Saturday, February 27, 2010

You Too Can Make Black Gold

As it says on the back of the truck belonging to the Rainbow Recyclers in New Haven, “Compost becomes the Earth.”  Put simply, composting is a way to recycle most of your kitchen scraps and yard debris into rich, black humus that will make your garden thrive. Composting occurs naturally whenever something once living falls to the ground and slowly decays, eventually becoming a source of  minerals and nutrients to feed new life.

In the last post you learned of the tons of compost we have generated in our backyard composting bin. Now I’ll divulge the simple ingredients and equipment you will need to make your own “Black Gold.” If you garden at all, your investment of little time and money for equipment will really pay off. Note the price for just one cubic foot of compost, bagged commercially under the Black Gold name.

What you will be doing in your backyard composting bin is accelerating and controlling the natural process. You will be layering your kitchen scraps and yard waste with other organic materials in such a way that decomposition happens quickly, generating enough heat to destroy pathogens and weed seeds that would otherwise not be destroyed.

Don’t panic. I promise this is not as complicated as it sounds.

The first piece of equipment you will need is a composting bin. My recommendation for urban and suburban dwellers is one with a top as well as sides, to discourage raccoons and rodents from helping themselves to your discards or making a nest in the nice, cozy pile. The model shown above is much like the one we purchased in 1988; ours is still good as new. Composting bins come in a wide range of types and prices. Ours falls into the average price category; I show a high-end model on the left. A handy guide, Home Composting Made Easy, can help you with your selection. If you are ambitious, you can even build your own system. Just a little googling will uncover numerous links to assist you.

Backyard composting is an aerobic process (requiring oxygen). You will need to turn your compost weekly to supply air to the microbes who will be doing the work of decomposition. A turning tool or "aerator" will be a great aid. We have one of these, too.

Skip the cute kitchen scrap container. A juice or milk carton kept in the fridge until it is full will work just fine.

You will also need to learn what you can and can’t put into your compost bin. The process for home composting is different from that of municipal composting; the temperatures generated in the process are lower. You have to be more careful about what materials you use. Most food scraps are OK, but NOT dairy, meat, fish, or bones, which decompose slowly and smell, attracting vermin. If you check the EPA’s list you will find that tea bags, coffee grounds, dryer lint, and hair are also on the good list. Other definite NOs include diseased plants, charcoal, and kitty litter. According to Home Composting Made Easy, manure from cudchewers (cows, sheep, llamas…), chickens, and rabbits is great, but you should NOT add any from cats or dogs, and under NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you ever add your own. The risk of pathogens is simply too great.

Now all that’s left is to get your compost started. There are numerous websites that explain the basics. But the aforementioned Home Composting Made Easy is a concise, inexpensive volume that contains all that you need to know in one handy place. It’s a bargain and is endorsed by a number of agricultural extension services. I purchased mine at a workshop at the Connecticut Agricultural Extension Service on what makes good dirt. For a mere $3.95, “Professor Rot” will take you through the process of making compost, step-by-step, from selecting the right kind of composting system for your yard to achieving the perfect balance in your materials. You need the right proportion of green material (fresher and higher in nitrogen, think lettuce leaves) to brown material (drier and higher in carbon, think sawdust). Professor Rot can guide you to achieving compost perfection. You really should buy this book.

At the conclusion of the guide, Mrs. Rot explains the brewing of “compost tea,” which involves steeping some of your excellent compost, filtering it, and then diluting it to become a nutrient-rich beverage for your plants.

If you follow the advice of the Rots (or a Composting 101 link), you will have have significantly reduced your household’s municipal waste stream while improving the quality of life in your yard and garden.

If you decide you want to take your composting expertise to a higher level, there are numerous books that can take you there. Teaming with Microbes looks promising.

Soon you’ll be able to tell all your friends, “Hey, I made that dirt!”

