Your city? Take ownership! ... Be heard at PlanOKC

Over the past few months I have been privileged enough to attend PlanOKC public meetings and plunder the documents at www.PlanOKC.org and www.PlanOKC.com, all of which I have found to be fascinating and exciting. PlanOKC is Oklahoma City’s effort at creating a new long-range comprehensive plan for the city’s growth. This will be one of only four such plans in the history of the city, so this exciting opportunity to design and peek into the city’s future does not come around often.

The comprehensive plan will cover eight main topics: City services, Transportation, Sustainability, Environment, Building community, Culture, Economy, and Recreation. If you choose to scout out the websites above, you will see that there are stakeholder groups for each of these subjects. This means that if you work or live in OKC, you are invited to show up, here what is being said, and throw in your two cents. If you don’t want to go, you can still attend virtually… pull up the meeting minutes, read the documents, and submit comments via email. Of course, you will have to wait until meetings start again. We have been promised that this will happen after Labor Day. For now you can go and read the results of the last round of meetings, which consist of a list of issues statements.

I cannot say strongly enough how impressed I am with the city’s efforts to involve the public on this plan. They don’t have to do this! They are just being super nice. And super effective. This project is a tremendous undertaking, and anytime public comment is involved in planning the process becomes more complicated for the planners. I have always felt that public involvement is very important-no small group of people can be completely knowledgeable about everything that goes on within a city or a state- and if the decisions affect everyone, everyone should have a right to speak up. However, the process of trying to reach a consensus between scores or hundreds of people? Good grief, my family can’t even decide what to eat for dinner! Yet somehow the city has managed to organize all these topics, aggressively solicit input from as many people as possible, patiently listen to every comment, and organize the results. It’s really incredible.

Even if all you do is read the web content and watch the subject from afar, you may learn a lot. I have.

This is an exciting time for Oklahoma City. We were cushioned a bit during the recent economic fall-out (not entirely, I know, but other places were much worse off), and all I have seen in the last few years is change, change, change and crazy growth in all sorts of directions, with no sign of slowing. If you want to stay apprised of some of the more grand efforts, of course, you know of MAPS3. There is also Project180, which is the current reason many of the downtown streets are torn up. I’m weary of the construction, but I am rather excited about the promise of the improvements it will create, such as bicycle lanes and better-timed pedestrian lights (Here downtown, we have joked that the pedestrian lights have two meanings: ‘don’t walk’ and ‘run’; thankfully the motorists are usually aware of this).


Affordably efficient.

This spring we were fortunate enough to score a Green Home Loan from Community Action Agency. This is a little-known program that is simply fantastic. I can’t imagine why word hasn’t spread like wildfire. Applicants with an OKC zipcode and a household income below $100,000 a year can qualify for up to $10,000 of a 3-year, 3% interest loan.

This loan can be used for pretty much *anything* that will increase the energy efficiency of your home - a broad playing field indeed. The loan can help you replace appliances, HVAC systems, and old windows. It can go towards weatherizing the house, adding insulation, installing programmable thermostats or solar panels. You could get a cool roof or a heat pump.

Like many middle class families, we have a nice, solid house but it is not a new house. More things break in any given month than we can afford to fix. We prioritize. Things that will cause further damage (plumbing, wiring, etc) win; things that would just be nice to repair lose. Things that are due for replacement but still work with duct tape and a good kick, we keep. For us, this loan was mana from heaven. So here is how we went about it and what the results were.

I saw a brochure for this loan at the State Fair and called Community Action Agency to inquire about it. They gave me a short phone interview to find out if I was eligible and then sent me the loan application. The application process was quick and easy and the people at Community Action Agency are all super nice and helpful. I turned the application around as quick as I could and before long we had a meeting with them to explain the process. We were to get a home energy audit, turn in the results, and select our projects. CAA would then write a proposal for our projects and put it out to bid to a list of approved contractors. The contractors would schedule a time to look at our house and then submit the bids to CAA, who would send a copy of the bids to us. Although these contractors had all been screened by CAA, we still had the ability to quiz them on our own and we were under no obligation to go with the lowest bidder. From the pool of contractors, we were able to choose whoever we liked as long as they followed due process. We could even invite contractors who were not on the list to bid (which we did), and they could put their hat in the ring if they met eligibility criteria. It made us feel good that, as new home owners with little experience on technical aspects, CAA had our back and did the homework we didn’t even know we should have done to make sure we had skilled, honest contractors.

After choosing our contractors, we signed our loan paperwork (also painless) and scheduled the work. When the work was done, CAA sent an inspector to our house to make sure it was done correctly. Three things were not just so, and the contractors came out a second time to fix it. We signed paperwork saying that the work was completed to satisfaction and started our monthly loan payment, happy as two clams.

Maybe as happy as the two happiest clams ever, because we learned a lot of good information about energy efficiency, how to weatherize and care for our house, and how to screen contractors. We did something good for the environment. We replaced laboring equipment that we could only have paid for after it had broken completely, which would have caused the home warranty to kick in. We did improvements that we may never have been able to pay for at all. I am already seeing a drastic reduction in our energy use.

So here is what we did:

1) We replaced our furnace and air conditioner. Our original units were installed in 1985, and the old a/c was a half-ton too small to properly service our house. During the heat of summer, our a/c ran non-stop 12 hours a day to keep our home at 80 degrees. The house was not at 80 because we were saving money, it was because the a/c COULD NOT make the house cooler. The old furnace was ok, but it had already broken once since we’ve moved in, causing structural damage.
2) We got a spiffy, easy-to-use programmable thermostat. (We had tried to buy one ourselves the year before, but the model we got was too much of a pain and we eventually gave up on it)
3) We added another 6” of blown cellulose insulation to our attic, which had previously been below the recommended R value.
4) We had two vents installed in our attic. Apparently we had none. Apparently this is bad.
5) This was not paid for by the loan, but our energy auditor told us how we could get the biggest return on our investment by sealing our overly-leaky house. Then he told us how to do so. We could have included this in our loan, but because the tasks involved seemed simple and inexpensive, we chose to do them ourselves. I have spent a lot of time on this and although I am not completely done yet, I have completed most of it.

The work on our house was done in May. I was able to get most of the weatherizing done in June. And the result in our energy bills so far? Well, last year, to keep the house at 80 degrees, our June electric use was ~1600 kWh. This June? The weather this June was much hotter than last June, and we kept the house at 74 degrees. Our electric use was ~1300 kWh. MyOGEpower.com tells us that for people in comparable homes, we have gone from being above-average energy guzzlers to below-average energy users. I feel like throwing a party.


The Drought of 2011, or A Public Service Announcement on Why You Should Water Your Lawn

If you are alive and well in Oklahoma, hopefully you have noticed certain… things… about the weather lately. Such as… it’s hot. And it felt kind of like we skipped spring entirely in order to make a nose dive into summer.  I have been waiting for the weird weather to end, and I have finally quit waiting out of boredom.  It will end when it will end. And until then, my plants will crispy-fry. I will wear tiny, breezy clothes. And I will post about it on ECOhoma!

Trivia on the Uber-Summer of 2011
·        Oklahoma City was featured as one of five cities on the Weather Channel and one of two cities on NPR for being crazy hot this June. On June 29th, we had 29 days in a row with temperatures above 90 degrees, breaking a 100-year record. We also are currently running on ten days in a row with temperatures above 100 degrees, and temperatures forecasted to be 100 or more for at least the next ten days.
·        This last June was the second hottest on record for the state of Oklahoma since records began in 1893. Texas had its hottest June ever recorded.
·        It was Oklahoma’s 4th driest June since 1893. Texas, Louisiana, and New Mexico had their driest 6 months ever.
·        When it comes to acres burned by wildfire, the country experienced twice the average, at 4.8 mil acres for the year. 1.3 mil burned in June. Texas had record wildfires.
·        Excessive drought covers 367,000 square miles, or 12% of the contiguous states
·        Drought/Heat conditions are comparable to or more severe than the Dust Bowl of the 30s. So why aren’t we covered in dust? Say thank you to the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, founded in 1937 so that the Dust Bowl would never happen again. The Dust Bowl was as much a result of unsustainable soil and farming practices as it was weather.

