Sunday, July 31, 2016

Frugal frustration

Sometimes, it seems like the whole universe is just conspiring against all my efforts to live an ecofrugal life. This weekend, I've found myself thwarted on three different fronts:

1. The Pointless Plumbing Call

Two weeks ago, I noted how our attempts to replace the anode rod in our water heater—a move that both Popular Mechanics and Family Handyman claim can greatly extend or even double its life—had been frustrated because the thing was so tightly secured that we couldn't get it loose. But I figured a professional plumber would probably have access to tools that we don't, and even with the cost of his (or her) labor, replacing the rod would surely be cheaper than replacing a whole water heater that was, so far as we knew, in perfectly fine condition.

My initial calls to plumbing companies weren't encouraging. The people I talked to didn't seem to know what an anode rod does, and one of them said she'd have to check with the boss to see whether replacing it was even a job they could do. (They never got back to me.) The other company agreed to have someone come out and do it, but when they called back to confirm my appointment, they said it was for "a quote on a new water heater," which wasn't what I'd asked for at all. So I put them straight on what I wanted, but I wasn't optimistic.

Sure enough, when the plumber showed up on Saturday morning, he took one look at our water heater and declared that replacing the anode rod (which he kept calling an "annoyed rod") wouldn't be cost-effective. It would cost us at least $400 for the job, he explained, and the water heater was nearing the end of its life anyway. When I timidly explained that I thought the point of replacing the rod was to extend its life, he said it was too late for that; it might have been worth doing five years ago, but by now the rod would be shot and the tank on its last legs. Yet when I asked whether, if we had replaced the rod five years ago, we would be able to put off replacing the heater now, he said no to that as well.

Basically, his view was that replacing the rod is a job that simply isn't worth doing under any circumstances. In 13 years as a plumber, he said, he'd never done it once. (I couldn't help suspecting that this was because most users don't even know replacing the rod is a job you can do, and the ones who are savvy enough to know it are mostly inclined to do it themselves, but it was clear at that point there was no use arguing with him.) His recommendation was to hold on to the heater until it hit the 10-year mark, and then start shopping for a replacement. It might last a little longer, he said, but with any heater over 10 years old, we'd basically be "playing Russian roulette." (Since then, I have done a little searching online, and most sites claim a water tank should last at least 10 years; there are several reports of water heaters lasting 30 years or more. Many plumbers say they never recommend replacing a water heater due solely to age.)

So basically, we ended up paying $50 for a guy to come out here and do nothing. The one piece of useful info he offered us was that it's possible to buy an inexpensive "water alarm" that can sense moisture and put it on the floor next to the tank. That way, if ever starts to leak, the alarm will go off and alert us so we can shut off the water and drain the tank before it does too much damage. So we grabbed one of those for $11 at Home Depot, and we plan to set that up and also continue to monitor and maintain the tank as before—checking for rust around the fittings, flushing it once a year, and so on. Our position is, if it ain't broke, we ain't fixing it. Brian says if plumbers start haranguing us about it when they come out for our yearly boiler tune-up, we can just change the date on the heater to make it look like we've bought a new one.

2. The Razor Replacement Dilemma

For the past ten years or so, I've been shaving with a store-brand, three-blade cartridge razor that I bought at Rite Aid way back when three blades were state of the art. Recently, however, I discovered that I was down to my last cartridge, and that Rite Aid no longer sold refills for it. So I knew I'd have to find a replacement soon. Fortunately, I can make a single cartridge last quite a long time; by rinsing, drying, and oiling it after each use, and stropping it as needed, I can keep it going for a month easily. So I figured I'd have plenty of time to shop around and make sure I'd found the best possible replacement before committing myself to it for the next ten years.

Unfortunately, the universe had other plans. Yesterday, in mid-shave, my venerable razor simply split down the middle. The piece that holds the cartridge fell out, and the handle gaped wide open, revealing ten years' worth of accumulated soap scum. And thus I discovered that I was going to need a new razor, not just soon, but now.

I had already done some research on razor options, but it had just left me more confused than ever. Some sources say more blades definitely add up to a closer shave, while others claim that there's no advantage to having more than three. Some insist that an odd number of blades is pointless, because blades are work in pairs, one to lift and one to cut; others claim that each blade serves both to lift and to cut, and so the more you have the more of the hair you can tease out and shear off. Some say that women should never shave with a men's razor, because body hair is so fundamentally different from facial hair, while others argue that there's no earthly reason women should have to pay extra for a razor that isn't as tough and has a stupid pink or purple paint job.

