24 November 2009

Real Or Fake: What Type Of Christmas Tree Is Right For You?

Shreveport Times

With Thanksgiving Day just around the corner, we all know that Christmas will be here almost before we can turn around twice. And in a majority of the homes across our country preparations for the Christmas holidays are already underway. This generally means that shoppers will be out in force looking for the perfect Christmas tree. Now comes the time for decisions. What kind of tree will be the best choice? Will it be some species of evergreen or should an artificial tree be considered? What size best suits your needs — one that stretches from floor to ceiling or one that will fit nicely on a table?

First, let's think about the advantages and disadvantages of artificial versus natural. Artificial trees are usually almost perfect in shape while natural trees may be close to perfect, but typically show a small flaw somewhere in the canopy. These small flaws are rarely a problem as the flaw can be positioned so that it is not noticeable.

Size is limited with artificial trees, while natural trees can be so large that they will not fit into a house. But, after all, how many people can actually use a giant tree from the forest?

Artificial trees more and more are sold with a set of lights already in place, which simply means that decorating is made somewhat easier. You can, of course, still buy artificial trees without lights at a lower price and simply use a Christmas light storage bag to make life easier for yourself. Natural trees, on the other hand, are not equipped with lights in place. Mother Nature is good and resourceful, but she hasn't figured out yet how to install lights before the trees are harvested.

Storage is still another aspect of artificial compared to natural. Between Christmases, artificial trees must be stored somewhere. Even though many are made to fold to some degree, larger ones consume a good bit of space. With all of the storage facilities you see around the area you get the idea that all too many homes have insufficient storage space and have to rent extra space from the storage businesses. Do you have storage capacity for a large tree when the Christmas holidays are over? There are many varieties of Christmas tree storage bags which will compress the tree for saving precious space.

Natural Christmas trees are "short termers." Once harvested from the farm or forest their life span diminishes by the day until in the post-Christmas period they are only of value as compost material, erosion control, temporary bird cover and fish habitats. There is one exception: live trees that are purchased for a brief stint inside the house preparatory to being planted in the landscape can enjoy a long term, beneficial life. Species for this purpose must be carefully chosen, however, as a majority of the natural trees offered for sale in our area are northern species that will not survive in our climate.

That brings us to the price of artificial trees and natural trees. Both are expensive for the time that we use them. Since artificial trees, if properly cared for and stored, can last for several years, the per year cost drops the longer the tree is kept and used. Thus, a tree that costs $300 initially and is used for 10 years costs only $30 each year. When used for 20 years, the annual cost is only $15. Obviously, you would need to add in the cost of an artificial Christmas tree stand with wheels, but you're going to need a stand with any type of tree.With natural trees being good only for a single season (with the exception noted above), the purchase price is the total cost for one year. Nostalgia, however, supersedes dollars and cents with many of our senior citizens and they are willing to pay for a natural tree that has the fragrance and look of the trees they have enjoyed for a lifetime. You no doubt will be seeing a lot of good advice relative to buying a natural Christmas tree in the following weeks. I would like to offer the following tips:

Check both price and quality at several places before making a purchase.

Buy a tree of correct size for the place it will be used. Remember that tree stands add to the height of a tree.

Look for freshness. Fresh trees have needles that don't shed easily when you move them, are still sticky at the base of the trunk and usually have a nice smell — a forest fragrance if you will.

Check for branch structure. Strong branches having angles of 45 to 90 degrees with the trunk give better support for heavy decorations.

Observe density of the canopy. Species with more open canopies allow ornaments to be hung deep within the tree while those with dense canopies limit ornament placement to the branch tips.

Know your species. Firs and Leyland cypress tend to stay attractive after being cut for longer periods of time than spruces, pines and cedars.

Cut an inch off the base of the trunk and stand the tree in a tub of water outdoors as soon as you get the tree home. Let it absorb moisture for 12 to 24 hours before moving it into the house. This extends the attractive life considerably. Another way to extend tree life is to spray it with an antidessicant, such as Wilt-Pruf or Cloud-Cover.

Use water stands for longer tree life and reduced fire hazard. Keep stand filled with water.

Tannenboing Christmas Tree Hits Market In Time For Holidays

from Trak

Seattle-based tannenboing™ launches a new product, a modern sustainable Christmas tree as an alternative to PVC artificial Christmas trees

Michele Weingeist, a Seattle resident, has created a modern, spiral Christmas tree for the holiday season. Made from recycled and recyclable aluminum, tannenboing is Weingeist’s solution for a fresh, hip take on an old tradition.

“Like many people, artificial Christmas trees, made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and shipped over from China, don’t appeal to my aesthetic or my ethics. I wanted a modern, sustainable alternative and I couldn’t find what I was looking for on the market. So I set about creating a modern, spiral tree for myself. As I started work on the aluminum tree, people loved it and it grew from being just a spiral Christmas tree for myself, to tannenboing for the public.” said Weingeist. “tannenboing trees are made in Seattle, WA. They are sculptural, contemporary and reusable.”

