Keeping it Cool…and Cheap

I was excited when PG&E installed a SmartMeter for our house, because I really wanted to see where we were spending our energy dollars. We don’t have gas, so all of our heating and cooling is electric. I was really proud to learn that we’re using less energy than most of the similar homes in our area!

We’re not perfect by any means, but we do a pretty good job of cooling our house in the summer without spending a fortune. We’re lucky to have a swamp cooler, which we inherited from the previous owner. It’s a great way to cool the house for way less than it costs to run air conditioning. But even without a swamp cooler or whole house fan (which we don’t have), there are cheap, easy, and effective ways to keep any house cooler. Here are some of our tips:

1. Don’t add heat to your house. Clothes dryers, dishwashers, and ovens/stoves all add unnecessary heat. There are easy solutions: dry clothes on the line, don’t use the “heated dry” cycle on the dishwasher, and use the barbeque/toaster oven/microwave in lieu of the oven or stove. I also avoid using the iron or blow dryer.

2. Keep the light out. This one pains me, because I love having all the windows open and letting the sun shine in. Unfortunately, sunlight equals heat, and heat is the enemy. We keep the curtains drawn to block direct sunlight, and place shade umbrellas to block windows without curtains or shades.

3. Employ psychological warfare. Part of keeping summertime energy costs down involves adjusting your attitude. No matter how good you are at keeping excess heat and light out, when it hits 100, the house is going to get warm. Using the swamp cooler along with these other techniques, we’re able to keep the temperature in our house about 15-20 degrees cooler than outside without using air conditioning. But it still gets into the low ’80s. We keep our clothing light and loose, run fans to keep the air moving, and make sure to have plenty of cold drinks (mainly ice water, but a cold beer never hurts!). These tactics do help keep us physically cool, but they also help make it feel cooler.

Swamp Cooler. I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the importance of our swamp cooler, or evaporative cooler, in keeping our house cool without spending a fortune. They’re nicknamed “swamp” coolers because they add moisture (humidity) to the air, and they are way less effective (and way less comfortable) when it’s already humid outside. But these babies work like a charm when the humidity is low, as it almost always is in our area of Northern California in the summer. A model like ours runs about $300-400, and is mounted outside the house with an opening into the house for the fan. They require power and water. Basically, a swamp cooler is just a water pump and a fan. The water pump wets fibrous mats, and the fan pulls air through those wet mats, cooling it off (and adding humidity). Depending on the outside temperature and humidity, our swamp cooler cools the outside air 15-25 degrees before it enters the house. Aaaah.

Like I said, we’re not perfect. We both like long showers, and we both like to cook, and those two habits are energy hogs when your house is all-electric. But we’re definitely not giving those up! I am trying to get in the habit of shutting off my computer when I’m not using it, and unplugging the TV and related electronics when they aren’t in use (most of the time). Those electronics get hot, and I’m trying to fight the heat!

CLICK HERE to leave a comment!

Lazy: Icebox Iced Tea

I pretty much stopped drinking coffee earlier this year (doesn’t agree with my tum), so I’ve turned to tea to meet my hot/cold caffeinated morning beverage needs. But – brutal honesty – I am lazy when it comes to making my own. I’m always in a rush out of the house, and it is just so easy to pop in and grab a cup of whatever to go. I can manage hot tea, but not in this weather. Now that it’s summer, I’ve fallen in love with iced tea. It’s not hard to make, and I’ve tried a few methods: hot brewed and cooled, hot over ice, and sun tea. Instant iced tea is deeply unsatisfying and not an option. Hot over ice is a total failure, but the other two work just fine if I plan in advance, which I never do (because I’m lazy). And I don’t really like putting hot liquids in the fridge – I always have to juggle stuff around so the hot stuff isn’t near milk or meat or anything like that, and it’s a pain (and a waste of electricity cooling it off).

I’ve finally hit on a method to make iced tea that I’m not too lazy for – Icebox Iced Tea.

It’s dead simple: a quart of cold tap water, two tea bags, stick it in the fridge, and let it brew overnight. I use a wide-mouth quart-sized canning jar, but any covered container would work. Apparently I’m able to overcome my laziness for the 30 seconds it takes to prepare it in advance – after all, that’s way less time than it takes to get takeout! It comes out pretty strong, which I like because I have it over ice with a generous amount of milk. Since 100 tea bags cost me less than $2, I get my fix for less than a nickel. Being lazy is always satisfying, but saving money at the same time is even more so!

CLICK HERE to leave a comment!

