Umbra Fisk

Ask Umbra®

Advice for Living Green

Yours is to wonder why, hers is to answer (or try). Send your green-living questions to Umbra.

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

Umbra on installing solar panels

Dear Umbra, My husband and I have decided to install a solar electric system. We live in the high desert and enjoy sun 360 or more days a year. We have been surfing to find information and are increasingly befuddled. Nanosys will have new technology out, but I don’t know when. Should we wait a year or two for new, less expensive technology or go with existing solar panels? KathyJoshua Tree, Calif. Dearest Kathy, How exciting. One obvious source of information is the internet, which is particularly helpful for understanding the big picture or getting the gist of a new …

Umbra on ecological footprints

Dear Umbra, I just took the Ecological Footprint Quiz, feeling rather confident that I’ve been doing my part to minimize my personal impact on environmental despoliation. But my results weren’t reassuring. My ecological footprint is nine acres, which is much better than the U.S. national average of 24 acres per person, but still twice what the planet could sustain. In short, the quiz tells me, if everyone lived like me, we would need two planets. I’m not sure I can make any more big changes — I take public transportation when I can, I’ve kept my 10-year-old Honda, which still …

Umbra on organic syrup

Dear Umbra, I saw at the store there is “organic” maple syrup. Is there really a difference between organic and non-organic maple syrup? Do conventional farms spray the trees with massive amounts of pesticides? I don’t have much money (poor college student) so I was just trying to buy organic for things like apples and milk, which I’ve heard should only be bought in organic form. BriannaFarmington Hills, Mich. Dearest Brianna, Good to the last drop. You’ll never hear me saying anything negative about maple syrup (except maybe “it’s all gone”). The U.S. Department of Agriculture currently regulates use of …

Umbra on Energy Star labels

Dear Umbra, When I see the Energy Star rating on an appliance, can I trust that some government or consumer group is monitoring the ratings, or is that just a commercial ploy? Who profits from the Energy Star thing? Not Starry-EyedBridgewater, N.J. Dearest Not Starry-Eyed, A green screen. Photo: EnergyStar.gov. Energy Star is a project of our very own U.S. EPA, with assistance from the Department of Energy. Products that meet Energy Star standards are permitted to carry a flier that displays the Energy Star logo and compares the energy use of the product against other similar products, usually in …

Umbra on hydroponic farming

Dear Umbra, What are the advantages of hydroponics, and if it is so good, why isn’t it used more? LukeMitchellville, Iowa Dearest Luke, Plants take up most of their nutrients through their roots, despite all we learned in elementary school about leaves making food from the sun. Soil is a complex conglomeration of minerals, nutrients, bugs, and fungi that deliver nutrients to plants via the root system. Farmers and gardeners labor to stuff their soil with the perfect blend of nutrients for each plant. Look ma, no soil! Photo: National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Hydroponics grew out of the logical idea …

Umbra on genetically modified foods

Dear Umbra, Is most of the genetically modified food that makes its way into our grocery aisles really that harmful? It seems to me that the process of genetic modification is not that far from hybridizing and other tinkering processes that we’ve come to accept. Judi Boston, Mass. Dearest Judi, We don’t know, and that’s the problem. The field is rife with dogma. Companies that genetically modify food crops claim safety, environmental and consumer groups claim alarm, scientists argue, and food-safety agencies — well, I don’t know what they’re doing. Not enough. “These hybrid grapes would make a hearty and …

Umbra on the most effective personal eco-actions

Dear Umbra, A lot of the questions people ask you ultimately involve pretty negligible results. When you are talking about the balance sheet of the world, does it really matter if I use a more or less environmentally responsible solution to wash my fruit? I’m wondering what three major concrete changes you’d recommend that people make, which might be more difficult to implement than using lower-energy lightbulbs but would really let us rest easy at night knowing we’d contributed? Cate New York, N.Y. Dearest Cate, Take a ride on the clean air bus. Photo: King County Metro Transit. How did …

Umbra on plastic water bottles

Several readers have sent in questions about the dangers of chemical leaching from plastic bottles. A composite version: Dear Umbra, I’ve read some conflicting things about the risks associated with reusing plastic water bottles. For instance, the generally trustworthy folks at the urban-legends site snopes.com have criticized a widely circulated email that claims regular water bottles are not safe for refilling because the plastic breaks down. The commonly offered solution is to refill only bottles made from stronger plastics, which are meant to be washed and reused, such as Nalgene bottles. But then I read in Daily Grist that even …

Umbra on whole-house fans and their righteousness

Dear Umbra, We just moved to the steamy climate of Washington, D.C., from the other Washington. Faced with our first experience using air-conditioning to cool our home, we’ve got some questions about efficiency. The house we’re renting has a central AC unit that we can control with a thermostat. It also has a roof ventilation system that circulates air under the roof using a fairly noisy and probably pretty old and inefficient fan. Here’s the thing: The fan is on a thermostat, but there doesn’t seem to be any way to control it. (We think there’s a switch in the …