With room for over 200 ornaments or display items, tannenboing makes a statement in the home, office, or store window. When expanded, the aluminum spiral tree is over 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide at the base, and weighs 20 pounds. tannenboing packs flat in a reusable box making for easy, space-efficient storage when not in use. Made in the USA, tannenboing’s beautiful, sleek lines are crafted from recycled and recyclable aluminum. Each aluminum tree is hand finished by a skilled blacksmith, and is a true work of art.
This year, tannenboing will offer 100 signed and number “first edition” aluminum, spiral Christmas trees for a retail price of $795. tannenboing can be purchased in Seattle, WA at Square Room in Capital Hill, One Earth One Design in North Seattle or online at www.tannenboing.com.

tannenboing’s inception:
For years, Weingeist searched for an elegant, modern Christmas tree with no luck. Finally, she set out to make her own, encouraged along the way by people’s enthusiasm for the aluminum Christmas tree, she turned her idea into a business. It was important to her that the work be done in the USA in order to keep jobs here and to reduce the carbon footprint of the tree. She is thrilled that almost all of the work has taken place within a 30-mile radius of her office. Now, after working for nearly two years with an industrial designer, a mechanical engineer, several blacksmiths and metal fabricators - the modern, spiral Christmas tree, tannenboing, has sprung to life.

For increased sustainability, we recommend Christmas tree storage bags for artificial trees to lengthen the life of your tree.

13 November 2009

Home Inspections Save Money

Daily Herald-Tribune

The curb appeal and the excitement of owning his first home led Dave Galway to buy a former army barrack house in the Swanavon neighbourhood. He said he didn't look at the home too closely, inspecting it himself as he had experience in the construction industry. The surprises he encountered led him to become a home inspector.

"When we finally got into the house, the first winter we almost froze because the furnace was so old and so inefficient and the gas prices were killing us," he said. "When we tear out the cupboards underneath the sink, the wall was rotten in behind. The floor had seem to be rotten so we lifted the floor. All the floor framing joists … were rotten so we had to open up the whole kitchen … and repair that."

Not to mention the shingles he had to replace, the water in the basement and discovering that the foundation was a combination of bricks and wooden posts.

"That house really inspired me to start in the home inspection industry because I knew construction. I thought I knew quite a bit about a house but after that, I realized I didn't know much about a house," he said.

The inspection usually entails a visual examination of a property, first from the exterior. Galway said he walks around the building checking the yard's slope to ensure the water drains away from the building. He then checks the portion of the foundation wall above ground for shifting and cracking. He said he also goes up on the roof, seeking signs of shingles and flashing deterioration.

"We go through the house and we check for major deficiencies – things that are not right, things that if maintenance is not done, it could become a problem in the future," he said.

Going inside, Galway said he checks and determines the age of the furnace and heating system to ensure it heats the building properly and all registers are working. He said anything older than 20 years is past its prime. He said he turns on all the tubs, toilets and sinks to check the main sewer line going out through the street. He added he also looks for items like missing handrails and electrical safety issues such as wiring for kitchen appliances.

"Our Number 1 concern is safety for the buyer, our client. Are they going to be safe in the house that we have just inspected," he said.

Galway said he takes about three hours to do average home inspection at a cost of $400. He added he usually does two a day but this summer has been the worst he's seen because of the economy. Homebuyers account for most of his clients but sometimes investors, looking at hotels, motels and apartment buildings, request such an inspection.

Galway, who now works for Critical Path in Grade Prairie, said he has 35 years experience in construction, including 15 years working as a home inspector. But the tribulations with his first home led him to take a two-year course in the United States.

"I've seen a need because I bought my house as a first-time homebuyer. Even though I was a carpenter-contractor, I didn't really know what to look for and then when we got in there, it was oh my God, all these problems," he said. "So that really inspired me to start a business. Just what I had to deal with in my old home was from the 1950s and the problems that I encountered trying to fix it and renovate it. It turns into a never do this again sort of thing."

The older the home, the more owners, the more additions and home remodeling it had usually means more problems, he said.

The main issue he sees in the resale home market is water around foundations or gutters knocked off, followed by heat issues.

"The back slope grading and drainage away from the foundation is one of the things I see quite often," he said. "The next one would be older furnaces that are over 20-years-old and electrical problems, a lot of electrical problems where maybe the homeowner has wired the basement."

12 November 2009

University Takes Action To Prevent e-Waste

from Daily Illini

Willie Cade, founder of PC Rebuilders and Recyclers, spoke at the I Hotel and Conference Center on Wednesday to inform people about e-waste and what can be done to collect and reuse it.

Cade emphasized the importance of reusing e–waste, or discarded programmable electric devices, to get their full potential. He compared a horseless carriage to a Ferrari to create a visual image for the group of about 200 attendants.

