Tips for reducing your electric bill by up to 30%

Here in PA, we’re ever so fortunate (sarcasm) to be headed into a new era deregulated electricity. Our utility provider (PPL Electric) has announced that they expect most residential electric bills such as ours to rise about 30%-32%! Somehow, this is supposed to be a help to our electricity cost. We’ve not figured that out yet.

As the old saying goes, rather than curse the darkness, light a candle. If your bill is going to go up by 30%, try lowering your consumption by 30% or more. This will not only keep your cost down, but reducing demand lowers prices for everyone.

So what are some relatively low-investment ways you can reduce your electric bill by 30% or more? Here’s a few ideas:

  1. Setup a clothes line. This is the cheapest way to go solar there is! According to Dept. of Energy statistics, clothes dryers account for nearly 6%  of household electric bills (average).
  2. Go Green One Day – unplugging most of your non-essential electricity for one day a week. This could save most households up to 15% of their electricity cost.
  3. Track down and eliminate “ghost loads” of electricity – appliances that use power when not even on (DVD, TVs, Phones, etc). A Kil-A-Watt is a great way to find these. Conservatively, we think this could save most households 1-2%
  4. Install a high-efficiency, water-saving shower head. Doing so appears to reduce our family’s utility cost. This is not direclty reducing the electric bull by a whopping amount, but reduces our utility costs in an amount that equals approximately 5-8% of our electricity cost. This is roughly the cost of one month’s electric bill! See our recent post for details.

So, the above simple steps could reduce your expenses by up to 31% of your yearly electric costs (by our estimates). None of the above are expensive or difficult to implement or require advanced DIY skills.

Have additional tips? Post em’ in the comments.

Making your own Kombucha

What is Kombucha?
Kombucha is a fermented tea drink thought to have originated in eastern Europe or the far-east. It’s very popular in natural-health and medicine circles and for good reason!

Why would we want to drink it?
Kombucha is full or all sorts of nutrients and helpful nutrition. It contains the range of B vitamins, particularly B1, B2, B6 and B12, which give the body with energy and help process fats and proteins, and also support a healthy immune system. It’s also rich in vitamin C. This is all in addition to several organic acids that promote health and wellness and are thought to provide a detoxifying effect to the body. Wikipedia has a great article on Kombucha here.

But I heard that…
Like all natural health foods, Kombucha has its detractors. Some people have been harmed drinking Kombucha – that’s true. People are also harmed eating every food known to mankind! People get harmed when they have an allergy, don’t prepare or handle foods properly, lack moderation, or just from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such is the case with Kombucha. We’re not willing to dismiss the claims of thousands of people throughout centuries who’ve used this stuff just because a handful of people have experience harmed from “edge cases” which all tend to be from controllable circumstances. Use common sense. Have a clean environment to prepare this stuff in. Don’t prepare it in containers that could leach chemicals, lead, etc. If it looks moldy, start over, etc. etc.

What’s all this business about Mushrooms and a SCOBY?
Komucha is a fermented beverage (mildly .5%-1.5%). Fermentation is done by a SCOBY which is an acronym for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast. Doesn’t that just sound delightfully appetizing? It’s often called a mushroom because it looks like some sort of fungus, but in reality, it’s the above. We think it looks like a blintz that has been soaked in tea for a long time. Again, it’s not too visually appealing, but without one, you won’t make real Kombucha. Many people buy them from sources online, etc. sometimes spending a bit of cash in the process! We’re not very comfortable spending money to get one from a source we know nothing about. So we set out to make our own.

Here’s how we grew our own kombucha SCOBY:

  1. First, we rounded up a few 1 gallon glass jars. Easily appropriated from local sub shops.
  2. We purchased a few bottles of plain “GT’s Kombucha” from a local grocery store. What? They sell the “deadly” stuff? (sarcasm). It’s best to find one with lots of floaty stuff.
  3. We purchased some organic black tea. (Not Earl Gray!)
  4. We then prepared about 3 quarts of organic black tea. We used decaf, although some say you should not. The point of going organic with the tea is that you don’t know what kind of chemicals are in non-organic tea that you might not want to ferment 😉
  5. Next, we added about 1 and 1/2 cups of sugar. Some say not to use raw sugar – we did, and it’s fine.
  6. After this cooled to the 85° F range, we poured it into a 1 gallon glass jar (clean of course),
  7. We then poured in one whole bottle of the plain GT’s Kombucha,
  8. Next, we topped it off with spring water to within a half inch of the top.
  9. We then covered this with a clean cloth napkin secured with a rubber band, then stored this away from direct sunlight in a warm spot.
  10. Because the Kombucha ferments best around the 85° F range, we placed ours on top of a heating pad.

