Terrific Broth

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

Category: Life Page 3 of 18

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!

Anticipation

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It’s been almost a year since we bought our first house, the ranch. If this ownership has taught me anything, is the importance of patience. Every project has a long period of gathering the inspiration, followed by weeks of researching, planning, and preparation. Naturally lack of an acceptance for delay, I am slowly learning to enjoy tolerate the process of creating without getting upset about the unwanted holdup. This is especially important now we got into multi-year gardening and outdoor projects.

Developing A Water-wise Garden

We are in the middle of a big planning phase for the new fence and the second wave of planting, which means there is less to show for on the blog. We are blessed with a big open yard, and intend to keep it that way for the grand appearance and the dogs’ pleasure. However, the summer drought and intense UV light at the mile high are hard to combat. The sunny portions of our lawn require lots of water and still look too thin to be pretty.

Left: shaded turf. Right: turf in sunny spots.

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Our solution to a naturally occurring problem is to go with what the nature wants – Xeriscape, aka water-wise gardens. We have imported native and drought-resistant perennials for the most sunny spot in the yard. With time we hope to replace all the unshaded turf with perennial beds and vegetable gardens.

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We are entering a year of significant drought here in Colorado. To reduce the need for irrigation, we imported yards of mulch. Four inches of wood chips really cut down the need for water. And thanks to our city, all the wood chips are free through our city’s tree recycle program.

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In addition to the mulch we laid down drip lines for all the garden beds. We chose drip emitters for sparse planting such as perennial flower beds and potato patch, and soaking hoses for densely packed vegetable gardens.

The perennial bed I:

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The perennial bed II:

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Potato patch:

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And veggie gardens:

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Most of the emitters are one gallon per hour type. With the help of mulch, we only need to water about a hour each time and twice a week to keep everything happy and growing.

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Adding More Shade with New Trees

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New fruit trees are expected to create more shaded area along the eastern fence in upcoming years, and they are surely getting bigger each day! I am searching for climbing roses as the perfect back drop. This is what I had in mind:

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In addition, we are cleaning the side fence to make room for future evergreen trees, which will provide much needed year-around privacy and color.

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What we have here now are elm trees, which are practically weeds in Colorado. The new evergreen hedge will not only block neighbor’s broken fence and occasional basketballs coming our way, but also provide an elegance backdrop for a future outdoor sitting area.

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Over the long weekend, we have already removed the middle tree, which significantly opened up the space.

Before tree removal

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After

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Cutting trees are very labor intensive due to how much post processing it involves. It only took half an hour of cutting down one tree, but we spent hours dissecting the branches from the main trunk and cutting the trunk into firewood.

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Another cool byproduct from the tree cutting is wood chips. I ran all the small branches and leafy portion through our wood-chipper, which generated enough mulch for covering the bare spot next to the shed. I am a big fan of the “Chop and Drop” and having this wood chipper allows me to speed up the process and completely eliminate yard waste.

Before shredding

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The same area after

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The Last Indoor Project (for a while)

At this point, all the upcoming garden projects are contingent on the completion of the fence. With graduation coming up and my recent travels, it will be another few weeks before we can tackle the fence together. You bet the anticipation is killing me. At the mean time, I keep my mind occupied with painting the entire main floor living space (living room + office + bedroom) including the ceilings, a step we’ve been waiting to take since wrapping up the office renovation.

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Our walls are textured which we do not love. Slav spent all his free time last week and this week to smooth the wall texture and patch all the nail holes, big and small.

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The wall on the left is already smoothed and you can see a clear difference from the textured wall on the right. Once Slav finishes smoothing the texture, everything will get a light sanding and a fresh coat of paint. Paint preparation is always the slowest step of renovation, but so essential for the soft and cloud-white effect we are craving for. A Chinese proverb says it all, “sharpening the axes does not hinder chopping the wood.” True for both indoor and garden projects!

