Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Saving Energy to Help Lower Your Bills

I'm taking a hiatus on writing about retail. I had my appendix removed and was out of work for a few weeks and honestly, I don't feel all that ambivalent about it anymore. Well, not enough that it follows me home and compels to write about it. Maybe I will again at some point. That was almost a year ago. I'm glad no one pays me to write this, because it's been a while.

Anyhow, lately I have noticed a TON of people asking how to lower their electrical bills. Some of them I have run into at work, others I see on facebook, or online in general.

So, I figured that since I was typing the same things over and over and over, I would just go ahead and type it ONE MORE TIME and then just share a link.

So, with no further ado,

TRICKS TO LOWER YOUR POWER BILLS


Appliances:

All household appliances use quite a bit of electricity, whether it's the AC or the washing machine. The older the appliance is, the more electricity it will use. If any of your appliances are really old (say more than 10 years old) than they probably use BOATLOADS of electricity. If you are able to, slowly replace them with newer models as finances allow. It can make a difference.

The Air Conditioner: I dread summer power bills. We're all electric, which helps, but man. Usually around June, my power bill doubles. It's awful. We literally bake in hell for days before deciding to bite the bullet and just turn the damn thing on. And the bill doubles or even TRIPLES. We rent an apartment, so our hands are pretty much tied on most things, but there are a few things we do to help ease the pain.

1.) Turn off the AC. Seriously. Unless it is above 80 degrees in the house, you really don't need to run it. Wear less clothing, and wear loose clothing. Heck, wear a bathing suit if you need to. Nothing pisses me off more than being cold enough to need to grab a blanket and hearing the AC running. If you are cold, you are WASTING money. I typically keep my AC set to 78-80 in the summer and my heat set to 65-68 in the winter. Check the weather forecast and see if it will be cool and relatively low humidity during the night and turn off the AC and open the windows up. If the humidity is high, you will be miserable and sweaty, run the AC.

2.) Clean your AC if it's older than 5 years. Consider replacing it if it's older than 15. I've read it should be at 10 years, but honestly, that is a big damn purchase. Cleaning it will give it new life. You can find out how to clean it here. It's good to clean it every couple of years. You will also want to look at the area around it. Are there bushes closer than 3 feet from the AC? Pinestraw building up around it? Vines? Clear it all away. All of that stuff can choke the life out of the AC. It needs to breathe. My parents unit is up on a concrete slab, but there is wild honey suckle that is constantly growing into it in the spring. My suggestion is to trim away any bushes (or remove them if they aren't particularly important to you) and completely clear a 3 foot radius around the AC unit. You can use a glyphosate  pesticide (Round-Up is the name brand for this) to kill everything green there (make sure you spray it on the leaves, spraying cut down stuff isn't going to kill the roots) if you accept the health risks (pregnant and nursing women probably shouldn't use this stuff. It's bad news. Use standard pesticide safety gear: respirator, goggles, long sleeve shirt, long pants, closed shoes, chemical safe gloves, and if this stuff gets on your skin, rinse it off with the hose IMMEDIATELY.) or you can clear it all away by hand and put down landscaping fabric or 4+ layers of newspaper under mulch/rocks. Another option is Ortho Groundclear. It's also pretty caustic, and if you do it on a hill, it will run off downhill and you will have dead streaks. Even with the mulch down, you will probably have to go back and clear away plants again every year. Pinestraw is pretty light, so I don't recommend putting it around your AC.

3.) Change your air filter. The day you turn on the heat/AC you should change the filter out. While you are actively using the AC/Heat, you should be changing your filter at least every 3 months. And during that time, look at it at least once a month, keep extras on hand and compare--if your filter looks dingy next to a new one, it needs to be changed.

4.) Clean the air intake vents and make sure they have room to actually take in air. If they're covered, the air cannot circulate well and the AC works twice as hard. If they're full of dust, they also have to work harder. My suggestion is to unscrew them and take them outside if they're especially nasty. Hose them down. Shake them dry and either leave them in the sun to dry for a few hours or dry them carefully so they don't rust or get mildewy. Then wipe down the vent fronts with a dryer sheet--it should help keep the dust from sticking as much. Then you can take your brush attachment on your vacuum and vacuum them every time you change your filter (or more often if you want). Move furniture away from them and make sure they have at least a foot clear in all directions around them.

5.) Turn off or down/up the thermostat when you aren't going to be home. Your home will be fine at 88 degrees while you are at work (unless you have pets, don't let it get above 85 for their sakes). The same goes for it getting down to 60 degrees while you aren't home in the winter. There are several programmable thermostats available, and there are even some that can be accessed from your phone while you are away--some of them are part of a system that even allows you to turn on/off lights (so people think someone is home) and you can even set up cameras and check them with your smart phone. Technology is going to damn us all, but man, it's so cool.

6.) Buy a good fan. Or several good fans. We have a window fan I bought on clearance for $5 6 years ago. I figure that's pretty good, because they retail at like $50 normally. I got lucky. Even if you don't get lucky, it's worth getting one, even if it's only 10% or 20% off, definitely take advantage of those end of summer sales. They usually start clearancing summer seasonal stuff after the 4th of July. Irrational is cheap.

I have a fan in each room of my apartment except the kitchen and bathroom. I am trying to establish a "turn off the fan when you leave the room" rule with mixed results. Bunnyworm is pretty good about turning them off, but Daddybeast is BAD. If a fan is running in a room with no one in it, the benefits are lost. Fans cool us because they are constantly moving the air past us, taking our body heat with them. They don't cool rooms, just us. I tend to buy the cheapo 20"x20" box fans most hardware stores and grocery stores sell. They cost like $17. I also go one step further and I use craft wire to wire 20"x20" air filters to them to help cut down on how much is going to my AC filter, and also clean up dust and cat hair. Waffles might have short hair, but I swear he sheds twice as much as Diva and Bjorn together and they have long hair. I'm asthmatic, so every little bit helps. It also keeps as much crud from building up on the fan.

Ceiling fans are great too. If you own your place or your landlord doesn't care, install ceiling fans. Just make sure you don't leave them running.

7.) Oh yeah, and clean your fan. Our window fan wasn't doing jack shit for most of the spring until Daddybeast took it apart and we cleaned the dust and gunk out of it. Every fan will eventually get this, so get in the habit of cleaning them and you will see an increase in efficiency and lower your bills too. They even make telescoping ceiling fan cleaners to simplify your life.

The Dishwasher: I love my dishwasher. I hate doing dishes by hand. I hate high power bills even more. As with all appliances, if it's old, consider replacing it. Here's what else I've found:

1.) Turn off Heat Dry. It runs a risk of melting things anyway. Leave your dishwasher open to let it air dry or dry the dishes by hand. That heat dry is an electricity hog.

2.) Clean your dishwasher. They make dishwasher cleaners, but I've found that running a load of dishes with a cup of vinegar on the top rack at least once a week does wonders. If you need something a little stronger, try getting some fruit fresh (the powder used to help preserve fruits) and fill up the pre-wash and run. I'm cheap, so I never just run an empty dishwasher. Just throw the stuff in with a normal load of dishes. It's just ascorbic acid (vitamin c!) and it can't hurt you.

3.) Fill that bastard up. Why waste water and electricity washing half a load?! If you need a dish NOW then wash it by hand and save the electricity.

The Washing Machine: I sadly do not own one of these. My mom does though. And I use them A LOT at the coin laundry. My grandmother (may she rest in peace until it's time to reincarnate) was born in Santiago, Chile and she had 7 kids (4 in Chile and 3 here in the US). She told me she didn't have a washing machine until her kids had all graduated from high school. She told me this when I told her "I hate doing laundry." She told me she would get up and cook breakfast and start the laundry. By lunch time it was usually ready to hang up, and then she'd start dinner, and then bring in the laundry. That sounds pretty miserable. Granted that the older kids were capable of helping out. Heck, my oldest aunt practically raised the kids born in the US. Pretty humbling. After Bunnyworm was born, I did laundry by hand for 9 months--until I went back to work, because we didn't have any extra cash to go to the laundromat. I still have the clotheslines on my 3rd story back porch. Praise the gods for washing machines. 

1.) Wash in cold water. A lot of clothing is ruined by hot water anyway. If you can possibly get away with it, use cold water.

2.) Clean your washing machine. Just like your bath tub, your washing machine will get soap scum build up. It *might* get a smell that stays in your clothes (my moms old washer she had growing up had this. It was so gross.) I like to run vinegar through the machine. I tend to put 1/2 a cup in each load to remove odors anyway (Daddybeast is...fragrant. Plus Waffles will pee in my dirty laundry basket if his boxes aren't clean enough), and this will help to clean out the machine. You can get detailed instructions (such as they are) here. I've found a clean washing machine is much more forgiving about having the clothes left in overnight. You might not have to run them again.

3.) Run large loads, but don't over fill. This is something I'm particularly guilty of. I want to be DONE already. So I overload. But this effects the operation of the washer. First, your clothes might not get as clean. Second, the agitator might rip something if the machine is over loaded. Third, it can seriously BREAK your washing machine. At the same time, it's really a waste to wash small loads. If you need 1 or 2 things, consider breaking out a bar of laundry soap (I love Zote Soap! The White Bar smells like lemons! <3 ) and wash them by hand.