So I concluded that probably, my best bet was to go to a store with a fairly wide selection and just pick out the most basic model I could find. But that turned out to be a taller order than I'd expected. At Target, there were no razors for men or women with fewer than five blades, aside from disposables (the least ecofrugal kind). When I checked the pharmacy section at Shop-Rite, I found a couple of fairly straightforward men's razors for about $6—but when I tried to check the price of the refill cartridges, I couldn't find any for either one. There were also some store-brand cartridges available that looked like a pretty good deal—but they only worked with the store-brand razor, which wasn't available. So I could (a) get a razor with no refills, or (b) get refills with no razor, or (c) buy something fussy and overdesigned that would keep me coming back for overpriced cartridges for years.

In the end, I walked out of both stores empty-handed. I'm making do, for now, with an old disposable razor I had in my travel bag, in the hope that, with a little more time for research, I'll be able to find something I can live with. I've considered the Dollar Shave Club, which offers a four-blade razor that gets good reviews from both men and women for just $1.50 per cartridge—but the catch is, you have to buy four of them every month, or at least every other month, and I just don't go through them that fast. And Dorco, while it offers good prices on blades, costs extra for shipping (plus they don't do that well in tests at at The Sweethome). I'm actually wondering whether the most ecofrugal move would be to go back to an old-school safety razor. The blades are cheap and the handle lasts pretty much forever, but there's the increased risk of nicks and cuts (especially if I drop it on my foot in the shower).

Of course, I could always kick it Bryn Mawr style and leave my legs unshaven, but I've tried that before and found that, even when I went razor-free for a whole winter, my leg hair never grew out long enough to get soft. It always felt prickly. So I'm nixing that option.

3. Return of the Rat

Three years ago, we had a problem with a rat getting into our garden and gnawing on our veggies. We found that deterring it wasn't feasible, and trapping it was a lot trickier than it looked; it consistently found ways to steal the bait without springing the traps. Eventually, with the help of an old-fashioned snap trap (enclosed in a cage of chicken wire to keep it from trapping innocent birds), we managed to take it out, but it was a long and grueling battle.

So this spring, when Brian went to clean out the shed and discovered that a rat had evidently been making its home there over the winter, his first hope was that maybe it had already moved on and we wouldn't have to deal with it. He cleared away the droppings it had left, blocked up the holes it had made in the wall with cinderblocks, and crossed his fingers.

So this weekend, he was far from gruntled to open the shed door and find another small pile of turds (and a small pool of urine, which he had to soak up with cat litter) and a brand-new hole in the floor just past the cinder-block obstruction. Clearly, simply blocking this critter's access to the shed wasn't an option.

So he bought a new snap trap at Home Depot, baited it and the old one with peanut butter, and set them temptingly out in the shed (where at least we wouldn't have to worry about any birds falling victim to them). And this morning, he came in to report that the bait was gone from both traps, but neither one had been sprung. Rat 2, ecofrugal gardeners 0.

So in the space of just two days, we've had three ecofrugal moves fall flat. The plumbing industry is trying to make us junk our water heater before its time, the grooming industry is trying to force me to remove hair with a costly and wasteful five-blade razor, and Mother Nature herself is apparently trying to persuade me to call out an exterminator to deal with one lousy rat. Gaaaah!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Recipes of the Month: Two more cucumber salads

Although the very dry weather we had this spring didn't agree at all with our asparagus, it seems to have done no harm to our cucumber vines. They have already produced 15 large cucumbers, ranging from 8 to 12 ounces in weight, and there's lots more where those came from. So, having already made several batches of pickles and one big batch of our favorite couscous salad, I decided it was time to start hunting around for some new cucumber-based recipes.

So I went digging in our Big Green Book (Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything Vegetarian) and found a "Barley Salad with Cucumber and Yogurt-Dill Dressing." This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: Cooked barley with chunks of cucumber, served with a dressing of plain yogurt and fresh dill. The only other ingredients are chopped scallions, salt and pepper, and a bit of lemon juice. This was a much more substantial salad than either of the cucumber salads we tried two years ago, so we thought we'd be able to make a full meal out of it.

