Archive for April, 2009

Sustainable Picture Frames for Your Art & Photographs

April 26, 2009 1 comment

by Mingyan Bao

Gold FrameEvery person has something that they put into a picture frame: photos, art, mirrors, etc.  We like to display our best moments, good memories, and pretty things.   The act of framing something is so common and trivial that we don’t put much thought into it other than whether it will look good. 

The fact is that most picture frames are made of plastic, wood, or aluminum.  The discount frames are usually some form of plastic finished to look like wood.  Metal frames were common and popular when commodity prices were low, but they are less fashionable than they once were, and metal frames sourced from certified recycled metal are not yet available.  Most framers carry a line of aluminum frames, though.  Wood frames from a custom framing shop are usually made from solid, full-grain wood of one type or another.

So what is the “green framer” to do?  A major part of the answer is to use wood harvested from sustainable and controlled forests.  Leading vendors of picture frame moldings are getting PEFC and FSC certifications. PEFC, the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, is a global program that traces the chain of custody for lumber products from living forest to finished products.  FSC, the Forest  Stewardship Council, is a world wide effort to promote responsible management of the world’s forests.  

Sustainable Wood Frames

Some molding makers have discontinued using exotic woods such as purple heart, zebra wood, and teak due to the lack of cost-effective and sustainable sources of these woods.  Instead, renewable American hardwoods are finished to mimic the exotic look.  


Wood Composite FrameThere are also frames made of a wood composite material, which is made of saw dust, wood chips, and recycled wood. 





Rustic FrameSome manufacturers have obtained licenses for removing dead wood from national forests, which they turn into beautiful rustic frames.




As you can see from the pictures above, there is a variety of styles to select from.  You don’t have to compromise your aesthetics for the sake of your ethics.


Another way to bring sustainability into your framed piece is to use 100% cotton mats rather than paper mats.  The 100% cotton mats come in a rainbow of colors and a variety of textures.Cotton Mat colors  


They are better than paper mats on several fronts.  Cotton mats last decades longer than paper mats.  They also put a waste product from the textile making process – a by-product of cotton refining called linters – to productive use.  Because paper mats are made from wood pulp, they contain acids and lignin that will eventually cause the mat to discolor and fade.  Some will even damage the art underneath.  This is why museums and galleries use cotton mats for conservation purposes.


So the next time you buy a picture frame, keep in mind which materials you are really buying.  Ask your framer to show you which of their frames are from sustainable sources. 


About the Author

Mingyan Bao is the owner of The Great Frame Up, a custom picture framing shop located at the Promenade Shops at Centerra in Loveland, CO.  The Great Frame Up is a locally owned full service framing shop offering free consultations and in-home quotes.  They specialize in conservation framing and shadowboxes.


You can also upcycle old windows into picture frames, so stay tuned for an upcoming post with step-by-step guidance from Mingyan on this approach to DIY framing.


Larson Renovation 3 – Installing a Solar Water Heater System

April 18, 2009 3 comments

Solar Water Heater InstallationA theme has emerged around Sandra and Justin Larson’s renovation project, and that theme is “RE“.  Part 1 showcased their REsourceful REuse of REclaimed building materials.  Then, in Part 2, we documented their use of spray foam insulation containing REnewable soy to create an extremely energy efficient envelope.  Now, we’ll take a look at their installation of a solar water heater system which will make use of a very abundant REnewable REsource…Colorado sunshine.

The Larson’s turned to Darren Hein (pictured above) and his team at Heinsight Solutions to source and install a Velux solar hot water system.  Heinsight is a Velux 5-Star Solar Specialist installer.  Darren brings many years of specialized roofing and skylight installation experience to bear.  He’s the kind of expert you’ll want to seek out if you decide on a solar water heater for your home to ensure that upgrading your water heater system doesn’t downgrade your roof.

Heinsight installed a two-panel, indirect circulation, pre-heat system at the Larson’s home.  The panels themselves are of the flat-plate collector variety.  Indirect circulation means that an antifreeze liquid is pumped through the panels and down to a heat exchanger in a newly installed tank in the home, where the antifreeze then transfers heat to the water in the tank.  It is considered a pre-heat system because the new tank is tied into the existing hot water heater, providing back-up hot water should a portion of the system go down.  You can see the components and get lots of great information from Darren about system details, costs and rebates by watching the two video segments below.

