Service Your Air Conditioner for Summer Comfort

By Doug Garrett
(this article first appeared in the Austin American Statesman in 1996, but it is still relevant today)

We all know that we can pay our auto mechanics a little now for routine service, or pay them a lot later for a major repair. The same idea holds true for your air conditioner or heat pump. If you don’t service your air conditioner or heat pump regularly, you’ll find yourself uncomfortable and broke.

In this article the term air conditioner will apply to a heat pump or a standard air conditioner. Both benefit equally from annual service tune-ups.

An air conditioner is a very tough piece of equipment. It is engineered to withstand all sorts of abuse and keep on running. This is great in most respects, but it can lead to complacency about maintenance. Like a car, air conditioners need regular tune-ups to run properly.

Without regular maintenance an air conditioner loses about 5% of it’s original efficiency for each year of operation. This means that the 12 SEER unit that you bought just a few years ago may be functioning like a 9 SEER unit today! The good news is that you can recover most of that lost efficiency through regular maintenance. Studies show that with regular tune-ups a unit will maintain up to 95% of it’s original efficiency. This means that the cost of an annual tune-up is recovered very quickly in savings on your monthly electric bill and reduced repair costs. A properly serviced air conditioner will also do a better job of dehumidifying your home.

Many local air conditioning firms offer special prices at this time of the year (spring and fall, when weather’s not as extreme –Ed.). Some even offer annual service programs that insure that you will be reminded of the need to service the unit at the beginning of the cooling and heating seasons.

The service check should include cleaning the condensing unit coils, checking the amp draw of the compressor, oiling the fan motors, checking that belts are well adjusted, and checking the system operating pressures and temperatures against the manufacturers specifications. One of the most important items to check is the coolant level (previously known as Freon) in the air conditioner. A system that is only 10% low on coolant will cost about 20% more to operate! The Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) recommends that coolant levels be checked every year.

If your unit is low on coolant, and more must be added, there are new laws governing its use. Freon is a chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) that will damage the Earths protective ozone layer if released into the atmosphere. The laws governing CFC’s now do not allow your air conditioner contractor to add Freon to a leaky system. [Ed note: CFCs are no longer allowed and various alternative refrigerants are now common.] They are first required to find and fix the leak in the system. Don’t ask them to violate this law as they may lose their license if they are caught doing this.

There are some things in addition to yearly tune-ups that you can do to help ensure a high level of comfort and proper system operation. First, buy good filters and change them regularly. Next, keep bushes and other materials away from the outside unit of your air conditioner. Another good idea is to avoid closing supply air outlets in your house. In almost all cases, closing supply outlets is harmful to the operation of the overall system.

All equipment, even the most reliable, needs routine maintenance. Complicated equipment like today’s air conditioners benefit in many ways from annual service. They recover much of their lost efficiency, they are less likely to suffer a major break down, they have a longer life span, they increase your comfort, and they operate for less money.

New Free LEED for Homes Scoring Tool

Word on the street is it’s pretty well done: http://www.leedforhomes.org/OST/homepage.aspx

Did it work well for you?

Update: I got a chance to give this a spin. The “quick score” is straightforward and works well (the dream building I entered came in about half way between Gold and Platinum). The more detailed scoring gets into a few areas where making one choice takes several others off the table, but other than that and the time it takes to go through all the myriad details, it also works well. Give it a try.

Plant a Tree This Winter For a Green Spring

By Dick Peterson

Winter is one of the best times to plant a tree. Many excellent varieties are available at your local nursery, with some of the best trees available in the winter. Your new tree will use the winter dormant season to establish new roots. When spring arrives, your tree will be on its way to providing shade for generations to come. While it may seen obvious that planting a tree is a good thing, here are some reasons which may not have not occurred to you. Well-placed trees can save you money on your utility bills. In the summer trees shade your roof and windows and also cool the air around your house as they breathe. In the winter, evergreens can block cold north winds. By using less electricity you help cut down on emissions from power plants that contribute to the “green house effect.” Trees of course clean the air by creating oxygen, and they also keep our cities cooler by reducing the “heat island” effect. This is caused by concrete and asphalt storing and reflecting heat, making urban areas hotter.