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

There's Gold in those Kitchen Scraps (or At Least Some Serious Green)

In the spring of 1988 we bought a 3’ x 3’ x 3’ compost bin from Burpee’s. Over the following 22 years we have added to it at least three, 64 oz. milk/juice cartons of compostable material every week: coffee grounds, tea bags, houseplant clippings, egg shells, vegetable peels and apple cores… That’s 3,432 cartons. With each weighing in at three pounds (conservatively), that’s 10,296 pounds, or 5.15 tons of material we have kept out of the municipal waste stream! These figures only reflect the household waste we have put into our composter. They do NOT include any of the leaves and grass we have added to it, or the yard waste we have brown bagged, or branches we have tied and left on the curb.

Let’s imagine what that number could be if everyone in New Haven did the same. If each of the 47,000 households in the City would compost just 9 pounds of household waste a week, as we do, there would be 423,000 pounds less trash each week. According to the Deputy Chief Administrative Officer of the City of New Haven, it costs the City of New Haven $80.40 to transport and dispose of each ton of waste it collects. That 423,000 pounds removed from the stream would mean a weekly savings of over $17,000, and a yearly savings of over $884,000 to the City. That is a pretty good chunk of change.

And, just as there are economic incentives for the City to encourage home composting, there are also economic incentives for gardeners to take up the practice. Let’s return to our 3,432 cartons of kitchen scraps. With top soil selling at ~$7.00 per 40 lb bag, these scraps have a monetary value of over $1800. Come back later this week and I will explain how easy it is to get started.

But, if you are not a gardener, or you do not have a yard, you might not want to compost at home. That is where municipal composting comes in. Municipal composting is a program where residents put their compostable material into a special container collected for composting rather than disposal. This may sound like a pipe dream, since New Haven is still gearing up for a new single-stream recycling program. And composting is not part of the plan.

But San Francisco has made the program work. Last Spring when I was riding through San Francisco on the Muni, I could not help but notice that there were three different containers on the curb, each a different color. It should be no surprise that I have Googled for more information and I am now able to tell the story.

What I was witnessing was San Francisco’s newly instituted “Fantastic Three” program. This innovative residential curbside collection program includes separate collection and composting of mixed organic materials (all food scraps, food-soiled paper, and yard trimmings). The blue container (recyclables) and the green one (compostables) are collected at no charge. There is a monthly fee for collection of the black one (trash). The charge for the standard 32-gal container is $25.48, but for those who can contain their trash to a 20-gal “mini-can,” the fee is reduced to $19.62. Last March the program was still voluntary, but on June 23, it became law. The City of San Francisco has set the ambitious goal of diverting 75 percent of waste generated in the city away from landfill disposal by 2010 and to achieve zero waste by 2020.

This is not just composting as we in New Haven know it. Items for the green container include ALL food scraps including bones (or “anything that used to be alive” as the instructions read) and various paper food containers, including greasy pizza boxes. The program is contracted to Recology, an employee-owned waste management company that is the end result of expansions, mergers, and acquisitions of a number of smaller “scavenging” companies servicing San Francisco since the late 19th century.

What happens to all this material? According to the Recology site, hundreds of thousands of residents and over 3,000 restaurants and other businesses send over 400 tons of food scraps and other compostable material each day to Recology's Jepson-Prairie composting facility. There it is turned into nutrient-rich “Four Course Compost,” which is sold to farmers, nurseries, landscape supply yards, and vineyards. There would seem to be gold in these compostables.

Food scraps to wine. I love San Francisco.

And, there is more. Recology has constructed a sculpture garden as a screen between the landfill and the neighboring residential area. And it has established an Artist in Residence Program at the Solid Waste Transfer and Recycling Center. There “Art is created from what would have been sent with the rest of San Francisco's trash to landfills across the Bay or recycling plants across the nation.”

San Francisco has a plan. It seems to be working. We still need one. We have lots of compostables. And restaurants. And smart people. And artists. We have an old transfer station. Maybe New Haven could mine a bit of green gold. I feel like Dreaming Big today. 

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Pan Love

Among my prized possessions is a collection of cast iron pans. The only one I can remember purchasing new is a double-burner griddle. A couple of small skillets were donated by my mother when I got my first apartment. I seem to recall that my smallest one, currently a spoon rest, followed me from a dorm room and may have begun its life in the early '70s as an ashtray. The large one I use to make my baked apple pancake was gifted to us in 1977 when the neurosurgery resident/juggler who lived on the second floor left for California, taking with him only what he could fit into his jeep. From the good Dr. Schell we also inherited a large Corningware casserole, an exact match to our wedding set and a piece we lacked. I roast things in the skillet my dad used to fry potatoes and eggs with fennel.

