June 27, 2011

American Idol wasting energy in my home?

Oh no. I set my DVR to record a lot of shows when we're not home. Now I'm feeling very guilty. The 6-25-11 New York Times story, Atop TV Sets, a Power Drain That Runs Nonstop, caught my eye.

I never thought about that little cable box that's always lit up. And I've written about "vampire power" in the past too. It seems that televisions have become the single largest electricity drain in many American homes, with some using more power than a new refrigerator and even some central air-conditioning systems.

The approximate 160 million so-called set-top cable boxes in the United States, as well as add-on digital video recorders (DVRs), which use 40 percent more power than the set-top box, are wasting a lot of energy. They run all day so that we can watch the drivel that a lot of us enjoy.
A recent study, by the Natural Resources Defense Council, concluded that the boxes consumed $3 billion in electricity per year in the United States — and that 66 percent of that power is wasted when no one is watching and shows are not being recorded. That is more power than the state of Maryland uses over 12 months.

Fixes exist, but they are not currently being mandated or deployed in the United States. Similar devices in some European countries automatically go into standby mode when not in use, or even into deep sleep.  Cable companies use the lame excuse that customers will not tolerate the time it takes to reboot the system once the system has been shut down or put to sleep. But low-energy European systems reboot from deep sleep in one to two minutes.

I don't know about you, but I can tolerate wasting a few minutes of my time, rather than wasting a lot of electricity. The good news from the EPA is that this agency has established Energy Star standards for set-top boxes and has plans to tighten them significantly by 2013.

June 26, 2011

Worried about the foods you eat?

Those E coli-related sprouts in Germany sure got my attention recently. Maybe we should simply cross our fingers and only eat four-leaf clovers.

You can sign up for e-alerts on food recalls at http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/recalls/index.html . The frightening thing is that there are frequently multiple alerts DAILY. You have the option of signing up for "immediate" alerts, "daily," or "weekly."

June 14, 2011

Water, water, everywhere?

While I'm perseverating about water use in this blog, I might as well mention a few newer books on the topic.

Alex Prud'homme's new book, The Ripple Effect, focuses on how the human race is mismanaging our water resources and predicts that the next century will see more water crises than a tsunami--even going so far as hinting of water wars. New York City's sewer system, for example, uses 200-year-old tunnels. Sure wish that some stimulus funding went in that direction.

Charles Fishman (love that name for an author of a book about water) paints a somewhat different picture in his new book, The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water. Kathleen Parker wrote a great op-ed about it recently. There is already an ongoing online debate about one of Fishman's statements--that water can't be destroyed, but there are a lot of water myths out there. Fishman stresses that in his opinion, all water problems are local and solvable. Tell that to the 1.8 million children who are estimated to die each year from either lack of water or tainted water.

Artificial turf????

Think fake. Some folks are looking to the newest generation of synthetic turf as their permanent solution to mowing, fertilization, and irrigation. Cooke's Garden Center (Williamsburg, VA) now carries it and it is water-permeable. I walked on some around a pool in Maine last summer (the perfect use for it) and didn't notice it was artificial grass for an hour. Can you see how I was so easily fooled?

The cost, however, is pretty steep, and most brands only carry a 10-15 year warranty. Of course, if you factor in the irrigation costs you do NOT incur, it might be a bargain.

Artificial turf proponents claim:

• Depending on the region of the country, one full-size synthetic turf sports field saves 500,000 to 1,000,000 gallons of water each year. During 2010, between three to six billion gallons of water were conserved through its use.

• For a multi-use field in Texas, where there is little rain, the water savings is much greater. School officials with the El Paso Independent School District stated that their 10 new synthetic turf sports fields will save more than 80 million gallons of water every year, or 8 million gallons of water per field.

• The estimated amount of synthetic turf currently installed has eliminated the need for nearly a billion pounds of harmful pesticides and fertilizers.

• In a July 7, 2007 article entitled Grass Warfare, the Wall Street Journal states, “The pesticides used in lawn-care products found on shelves nationwide are considered legal by government standards. But broader research on health risks from such chemicals has prompted general warnings. The EPA, which regulates pesticide use, notes on its own website that kids are at greater peril from pesticides because their internal organs and immune systems are developing.”

• The EPA has identified runoff of toxic pesticides and fertilizers as a principal cause of water pollution. According to that federal agency, approximately 375,000 acres of lakes, 1,900 miles of rivers and streams and 550 square miles of estuaries in Florida are known to be impaired by nutrient pollution, a primary source of which is excess fertilizer.

• Most of the current synthetic turf sports fields feature crumb rubber infill recycled from used tires, keeping more than 105 million used tires out of landfills.

• Synthetic turf helps reduce smog and noxious emissions. According to the EPA, “lawn mowers emit high levels of carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas, as well as hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides that contribute to the formation of ground level ozone, a noxious pollutant that impairs lung function, inhibits plant growth, and is a key ingredient of smog.”The EPA also reports that a push mower emits as much pollution in one hour as 11 cars and a riding mower emits as much as 34 cars.

• According to a 2010 BASF Corporation Eco-Efficiency Analysis which compared synthetic turf athletic fields with professionally installed and maintained grass alternatives, synthetic turf can lower consumption of energy, raw materials and solid waste generation depending on field usage. BASF also found that the average life cycle costs over 20 years of a natural grass field are 15 percent higher than the synthetic turf alternatives.

• Using synthetic turf can help environmentally conscientious builders and specifiers with LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) project certification from the U.S. Green Building Council in the areas of Water Efficient Landscaping, Recycled Content, Rapidly Renewable Material and Innovation in Design.

• From Disneyland and the Wynn Hotel to the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base and your neighbor’s yard, thousands of homes, businesses, golf courses, and public spaces have turned to synthetic grass to provide a lush, attractive landscape solution that requires minimal resources and maintenance.

• Water conservation is a necessity. In March 2011, Wharton published a report about the growing scarcity of water. It references a prediction by the 2030 Water Resources Group that by 2030 global water requirements will be “a full 40% above the current accessible, reliable supply.” Further, less than 3% of all available water is fresh and drinkable. Underground aquifers hold almost all the potable water available in liquid form, and their rate of depletion more than doubled between 1960 and 2000.[6] Yet, the EPA states that nationwide landscape irrigation is estimated to account for almost one-third of all residential water use, totaling more than 7 billion gallons per day.

• Synthetic turf promotes greater utilization of land, as you can do more with the same space than natural grass. Rooftops once deemed unusable for high-rises and residential buildings can now feature lush green areas. Hotels that had to restrict the overuse of the lawns can now schedule multiple functions year-long.

• The Southern Nevada Water Authority estimates that every square foot of natural grass replaced saves 55 gallons of water per year.[8] If an average lawn is 1,800 square feet, then Las Vegas homeowners with synthetic turf could save 99,000 gallons of water each year or about $400 annually. In Atlanta, homeowners could save $715 a year, not including much higher sewer charges.

• In its report, “Municipal Solid Waste in the United States, 2009 Facts and Figures”, the EPA estimates that 33.2 million tons of yard trimmings were generated in 2009, the third largest component of Municipal Solid Waste in landfills. As yard trimmings decompose, they generate methane gas, an explosive greenhouse gas, and acidic leachate.

• A June 2008 National Public Radio report called “Water-Thirsty Golf Courses Need to Go Green” reported “Audubon International estimates that the average American course uses 312,000 gallons per day. In a place like Palm Springs, where 57 golf courses challenge the desert, each course eats up a million gallons a day. That is, each course each day in Palm Springs consumes as much water as an American family of four uses in four years.”

"Honey, I shrunk the lawn!"

That’s how I greeted my husband recently after my busy morning with a shovel, newspapers and a few bales of pinestraw mulch. Some of our shrubs had overgrown their borders after eight years and mowing around them had become difficult.

So I solved the problem by enlarging the beds. I dug a new edge trench, then covered the grass with overlapping triple sheets of newsprint. That does a dandy job of killing the turf without chemicals. Cover the newspaper with a few inches of pinestraw and you can say “goodbye” to some of your turfgrass. Some golf courses in Nevada are removing large swaths of grass to deal with their water woes.

Lawn are now the largest “crop” grown in the Chesapeake watershed and are increasing at an annual rate of 8.6 percent—faster than the rate of population growth. Nationwide, 21 million acres are covered by grasses. World Bank predicts that two-thirds of the global population will suffer from lack of access to freshwater by 2025. Some rivers that formerly reached the sea no longer do so—all of the water is diverted before it reaches the river’s mouth. I saw that in Sonoma, California a few years ago as we drove westward along the Russian River. It slowly dwindled to a pond just a few hundred yards from the Pacific.

Does the average homeowner really spend $1200 watering their lawns and landscaping each year? 30 percent of the water used on the East Coast is used to water lawns. Yikes! And many of my neighbors still nearly scalp their lawns. REMEMBER THAT TALL FESCUE ENJOYS BEING 4 INCHES TALL. Then it can shade the soil and not dry out so soon. Chokes out weeds too since the seeds need sunlight to sprout.

Here are some tips if last summer’s water bill got your attention or you’re tired of mowing large expanses of the green stuff. Most homeowner associations will approve these small changes to your landscaping plan, but ask for permission first.

Groundcovers — Provide terrific alternatives to water-hogging turf especially in shady areas. A generous neighbor gave me a few bayberry volunteers seven years ago. They came with a hidden gem—periwinkle—that has now covered three large areas of our landscaped beds. No need to mulch there now. Technically, periwinkle is a non-native “invasive exotic” plant but I find it charming and far removed from invasives like kudzu and Japanese stiltgrass. Groundcovers that do well in our area include Liriope (if you don’t have deer) and most varieties of thyme and sedum.

