Heat and heating update

Back in October, I reported on my new stay-warm strategy for this winter. After a reader commented to tell me I got my units of measurement wrong (doh!), I thought it might be a good time for an update.

1. The long underwear works. I don’t like how it feels, but oh well.

2. Haven’t finished the fingerless gloves.

3. Thermostat: OK, it was at 55 for a while, but it’s just too darn cold. We were *freezing* at night. I moved it to 58 and haven’t noticed the chill.

The rest are working out, too.

Best of all, I received my first utility bill that showed a full month using the electric blankets. In our most recent month, our electricity use was 357 kilowatt hours (right?) for the month. This is really exciting, because it’s right on track with our goal for the 90% reduction project for electricity. (We would get 90 kwh/month x 4 because our electricity is all wind-powered.)

On our previous bill, we used 272 kwh. Our electricity use has variedfrom an all-time high of $98.12 for March 2007 to $33.52 month before last. (The same month last year cost us $37.77.)

As for natural gas, which my furnace burns, my commenter listed his in CCFs, and sadly, I don’t even know what that is. My gas bill measures in therms. Last month, we used 83 therms ($66.58) versus the previous year’s 90 therms ($76.60).

I know that in theory, we could be warm enough by sleeping in layers and bundling under a lot of blankets at night, but honestly, the walls of our bedrooms are so cold that standing in the room, it feels like a chilly draft is blowing, and the electric blanket makes it bearable.

Typically, January through March are the coldest and priciest months, so we’ll see how we do once winter really gets going, but so far, I’m encouraged. We’re actually keeping a little bit warm and saving a little bit, too.

Weekly Wrap-Up: Energy Bill and Wal-Mart’s electric cars

Biggest news of the week: The President signed the energy bill.

“The bill also calls for improved energy efficiency of appliances such as refrigerators, freezers and dishwashers, and a 70 percent increase in the efficiency of light bulbs. It also calls for energy efficiency improvements in federal buildings and construction of commercial buildings.

“The new lighting standards alone are projected to lower consumers’ annual electricity bills by $13 billion in 2020, remove the need for 60 mid-size power plants and reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, by 100 million tons a year, said the advocacy group Alliance to Save Energy.

“Democrats said the fuel economy requirements will save motorists $700 to $1,000 a year in fuel costs and reduce oil demand by 1.1 million barrels a day when the fuel-stingy vehicles are widely on the road.”

If that makes you want your own electric car, take heart. Soon, for a price, you’ll be able to buy one at Walmart …


More green Christmas: A wish list

On Tuesday, we talked about what to get others. But what does the green-lover on your list want for Christmas? Here are some great ideas …


  • Reusable bags that match and look nice, if the recipient is stylish. Be sure to propose an excellent home for the old bags.
  • A nice collection of compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs.
  • Beeswax candles. 
  • Local, raw, organic honey.
  • A Diva Cup.
  • GreenDimes to eliminate junk mail.
  • Carbon offsets.
  • A green cleaning service.
  • A bike — or the goodies to make a bike more usable, like lights, a good lock, a helmet, or panniers.
  • Car-share gift certificate or a bus pass.
  • A gift certificate for a restaurant trying to do right by the environment, like Chipotle. (Their gift cards are plastic, but at least they are corn-based plastic.)
  • And Mr. Cheap says … Local food – an artisanal bread, cheese, beer, wine. Get to know your community’s tastes — and it’s consumable, so it’s not cluttering up your home.

Pitch in your ideas here, too!

Eco-quandary: Green vs. traditionally generous holiday gifts

We usually have a pretty big shopping list around our house for Christmas. We have two sets of parents with whom we really don’t exchange gifts, and two sets with whom we do. We have five siblings/spouses and two nieces, a couple of our daughter’s good friends, two sets of grandparents, and this year, four sets of aunts and uncles.

This year, a church group we’re in sponsored two single-parent/one-child families, and we bought several items for those families, plus donated our old Christmas lights and some extra toiletries we had stockpiled in the closet — and the time to organize the giving. And I like to thank those who have helped us throughout the year, which involved holiday tips or gifts for Little Cheap’s teachers, my hairdresser, my massage therapist, our mail carrier, the newspaper delivery person and Mr. Cheap’s specially kind bus driver.

The latter paragraph consists of gifts that are a no-brainer. To me, they embody the spirit of the season – giving, gratitude, hope.

With the former group, it’s tougher. Sometimes we set giving guidelines. This year, we tried, but not everyone wanted to participate. Some are financially burdened and can’t give much back. Some always give more than others. I don’t mind being on the side receiving less; for me, it’s a greater challenge to graciously receive more than I have (or could have) given.

This year, we have done better than last year financially, so I went the easy route: I spent quite a bit of money buying nice gifts for everyone, generally from their wish lists so I won’t make any mistakes. I don’t want to spend a lot getting something the recipient doesn’t want. I don’t want them to think I’m cheap because I don’t care. But ah what a relief it is to give to those who have no expectations. For instance, I think we’ll give Mr. Cheap’s dad and stepmom one of our king-size squash – and they’ll probably really like it!