Cast iron pans have been fixtures of American cooking since colonial times. They were employed on open campfires as the settlers moved West and on chuck wagons to feed hungry cowboys on cattle drives. They were a staple of the American kitchen well into the 20th century and are renowned for their even heating, heat retention, and durability.

They don’t wear out. They can withstand very high heat. They are forgiving. They get better with age. (How many things can you say that about?)

A well-seasoned, well-cared-for pan is a joy. You get non-stick without the teflon. Cast iron can go from stovetop to oven without worry.  You can use it on your barbecue grill. You can turn a skillet upside down  and bake pizza on it.  Cast iron care is pretty easy, the pans come seasoned, and if an over-zealous kitchen helper scrubs off the seasoning, that can be remedied. You can’t break cast iron pans. Just don’t drop a big one! And remember that they stay hot for a long time. So be careful to use an oven mitt when you take a pan off the heat and a trivet when you set it down.

Most cast iron skillets are numbered on the handle, and nest to store easily. The numbers indicate  relative size, but do not reflect the cooking diameter. For example, my “Number 9” actually has a diameter of about 9.5”  Cast iron pans were manufactured in the USA by a number of different foundries until the 1950s. Those made by Griswold Cast Iron in Erie, PA (1865-1957) are highly prized; their collectors hold annual conventions.

Lodge Logic Pre-Seasoned Fajita SetOne American company is still going strong – Lodge Cast Iron in South Pittsburg, TN, founded in 1896. Lodge is the oldest family-owned cookware foundry in the USA. Besides the traditional nesting skillets, griddles, and cornstick pans, it offers a number of new products reflecting America’s changing times. These include pizza pans, woks, and fajita sets. All the cast iron pans are made in the US, but the company also carries two lines of enamel cookware from China.

The company has been working hard to become more green. According to the Lodge website: “Lodge Manufacturing received the 1994 Governor’s Award for Excellence in Hazardous Waste Reduction: In 1991, Lodge President Henry Lodge replaced the cupola melting system with more environmentally friendly induction melt system. The result was that Lodge Mfg changed its status as a Large Quantity Generator of Hazardous Waste to Small Quantity Generator.” Lodge has also been working to find ways to reuse its foundry sand and to improve its rate of cardboard recycling. A product that was green for its long life and versatility is now even greener.

Back to my pans. Hardly a day goes by that I do not have a use for one of them — for melting butter, making pancakes, baking cornbread, frying an egg or some potatoes, roasting chicken and root vegetables. I cook a lot.

I am not ready to part with any of mine anytime soon. So, when my son set up his first place, I ordered from Lodge. I’ve heard that he uses the pan. I don’t think he is making cornbread yet, but he has plenty of years ahead. And I hope what the website says will come true for him: “When you choose Lodge Cast Iron Cookware, you’ve made a friend that will last more than a lifetime. The Lodge family appreciates your patronage and hopes that if this is your first piece of Lodge Cast Iron, it will be the first of many.” There was a recent recall of some QVC pans made for Paula Deen in China that shattered. I can’t guarantee it, but I don’t think that will happen with the ones from Lodge.

Ad Hoc at HomeThe last time I went to the gym I picked up a pretty recent Esquire magazine (December 2009), and discovered a wonderful article: “Does it Matter if It’s an Eighth of a Cup?: The Night Thomas Keller Came to My Kitchen,” by Ryan D’Agostino. Long story short, the author and his friend decide to prepare a meal from celebrated chef Thomas Keller’s most recent cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home, and to invite Keller over to enjoy it. He agrees. They aren’t quite ready for him. Keller lends a hand. They all enjoy a great meal. And here is the important punchline. The author quotes a line from the cookbook (which sounds great by the way): “If you could only have one pan in your kitchen, [a cast-iron skillet] is the one I’d give you.”

