Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Chair Saver - Update

Back in July of 2013 I wrote this blog entry about The Chair Saver Kit. It has been one of my most popular entries. Unfortunately, shortly after posting that blog I started having problems. Eventually the Chair Saver was no longer helping at all, so I had to abandon it.

My current office chair, which I've had for nine years, started sinking recently. I considered the options and decided to give The Chair Saver another shot. I ordered it earlier in the week and it arrived yesterday. I installed it this morning and so far things are looking good.

The kit has changed since the one I bought in 2013. The original kit consisted of four one inch rings and one half inch ring, allowing adjustments between one half and four and a half inches. The new kit contains only three rings, one each in two inch, one and a half inch, and one inch sizes. The max height works out the same, but  there is a bit less overall flexibility in the adjustments. My chair required the maximum height, though, so that was fine for me. The new kit also seems to be made of strong plastic than the old one, which makes me optimistic.

The chair onto which I installed the kit seems better suited than the last one I tried it on. The plastic cylinder cover on this one was able to be pulled down, exposing the entire cylinder. This made it not only easier to install the rings, but also much easier to securely wrap everything with duct tape once I finished. This was a step I had missed originally the last time, but was recommended for users above a certain weight. By completing this step from the start I am hopeful it will make a difference.

I plan to regularly update this blog entry as time passes to share my perception of the product as I gain experience with it. So far I'm pleased, but the same initially true with my previous use of the product.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Thoughts on Zero Waste Grocery Stores

I recently read an article about a zero waste grocery store in Berlin called Original Unverpact. I really loved the idea so decided to write about it.

The idea behind the grocery store is that the only things that would be packaged, such as some liquids, would be packed in reusable containers with a deposit fee to encourage shoppers to return them to the store. For everything else shoppers would need to provide their own containers, which they could fill from bins containing the various items.

Perhaps I'm so interested in the idea because we already do some of our shopping in this way. We purchase several items from the bulk food section of the Good Foods Market, using glass jars as containers. This works out wonderfully for us.

As I see it there are many advantages to a zero waste grocery store.

First, buying from bulk food bins allows the customer to buy exactly as much as he/she wants. If you need a lot, just take a larger container. No more needing to buy multiple packages of the same item. If you need just a little or want to try something, get as little as  you need. No more buying more than you want because that is how the item is packaged. No more paying more because you bought the smallest package, which has a higher per unit price.

Second, it is entirely possible to use the same containers both in the store and at home. Instead of getting home from the grocery store and opening packages so the contents can be transferred to a storage container, why not just take the storage container to the store? We use various sizes of glass jars, depending on the items. These work just as well for storing the items as they do for transporting the items home from the store.

Third, this sort of store could work very well within a local foods movement, especially in allowing smaller producers to get their products into the store. One issue facing small businesses is that many grocery stores only want to buy large quantities of an item, rather than buying smaller quantities from multiple sources. In some cases this requires a third party be added to the system to purchase smaller quantities from multiple sources, then combine and package those and sell them to the retailer. This is not only inefficient, but negatively impacts the profits of both the producer and the seller, as those now have to be shared with a middle man. A zero waste store, however, could easily purchase smaller quantities of items from various producers and combine them into one bin.

Fourth, and somewhat related to the above, would be the movement away from "brands" within the grocery store. This also removes the need for brands to compete with other products on the shelves, so no fancy packaging (which wouldn't exist anyway in the store) and no in-store advertising. In fact, if the zero waste model became the norm it could put an end to the advertising for almost all foods, which would have many benefits.

Fifth, a zero waste store could, and should, change the way we approach shopping. Rather than just quickly going through a store grabbing packages of products we would be forced to slow down. While this may be viewed by some as a negative, I consider it a positive change. I believe it is worthwhile to slow down and really think about each thing that we buy. Our purchases should be meaningful, and this is especially true for food.

Obviously, in addition to the benefits I've listed, there is the big benefit of reduced packaging ending up in the landfill. That is the primary purpose behind the idea of a zero waste store, although I think the other benefits could be just as important.

I'd like to see the zero-waste concept applied to all types of stores, not just grocery stores. It could easily be applied in department stores for most types of products. The benefits in other types of stores might be different than those for grocery stores, but I still believe the concept could work. We just need for someone in the US to prove it can be done by opening such a store.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Shampoo-Free Update - 1 Week

It has been one week since I stopped using shampoo on my hair. I thought it would be a good time to write a quick update about the experience. Really, though, there isn't a lot to say.

I've continued with the same process of using only water on my hair. At this point I have no regrets, although much too little time has past to make any sort of judgement. When I'm rinsing my hair it feels quite different, which I suspect is because it still has natural oil, rather than in the past when I would have stripped them away with shampoo. I'm told that it looks the same as before, and there is no waxy building yet.

If this works like I hope it will there will be several advantages. I'll keep my fingers crossed and provide more updates along the way.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Initial 2015 Garden Planning

Planning for this year's garden is well underway. We spent most of  yesterday filling in details on the plan I had started previously. Jen and I also spent a couple of hours laying out additional beds in the garden.