Finishing things up
Normally, Kombucha ferments in about 7-10 days. To grow a SCOBY takes longer. After about a week, we started to notice a film on top of the liquid which ultimately became our SCOBY. Our plan was to just leave it in place until it grew a SCOBY, which it did after about three weeks. By then, we thought our Kombucha tea would be no good, but it tasted just fine, so we bottled it in smaller bottles to be consumed in the next few days.

Final thoughts
Despite the fact that you’re drinking liquid that has been sitting out for  10-21 days with a bunch of yeast and bacteria floating on top, this stuff tastes pretty good! Even the kids like it, which ought to tell you something. It has a bit of a vinegar after taste, but is also sweet. It’s very much a sweet and sour drink. We serve it chilled and find it quite enjoyable in 8 oz. servings. It makes a great alternative to soda since it’s 1) a little sweet 2) it’s slightly carbonated (because of the fermentation) and 3) non-caffeinated (ours is as at least)!

So what does this have to do with simple life? Well, for one, it supports a healthy lifestyle which keeps us out of the doctor’s office. Secondly,  kombucha, like many fermented foods, is self-sustaining, meaning it’s always giving you what you need for the next batch! We like this idea because we can use simple materials to produce food that is beneficial and tastes good. So long as we can make tea, and have some sort of natural sweetener, we could make Kombucha.

We’ll post more on our Kombucha experience in the days ahead.

Why water-saving shower heads are a good investment

Many people might not think to look at their showers as being a source of potential energy and cost savings. That’s unfortunate, because there’s money to be saved in the shower along with natural resources too.

Consider the following scenario: Here’s the simple math for a family of four each taking a 7 minute with an average water-saving shower head (2.6 gallons per minute, or “gpm”):

  • 4 people x 7 minutes x 2.6 gallons = 72.8 gallons per day
  • 72.8 x $.0015/gallon = $.11 per day
  • 72.8 gallons x $.02 to heat it = $1.46 per day
  • Cost per 7 minute shower = $.37
  • $1.46 + $.11 = $1.57 per day to purchase water and heat it for showering
  • $1.57 X 365 = $573.05 per year!

Here’s the math for the savings this family would see by just installing a high-efficiency shower head:

  • 4 people x 7 minutes x 1.6 gallons = 44.8 gallons per day
  • 44.8 x $.0015/gallon = $.07 per day
  • 44.8 gallons x $.02 to heat it = $.87 per day
  • $.87 + $.07 = $.94 per day to purchase water and heat it for showering
  • $.94 X 365 = $343.10 per year!

So just by installing new shower heads, there’s several hundred dollars a year to be saved in water and energy cost. We’ve installed Peerless 76154 1.6 GPM Water-Amplifying Showerhead, Chrome units that cost us less than $15 – money well spent!

As you can see, hot water heating can be a major expense. As we aim for a simpler life, we’re aiming to use less water, and less commercially-provided energy heating the water. Stay tuned for our future posts about our attempts to heat hot water in some non-traditional ways!

Kefir: The dairy “swiss army knife”

One if the things we’re interested in doing is maintaining a good variety of healthy foods, but in a way that is affordable and sustainable. At this time, due to where we live, we cannot  get a cow or goats for milk. Despite this, we still want to be able to produce simple dairy products on our own without having to depend on the market for every dairy product. We still have to purchase milk, which we get raw from a local farmer.

Enter Kefir – an ancient fermented milk drink that has been around for eons. We think that kefir is the swiss army knife of dairy for those looking to be able to use one item to produce a variety of other items. Kefir on it’s own is much like yogurt and offers all the same benefits, but in bigger doses and with less work. If kefir grains are added to fresh milk, they will ferment the milk within 24 hours. Once fermented, the resulting kefir can be left to sit for another 1-3 days during which time it will separate into curds and whey. The curds can be eaten, or further refined into “laban” which can be used as cottage and cream cheese right away. Or, salt can be added to this laban and becomes the basis for harder cheeses like cheddar and Parmesan cheese. Also, kefir can be fermented to different lengths and strengths producing different tastes and usefulness.

