Terrific Broth

The life of two scientists, creating a small home, in big mountains

Happy Anniversary, the Ranch + One Year House Tour

This Wednesday, we celebrated the first anniversary of our ranch.

Can you believe it has been a year since we signed the papers and drove the U-haul into the garage? This little ranch checked everything on our list, and was truly a “diamond in the rough”. Although it required intense updates, we did not mind one bit. It was a blank canvas for two first-time home owners to learn and create.

It felt like that I just gave you the six-month house tour, and here we are, six months later. Unlike the first half-a-year, during which we focused on making our house sturdier, this recent six months were dedicated to make our living space more comfortable. Here is the video after the first six months, and click here to see our house today!

Improving our living space: before and afters

This was the living room two weeks after moving-in:

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And this is the living room today. We added a sofa, window treatment, and some art and plants:

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We also made our bedroom more comfortable and functional. This was the bedroom shortly after we moved in and bought a storage bed:

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And this is our bedroom today:

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We stole a closet from the spare bedroom to create his-and-her closets, and I DIY-ed the headboard and the floating nightstands to make the bedroom super cozy. Charlie loves to sleep here.

Slav uses the spare bedroom as his office. This was what it looked like a month shortly after we moved in and removed the carpet:

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We converted this bedroom into Slav’s office/library during the last a few months:

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The wall separating the office from the living room was opened up, and the original doorway opening to the hallway was closed off. These changes gave us the opportunity for a built-in library wall. You can read about all the office renovation here, hereherehere, herehere, here, here, here, here, and here; and how we build the library bookcases here, here, here, and here.

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We love having the office open to the living room. They two make a grand space for evening hangouts with books and music:

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Cleaning up the backyard: before and afters

Our 2018 goals did not include any yard work. But Spring came around and we just had to do some landscaping. The backyard was neglected for decades and overrun by weeds and random bushes:

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The back fence was falling over and the garden shed was rotting away:

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Our work here during the first summer was just getting rid of eyesores – we trimmed away dead trees, weeded the yard many, many times, power-washed the fence, and completely rebuilt the garden shed (here, here, here, herehere, and here).

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This Spring, we started to build a more permanent garden with fruit treesperennial flowers, and vegetable beds and a drip irrigation system.

We planted the perennial garden early May:

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All the plants grew like crazy during the past 6 weeks:

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There are still a long list of to-dos to build a decent garden. I am a newbie at landscaping but have enjoyed very much figuring what looks good where and learning from experience. I will be happy just to get big anchor pieces such as trees and veggie beds into the ground this year, and I can fuss about the ornamental plants later.

Adding curb appeal

Last night, we celebrated the first birthday of #thePolskiRanch curling up in the newly finished outdoor chairs, next to a bonfire, on our beloved back patio.

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Literally looking back at our house from our chair, we certainly noticed the impact of our hard work. For one, we definitely changed the appearance of the ranch. It feels good to not be the ugliest house i the neighborhood anymore.

This was the front of the house when we moved in:

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And now:

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This was the back of the house, on move-in day:

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And today:

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To add curb appeal , we have replaced the 20-year-old roof and installed new gutterspainted the soffit and fascia to match the new gutter, demoed the porch awning, replaced the front screen door, painted the old front door and added trims around it, and planting under the mailbox.

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Around the mail box on move-in day:

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New plants under the mailbox:

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Making it stronger and safer

Replacing the 20-year-old roof and installed new gutters not only improved the look of the house, but also made sure that water drains ways from the house. On the same note, we tackled a series of projects to improve drainage around the foundations, such as removing vegetation against the foundationreplacing sinking patios and rusty window wellssealing all the foundation cracks, and grading around the foundation. We also upgraded the electrical panel, a fire hazard identified by our inspector.

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Reducing its energy footprint

We also made upgrades to make sure that our house run more efficiently. We brought attic insulation from R19 to R50, installed high-efficiency HVAC and replaced our 50 gallon water tank with a tankless model, and added weather stripping to all the exterior doors. In the utility room, we brought in high-efficiency washer and dryer and sealed all the leaky ducts. We also upgraded all the lights , including garage work lights to LED.

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Creating enjoyable work spaces for future renovation

The ranch will surely see a lot of projects in the future. To better complete our work, we have overhauled our garage and garden shed and made them workhorses for us. I cannot tell you how much I love these two places! I am really proud of our organization in these two places – everything has its place and is easy to find, and the places stay clean. Since we finished these two spaces, we have not needed to tweak the organization one bit. The joy walking into them makes days-long and physical projects less of a work and more of a play.

