The Perfect Shower

All of this writing about water conservation has made me wonder about what other measures cities in arid regions have done to solve their problems.  For instance, Israel built a desalination plant.  Which is really their only option, considering their geo-political circumstances.  If you want to spend billions of dollars the state does not have, and would like your water bill to increase 200%, then by all means, jump on board the de-sal band wagon.

Australia is still dealing with a drought so widespread and for so long, that people are just starting to thinking of it as the new normal.  It’s sobering to read how bad things have to get before people start to take serious action.

Which bummed me out, so I tried to think about what we could do that hasn’t already been done somewhere.  One of my greatest pet peeves is running water for no apparent reason.  We could all blame the people who do not turn off the faucet when they brush their teeth, but the bigger culprit is running water to wait for it be hot or cold.  Wouldn’t it be great if each tap had their own tankless heater?  (Which, by the way already exist, even if they need a little bit more time before really perfected.) Then you could have automated faucets like those installed in public restrooms!  You would only turn on the water when you need it, it would stop automatically and it would be instantly hot.

Then I was reminded of the biggest water saving rule I’m consistently guilty of breaking: the long shower.  I admit it, I can’t help it . . . especially if I have to wash my hair.  (If you saw how little hair I have, you would realize how ridiculous this is.)  For some reason a shower is my personal black hole I slip into.  Even when I try to be conscious of what I’m doing, I still end up taking a long time.  Not to mention it’s a big hassle turn the water off and on again in between rinsing.  Once I finally get the water to the correct temperature, I have to turn it off, only to do it ALL over again!  There’s no picking up where I left off with my shower, it’s like a first date every time.

However, that could ALL change if I could set the how long the water would be on for AND the temperature it came out at.  (I live in an old building spliced into three different apartments that all share one water heater, so this my wet dream if you will.  Pun totally intended.)  No more hot/cold dancing in and out of the water.  No running the water for minutes until it’s hot, and then over correcting so it is not scalding; and no more mindless standing beneath water that has finally reached the perfect temperature for what has it been now?  Ten minutes?  I should probably start to wash something.

All would be storied past!  I could set the temp of the water, set a timer for four minutes, hop in and forget about it!  When the water shuts off, I know it’s time to shampoo.  Then hit the “on button” again to rinse and repeat.  I’ve just saved 2/3rd’s of the water I would normally use the in shower without having to sacrifice experience!  Now if I could only figure out a low-water solution for baths…

Smart Greywater

It’s too ridiculous to think that California has gone this far in it’s history without enacting some of the most forward-thinking water conservation policies yet.  We’ve consistently set the bar for air quality standards and fuel efficiency in cars, (to give the most readily available examples.)  We take pride in the fact that as California goes, so goes the nation, especially when it comes to conservation.

However, the closest we’ve come is a road map that was in introduced back in 2008 as one of the last things Arnie did as gobernator.  Which delineates the steps the state can take “to achieve a 20 percent reduction in per capita water use statewide by 2020.”  It’s a good start, but no policy has come from it yet.  Incase anyone is keeping track, we’ve got less that six years to 2020.  I didn’t read all 76 pages of the plan but I’m going to go out on a limb and say we’re not nearly as far along as where we should be on paper.

Urban water use accounts for 10-15% of demand, and while it is not the biggest slice of the pie, it’s good to be as efficient as possible across the board.  Especially since 2013 saw California’s biggest population growth in nearly a decade, and 2014 feels like it’s continuing in the same vein.

Think about what we use the majority of our residential water for: bathing, cooking, cleaning and… watering your lawn.  Aside from your lawn or garden, used water gets sent to the sewer along with everything we flush down the toilet.  Which is a little extreme if you think about it, because the water you just took a shower in isn’t so dirty that you need to send it off to a plant to be treated with everything else, you just wouldn’t want to drink it.  But you could water your lawn or garden with it.  This is called a greywater system.

This idea is not new by any means.  Unfortunately the state has not encouraged residents to use greywater to conserve, and more often than not, local regulations around greywater are unclear, if not discouraging altogether.  Not to mention–contrary to what the media would have you believe–all Californians are not uber-liberal, tree-hugging hippies, and would not take or have the time, effort and resources to install their own system.