This whole process does not require refrigeration and is a good way of getting usefulness from milk without energy use. Further, the kefir grains are constantly growing and multiplying, thus keeping the owner in a constant supply of kefir grains to eat, use, or share with others.

This is all in addition to many health benefits known to accompany kefir!

If you’re looking to add a “tool” to your simple life arsenal – particularly if you have access to a fresh supply of milk – consider kefir! You won’t be disappointed!

Finishing the Root Cellar

When we moved into our house years ago, we had no idea that we had a root cellar. From our point of view, we had a wet, nasty closet area off our foundation that needed to be cleaned up and made to stop leaking. Needless to say, as we came to understand the value of root cellars and what they were, we were glad that we had not been able to make a significant change to our root cellar since moving in.

We were able to put an insulated door on the root cellar, paint it, run electricity to it, and build shelves turning it into a great place to store our potatoes, sweet potatoes, homemade wine, canned goods, etc.

Vented Root Cellar

A good root cellar has a few components – good insulation, high humidity, and good ventilation. We had plenty of humidity, plenty of insulation (the ground) but no ventilation. We fixed that by adding vents. This was easily done by drilling holes in the foundation (through the cement block) and running 1 1/2″ PVC pipe through the side, then up through the flower beds outside. We used a bend at the top to keep out rain and a screen on each one to keep the critters out.

Root Cellar

The way this works, the supply vent should bring cold air (when it sinks) down the pipe and into the root cellar. The source pipe goes nearly to the floor and the vent pipe on the adjacent wall has a vent at the top, to let the rising hot air escape. We decided to give it a little assistance by adding a powered fan to the vent. This was done using a few PVC fittings from Lowes and carving out a spot for an old computer exhaust fan wired to a 12v DC cordless phone power cord. We then plugged it into a timer like this to have it come on at the cooler parts of the day to cool off the root cellar and keep the fresh air moving through.

Root Cellar with Shelves

Lastly, we added shelves made from furring strips. This was a cheap alternative to purchasing shelves and allowed us to make custom-fit shelves for the root cellar. It took just under four bundles of furring strips (10 to a bundle) to finish – so for about $40, we were able to build simple shelves that would allow the air to circulate through the shelved items.

We plan on covering the nasty floor that is currently there with some small gravel. This will allow us to spray water on the floor that will then evaporate to maintain the humidity at or around the 95% humidity that root cellars need.

If you don’t have a root cellar, they’re easy to make in many homes. Just find a non-heated section of your basement (preferably with no window), wall it off with well-insulated walls and a door and vent it. Most people tend to aim for an ideal temperature in the mid 50’s. This keeps things like apples, potatoes, onions and garlic, sweet potatoes, etc. good for just about the entire winter.

In our case, this allows us an energy-free (mostly – when the fan isn’t running) means of preserving the freshness of our summer harvest. If you don’t yet have a root cellar but enjoy growing your own produce – consider a root cellar as your next DIY project!

Falling off the roost

A few days ago, we experienced our first dose of the reality of caring for small animals. It all started when one of our hens started exhibiting some strange behavior. The kids came in the house exclaiming “I think Risa’s dying!”. She had fallen off the roost in the coop and hadn’t landed well. She had been very still most of the day, was off to herself, had her eyes closed, etc.

There were no other apparent symptoms, so diagnosing the ailment wasn’t going to be easy. The symptoms this bird exhibited were common for just about every chicken illness. After some consideration and research, we thought that maybe she was “eggbound” – a condition when an egg gets stuck inside a hen and can cause death soon afterward is not passed. While some people do take some drastic measures in these cases – from probing around inside of their chickens to seeking veterinary care, we chose to do neither. Instead, we gave Risa (the hen) a nice warm bath – something we’d seen recommended for this condition. She was completely listless. At one point, we laid her on her side while we retrieved a towel and she just stayed there – totally unnatural for a chicken. We dried her off and set her in her own cozy straw-lined box for the night.

When we awoke in the morning, what we had expected had taken place – Risa passed away sometime in the night. In 24 hours we had gone from apparently healthy chicken to a sick and then deceased chicken! While we wonder why, and continue to examine our flock for signs of illness or distress, the reality is tat these things happen. Birds, like all living creatures will come to an end of their lives.

Rather than dissect this bird who had become a pet to our kids, we chose to just chalk it up to a sickness – likely Marek’s disease or something else that is common to chickens. We then cremated the carcass in order to quickly and humanely deal with it in a way that would not pose any health threats to ourselves or our flock.

Our children (4,9,12) all handled things pretty well. The younger two did not like the cremation idea but were more accepting of the outcome once they understood the humane reasons behind it – to protect the flock, and to avoid seeing Risa’s carcass dug up by some other animal. Yes, the cried – and at times even screamed. We don’t think this was so much because of a fondness for this hen, but because of the reality of death which no human enjoys being reminded of – particularly children. Ultimately, we found it a good opportunity to discuss issues of life and death and our kids came out of the ordeal with strength and new understanding.

We know this isn’t instructional per se – but in our journey to a simple life, sometimes the unexpected happens. Hopefully our sharing our experience will help someone else go through this process.

Eggs at Last!

Well, after nearly four months of waiting, our hens have begun to lay eggs! At the moment, 2 of 10 hens are laying eggs on a daily basis. We purchased them as 6-week old pullets and have been patiently waiting since then for the day when we could begin to collect eggs from the hen house.

Chickens at 5-6 weeks old

Our experience has been mostly good so far as “chickeneers”. We’ve not had any pets in our family history, so the number one pain-in-the-rear so far has been getting people to look after the chickens when we’re headed out-of-town. This hasn’t been overly painful, just hard to always remember to do sometimes!

Aside from that, my only other complaint with raising chickens in a typical-suburban neighborhood is this: Chickens don’t recognize boundaries. Much like shepherds have to herd their sheep, we often have to herd our chickens off our neighbors lawns, etc. We deal with this by only letting them free-range for a portion of the day and staying outside with them during that time. Unlike many others, our chickens don’t seem to have an interest in the neighbors gardens, flowers, etc (or ours PTL!) The only real danger to the neighbors is the occasional chicken turd here and there – which is actually good for the soil in moderation 😉 We still pick it up when we see it and return it to our property.

Our Chicken Coop

So, here’s some other questions we and others have had about raising chickens in a sub-urban environment:

1. Is it legal?
Uh… no comment.

2. Do they smell?
We’ve not noticed any strong smells from our chickens, nor do our neighbors. We clean the droppings out of the hen house about every 2-3 weeks and compost them. At no time has it ever been overwhelming. Growing up cleaning up after dogs was worse in my experience.

3. Are they noisy?
We have all hens – they make very little noise. They more or less murmur. If they squawk beyond that, it’s once a week or so, and usually because they feel in danger.

4. Are they expensive?
We had a few hundred dollars in building a coop – but we wanted a nice one that would compliment our property. Aside from that, feed, shells, grit, etc. might cost less than $10/month for ten hens. Unless you’re planning on selling your eggs,  raising chickens for your own eggs isn’t necessarily economically advantageous. We can get free-range eggs for $1.50/dozen from nearby farmers.

5. Why have them if it’s cheaper to buy local eggs?
We don’t want to assume that buying from others will always be as accessible or affordable – plus it’s a great experience for the whole family learning to look after animals that provide you with an ongoing food supply. Further, chickens provide pest control, a ready source of nitrogen-rich compost material, and quite honestly, many zen-like moments while watching them do their thing.

6. What do they eat?
At first, they ate medicated feed to get them off to a healthy start. We then moved to “grower” meal, then onto “layer” pellets. We give them this every day, although they eat from it quite moderately and prefer scratching for bugs, grubs, etc. They get much of their diet from foraging. They also love table scraps – again in moderation. Grass-clippings is another great food for chickens. Our tomatoes in this area of PA were effected by Late Blight, and so the chickens are given any of the produce we cannot eat because of rot, etc. as well. They’re not quite as versatile as pigs, but they can eat a wide-range of foods!