Myth Buster Archive
If my roof is shaded, a solar electric (PV) system is not an option for me (Summer 2013)
Solar panels aren't just for your roof. Free-standing panels or a "solar pergola" may be options if you have a sunny spot on your property.
Free-standing panels (typically mounted on a pole) can be oriented at precisely the right angle for maximum efficiency (vs. the existing slope and orientation of your roof). Some systems offer tracking that adjusts the angle of the panels slightly over the course of the day, increasing efficiency further.
A solar pergola is a structure that provides shade and collects solar energy. The photovoltaic panels form the roof of the structure, which can be attached or separate from your house. Solar pergolas can be a pleasant outdoor living space, carport or place to store wood in the winter.
Check your local zoning ordinance to see what the setback and height restrictions are. It's a good idea to have a professional assess the solar suitability of your proposed site. Also, make sure your home is as energy efficient as possible before investing in any type of renewable energy.
Compost piles need to be inoculated so they will work. (Spring 2013)
Compost never needs to be inoculated. The microorganisms that are in a compost pile are naturally occurring. However, adding a couple handfuls of soil, or better yet, compost, will increase the population of microorganisms in your compost pile and will help you to compost more quickly.
Even if your pile is isolated from the soil, such as is the case with composters that are encased in plastic, or off the ground, inoculant is not required. As you add leaves and grass and decaying food, you are adding microorganisms as well. Again, adding soil or compost just as a more concentrated collection of microorganisms, but their populations will increase soon enough without those additions.
Can you compost in the winter? (Winter 2012/13)
Q: Composting is for warm weather only, so I have to throw my food scraps into the garbage in the winter.
A: You can compost year-round
It's true that in New York State's normally icy winters, the microorganisms that break down organic material slow w-a-a-a-y down and don't get much done. But a large compost pile cozily nestled in a foot-thick layer of leaves will stay above freezing, allowing you to add new food scraps beneath the top layer. Compost bins can be insulated with bales of straw. So keep on composting! Read more in DEC's Everything You Have Always Wanted to Know about Home Composting (PDF) 437 KB.
What to do with old, drafty windows (Fall 2012)
Q: High-performance replacement windows are the best cure for old, drafty windows (Fall 2012)
A: An interior storm window can cut your energy loss, at a fraction of the price.
If you need to cut heat loss from a single-pane or leaky double-pane window, an interior storm window can be an excellent, low-cost solution. Adding a sheet of plastic, with a tight edge seal over a single pane window will cut heat loss by 50 percent. You'll even see improvement (by about 33 percent) when an interior storm is installed over a double pane window. Interior storms also reduce condensation and frost on the interior window pane surface, eliminate drafts and reduce outside noise.
You're probably familiar with the plastic interior storms that attach with double stick tape and shrunk to size with a hair dryer. While these work, they can't be reused. Consider instead, reusable interior storm windows which use a channel and spline combination (like a zip lock bag) to hold clear, heavy-duty plastic in place. The channel attaches to the window frame with an adhesive backing and can be easily cut to size with a scissors. In the spring, simply remove the plastic and store it until fall, The plastic channels remain in place. If you're careful with the plastic, this system will last for several years. Cost for a typical 38" by 64" window is $7 to $8.
For best performance, there should be a 1/2" to 3/4" space between the plastic storm and the existing window pane. Heat loss, drafts and noise will still be reduced if the space is larger, but the insulating value is slightly decreased.
For additional durability and looks (and more money, but still nowhere close to the price of replacement windows), check out the rigid plastic interior storm options. These use lightweight plastic, or plastic films surrounded by custom-fitted frames. The storm is typically held in place with clips (sometimes magnets or other means) and can be removed when not needed.
It's bad to cut trees for wood floors (Summer 2012)
Q: I want wood floors in my new house. But isn't it bad to cut trees?
A: Wood flooring is one of the most environmental friendly choices you can make.
We hear a lot in the news about deforestation - the permanent removal of a forest or large area of trees - and it is a very real problem in some parts of the world but not in the northeastern US. New York has actually been gaining forestland over the last 100 years.
Trees are a renewable resource when forests are managed sustainably -providing goods (timber) and services (clean air and water) now and for future generations. When trees are cut in our forests, seedlings and young trees take their place. Maple, oak and cherry are some of the most common trees in our forests. They make wonderful floors and furniture.
Think about the alternatives to wood products - if you can't grow it, you have to mine it. If the raw material for your floors and furniture is not wood, it would need to be stone, metal or an oil-derived product like vinyl, none of which are renewable resources.
The U.S. Forest Service recently released a report stating that using wood in building products yields fewer greenhouse gases than using other common materials. The use of wood provides incentives for private landowners to keep their land as forest, which is important because the majority of forestland protecting our drinking water in New York -76%-is privately owned.