4.) Empty the thing *promptly*. Another thing I'm really guilty of, or used to be guilty of when I lived with my parents, was leaving shit in the washing machine for long periods of time. This does several things. The most obvious (and lightly touched on) fact is that your clothes might need to be run again, wasting water and power. Once the mold smell is in them, it can be pretty hard to get it out (vinegar to the rescue!). This can also make your washing machine mildew faster, requiring more frequent cleaning. It's just gross. Empty it.

The Dryer: I mentioned my wonderful Grandmother earlier. She died this past January and I feel her absence painfully sharply. She had had this dryer. This thing. This ancient relic for as long as I can remember. I'm 28 at the time of writing this. My aunt has the damn thing now. It doesn't latch shut, but you can use a broom handle (and my grandmother did, rest assured) to keep it shut. Washing machines came and went, but this fucker is eternal. And tiny. Seriously. She had a large washer and a small dryer. And I hated it. But she showed me a thing or two.

1.) Hang things up. My grandmother was a big fan of hanging up laundry in the sun to dry. It got the stains out. It was "cheap as free". And with her tiny dryer, you could either wait for each of the 3 loads (seriously, it took 3 damn loads to dry everything from one load from her washing machine) to dry, or you could hang everything that wouldn't fit up. Sure this makes for crispy towels, but my grandmother had another secret. Once the first load gets dry, pull things down and throw them in. They'll dry quicker. She also shook things out before putting them in "to make sure there is air in them so they dry faster." The last load took no time at all to dry, or simply didn't need it. Towels and blue jeans take forever to dry. Hang them for a while and watch the time to dry reduce significantly.

2.) Clean the dryer duct. Or replace it. Whatever. That thing is going to start a fire if you aren't careful. Plus, a clogged up nasty linty duct puts a lot of stress on dryers and makes them work harder. Harder uses more power. Here is how to clean your dryer duct. Also, make sure the vent on the (hopefully) outside of your home isn't blocked by bushes or anything. It needs space. Make sure the vent opens too. If its stuck shut, replace it. They're cheap.

Small note. My mother's dryer vents into her crawlspace. This is BAD. I've been on her for a while about getting it vented to the outside of the house, but she's been putting it off. If your dryer doesn't vent outside, it could be filling your house with carbon monoxide (if you have a gas dyer) and IS filling your house with dryer lint which is *highly* flammable. You want to get that duct rerouted ASAP. Plus, it's only filling your living space with warm air. That's nice in the winter, but pure hell in the summer.

3.) Clean the lint trap screen. Use a tooth brush and some dish soap and some elbow grease. Rinse all the soap off, and allow to dry before putting it back into the dryer. Easy peasy.

4.) Vacuum *under* the dryer. You'd be amazed at what accumulates there and it could cause your dryer to over heat and combust. This is bad.

5.) Make sure it has room to breathe. Sure, laundry rooms are cramped and space is at a premium, but you need to make sure the dryer is getting enough air circulation or it is going to over heat and if you are lucky, only stop working. My other grandmother (she is still with us, and is my mom's mom) had this happen once. As in, her dryer caught on FIRE.

Refrigerator: My dad's mom called this the "fridgerator" and my mom's mom still confuses the hell out of everyone by calling it "the ice box". Whatever you call it, it's almost guaranteed that you have one, and it is constantly running to keep your food from spoiling. Gramma White (mom's mom) has 3 of the damn things, full of food from the beginning of time. One of them is older than I am. I keep telling her it's got to go, but she won't listen.

1.) Make sure your fridge portion isn't set too cold. If your milk freezes or things set on the top rack are always a little frozen, your fridge is set too high. This damages things like strawberries and lettuce, as if strawberries NEEDED an excuse to go bad. If stuff is getting ice crystals in it, try turning the temperature up a bit and wait 48 hours, and check for ice crystals again. Repeat until you find the optimum temperature (this is usually marked on the thermostat, but can be wrong if the fridge is old or just sucks).

2.) Don't over fill it. If it's over full, food is going to spoil, and you won't see it and it will stink and get rancid and horrible and then SOMEONE (else) is going to have to clean it up. Plus the air can't circulate in the fridge, and some items will be warmer than others (specifically the ones on the bottom shelf in the back, while your top shelf will be frozen to compensate.) and food will spoil faster. Make sure items aren't all crammed in on each other and the air can circulate.

3.) Audit the stuff in your fridge. Lots of stuff doesn't even have to be refrigerated. If it doesn't have to be there, store it somewhere else. This handy video from Buzzfeed lists some of them. (I <3 you, buzzfeed).

Once you've removed everything unnecessary from the fridge, and especially if your family is anything like mine, you will want to go through and throw anything old and nasty away. If it's mushy, toss it. If it's moldy, REALLY toss it. If no one remembers what it is, toss it. If it's expired, toss it. If it's *almost* expired, use it immediately or toss it. Be honest, you're going to forget about it for another 6 months if you don't and that's nasty.

4.) Clean the insides. Once you've gotten everything old or unnecessary out, it's time to clean the fridge. Honestly, you might as well just take everything out when you audit it and clean the fridge, and THEN put things back in. This is a devilishly clever way to make cleaning your fridge easy. Seriously. Click the link. You won't be disappointed.

5.) Clean the back. UNPLUG the fridge and vacuum the back coils. The food will be fine for the brief 10 minutes or so you are cleaning the back. You wouldn't want all that dust to catch fire, would you?

6.) Repeat everything for the freezer. If you have an ice maker, consider dumping out the ice and running the reservoir through the dishwasher.

Oven/Stove: I grew up with a gas stove, and to this day, I still instinctively know how to get the bastard to light when I cook dinner at my mom's. When I moved out, I had to adjust to an electric stove. And I've recently learned more about it. Now, as a child my moms oven did not work. The broiler worked, and that was great if you wanted to broil some fish or whatever, but broilers burn cookies and that is no bueno. It wasn't until I moved out that I really learned how to use an oven properly. My oven now doesn't even have a timer on it. It is old as shit, the range on top only half works, and I can tell the thing has been in a fire (hooray for apartments) because one day when cooking broccoli, all the paint they put on it to make it look new ran off into my pot. I called the leasing office to complain and they offered to repaint it. No thank you. Anyhow.

1.) Clean EVERYTHING.
Just do it. (You don't want a fire, do you?) Dawn Powerclean is awesome if they still make it (I haven't been able to find it in a while...) at getting cooked on grime off. Just soak the drip bowls and anything else removable that is nasty in the powerclean, or simply sudsy water.

The surfaces that can't be submerged are a bit harder. ***UNPLUG YOUR STOVE FIRST*** or turn the gas off. Whichever applies. Then take paper towels layered about 4 layers thick and dunk them in the sudsy water and lay them out over the gunky surfaces. Give it a few hours, spritzing the paper towels with water periodically to keep them damp.

Then you will need to break out the chore boy or whatever and scrub and scrub. Use plastic, not metal. Metal scratches. Scratches will rust. This is bad. For really tough bad patches, you might want to break out the scraper (I'm not the only one who keeps a 5 in 1 tool in their kitchen, am I?)

You can use store bought cleaners specifically for cleaning ranges if you want, that's on you. I'm CHEAP.

As for the oven, fill a pan with vinegar and water and run at 400 degrees (glass or ceramic is best, vinegar does bad things to metal) for a while. Then turn off the oven, let cool to tolerably hot, and then scrub scrub scrub. Or buy caustic oven cleaner, just wear gloves (that shit is bad news).

2.) Change the heating elements if they aren't heating evenly (if parts are bright red and others are black this is a clue) or are warped. You will notice that your elements are hot much faster, and are using the same amount of power much more efficiently. This of course, is only for electric stoves that don't have glass tops or whatever.

3.) Don't run your oven when it's hot as shit outside. Seriously. Why would you do this? Summer days are for cold cuts on bread or maybe using the crock pot. Wait until the sun goes down to run your oven during the summer. In the winter? Go for it. Use the hell out of that oven. Heck, in 1993 we had a blizzard in Georgia and my parents power went out (I was 8) and my stepfather turned on the damn broiler (because the oven proper didn't work, but the broiler did!) and ran that with the door open to heat the kitchen while we ate meals. We spent a lot of time in that kitchen because the power was out for days. This of course, only works on gas ovens.

Microwaves: Ours broke. It would run if it was plugged in, no matter what. We threw it away. We haven't had one since. Sometimes it's not a big deal, but sometimes I really miss my microwave.

1.) Clean your microwave.
Put vinegar in a mug and run it. Then wipe out the insides.

2.) Space your food out on your plate before putting it in the microwave. We've all gotten food out of the microwave that was simultaneously scalding hot and ice cold. Microwaves cook from the inside out. Space your food out on your plate so it cooks more evenly and faster.

Water heaters: This one is tricky because a water heater will for real burn your house down or blow up if you wrong it. Hire a plumber if you are going to fiddle with one. Seriously. You could die.