Visit Virginia Native Plant Society’s website  for more info on invasive plants. Or Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation at http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural_heritage/invsppdflist.shtml

Go native — Native grasses are resistant to drought, insects, and disease. Maiden grass is one of my favorites although it too is considered invasive. But I welcome these “volunteers.” The helpful folks at James County Service Authority (JCSA) provide a list of “Water Smart” plants at http://www.bewatersmart.org/resources/plants/plants.html

If you want to see an attractive drought tolerant garden, visit the Ellipse Garden at Williamsburg Botanical Garden at 5535 Centerville Road. I was very impressed driving back to it.  James City County has preserved a LOT of land! (757) 903-9103

Think rain barrel — One inch of rain on 1,000 square feet of roof yields up to 600 gallons of rainwater. James City County averages 47 inches of precipitation per year—or 28,200 gallons per year.

Both Ace Peninsula stores in our area, as well as most garden stores have these barrels in stock. JCSA offers rebates up to $25 per rain barrel—limit four barrels. If your development signed a “Water Conservation Agreement,” you may not be eligible for this rebate. See JCSA’s rebate info at http://www.bewatersmart.org/pdfs/rebates/jcsarebatebooklet_10.pdf

* The Historic Triangle Senior Center (5301 Longhill Road, Williamsburg; 757-259-4187) sells rain barrels made from recycled 55 gallon olive barrels and include a screen, overflow valve and spigot--all for $50.

Give our aquifers a break — Let the soil dry between waterings to prevent lawn disease and help fight the unsustainable demand on groundwater. During hot, dry spells, a healthy lawn can survive on just one inch of water, including rain, per week. During our peak summer season, water usage dramatically increases by 60-70 percent.

If you are a JCSA customer, you are using water from the Chickahominy-Piney Point and Potomac Aquifers that are hundreds of thousands of years old and whose extraction is not being replenished by rainfall. Mining them for water today means depriving future generations of liquid treasure.

Turf is tricky in our area because we are in a transition zone between northern and southern climates. Neither cool season nor warm season turf absolutely thrives here, and maintaining a healthy lawn takes work.

Instead of long watering times on each station, I set our irrigation system to 10 minutes per oscillating station and 2 minutes per pop-up station at 5 a.m., with a repeat an hour later.

Or you can let your fescue go brown and dormant—just water once a month and it will (may?) bounce back in the fall.

Sure wish we could easily irrigate our plants with "gray water." There's little rationale for irrigation water (or to flush our toilets) to be the same quality of water as we need to brush our teeth or make ice cubes.

June 11, 2011

Phonebooks passe?

Let your fingers do the walking!

Does it seem like you just got a new phonebook, then there's another one waiting for you in the driveway? It sure seems that way.

When was the last time you used one anyway? The same day that you called "Information" for a phone number? Thanks to the Internet, phonebooks seem like a relic from Father Knows Best days.
So stop the presses (literally). Stop the waste of paper, ink, and fuel to deliver them.

One of our local phonebooks makes opting out possible. If you don't want to receive the "Local Edge" directory, call 1-800-388-8255; enter "2" and ask to be removed from their list.

Verizon received permission from 11 of 12 states to cease automatic delivery of these bookstops. AT&T is also trying to give the folks in 14 states this option. Seattle passed an ordinance in November, 2010 to allow customers to opt out of delivery. San Francisco just jumped on that opt-out bandwagon too.

Check out http://www.yellowpagesoptout.com/   to reduce those annoying arrivals in your driveway!

Heavenly advice about lawns and landscaping

You really have to laugh at this story, or you’ll want to cry.

GOD: "Frank, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there in America? What happened to the dandelions, violets, milkweeds and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But, all I see are these green rectangles."

St. FRANCIS: It's the tribes that settled there, Lord—the Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers “weeds” and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

GOD: Grass? But it's so boring. It's not colorful. It doesn't attract butterflies, birds and bees; only grubs and sod worms. It's sensitive to temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that pops up in the lawn.

GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it—sometimes twice a week.

GOD: They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay for the animals?

ST. FRANCIS: Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

ST. FRANCIS: No, Sir, just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

GOD: Now, let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. Then when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

ST. FRANCIS: Yes, Sir.

GOD: These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

ST. FRANCIS: You aren't going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it, so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

GOD: What nonsense! At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn, they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. It's a natural cycle of life.

ST. FRANCIS: You’d better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have a different cycle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD: No!? What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter to keep the soil moist and loose?

ST. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something that they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

GOD: And where do they get this mulch?

ST. FRANCIS: They cut down the trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

GOD: Enough! I don't want to think about this anymore. St. Catherine, you're in charge of the arts. What movie have you scheduled for us tonight?

ST. CATHERINE: 'Dumb and Dumber', Lord. It's a story about....

GOD: Never mind, I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis.