Green Homes
Building for the future, today – combining the best of historical wisdom and modern technology.

Why Adding Your Old Phone to Your Mobile Plan Can Be A “Green” Choice

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Smartphones have a huge carbon footprint. A recent study found that the energy consumption of a smartphone will be more than desktops and laptops by 2020. The problem isn’t in the energy they use — 85% of a smartphone’s emissions impact comes from production, and the precious metal used in their hardware is mined at high energy costs. Add in the energy from the data centers they rely on to send text messages and stream videos and that sliver of glass and plastic in your hand could have a major impact on the environment.

Cell phone providers and manufacturers encourage us to upgrade our devices every year or two, and we often trade in perfectly good phones to have the latest and greatest model. In reality, most smartphones can last five or six years with proper care.

While there are plenty of options for recycling smartphones, the best way to limit their impact is through reuse. You can donate them to charity or sell them, but the smartest thing to do is to hang on to them and get as much use as possible before recycling. How can you reuse your old phone? Consider the following three options.

Use it as a backup

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When you get a new phone, keep your old one as a backup. While you might get some money off your new device if you trade in the old one, having a backup in case you lose or damage your phone can be useful. An extra also means you won't need to pay insurance for your new phone, which can cut down on your monthly bill. Most carriers will let you keep it on your plan for just a monthly line fee — or in some cases, no fee at all — and add data only when you need it.

Pass it on to your partner or family member

If you share a plan with your spouse or a family member, consider getting on a staggered “upgrade cycle.” When it’s time to get a new phone, the old one gets passed on to the user who is not upgrading. That person’s phone then becomes a backup or can be passed on to a grandparent or family member whose high-tech needs are low. This cycle of reusing old phones keeps them in use and out of the recycling stream for longer and also helps reduce the need to manufacture new ones.

Give it to your child

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At some point, your child is going to want or need a smartphone. Putting a phone worth hundreds of dollars into a preteen’s hands can be a scary prospect, but giving them an older device offers several benefits:

1. You know exactly how to use it, so set up will be easy.

2. If they break or lose it, you’re not out a fortune.

3. Adding a second or third line to your cell phone plan isn’t as expensive as you might think.

Most cellular providers offer family plans. Some don’t charge anything to add a line, so you pay only for the data your child uses. If you don’t want them to use data and just want the phone to be a device they can text and call you on, adding it to your plan can be very inexpensive, or even free.

Ultimately, keeping your smartphone and using it for as long as possible is the greenest, most responsible way to use these devices. It’s beneficial to you, your family and the planet.

Jennifer Pattison Tuohy is a freelance writer and contributor for Xfinity Mobile. She writes about the smart home, mobile phone technology, consumer tech, small businesses, and green living for a variety of newspapers, magazines, and online publications.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Save Money and Address the Climate Crisis with Advanced Heat Recovery


One of the important attractions at the Science Museum of Minnesota is hidden away deep in the interior of the building. Yet people still find it interesting and inspiring. Last year more than 200 engineers, building operation managers, environmental activists and other curious folk descended into the museum’s cavernous first floor mechanical room to witness a breakthrough technology that helps curb climate change while saving money and promoting green jobs.

At first glance, it’s not all that impressive. The Advanced Heat Recovery (AHR) system resembles a backyard grill crossed with a water heater, decked out with an enormous fuse box and pipes running here and there. It looks like something that might win top honors at a high school science fair for cooking 400 hot dogs at once.

What’s impressive is that it prevents about 1.8 million pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere each year, cutting the museum’s carbon footprint by 16 percent. This is significant in the fight against climate change, stresses Patrick Hamilton, the museum’s Director of Global Change Initiatives, because buildings account for one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

While grants covered the cost of the Science Museum project, Hamilton estimated that the system otherwise would have paid for itself in three years.

“We love that,” he said, “because it means we have $293,000 that can be redirected to the scientific and educational mission of the museum rather than to paying utility bills.”

What is Heat Recovery?

So, what’s the amazing technology that accomplishes all this? Two heat recovery chillers (think of very large versions of the heat pump in your refrigerator) capture excess heat produced by the museum’s lighting, electrical, and mechanical systems, which then is used to warm the building during colder months. The result is lower energy use, and that translates immediately into plummeting CO2 emissions and smaller heat bills.