Mulch is the Answer

According to my new favorite book, How to Grow Fruits and Vegetables by the Organic Method (1961 Edition), mulch is the answer to all my problems. It controls weeds, helps keep moisture in the soil, adds nutrients to the soil as it decomposes, and helps control pests. In the winter, it also helps keep the soil warm, although Lord knows we don’t need that help now…it was in the high 90’s today.

The weeds have been taking over our garden. I think that some of the manure we used is to blame. After I spent a while weeding, I had things around the garden plants in the Back Forty under control.

Garden Before Mulch

I decided that hay would be the best choice for mulch because it’s cheap and readily available. Turns out, hay isn’t exactly “cheap.” Hay (alfalfa in this case) is used for fodder and runs $19/bale at our local feed store. Straw is what we wanted. Six dollars a bale and way fewer weeds and seeds to boot. I laid a nice thick layer (3-4 inches) around the base of the plants in the Back Forty, and only used about a third of a bale. I didn’t put any mulch around the crawling plants (melons and zucchini) because they were already on the ground. I didn’t mulch any of the raised beds because I figured they would act as a control of sorts.

After Mulch

After Mulch Closeup

I’m hopeful that the mulch will help with the weeds, and also help reduce our watering needs during the heat of summer. If the plants I mulched around look like they’re doing well after a few more weeks, I’ll probably go to town and mulch everything.

To reward myself after all that work in the hot sun, I enjoyed a treat from the garden. Blackberries right off the vine. I love summer.


CLICK HERE to leave a comment!

Dining Table –> Patio Table

The other day, I was complaining to my Uncle M that I could not find a solidly-constructed patio table – all the ones I come across seem rickety and expensive. He suggested that I just buy a round dining table and use that as a patio table. I’d never considered using “inside furniture” outdoors, because I figured it would get ruined in the elements. But the reality is that most of the official “outdoor furniture” I’ve had over the years has gotten pretty battered by the elements. I decided that as long as I could find something cheap that wasn’t anything special or heirloom-quality, I would go for it. So John and I popped into the local thrift store today. We found this table for $18 and brought it right home.

It’s nothing special – the top is just veneered plywood – but it’s the perfect size and it’s very sturdy. In its current form, it doesn’t exactly make my heart flutter. I think a little paint will improve things considerably. Still, I decided I’d rather have a functional seating area on my deck now than wait until I had the time to spiff it up. I busted out the drill and drilled a hole for an umbrella right in the middle.

Fifteen minutes later, I had my legs propped up on our DIY patio table and was very happily reading my new-to-me gardening book. By the way, I paid $2.50 for the 1961 edition of this book, but it sells used on Amazon for about the same price as our table! You can borrow it for free at Open Library.

Speaking of DIY, I guess at some point I could repair or replace our broken sun umbrella, but a quick fix with a spring clamp we had lying around is working so well that I don’t think I’ll even bother. 🙂

CLICK HERE to leave a comment!

Cork Shelf Liner Tutorial (IKEA PS Cabinet)

A few months back, we bought the IKEA PS Cabinet in white. I like the all-metal construction of the IKEA PS Cabinet, but the metal shelves are kind of impractical. They get scratched up when you pull things in and out of the cabinet, and it’s also really loud. I decided right away that I wanted to install cork shelf liner to dampen the noise and prevent scratches. Here’s the cabinet before I installed the cork shelf liner:

I chose the Con-Tact Self Adhesive Natural Cork because it was readily available, not too expensive, and I’d had good luck with the Con-Tact brand in the past. The cork sat right next to the PS Cabinet for a few months, because I was a little nervous to tackle the project. I was worried that I wouldn’t get it straight, and that it would look wonky and amateur-ish. I finally tackled the project today, and although it took a little while to get the hang of applying the self-adhesive cork, I figured out a great way to get it to adhere evenly and I’m really pleased with the end results!

I wanted to share my method, but I found it impossible to describe in text and photos, so I decided to make a little video tutorial showing how to install the cork shelf liner. Honestly, I’m just so happy that it turned out the way I wanted! Hope you enjoy the tutorial!

CLICK HERE to leave a comment!

FinchCam: Baby Finches Grow Up and Leave the Nest

I put together this video of motion-detect footage from the webcam we have set up to film the house finch nest in our deck. It’s amazing to see how the baby house finches get bigger and more feathered every day!

CLICK HERE to leave a comment!

FinchCam: Gory Tech Details

Note: A loyal reader asked for “gory tech details” on the FinchCam setup, and I was happy to oblige.