“Today we are in the horseless carriage age in terms of e–waste,” Cade said. “Currently 80 percent of a computer’s life is spent in manufacturing. We need to maximize its energy use.”

This was the first lecture sponsored by the Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability to inform people about e–waste and conserving the unused energy of electronics, said Bill Shilts, executive director of the institute.

“Our understanding has grown very much in this field,” Shilts said. “Our vision is to transform the e–waste field.”

Cade said most people stop using electronic devices before they have achieved their maximum energy output. But he explained the he has only seen one integrated circuit – a miniature electronic circuit found in almost all electronic devices– that was broken from overuse.

Cade said 81 percent of electronics thrown away go to landfills. When people dispose of items such as integrated circuits, they introduce hazardous material to the environment.

Cade said he founded his company in 2000 with hopes of assisting inner – city students to meet their potential with technology. Since then, the company has delivered 40,000 refurbished computers to schools and nonprofit organizations.

Cade said his company collects about 20,000 computers and redistributes about 5,000 annually.

“This year there have been 90 million PCs sold in the U.S., 250 million sold worldwide, and there are one billion in use worldwide,” Cade said. “It is necessary for us to collect and refurbish a billion pounds of electronics a year because currently only one percent become refurbished computers.”

Cade has worked with the University in the past to host e-waste collection drives and hold a seminar about the topic. He said he is excited that people at the University are taking action on this issue.

The University will offer a course in the spring that teaches students how to transform e–waste.

Students will hold another e–waste drive during the spring semester for people to bring in electronic devices they no longer use.

Using the recycled electronics, the students will participate in an international competition in which the recycled goods are used to produce a new product.

Professor William Bullock, the instructor of the class, was in attendance at the lecture. He said he thinks Cade’s lecture and involvement on campus is positive.

“Willie being here is wonderful,” Bullock said. “To have someone like him from the industry coming here to tell us how to conserve things. He is just another part of the solution to conserve e–waste.”

Go to the web for more information about:

Home Inspection -- Not A DIY Project

from Deseret News

Question: When purchasing a home, what are some of the most common problems you find? I really would like to have the home I'm buying inspected, but money is the biggest problem right now, and we can't afford to pay an inspector. If we do the inspection ourselves, what should we be looking for?

Answer: As a Certified Master Inspector and a member of the American Society of Home Inspectors, my answer is that you cannot afford to simply pass on the home inspection. If you decide to do it yourself, you may not find major defects that would be obvious to an experienced home inspector. Depending on where you live, a home inspection should cost around $300, but the savings reaped from the inspection report is often in the thousands of dollars.

I personally have performed over 10,000 home inspections and know of inspectors who have inspected more than double that number. All those I've talked to agree that the home inspection is the purchaser's last chance to ask the seller to correct the major defects listed in the report. After taking possession of the home, the seller is out of the picture, even if you later discover you need a new furnace ($2,000 plus) or an upgrade of the electrical system ($1,200 plus). Over the years, I can recall only two occasions where the inspection report listed defects with the repairs costing less than $100.

Invest the $300. Sounds like a good investment to me. You might also consider that a DIY inspection may not be accepted by the seller as an accurate description of what needs to be done. Hiring a professional home inspector, who can explain what the defects are and how they should be repaired, leaves little room for disagreement. You should also consider that a professional home inspector is unbiased and is disconnected from the emotional issues associated with purchasing the home. The home inspector gets paid for his services whether or not you follow through with the purchase and repairs of the home. If you are determined to do the inspection yourself, here are several things to look for:

1. Grading and drainage. Make sure the home's foundation sits high and dry. The yard and rain gutters should drain away from the foundation for a least 10 feet.

2. Any and all electrical wiring should be either out of reach (6 feet 6 inches above the floor) or the wiring should be in a protective conduit.

3. Metal flue pipes must have a 1-inch clearance to combustibles. There should be a clearance where the pipe passes through the drywall ceiling or through the wood-roof sheathing. The flue pipes must also have a continuous rise from the appliance to the main chimney connection. Rusted or damaged flues need to be replaced.

4. Loose toilet bowls and stopped up sink drains. Operate all plumbing fixtures for 10 to 20 minutes to make sure all drain lines are working, and at the same time check for leaks under the fixture's cabinets and in the basement or crawl space.

5. Purchase an outlet circuit tester and check each and every outlet you can reach. You will be checking for "open grounds and reversed polarity" at the outlets. Test and reset every GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) in the home.

6. Operate all home and kitchen appliances (furnace, dishwasher, range, etc. Do not operate an air conditioner when the outside temperature is below 60 F).

7. Operate the garage-door opener and check the auto reverse features and the photo cells to make sure the door automatically opens if there is an obstruction in its path.

8. Natural gas and LP gas pipes require a sediment trap, also known as a dirt trap or a drip leg, on each gas pipe just before the pipe connects to the gas appliance's main gas valve. Replace any and all copper gas pipe.