Hamilton points out that the museum’s heating costs are down 65 percent since the AHR system became operational in March 2015. For instance, on a 4-degree Fahrenheit February morning, the museum was purchasing no heat from a local utility.

Here’s how it works. Heat generated by all the electricity used by the museum’s computer servers, elevator motors, telephone switching equipment and other big electricity loads is piped into the two heat recovery chillers, rather than being rejected to the outside, as is standard procedure in most commercial buildings.

Inside the chillers, compressors step up the heat energy to produce 115-degree water, which then is used to warm incoming fresh, cold winter air and circulated through radiators along the building’s extremities. It makes no sense at all for the Science Museum to purchase energy to heat the building while at the same time it discharges hot air to the outside.

“You don’t throw your aluminum in the garbage at home. You recycle it. So, you should recycle the heat in your building instead of throwing it away,” explains Matt Presser, account manager at Ingersoll-Rand, which manufactures the Trane chillers used at the Science Museum.

The museum embarked on this Advanced Heat Recovery project as part of its education mission. “This project proves you can save money and help protect the climate at the same time,” Hamilton declares.

“What was learned at the museum is that any building over 100,000 square feet can use this technology,” Spresser adds. “It’s a no-brainer for energy savings.” Regions Hospital in St. Paul, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Minneapolis College of Art & Design have all approached the Science Museum seeking more information about AHR.

Another AHR success story is the Evansville State Hospital in Indiana, where installation of heat recovery chillers manufactured by the Multistack firm reduced heating bills so dramatically the local gas utility sent out a technician to see if the meter was broken, according to Mark Platt, a manager for Trane speaking at a Science Museum green energy event.

“Ninety percent of commercial buildings could employ Advanced Heat Recovery systems right now — it’s a lost opportunity,” observes longtime energy consultant Dave Solberg, who helped pioneer the application of this technology at a Minnesota food processing plant and semiconductor factories and solar power equipment in Asia.

In Solberg’s experience, building a new facility with AHR provides even more savings on operating costs than doing a retrofit like at the Science Museum. And AHR also substantially saves on construction costs by reducing the need for expensive heating, cooling and ventilation equipment and infrastructure, says Solberg, who recently joined Ingersoll-Rand.

AHR technology shows tremendous potential across the country for use in large facilities like office buildings, hospitals, factories, college campuses, schools, hotels, convention centers, sports venues, health clubs, houses of worship, museums and malls. In New York City, according to the New York Times, 67 percent of all greenhouse emissions are caused by buildings, prompting the city to initiate legislation in April mandating reductions.

More stringent requirements on energy conservation in Minnesota, New York City and other places could heighten the building industry’s interest in AHR, predicts Richard Strong, Research Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Sustainable Building Research.

Solberg calculates that 75 percent of energy use and costs for heating could be eliminated in commercial, health care and residential buildings through AHR, even in the frosty Midwest.  He points to a new health club in Edina, Minnesota, which is already saving on construction costs and projected to see 50 percent lower operating costs.

Applying this Breakthrough Technology to Your Home

Hamilton is also tracking progress on applying AHR technology to reduce individual households’ energy use. “The same AHR principles can work in your home,” he says. “The water heater could be used for dehumidification while also producing hot water, and warm air from the clothes dryer that is now vented outside could be used to heat the basement or house. Water heaters with heat pumps can extract heat energy from the ambient air surrounding them and transfer that heat to the water inside the tank, while causing water vapor to condense, get collected and directed to a drain.”

With all these advantages, why haven’t Advanced Heat Recovery systems become more prevalent in the US, especially at a time when the effects of climate change are becoming ever more apparent?  The technology has been a common feature of large buildings in Europe and Japan over the past 15 years.

Solberg cites the familiar challenge that bedevils many innovative green initiatives — “upfront costs,” which may cause sticker shock even though the projects save lots of money over the long run. Spresser adds that many construction companies and clients still don’t consider it as a practical solution. “People believe it’s a lot more complicated than it really is.”

Birth of a Breakthrough

The Science Museum’s quest to become the first non-industrial facility in the Twin Cities’ region to adopt an AHR system began the day Scott Getty, who handled the museum’s electricity account with Xcel Energy, called up Hamilton in August 2008 with a big idea. “Let’s make the Science Museum an exhibit in itself about energy efficiency,” Getty remembers telling him.

The Science Museum went forward with the idea, using financial support from Xcel Energy to contract with Solberg to conduct a thorough energy audit of the museum in summer 2010.

Solberg is an internationally known expert on “exergy” — which sounds like the name of a techno-rock band or science fiction trilogy, but actually is the science of matching the energy you need to the energy you use. He’s worked for both the US Department of Energy and the Paris-based International Energy Agency looking at ways to go farther than simply improving the energy efficiency of individual elements in a building’s operation by studying how all the elements work together to achieve even bigger gains.

“It’s a more holistic approach,” he notes. “Too often, people put the heating systems, cooling systems and lighting systems each in their own little silo, instead of putting them all together.”  Advanced Heat Recovery technology is one of the most common forms of exergy in practice today.

Solberg reported back in fall 2010 that electricity coursing through the Science Museum degrades into heat energy amounting to more than 20 billion BTUs annually, to which Hamilton replied, “Gee, Dave that sounds like really big number.” So, Hamilton translated that figure into an example anyone could understand. Although comprising just one building, the Science Museum’s electricity use at the time was equivalent to all 300 houses covering 18 blocks in St. Paul.

Then Solberg asked a pointed question. “You are throwing that energy away and then you are buying an enormous amount of heat energy. Why?” Hamilton paused a moment before answering, “Well, because no one ever laid it out to the museum in those terms before.”

With gifts from Target, Ecolab and Wells Fargo and a low-interest loan from the Saint Paul Port Authority, the museum began its groundbreaking energy retrofit in fall 2013.

As the work started, Hamilton noticed another obvious benefit of AHR — good-paying local green jobs. “I was impressed by the large number of skilled tradespeople coming through this building over the course of 18-months to work on the project — electricians, pipefitters, software technicians, riggers, concrete workers and truck drivers.” As well as factory workers at the Trane plant where heat recovery chillers are manufactured in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

“There are enormous economic and employment opportunities in addressing climate change,” Hamilton explains.

The success of the AHR project has spurred the Science Museum to adopt other green measures to boost the environment, save money and inspire other building owners to do the same. These include:

• An ongoing upgrade that will eventually convert all museum lights to energy-saving LED technology.

• A thorough audit of water use was done last year, and now is being studied.

• The replacement of controls on the building’s ventilation system to improve efficiency.

• Purchasing electricity from a new solar garden.

Hamilton said “we’ve been able to help pay for these energy efficiency improvements with the money we’ve saved with our Advanced Heat Recovery system.”

“Imagine the enormous economic, employment and environmental benefits that could be realized if energy-efficient buildings were not rare but commonplace in the US," he said.

Jay Walljasper — author of The Great Neighborhood Book — writes and speaks about widely about creating a greener world. He is also an urban writer-in-residence at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. Connect with Jay at and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Upcycling and Using Urbanite


Chances are good that at this moment, close to wherever you live, there’s a pile of broken up concrete just waiting for a good home.  Most often it started life as a sidewalk, driveway or parking area but was recently demolished and is now waiting to be carted off to the landfill.  We call this material, “Urbanite” and love working with it.

New concrete is pricey and has a big environmental footprint (high embodied energy) what with all the mining and the heating involved to make Portland cement as well as its transport in big rigs. Therefore, urbanite is a good alternative for many projects.  In this article I’ll share some tips and uses of this abundant, free, salvageable urban waste material.  At our urban homestead I’ve used it for the bases of cob walls, foundations of earthen (cob) ovens, borders for our gardens and for our little front yard pond, paths, and as a parking surface.  We use it regularly as stem walls on cob buildings, too.

Finding Urbanite

Mostly I’ll see a pile somewhere in my travels around town and, if I’ve got a hankering for some, I’ll check it out and maybe come back with the truck to haul it home.  Everyone (no exceptions!) is overjoyed to get rid of busted, heavy old concrete instead of lugging it to the dump and paying to dispose of it.  Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are also great options.  Search for “concrete."

Using Urbanite 

General Tips:

Be picky!  Don’t just take all of someone’s pile unless it’s good stuff that you know you’ll use.  Be clear and firm about that.  Use your confident voice. 

