Eco-Experts: Cleaning Stainless Steel, The Pros and Cons of Photovoltaic Panels and Energy-Efficient Refrigerators

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Dan Chiras

Cleaning stainless steel

I am writing to inquire whether you know of a natural way to clean stainless steel appliances. I am concerned that the cleansers available will leave residue on the appliances that is harmful to my one-year-old daughter.

–Linda Sheehan, via e-mail

Beth Scott replies:

Cleaning stainless steel can seem like an endless task as its smooth reflective surface shows oily fingerprints and dust, and also scratches easily. Stainless steel is an alloy of iron and contains more than 10 percent chromium. The chromium in the alloy is used to form the hard oxide coating on the surface, and if this is taken off, through corrosion or wear, the steel will rust like regular steel. For this reason it is better not to use cleaners with harsh abrasives, as they will scratch the surface.

Most commercial cleaning products contain harsh chemicals that are harmful to you during application. Homemade products may take a little more time for preparation, but they’re inexpensive and effective and are nontoxic as long as you don’t ingest them. They are better for your family and for the environment. A little club soda, vinegar, baking soda, and water can solve a multitude of household problems from pet stains to cleaning drains.

Never use scouring powders or steel wool, as they will scratch stainless steel. A gentle way to wash and polish your stainless steel sink is with a solution of natural, nontoxic liquid dish soap and water or a solution of baking soda and water. Use a cloth dipped in vinegar, sprinkle baking soda on the cloth, rub gently, then rinse. Finish by polishing dry with a soft cloth.

We found some natural, non-abrasive cleaning solutions for stainless steel appliances and utensils on To clean and polish stainless steel, the site suggests using a moist soft cloth with undiluted white or cider vinegar, then wiping clean. Club soda can be used to remove streaks or heat stains, and olive oil can be used on stainless steel sinks to remove streaks.

The Nontoxic Home and Office, by Debra Lynn Dadd (J.P. Archer, 1992) is a good resource for alternatives to chemical household products. There are also many natural cleaning solutions sold at organic grocery stores.

BETH SCOTT is a part of Associates III, a firm that provides custom interior design services to residential and hospitality clients. The firm collaborates closely with clients, architects, developers, and contractors to provide research, design, and specifications for architectural fixed finishes as well as design and procurement of turnkey furnishings. Associates III works with like-minded teams within an earth friendly design philosophy and actively seeks projects in which it can specify healthy, sustaining designs.

Pros and cons of photovoltaic panels

My husband and I have put off installing photovoltaic panels until we can determine the ecological cost of the production of the panels. We have read that the cost to the environment to produce these panels in terms of energy used and waste created is greater than the energy that would be saved over the life of the panels. Is this simply misinformation or true for now but a necessary step in the process of restructuring a global energy program?

–Sherry Luna, via e-mail

Dan Chiras replies:

Although some critics of solar electricity claim that considerably more energy is required to manufacture photovoltaic (PV) modules than they produce over their lifetime, several rigorous scientific studies reveal this claim to be unfounded.

In a recent report published in Home Power magazine, for example, Karl Knapp and Theresa Jester note that two types of PVs manufactured by Siemens “recoup their production energy in two to four years and go on to produce clean, renewable energy for twenty to thirty years or more.” A number of other studies report similar results.

Years of pollution-free energy production eliminate carbon dioxide emissions and global warming associated with conventional electrical production, mostly from coal-fired power plants. This solar energy also eliminates particulates, including heavy metals and chemical pollutants, which contribute to acid rain and snow.

Critics point out that the PV industry uses potentially toxic chemicals, including solvents, toxic or explosive gases, and potentially harmful dust. While this is true, the main pollution hazard is not to the general public or to the environment, but to workers. Again, there’s good news. According to NREL, PV manufacturers monitor production facilities and install state-of-the-art pollution controls to minimize worker exposure so that risks are far lower than in most major industries.

PVs make good sense from many perspectives, including economics. In areas with high electricity rates, in remote locations (even when a new home is being built within view of power lines), and in states with generous incentives for renewable energy, PVs are an affordable alternative to conventional electricity. They help create greater self-reliance and reduce our vulnerability to terrorism.

Finally, when installing PVs, first make your home as energy efficient as possible. By using electricity efficiently, you can easily cut electrical demand by half–and reduce the size of the system you will need, saving $10,000 to $20,000 on initial costs.

DAN CHIRAS is the author of the best-selling The Natural House: A Complete Guide to Healthy, Energy Efficient, Environmental Homes (Chelsea Green, 2000) and The Solar House: Passive Heating and Cooling (Chelsea Green, 2002). He lives in a passive and active solar electric home made from environmentally friendly materials in Evergreen, Colorado, frequently writes for Natural Home, The Last Straw, Mother Earth News, and Solar Today, and speaks widely on green building and renewable energy. Dan offers workshops on passive solar heating and cooling and natural building.

A quiet, energy-efficient refrigerator

The other night as I tried to fall asleep, I was puzzled and irritated by a heavy humming sound. It turns out that it was our refrigerator. I don’t notice it as much in the day with other noise and activity around, but at night it becomes very apparent just how beastly our fridge is. Do solar fridges make less noise than “regular” electric ones? Can you recommend an energy efficient refrigerator that also passes the noise pollution test with flying colors?

–Stephanie Aykroyd, Rosseau, Ontario, Canada

Debra Lynn Dadd replies:

You want a Sun Frost. Because of its exceptionally low energy consumption, it is a favorite for those whose homes are powered by the sun, but the company also offers models that run on standard household electric current.

Unlike other refrigerators, the Sun Frost’s cooling system is top mounted, reducing energy consumption by about 80 percent. And the refrigerators have no hum at all. Condensers are cooled with either a quiet, highly efficient fan or passively. Because of the efficient design, the compressors are much smaller and therefore produce less noise.

Sun Frosts also save money on summer cooling bills. During the summer, the energy needed by your air conditioner to remove excess heat generated by your refrigerator is about half the energy consumed by your refrigerator, increasing the cost of running your refrigerator by 50 percent.

Sun Frost refrigerators keep food fresher by maintaining high humidity. With less water loss, food often lasts two to three times longer than in conventional refrigerators. Each Sun Frost refrigerator is custom built. For more information, contact Sun Frost.

DEBRA LYNN DADD is an internationally known expert on healthy home environments and author of Home, Safe Home (Putnam, 1997).