Terrific Broth

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

Category: Minimalism (Page 1 of 2)

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

IMG_0800

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.

Picture2

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.

IMG_0802

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.

IMG_1080

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:

IMG_0727

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

IMG_1616

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:

IMG_7922

The old stadium lighting in front of the garage:

IMG_9020

It was replaced with a motion-sensitive LED lighting:

IMG_9864

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.

IMG_9459

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.

IMG_3045

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

IMG_3127

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

IMG_3037

IMG_3030

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.

IMG_3058

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!

IMG_8516

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.

IMG_3127

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.

IMG_8514

IMG_3157

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!

The Art of Airing Out

“Airing out” by Ka Fisher

I am letting out a big secret today – I don’t wash my clothes after each wear.

Of course I wear fresh underwear and socks everyday. But for pretty much anything else – pants, tops, skirts, jackets, as long as they are not visibly dirty or smelly, I do not wash them after just one wear. What I do, is to hang them up, and air them out between use.

I grew up airing out my clothes. My family did not have a washing machine when I was little, so all the clothes, towels, and bedsheets had to be washed by hand. Every Sunday, if there was no rain in the forecast (we also dried all the clothes outside), my grandma would pull out a big wooden bucket and a couple washboards. My grandpa would fill the bucket with water, and they’d sit down and wash for hours. The labor and the wear to clothes discouraged washing them after just one use, and this habit lasted in me even after I had washer and dryer. I still have an old picture showing the 4-year-old me washing handkerchiefs next to my grandpa. You can see the excitment on my face that I was finally trusted to take on such a big responsibility. I must have begged them and practiced so many times before my grandparents finally trusted me to wash handkerchifes for the family!

IMG_0632

I also grew up airing my bedsheets. I was taught to open the bedroom window and make my bed every morning by folding my comforter outwards, leaving the side touching my skin at night facing out. I was supposed to place the folded comforter under my pillow, so every inch of the bed that had been covered at night could be exposed to fresh air. It is considered sanitary to let the moisture out of the sheets, comforter, and pillows during the day. A light dusting before going to bed in the evenings should remove any dust might have accumulated.

IMG_0599

Such traditions may not make much sense nowadays, but I still live out of my old habit. When I arrive home after a day in the office and take off my jeans, which often still smells like laundry detergent, I do not think it belongs to the “dirty” laundry basket just yet. Even though this pair of jeans is not going to be washed by my grandma, with her hands cracked from using the harsh soap and her back hunched, it still feels like a waste to me to wash something that is mostly clean.

I know this is considered lack of personal hygeinge in U.S., so I am careful not to wear the same top to work two days in row. This results lot of worn-only-once clothing all over our bedroom. So last weekend, I brought in an old ladder to help with the mess:

IMG_0638

I bought this ladder in North Carolina back in 2011 to use as a towel rack in the bathroom. Once Slav moved in, this ladder became too small to dry two big towels. so we kept it as a drying rack for delicates in the laundry room. It was in a rusty red color, which is really cute. But I want to keep our bedroom mostly monochrome and calm. So I painted it black to match the bed and the mirrior.

IMG_0613

I do not think I’ve showed you this IKEA mirrior yet. It was only $30 and I like how simple and big it is. We like to keep the bedroom dark with only accent lighting, so I wrapped some solar-powered string lights around it to dress it up a little.

IMG_0614

It works pretty well as a night light – just bright enough to walk around with, but not too bright to interrupt our sleep.

IMG_0593

This light pretty much operates itself – the solar panel has a sensor, and we mounted it against the window facing outside. It will turn on by itself after sunset and off with sunrise. Since it uses solar, I do not feel guilty leaving it on all night long. For just $13, I think it is a great hand-off solution for bedroom lighting.

IMG_0594

We also had this metal deer antlers mounted in our bedroom.

IMG_6683

And lately, it has been used to air out Slav’s wifebeater:

IMG_0599

I know, what a ridiculous name. Wifebeater. OMG. I tried to call it “undershirt”, but Amazon does not give me the right search results unless I use the old terminology. I got Slav these in black since he likes to wear them for sleeping – I think they look a lot less offensive than the white ones, what do you think?

Here you have it, our little airing-out corner of the bedroom. It is cozy but not messy, jus the way I like it. I know that airing out clothes is not everybody’s thing, but we have been doing it for years and no one has ever complained about our smell. Besides, our dogs love it. Charlie loves napping under my pajamas. I think it is so sweet!

IMG_0638

A Beginner Minimalist

creat more consume less

On Holidays

I adore Christmas. Growing up in China and now living in the U.S., Christmas is the holiday that resembles Chinese New Year the closest – week-long break from school, cold air and warm blanket, comfort food, and hot tea. Christmas traditions spark joy and holiday spirits in me just like Chinese New Year does, even through they are celebrated very differently.

Christmas has carols, lights and a tree, whereas Chinese New year is celebrated with red lanterns, hand-cut window grilles, couplets flanking the front door, and lots and lots of fireworks. The biggest difference between how American and Chinese celebrate their holidays, is the gift giving. Chinese holidays involve no gift. There was not even birthday gifts (yes, you heard it right). Holidays in China are celebrated by the whole family gathering around and having a nice meal together. So understandably, even after 12 years living in the States, I still have a hard time choosing and receiving gifts, both of which give me lots of anxiety.