9.Stairways and handrails. Make sure all stair risers are the same height (seven to eight inches) and that stair treads are at least 9 to 10 inches deep. Where there are three or more steps, a handrail is required for safety. Longer handrails and guardrails also require baluster posts set at a minimum of four to six inches apart to keep children from slipping through the railings.

10. Tempered safety glass. Windows over bathtubs, shower enclosures, patio and French doors and larger windows that are easily accessible should be tempered or protected against accidental human impact. The glass should be marked "tempered" in one corner of each piece of glass.

While these are just a portion of the components of the home, a professional home inspector will check many more details too numerous to list and has a trained eye to spot problems the DIY'er may not be able to identify.

11 November 2009

Tips On Fire Prevention, Mediation

Hudson Hub Times

Hudson Fire Chief Bob Carter recently issued an apology on behalf of firefighters everywhere for the iconic image of a rescue worker pulling a victim from a burning building.

"We've done you a disservice if we've made you think we'll always be there to save you," Carter said at a Woman's Club of Hudson presentation during Fire Prevention Week in October.

"More than half of the people [who die in house fires] die before the fire department is notified."

The ownership is on you, Carter said, to prevent house fires and know how to escape if you ever face one.

Most fires are caused by carelessness or neglect, and therefore can be prevented by being more careful. "Predictable is preventable," Carter said.

Some of the more obvious ways to prevent and prepare for fires is to survey a home for fire hazards and to install and maintain smoke detectors.

Carelessly discarded smoking materials account for many fires, so smokers are advised to be careful when throwing out their cigarettes, cigars and matches.

SOME FIRE departments offer free home services where a firefighter will act as a home inspector and educate residents about fire hazards and how to correct them. Call your local department to see if they offer that service.

While getting educated about predictable fires was appreciated, what about seemingly unpredicable house fires?

I recently experienced an electrical house fire that I didn't see coming. The ceiling fan in my bathroom caught fire, ruining the bathroom and keeping my family out of the house and in a hotel for two months while repairs were being made.

The fire didn't spread very far. But that kind of experience makes you wonder, "How can I stop this from happening again?"

There are some ways to help prevent electrical fires, Carter said.

Make sure all home and kitchen appliances have UL (Underwriters' Laboratories Inc.) labels, or some other label from a testing agency that indicates the product has been tested for safety.

Homeowners also can check the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Web site (CPSC.gov) to check to see if any of their appliances have been recalled.

It is easy to overlook simple everyday kitchen appliances, so be sure to check all of them, including:

It is important to send back registration forms so you can receive recall announcements, Carter told members of the Woman's Club.

Members of the Hudson Fire Department frequently find recalled dehumidifiers or dishwashers when conducting home inspections, he added.

Some home fires are simply accidents that no one could predict. It is important to properly prepare for such emergencies by stocking the home with strategically located fire extinguishers and smoke detectors.

THE GOOD news about my house fire was that everybody got out safely. We called 9-1-1 before the smoke detectors went off and left before any amount of smoke filled the house.

We were waiting on the curb when the fire department arrived, which would have made Chief Carter happy.

However, he would not be happy to know that we had never practiced our escape route.

Residents should rehearse their escape plans, Carter said, and establish a meeting place outside. They should crawl to avoid smoke and make sure they have planned two escape routes from every room.

Some members of the Woman's Club were concerned about establishing a second escape route from a second floor room.

Carter suggested porch roofs could offer an escape path, and shrubs planted under a window could offer a softer spot to jump into. It also is important for residents to understand how to open the windows and possibly use professional fall protection equipment such as safety harnesses.

Chain and rope ladders are other possibilities, but they're not really easy to use, Carter said.

Whatever you pick as your secondary escape plan, make sure to rehearse, he said. The first time a fire forces you to use your escape route shouldn't be the first time you've ever tried it.

09 November 2009

7 Steps Towards An Eco-Friendly Lawn And Garden

Courier Press

As the author of "The Green Gardener's Guide," I've written the book on essential ways to green your garden while protecting the planet. But at the risk of hindering future sales, if I had to narrow it down to just a few things, the following list of seven will get you well on your way.

Right Plant, Right Place

If there were only one bit of advice I'd give for creating the healthiest garden possible, it would be to put the right plant in the right place. Plants that are growing in the most appropriate conditions have the best possible chance to thrive. Conversely, plants in distress will shut down or try to divert precious energy, all in an effort to survive.

Often our misguided solution is to pour on the fertilizer or pesticide, when all that was probably needed was to change the plant's location to the proper setting.

Feed the Soil

Healthy soil is alive with a complex array of creatures that all play a vital role in water uptake, nutrient availability, soil drainage and moisture retention. Feeding the soil means providing natural amendments like compost, aged manure and organic matter to fortify what's already there, and fuel a nutrient-rich ecosystem to sustain future needs.