Interview with a Meteorologist
I was itching to know what the cause of our current weather trends may be, so I asked Patrick Burke, a National Weather Service forecaster, for his opinions. Because he’s a nice guy and I am a lucky girl, he did! Hooray! Below is the text from our informal email interview:
Me: Why we are having this crazy drought and heat? Are we in a funky El Nina or something? Are we about to crash into the sun? Am I just that hot, and need to dress less awesome and eat more junk food? I must know.

Patrick:  Everyone wants to know.  We are the recipients of increased media interest, so a few of us are working up some information this morning.  A lot of processes in weather/climate are chicken and egg questions.  It's hot because the ground is too dry... it's dry because the air is too hot.  So there is no single culprit.  But here is what we know:

This drought began last Autumn when precipitation was much less than average. The winter is almost always dry, but was even drier, and this was consistent with a strong La Nina. The La Nina remained strong through the spring, which is usually our wettest season. In part because the ground is so dry (Extremely dry from OK/TX to NM/AZ) extremely hot temperatures began earlier than usual in June.

The Southern Climate Region experienced the 2nd warmest April-June on record and 5th driest October-June on record. The farther west you go from Interstate 35 it is closer to The Driest October-June on record.

Here is what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2007:
“…by 2010 to 2039…year-round temperatures across North America will be outside the range of present-day natural variability. The projected warming…is greatest in the summer in the south-west U.S. Warm extremes across North America are projected to become both more frequent and longer. Annual-mean precipitation is projected to decrease in the south-west of the U.S…” 
 Here is my interpretation (not an official interpretation of my office):
Any single heat wave arises from a number of influences – especially drought, season (summer), and in this case, a strong La Niña that existed during spring. It is impossible to say how much, if any, influence global climate change has on this single hot summer.

If we were to see an increasing number of these types of heat waves over the next few decades… that observation would be consistent with the predictions of climate modelers / climate models.

Me: So, if I water my lawn, the ground will be less dry, and it will rain??!!!  Woohoo!  (I am only partly kidding. If everyone watered their lawn, would it increase likelihood of rain?)

Patrick: Technically, that is true.  If everyone in a concentrated area added a lot of water to their near-surface soil, studies have shown that would create a locally lower cloud base and greater instability.  If other factors were not strongly opposed to making it rain (e.g., a strongly subsiding air mass) then the chance of rain over and downwind of your house would be slightly greater.  Of course, if you have to sacrifice water to receive water... hmmm...

I suppose it would be worthwhile just to mix things up.

So there you go, my friends: from the horse’s weather man’s mouth.  If you share my Okie condition, I hope you caught some of the showers we’ve been having over the last couple of days and have been eating lots of popsicles!

As a very big, important PS: If you are a resident of central Oklahoma, you very well may be under water rationing. I know that if you live in Oklahoma City, we have been asked to water our lawns only on even-numbered days for even numbered homes and odd-numbered days for odd numbered homes. Folks on the city fringes are having problems with water pressure, so be considerate! And if you live outside of OKC limits, you may want to check up on the status of your city's water supply, as well.


Concerty Awesomeness

Last night was Concerty Awesomeness at the Diamond Ballroom!

I spent a good three hours hopping up and down, crazy sweaty, inside a hot metal building listening to the Cobra Skulls, the Tossers, and the Dropkick Murphys... it was as awesome as it sounds, and one of the best people-watching concerts I've ever been to, complete with body surfing and little kids with mohawks (always a favorite of mine - I swear one day I will babysit my little nephew only to return him to his parents with a surprise hair makeover).  At the end of that beautiful night listening to the loud, loud sound that is silence as I fall asleep. And I took not a single picture for you or me or anyone, because the thought of taking my camera into a punk rock concert and expecting it to emerge alive at the end of the night is daunting.

