May 2009 Archives

Grey water made easy

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Like with composting, it's easy to find grey water systems that are complicated and expensive, requiring retrofitting your plumbing.

Here at Chez Frugal Culture, our grey water system is a bucket.

We keep it on the kitchen floor by the sink. As we wash dishes, we pour waste water into the bucket. Sometimes, to catch more, we keep a big metal bowl in the sink to collect the water as we rinse, and empty that into the bucket.

When the bucket gets full, we carry it outside and dump it on whatever tree or bush looks thirstiest.

It's easy to imagine systems that would capture more grey water, but not so easy to imagine anything easier to implement.

California's been in a drought, and water prices keep going up. Every little bit helps.

Drip Dry

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One of the best things about our house is the backyard. It's not very big, so it's easy to maintain, but large enough to string up clothesline so we can harness the power of the sun and wind to dry our clothes.

I don't know what it is about hanging the laundry outside to dry that I love so much. For one, it gets dry lickety-split on a hot enough day (I've been known to do three loads of laundry in a single day), and the smell....I'm not sure why air drying makes fabric smell so fresh and clean.

It's also very simple, as this is how laundry got dry around the world before the advent of the household appliance. I feel connected to many generations of women, using a pre-industrial technology to get things dry. And I must pay attention to the sun's journey during the day, and take note of the strength of the wind. I like slowing down and best utilizing the weather as my partner in this effort.

It's also a temporary art project. This morning I did whites, so there is a blinding-white line of sheets and towels swinging to and fro (they have the best amplitude). On days I wash colors, I like to play with the hues, sizes, and thicknesses of fabric.

Finally, who couldn't love its no carbon footprint!

Have a good Memorial Day

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Frugal Culture is taking the day off. See you Wednesday.

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap All-one OK!

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The cheaper solution sometimes beats the more expensive solution in almost every way. Our soap solution is an example. We spend all of about $35 on soap every several years, in the form of a gallon jug of Dr. Bronner's peppermint castille soap. I dilute it with water (about 1 part soap to 8 parts water) into pump bottles we keep everywhere we need it.

It's a great grease-cutter, it smells good, and it lathers more easily than bar soap.

Liquid soap doesn't travel that well (especially if it's subject to vibration.) But that's the only downside I can think of.

You can look for it in your local earthy-crunchy grocery store if you have one (you may have to special order the gallon size, though.) Otherwise, a web search turns up a lot of opportunities to order it.

One of the nice things about bikes is that they're mechanical, with almost all of the moving parts in plain sight. It's relatively straightforward to understand and maintain them.

The commonest repair you'll need is fixing a flat tire. It's something I think every biker should be able to do. You'll need a patch kit, a couple of tire levers (one of mine is this one), and a bike pump. Modern mini-bike pumps are much smaller and more efficient than anything you're imagining if you haven't used one lately.

Here's an explanation of how to make the change.

As I noted with headlights, these tools aren't useful if you don't have them with you, so make sure you make it easy to actually carry them. I recommend having a bag for your bike gear that's really easy to put on and take off. There are a lot of options here, from under-seat bags to "trunk bags" that mount on a rear-rack (without interfering with your panniers.)

I also like having a multi-tool that lets me tighten and adjust almost everything on my bike. A couple of times, my chain has broken while I was out, and the chain-breaking tool is what allowed me to keep going.

Many bike repairs require special tools. I've acquired a lot of these over the years, and do almost all my own repairs and maintenance. If getting greasy and fiddling with mechanical things isn't appealing, you may never want to go down that road, but you'll be a happier and better cyclist to be able to perform some simple fixes in the field.

Do It Yourself, within reason

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This New York Times article sums up an important point I neglected to mention in my DIY post:

Know your limits.

With everyone economizing these days, DIY fever has swept the nation. However, there are some things that should be left to the professionals, especially projects that could snowball dangerously (and expensively) if not done properly.

I think it's great to "push the envelope" and "get out of your comfort zone," but if you haven't picked up a hammer since high school wood shop class, maybe it's a tad ambitious to hang up moulding (result: punctured water pipe).

It's happening in every service profession: hairstylists, mechanics, plumbers.
A mechanic related the story of a customer who tried to make his own part for a needed DIY repair. That's someone with get-up-and-go.

Back in October we had to bite the bullet to get a professional to hang our new front door. It was pricey, but the cost of having a gaping hole where the front door should have been, well....we wrote the big check.

That's why I love adult education classes, where for a fee you learn the skills that you want to acquire, instead of teaching yourself along the way (which may never happen). So spend a little money when you need to, instead of spending a whole lot of money later on.

Drivers sometimes get a sort of tunnel-vision in which they're so busy looking for cars, they can overlook a cyclist in plain sight. As a cyclist, you can keep yourself safest by not relying on being just in plain sight, but by being in really conspicuous sight.

One big part of this is to act like the legitimate vehicular operator you are. Take the lane when you need it. Take the right of way when it's yours (while remaining appropiately wary of cars around you.) Yield the right of way when it's someone else's. Signal your turns. And don't duck in and out of sight in the empty spaces in parking lanes.

But your riding choices only go so far. Visibility is bad at night, at dusk or dawn, and in the rain. This is where lights come in.

In my municipality, it's illegal to bike at night without some sort of headlight (and I know people who have been cited for biking without it.) Here are some of the obvious issues in choosing one:

  • its visibility (brightness and width of beam) to others
  • how much it illuminates your path
  • its battery life

And here are some more that are just as important, as they can make or break whether you actually use it:

  • ease of keeping it powered
  • ease of carrying it
  • ease of putting it on and taking it off

The smallest of lights are little different from a small flashlight, and while they'll do something to improve your visibility, they won't do much to improve what you can see unless it's pitch dark. There are very bright halogen and LED lights that are very expensive, but make sense if you're going to be regularly riding at night. Halogen and incandescent lights burn through batteries very quickly -- you'll want to use rechargeable batteries (all the halogen models I know of come with a rechargeable battery; some incandescents don't.)

In general, if you ever park your bike in public, you don't want to leave any desirable accessories on your bike that can be easily removed, or they will be. So think about how you'll store it, and take it on and off (an easy thing for most models, which come with mounts the light can be slipped on or off.)

While some headlights are expensive, other things that can drastically improve your visibility are cheap. Reflective stickers can be put on your bike, helmet, bags, or anyplace else they'll reflect light from oncoming vehicles. LED blinkie lights are highly visible and last a long time on a single set of batteries (keep them in blink-mode -- they're even more visible and last longer.) You can get helmet-mounted blinkies, too.

Don't forget your side visibility -- you want lights (or at least reflectors) in all directions. (Again, my municipality has specific requirements about reflectors. Yours might, too.)

Add a reflective jacket or vest to all of the above, and you've done all you can do. You're now a really conspicuous sight, and that's a good thing.

In this harsh, unfeeling corporate world we inhabit these days, it's hard to believe the power of talking to a real-live person. If you have a speaker phone option (which makes waiting on hold much, much easier so you can do something productive with your time instead of badly doing something with the phone held to your ear by your shoulder), it's the tool that will save you time, aggravation, and money. Just wait for the end of the menu of options when you call the customer service number, when the option to talk to a real, live person is finally offered. They do that on purpose, hoping to triage away your time-consuming question with automated systems, but don't lose hope. There's always the live person option at the end.

Calling up our car insurance company, in just seven minutes (including hold time), I saved $100/yr off our premium. I'd say that was an excellent use of my time.

And I'm always amazed at how easily credit card companies will forgive a late payment if you take the time to call. For example, a credit card payment I made that posted one day after the due date.

As a result, I was charged $33 for a late payment, as well as the one day's worth of accrued finance charges at their usury rates. I knew that I could ask to have the late fee and charges removed if I called, as I had never been late with a payment before, not to mention that it was delinquent by only a day. And those fees were ridiculous!

Sure enough, talking with the customer service rep in a calm tone, I was able to get reversals on all the charges. I didn't have to beg; she was the one who suggested it.

Now, you may wonder why these companies would want to do such a thing. It's because the customer service reps are really combination sales rep/customer service....while waiting for their "system to reflect the changes they made," they make some kind of pitch. In the credit card company case, it was for credit card payment insurance in case I lose my job, and in the car insurance case, it was to set up my account for automatic payment of my premiums (premia?).

While canceling a hotel reservation, I was offered a time-share trip. When I called my bank for an incorrectly levied fee, they hawked their new six-month CD's. I just firmly reply, "No, thank you."

I have also noticed that sales people of all kinds have been extremely friendly and grateful since the beginning of the year, and I think it's absolutely due to the economic downturn. They really are grateful for my patronage, and they'd rather forgive a late fee or give a discount instead of losing a customer entirely.

I know everyone has a nightmare voice menu horror story, but in recent years the technology has improved, especially with the large, multinational companies like banks and insurance companies (come to think of it, the very ones who caused this economic downturn), and they really are emphasizing good quality service as part of their "stated values and mission" (I actually heard that once), so see how much money you can save.

Loss Leaders

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Most of our grocery shopping these days is done at Trader Joe's for pastas, faux meat products, and cheeses, while we shop at the farmers' market for produce. However, back in the day, I was an eagle-eyed loss leader shopper.