Mulch, Mulch, Mulch

One of the easiest ways to make our garden less dependant on water and chemicals is to mulch generously. Applying about a three-inch layer around your trees and plants acts like an insulating barrier that helps retain moisture, moderates soil temperatures and suppresses weeds. In addition, a protective mulch barrier blocks many soil-dwelling diseases from splashing up onto foliage and infecting plants.

Whether you buy mulch in bulk or by the bag, it's a great investment that does so much. Even as it breaks down, it's improving your soil with valuable organic matter.

Water Deeply, Infrequently, and Responsibly

With a looming worldwide water crisis, one of our worst offenses at being more eco-friendly is how we waste water in our gardens and landscapes. More plants die from over-watering then under. Plants respond more favorably to infrequent, deep watering, as close to the root zone as possible, rather than short applications often. Deep watering promotes deep root growth, which in turn promotes more vigorous top growth and a more drought-tolerant plant.

If Using Chemicals, Act Responsibly

By applying the steps mentioned so far, you'll eliminate many problems that would otherwise require chemical intervention. Yet quite often the bigger problem with using chemicals lies with the person applying them. We incorrectly believe that if a little is good, more is better. If, when using chemicals, you simply stick to the label instructions, keep on target and use them only as a last resort, you'd be making a big improvement to a more sustainable landscape.

Select Tools That Don't Pollute

We gardeners work hard to promote so much beauty; in the process we do a lot of not-so-pretty things to the environment, including using tools that spew plenty of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Lawn mowers, weed whackers and leaf blowers are some of the biggest culprits. Fortunately, battery-operated and electric models are now formidable replacements, and there are plenty to choose from.

Even manual push reel lawnmowers have made a strong comeback lately. It's my mower of choice. I love the quietness of these human-powered rotary lawn mowers along with the simplicity and no-fuss ease of operation.

Manage Horticultural Waste Properly

Being a greener gardener also means making wise decisions when disposing of horticultural waste such as plastic pots, yard debris and chemicals. One of the biggest culprits in greenhouse gas emissions comes from landfills. And according to the USDA, about 65 percent of any landfill is unnecessary because it can be composted or recycled. Moreover, 25 percent comes from compostable yard debris and kitchen scraps.

So as you do your part to green your garden while protecting the planet, remember to consider everything that leaves your property, too. There are plenty of other ways you can garden in a more environmentally responsible way, but starting with one or all of the steps above will get you well on your way to making a big difference!

USFA Kicks Off Home Safety Campaign For Smoke Detectors

Fire Engineering

The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) launched an effort to encourage everyone to install and maintain home smoke alarms and, if possible, sprinklers.  More than 3,000 people die in home fires each year, and the majority of them have no working smoke alarm. To prevent these deaths, the USFA, a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is sponsoring the nationwide Install. Inspect. Protect. Campaign, which emphasizes that “Smoke Alarms Save Lives.”

“The U.S. Fire Administration tracks fatal home fires every day, and it is tragic to see how many deaths are linked to homes without working smoke alarms,” said Kelvin J. Cochran, U.S. Fire Administrator. “The USFA is committed to preventing the loss of life and we want residents and fire fighters to be safe.”  He added, “Smoke alarms are inexpensive, easy to install, and easy to maintain. We are asking everyone to make sure they have working smoke alarms in their homes, and if possible, sprinklers.”

When both smoke alarms and fire sprinklers are present in a home, the risk of dying in a fire is reduced by 82 percent, when compared to a residence without either.  According to the National Fire Protection Association, between 2003-2006, almost two-thirds of home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with either no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms or no kitchen fire extinguishers.

Cochran also emphasized that firefighters often die in the line of duty trying to rescue people who did not get out at the first sign of a fire.  He added, “Smoke alarms and sprinklers give you and your family more time to get out, before firefighters have to come in to rescue you.”

The Install. Inspect. Protect. Campaign is promoting fire safety through a free Campaign Toolkit DVD; featuring English and Spanish educational materials; print, radio and television PSAs; children’s materials, a video demonstration of how quickly a home fire spreads, and on the USFA’s consumer-friendly Web site at www.usfa.dhs.gov/smokealarms. 

The USFA has always promoted fire safety and the use of smoke alarms and fire extinguishers through materials and in campaigns, such as “Tribute to Heroes” and “Prepare. Practice. Prevent the Unthinkable: A Parents’ Guide to Fire Safety for Babies and Toddlers,” to name a few. Now, emphasizing the importance of both smoke alarms and sprinklers, our PSAs --“My Dad” and “My Mom” – focus on the viewpoint of the child of a firefighter. The campaign materials include real stories of people whose lives have been saved, because they had a working smoke alarm.

