Author Archives: Jen A. Miller


The “Green” Kitchen

By changing your appliances and food storage methods, begin creating a "green" kitchen.

Green Kitchen

Photo: Flickr

Obviously there’s some green stuff in your kitchen, like lettuce and broccoli. But beyond buying organic food, it’s easy to make your kitchen more eco-friendly, whether you’re replacing your refrigerator or just banning bottled water from the fridge.

Use Energy-Efficient Appliances 
When measuring the greenness of your kitchen, the first thing to look at is your appliances. “Outside of heating and cooling, the refrigerator is the main energy hog in the home,” says Jennifer Powers, media manager of the National Resources Defense Council of New York, NY. “The great thing about [today’s] refrigerators is that automatically, no matter what kind you have, it’s probably a good 70 percent more efficient than the old gold or green version from your childhood.”

With any appliance, you’ll want to look for two things: the Energy Star and Energy Rating Number. The higher the energy rating number, the more efficient the appliance. Energy Star ranks appliance efficiency — any appliance with the Energy Star label is in the top 25 percent of energy performers.

The next thing to examine is temperature settings. “Set your refrigerator temperature at 38 to 42 degrees Fahrenheit; your freezer should be set between 0 and 5 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Powers. “Use the power-save switch if your fridge has one, and make sure the door seals tightly. You can check this by making sure that a dollar bill closed in between the door gaskets is difficult to pull out. If it slides easily between the gaskets, replace them.”

If you’re replacing a dishwasher, look for one that’s not only energy-efficient but also scrubs dishes well. That way, you can skip the pre-wash to save water, and use low-sudsing detergents, like those from Seventh Generation and Mrs. Meyers, which are non-toxic and biodegradable.

Build with Environmentally Friendly Materials
If you’re replacing or updating your décor, such as countertops, flooring and tile, look for sustainable materials like bamboo and cork, which come from plants that re-grow quickly from the same source (as opposed to wood; it takes decades to grow back a tree) or recycled content from companies like Green Sage and Green Building Supply.

“Going into a mining operation and mining out granite and marble is extremely energy intensive,” says Dr. Herb Hauser, president of Midtown Technologies, a green builder consulting firm based in New York City. Not only are they re-using materials, but they’re also cutting down on the energy required to mine and finish new products. Not everything is synthetic, either. Companies like Vetrazzo of Berkeley, CA, which uses recycled glass for countertops, are finding new ways to use recycled content to create unique looks.

But if marble or granite is the look you’ve always dreamed of, perform your due diligence and find out where your marble is coming from. Try to look local first. Buying locally means using less energy and fuel to transport the materials to and from the point of origin to the store to you. Added bonus? You’re supporting your local economy.

Green Your Food Preparation and Storage
Beyond the permanent features of your kitchen, you can also take a closer look at what you use to prepare, store and eat your food. “Go from plastic containers to glass,” suggests Dr. Hauser. “Glass containers are manufactured once, are used a lot until they break and then they’re recycled. Plastic has a much shorter lifespan than glass.”

That also means getting rid of bottled water. According to Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It by Elizabeth Royte, it takes 17 million barrels of oil each year to make plastic water bottles for the U.S. market. To eliminate using bottled water, add a filter to your faucet or get a whole house filter and use a refillable and re-washable water bottle.

Sometimes it’s not the kitchen but how we use it that makes it less environmentally friendly. A few small changes can make cooking and preparing food a greener process.

The first place to look is your water consumption. “Most of the water that we waste is not wasted when it’s in use,” says Hauser. “It’s wasted when it’s left on,” like if you’re washing something and step away but leave the faucet on. An easy way to rethink how you use water is to switch the faucet controls to your feet. “We have a foot pedal,” says Joaquin. “It forces people to be conscious of how much water you use.” It’s also sanitary — no more worrying about contaminating your facet after cutting chicken. You can find residential foot pedals at Pedal Valves.

You can also look for motion-controlled faucets — much like a faucet in a public restroom, they won’t turn on unless something is in front of it. Step away from the sink, and it’ll stop the water flow, therefore conserving this precious resource, as well as cutting down on your water bill.

Take recycling one step further by composting organic materials from your kitchen. This not only eliminates how much waste goes into landfills — the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 23 percent of the U.S. waste stream is yard and food trimmings — but it also puts nutrients back into your soil. For an easy-to-use guide to composting, check out our Quick Tip: How to Compost or the Compost Guide.