So a cast iron pan IS the perfect gift. Thomas Keller says so! Remember that the next time you want to show your love.

Coincidentally, as I was wrapping this post, I caught a story in the Wall Street Journal about Joel Schiff, who lives in an 850-square-foot one-bedroom East Village apartment, along with the over 7000 cast iron items he has been collecting for decades. According to  Steven Kurutz, Mr. Schiff apparently came “to appreciate the permanence and craftsmanship of cast iron” after his other belongings were destroyed in a houseboat fire that left his cast iron pans unharmed. Mr. Schiff is widely respected as an authority on cast iron among members of KOOKS (Kollectors of Old Kitchen Stuff).

The world is full of strange and wonderful tales.

And clearly I am not the only one to have succumbed to pan love.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Squash is a Berry; Shaw’s is No More

The phrase should perhaps be eat your fruits and fruits.

I had long known that tomatoes are a fruit, but somehow had never made the jump to winter squash. And not only is a squash a fruit; it is a berry. And it is not just a berry, but a pepo, a berry with a thick rind. Cucumbers, summer and winter squashes and melons are all pepos. Peppers, eggplants and bananas are just berries. 

Nor was I used to thinking of legumes (peanuts and beans) as fruits, but fruits they are. And most things we call “nuts” are actually fruits in the nut subcategory, but not almonds, which are drupes like cherries.

Do you have all this straight? It was a relief to learn that some “vegetables” are not fruits. But perhaps we should be calling them roots, shoots and leaves.

On the same day I was absorbing all this arcane knowledge, I also heard that my local supermarket, which I consider a great place to buy pepos and other fruits and vegetables, and where I discovered the parsnip, will be Shaw’s no more. Supervalu is divesting itself of all its Shaw’s stores in Connecticut. Most are being acquired by Stop & Shop, but no buyer has been found for the downtown New Haven store.

This is a blow to New Haven, particularly to the Dwight neighborhood, adjacent to Yale University. With its store on Whalley Avenue, Shaw’s is the only major chain with a presence anywhere near the downtown area. Many who live and work in the neighborhood do not have cars. It is about five miles away in any direction from Shaw’s to another store of similar size and quality.

It was quite an accomplishment when the Dwight Community Development Corporation succeeded in attracting Shaw’s to the neighborhood in 1998. Downtown New Haven had been without a major supermarket for years. Shaw’s became a place to shop, as well as a source of good neighborhood jobs.

I have chosen to shop at Shaw’s over its competitors. Its prices are fair. The store is clean and well-stocked. It is convenient. They have the best bananas around. Ask anyone. I am very sorry Supervalu has chosen to leave the state.

The developer of 360 State Street has promised to include a supermarket on the ground floor of the 500 unit apartment complex which is under construction in my ward. (There is a hefty penalty if he does not.) The footprint is not as large as Shaw’s, but the market will be close enough for me to walk there with a shopping cart. If an agreement can be reached, and the store is to my liking, I will have my grocery store.

But 360 State is a long walk from the site of Shaw’s, and a store at this location will not solve the problem for the people who live in the Dwight neighborhood, for the many residents who have jobs at Shaw’s, or for Yale students. Lower Whalley Avenue has already experienced the closing of Rite-Aid and Staples in the last few months, leaving empty retail space and parking lots and very few places to shop. For students without cars, The Yale Bookstore (Barnes & Noble) and Gourmet Heaven are the only convenient (albeit pricey) options.

Surely Shaw’s would not have remained in New Haven all these years without a reasonably good profit margin. I hope that one of the other chains can look beyond its usual suburban model to open a store in a city center. I am sure the City of New Haven and the Yale Office of New Haven and State Affairs are doing their best to find a buyer.

I hope they succeed. And, if they do, I promise I will give their pepos (and parsnips) a try.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Water from Fiji

I keep a running mental list of things my dad, who died in 1998, would never believe. I am quite certain that the success of FIJI Water would be one of them.

For months I have been curious about the bottled water for sale in my favorite lunch place. Yes, right next to the locally-conceived Honest Tea is FIJI Water, displayed in a refrigerator case that proclaims, “Yes, it really comes from Fiji.”

I went to Google Maps to calculate the distance from Fiji to New Haven, CT. The answer? Approximately 8000 miles!

I began to look a bit further, only to discover that FIJI Water has quite a story.

First, a little background on Fiji from the website of the US Department of State. The Fiji Islands (over 300 in number) lie in the South Pacific, approximately 3100 miles southwest of Hawaii and 1900 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia. The population, currently around 832,000, of whom 327,000 are active in the labor force, is declining.

Formerly a British colony, Fiji became independent in 1970, and for 17 years was a parliamentary democracy. Since 1987 there has been a series of coups; the constitution was abrogated in 2009. The United States is among the countries that have imposed targeted sanctions on the illegal government.

For many years sugar and textile exports drove the economy, but neither industry is competing well in globalized markets. The most important manufacturing activities are the processing of sugar and fish. In recent years, growth in Fiji has been largely driven by a strong tourism industry. Since 2000 the export of still mineral water, mainly to the United States, has expanded rapidly.

This is a good place to begin the story of FIJI Water.

FIJI Water was founded in 1997 by Canadian businessman David Gilmour, owner of Fijian island Wakaya, on which he developed a luxury resort. Journalist Anna Lenzer recently reported in Mother Jones that in the early 1990s “Gilmour got wind of a study done by the Fijian government and aid organizations that indicated an enormous aquifer, estimated at more than 17 miles long, near the main island's north coast. He obtained a 99-year lease on land atop the aquifer…” In the same article Lenzer also stated that he company was initially granted tax-exempt status, to expire in 2008; it remains in effect today.

Rubies in the Orchard: How to Uncover the Hidden Gems in Your BusinessIn 2005, American billionaires Lynda and Stewart Resnick became the new owners of FIJI Water. Lynda has set up a site to promote her book Rubies in the Orchard, on which the following information can be found. The Resnicks’ previous business successes include Teleflora, purchased in 1979 and now the world’s largest floral service, and the Franklin Mint, which they owned from 1985-2000. The Resnicks are also the “largest farmers of tree crops in the United States, with the nation’s largest orchards and processing plants for citrus, almonds and pistachios.” Lynda is largely responsible for marketing the benefits of pomegranates to the American consumer and then reaping success through her line of products, POM Wonderful. It should be no surprise that the PomQueen (as Lynda dubs herself) could do such an outstanding job selling water from Fiji to customers on the other side of the world.

The FIJI Water site weaves three tales:

“Yes, FIJI Water really is from islands of Fiji… FIJI Water is the result of rainfall that fell long before the Industrial Revolution… FIJI Water's state-of-the-art bottling facility …literally sits right on top of an aquifer…So, until you unscrew the cap, FIJI Water never meets the compromised air of the 21st century…There's no question about it: Fiji is far away. But when it comes to drinking water, ‘remote’ happens to be very, very good. Look at it this way. FIJI Water is drawn from an artesian aquifer, located at the very edge of a primitive rainforest, hundreds of miles away from the nearest continent. That very distance is part of what makes us so much more pure and so much healthier than other bottled waters.”

Lynda Resnick has done her best to weave a convincing tale that water pumped from an aquifer on the edge of a remote rainforest is something that the health-conscious American consumer can not live without. And she has convinced many. FIJI Water is now the number one imported still water in the United States. The current Shopzilla price for a one pint bottle of FIJI Water is around $1.75. It would not take too long to see a payback on filtering and “bottling” your own.

FIJI Water employs “nearly 350 Fijians.” FIJI Water supports various philanthropic activities in Fiji, including donating royalties in 2008 of $1.3 million (representing 1.5% of gross revenues) for charity work in neighboring villages, creating the FIJI Water Foundation in 2007 (an investment of $600,000), and partnering with the Rotary Club and Pacific Water for Life “to bring clean water to 100 communities in Fiji this year.”

Note the irony. FIJI Water is bottling and exporting water from a country where much of the population lacks clean, running water. Is FIJI Water really saving Fiji as one reading the website might believe? Keep in mind that Fiji’s labor force is 327,000 and FIJI Water employs 350; FIJI Water’s advertising budget for 2008 was $10 million (as reported by Lenzer); and in 2000, villagers wielding spearguns and dynamite staged a take-over of the bottling plant, declaring that the land is sacred (also reported in Mother Jones.)

On its FIJI Green site FIJI Water touts, among other initiatives, its partnership with Conservation International to become “carbon negative,” the energy savings measures for transportation of the water, and its various conservation projects in Fiji.

Laudable as these projects may be, just think about this for a second. There would be no need for carbon offsets if the company were not shipping water across the planet. For those who simply cannot drink tap water, we in New England have access to bottled water from aquifers relatively close by (Poland Springs and Belmont Springs, for example). If you live in New Haven, does buying water from Fiji make any sense?

In another ironic twist, FIJI Water was most recently in the news for its donation of 136,000 liters of bottle water to Haitian earthquake victims (7845 miles, not quite as far as it is to New Haven, but pretty far.)

I found myself shaking my head and wondering what other possibilities there might be for economic progress in Fiji when I received an email about Bees without Borders, started by the owner of Andrew’s Taste-Bud Bursting Local Wildflower Honey, a product I purchase at my local farmers’ market. Its mission is to "educate and train impoverished individuals and communities in beekeeping skills and the value of beekeeping for poverty alleviation." The founders have just returned from a trip to Fiji. A small step, but another option, and just maybe a better way to help the people of Fiji.

Here is my plan. Continue drinking tap water. Buy Andrew’s honey. Support his foundation. Help the people of Fiji. Help the planet.

Background information and statistics on Fiji from the US Department of State website unless otherwise noted.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Greed in the Plant Kingdom

Angiosperms (flowering plants) are the current unit in Bio 122. I now have  a number to back up a concept I already knew: Most flowering species (approximately 80%) rely on a living agent to serve as pollinator. A mutualistic relationship is the norm, with insects or hummingbirds pollinating flowers in return for the reward of sweet nectar. These flowers tend to be brightly colored and sweet-smelling. Many of those dependent upon insects for pollination have markings (invisible to humans without ultraviolet light) known as “nectar guides” to indicate a direct route to the prize. My favorite flowers would all fall into this category. Artifice? Definitely. But also a quid pro quo.

Imagine my surprise to learn that just as the human world is rife with deceit driven by greed, so is the plant kingdom. Orchid lovers may be familiar with my first tale, but  it was news to me.

Tale Number One: Male wasps of the species Campsoscolia ciliata often attempt to copulate with the flowers of the Mediterranean orchid Ophrys speculum. During the encounter, a sac of pollen becomes glued to the insect’s body. In frustration, he heads off to another flower for a second try and there deposits the pollen. No reward. Just frustration and eventual exhaustion. Dozens of species of orchid engage in this form of sexual trickery. The Aragon region of Spain even promotes this subterfuge as a tourist attraction. The deception was long thought to be a purely visual one — the orange bristles around the flower’s largest petal apparently resemble the anatomy of the female wasp. The current belief, however, is that the flower emits a chemical scent similar to that of a sexually receptive female wasp. There are comprehensive treatises on the subject if you want to learn more.

Tale Number Two: Scent is also part of the equation for pollination by blow-flies (scavengers of carrion and dung, and layers of eggs, which hatch into maggots found in these materials.) Flowers attracting such pollinators are often reddish and fleshy and smell like decomposing flesh. While laying her eggs on such a flower, the female blow-fly becomes dusted with pollen that she then carries to another blossom. When her eggs eventually hatch, there is no meat to eat, and her offspring die! I wonder how bad these flowers smell. Has anyone ever planted them around a picnic area?

Pollination (plant sex) is all about survival. That’s a fact. Sometimes it involves two species with a mutual benefit, but oftentimes not. Just as the human world has Bernie Madoffs, it can be “all about me” in the plant world as well. Think about that the next time you admire an exotic orchid (or, depending on your taste, a flower that smells like a rotting corpse.) 

Friday, February 5, 2010


Phil saw his shadow. Pennsylvania is bracing for snow. It’s February, the month for “Presidents’ Day” appliance sales.