1.) Make sure dust and shit isn't pooling around the water heater. I cannot stress this enough, especially if it is a gas heater. Make sure there is nothing around the water heater at all. 

2.) There is usually a hose spigot on the front of the water heater. Drain the heater 1-2 times a year  using a garden hose. Run the house out your front door or whatever. Sediment and stuff gets caught in the bottom of your water heater. Draining it periodically cleans that out and helps extend the life of the water heater and helps it run more efficiently.

3.) Go tankless. I'll be honest and say I don't know a whole bunch about this, but it's supposed to be so much better than a tanked water heater. Ask a plumber or go into your local hardware store and ask someone who works in plumbing (don't ask the cashiers, they will not know).

4.) Insulate your water heater. I'm going from memory here, and you should seriously talk to a plumber about this, but if you put insulation on your water heater, it will help keep the water hot longer and the heater won't have to reheat it as often. The other thing you can look for is dielectric heat trap pipe nipples. They exist. Just go into your hardware store and ask where the electric nipple traps are. It should be hilarious.

The House Itself:

The Roof: Shingles typically are meant to last between 20-30 years (there are 40 year shingles, but they are expensive). You need them to be in good shape, or they will leak.

1.) Clean your roof. My parents have pine trees sitting over their house. There is always pinestraw sitting on the roof, letting moisture sit on the shingles and the wood underneath, slowly ruining everything. Clean your roof. If you notice leaves or debris on it, use a rake or push broom to brush that stuff off. Just don't fall.

2.) The color of your roof matters a lot. White shingles require slightly more maintenance (they show dirt and might mildew in high humidity) but they also reflect most of the sun's heat away from your house, causing significant drops in your power bill. They might be hard to find because they are not much sought after which I think is silly. You should be able to get them ordered if your local hardware store or whatever doesn't carry them in stock. A bonus is that a lot of retailers that sell shingles will be more than happy to install them for you (for a price of course.)

The Attic: Usually hot as hell all year long. And stuffy.

1.) Make sure your attic vents are open and unblocked. Easy enough. These let the heat out.

2.) Check your insulation. If it's torn, ripped, or yucky replace it. If you have blown insulation, make sure it's thick enough. This varies by location. Check at your local insulation retailer to see what is recommended for your area. Check your radiant barrier too, though honestly, you shouldn't be able to see it, it should be under the insulation. If you can see it, there's a problem.

3.) Make sure anything coming or going from the attic (pipes and such) are well insulated and sealed. Great stuff crack sealer works well. They also make this insulation that is like fiberglass with foil over the outside that goes on ducts. Seal it up tight. Any gaps allow heat to escape into your home.

The Walls: This one should be done when the house is built. It's really impractical to add insulation to the walls once all the sheetrock is up. However, if you happen to be adding a room or have to tear the drywall off for any reason, before it goes back up, put insulation in. R-19 fiberglass insulation is made to fit between studs.

1.) Wall hangings help keep noise and temperature in. Tapestries, pictures, whatever. They all help. Just don't block a vent.

Windows and Doors: These are common air leak causers.

1.) Make sure you have weather stripping on your door.
Not only does this keep the air from escaping, it also keeps insects from just strolling in. Like those flying goddamn cock roaches. I JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND WHY THEY HAVE TO FLY.

2.) Make sure you have weather stripping on your windows. For the same reasons.

3.) Check your windows. Depending on what kind of windows (and how old they are) you will have several issues. My parents had old fashioned multi paned windows. And their caulk is all dried up and cracked. They will need to scrape it all off and reapply it. And probably paint it again. The first apartment I moved into, I went a month before I realized that one of my long window panes was MISSING its caulk and hanging out. It was a studio apartment. I should not ever have a $200 power bill in a studio apartment. I was pissed off. No matter what, make sure your glass is secured and whatever is securing it is in good shape.

If you decide that you hate your windows or they waste too much electricity, then most major hardware stores would love to replace them with energy efficient tax deductible windows. Just a thought.

4.) Consider tinting your windows. It might save you a lot of money, and it will help you with privacy too. They make some that is mirrored and reflects most sunlight, while also making it harder for passers by to see your awesome stuff. Stuff they might be temped into taking.

A side benefit is that if the window breaks the tint will keep most of the glass stuck to it.

5.) Get curtains. AND drapes. What's the difference?! Well. Curtains tend to be thinner and are largely decorative. Drapes tend to be heavier and made for blocking out light and keeping heat in. Lacy curtains are nice because you can see out, but people can't see in. With drapes, you want something that isn't going to absorb a lot of heat but will still match your furniture if you're into that sort of thing.

If you are a night person like I am, then drapes will help you avoid the scourge known as the sun so you can get some fucking sleep.

The Floors: What you walk on can have significant effects on your power bill too!

1.) Look under the floor. Whether you have a crawl space or a basement look under the floor and make sure there is insulation. If you are on a slab, I have no idea what to do. Never lived on a slab.

2.) The type of flooring matters.
Instinctively you know this. Carpet is warm, wood is neutral, and tile is cold as shit. Linoleum somehow is like warm sweaty wood. Carpet with a good thick pad will help prevent air from leaking out of your house, taking the AC and heat with it. Linoleum works pretty good too. Hardwood floors are nice, but they let a lot through. Tile also is effective at keeping air inside, but it's cold, hurts a lot if you fall on it, and breaks things.

The Basement:

1.) Seal up any gaps and cracks you find. Seriously. Every crack is stealing directly from your wallet.

2.) Consider finishing  your basement to further help insulate. Just think, it could be an apartment for someone to rent, or it could be a man cave or anything! Plus insulating it helps keep the air from escaping and keeps your whole house cooler/warmer.

General Electric:

For the love of the gods, I am not an electrician. If you are in doubt, ask an electrician. Don't ask the guy at Lowe's or Home Depot. They may or may not have ever worked as an electrician. This shit can be dangerous, so ask a certified electrician! Oh, and TURN OFF THE ELECTRICITY FOR THAT PART OF THE HOUSE BEFORE YOU START WORKING ON SOMETHING. If you aren't sure how to, either ask your landlord (if you rent) to show you, or call in an electrician to show you. I'm sure there are videos on youtube for this sort of thing, but I don't want anyone to die, so check with a professional.

***Ask your power company about budget billing to see if you can get an average use charge year round so your payment is the same every month. No surprises!***

Lighting:

1.) Check the type of light bulbs you are using. Seriously. I'm not an expert, but after reading this I could totally fake it. Incandescent light bulbs are on their way out though, at least in the US. A law was passed banning the manufacture of them in the US. Retailers are allowed to sell off any stock they have, but once that is gone, it's done. Fluorescent bulbs are expensive (but they will get cheaper as time goes on, trust me.) but they last longer than incandescent bulbs. High density discharge bulbs last longer than incandescent bulbs, but tend to be harsh and really bright (except for the metal halide bulbs) and are usually used in landscape lighting. These are even MORE expensive.

But the most expensive right now is the LED bulb. Which I am in favor of and completely in love with. 4 watts vs 60 watts? Yes please! Wait for them to go on special and use a coupon. Replace the lights in your house with LED bulbs on an "how often does this light get left on for long periods of time" basis. For me, this was the bathroom light. Don't wait for the bulbs to burn out to replace them. Start saving money now. Each bulb will save you about $4-5 a year. That's hard to notice on a power bill if it's just one bulb, but that shit adds up. The downside is that they cost $8-$30. Seriously. But they last forever (well, almost) and they will save you so much money.  The cheapest I've seen them was at a Black Friday Sale at $6.99 for 60 watt equivalent bulbs. Which was what I needed. I bought 4, which was all I could afford at the time. I live in a tiny apartment. I have 1 in the bathroom, one in the hall, one in the living room, and one in the bedroom. The light in the kitchen is a fluorescent light tube. The dining room needs candelabra bulbs which are too expensive for me right now, but I'll be saving up to get them one bulb at a time. And yes, I am saving my old incandescent bulbs and I will be taking my LED bulbs with me when I move and putting the old incandescents in. IDGAF.

2.) Check and replace old fixtures. Look for something energy efficient (depending on how old your fixtures are, *anything* could be more energy efficient than them.). Make sure things are working properly and there are no exposed wires. One of my pet peeves is light fixtures that take a specialty bulb that is impossible to find to replace. Don't buy one of these. If you have one, throw it away and buy something better and easier to maintain.

3.) Declare war on left on lights. Seriously. If no one is in the room, the light does not need to be on (the exception in my home is the bathroom light. We feed our cats in there and I like to be able to see in the middle of the night when I wake up every 2 hours to pee). Bunnyworm is pretty good about this. Daddybeast is not. If you teach your kids while they are small and malleable (about 3-6 years old) it is much easier. You should hear Bunnyworm scream that Daddy is giving her skin cancer when he takes her outside
without sunscreen. She's 3. It's adorable.