Well, it was certainly substantial; the problem was that neither of us liked it very much. We both managed to plow through the bowlful we'd dished out to start with, but the last few forkfuls took a certain grim determination. I think the problem was the yogurt dressing, which was just too sour for either of us. I thought maybe the same barley-cucumber combo would work better with some sort of vinaigrette or lemon-based dressing—perhaps with a touch of tahini, which somehow seems like a flavor that goes naturally with cucumbers. A little garlic, too, would probably kick up the flavor a notch. (This lemon-tahini dressing, found at Eating Well, might be just the ticket.)

So this is a recipe that we might experiment with a little in the future, but we certainly won't make it again as is. (Fortunately, Brian was able to get rid of all the leftovers—a tightly packed quart—a couple of days later, when he was so hungry at work that he just wolfed the whole thing down without really tasting it.)

However, as it happens, we hit on a much better cucumber-based salad a couple of days later. This came about because of a problem we ran into with a batch of nectarines we'd bought at our local supermarket. Actually, we've been having this problem with nearly all the nectarines and peaches we buy there these days: They're far too hard to eat when we bring them home, and it appears to be impossible to get them properly softened before they start to go bad. If we put them in the fridge, they just stay hard indefinitely, and if we leave them out of the fridge, they develop brown and moldy spots within hours. And the really frustrating thing is, when you cut out the moldy parts, the rest of the fruit is still too hard to eat. (This problem has showed up so consistently with the supermarket fruit that I've decided I'm simply not buying any more of it, even if it's supposedly local or organic. We'll buy stone fruits at the farmers' market, where they're actually ripe when sold, or we won't buy them at all.)

So we'd had a whole bagful of nectarines go bad in this manner, one after another, over the course of a few days. Brian had cut out all the bad parts and left the usable fruit in a container in the fridge, planning to turn it into a fruit crisp. But the weather was so hot this past week that the idea of baking anything really didn't seem appealing, and I thought how much nicer it would be if we could combine those nectarine parts with some of our cucumbers to make a nice, cool salad for dinner.

So I did a little searching online, and I found this recipe for a cucumber peach salad with basil vinaigrette. I figured it should work just as well with nectarines as with peaches, and we had all the other ingredients ready to hand (except the fresh lemon or lime juice, for which we substituted the bottled stuff). We used the optional crushed pecans on top, but left off the goat cheese, which neither of us cares for very much.

This salad was better in every way than the first one. The cool cucumbers provided bulk and crisp texture, and the sweetness of the nectarines and the bite of the fresh basil gave it plenty of flavor. It wasn't nearly as substantial a salad as the cucumber-barley one, of course, but it was interesting enough to serve as the centerpiece of the meal, with just some scrambled eggs and toast to eke it out. And since everything in it was healthful, we felt no compunctions about eating our fill of it, refilling our bowls again and again (something we weren't at all tempted to do with the other salad).

The only trouble with this salad is that, in order to make it again, we'll need more fresh peaches or nectarines—which we can no longer get at the supermarket. And the ones at the farmers' market are expensive enough that we may want to save them all for eating fresh and not just toss them blithely into a salad. But on the other hand, this salad is good enough that it might just be worth buying our peaches in bulk for. In fact, perhaps it would even be worth a trip out to the nearest pick-your-own farm to be able to make it again. After all, even if we end up with more peaches than we need for the salad, too many peaches aren't exactly a problem.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Money Crashers: Two posts on summer cooling costs

Gonna be another hot one today. About 97 degrees, according to the local forecast. The National Weather Service is advising people to stay in from 11am to 8pm if possible, in a nice, cool, air-conditioned environment.

That poses a dilemma for ecofrugal types like me. Because, on the one hand, air conditioning is a huge energy hog. I mean, really huge. This chart drawn up by Michael Bluejay, aka "Mr. Electricity," shows that running a central AC system for just one hour uses 3.5 kilowatts of electricity, and even a room air conditioner uses 900 watts. By contrast, a floor fan running on high speed uses only 100 watts. That's a huge difference.

But on the other hand, in really hot weather like this, fans don't really help that much. As Bluejay explains, fans don't cool the air; they just blow away the cushion of hot air that naturally surrounds your 98.6-degree body. But if the air itself is at 98.6 degrees or close to it, that does no good, because there's no cooler air to replace it. Fans can also help your sweat evaporate a little faster, but that does little good either when the humidity is this high, because the air can't really hold any more moisture. A recent review of scientific studies on the use of electric fans during a heat wave concluded that there was no conclusive evidence they do any good.