Choosing a Tree

Ask your nursery professional to recommend a tree that is native or adapted to this area. Don’t ask for the fastest growing tree such as an Arizona ash, cottonwood, Chinese tallow or poplar. Their fast growth results in weak, brittle wood. They are also prone to freeze and insect damage, leaving you with the expense of tree removal just when you expect to be receiving shade. Excellent deciduous trees for this area include Chinese pistache, cedar elm, Drake elm, pecan, Texas ash, and bald cypress. These trees will lose their leaves in the winter and provide access to the winter sun to warm your home. Two of the best choices in this category are the burr and chinquapin oaks. Recommended evergreen selections include live oak, Afghan pine, deodar cedar, and cherry laurel.

Choosing a site

Survey your site and decide the best location for your tree. Choose the variety based on mature size compared to the space you have available. Most planting mistakes are made by placing a tree that will become very large in the wrong place; under a power line or too close to the house, driveway, or walkway. Don’t place the tree near water, gas, cable TV, telephone or sewer lines. In Austin, phone One Call (they’re listed in the Phone book); they will locate and mark all underground utility lines in the digging area. In other locations, call your utility or service supplier. Now dig a test hole. Be sure your location is not one large limestone boulder with a thin layer of soil over it. If you hit a large rock, move over a bit and try again. When you are sure you can dig an adequate hole, then purchase the tree. When you know the size of the hole you can dig, your original plan for a large balled and burlaped tree may change to a five gallon size. The smaller size is easier to plant, less expensive, and may grow more rapidly than the larger tree.

Planting the Tree

Dig your hole three to five times as wide as the container or root ball. The hole should be no deeper than the container. If you disturb the native soil below the root ball, the tree may settle and sink too low. The sides of the hole should not be smooth. Dig an ugly, ragged hole or even a square hole. Use a pick or shovel to break up the vertical soil surface. This gives the roots a chance to grow into the native soil. Carefully remove the tree from its container and place it in the hole. Large trees may require the aid of several helpers to avoid damaging the roots. If the roots have begun to circle inside the container, straighten them out from the root ball as you refill the hole. Most times a newly planted tree will stand on its own. If necessary, drive a sturdy stake at the edge of the root ball. Use an old nylon stocking to loop a loose figure eight around the tree and the stake. Fill the hole with the removed soil, not peat moss, compost, or bagged soil. It’s best to get the tree immediately accustomed to the soil in which it will be growing. Otherwise the roots tend to stay in the amended soil and never grow into the surrounding native soil. As you fill, compress the soil with your foot several times to prevent air pockets. Use the extra soil to build a dam around the edge of the hole. Water thoroughly and deeply. A liquid root stimulator may be used, but is usually not necessary. Cover the area inside the dam with 3-4 inches of organic mulch. In the absence of rain, a good soaking every two weeks is sufficient during the winter.

This article first appeared in the Austin American Statesman. At the time of publication, Dick Peterson was City of Austin Xeriscape Coordinator.

Deter Pests and Use Less Pesticide With Good Home Maintenance

by Erik Bliss

For decades we have relied on chemical barriers to keep pests out of our homes, rather than trying to physically exclude them. As more people become concerned with the health and environmental risks associated with chemical pesticides, the focus of pest control has shifted towards a more “integrated” approach. Officially called Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, this approach is a balanced, tactical approach that controls pests with the least risk to human health and the environment. Good home maintenance practices are fundamental to a successful IPM program.

Most people probably own homes that were not designed or built with IPM in mind. So, most homeowners must “retrofit” for pest control. Every home has identifiable weak points where pests are likely to enter or reside. Identifying and fixing these is an effective way to control pests.

The following list of common problem areas associated with pests can be used to do a quick inspection of your home’s exterior. Many pests are attracted to water or water-damaged areas. Pay close attention to any area of your home that may come in contact with water. It may not be feasible to fix all the problems you find but identifying them will make it easier to monitor for pest activity. Making a few minor repairs now can save you money in the future by avoiding costly damage done by termites, carpenter ants and other pests.

The Foundation

Problems are often caused by poor drainage. After a rain, check the drainage patterns in your yard. Water should not be collecting near or running under your foundation.

  • Downspouts Gutters often dump water only inches away from your foundation. Modify the downspouts to channel water farther away from the foundation (several feet if possible). You can purchase concrete blocks that will accomplish this or you can extend the gutter piping.
  • Flower Beds Raised beds sometimes act as dams that pool water near your foundation. Channel this water away from your home. It will not only discourages termites, but will also help irrigate your lawn.
  • Window AC units Check the soil beneath these units for dampness. Condensation can sometimes be the source of unwanted moisture near your foundation.
  • Leaking Sprinkler Systems and Faucets Make sure even small drips are fixed promptly.

Exposed Wood

Wood is subject to pest attack where it is exposed to soil or weather. Subterranean termites tunnel through the soil in search of wood to eat. When encountering an obstacle in the soil, your concrete foundation for example, they will build mud tubes upwards to continue scouting for wood. Tubing is hard and dangerous work for termites so they usually abandon the tube fairly quickly if they don’t find wood to infest. As a deterrent, keep any wood or cellulose building material at least 8 inches away from the soil.

  • Siding and trim Soil or mulch closer than 8 inches from your siding or trim can encourage termites. Brick and stucco veneer houses are at particular risk. If the seal between the frame and the veneer is broken, termites can tunnel undetected in the space, often doing expensive damage before they are discovered. Remove the soil or mulch and create an 8 inch space. Keep your home’s paint, stucco, or brick in good condition to avoid carpenter bee and carpenter ant attack.
  • Wooden beams or steps If these contact the soil, termites can tunnel right up into your home. You could monitor them closely, or replace them with metal or concrete. If you use concrete for steps, you must use a water proof spacer (such as metal or plastic) between the concrete and wood siding, since concrete will draw water to the siding.
  • Earth-fill porches Some concrete porches are filled with dirt and are often the source of termite access to homes. Have your pest control technician check wood near the porch carefully every year.

Roofs and Gutters

Roofs and gutters are designed to protect your home from the rain. When not functioning properly they can cause water damage and pest problems.

  • Tree limbs Limbs must be pruned away from the roof. The movement of the branches across the roof can damage the shingles and allow water to damage the wood supports. Insects, especially carpenter ants, use limbs as bridges to enter your home.
  • Clogged gutters Gutters that hold water are mosquito breeding sites. Clearing them of leaves periodically will reduce this risk.

Attics and Crawl Spaces

Attics and crawl spaces are built with vents to reduce moisture build-up. It is important to keep these vents to the outside open and operating, especially in humid areas like Austin. Remove newspaper or cardboard that you have placed in your crawl space. These materials are made from wood pulp and will attract termites.

  • Blocked vents Keep plants and shrubs pruned away from foundation vents.
  • Painted-over vents Many homes have vents under the roof eaves. These vents can be small and are frequently painted over by mistake. Remove any paint that may be clogging the vents. Do not plug the vent if wasps or other insects are using the vents to get into your attic. Instead, use window screening as a barrier.

Kitchens and Bathrooms

Kitchens and bathrooms are common sites of pest problems because of the presence of plumbing and associated water.

  • Unsealed entry points for pipes Many times the areas where pipes enter the house are not properly sealed. Insects like roaches and termites are attracted to the dampness and can crawl right up the pipes. Make sure the entry points are closed with an appropriate sealant.
  • Leaks Fix leaks, even small drips, promptly. Toilets may have hidden leaks at the base caused by a failure of the wax seal between the toilet and the floor. This will cause the floor in a pier and beam house to rot out and attract termites.

Wood Piles
Wood is frequently piled next to homes or garages. These piles attract ants, roaches, termites, and rodents. Wood should be piled away from any building and preferably off the ground on pallets or concrete. Cover the wood with a plastic tarp for even more protection.

By taking care of these maintenance concerns you will lessen pest problems around your home, and more importantly, you won’t have to use as many chemicals. That’s better for your health and the health of the environment.

If you are planning to build a new home, there are many tactics that you can take during construction that will deter pest problems. Call your city’s building department for more information on building practices that deter pests.

This article first appeared in the Austin American Statesman. At the time of publication, Mr Bliss was with the City of Austin Drainage Utility.

DOE Launches the High Efficiency Windows Volume Purchase Program

May 27, 2010

The U.S. Department of Energy today announced the launch of the Highly-Insulating R-5 Windows and Low-e Storm Windows Volume Purchase Program, part of a multi-year integrated strategy to transform the market for high efficiency windows. The initiative will facilitate the broader deployment of these windows by pairing manufacturers with buyers looking to purchase large volumes of windows and by setting performance expectations for two new types of energy efficient windows. This will provide support for window manufacturers to help overcome the initial costs associated with producing windows at an even higher efficiency level while connecting volume buyers with pre-cleared suppliers.

“The Department of Energy has played a key role in rapidly advancing window technology in the past few years. This program will help move these technologies into the marketplace, providing significant energy savings to homes and businesses across the country,” said Roland Risser, DOE’s Building Technologies Program Manager. “This initiative will help drive demand and increase the number of offerings available to builders and project developers.”

The program includes both Highly-Insulating R-5 (U value 0.2) Windows and Low-e Storm Windows. When replacing windows or building a new building, R-5 Windows can reduce heat loss through the window by 30 to 40% compared to a typical R-3 window available today. In situations where full replacement is not an option, Low-e Storm Windows, which fit over existing windows, can be used to reduce heat loads by up to 20%. The savings for both R-5 windows and Low-e Storm Windows are a significant improvement over products available today—and many meet DOE’s price premium target of less than $4 per square foot. With higher energy performance and lower purchase prices, windows can become an even more cost effective measure for building retrofits.

Volume purchasers of windows, including government agencies, builders, energy retrofitters, renovators, and weatherization providers, will gain online access to window sellers whose products are certified to meet the High-Insulation R-5 and Low-e Storm Windows specification. Buyers can review size and price ranges and then connect directly to the vendors’ Web sites to purchase. The program includes more than 30 suppliers. For more information, visit the Highly-Insulating Windows and Low-e Storm Windows Volume Purchase Program Web site.

The Volume Purchase Program received significant interest from manufacturers, the building industry, and other key industry stakeholders. More than 50 eligible proposals were submitted from suppliers; over 30 suppliers meeting all program requirements are currently listed on the Web site ready to sell windows products. Today’s launch event co-hosted by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) will include participation from a broad spectrum of building industry stakeholders, including NAHB, American Architectural Manufacturers Association, the Alliance to Save Energy, Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County, Illinois (CEDA), and Habitat for Humanity.

Windows that are part of the program must have National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC) thermal performance certification and minimum structural certification in accordance with the North American Fenestration Standard (NAFS). Additionally, all storm windows must have their glass type registered in the International Glazing Database created by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL).

To participate, interested suppliers and potential buyers can visit the Highly-Insulating Windows and Low-e Storm Windows Volume Purchase Program Web site.

Logical Landscapes for Green Living in Central Texas

This article first appeared in the Austin American Statesman in 1996 but is still relevant today.

by Dick Peterson

You bought a home–it cost a lot of money. Now you want a landscape that will enhance your home’s beauty, add value to your home, and be easy to maintain. Landscaping choices are an important part of the City’s Green Builder Program. By making good choices when you plant, you can save time, money and protect Austin’s beautiful natural environment.

Austin is unique; that’s why you live here, or got here just as fast as you could. But so are Austin’s soils–and not knowing your soil and the plants that will grow and thrive on your lot could be costly both in time and money. The Central Texas region consists of several soil and climate combinations which means that landscape decisions should be specific to your site.

Three distinct vegetation areas meet in Austin: the Edwards Plateau, the Blackland Prairie, and the Post Oak Savannah. Each of these areas has different soil types with different planting requirements. The native and adaptive plants (adaptive plants are non-native plants that thrive in this climate) that will thrive on these soils are also very different. Before you plant, take this tour of Austin soils types and choose your landscape to fit.