We currently have six permanent garden beds laid out. Each bed is 30 feet long, and has room for two or three rows, depending on the crop. With just a bit of work I can make room for three more beds. There is also room for two or three shorter beds. Anything beyond that will require a bit more clearing, although should easily be within reach for this year's crop if needed.

As of now we have 21 different vegetables planned, many of which will have multiple varieties. We have 47 total varieties on the list at the moment, but I expect that to grow as Jen hasn't picked out Lettuce varieties yet.

I am in the process of determining when we should plant everything, or start the seeds for those we'll start indoors. I'm also working on determining how much space we will need based on the quantities we plan to plant of each variety. My initial guess is that we will need to make room for at least a couple of additional beds beyond what I mentioned above.

This is a very ambitious garden for us. Not only will it be, by far, the largest we have ever planted, but it will include many items we have never grown before. I will do another post once the plan is finished.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Compost Pails in the Bathroom?

We recently decided to place a compost pail in each bathroom. You may be wondering why we would do that. Do we frequently eat or prepare food in the bathroom? No, of course not. These pails aren't for collecting food scraps. They are for the many other compostable items frequently found in a bathroom.

We put a variety of items into the bathroom compost.

Facial Tissue - During this time of year it is common for me to use multiple facial tissues in a day. I try to use handkerchiefs when I'm outside working, but when I'm indoors I'll frequently just grab a tissue from a convenient box. Andrea and Jen do the same. The result is that we were throwing away several tissues daily, which could easily be composted. You may wonder about spreading germs, and I'll admit that I've had this concern myself. The composting process should kill any germs, but I've still decided to continue throwing away tissues if/when one of us is sick, rather than just having a simple runny nose.

Toilet Paper - We do not add all toilet paper to the compost. Any that only has urine on it, though, does go into the compost, as does any used for nose-blowing, wiping eyes, etc. Since I'm already collecting urine and adding it to the compost I have no concerns about adding urine soaked toilet paper to the mix. If you are concerned about the smell, you can remedy that by using an air-tight container. The strong smell of stale urine is caused by exposure to air, so limiting this exposure should prevent any odor problems.

Cotton Balls, Swabs, etc - Things like cotton balls can also be added to the compost, along with cotton swabs, as long as the sticks are made of a material that will decompose.

Hair - Any hair that is collected while cleaning out combs and brushes is added to the compost. Additionally, when my hair or beard is trimmed I collect that hair and add it to the compost as well.

Nail Clippings, Dead Skin, etc - Other things such as nail clippings or dead skin can also be added to the compost.

Dust, lint, etc - Most of what is collected while sweeping can be added to the compost. Anything that will not decompose, such as plastics, can be picked out and thrown in the trash before dumping into the compost pail.

Toilet Paper Rolls, Paper Packaging, etc - I shred toilet paper rolls and paper packaging for mulch. However, those could just as easily be added to the compost for anyone not already using them for another purpose.

As you can see, there are plenty of items that can be collected from a bathroom and added to the compost. A small pail takes up little space, and once you start using it you will be surprised at the amount of waste you add to it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Straw Bale Cat House - Lessons Learned

As mentioned in my Straw Bale Cat House post we recently completed a temporary straw bale shelter for the cats. As also mentioned in that post I made a lot of mistakes and learned several lessons. So many, in fact, that I thought the topic warranted its own post.

Some of the mistakes were related to the design itself, while others happened during the build. So far it doesn't seem that any of the mistakes were fatal to the structure, but I'd certainly do things differently in the future.

My very first mistake was in not measuring the bales once I acquired them. In fact, I should probably have shopped around for the appropriate sized bales, but options were somewhat limited and I wanted to find something relatively close that was also cheap. If I were building a house or other permanent structure I would certainly take more care in selecting the bales. 

My design was based on "standard" two stringer bales, which one would expect to be 18" wide, 36" long, and 14" tall. The bales I ended up with, though, were more like 18x42x14. That significantly impacted my design as I had expected the bales to be half as wide as long, making alternating the courses work out evenly. I didn't realize the size difference until I was already stacking the bales. I should have stopped at that point and gone back to the drawing board. Instead, though, I continued, and just dealt with the gaps and odd overhangs as I encountered them. 

Another major mistake was building on a slight slope. Since the structure is temporary I didn't want to disturb the soil any more than I had to. Rather than trying to make the spot level I decided that I could use the slope to my advantage. I reoriented the structure so that the roof was running in the direction of the slope, giving me even more roof slope than my original design. I also reasoned that the slope would help carry water from the roof away from the base of the building.

If any mistake turns out to be a fatal flaw I think it will be this one. What I didn't expect, but should have, is that the slope caused the bales on the high side to shift. The wall on that side looks ridiculous  because it is so far from being straight. The problem is so bad that after leaving it for several days we found that when we returned to finish working on it the door was more narrow than we originally left it. I suspect that the shifting may not have been quite as bad if the door had been in a different location.

