sustainable living

Home Energy Audits are Easy and Worth Your Time

By Curt Spalding, Regional Administrator

I had a great visit recently with a couple of eager young energy consultants sent by my electric utility, and I’m feeling rather good about the results. I learned that all in all, my 2,500-square-foot colonial home is reasonably energy efficient. And I learned that I can invest just $1,000 to make improvements that will more than pay me back in three years.

Since EPA New England is encouraging residents across the region to take advantage of home energy audits, I asked my utility, National Grid, to audit my house. I wanted to find out first-hand what happens in these audits, which, by the way, are often offered for free.

Even though I am the regional administrator at EPA’s New England office, my experience was pretty much what any homeowner could expect – if you ignore the two suited, but very polite executives that trailed me and the consulting engineers eagerly checking on everything from my boiler, insulation and wiring to my refrigerators, stoves and windows.

The entire visit was actually quite fun, but then, I love this kind of stuff. And in just two to three hours I found out that the areas where I thought I was doing well with energy efficiency were not always that great. I learned that my 93-year-old four-bedroom colonial could use a bit more insulation, and that it hosts an attic fan that turns on when it shouldn’t. I was also surprised to hear that the high-priced, energy-efficient air conditioner I so proudly purchased was installed wrong. The installers hadn’t connected the duct work correctly, so I’ve been cooling a 100-degree attic, in addition to our living space.

If I correct these issues, about 60 percent of the $2,500 cost of improvements will be paid for by tax credits and government subsidies, leaving me with just a $1,000 bill. Oh and, they also gave us 10 free LED light bulbs to replace less efficient ones.

Subsidies and programs already in place in New England put us ahead of the curve of national policy. The US Clean Power Plan, which EPA expects to finalize this summer, will require all states to draft a plan to help cut carbon pollution from the power sector by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. EPA suggests states look at using less fossil fuel, using fossil fuel more efficiently, cutting back on demand and increasing the use of low emission, no–emission or renewable resources. Every state can tailor its own best plan based on their needs.

Each state has its own incentives, and many provide free audits. EPA also offers the ENERGY STAR Home Advisor, an online tool to help consumers save money and improve their homes’ energy efficiency through recommended home-improvement projects. Simple actions, like upgrading a bathroom showerhead, can save thousands of gallons of water a year, which translate to lower water and energy bills.

I asked for a utility audit because I wanted to take part in a program EPA encourages. I wanted to see what is was like to have a home energy audit. It was so satisfying I felt compelled to wander over to neighbors, utility folks trailing behind me, and share with them the lessons I had learned from my audit. I know the improvements I make may only be a tiny difference in the nation’s emissions, but if each of us makes a few recommended changes, it quickly adds up to a big deal.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Rain Barrels of Savings

by Jennie Saxe

As I spent a recent weekend doing springtime yard work, I noticed that the side yard of my house seems to have washed away over the past few years. After a short investigation, I realized that three downspouts on my home pointed at this exact location. I wondered…could I use green infrastructure to help slow the flow of rainwater?

I decided to install a rain barrel to direct some of the rain water to storage instead of letting it flow as run-off across the ground. Reducing the amount of run-off from my roof will keep the soil from washing away. As an added benefit, the stored rain water will be perfect for watering our flowers and vegetable garden.

Full disclosure: DIY is not my strong suit. Even though it’s fairly simple to build your own rain barrel, I purchased mine. All that was left was to follow the directions for connecting it to a downspout.  Here’s the finished product:

A recent, brief rain shower filled about one-third of this rain barrel.

A recent, brief rain shower filled about one-third of this rain barrel.

The rain barrel was installed in a couple of hours, but I did make some rookie mistakes. If you’re thinking about installing your first rain barrel, here are some helpful hints:

  • Location: I knew which downspout to connect to, but I also had to be sure I was able to connect a hose. I also had to consider where excess water would drain once the barrel was filled. Excess water can be directed to overflow, to another rain barrel, or to a rain garden.
  • Safety: A 60-gallon rain barrel will weigh 500 pounds when full, so it’s a good idea to make sure that little ones won’t be tempted to play around it. I used a bed of stones to make sure the base of the rain barrel was sturdy in all weather and able to support the weight of the barrel. To protect against mosquitos using your rain water as a breeding ground, be sure to have screening over all openings.
  • Level: This was the hardest part. Since you won’t want to move the rain barrel once it’s installed, take all the time you need on this step.
  • Have the right tools: If you purchase your rain barrel, follow the instructions. Common tools will include a level, a hacksaw, and a tape measure. Be sure you also have gloves and eye protection – a cut aluminum gutter can be sharp!

