Friday, January 28, 2011

Read This Before You Buy Grow Lights

As you may recall, I started Master Gardener training this January through the University of Wisconsin Extension. I'm learning so much each week. For example, did you know that poinsettia leaves are NOT poisonous? Our fantastic instructor, UW-EX Consumer Horticulture Agent Sharon Morrissey, said one of her professors in college demonstrated this fact by consuming poinsettia leaves in front of his students. I also learned that those who grow seedlings indoors need not invest in fancy "grow lights," which frequently cost two or three times more than other fluorescent lights. In order to grow, plants need "red" and "blue" light – that is, bulbs that emit these kinds of rays (not colored red or blue lights but white lights that are tinged with these parts of the light spectrum). To accomplish this with a two-light ballast, you could use one cool-white bulb, which emits blue-tinged light, and one soft-white bulb, which emits red-tinged light.

As soon as I learned this I went straight to the hardware store and bought a 48", two-bulb shop light ballast for $15 and four 48", T8 bulbs – two cool white and two soft white. Each two pack was about $5. I am going to hang the new light behind my other shop light, under which I'm currently growing lettuce seeds. The first light appears to be working just fine so far, and I've saved a lot of money not purchasing a "real" grow-light system (depending on how elaborate the system they can cost upwards of $100, often far more).

Here's a photo of my basement shop light. Growing underneath are two flats of lettuce atop space-saving mini tables my father-in-law constructed for me. The second shop light will be added after I purchase extra long chains for the ballast so I can bring the bulbs closer to the flats (the chains that came with the shop light are much too short).

By the way, you don't have to wait until early spring to start seeds. I'm growing lettuce in my basement under lights. These "Pablo" lettuce seeds I received courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange and planted on January 15 seem to be doing well!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hom Energy Inspection: Part Three

As you may recall from previous Blue Bungalow blog posts, we had a home energy inspection in late 2010, conducted by Tim Guillama of Beyond Energy, LLC. A house is inspected to determine how much conditioned air is typically cycled through in an hour. A draftier home will have a higher "air change rate" than a well-sealed home and, thus, higher heating and cooling bills. When our home was inspected this December, Tim determined that our air change rate was about 13.8 per hour.

Following the inspection, Tim suggested that we have our house and attic insulated. We couldn't afford to do it all at once, so we decided to start by sealing and insulating our attic and basement. We also had our old house exhaust fan replaced with a more energy efficient model. After we had this work done by Insulation Technologies in Milwaukee, Tim returned to our house and again conducted his blower door test to determine the air change rate. It improved from 13.8 changes per hour to about 10.

Our latest WE bill arrived one day after Tim's second inspection, on Tuesday, Jan. 12. The bad news is that gas prices are on the rise again, and this was reflected in our bill. The good news is that the amount of therms we used last month went down from last year, from 761 to 665 (the average temp was one degree warmer this year, which may account slightly for the decrease in therm usage – it went from 23 degrees F last year to 24 this year).

I'm also pleased that our overall energy usage is much lower than average, as evidenced by the following graphic provided by WE:

All in all I'm very happy that we're bringing our therm usage down as prices are rising. We'll still probably pay a great deal to heat our once-drafty old bungalow, but perhaps not as much as we might have.

Much of our home energy efficiency endeavors were made possible by our friend Mike Arney, who is quietly and ardently working to inspire Tosans to go green. He has helped us and he can help you, too: get involved with the new Green Neighbor program (the brain child of Mike Arney and John Bahr). Click on the Green Neighbor checklist to learn about measures you can take to make your home more energy efficient.

There are still several things, both large and small, that we'd like to do to reduce energy consumption in our household. I plan to write about them here – stay tuned.

What measures have you taken to green your home?