The Breaker Box, or Fuse Box if you are fixing to have to pay a lot of money. I'm not joking. If you still have a fuse box, you are going to be in serious financial trouble soon. Fuses are getting harder and harder to find. The Breaker box (or fuse box) is where you turn off the power to parts of your home. My parents had a fuse box until maybe 10 years ago. My mom used to threaten to pull the fuse because I was a bit of an angry rebellious asshole as a teenager and would lock myself in my room and blare music (I can even give you a timeline of what it probably was by age! It was probably Dir en Grey when the breaker box got put in.). She pulled the fuse on my brothers too.

1.) Know how it works. Ask an electrician. I am not quite sure how they work myself, and I feel that touching one is just *asking* to get electrocuted. This is why I rent. "Hi yes, Leasing office? My power isn't working and there was a loud *POP* in the kitchen. Can you get someone over here to fix it please?" And that's how it is done. But if you own the house, pony up some cash and get an electrician to educate you, take notes, laminate them, and put them on the wall next to the box. Otherwise you will forget and have to call Bob from Jolts are Us back to your house.

2.) Inspect it for damaged breakers. This is a thing I guess?

Power Outlets/Light Switches/etc: Because you know you have them.

1.) Insulate them.
Duck Tape Brand makes little foam inserts you can put behind your wall plates. Because don't think air doesn't leak from those things.

2.) If you have a dead switch, love and respect it. I have no idea what this is really called, but my parents had one, and my current apartment has one. It's basically a light switch that turns off the wall outlet. Don't abuse the power, just enjoy it.

3.) Power strips. Use them. For everything. Everything you plug into the wall uses latent electricity, especially entertainment devices. So when you turn off your TV, it's still pulling power to light that little red light that tells you the TV is off. When you are done, just flip the power strip OFF. And just like that, you are saving electricity. This is like a dead switch, only less convenient and not hard wired into your wall.

Outside Your Home

This can make a difference too.

1.) Always check with local ordinance, your landlord, or HOA before doing anything to your yard. Trust me on this.
I personally think HOAs are the devil.

2.) Look for climate friendly shade trees. Here in Georgia, a good fast growing shade tree is the Poplar tree. You want something that will reach maturity in 10 years or less. The faster it grows, the faster your power bills go down. The best place to plant the tree is on the south side of your house--so it takes the brunt of the afternoon sun (Shade trees can take it--they are called shade trees because they provide SHADE, don't confuse them with trees that only grow in the shade, or part sun, because those seldom get tall enough.) and casts a shadow on your home. That shadow is reduced heating and air bills. In the Winter, the leaves will fall and let the sun through to heat  your home, and the branches will help break the wind before it gets to your house and carries all your heat away with it.

3.) Consider a hedge or living fence. These will help break up and slow down the wind before it gets to your house. In Georgia, I'd suggest a Leyland Cypress (12 feet wide, 50+ feet tall!) hedge or a Burford Holly (I don't care what the label says, my mom's is taller than her house and 2 car lengths wide). Both give excellent cover and provide good wind screens and sound barriers. Check at your local nursery to see if either of these (they're pretty tough) is a viable plant in your area. Heck, the leyland cypress will provide shade too. Consult with a gardening specialist or landscaper before planting to make sure you have everything you need to maintain the plants--they are part of your home and will need care. Just be wary of "landscapers" because they will often try to sell you as much product as possible and install it themselves. If they are planting leyland cypresses 3 feet apart, all of those things are *going to die*. Really, doing the research online is probably the best way to go, but definitely talk to horticulturists to get their opinion.

Well, that's it, for now. I'll add pictures if I ever get around to it. I don't want to use other people's pictures because that's a good way to get sued.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Self Checkout is a Simmering Hellhole

  Nobody likes self checkout. Ok. Blanket statement. I am sure there some people out there who LOVE self checkout. Good for them. I bet they don't have to manage one. They might not have ever even used one before. Self checkout is one of those things that looks GREAT on paper.

  And then the human element steps in and everything goes to shit.

  When my work installed the self checkout, it was a big deal. They shunted over several aisles, tore down 4 registers, and built this shiny new wave of the future. 4 self serve registers all shiny and stainless steel. Some of us got training on it. Others didn't. I was not a cashier when ours was installed. But I eventually went to being a cashier. I got to figure things out on my own, harassing my superiors whenever I got stuck. Fun stuff. Think those things are impossible to work with? Imagine having to be the person who has to make it work.

  For those of us who are unfamiliar with self checkouts:

  They usually come in groups of 4. There is usually a remote station or a podium or something nearby that an employee is supposed to attend to.They usually consist of a scanner, a weight sensitive bagging area, a place to pay, a place for change, and a receipt dispenser.

  The idea is that you can go up to the register, scan your own items one at a time, placing each on in the bagging area quickly, but not too quickly and repeat. Pay when done, get your items, and be on your way, having not had to deal with a retail slave beast or in theory, wait in a line.

  Yeah. This almost never happens. Customers don't follow instructions. The machines malfunction. Items are missing barcodes. It was supposed to be cheaper. Someone might try to bring a massive item like a dresser through self checkout. It might get set to spanish and you don't speak spanish. So yeah. There is a lot of room for things to go wrong.

Of course there is supposed to be an attendant there to ensure the machines are working, but sometimes they disappear.

Here is what they deal with.

Mechanical Errors/Frustrations

  *The Bagging Area. Well. You scan your item and you put it in a bag. The computer loses her mind and says "UNEXPECTED ITEM IN THE BAGGING AREA". So you, in a panic, pull the item out of the bag. She says "ITEM REMOVED FROM BAGGING AREA." Or you put your item in the bag, and it says "PLEASE PUT YOUR ITEM IN THE BAGGING AREA" so you rattle it around and she repeats herself so you hit "skip bagging" and she loses her mind "UNEXPECTED ITEM IN THE BAGGING AREA". So you get to find an attendant to fix this shit so you can move on.

The fact that I found this on a google image search so easily speaks volumes.

  *Other Languages. Everyone is different and this is mostly wonderful. It would be boring if we were all the same. There is a setting on some self checkouts that allows you to pick a language to use. Some of them will let you choose freely throughout the transactions (going from english to spanish to mandarin for example), others are set for the duration (you choose spanish, it's in spanish through the whole transaction). So if a customer chooses Mandarin as their language, I can't help them. Everything on the screen will be in Mandarin. You have to try to figure out which buttons are in the places things are when you can read the screen and hope for the best. You have no idea what is going wrong or what the customer needs. The customer will invariably just stare at you and expect you to fix it.
These all literally say, "can you read this." Just sit there for a moment and admire how pretty some of those characters are. Now imagine staring at a self checkout screen trying to figure out what is wrong and all you see is the 7th line down, which is Hindi by the way. Of course, I honestly have no idea what they all say. I'm trusting google translate on this one.
  *There is no such thing as a standard self checkout. Yeah. They are all different. They vary wildly from company to company. They might even vary from store to store. Customers usually don't understand this. They will stand there and bellow about how it's different at the Walmarts and why can't it be the same everywhere. Trust me, if the person running the self checkout had any power to influence the type of units there, they would not be running the self checkout. They hate it more than you do.

  *Things always go wrong. Every time they reprogram the units I get to figure out how they're going to break now. They might fix 1 bug, but 12 more pop up. Coupons used to freeze the terminals at my work. We're talking about full system restart frozen. One of the units I've worked with had a laser that would randomly cut off, be off for an hour or two, then come back on for a while, before arbitrarily shutting off again. The scales break--in the most infuriating ways. You could put a 40lb bag of bird seed on the scale and it wouldn't catch the weight, but god forbid you set your wallet down on the scale for a second and the machine loses its mind! This doesn't even touch on human error.

  *No one can listen to or follow directions. For every time a machine is legitimately broken, there are ten or more instances of users (customers and sometimes employees) having issues because they don't listen to the machine say "enter cash now or press pay with card". They want to pay with cash, but they don't listen OR read so they press "pay with card", then select cash again, to be told "enter cash now or press pay with card". Depending on how stupid the customer (or employee!!!) might be, they might go through this three or more times before they realize they're being stupid and just put their fucking money in, or they might go off on the attendant. Some of them see that first screen of "enter cash now or press pay with card" and will either snarl or wail at you "but I want to pay with cash!!!" I have been cussed out more times than I can remember over just this one thing.

  The place where you insert your credit card has an image of the credit card (or debit card) on the part where the card goes in. It shows you how your card is supposed to look. If there is a black stripe on the picture of the card on the right, that means your card goes in black stripe facing up and to the right. If it has numbers and words on it that have the text correct side up to the left, the card goes in with the number side up and the lettering facing to the left. THIS IS NOT HARD. We've been taught to match things since we were in kindergarten (or younger!) so why do people struggle with this? What, when confronted with the self checkout machines, makes people turn off their brains???

  Ok. For countries that don't have sales tax, disregard this one.
  When you scan an item, it tells you the price. If you scan multiple items it will tell you the subtotal. The screen says subtotal. It might even go so far as to say "price does not reflect sales tax" or "price shown is before sales tax". So, we get our customers who come in with their glasses on a string and their little change purse possibly pulled from their ever so hip fanny packs (or gods help you, a ziplock bag), and they very carefully count out exact change.

WONDERFUL. GOOD FOR YOU.

