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Cleaning Green

The New House–Part 1

I’ve been absent for a while on the blog, but with good cause. We bought a house in November and have been working hard, hard, hard to make it livable! We started our housing search in January of 2009 with some strict, but not totally unreasonable guidelines: single family home, 3+ bedrooms, 2+ baths, a yard with potential for vegetable gardening; a fireplace and dining room would be nice. We knew we wanted a small house—lower utility usage (and bills), less space to fill, cheaper to make eco-friendly upgrades because things just aren’t as big, etc. We also knew we wanted to live in a very specific area near our offices. Because of the size we wanted, that left us with only about four neighborhoods, albeit rather large neighborhoods of homes that were built from the late 40s to the early 60s. Oh, and it had to fit our tight budget. So, maybe not such an easy thing to find…

Over nine months we looked at over 50 houses and put offers on 11 of those houses which breaks out as 5 foreclosures, 3 short sales that we were outbid on, and 3 short sales that we “won” and entered the long, frustrating process for. We ended up with house number 11—a foreclosure that had been vacant for just 1.5 months. Built in 1954, it was made very solidly with brick and old wood that lasts forever and just isn’t around anymore. It has three legal bedrooms on the main floor, one illegal one in the basement, two bathrooms, a fireplace, dining room, two kitchens, and a great yard. It also had some downsides—some big, some small: writing on the walls, a little mildew in the basement, a raging cockroach infestation (and thus droppings over every surface), a putrid smell, neglect.
We—and a team of generous friends and family plus some professionals—worked for three weeks before we moved in to get the house livable. We came to the work with four major mindsets:

  1. Focus on livability not aesthetics (at this point). We want to live in the house and see how it feels before deciding to make changes. For example, we want to learn the ins and outs of how our water pressure works before doing a grey water system. We want to watch the sun over the seasons before deciding if we want to save up for solar panels. This also allows us more time to find used things that we really love, like a neat lighting fixture for the bathroom.
  2. Preserve as much as possible We don’t believe in updating just for the sake updating. So, the turquoise tub stays, the floorboards with staining don’t get replaced, we spray-paint the brass fireplace façade instead of replacing it.
  3. Make wise purchasing choices We try to buy used things first and borrow things that are borrowable (like tools), and then buy low-impact products when we must buy new. When we do buy conventional, we do it with a well-thought out reason and occasionally we allow ourselves a fun, conventional splurge (the new shower curtain that I adore) but that is the exception, not the rule.
  4. Green clean We hired a green cleaning company to get off the first layer of filth and clean out the dead bugs and then did all remaining cleaning with homemade green cleaners. We did all mildew remediation with vinegar and borax.

We’ve had some great ups (the dishwasher we thought was broken actually wasn’t, friends and family who were AMAZINGLY generous with their time) some downs (small hole in the roof, the heat breaking two days after we moved in) and we’ve got lots of work ahead of us, but it feels good. Here’s a bit of our journey told through pictures with commentary…

Before: Our adorable home. It has tons of potential, but tons of work to do! To start, we’ve got mushrooms popping up in the front yard from a tree stump decomposing. The paint on the fascia boards is in bad shape. The gutters are cracked and worthless.

In progress: The previous owners removed a satellite dish but didn’t plug the holes. This rotted out the soffit, fascia board and a joist. All of the fascia boards needed to be scraped and painted, but most were in great condition (yay 1950s construction old growth wood that is still trucking on).

After: New gutters, painted fascia boards, some roof repairs, stump removal, and a fresh blanket of snow!

The first time we saw the house the electricity wasn’t on and we though the house had a mold problem because of the black everywhere. On our second visit (the inspection) we had electricity and realized it was cockroaches—dead and alive— and their droppings. Yuck!

Check out the corner of the front door. Yes, they are cockroaches and yes, they are alive. Many of their dead friends were also around. We asked for an exterminator in our addendum.

That is dead, smashed bugs. Every place where two surfaces touched was covered in either cockroach bodies or their droppings. The house had only been unoccupied for 1.5 months at that point, so people obviously had been living in this.

We had professional cleaners (an eco-friendly cleaning company) for 5 hours plus many, many additional hours from family & friends & us.

We used all eco-friendly homemade cleaners from the book Green Clean. We spent three weeks living in our old place while we fixed up the new place. Until we had a sufficiently cleaned surfaces to set stuff down at the new place, each night I would take the empty
bottles back to the condo to reload for another day of hardcore cleaning.

The green bottles are for the kitchen and contain a degreasing formula (Castile Cleaner: 1t washing soda, 2t borax, 1/2t castile soap*,
2c hot water, 10 drops of essential oils, Green Clean p.136).

The pink bottles are a mildew-buster formula with vinegar for bathrooms and the basement (Scented Vinegar Spray: 1t borax, 1 T castile soap*, 1/8c vinegar, 2c hot water, 5-10 drops of essential oils, Green Clean p.136).

*Shredded castille bar soap, not liquid. See this entry on how to shred bars easily. I suppose you could use liquid, but it forms creepy, greasy globs when mixed with vinegar so, I stick to the bars.

I’ve lived by these Green Clean recipes for almost two years now, and they pulled through for us on this mega job! If we could green clean THIS, anything can be green cleaned!

I am tempted to finish this blog entry here, but I’m afraid you will think we are totally crazy and disgusting for living in this house if I don’t show you some real “after” pictures. Because I am obsessed with my new shower curtain, let me show you the bathroom. (Bonus: if you know me in real life and have already seen the picture album, at the end is a new picture you haven’t seen!)

Bathroom Before:Rotting window sill, cracked floor tiles (not visible), general ickiness, then we discovered bad plumbing in the sink and that the vanity was rotting.

