Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Errors from the Great White North

Rush hour in Toronto's financial district - no sign of global warming

I would like to begin by apologizing to residents of the United States for some of my own country's cultural exports. We're very happy you've given Celine Dion a home. And we're really sorry about Howie Mandel. Not sure what happened there.

But sometimes we send out good things, too. The late, great Leslie Nielsen, for instance, or Nathan Fillion's jawline and bedroom eyes.

One of my own favourite Canadian cultural curiosities is Craig Silverman's blog, Regret the Error.

Craig just released "Crunks 2010: The Year in Media Errors and Corrections."

That Cooks Source came out on top will cause a few eyes to roll, though Craig's writeup is interesting. But for people with an interest in the environment, the real nugget of interest is further down. The Correction of the Year comes from the Sunday Times, for its part in "Climategate."

So c'mon up an enjoy some beer and back bacon, and settle around the fire in your cozy igloo to have a good ol'-fashioned reading of media errors and corrections.

Yours frostily,

Craig Saunders, eh?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Arrival Cities and green tenants

Last month, I finally read Arrival City: the final migration and our next world. It's a book I've been eagerly awaiting since it was first announced a few years ago. In it, Doug Saunders travels the slums of the world to discover what works and what doesn't, as the developing world's largely rural population rapidly urbanizes.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should state up front that Doug is my brother. I've watched, sometimes jealously, sometimes with concern, as he spent recent years travelling to some of the most interesting, most dangerous and most innovative places on Earth.

The book concept appealed to me from the beginning, as it seeks out the roots of much of the cultural conflict we've witnessed in suburban fringes in recent years. The riots in Clichy-sous-Bois are an obvious flashpoint.

But what does all this have to do with rental housing and the environment? Lots.

To begin with, most new arrivals from the remaining rural parts of the world will rent their housing, at least at first. And the viability of home ownership is one of the important factors in arrival city success that Doug discusses in the book. While, in the privileged west, many people choose to rent for the sake of convenience, most people still want to own their homes. The land we occupy isn't just a home, it's a potential place of business and a source of capital that can be used to develop those businesses.

Giving these migrants the resources and support they need to successfully build their urban future is absolutely vital to future peace. When we fail the migrants, we tend to create the conditions that breed dangerous extremist populations. Access to housing, education, capital, jobs and, vitally, citizenship is essential to the success of our cities. While the risk of failure is dire, the rewards for getting it right are huge. The poor migrants of today create the middle class of tomorrow. In other words, from a strictly financial standpoint, the investments in infrastructure and social programs will pay off in spades.

Obviously, there are questions about the environmental effect of mass urbanization. Really, this is not the issue. People living in dense urban areas tend to require fewer resources per capita than do rural dwellers. But we also see a rise in standard of living as people urbanize, and with that comes new consumption of electronic goods, electricity and so forth.

Some groups, particularly in the United States, have suggested that the answer is to close down borders and prevent people in the developing world from attaining our western standard of living.

That's utter nonsense. We've already seen that it won't work, and the sort of restrictions on citizenship and immigration they promote have had terrible results where they've been attempted.

It's also ridiculous because it would require the sort of national isolation that causes economies to stagnate. Oh, and there's also increasing demand for unskilled labour in most western countries, and successful economies have always been built on the strong backs of new arrivals looking for a path to a better life for their families.

What we need to do is provide a platform for success.

That means creating the framework for communities. In some cases, it will mean relaxing some of our licensing and permitting regulations to allow for businesses in places we haven't been allowing them. That will bring us to communities that blend residential and commercial (perhaps light industrial) uses. Environmentally speaking, that's a good idea, as it allows more people to live near their work.

We need to create the framework for communities where people who rent can see a way to home ownership. It is true that homeowners tend to invest in and improve their properties more than tenants do.

Right now, we have the opportunity to work on making the gateway communities ones that will work for the people who will live in them, while at the same time building in ways that will make them resource-efficient. In doing so, however, we will need to keep in mind that cost is extremely important. The migrants will not have the capital to make the sort of environmental investments we need. But many of those investments, in good insulation, energy efficient appliances, lighting, etc., will bring the operating cost of apartments down, making them ultimately more accessible. In the shorter term, however, we need governments to invest in infrastructure with a view to the long-term payoffs (through a growing middle class of taxpayers and business owners).

