Category: "Reduce"

This Week's Small Step: Give Care to Your Fridge

March 30th, 2012

The men in my house have learned by now that it is best to stay out of my way during spring cleaning. This is the season when, room by room, the place gets ripped apart, washed off, and put back together, all in attempt to make life happier and easier for the rest of the year.

In addition to scrubbing floors and organizing closets, this is when I show kindness to the cherished objects in my home by giving them a little maintenance. That includes the refrigerator. Day after day it whirs along, protecting my family's food from warmth-loving pathogens, keeping our small stockpile preserved so we don't have to visit the grocery store every three days. Because the refrigerator works, we can reach in on a whim and grab a cold beer, a frozen dessert, or an ice cube for chilling a freshly brewed glass of tea.

While these luxuries are the result of an appliance doing what it's designed to do, we can't forget there are reasons the device came with an owner's manual. There is more to owning a refrigerator than buying it, plugging it in, and stuffing it with food. We can easily see the sticky, smelly consequences when we don't clean it INSIDE. But it's not so obvious what happens if we don't clean it OUTSIDE.

Which brings me to this week's One Thing:

Give Care to Your Fridge; Clean its Coils

Cooling appliances carry heat away from one space by dispersing it to another. In the case of the fridge, warmth is transferred from the air around your food to the atmosphere in your kitchen. When your  refrigerator runs, you might feel heat blowing on your toes. This hot breeze is the result of the appliance's cooling task achieved by way of a fan and condenser coils. In some models, the coils are located on the rear or top of the fridge, but where ever they are, they likely need annual attention.

If your refrigerator is designed like ours, its condenser coils are located behind a plastic grill positioned at the bottom front of the unit. Ironically this is a perfect rest spot for all that floated across the kitchen floor over the course of time spent in one of the most active rooms of the house.


On our refrigerator, a plastic grill cover -- located at the bottom front -- pulls off for access to the coil housing.


As if covered with a blanket, the coils cannot shed the heat if they are surrounded by dust or other foreign objects. Regardless, the loyal appliance will continue to try to meet its cooling obligation by running the fan and the condenser on overtime. The bit of air that does reach the coils might eventually pull away the heat, but only after a lot of energy has been wasted.


The coils are not easy to get to, but they need to be periodically cleared of dust, etc.


Failure to keep the coils clean -- according to the manual's instructions -- will not only inflate your electric bill, it could cause the unit to fail in a way that no warranty will cover. However, few people read the owners' manuals today. This may be due to the intimidating size of documents whose bulk is artificially inflated with multiple language translations, but inside that manual appears basic maintenance instructions -- ways to keep the product running smoothly and efficiently -- ways to actually reach the Energy Star rating the product received when it was sparkly and new.

Not all refrigerators are the same and not all refrigerators need this kind of maintenance, but it's important to know what your fridge needs from you to do its job properly. Follow the instructions that came with yours before you follow my advice. If you don't have the manual, try searching the Internet for one using your make and model as keywords.

For me and my Kenmore, each spring and fall I turn off the fridge, remove the coil chamber's cover; grab a vacuum, a brush, and a flashlight; and suck out the dust that has collected there. This small but dirty task pays off with big invisible benefits that include a continually working fridge, a smaller electric bill, and a less worried state of mind. Each time I turn the fridge back on, I could swear it takes a deep yoga breath and smiles.

You need not share my compulsion for spring cleaning, but if you want to save energy and ensure that pint of summertime pleasure is frozen when you dish it out, don't forget to clean under the fridge.

The rewards wait inside.

The Write Beat's "One Small Step a Week" series offers suggestions for simplifying life in order to slow down, reconnect with Nature, and live in a way that is in better harmony with our surroundings.

This Week's Small Step: Donate and Say No

March 16th, 2012

The phone rang. On the other end was a woman who clearly cared about her cause. She began her plea with statistics about human lives and human deaths and offered me – a stranger on her list – a chance to change the ratio.

"Can you help with a small donation today?" she asked.

"No, I'm sorry," I replied and hung up the phone.

Charities are exempt from Pennsylvania's Do Not Call legislation (which makes it illegal to call people who do not want telemarketers to dial their number). I'm certainly not against charitable fundraising. On the contrary, I'd love to erradicate every one of the drunk driving deaths, cancer diagnoses, homicides, puppy mills, and sweat shops. But I can't.

Which brings me to this week's One Thing:

Donate, then say no

Each of us has an issue or three that strikes our heartstrings louder than others. Then there are our local services -- such as the fire company -- that depend on us so we can depend on them.  If you haven't already identified these nonprofit organizations in your life, take time to make a list.