And...take extra.  It’s good to have a variety of sizes and shapes so you can have options for what goes where.  Hammers help with in making new shapes, too. 

This stuff’s heavy and as a man slowly and reluctantly approaching middle age I am not fond of moving heavy objects.  So, if the urbanite is too big to move around, I’ll tilt it up and let it crash down with the result that one heavy piece becomes two manageable pieces. However, depending on your project (maybe a parking or patio surface) large pieces may be very desirable so bring a burly young friend for help with those blocks. 

Look for chunks that are all the same thickness.  It’s a big pain and time suck to do just about anything with urbanite of varying thicknesses.  Trust me - don’t take it unless they’re real close to equal. 

Be aware of rebar and other metals poking out of the concrete.  Wear gloves as even the rocky edges can be sharp.  Keep that in mind when placing the urbanite - no one likes a bloodied shin.  

Usually there’ll be one smooth side (what was the top) and one lumpy (formerly the bottom) with 4”-6” thick lumpy and sometimes jagged sides where it was broken.  Consider what you’ll be doing with the chunks when you’re about to adopt them.  Some pieces are really just trash and you should leave those behind. 

Sometimes the smooth side will be painted and are you going for the painted urbanite look?


Cob Oven Foundations:  Make your base with an urbanite ring several feet high and then fill in the void with rubble, sand bags, old tv sets, new tv sets…I use cob as a mortar when needed to hold some of the more recalcitrant pieces together.  Regular mortar works, too, of course.

Paths: My friend Larry has the best urbanite paths I’ve ever seen.  He spent a lot of time (a lot of time!) leveling the hunks by digging out the ground underneath and then filling with sand for a base as needed  (he used urbanite of varying thicknesses, tsk, tsk).  He also incorporated interesting and colorful rocks and detritus and then filled the gaps in with a little concrete mix that he broomed into place.  To summarize, instead of buying sterile-looking pavers at Home Depot or tons of concrete he’s made a beautiful, aged-looking and artistic garden path with minimal new inputs. Magnifico!  This all could be done for a larger patio, too. 

Note: Pay attention to the width of the gaps and be consistent - it looks better.  Also, mind how you place the triangular pieces with square pieces - blend them to create repeating patterns so the individual sections become an integrated whole. 

Earthen Landscape Wall Bases: The urbanite keeps the cob off the ground so it stays dry, is super solid, and looks sexy a couple/few courses high.

Pond Wall: It’s just a way to cover the liner and make some usable space for birds, plants, a little height...We mixed urbanite with big rocks we had laying around.  It’s good to bury some of the edge, too, when propping them upright.  Muy estable! 

Garden Retaining Wall:  It retains soil, it retains heat, it’s decorative and metro-chic!  Kathleen’s grapes (and vetch) thrive in front of her south-facing border wall.  No, not that border wall, just a garden wall.  The thermal mass helps ensure the plants don’t get damaged by one of our malevolent late spring frosts.  Eck, they’re so malevolent.  She did a great job artistically with the shapes, angles, heights, and double layers.  A gold star for her!  Buried edges, again.

Parking Surface: We’re building a “green” conventional home on a lot near our house and the city wanted another parking spot...alongside the other parking spot...behind the other two parking spots...which don’t count because of rules and stuff.  But it’s fine.  Really, I don’t mind the extra work or cost.  It’s fine.  In the plans we put down “permeable pavers” so rain could percolate into the ground instead of becoming runoff and what we’ve done is this:

• removed the topsoil
• leveled the subsoil surface
• laid down a weed barrier
• added a few inches of ¾” gravel
• placed the urbanite to level-ish
• added more gravel to fill in the gaps
• It’s coming out nice.  We can park things there.

That’s it!  I hope this article has turned you on to the possibilities of this oft-overlooked but abundant resource.  No more is that just a giant mound of rubble:  it’s now a giant mound of rubbly possibilities.  Yee-haw! 

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Straw Bale House in the City, Part 3: Costs and Straw Bale Density


If you have not read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I recommend that you read both of those parts including, watching the video of our straw bale mock up in Part 2.

