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Yanoff family green tips

After years of posting specific "green" tips to our site, we've finally updated them and collected them in one spot for easy reference. We've divided them up into categories in case you want to skip around, but we've left them all on this one page in case you also want to print them.

Water Conservation | Lawn Care | Energy Conservation | Gas Conservation | General Conservation / Shopping

Water Conservation

We stopped regularly watering our lawn in 2008. We find it ironic the money and chemicals spent on lawn care when we hardly see anyone outside actually using their lawns. So, what is it for then? Is it merely just a habit that you have a lawn and you water it? What happens if your lawn turns brown, or has dirt patches? Are you afraid of what people will think of you? In fact, by not watering our lawn, we're encouraging stronger root growth within the lawn. Lawns go dormant and always come back — this is what grass is meant to do.

We've pretty much given up on the use of chemicals in and outside of the house, so we eschewed water in favor of letting things just be the way they are rather than wasting water that is fast becoming a valuable resource throughout the world. Oh, and here is one last tip sure to send some people reeling: we're following the manta of "if it's yellow, let it mellow and if it's brown, flush it down". That's right, we don't flush our low-flow toilets every time. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, flushing the toilet uses the most water in the home. Penn State University has some research that shows that toilet flushing is far and away the biggest water hog in the house.

We do our best to not waste water. We have two rain barrels in which we collect water that we use outdoors, such as for washing garden tools or watering the garden. We rarely buy bottled water (see our great list of articles and information on this on our links page). We keep a bucket in the shower to collect that burst of water we use first thing in the morning while waiting for the shower to warm up, and then we use that water to flush the toilet.

Also, we use bath towels more than once before washing them — for some people this may be an obvious and common practice, but when I was growing up, my mom washed towels so frequently that it was not unusual for me to use a new one every day or two. Today, it's one-towel-per-week for each of the Yanoffs.

In the typical American home, the water breakdown is as follows:

  58.7% — Landscaping (i.e., lawns)
  10.8% — Toilet
  8.7% — Clothes washer
  6.8% — Shower
  6.3% — Faucet
  5.5% — Leaks
  0.6% — Dishwasher
Source: The Urban Homestead (page 227) by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen

Sure, our lawn gets brown towards the end of summer if we're not getting frequent rain showers, but that's a natural state for grass when it lacks water; it's made to go dormant. Unattractive? Perhaps, but what does it really matter? And yes, it's a bit weird opening the toilet lid and not finding perfectly clear water in the bowl, but do we really need to send a gallon of water down the bowl just to wash down a little bit of yellow liquid? How squeamish are we that we have to flush every time at home? It's a small price to pay for doing our part to help out humanity.

We eat a vegetarian diet. Did you know that the largest user of fresh water is the livestock industry? Water is directly needed for drinking and cleaning of animals. And that's a lot of water when we're talking about over 10 billion animals raised for food in the United States alone every year. For more information, check out this brochure on how to Save Our Water the Vegetarian Way.

So, what's the point of this water conservation? Well, in addition to replacing our ancient hot water heater in October of 2007, check out the 20% reduction in Yanoff household water usage from 2007 to 2008 after eliminating watering the lawn. Further improvements are seen year-over-year thanks to flushing the toilet using the water captured in a bucket in the shower when letting the water first heat up.

Period 2007 2008 2009 2010
April - May - June 26 21 14 16
July - August - September 24 20 18 17
Total: 50 41 32 33

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Lawn Care

Before summarizing our attempts at a "green" yard, think about the following from a July, 2011 Handyman Magazine article:

We use a reel mower instead of a gas-powered mower. Granted, we have only a quarter of an acre lot here in Shorewood. But, if Scott's going to push a mower either way up and down that lot, why does it need to be gas-powered? Sure, the old mower didn't use much gas over the course of a summer, but it's one less machine spewing CO2 into the air.

We use corn gluten instead of a chemical-based weed killer. Corn gluten meal is a powdery byproduct of the corn milling process. Used for years as a supplement in hog feed, this natural protein is very effective for lawns and gardens as a plant food as well as a weed suppressor. You can usually find these at lawn and garden centers. It is a pre-emergent so it has to be used in the right spots at the right time; otherwise, it'll suppress the grass, too.

We purchased a rain barrel for $30 from the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. Rain barrels help slow down rain runoff so it can drain naturally into the ground. That helps us keep excess water out of sewer systems and keeps rain runoff from collecting pollutants on its trip to nearby waterways. Collected rainwater is better for plants because it's not chlorinated although it is mildly acidic, which helps plants take up important minerals from the soil. They can provide water during dry weather, or you can set them to slowly release the water over a 1- 2 day period when the rains have subsided. The slower release of rain will allow the water to seep into the soil and be used by plants, such as we are planning to start doing this summer as a way to water our vegetable and flower gardens.

