Sunday, August 10, 2008

Worm Update

I’ve previously posted about my adventure into vermiculture. Since I’ve had my first casting harvest I thought it appropriate to post an update. As a novice worm farmer (and I use that phrase lightly) I must admit to making some mistakes. Although the castings have come out rich and dark (apparently a sign of a successful harvest) there were a few minor setbacks. The first of which is fruit flies. Not uncommon to worm bins I had more than my share. A word to the wise here, don’t leave you’re scrap bowl out for more than a day or two before adding it to your bin. If you need to keep it longer you can place it in the fridge or freezer until the time you need it. If you happen to encounter fruit flies before then a minute or two in the microwave should rectify the situation. I was able to reduce my fruit fly infestation to a fruit fly or two here and there thanks to the Internet. A few well placed traps all but eliminated the problem. Be sure to look up fruit fly traps if you encounter the same problem as they are very simple to make and extremely effective.

The next mistake I made was foul odor. Although not overpowering it was a tad unpleasant. Even just the hint of a foul odor in my basement makes me a bit uneasy. If you encounter this all you really need to do is stop feeding your bin. The odor comes from over feeding your bin and once you stop feeding it your worms should make short order of the excess food. Once the excess food is dispensed of the odor will disappear. It’s just that simple.

Since I’ve started my little experiment in vermiculture I’ve notice that my diet has become more produce based. The increase in produce has caused an increase in produce scraps. Increased produce scraps leads to an increase in worm population and in order to accommodate this increase in population I’ve decided to add additional worm bins. I’m up to 3 now and expect to add a fourth shortly. This would appear to be more work but aside from casting harvest I haven’t really noticed a difference in effort.

I’m no expert but from my experience the toughest part of composting your produce scraps via red worms is harvesting the castings. It’s a time consuming and tedious task. It is for this reason I’ve decided to come up with a more efficient means of harvesting the castings. I pulled a drawer out of a piece of furniture in my bedroom (that was destined for Craig’s List anyway) and decided to pull the bottom off replacing it with screening to screen out my castings. Although I’ve yet to do this I feel pretty confident it will make relatively short work of casting harvesting. I’ll keep you posted on the results.

When my friends and neighbors learn of my basement activity they seem genuinely surprised at first. I’ve since found that the promise of future castings have brought me fresh, organic, pesticide free produce. It’s nice to know that the power of castings in the future will bring me a meal today. For some reason I can’t get the phrase “I’ll gladly pay to you tomorrow for a cheeseburger today” out of my head. When people learn that worm castings are 7 times more effective than normal composting I think the little wheels in their brains start turning. Add that to the fact that I expect to start making a “tea” out of my castings and I think the lure is just too lucrative to pass up.

Ok, I’m just going to finish this up with one final note. I told a friend of mine of my activities and although they are not composting with red worms they started to compost their food scraps in a pile at the corner of their garden. Something they didn’t do previously and I’d like to think I had something to do with that. I’m jealous over the fact that they have a backyard enabling them to grow a garden and they seem to be jealous over the fact that I have 3 worm bins in my basement. I’m guessing that we’re going to have a productive relationship (produce wise) in the future. It shouldn’t be that hard to trade my castings and tea for fresh produce.

What are you doing with your food scraps?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Portable Solar Charger Review

I decided I was going to do away with alkaline batteries in favor of rechargeable batteries. Taking it one step further I thought I would charge my batteries via the sun. Off to the Internet I went in search of a portable solar panel. The first item I picked up was a small, flexible panel that was soldered to a little unit which holds 4 AA batteries. There is one window in my bedroom which gets a lot of sun during the day so I placed my unit in the window and went to work. Upon my return I placed 2 AA batteries into my digital camera and sure enough it showed a full charge. For about $20-$25 I’ve found away to free myself from my dependence on disposable AA batteries.

Although I’m quite pleased with my little solar battery charger it only charges AA batteries. After a little more searching I found another unit which charges not only AA batteries but also AAA, C and D. It will only charge 4 batteries at a time but it also comes with an adapter to charge other devices such as cell phones and MP3 players. Unfortunately the adapter doesn’t fit my cell phone or MP3 player so I can’t really test it out. This particular unit encloses the batteries while charging which makes it easy to carry around and I’m looking forward to take it camping. It also comes with a little kick-stand so you can angle it at the sun. Although this unit was advertised on Amazon for around $60-$65 I was able to pick it up on the same website for around $30-$35.