I have, of course, in this post moved from the book's content into my own thoughts on the subject. But Arrival City is, for me at least, a book about exploring a huge geographical phenomenon and the ways to adapt to it. It's my favourite kind of book: one that gives us a framework for discussion and the exploration of new ideas.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Installing a ceiling fan

Yes, it's September, which means the summer heat is almost over. But it ain't over yet. Where I live it's still hot and humid. The utility companies are offering an incentive ($75 in Toronto) to get people signed up for Peaksaver, a device that "cycles down" central air conditioning during peak electricity demand periods (in other words, the hottest days). The Ontario Power Authority says it'll likely mean house temperatures 1-2 degrees warmer on those days.

While this program has the obvious benefit of toning down central air use, there are some more simple, low-tech solutions. Keeping your air conditioning set just a few degrees below the outside air temperature, instead of at an arbitrary "room temperature" is a big one. The AC will still suck humidity out, which makes the biggest difference on a summer day.

But many people, like myself, don't need AC at all. When it's really hot, I've been known to sleep in my basement, which is naturally cool and comfortable all summer long.

In my bedroom, I have a ceiling fan.

Ceiling fans are great. They move a lot of air. That circulation keeps you cool in summer and helps distribute heat in winter, so they can actually save you money--something an air conditioner will never do.

Installing a ceiling fan

*Note: Electricity is dangerous. If you're not sure of your skills or are nervous, hire a professional. That said, installing a ceiling fan is usually about as difficult as installing a light fixture. That is, not very challenging*

  1. Turn on the existing light fixture. Then go to the electrical panel and flip the appropriate breaker. If the light is off when you come back, then you got the right one.
  2. Unpack the new ceiling fan and read the instructions. Read all of them. Then read them again. If they disagree with anything here, trust the instructions. If you have doubts, seek professional help.
  3. Remove the old light fixture. As you detach wires, screw the marrettes back on so you don't have potentially live wires dangling from your box. Also, the odds are good that the marrettes used by the electrician who wired your house will be better than the ones supplied with the fan. Good marrettes make live so much easier.
  4. Inspect the electrical box in the ceiling. Is it securely screwed into the ceiling joists? If not, stop and consider whether you want to properly mount the box or just give up and get a floor fan. Is the box grounded? In Canada, you'll see white, black and sometimes red wires that carry the current. There should also be a green or bare copper wire screwed onto the box (usually at the back). If it's not there, call an electrician because you may have a much bigger job on your hands. If the box is not grounded, do not proceed with your fan installation.
  5. Assuming everything is hunky-dory, the next thing to do is to follow the installation instructions. These can be simple or complicated, depending on the model you bought. Some have taken me less than 10 minutes, some have left me cursing after half an hour. Today, the fans often have a wire loop that you can attach to a hook or bar that you mount to the box. This is good, because it means you don't have to hold the heavy motor while you work. Follow the instructions and you'll likely do fine.
  6. When connecting the wires, start with the ground (green or bare copper). As long as the box is grounded, it doesn't really matter where on the box you attach this wire. But it does have to be securely attached to the box. There's usually a screw at the back of the box for this. I do the ground first because it's usually the most awkward to attach. You can also attach a wire to the box and then attach it to the fan's ground wire with a marrette.
  7. If your house is wired correctly, then the other wires are usually simple colour-matching. The white wire from the fan attaches to the white wire in the box, and the black to the black. It's just the way the old fixture was hooked up.
  8. Follow any instructions for attaching the blades, covers, shades, etc. Make sure the blades are the right way up and that you screw the bracket on the correct side. It's surprisingly easy to get this wrong. There's a picture on the front of the package. Look at it. It'll help.
  9. Once everything is secure and you've moved any tools or ladders out of the way, go and turn the power back on. Then turn the unit on. Try the light first, so you know if there's power (and do put a bulb in before trying this).
  10. Ceiling fans usually have a pull-chain to control speed, with three speeds plus off. I suggest pulling the chain three times to get it into the slowest speed, then turning the fan on. If all is well, then try higher speeds.
  11. Especially at higher speeds, your fan might wobble. If it does, make sure you installed the blades securely and correctly. Next, look for any weights the kit might have come with for balancing the blades. Adjusting the weight is a slow but (frequently) necessary process. I won't repeat the steps here, because it's already explained pretty well here.
For information on Energy Star ceiling fans and tips on using your fan, check out the Office of Energy Efficiency website.