Now, if it would just rain! The conditions in my area have just been declared “abnormally dry” (designated “D0” on the U.S. Drought Monitor map). But with my rain barrel installed, I’ll be ready to save the rain when it does arrive.

 

About the author: Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region in 2003 and works in the Water Protection Division on sustainability programs. She thanks fellow Healthy Waters bloggers Steve Donohue and Ken Hendrickson for their helpful hints on rain barrel installation.

 

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Sustainable Weekend Activities: NYC

Check out our top eco-friendly weekend recommendations and feel free to share your own in the comments section.

Canstruction Design Competition: Twenty-five teams of architects, engineers, contractors and the students they mentor will compete to build enormous structures made entirely out of unopened cans of food, which are then on view to the public until they are dismantled and donated to City Harvest for distribution to those in need. Admission is free, but visitors are asked to bring a can of high quality food to the exhibition’s collection station to reach their goal of collecting over 50,000 pounds of non-perishable edibles. Saturday, February 9 and Sunday February 10, 10:00 a.m. –6:00 p.m.

Clothing and Textile Recycling:  Textiles can be dropped off weekly at eight select Greenmarkets: 97th Street, Union Square (Monday and Saturday only), Grand Army Plaza, Fort Greene, McCarren Park, Inwood, Tompkins Square and Jackson Heights.  Collections accept clean and dry clothing, paired shoes, bedding, linens, hats, handbags, belts, fabric scraps 36″ x 36″ or larger and other textiles. Click here for the full schedule of textile recycling stations.

Free Music Fridays at the American Folk Art Museum: Enjoy live music every Friday from 5:30 –7:30 p.m. Admission is always free.

Health & Race Walking in Central Park— Still looking to turn over a new leaf in 2013? Join other New Yorkers as you get fit and enjoy Central Park’s winter landscapes. Saturday, February 9, 9:30 a.m.—11:00 a.m.

Lunar New Year Firecracker Celebration: Join the Better Chinatown Society for the 14th Annual New Year firecracker ceremony and cultural festival at Sara Roosevelt Park this Sunday, February 10 at 11:00 a.m.

Rechargeable Battery and Cell Phone Recycling: Here at EPA, eCycling is one of our favorite topics. If you’re interested in diverting e-waste from landfills, check out GrowNYC’s collection boxes for rechargeable batteries and cell phones, stationed at Greenmarkets across Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. For a complete list of hours and locations, click here.

Volunteer: Find volunteer opportunities in your area as an easy way to shake up your weekend plans (while also lending a hand).

ea as an easy way to shake up your weekend plans (while also lending a hand).

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Vacation in Jamaica – Being Part of the Community

By Linda Longo

Every February we vacation in rural Jamaica.  This year will be our fifth time staying at the same place.  You’d think we’d want to try a different vacation destination, but the community of Treasure Beach, in Saint Elizabeth Perish, has a genuine welcome to visitors that makes me feel like I’m part of the community.  Each day around 3:00 I take a walk along the dirt road to meet kids playing with sticks or hanging out under shade trees.  I wave to women hanging laundry to dry, I say “hi” to men walking past with heavy packages.  I step inside a local store and see the bare necessities on the shelf.  It amazes me on how little they get by on.

As a guest to Treasure Beach, it’s customary to bring gifts.  So I prepare for the gift giving by asking my family to donate unwanted clothing and shop at the local discount store to catch end of summer sales.  In September I got shorts and tank tops for $1.99 each! The friends we vacation with usually bring drug store gifts like tooth brushes, paste, aspirin, bug itch ointment, etc.  We also like to give a special gift to the two women who cook and clean for us, Ms. Jenny and Ms. Laura.   Now I’m sewing them each a handbag from colorful reused fabrics.  My bags are made out of fabric from old shirts, jeans, wool slacks and other items that can’t be worn again.  It’s fun to create something pretty out of something that was destined for a landfill.  Zippers are still good, buttons are usable, and the worn jean material is quite fashionable.