So, on behalf of Money Crashers, I started digging into the topic of how to keep cool in the summer heat. And after I submitted my work, my editors concluded that this was really too big a topic for just one article. It really needed two separate pieces: one on how to reduce the costs of air conditioning, and a separate article on ways to keep cool without air conditioning.

So for all those who don't have AC, or who don't want to use it if they can possibly help it, this article - 4 Air Conditioning Alternatives to Stay Cool This Summer - explores various ways to stay cool without turning on the big, energy-guzzling beast. In addition to fans of various types, I discuss different ways to cool yourself directly with cold water or ice, as well as more elaborate alternatives such as whole-house fans, swamp coolers, and geothermal systems.

And for those who do prefer AC but want to cut back on the amount of energy it uses, this article - How to Save on Home Air Conditioning & Energy Costs in the Summer - covers ways to use your air conditioner efficiently. It explains how to keep the heat out of your house and avoid adding heat inside, so the AC doesn't have to work as hard, as well as how to choose an efficient system and keep it running as efficiently as possible.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Money Crashers: Best Way to Pay Off Debt

One problem I haven't had to deal with very much in my life is debt. Brian and I, unlike many of our generation, were lucky enough to get through school without student loans, and knowledgeable enough to avoid getting in over our heads with credit cards. We've never had any debts except our mortgage, and so we've never had to worry about which debt we should try to pay off first.

Many Americans, however, aren't so lucky. A 2015 Pew report shows that 80 percent of all Americans have some kind of debt, with a median total debt of nearly $68,000. The report doesn't say what percentage of Americans are holding several different debts, but given the total amounts involved, it's clear that some of them must be.

Now, there's a big debate among financial experts about the best way to pay off multiple debts. They all agree that you should focus your efforts on one debt, pay it off as fast as possible, and then take the amount you've been throwing at that debt each month and pile it all on to the next debt, and so on until you're debt free. Where they disagree is about which debt to tackle first. The most logical approach is to pay off your highest-interest debt first, since that's the one that's costing you the most. But as some experts point out, people aren't always logical, and many people won't stick to a program like this because they don't feel like they're making any headway. These people, they argue, should instead focus on their smallest debt, so they can pay it off quickly and get a morale boost that will keep them on track.

These two conflicting approaches are called the debt avalanche (because it goes from the highest peak of interest to the lowest) and the debt snowball (because it starts with small amounts and builds up to larger ones). And a separate strategy, which can be combined with either of these, is debt snowflaking: scraping together lots of small sums over the course of a month to put toward debt repayment.

In my latest Money Crashers article, I outline these three different approaches to debt in detail: how they work, their advantages and disadvantages, and who's most likely to benefit from them. I hope that most of my readers won't benefit from this article, because they don't have multiple debts to deal with—but for those who do, or who know others who do, I hope this analysis of the different methods will be useful. And for everyone else, I hope it will at least be interesting.

Best Way to Pay Off Debt – Snowball vs. Avalanche vs. Snowflaking

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Happy Blogaversary

The Ecofrugal Living blog has just passed a milestone: as of today, it has received over 100,000 page views.

Okay, I know that's chump change by some bloggers' standards. The most popular frugal-living sites, like Mr. Money Mustache, probably get that many visits every month. Back in its heyday, the late, much lamented Young House Love was probably getting that many every week. But for my little hobby blog, which started out more or less by accident and usually gets updated only on weekends, it's an accomplishment I take some pride in.