But you should have been there. You would have had fun.

Ah, summer concerts... one of the best things in life.


Bathroom Remodel - Eco Tour Version

I hated this bathroom from the moment I saw it. My husband once told me that this bathroom is what happens when the husband never says no to his wife’s silly ideas… a coworker retorted that this is what happens when the WIFE never says no as the hubby buys only what is on sale!  Aside from having damaged tile, it had mis-matched everything. Gray and maroon tile floors, mauve and maroon walls, pink and blue wallpaper, white vanity cabinets, and yellow faux marble countertops. Seriously, I doubt it could have been more mismatched had they tried. (I hope the previous owners aren’t reading this and feeling poorly about it)  It was such a crazy quilt of color and style that I did not even ATTEMPT to make anything match, and just moved my green bath gear into it from my previous abode.

Despite my horror at the aesthetics, this alone was not enough to make me remodel. But two years after we moved in the pier under the bathroom floor began to sink. And so we know we had to fix the pier, which meant we would have to fix the floor by removal and replacement. Since we already had to do all this, we decided to just do everything. And we did. Literally. Everything. Tore it down to nothing, built it back up from scratch, and replaced everything except the ceiling and the original wall cabinet, doing our best to keep it in the original 1950s flavor. My handyman uncle said we should learn to do the work ourselves, so we did. He taught us how, and did much of the more technical work such as the plumbing. It took us a year to go from sledge hammer to touch-up paint and caulking… and that is such a long grueling story that I will spare you, but I must add that it turned out to be a blessing we chose to tear down the walls because we found we had hidden plumbing leaks and termites that all of our inspectors had missed. The result is that the remodel was costlier than expected in the short run, but saved us a bundle long term.


After a year of sweating and learning, it is now the prettiest room in the house! Here is a tour of the eco-features.

1)      We used low-VOC white paint and primer, easy to find from Lowe’s.  The cost was slightly more than some traditional varieties, but the peace of mind is well worth it. 

2)      The black paint we got for FREE from the OKC Hazardous Waste disposal center (I may do a short post on them later). It was name-brand paint that someone else had discarded.

3)      This is our brand new WaterSense, low-flow dual-flush toilet! Silver button is for solids, blue button is for liquids. It amuses all our friends. 

4)      This is my low-flow WaterSense shower head. I had to do some bargaining to convince my husband to try one out, but we both love it. It feels nicer than our old water guzzler did.

5)      I found a recycled plastic curtain liner, but I am not sure if it’s really ecofriendly or just greenwashed… 

6)      This is our old bath tub. Instead of buying a new one, we had it resurfaced – one of the two things we contracted out. (The other thing we contracted? When we had almost finished grouting, we hired someone to come out and complete it, because we hated grouting just that much, and it was Christmas. It was SO worth it.)

7)      New double-paned Energy Star window! Gave us a small tax credit this spring, too. We also re-built this wall slightly to accommodate a smaller window than the original one, so that the window doesn’t encroach into the shower space (which is weird and creepy)

8)      We replaced our 80s uber light strip with a fixture that only requires two bulbs. There is NO REASON why our tiny, window-lit bathroom needed five light bulbs! 

9)      The medicine cabinet came from Habitat for Humanity’s Renovation Station, meaning it was either re-used or donated surplus. Either way, Habitat saved it from a dump and sold it to me. And it is huge, and awesome, and sleek. However, my uncle did have to rebuild part of the frame to make it stronger.  

10)   The countertop is made of recycled glass and came from River’s Edge Countertops, and is probably the most beautiful thing I own. 

11)   After a couple weeks of searching, I found the perfect buffet at Bad Granny’s Bazaar. It was antique, but it was worn enough that I didn’t feel bad about stripping it down and transforming it. A fantastic surprise was that when we got it home for closer inspection, it had a manufacture date on it: the furniture had been built in 1950, the same year as our house! We re-purposed it into this vanity simply by removing the shelves that sat on top, cutting a few holes, removing the center drawer (we just nailed the face of the drawer back on), and sanding/painting it.