The most important piece of info there is this: Set the fan to push air down in summer to cool you, and pull it up in winter to disperse heat more evenly. And turn off the fan and light when you leave the room.

Photos in this post come courtesy of David Hayes.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Great Toronto urban agriculture walking tour

Once again, I had the pleasure of organizing a walking tour for delegates at the MagNet conference in Toronto. Last year we had a great time exploring brownfields and brown beers on the Lower Don River walking tour. This year it was time for an urban agriculture walking tour!

Why urban agriculture?
Well, there is the fact that it's a hot, trendy topic. That is, it's about as hip as gardening ever will be. But if you read this blog or any of my other work, you know that I'm not exactly about trendy. Urban agriculture was the theme because two good books on the subject came out in April and May by Toronto authors. And conveniently, they'd done a very similar tour as a Jane's Walk already.

Books? What books?
The first book off the shelf was Sarah Elton's Locavore, which I reviewed here when it was released. The second is City Farmer, by Lorraine Johnson, my favourite punk gardener.

I haven't reviewed City Farmer yet, mostly because the conference and a big pile of work got in the way. It's complimentary to Elton's book. Elton's is a travelogue of agricultural innovation. Johnson's book, by contrast, is the same thing in microcosm. It's conversational and frienly, like its author. It's a resounding success when she gets talking about specific projects, which bring out the colour in Johnson's writing and show how passionate she is. On the macrocosm, Elton's book outshines City Farmer, and it flows better. But Johnson's book is highly accessible, and the more practical it is, the better it is. You should do what I did and pick up a copy of both.

Didn't you say something about a walking tour?
Yes, I did. We met on a sunny Saturday morning at 10:00, in Trinity Bellwoods Park. Just before the walk it had been proposed as a protest area for the G20 summit that the federal government stuck Toronto with. But that's another story.

At the park, Johnson and Elton were joined by a third guest speaker, Ravenna Barker, the urban agriculture project manager from FoodShare. I think I kind of scored a hat trick with these speakers.

In the park, we started with a discussion of Carolinian forests, which used to cover the Toronto area but are almost gone today (though common south of the border...more of an extirpation than an extinction), and discussed some edible trees. Johnson showed us a community greenhouse where she rents a shelf to start her own seeds. Handy for urban dwellers, particularly those with limited indoor or window space. This led naturally into a discussion of food systems and greenhousing, the latter of which was a particularly interesting part of Elton's book.

We moseyed west along Queen Street East to a corner park that had been planted out by someone in a neighbouring apartment building. It wasn't food gardening, but a gorgeous transformation of what would otherwise have been a barren, sunstroked corner of dirt and rubbish.

Next it was on to a boulevard. That is, a road with a strip of grass down the middle. Barker told us of plans to beautify the neighbourhood by filling the boulevard with ornamental vegetables--plants both pretty and edible. Sadly, after residents gave it the green thumbs up, the municipality nixed it, apparently out of fear that people couldn't safely walk across the street to tend the plants. Truly a lost opportunity.

Our penultimate stop was at a market garden on the grounds of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. There, we discussed composting in the city and looked at the FoodShare garden, which is about 100 yards square.

Finally, we headed to the Drake Hotel. The Drake has an unsightly concrete service area on a back alley, in which it has created innovative raised planting beds using cinder blocks. It's not enough space to affect the restaurant's food imports, but is big enough to provide nice, fresh herbs. Apparently they may be exprimenting with mushrooms, too, and the space will be used for VIP chef events. The holes in the cinder blocks are planted with aromatic herbs to ward off pests. It's a great idea, as it'll keep the mint from staging an all-out invasion of the beds (as happened in my garden this spring).

And so, with our heads full and our bellies empty, we went up to the rooftop patio for brunch. And mimosas. Because, after all, it was Saturday.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Digging, weeding and getting ready

Environment Canada forecast a warmer and drier spring than usual for most of Canada. As a result, I'm planning to plant out most things fairly early this year. I will probably do so around the time of our average last frost: May 9.