But nevertheless, the holiday shopping season comes in stronger and stronger force every year. As soon as we took the last bite of the Thanksgiving turkey, this world is all about shopping for Christmas. All the sudden, headlines like “10 gift every husband wants”, “must-haves in 2018 for empty-nesters”, even “the complete gift guide for all the people on your list” are all over the internet. Do I really need to buy gifts for all my girlfriends? What about co-workers? Does Slav really need a cigar box with his name carved on it? And I am supposed to gift myself now? OMG. I feel anxious just to type these words!

On Consumerism

The gift shopping and receiving is especially hard for me because I practice minimalism. I am not a minimalist by the strict sense – I do not have a sterile apartment or a capsule wardrobe. But I do follow two self-imposed rules when it comes to possessions:

1. Only keep things we actively use or strongly appreciated; and

2. Never buy a thing we do not need/use, just because “everyone else has it” or because other people/ads tell me that I “should have it”. 

These rules are simple, but they take some will-power to follow through. When my parents visited me from China, they were shocked that I, a Chinese woman who eats rice almost everyday, did not own a rice cooker. Their disbelief was so strong that it made me question myself for a brief moment. I was almost convinced that I should go out and buy one. But I soon remembered, we had not had a rick cooker for 7 years! We cook rice perfectly using a regular soup pot. The expectations of following social norms was so strong, that convincing my parents not to buy a rice cooker for me was unpleasant, grinding, and totally made me look like an unreasonable and stubborn bitch. (And when my mother-in-law visited, despite my protest, she just bought one and put it on my counter. Oops.)

We now live in a world that we are expected to own certain things, such as a standard mixer in the kitchen, a big TV in the living room, and a guest bedroom that remains unused 350 days a year. We own them not because we actually need them, but rather “we should have them”. Slav and I have decided that we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t pay for things we don’t use. We shouldn’t live our lives for anyone’s expectations. Therefore, we do not have a TV or a sofa. What we do have, is over 1500 physical books and a big vinyl collection. Because those are what we use and what we love.

On Managing Possessions

A couple years ago I decided to dress with less. Even though I was not aiming to make a 50-piece wardrobe, I did get rid of a lot of pieces. A lot of pieces I held onto just because I had the space. It was surprisingly easy once I set my mind on it. A trick I used for pieces I payed a lot for, or pieces I hoped to wear (but never would), was to put these items into a big bag and tossed it in the trunk of my car. After driving around with them for weeks, I did not miss them at all. So I donated them the next time I passed the PTA. It is a good trick to get rid of things we think we would need without the fear of regret. When I have a hard time to let it go, I always ask myself, “Will another person need, want, or appreciate it more than me?” 

After moving into this house, we do face the need of furnishing the space. Slav and I decided to do it slowly – so instead of going out to buy a bedroom set, a sofa and an entertainment center, a dining set, we bought a storage bed, a dining table, and two chairs – the minimal requirement for living comfortably. We want to learn what we actually need, and what will look good in the house. Six months later, we did not feel that we need anything more, and I love how our 850 sqft ranch feels spacious and cozy at the same time.

IMG_8756

The surprising side effect of my minimalism practice, is how much I started to appreciate the few things we own. I have only one decorative item on my desk, which is this mouse sculpture. We saw it in the thrift shop for $20, which was not cheap. But I adore it. I work with mice everyday and have scarified hundreds, if not thousands of them for research. I would like to have something to remind me their contribution to science and medicine. Looking at it brings me a sense of responsibility and gratitude towards my work.

IMG_0524

Similarly, this Buddha sculpture is the only decoration in my bedroom. It is a cheap find for $2 in the grocery store discount bin, but it reminds me the Chinese teachings I grew up with. I see it every morning when I get off the bed, when this Buddha head is bathed in the morning rays. It makes me feel calm, acceptance, and grace. It also reminds me the suffering the humanity faces, and brings a sense of responsibility of making the world better, which fuels my day.

On Free Time

The most unexpected gift my minimalism gives me, is free time. With smaller house to clean, few dishes to put away, few appliance to maintain, Slav and I have very little chores to do. We are able to focus on things that are important to us: health, hobbies, our dogs, and lots of time for each other. Each day, we spend hours in the evenings to relax and just talk. Through these talks, we learn about each other’s past, passion, and preferences. It helps us every step along the way to realign our priorities as a couple. In fact, that is how we decided to move to Colorado together!

A rule in Chinese ink painting is called “liu bai”, meaning “leave some space unoccupied”, based on the believe that imagination and creativity rises from unoccupied space/time/mind. I find it is very true. By leaving our house most unoccupied, we come up with creative ideas for the space. By leaving our time unoccupied, we discover what we do and do not care about so we can set our priorities. For me, practicing minimalism is all about to reassessing priorities. I apply it to material things, but also to how I spend my time and energy. What do I want to accomplish the most today, this week, and this year? Where should I spend my money/time/attention that is the most valuable to my family, my community, and the society? I set my intentions in the mornings, then just focus on giving it 100%. By the end of the day, successful or not, there is no guilt, no worry, and I am not overwhelmed. Living with intentions helps me to let trivial things go, and focus on making progress on things truly matter to me. 

Being a minimalist may be hard, but practice minimalism is simple. Do you agree? What is your own way of practicing minimalism?

Page 1 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén