November 08: News and ideas for sustainable living

November 08: News and ideas for sustainable living


Setback to where you once belonged

At a recent Houses That Work seminar, where local builders gathered to learn about building energy-efficient houses, the topic of thermostat setbacks came up. Setbacks are simply the automatic settings that let you program your heat system to run cooler at certain times, like when you’re asleep or not home. The question was raised: Do setbacks end up erasing their own energy savings, since it takes extra energy to bring the house back up to full temperature when the setback period ends?

The presenter, Gord Cooke, had a pretty convincing reason why the answer is no. Although the heat system does work harder in the warming-up phase, balancing out the savings from the cooling-down phase, you will go lighter on energy (thus money) during the whole period that the house is sitting there at its cooler temperature—say, 62 instead of 72. As long as you don’t set back the thermostat more than 10 degrees or so, you still get a net savings.

Possible downsides? 1) A less constant environment for your wood flooring and furniture, which isn’t ideal for them. 2) You gotta get that heat pump set correctly so it doesn’t use “emergency mode” at the end of the setback period (which would be way wasteful). 3) When you get up to stumble around toward kitchen or bathroom in the middle of the night, you’re gonna freeze your patooshkies off unless you own a halfway decent robe.—Erika Howsare

Go away, gadgets

Did you know that an estimated 2.2 million tons of computers, TVs, and other electronic equipment are discarded into U.S. landfills each year? The upcoming conversion of analog to digital will likely add to this e-waste tsunami. And although many retailers have begun to offer free take-back programs, unfortunately Betty’s sleuthing found that none of the local big box companies participate.

To avoid mercury, lead and other known carcinogens contaminating our local ground water supply, recycle that stuff through these programs:

*Computers for Kids ( or 817-1121), a local nonprofit dedicated to mentoring disadvantaged kids, gladly accepts a variety of computer equipment (sorry, no TVs) including laptops, desktops and monitors.

Screen these candidates: There are lots of options for keeping your electronics out of the landfill.

*For businesses, Computer Recycling of Virginia will pick up all electronics for a fuel fee. After refurbishing, they donate equipment to schools and nonprofits throughout Virginia, or sell them in their self-sustaining store in Harrisonburg. Icing on the cake: a no-landfill guarantee (check or call (540) 564-1990.) 

*AmVets will pick up TVs and other functioning electronics, transport, and sell to Richmond’s Fantastic Thrift store, then donate the money to Vietnam Veterans. Call (800) 448-9870. 

*Both local Goodwill stores accept computers (no TVs, though). 

*If all else fails, Crutchfield will recycle for a nominal fee; however, they say that after transporting, dismantling, recycling and refurbishing, “some” parts may end up in a New Jersey landfill.

*Two more computer recycling options: Staples will e-cycle for a $10 fee and at Office Depot you purchase the e-cycle box (sizes and prices from $5-15) and they’ll do the rest. 

Giving away the gold

A recent post on C-VILLE’s Green Scene blog recounted a couple of the ways that you can make compost on a grander scale than just with your own kitchen scraps. (If you’re a serious gardener, for example, you may want lots of the precious organic matter.) One way is to use Craigslist or Freecycle to find someone who doesn’t or can’t compost at their own place, and make arrangements to pick up their scraps.

Another everybody-wins idea: Find a local restaurant that separates compostables from other garbage (or is willing to try it), and arrange regular pickups. You could be looking at a motherlode of banana peels and broccoli stalks here. Figure out a ready source of brown and green matter (say, haybales plus a patch of your yard that you can leave unmowed) in advance, since the volume of scraps generated by restaurants is impressive compared to the average home cook.

Tons of organic matter awaits! It’s all a matter of finding it.

After we put the blog post up, an employee at Mudhouse added a comment to remind us that the much-loved java stop is one place that invites anyone to come in and pick up compostables—in this case, coffee grounds. Any location, weekday mornings. Thanks for the tip!—E.H.

See SPARK! save

Lightbulbs and outlets aren’t the first things “green” brings to mind, but Eric Gilchrist of the Charlottesville Community Design Center and SPARK!, CCDC’s kilowatt-conscious offspring, wants you to make that connection.

Since SPARK!’s launch last April, the program has worked to grow energy awareness with a go-for-broke approach that tackles the issue from all sides: policy discussion, research and education, with a focus on providing homeowners with the info they need to save big energy bucks. With fuel costs sky-high, “one of the best steps we can take on a local level is to increase energy efficiency,” Gilchrist says.

The SPARK! program at the CCDC wants to up your efficiency.

With that in mind, SPARK! has launched an energy performance pilot program targeting low-income homes for audits and renovation. “People recognize that families in low-income homes usually live in homes that are older and not as well built,” Gilchrist says, meaning that “their budget dollar is going towards energy instead of going to feed themselves.” With 22 homes currently in the program, SPARK! will perform audits, renovate, and track the cost savings that follow.

SPARK! also sponsors an energy meter loan program and runs free workshops and exhibits in the CCDC space Downtown, so you’ve got no excuse not to bone up on energy savings. Look out for an energy awareness day in January, and surf over to for more details.—Lucy Zhou

This is your drain on drugs

Got a few old Vicodins hanging around from when you had that tooth pulled a few years ago? On your next cleaning jag, you might be tempted to flush them down the toilet, since pills are in that weird category of stuff that people think should be flushed rather than tossed. Not so fast: Pharmaceuticals contaminate groundwater and even drinking water, and Virginia’s fish should not be sharing your meds.

Instead, pills that are unneeded or expired should be disposed of in sealed containers or treated as hazardous waste. Herbal remedies, presumably, go in the compost pile.—E.H.

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