We compost our food scraps. We bought a simple compost bin a couple of years ago and we keep it behind the garage. We accumulate our food scraps (why do people feel the need to put these down the garbage disposal, anyway?) as well as lawn clippings and add them into the compost bin. The compost that comes out is like black gold, as it can really help any plantings thrive. How is this "green"? Food in the landfill is the United States' second largest source of anthropogenic methane, a strong greenhouse gas. So, composting is important!

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Energy Conservation

We use clothes lines instead of our electric-powered dryer whenever possible. Kathy strung up a series of clothes lines in our basement, actually, so that we can do this year-round rather than just doing it outside. While we don't dry everything this way, Kathy's been trying it with sheets and tableclothes and that seems to prevent a full load from making it into the dryer.

We use compact fluorescents whenever possible. These can be had for $1 to $2 if you look for specials. We've found that while some of the older versions are not the best for reading lamps, they do just fine outside for the porch light or for those lamps we have on timers to light up dark rooms after sundown.

We take the stairs instead of the elevator. At work, we try to set an example for others by forgoing the electric-powered elevator in favor of the stairs. Figuring that each staircase burns about 13-14 calories, a few flights up a couple of times a day can account for any naughty snacking we do that day. Scott leads his workmates to the stairwells instead of the elevators in hopes of getting them on the right path.

In July, 2008, we signed up for WE Energies' Energy for Tomorrow program. A portion of our energy usage has been replaced by renewable sources.

We use a programmable thermostat We bought a Honeywell programmable thermostat when we first moved in and then bought one for my Dad years ago when he moved into his condo. For us, it is set to 68 degrees during the day and then it goes to 66 degrees from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.

We moved continuous-use electronics to a power strip. This means that the DVD, VCR, and stereo are only turned on when needed. These appliances that support our nightly entertainment were often in a low-power mode throughout the day, but we all know how these devices still have lights or clocks that are on continuously.

We opt for natural cooling or ceiling fans until the outside temperature gets to the 90s. Ceiling fans are far cheaper to purchase and run than air conditioning. We have one in every room and sometimes supplement with a box fan in a strategic window. We open a window on separate sides of the attic in the summer and have an attic fan wired to a thermostat that removes hot air from the attic. We had roof vents put in when our roof was redone not long after we moved in, and those aid in cooling as well. Eartheasy.com has a great article on natural cooling if you seek more tips.

Our electrical energy savings that started years ago are finally having an effect, as shown by the chart below. A cold 2009 didn't help our gas usage, but turning down the hot water heater and adding insulation to the attic and first floor (the walls had none) made a difference in 2010:

[Graph of Electric Usage] [Graph of Gas Usage]

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Gas Conservation

The Yanoff family behavior here is pretty basic. We use public transportation (Scott takes the bus home from work), we bike to places within a reasonable distance (including work, sometimes), and we own only one car, our gas-sipping 2009 red Honda Fit nicknamed "Ruby".

When Kathy's 1991 Toyota station wagon began to rust through on the sides many years ago, it was time for it to go. This was the same car that Kathy received $100 for on her birthday to appear in a TV ad for Potowatomi Bingo as the "before" car in the commercial. Anyway, Kathy challenged us to live with just a single car and while it seemed daunting at first, it's proven entirely possible. (We donated that old car, by the way, rather than selling it or trading it in.)

What helped is that the two of us carpool to work in the morning, and Scott's subsidized bus pass (thank you, NM), is used for his commute home. When the weather warrants it, riding a bike to work or the Shorewood Library makes for one less car trip, and with a grocery store, drug store, video store, bagel shop, and several other businesses within walking distance we force ourselves to use our car only when we're pressed for time, or we're in the deep part of the winter. It's surprising how often we are attending the same meeting, recreation department offering, or show that our neighbors do and we choose not to carpool. We're getting better at that, though, but it's definitely tough to get out of the "on-my-schedule and in-my-personal-bubble" mentality. We rarely take the car for a single-purpose trip, so at least once "Ruby" is warmed up we use the car for multiple destinations in one trip which makes for better fuel efficiency.

In the long run, we saved not only gas by going to one car, but cash as well since we're insuring only one vehicle (still two drivers, though) and eliminating the maintenance of the additional car. And with our narrow driveway, we also don't have to worry about which car gets the spot in the garage.

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General Consumption / Shopping

This section of the Yanoff family "green" tips covers everything else that may not be directly related to energy usage. While the tips here may or may not have an impact on the family's bottom line, they are still beneficial to the environment.