If you have ever done a remodel, you know it produces a huge amount of waste. So what did we do? A bunch of the things I was able to sell for cheap on Craigslist. Even more went out for unsponsored curbside recycling (which means it goes on the curb with a sign that says FREE). Sponsored (city pick up) curbside recycling took care of plastic containers. A recycling bin at work took my cardboard boxes. Unused and empty paint cans went to the Hazardous Waste Facility. And a few things – like my old green bath décor - went to Goodwill.

 Original drywall had to be thrown away, as did our used tile. I had hoped to donate the tile for craft projects, but our tiled floors and walls turned out to be made of concrete. Even worse, we could not recycle the concrete because it was impossible to remove it from the tile and chicken wire reinforcement. I would be embarrassed to tell you how much concrete, tile, and chicken wire had to go to the landfill… but sometimes things must be tossed.


Welcome Home

I know that I have been away for a while, and in truth, there was a period of time where I was not certain if I would come back.  There are many reasons for this, but when you spend the majority of your 10-hour work day doing research and writing on a computer, that is normally the LAST thing I want to do when I get home. I thought about my goals here. I questioned whether or not I was actually unique enough that people should care what I have to say. I considered re-opening at a web location where I would be completely anonymous and no one would know me. I considered re-opening just for personal communications, on the complete 180. I decided that in the long run it probably doesn’t matter too much. (We all know that if you don’t want people to know what you are doing, 1) don’t do it, and 2) don’t put it on line, but since I normally follow rule one, and am not stupid enough to hand out my address and social security number, I think I was probably being hyper paranoid.) I also had a computer break down recently… so after 4 weeks of having no computer at all I am feeling refreshed. And my computer also now has beautiful Windows 7, with upgraded RAM and Antivirus software, to play with.

While I have been gone from the blogging world I have had a slappy fantastic time. I’ve had an international vacation and a short Okie staycation. Our dogs went through and graduated from advanced obedience! I’ve built a jury-rigged lily garden, a nice raised bed garden, and compost bins. I’ve worked (a lot) on weatherizing the house and I’ve completed my Green Home Loan process (hooray, new HVAC and insulation!). Most exciting, our year long bathroom re-model is finally completely finished and I’m excited to show it to you, with our fantastic eco-upgrades. I’m slowly working on spreadsheeting all my utility bills for the past few years so that I can mark the dates we made efficiency improvements, graph the usage, and figure out quantitatively if our improvements made a difference. (I already have the costs spreadsheeted… you know… I keep a budget! But that’s not truly indicative of use over time, as utilities initiate rate changes over the years) I started enjoying my first CSA membership with Berry Creek Farm, and have been learning how to cook vegetables I previously never cooked (and in some cases, never even tasted before). And, even though I am almost thirty years old, I am teaching myself to ride a bicycle. Yes. I am. Don’t judge!  And I’m sure you’re well aware that we’ve been experiencing simultaneously one of Oklahoma’s most intense droughts AND most intense heat waves in generations… So we have lots to talk about, you and I.

I was also impressed and surprised to see that over my web hiatus, I gained a subscriber and my site views increased. Certainly odd for a brand new blog that has been dormant for a few months… but encouraging. Thank you! When I checked my web stats I completely expected and deserved to see that my little web home had fizzled out while I was away, but instead found that I had even more reason to stay. So here I am!  Thanks for sticking around. I’ll be back on the ball soon.

Meanwhile, here is a picture from my vacation last March… I love this one because I look like I’m on a fantastic adventure! Hiking through the Arctic Circle all alone… or something like that.  This was on Inisheer. And it was a lovely adventure. Especially that morning, when we saw no one but us for several hours. Just me, my sweetie, and a beautiful, sparsely inhabited island, all alone.