Many variables affect the "environmental" quality of a product: How was the forest managed? How far did the timber travel to be processed? Where was the final product made? Consumers can look for "green certification" by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) or Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) (see Links Leaving DEC's Website" at right) to be sure they are getting wood products from a sustainably managed forest.
Wood makes our homes beautiful and liveable. It's a great environmental choice.
Ultrasonic Rodent Repellers (Fall 2011)
Q: Now that the weather's turning colder, mice and other pests seem to be moving in with me. I'm thinking that ultrasonic repellant devices are a green alternative for pest control.
A: Keep mice out with IPM, not sound waves.
Ultrasound pest control devices emit high frequency sounds intended to repel household pests like rodents, cockroaches, ants, spiders and fleas. Results of studies on the effectiveness of these devices in discouraging common household pests are mixed, at best. Our suggestion is to take an integrated pest management (IPM) approach. Most pests (both insects and rodents) find their way in searching for food, water, and shelter. Knowing this is the key to making your home pest-free. In general, the drill goes like this:
Step one - exclude them: figure how they're getting in and close it up. Fix gaps in door frames and tears in screens, caulk where needed.
Step two - starve them: store all food in tightly covered containers and clean up food spills and crumbs immediately. Fix leaky pipes and wipe up spills.
Step three - expose their hiding places: get rid of clutter where they hide and nest, especially things like piles of damp newspapers in basements and garages.
For specifics, see IPM in and around Your Home (PDF) 166 KB.
Staying Cool (Summer 2011)
Q: If I choose to cut back on the energy-intensive AC this summer, I'll adapt to the summer weather, right?
A: Our bodies are pretty good at maintaining stable core body temperatures during typical New York State summers.
Most healthy adults adapt over a few days, so ease off the AC and create a natural summer lifestyle with these energy-saving tips.
High temperature along with high humidity makes it harder to lose excess body heat. When the air is very moist, sweat doesn't evaporate and cool us as well. Keep an ear tuned to the weather forecast to hear if the heat index (a measure of the combined effect of heat and humidity) is reaching health-threatening levels. See Links Leaving DEC's website in the right hand column for the NOAA Heat Index.
Certain groups of people are affected more severely by heat and humidity and may need to take special protective steps (including air conditioning, if available) when the weather is very hot. These groups include:
- pregnant women
- people with disabilities and medical conditions
- children under 14 years old
- seniors above 60 years old
Furry pets are unable to cool off the way we do, so consider their well-being in your summer planning as well. Make sure they have the option of cool place to rest and plenty of fresh water. Never leave children, pets or those with special needs in a parked car, even briefly. Temperatures in the car can become dangerously high within a few minutes.
How green are electric cars? (Spring 2011)
Q: An electric car that uses electricity from a coal-fired power plant isn't "green."
A: Well, maybe not as green as it could be, but still green.
All-electric vehicles don't give off any greenhouse gases, so even if the car is charged with electricity from a coal-fired plant, overall emissions (taking into account those from the power plant) are about 30% lower than a car with a gasoline engine. Electric engines are also five times as efficient as the standard gasoline engine.
Another benefit is that electric cars use no motor oil. They do need transmission and brake fluid, but these are changed less frequently than oil.
Then there's the battery. Traditional cars have lead-acid batteries which can be almost completely recycled. Electric cars have 400-500 pound lithium-ion batteries. What happens to these? There aren't many places now that can recycle a lithium-ion battery, but there will likely be many more in the next five to ten years, as batteries from 2010/2011 model electrical vehicles reach the end of their lifespans.
Do birds rely on bird feeders? (Winter 2010/2011)
Q: I feed the birds in the winter. If I go on vacation, will the birds starve?
A: It's not likely
Birds look far and wide for food, and will consume up to three-quarters of their diet at places other than your feeder. If your feeder is empty, they'll look for food elsewhere, either from natural sources or other feeders. Some birds such as chickadees, nuthatches, some woodpeckers and blue jays, stash food away in crevices for times when their usual sources aren't available.
A big winter storm while you are away can make things harder for your feathered friends. Deep snow may cover the food of ground feeding species, and a storm that coats everything with a quarter of an inch or more of ice will increase many species' need for supplemental food. If others in your neighborhood are home, filling their feeders, the birds will go there. Birds will cover hundreds of acres in their search for winter food, so unless yours is the only feeder for miles, they'll be fine.
If you'll be gone for more than a week, taper off feeding gradually beforehand. Better yet, have a neighbor or friend stop by to restock your feeder while you're away.
Bottle redemption requirements (Fall 2010)
Q: I brought a beer with a NYS refund label on it and my local supermarket won't take the bottle. That's illegal right?
A: Not necessarily.
If the store doesn't sell that kind of beer, they are not required to redeem it. Specialty sodas and beers must be taken back to a store that carries them. You can also take any refundable bottle to a redemption center.