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Crossing off the first year to-dos

In the process of writing this post, I came cross the first ranch to-do list from last summer, shortly after we moved in. It was more of a must-do list, as we were mostly correcting safety and structure related issues. We have since accomplished nearly everything on this must-do list, and a lot more:

1. Replace the roof and gutters; trim the tree branches over the roof.
2. Remove the flower bed; mud-jack/replace front and back patio; grading the soil around the house.
3. Seal the corner foundation cracks; level the corner of the garage pad; install new weather strip around the garage door.  (We also added weather stripping around our exterior doors and storm doors)
4. Inspect/fix all the exposed plumbing; high pressure cleaning/realign/replace the sewer line from our house to the street. (Our sewage line is in decent shape so we will upgrade it to PVC when necessary.)
5. Upgrade electrical panel; adding proper ground wire; adding an outdoor outlet; bring power to the shed.
6. Add central AC and replace the old furnace; upgrade the old water heater with a tankless heater. (We also fixed leaky ducts, brought in new washer/dryer combo, and upgraded our utility room)
7. Radon mitigation. (Adding radon pipe requires drilling the floor of the basement. We are researching the DIY options and will tackle it during basement renovation.)

At the mean time, we also completed some extra work:
8. Renovating and organizing the garage
9. Renovating the shed
10. Powerwash and seal the existing fence
11. Adding insulation into the attic

We even knocked half of our 2018 goals already:

1. Attic insulation
2. Converting the 2nd bedroom to Slav’s Office
3. Replacing the chain link fence
4. Basement Guest Suite

And tackled a few extra:

5. Planting fruit trees
6. Planting bee-friendly perennial gardens 
7. Laying out a vegetable garden

We could not have done so much without you guys cheering along us. Thank you for being here, and thank you for sending good vibes. I hope you enjoy reading about our renovation as much as I enjoy documenting it. With the pups on our side and power tools in our hands, we feel confident and ready to dive in the second year of renovation. Fence and basement, I am looking at you two!

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Relaxation + Refinishing Outdoor Chairs

In modern times, having fun can be tiring too. I have found that the best way for me to unwind is doing nothing – such as walking around in the garden, sipping tea and watching the dogs play. Recently, we’ve spent chilly evenings outside on our back patio. Slav would build a fire, and I would make some tea, then we stare at the flames for a couple hours and simple let our mind go blank. Sometimes we talk, and sometimes we just sit there and be together. It is amazing how quickly the world recedes and the inner peace grows.

Weekday nights with my man.

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After building the back patio last year, we briefly entertained the idea of getting a set of patio furniture for dining and lounging. “Let’s set up a grilling/dining area with sun shades, a fire pit area surrounded by chairs, and lots and lots of planters!” But quickly, we realized – 99 percent of the time, there are just two of us using the patio. Filling the space with furniture for friends and family we wish we could entertain who live one or two time zones away just does not make sense. So we added two seats, a fire pit, a griddle, and left the rest of our 340 sqft of patio empty.

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We were fortunate to find our lounge chairs at Habitat for Humanity for a price of a steal. Although the cushions were worn, the wood frames were timeless and steady. A few IKEA cushions gave the chairs a clean and fresh restart.

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But these chairs were not finished for outdoor use – at least we suspect so. After one summer with strong sun and a harsh winter, the wood finish diminished.

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The surface finish started peeling and small cracks developed along the wood grain.

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I decided to refinish these chairs with oil + poly to protect them from summer sun and winter snow. One sunny Saturday morning, I got to work.

1. Sanding off old finishes

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The cushions were removed and the chairs were moved under shade. I started off sanding all the old finishes off the wood with 80 grit sand paper. I recently invested in a Bosch sander which makes sanding a breeze. For hard-to-reach corners and curves I borrowed Slav’s oscillating sanding tool.

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Sanding with 80-grit paper had an immediate effect. You can see from the picture below the un-sanded surface on the left and sanded surface on the right.

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The wood after cleaning up looked quite nice. Another round of 220-grit sand paper made everything super smooth.

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I wiped everything with a clean, damp microfiber cloth and let the mountain breeze dry everything off. It was a beautiful day to work outside, especially with Roxie by my side.

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Neighbor’s dog Cabby watched through the fence too.

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2. Oiling the chairs up

For repairing the wood I wanted some kind of oil product that penetrates and hardens inside the wood grain. Since I do not know what kind of wood our chairs are made of, I decided to go the safest route and use oil-varnish blends. I had some danish oil leftover from finishing the antique guest bed, which is perfect for this project. Simply rubbing it on generously and let the wood drink, then returning half an hour later for two more coats. I kept the chairs in the shade so everything dries evenly and slowly.