But desperate times call for desperate measures, and I think it’s past time that California make it mandatory for all new houses built come equipped with a greywater system.  Every fixture should have an easy on/off switch that will direct water running down the drain to your greywater system or to the sewer.  That way if you need to clean your bathroom you can easily direct water to your sewer, and then turn it back to greywater again.

Now, lets pretend that California did push everyone to have a greywater system installed in their house.  Here we get to the real problem with widely implemented greywater.  How many of us know exactly when to turn it on and off?  Do you know what chemicals are in your body wash?  Or your laundry detergent?  Or your dish soap?  If you water your lawn and it dies the next day, you would probably be a little frustrated at your government for forcing you to install this system in your house.

This is where the “smart” part of “smart greywater” comes in.  If we want our plumbing to really reflect the type of technology we are capable of inventing–and are in fact inventing now–the smart system would be able to detect chemicals that are not okay to go into a grey water system and automatically switch off to run to the sewer!  How awesome would that be?  This will help folks who do not know or are unsure how to use greywater at first, to gradually work their way onto a new system.  They’ll be able to track when the greywater is turned on and know those products are okay, as to when it shuts off, which might be self explanatory if they’re using bleach to scrub off mildew.  Eventually, people we be educated on what they can and cannot use for maximum conservancy.  Not only will greywater give you a two-for-the-price-of-one water use deal, it has the added benefit of making people really think about the products they are using!

Of course “smart” greywater technology has not been invented yet so to speak, but that’s not to say it would be beyond creating.  Once invented, it would be easy enough to install on all new houses going forward.   Too bad plumbing isn’t sexy, so no one is interested in making their house more efficient.  (But my phone on the other hand can take my temperature, pulse, tell me how many calories I burned, and soon be able to tell if I’m pregnant or not…)

The downside to all of this is it would be a big deal to install on homes already created, requiring all sorts of new plumbing.  Which would make this idea one of the costliest, most time-consuming and frankly hardest over all to implement.  Which is a real shame, because I think it would be one measure people could take where they would see the biggest difference.

Another problem with this idea brought to light by the same aforementioned friend from my last post, who highlighted a project he worked on in the Pacific Northwest, where some areas have had trouble with clogging sewer systems when enough reusable water was diverted: there wasn’t enough liquid to keep the solids moving freely the way the system was designed.  Sooo… there’s that.  But then again the whole sewer system idea hasn’t really changed since it was invented over a hundred years ago.  It could probably do with a little revamping as well.

City-wide Rain Collection

Rain is all the news here in California lately, and with good reason.  This is the second drought I’ve lived through.  I was five when the 1987-1992 drought started.  I was at a very impressionable age, and yet still very oblivious.  I figured I had lucked out when I only had to take a bath every other day, when children living in the rest of the world were forced to bathe every night.  Unfortunately that habit has stuck with me… that and becoming very anxious whenever water is running needlessly.

It is very easy to get political about water here, what with idiots wanting to split the state into six separate states, big ag lobbying for public money to build a pipe that will only cater to their wasteful farming practices, and people already jumping to conclusions wondering why we haven’t built five desalination plants already.  But the biggest problem with all of these is just that: they’re huge, expensive solutions that will take years to build.  There are small measures we can take now that can make a big impact!

A friend of mine who also grew up in California posed an interesting question on Facebook the other day: “I wonder how much flow you could remove from stormwater system during the critical first 5 minutes of a major storm event if everyone in the neighborhood put all their pots pans, buckets, etc. outside.”  To which, someone else answered “ [There’s] 38 million Californians, if we all used a 5 gallon bucket, that’s about 190 million gallons.”

Which got me thinking.  That’s a lot of water.  A lot of water.  Wasted water that is washed off roofs, swept down into the street and out to god-knows-where, not be used in any fashion other than to back up storm drains and flood streets and even homes and business.  This is how we deal with California’s most precious resource?!

I thought about equating this scenario with a business–as all good entrepreneurial blogs would–but I’m not going to.  I think we’re all smart enough to see there’s a problem without having to first picture that it is money that we’re flushing down the pooper.