If there is no redemption center near to you, you can recycle the bottle. Remember that bottled waters, including flavored or nutritionally enhanced waters, can be returned for a refund - as long as they do not contain sugar.
Bug Zappers (Summer 2010)
Myth: Bug zappers are an effective solution to mosquitoes
Bug zappers kill thousands of harmless and beneficial insects and, percentage-wise, few mosquitoes. Such wholesale electrocution of a wide range of insects deprives insect-eating birds of their food. These devices often use ultraviolet (UV) light to attract insects, however mosquitoes are attracted to carbon dioxide, not UV light. Some zappers emit a mosquito attracting pheromone or CO2, which works, but may end up drawing more mosquitoes to your yard than they kill.
Control mosquitoes by reducing the places that they breed. Get rid of standing water in old tires, gutters, bird baths. If you have a pond, introduce fish that feed on mosquito eggs or use dunks containing the larvacide Bti (a bacteria that targets mosquitoes). Mosquitoes aren't strong fliers, so placing a fan in the area you're in may help keep them off you. Protect yourself with bug repellant. Products containing DEET have proven to be most effective, and may be necessary where mosquito-borne diseases are likely. If you dislike the smell and feel of products with DEET, try repellents containing Picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus.
Fake Christmas Trees vs. Real Trees (Winter 2009)
Q: Using a fake tree will save a real tree- right?
A: For every Christmas tree that is cut, one to three seedlings are planted.
Almost all Christmas trees are grown as crops on Christmas tree farms, not in forests. Using real trees instead of artificial trees benefits the environment in several ways:
- While they are growing, they soak up carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change (The manufacturing process for plastic trees emits greenhouse gases.)
- They are renewable: growers plant one to three seedlings for each tree harvested.
- Trees are typically collected by municipalities to be chipped and recycled as mulch after the season (Artificial trees are not biodegradable and can't be recycled.)
- If you purchase a locally grown Christmas tree, both fuel used and greenhouse gas released during shipping are kept to a minimum. (Most artificial trees are manufactured in Asia and shipped overseas to New York.) Look for the 'Pride of New York' emblem on your real tree to make sure it was grown in New York or search for a Christmas tree farm in your area.
Bottom line: If you already have a glittery pink plastic tree and you love it, by all means, enjoy! And please enjoy it for many years, because it's not biodegradable and it can't be recycled. If necessary, will it to your grandchildren to keep it out of the waste stream. But if you like real trees, no need to feel guilty.
For the extremely green - Use a living tree that can be planted outside.
The lowdown on plastic bag recycling (Fall 2009)
Q: Supermarkets accept only plastic grocery bags for recycling -right?
A: Actually, you can now bring a lot more
Since January 1, 2009, larger retail and grocery stores in New York State must make collection bins for plastic bag recycling available to customers in a visible, easily accessible location. In addition to plastic shopping bags, most stores also accept
Plastic retail bags with string ties and rigid plastic handles removed
Plastic newspaper bags
Plastic dry-cleaning bags
Plastic produce bags
Plastic bread bags
Plastic cereal bags
Plastic frozen food bags
Plastic wrap from paper products (paper towels, etc)
Plastic stretch/shrink wrap
Plastic zipper-type bags with plastic closing mechanism removed
All materials must be clean and dry, with all food residue removed
These items cannot be recycled with plastic bags:
Plastic bags with strings, rigid plastic handles, closing mechanisms or food residue
Plastic soil or mulch bags
Plastic bubble wrap
Plastic food containers
So if you forget your reusable shopping bags on occasion, no need for a huge guilt trip. Next time just remember to bring them to the store, along with your plastic bags and wraps for recycling.
What to do with a baby bird that has fallen from its nest (Summer 2009)
Q: If you find a baby bird that has fallen out of a nest, you can't put it back because the mother will smell the human touch on it and will reject it.
A: You're in luck - birds can't smell that well
While in most cases, it's best to leave young wildlife alone, baby songbirds are an exception. A nestling that has fallen from its nest (or a nest that has fallen from a tree) should be returned, if you can do it safely. The parents will continue to look after their young. Most birds have a very poorly developed sense of smell (vultures are the exception) and will not detect your scent. If one parent is killed, the other will generally take over all parental duties.
Fully feathered fledglings will frequently be found on the ground even when they have not totally mastered the skill of flying. Putting a fledgling back into the nest is an exercise in futility-it will continue to jump out. The parents are usually close by, still caring for it. Keep pets inside until the young birds are adept at flying.
Organic Lawn Care (Spring 2009)
Q: A beautiful lawn requires synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides
A: No, no and no.
The beauty of any lawn is more than "turf deep." Lawns maintained with repeated fertilizer and pesticide applications may look perfect but this perfection is achieved at the high cost of soil vitality, environmental quality and human health and will vanish without continual chemical fixes.