This leads to me my next mistake, which was not pinning more bales and/or courses. I had prepared a few pins in advance, which I planned to use for the half bales by the door. In hindsight I should have prepared many more and used them generously. I especially should have used more on the high side to help prevent it from leaning. I did put a few in once all courses of bales had been stacked, but it would have been better to thoroughly pin as I went. 

Not levelling each course of bales as I went was also a mistake. I should have taken the time to do this, as well as making sure each wall was plumb. I was in too big of a hurry to get the bales stacked, though, and so skipped an important step. I regretted doing this as soon as I started working on the roof and realized that my roof was going to be uneven. By this point I was unwilling to restack the bales to correct, so just dealt with it. I think it'll be fine for this structure, but not if I was installing a different type of roof covering.

The roof itself was designed to cover a 12' x 12' area, providing 18" of overhang on the ends and 9" of overhang on the sides. I planned for plenty of overhang to protect the bales from rain and snow so they can be reused in the Spring. The finished structure, though, was not the size I had planned because the bales were larger than expected. I should have redesigned the roof, based on the actual dimensions of the building. Instead, though, I went with the original design, which has left some of the bales protruding out past the roof edge. This is, obviously, less than idea. Although the cats like it since it gives them a convenient way to get onto the roof.

Another issue with the roof is the design itself. I feel like the roof is overly complicated for such a simple temporary structure. In hindsight I wish I had simply added another course of bales to the high side and then spanned the opening with 2x4s on which sheets of OSB would rest. This would not have covered the bales completely, and certainly wouldn't have provided any overhang. I think it would have been sufficient to support a tarp, though, which could have extended out over the edge of the bales. It would have been much simpler, less time consuming, and less expensive to construct. In hindsight I wish I had gone with this and used the savings to buy a larger and better quality tarp.

The overly complicated roof design had another major flaw. Even though it was complicated, it was also minimalist. In other words, I used the fewest rafters possible, to save money and effort. The result is a roof that is much too weak to put any real weight on. I actually have some concerns about its ability to handle any snow load. The inability to put weight on the roof made it difficult to adequately secure the OSB to the rafters in some areas. It also was going to complicated the application of plastic sheeting and roofing felt I had planned, which is a major reason I decided to just cover it with a tarp instead.

Not having a good tarp on hand when I started this project was also a big mistake. I have several old tarps, in varying condition, which I used to cover the structure. None were big enough on their own, though, which made it tough to get everything covered. At one point we had several days of rain and when I went back to the building site I found the tarps had separated in the center, allowing water to just pour inside the structure.

This also caused me to leave the OSB on the roof exposed for several days, during which more rain came. I had taken great care to keep the OSB in the dry prior to that, but then made the mistake of letting it get soaked by rain after installation. I had hoped to reuse it for another project in the future, but now I'm not sure it will be suitable for that. This was probably my most costly mistake, especially since I ended up buying a new tarp anyway. In the future I'll be sure to have a tarp capable of covering a structure like this, and if I don't have one I'll buy one before starting.

Since I ended up covering the structure with a tarp I have unused materials on hand. Had I planned to use the tarp from the start I could have saved myself the expense and trouble of buying the roofing felt and plastic cap nails. I'm going to try to return them, if they are in satisfactory condition. I was storing the felt inside the structure, so it may have gotten wet. I know that the box the nails are in got wet because they were in the bed of the RTV while we were working and there was a misting rain. One of the boxes with screws in it literally fell apart, but I'm hoping the nails didn't get so wet. If I'm able to return those two items the refund will cover the cost of the tarp. Otherwise it a sunk cost until/unless I find another use for them in the future.

As you can see I made plenty of mistakes on this building. I am certainly not happy with how it turned out. It looks sloppy and I seriously doubt its longevity. I am glad to have gotten it built, though, so we could relocate the cats. Since it is intended to be temporary I hope that the longevity doesn't become an issue. If nothing else it was a wonderful learning experience. You can bet that I'll never make these same mistakes again, especially not all on one building!

Edit: Having said all of the above, I don't want to make it seem like I'm completely unhappy with the structure. Yes, there were a lot of mistakes and both my planning and execution were lacking. It really was a great learning experience, though, and will be valuable because of that. Also, this is the first time I have ever attempted to build something so large myself and my first time building with straw bales. As many problems as it may have, I'm proud of the building and of the accomplishment it represents.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Going Shampoo-Free

I have decided that for the foreseeable future I will be shampoo-free. You may have heard of other people doing the "no poo" thing. I'm not a fan of that term, though, because it sounds like a fad to me. I am hoping that this will be much more than a fad, and will be a long term change for my personal hygiene.

My plan is to go all the way with this experiment. When many people give up shampoo they switch to soap or baking soda and apple cider vinegar or some other alternative. I do not plan to use anything on my hair, though, other than good old fashioned water. I'm not suggesting that there is anything wrong with using an alternative. It just isn't the approach I have decided to take.

There are plenty of websites and blogs explaining the reasons for going shampoo-free. I'm certainly no expert on the topic, so will leave it to each of you to do your own research if you are interested. I have no idea how this experiment will work out, but am eager to see the results. I will share my findings in future blog entries.