Maybe you're most concerned about retired greyhounds...


or historic preservation...


or veteran affairs.


They are all import, but in order to truly make a difference, we have to choose.

It should come as no surprise that environmental causes rank high on my professional list. I'm a member of some for the benefits; some because I want to partner with them; and some because they directly impact my own quality of life or work on a cause that is dear to me.



Included in my budget is an annual donation to each one on the list. Then, when the phone rings up another good cause, I just say no. I donate with intention, not guilt or impulse.

Say no to every cashier who asks you for a dollar so that you can write your name on a paper balloon and hang it on the wall. Say no to every empty boot held outside your car window at a stoplight ... unless, the recipient is on the list and you forgot to send them a check.

If girl scouts are on the list, buy cookies. If the local school club is on the list, buy pizza. But remember, they are all part of the equation that should be considered when you plan your annual giving.

If you try to help everyone who calls or knocks, you set yourself up to become a victum of fraud; you'll get yourself on every mailing list; you'll lose track of your spending; and you may even find yourself supporting an unworthy cause. Plus, you'll allow guilt into your life where no guilt is due.

Just be sure when you say, "I gave at the office" that you really did. Concerned people start worthy causes, and for that the world is a better place. Instead of trying to help them all, succeed at supporting a few. Start your list today.


Photos in order: two adopted greyhounds walking at the John DeBella Dog Walk; one of many displays at the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles; a memorial monument at Veterans Park in Mays Landing, New Jersey; the Upper Delaware River at Narrowsburg, New York.

The Write Beat's "One Small Step a Week" series offers suggestions for simplifying life in order to slow down, reconnect with Nature, and live in a way that is in better harmony with our surroundings.

Backspacing My Way Through Life.

February 8th, 2012
"We can always change it later," the client said to me as I was waiting for his decision on whether or not to print the piece we'd been working on for days. I sighed. It was his money, his time, and his frustration that would be wasted if we didn't just stay focused and do it right. I live by the "ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure" philosophy. Time and time again that has proven to make my life easier ... maybe not during the moments of indecision or impatience or laziness that seem to creep in just before a project is officially finished, but later, when I don't have to revisit, repair, repaint, revise, or even remember what I was doing. It makes me sad when people can't see how, by scoffing at the last ounce of effort, they add pounds of work in the end.
If we didn't get the language right, the man was inevitably going to have buy the printing all over again someday. The paper. The ink. The folding. And it wasn't like we had reached a stalemate; he had just lost interest. However, since the customer is always right, I had to accept his decision and deliver something that was wrong. I hit the print key with objection and explained that the project's contract had concluded. Future versions would cost extra. I doubted our hard work would ever result in something either of us could be proud of. How often do we push things aside, rush the job, jump to something else, and give up instead of just doing it right the first time? They say patience is a virtue, and that's just one tick away from stick-to-it-ness. Sure, we all deserve the compassionate opportunity to fix our mistakes, and the quest for perfection can be crippling as well, but when "deal with it later" becomes a general rule, the game gets very, very complicated. Plus it's like spreading thistle seed in your vegetable garden. It doesn't make sense. Even so, I'm guilty too. Once upon a time the office secretary had to accurately press every key on the typewriter to generate a letter. One mistake meant she had to start all over or painstakingly paint on the correction fluid. Today, I probably hit the delete key more than all the others combined. Imagine how much less energy it would take if I slowed down and typed the message in a fluid motion instead of an erratic one. Blame it on technology, age, or society, I am losing my ability to follow my own virtuous philosophy. So, that is one mistake I intend to correct. I have made a commitment to slow down and give proper attention to each task at hand until it is complete. If I feel rushed, I will stop and ask myself if there is good reason for the feeling, or if it is just the devil on my shoulder trying to bring me down. I may not have the luxury of fixing my life later; living is something I've got to get right the first time.

Hammering Away at Organization

September 20th, 2011
During my career as an office management consultant, I would meet with disorganized professionals to talk about the clutter in their office.
Amidst piles of paper piles, scattered post-it notes, and dusty gadgets, I'd ask the person what they wanted most ... what they envisioned for themselves. More often than not, they responded with statements like, "I guess I need bins and better shelves," or "I want labels," or "I need you to help me figure out what kind of filing cabinet I should buy." Organization is a habit, a mind-set, and a skill set, but all they could picture were the tools. If they truly wanted to address the chaos, they first had to recognize that organization can't be bought at the office supply store. Read more in the latest SOS Signal newsletter.

