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Archive for the ‘Home improvement’ Category

Kill weeds for free with sunlight and trash bags

12 Aug

Untreated-vs-treated“Green.” “Biodegradable.” “Sustainable.” These terms sum up a lot about how I try to live my life, and yet they carry hidden baggage beneath their friendly exteriors:the ecologically-friendly, non-toxic, all-natural alternatives are more expensive and yet less effective than their more-toxic cousins.

Take oven cleaner, for example. Conventional oven cleaning spray is nasty stuff, but it works — it makes a tough job much easier. Cleaning an oven “organically” takes laborious scrubbing and a lot more time. I wish this weren’t the case, but it’s true. After all, if the non-toxic way was cheaper and easier, wouldn’t we all be doing it already?

Therefore, I feel I must celebrate any “green” option that actually saves both money and effort. Today’s example: Black plastic bags can kill grass and weeds on your patio at no cost to you. I have reclaimed an overgrown patio without pulling a single weed or spraying a single chemical by using a few trash bags and the power of the sun. The only cost to you is patience.

Method: Wait for sunny weather. Cover the area of vegetation that you wish to kill with any kind of black plastic. Put rocks or other weights on the plastic so it stays in place. Leave the plastic there for at least a week, if possible.

What will happen: Any vegetation underneath the plastic will wilt and die. Given enough time, the roots will die as well.

Patio setup for weed killing experimentScientific explanation: The color of an object is determined by what kind of visible light it reflects best. White materials look white because they reflect all colors of visible light, which look white when combined together. Black materials look black because they absorb most visible light rather than reflecting much of it, making them dark in appearance. The absorbed light energy then radiates out as heat (a.k.a. infrared light, which we cannot see). Sunlight absorption is what makes the black plastic effective against plants. First, the plastic prevents the plants underneath from receiving any sunlight, which stops their growth. Second, the absorbed sunlight also heats the plants far beyond their comfort zone. The plastic keeps fresh air from circulating across the ground surface, and the high temperatures beneath the plastic during a sunny day will roast the plants to death. Given enough time, this will kill the roots under the ground and discourage the plants from growing back. This is also why trash cans will create a patch of dead grass right under each can.

My evidence: I treated different patches of my brick patio with black plastic for at least a week at a time. During this time, I did not mow, weed, or poison anything on the patio. I left parts of it untreated to serve as the control group (vital for measuring the results of the experiment). I took photos to record how well the plastic killed the plants and how quickly the plants came back. The photos speak for themselves: the treated patches remain almost entirely clear of plants, while the untreated areas are so overgrown that the bricks are barely visible. The only plants to survive the treatment were located under the edge of the plastic where light, air, and moisture could pass more freely. Moisture trapped underneath the bags did lead to some temporary green mold growth on the bricks, but that faded away after a bit of direct sun exposure when the bags were removed.

Cost to me: under $1 (the bags can be reused repeatedly, which will make their initial cost even more negligible over time, or you can use them as trash bags when you’re done). Of course, this will cost more if you want to treat an entire patio in one shot and need lots of coverage.

Time spent: 5 minutes placing and removing the plastic.

Detailed 'after' shotAdvice: Use the thickest, largest, darkest material you have. A grid made of individually-weighted garbage bags will work (as I demonstrated here), but some weeds may survive at the edges of the bags where air and light leaks in. A dark tarp should work, but beware: some tarps include a reflective liner to reduce heat buildup, which defeats the entire exercise. Plants can still invade when you’re done, so you should expect to repeat the process at least once a year (or more frequently if the plants come back faster).

Overall value: High. You have to plan in advance (and accept the unsightly plastic for a week or so while it does its job), but you don’t have to pull weeds manually, spray toxic herbicides, or spend more than a dollar on the project.

 

Eyeball pillows to make your life cushier and creepier

05 Jul

Eyeball pillows on chaiseI have been dying to do justice to the eyeball-pillow concept ever since my list of decorating tricks for Halloween. Judging by the Wife’s obvious discomfort in their presence, my eyeball pillows were having the intended effect, but they weren’t practical for actual use as pillows. I like to prop up my head with a few pillows at a time; the tiny eyeballs would only have worked after some severe head-shrinking on my part. Solution: I needed BIGGER eyeball pillows.

Pillows are easy to make, as you’ll see. I had plenty of white fabric from old t-shirts and gray fabric from hemming some Ikea curtains, so I decided to make reversible pillows: eyes on one side, plain fabric on the other. That way, I could appease the Wife occasionally by flipping them over and thereby keep them in the living room all year long rather than just during October. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Add removable shelving to your freezer

08 Feb

Crate with stackingEvery apartment I’ve rented has had a refrigerator with a freezer on top. Not one of those freezers has had enough shelves; often, they have no shelves at all. Shelves would have been incredibly helpful, but why should a landlord care about that?

If you’ve ever tried to stack meat in the freezer, you already know that frozen food is slippery and frustrating to organize. Even if you build a careful stack and can close your freezer door without knocking down your frigid Tower of Babel, you’re guaranteed to need the item on the bottom of the stack far too soon.

My solution? Find a plastic crate and add your own shelves to the freezer. Milk crates, file crates, or any kind of rigid plastic box can be used to make your freezer a bit more manageable.

My original plan was to saw the crate in half and stack the resulting trays to make multiple levels of shelving (see diagram). Instead, I have kept my crate intact and found that it’s plenty useful in its existing form. My ice-cube trays are up high, out of the way, and the sides of the crate help keep stacked food stable.

Empty crateFreezer shelves

Now, I’m not blind to the fact that this is just a plastic crate stuck sideways into the freezer. It isn’t a glamorous or particularly complicated idea. Still, it solves a real household problem neatly, and you can’t beat the price or the ease of installation. Like the magnetic towel bar, this is a solution that makes no permanent changes and does no damage (a bonus for apartment dwellers or anyone who rents). It’s utilitarian to look at, but it’s no uglier than the inside of the freezer to begin with.

 

Use a doorway curtain to curb heating and cooling costs

28 Dec

Tension rod for door curtainEveryone’s home has leaky parts. Exterior doors are usually the main culprits, which you can usually improve with foam tape or added weatherproofing. Leaky windows can be greatly improved with shrinkable plastic film, too. Even with my best efforts, though, I have always found one especially drafty room in any house or apartment I’ve lived in. That one room may be the main source of your heating and cooling costs by letting warm air escape in the winter and cold air escape in the summer.

When all else fails, you can save a bundle on heating costs by cutting that leaky room off from the rest of the house with a simple removable curtain. We have this curtain across the doorway into our kitchen. This cuts the drafty back door off from the rest of the house, reducing our air conditioner usage in the summer as well as our heating costs in the winter. This way, we don’t have to keep the kitchen heated all the time in the winter. The curtain also contains cooking smells, which can be helpful in some circumstances (“we’re cleaning the oven”) and disappointing in others (“I want the house to smell like bacon”). A simple tieback lets you leave the curtain open when desired.

Curtain - openCurtain - closedCurtain tieback

This is a great way for renters to improve their heating and cooling without making any permanent changes. Any doorway can become a curtainway with a simple tension rod that can be installed or removed in seconds. For the curtain, I used a heavyweight upholstery cloth bought at a liquidation sale, since heavier fabric will move less under a draft and will provide more insulation. Use something you don’t mind looking at since you’ll be seeing your curtain every day. After all, any fabric will be preferable to an open doorway.

 

Magnetic Towel Bar

11 May

For renters, simple projects like “hanging a picture” or “installing a towel bar” have to be weighed against the potential wrath of that villain in the shadows, The Landlord. In my opinion, a two-bedroom apartment needs to have two towel bars in the bathroom, but I had to ask myself: “Is it worth putting holes in the wall if I’ll have to repair them to get my security deposit back?”

“Yes,” I decided (particularly since there are plenty of holes for picture hangers that I’ll need to fix anyway), but there wasn’t even a good place to mount the bar without drilling through tile or metal. That’s when I came up with my renter-friendly towel bar, held to the radiator cover by nothing but Altoids tins and magnets. As a bonus, my towel dries much faster hanging in front of the radiator. Read the rest of this entry »