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The chair on the left got one coat of oil and the one on the right had not. It is pretty amazing how much oil the wood drink and immediately you can see the tone of the wood darkened. My girl stuck around:

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After the third coat, I wiped off the excess and let the chairs dry for > 72 hours before the next step.

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The color of the wood was incredibly rich.

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Since the oil was out, I took the opportunity to finish a wooden tray. Roxie finally fell asleep next to me:

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3. Sealing for UV Protection

Generally speaking, we could have started using the chairs after they had dried overnight. But we live in the highlands where UV really takes a toll on outdoor furniture. Therefore, I wanted to coat the chairs with an oil-based sealer. We used the Preserva clear sealer because it penetrates into the wood and reflects UV light. It was recommended to us for harsh environments that cycle between sun and snow. It was originally formulated for the Southern California market, but many CO stores carry them too.

This stain only requires 1-coat application. So after the danish oil dried for 72 hours, I brushed on as much as the wood can absorb and left it dry overnight. We used the clear finish so it did not change the color/tone of the wood.

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4. Spray-on Protection for Cushions

Before we put the chairs back to use, I washed all the outdoor cushion and sprayed on a layer of water-repellent. The IKEA cushion covers are for outdoor use but do get wet when it rains. Roxie loves to nap on these chairs and she brings quite a bit dirt onto the cushions, so having a coat of fabric guard should allow us to hose down the cushions once a while and extend their lives.

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After drying overnight we put everything together and they look gooood.

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After almost a week without our outdoor seating, We are happy to curl up next to fire again Our first night in these newly finished chairs happened to be the one-year anniversary of the closing.moving-in day of our ranch. Happy Anniversary, thePolskiRanch! We had a great time here, and we hope that you are having a great time with us too!

10 Ways to Make a Greener Home

Howdy, family and friends! I hope y’all had a great summer weekend. It was the closing day of Arapahoe Basin Ski Resort, aka A-basin, which officially concluded  the 2018 ski season. We were fortunate to have Vail’s Epic Local Pass this past winter, which allowed us to sample a handful of top-notch ski resorts in the Rocky Mountains. Now the wait begins for the next winter!

Colorado is unfortunately going through one of its driest years. The snow packs in the Rocky Mountains, which supply majority of the agriculture, residential, and business water usage in the Greater Denver Area, is at 2/3 of its average capacity. As outdoor enthusiasts and local residents, we are very concerned and are always thinking of ways to conserve water and other natural resources.

The goal of making a greener home has been guiding our daily life and renovations all along. Today, I want to share with you different ways we have been implanting to reduce our energy footprint. While some of these strategies require permanent changes to one’s residence, most of them can be adopted by renters as well.

1. Reduce Heating and Cooling with Insulation

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One of the biggest renovation projects we tackled is adding insulation to the attic. We did it completely ourselves including retrofitting rafter vents under our 4:12 roof,  which was very labor-intensive.

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After bringing the attic insulation from R13 to R60, we have noticed significant decreases in our monthly utility bills (electricity + natural gas). Instead of $120 per winter month, we spent $80 without restricting usage. We still yet to see how our house performs in summer, but in days like today that is 90 degree, it is below 75 degrees inside our house and another few degrees cooler in the basement. Despite neighbors’ air conditioning humming non-stop, we hardly need to turn ours on.

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To be clear, adding insulation does not automatically save us a lot of money. Our attic insulation costed us over $800, while our monthly saving on utility is ~$20. A greener home sometimes require more upfront investments and is not necessarily saving money during the time of home ownership. But for us, it is more important to reduce energy usage than saving a few hundred bucks.

What if you are renting your home? One simple way of adding insulation is to add textile on your windows and doors to reduce thermal loss. Stopping leaks around windows and doors with weather strips or door snakes are also effective ways of insulating a house.

2. Cool the House Naturally

Our house has most of its windows facing east or west. Our bedroom and kitchen get bright sun in the morning, and the living room and Slav’s office get warm in the afternoons. We often have cool breeze from the mountain (northwest) in summer nights. Opening all the windows after sunset to allow cross ventilation effectively cools down the house. It also exchanges the air nicely – we love to sleep with the window open in Spring and early Summer nights to smell all the blooms in our yard. In the morning, we close all the windows to prevent the indoor air from heating up too quickly.

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We also installed blinds on most of our windows. These blinds block fair amount of sunlight while allow air to penetrate. In summer, we close the bedroom blinds in the morning to block the morning sun, and in the afternoon, we lower the blinds facing west. It makes a big difference on how much the rooms heat up.