I’ve tried to strike the middle ground with other recipients’ gifts:

  • A bottle of locally made wine.
  • A set of reusable shopping bags (I’ve roped my sister into using reusable bags; next step: Mom).
  • Hand-knitted socks (several pairs in the pipeline).
  • Hand-decorated bags from Little Cheap to her cousins.
  • A book by an author friend of mine.
  • A wooden loom made in the U.S. for Little Cheap (although she has several Chinese-made toys coming).
  • Handmade soap and other goodies, some from a craft night I attended, some from local artisans.
  • A handwoven shawl from a local artisan.
  • Products from the Women’s Bean Project here in Denver.
  • Candy and cookies from my own kitchen.

And on the other hand, we wound up purchasing two Barbies, a Spiderman and a Transformer, a pair of inexpensive children’s boots, two pair of work boots from Costco (Mr. Cheap’s verdict: They’re awesome), and some of the plastic, made-in-China medieval “action figures” that Little Cheap plays with incessantly.

How do you strike the balance? Or do you even try?

Weekly Wrap-Up: Banning polycarbonate and running with the wind

A Canadian sporting-goods chain has joined Patagonia in banning polycarbonate bottles because of fears of health issues arising among those who drink from the plastic: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22183034/

At our house, we’ve switched to these, although my daughter does have a SIGG bottle because I couldn’t find a smaller size stainless bottle. And hers is so pretty; I’m jealous. Why can’t stainless look nice, too?


And the UK plans to have every home wind-powered by 2020. Can they do it? http://www.engadget.com/2007/12/12/uk-wants-every-home-wind-powered-by-2020/

Deal of the Week: Stop standing by

Chances are, even when you think your appliances are off, they’re not off.

Appliances with “standby” settings – most often those with a little glowing light at all times – are still using power.

Visit this site for more information on standby power and to visit “tours” of standby electricity use in typical homes around the world. http://standby.lbl.gov/faq.html

For instance, an average television on standby (a setting that is required to let you turn the TV on with a remote control) uses 5 watts of power just to sit there. A microwave might use 3; a charger, 1.

On the laboratory site mentioned above, an average U.S. and French home each used about 70 watts per day of standby power. That’s not so much — like leaving a couple of lower-watt incandescent bulbs running all day, or about 5 CFLs — but if every home leaks that much power, it really adds up.

We’re tackling this little by little at our house, by:

  • Having the computer shut down automatically after it’s out of use.
  • Unplugging the copy machine in my home office.
  • Putting the TV and DVD player on a power strip, which is switched off when not in use.
  • Unplugging all chargers when not in use.

Eventually, I’d like to have everything on a power strip. I think my “turn off” campaign is having an impact on our electric bill, but time will tell.

Eco-quandary: Green laundry in winter

This week, MSN.com published an article with 11 ways to be an earth-friendly couple.  I’m proud to say we’re doing all of them.

But I wish the author had made 12 points and included my favorite, hanging laundry to dry. By not using an electric clothes dryer, you can save 1,500 pounds of carbon dioxide in a year and save $60.

With winter coming on, I’ll concede that the weather isn’t always dandy for hanging laundry out. At the moment, we’ve got six inches of snow on the ground and more coming. The winter before last, when our dryer had died, I hung clothes out in 20-degree weather, and it was painful.

This year, I’ll be compromising:

  1. Choose the nicest day of the week to do laundry. Here, we often have 40- or 50-degree days during the winter. I’ll target laundry for those days and hang it out as early as possible so it has all day to dry. If I wash the clothes the night before and pile them in a basket wet, the winter chill doesn’t let any mildew accumulate by morning.

  2. Break loads up throughout the week. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, by doing just one load a day, I have a better chance of being able to hang the whole load up inside — using my folding wooden rack, hanging multi-hook racks, and clothes hangers over the laundry sink and hanging from the laundry-room rafters.

  3. Combine loads. If I get stuck washing several loads at once, and it’s too cold or wet to hang laundry out, I’ll consolidate. Hang up some clothes and combine a couple of loads’ “leftovers” into one dryer load. Hanging up jeans, sweaters and shirts not only makes the load lighter — it keeps the clothes from shrinking (especially common with my pants, and I’m 5’9″ so I need all the length I can get) and extends their wear. Hanging undies preserves their elastic and similarly extends wear (and eliminates unsightly snags).

  4. Add a retractable clothesline in the laundry room. I’m adding this to Mr. Cheap’s “honey do” list.

  5. One tiny change I do … I have to confess that I hate static cling, so when I do dry shirts and such, I do throw in a dryer sheet. But pay attention — I find that I can re-use the dryer sheet three or four times before it loses its magical powers. The box says to use one per load because you’ll use up four times as many dryer sheets … and buy them four times as often.

What’s on your laundry list?