With Presidents’ Day around the corner, it seemed an appropriate time to explain ENERGY STAR ratings. ENERGY STAR was introduced by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) In 1992  as a voluntary labeling program designed to make it easy for consumers to “identify and purchase energy-efficient products that offer savings on energy bills without sacrificing performance, features, and comfort.” Computers and monitors were the first labeled products.

Since 1996, it has been a joint program with the US Department of Energy, and the list of rated products has expanded to include these categories: appliances, computers and electronics, heating and cooling, lighting and fans, plumbing, and building products (including roofing, windows, and insulation).

If you have an appliance over a decade old, chances are you will have significant savings on electricity and water usage if you purchase a new one wisely. And the sales are on!

If you decide to go shopping look for two things:
*  The ENERGY STAR label, awarded only to a product meeting ENERGY STAR specifications.
*  The yellow EnergyGuide label. This tells you how much energy it takes to operate the appliance. Use it to compare the energy use of similar models and estimate annual operating costs.

Many products are eligible for rebates. You can find the ones in your area by clicking your state on this map. With funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Connecticut consumers can get rebates on air conditioners, clothes washers, freezers, and refrigerators. These rebates are in addition to any offered by the manufacturer. If you are on the fence, check this out. Now may be a good time to buy.

Whether or not you shop, do check out the rest of the ENERGY STAR site. It contains a cornucopia of resources including an interactive tool for helping you save energy in your home, a do-It-yourself guide for sealing and insulating, a search area for information on products, and an array of educational materials for kids.

Winter has us in its grip, and we are using lots of energy. What better time to do all we can to save all we can?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Wave Goodbye to the Slow Train

On Saturday I rode Amtrak’s slowest train in the Northeast Corridor — one hour and 23 minutes to travel 60.5 miles (42.7 mph if you do the math.)

This route runs between New Haven, CT and Springfield, MA. There are no glamorous names for this route. The train is designated “Shuttle” if it is merely going back and forth, and “Northeast Regional” if you use this train to connect to one going somewhere else. It also connects New Haven to the state capital (Hartford) and to Windsor Locks, home of Bradley International Airport. Its daily schedule is not pegged to normal working hours, and the “station” in Windsor Locks is a platform adjacent to a commuter parking lot, with the airport nowhere in sight and no taxis waiting to shuttle passengers from train to plane. Despite its limitations, the route has many riders.

I use this train to rendezvous with my sister, who makes a detour off the Mass Pike to pick me up, so we can travel together to visit family near Boston. This multi-phase trip requires some planning and the cooperation of both the highway and train travel gods. But it usually works out.

For the first part of the trip, the train meanders along CT Route 5, a good-sized road which I often use for “local” business. I coast by many familiar landmarks, no faster than I would in my car, but with a view from the backside rather than the front. We pass through some woods and wetlands, but mostly behind the rear fences of once thriving manufacturing operations — foundries and factories, printing and chemical plants. Some are abandoned, some functioning; none appear new.

After Hartford the scenery is a little less urban. We chug alongside the Connecticut River and its chunks of floating ice, passing through woods and by small houses hugging the shore, slowly enough and close enough to catch a detailed glimpse into the lives of the people who live there. On a warmer day people would be out in their yards and kids would wave at the train.

This is all very nice, once in a while. If you have the luxury of time. If you can make the spotty service go your way. And as long as you make your connection if you are traveling long distance.

Currently, freight and passengers compete for service on the one track. The line is not electrified. The inadequacies have been acknowledged for years. Plans for improvement had been drawn up and then tabled.

But change is on the way. On January 12, the State of CT committed $26 million for design work. And on the 28th, Sen. Dodd announced that CT would receive $40 million in American Recovery and Reconstruction Act funding toward constructing the second track required for high-speed rail service between New Haven and Springfield.

With promised speeds of up 110 mph, residents along the route will have a viable option to travel to Bradley without a car, legislators and commuters will be able to commute to Hartford by train, and those living near Springfield will have a more practical way to connect to New Haven and points south.

The project will cost $880 million total, but things are finally moving.

WOW! 110 mph vs. 42.7 mph! Wave good-bye to the slow train.