How high is the water now (part four)?

September 8th, 2011
If you're just joining in, we've been talking about water conservation. Today's is a long, final post in this series. As I'm writing, it's still raining. It's been raining here for days, one week after hurricane Irene dumped six inches in a few hours. I recently put a lot of flooding pictures into my iPhoto library (some of which were taken at the home of a friend). That fact does not make this conversation any less relevant. Too much rain is as bad for clean water as drought.
Flood waters that overwhelm wastewater treatment plants and wash away stored oil tanks cause troubles that we can't see, but take generations to go away. We can't stop the floods, but we can reduce the impact -- a topic for another day. For now, the presence of nonstop rain does not excuse me from this water-conservation discussion. While Pennsylvania is swamped, Texas is thirsty and burning. Because the Earth's water supply is the result of a global, ongoing cycle, water conservation is a year-round topic -- whether the picture outside my window is dry and dusty or wet and soggy. Part 2 and Part 3 of this series prompted some fantastic comments. If you haven't checked back to read them, I suggest you do. I don't expect you to pick up every suggestion. I do, however, hope you'll join us as we work to change America's water attitude. Together, we'll expose the absurdity of using this life-dependent resource for nonsensical stuff. It's not like the call to save water hasn't been shouted before. You may have read popular lists like this: • Don't let the water run while brushing your teeth. • Don't let your garden sprinklers rain on the driveway or sidewalk. • Install low-flow shower heads. • If something leaks, fix it. As worthwhile and frequent as these campaigns are, simple lists like this seem to miss the big picture: they don't ask us to adjust our lifestyle. Educators try to keep things simple so that everyday people are more likely to participate. That approach can work, but what's out there for those of us who want more? Another reason you won't find some water-saving ideas on public service announcements is the fear of litigation. If the suggestion might, in any way possible, encourage disease or other side effects, it'll be dropped. For instance, during an extremely severe drought, I captured the water draining from my washing machine into buckets to water a special tree. Then I learned that the government was warning against this because germs in laundry water could make me sick. This is just one reason why there are limits to what you'll read on any "save water" poster. There is also little sense of urgency. It's natural to assume that water is plentiful when we see flowing rivers and full reservoirs. It's also commonplace to throw a lot of money around when cash is abundant, but that doesn't mean it's not necessary to invest and save. Unless there's a dramatic event (like 9/11), change comes slowly in society. When the rivers slow to a trickle and the reservoirs begin to dry up, it will be too late. Hardships like imposed water restrictions and inadequate supplies don't have to happen, but we won't be able to prevent them until we change our ways.
Despite my concerns, I too waste water. I live in the same world you do. I also know that the more others around me display positive habits, the more good habits I will develop and follow. Thus this conversation. Some of the commenters already covered things I do on a regular basis to save water. Here are few more:
The Kitchen I honestly do not know which uses more water: washing dishes by hand or by an efficient machine. I suppose it depends. I do know that I can significantly reduce the amount of water I use by simply paying attention. First, I scrape my dishes before I involve any water at all. Then, while hand washing, dirty dishes get showered below the clean one as I rinse off the soap.
I also... • make sure the water never runs without being used -- a point that applies to all water use. • don't dump out an unconsumed glass of water without putting it to use if possible. I used to give it to my dog. I water a house plant with it. I pour it into a dirty dish to soak or use it to rinse out the sink. • pay attention to my grocery list. Water was consumed to create every package at the store. Water helped to grow every piece of produce. I do my best to resist temptation to buy more than I'll eat because overbuying not only wastes money, it wastes water.
The Bathroom We've taken "clean" too far. Our ancestors used to bath once a week and, even then, they would share the water. Unless we reverse trends, the average person will soon be showering more often then they brush their teeth. We need to change our go-to-the-office-smelling-like-fresh-soap attitude. An old fashioned bowl bath is often all that's needed (especially in the winter). Instead, we shower because it's what's expected ... not because we need one. Also, nobody wants to talk about bodily fluid, but we can't ignore the fact that it doesn't take 3 1/2 gallons of water to flush away one cup of urine. It's true that new toilets to use only 1 1/2 gallons per flush, but some work better than others, and replacing everyone's toilet is not the only answer. Because I have an old one, whenever I host a big party, guests will find a sign that says, "please be kind to our septic system; flush only when necessary." It takes courage every time to hang it because never do I want my house to appear clean and tidy more than when visitors are coming. However, the sign does as much to relieve the stigma from those who question the need to flush as it does to raise