What’s in Store for the Ranch House in 2018

Hi, family and friends! I hope your holiday break is treating you well. We are soaking up the peaceful winter nights at home with music, hot pot dinner, and sparkling drinks. Last night, we baked dozens of cookies for our close neighbors, hoping to deliver some holiday joy and catch up with them.

Looking back, 2017 is undoubtedly our best year yet. Leaving our jobs and moving to Colorado was scary, but everything worked out better than we expected. Living in our mountain rental for a few months while searching for a nest made us realize how much we love mountain living. And after buying our first house together, we dived into non-stop renovations and learned a lot about construction and ourselves. We are grateful to celebrate the first holiday season in our ranch house – it feels so good to be exactly where you want to be.

But we think it is safe to say that the best is yet to come. We have so much planned for the ranch house in 2018, and these projects are incredibly fun! What we did in 2017 focused mostly on essential fixes – roof, patio, foundation, drainageelectrical, HVAC, water heater, washer and dryer. We also got our garden shed and garage in working order. In 2018, we plan to shift gear to make the living space truly ours. That means changing floor plans, assigning function to each room, furniture DIY, new paint and adding lighting and new accessories. We hope to optimize our ranch for the exact needs of our two people + two dogs family, and bring our style into it.

Below is a list for our 2018 renovation goals. We will be picking projects from the list to do, depending on weather, material availability, and our mood and priority. It will be fun to see how much we complete off this list 365 days from now!

1. The Insulation

Colorado winter is cold. We only have R-19 insulation in our attic, which is far from the suggested R49 value. We’ve been working on preparing our attic for blow-in insulation, which will happen during the first week of 2018.

While we are beefing up the attic insulation, we will be insulating the shared wall between our unheated garage and the house as well. Our garage has only R13 insulation on the two exterior walls, but nothing on the ceiling or the door. It results in a great deal of heat loss from the house. Because the roof trusses are framed with 2″ x 4″ lumber, there is really no good way of insulating the garage ceiling. So we decided to insulate the shared wall instead. We will be tackling this huge insulation effort in a few days, DIY-style!

2. Slav’s Office

This house offers a big upgrade from our past rentals – Slav has his own office now! However, except removing the carpet and moving in his desk, we have not done anything more to this room. Even worse, this office has been used as a dump ground for books, small electronics, and off-season clothes. As our first interior project of 2018, we will freshen up the office with wall-to-wall library shelves and a new corner desk for Slav. This guy deserves a room to call his own!

3. The Basement Guest Suite

Many of you may know that we are using only half of our house’s square footage right now. It is our intention to live small and simple. However, we do have plan to use the hidden half of our house – as a guest suite! Our basement is exactly the same size as the main floor and almost the same floor plan. We plan to remove the stingy carpet, add a kitchenette, and completely finish it as a two-bedroom apartment with its own entrance. We will use it as a guest suite for our friends and family, maybe short-term rental in between. It gives us a great opportunity to create as well as to experiment with new styles which we hesitate to try in our own living space. It will expose us to new tasks such as plumbing, windows and doors, and kitchen building. We will be applying these skills to main floor remodeling down the road.

4. The Fence

The last thing we’d like to complete in 2018 is to replace the chain link fencing with wood fences. This task has been on our mind since we moved in. However, with many more urgent and essential fixes in the way, replacing fully functional fencing does not rise to the top of our priority list. We’d like to tackle the fence project when next spring comes around, which will dramatically improve our curb appeal and add privacy.

Here you have it, our renovation wishlist for 2018. Every subject on this list will take considerable amount of effort, money and time. We hope to cross three, if not all four of them off our list – starting from insulation! We retrofitted rafter vents into our attic today, which rocks a 4:12 pitch roof and is filled with loose fiberglass insulation. Let me tell you, not my favorite renovation task. But it means that we can finally blow all these cellulose into the attic that has been sitting in our garage!

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