The dog days of summer are upon us, and many of us are sweltering in the heat. If you live in a big city, you may feel worse than your country cousin due to the “urban heat island effect”. In an urban heat island, temperatures may be 6-8ºF warmer than surrounding rural areas, fields, or woodlands.  Urban heat islands are caused by a combination of factors:

  • Loss of vegetation that shades buildings and cools the air through evapotranspiration
  • Hard surfaces (buildings, streets, and parking lots) that absorb solar radiation and radiate it back to the air/atmosphere
  • Waste heat from electrical use, water heating, car & truck exhaust, and other thermal and mechanical sources

The temperature differentials are worse at night, when hard surfaces like asphalt pavement, brick, and concrete radiate the heat they absorbed during the day back into the air. Calm air also makes it worse.

The urban heat island effect causes a number of problems. It exacerbates normal summer discomfort for everyone—causing people to crank up the air conditioner (and yes, generate more waste heat), and it makes elderly or sick people more susceptible to problems brought on by heat waves. It’s tough, and sometimes dangerous, for athletes and for those who work outdoors–such as construction workers, roofers, police officers and highway workers. Higher temperatures also increase smog formation, which boosts health risks to the elderly, children, asthmatics, allergy sufferers, and those with respiratory problems. Finally, stormwater runoff from paved urban areas causes excess warming in creeks and lakes, which can damage ecology in those environments.

There are a number of green building materials and practices that urban individuals and organizations can use to mitigate or reduce the heat island effect:

Plant trees. In summer, they create shade which reduces air conditioning loads on a building, and in winter, they shield buildings from wind and unwanted heat loss. They also produce oxygen, and create bird & animal habitat.

Green roof with walking path

Install green roofs and walls. These are vegetated, carefully engineered surfaces that support plant life, and keep the building cool. They provide other benefits, too, including improved drainage (protects underlying roof and reduces stormwater runoff), recreation for employees or occupants, and even herb or vegetable growth. Green roofs also improve air quality because plants convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, and filter out other contaminants. Although green roofs may cost $10-$15/sf more than traditional roofs, these costs are offset by energy savings, longer roof life and reduced maintenance costs, and by various grants and tax incentives.

GAF green roof system, showing drainage mat & moisture barrier

Green Roofs have enjoyed increasing popularity in Europe over the last decade, with government incentives stimulating a multi-million dollar industry.  North American planners, builders and consumers are also beginning to consider green roofs for malls, schools, hospitals, and homes. In New York State, green roofs have been installed at the Bronx Zoo, Cornell University, Pace University, the Bronx County Courthouse, and at Rockefeller Center Roof Gardens.

White roof coated with Bulldog Durex.

Install a white roof to increase reflectivity (albedo), so that solar radiation is not absorbed by your roof to be re-radiated later. For flat roofs, Green Depot recommends Bulldog Durex Elastomeric White Roof Coating.  It’s a flexible, mildew- and UV-resistant waterborne roofing topcoat made with 100% acrylic resins. It reflects heat from the roof surface: lowering cooling costs, and extending the life of roof membranes and surfaces. It can be used over a variety of existing roof surfaces, including metal, asphalt, masonry, and EPDM.

To learn more, visit Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory’s Urban Heat Island site, or the independent site Urban Heat Islands, or the US EPA’s site on the Heat Island Effect.

After three nail-biting months, it looks like the BP oil spill in the Gulf is finally being sealed. This week, drilling engineers are expected to complete the “bottom kill” relief well linked to the main well that had been capped and plugged on July 15th. A combination of mud and cement will be pumped into the well to plug it permanently. Since the oil spill began, an estimated 190 milllion gallons of oil were spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

Solar ad campaign from 1BOG

In a post on July 12th, before the successful capping, I described the spill in Prius-mile equivalencies: how many hybrid car-miles could have been driven with the lost oil, and  I said that if 1 million Americans bought hybrid cars in the next year, they could save 270 million gallons of oil–three times more than what had been spilled to date.

The solar dealer 1bog (One Block Off the Grid) has done something similar—but with better graphics—describing the oil spill in solar panel equivalencies.  In one scenario, they take the area affected by the spill (roughly the size of Kansas) and calculate how much power could be generated by a Kansas-sized block of solar photovoltaic panels. They estimate that all the electricity needs of the United States, Central America, and South America could be met by such a vast array: for 25 years. (Why not indefinitely–as one commenter asked? Because after 25-30 years the panels lose efficiency and should be replaced). In another scenario, they point out that the spill has cost BP $32 billion to clean up, an amount, they say, that had it been spent on solar panels instead, could have provided enough electricity for all of Los Angeles County for 30 years.