The Edwards Plateau is generally west of Mopac. This area features shallow soils with rolling hills and steep slopes. West Lake Hills, Oak Hill, and Rollingwood are representative communities. Commonly referred to as the beginning of the Texas Hill Country, the Plateau’s undeveloped areas are dominated by mesquites, oaks, and cedars (really junipers). When you choose a homesite in the Hill Country, take stock of the existing vegetation and develop a plan with your builder to protect it during construction. Avoid indiscriminate clearing of the land in this very ecologically-sensitive area. Limit fill only to that required to insure adequate drainage away from the foundation. Avoid cheap “sandy loam” fill. It is usually an infertile product referred to by landscapers as “red death.” Use a “landscapers mix” instead.

The majority of new plants in the landscape should be native or adaptive to the area. For trees, select Bur and Chinquapin oaks, cedar elm, Chinese pistache, Mexican buckeye, Mexican plum, Texas persimmon and Texas redbud. For shrubs, select Burford, Chinese, or yaupon holly, nandina, mountain laurel, yuccas, and native bunch grasses.

The Blackland Prairie is generally east of the Balcones Fault. Soils in this area are mainly deep and the terrain is gently sloping. Sunset Valley and Manchaca are right on the dividing line. The intersection of the Missouri Pacific and Southern Pacific rails at McNeil is just west of the line. Undeveloped homesites in this area were once farmland. Fertile areas near Del Valle and Govalle were used as truck gardens at the turn of the century and provided early Austinites with fresh produce. Existing vegetation may include grasses and scrub brush. Existing trees may consist of oaks, pecans, and some cedars. Pecans, oaks, and Texas ash are excellent selections for new landscapes. Some shrub choices include cherry laurel, Indian hawthorn, oleander, and Burford, Chinese, or yaupon holly.

The Post Oak Savannah is generally east of Austin. Indicators for this area are sandy, slightly acidic soil with post oaks. Some references include this area in the Blackland Prairie or in a more inclusive area referred to as the Cross Plains and Timbers, so plants from Blackland lists may be appropriate for your specific site. Some landscape plans for this area may include some of the selections from both the Blackland Prairie and the Edwards Plateau lists. This may seem a bit confusing, but look at your actual site. A city by city list of regions is included in the “must have” book, Native Texas Plants – Landscaping Region by Region, by Sally and Andy Wasowski (Gulf Publishing Company). Sally suggests starting “with the city you live in or live closest to. Next read about the possible choices for your area. Then go outside, look at your soil, and match it as best you can to one of those described for your area. The plants listed under your soil description are the ones most characteristic of that region and can serve as indicators.”

Each homesite should be evaluated for the dominant soil type, not by its location on a map. The above regions and soil types are general. Your site may be slightly different from your neighbor, both in soil and climate. If you are unsure about the type of soil, consider getting a soil analysis. This is a free service at some area nurseries, or contact your county Agricultural Extension Service.

Create zones in your landscape according to existing or improved soils. Group plants that have similar soil and water needs together. Keep high water use plants to a minimum and group these together to make a miniature oasis. These small distinct areas can be easily maintained if they are near the front or back door. Be aware of microclimates that exist even on your own property. New Braunfels author Scott Ogden writes in Gardening Success with Difficult Soils (Taylor Publishing), “Even the smallest gardens offer a series of microclimates around the house or grounds that favor various plants and enable a wider variety to be grown.” For example, reflected heat from walls or patios can create pockets of warmer temperatures for more tender plants, while plants exposed to cold north winds need to tolerate colder winter temperatures.

Native and adaptive plants thrive the best and are low maintenance. Low maintenance alternatives to traditional landscaping are becoming the norm. In Central Texas, with our hot, dry summers, native and adaptive plants require very little water to thrive. In the 1980’s, the word Xeriscape was coined from the Greek word “xeros” for dry. Xeriscape is defined as “quality landscaping that conserves water and protects the environment.” It is not a style of gardening, but a method of gardening.