According to Blogger's tracking tools, in this blog's nearly ten-year history, I have made a total of 856 posts. The most popular of all time were:
  1. The Patio Project, Stage 8: Furnishing (Aug 4, 2013), in which I talk about the furniture set we bought at IKEA for our new patio: 2,313 page views, accounting for over 2 percent of all the traffic I've ever had
  2. Thrift Week Day Two: ConsumerSearch (Jan 18, 2013), discussing the ConsumerSearch website as a place to find information about potential purchases: 1,753 page views
  3. Looking for cover, part 2 (Apr 5, 2011), about the pros and cons of different types of ground covers: 758 page views
  4. The Aldi Organic Face-Off (Jun 25, 2014), comparing the prices of organic foods at Aldi to conventional foods at Stop & Shop: 645 page views
  5. In search of recycled paper checks (Jun 3, 2014), which is what it sounds like: 447 page views
  6. Getting rid of "stupid plastic" (Nov 15, 2011), about which types of plastic are most pointless and how to eliminate them from your life: 416 page views
  7. Take this snow and shovel it (Feb 11, 2013), about the challenges of shoveling snow in a boxed-in yard like ours: 330 page views
  8. The Rationing Challenge (May 31, 2013), in which I set out to try living for a week under the limits of WWII-era rationing: 230 page views
  9. How to recycle whipped cream cans (May 5, 2014), which is also what it sounds like: 201 page views
Most people who find the site do so through Google. The search terms that have driven the most people to it, aside from "Amy Livingston" and "Amy Livingston blog," are:
  1. ecofrugal (a term I use in lots of different posts, so it's hardly surprising that people looking for it would find this site)
  2. Lowes en Espanol (probably from people looking for information about Lowe's in Spanish, who were n doubt disappointed to find only this post on how Lowe's Spanish-language flier differs from its English one)
  3. DIY pantry (a search that would direct people to my pantry project posts, here and here, which I hope would prove useful for them)
  4. groundhog fence (which would steer people toward a series of posts about how we built and later modified a fence to keep groundhogs out of our garden)
  5. make it do or do without (not sure how this led people here, but I guess this blog is in the same spirit)
So all in all, I have reason to hope that my blog has been useful to at least a fair number of the people who have viewed it so far, and that it will become even more useful in the future.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

A plumbing puzzle (or, water heater anode 1, would-be DIYers 0)

When Brian and I had our new boiler put in two years ago, we also signed up for a service contract: we pay 7 bucks a month to the company that did the installation, and they in turn give us a free checkup every year and a discount on any other repairs. This is a good deal for the company because it means we'll always call them first when we need plumbing help, and it's a good deal for us because it costs no more than we'd pay for that annual checkup anyway.

The only catch is that, because this company now feels sure of our business, they occasionally try to sell us on repairs that we may or may not actually need. Last month, for instance, they offered to come over and do a free plumbing and water heater check and let us know if there were any "issues" that needed fixing (with an eye toward getting the job if there were). I figured I might as well accept, because it would save us the work of bleeding our water heater as we normally do each year to remove sediment, and if there were any other problems, it couldn't hurt to know about them.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, the repairman didn't actually bleed the water heater. All he did was look at the label on it and tell me it was time to replace it, because "it's ten years old, and that's as long as this type of heater will last." By this time, he assured me, the tank was sure to be completely rusted out on the inside; in fact, he didn't even consider it safe to do the the routine job of draining off water, because "the rust is probably all that's holding that tank together at this point."

Now, this news came as quite a surprise to me, for three reasons:
  • The water heater isn't ten years old. We bought the house in 2007, only nine years ago, and had the heater installed a few months later. So it's actually eight and a half years old, not ten years old (and our repair guy clearly knew this, because it said so right on the heater).
  • The previous water heater appeared to be the original one that was installed when the house was built in 1970, and it was still working. In need of replacement, certainly, but not on the verge of collapse. So clearly, it's possible for a water tank to last longer than ten years.
  • We have, as I said before, been bleeding the tank regularly each year ever since we got it, and the water always comes out crystal clear, with no signs of rust whatsoever.
So naturally, I was highly skeptical of his claim that we needed to replace the water heater immediately if we didn't want it crumbling to bits without warning. But I decided I'd pass the information along to Brian when he got home and see what he thought.

As luck would have it, not that long after he left I happened across an article from Popular Mechanics entitled "Double the Lifespan of Your Water Heater for Less than $50." It explained that every water heater contains a rod called the "sacrificial anode" that exists solely for the purpose of attracting corrosion before the steel tank itself does. The idea is, water attacks the highly reactive rod instead of the tank, so the tank stays rust-free. And the nice thing about the rod is, when it does corrode fully, you can just pull it out and replace it for much less than you'd pay to replace the whole water heater.

This article made the repair guy's recommendation sound even more suspicious, since he'd counseled us to replace the tank without even mentioning the possibility of replacing the anode rod instead (let alone actually pulling it out to check on its condition). However, the article also suggested that, even if it wasn't necessarily time to replace the tank itself yet, it was probably time to replace the anode, or at least check it for corrosion. It said the lifespan of an anode rod varies, but five to ten years was typical, and our water heater was right in that range.