So it’s clear from these whimsical yet hard-hitting ads that solar can indeed pack a punch if enough is invested in it, displacing significant amounts of electricity generated on the fossil fuel-based grid.

Solar array at Hancock Shaker Village

In my neck of the woods, the Hancock Shaker Village recently installed a photovoltaic array on and adjacent to its visitor center, supplying the museum and grounds with 66% of their power needs.

Residences can do the same thing. With prices for photovoltaic panels steadily dropping, they’re more affordable than ever. The federal government offers a 30% tax rebate (with no cap) for solar installations, and most states have their own tax incentives. You can find your state on the DSIRE website database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.

Residential PV array by Radiant Complete

In the tri-state area, Green Depot recommends Radiant Complete for residential and commercial solar jobs. Their strengths are in evaluating a project to determine what the clients’ specific goals are (hot water, electricity, or space heating, for example), and the site’s physical parameters (trees and other shading, roof area and angles, building orientation, etc). Then they custom-design a combination of renewable options to fit your needs and budget, and manage the installation using highly skilled professionals.

SolarStar Attic Fan

If you want to cool your house on the cheap and preserve the integrity of your roof shingles and insulation,

Solio Charger

check out the SolarStar Attic Fan. Running on the sun alone (not hardwired into your house), it vents hot air from your attic, keeping the space cooler: preventing destructive ice dams on your roof in winter, and saving you money on air conditioning in the summer.

If you’re a student or a renter on a low budget, there are more green products than ever before on the market. The Solio charger has 3 mini PV panels that allow you to capture and store solar power so you can recharge your cell, iPod and other handheld devices anywhere the sun shines.

Verilux Flashlight

Tired of replacing batteries for your flashlight? You’ll never have to again with the rechargeable, solar-powered Verilux flashlight. Comes with 6 bright LED lights, and casts a wide beam.

So: big or small, there has never been a better time to look at how solar might fit into your life.

Somehow it got to be August, and we’re thinking Back to School.  How many of us realize that our children have become the unwitting generators of a huge amount of garbage?

According to Waste Free Lunches, the “average school-age child using a disposable lunch generates 67 pounds of waste per school year. That equates to 18,760 pounds of lunch waste for just one average-size elementary school.”

With that in mind, Green Depot has just brought in an assortment of lunch storage ideas that will turn the disposable paper sack and the ubiquitous sandwich bag on their heads. These green products are much cooler than the vinyl lunch boxes you pick up every year at Wal-Mart. The ones that are hard to clean and smelly.

Say goodbye to endless plastic sandwich bags!

Fresh Snack Pack

The Fresh Snack Pak is what I bought my two daughters last spring, and they’re holding up really well.  You can put a sandwich in it, or get more than one for chips, fruit slices, etc. They look like a little envelope (folds flat when empty), and are made from EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate) plastic. They contain no PVC (poluyvinyl chloride), BPA (bisphenol A), or lead.  Just wipe clean with a sponge, or handwash when you’re doing the dishes, and drip dry.

Fluf Lunch Bags

Fluf reusable lunch bags are another cool option. Shaped a bit more like the traditional brown paper bag, the Fluf comes in a few different styles suitable for kids…or just plain Suits. The body is 100% certified organic, pre-shrunk cotton, and the liner is made with phthlate-free vinyl (EVA). It’s removeable, too, for easy washing. A snap closure is easy for little hands to use.

Snack Bag

The handmade reusable snack bag costs next to nothing, and is embroidered with all sorts of whimsical creatures—from chubby little mice to robots.  The outer shell is 100% unbleached cotton; the inner liner is water and stain-resistant nylon. A velcro closure keeps you from…losing your lunch.

Now, for something old and new. The Stainless Steel Tiffin Food Carrier is a sleek, round metal lunch box that’s been used in Asia for years to take food to school or work. New to the States, it’s constructed of food-grade stainless steel, and has sturdy side closures that snap down to keep the lid firmly in place. Each of the two compartments can be heated separately, or refrigerated.

Tiffin Stainless Steel

If you’re sending them to school with pasta salad or last night’s yummy leftovers, the little brats will need something to eat it with. Try these super hardy MicroBites Mini-Utensils. You can use ‘em backpacking, too.


You can learn much more on Waste Free Lunches. It’s an an excellent website chock full of tips on how to reduce the amount of trash generated by our kids’ school lunches. Has tips adults can use, too, and even healthy food suggestions.

Using reusables instead of disposables is good for our wallets as parents, and it’s a good way to instill an environmental ethic in our kids.

