Category Archives: DIY

Eco-Saturday: Incense energy audit

Want to find all the spots in your house that are making your furnace work overtime? Grab a stick of incense and a lighter and spend a few minutes performing a sort of informal energy audit. Here’s how:

1. Shut off the furnace and any fans you might have running.
2. Raise all the blinds and pull back the curtains.
3. Light a stick of incense. Holding it very steady, pass it around the edges of all your windows, doors leading to unheated spaces, and electrical outlets and switches on exterior walls. Use a slow, steady motion, and pull the stick away from the burning end rather than pushing toward it. As you move, watch the smoke. It should rise smoothly from the burning end of the stick. If it shimmies, pulses, or otherwise appears to be disturbed, you have an air leak that needs to be sealed. (You’ll also want to pay attention to the burning end, taking care to keep it from touching curtains or other flammable materials, and be sure to have something handy to use as an ashtray as you work.)
4. Make a note of all the places you found leaks, and find an appropriate method to seal them.

If you find leaks around windows, the easiest solution is to seal them with plastic film; if you’re feeling ambitious, you can also insulate the panes themselves with bubble wrap or make Roman shades out of blankets to put an extra layer of warmth between the great outdoors and your living space. You can plug leaks under doors with an inexpensive DIY draft stopper made from rice and fabric remnants. You can buy insulating shields for electrical outlets and light switches, but I prefer to make my own for free out of the polystyrene trays that come with meat and some produce at the grocery store.

You won’t find every single source of wasted energy with a stick of incense, but in the absence of a professional energy audit — which can get pricey if your utility company doesn’t offer them for free — it’s a good, inexpensive jumping-off point to help you identify some of the most easily mitigated culprits. A stick of incense and an a little elbow grease can go a long way toward reining in high heating bills.

Emily

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Make-It Monday: I paint because I’m lazy

Longtime readers will recall my adventures in drywall repair last winter, necessitated by the slipshod home-improvement work done by the previous owner of this house.

The drywall in our bathroom was installed as poorly as the drywall in the rest of the house, and the paint job was even worse — drips and cracks and alligatored spots everywhere.

I could retape the joints, sand everything down, and repaint the walls in there with some textured finish that would conceal any flaws, but I’m not going to, for two reasons:

1. My projects earlier this year in the bedroom and office taught me that I haaaaaaaate working with drywall in tight spaces and rag-painting around obstacles.

2. I need a sample of trompe l’oeil mural work to show prospective clients, as most of my murals — with the exception of my faux-neon pieces — are done in a more cartoonish style.

With all that in mind, I decided to make the cracks in the bathroom wall look purposeful.

This is a work in progress, obviously, but here’s what I’m up to:

Preliminary sketch.
Preliminary sketch.
Closeup of a section that's about 95 percent finished. I need to come back and soften up some of the mossy patches on the stucco, but this is the upshot.
Closeup of a section that’s about 95 percent finished. I need to come back and soften up some of the mossy patches on the stucco, but this is the upshot.

It’s not perfect, but neither is the wall. Intentional imperfections, rendered in careful detail, seem infinitely preferable to imperfections created as a result of someone’s sloppy attempts at home improvement, and hopefully the end result will be realistic enough to earn me another paying mural gig or two somewhere along the line.

I’ll post an update when I finish the project.

Emily

Make-It Monday: Cheap cabinet storage

I couldn’t decide whether this was a Make-It Monday entry or a Tiny Tuesday entry. The two often overlap, as many of the things I make around here are meant to increase my storage or organize my stuff. This one is kind of a combination.

First, the “make it” part, which is pictured above: I got sick of looking for the lid to my big saucepan — which has a bad habit of hiding in the back of the cabinet when I need it — so I got online and found some storage ideas. This one wasn’t the prettiest, but it was cheap and practical, and I knew I had a package of tiny screw eyes in the junk drawer and a roll of wire in my craft closet, so I grabbed the drill and rigged up an easy way to keep track of that lid.

While I was thinking about the unused space on the back of the cabinet, my eye fell on the small graniteware stockpot I’ve been using to store cooking utensils since we moved to Cape almost four years ago.

I really could have used that stockpot a few times last winter, but it was busy storing utensils on the countertop — handy but not really the highest and best use for the space or the stockpot.

I went back to the junk drawer and rustled up a handful of Command hooks, which I pressed into service holding measuring spoons and cups, kitchen shears, quail-egg scissors and any other odds and ends I could hang back there without hitting the shelf every time I closed the door.

