Spring Clean the Green Way

Spring is here! If you're ready to throw open the windows and do some serious spring cleaning, why not do it the green way? You don't need to subject yourself to the high prices and caustic chemicals that come with so many store bought cleaning products. With a few simple ingredients like vinegar, peroxide, lemon juice and baking soda you can get your whole house fresh and clean.

Let's start with vinegar.
Thanks to its acidity, distilled white vinegar is effective at killing most mold, bacteria and viruses. Put full strength vinegar in a spray bottle to create an all-purpose cleaner you can use on glass, mirrors, doorknobs, sinks, appliances and countertops (just avoid using it on marble). Instead of harsh bathroom cleaning products use undiluted vinegar on toilets, bathtubs and showers. Add a little baking soda for extra scrubbing power. For stubborn soap residue in the bathroom or grease stains in the kitchen let the vinegar penetrate for 10 to 15 minutes before wiping clean. To eliminate residue on a showerhead mix 1 part baking soda with two parts vinegar in a bag and wrap it around the showerhead. Let it sit for at least an hour. Then remove the bag, give the showerhead a quick wipe and run the water. To keep your dishwasher clean and odor-free, fill the detergent dispenser with vinegar and run it empty once a month. Mix a cup of vinegar with a gallon of water to clean vinyl and linoleum floors.

Break out the peroxide for serious disinfecting.
Hydrogen peroxide (the 3% solution you can pick up at pharmacies and grocery stores) is a nontoxic antibacterial that kills viruses, mold and mildew. You can think of it as an all natural bleach. Anything you typically clean with bleach can be cleaned with peroxide. This includes countertops, sinks, cutting boards, bathtubs, showers, toilets and garbage pails. Simply spray it on, allow the bubbles to subside (hydrogen peroxide needs time to disinfect) and wipe. To clean and disinfect vinyl and linoleum floors mix equal parts peroxide and water to mop. No rinsing necessary. For laundry you can replace bleach with an equal amount of hydrogen peroxide. You can also soak items like toothbrushes, sponges, cleaning cloths, retainers, thermometers and loofahs in hydrogen peroxide to disinfect them. Using vinegar and peroxide together (spray with vinegar and then peroxide) creates a one-two punch that is as effective as bleach at killing bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella, but is safe enough to use on produce without so much as an aftertaste.

Clean, shine, and bleach with lemon.
Lemon juice is a fresh-smelling, all natural cleaner. You can clean non-marble countertops by wiping them with lemon juice and rinsing with water. Bleach stains on countertops, dishes, cutting boards and other surfaces by pouring lemon juice on the stain and allowing it to sit before sprinkling baking soda and scrubbing. Lemon can clean, shine and remove rust stains from solid brass (never on brass plated), copper and stainless steel. Simply sprinkle half a lemon with salt and use it as a scrubber. Continue adding salt and buffing until all stains are removed. Finish by rinsing with water and buffing dry with a cloth. Shine aluminum by buffing it with a cloth dampened with lemon juice or half a lemon. Add a teaspoon of lemon juice to dishwasher detergent for extra grease-cutting power and make easy work of cleaning the inside of the microwave by heating a mixture of lemon juice and water for a minute before wiping down the inside of the machine. To freshen up the garbage disposal toss some lemon peel into the disposal while running hot water. Mix equal parts lemon juice and water to create an all natural air freshener.

The best way to dust wood furniture is with a damp cloth. Commercial wood polishes can contain harsh chemicals and leave a very hard-to-remove residue. For an all natural polish mix two parts olive oil with one part lemon juice and apply it to your wood furniture using a soft cloth.

Lemon is also a powerful bleaching agent. To bleach white clothes soak them in half a cup of lemon juice mixed with a gallon of hot water for at least an hour. Then launder as usual. To remove rust stains from clothes, pour lemon juice on the stain and then rub in cream of tartar. Let the mixture sit until the stain disappears. Then launder as usual.

Finally, when cleaning with vinegar you can always add a bit of lemon juice to neutralize vinegar's strong scent.

Boost your cleaning power with baking soda.
Baking soda is best known for its power to deodorize. All you have to do is keep an open container of baking soda in the refrigerator, freezer or any cupboard to prevent odors.

Sprinkle baking soda on anything you want to deodorize, including (but not limited to) garbage containers, hampers, gym bags, sneakers and the dishwasher. To remove odors from carpeting or upholstery, sprinkle the area with baking soda, let stand for at least twenty minutes and vacuum. Repeat as necessary.

Baking soda's texture and absorbency make it good for cleaning, degreasing and scrubbing various surfaces. Clean and polish silver, stainless steel and chrome with a paste made of 3 parts baking soda mixed with one part water. Simply rub on the paste, rinse with warm water and dry with a soft cloth. Degrease dishes, ovens and other surfaces by sprinkling baking soda on the grease and rubbing with a dry cloth. The baking soda will soak up the grease making it easier to rinse messes away. To remove burnt on food, sprinkle cookware and grills with baking soda, add hot water, let soak overnight and wash as usual. To clean bathroom floors, mop with half a cup of baking soda mixed in a bucket of warm water and rinse. Clean walls and laminate furniture with a damp cloth dabbed in baking soda (the homemade equivalent of Mr. Clean's Magic Eraser). Clean toys with a solution made from 4 tablespoons of baking soda dissolved in 1 quart of water. To clean stuffed toys, dust on baking soda, let it sit for 20 minutes and dust off.

Baking soda is also very effective as a stain remover. You can remove tea stains on teapots and cups by soaking stains in a mixture of ¼ cup baking soda and 1 quart warm water overnight before washing. To remove scuff marks or grease spills from floors, sprinkle with baking soda and wipe clean with warm water.

Use these all natural cleaning solutions with rags you make out of old towels and t-shirts (saving money on paper towels and reducing waste) and you’re ready to clean green!

Prefer to buy green cleaning products instead of making your own? Learn what to look for in “green” cleaning products before you buy.

Understanding Organic Labels

A common misconception is that the term “natural” is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or some other regulatory agency, while the organic label is nothing more than “a fancy way of saying pricey.” The truth is actually the very opposite. Anyone can claim their product is “natural,” but only farmers and manufacturers who have been third-party verified as having met standards set by the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) may use the organic label.

USDA-certified organic produce must be grown without the use of herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers or genetically modified seeds for at least three years. Organic fruits and vegetables are typically identified as organic with a small sticker that says organic on it.

USDA-certified organic meat, dairy and egg products must come from animals raised without antibiotics or growth hormones and fed a diet free of animal by-products, fertilizers, pesticides and genetically engineered food. These single ingredient foods are labeled organic with a round USDA Organic seal on the packaging.

Processed foods with multiple ingredients may also carry the USDA Organic seal. For these foods, manufacturers must adhere to the following labeling guidelines.

To use the USDA Organic label a product must contain at least 95% organic ingredients (by weight). The remaining ingredients must be approved by the NOP.

To use the 100% Organic label a product must be made of all organic ingredients. Not a single ingredient may have been produced with pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones, or genetic engineering.

To use the Made with Organic Ingredients label a product must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. Such products may not use the USDA Organic seal, but are allowed to list up to three organic ingredients on the front of the packaging. The remaining ingredients must be on the NOP-approved ingredient list.

Products with less than 70% organic ingredients are not allowed to use the USDA Organic seal or the word organic on their product label. They can, however, list organic ingredients on the information panel of their packaging.

This overview should help you better understand organic labels at the grocery store, but keep in mind that earning organic certification is a lengthy and costly process that not all farmers can afford. When shopping at a farm stand or farmers market, ask the vendor if they use organic practices or, if they’re not organic, if they use non-synthetic pesticides and/or practice minimal spraying. If they answer yes to any of these questions, then you're likely buying from a conscientious farmer who’s producing good quality, minimally-processed food.

How to Save on Heating Costs This Winter

Whether we like it or not, winter is coming. Even if you love all that crisp air and fluffy snow, nobody enjoys increased heating bills. But despite the Farmers' Almanac's prediction that “temperatures will be much colder this winter from the East Coast westward to a line from the Dakotas to Texas” this winter season, there are several simple and inexpensive things you can do to save on heating costs this winter.

Lower the thermostat. Each degree you lower the thermostat saves you 3% on heating costs. If you have a coil-type thermostat, make sure to keep it clean for the most accurate readings.

Install a programmable thermostat. A programmable thermostat allows you to preset temperatures for different times of the day, so you can leave temperatures lower when you're out or sleeping and warmer when you're home (reverse during the summer). A programmable thermostat is relatively inexpensive ($30 to $50), easy to install, easy to use, and can save you 10% to 20% on heating and cooling costs.

Dress your home warmly. Warming up your d├ęcor can help you remain comfortable while lowering the thermostat even further. Use flannel sheets on your bed, cover cold floors with rugs, and keep warm blankets and throws handy.

Use window treatments wisely. Pull back the window coverings on your south-facing windows during the day for the solar heat. Then close them before the sun sets to keep the heat in. Insulating curtains are also a good option. Each square foot of insulated window saves about 1 gallon of oil or 1.5 cubic feet of gas a year.

Keep the air flowing. Make sure there is nothing, like draperies or furniture, blocking air vents. If you do find that air is blowing up behind curtains, there are inexpensive air directors you can pick up at the hardware store to direct the flow of air out into the room.

Stop the “stack effect.” As warmer air rises up in a house, cold air rushes in from outside to takes its place. This is called the "stack effect." To reduce the stack effect, cut down on spaces cold air can enter your home. Use a door snake (a long, thin bean bag-type device placed at the base of a door) to stop drafts under doors, keep doors leading to hallways or near stairways shut, and close off seldom-used rooms. If you find using a door snake inconvenient, install a nylon door sweep instead.

Use kitchen and bathroom ventilating fans only for the amount of time truly necessary – typically no more than 20 minutes. According to the Department of Energy, a bathroom or kitchen fan can expel a houseful of warm air in just an hour.

Find and seal air leaks. Air leaks can waste 5% to 30% of your home's energy. Check doors, windows, electrical conduits, plumbing fixtures, ceiling fixtures, the attic, and anywhere else air may escape for leaks. Use weather-stripping or caulk to repair any leaks.

Make sure your home is properly insulated. Check the insulation in your attic, ceilings, exterior and basement walls, floors, and crawl spaces to see if it meets the levels recommended for your area. The U.S. Department of Energy's Home Energy Calculator provides insulation levels for your home based on your zip code and other basic information about your home.

Insulate windows. Insulating your windows with an kit available from most hardware stores is an easy, inexpensive way to buffer against drafts and boost to your home's ability to hold heat.

Keep your heating system properly maintained. Check air filters once a month and clean or replace them when necessary. Oil-fired boilers should be cleaned and tuned annually, and gas systems, every two years. Following these measures can save you 5% to 15% on heating and cooling costs.

Increase your hot water heater's efficiency. Put an insulating jacket around your water heater and secure (with tape, wire, or a clamp) foam pipe sleeves around the hot water pipes and three feet of the cold water inlet pipe.

Turn the temperature on your water heater down to 120 degrees. Doing so will reduce the heater's energy consumption by 5% to 10% and prevent scalding.

Reverse ceiling fans. Many ceiling fans have a switch that reverses the direction of the blades. Counterclockwise rotation produces cools air, while a clockwise rotation makes it warmer by bringing heated air down to into rooms with cathedral or high-sloped ceilings. Only use this tactic if you have high ceilings and can set the fan to rotate clockwise at a low speed.

Close your fireplace flue. An open fireplace damper lets out as much heated air as a wide-open 48-inch window. Make sure your flue is always closed when not in use. It's even a good idea to cut back on how much you use your fireplace since a fire draws heat from a room and exhausts it to the outside through the chimney.

Replace windows and appliances with energy-efficient models as they wear out. They may cost more upfront, but you'll recoup the cost with heating and cooling cost savings.

If your furnace is over 20 years old, it is not efficiently heating your home. Although replacing a furnace is a costly expense, the increased efficiency will save you money in the long run. Energy Star-certified furnaces are 15% to 20% more efficient than even new standard models.

Now get ready to bundle up, stay warm, and save money this winter!