The USFA offers a few helpful tips on smoke alarms and sprinklers:

    * Place properly installed and maintained smoke detectors both inside and outside of sleeping areas and on every level of your home.
    * Interconnected smoke alarms are best, because if one sounds, they all sound.
    * The U.S. Fire Administration recommends that every residence and place where people sleep be equipped with both ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms or dual sensor smoke alarms, which contain both ionization and photoelectric smoke sensors.
    * Test smoke alarms monthly and change alkaline batteries at least once every year, or as instructed by the manufacturer. You can use a date you already know, like your birthday or when you change your clocks as a reminder.
    * If possible, install residential fire sprinklers in your home.
    * Avoid painting or covering the fire sprinkler, because that will affect the sensitivity to heat.

Organizations in partnership with the U.S. Fire Administration’s Install. Inspect. Protect. Campaign include the American Fire Sprinkler Association, Burn Institute, Everyone Goes Home, Fire and Emergency Manufacturers and Services Association, Fire Department Safety Officers Association, Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, Home Safety Council, International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters, International Association of Fire Chiefs, International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services, National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM) , NASFM Fire Research and Education Foundation, National Association of Hispanic Firefighters, National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, National Fire Protection Association, National Fire Sprinkler Association, National Volunteer Fire Council, and Safe Kids Worldwide.

07 November 2009

Not All Energy Star Appliances Equally Efficient

NY Times

The Energy Department has concluded in an internal audit that it does not properly track whether manufacturers that give their appliances an Energy Star label have met the required specifications for energy efficiency

Some manufacturers could therefore be putting the stickers on unqualified products such as kitchen appliances, according to the audit, by the Energy Department’s inspector general, Gregory H. Friedman.

The Energy Star program, jointly managed by the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, has benefited from a renewed emphasis by the Obama administration, as a mechanism for reducing the waste of energy and curbing resulting greenhouse gas emissions. Under the federal stimulus bill, $300 million will go to rebates for consumers who buy Energy Star products.

Some consumers choose energy-efficient appliances for the same reason they might choose a car with good fuel economy: to save money or reduce the environmental impact.

Teams from the Energy Department and the E.P.A. oversee different categories of products. Last December, the environmental agency’s inspector general said the Energy Star ratings for products it oversees, like computers and television sets, were “not accurate or verifiable” because of weak oversight by the agency.

The Energy Department vowed then to scrutinize its performance in evaluating the products that it oversees, like windows, dishwashers, washing machines and refrigerators.

The new audit, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, indicates that the Energy Department has also fallen far short. Those shortcomings “could reduce consumer confidence in the integrity of the Energy Star label,” according to the department’s inspector general. The audit is to be submitted to Energy Secretary Steven Chu this week. While the Energy Department requires manufacturers of windows and L.E.D. and fluorescent lighting to have independent laboratories evaluate their products, the report said, companies that make refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers, water heaters and room air-conditioners, which consume far more energy, can certify those appliances themselves.

One refrigerator manufacturer tipped off the Energy Department that some models from a competitor that carried the Energy Star label did not meet the criteria, the audit said. That problem was also described by Consumer Reports magazine in October 2008 about tests it had conducted. In a settlement last year, the manufacturer, LG of South Korea, agreed to modify circuit boards in the machines already sold, to reduce their consumption and to compensate consumers for the extra power consumed.

The report also noted that while the government said in 2007 that it would conduct “retail assessments” to ensure that all the products carrying the Energy Star logo deserved them, it is still not doing so for windows, doors, skylights, water heaters and solid-state lighting. And the department is not following through to ensure that when inappropriately labeled products are identified, the labels are actually taken off, the audit said.

In one category, compact fluorescent lights, the government has certified nearly all existing products, the audit said. “When 90 percent of the products qualify, the consumer cannot easily judge the relative efficiencies of C.F.L. products,” the report said.

Jen Stutsman, an Energy Department spokeswoman, cited the recent agreement with the E.P.A., and said, “The Obama administration is strongly committed to ensuring that all Energy Star products provide American consumers with significant energy and cost savings, and has moved forward with steps to streamline and enhance the program.”

An outside expert, Lane Burt, the manager of building energy policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said some of the criticisms were justified.

“It’s been a tremendously successful program,” Mr. Burt said. “It’s grown by leaps and bounds, and any time you have that kind of growth, you’re going to have growing pains.”

Nonetheless, he said, “it’s crucial to make sure consumers are actually saving money and energy when buying an Energy Star appliance.” On Sept. 30, the Energy Department and the E.P.A. signed a memorandum of understanding that seeks to address some of the shortcomings detailed in the report.

Other Energy Star Appliances:

Mr. Burt said the memorandum committed both agencies to having all of their products evaluated by certified independent laboratories, and to expand the Energy Star program to cover products that were not in common use when it began in 1996. No target date was set.

The memorandum called for a “super star” program within Energy Star to identify the top-performing 5 percent of products, ranked by efficiency, he said.