On Friday, New York State Governor David Paterson signed a bill into law that prohibits babies’ and children’s food and beverage containers from containing Bisphenol A, or BPA. Under the legislation (S 3296H/A 6919D), sippy cups, baby bottles, straws, and pacifiers containing BPA can no longer be sold in New York State. The law goes into effect on December 1, 2010.

Working under the  “JustGreen” umbrella, a coalition of at least 45 advocacy groups worked together for passage of the bill; they included mainstream environmental organizations, consumer groups, health and cancer networks, women’s groups, academic institutions, and environmental justice groups.

According to a press release issued by JustGreen, “New York is now the seventh state and by far the largest in both population and economy to pass phase out of BPA in young children’s products, joining Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin. It will be one of the first state laws to go into effect, however. In addition, Maine has declared bisphenol A (BPA) as a ‘priority chemical’ and will institute regulations to phase out its use in children’s food and beverage containers and infant formula containers.  The Massachusetts Department of Public Health is moving forward with similar regulations to cover children’s beverage containers. California has BPA legislation pending.”

BPA has been associated with a wide range of children’s health problems, including “early onset puberty, polycystic ovary syndrome and breast and prostate cancer,” said Senator Antoine Thompson, Chair of the New York State Senate Environmental Conservation Committee.

Because children’s bodies are smaller and metabolize more rapidly than adults, toxins build up in their bodies quickly, and infants have been detected with high levels of BPA in their bodies. JustGreen cited connections between low doses of BPA and “obesity, infertility in males and females, brain dysfunctions, thyroid disruption, heart disease, and diabetes.”

Stephen Boese, Executive Director of the Learning Disabilities Association of New York State, said that BPA has been implicated in learning disabilities and other neurological impairment.

The full press release, and a list of advocates, can be viewed on the Just Green website.

Wee-Go glass bottles

Green Depot Founder Sarah Beatty testified in support of the bill in May, prior to it being passed unanimously in both houses of the NY State legislature (download her testimony here). Since the opening of Green Depot’s flagship store at 222 Bowery in February 2009, Green Depot has put an emphasis on healthy green products for babies and children, including certified organic cotton clothing and bedding, diapers without harsh chemicals, and BPA-free baby bottles. One of our most popular sellers has been the Wee-Go, a glass baby bottle with a soft silicone sleeve that’s easy to grip and prevents breakage. It’s available in 4- and 9-ounce sizes, in six different bright colors.

Green to Grow

Another is the Green to Grow nurser–a bottle that’s phthalate-free, BPA-free, dishwasher safe, and comes in 100% recycled packaging.

We all know that breastfeeding is best, but when bottle feeding is necessary, at least now there are safer ways to do it in New York State.

Have you been suffering through the recent heat wave on the East Coast? I know I have. Yes, the Texans are calling us all wimps, but I’m sorry, I just am not comfortable when sweat is dripping into my eyes! Temperatures here have broken records going back decades. In New York City, the mercury hit 103° on July 6th. Triple-digit temps were recorded in Boston, Philadelphia and Providence, RI.

When temperatures soar, most people crank up their air conditioners, collectively placing a very heavy demand on electric utilities. Not only are power failures a risk, but greenhouse gas emissions soar along with rising electricity generation. Air pollutants increase, too, because utilities are forced to bring older, dirtier plants on line when peak demand is high. Extra pollutants increase the risk of smog formation, acid rain, and poor outdoor air quality that impacts children, the elderly and people with respiratory problems.

Tips for staying cool while minimizing your environmental impact:

In the house or office:

  • If you own a central air conditioner that is over 12 years old, the EPA recommends that you replace it with a more efficient Energy Star model that can cut your home cooling costs by up to 30%.

  • Use room A/C units. If you spend most of the day in one room of the house, install a window air conditioner there and turn off the central air. A medium-sized room unit draws about 900 watts, compared to over 3000 watts for a typical central air system. (Check out Mr. Electricity’s cool site!)  Don’t forget to keep the door closed!

  • Use a fan instead of an air conditioner, especially at night in the bedroom. Fans use much less electricity than air conditioners, don’t run the risk of getting mildewy, and are portable and inexpensive. Green Depot carries a few neat models: the lightweight and colorful Vornado Flippi 6 fan is one of the coolest green products you’ll find: literally! It uses only 14 watts on High, and can move air up to 20 feet: perfect for bedroom or office.

    Flippi V6 Fan: uses only 14 watts
  • Finally, the Sycamore Ceiling Fan combines futuristic styling with awesome aerodynamics: moves 5,000 cubic feet per minute using under 50 watts. Cool indeed.

    The Sycamore Ceiling Fan
  • Pull down shades or blinds on the south side of the house, and on the western side of the house after 1 or 2 pm. Consider buying insulating shades: they benefit you in summer and winter.
  • Look into buying awnings for south-facing windows. They’ll not only cool the house during the summer, but will let you keep those windows open when it rains, further refreshing the air in your house.

