Sunday, March 28, 2010


tonic used to be the name of one of my all-time favorite music venues in new york city (now defunct, like so many things with value not commensurate with lucrativeness). i recently came to find out that it's also the name of a website that aims to share what it considers to be good news. the use half now campaign, and my lifestyle by association, were recently covered in an article called "living on less: one woman's life-altering decision".

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

cool fridge

About a year ago some good friends gave us a small chest freezer they had found next to a dumpster. The power cord was a little chewed up and there was a small amount of rust down inside. We replaced the cord, sanded down the rust and touched it up with some paint. After plugging it in to see if it worked we installed a Johnson Controls A19AAT-2C Thermostat.

The new thermostat has a small box that we mounted on the outside, and a tiny probe that we ran through the door seal and down into the lower part of the freezer. We set the new thermostat at 40 degrees and cut our electric use by 1/3 just like that. Since we have not permanently modified the unit it can still function as a freezer if necessary.

Since cold air sinks, a chest fridge does not lose its cool when opened. Our converted fridge is on the porch, so much of this winter it has hardly even switched on. Although it is not as easy to organize as an upright, using stackable baskets works fine.

This design can be ten times more efficient than an Energy Star fridge, and is an affordable way to reduce our energy needs. We were inspired by the good folks at Mt. Best to try this idea.

According to the EIA, refrigeration accounts for 14% of household energy usage.

(another picture of our fridge is below in the last post)

unconventional living

When it comes to finding ways to make your living situation more efficient, there are many options worth considering. Where the winters are long and cold, most of the year’s energy use may go almost entirely into heating. In hot areas much money is spent on cooling using air-conditioners. Either way, a well insulated small space is the most economical and efficient way to go.

You can retrofit an existing structure with better insulation/windows/doors, and possibly solar panels. Unfortunately many homes are so large that heating and cooling the whole building is very costly and wasteful. This is where the notion of the need for a $30,000 solar system comes from - it's true that a large system would be needed to support an inefficient lifestyle. One way to save on a large place is to heat or cool only the rooms in use.

Another option is to build an energy efficient house from scratch, using techniques such as passive solar (maximize winter sun use  and minimize summer’s sun), and using materials such as adobe, cob, papercrete, and other affordable high insulation materials. In this case the best place to start is to tune into the landscape, weather, and path of the sun. For instance, knowing where the dominant wind comes from enables you to incorporate this information into the plans. There are many good ideas like this in books on Permaculture.

Although there seems to be a certain stigma against mobile homes, an excellent option is to find a small, used, 16-30ft  travel trailer. Like the cabin of a boat, most travel trailers have been meticulously designed to utilize the small space wisely. They usually have a small refrigerator, oven, sink, and even a small toilet/shower. As for alt energy, many are already wired for 12V systems, with lights, water pump, etc., so hooking up a small solar array is not much of a leap.

These trailers can be functional in an RV park, as a guest house, or as a completely off the grid, compact, living arrangement. Add a roof for shade and rain catchment, and a porch to spread out a bit, a composting toilet,  and you have a cozy, inexpensive, very low energy home anywhere you want...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

change is dead, long live change

i'm very honored and delighted that an article i wrote has been published in, a journal i highly respect: change is dead, long live change.

monday march 22 - hummingbirds arrive!

11 days late. maybe they were around, just hunkered in until the chilly weather passed? we're still getting below-freezing nights, but the days have been in the 60s/70s.

Monday, March 15, 2010

how to make kombucha tea

Kombucha is a fermented drink brewed from a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). Homemade kombucha requires a bit of nurturing in the form of feeding and a clean, warm, sweet environment in order to thrive.

To get started you’ll need to ask a friend for a “kombucha daughter” – the “offspring” of a kombucha culture, which is called the “mother”. A kombucha culture, if sufficiently fed and nurtured, will cleave off a daughter once a month or so. The daughters can be given away, put in the compost, or – believe it or not - dried into a leather-like substance that can be used in the making of arts and crafts!

Get a good large (preferably glass) container with a wide opening and clean it well. The best containers are wide all around as opposed to narrow at the top. The old candy store style with the big glass lid, probably about 5 gallons, is perfect. My jars hold about a gallon.

Make the tea of your choice, add a cup or so of sugar per gallon of water while the tea’s still hot, then let it cool down (don’t worry about the high sugar content - the “mother” will digest it all!). We like to use fresh ginger tea that we make by chopping up a chunk of the root. Black or green tea works great too. Stir the sugar into the hot tea and let it simmer for a while so it gets dissolved completely. After your tea and sugar are well blended and cooled, gently slide the “mother” into the jar using non-metal implements if possible – the “mother” will float to the top soon if not immediately. Cover the opening of the container with a clean breathable cloth (a cotton dishtowel secured with a rubber band works great).

Store your kombucha in a cool dark place for about two weeks. Time ‘til your brew is complete will vary according to ambient room temp – in summer it goes much faster! Give it a taste after two weeks, and if it tastes pleasantly sweet-and-sour, it’s ready! If it’s too sweet, let it sit a bit longer. If you wait too long you’ll have vinegar - i've heard this type of vinegar is used traditionally in mexico...probably other places too! if you wait much longer past the vinegar stage, your "mother" will have no sugar left to digest, and will eventually perish.