I had a somber tone as we drove back from the hay lady Laurie’s barn full of straw. I couldn’t believe that we had went to a completely different supplier and found exactly the same density straw bale. I used my phone to search for dense straw bale suppliers and found only one supplier out of New York. I wasn’t sure what to tell the developer, who so badly wanted us to build a straw bale house for her company. I hadn’t been able to locate a third party engineer to work with us during construction of the straw bale house, nor had I been able to find straw bales dense enough to meet code.

As we drove back to our Farm, Bob and I started discussing how a straw bale would have to be made in order for the straw bale to meet the building code for density. I reviewed the Michigan Residential Building Code Book’s section on straw bale construction and under the section labeled “Density”, it read:

Bales shall have a dry density of not less than 6.5 pounds per cubic foot. The dry density shall be calculated by subtracting the weight of moisture in pounds from the actual bale weight and dividing by the volume of the bale. Not less than 2 percent and not less than five bales to be used shall be randomly selected and tested on site. (2015 Michigan Residential Code, Page 840, Section AS103.5 Density)

At first glance, the way that the code is worded seems confusing; however, the formula is relatively simple once you understand how the formula works. Below is an actual entry from the notes that we gathered as we tested our straw bales during the mock up:

Straw Bale #3

Moisture Content of Bale: 13.8%

Weight of Straw Bale: 26 lbs

Dimension of Straw Bale: 35 inches by 19 inches by 13 inches

Volume of the Straw Bale: 35 inches by 19 inches by 13 inches = 8,645 cubic inches

Convert cubic inches to cubic feet: 8,645 / 1728 = 5.002 cubic Feet

Weight of moisture in pounds:  26 pounds – 13.8% = 22.412 pounds

 26 – 22.412 = 3.588 pounds of moisture

To get our pounds per cubic foot number, we follow the formula in the code:

Actual Bale Weight 26 pounds – Pounds of Moisture 3.588 = 22.412 pounds

22.412 / Volume of Bale 5.002 = 4.48

The code requires this number to be at least 6.5!

Have I lost you yet? Take a moment to look these numbers over again so that you can understand how the code instructs us to calculate the density of the straw bales. This formula can make or break your project, and it is very important for you to put testing density of the straw bales that you are going to use at the top of your list of priorities.

We will discuss finding dense enough straw bales shortly, for now, let’s see if it is possible to create a bale that is dense enough to meet code.

The hay lady Laurie kept referring to her straw bales as “Three Dollar Bales”. What does this mean? Laurie told us that the straw that goes through the auction has to compete with other straw from other farmers, so the straw bales will all be baled close to the same way and cost $3.00. The machines that bale hay and straw can be adjusted to make denser bales if the farmer chooses to.

Bob and I started to discuss what we would have to do to take a three dollar bale and compress it to where the bale would meet the code for density. We can manipulate any or all of the numbers in the formula that we used above to help us determine what a bale of straw would need to measure and weigh in order to meet the code for density.

After Bob did that math, he noted that we would have to compress our bales from 35 inches in length down to 21 inches in length in order to get our numbers to come out to the 6.5 pounds per cubic foot number.

I finally sent the developer an email stating that we could not find dense enough straw bales for her project. She responded with a message that said that she has been emailing back and forth with a professor from the University of Michigan who had built a straw bale house with his students. She said that she would ask him where he got their straw bales and maybe we could use his source and get dense enough straw bales through them. I eagerly awaited the professor’s response; maybe we could build this straw bale house after all!

The response that she got from the professor left me scratching my head. The professor responded to the developer’s email by saying, “I used pretty bad bales on our house actually – they came from farmer next door – I didn’t worry too much since I compressed my walls….”

I have not researched this professor nor have I researched his project but I can say that knowing that an average straw bale would need to be compressed from 35 inches down to 21 inches in length leaves me with a few questions about the professor’s project.

The compression would have to come from the ends of the bale, pushing the straw together (this is how the baler machine compresses straw into bales then ties it), as opposed to the top where the compression would be pushing down on the bales. The professor compressed the bales from the top side from what I was told and I question if he was able to create dense enough bales using this method. Maybe they could, but verifying the density of the bale, as required by code, would not be possible while the bale is compressed in the wall assembly.

