Monday, September 29, 2008

Fresh tomatoes!

I know that many tenants either don't have land for gardening or have limited ability to add gardens to their yards. If you can negotiate a lease that gives you responsibility for landscaping, go for it. Most landlords will probably be happy if they don't have to worry about mowing the lawn or shoveling snow. And, let's face it, a vegetable garden looks better than weeds.

When I moved in, there were six-foot-high weeds in the back yard. This year, the goal was modest, a small patch down one side of the yard, in which to grow a few tomatoes, some lettuce and chard, and some carrots. It's gone well. The large tomatoes haven't begun to ripen yet, but the three smaller tomato plants have been producing lots of delicious fruit. The picture above shows what I picked this morning. To put this in context, I last picked the ripe fruit about four days ago.

Lately, I've seen some great ways for tenants to garden. One nearby house has three old cooking oil buckets as tomato pots. They sit on a narrow concrete barrier on the edge of the driveway. They're stable and don't interfere with the lawn (some landlords won't let you pull up the turf).

Pots and window boxes are great for many smaller plants, such as radishes, lettuce, beets, even blueberries. Some vines can grow from relatively shallow soil or very narrow strips of exposed soil, too. So you could grow zucchini or cucumbers up your front porch railing or a trellis by the side of your house, without having to dig anything up.

If you've used innovative techniques to garden your rental property, let me know down in the comments section. I'm always looking for new ideas.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Pressed for savings

I like coffee. It's one of my vices. But there are a lot of problems with coffee, too. To try and minimize my contributions to the woes created by coffee production, I drink fair trade, organically grown coffee whenever possible.

But energy and waste are other concerns. Coffee grounds and filters are easily dealt with. They can go into my composter, or to a municipal composting program such as Toronto's Green Bin. Metal filters reduce waste, too. But conventional coffee makers also use a lot of electricity and produce a lot of waste. With all their electronic components and their bulky plastic frames, a lot of material goes to a landfill whenever one breaks. And, as we've all learned the hard way, it's cheaper and easier to replace an entire coffee maker than it is to replace a cracked carafe.

A few yers ago, while visiting a cottage on Lake Huron, there was a power failure. Luckily, the place had a solar-charged battery bank for backup. Worked like a charm. At least until we tried to make coffee, that is. The coffee maker instantly drained the system, plunging us once again into darkness.

Just how much energy does a coffee maker use? According to the USEPA, a coffee maker draws 900-1200 watts. That's about as much as an iron, a toaster or a small portable heater. It's a lot of electricity. If your coffee maker stays on for just half an hour a day, that adds up to about 180 kilowatt hours per year. That's roughly equivalent to watching a big projection television for more than 1000 hours. Oh, and if you're measuring your carbon footprint, that's about 40 kg of carbon dioxide, based on the annual average from the Ontario grid.

So, what's the solution? Why, a coffee press, of course! Also known to many as a Bodum, these handy devices make far better cofee than to automatic drip systems. Because the grounds are suspended in hot water, they also use fewer beans per cup. For my morning brew, I throw in some grounds, pour in boiling water, wrap it in a thick towel (to keep heat in), wait five minutes, press the grounds down and pour a perfect, piping hot cup!

What are the energy savings? Assume one pot a day using a 1000-watt kettle, taking five minutes to boil. That's about 25 kWh per year. In other words, using a coffee press saves about 155 kWh of electricity a year, or 34 kg of carbon dioxide.

To be fair, I often toss my second cup in the microwave for a few seconds, bu that comes nowhere near the drain of keeping a coffee maker's heating element on for half an hour.

Best of all, I get a much better cup of coffee. We all have our priorities.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Autumn checklist

Winter is coming, and in Canada that means there's lots to do. I've got a long list of indoor projects to keep me busy in coming months, but some need to be done before the first frost. For now, I'll put aside my gardening projects (though they will be the focus this weekend). What do I need to do in order to keep my apartment cozy and my gas bills low this winter?

1. Replace the furnace filter.
The furnace is frighteningly 24 years old. The thought of how much gas it'll use scares me. But replacing the filter will make it run more efficiently and help with indoor air quality. This furnace uses a different kind of filter from the previous furnaces I've had, so expect a post on it in the near future.

2. Buy heavy, insulating curtains for the windows.
Even good windows let a lot of heat out at night. At best, they're R8, which is nothing when you consider that even a 2x4 stud wall holds R14 insulation (and new construction here typically has 2x6 stud walls with R20 fibreglass and often an inch or two of rigid foam at R6-8 per inch on the outside for the newest homes). Good, thick curtains can make a huge difference. Close them at night to keep the heat in, open them during the day (especially on south-facing windows) to reap the benefits of passive solar heating.

3. Do something about the front window.
The front window of my apartment is north-facing. The main panel is double-glazed, which is good. The lower, opening portion, however, has two single-glazed layers. Not terrible, but not great, and likely draughty. But my main concern is a beautiful stained-glass panel at the top. This will let a tremendous amount of heat out. Curtains are a good start, but not enough here.

I'll throw this last one out to any experts who read Green Tenant. I know that I could use a heat-shrinking plastic film. But what are my other options? I'm a tenant, so not in a position to replace the window. And I like the stained glass. It's pretty. Any great ideas out there?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Drying off

I was very happy that my new apartment came equipped with a washer and dryer. Really, social a person as I am, lugging clothes to a laundromat is not my idea of a fun way to spend a Saturday night.

So far, however, the dryer has only been turned on twice. And the plan is to avoid using it at all. Why? First, because it's unnecessary. A simple drying rack usually will do the trick. Might get a nicer one this winter, or two of them. My bedroom has big, south-facing patio doors, and thus is a perfect place for drying clothes (lots of free solar energy).

But this isn't all about being an environmentalist. I need to save money, too. If my dryer were fairly efficient and could do a load in 30 minutes, and if I did just 10 loads a month (factor in towels, sheets, kid's clothes, etc.), then using an average dryer would cost $30 a year, according to a calculator at this site. Not a huge sum, but every bit counts. Actually, it would cost more because my geriatric dryer takes an hour to do towels, and close to an hour for most clothes.

To be fair, drying racks can add to clutter in an apartment, and in small spaces, this can be a problem. But there are lots of options, from inexpensive floor models (available at most department stores) to fancier models, including some that hoist laundry up to the ceiling. Steve Maxwell pointed to this company in an article he wrote for the Toronto Star a couple years ago. I'll be including them in my research when I go shopping for a new rack this autumn. My existing one is bulky and has an inefficient design. Besides, sometimes a guy just needs a second laundry rack.