Studies have shown that the chemically dependent lawn is more prone to disease and less able to handle stresses from drought, heat and insects. In addition, lawn chemicals and toxins build up in soils, leach into our water supplies, kill non-target species such as bees and birds and can be absorbed by children and pets.
To get a lush, green lawn that is not dependant on chemicals, start by building healthy soil. Healthy soil is alive, containing fungi, insects, earthworms and many living organisms too small to see such as bacteria, microbes and protozoa. Synthetic fertilizers kill these invisible but essential organisms.
Get the soil's nitrogen and pH tested. Growing lawns need nitrogen, half of which can be supplied just by leaving grass clippings on the lawn. The rest can be added by top dressing with compost or the addition of slow-release, organic forms of nitrogen. Slow release fertilizer does not "burn" the grass as it must be broken down by soil bacteria before it becomes available. Good sources are blood meal, cotton seed meal and fish meal.
The Paper vs. Plastic Bag Debate (Winter 2008)
Q: A paper bag is a more environmentally conscious choice than a plastic bag, right?
A: Neither paper nor plastic is your best choice.
To accurately compare paper and plastic bags requires a look at the life-cycle environmental costs of each. Life-cycle costing considers a product's use of resources and energy and environmental impact during the extraction of the raw materials, transport, manufacture, use and disposal.
Paper bags are made from trees (a renewable resource) and are biodegradable. However, they take four times as much energy to produce as does a plastic bag. Making pulp for paper requires the use of toxic chemicals and large quantities of water. Paper bags are heavier and bulkier, requiring more trucks to transport than plastic bags.
Plastic bags are a non-renewable, petroleum-based product and never degrade. We use one million plastic bags a minute! Very few are recycled and thousands end up in the ocean - killing marine wildlife. On the plus side, they take 91% less energy to recycle.
Your best option is to get some sturdy, reusable bags and keep a supply handy.
Programmable thermostats (Fall 2008)
Q: If I turn the thermostat way down when I'm out, doesn't the furnace use more energy to heat up the house when I return?
A: No-the energy saved by letting the house cool down and remain at a lower temperature is much greater than the energy used to warm up the house.
It is a popular misconception that it is better to keep your home at a constant temperature because the boiler or furnace will "work harder" to bring the inside temperature back up from a ten degree set-back.
Not so. Your heating system always runs at the same rate when it is on. The main variable is how long it remains on. Studies have proven that turning the thermostat back 10 degrees for an eight-hour period will save you 10% on your heating bill, on average. If you can't turn your thermostat down 10 degrees, try 5 degrees-there will still be energy savings. The longer your home remains at the lower temperature, the more energy you'll save. Programmable thermostats typically pay for themselves in energy savings in the first winter.
Programmable thermostats are not recommended for homes with heat pumps or electric baseboard systems. Steam boilers and radiant systems may take longer to heat the house back up, but a programmable thermostat will 'learn' in a few days when to start heating the house up to reach your desired temperature setting.
Driving faster saves a lot of time (August 2008)
Q: I'd like to drive slower and get money and gas savings but I can't spare the extra time it'll take.
A: Reducing your speed adds only minutes to your travel time and will save you money on gas.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, reducing your highway driving speed is the biggest factor in improving fuel efficiency. Gas mileage usually decreases rapidly at speeds above 60 mph. Each 5 mph you drive over 60 mph is like paying an additional $0.30 per gallon for gas.
But busy schedules and time pressures make us feel we must drive at top speed. What most people don't realize is that time added by driving a little slower is minimal. For example, reducing your speed for a 20-minute drive from 75 mph to 65 mph only adds 3 minutes to the trip-and that's on the highway. In the city or in congested traffic, tiny time differences like that tend to evaporate.
Do septic system additives work? (Spring 2008)
Q: Do septic system additives advertised as cleaners, activators, uncloggers, or restorers really work?
A: The short answer is NO.
At least 1.3 million households in New York State have septic systems. When they are working properly, septic systems keep harmful organisms out of our waters and protect our health.
We've all seen ads that claim adding commercial powders, liquids or granules to septic systems will increase their efficiency, extend their lives, eliminate the need for pumping, or restore failing systems. According the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, these types of products have not been proven effective. Some can actually interfere with the treatment process and contribute to septic system failure.
The life of a properly installed and maintained septic system and drainage field is about 20-30 years. A home septic system is a significant investment, and a failed one is expensive to replace. To get the most out of your investment and extend its life:
- Have the tank pumped and inspected regularly (every five years is recommended)
- Put only biodegradable wastes into the system
- Restrict garbage disposal use
- Conserve water in the home and repair any leaking faucets and toilets
- Don't plan trees or build over the drainage field