Loss leaders are the extremely-discounted items that grocery stores (usually the large chains) advertise in their weekly specials as a way to bring traffic into a store. The stores typically do not make a profit on them, hence the "loss." But it's all about the war and not the battle, blah blah, because it is the rare person who comes in for a 99-cent bag of chocolate chips and walks out with a single purchase. We are all busy, of course, and then shop for the remaining items we need that are not loss leaders but sold at the grocery store.

I used to scour the weekly sales specials (irritatingly mailed to you in the form of junk mail) but saved a lot of money by stocking up on loss leaders. I became fluent in all kinds of prices: everyday pricing, BOGO (buy one get one free) pricing, and loss leader pricing. This is not limited to grocery stores, but any type of chain store that uses the weekly specials model: Target, auto parts, garden stores, pharmacies.

Growing up, it was a kind of game my dad and I would play. Sunday mornings we'd peruse the sales flyers, find the loss leaders, and stock up. We had a regional version of Target, which sold a little bit of everything, and stocked up on household items: light bulbs, pet food, toilet paper, paper towels, Kleenex, motor oil, batteries, shampoo, toothpaste; all the things you need to keep a family running but are deeply unsexy.

It didn't take long to see the loss leader pattern, which ran on a four-week cycle. If we didn't need to buy cat food this month, I knew it would be on sale again the next month.
As a nine year-old, this was heady stuff: I was recognizing patterns about how the world worked. It wasn't that complicated, and in fact was quite predictable.

I'm grateful that I learned this shopping sense when I was young, and even more so because it was like a game. What I didn't realize is that I learned important things about value, paying attention, and research. All these lessons served me well as I got older, because these are all important factors when purchasing, be it a box of light bulbs to a house.


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The Biking as an Effective Means of Transportation series will continue; now, I'd like to talk about margins.

In lots of parts of life, from our schedules to our finances to our health, we have limits. We've all pushed our limits in one way or another, and that's a good thing. (Among other reasons, it's useful to have an idea of where they are.)

The thing about living at the limit is that there's no margin there for error, for mishap, for emergency. And, eventually, one of those is going to come up.

A break-even budget, meticulously followed, will still break as soon as an unanticipated expense comes up. Break-even isn't good enough. You want to be saving.

If you fill every waking hour with commitments to family, work, and other projects, then there's no room to deal with a surprise demand on your time. Cut your schedule some slack, and cut yourself some slack. A little relaxation will do you good.

Burning the candle at both ends puts a strain on your body. It will take its toll.

I know all this is easy to say, and that sometimes you don't have a choice. Which is exactly why I'm talking about it... when you do have a choice, choose to leave a margin. Because that's what'll leave you prepared for the situation where you don't.

I neglected a couple of important things about helmets. When it comes to impacts, helmets should be considered single-use. If they've ever been whacked, get a new one. The usual recommendation with motorcycle helmets is that they should be replaced if they're dropped. Bike helmets are so light that they won't hit with all that much energy after a short drop, so I haven't worried about this, but I'd caution you to exercise your own judgment. Finally, ultraviolet light will slowly damage the helmet. Avoid storing it in direct sunlight, and replace it after a few years of regular use.

My next recommendation is for a rear rack. This is mounted over the rear tire, and allows carrying things. Some small things can be bungee-corded directly to the rack, but your life becomes easier still with baskets or panniers. Metal baskets are inexpensive, fold up out of the way when not in use, and are the perfect size for grocery bags. You can attach them permanently with hose clamps, and, because baskets are cheap, they're not likely to be a target for theft. If you ever bike in the rain, you may prefer to get waterproof panniers. I like these, which are expensive, but they're big, have a roll-up top like a dry bag, and will probably outlive me.

I don't recommend just using a backpack, and recommend even moreso against a messenger bag. Your body has enough work to do -- let the bike bear the weight of your stuff.

If you want to leave your bike in public, you'll need to lock it well. Here in Berkeley, a lot of bikes get stolen due to the assumption that leaving it in a back yard or on a porch just for a little while was safe. It's not.

As with any theft prevention measure, you can't make stealing impossible. What you're after is tipping the balance of a potential thief's cost-benefit analysis from worth it to not worth it. This isn't that hard to do (and it's made much easier by so many people locking their bikes so badly.)

A bike locked with a cable lock scarcely counts as locked at all. A thief can get through one with a pair of bolt-cutters. Cost-benefit: worth it. The only locks I respect are good U-locks, and case-hardened steel chains with good padlocks.

Your U-lock should be case-hardened, and it should be one of the narrow ones. U-locks are vulnerable to attack from car jacks and lever arms. The narrow ones leave less room to fit a tool in; I don't recommend the wide ones. You needn't pay attention to bike-replacement theft protection guarantees. The fine print is that you have to prove the lock failed, i.e., present them with a broken lock. Thieves don't leave broken locks around as evidence.