  They insert their "exact change" into the machine (maybe they even bypassed the dreaded "insert cash now or press pay with card" trap) and then stand there and stare at the attendant. They may even demand to know where their receipt is. Some of them will very angrily or petulantly say "EXCUSE ME! I PAID $11.07 AND IT'S NOT GIVING ME BACK MY CHANGE/RECEIPT!" When the attendant goes over to the machine, the machine will still read "balance due $0.66" and will still be saying "Please insert cash or press pay with card" every 15 seconds until the sun dims and the world is sucked into a black hole.

  At this point the customer is already upset and self righteous. You cannot win. They will either be initially embarrassed and then sheepish when you point out that they still owe the 66 cents of sales tax or they will be embarrassed and enraged, or they might just outright refuse to listen or understand. Then you get to try to politely convince the customer that they still owe the machine money while the person is convinced you are trying to steal 66 cents from them. Again, I have personally been cussed out in English, Spanish, and what I think was Korean over this. At times, I have been tempted to just GIVE THEM THE MONEY and put it in the machine to make them shut up. Even after I convince them (because the machine is not going to spit out a receipt until the items are FULLY paid for) I have to go over the receipt with them to reassure them that no, neither the store, the machine, nor I have stolen 66 cents from them. Sometimes, what has to be done, is for the money to all be refunded and it to go back to the original screen where I show them that it says "price does not reflect sales tax" and subtotal and then the final screen where it says the Total and even shows the 66 cents in fucking sales tax.

I would like to point out an interesting phenomenon at this moment about the self checkout machines:
  Children do not have these problems. Children under the age of 14 or so who are able to read and speak the same language as the machine is displaying/speaking are able to figure out how much to pay, how to pay, when to put items in the bagging area, how to input any information the machine needs, everything. Truly, children are our future--until they turn 15 or so.

  *The machine will not take nasty money. Sometimes this is as simple as a corner is folded over on one part of the bill and you can fix that by unfolding the corner and trying again. However, if the bill is torn, ripped, taped up, encrusted with candy or gods knows what, half missing, burned with a cigarette, sharpied to illegibility, FAKE, etc the machine will not accept it. I cannot make it accept it, the manager cannot make it accept it. A kind and benevolent god would know what you did with that money to make it so nasty and probably would accept it and maybe even forgive you, but you'd feel bad about yourself afterwards.

  If the money comes out of your sweaty stinky corn chip smelling sock soggy and almost dripping, DO NOT EVEN TRY to make it work. It isn't. Don't give it to me. I hate to say this, but you sir, need to go to a real register and hand that money to a real person. I am not a real person. I run self checkout. I turn in my humanity card when I clock in for work each day. This goes for wet money coming out of sweaty crotch and ass pockets. If it's soggy then it will not work. If it comes from your bra and you've been sweating and the money is a wee bit damp but still smells baby powder fresh, too bad. It will not work. Plus, this is really gross. Everyone who handles that money while it is damp is silently dying of horror inside.

  MONEY IS NASTY, PEOPLE. Don't put it in your mouth, wash your hands after touching it, and for gods sake, DO NOT LET YOUR INFANT HANDLE MONEY.

Things Customers Do
   *"I hate self checkout. I hate _insert store name here_. And I hate you." This has been said to me. Twice. By different people. Both were men though. No one likes self checkout. The attendant hates it more than any customer does.

  *Each customer wants either individual attention or for you to leave them the fuck alone. Yes, I am here to help, but you are not entitled to 100% of my attention if all 4 units are occupied and they also need help. I will help you through your spot of trouble, then I must help the others. If you don't want my help, that's fine. Unless you NEED my help. If you get stuck and cannot figure out what to do, or it needs my authorization, being rude and hostile at me is not going to erase the fact that you couldn't run the self checkout all by yourself. Grow up. Let me do my job.

  *Some customers expect you to drop whatever you are doing and ring their purchase up on a real register. Oh my god. Say "YOU LOOK LIKE YOU NEED SOMETHING TO DO!" one more time. I SWEAR TO KALI I WILL BE DELIVERED FROM THIS AND AVENGED. If you say this while my arms are overflowing with chips, candy, batteries, or sodas, you are a fucking douche bag. I have something to do. It's my job to make sure self checkout doesn't up and fucking break. This also goes for people who say this to regular cashiers on real registers. "Oh ha. ha. ha. You are SO clever sir!"

  *Customers who walk up to you without saying a word and shove a armful, basketful, or cartful of product at you expectantly. I usually just look at them like "huh?" (Never underestimate the power of acting stupid. It gets you into far less trouble than open defiance). Then, if they don't get the hint, I'll say, "Oh, Self Checkout Units 2 and 3 are open. Let me know if they give you any touble!" Big Smile!

  *Price Disputes. "How much is this?" *beep* "49.97". "No! It was cheaper than that. The sign said it was 9.99" right. Sure it was. I am going to call someone from that department to verify. I am *not* going to take your word for it. This does several things:
     1.) It keeps customers from lying and naming a price they like
     2.) Holds up one of the units, possibly creating a line (this is bad)
     3.) Stops someone from that department from working on whatever they were working on (also bad)
     4.) Ensures that if the customer was right, the price gets changed so this doesn't happen again. Mislabeling is not the customer's fault--I understand this because I buy things too. Prices go down for specials and the tags never get changed back. It happens. Sometimes, employees might accidentally stock something in the wrong slot. Again, not the customer's fault. But sometimes, people steal. Sometimes, people lie. Sometimes, people make an honest mistake and read the shelf wrong. It's not my job to judge them (and I really do try my best not to), it's my job to make sure they make it alive through self checkout.

  *Customers using the machines as price checkers holds up the flow of commerce. *Scans item* "Beep! 14.97" *Walks away*. It takes 6 steps to cancel the transaction and clear it for the next customer. DON'T DO THIS. Plus, if we are distracted by another customer, we have no way of knowing whether or not the person who scanned the item went on to walk out the door with it or not. Do you really want security following your progress through the store on the cameras? If you need a price, ASK. Or better yet, just read the fucking price label that goes with the goddamn item.

  *Let their kids play with the machines. Do you realize how much one of these things costs? Around $20,000 dollars each. Yeah. That's the equivalent of TWO nice used cars. Probably more than the attendant makes in a year (we are a degraded people). Don't think they can't hurt them. Those things already have a tenuous grip on functionality at the best of times. The slightest error sends them careening over the edge into "OUT OF ORDER" territory. Moreover, that line behind you? Yeah, they can't use that machine until the attendant clears whatever your spawn has done to this machine. You are wasting other peoples time. You are making their venture into this retail hellhole that much more unpleasant. Children are our future. You don't want to be the parent who's kid presses the self destruct button years down the line because you never taught kiddo to keep his or her hands to him/herself.

  *Steal. Yeah, you want me to go away. The machine is *weight sensitive*. Don't get angry when I come over there to see why the machine is flashing red. That's my job. Don't get angry when I count the number of items in your bag vs the number of items scanned. If you have an expensive looking watch in the bag but none of your items are ringing up more than $10, I'm going to know something is up. Why even bother stealing through self checkout anyway? Don't you have pockets or some shit? You are just making things awkward for me. Quit it.

  *Bring large items (i.e. couches, refridgerators, TVs) through self checkout. I hope you can pick that up because I sure can't. My particular store does not have a scan gun for self checkout. This means that your large item? That new mattress you just had to have? Yeah, it either has to be lifted up to the scanner to be scanned, or I have to manually type in the UPC. This wastes everyone's time. By the time I finish typing in the UPC, you could have already been out at your car trying to force this kingsize mattress on top of your kia sorrento. Go to a real register.

  *Bring overflowing buggies of product through self checkout like that's going to make their trip faster.  A lot of places that operate self checkouts have a ___ items or fewer sign over the self checkouts. This is for EVERYONES convenience. It is going to take you forever to scan each and every item. The self checkout bagging area is NOT large enough to accommodate all the shit you are buying. There are people waiting in line behind you with 2 or 3 things and they are looking at your cart with feelings of hate. So, even if the place does not have a item limit placed on the self checkouts, a good rule of thumb is 15 items MAXIMUM. 15 items is a lot of crap. It takes approximately 30-40 seconds to complete scanning each item through the self checkout. This includes waiting for it to register the item being bagged so you can scan the next one and finding the stupid barcode to scan in the first place. This does not include the time it takes to make the self checkout stop being insane over the item being or not being in the bagging area. This means it is taking you at least 8 minutes to check out with those 15 items. A regular cashier will do this so much faster for you (usually). So please, especially if you are in a hurry, consider how long it is going to take you to ring yourself up, and be considerate of the people who only have 1-2 things to ring up.

  *Write checks. Really???? REALLY??? What do you hope to do with that? I'd have to say everyone gets a pass at doing this ONCE. After it doesn't work the first time and your transaction is suspended and you are taken to the overseer's station (whatever they call it at that particular store) to finish your transaction, you should know better than to try writing another check for self checkout again. If you must write a check (for a REGULAR REGISTER), first, before you get in line, make sure you have the date, name of the store, and "for" line filled out. This way, by the time you get your total, half the check is already written. Second, do not get in the ___ items or fewer line. Everyone will hate you. Third, don't even DARE to try to write a check if you do not have a state issued drivers license or ID. You are wasting everyones time.

What the Attendant is Supposed to Do
  *Monitor multiple registers at once . I've seen up to six units to an attendant. I'm sure they're pushing the envelope though to force one person to do more and more work.
  *Make sure shit works. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. Sometimes. I guess.
  *Make sure people pay for everything. I get to remind people to pay all the time. The ones who get angry about it are the dishonest ones. Yeah, you. Mr. Douchey McFuckface. I know you are only angry because it never was your intention to pay for those bananas.
  *Verify age. I know that in California they either are trying to, or have passed a law stating that alcoholic beverages cannot be sold at a self checkout. I don't live in California and I've never tried to ring alcohol up through a self checkout. The place I work does not sell alcohol so I have no idea if this is a widespread thing. I imagine cigarettes are thing that can't be bought at a self checkout. However, things like certain spray paints, machetes, glues, solvents, etc can be bought through self checkout and the self checkout will pause for the attendant to verify the age of the customer. I take special joy in asking the most venerable of customers if they are over the age of 18. I love the looks of incredulity they give me. Plus, it brightens some of their days. Then they can brag at the senior center or bingo or whatever it is old people do with their time that they got carded at the store.
  *Slowly die inside. Every day, just a little bit. You can only hear "unexpected item in the bagging area" so many times before your mind breaks. Sisyphus

And because Tamil is such a gorgeous language, here is
"Please place item in bagging area." according to google translate.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Kill Me Now. An Insiders Look at Retail

  This is going to be long. Bear with me. I have been working in retail for 8 years now. Some of it has been good, but everything grinds together after a while. Shit breaks down. Policies change for the worst. Benefits are cut, you get new bosses and suddenly, things just aren't any fun anymore. You realize that retail is miserable as hell.

  In fact, several years ago, a group of my friends and I came up with a rating scale.

  The Stages of Retail Worker:

Stage 1: Freshly Employed
Soul Tarnish: 0-2
  Congratulations! This might be your very first job! Or you might just be an optimist. I won't judge you if you are (much). Things are great. Everything is shiny and new, you follow policy and procedure to the line, when people ask you how you are, you respond that you are "excellent!" or "great!". You are happy to be there, and you are happy to help everyone. You want to learn everything. Working past your scheduled time? No problem!! Doing the unpopular jobs? You don't know they are yet or that they are being dumped on you! You want to help *every* customer to your fullest ability! People like this are *adorable*.
  Stage 2: Seasoned
Soul Tarnish: 3-5
  You've been working retail for a while and you know when you are going to face bullshit. You still do the unpleasant tasks in the hopes that someone in management will notice your talent and you will be promoted or get that raise and everything will be gravy once again. You know how everything is supposed to work, but you also know how it usually works and you can generally work around it. You still pick up extra time because hey, being dependable means that maybe one day, you will be in charge! You are starting to get annoyed at the fact that you are the only one doing the unpleasant tasks, but you still do them. You might be asked to train new employees at this stage. Because you aren't a horrible person (yet) you try to shelter them as much as possible from the things that sometimes go wrong and make sure you are on hand to demonstrate how to deal with problems as they arise. You still help customers and know most of the answers. Sometimes the customers frustrate you but you can handle it. Management knows they can depend on you to do the right thing. You got this.

 Stage 3: Worn Out
Soul Tarnish: 6-8
  You need this job. You do. Rent/mortgage is due every month and you have to be able to eat more than ramen eggs and peanut butter taquitos or you will die of scurvy. You are reluctant to work extra hours despite needing the money. You wonder if an extra $8 is really worth staying another hour. You try to get other people to do the unpleasant tasks by pretending that you don't notice they need to be done or "being too busy" or "forgetting". You might pawn it off on a Stage 1. If cornered, you will do the tasks, but you might do them shoddily, and you will be resentful the entire time. You might make comments about how much you hate this job. You might even start looking for a new job, knowing that it won't be any better than this one. And then you have to worry about setting up your health insurance again and maybe changing doctors. If you can even *get* health insurance. You might call out of work frequently because the thought of going in and dealing with that place another day is just too much to think about. You might legitimately get a migraine from dreading going in. It might make you sick to your stomach. Your immune system may be compromised and you might get genuinely ill frequently because you are miserable. You will still help new employees but only if asked. You tell them a lot of what can go wrong in an effort to warn them to abandon ship without scaring them too badly. Management hasn't noticed your hard work. You got a 10 cent raise. Everyone else gets to leave before you do because you are dependable. You only do what you are told to do and nothing else. You see customers as a hassle, and you respond to them based on how they approach you. You go home every day and swear that you are going to get a BETTER JOB. It almost never happens.
Stage 4: No Longer Care At All
Soul Tarnish: 9-10
  You've had it. You are just there for your paycheck. You do not care. Customer doesn't have a receipt? Too bad. Aren't any more on the shelf? "We don't have anymore." Management is hesitant to assign you tasks because even if you do them, the way you mutter and scowl while you do them leaves them in FEAR for their lives. Any new employees are carefully steered away from you so they don't pick up bad habits. If one is inadvertently placed near you, you tell them about the absolute nightmare working there is and give examples of exactly how bad things WILL BE. Customers might complain about your bad attitude, but it's impossible to please those fuckers, right? You didn't even get a raise this year because the company "can't afford it". They also can't afford to pay you unemployment, which is why you still have a job. Management might start subtly making things slowly more frustrating for you in hopes you'll quit.

Stage 5: What The Fuck Is This Shit?
Soul Tarnish: Beyond Tolerable Levels
  You have transcended emotions. Things might be tolerable. Everything could be ok, you've calmed down, maybe the other day you just had a bad moment. Then something happens and you spend an hour in the bathroom planning on exactly how many police officers are going to have to escort you out of the building. You are cynical, blunt, and lacking in tact. You do your job because it's easier than avoiding it. You've ceased complaining about those tasks everyone hates because no one is listening and you are going to wind up doing it anyway. You probably swear a lot. You may say "Are you SERIOUS???" knowing that yes, they are in fact serious. You help the customers because you realize that they are in the same boat, but you reserve a malicious glee in being deaf, stupid, or blind to deal with rude hostile customers. One of the most satisfying times of the day is when you get to lock the doors as a customer is coming up to the door and you pantomime that the store is closed. Too late. Too bad. So sad. We open at 6am tomorrow morning. See you then! You hate the customers that come in an hour before the store closes. You help new employees and feel responsible for them. So bright. So shiny. So untarnished. It's sad, but they'll learn. You don't usually want to try to find another job, because you know exactly how much you can get away with and exactly what is expected of you.
Fuck it. Just. Fuck it.
 So. What is so bad that can turn a happy intelligent person into a cynical sarcastic worn out dusty shell of a human being?


Well, in a word, Retail. We'll go into detail in installments.

These are the topics I plan to cover in this series of articles:

*Self Checkout is a simmering hellhole
*When Customer lose their shit and start fighting each other (break out the popcorn!)
*Sisyphus. When the repetitive gets to the point when you can't tell if it's asshole or breakfast time or maybe just Tuesday anymore. Parts One and Two.
*Children. They are our future so let's keep an eye on them, ok?
*The Rumor Mill
*The People In Charge (either don't care or don't have authority)
*Staffing and Hours
*Why is stuff never where it's supposed to be?!
*College Degrees and the black hole of retail. Hahahaha. Student loans? That's cute. Minimum wage!
*When Customers go Insane

So yeah. Retail is a big topic. Granted that my experience lies solely with the place *I* work. Maybe the world is a different better place from where I work.

Maybe I'm just too cynical and jaded.

Maybe I'm just terribly terribly sane.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bunnyworm's Breakfast Couscous

  Breakfast in my home is always a challenge. You can only eat so much oatmeal or scrambled eggs before your family (and your own stomach) rebel, regardless of how creative you get. I have made al dente ramen and then scrambled an egg in the drained noodles for breakfast before. Omelets, dried fruit in the oatmeal. Quiche. You name it. It gets more wacky and creative the less eggs we have. We buy 2 1/2 dozen at least every two weeks. We go through canisters of oatmeal. We utterly devour grits (Bunnyworm likes pureed beets mixed in with her grits).

  Today, Daddybeast is off work so I wanted to make something nonstandard. I woke up and I started digging through my supercook account to see what I could make that looked even close to being breakfasty. I also added a new ingredient to my list: couscous. I bought some on special at my farmers market and I wanted to try it out. Since it was new I figured, hey, it's a grain. It'd probably make a pretty good breakfast. All the recipes I found on supercook though, were for dinner dishes. A lot of them made me drool. Curry Lamb and couscous? YES PLEASE. 

   But not for breakfast.

  So I hunted and dug around google. I love google. Yeah, they've sold us out to the NSA hardcore, but I still love them. Let's be perfectly honest here. Could most of us find ANYTHING online without google? Sure you could use yahoo or whatever other search engine, but when someone asks me to look something up online, they ask me to "google it". That's some big shit right there. That's like how we refer to adhesive medical strips as bandaids or the phrase "kodak moment" even though as of 2012, they aren't even making cameras anymore. Google might not have invented the search engine (That would be "Archie" which was made buy this guy) but it is certainly the first one that pops into my head.