Weekly Wrap-Up: Going all the way for a green Christmas and wrapping up your year

Oh, you think your Christmas is green, do you? Well, read this and see how green your gifts are. http://sfcompact.blogspot.com/2007/12/holiday-ideas.html

I was interested to hear in the Democratic debate on NPR the other day that John Edwards says there will be no toys from China under his tree. I believe my daughter’s top two gifts were made in the USA (both are wood, and I know one is US made), and I heard a rumor that Santa’s present is gently used. But there are a few things that are probably made internationally. How PC is your tree? 

And, Five Cent Nickel had these reminders to wrap up your financial year along with your holiday gifts: http://www.fivecentnickel.com/2007/12/05/year-end-money-moves/

Give yourself credit: Think twice before switching services to save money

Back in September, I heard about a great deal for an employee referral offer from Sprint: Wireless service with 500 minutes and unlimited data for $30 a month. That’s a few bucks better than my gazillion-minute “legacy” plan with Qwest, which had no data service.


My Palm Pilot died a year or more ago, so I’ve been lugging around a paper organizer – not so good for my achin’ back. I missed the backup feature of the Palm/Outlook calendar and contacts. And I have a new client that often needs me to review documents between 3 and 5 p.m. — just when I am most frequently running around, shuttling my kid from here to there.


Without a lot of thought or research (atypical for me), I signed up for the Sprint deal. I placed the order and the phone arrived within two days. Wow! I was impressed.


For about five minutes.


The short story is that I signed up on about Sept. 16. This morning, Dec. 6, my issues with Sprint have been resolved at last (fingers crossed).


The long story:

  • Sprint ran into trouble porting my number, which I use for my business. All my cell phone service was cut off for days, meaning (a) I looked like a goofball to my clients, and (b) I had to give out my personal number to my clients – not my favorite thing.
  • I asked to speak to supervisors and was told no one else could help me, but my problem “had been escalated” (I think this means “is getting so bad, no one knows how to solve it, but we’ve all agreed to make your life hell while we think about it”).
  • After hours of customer service calls, I did some research and found the fax numbers for the CEO’s office and the FCC. I sent them both an account of what was going on. No response.
  • Finally, my number worked again. I was so relieved I almost cried.
  • Then the billing hassles started. My bills showed the wrong plan, two months in a row. Promised credits weren’t applied. Reps said one thing and did nothing. Got my second bill on Saturday, with a monthly total of $221 instead of $30. After an hour on the phone with three reps (each of whom hung up on accidentally disconnected me), I gave up for the day.

On Monday, I called again and had the weirdest experience. It was as if the person wanted to find out what my problem was and resolve it. It was so strange! She asked about the situation, confirmed that I had signed up for the plan I said I had, and put me on hold for a mere 20 minutes while she fixed it. Then she applied a credit for the erroneous charges (about $180) and sent me confirmation of the changes via e-mail. When I checked my account online, the balance was correct. Weird!


Today, stranger still, I received a call from someone in the executive offices in response to my letter (faxed on Oct. 19). So they’re a little slow, but I got an apology, another $100 credit for my trouble, and most valuable of all, that rep’s direct telephone number if I run into future problems.


All in all, changing my phone plans to work more efficiently has cost me at least 15 hours on the telephone with Sprint (for those who are counting, that’s two full days of lost work time) and at least $50 in unnecessary charges (extra fees, taxes on the inappropriate costs, etc.). That totals hundreds of dollars — meaning the “good deal” now will take more than a year to pay for itself, assuming I would have spent $30 more per month for a comparable plan. A few more days and I would have coughed up another $200 to cancel my service early.


I’m especially shocked at the service because I am the queen of complaining. I have a strong belief in companies Making It Right when they are wrong. I wasn’t asking for them to do anything but deliver the service they offered and I agreed to purchase.


Normally, the complaint process that works for me is:


  1. Stay reasonable. No yelling, no crying, and certainly no cursing or name calling.
  2. Explain what you want. Say “Here is what happened. Here is what I need.” This fixes 90 percent of problems.
  3. Move up. If you don’t get a response or the person you speak to is clearly powerless or confused, ask to speak to a supervisor. Say something like, “I know this isn’t your fault, but I need to resolve this issue today. Can I please speak to a supervisor?” This takes care of another 9.5 percent of problems.
  4. Keep moving up. At some companies, the customer service reps get downright nasty if you ask to be treated right. Then it’s time to get serious. Call or fax a letter to the executive offices. I’ve done this once or twice before, and usually, you receive a response very quickly from a team with the power to help you.
  5. Take it to the law. With regulated companies, find out who regulates the organization and send a copy of your complaint to them. This does a public service by helping to keep the company honest, and it shows the company you mean business.


The lesson? If I’d done some online research, I would have found myriad sites full of exactly these complaints, and perhaps I wouldn’t have left Qwest (whose “spirit of service” slogan has new meaning for me) so quickly.


To Sprint’s credit, the rep said they are in a transition with their customer care center, and the service I received on Monday is how things should be from here on out. Meanwhile, let’s roll out two old clichés: Buyer beware, and look before you leap.