Case-hardened steel chains are more versatile, and make it easier to lock a bike to a lot of things, but are even heavier. Kryptonite makes one. Personally, I use a quadrachain, which has a lock integrated into the chain instead of a separate padlock. And this is an intriguing article on a relatively cheap do-it-yourself case-hardened steel chain lock.

You also need to lock your bike to someplace secure, and lock it correctly. I'll defer to the Missing Link Bike Co-op and Sheldon Brown to tell you how.

Coming up next: lights, visibility, and rain gear

Last year, when gas was topping $4/gallon, bicycle shops noted increased sales, and it was plain to see there were more cyclists on the street. I don't think it's a secret to anyone that biking is cheaper than driving.

But if you haven't been on a bike for years, or you've only used one for short, recreational rides, it can be less than clear how to use a bike to commute or run errands.

Bike to Work Day is coming up next week, Thursday, May 14. All this week, I'll be describing how you can bike as an effective means of transportation.

First, you'll need a bike. I recommend getting your bike from a bike shop, not a department store, for several reasons (and you'll find wide agreement among cyclists on this point.) A decent bike isn't cheap, and a cheap bike isn't decent. Department store bikes use the cheapest components, which will result in a less pleasant ride you're less happy with. Bike shop employees are cyclists themselves, and will be able to answer your questions. They can help match a bike to your needs, and make sure you get a bike that fits you, and that it's adjusted correctly. New bikes from a bike shop frequently come with one or two free tune-ups in the first year or so. You'll end up paying at least $300, instead of as little as $100, but that extra $200 is well worth it.

You'll probably be looking for a road bike or a hybrid bike. "Road bike" is sometimes used to refer to racing bikes, sometimes for any bike intended for paved roads -- make sure the bike shop employee isn't confused about what you mean. "Hybrid bike" means a hybrid of a road bike and a mountain bike, and makes for a good general purpose bike, with some advantages if your riding includes unpaved (or badly paved) roads.

These are upright bicycles, i.e., bikes you operate in an upright position. By design, this puts about 40% of your weight on your hands. This makes biking difficult or impossible for people with upper body injuries. There is an alternative. Recumbent bicycles are operated with no weight on your upper body. I bought one over a decade ago when a severe repetitive stress injury made riding my upright bike prohibitively painful. I'm still riding it, with no interest in going back. But I'll leave a more detailed discussion of recumbents for another entry.

Something I find a little unfortunate is that a new bike, without accessories, isn't all that useful. It can't carry anything. You can't leave it anyplace. It has no lights, and you can't safely use it at night. It won't even stand up by itself. To make it useful, you'll need a few extra things.

First and foremost, you need a helmet. It may or may not be legally required in your jurisdiction, but I encourage you to not worry about that. Just get one. In the U.S., all helments sold meet the Consumer Product Safety Commission standard; some also meet other standards. All of these standards are sufficient; you can be confident that any helmet you could buy provides adequate protection. The difference between low-end helmets and high-end helmets isn't safety; it's venting, aerodynamics, and appearance.

It's easy to think that a helmet isn't necessary because it's only a short ride, or they're low-traffic roads, or, heck, you rode your bike for years without a helmet, and you never needed one. But, no matter show short the ride, or seemingly safe the route, something could happen (through no fault of your own) that could knock you off your bike. The world is full of things that are harder than your skull, and even a single trauma to the head can have catastrophic and permanent results.

You also need to wear your helmet correctly. It's not a beret, and should not be worn at a jaunty or rakish angle. It should be sitting squarely atop your head, with the strap adjusted appropriately so that it's not moving around. Leaving the strap unfastened is as good as not wearing it at all. A bike shop employee should be able to assist you with fitting your helmet, and adjusting it correctly.

I'll go further into the accessories you need to make your bike useful on Wednesday.

Frugal health

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One may have considered it odd that a frugality blog would dedicate an entry to swine flu. In this entry, I'll explain why it makes sense.

Frugal living is healthy living. And vice versa.

Empty expenses that don't truly contribute value to our lives clutter our budgets. Empty possessions clutter our homes. And avoidable illness clutters our health.

The elephant in the living room of discussing health is that we know well that improper diet, sedentary living, and bad habits are risk factors for disease, but, far too often, talking about changing them stays off the table until someone's already sick.

Eating well and exercising can make you feel better, and live longer. Like frugal spending, by its nature, they don't offer a quick, obvious payoff. One day of healthy behavior isn't likely to have an outcome much different than one day of moderately unhealthy behavior, any more than one day of brown-bagging your lunch will make a conspicuous difference to your bank account. But after a year, you'll see the dividends.

Details as to how to eat and live healthfully are a little beyond the scope of this entry. We recommend Dr. Weil's Eating Well for Optimum Health and 8 Weeks to Optimum Health as guides

A stitch in time saves lives.