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Blue Bungalow at Wauwatosa Now

In case you weren't aware, last week I began posting this blog on the local My Community Now website, Wauwatosa Now, which is owned by the same company that owns the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. I will continue to post the same content at both blogs. To view the other location, go to

Recycling the Christmas Tree

By now most Tosans' Christmas trees are curbside as we await this week's garbage pick-up, when, on our scheduled garbage day, the trees will be hauled away and turned into mulch. In the past I have pruned off the branches of my Christmas trees and saved them for mulching and composting. This year I was busy, so I decided simply to send our dried up balsam fir to the city. My husband dragged the tree out to the curb last weekend.

I soon began to regret this decision – especially after I came across this list of monthly gardening tips at the Hawks Nursery website. Hawks reminded me not to give up those precious evergreen boughs, as they are very useful in the garden. Thankfully, I found a bit of time to drag the tree to my blueberry patch, where, wearing heavy duty gloves, I cut it to shreds with garden pruners. I then spread the needles around the shrubs, where they will serve as mulch and, hopefully, acidify the soil a bit -- blueberries love acidic soil, and pine is a mild acidifier.

When I got most of the needles off the tree, I replaced what was left of the tree on the curb. (Note: I learned the hard way not to save the trunk and branches as firewood: pine sap tends to explode when heated, which can be dangerous and destructive).

I admit it feels a bit weird to hack apart a Christmas tree. The skeleton that now remains on my curbside is undoubtedly going to make some passersby wonder what the heck we Zydeks do in our house during the Christmas season. On the other hand, recycling my tree is such a beautiful way to continue celebrating Christmas long after December 25 -- that evergreen tree symbolizing eternal life will now also symbolize resurrection as breaks down in the soil, giving new life to other plants.

It's not too late to recycle your tree! Pull it off the curb, clip off the boughs and place them on your garden beds as mulch. Or, save the clippings in a bag and let them age, spreading them as needed during warmer weather or adding them to your compost bin.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Question about Home Inspections

This morning I want to share a question from a friend in Tosa re: home inspection and insulation, as it's something I am frequently asked:

We're looking into the whole home inspection thing because like you, we have a drafty old bungalow and are paying out the ears each month. I was wondering how much your assessment cost? Did you do the blanket assessment or did you pick & choose individual testing to be done? Was it a lot of do the air seal and insulation? And you said that there is a marked difference?

I think the inspection cost around $300. Generally they run from $300 to $500, depending on the size of one's home. We did the whole assessment, for which the inspector looked at the home's air flow as it relates to heating and cooling. FYI, the inspector doesn't look at, say, lighting, or water usage, or appliances. These are things a consumer can easily assess on one's own. Air flow is much harder for a consumer to assess, and it's important to assess, as heating and cooling account for a majority of a home's energy usage -- which can be A LOT if one lives in a drafty old bungalow. Our first February in Wisconsin the We bill blew my mind. I could simply did not expect to pay $400 or $500 a month on energy each winter when I had been paying closer to $200 a month in Urbana, Illinois.

BTW, the company that inspected our home is Beyond Energy, llc. You might want to contact your neighborhood association to find out if any of your neighbors are interested in getting an assessment. Many energy inspectors offer group rates.

Following the inspection we had our attic air sealed and insulated. We also insulated our basement. The cost was about $3,500 – this is a significant expense for us, but we felt the cost is worth it for the following reasons, in no particular order: (1) improving the comfort level of our home (2) saving money (in the long run) (3) preserving energy and protecting the environment, and (4) preserving an old home while bringing it up to twenty-first century standards. I haven't seen a full month's We Energies bill since we had the work done, so it's too early to analyze cost savings, but the house does feel warmer. Based on estimated savings, my husband figures it'll take us about five years to recoup inspection and insulation expenses.

We were pretty happy with the company who did the work: Intech, located in Milwaukee. They've specialized in home insulation for decades and have had thousands of happy insulation customers, so we knew we were in good hands. They also offered us the most attractive price. The were pleasant and professional, didn't use sub-contractors, and completed the work in one day.