There haven't been many posts on Green Tenant of late. It's been a very busy spring, with a lot of writing and editing. You might enjoy a couple pieces I did for the Globe & Mail. One was on brewing and the environment. There's a lot more to be said, and rest assured that it's a subject I'll revisit here. Best part of the story was learning afterward about some of the beers I'd overlooked. Last week, I was at C'est What? and had the chance to try one of those small brewer's organic beers. It was the Lug Tread lagered ale from Beau's. Refreshing, a bit hoppy and, if I recall, maybe a bit citric. Refreshing, enjoyable and an unusual beer. Try one if you can. A more recent story for the Globe was on solar energy, which has become a controversial subject in my home province, as well as a fast-growing industry.

I've been digging, raking and weeding today. Right now, the three larger planting beds are ready, with only one smaller bed to go. Most surprising was what's sprouted out there. I expected a few onions, which I'd left from last year because they were too small. There were also a couple garlics.

Unexpectedly, there's a large and healthy oak leaf lettuce, five or six red mountain spinach (which didn't do well last year, but look healthy so far) and thousands of giant red mustard green seedlings. One or two mustard green plants will be more than enough, so the rest will have to come out (Toronto folk are welcome to them).

The seeds I started indoors are doing very well, so I have high hopes. To see what I'm planting, you can check out this post. This week, I'll be direct seeding fava and purple beans, peas and a few other things.

In case you're wondering, the picture at the top is not of my hollyhocks. I haven't planted those yet. That one is from my mother's garden a couple Octobers ago. My hands are far too dirty to be taking pictures today.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Locavore: is local agriculture feasible?

Right off the bat, I have to say that I approached Sarah Elton's new book, Locavore: from farmers' fields to rooftop gardens--how Canadians are changing the way we eat, with some reservations.

I know Elton and frequently enjoy her writing and CBC Radio broadcasts about food. But I have an uncomfortable relationship with the local food movement. There's a lot to admire about the locavores—their commitment and attention to food, their enthusiasm (even if sometimes bordering on zealotry), the way they innovate and change urban landscapes.

At the same time, it's frequently an elitist movement. Most working-class people can't get to the farmers' markets, often held during working hours. I love my vegetable garden, but only can tend a plot of its size because I work from home and can go weeding when cubicle farmers are taking a smoke or coffee break. Local organic food also tends to cost more. It's usually worth it for the quality, but that quality is all too often a luxury that many cannot afford.

What sets Elton's book apart is that she is clearly aware of all this. She's also frustrated with some of the more ridiculous approaches, such as the 100-Mile Diet (which is a fantastic read, if not a feasible lifestyle choice for those of us who have long, dark winters).

Is Locavore worth reading?
After a didactic opening, Elton plays to her strength with good storytelling. The book is essentially a travelogue, one of the most popular and successful genres in post-millennial publishing. She mucks about on farms in New Brunswick, Ontario, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. She relates real stories about real people and real communities. They're communities that have seen their agricultural markets change and disappear. More importantly, she introduces us to the visionary people who have seen ways to adapt to new realities without abandoning their agrarian roots.

The book is well researched and surprisingly positive. It moves at a steady pace, and it's plain that the author had an editor who was good at keeping the narrative unmuddled by essays. There were, as I recall, only three points during which Elton slipped into essayist mode, and they're well spaced and worthwhile.

Is industrial agriculture sustainable?
There are two fundamental questions the book needs to answer. The first is posed on page 74:
What's more pertinent to the discussion is whether industrial agriculture is sustainable. The larger question the food miles debate demands of us is whether a global, industrial agricultural system is the best way to feed the planet. Can humanity continue to farm this way into the future, extracting the same yields without destroying the integrity of the environment?
It's a great question, but one which anyone picking up the book has probably already answered for themselves. "I'd hazard a no," Elton writes. She provides a quick summary of the problems with the industrial food system, but not a thorough investigation of them. To be fair, that's not the purpose of the book. Many, many books could be, and have been, written on industrial agriculture, food quality and quantity, and the environment. This book is about an alternative system.

Is local agriculture feasible?
This is the real question. Can we grow food closer to the markets? It's not a food miles question, and Elton provides a good discussion of why the issue is more complex than simple food miles. She points out that local food can be worse for the environment in some circumstances. She also, quite fairly, points out that there are things we simply cannot grow where we live, things which, like chocolate, some people just won't give up.

The book succeeds because it presents examples of how we can produce food differently. She explores local farmer's cooperatives that bypass the supermarket system and how these have helped farmers change the way they think about crops. She talks about heirloom crops that can bring flavour, texture and variety back to our tables while using fewer chemicals. She discusses the benefits and potentially huge environmental costs of greenhousing. The book shines because it's a travelogue of fresh agricultural ideas.

Ultimately, however, there are big questions that remain unanswered.

The big one for me is one Elton herself raises: Urban agriculture is great, but how can you get enough calorie crops in a place like Toronto?

The local food opportunities suggested seem to all focus on market gardening: growing high-profit crops like salad greens, rather than staple foods such as grains. It's the one question that nagged at me as I finished the book on a flight back from New York earlier this month.

And it's a question I look forward to asking Elton when she joins me and other environmental journalists at the pub on Tuesday night.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Concrobium: an unexpected way to deal with plant mold

I hate to be a shill for any product. But every now and then one comes along that does something unexpected. This winter, it was Concrobium.

Concrobium is an anti-mold treatment made from food grade vegetable dyes. It's non-toxic, which makes it a rarity in the realm of mold treatments. I first encountered it when writing a review for Green Living some years ago.

It does a decent job in the bathroom, though it doesn't bleach stains the way chlorine does. Of course, it also won't slowly kill you the way chlorine does.

But that's not why I'm bringing up the product now. This winter it did something unexpected.

It saved my amaryllis.

You see, I planted an amaryllis bulb in January. It went into a pot with a coconut husk soil alternative that really soaks up water. Within a week, a layer of white mold had colonized the surface. I could scrape off the top layer, but figured that probably wouldn't keep it away.

Then, one morning, I saw a bottle of Concrobium in the bathroom and remembered the time I asked the marketing director at Siamon's, its maker, about the non-toxic claims. He told me he drinks it during demonstrations. Not that I don't figure a marketing director would drink pure chlorine in order to prove it safe, but if it kills the amaryllis, that's not the end of the world. And it would raise some interesting questions about the contents of the bottle.

I gave the soil and bulb a good spray, making sure the surface was saturated.

Within a week of that one treatment, the mold was gone. The amaryllis was, as you can see from the photos, just fine.

So, looks like we've got a new application for Concrobium.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Sunday at the Thunderdome of Seeds

There's snow in the forecast for today, but all the same, it is time to start thinking about gardening. Yes, it's time to order seeds and even to begin planting some indoors.

With that in mind, we headed so the oddly named "Seedy Saturday on a Sunday," hosted by the Toronto Community Garden Network. It's a wonderful show of seeds and food from smaller producers and community gardens. Probably a good thing I didn't bring much cash.

There's a misguided, pastoral image of organic gardeners as these zenlike beings that are completely in tune with nature. The packed event at the Wychwood Barns (themselves an interesting story) certainly buries that myth. Picture about one gardener per square foot all jockeying for position at the seed racks. I kept expecting Martha Stewart to come charging through, clearing a path with a giant scythe.

As crowded as the scene was, to be fair, it was a well-behaved horde of horticulturists. And the seed pickings were superb.

Because there were so many people, I didn't feel I could ask questions as much as I liked. Instead, I just picked up a few things I knew I wanted (purple beans, autumn glory sunflowers, nasturtiums, etc.) and decided to grab a couple things that I'll just take a chance on.

Below is a list of what I picked up for $1.50-2.50 a pack. Oh, and for useful information including a link to an interactive planting calendar, check out my post from about this time last year.

The new seeds

The last two are pouches from the Perth/Dupont Community Garden, and the contents came from various gardeners. What exactly they contain is a bit of a mystery. But that's part of what makes gardening fun!

Look for a community garden seed sale or seed swap in your area. They're a great way to get interesting seeds from people who know your area, whether you're renting a small farm or just have a window box.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A good day to dry clothes

It was -5 C outside yesterday, but a strong sun made it a perfect day for drying laundry.

The thermostat in my apartment was set at 18, but in the midday sun by the patio doors, it was above 37 C. That made for quick drying on my new rack, and I got through three loads of laundry.

What makes a good drying rack?
My old drying rack was not a good one. It was made of thick wooden dowels, with the bars one above the other. Clothes overlapped and not very many fit into the space it took up.

A good drying rack will spread out, with lots of bars for larger items, such as jeans or T-shirts, and have supports that are crossed with bars upon which to hang rows of smaller items, such as socks and underwear.

The one I bought recently was from Ikea and cost about $20. It's photographed above. It's a very common design that holds about two loads of laundry. However, some versions of this design are flimsy and won't support the weight of wet clothes very well. This one is just sturdy enough. The bars should be spaced just far enough apart to allow air circulation around every item of clothing.

What kind of rack is right for me?
Because of the space in front of my patio door, a floor model works well for me. It folds away quickly and is compact enough to stash under the bed, in a closet or behind a dresser.

Other designs hoist up to the ceiling (could be good on an apartment balcony), fold out from a wall, or are simple wires that will stretch across a laundry room or bathroom. There are lots of suppliers for these, and some are mentioned in my post on drying racks from last year.

Before buying one, consider where it will go and what you need. Is it a laundry room, where lots of rack is good, no matter what the look? Will it be in a visible space where aesthetics matter? Do you have a small space with high ceilings that will make a raisable rack desirable? Do you need one that folds down quickly for storage?

I was pleasantly suprised to find some great rack ideas on the last page of the Lee Valley hardware catalogue that arrived in the autumn. Let me know what works for you.

Where should the rack go?
Clothes dry fastes where there's warm, dry air circulating. In other words, a sunny backyard on a summer day is ideal. But reality is seldom ideal. Look for a location that combines these things:
  • lots of sun
  • heat source (radiator or forced-air register)
  • enough room
  • out of sight
In my apartment, there's a big, south-facing patio door in my bedroom. There's a register for the furnace right below it. So by day, the sun warms the laundry and dries it. At night, whenever the furnace kicks in, my rack is almost as fast as an electric dryer. And it helps keep the indoor air a little less dry (a problem in Toronto in the winter). This location is great for sun and heat source, and there is enough room. It's not ideal for being out of sight, but is adequate.

The old rack is now in the laundry room. There's plenty of space there, but it's in the basement of a 100+ year-old house. It's out of sight, in a location with enough space, but in the summer the humidity is too high. In winter, however, a heating duct makes it a good space. I mostly use it to dry my son's clothes, thus avoiding hauling them upstairs to dry, then back downstairs to put in his drawers.

What's your drying rack?
What electricity-free system do you use for drying your laundry? Any tips, particularly for those of us in colder climates? If you're in an apartment building, can you even have a rack out on your balcony? Use the comments section to fill us in, so that we can learn from one another.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Winterizing your windows

Last week, I went over to help winterize a friend's apartment. We started by sealing some drafts under the sink and installing a new threshold on the front door. Then came the windows.

In any home, windows are a major heat loser. Paul Fisette did a really good job of explaining windows and heat loss in an article on the Fine Homebuilding website, so I'll let you enjoy his piece rather than writing yet another explanation. Suffice to say, an insulated wall is always a better heat trap than even the best window. But we like sunlight, so what do we do?

Sensible homeowners with a bit of cash will get new windows. They pay themselves off in only a few years, thanks to savings on heating bills. But tenants can't do that.

Seal the leaks
Start by spraying a minimally expanding foam insulation into any big gaps around the window frame. It will expand to fill the space, but not so much that it'll buckle the window frame, as a regular expanding foam insulation might.

Then go outside and caulk any gaps or cracks around the window. Remove any old caulking and clean the area first. There are a few tips on caulking in the first post in my winterizing series.

Shrink-wrap the windows
Plastic film is a good way for tenants to cut heat loss through windows. Heat-shrinking films are cheap enough to pay for themselves in one winter, and will likely make a room more comfortable. Small kits start at about $5 at most hardware stores and will do one or two windows. Bigger kits exist for patio doors. The best option is to buy a roll of the film, which will likely cost $10-25, depending on the size, and will come with a few rolls of two-sided tape. It will do quite a few windows (we've done four so far and have plenty left).

How to properly install plastic film on windows
1. Clean the frames
Start by choosing an area on the frame that will allow a continuous cover. It may be on the metal or vinyl window frame, or even onto the wooden trim around it, depending on how the window was installed. I've done both with success.

Then clean the frame. Any dust will prevent the tape from sticking properly. Also, make sure you remove any toys or vases from the window sill. You'll feel mighty silly if you seal them in. I know. I've done it.

2. Heat it and tape it
Not all kits suggest heating the frame first, but it does seem to help. Use a blow dryer to warm the frame where you'll apply the tape.

Then start applying the tape. I suggest going across the top first, then down the sides and across the bottom. Start at one end, with the tape edge butting up to the tape or frame edge above it, then work your way across (or down), smoothing it with your finger and avoiding any ripples. Let the tape rest for a little while (some kits suggest 15 minutes, but I've done fine with less time).