My friend then went on to point out that it is still against building code to put rain barrels on your downspouts in most California cities, and that gray water recovery is also a code violation.  Considering he’s mastering in land use and environmental studies at Cornell, I tend to take him at his word.  For the sake of this and the following two articles I’ve devoted to better water management, lets pretend that after two major droughts in my lifetime and three in my parent’s, the Golden state has taken some action toward water conservation and overturned this legislation.

Rainwater collection is a simple enough idea.  You put a bucket outside, it rains, you have (somewhat) usable water.  The more buckets you put out, the more you capture, right?  But what if you don’t have a yard?  What if you do have a yard and don’t wish to turn it into a mosquito nursery?  What if, instead, all of the water that runs off of your roof and down your gutters doesn’t go to a storm drain or the sewer, but is instead collected, processed and re-used?

If the idea of drinking roof water grosses you out, we can always use it for something else, like watering parks or fountains perhaps.  I should also point out the added benefit of keeping local rivers, lakes and other bodies of water clean!  If storm water is being reclaimed, treated and reused, that means it is not being directed toward the nearest stream–or in my case the San Francisco bay–where it is loosed upon the environment, carrying with it everything in it’s path; a thought that should make all locals shudder, and never want to eat anything that comes out of this bay.

The point is, you can build conservation into city infrastructure itself.  Maybe while Google is ripping up streets to install fiber, we can also divert the storm drains to local aquifers.  Two birds, one stone, thousands of gallons of conserved water!

Kick the Habit (you’re doing it wrong)

Anti-smoking campaigns by the FDA and The Truth are ramping up again, this time focusing on at-risk teens.  You may or may not recall the last legislative effort in the Golden State, prop 29, which narrowly escaped approval.

The simple explanation of Prop 29 is that it would add a $1 tax to cigarettes that would go towards cancer research.  Sounds greats, right?  Unfortunately nothing is ever that simple.  The problems with prop 29 is that it didn’t guarantee cancer research would be done here in CA, and money raised from the tax could be used to the line the empty coffers of the anti-tobacco lobby, plus, there was no real oversight of the money in the first place.  Fun fact, did you know that tobacco companies are required by the US government to devote a portion of their profit to educate the public about the dangers of smoking?  Think about that one.

The real problem with the tax is that it assumes that charging more for a product will discourage people to buy it.  I think we can all agree that at this point in our capitalist experience we can deem that a false notion.  (If that were the case, people would have stopped buying real estate in San Francisco fifteen years ago.)  More expensive cigarettes will only encourage more black market spending.  With California being so close to Mexico, I image the US border will turn into the world’s longest mini-mart.  Just ask New Yorkers, where a pack of cigs cost about twelve bucks now.  By this reasoning, there should be no smokers in New York City–and I think we all know this is not the case.

This approach might be successful in discouraging new smokers.  Or at least, will create very industrious teenagers.  Parents, be forewarned: if your kid is begging you to let them work at McDonald’s, it just might be to fund their smoking habit.

I have friends and family who smoke right now.  I don’t hate them for it.  Yes, I do think it’s gross, and I wish they would quit.  But I also understand it’s an addition.  I tried putting myself in their shoes by “quitting” sugar.  Lets just say I haven’t ever been able to kick the habit entirely.  There are days when I eat no sugar, but I either have to be ridiculously distracted or use every ounce of self control I possess not to run to the store and buy a whole bag of cookies, or at least a chocky bar.  (Always dark, and with nuts.  The internet says it’s better for you.  Don’t judge me.)

Anyone who has ever tried to quit something they are addicted to knows that someone nagging them every time they light up–or buy a pint of Ben and Jerry’s–will not convince them to quit.  If anything, it will just make you very annoyed with that person.  And if you are like me,  you’ll savor your delicious peanut butter cup ice cream that much more.  (Because deliciously smooth, slightly peanut buttery ice cream isn’t good enough.  There has to be candy in it too.  Crunchy, yummy, salty-sweet, peanut butter cup candy bits strewn throughout the pint… in every bite….)