3. Energy-Star Appliances and LED Lighting

One of the first upgrades we did is replacing all the light bulbs with LED. We found very affordable LED light bulbs from the Habitat for Humanity for only $1.5 per pop, which makes the whole upgrade under $20. We also upgraded the work light in the garage to LED.

The old garage tube lighting:

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The new LED work lights – brighter and consuming less energy:

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In addition to indoor lights, we also replaced the outdoor lighting to motion sensitive LED lights. When we bought the house, all the outdoor lights are 600W stadium lights which project a couple hundred feet far, which is totally bizarre.

The old stadium lighting at the back door:

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The old stadium lighting in front of the garage:

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It was replaced with a motion-sensitive LED lighting:

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On a similar note, we have selected all Energy-star appliances whenever we needed an upgrade, such as the furnace and HVAC system and the washer and dryer combo. More importantly, we replaced our 50 gallon water heater with a tankless model, which offers great performance and saves lots of gas.

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As of today, the only appliance that we yet to upgrade is our electrical stove. Gas stove is significant more efficient to operate than electrical stove, and both Slav and I prefer its performance. We are waiting for the ultimate kitchen overall to pull the trigger.

Some of you might ask: what about electrical dryer? If gas stove is greener than electrical ones, shouldn’t dryer be the same? The answer is: absolutely! We do have an electrical dryer for now, which is too expensive to replace. But we do have a trick to use it less frequently:

4. Smart Laundry Strategies

Slav and I both grew up air-drying our laundry, which means hanging the wet clothes outside to dry in the sun and wind. It is somehow a taboo in the States, but with a private yard (which will soon be completely closed off from the street), we can air-dry our laundry without any neighbor seeing it. Since we moved into the house, I have already been drying blankets, duvet, and sheets outside, even in winter. The strong Colorado sun dries any heavy items within an hour, which is pretty much how long our dryer takes. More importantly, the air-dried clothes and sheets come back smelling like sunshine, bringing back fond memories of a happy childhood.

How much energy are we actually saving by air-drying our cloth? An average dryer uses 3.3 kilowatt hours electricity, and the average time of a drying cycle on our machine is about an hour. If we do two loads of laundry a week, air-drying clothes will save us 6.6 kilowatt a week and 343.2 kilowatt a year. It might not be a big money saver (keep in mind that if you do more than two loads of laundry a week, this number multiplies), but since the sun does the job directly and just as fast, it just does not make sense to use the energy from sun indirectly (fossil fuel) with an additional carbon footprint of average 2400 pounds a year.

Washer and dryer rank the second- and third-most energy-hungry appliance in average households, right after the refrigerator. Therefore, in addition to using our dryer less, we also make sure that we use our washer more efficiently. We have the habit of airing out clothes, which means most of our clothes do not get washed after just one wear. This practice not only saves on energy consumption, but also saves the clothes themselves. On a typical week, we have only one load of laundry including all the towels. These smart laundry strategies not only reduce our carbon footprint, but also cut down the time of laundry to almost nothing.

5. Reducing Irrigation with Shade, Mulch, and Drip Irrigation:

With 5~10″ of annual participation here in Colorado, we certainly pay a lot of attention to our irrigation water usage. For one, I do not plant annuals at all. And all the perennials I planted are drought resistant.

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We plant trees to introduce more shade to our yard. A thick layer of wood chip mulch reduces evaporation from the ground.

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When we have to irrigate, drip lines and soaking hose greatly reduced water waste and surface evaporation:

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6. Eating Local

What if one lives in an apartment, has to use laundry facilities, and has no yard? Believe or not, eat local produce is one of the most important ways to reduce personal energy consumption. Average fresh food item travels ~1,500 miles from production to final purchase, results in 13% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Even wonder why all the tomatoes are the same size and in perfect shape in your grocery store? It is reported that 40% veggies were discarded during production solely for their appearances. And all the lost were factored into food prices we pay everyday. Buying from local farm or farmers market cuts down the middle man and significant increases the farmer’s profit while cutting down our food cost. A win-win in my book.

But what do we gain as a consumer by eating local? Absolutely. Without the requirement for transportation and long-term storage, locally harvested food is allowed to grow to its full maturity and therefore is fresher and more nutritious. Local farmers usually use less or not at all synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and they often practice permaculture which is much cleaner and more sustainable for the environment. Because of all these reasons, locally grown food tastes better, and are almost definitely healthier for us.

We are lucky to be surrounded by several CSA (community supported agriculture) sites. We get weekly veggie share from these CSAs for ~20 weeks each summer, and during the rest 32 weeks, we shop from the local produce stores. We also get mushrooms, farm-raised eggs, and fresh fruit from local farms throughout the year. In addition, we have been growing our own salad garden and a few kitchen staples.