Don't peel the backing off the tape until you're ready to put the plastic up.

3. Hang it
Rough cut a piece of plastic. Unroll enough that it will easily cover the window with a good inch or two on every side. On the rolls, the film is often folded in two, so unfold it before trying to hang it.

Next, peel off the backing on the tape. This should be easy to do, getting it started with a thumbnail or the tip of your knife.

Start by pressing one of the top corners into place. Then stretch the film across to the other top corner. Work your way down one side, then the other, gently pressing the film into place. As you go, try to get it taut, but don't worry about making it wrinkle free at this stage. Do avoid any major sagging or wrinkles on the taped edges themselves. After you've gone across the bottom, run your thumbs across the tape, all the way around the frame to ensure a good seal.

4. Heat-shrink your window
Starting in a top corner, use a hair dryer to shrink the film. You'll see the change. Work your way around the edges, until they're smooth. Then move toward the middle. You're done when the film is taut and smooth all over. If you've done a good job, then the film should barely be noticeable.

5. Cut to fit
Using a sharp knife, such as an Olfa knife, slice off the excess film. Go all the way around, and make sure the plastic is cut through. You don't want to have to tug at the ends to get them off, as this could undo your good work up to this point.

Handy Tip: I inevitably nick the plastic with my knife. This is bad. if it's off in a corner, or on a window that you don't tend to look out, the solution is easy. Cut off a piece of the two-sided tape and use it to cover the hole (as long as it's a tiny one). Heat it, wait a while, then come back and peel off the backing. It's a minimally visible repair that, in my experience, will hold for at least one year.

Now you've got a cozier home, and probably a lower heating bill as a result. Congratulations!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Winterizing for Tenants

Every sensible homeowner has a checklist of things to do before winter comes. But for tenants, winterizing doesn't always get done. Some tasks they can't do, either because the landlord won't allow it, or because they don't have access to, for example, the basement. In other cases, they don't pay for heat and so winterizing isn't an economic priority.

A friend rents two floors of an older house in Toronto and has a problem with the upstairs bedrooms getting very hot while the main floor can be cold. Green Tenant spent an evening helping fix the problem.

Diagnose the problem
Before doing anything, try and figure out the problem and solutions. The house has a central boiler with water heat serving more than one apartment. The thermostat is in the apartment, but the landlord has asked that it not be set below a certain point or the basement will freeze (he has been working on the basement).

Part of the problem is the radiators. The main floor only has two large rads, and one does not seem to be working properly, while the second floor has three in smaller rooms. Turning off a rad upstairs may help, but the placement of them makes that difficult. Fixing the downstairs rad is something to get the landlord working on.

Heat also escapes the main floor up the stairwell. A ceiling fan would help, but the wiring isn't there for it, making it more than a tenant t

Find the drafts
We decided to seal drafts on the main floor in order to keep more heat from escaping. We identified three areas that were worth working on:
  1. Front door. A major draft underneath and smaller leaks around sides.
  2. Under the sink. The kitchen floor is always icy, and there was a noticeable draft coming from the plumbing under the sink.
  3. Windows. No matter how new they are, windows let a lot of heat out. Closing curtains helps, and clear plastic can reduce drafts and create another air barrier.
Door draft
The front door was a problem because there was only an old, wooden threshold and the weather stripping on the sides had worn out. I installed an aluminum and rubber threshold on the
bottom, which got rid of the draft. Using a measuring tape, hacksaw and cordless drill/screwdriver, it took about ten minutes to install.

The ten
ant will also apply foam weather stripping to cut drafts on the sides. I don't like this stuff because it doesn't stick very well. I'll be doing my own front door next week, so check back for instructions and tips on installing weather stripping and door sweeps.

Heat-shrink plastic films are a great way to deal with drafts around windows. I've used them in my own apartment, and next week will post instruction and tips. In the meantime, here's a post on using them in my opwn apartment.

Sealing drafts
Under the sink there were two problems requiring two solutions. The easy one was a draft around a drain pipe coming through the wall. The solution was to seal it with a bit of caulking.

Before caulking, make sure the surfaces are clean and that you've removed any old caulking. Use a kitchen/bathroom caulk, as it will likely be exposed to moisture at some point. Latex caulk is also fairly easy to work with and cleans up easily.
Before you start, get a small container of water with a lot of dish soap in it. The solution should feel slippery on your fingers.

