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Barrett Barlowe

Barrett Barlowe is an award-winning writer, specializing in green living and conservation. Also a veteran visual effects artist in the film industry, she has a BA in English literature and French, and an MFA in film animation.

Approaching Conservation

Green living has become a buzzword with industries and small business and you can spend a lot of the green in your own wallet in pursuit of eco-living. You don’t have to break the bank in order to save on energy, electricity, water or oil, though. Small changes in your daily routine and some clever gadgets make a big difference in how you impact the planet. 

Every day you make small decisions that can impact the health of the planet.

If you follow yourself on your daily routine, opportunities to reduce your carbon footprint turn up practically at every step you make. You might be surprised at how much waste occurs without your even thinking twice about it.

Your alarm clock sounds and you pull yourself out of bed. Groggy, you turn on the taps and let the water run until the water heats up. Water down the drain is water wasted. You can install and on-demand water heater that only delivers hot water when and where you need it. Not only do you get hot water quickly, you don’t waste fuel keeping a tank of hot water ready when you are not even home. Changing out an old-fashioned toilet for a low-flush type also helps save you water as well.

Breakfast can be greener if you compost the leftovers. Keep a secure, sealed container on your counter to collect the food without attracting bugs or rodents. After you unwrap a pastry or bread stored in aluminum foil, brush off the crumbs from the silvery material, smooth out the wrinkles, fold it up into a neat square and tuck it away for reuse.

Heading out to your car for the commute? Walk or bike to public transport instead, or better yet, explore your options for telecommuting with your workplace. Increasingly, enlightened businesses are recognizing the benefits of a flexible workplace. They save on electricity and infrastructure, and get a more relaxed productive employee.

When its time to recharge your cell phone, relax by a bubbling fountain or light up a dark corner of your garden, you can harness the power of the sun to achieve your goals. Solar panels and photovoltaic cells are getting more compact and cheaper, allowing you to unplug from the grid and power small items with energy from the sun. After the sun goes down and you switch on the lights to read, make sure that you are using energy-efficient compact fluorescents (CFLs) or LED bulbs which emit less heat and use less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs.

Southern California and solar solutions

Just as cool temperatures and autumn rain sets in in the northern part of the country, here in Southern California, the sun blazes in cloudless skies, day after day. Ignoring such a plentiful and reliable source of energy might seem like overlooking a pile of cash sitting in the corner, but there are some barriers to installing a functional solar system that homeowners cannot, or are not, willing to overcome.

Deciding on whether to install a solar power system involves understanding your options and deciding on how big an investment you are willing to make in your home. You might be a dedicated conservationist and believe that any reduction in the power you draw off the grid is worth the money spent to reduce greenhouse gases associated with the production of that energy. Or, you might focus on long-term goals, such as improving the resale value of your home. Solar systems can also free you to live in remote areas, completely off the grid. Taking advantage of free information from governmental agencies is a good start, and finding local specialists that can answer specific questions and design a solar solution tailored to your needs is essential.

The most basic type of residential solar energy is a thermal solar system, which collects the sun’s energy to heat water. These systems do not store energy or create electricity, but save you from firing up your furnace to heat water. They are relatively inexpensive systems, ranging between 1,000 and 4,000 dollars.

Solar electric or photovoltaic technology transforms the energy from the sun directly into electricity. The system generates a direct current and a transformer changes it to the alternating current you use in your home. Batteries store any energy you do not use immediately for use at night or on cloudy days. When the amount of electricity you generate exceeds your use, you can opt to sell back the excess to the electric utility company that services your area. Some major manufacturers include SMA (inverter technology), and Mitsubishi, Suntech, and Canadian Solar for the modules themselves. Photovoltaic systems are pricier, averaging around $25,000 for a 3-killowat system.

New solar companies start up every day, and you should research the track record and staying power of each before investing in a system. Energy Efficient Solar, based in Pomona, California, has been in business since 1990. Going solar is a major investment, but there are various incentives and rebates available through governmental agencies. Check out the U.S. Department of Energy’s Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency for up-to-date information.

The most energy-efficient homes integrate smart home design into solar systems to maximize passive heating and cooling. Planting deciduous trees on the west side of your property can reduce cooling expenses in summer, while allowing the sun’s rays to heat your home in the winter. 

Saving global by growing local

Oil conservation is a big topic that seeps into even the smallest aspects of modern life. It’s Valentines Day: you order dessert to top off a special meal at your favorite restaurant, and then take a bite of the raspberry tart. Something tastes off — not the fruit itself, but the aftertaste, once you realize how it got to your plate. What’s oil got to do with it, you might wonder, and the answer is, everything.

Today’s global market brings the world to your table with fresh produce appearing year round in markets all over the United States. Your climate determines which fruits can be grown locally, or even in your hemisphere. The summer fruits, such as peaches, plums and berries that stock markets in the dead of winter needed oil to fuel the thousands of miles they traveled on trucks, trains and ships. Globalization resulted in the stiff competition that made imports affordable, despite the costs inherent in long-distance shipping, due to cheap labor, and sometimes-lax agricultural safeguards. Organic produce, championed as the answer to toxic pesticides still relies on burning greenhouse-emitting fossil fuels to reach their destination. For foods transported around the globe, organic and sustainable mean two different things. Fraud further erodes imported organics luster. Recently, the FDA uncovered a plan to fake the organic status of Chinese fruit and vegetable imports.