The community works hard to help each other.  Some families have small businesses, but I get the feeling most folks are low income and work as cooks for vacationers like us.  A community support network exists through the Treasure Beach Women’s Group (TBWG).  They work on job development, healthcare and physical abuse issues.  This year I’m making handbags to sell at their gift shop and TBWG will keep 100% to support their efforts.  I wanted to make a dozen bags, but as of today I only have 5.  I’ll make a few more this weekend.

The next time you go on vacation consider bringing a little something from your community to give as a gift.  Even if you never go back to that same place, you will leave a cultural footprint that I imagine will be cherished and remembered.

About the author: Linda started her career with EPA in 1998 working in the water quality program. For the past 7 years she’s helped regulated facilities understand how to be in compliance with EPA enforcement requirements. Outside of work Linda enjoys exploring neighborhoods of NYC, photographing people in their everyday world, and sewing handbags made from recycled materials that she gives to her friends.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Super Storm Sandy Restores Habitat in Sunken Meadow Park

By Mark Tedesco

The storm surge associated with Super Storm Sandy wreaked havoc on coastal communities, altering both human and natural structures.  However, coastal ecosystems have evolved with, and have been shaped by, the forces of coastal storms over the centuries. Periodic storms can even have beneficial effects on certain aspects of the natural ecosystem.  One such example is the restoration of intertidal flow and habitat in Sunken Meadow Creek at Sunken Meadow State Park, New York.

The storm surge associated with Hurricane Sandy destroyed a man-made berm across Sunken Meadow Creek that was constructed as part of the development of Sunken Meadow State Park in the early 1950s.  The berm created a road and walkway to nearby woodland for park visitors, but the undersized culverts that were installed restricted the natural tidal flow to the creek from Long Island Sound.  As a result, saltwater fish were prevented from swimming and spawning upstream, and an invasive form of the common reed, Phragmites, proliferated along the now freshwater creek.  Using EPA funding provided through the Long Island Sound Study, New York State Parks was planning to remove the berm to restore tidal flushing to the creek.

But on October 29-30, 2012, Hurricane Sandy decided that Mother Nature knows best, impatiently breaching and eroding away portions of the berm. As a result, Sunken Meadow Creek has returned to its natural state, an estuary where fresh and salt water mix.  The fresh water common reed, Phragmites, will most likely die back and be replaced by saltmarsh grasses.  Saltwater species cut off from the creek, including alewife, striped bass, juvenile bluefish, winter flounder, weakfish, silverside, killifish, American eel and various shellfish, waterfowl, shorebirds and wading birds will all benefit.  Although intertidal exchange has been restored by the force of Sandy, planning is now underway to control bank erosion and restore access to the other side of the creek for park visitors.

About the author: Mark Tedesco is director of EPA’s Long Island Sound Office.  The office coordinates the Long Island Sound Study, administered by EPA as part of the National Estuary Program under the Clean Water Act.  Mr. Tedesco has worked for EPA for 25 years.  He received his M.S. in marine environmental science in 1986 and a B.S in biology in 1982 from Stony Brook University.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Cooking and Being Green

By Nora Lopez

Brrrr … It’s cold!  I want to eat things that warm up my belly once I get home from work. But my schedule is pretty hectic. I am lucky, I only work 10 minutes from the office, but when I get home it is around 5:30 pm and I usually cook a real meal every night as we are not into picking up food on the way home… there is nothing like a home cooked meal! However, I do need to be out of the house by 6:30 pm to go to the gym, every night … a commitment I set for myself once the kids were out of the house :)  Dinner needs to be ready in one hour….oh and by the way, I just started a Paleo diet this week  (if you do not know what it is Google it… and it will open your eyes to a new way of cooking!).