Whether you’re changing your appliances or changing the way you think about water usage and your garbage, it’s easy to make your kitchen into a greener one.


The Green Bedroom

Here are a few eco-friendly ways to light your bedroom and clean your air.

How To Be Eco Friendly

Photo: Flickr

Your Electricity
You hear it everywhere, but it’s an easy and cost-effective change: compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs. When Leah Ingram wanted to trim her family’s budget, which she wrote about in her blog, www.suddenlyfrugal.com, light bulbs were the first thing to change. “While they are significantly more expensive than the incandescent ones, we’ve seen our electric bill drop,” she says.

Got shutters? Use them. If you don’t, install them. They’re the easiest way to keep hot air inside in the winter and cold air inside in the summer. “We open up the window treatments so on warm sunny days we help to heat the house,” says Ingram.

Ceiling fans. They might not cool you like air conditioning will, but they help your system circulate the air, and the breeze keeps your skin temperatures cool.

Your Bed
“If your linens are made of synthetic materials, you could be sleeping with toluene [an inhalant drug], formaldehyde, PDBEs [polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or flame-retardants] and petroleum derivatives,” says Anca Novacovici, founder and president of Eco-Coach, an environmental sustainability consulting company based in Washington, DC. Choose bedding and pillows made of organic cotton or bamboo instead. Avoid polyester sheets, which are made with petroleum-based fibers.

“Bamboo doesn’t have as much of an impact on the environment when it’s harvested,” says Linda Chipperfield, vice president of Green Seal, a nonprofit organization that writes environmental standards and gives their seals to the best of the best.

If you’re in the market for a new bed, think green, too. “Standard mattresses are made with petroleum-based foams and soaked in about one and a half pounds of toxic chemicals,” says Novacovici. Plus, if you or anyone in your family has allergies or asthma, the encasing on green mattresses help keeps dust mites from coming into contact with your skin.

Your Air
Clean the air inside your room by installing high-efficiency particle air (HEPA) filters. Not only will it improve indoor air quality — the EPA estimates that indoor air is two to five times as polluted as outdoor air — but it could help your heart since a recent study found that HEPA filters can improve cardiovascular health. To ensure you’re getting a top-quality filter, look for those that trap 99.97 percent of particles that are 0.3 microns in diameter.

Your Cleaning Routine
Get rid of anything that says “danger” or “poison.” Instead, check out care2.com for easy-to-make recipes for household cleaners, most of which can be made with baking soda, white distilled vinegar and liquid soap. The site even has instructions on how to make a non-toxic cleaning kit. You can also check out eco-friendly cleaning lines, such as Seventh Generation, Mrs. Meyers, and Green Works from Clorox, whose products are non-toxic and biodegradable. Clean on a regular schedule. “The more consistent you are with cleaning, the less deep cleaning you’ll have to do in the long run,” says Chipperfield.

… AND IF YOU’RE REDECORATING 

Your Paint
You don’t need to change your paint to go green. But if you’re considering repainting your room, look for paint cans with low or no volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs . You can also look for paints with the Green Seal stamp of approval. “You want to buy paints that have minimum toxins and minimum violates so when you’re painting, the fumes aren’t toxic,” says Chipperfield. Benjamin Moore, Dutch Boy, MAB Paints, and Cloverdale are just a few name brands with the Green Seal. You can find a full list at the paints section of the Green Seal website.

Your Floors
Look for carpet that comes from recycled content. Not only are you recycling, but if you or the next owner decides to replace that carpet, it’s recyclable, too. If you’re thinking of hardwood, look for products approved by the Forest Stewardship Council, which certifies companies and products that practice responsible forest management.

Your Furniture
Remember the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle? The same goes for furniture, so consider going consignment if you’re in the market for a new bedroom set. “At the end of the day, you’ve saved about 10 trees,” says Terri Bowersock, of Terri’s Consign and Design in Phoenix, AZ, plus you can save 50 percent on cost. To make sure you’re buying good wood, look at the back and underside of dressers to make sure you’re buying solid wood instead of pressed wood covered in a veneer. Also, pull out the drawers to see how they’re slotted into the dresser. Wood on wood is best. Plastic wheels on thin metal slides? Pass.

Small changes can turn your bedroom into eco-friendly green. Just remember to recycle what you’re not using anymore — whether you go green now or later.