06 November 2009

Dreams, Books, and Blowtorches

from the Wall Street Journal

Thomas Keller is widely regarded not only as the top chef in the country but as the food world's reigning perfectionist. His restaurants, The French Laundry and Per Se, are among the country's most expensive and exclusive temples of haute cuisine.

Now the chef has written a cookbook for regular folks, with recipes for "everyday staples" such as hamburgers, chicken-and-dumpling soup, and creamed corn, using ordinary kitchen appliances like coffee makers, blenders and slow-cookers. The book, "Ad Hoc at Home," is Mr. Keller's "most accessible," says publisher Ann Bramson of Artisan Books, with the words "family-style recipes" emblazoned on the cover.

The concept is tantalizing: four-star flavor in the comfort of home and with less expense (the prix fixe dinner at Manhattan's Per Se is $275 per person without wine). There's just one problem: After one spends the time and money to buy the ingredients and equipment and then cook through the multiple steps in some of the recipes, dinner at Per Se starts looking like the cheap and easy route.

It's a frustration food fans are likely to encounter as more cookbooks are published that celebrate the unfettered complexity that the world's top chefs bring to their cuisine. These chefs include New York's David Chang, whose book "Momofuku" was released earlier this week, and British star Heston Blumenthal, who this month is publishing a $50, 528-page version of a $250 cookbook released last year. While Julia Child made her career by breaking down classic French cuisine into steps the average cook could execute, these top chefs don't make concessions for home cooks. Instead, they write recipes that require the equipment, ingredients and techniques they use in their restaurants.

"It's my point of view that cooking is a process and something you should enjoy doing. You have to embrace and enjoy that process if you want to become a good cook," Mr. Keller says.

Recognizing that chefs often write recipes over the heads of average people, the Food Network says it no longer seeks out well-known restaurant chefs and has instead changed its business model to promoting home cooks with good personalities, says Michael Smith, Food Network's senior vice president of marketing. Cookbooks from Food Network stars are hugely popular: Of 38 cookbook best sellers last year, five were from Paula Deen, Giada de Laurentiis and Rachael Ray, all Food Network stars, says Simba Information, a media researcher in Stamford, Conn.

But there remains an audience that craves teaching from the industry's top masters. Mr. Keller's books are Artisan's biggest sellers, Ms. Bramson says. Nearly 400,000 copies of "The French Laundry Cookbook" have been printed; the company has ordered 100,000 copies of "Ad Hoc at Home" for its initial run. Overall, cookbook sales have been strong relative to the book market overall, and publishers released nearly 14% more cookbooks in 2008 than the year before.

The recipes in "Ad Hoc" are mostly homey staples, such as chicken pot pie, that are cooked with four-star-restaurant techniques. Mr. Keller's take on a hamburger involves buying sirloin, brisket and chuck and grinding it. "Blowtorch rib roast" is exactly as it sounds: a roast that is browned with a small propane blowtorch, which he suggests buying at a hardware store, before being cooked in the roaster oven. Several recipes require expensive machines such as a Vita-Mix Blender (starting at about $450) or a standing mixer (about $300) and don't offer alternative methods. Mr. Keller definitely prefers other techniques to deep fryers.

One particularly challenging recipe comes with a deceptively comforting title: Chicken Soup with Dumplings. The picture of a thick broth poured over bright green celery and carrots and perfectly shaped dumplings is motivating.

But the recipe takes about two hours of active labor and dirties about 10 pans and bowls and food choppers. It involves such diverse skills as making a parchment lid for a pot, thickening broth with a roux, and making cream puff dough (for the dumplings). That celery is bright green because it is separately cooked in boiling water, then quickly chilled in ice water and later incorporated into the soup. Also, using two spoons to form the torpedo-shaped dumplings known as quenelles might be a challenge for novices.

The Easiest Recipe

Mr. Keller says that people using his cookbook should choose recipes within their skill level. The easiest recipe in the book is probably the grilled-cheese sandwich, Mr. Keller says. The chicken soup is fairly complex, he says. "I always recommend that any cook start with something that you feel you can be successful with," Mr. Keller says. As readers attain more skill and make a deeper commitment to cooking, they can graduate to trickier recipes.

Mr. Keller is part of an industrywide trend in which chefs known for fine dining are migrating into more casual cuisine. The recipes in the book are from food served at Ad Hoc, a three-year-old restaurant in Yountville, Calif. Mr. Keller is opening a third branch of his Bouchon bistro in Beverly Hills around mid-November, and his future plans include opening a hamburger restaurant, if he can ever find the right location, he says.

Elsewhere, Daniel Boulud, of Manhattan's tony Daniel, recently opened a sausage restaurant in the Bowery, once New York's skid row. Marcus Samuelsson, known for cooking at Aquavit, an exclusive Scandinavian restaurant in Manhattan, wrote "New American Table," a tour of American food traditions out this month that includes recipes for breakfast burritos and turkey meatloaf.

