Umbra Fisk

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Advice for Living Green

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Umbra Fisk is Grist Research Associate II, Hardcover and Periodicals Unit, floors 2B-4B.

Umbra on low-flow flushing

Dear Umbra, I live in an apartment. What can I do to reduce the amount of water that is flushed in the toilet? The landlord will not fix it. AudreyBrookline, Mass. Dearest Audrey, Ooh, more toilet talk. I quote USA Landlord, which supplies landlords and tenants with water-saving devices: “This really is a landlord no-brainer!” And I append, “Especially if he is paying the water bill.” But even if your landlord won’t help, you can adapt your own toilet, and it won’t cost much — maybe $12 max. (If you don’t know how toilets work, go take the lid off …

Umbra on composting toilets, again

Dear Umbra, I’m attempting to “green” my home, room by room. I’ve heard of low-flow toilets, but someone just told me about composting toilets. Do they smell bad? Will my grandmother use it or ask for an outhouse? Thanks for your wisdom! MoiraProvidence, R.I. Dearest Moira, Excellent, manageable room-by-room plan. What in tarnation?! Composting toilets are basically the technology we should have adopted instead of the water closet. Although there’s a wide range of models, all of them compost human waste into a humus-like end product that can go back into the earth whence it came. Essentially a compost pile …

Umbra on heating with bathwater

Dear Umbra, After a hot bath, I leave the water in the tub so the heat will go into the room. My husband says the heat saved is inconsequential. How would one calculate the BTUs saved this way? J. ReimanHelena, Mont. Dearest J., I do that too. I’m trying to heat the entire office building with my baths, and I’ve been making my editor bring me my encyclopedias in the tub. Ay, there’s the tub. Roughly speaking (and cut me a little slack, you professional science geeks), a BTU, or British thermal unit, is the amount of energy needed to …

Umbra on climate confusion

Dear Umbra, Any chance that the most extreme of the peak-oil folks are correct, and that in spite of our thoughtlessness, we just won’t have enough oil to totally destroy the ozone layer? Dan WassonPittsburgh, Penn. Dearest Dan, Oil has very little to do with the ozone layer, but it does have to do with global warming. Global warming and ozone depletion are, for our daily purposes, two separate issues. They both involve gaseous, human-generated emissions, mysterious atmospheric phenomena, and wishing we had paid attention in chemistry class, but the similarity stops there. Psst … remember me? The ozone layer, …

Umbra on coffee

Dear Umbra, I am a seriously indulgent coffee drinker. Lately, there have been a ton of “green” coffee shops popping up. I like to support local coffee shops, and I want to believe that they are “shade-grown, fair-trade, organic,” but I’ve wondered if they are being honest. How do I know if they are legit? Claudia GutierrezSan Diego, Calif. Dearest Claudia, Shade-grown, fair-trade, and organic are certifications, not just buzzwords. All three resulted from our wanting a way to ascertain, when buying coffee, that our addiction supported sustainable agriculture and fair labor standards, rather than displaced workers toiling in serfdom …

Umbra on waiting for warm water

Dear Umbra, You know how, when you turn on the hot water in an old building, it usually takes a while for it to kick in? Well, my question is, if I turn on the tap full blast, will the hot water come sooner? Is it the amount of water you let run, or the amount of time you leave the tap running? I’ve talked to my landlord, but in the meantime, can I save water by letting it run slowly? Sincerely,(No) Hot (water) and bothered Dearest Silly Pun, You know I love to share my water-heater knowledge. There is …

Umbra on diesel vs. standard gasoline cars

Dear Umbra, I’ve always heard bad things about diesel fuel. However, I know someone who has a diesel VW that gets 50 miles to the gallon. I’m wondering if you could do a cost-benefit analysis for me. I know I can’t afford a hybrid anytime soon, and was wondering if it would be better to buy a used diesel car that gets excellent gas mileage or a regular used car that gets in the 30 to 40 mpg range. AnneNelson, N.H. Dearest Anne, Unless you can get alternative diesel fuel, stick with a standard gasoline car. Is it worth it? …

Umbra on bicycle commuting, again

Dear Umbra, So what about bike commuting? Is it safe? Is it good? Is it encouraged? P.K. BorzoSt. Paul, Minn. Dearest P.K., Yes, yes, yes. Lungwise, biking is at least as safe as driving, if not more so. It’s true, as many readers pointed out after my previous column, that we breathe more heavily when bicycling than driving. But the scientists thought of that. In general, we are not worse off biking in regular old city traffic, especially if we are able to stay to the side of the pollutant slipstream. Of course, there are a lot of variables — …

Answers to readers’ most frequently asked questions about green dilemmas

Should I use paper or plastic bags at the grocery store? Neither one is better. Best choice: bring your own cloth bag. Should I dry my hands with paper towels or the electric blow dryer? Use the dryer if you can’t drip dry. Should I wash my dishes by hand or use the dishwasher? If you and your dishwasher are efficient, by all means bypass the sink. Is it better to leave [lights, cars, computers] on when I’m not using them, or turn them off and restart them? Restart! Whether you’re driving, defeating darkness, or doing work, it takes more …

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