How To: Rodent-Proof Your Home

For best results in DIY pest control, stop critters while they're still in the yard.

DIY Pest Control

Photo: shutterstock.com

While Ratatouille might have been a runaway blockbuster film, no one wants rats in the house — or mice or squirrels or any other unwelcome rodent guests. Stopping the problem before it starts is your best line of defense.

How do you keep rodents out of your space? Skip the trip to the animal shelter for a stray cat. Prevention starts at home — and in your yard.

Your Yard
First thing’s first: Seal all your garbage in metal, closed trash cans. Then, get rid of anything in your yard that gives a rodent a place to stay. “You want to make sure that your property and yard and fence line is free of debris and clutter,” says Mark ‘Shep’ Sheperdigian, vice president of technical services for Rose Pest Solutions in Troy, MI, which includes keeping your landscaping minimal. While ground cover can be attractive, it also provides shelter to rodents and their families.

Make sure your semi-outdoor storage areas, like garages and sheds, aren’t potential homes for rodents, either. “A cluttered garage can hold a large number of rodents,” says Sheperdigian. “If you have a garage that has 20 years of yard sale stuff in it, maybe you should have that yard sale.” Not only will keeping this clutter bring rodents closer to your home, but the rodents will most likely chew through and leave excrement on the stuff you’re storing anyway.

If you’re keeping a garden, or really like that ground cover, consider adding one of the next generation of decoys to your garden decorations. Think beyond the plastic owl from the hardware store. “Pests don’t even pay it any mind because they realize that it can’t move — let alone hurt them,” says Mona Zemesky, marketing manager of Bird-X Inc. in Chicago. Instead, she recommends the Prowler Owl, which is life-size and made of lightweight Tyvek material, so it moves and floats in the breeze. “If you hang it from a tree, it takes the motion of the wind and looks alive,” she says. You can also try Irri-Tape. To your neighbors, this two-inch wide holographic strip will look like a pretty ribbon direction. To a rodent, though, it looks like the sheen of a snake or the eyes of an owl, which will scare off the rodent.

Your Home
No matter how clean you keep your yard, any open space is going to invite critters, and they’ll try to get to the warmth and food in your home. Cover any crack and hole in your house down to the smallest of gaps.

“The only thing that limits them from fishing through a crack is the size of their skulls,” says Sheperdigian. For rats, that’s the size of a quarter. For mice, that’s the size of a dime. Pay special attention to gaps and holes around pipes. Leaks can widen any holes and create entranceways.

The best material you can use to cover and fill in those holes is copper wool, because rodents will chew through foams and caulks, and steel wool rusts too quickly. You can also use an aluminum window screen or hardware cloth.

But don’t jam up every hole in your house or your home won’t be able to breathe, which means using those aluminum window screens over openings like windows, door sweeps, vents, and chimneys.

Another option worth considering is sonic and ultrasonic repellants; however, pest control pros disagree on their effectiveness. Some swear by these plug-in boxes; Bird-X reports that these repellants are their second biggest sellers after Irri-Tape. Other professionals call them junk. The theory behind sonic and ultrasonic repellants is that they emit sounds that humans can’t hear but pests can, which is why they keep out. If you’re going to give it a go, try a professional machine, which runs about $95, over the $3 version at the hardware store. The professional-grade machines, which are available commercially, can cover up to 4,000 feet. Plug it in your basement, which is where rats and mice are most likely to be found.

Also, make sure you’re not leaving out any food, and that food in your kitchen is kept above counter level and sealed up tight. Don’t forget pet food, either. If Fido isn’t hungry for dinner, don’t leave his food out overnight in the bowl. Rodents are nighttime creatures, and any dog or cat food that is left out will look like a buffet to a mouse or rat.

Worst-Case Scenario
Don’t feel like you’ve failed if you find those telltale rat or mouse droppings. Rodents are remarkable at getting into things they shouldn’t. If you’re not sure what to do to get them out of your house — or aren’t willing to deal with the kill vs. trap-and-release dilemma—don’t hesitate to call a professional. The longer the rodents are in your house, the more droppings — which could carry disease—they’ll leave, and the more damage they’ll likely do.


Should Your First Home Be a Fixer-Upper?

Houses needing a little TLC might seem like a bargain, especially for your first home, but are you the person to give that house an overhaul? Find out whether or not should strap on the tool belt.