Stick-on hooks aren't exactly a new concept, but I reclaimed some unused space by putting them inside a cabinet door above my jury-rigged pot-lid holder.
Stick-on hooks aren’t exactly a new concept, but I reclaimed some unused space by putting them inside a cabinet door above my jury-rigged pot-lid holder.

I stuck a couple more on the back of the door to the cabinet where I keep mugs and drinking glasses and hung up my tea infuser and bottle opener.

IKEA came through the other day with an elegant solution to the problem of oversized utensils that wouldn’t hang well on the cabinet door, but I’ll save that post for another day.

Emily

Make-It Monday: Failed attempt to defog headlights

I keep seeing these dramatic before-and-after photos on Pinterest that show how you can defog old plastic headlight covers using cheap toothpaste.

I was pretty sure this was crap the first time I read it, but I figured it was worth a try, since the headlights on the Dreamcar were covered with black walnut sap, the plastic was yellowed, I’d gotten overspray on them after forgetting to mask them off last time I painted the hood, and toothpaste costs a dollar a tube. If it didn’t work, I was going to have to replace them anyway, so why not give it a try?

Have I mentioned how much I hate the black walnut tree next door?
Have I mentioned how much I hate the black walnut tree next door?

Following several sets of instructions I found online, I applied some Ultra-Brite toothpaste to the headlights with an old toothbrush.

Here we go.
Here we go.
Totally covered.
Totally covered.

I scrubbed it around with the toothbrush for several minutes and then hosed it off. The sap came off, but the plastic still looked pretty bad, so I took some advice I found on another how-to-clean-your-headlights post and reapplied the toothpaste, using a Scotch-Brite pad to scrub it off.

When I rinsed, it looked pretty good — not perfect, but less yellow, maybe, and most of the overspray came off — but as the water dried, the plastic fogged back up and looked worse than it had to start with:

I'm not sure this is an improvement.
I’m not sure this is an improvement.

Back to Pinterest. A commenter on one of the how-to articles I’d found suggested applying olive oil. Another suggested vinegar. I’d made a pretty effective furniture polish out of a mixture of the two and still had some left under the sink, so I ran in and got it. Definitely an improvement:

Shiny again. Sort of.
Shiny again. Sort of.

Another commenter said the best method was to attach an old sock to a belt sander, put the toothpaste on it, and use it to buff out the scratches. Several commenters agreed with this, so I found a worn-out running sock and gave it a go.

At least I'm recycling.
At least I’m recycling.

Buffing seemed to help some, and I suspect if I’d done it first — before I took out after the plastic with that abrasive Scotch-Brite pad — it would have helped more, but I was still underwhelmed.

Yet another commenter insisted WD-40 is the way to go. Well, of course. Anything that can’t be fixed with WD-40 or duct tape belongs in the trash. I rummaged around under the kitchen sink, found my WD-40, and applied it, buffing it in with a fresh sock on the sander.

This was the result:

I swapped sap and discoloration for scratches.
I swapped sap and discoloration for scratches.

Not bad at first glance. Maybe an improvement. But as soon as it rained, they fogged up again and looked like frosted glass in the dark — very pretty, but I’m not sure you’re supposed to drive with a Streisand filter* over your headlights.

Conclusion: This method is, indeed, utter crap. The sock on a sander might work without any of the substances I applied, but the toothpaste and Scotch-Brite just scratched up the plastic and made it worse. I’d also be leery of using anything abrasive or acidic near a factory paint job, as I’m not sure what it would do to the finish.

Pinterest fail. I’ll take the Dreamcar to the Honda dealership next weekend.

Emily

*My friend Brandey’s term. We used to watch a lot of old Barbra Streisand movies, and Brandey noticed the cinematographers always used a soft camera filter on her close-ups.

Score one for Pinterest.

Most of the crap I find on Pinterest is … well … crap. But I went looking for storage ideas today and liked this excellent little space-saver so much I wound up using it as my excuse du jour for taking a field trip to the hardware store.

The whole unit fits neatly between the fridge and the wall.
The whole unit fits neatly between the fridge and the wall.

The version somebody pinned from Classy Clutter (which is an excellent site, BTW) looked prettier than mine, but I’m lazy. And cheap. And lazy. And my station wagon is in the shop at the moment, getting its transmission rebuilt, so I didn’t have a good way to bring home a ginormous piece of bead board for the back. And did I mention I’m lazy?