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An additional advantage for us to have vegetable gardens is water conservation. Believe or not, 50% of household water is used for landscape irrigation. And turf is particularly thirsty. In comparison, vegetable gardens with drip irrigation saves 60% of the irrigation water on the same square footage. Who does not want better tasting food and less water usage?

7. Waste Management

Not only we do only one load of laundry per week, we also produce only one 10-gallon bag of trash per week.

Where does the rest go? To our compost bins!

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We have two 18 Cu Ft compost bins for kitchen waste. They are layered with household “brown” materials such as dryer lint, paper towels, egg cartons, shredded cardboard boxes, and even ash from our fire pit. Majority of our household waste, if not recycled, are composted here. These bins close tightly to prevent small animals from coming into our yard.

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We also compost all the yard waste right here in the ranch. There are multiple ways to do open compost, and the way we chose is the simplest – called “Chop and Drop“. Fall leaves and grass clippings are pilled up along the back fence, as you can see from the picture above. Our climate is cool and dry, so it takes a bit longer than average (~a year) before we get usable compost (without any watering or care). Leaves from last fall will be added into our fall garden beds.

We always cut tree trunks and big branches into firewood, which eventually end up in our compost bin as ash. Small branches are shredded into wood chips and used as mulch. Together with compost, these practices completely eliminate yard waste from our yard.

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8. Saying No to Single-Use Plastic

Most of us recycle. It is part of the daily life now and we are all feeling better putting a plastic bottle into a recycle bin, as if it does not impact the environment. But in fact, lots of plastic we consume, including soda and water bottles, are single use and cannot be or are very hard to recycle. So even though we put a bottle into the recycle bin, more often than not, it will be picked out, by hand, at the recycle center and thrown into trash. In fact, the single-use plastic list is fairly extensive: straws, plastic cutlery, coffee stirrers, fountain soda containers, plastic bags, and most food packaging are single-use plastic. Before we can implant more advanced technology to recycle these plastic product more effectively, the only way to reduce our environmental impact is to use less plastic.

We are lucky to live in an encouraging environment for reducing plastic use. Most of the grocery stores here sell bulked items so we can save on food packaging. Lots of people use fabric shopping bags and their own water bottles. We have stopped buying bottled water for years and always bring our own container for hot and cold drinks. When dining out, I pass on straws and plastic utensils. At home, we try to consume less plastic wraps and ziplock bags with silicone lids, Glasslock product, mason jars, and silicone storage bags. Cutting down plastic use is tricky but we are doing our best.

9. Riding Local

One major strategy for cutting down our carbon footprint is public transportation. It is not restricted to our household, but it makes a big impact to our day-to-day routine. My work is a 30 mile away from my home, which takes 50 minutes to commute back and forth with traffic. I choose to ride bus to work every day, which saves me over $2000 on gas alone and probably another a few thousand dollars on car maintenance. On top of that, I avoid emitting 14,848 pounds of green gas every year according to this calculator.

I also use public transportation whenever I can. My bus pass is only $27 per month  and grants me unlimited ride to airport, sport games, and downtown Denver where good restaurants accumulate. Not driving in traffic and paying for parking makes life a lot less stressful on the days I need to relax. And no designated driver is ever needed!

1o. Switching the Household Energy to Solar and Wind

There are many ways to reduce our energy usage, but we still use some. The good news is, the energy we use does not need to come from fossil fuels. Being in the highlands with little rain, our home has great solar potential. We cannot cash a solar system just yet, but we can still switch our household energy source to wind and solar thanks for the options our utility provider gives. If you are renting, you can also switch to renewable using community based solar energy or wind equivalent. It costs just a little more monthly in our area, but grants that our energy is 100% renewable.

Simple Life, Less Consumption

This is a very long post. If you stick to the end, you probably have already making an effort to reduce your carbon footprint and conserve natural resources. So thank you! It does take some effort to start, but everything we do actually made our life simpler and easier. I have little trash and laundry to deal with. Our home is very quiet without the noise from laundry, dishwasher (we do not have one), or TV (again, do not have one). We eat fresher, healthier, and tastier. And we breathe fresher air by keeping the window open and gardening outside. Little things like sweeping the floor instead of using a vacuum, or hanging laundry outside by hand, are in fact very soothing in their own ways.

What do you do to reduce carbon footprint? Do you have any suggestions for us? If you have not taken the #PlasticFreeChallenge, please join us for a month of effort of using as little single-use plastic as possible. We appreciate it, and these sea turtles do too!

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