Whenever we receive unsolicited email, I head over to that company's website and request to receive no more postal mailings. Opting out not only keeps you from getting less junk mail, it's saving on paper and postage. Yeah, I know everyone likes looking at those Victoria's Secret catalogs but hey, the same stuff is online when you want it. In fact, we even compiled a generic list of anti-telemarketer/anti-mailing opt-outs.

One frugal yet effective way to be "green" is to buy used items instead of always buying new (and thereby forcing what may be a perfectly reasonable used item to end up in a landfill). Another option is "freecycling", which is basically either swapping items with someone or lucking out on something someone left on their curb. This is fantastic alternative to simply throwing something out, or buying something new. There's a Yahoo Group, MilwaukeeWIFreecycle, that you can join and post something you'd like to give away, or something you are interested in. We haven't picked anything up from the group yet, although there seems to be a tradition in our area where people put something on their curb when they are done with it in the hopes of neighborhood scavengers finding a use for it. Here is a list of the best usable freebies we've found curb-side so far:

Of course, we also recycle those things that are fully used, and we opt for rechargable batteries as much as possible. We try to buy local to help with the "carbon footprint" and support local businesses. Some of the best beers around are "local", coming from places such as Milwaukee, New Glarus, and Steven's Point, and some of the best organic produce comes from our CSA (Community-Sponsored Agriculture) farm, Springdale Farm, in Plymouth, Wisconsin. We round that out by buying in bulk from our local co-op for items such as shampoo and soap, which can come in gallon jugs that can be used to refill soap dispensers. (Tip: Scott drilled a hole in the top of the gallon jug and ran a tube directly up to the soap pumps built into our countertops.)

With the advent of Amazon.com wishlists, we've been able to get our kids the presents they really want without guessing. As such, they request that if someone else is going to get them a gift that it be a donation in their name to a favorite charity such as the Wisconsin Humane Society. Once we use up our stores of wrapping paper, we'll either opt for no wrapping or wrapping gifts in newspaper. It just gets torn up and thrown out, anyway, so why buy paper for one specialized purpose?

There is a great slideshow, The Dangers of Plastic Bags, that only takes a couple of minutes to view but it details some staggering facts about the use of plastic bags. To help limit our use, we re-use any bags we receive. Sure, everyone uses them to line their garbage cans with them but how many do you really need? A paper bag can usually work just as well. We almost always bring our own bag or ask for paper if we need a bag. We also bring our own canvas bags to stores and some grocery stores have been giving us money back just for doing that. My friend, Sarah, was so inspired by our efforts that she made a lovely bag just for us to take with and use for produce instead of using the grocery stores' plastic bags. One last thing we do is we bring our own Tupperware to restaurants in one of our tote bags and forego the restaurants' own plastic containers for our leftovers (and, we make sure that the kids get their drinks in regular glasses or cups rather than the disposable kid-friendly cups that restaurants tend to give out).

We make our own cleaning products. At the time, the driver wasn't just cost, but the fact that all of these cleaners consist of unnatural, and probably harmful, chemicals and colorings. We often use these store-bought cleaners and don't think twice about what may be in them, and how spraying them into the air or on the surfaces we touch and eat off of may affect us. We haven't replaced everything with homemade products. There's some very eco-friendly dishwasher detergent available at Trader Joe's, and we're still fans of Murphy's wood oil for cleaning our floors. Our smelly blue window cleaner has been replaced, however, by basic club soda. We were surprised to find that the spray nozzle from the window cleaner easily transferred to the top of the soda bottle. The magic ingredient, sodium citrate, softens water spots and other grime on mirrors, windows, and TV screens. It's even fairly safe to use in a pinch on a wall or grimy kitchen surface.

Meanwhile, our toilet bowl cleaner and general countertop cleaner have been replaced by a homemade solution consisting of liquid hand soap, white vinegar, water, and tea tree oil. It can seem expensive for a small bottle of organic oil, but because you're using drops of it at a time as opposed to spoonfuls, it goes a long way. We use the tea tree oil because it not only has a pleasant smell, but it supposedly has disinfecting properties as well, which makes it ideal for cleaning the toilet bowls and countertops. You can add baking soda to the recipe if you need some grit to make it useful for scrubbing gunk off of countertops and possibly even for bathtubs. There's a great book you can get from the library called Clean House, Clean Planet by Karen Logan that has all kinds of cheap but safe household recipes.

The one thing we haven't found is a good recipe for Clean Shower, which seemed to hold soap scum and mold at bay when we spritzed it on our shower walls after showering. We've been using a squeegee pretty effectively, however, and maybe can eliminate the cleaner altogether.

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