I’ve found a way to charge batteries to power things like my radio, camera and flashlights but I wanted to find a way to charge my cell phone and other devices when there wasn’t an outlet around. I did a little more searching and found a hinged, 2 panel solar charger which came with a USB cable and an adapter that that allows you to plug in a cigarette lighter adapter. I thought this would be perfect for charging my cell phone since I have the cigarette car charger for it. Although I was most excited about this unit it turned out to be the most disappointing. It has a blinking light to let you know it’s charging in the sun and when it’s fully charged the light stops blinking and stays solid. I’ve yet to see it solid. I left it in the sun for days but it never fully charged. Not only that but when I plug my cell phone in it seems to actually drain power from my phone. Even more disappointing than the unit itself was customer service. I bought this unit from a company called Solar Style. When the unit proved to be non-functional I emailed them. No response. I submitted a request online through one of those chat features but again, no response. I called and was finally able to speak to someone on the phone. They took my number and promised to call me back later that day. After 2 days of not hearing from someone I called back and left a couple of messages. Again, no response. I think I paid around $45 for this unit and if it actually worked I would think it was a bargain. Unfortunately I cannot recommend either this charger or the company that sells it.

The last item I’m going to mention here I picked up on eBay for less than $20 including shipping. Although it comes with an array of adapters there is only one I can use. The only device I can charge with this is my GPS. It actually turned out to be quite handy as I only have on cigarette lighter in my car therefore I can only charge either my GPS or my cell phone at any given time. Until I find a way to charge my cell phone with solar energy I’m stuck with either charging it through the cigarette lighter or wall charger. At least I can run my GPS while charging my cell phone in the car.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A Concept Car?

Hybrid vehicles seem to be popping up all over nowadays, or perhaps I’m just noticing them more. This got me thinking. What if we could merge hybrid technology with E85 technology? I’ve heard that the Toyota Prius gets up to 50 MPG. What if you could combine that with E85 which is 85% ethanol and therefore only 15% gas?

Most ethanol in the US is made from corn but if we switched production of ethanol to switch grass it would not only take less energy to produce ethanol but would have less impact on food production and soil erosion.

I was watching a TV show a while back where a group of people took a Toyota Prius, beefed up the battery pack and added a plug so you could plug it in to an electrical outlet in your garage to charge the batteries. They reported up to 100 MPG.

I’ve heard recently that someone is working on switching batteries for hybrids from lead-acid batteries to lithium ion. I don’t know if this will increase gas mileage but it sure sounds like it would be more environmentally friendly. If I’m not mistaken, lithium ion batteries weigh less than lead-acid batteries so I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t improve fuel economy.

I was watching another TV program where someone had developed a solar paint that could convert sun energy into electrical energy. I think you see where I’m going here. A hybrid vehicle that runs on 85% ethanol produced from switch grass with a beefed up lithium ion battery array that uses a paint on the car’s surface that will charge the batteries. I wonder what kind of gas mileage a vehicle like this would get.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Camping stacation

I’ve never heard of a ‘staycation’ until this year. With gas prices nearing $4.00 a gallon I guess it’s inevitable that more people are going to become familiar with this portmanteau. It seems that people everywhere are taking ‘stacations’ this year and according to many news articles I’ve found on the web, several large retailers have decided to target ‘stacationers’ with sales.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest retailer, has launched an "American Summer" campaign, featuring tents, grills, coolers, wicker furniture sets and inflatable pools, saying a summer getaway is "as close as your own backyard." Rivals Target Corp., touting "fun under the sun" in its circular, and Kohl's Corp., with a "sale into summer" promotion were among other retailers cutting prices on swimwear, patio sets and other such merchandise.

With gas prices the way they are, most people I’ve talked to have cancelled their vacation plans for the year. Many have opted just to stay at home. I’m an apartment dweller so the idea of staying at home somehow doesn’t offer the same appeal as it would for those with a large backyard, swimming pool and world class gas grill on their patio. I’m sure that many condo dwellers feel that same way.