Recently, a neighbor of an award-winning Xeriscape commented, “I’ve never seen a ‘zeroscape’ that I liked.” What he didn’t realize was that almost any landscape he found to his liking could be a Xeriscape. His neighbor simply preferred a more natural style. A very formal landscape, or even an oriental garden, could be a Xeriscape.

Xeriscapes depend on seven basic principles. By using these principles, you can reduce yard maintenance, use less chemicals and synthetic fertilizer, and spend more time enjoying your yard.

Planning and Design. Developing a plan is the first and most important step in a successful Xeriscape. Consider the regional and microclimatic conditions of the site; existing vegetation and topographical conditions; how you intend to use your landscape; and the zoning or grouping of plants by their water needs.

Soil Analysis. Soils will vary from site to site and even within a given site. Be aware of the acid/alkaline state of your soil and what nutrients are lacking.

Appropriate Plant Selection. Your design will determine the overall effect of the landscape. The actual selection of plants should come from those species that are native or adaptive to your site. Deviation from the appropriate selections creates the need for more soil amendments, more maintenance, and different watering schedules. Think low maintenance.

Practical Turf Areas. Lawn grass usually covers more of the landscape than is needed for entertaining or recreation. For a more interesting and manageable yard, use turf as a fill-in plant. Increase the area of decks, porous paving, paths, and mulched planting beds to reduce turf. Be sure to select drought-tolerant grass varieties such as Buffalograss and Bermudagrass in the sunny lawn areas.

Efficient Irrigation. Water infrequently, but when you do, water deeply. Plants and grasses develop deeper, drought-tolerant roots when forced to find deeper moisture. Frequent, light watering results in shallow roots, leading to water stress during periods of drought.

Use of Mulches. A 3″-4″ layer of organic material should cover all exposed soil areas. Replenish it twice a year. Mulch retains moisture, controls soil temperature, discourages weeds, and prevents erosion.

Appropriate Maintenance. You can’t totally eliminate maintenance, but by following the first six principles, you can reduce time spent on maintaining your yard. After they are established, Xeriscapes require less fertilizer, chemicals, and less water. Your neighbors will admire your landscape and may not even realize it’s a Xeriscape!

You can have a beautiful, efficient landscape that is friendly to the environment. Logical landscape choices will insure our children will have a cleaner, greener planet. The future depends on you. For more information about Xeriscape, call the Austin Xeriscape Garden Club at 370-9505, or see the Xeriscape page on Sustainable Sources.

Concrete Foundations that Double as the Finished Floor

by Jill Mayfield

Not too long ago about the only place you saw a concrete floor was in a warehouse or industrial setting-not anymore. Concrete slab foundations finished as floors are becoming more commonplace in residential and in all types of commercial construction.

Gray concrete not your style? Today, finished concrete floors can be stamped to look like stone, tile or brick. They can be scored in a variety of geometric patterns. And, they can be just about any color or combination of color you desire. Color can be added at several different points in the process. Dye can be added to the concrete mix at the plant; it can be added to the surface and mixed in to the top layer of concrete while it is still soft; or it can be added at the end of the process through painting or acid etching.

If you suffer from allergies or asthma and are planning to build a new home, consider finished concrete floors. Carpets hold dust, dust mites, mold, and other allergens. Additionally, carpets and vinyl may be installed with glues and adhesives that give off irritating fumes. Cleaning a concrete floor is also very easy- it requires no harsh chemicals, only a broom and wet mop.

Because your foundation is in direct contact with the earth (which ranges from an average temperature of 68 degrees to 55 degrees, depending on your location), it can help the energy performance of your home. If you are worried about a concrete floor being cooler in the winter, place rugs in desired areas. While if may feel colder, its constant temperature helps in both heating and cooling your home.

If you are concerned about the hardness of a concrete floor, remember that tile is just as hard and that other types of flooring are applied directly to the foundation. Well-placed throw rugs in areas where you stand a lot will provide an adequate cushion.

The cost of a finished concrete floor can vary greatly. It depends on the types of patterns you include and how the color is applied. While you may pay more up front, this type of floor is so durable-unlike carpet and vinyl flooring-you will never need to replace it.

