the earth and increase our positive impact in our small rental space.

While living in a rental unit there are obviously quite a few limitations to our control over our environment. We don’t get a say in how our apartment is heated, or how the water is heated, the quality of the insulation or of our windows, or what materials are used to make improvements or replacements. With limited ability to make an impact in so many of the heavy hitting areas of our living space, we try to so what we can in all of the areas we can control, hoping that the accumulations of our smaller actions will add up.

One of the great features of our apartment we basically lucked into because of what was available at the time. We have fabulous southern and western exposure, and living on the top floor (out of 4) puts us higher than the neighboring buildings. Our windows and high position allow us to take advantage of wonderful sunlight, reducing our reliance on electricity for lighting. In the winter our large windows allow us to take advantage of heat from the sun. This reduces our need to supplement our heat via gas fireplace in an otherwise rather chilly apartment. In the summer our high position  means that we get a pretty decent cross-breeze through open windows, keeping our home a bit cooler than it might otherwise be.

We have been making many other “green” lifestyle choices as renters. We put plastic on our windows in the winter, we unplug unused electronics, we recycle as much as we can, we compost, we support renewable energy, use homemade cleaning solutions, spend our grocery money on organic produce and sustainable, humanely raised meat, buy dry goods in bulk, and reuse often.

I hope to write about many of these topics more in depth in the next few weeks. I think there are never enough resources out there for people interested in improving their impact. Husby and I are always looking for more ways to align our lifestyle with our values and morals, so I’m happy to share what we do with others that feel the same way.

On Apartment Composting

apartment copmosting: veggiesLet’s chat about one of my favorite gardening topics: compost. Seriously, how wonderful is it that you can take something you inevitably have if you cook or eat fresh produce – kitchen scraps – and instead of throwing them away, you can turn them into nutrient rich food for the next generation of fresh produce? And it’s a natural process. Depending on your level of patience, there is very little you have to do to go from trash to “black gold”.

One of the greatest things about compost is that it really only requires two things aside from the kitchen scraps – somewhere to keep the scraps as you collect them, and someplace to put the scraps to let them do their thing.

Apartment Composting

Husby and I have been apartment composting for nearly three years. The first six months or so were certainly a learning curve. Previously we had each been living in houses that had their own compost piles, but our apartment does not. Nor does it have a balcony where we could keep our own pile.

Theoretically, you might be able to keep a self contained compost in one of those large plastic storage bins in an apartment. At least that is what the internet will lead you to believe. But we were never able to get it to work. Compost does require some air circulation, and we always ended up with fruit flies in the compost. Just the simple act of opening the bin to add scraps released a gross fleet of little flies. Yuck.

After trying this method out for a couple months and making a couple tweaks to try and control our fruit fly population, we determined that trying to keep our self contained pile was just not an apartment dweller’s reality. We needed another option.  Our immediate solution, which allowed us to continue composting without interruption, was to collect our scraps and bring them out to husby’s family’s house, where his mom kept a compost pile. After a couple months we made connections with the neighborhood community garden, and made arrangements to add our scraps to their compost pile. For the past few years, every time we have a full container of kitchen scraps we bring them to the community garden. Since then, more and more community gardens have started in our neighborhood, so we, and our fellow apartment dwellers in midtown Detroit, have plenty of places to bring our kitchen scraps.

apartment composting: bins

As far as how we keep our scraps in between trips to the compost pile, we certainly don’t use anything fancy. We just keep them in a plastic mixing bowl, and keep the bowl in the refrigerator to keep the smell down and the flies away.  No need for any specific composting container. No real need for a lid even.  We are easily able to keep scraps for two weeks between  taking out the compost.  In the summer we tend to empty our bowl more frequently, but that is mostly because we are using more fresh produce so we have more scraps in a shorter amount of time, and also because we are making frequent trips to the garden anyway to water or weed our garden plot.

So if you’re living in an apartment and want to compost, find yourself a local community garden and see if they will let you contribute to their pile. Then get yourself a bowl and start collecting.

A Bit of Background, Part 2

I mentioned in part 1 that living in the bush in Tanzania changed my post Peace Corps plans. When I returned to the U.S. in late 2008 I began researching environmental and mechanical engineering graduate degree programs. The following is a mildly edited selection from my personal statement used in my applications to mechanical engineering master’s programs.