FinchCam consists of a Logitech Webcam Pro 9000, the motion-detect software that came with the webcam, a 30-foot USB extension cable, and my laptop.

I initially considered the Logitech Webcam Pro 9000 after seeing footage from The Animal Detector blog. They use an older version of this webcam, and the quality is pretty incredible. When my friend K (who thoroughly researches all of his electronics purchases, unlike me) said that he’d also been wanting one, I was sold! It retails for $79.99, but you can get it for under $50 on Amazon.

The webcam is mounted to the roof over our deck with a combination of strapping (for the cam) and staples (for the USB cable). John mounted it all and it’s been working great! The photos below are looking up at the underside of the roof over our deck. I extend the cable to the webcam with a 30-foot USB extension. It just comes through the nearest slider (in our kitchen), and connects to my laptop, which is sitting on the kitchen table. The setup works perfectly except that the USB extension (I think) is a little finicky, so I have to be careful not to jostle the connection to my computer or it breaks the connection enough that the webcam won’t work. When that happens, I just disconnect and reconnect it. I haven’t figured out how to prevent that problem yet (even though I’ve routed the cable so there’s no pulling on either end).

I use the software that came with the webcam, and I have no complaints. There are options you can set for the camera zoom and positioning (so it doesn’t have to be perfect when you set it up), and for the motion detection. Click for larger versions of the screencaps below.

When I want to spy on the nest, I can view it in real time through the webcam interface, just like you see in the screencaps. And yes, I waited until the dad was in the nest to take them. 🙂 I have the motion detection set on “low,” which is actually the highest sensitivity. It’s taken 48 videos so far today, and over half of those are just the babies moving around. But if I decrease the sensitivity, I capture less of the beginning and end of the feedings when there isn’t as much motion.

Hope this helps out!

CLICK HERE to leave a comment!

FinchCam: Video of Baby House Finches

After spotting the house finch nest in our deck the other night, we promptly set up the web cam in motion-detect mode so we could watch the action without disturbing the little guys. Here’s some video from the first day.

CLICK HERE to leave a comment!


We have a few spots under and around our deck where birds like to nest, and John has made the nesting spots more hospitable by boxing them in a bit to provide additional protection. We were sitting at our kitchen table a little while ago discussing the Rapture, and we heard a distinctive sound. Guess who’s arrived?


Three baby finches! I think jolie laide applies here, with the emphasis on laide! 🙂 You can click the photo to enlarge, and admire the ring of crap around the nest in all its oozing glory. Seriously, it’s kind of mesmerizing…

Apropos of nothing, here’s how I spent my evenings on our recent coastal camping trip. You’ll have to imagine a nice glass of red wine in the cupholder of my camp chair to get the full effect.

CLICK HERE to leave a comment!

Stuff I Like (March 2011)

Ah, stuff. I like some stuff. Other stuff, not so much. Here are a few things I’m especially into right now:

1. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap in Rose

I’ve been using Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap for about 10 years. I love it! It’s all-natural, makes a super-rich lather with a tiny amount, and it seems to last forever. It’s also Fair Trade Certified, which is cool. The rose scent is by far my favorite, although I also like the almond. I always take a small bottle of Dr. Bronner’s with me when I travel, because it works great for washing my face and body, shaving, and doing laundry in the sink. Because it’s all-natural and biodegradable, I also use Dr. Bronner’s to wash up when I’m camping (although I still wash dishes with Campsuds, just out of habit).

2. Chai Tea

I am really into Chai at the moment, and Good Earth Organic Seven Spice is my favorite. It’s nice and spicy, without any weird artificial ingredients or vanilla flavor. I brew it up with half water and half almond milk, and let it steep a good long while. I have to admit that my all-time favorite Chai is from a recipe in Cooking With the Dead: Recipes and Stories from Fans on the Road (yes, seriously). I had this book in college but foolishly gave away. I just reordered it!

3. Indian Food

This is kind of a corollary to the Chai thing, but I’m super into Indian food at the moment, too! Especially aloo gobi (my all-time fave), saag, and (of course) naan.

4. Stadium Arcadium

I’ve liked the Red Hot Chili Peppers since the mid-’90s, and I really appreciate the way their sound has mellowed and matured over time. Although “I Could Have Lied,” from Blood Sugar Sex Magik is still probably my favorite RHCP song, Stadium Arcadium has been getting a lot of play lately. My current favorite songs on the album are “She Looks to Me” and “Make You Feel Better.” (I’m also a big Rick Rubin fan.)

CLICK HERE to leave a comment!