Photo: candysdirt.com

Mark Brock is a fan of fixer-uppers. He bought his first in the midseventies, a circa-1935 house in Columbia, SC, that was rich in history but short on modern conveniences. “Very little had been done to it, but it was in good shape and structurally sound,” he says. It turned out to be a good investment of time, money, and sweat equity.

It takes a certain mind-set — and budget — to see the project through, and a slow market is also making more of those handyman’s specials available and attractively priced.

How can you tell if a house is a diamond in the rough worth excavating? It has to do with the actual house —and with you. Here are some considerations to make when you’re thinking of buying a fixer-upper.

Is the Problem Cosmetic or Structural?
Cosmetic fixes are those that would make a house prettier, like replacing unattractive awnings or painting or landscaping — “things that won’t cost a lot of money and won’t require a lot of contractors,” says Ilona Bray, author of Nolo’s Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home. You’re more likely to find these kinds of homes now, too.

But if the problem is structural, you might want to pass, especially if you’re new to home repair. Fixing it will it be expensive and possibly time consuming but the issue at hand could be a sign that the house is not in good shape. Structural problems would involve anything that requires a contractor or knocking down walls, like trouble with the foundation, termites, or plumbing. These are things that should be found on a home inspection, which generally happens after you’ve made your bid and before closing on the house. If any structural issues are found on that inspection, think seriously about whether or not the home is going to be worth the extra cost.

Do You Have the Time?
If you’re the kind of person who wants to go to the gym after work and wants your weekends free to go to the movies, then you’re not a candidate for a fixer-upper. Fixer-uppers are time drains, and they disrupt your life.

But if you have an alternate place to stay while the work is being done or can continue to rent and pay the mortgage on a new place, the disruption won’t be a big issue. Of course, if you’re a DIY diehard and love the process of turning one thing into another, then the disruption might not bother you as much as someone who likes things neat and clean and finished.

If you’re hiring a contractor, you also need time to do some research before asking for bids. That way, you’ll have a better idea of what things should cost when calling a contractor and which contractor in your area is the best person to use.

Realtors often get involved in fixing houses they’re trying to sell, so real estate agent might be a good source for candidates. Get at least three estimates for any work you’ll need done, ask for references, and if possible go and see examples of their work. You can also ask your neighbors who they used and what they thought of the work.

Do You Have the Money?
If you pooled every last penny for that down payment, you’re not going to have much left over for home renovations, so you might be better off buying a house that’s livable as is. But if you have money set aside for repairs or you plan on taking out a loan, make sure you get an accurate estimate and then add another 20 percent on top of that. If you’re doing everything with borrowed money with no margin for error, think again. There will be extra expenses no matter how carefully you plan.

And don’t forget to factor in those extras that pop up when you’re living in a disrupted space: child care, dog care, takeout, and days missed from work because you have to be at home when the contractor is there.

Expect some things to go awry and when you’re budgeting for you fixer-upper, face the fact that at some point you’ll probably need to call in an expert

How Solid Is Your Relationship?
Buying a house is a stressful experience. Throwing a renovation on top of that, especially for a lot of first-time buyers, isn’t always ideal. “A lot of people move into houses soon after they’ve entered a long-term relationship,” says Bray. “That can be tough on a relationship if you’re trying to figure out these difficult things that have big implications for your finances and how you want to spend your life.”

If you’re single and still want to fix up an older home, make sure you have a network of helpers and never do the work by yourself. “The other person’s perspective is invaluable in figuring the best way to attack and complete a project, and by using a checks-and-balances system you ensure you’re not skipping steps and you’re using the right material — and you’re just getting some help getting the job done,” says Jennifer Musselman, author of Own It! The Ups and Downs of Homebuying for Women Who Go It Alone. “If you’re fortunate to have handy family members or friends, definitely enlist their help. Just make sure to enlist the help of people you trust and know their level of experience and expertise in what you’re asking them to do. Nothing could start a family feud faster than getting free help and someone accidentally breaks something or does something wrong.”

The one thing you want to make sure you don’t do, whether you’re single or not, is to watch the myriad of renovations shows on television and think that those dramatic and quick transformations will be your experience. Remember, that’s not really reality TV, and you might end up a disaster episode. But if you plan ahead with your time, money, and resources, your handyman’s special could be more than worth it.