In the village I lived near the power lines did not stray far from the main road. The rolling hills and trees in the valley muted most of the lights and sounds of electricity. At a certain point, walking down the dirt path to the foot bridge over the river and up into the hills towards my house outside of the village, the shadows that could be seen were only those cast by the light from the moon. The fingers of the power plant didn’t reach any further into the mountains in this direction. But looking around the walls of the bowl created by the surrounding mountains, a sharp glimmer would pop out of the darkness. Sparkles of electricity shone out from the hills. Batteries charged by solar panels were providing some families – some of my students – light to enjoy dinner with and light to study by. Light from the sun still burned brightly for them long after the sun’s last rays had slipped behind the mountains for the evening.

building earth - waterfall in TanzaniaFor two years, those hills in Tanzania provided me with a shelter, a family away from home, an education, an opportunity to share my education, and an inspiration. Watching the effects of “progress” tear down trees, wash away soil nutrients, and pollute our river and source of drinking water for much of the year cemented my desire to work with our natural resources, not against them.

building earth - palm tree in Tanzania

In the middle of my second year in the Peace Corps, my school took our students on a field trip to a local hydro-electric plant that harnessed a natural waterfall. As the engineers explained to my students how the plant changed the energy from the moving water into the electricity that ran into the outlets at the small shops where they charged our cell phones and watched the football matches huddled around small grainy televisions, I stood absorbing the information. And I knew. I knew I was not ever going to be fully satisfied until I had taken everything apart and put it back together again, and ensured that it ran better than before. I knew that this was a way I could put together my love of science and my passion for living a sustainable life. I knew that I was going to finish my service in Tanzania and come home to study renewable energy and mechanical engineering.

Now I find myself, 5 years out of the Peace Corps, graduate degree in hand, looking ahead to the next steps, trying to figure out exactly what this means.

Life continues to be a grand adventure, and my hope is that I can live it in such a way that builds rather than destructs.

A Bit of Background, Part 1

I’ve always been a nature lover. We spent many summer trips hiking through the woods at my grandparent’s house; camping in state parks; canoeing in the boundary waters; and getting pruney in the water at the nearest lake beach. My dad’s house sits atop a hill that has been having erosion trouble for years. Many spring and summer weekends during high school and summers home from college were spent planting various ground covers on the hill, a crop of strawberries along the path, and herbs in the back yard. I remember talking with my dad about bee keeping and how cool it would be to have our own hive, planting flower gardens in small patches of the yard, and hunting for raspberries or blueberries on various camping trips.

building earth autumn trees

But I don’t think it was until I was living in the mountains in Tanzania during my time in the Peace Corps that I fully grasped my connection to the earth. You’d think the fact that I’d joined the Peace Corps in the first place would have tipped me off to my crunchy-hippy-tree-hugging nature before then. But for whatever reason it took until probably about 9 months into my stay in Tanzania for me to realize that nature was my church, and appreciating and caring for the earth was my prayer.

When I left for the Peace Corps my intention was to return in just over two years and start applying to grad school programs in the area of aeronautical engineering. I intended to be an astronaut. Or at least as close to one as possible, working in the space industry. But, as so often is the case, plans changed.

building earth succulant

I lived amid subsistence farmers. Farmers with no running water and no electricity. No plows, nor tractors, nor work animals to ease their burden. These families were at the mercy of their own physical abilities,  the land (in this case mountain clay) and the weather to make their living. And they were living with the effects of ongoing climate change. The rainy season was shifting and growing more extreme in the Usambara mountains. For generations my neighbors had known when to prepare their fields and plant their crops in preparation of the oncoming rainy season. But recently the rains have been coming weeks or months late. And when they do come, they have been torrential downpours rather than the slow, steady rains they had once been, washing away their mountainside farms, and their income for the year.

Living in a community that so relied on the earth for their livelihood was one of the experiences that began to shift my post Peace Corps plans.

building earth light house

We may not have the ability to change or control the weather, but we can help each other live with the effects of climate change. And we can reduce our negative impacts on the earth and replace them with positive impacts. We have such a beautiful and bountiful rock on which to spin around the sun. I think we need to take care of it. Because that’s what you do when you have nice things.