Sunday, June 29, 2008

Vampiring: don't be a sucker

Don’t be alarmed, but there are probably vampires in your house right this minute. Not the blood-sucking kind, but the electricity-sucking kind.

“Vampire energy” is the term for the electricity drawn by an appliance while it’s in standby mode (off but still plugged in). I’ve also heard it called “trickle current” and “standby power”.

Here’s an article from Good Magazine on the subject, and one from Grinning Planet too.

How to find out which of your appliances is sucking the most electricity (and money) from your house? Well, you could launch a scientific study, unplugging one per month and studying your utility bills… or you could get the Kill-A-Watt electricity usage monitor for about $25 and find out immediately.

We’ve been discussing energy reduction strategies at work lately. It turns out that one of the easiest things you can do to cut down is to ditch your computer screensaver. Most of today’s monitors don’t have the image-burning problem that once made the screensaver a beneficial application: now it’s just one more power guzzler you don’t need. Read articles about this from Green Daily and Digg.

More easy things you can do to save energy:

Turn off your monitor when you’re away from the computer.

Turn off the power strip that controls all your computer components when you shut down for the day. Even better, turn it off and unplug it… I’m not entirely clear on the difference between plain and surge protector power strips, but from what I’m hearing about “trickle current” and lightning strikes, it’s the only way to be 100% safe.

Download a free application at to optimize your computer’s energy use. According to the website, it will cut your energy bills, reduce your greenhouse gas emissions by reducing your PC's power consumption, give you full control over any power mode settings, improve your overall computing experience and efficiency, and show you, in detail, how much you have saved since installing the software.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Dollars and sense

The other day as I stood at the bus stop waiting to go to downtown Baltimore, I found myself pondering the economics of mass transit. It’s certainly in the best interest of the environment for people to take the bus or subway or whatever, but at what price does it become a person’s best option financially?

Well, lucky for you, I am enough of a nerd that I sat down and figured out the formulas so you don't have to. Read on:

How much are you spending per car trip =

($ per gallon of gas) / (your car’s MPG) * (trip mileage)

Example: $4.10 / 22 mpg (in my Honda) * 10 miles = $1.86 total.

Need to find your car’s MPG? Google your car and “MPG” or try this website.

Need trip mileage? Mapquest it here.

At what gas price or trip mileage does it become cheaper to take mass transit?

= (bus fare) * (your car’s MPG) / ($ per gallon of gas)

Example: Here in Baltimore, a round trip bus or light rail costs $3.20.

$3.20 * 22 MPG / $4.10 = 17.2 miles

Therefore, if I’m traveling more than 17.2 miles round trip, it’s cheaper for me to take the bus… especially if I’m going downtown, where I’d have to pay for parking.

As my car gets older, I'm considering my transportation options: Keep the car and pay increasingly high maintenance costs? Get a new car? Give up car altogether and rely on mass transit and taxi service?

For new car options, I'm researching green vehicles at the EPA website. Not surprisingly, the Toyota Prius is at the top of the gas efficiency list, but there are also good Honda, Mazda, Smartcar options I'm considering.

Next time I do my bills, I plan to take a good hard look at how much I’m paying for car ownership, and whether it’s worth it. Insurance, maintenance, gas, parking: it all adds up! I hear there's a fleet of Zipcars hovering around the Johns Hopkins campus not too far away. I will check it out and report back here. Over and out!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Destination: Planet Green

It's the latest in eco-tainment: a channel called Planet Green, sponsored by the Discovery channel. Do you know what this means? Now you can turn on your TV and watch green programs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, even without TiVo!

Remember when I blogged about the green rebuilding of Greensburg, Kansas after it was destroyed by a tornado? Well, there's a show all about it on this channel.

But it's not all building: they broadcast shows on all kinds of topics. Fashion & beauty, food & health, home & garden, tech & transport, travel & outdoors, work & connect are the headings listed on their webpage.

These TV marketing people are pretty slick. They've been broadcasting some of the shows from Planet Green (Greenovate, Wa$ted, etc.) on the regular Discovery channel just long enough to get people hooked... then they launch a separate channel and move all the green programs there. I wouldn't mind it so much if it were a channel I had access to! In Baltimore County, Planet Green is on channel 113 for Comcast subscribers. I guess it's time to upgrade my cable package.