As an alternative to a traditional vacation it would appear that many people have opted to go camping this year. A news article I found (which can be seen here states that tent sales are up 14%.

I have just a couple of quick tips for anyone interested in making their camping trip a little more green. Many of the same stores that sell camping equipment carry something called camp soap. Camp soap is biodegradable but it still shouldn’t be used near a water source as it needs soil to break down. Heavy duty paper plates not only keep styrofoam and plastic out of the land fills but can also be used to help start your campfire. Using travel mugs instead of plastic cups (most of which can’t be recycled) is another way to keep trash out of land fills. If you’re thinking about taking plastic knives and forks you may want to look at lexan instead. Lexan is both durable and reusable. Lexan utensils can be found in the same section of your retailer as camp soap.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Plastic bags

Someone sent me the following link in an email titled “Paper, Plastic, Neither?”

As I watched the slideshow the link took me to I started to think about my plastic bag consumption. I have purchased cloth bags and was using them frequently although sometimes I would forget. I decided that each time I forgot to take my cloth bags into the grocery store I would purchase new cloth bags. After all, they’re only $1.00 a piece and I’m confident that if I continue purchasing cloth bags each time I forget them that eventually I would have so many that it would be difficult to forget to take them shopping with me. I don’t think I’ve since forgot to take my cloth bags while grocery shopping.

On a trip to a local department store I was surprised that I was leaving with yet another plastic bag. It dawned on me that not only do I have to take my cloth bags grocery shopping but I have to take them each and every time I got to a store of any kind. It’s just a shame that department stores don’t sell cloth bags near the checkout line as do most grocery stores.

I’m now known as the guy that doesn’t want a bag. The local liquor store doesn’t even ask me anymore. I will occasionally pick up a 6-pack at the bar around the corner from my house and I still find it amusing when I hear the bartenders say “oh, that’s right, no bag”. I went camping this weekend and stopped at the deli around the corner to pick up some hamburger rolls, paper towels, tuna salad, a big bag of charcoal and one or two other items. As I was leaving the store juggling everything in my arms the woman behind the counter asked “are you sure you don’t need a bag?” I assured her that I was.

Although I’m pleased that my contribution to the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is reduced (see these links if you’d like to know more; I still need to find a way to dispose of kitty litter. Since my stockpile of plastic bags has diminished and will no longer be replenished I have to find something to put cat waste in. I’ll post my solution when I find one.

Solo camping Mack Daddy style

This post in not about becoming more green and I'll warn you now that there will likely be other posts in the future that might be a little off topic.

I spent my 4th of July weekend camping. While camping I ran into someone I met while camping at the same place Memorial Day weekend. At the end of my Memorial Day trip I wrote an email to several friends that described the experience. What follows is the the email that I sent.

I hope you all had a fantastic Memorial Day weekend. I went camping myself. As everyone that was supposed to go camping with me managed to bail I was faced with a choice. I could either go camping by myself or sit home wishing I was camping. I decided to go solo and I’m so grateful that I did.

In my typical fashion I managed to grossly over pack. I took the big tent, the big cooler, enough food and fuel to last a week, 2 lanterns, 2 sleeping bags, 3 pillows, a queen sized air mattress, 3 stoves and a plethora of assorted items that any gear whore such as myself could possibly manage to stuff in a Chevy Cavalier.

I took Friday off work so I spend the morning organizing and cramming stuff into my car. By early afternoon I was on my way. I stopped at the little deli right around the corner from the campground to pick up bread, rolls and tuna salad. When I arrived at my campsite I sat down at the table and had a couple of tuna salad sandwiches before setting up camp. I took my time setting up not realizing that others had also arrived a bit early. For those of you who have never camped with me I should explain that after setting up camp I drive to the other campsites to gather up any firewood that previous campers might have left behind. That’s why my trunk and back seat are constantly littered with bark and leaves. Well low and behold, another group of industrious campers were just ahead of me and managed to gather up much of the wood I scouted on my way to the campsite. Not to worry though. I ended up with nearly a trunk full of firewood. That in addition to the usual 4 bags I generally buy from the front office on the first night should be more than enough to get me through the weekend. In fact, I brought 3 of those bags home. I learned a valuable lesson about competition here. When you realize that there is enough for everyone you no longer have a need to compete. I applaud the efforts of those industrious campers scrounging for wood ahead of me and sincerely hope and believe they had enough wood to get them through the weekend as well.