This article first appeared in the Austin American Statesman. At the time of publication, Ms Mayfield was with the City of Austin Green Building Program

Drought Protection on a Budget

This article first appeared in the Austin American Statesman.

by John Gleason

As the weather turns warmer,  landscapes are breaking their winter dormancy and waking up to a powerful thirst. Although the current drought has been especially tough on ranchers and farmers, homeowners are to feeling the pinch too. Many are turning to local irrigation contractors, who are scrambling to fulfill an overload of requests for sprinkler system installations and repairs. Used efficiently, automatic watering systems are a powerful tool for dry weather. However, you don’t need a sprinkler system to reduce drought-stress in your landscape. By following these tips you can conserve precious water and save money.

Be Water-Thrifty

Don’t make the mistake of watering too often and not deeply enough. This type of watering causes plants to grow shallow roots that are stressed easily during dry or hot weather. Water less frequently, yet when you do, thoroughly saturate the roots of your plants. Then let the soil dry out again. This encourages a deeper, more substantial root system that tolerates drought better. Rather than watering on a set schedule, keep an eye on your plants, and let them tell you when to water.To saturate your soil without creating lots of runoff, use the “water and soak” method. Runoff is the water that “runs off” your property because it’s being applied faster than your soil can accept it. Most soils in Austin are clay, which admits water only very slowly. Slopes make the problem worse. To get the water deep down into your soil, use repeated short watering cycles, followed by a “soak-in” period. This method may initially be a bit more demanding, but less frequent irrigation overall means you save time, energy, and water in the long-term. Consider using drip irrigation in your beds since this type of system has a slower application rate than spray.

Good Investments

Purchase a moisture meter and soil analysis for your landscape. They will each provide you with valuable information. A moisture meter is tool with a soil probe and a dial which indicates your soil’s wetness or dryness. They cost about $15, and they’re available at many local hardware and garden supply centers. Use it frequently to monitor not only if there is soil moisture present, but if so, at what depth.An analysis of your soil will tell you about it’s texture and chemistry, and will recommend soil amendments that are important to your plants’ health. There are many good soil labs; the least expensive is offered by the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, which has an agent in every Texas county. Costs vary from $10 to $30, depending on the level of analysis. Refer to your local Extension agent for instructions and a soil collection bag.

Mind Your Soil

Most soils could use the addition of large amounts of organic matter. A soil enriched with organic material has good water-holding capacity and encourages large, vigorous root systems. A good, cheap source of organic matter is home-made compost. If you’re not already composting, start recycling those kitchen and garden wastes into what organic gardeners call “black gold”.If you’re creating a new landscape area, till in lots of organic material to create a rich loamy soil. For existing areas of your yard, spread a thin layer of compost on your lawn and beds, then water lightly.

Go easy on the chemical fertilizers, especially during extended dry weather. Consider using organic alternatives such as ‘Dillo Dirt and compost. While lawns occasionally need to be fertilized to stay healthy, too much fertilizer means you have to water more. Do not fertilize prior to rainfall! That drizzle that you expected could turn into a thundershower and send the fertilizer into your local creek, pollute the water and harm wildlife. Use the “water and soak” method after you fertilize.

Mulch

When mowing your lawn, use “Don’t Bag It” principles. By not bagging your grass clippings, you save time and add organic material to your soil. Mowing height and frequency should be set to cut off no more than one-third the height of the grass. Taller grass develops a deeper root system and shades the soil surface.Mulch can be any material applied to the surface of the soil to act as a barrier to retain moisture, insulate the soil, and control weeds. Mulching is the easiest and one of the most effective methods to slow down rainwater and hold it in your landscape. Mulch also keeps the soil surface cooler and reduces heat stress on your plants. Mulch aids in conserving water loss by reducing competition from weeds for available moisture. Organic mulch also enriches your soil as it decomposes.

With a little research, you may be able to locate a free source of mulch. Check with your neighbors or a local landscape contractor for bags of grass clippings and leaves. Some municipalities and homeowner associations offer the shredded wood leftover from land clearing.

Do the Math

Drought-tolerant landscaping conserves water, saves you money, and protects the environment . To learn more about these and other drought protection techniques, check with local landscape professionals and consider joining Austin’s Xeriscape Garden Club. Xeriscape is “quality landscaping that conserves water and protects the environment.” Call the Austin Xeriscape Garden Club at 370-9505 for more information. When you conserve water, you support a cause with community-wide dividends. It may seem a big jump to be talking of regional benefits in the same breath as how we landscape our property. But the two are intimately linked through our consumption patterns – and it is only by changing our own lives and habits that we can begin to protect our environment.

At the time this article was written (1996) John Gleason was a landscape architect with the City of Austin and was president of the Xeriscape Garden Club.

Don’t Let Your Roof Take the Heat

Tips to keep your attic cool

By Marc Richmond*

Picture this: It’s a hot and humid summer day. You head for the indoors and some relief from your trusty air conditioning (A/C) system. Three hours later, you’re slightly cooler, but you’re wondering why your A/C unit hasn’t shut off yet. Here’s why: all day long, solar radiation has been heating up your home through the windows, walls, doors and especially the roof. Your attic temperature can easily reach over 140 degrees. That heat up there is working its way through your meager attic insulation into your home and through the A/C ductwork, located in your attic, into your cooling system. Your A/C system has to fight that added heat to change all that hot air in your home into cool air. You can install solar screens for the windows, porches around the house for shade, and plant trees around the home, but what do you do about the roof which accounts for a third of all the heat build-up of your house?

Here are a few options:

Ventilate your attic with ridge and soffit vents. Vents are louvers, grills, or screen materials which allow passage or air through them. They are typically installed along the top peak (ridge) of your roof, at the top of the side wall (gable), and on the underside of your roof overhang (soffit). Ventilation moves air through your attic by force of wind or by heat rising through natural convection. This leaves cooler air sitting on top of the insulation on the attic floor. Ventilation also has the ability to remove humidity which has built up in your attic and which reduces the effectiveness of your insulation. It is often best to hire a contractor to install these.

Insulate your attic to R-30. R-30 is roughly a 10 inch thick layer of insulation material above your ceiling. This is a job for any handy homeowner or it could be handed over to a contractor. When installing the insulation, be careful not to block your vents.

Install a radiant barrier between your roof and your attic insulation. A radiant barrier is an aluminum foil material which prevents 95 percent of the heat that radiates from your roof from reaching the insulation on your attic floor. It comes in a roll and is stapled to the underside of your roof rafters, or as a metallic paint. Radiant barriers are sold in most building material supply centers and can be easily installed by a homeowner. This system can save you up to eight percent on your summer cooling bills.

When it comes time to replace the roof, use roofing material which resists or reflects heat – typically lighter colors are best, though there are some new materials which are effective at reflecting infrared radiation (heat) with a more ‘traditional’ color.

This article first appeared in the Austin American Statesman and was republished by us in 1997. *We have since edited the article.  At the time of publication, Mr Richmond was with the City of Austin’s Green Building Program; he now is president of Practica Consulting.

ASTM Standard Guide for Earthen Wall Systems

A note from our friend Bruce King:

Friends and colleagues —

I’m very happy to tell you that ASTM International has approved publication of revisions to ASTM E2392, Standard Guide for Design of Earthen Wall Building Systems.

This has been a four year project for me and for the Ecological Building Network, and you helped make it happen! This building standard now provides:
– prescriptive guidance for affordable seismic safety,
– engineering guidance where it is practically available, and
– discourages the use of cement, especially applied as render over earthen walls.

Various industries tried to stop this project, and it has been a sometimes weird experience, but we are now done. It has taken four years but was worth it, for we now have a document that we can work with anywhere in the world.

If you already have a draft from any time in the past two years, then you have something pretty close to the final language. If you want the formal document, you must order it from ASTM International, where it will be ready with all final edits by late January. Upon request, ASTM will also translate it for any country holding a memorandum of understanding with ASTM (which is most countries). http://www.astm.org/index.shtml

Thanks, and warm greetings from cool California,

Bruce King
bruce-king.com
ecobuildnetwork.org