Those of you who already have the fancy channels can check your local listings or the extensive Planet Green channel website for show times, descriptions, blogs, Q&A, and more. The website has an email newsletter and all kinds of stuff. Get your green on!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Why I love Brad Pitt

Ask any woman in the world: Brad Pitt is *hot*. I’ve been a fan since his big screen debut in “Thelma & Louise”. Then a few years back, I read an article in House & Garden magazine about his interests in gardening and green architecture – now that’s my kind of man!

Fast-forward to today: Brad Pitt has become quite the international advocate of green building. Not only is he building his own off-the-grid home in California, but he’s lending his star quality to green projects around the world.

He’s hosting a PBS series called Design: E2 (the economies of being environmentally conscious). Watch the trailer here:

In New Orleans, he’s working with several organizations to rebuild homes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. As a Global Green design jury chairman, he’s helping organize a competition for architects, urban planners, and ecologists to propose solutions for re-designing New Orleans neighborhoods.

He founded Make It Right, a green rebuilding effort in the Lower 9th Ward of NOLA. Under the umbrella of MIR, The Pink Project is a vehicle for raising awareness and money for the cause. Individuals can contribute to specific portions of a house, gather a group to sponsor bigger chunks or even a whole house, or simply make a general cash donation. The Home Depot Foundation is contributing at least $7 million to MIR, and getting into the act with new eco-friendly product labeling at their stores. You Idol fans out there may recall that this project was also featured on American Idol Gives Back.

Now he’s working with Zabeel Properties and L.A.-based architecture firm GRAFT to design a five-star green resort in Dubai.

To be sure, there are other celebrities out there doing good things for the green movement: Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Gore ... But I confess, Brad is my favorite!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

What's that thing in your yard?

At the Saturday Ecofestival during Baltimore Green Week, I built a rain barrel. On the way out of the festival, and here in my neighborhood, everybody has been wanting to know, “what is that?”

A rain barrel is one of the easiest things you can do to make your house greener. Once placed under a downspout, it collects all the rainwater from your roof that would normally be routed into storm drains. A spigot at the base of the rain barrel attaches to a garden hose so that you can water your garden, wash your car, or do whatever you wish with this water reclaimed from the sky.

Impervious area = bad

By collecting rainwater to use in your yard, you can lessen the load on storm drains and local waterways. Think about the typical path of this rainwater: it falls from the sky, travels across your roof, down your gutter, across impervious concrete drains or sidewalks and streets, then finally into a storm drain. Along the concrete sidewalk/street part at least, this water can pick up chemical pollutants that are carried with it all the way to the Chesapeake Bay. It’s much better for the local watershed to receive this water after it has been filtered by your garden plants and soil, which release the water gradually to the subterranean groundwater supply, rather than in a dirty torrent after a rainstorm.

How much impervious surface area is there in your neighborhood? A quick study of my own middle-of-group townhouse showed that 49% of my property is impervious (rooftop/sidewalk/deck/porch), i.e. creates runoff that often travels into a storm drain rather than soaking into the soil naturally.

Reduced water consumption = good

Did you know that residential watering can account for 40% of domestic water consumption in a given area? Using water from a rain barrel can save you up to 1,300 gallons of water during peak summer months: definitely a plus in times of drought and water restriction. Plus, the water you collect from your rooftop is free of chlorine, fluoride, and other substances found in treated public water that your garden plants don’t need.

It’s cheap

Rain barrels can run upwards of $100 for fancy models from local garden stores. However, you can build a rain barrel for as little as $50 at a workshop sponsored by the Herring Run Watershed Association, which is what I did. In my case, I even customized the barrel for my home: the bottom spigot is at the front for easy access, and I located the overflow hose on the left side so that it can run into my existing drain.

It requires little maintenance

To set up your rain barrel, you’ll need a hacksaw to trim your downspout to the proper length, and a few cement blocks on which to set the barrel for better water pressure.

After installation, you simply keep the intake basket free of leaves, twigs, and other debris so that water can flow in freely. The screen on the basket is important for preventing mosquitoes from taking up residence in your water.

If you have a large roof, your barrel may fill faster than you can use the water. For this reason, there is an overflow opening near the top of each barrel, attached to a flexible hose. This hose can be routed down to a drainage area, or connected to a second rain barrel: you can connect as many rain barrels as you like in this manner.

For more information on building your own rain barrel, check out the Rain Barrel roll-out on May 15th at
See here for more info about rain barrels, including how to make your own from scratch: Md Environmental Design Program

HGTV’s Gardening by theYard rain barrel how-to:,,HGTV_3546_2165903,00.html