But I digress.  How many times must we go over this?  Negative reinforcement does not work.  People need to be encouraged to quit, not discouraged.  What if we redesigned one of the already existing taxes on cigarettes that goes towards… something, (positive I’m sure…), to instead go toward a holding fund.  The tax would be collected as usual, but put into a savings account were it can accrue interest.  Every time someone quits buying cigarettes they would get a tax refund!  How could we possibly keep track of that?  You already have to show your ID when you buy cigarettes!  Stores who sell cigarettes would scan your ID to indicate purchase of a pack.  If a person can go a whole year without getting their ID scanned, they would get a tax refund at the end of the year!  (Oh stop whining.  The government already tracks everything you do.)

This plan isn’t perfect, obviously people could still get around it by buying on the black market.  But buying black market is also a hassle and hopefully the price staying the same will discourage people from going that route.  Also, most people I know who smoke do want to quit, they just need help or encouragement.  How much would it take to convince you to quit?  A 5k bonus with next year’s tax return?  10k?

Of course, the real issue with this idea is that the tax would go right back to the people and not some powerful lobbyist group–even if they protest to be doing good.

Risotto Machine

For anyone that has ever cooked risotto, you will know why this is important.  This is a dish I normally save for restaurants, since I’m too lazy to lock myself away in the kitchen, and chain myself to the stove for about an hour.  Unfortunately even when ordering out, this dish can taste rushed.  (I’m sure restaurants don’t have an hour to wait around either.)

The idea came to me when my mother bequeathed her old Kitchen Aid mixer to me after we bought her a shiny brand new one for Christmas.  The old one still works pretty well, a lot better than mixing by hand anyhow.  The only problem is, I don’t really bake.  I have a ferocious sweet tooth and I know that whatever I bake will immediately go into my mouth, and subsequently onto my thighs.  No moderation, no sharing; just uninhibited, roman-style bingeing until I want to puke up all the cookies I so feverishly stuffed down my throat.  So, it’s better just to avoid that entire scenario altogether.

So what do I do with it?  It’s too big to just sit around and take up space, especially if real estate is at a premium.  It’s too useful to not use, I just had to figure out what else it’s useful for.

I was thinking about the mechanical spinning arm, and different uses one might have for it, when it struck me: a consistent and constant stirring motion is exactly what you need to make a perfect, tender, creamy risotto!

In case you’ve never made risotto before, let me explain.  Cooking risotto requires both physical strength and mental determination.  One wonders how the stunted, old-world nona’s of yesteryear could have possibly put up with this torture.  I’m sure having the pleasure of lauding it over their children to guilt them into staying with their mother had a lot to do with it, which I guess is why in these modern times does not seem like motivation enough.

There are two deceivingly large roads that will lead you to stray off the narrow path to perfection.  The first is: you stop stirring.  At worst, this means the rice bakes on the bottom, and you’re now making a casserole; at best, you lose the creaminess you’ve worked so hard for and everyone else wonders why it took you so long to make Hamburger Helper.  If stirring for an hour sounds like a good excuse to have a love fest with your guns, then you have to be careful of growing impatient and deciding it’s “good enough” because you can’t take another ten to fifteen minutes of staring at your spoon go around… and around… and around….  Which ultimately means you’ll have to muscle through dinner eating underdone rice–under dente?–washing it down with a large glass of self-loathing, knowing that arborio rice got the better of you… again.

What you need is a mechanical arm to the hard labor for you!  Hello, industrial revolution!  And with a Kitchen Aid mixer, you can set the pace to “slow” and just check up on it every ten minutes or so when you need to add broth!  Unless “broth” was just code for “tears of agony” in which case, you can always substitute by chopping an onion and leaning your head over the pan.  Or thinking about how you put poor nona up in a rest home–after everything she did for you!  (You can get creative here.)

All this means I have to figure out how to attach a hot plate to the bottom of the mixer.  Voila!  Risotto machine!  Kitchen Aid, if you’re reading this (ha ha…) please make a hot plate attachment for the stand.  Otherwise, I will be forced to take electrical matters into my own hands.

PS: if there is no post next week, it means I unsuccessfully soldered a hot plate to the mixer and burnt the kitchen down in the process, and am now definitely homeless and possibly dead.  Keep me in your prayers.