So  what does my ordeal have anything to do with cooking and being green? Let me introduce you to my solution to the rat race: The CROCKPOT! I just put it on early in the morning, before I leave to go to work, and when I come in I have a meal ready, add a salad and voila! Yummy food :)   I am so much into it that I was trying to convince my sister to get one, but she was very hesitant … she lives in Puerto Rico and electricity is extremely expensive there. So she was concerned that having a Crockpot on all day would increase her electric bill.

So the scientist in me was turned on and went digging for information on the energy efficiency of this pot.  What I found was great information that says that it depends on your stove and type of fuel. The following table I found the most helpful because it was simple to understand. Obviously you need to adjust per your watt costs, but it gives you an idea of the energy consumption:

What I also found is that there are so many web sites for people who are concerned about the energy consumption issue; what is better or not; weighing the pros and cons, that it really made me feel good that so many people think about how our behavior can influence how we can save in energy resources.

As for my sister, once she saw all the information I gathered on how she would be saving money in electrical … she ran to the department store and got an energy efficient Crockpot and she invited me over to delicious pulled pork the next time I was in Puerto Rico.

My first convert! …. Anyone else?

About the Author: Nora works out of EPA’s Edison, New Jersey facility, where she manages the Region’s Toxics Release Inventory Program.  After work she can often be found channeling her inner chef.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Eco-friendly Weekend Activities

Cross Central Park Promenade Tour – You will see many surprises: a hidden bench that tells time, miniature boats powered by the wind, a magnificent sculpture celebrating fresh water. These are just some of the sites on this east-to-west walk through the Park. Sunday, February 3, 2:30 – 3:45 p.m.

Family Art Project at Wave Hill: March Out The Mardi Gras! Join visiting native New Orleans artist and instructor Paul Deo to make a colorful parasol, hat, nature mask or funky bead necklace. Then join an imaginative indoor parade as we create the sights, colors and sounds of the Mardi Gras at the Ecology Building in Wave Hill. Sunday, February 3, 10:00 a.m. –1:00 p.m.

Fix Your Bike Workshop: Come learn how to fix bikes, do simple maintenance and tune-ups at the Time’s Up bike mechanic skill share. Sunday, February 3, 6:00 p.m.

NYC Audubon Winter EcoCruise: Step aboard the New York Water Taxi for a winter adventure in New York Harbor! Look for harbor seals on the rocky shores of Governors Island and the more remote Hoffman and Swinburne Islands. Learn about the surprisingly diverse winter birds of New York City, including ducks, geese, loons, and sandpipers – many of which migrate south from the Arctic Circle. Dress warmly and bring your binoculars because there will be plenty to see! Departs Pier 17, South Street Seaport. Sunday, February 3, 2:00 –4:00 p.m.

The Butterfly Conservatory: Tropical Butterflies Alive in Winter – Ready for summer? Stop by the American Museum of Natural History this weekend to frolic with 500 butterfly specimens in a balmy 80 degree vivarium. Saturday-Sunday, February 2-3, 10:00 a.m. – 5:45 p.m.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Free Newspapers Saved From Becoming Litter

By Linda Longo

"I thought to take the photo after I picked up the papers, but notice the green NYC recycling box in the background."

On many New York City street corners you’ll see those free newspaper boxes.   There’s one on my block in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn.   Every so often I’ll notice our box is tipped over and the wind has scattered the free papers and everyone walks past oblivious. I’ve done it too. I’ll walk past thinking “well, I should pick it all up because a garbage can is right there”,  then I’m two blocks past and figure someone else will do the good deed.   This Sunday on my way to the local farmer’s market on 5th avenue and 4th street I saw that the wind was really enjoying the free papers.  The entire box was tipped over and the flimsy lid was open.  I placed my grocery cart off to the side and began to pick up the heaps of newspapers.  I quickly noticed the papers were not badly damaged so I righted the tipped over box and proceeded to place the papers back inside.  The few that were muddy I conveniently placed in the green NYC newspaper recycling box just feet away.   No one pointed and laughed at me like I secretly imagined they would.  People kept to their business, but I hope they noticed me because maybe the next time they see spilled free papers they’ll do the same.