Here it is before I loaded it, so you can see how it's put together.
Here it is before I loaded it, so you can see how it’s put together.

If I feel ambitious later, I can unload it and take it outside and hit it with a few coats of spray paint, but I think we all know that isn’t going to happen.

Anyway, instructions for my version are below the fold. I made it four feet high, partly because of the aforementioned station-wagon-going-AWOL issue, partly because my refrigerator is only five feet high, and partly because I could buy an eight-foot-long board and have it cut in half for $2.22.

Continue reading Score one for Pinterest.

Eco-Saturday: Change your furnace filter

The old filter, left, and new one, right.
The old filter, left, and new one, right. Photo by Ron, who was kind enough to snap a quick iPhone picture last time he swapped out our filter.

Changing your furnace filter isn’t the most glamorous or visually stimulating Eco-Saturday tip you’ll ever get, but it’s an important bit of home maintenance that really shouldn’t be neglected.

A filter clogged with dirt, pet hair and other debris limits the amount of air moving through your furnace, forcing the blower to work harder, dragging down the energy efficiency and potentially shortening the life of your system.

If you’ve never changed the filter, go look at your furnace. Locate the existing filter (you’re looking for something that resembles the end of a long, flat cardboard box) and pull it out. Printed somewhere along one edge will be the dimensions — a series of three numbers telling you the length, width and thickness of the filter. Write down the numbers.

Put the filter back and go to the hardware store. Most hardware stores carry approximately forty-eleven billion different types of filters. If you have allergies, look for one designed to filter out allergens. If you don’t have allergies, buy whatever’s cheap; the differences in quality aren’t significant enough to make the expensive kind worth the extra money unless you have serious issues with indoor air quality. The important thing is to get the right dimensions, which is why you wrote down the numbers on your old filter. If those numbers don’t match, the filter isn’t going to fit right or function properly in your system.

Take your new filter home, pull out the old one, and put the new one in its place.

If you need a visual, here’s a pretty good YouTube video on the subject:

That’s all there is to it. The whole job takes about two minutes (20 if you count the time you spend going to the hardware store) and will save you a lot of money on energy costs. We change ours every season — the same time we test our smoke detector batteries and change the water filter on our kitchen faucet, which helps us remember to do it.

Emily

Why sustainability?

I’m seeing a few new readers drop by here lately, so I think this is as good a time as any to welcome the new folks and remind longtime readers of what I’m trying to do here.

While I added the weekly Eco-Saturday and Vegan Friday features in January, the principle behind them goes back to 1975, when a young member of the back-to-the-land movement was busy burning up her Osterizer one-upping Gerber on my behalf.

For 39 years, I’ve enjoyed the perks of an environmentally responsible lifestyle without spending a fortune or sacrificing any of the creature comforts most middle-class Americans have come to expect, and I suspect if others were aware of those perks, they’d be much quicker to embrace the idea of sustainability.

In exchange for minimal to moderate effort, my family and I enjoy a host of everyday luxuries we’d never be able to afford if we had to buy them off the shelf, and we keep our ecological footprint down in the process. For instance:

Backyard beehives supply us with sweetener for our toast, pollinators for our garden, and beeswax for skin-care products.

I can’t remember the last time I bought parsley, sage, rosemary or basil, and the mint I planted last spring has given me a virtually inexhaustible supply of peppermint tea. Meanwhile, between the cayenne plants and the cucumbers, I may never have to buy hot sauce or pickles again; I’m still harvesting arugula from under the frost blanket; and Ron just took three bushels of black walnuts to Martin Walnut Tree Farm to have them shelled last week.

In the past year or so, I’ve discovered the advantages of making my own yogurt, soap and beer. At this moment, I’ve got two gallons of nutbrown ale carbonating in the basement next to a finished batch of hard cider pressed from locally grown apples. While everybody else is drinking pasteurized, mass-produced swill, we’re enjoying freshly brewed craft beer for the same money.

Not everything we do for the environment is luxurious, of course, but most of it saves money, and very little of it requires any significant investment of time, money or effort.

To learn more about how you can save money and enjoy the satisfaction of a more sustainable lifestyle, search the Eco-Saturday and Vegan Friday category here on the blog, or hop over to my Pinterest board and start exploring the possibilities.

Emily