First night of camping is always a magical one for me. Especially so on the first trip of the season. Camp is all set up and there’s little else to do except enjoy the weekend as it unfolds before you. And what a weekend it was. Early on the weather forecast called for rain but we really couldn’t have asked for better weather. It was a little chilly the first 2 nights but that’s expected this time of year. I really kind of enjoy slightly chilly nights and mornings anyway. It gives me a chance to sport my Campmor hoodies.

After dinner I took my usual walk around the campgrounds checking out my fellow campers and especially their tents. I have this weird fascination with tents. On my way around the grounds I happened to walk past my favorite site in the park and had to take a couple steps backwards to make sure I saw what I thought I saw. Yes, it was a mountain of wood that put everyone else’s to shame. On my last step backward a friendly looking gentleman waved me up to his site. Being neighborly I walked up the little driveway to campsite. The occupants were the nicest couple you could possibly meet. I spent most of the evening hanging out with Craig and Diana at #46. Turns out that Craig and Diana make their own wine. Not just wine but all natural stuff without sulfates. Well, you probably know that I love a good dry, red wine. Let me tell you, I’m no wine coinsure but that was the best cabernet I’ve ever had. Craig had brought a laptop with some pictures and showed me their basement setup. It would be an understatement to say that it was quite impressive. As the evening drew on I got a bit tired and started yawning. I excused myself and strolled back to my site to enjoy my first night sprawled out in 2 sleeping bags laid out on a queen sized air mattress. As I curled up for a most peaceful evening of slumber I was so grateful that I brought the extra gear.

The next morning was the usual coffee and sausages but with a twist. I now have this little thing (for lack of a better word) that allows me to make toast on my propane stove. Since I had leftover bread from the previous days sandwiches I decide to give it a whirl. It works great but I forgot to bring butter so the toast ended up a little dry. Again I strolled around the grounds for my typical after breakfast walk. I couldn’t believe how many campers were out to enjoy the beautiful camping weather we had. There were a larger number of pop-ups than usual and the array of tents was enough to satisfy my weird tent fetish. A fairly uneventful afternoon left me to admire the view from my campsite. Although I booked late and didn’t get one of my favorite sites I realized how fortunate I was to be camping where I was. There is nothing behind this site but a most impressive wall of trees. As I lay in the hammock admiring the view an amazing sense of peace and contentment just washed over me. Man I love camping.

At some point during the day I ran to CVS to pick up a radio. I don’t normally bring a radio camping but I’ve grown accustomed to one ever since camping several time last year with Michelle. She brought her little radio every trip and my aversion to one has since faded. As I enjoyed the classic rock emanating from my new purchase I fondly reminisced about our camping trips last year. The one that stands out is Voorhees and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look of complete terror on her face after seeing our tiny little campsite surround by nothing but the vastness of the forest that made us seem as though we were in the middle of nowhere. She quickly got used to it and I’m pretty sure she enjoyed the trip as much as me. Again pangs of gratitude tugged at me as I looked at the large tent with the screen porch she bought for our first outing. Not only is it large enough that you can stand up to change clothes but the screen porch gives me plenty of space to stash all that gear I was able to stuff into my car. I really enjoy having a clear picnic table so a place to put everything in a fairly organized fashion was one of this trip’s highlights.

I took an early nap and ended up sleeping until 11:00. Although I had promised to teach Craig and Diana how to play cards that evening I thought 11:00 was probably a little late to be strolling into someone’s campsite so I enjoyed a nice fire, a couple of cold beverages and my nightly walk around the grounds.

The next morning I went down to the bathrooms. There was a line of 4 or 5 guys with towels draped over their shoulders waiting to use the shower. I decided that it could be quite a while before getting to shower and since I live 15 minutes from the park I opted to shower at home. I ran in to my upstairs neighbors in the parking lot on my way back to camp. They seemed quite surprised that I was camping alone as did most others who were aware of this. Campers are some of the nicest people you could meet and with the park so crowded this weekend it’s really hard to think of this outing as being alone.

During the afternoon I did a little hiking and late afternoon or early evening a friend from work stopped by to visit. He was gracious enough to bring some cold Sam Adams. I had a cooler full of frosty beverages so we enjoyed those while chatting a while and strolling around the grounds so he could see what the different sites looked like. That evening a young couple rolled in a little late and I noticed this guy dragging firewood into their site. I looked at the 4 bags of wood I bought plus the remaining stack I had collected and decided that it would be neighborly to offer them some wood. When I strolled into their site I noticed they were just finishing up their 6 pack so I offered them the Sam Adams my work friend brought. I remember the guy’s name was Nick but I don’t remember if the girl was Jessica or if Jessica was the park cop that snuck up on me later that evening to tell me that my fire was extending past the fire ring. In any event I invited them over to play cards that evening along with Craig and Diana. Craig graciously bowed out but Diana came over along with the young couple and the 4 of us played cards, drank frosty beverages and chatted about camping and backpacking.

The next morning I was a little sad at the thought of having to break camp and end this weekend. The thought of having to pack up all that gear and shove it into my car and then unload it all when I get home was anything but pleasant. I made coffee and broke camp pretty quickly. As I was running the last bit of recycling and garbage down to the receptacles I bumped into the guy camping across the road from me. It turns out that he shares my sorrow at having to end the weekend and go home. As we walked and talked we decide that it’s better to look forward to the next camping trip than to be sad about the present one ending. As he informed me that his wife had booked a site for the 4th of July weekend I vaguely remembered Diana telling me they had also booked for that weekend. On my way out of the park I stopped by the office and made my reservation as well. Again, all of the best sites were taken so I opted for the same site I had this weekend and was grateful to get it. I look forward to bumping into Craig and Diana again. Craig is like a big kid who seems to enjoy each and every moment and Diana has a spirit that could fill a room. Perhaps I will also get the opportunity to get to know the campers across the road from me.

When I arrived at home the daunting task of unloading the car seemed like nothing. It’s usually quite unpleasant but the thought of my next camping trip somehow seemed to make unloading rather enjoyable. I anxiously look forward to my next camping trip and sharing a toast to last night and first timers with my fellow campers.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Water Conservation

When some people find out that I’m trying to conserve water they find that strange, especially when they hear that I don’t pay for water. Why would you want to conserve water if you don’t have to pay for it.

"Growing populations will worsen problems with water," says Peter H. Gleick, an environmental scientist at the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, a research organization in California. He fears that by the year 2025, as many as one-third of the world's projected 8.3 billion people will suffer from water shortages.

While NASA and the World Health Organization have different figures (4 billion people will face water shortages by 2050) it’s still disturbing to me. It’s important to note that only 2.5 percent of the worlds water is fresh water. If you were to Google “why conserve water” you would find there are a number of reasons to do so. Since it’s not my intention to convince anyone to conserve water I will leave it at that.

What am I doing about it? Since it’s estimated that 75% of the water we use is in the bathroom I started there. I made my toilet “low-flow”. They may not be accurate but I purchased a toilet tune-up kit that allows me to adjust the amount of water held in the tank. After a little fiddling I was able to adjust it so it has just enough water to flush solid waste. I estimate this saves roughly 30% of water for each flush. Since I no longer flush the toilet every time I would estimate I’m using less than half the water I used to in my toilet.

I recently purchased a low-flow shower head that uses 1.2 gallons of water per minute. It also has a “pause” button that will stop the water flow while you soap up (for those Navy showers). It hasn’t arrived yet but I received an email this morning stating that it’s already shipped. The only thing left to do for water conservation in my bathroom is to get an aerator for the sink faucet.

The bathroom isn’t the only place I’m conserving water. I’ve started combining loads of laundry and I’m only using the “extra large load” setting when I really have an extra large load. If you’ve read my previous posts you might already know that I’ve started filling the sink in the kitchen to rinse my dishes rather than keep the water running.

I wonder how much water I’m actually saving.