The push into more casual fare is a significant shift for Mr. Keller, a chef known for uncompromising standards. He is widely credited with luring American diners to restaurants in which they have no choice of what they eat—they must order the tasting menu.

'Be Warned'

His previous cookbooks, "The French Laundry Cookbook" and "Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide," are notorious for including some of the most laborious recipes in print, spawning daredevil blogs on which people attempt to make the recipes and Amazon reviews such as "Be warned." Most recipes, such as "Butter-Poached Maine Lobster, Tomato Pain Perdu, Celery and 'Russian Dressing'" are in fact a series of recipes, often involving complicated techniques. Simply putting the ingredients together on a plate properly can be an architectural challenge.

Mr. Keller says he has time to make dinner at home only about six times a year. His favorite meal: grilled steak, corn on the cob and a salad from his garden, preferably with ripe tomatoes.

Judging "Ad Hoc" purely on the basis of difficulty misses the point, says Ms. Bramson. The book is a compendium of cooking knowledge, from how to properly truss, or tie, a chicken for roasting to an essay on kosher salt (different brands have different weights), Ms. Bramson says.

"We're grown-ups. If the recipe looks too hard, you don't make it," she says.

03 November 2009

Bathroom Tops Home Remodeling Needs For Seniors

U.S. News & World Report

Making bathrooms more friendly to older homeowners tops the list of important projects to help people remain in their homes as they age. Angie's List has more than a million consumers in its local networks providing their experiences and recommendations of favored contractors and service providers. It polled participating contractors and found that the four most requested bathroom improvement projects were the installation of grab bars in the shower-bath area, replacement of a bathtub with a walk-in shower-tub, installation of bathroom vanities with space underneath to accommodate a wheelchair, and the lowering of electrical switches to make them easier to reach.

When doing the work, here were the contractors' recommendations:

    * Properly install grab bars and seats so they can withstand the weight they’ll be expected to bear and the safety devices they’re designed to be.
    * Provide safe entry and exit from bath and shower enclosures.
    * Install non-slip flooring.
    * Install good lighting.
    * Install lever door handles because they are easier to use than traditional, round door knobs.
    * Round corners to help minimize injuries.

While cost is always important, the first priority for bath safety products is that the modifications perform as advertised. The National Association of Home Builders and AARP helped develop a three-day training program that conveys a CAPS (Certified Aging in Place Specialist) designation. They've also developed a CAPS locator tool.

The recession has helped bring down home-improvement prices, according to several contractors. Dan McClure, from Mansfield, TX, says, "For basic or standard materials and installations, we have seen some overall project costs drop 15 percent to 20 percent." In addition, more of his suppliers have held clearance and close-out sales, leading to even larger price savings on some jobs.

"Handicap-accessible shower stalls, when converted from tub installations, can range anywhere from $1,800 to $5,500," McClure says, "again depending on a wide range of materials selections as well as the degree of difficulty in making the renovation to existing structures." He says toilet change-outs generally range from $285 to $485, and grab-bar installations range from $65 to $95. Don't be surprised if the total cost of a complete "aging-in-place" bathroom begins at $10,000, and moves up from there. However, like all home remodeling  projects, the sky's the limit, depending on personal tastes. Angie's List heard of one set of grab bars that cost $7,000 -- just for the bars!

Pricing can vary greatly because of differing bathroom layouts, the age and condition of the home, the quality of work desired, and the unseen plumbing and electrical issues that often don't emerge until walls are opened up after a project has begun. For this reason, contractors say consumers should get multiple bids and should make sure they communicate regularly with their contractor.

Vanessa Cheshire helped her parents renovate their Boston home 15 years ago after her father, then 63, was in a serious car accident. Her parents relocated their living space to the ground floor of their two-story home. Related renovations included making the bathroom wheelchair accessible, widening doorways and erecting an outside wheelchair ramp. Like many projects, this one was driven by necessity. "I don't remember how much all the renovations cost," she recalls. "But I do remember that we did not shop around too much. We went with a known, trusted contractor who had done work for us previously. Our entire family was emotionally overwhelmed. And, we were in a rush to have the renovations done by the time my father would be released from the rehab hospital." Last year, her father passed away, and the bathroom was renovated again to meet the current needs of Cheshire's mother.

In hindsight, she says, "it would be better to renovate well in advance of a debilitating condition. However, it is hard to know what is needed in advance." While that is a factor, contractors say evolving aging-in-place standards point to many changes that can be made without knowing the specifics of an occupant's special needs. "Baby boomers planning to live in their homes for another 30 years should seriously consider implementing as many universal design concepts as possible," says San Francisco contractor MartinSimenc . These changes include curb-less entries plus arthritis-friendly fixtures and hardware. "Older adults in the midst of a health crisis or rehab should initially focus on the modifications that will maximize their independence immediately," he adds, mentioning grab bars, railings and wheelchair ramps.