To bottle: empty plastic water bottles or pint-sized jars work well. Fish the “mother” out of your jar – again using non-metal utensils - and put her temporarily on a clean glass pie plate (or, if you’d like to let her go dormant for awhile, store in a mason jar in the fridge until you’re ready to start again – a couple of inches of water and a few tablespoons of sugar will enable her to live in the fridge for about a month).

If you are using plastic bottles, pour in the tea, then squeeze the bottles a bit so they’re indented. Cap them with a dent – when the bottles un-dent, your kombucha will be delightfully fizzy and ready to drink! If you are using glass it’s a little harder to know for sure when they’ve reached perfect bubbliness – two or three days should probably do it, but they could be ready even faster in hot weather. Store the bottles at room temp ‘til they undent or after a couple of days, then put them in the fridge ‘til you’re ready to drink them.

If your kombucha produces foam or stringy things or brown spots that’s okay. Mold, however, is not good. If your batch has fuzz on it, smells “bad”, or is in any other way suspicious, throw it out and start again. If you’ve given a daughter to a couple of nearby friends, you’ll always have back-ups. Kombucha-making is definitely a community affair!

While the medicinal effects of kombucha are considered dubious by some, it would be hard to deny the wonderous feeling that comes from a creating a drink made from a living creature that provides you with a delicious substance in exchange for your enabling it to continue to thrive.

If you happen to be interested in a healing, nurturing, culturally symbiotic, political/philosophical movement inspired by kombucha, you may wish to peruse the kombucha party.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

sun oven cookery

we'll be posting much more soon about our experiments cooking with a solar oven. today we made pinto beans - one of the most healthy, inexpensive, delicious, and easy dishes under the sun! soon we'll be posting videos - but in the meanwhile, i'd like to invite you to visit me over at alyce's solar kitchen.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

welcome back hummingbirds

the old lady who lived down the road for 20 years swore that the hummingbirds always return to this part of far west texas from their annual migration on march 11. well, it's march 13 and they still haven't shown up. we're completely prepared - got the feeder filled and hung. being somewhat concerned about our tiny friends, today we decided to make a sign to encourage them back.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

magic bullet?

it's a common misconception that "green energy" technologies are costly, and that we need to wait until they become more efficient or less expensive before implementing them. nothing could be further from the truth. by reducing one's usage and identifying the most critical gadgets to keep running, one can tailor even a tiny solar system (our entire set-up cost less than $500) to run just the essentials, and build onto the system from there.

meanwhile, conservation of resources is the most obvious, simple, cheap, immediate, and constructive "green technology" we have available to us. what if we could cut carbon emissions, energy bills, and use of all non-renewable resources in half NOW? maybe we can...please come share your thoughts with the USE HALF NOW campaign group on facebook.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

operate at maximum efficiency

Understanding alt energy options can be pretty overwhelming unless you are an electrical engineer. Even then there are many factors that must be taken into account, such as location, type of building, size of system, cost, etc. A good place to start is to examine your own current usage and consider if there are ways to use less.

Most of us can cut our electrical, gas, and other energy usage immediately with minimal changes in habits or lifestyles. For the average household this means tracking down all the appliances and power strips that remain on unnecessarily. You may not realize that all those power strips, wall warts (oversized plugs), and anything with small lights that stay lit use that much energy, but cumulatively they can use $80-$100 per year.

The next step is to find the biggest energy drains in the house. This is typically anything that uses heating elements, i.e. electric stoves, electric hot water heaters, toasters, and especially clothes dryers. Other big draws are things that stay on constantly, like refrigerators and heaters. This is where finding solutions becomes trickier and requires a bit more creativity.

Here are a few ideas:
1) Electric hot water heaters can be turned to a lower temperature and/or put on a timer.
2) Electric kettles, preferably insulated, are more efficient than heating water on an electric stove.
3) A freezer can be converted into a fridge that uses one tenth the energy of most fridges.
4) During cold months, only heat the areas in use.
5) Hang clothes up to dry...inside the house or out.

A Kill-A-Watt meter allows you to plug any appliance in and monitor both the usage and the cost over any amount of time. These start at about $20 - an investment that pays off most when used and passed on to a friend.

A few reasons you might want to try these things:
1) To save money.
2) To reduce your carbon footprint. (on average,  51% of US electricity comes from coal)
3) To obtain useful knowledge that can be applied directly to solar/wind/turbine, other alt power systems.

The less energy required, the smaller, cheaper and more manageable an off grid system will be.

the hybrid art of obvious observation

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 to 1832) was a writer and philosopher who believed strongly that science and nature could not be understood solely on the basis of data derived by breaking matter down into its constituent parts. He believed instead in a kind of research based on intuition or empathy derived from prolonged, reverent observation of a thing in its whole form. He referred to this style of investigation as "delicate empiricism".

Gardeners who practice permaculture techniques notice patterns of prevailing sun, wind, and rainfall over long periods of time in order to help them live on and cultivate land in harmony with existing ecosystems. Permaculturists look for simple, sustainable ways to maximize productivity and efficiency while minimizing the amount of effort and resources expended.

The great poet Allen Ginsberg said, "Notice what you Notice."

Obvious observation is inspired in part by all of these things. And, last but not least, by the Quaker proverb, "Proceed as the way opens."