In industrial agriculture, everything from the oil-based plastics used in packaging, to the monoculture of crops is geared towards efficiency, maximizing profit and minimizing costs; but the cost to the environment is only recently being examined. According to the Unites States Department of Agriculture 15 percent of all food in the U.S. is imported, and the percentage of imported fruit is even higher. Worldwide, fewer and fewer agri-giants grow the food we eat.

Alarmed about the trend, conservation-minded leaders and residents have started thinking differently about how we relate to our food supplies. Locavore is a new term on the lips of urban and suburbanites, who limit what they eat to what is available locally, each season, and put up, or can and preserve excess yields for future use. The practice might seem novel to young adults, but is merely the way the U.S. operated before World War II, before the consolidation of agriculture and the expansion of road and air travel.  

In Southern California, the concept of local food is epitomized in the Altadena Urban Farmers Market. The market operates more like a food and goods exchange, in which neighbors bring produce grown, collected or prepared locally. Although located less than 20 miles away from downtown Los Angeles, and less than five miles away from Pasadena, neighbors learn how to make cheese from goats raised on large lots and bring eggs collected fresh that morning to market.

Soil, soil, toil and trouble

Until recently, dirt got no respect. The health of the soil reflects the health of the entire ecosystem surrounding us, and in many parts of the United States, the ground we stand on is being bombarded by many challenges. Changes in weather patterns, acid rain, contamination from air and water pollution seem beyond the control of individuals, but the reality is that every time you buy a fruit out of season, dig into your wallet to play a round of golf at a desert resort, or even rip out native plants on a hillside in favor of exotics to get year-round greenery, you can negatively impact the health of the soil around you and around the entire country.

Here in Southern California, a series of events, including drought and wildfire has left scarred and stripped hillsides vulnerable to erosion. The dry, Manzanita-covered hillsides and lush oak-dotted canyons are usually covered with a layer of fertile topsoil, created by the breakdown of organic materials. When soaking rain falls onto charred hillsides, it washes away the topsoil because the root systems that had held it in place have been destroyed. Downhill and downstream, the soils turns into mudflows that inundate residential developments and clog streams and storm drains. In the past, U.S. Forest Officials looking to prevent soil erosion following natural catastrophes mounted an aerial assault, coating the hillsides with an organic slurry — sort of a seed smoothie to help shore up the hillside by encouraging new growth to take hold. Unfortunately, most of the non-native seed mixes didn’t thrive, or impeded the regrowth of valuable soil-holding natives. Following the enormous 2009 Station Fire, which burned over 150,000 acres in the Los Angeles National Forest, the decision was made not to reseed, and instead to allow the soil and land to heal itself. A profusion of wildflowers blooming the next two seasons gives visitors hope that the decision was a correct one. You can find out more about landscaping with California Natives at the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sunland, California. Home to an extensive plant nursery, the foundation hosts seminars open to the public. Visit the well designed website for more information.

Homeowners who live on the edges of wilderness areas must rely on fire-safe landscaping to create a defensible space around the dwelling structure, as well as improvements in the building materials and design of the home itself. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s website,   contains valuable information and links about fire prevention and how to deal with its aftermath.

Water-Wise Gardening in the Southwest

Water is one resource that can’t be manufactured, and despite all the technological advances made over the decades, water still dictates where and how we live.  In the Southwest, rapid commercial and residential development has put increased demand on available water supplies, and with years below-average rainfall, local municipalities have put the brakes of domestic water consumption with water-conservation regulations and usage restrictions.

When faced with hot, dry weather, and higher utility bills, homeowners must get creative in conserving water and increasing savings. Reducing your consumption can start with looking out your front window. What do you see? If the answer is a large expanse of grass, get out your spade. Watering lawns accounts for a large percentage of water usage in households, particularly in arid climates. Rip out the lawn, and then rent a roto-tiller to turn over the soil. Then, you can place plastic sheeting over the area and stake it in place for a few weeks. Hot sun and resulting high temperatures will kill any remaining roots or grass seed.

What to use in place of grass? There are many alternative ground covers that look attractive and require no irrigation. Decorative pea gravel, bark mulch and river rock are inexpensive options. A newer product, rubberized, recycled mulch, stays in place and looks tidy. Now that your water-greedy lawn is gone, update your irrigation systems to make them more efficient. If you have in-ground sprinklers, install an automatic timer with multiple zones so you don’t waste water on plants that don’t need it. Smart irrigation doesn’t have to be expensive — simple soaker hoses snaked through your perennial beds deliver water directly to the soil where plants soak it up. You minimize wasted water on evaporation and spillage.

Think shade in summer, particularly on the west and south-facing exposures of your property. Large, vented garden umbrellas provide an instant and portable shelter for potted plants and awnings attached to your home shade planting beds as well as the interior of the house.

When hot, dry weather and water restrictions turn your water-thirsty plants brown and sickly replace them with drought-tolerant plantings. Plants native to the Southwest have adapted to deal with low-water conditions and are more available in commercial nurseries than ever before. Plants such as salvias or sages provide you with color and interest in the yard as well as provide food and shelter for birds and honeybees. Succulents do well in dry shade, and cactus plants thrive in well-draining soil and full sun. Landscaping for water conservation saves you money as well as improving your home’s curb appeal. Smart gardening lets you make a positive difference in our thirsty nation.


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