Of course, there was a good chance the anode would still be in good condition even now, since the article said five to ten years was normal "with fairly soft water, which attacks steel more aggressively than hard water does," and our local water is so hard you can practically eat it rather than drink it. (That sentence also raised yet another red flag about the repair guy's advice: he had told me the tank was certain to be rusted out because "hard water, like you have here, is much harder on steel than soft water," and here was Popular Mechanics saying just the opposite.) But certainly, with the water heater coming up on its ninth birthday, it would be a good idea at least to check the anode.

Unfortunately, that proved to be much easier said than done. We had no trouble at all locating the nut that holds the anode rod in place; it's clearly visible right on top of the water heater, rather than hidden under a cap as it is on some tanks. But the tool Popular Mechanics recommended to remove it was a "1-1/16 inch socket and breaker bar," which we didn't own—and when we went to Home Depot to look for one, we couldn't find a single 1-1/6 inch socket in the place, nor any socket set that included one. This seemed like a rather odd omission, since this size is apparently standard for this particular type of nut, but there was no question about it: Home Depot just couldn't sell us a socket this size.

So we hunted around the aisles looking for something else that might do, and we settled on this double-ended wrench. It wasn't the ideal tool for the job, but it was the right size, at least, and it was only $6, so we figured it was worth a try.

However, when Brian mentioned to his dad, an experienced DIYer, that we were planning to attempt this job, he was met with skepticism. Apparently, his dad had attempted before to remove an anode rod—no doubt with the proper tool, since he has everything—and the problem was that he just couldn't apply enough torque via the wrench without yanking the entire water heater off its moorings. So he was forced to give it up as a bad job. And sure enough, when we attempted it, exactly the same thing happened to us. The bolt was on there so tight that if Brian applied enough force to have an effect on it, the whole tank started to shift—even with me pushing against it from the opposite direction. We did a little searching online and found a list of suggestions for loosening a stuck anode, but the only one we could attempt on the spot was to hit the end of the wrench repeatedly with a mallet, and that had no effect either.

Needless to say, this was very frustrating, particularly for me. Replacing a $20 anode rod, rather than an $850 water tank, seemed like such an obviously ecofrugal solution that I couldn't understand why everyone seemed to be going out of their way to stop us from doing it. Why would the manufacturer include a rod in the first place if they were going to make it impossible to replace? (If they just wanted us to be forced to replace the tank sooner, why not leave the rod out completely?) And if home centers like Home Depot sell replacement anode rods, why don't they sell the tool needed for replacing them?

So at this point, we've concluded that we have only three options left to us:
  1. We can follow the repair guy's advice and replace the tank right away. But this is almost certainly a waste of money, since we have no reason to believe it's actually rusted.
  2. We can just forget about it completely and wait until the tank shows signs of rust (like flakes in the water) before taking any action. But the thing is, once the rust starts to attack the tank, replacing it becomes the only option—it's too late to replace the rod at that point. And it seems like a terrible waste to sit back and wait for the water heater to die when a new anode could keep it going for years more.
  3. Finally, we can try calling in a professional. I can call up a bunch of plumbers and ask them how much they'd want to replace the anode rod on our water heater (or just check it to see if it needs replacing). It will almost certainly be more than the $20 or so we'd pay to buy a new rod and install it ourselves, but it should still be significantly less than the cost of a new water heater.
So it seems like the only option that really makes any sense is #3. Normally, of course, the plumbing company we'd call first would be the one we have the service contract with—but given that it was one of their guys who told us we needed to replace the tank completely, never mentioning that replacing the anode rod was even a possibility, it seems like we'd most likely be wasting our time talking to them. They'd probably insist that replacing the rod never works and replacing the tank is the only reasonable option. But on the other hand, maybe that's just the line they take with customers who don't know any better, and if someone calls them up who actually knows what an anode is and wants it replaced, they'll agree to do it rather than lose out on the business.

Anyway, I know one thing for sure; if I call them up and they do try to talk me into replacing the whole water heater instead of just the anode, they can kiss my service contract goodbye.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Ding dong, the bush is dead

When we first bought this house, nine years ago, one of the features we weren't so thrilled with was the wide assortment of shrubs in the front yard. In addition to a hedge on one side of the yard and another bordering the sidewalk, there were a total of seven bushes in front of the house—all of them too big for the spots they were in, and some so large that they obstructed the windows.