Personal care tips:

  • Sleep with a sheet instead of a blanket. Your body heat will escape instead of getting trapped.
  • Hot flash relief! If you’re menopausal and going insane at night, you’ll love this low-profile Bedfan that circulates cool air under the sheets on your side of the bed (your partner will never know!). One of the few green products that’s made to keep your body cool.

    The Bedfan
  • Drink ice water, and take tepid or cool showers. Both will cool your core body temperature, with effects that can last for a few hours.
  • Don’t eat big meals before bed. Your body will work overtime trying to digest the excess calories, generating extra heat that may make sleeping difficult.
  • Exercise early in the morning while it’s still relatively cool.
  • When outside: wear a hat and stay hydrated—even if you’re not the water-glugging type. Check out this Klean Kanteen all-stainless, insulated water bottle that will keep your iced drinks cold while you’re in the car, walking down the street, or at your desk.


The BP oil spill has been on all our minds since April. Much press coverage has focused on the ineptitude of BP’s cleanup efforts, the cozy ties between industry and government, and the environmental and economic impacts of the spill on the Gulf coast.

BP wellhead leakingBut every time I listen to the news while driving in the car, I can’t help but think about the sheer waste of oil and gas.

As of today, about 90 million gallons of oil have leaked from the ruptured wellhead: 8 times what was leaked by the Exxon Valdez. (PBS News has a cool running counter on the amount of oil spilled to date, including how much has been flared.)

Less than half of that has been contained or managed in some way: by skimmer vessels, through messy controlled burns on the surface (creating air quality problems for Gulf residents), and by the cap on the broken pipe leading to the Q4000 rig that flares the oil and gas. Although BP’s website refers to flaring efforts as “recovery,” in fact a only a small part of the oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon is actually being recovered (saved) for refining and use. According to Max McGahan, a press officer I spoke to at BP today, the Q4000 rig has been flaring about 8,000 barrels (336,000 gallons) per day since its deployment on June 15th . Mr. McGahan would not reveal how much oil has been recovered for refining, although he did say that as of July 10th, the total volume of oil “collected or flared” (not including surface burns) is 749,100 barrels (31.5 million gallons). Do the math: (24 days x 336,000g flared/day = 8 million gallons flared). Subtract that from 31.5, and you see that as of July 10th, only about 23 million gallons had been captured to be refined. In other words, as of July 10th, about 67 million gallons have been lost.

Q4000 flaring BP oil in Gulf
The Q4000 flaring oil in Gulf

I cannot help but measure this loss in terms of Prius-miles. My used blue Prius gets about 42 mpg in the winter, 51 in the summer, and 47 in spring and fall (So let’s say 48 mpg on average). Compare this to the 25 mpg I got in my last car, a 10-year old Ford Taurus wagon. On a 325-mile road trip (to New York City and back), that adds up to about 6 gallons saved. Over the course of a year, if I–like the average American–drive about 12,000 miles, I am now saving about 230 gallons over what I did with my former car. Not a huge amount, but more than a drop in the bucket. In 2009, 23.1 mpg was the CAFÉ standard (corporate average fuel economy) standard for cars and light trucks. Compared to this mediocre rate, I am saving almost 270 gallons per year.

When I bought the Prius, my brother gave me a hard time for paying a premium for a hybrid. We did the math together—at that time gas was $4/gallon—and over the long term I still didn’t break even over paying cash for a cheaper used car in similar condition. But I told him that the economics weren’t the only issue for me; doing the right thing was. I wanted to reduce my personal carbon footprint as much as possible. I’d already insulated and air-sealed my house, replaced my old leaky windows and doors, and had remodeled a few rooms with as many green building products and green materials as I could. I recycle and compost. We’ve cut way back on meat. I hang the laundry on the line to dry. Buying a Prius was the next big consumer step I could take to reduce my impact on the world. I thought that saving a few hundred gallons per year through my autombile selection was a choice worth making.

If only a million Americans (one third of 1% of the population) bought a Prius or similar hybrid this year, they could save an additional 270 million gallons per year—three times the amount of oil spilled to date by BP in the Gulf. Imagine a world with fewer oil wells that blow out or are abandoned, creating a permanent risk of leakage.

I’d like to see the federal government offer better financial incentives for individuals and companies to buy hybrids (check out these state and federal incentives), and to make a host of other energy efficiency moves. Because when a huge corporation loses control of its operation in an environmentally sensitive area, the problem is absorbed by everyone. It’s in all our best interests to maximize the ways that society as a whole can use less energy, and make more green product choices.