  Anyhow, I digress.

  I pulled up several different recipes for couscous as a breakfast food. Ultimately, I went with the most basic recipe I found. It looked ok. I figured I'd go for it.

  However, it seemed a bit plain and I wanted to spruce it up, so I added vanilla extract, golden raisins and craisins.

raisins, golden raisins, and craisins in couscous
  Then I decided it needed some nuts. Pecans is what I had at the time.

Pecans
  And lastly, because everyone in my home is nuts about apples, I chopped up a gala apple and tossed it in.

  I cheat when I cut up apples. I have one of those apple coring/slicing tools my Gramma gave me right after Bunnyworm was born. It is one of the most useful tools in my kitchen. Wash apple, remove stem, set on cutting board, then bring that shit down. That gives you nice uniform apple wedges. Then I took my choppin' knife and I chopped those slices up till they looked like the picture to the left.


  Then I mixed everything up. It didn't look like it would be particularly good. It actually looked kinda nasty, but that's how breakfast foods look. Have you ever looked at a bowl of oatmeal and said "HOLY SHIT! I AM GOING TO EAT THE FUCK OUT OF THAT OATMEAL!"? No. Because it looks like grey souless lumpy matter. It looks like it comes predigested. At least this is colorful.

  Anyhow, I portioned it out into 3 bowls. One for me, one for Daddybeast, and one for Bunnyworm. While I was doing this I had 3 crying cats pawing at my legs begging me for wet catfood. Bjorn likes to sit right behind my legs so I trip over him when i turn around. Remember: cats are assholes.

  For a sweetener, you can use just about anything. The original recipe called for either honey or agave nectar. We used honey, but there is no reason why you couldn't use sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup (yum!), stevia, splenda (except the fact that artificial sweeteners are TERRIBLE for you), etfc. Each will marginally change the taste, but without a sweetener, this tastes really bland with occasional bursts of raisin or apple or whatever.


Here is my modified recipe:

2 cups milk (we used 2%)
1 cup couscous
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup golden raisins
1/3 cup craisins (dried cranberries)
1/3 cup chopped pecans
1 medium gala apple, chopped
honey/other sweetener to taste

  First, put your milk in a pot and set it to high CAREFULLY because milk will burn. This should never boil. You just want to get the milk hot. When it starts to steam, reduce your heat all the way down to simmer.You *could* just let the milk go on medium heat, but I'm impatient and you would be too if you had a toddler screaming at you because she was hungry.

  Put your c/raisins in a bowl and pour some water over them and let them soak.

  Add your couscous, stirring to make sure it's all under the milk's surface. Go ahead and add your vanilla extract now. Cover it and let it cook for 5-6 minutes (mine took about 7 minutes to absorb all the milk).

  While the couscous is cooking, chop up your apple and your pecans if they aren't already chopped.

Bunnyworm's bowl, with honey drizzled over
  When the couscous has absorbed the milk, remove from heat. Drain your c/raisins and mix them, chopped pecans and apple slices in. Then you can decide which sweetener to use. I sweetened each person's food individually because Daddybeast is diabetic. I always let him choose what and how much to use. Bunnyworm and I used honey. Be careful you don't add too much. I found that 2 tbsp was enough for my adult portion. Bunnyworm likes things really sweet so she also got 2 tbsp (and sticky).

Monday, August 19, 2013

Homemade Laundry Detergent Part 2

  As previously detailed in Homemade Laundry Detergent Part 1, I made my own laundry detergent using 2 bars of laundry soaps (2 different brands), Borax, and washing soda bought from Publix. I paid $8.55 plus 6% sales tax ($.51) for all the materials and I have Borax and washing soda left over. I stored the resulting soap in a 5 gallon bucket ($2.60 plus $1.28 for the lid, so $3.88) I bought from Lowe's. The bucket is not even close to being particularly full (it actually looks pretty empty), plus I actually took some of it out and put it in a plastic 2 quart jar so we wouldn't have to haul that huge bucket to the laundromat. I suspect that if I took one of those party ice cream pails, washed it, and dried it, then I could use that to hold almost the entire batch.

  Considering that one is only supposed to use 1tbsp per laundry load (2 tbsp for especially filthy loads) this should supply me for quite some time. In fact, there are 64 tablespoons in a quart so that one little jar should do at least 138 loads, and there is enough detergent left in the bucket for maybe another jar (slightly more) so this batch will do 276 loads for just over $9. That is 3.3 cents a load!

  When I look at prices for the detergent I used to use, All Free & Clear Small & Mighty and the size (50 oz size), the price is much, much higher. In fact, by doing a google shopping search, I found that the concentrated detergent is on average, about $5 and will do 32 loads. That is 15.6 cents a load, 4.7 times the cost of my homemade concoction. The Mighty Pacs fared even worse. A package of 48 "pacs" was listed at $16. That is 33.3 cents a load, a solid 10 times more expensive, plus those things are absolutely deadly to children and pets. Last time I bought detergent, I bought the 150 oz bottle, which is listed at $10. It says it will do 100 loads. That is 10 cents a load and roughly 3 times more expensive than my detergent. That is still the best price on the store bought detergent.

  Now, I need to go off on a tangent about laundry detergents. That "load" number that they mention on the front of the bottle is usually a lot more loads than you are actually going to get out of the bottle. The measuring cup has numbers and lines on it, and I think when they say load they mean to the first line. Legally, it could be less. They have no reason to tell you what measurement they are going by so for all we know, a load could constitute of a teaspoon of soap with them knowing you are fixing to use half a cup for each load. If you do use a commercially produced liquid laundry detergent, try using half of what you normally use. If that still gets your clothes clean, try halving it again. Experiment and figure out exactly how much soap you need to get your clothes clean and ignore their measurement. You will save tons of money.

  Another good money saving tip, especially if you need something easily portable or cannot lift the larger containers, is to buy 1 small container initially, and then buy the larger container and keep refilling the smaller container. You will get the best possible price on the detergent and still be able to handle the bottle. Plus, when using the measuring cap for the smaller bottle with non concentrated soap, you will use closer to the appropriate amount of soap and it will stretch more.

  On Friday Daddybeast dutifully went to laundry a day late (he was supposed to do it Thursday, instead he did it before he went to work on Friday). Our coin laundry has changed policy recently and even though the dryers used to be "free" they are not anymore. That's a shame but the lady who owns the place was hemorrhaging money through the dryers and I can understand the need to pay bills. That just means we'll be shopping around for a possibly cheaper laundromat in the future. It's nothing personal, but our laundry bill just went up a good $10 at least and we need to cut costs however possible.

  Anyhow, He did 3 baskets of clothing of varying sizes. These baskets included jeans, khaki pants, towels, work polo shirts, cotton t shirts, baby clothes, cloth diapers, socks, bras, underwear, baby blankets, and a few stuffed animals in a rainbow of colors. Standard laundry fare, though usually we cram at least one more basket into the cobalt and get it all done at once. I asked him how much detergent he used per load and he said, "well you didn't give me a measuring spoon and I couldn't remember how much you said so I just guessed." He probably used about 6 washers and 1/3 the container is gone. I'm not terribly pleased about the wastage, but the clothes are clean and I still have more detergent so we'll take what we've got and run with it.

 So now that a few days have gone by and everyone has had a chance to wear the freshly washed clothing, I will detail the results under the following categories: Cleanliness, Texture, Smell, and Adverse Reactions. The testers are Daddybeast, Mommy (me!), Bunnyworm, Wafflecat, The Diva, and Bjorn.

  The first thing I observed about the clothing upon folding it the day after it was washed (I worked Friday and I was too exhausted to fold clothes after work) was that there was no residue on the clothing. I checked some of Daddybeasts work polos and there were no deodorant stains. Any standard food stains were successfully washed away (standard being things that do not typically stain). Bunnyworm's eating shirts were clean and free of most stains--she did eat blueberries one day and there are faint hints of purple from them. Still, that is why I dedicate a few shirts to her eating. They can get ruined while her other clothes stay nice, and even then, she only wears them in public or when it's cold. Otherwise we strip her down. I did not initially notice anything out of the ordinary on my clothing until this morning. I found a sliver of fells naptha soap on my shirt. I haven't been able to find any other slivers, so maybe that was a particularly large chunk from the load. The cats beds and the towel they sleep on occasionally came clean despite Wafflecat peeing on one of the beds and Bjorn throwing up on just about everything. All in all, I'm very satisfied with the cleanliness of the clothes after using the detergent.