Luckily, caulking now comes in squeezable tubes. I had one left over from a couple small jobs, including the grey water barrel project. Tubes are not as good as caulk guns for big jobs, where you want long, smooth, even lines. But they're less expensive for a small job, and are easier to work with in an under-sink cabinet. When you open the caulk, cut the tip to a width appropriate to the gap you're trying to fill. As you squeeze out the caulk, try to keep a nice, even flow and leave no gaps.

Next, wet your index finger in the soapy water. Use it to smooth the caulk. Again, try to get it done in one long, smooth stroke. If it's a long line of caulk, you'll need to clean off your finger a few times as you work along. This soapy smoothing is the key to a nice, clean caulking job. It takes practice, and is harder to do around a pipe than along the edge of a bathtub. But nobody looks under the sink, so it's a good place to get some experience.

The other draft was coming from the basement, through the gap around the water pipes. My first thought was to pop the base cover off the cabinet and use some spray foam to seal the hole. Easy to do on Ikea-style cabinets. Sadly, not easy on these ones.

Instead, I used some spray foam to seal the hole from inside the cabinet. It's not a perfect solution, but the best that came to mind. We used a minimally expanding foam, and are crossing our fingers that it will hold up to the temperature of the hot water pipe, as we couldn't find a high-temperature spray foam insulation anywhere in the neighbourhood. If it holds up, that's great. If not, it will be a small cleaning job to get it out.

Watch for more apartment winterizing tips from Green Tenant in coming days!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Gardening, canning, how the season ended

My first year with a full garden was 2009. Before that I'd had a single bed (mostly spinach) at my flat in London, and started with one good bed (tomatoes, salad greens) at the Green Tenancy here in Toronto. This year I expanded it to four beds totalling about 400 square feet.

A lot of things worked well. I gave a preliminary report here, and since then have, obviously, finished the final harvest.

One of the biggest hits were the purple carrots, shown above. My son loves bringing them to school for lunch, cut into "coins." The other kids don't know quite what to make of them. They're lower-yield than some other varieties, but I harvested several pounds of carrots and gave lots away.


At the end of the season, I began canning and freezing. This is all new territory to me. I blanched and froze a big bag of royal purple beans, and a mountain of beet greens. I meant to do the chard, but kept eating it up until the first snowfall killed it off. Chard, I must say, is extremely hardy and it survived many frosts, some light and some pretty heavy. Good thing I like the stuff.

Local fruit is also a wonder of late summer. Because Toronto is close to the Niagara Peninsula, there's an abundance of inexpensive, fresh and delicious tender fruit in late summer. The baskets are often too big for my son and I to get through in short order, so canning makes sense.

First came the currants. Graham and I stopped at a farm fruit stand on the way home from visiting his grandparents one day, and he was curious about the red currants. We bought a basked. They were, not surprisingly, rather tart. So I made jam. Currant jam is delicious and deliciously simple. Currants are high in natural pectin, so all it takes is the addition of water and sugar. A basket, however, yielded only two small jars of jam. They're a sticky fruit to deal with, and a lot of labour for a low yield. All the same, it was good enough that I'll do it again next year.

Then came a great buy on late-season strawberries (lots are grown around here) and, my personal favourite, peach season. I followed a recipe that claimed added pectin would not be required. That was simply untrue. I now have six jars of peach jam that is delicious, but a bit runny for use on toast. I added a bit of pectin to the strawberries, but clearly not enough, and the consistency is similar to that of the peach jam. Not perfect, but very yummy and, as it turns out, versatile, as they work adequately on bread, but superbly as an ice cream topping.

I also canned peaches, pears and beets. The pears went well, and look like they'll be good for compotes. The peaches should have been riper, and seem to mostly be firmer than I'd like. I'll try making a peach crumble this week and see how it goes.

Beets normally thrill me. But this season they came out strangely shaped and often fibrous, and with odd colours, sometimes white. I don't know what happened. I canned about 3 L of them (boiled, then packed in vinegar). I'll open a jar this week and see. They look pretty enough, though.

Now winter is here and I'm indoors. I did some winterizing, have finished a couple of end tables I built last year, and am ready to get on with new projects. Check back soon for new Green Tenant projects, tips and updates on some ongoing projects.