In conclusion, I feel that it is important to mention again, that the very first thing that a person should do if they are getting serious about wanting to build a straw bale house, is to check local and regional sources for dense enough straw bales.

The best option would be for a person to locate a farmer that bales straw and talk to that farmer well before straw is baled to see if the farmer will make a specific density bale for a straw bale house.

If you can’t find a local farmer who will work with you, you may be able to find a company that will ship you dense enough straw bales from some other part of the country. In either case, you should figure $9.00-$15.00 per bale plus shipping when you are figuring out the cost of straw bales for your project. That is considerably more than the $3.00 per bale figure that we were told.

Best of luck to you if you decide to build a straw bale house!

If you have any questions about straw bale houses, working with inspectors or any other questions or comments, email Adam at:

Adam D. Bearup is a designer, green builder and farmer, who learned about biodynamic and regenerative farming for a project he built in Northern Michigan, The Earth Shelter Project Michigan. Adam has degrees in marketing and management and a Masters of Science in Green Building. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

6 Green Home Upgrades That Can Save You Money

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Modern living has a significant impact on the environment, so it’s important to look for opportunities to decrease energy consumption by making your home “green.” Whether you’re going for a complete remodel or simply doing a few upgrades, going green can help your home consume fewer resources and improve its efficiency.

Going green used to mean high upfront costs, and the promise of reduced energy and water bills often wasn’t enough for homeowners to take the plunge. Today, thanks to improved technology, tax incentives, and utility rebates, going green doesn’t need to break the bank. We’ll look at some of the best ways to get great deals on your renovations and upgrades, so you can help save the planet while you’re saving money.

Get a Free Home Energy Audit

A home energy audit shows you what upgrades will have the most impact. A professional will evaluate your entire home to determine how much energy it uses, where it’s losing energy, and where to prioritize the fixes that will make it more efficient. These audits can cost upwards of $250, but many utility companies offer them for free, so check with your local energy company.

Insulate and Get a Tax Rebate

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Your energy audit might reveal that you need more (or better) insulation. According to the Department of Energy (DOE), of the $2,000 the average American household spends annually on energy, $200 to $400 goes to waste through drafts, air leaks, and poor insulation. New windows and doors will save you the most energy (according to the DOE, storm windows alone reduce energy loss through windows by up to 50%), but they are a pricey fix. If that’s not in the budget, consider adding regular insulation in the attic—it doesn’t cost a fortune and qualifies for a 10% federal tax credit.

Smarten Up Your HVAC With a Smart Thermostat

Installing a WiFi-connected smart thermostat has been shown to save hundreds of dollars a year, easily paying for one of the higher-end options, like a Nest or Ecobee, in a couple of years. You can save even more by buying a cheaper device from a reputable company, such as Honeywell.

Smart thermostats use your phone’s location to determine when you’re not at home and adjust the temperature accordingly. While cheaper options lack some of the advanced features of the higher-end models, they will still save you energy when used correctly. Check with your local energy company to see if they offer rebates for installing one—many do, and some will even give you a smart thermostat for free.

Water Wisely to Save Dollars

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EPA WaterSense-certified smart irrigation controllers can save you a bundle on your water bill by using weather-based smart technology to avoid watering your lawn before, during, or after a rainstorm. These devices often cost upwards of $200—look for rebates through your local water company to cover some, if not all, of the cost.

Control Your Lighting for Less

Smart LED lightbulbs connect to your smart device, allowing you to set your lights on a schedule and control them remotely. The savings add up—each bulb can save you up to $25 a year in energy costs. A great way to save even more money is to look for coupons from big box stores that offer 10% or 20% off your purchase, and buy your bulbs in bulk.

Use Online Coupons to Upgrade to Energy-Efficient Appliances

Home upgrades 4

When making a large purchase, such as a new Energy Star-rated refrigerator or washer and dryer set, online coupons are an excellent resource to utilize.  According to, replacing your old fridge with a new Energy Star appliance can save up to $300 in energy costs over five years, while replacing an old washing machine with an Energy Star washer will use up to 33% less water and 5% less energy.

New appliances aren’t cheap, and the best way to get a deal is to look for coupons online.  Many reputable sites work directly with retailers and manufacturers to offer limited-time deals.