So, over the intervening years, we've gradually been getting rid of them. The first to go was a firethorn bush that stood right next to the front porch railing, ready to lash out at unsuspecting visitors with its vicious thorns. Next we took out the forsythia that was crowded up against the evergreen bush in front. Four years ago, we took down the small hedge in front, opening up the view and making more room for our creeping phlox to spread. And in 2013, we finally took the plunge and completely cleared out the remaining bushes on the left side of the house to make room for our new flower bed.

Sadly, the flowers weren't a scintillating success. We discovered this spring that the overambitious bachelor's buttons (aka cornflowers) had not only reseeded themselves once again, they had almost completely taken over the bed, making it impossible to see any of the other flowers. Eventually we went in and pulled them all out, leaving only a patchy, motley assortment scattered across the bed and straying well beyond its borders. So we think next year we'll have to start over with a different wildflower seed blend, such as this all perennial mix that has no pesky cornflowers.

However, the other side of the stoop—our herb garden—was looking much better. It had started back in 2010 with the gift of a sage plant from a couple of friends who had a large one in their yard that had produced a smaller offspring they didn't have room for. We planted that, along with a modest little thyme plant we'd picked up at the annual Rutgers plant sale, in a gap between the big bushes next to the side stoop.

These two plants grew and spread so fast that we soon had to clear out the smallest bush to make more room for them, and we gradually started tucking more herbs in wherever we could make room for them. We slipped a small oregano plant in between the two largest bushes, and its tendrils, searching for sunlight, quickly sprawled out so far that they took over half the front walk. We also popped some mint into the space right next to the steps—normally a risky thing to do, since this plant is highly aggressive and can easily take over an entire yard, but we figured in this confined space it couldn't really do any harm. If it wanted to fill in all the space not currently occupied by other plants, that was a-okay with us.

Last fall, we made a little more room in the herb patch by removing the wider of the two bushes on that side of the house—mostly because we were fed up with how it got in our way every time we tried to shovel snow in the winter. This spring, we took advantage of all that extra space by putting in two new rosemary plants that we'd started from seed, as well as a tiny little thyme plant to replace our old one, which had apparently smothered under all that snow. That left a nice open spot in the front that I was considering using for some marshmallow plants—but the seed packet warned that these can grow to around 3 feet tall, and I didn't want to end up with the same problem we'd had in the flowerbed, with a bunch of tall plants obscuring the view of the smaller ones. So we decided it was finally time to remove that last large bush, creating some room in the back for the new plants.

So, last weekend, Brian got to work with an assortment of tools. First he used clippers to trim off all the branches and get the bush down to a manageable size; then he got out the folding saw and sawed off the main trunk, leaving only a stump. Then he tried to root out the stump with our two big shovels, the hefty King of Spades and the wickedly sharp Structron Super Shovel (both gifts from his brother), only to discover that the trunk was actually growing sideways below the soil surface and had to be cut away before the stump could come out. So he basically ended up digging out all the dirt around this horizontal trunk and then cutting it away with the saw. This Herculean task, coupled with cutting off and bundling up all the branches from the bush to be hauled away, took most of the day—but it left us, at long last, with a nice, clear area on that side of the house.

We were planning to put the marshmallows in right away, but after doing a little research online about how to space the plants, I found that they'll probably fare better if they're planted in the late summer or early fall, so the cold weather can help split open the seeds. So we're holding off on that until late August, and for now we've just covered up the area with the last of the mulch we picked up from the co-op last May.

And so, for the first time since we bought the house, we can actually see the entire front of it, unobstructed by any big bushes. The herb bed isn't complete yet, and neither is the flowerbed we want to end up with on the left side of the door—but at least you can see where they're both supposed to go. And in place of all those big, ill-trimmed bushes, we have our three new plum trees, which will provide us with fruit (at least if they don't suffer from brown rot again) and, eventually, summer shade. All in all, a much more practical and sustainable landscape—and a prettier one to boot.

Monday, July 4, 2016

The hunt for an ecofrugal magazine

For several years now, I've been a subscriber to Mother Earth News. Founded in 1970, during the heyday of the "back to the land" movement, the magazine focuses on teaching old-fashioned skills in the modern world: organic gardening, raising livestock, renewable energy technologies, natural remedies. All of which sounds like it should be useful information for someone trying to live an ecofrugal life.