I don’t go around picking up trash on a regular basis because I don’t want to get dirty, but that’s my hang up.  We need to understand that trash makes it way to the streets and into the sewer openings where it clogs our drainage system.  And when as little as 2” of rain happens our NYC sewers can get overwhelmed and sometimes this trash ends up in our waterways.  So if we all take a little effort to think about putting our gum wrappers in our pockets till we pass a trash can, or picking up the spilled newspapers, we’ll all contribute just a little to the welfare of our city.  And by the way, on the way home from the market I saw a lady open the free newspaper box and take one.  That made my day.

About the author: Linda started her career with EPA in 1998 working in the water quality program. For the past 7 years she’s helped regulated facilities understand how to be in compliance with EPA enforcement requirements. Outside of work Linda enjoys exploring neighborhoods of NYC, photographing people in their everyday world, and sewing handbags made from recycled materials that she gives to her friends.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Sustainable Weekend Activities to Keep you Warm!

It may be cold, but there’s no need to hibernate! We’ve got suggestions to help you brave the temps while still staying sustainable and eco-friendly.

Animal Autographs – Head to Staten Island to learn how to identify Greenbelt inhabitants by their footprints. Walk and crafting geared to ages 4-8. Sunday, January 27,  1 p.m.

Eco-Crafting Competition – Teams will compete to create crafts out of discarded materials in this Iron Chef-style competition. Come out and cheer for your favorite up-cyclers! Friday, January 25, 6 p.m.

Family Art Project: Give a Winter Bird a Home – Learn how to make a birdhouse or feeder with recycled materials. Entrance is free at Wave Hill Gardens until noon on Saturday. January 26, 10 a.m.

Light Show at Winter Garden – Check out the opening weekend of the LED-light installation at the World Financial Center Winter Garden. Daily from sunset to 12 a.m.

Winter Jam – It’s time for the annual winter sports festival in Central Park! Get out and explore some of the winter activities such as skiing, snowshoeing, animal tracking and more. This year there is even a doggie snow zone! Saturday, January 26, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Woodlands Discovery in Central Park – Explore the North Woods with a Discovery Kit geared toward kids ages 8-12. Binoculars, a hand lens and flora/fauna guides provided help inspire woodland adventures in the wilds of Central Park. Friday-Sunday, January 25-27, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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NYC Sustainable Weekend Recommendations

Greening the Apple’s weekend recommendations are back for 2013! Start the year off on a green foot with some of these activities!

Electronic Waste Recycling at Tekserve— The Lower East Side Ecology Center is bringing one of its 10th Annual “After the Holidays” E-waste Events to Tekserve in Chelsea to help you responsibly recycle  all of your unwanted or broken gadgets. Spread the word to your friends and neighbors! Saturday, January 19, 10:00 a.m.—4:00 p.m.

Emergency Preparedness Training in Prospect Park— Whether you are preparing for an extended journey through the woods or just want to be more prepared for any situation, an emergency preparedness program is perfect for you. Let the Urban Park Rangers help prepare you for the unexpected. Sunday, January 20, 1:00 p.m.

Health & Race Walking in Central Park— Still looking to turn over a new leaf in 2013? Join other New Yorkers as you get fit and enjoy Central Park’s winter landscapes. Saturday, January 19, 9:30 a.m.—11:00 a.m.

Ice Skating in Van Cortland Park— If you haven’t been to the ice rink in Van Cortland Park this winter, what are you waiting for? Saturdays, 12:00 p.m.—10:00 p.m., Sundays, 12:00 p.m.—8:00 p.m.

Tropical Paradise at the NY Botanical Gardens— Want to get out of the cold? Check out the Botanical Garden’s “Tropical Paradise,” featuring orange-yellow crotons, fuchsia bromeliads and more! You’ll feel like you’re on a tropical vacation without having to leave the City! Saturdays and Sundays, 10:00—6:00 p.m.

Winter Constellations and Stargazing— Winter’s long nights provide ample opportunity to stare into the sky and see stars.  Learn to recognize the constellations of winter, and then gaze into the night sky on the lawn in front of the Greenbelt Conservancy’s Nature Center to see which constellations you can find.  Registration required. Sunday, January 20, 5:30 p.m.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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