Going green might seem like a considerable expense, but it can be affordable if you know where to look for the best deals and savings. A green home can save you money in the long run and help the environment by cutting down on your energy consumption.

Jennifer Pattinson Tuohy is an award-winning freelance journalist with 15 years’ experience writing for newspapers, magazines, and online publications. She covers green living and shopping tips for Groupon. You can find savings on appliances and more on Groupon’s Sears page here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Straw Bale House in the City, Part 2: Building a Test Wall


Part 1 of this series outlines the author's issues building straw bale construction to city code.

I had mixed feelings after my conversation with the building inspector. As I worked on our current job sites for the next few days, I continued to make phone calls and send emails to various engineering companies, in search of a company that was comfortable being the third party inspector on a straw bale house project. Not one of the companies returned my call or email.

I reached out to the building inspector to let him know that I was not yet successful to get an engineering company to return my calls or emails and he said, “Well, the building permit is here and ready for you to pick up when you find a place to help you out.” I informed the developer of this and she asked, “Well, did you pick up the building permit?” To which I replied, “No, it’s a waste of money to go pick it up without having an engineer, we need a plan B.”

The developer wanted to further discuss with the building inspector his requirements for inspections, as to make sure there was not an oversight.  She found out for herself that the inspection department has the right to require the third party inspections. Furthermore, she was able to call out the inspection department on their requirement that the engineers be licensed in straw bale inspections, which to her knowledge did not exist. Yes, this would make it impossible to carry on with such a project, as there is not a single engineer or inspector that exists which would comply with the requirements of the inspector.

I started to think about past projects and how many times, those projects became extremely difficult because I would get a thought in my head that we could succeed no matter what. Time and time again, I would find myself saying, “How did I get myself into this?” I couldn’t take that path again, so I started to reflect about what options I had as the builder.

My first thought was that I could step away from the project. This option would mean that all of my efforts to that point would have been with no compensation but I had learned a wealth of information and could stomach the loss. My second thought was that we could find an engineer that would help us and that we could move forward with the project. I was trying to keep the positivity, but my mind kept coming back to the low budget that we had. We barely had the funds to build the house as is, let alone involving a third party inspector who would likely cost a small fortune.

My final option was to try to figure out why the inspection department was so adamant about involving the engineer as the third party inspector. I called the building inspector once again to better understand his unforgiving requirements, and in our conversation, he said, “Well, if you had built this way before, we would be more comfortable that things would be ok.” At that moment, the thought of building a mock-up straw bale wall popped into my head.

Building a mock-up would be a chance to build with straw bale prior to being on a job site, and eliminate any unforeseen issues. Inevitably, something always goes wrong on a job site when working with new materials and processes. My hopes were that we could coax the problems out of the process inside of our family barn, a.k.a. ‘The Laboratory’, instead of on the job site and earn the approval from the inspector to carry on with our straw bale build.

I dove head first into the mock-up idea. I went to our local feed store and bought thirty bales of straw. I was reluctant to do this at first because I was about to spend more of our own money to see if this process was worth pursuing. I chose thirty for straw bales because that was the number of bales that we needed to go eight feet high and fit between the support posts in our area of the barn that I call the Laboratory. My next stop was to a big box store to get the other items that we needed to build a straw bale wall and corner to code. I had everything we needed and thought that we could find the sill plates and other items around the Farm; after all, I am a builder and had plenty of lumber and miscellaneous reusable parts on hand.

I decided that we would build the straw bale wall and corner exactly like we would build the walls on site. That meant fastening the plates to the concrete floor, drilling in rebar pins, and laying out pea gravel before we set any straw bales. We built a window opening so that we could be sure of how to surround the windows and cut the straw bales. As we set each bale, we tied them up as we needed to and added the pins as we went. I was excited to see this go up with relative ease, although, in my mind I kept saying, “Ok, where is it, where is the problem? This is too easy, something has to present itself.”

Bob and I were building the mock-up wall when I looked up and he was gone after running the chainsaw to cut a straw bale. I thought, "Oh no, I hope he didn’t get himself with the saw.” So I went into the workshop and I found him safe and cleaning the chainsaw. He said that he was amazed at how loose the bales were and that the lose straw was binding up the chain on the saw. We didn’t think much about it and we went back to work.