awareness for those who haven't thought about it before. It also really does help my onsite septic system. Meanwhile, there is no denying that toilets across America are senselessly flushing away an excessive amount of clean water all day long. I placed a full gallon jug in the water reservoir of my old toilet years ago to reduce the amount of water required to fill the tank. One gallon per flush over ten years -- that adds up to a lot of water! Commenter Jerry raised a great point about composting toilets. These need to be considered more often so we can stop chopping down our forests to install septic systems, especially at remote cabins in pristine areas. The days of the outhouse are not over. Sure, sanitation has brought us a long way in preventing the spread of disease, but we've also got to admit that a full-blown septic system is overkill in some cases.
The Yard Excessive water use for landscaping has always infuriated me -- especially in the rural environment. It's admirable to want to have a nice home, and I agree that the yard can be the best part of ownership. But plants, by their very nature, work within the natural system because natural plants are a part of nature. If you truly want nature in your backyard, then let nature have a say in what's there. Understand your location, your conditions, your yard's natural affinity to natural things. If you're going to manipulate what grows there, then take the time to educate yourself responsibly so that you get the desired results without putting an excessive burden on the environment. I see little difference between planting grass in a desert and hanging plastic ferns on a front porch. They may look nice on the surface, but both are fake. At least the fern doesn't need any water. My yard is no showpiece and there are things I'd like to do to make it prettier. But NOTHING will ever get watered here except new plantings, the herb garden, and the vegetable garden. If it can't survive on its own, it means that it's just not right for this location. There are PLENTY of other lovely plants that would love to take it's place.
Sure, extreme droughts (like the one in which I watered a favorite dogwood tree with my laundry water) may call for extreme measures. But anything that requires regular, artificial means to keep it alive, is not planted here. Measures include fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicides, too. When I need inspiration, I visit a wilderness area and sit for a while. I look at how beautiful beauty can be when we stop manipulating it. I seek advice when needed ... and not from Sears, Walmart, Lowes, or Home Depot.
I will NEVER chop down trees to make way for a lawn I'm never going to use. Enough is enough with this American favorite. Most water-saving tips are centered around lawn maintenance. News flash: you don't have to water the woods or meadows.
I'm not asking that we all give up our backyard spaces where the kids can play and we can enjoy time in the sun. I'm asking for a change in the perception that large, weed-free expanses of boring, two-inch tall grass signifies some kind of wealth or class status. Studies show that heavily compacted turf soils are virtually impermeable. In short, there's little difference between turf and concrete. At least if these lawns were paved, we wouldn't have to mow them. (Again, I encourage you to read the past comments for more ideas.)
Other I now recognize hydroponic farming as a viable means of feeding people. I wrote an article about Butter Valley Harvest (a hydroponic farm in Bally, PA) a few years ago and struggled with conflicting opinions about the practice. Basically, plants are grown in a soil free, greenhouse environment in trays of circulating water. The only water consumed is that which the plants take up; the rest rolls down to a collection tank and is recirculated. Nutrients are added to the water to feed the plants. Bugs and pests are kept out of the garden, diseases are prevented by maintaining a near sterile environment, and climate conditions are controlled by the farmer.
The conflict lies in that the plants have no connection to the Earth. There is no such thing as organic hydroponic produce because certifiers have concluded that, without soil, the process cannot be organic. I have to agree. However, the technique has obvious applications. As the world population continues to expand, hydroponics can offer a real solution to hunger issues, particularly in dry locations. Some also question the nutritional value when compared to conventional produce, however, the additives do deliver basic nutrients.
I almost never buy bottled water. Purchasing it sends a message that I'm happy with the fact that someone else is depleting my resource and selling it back to me. For what? Convenience? There are occasions when bottled water is necessary. My childhood home had a contaminated well and filtration systems were not an option back then. Bottled drinking water kept my family from getting sick. Also, when I'm thirsty at the movie theater, I don't want to drink soda, so it's nice to have the option to buy a bottle of water instead. Aside from than that, I wonder about the amount of water the industry bottles but doesn't sell. I think about the water used for the creation (and recycling) of the disposable plastic bottle. Nearby my home, an urban neighborhood gets 675 gallons of municipal tap water for the price of one gallon of bottled water. My home is served by a well -- I will continue to get an unlimited amount of water for the price the original owner paid to drill the well ... assuming, that is, that I am careful to conserve it, whether it's raining outside or not.