  As I was folding the clothes I noted the texture or feel of the clothes. Most of my towels came out fluffy and soft, the exception being the aforementioned cat towel Bjorn horked up on. It was a gift from my Gramma. She basically handed me a stack of stiff rough bleachstained towels and said I could have them if I thought I could use them. My towels are much nicer than them, but I figured I could use them to clean up messes and dry the cats after their baths. Anyhow, the towel was stiff and nasty before I washed it, and it was still stiff afterwards so next time I wash it, I'm going to add some vinegar to the load to soften it up and get the detergent build up out of it (Gramma always uses "extra detergent for extra cleaning" which just makes the clothes crunchy and uncomfortable, but you do. not. tell. Gramma. how. to. do. laundry.) The bluejeans and khakis were smooth and felt normal. T shirts also felt normal, as did Daddybeast's work shirts. Socks were soft. Stuffed animals were intact and fluffy. Bras were soft and satiny just like they're supposed to be. So no problems with the texture of the clothing were caused by the detergent despite way too much detergent being used in each load.

  I have a very sensitive sense of smell and there are some smells that I cannot stand. Cat urine is one of them, as is left over deodorant smell. We had both of these in our laundry. The cat urine smell is gone from the cat bed (for now, until Wafflecat does it again). Daddybeast's work shirts had a very faint trace of his deodorant smell in them, but ultimately it was not strong enough to make me feel the clothes need to be washed again. In fact, the All detergent we have used in the past doesn't get the smell all the way out either. Only pretreating with vinegar seems to work. Other than that, the clothes smelled like tap water. It's different from the All free and clear, which has no smell at all. I don't dislike the smell I guess, but it isn't what I was expecting. I'm wondering if maybe next time I whip up a batch of soap I should add a bar of Dr. Bronner's Lavender Castile Soap and ditch the Fells Naptha bar. The castile soap is much more expensive (about $2 more) but if it makes the laundry smell better, by all means and I've used it on Bunnyworm in the past and it doesn't bother her. It's surprising because the zote soap I used has a very very strong lemony smell, but that smell doesn't make it through the wash. So ultimately, I wasn't impressed with the smell, but it wasn't offensive to me.

  Bunnyworm is allergic to Cheer brand laundry detergent (it's the brand the laundromat sells). My mother is allergic to Tide brand and I've never used it. Because Bunnyworm has shown a reaction to at least one laundry detergent, I was worried the homemade detergent would give her hives like the Cheer did. The first night she slept in and sweated in freshly laundered pajamas. The next day she wore the clothes all day long. Not one bump or red welt. The same has happened with me and Daddybeast. Bjorn has allergies (we aren't sure to what, but he always does better AFTER he has a bath) and it didn't bother him or any of the other cats. None of the clothing was discolored as far as I can tell. So, no adverse effects from using the detergent.

Overall, I have to say I am very pleased with the results of my homemade detergent. It got the clothes clean, they weren't crunchy and nasty (except the one thing that was already crunchy and nasty), there wasn't much of a smell, no one is allergic to it, and it didn't discolor my clothes. Now if I can train Daddybeast to use the proper amount of detergent, we will save tons of cash which was the point of this experiment.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Homemade Laundry Detergent Part 1

So. I name this "homemade laundry detergent part 1" in the optimistic hope that eventually there will be a part 2. Only time will tell.

Two weeks ago Daddybeast did laundry at the local (well, semi-local, it's a few miles away and there are others that are closer but I digress) laundromat. We live in a tiny 1 bedroom apartment. We don't have washer/dryer hookups and that's really not a big deal--we have a dishwasher. In my first apartment I did not have a dishwasher. I had a sink full of dirty dishes. I hate doing dishes. I hate doing dishes a lot.

Anyhow.

We don't have a washer/dryer because there's nowhere to put it and because of that, we go to the coin laundry that offers "free dryers" (fuck yeah!). Now, free dryers is relative. The owner basically looks at what washer you used and puts a certain number of quarters (there is a chart) in the dryer for the type of washer you used. It usually doesn't get the clothes all the way dry, but it helps and it's more than other places do. The place is pretty nice too. There are tables and chairs, those little laundry carts, folding tables, drink machine, food machine, 2 video games, and a bathroom. It's always awfully hot in there because of the dryers but in the winter it's not too bad.

Back to the Daddybeast. He did laundry last weekend and then came home and told me, "The next time you go with your mom to Sam's club, please get another big thing of All. We ran out and I had to use the cleaning vinegar to get some of the clothes clean. I know Bunnyworm is allergic to the stuff they sell there so I didn't get any of that." (Bunnyworm is allergic to Cheer brand laundry detergent). So yeah. The clothes were "clean" for a given value of clean. I discovered on Sunday just how clean the clothes were. There were 2 new pairs of blue jeans my mom had bought for me and they still reeked of the chemicals they process those things in. And I got a rash from wearing them and sweating in them at work all day. I did not have any issues with any of the other clothes (and the vinegar dissolved the deodorant stains on Daddybeast's work shirts).

I have seen a lot of recipes for laundry soap and some of them (the liquid ones in particular) looked like huge pains in the ass. I settled on this recipe from DIY Natural for my first attempt because 3 ingredients? I can do that.

Today I took my mom to Publix and since I was there I went ahead and got me some Arm & Hammer Super Washing Soda 55oz ($3.19), 20 Mule Team Borax 76oz ($3.19), and a bar of Fells Naptha soap 5.5oz ($1.19). I already had a bar of White Zote Soap 14.1oz that I have had for years and I have no idea how much I paid for it (I bought a bunch years ago to wash my clothes in the bathtub--a NIGHTMARE).

So. I got my large cloth diaper washing bowl (I still wash those by hand most of the time) and my fine grater and I sat down and got to grating. And grating. And then? More grating. I probably will not be able to move either arm in the morning. That's a lot of grating. I've read of a method where you can zap the soap in the microwave and it makes it puffy then you can drop that mess in the blender. I've read that putting the bar in the freezer for a while makes it easier to grate. I didn't try either. I just sat there and grated the fells naptha bar first. The smell is strong, but the soap is pretty waxy so it comes off in chunky curly peels (make sure you use a fine grater--otherwise you might wind up with left over soap on your clothes--I've read of people complaining about this. If you don't have a fine grater, you can put one of the other dry ingredients and the soap in a blender and chop it finer to prevent chunky soap residue). It didn't give me or my asthma any trouble. I measured out my cup of Borax and my cup of Washing Soda and mixed it. It looked sad and alone. It wasn't much in the bottom of the large bowl.

I wish I'd just sat down and congratulated myself. I might not have strained my arms as much as I have. But I didn't leave well enough alone.

Oh no.

I grated the bar of Zote Soap.

It is NOT smooth and waxy. It is dry and powdery and if you breathe it, you will sneeze a lot. If you have asthma it might just give you an asthma attack. After two hits on my rescue inhaler, a shower, and snorting hot water in the shower to clear my sinuses (it hurt, but it worked) I was able to breathe again. So. Yeah. Wear a dust mask if your soap is dry. If in doubt, just wear a dust mask.

Also, there is a lot more zote soap in a bar than there is soap in a fells naptha bar. Almost 3 times as much. And the soap is harder so you get less scraped off with each pass. It took forever. Daddybeast would not get near the stuff. He walked into the room I was working in and said "holy crap that stuff smells strong" and walked out.

Wafflecat and The Diva and stupid Bjorn all walked up to see what I was doing (and maybe try to climb into the bowl). Wafflecat stopped dead about 3 feet from the bowl, squinted up his eyes, his ears went back, and he slunk away. The Diva sniffed the side of the bowl, sneezed, and walked away, foofy tail out and up *foof*. Stupid Bjorn tried to jump into the bowl (he is so stupid).

 Anyhow, I made the stuff. Thursday Daddybeast will go up to the coin laundry and we will see how this stuff works. He will probably go ahead and put vinegar in with the wash simply because that gets the deodorant smell out of the clothes (not to mention the cat pee smell out of anything Wafflecat decides to pee on. Damn cat pees on everything.)

So. Here is what I used to make my laundry detergent.

1 bar Fells Naptha Laundry Soap
1 bar White Zote Soap
4 cups Borax
4 cups Washing Soda

Grate the soap. Add the Borax and the Washing Soda, stir vigorously. You might want to blend or process the soap and a bit of the washing soda if you have large clumps of soap. It will make it very uniform. I didn't so I will have to make sure I stir the stuff before I use it.

Store this stuff in an airtight container. I used a 5 gallon bucket from Lowe's. It filled the bucket maybe 1/3 the way full so a 2 gallon bucket might work just as well. Another container that might work out is one of those party sized ice cream containers. In fact, next time we have one, I'm going to save it and wash it so we can store some of the detergent in it and we won't have to drag that 5 gallon bucket around.

As for using the detergent, from what I've read this stuff is really concentrated. 1 tbsp should be sufficient for most loads, with 2 or 3 tbsp for heavily soiled or very large loads. If you are concerned about using a dry detergent you can mix your tbsp or so with a warm glass of water to start it dissolving. If you are able to, let the washer start filling with water before you add your detergent and then add the clothes.

Adding vinegar to your wash would be done when you would normally add fabric softener. There is a place for the stuff in the washers at the laundromat but I usually just add it to the clothes before the start of the cycle (the washers lock after they start).

Anyhow, Thursday Daddybeast will be going to the coin laundry and testing out the detergent. I will hopefully follow up with a part 2 to discuss how well things go.