This entire time, we worked as researchers, so we continuously asked each other, “How did that go, what did you learn, is there a better way to do that?” We didn’t use the Internet for information unless absolutely necessary so that we could try to recreate an actual job site environment and create our own solutions to any problems that we might encounter.

We were about three courses high when we decided to open the code book to look up something. While we were flipping the pages in the Straw Bale section of the code book, we noticed something that would change our minds and stop us in our tracks. To find out what that was, watch the video that was created from this straw bale wall mock-up.


Adam D. Bearup is a designer, green builder and farmer, who learned about biodynamic and regenerative farming for a project he built in Northern Michigan, The Earth Shelter Project MichiganAdam has degrees in marketing and management and a Masters of Science in Green Building. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Are Cracks in Walls Normal? How to Tell an Eyesore From Real Danger


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A crack in your wall isn't always an indication of structural damage. Many cracks are perfectly natural and the result of your house "settling" — no reason for concern. At the same time, a crack can signify a complication you have to immediately address, like the collapse of wood members or shifting in the foundation.

So how do you tell the difference between a benign crack and a more serious issue? How do you know when an unsightly line is a real danger — or just an eyesore? When you have informed understanding of the warning signs, you'll have a far better idea of how to handle this type of problem in the future.

With that in mind, we'll walk you through everything you need to know about the cracks in your walls. As long as you're aware of some of the common indicators of damage — and follow the suggestions below — your home will remain structurally sound and safe for you and your family.

When Cracks Are Harmless

As mentioned earlier, a crack in your wall isn't always a sign of structural damage. It's often the result of "settling," which usually happens with a newer house. The lumber contains a high level of moisture and moves slightly as it dries, creating small cracks which are unattractive, but ultimately harmless.

When you come across these cracks, it's advisable to wait a year after the completion of the home to tend to them, as the lumber needs to dry. Once you've given your home the necessary time to adjust, you can remedy the cracks by re-taping the joints, which are the seams where the drywall panels meet.

Concerning the location of the cracks, you'll normally see them over doors and windows. This is due to the vertical studs involved in the construction of walls, which a builder has to cut for an opening. Beyond doors and windows, benign cracks also appear across walls and the doorways themselves.

Of course, "settling" isn't always the issue. If you leave your home empty for months at a time, the lack of climate control could cause a problem. Cracks can also come from faulty taping with drywall panels and even leaks, so make sure to inspect the line closely before you make an attempt at repair.

When Cracks Are Dangerous

If the cracks are large, jagged or diagonal, you may have a structural problem. These kinds of cracks will occur when a foundation has shifted or sunk, so they demand your immediate attention. You should also check for a potential termite infestation, and determine the status of your supporting wood members.

As a general rule, cracks which are wider than a quarter-inch warrant a review. When the crack is no longer a line, but a serious fissure, you should bring in a reputable builder or structural engineer to inspect your home. They'll provide guidance on how to address the crack and what steps to take as you continue.

That said, every situation is different. You'll benefit from studying the different types of wall cracks and what they mean to fully educate yourself on what you should and shouldn't worry over. A crack which may seem ominous at first isn't always a problem, so it's best not to jump to any conclusions without research.

Regardless, it's usually a smart idea to consult a professional about the structural integrity of your home if you suspect an issue which may compromise your safety. Even if the cracks aren't alarming, a natural disaster could exacerbate the defects your home already has, or reveal defects you weren't aware of.

How to Proceed

When homeowners notice an unsightly crack in their wall, they'll often turn to spackle. In truth, spackle is a short-term solution which doesn't provide the same reinforced surface coverage as re-taping. Unless you go through the process of re-taping the joints, you'll likely have to fix the problem again.

As for large, jagged or diagonal cracks, reach out to an engineer and have them review your home. You'll feel far more comfortable knowing the cracks in your walls are accounted for — if they were ever a danger at all. As you move forward, evaluate your options and start planning your repairs today.

Kayla Matthews writes and blogs about healthy living, sustainable consumption, eco-friendly practices and green energy. In the past, her work has also been featured on Grit, Mother Earth Living, Blue And Green Tomorrow, Dwell and Houzz. To read more from Kayla, follow her productivity and lifestyle blog: Productivity Theory.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

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