But recently, I've found myself growing dissatisfied with the magazine. It seemed like its content was targeted mostly toward actual homesteaders, people trying to live a self-sufficient lifestyle out in the country, rather than an earth-friendly lifestyle in town. Paging through the February/March issue, for instance, I found stories on raising sheep, building your own greenhouse, energy-efficient home building, and recommended varieties of tomatoes and greens to add to your garden. The only articles that could have been at all useful to me were the gardening ones, but even those were geared toward people who had large gardens, with plenty of space to try out new varieties. My little hundred-square-foot plot, with every square foot of space carefully allotted, just doesn't allow for that much experimentation.

After several issues in a row with perhaps one or two pieces of useful advice that I could actually act on, I started wondering whether maybe this magazine just wasn't a good fit for me. Perhaps I'd be better off with something that focused more specifically on topics I could use. So when I received an offer in the mail for a free trial issue of Organic Life, I decided to give it a try and see if it had more to offer for town-dwellers like me.

Unfortunately, my free sample issue turned out to be a special themed issue: "100 Ways to Have Your Most Organic Year Ever." So the bulk of the magazine was devoted to a bunch of little short snippets, some of them just a few sentences long. Some of them touted various organic products—reusable sandwich wrap, organic jelly beans, eco-friendly art supplies—while others were tributes to celebrities like Pope Francis (in honor of his encyclical on "ecological spirituality") and Lilias Folan (who popularized yoga in the '70s). Basically, it was mostly just fluff. The only useful piece of information I got out of the whole magazine was a recipe for skillet cornbread that uses only cornmeal, with no wheat flour, and is thus suitable for my gluten-free friends.

Based on that issue alone, my inclination would have been to cancel the subscription. But I figured that issue probably wasn't a typical one, so I should go ahead and let the subscription continue. I could always go ahead and cancel if it didn't get any better.

Now, three issues later, I'm forced to conclude that my initial impression of Organic Life actually was fairly accurate. Even in a standard issue, the content is mostly little bite-sized pieces, too short to provide much useful information. A list of the best organic laundry detergents (with no information about the criteria used to select them); photos and descriptions of four armchairs made with organic materials; three paragraphs (plus lots of photos) on how to plant and display dahlias; a list of sustainable camping gear with a single sentence devoted to each product.

There are a few more in-depth articles, like the one in the latest issue about a simple way to build boxed raised beds for your garden—but that piece actually frustrated me even more than the rest of the magazine, because it contained a blatantly false statement about chemicals in pressure-treated lumber, which even the most elementary fact-checking would have shown to be wrong. (The author claimed that "Pressure-treated lumber and railroad ties contain chemicals like arsenic and creosote that can leach into your soil"; in fact, as the EPA explains, neither of these chemicals is allowed in lumber for residential use. Pressure-treated wood used to contain a preservative called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, which some people thought could be harmful to use in a vegetable garden, though there was no real evidence of its dangers. But dangerous or not, it hasn't been used at all since 2003.)

So on the whole, it looks like neither of these magazines is really the ecofrugal-living journal I'm looking for. What I'd really like, if I could only find it, is a magazine devoted to voluntary simplicity, filled with information about the simple-living skills that are so often forgotten in the modern world. Recipes for homemade bread. Tips on repairing things, from clothing to appliances. An introduction to knitting. Basically, stuff that I can actually apply to my life. Isn't there a magazine like that?

Well, it appears there is—in Britain. An online search led me to the site of a British publication called The Simple Things. Yes, it has a few of the fluffy pieces that are basically just lists of products the magazine has chosen to recommend, but it also includes articles on gardening, cooking, travel—all with an eco-friendly twist. I would subscribe right now if it weren't for one problem: a one-year subscription, delivered to a U.S. address, costs 69 British pounds, or $91.63. A year of Organic Life, by contrast, costs only $15, and Mother Earth News costs $12. So this magazine would have to be more than six times as useful as Organic Life to justify its cost.

So, until I can find a magazine that suits my needs, I guess the best I can do is write my own—researching and writing articles for Money Crashers on the kind of topics that interest me, such as:
Writing articles like this is a lot more work than reading them—but if no one else is making this kind of content available, I guess I should do my best to fill that gap.