There are quite a few different types of solar water heating systems.  The U.S. Department of Energy website on energy efficiency and renewable energy provides excellent information about them, including this page on types and how they work.

These systems are extremely eco-friendly because they substitute energy from the sun for energy from natural gas or power plant generated electricity, using the latter only infrequently as back-up.  According to Solar Energy International, more than 50 tons of carbon dioxide emissions from your local utility can be avoided over a 20 year period when a solar water heater replaces an electric one. 

The economics of solar hot water are also quite compelling, and may even offer immediate payback if you are building a new home or refinancing for home renovation.  The Department of Energy indicates that your monthly water heating bill will drop by 50% to 80% if you install a solar water heater.  And, depending upon where and how you live, and which source you believe, heating water accounts for 9% to 30% of your monthly energy bill.  Up-front costs and payback time for a solar water heating system are reduced by a 30% federal tax credit and additional regional credits.  Follow this DOE link to get further guidance on determining solar water heater system costs, energy savings and payback time for your situation.

Well, that’s it from the Larson project for now, but we’ll be REvisiting them soon for more eco-friendly home project education.



Opt-Out of Yellow Pages, Opt-In to a Sustainable Living Business Directory

April 16, 2009 2 comments

ReDirect Guide CoverIf you’re like me, coming home to find a plastic bag filled with several pounds of phone books sitting by the front door makes your blood boil.  The trees cut down to supply paper, the ink and energy used to print, the fuel and exhaust to deliver, and yet another plastic bag used to contain something you didn’t request and don’t want to begin with…AAARGH!

Well, now you can stop the madness and seek out a greener alternative. 

First, opt out of unsolicited phone book delivery at  Doing so is fast and free.  And it is important.  As greenbean at what gives!? points out, you’ll be doing your part to help keep almost half-a-million tons of yellow pages and the like out of landfills…per year!!

Second, start using a Sustainable Living Business Directory.  If you are lucky enough to live in Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, Salt Lake City or Portland, you have the outstanding ReDirect Guide as the green alternative to yellow pages.  The ReDirect Guide is available on line at  If you prefer a hardcopy of the guide, you can pick one up at a participating business in your community, or at your local Green Drinks gathering.  And you can do so knowing that the folks at ReDirect Guide walk the talk when it comes to all aspects of their business – from paper selection and printing to distribution and transit to relationships with employees and community. 

The 3rd Annual Edition of the ReDirect Guide will be released on Earth Day, April 22.  The new edition features educational articles on green living, suggestions for greening your business, sustainable living community resource information including a CSA map, farmers market listings, green events, a business directory, and more.  All businesses listed in the directory are qualified for providing green products or services.

If you don’t live in one of the communities mentioned above, google sustainable living business directory or sustainable business directory.  Add in the name of your city or state to determine if you have a local option.  Here are some examples:  Chicago Green Business Directory, GreenList Louisville and Hawaii Health Guide Green Business Directory.

So Redirect away from yellow pages and toward the ReDirect Guide or your local equivalent.  It’s greener, it’s thinner and it’s opt-in.

Larson Renovation – Part 2 – Soy Based Spray Foam Insulation

April 10, 2009 4 comments

Soy Based InsulationIn the first part of our series covering Sandra and Justin Larson’s major home renovation project, we gave you a sense for the unusual extent to which they are using salvaged and reclaimed building materials.  This week, we stopped by to observe the unique approach they are taking to insulating their renovated home.

The Larsons decided to go with soy based spray foam insulation and are working with Chris Lehmann, owner of SoySolution Sustainable Spray Foam Insulation, to get the job done.  In fact, Chris got into this line of business after discussing the cutting-edge green insulation technology with Justin. 

Spray foam insulation has been around for years.  It is particularly attractive because of its excellent thermal and acoustical properties.  Properly applied, it expands to completely fill every space, creating a comfortable, quiet and very energy efficient barrier between the home interior and outside world.  For more information about spray foam insulation, check out

Chris sprays insulation manufactured by Green Insulation Technologies, which takes spray foam insulation to a healthier, more sustainable level.  It is water-blown, and uses polyols derived from renewable soybeans to replace a portion of petroleum based polyols.  As a result, soy based spray foam insulation is an inert VOC-free substance that improves indoor air quality, has no food value for rodents and insects and will not promote growth of mold and mildew.  For more on product content and benefits, visit Green Insulation Technologies’ website.  If you’ve never seen spray foam insulation being applied, take a look at this quick video of Chris working at the Larson’s place

Got your own insulation project coming up soon?  Here are a few links that will help you get more informed about options and costs:

Well, there are obviously lots of eco-friendly home projects embedded in the Larson’s home renovation.  Look for upcoming posts on installing a solar hot water heater, beetle kill pine flooring and more.


Toilet Efficiency Case Study – Part 3 – Options and Payback

Toilet Tank BankIn Part 2 of this series, we verified that all four toilets at our two-bathroom rental properties are efficient 1.6 gpf / 6.0 lpf models.  We also determined that we have two 3.5 gpf toilets in need of mitigation – one at our personal residence and one at our one-bathroom rental home.  So we’ve built a spreadsheet model to help us evaluate our water conservation options.

Before we get into the details of the model, let’s look at the two general options we will be evaluating with it – displacement and replacement.


Displacing water in your toilet’s tank is an easy, low-cost way to start saving water immediately.  You can accomplish this by using a product specifically manufactured for this purpose, like the “Toilet Tank Bank” depicted above, which saves 0.8 gallons per flush.  You can also employ a used plastic beverage bottle filled with sand or gravel to keep it submerged in the tank.  Or, as a friend said in a comment about my Facebook feed of Part 1 of this series…”I remember an ecology module in the 6th grade suggested putting a brick in the tank for water displacement”.   Yup, that can work too.


Upcycling plastic bottles or bricks is definitely a green, no-cost way to go.  However, we think the Toilet Tank Bank is the better approach.  Practically speaking, it will take a challenging combination of bottles or bricks to equal or exceed the tank bank’s 0.8 gpf of displacement.  This could interfere with the toilet’s flapper function, causing leaking that far offsets any savings achieved. 

The Toilet Tank Bank will cost you about $2.  It is readily available from a wide range of e-tailers.  Watch the shipping charges…maybe you can add a low-flow showerhead or other water-conserving item to your order to reach the minimum purchase amount for free shipping and achieve goodness all the way around.


From a water conservation perspective, toilets can be classified as good, better and best.  Efficient toilets labeled 1.6 gpf / 6.0 lpf are good compared to their 3.5 to 7.0 gpf predecessors.  High Efficiency Toilets, or HET’s, offer 20% better conservation at 1.28 gpf.  And Dual Flush HET’s offer the best water conservation with a 1.28 gpf flush option for solids, and a 0.8 gpf option for liquids. 

The Model

We’ve modeled some mitigation scenarios for the two 3.5 gpf toilets at our Sunset Avenue and Buckeye Street properties (see the figure below for scenarios and results).  If you have a Google account and would like to access this tool for your own scenario testing, just click on the figure to access it in Google Docs spreadsheet format.  Please be sure to follow the instructions in red that tell you how to save a copy before modifying the spreadsheet.  If you don’t have a Google account, you’ll need to set one up (self explanatory at 

Any difficulties? Contact us and we’ll get the spreadsheet to you by email.

Applying the Tool to Our Inefficient Toilets

If you are motivated to save as much water as possible, and you can afford to spend $300 or more per toilet, you should give serious consideration to a dual flush model.  As the spreadsheet shows, installing a dual flush high efficiency toilet will reduce the annual water consumption at our Buckeye Street residence by over 9,500 gallons.  This is almost 28% of our household’s total water consumption of 34,500 gallons per year! 

If cost and payback period considerations trump maximizing water conservation in your mind, and your inefficient toilet looks and works fine, a Toilet Tank Bank is a good mitigation option.  We installed one in the toilet in our home immediately after measuring its 3.5 gpf water consumption.  This simple, low-cost effort will reduce our average monthly household water consumption by 8% from approximately 3,000 gallons per month to 2,760 until we can research, decide upon and install a high efficiency toilet.

If you are planning to replace your toilet anyway and are pondering toilets of differing efficiency, you can use this model to do a comparative analysis.  Input the less efficient of the two toilets to be compared as “existing toilet data”, input the more efficient as “modified or new toilet data”, and input the difference in cost as “cost to modify or buy new toilet”.  The resulting calculations will tell you the comparative savings and payback period for choosing the more efficient toilet.

OK, enough toilet talk for this installment.  We hope you will tune in to Part 4 where we’ll summarize our research into specific models of high efficiency toilets, and tell you what the plan is for replacing our 3.5 gpf toilets.

Toilet Efficiency Case Study – Part 2 – How to Measure Flush Volume and Leak Test

April 4, 2009 1 comment

Women's toiletAs promised in our previous post on toilet efficiency, we’ve inventoried the six toilets at our home and three investment properties.  Now, we’ll show you how to leak test your toilet and determine its flush volume in gallons per flush, and we’ll summarize the data for our toilets. 

Determining Flush Volume

If you live in a home that was built before The Energy Policy Act of 1992 (United States) took effect in 1994, and have not replaced your toilet, it probably has a wasteful flush volume ranging anywhere from 3.5 to 7.0 gallons per flush (gpf). 

If you don’t know the flush volume of your toilet, and you don’t see “1.6 GPF” printed right behind the seat on the bowl (along with the equivalent “6.0 LPF” for litres per flush), there is an easy way to determine it. 

You’ll need a gallon jug or bucket.  With that in hand, just follow the five easy steps at this link from the Marin Municipal Water District to determine your toilet’s gallons per flush (gpf).  Or, follow our step by step video below.

Checking for Leaks

Leak testing is as easy as coloring the water in your toilet’s tank with something safe like food coloring, waiting for a half hour, and then checking to make sure that none of the coloring has shown up in the toilet bowl.  See Toiletology 101 for more details on testing, significance of leaks, and how to fix them if you find them.  

Data for Our Toilets

  • Phoenix Street Property – two 1.6 gpf toilets manufactured by VitrA, neither leak.
  • Maple Street Property – two 1.6 gpf toilets, one manufactured by Fremont and one by VitrA, neither leak.
  • Sunset Avenue Property – one very old toilet, brand obscure, measured flow = 3.5 gpf, does not leak.
  • Buckeye Street Property (our residence) – one Crane toilet, 3.5 gpf, does not leak.

So now we’ve got the data we need to build a tool that will allow us to determine our current toilet water consumption, estimate water conservation associated with various modification/replacement scenarios, and calculate payback times. 

In Part 3, we’ll present and discuss this tool, and make it available for you to use for your own assessment.

Until then, it is worth reading and thinking about this piece on Peak Water from Twilight Earth.  It may increase your sense of urgency (pun intended) to tackle toilet efficiency and other water conservation measures, regardless of what we learn about projected payback times in Part 3.

Thanks gromgull for the cool toilet image.



Tackle Your Toilets to Save Water and Money – A Case Study – Part 1

publication1Lara and I are the proud owners of six toilets at our four properties – one at our personal residence and five at three rental properties.  That’s a troublesome amount of flushes every day for which we’re directly and indirectly responsible.  Why worry?  Because a 1999 study by the American Water Works Association found that the toilet can account for nearly 27% of indoor water usage, and that figure may even exceed 40% if the toilet leaks. 


With evermore frequent stories about the water woes in our state of Colorado, and the U.S. EPA indicating that 35 other states expect to experience local, regional, or statewide water shortages in 5 years or less, it has become clear that we (and you?) are long overdue for a comprehensive toilet water consumption study and reduction plan (sounds like an EPA report title itself).


We know from intimate experience that the “necessary” fixture in our personal residence is not a water-efficient toilet.  In fact, we currently employ a method of toilet water conservation true to our cabin-country septic system Minnesota roots that would even make Garrison Keillor proud: the proverbial “…if it’s yellow, let it mellow…”


I know, TMI.


Our recollection of the toilet situation at the rental properties is not so intimate, and actually a bit sketchy.  We are pretty sure that we replaced the four original toilets at both two-bathroom rental properties four or five years ago with more efficient 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf) models. And we hope that we’ve done the same at our one-bathroom rental, but honestly can’t recall for sure.  Time and busyness have clouded our memory. 


So we’ve contacted all of our tenants and tomorrow evening we’ll make the rounds, with measuring equipment and food coloring in hand, to do a toilet consumption and leak test inventory.  They’ll think we’re odd of course, but since they are responsible for paying the utilities, they’ll find our oddness in their interest, if not endearing.


We’ll report back shortly with measurement methods, THE DATA, water consumption reduction options, and calculated water savings and return-on-investment scenarios, so stay tuned for the next installment of this case study.  


Until then, flush softly and carry a big plunger…