Ickiness Close Up

Bathroom progress: Damaged vanity and sink faucet removed, cleaned (several times), and a lovely new hand-crafted window sill (inside and outside)installed. The sill now has an angle to it so water won’t collect plus it now has exterior paint on it. My dad headed up the window sill project. It seemed like tedious, precise work but he did an amazing job. Go dad! (And thanks to my mother-in-law for cleaning and my father-in-law for patching and painting the stained, crumbling ceiling.)

Vinyl lining added to lower part of window for privacy. Ick, plastic! But, this was a place where it seemed the best option. We bought the vanity new and while it looks great, it bugs me that we bought something new out of pressboard. Oh well. You can’t win them all. On to happier thoughts: I adore this shower curtain! I wanted something to tie in the green and tan towels we already have but also work with the turquoise tub. You can see it better in the next pictures. (Update: It is from Target.)

Bathroom after: Painted Gold Buff (Olympic zero VOC paint), vintage lighting fixture and lightly used towel rack both purchased from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore installed, used eterge purchased from family member installed (not visible in the picture). The faucet is new, but we splurged for solid brass in hopes that it will last a lifetime.

Still to do: fix the things the picture doesn’t show–the cracked floor tiles need to be removed, proper flooring support added, and new flooring put in. The ceiling will need to be replaced. It was in bad shape from a past ceiling leak and our patch job is already falling apart because of the moisture.

See…the grossness can turn into something adorable! I look forward to sharing more with you.


9 Changes for 2009- #6 Laundry Detergent

  1. Cut out commercial breakfast bars
  2. Cut out canned beans
  3. Ditch premade hummus (and all those containers)
  4. Use only environmentally friendly dish detergent
  5. Shop Used First

  6. Use only environmentally friendly laundry detergent
    (my preference is homemade)

I’ve already blogged about homemade eco-friendly laundry detergent here (with additional pictures here). But now, four months into using it, I can report back that it works, it really works! We haven’t had any problems and that first batch I made has lasted us until now. As I get ready to whip up some more I am weighing reusing the milk jugs and hosing to siphon it in versus using a five-gallon lidded bucket from Home Depot. I’ve been on the search for a used bucket, but old ones seems to all have had paint or food in them previously, which I am not keen on. The thought of pickle-scented laundry soap makes me just ill.

For newcomers, here is a quick summary of why to consider eco-friendly laundry detergent:

Pretty much all conventional laundry detergents also contain phosphates and bleach, like dishwasher detergent does. (Read the issues with them here if you missed that post.) Most conventional laundry detergents also contain non bio-degradable, petroleum-based ingredients. I bet you picked up on the first problem right away: non bio-degradable. That means it doesn’t disappear when it goes down your drain. Realizing that water facilities simply cannot clean out every single thing from the water, and the fact that the stuff they do clean out has to be disposed of somehow was huge wake up call to me. Previously, it had really been out of sight—down the drain—and out of mind for me. But, that simply is not reality.

Then there is the big issue that petroleum is a non-renewable resource. I think we all know what that means since petroleum is hugely politically charged. Reducing American dependence on foreign oil is something we can hear on the news every single day, as are finding new places to drill and the ethics of if we should drill in those places.

Traditional detergents in the US also tend to contain ingredients that have already been banned overseas because of their impact to the environment or personal health, bleach, and artificial fragrances which may exacerbate allergies. (Remember that you can always look up the safety sheet for your favorite detergent here.)

In addition to checking out my previous entries, fellow blogger Kath has some interesting things to say about her experience with making laundry detergent. Check it out here.


9 Changes for 2009- #4 Dish Detergent

This entry is part of a series on changes I made in 2008 that I want to stick with in 2009…

  1. Cut out commercial breakfast bars
  2. Cut out canned beans
  3. Use only environmentally friendly dish detergent
    (homemade to boot)


    So question one is why an environmentally friendly detergent even matters, right? Most conventional dishwasher detergents contain phosphates and chlorine. Phosphates seriously impact our water supply by encouraging excessive algae growth which kills fish and plant life. Chlorine bleach is an environmental pollutant and it may cause immune and reproductive system problems. Now, I am not alarmist about many things, so the possible concern about bleach doesn’t faze me too much. But, the dangerous chemical reaction caused by bleach mixing with ammonia that we’ve all been warned about since we were kids is undoubtedly of concern. Ammonia is a more eco-friendly choice, so I’d just as soon stick with that one and keep out the bleach.

    Here’s what we did…

    We made our own. We started off by using a recipe from Green Clean of 1 part borax to 1 part washing soda. We put 1 heaping teaspoon of the mix in the release cup and vinegar in the rinse aid. We started off using 2 tablespoons of the dry mix, but that made the dishes cloudy, so we cut down until we got the right amount for our water. But, we were having issues with cloudiness and chunks of food remaining. So onto blend two…

    Our second attempt was 3 parts baking soda to 1 part borax along with the vinegar in the rinse aid compartment. With this mix you use just as much as you would with a conventional powdered detergent. I read the instructions for the dishwasher to refresh my memory, and it turns out that we’ve long been putting in too much: the lowest line on the cup is ample for normal loads. We also add 2 drops of essential oil per load on top of the dry mix. Generally I use tea tree oil, which has natural anti-bacterial properties, but if I’ll be in the kitchen I’ll put in a smell I really love, like bergamot or sweet orange, since the scent will be released in the steam that comes out of the machine.

    We’ve stuck with this second blend for many months now. I use an old 32 oz yogurt container to mix the powder (measure and dump in, put lid on, then shake to mix). I only need to make up a new batch every other month or so.

    I will be perfectly honest and say that we are still dealing with cloudiness. We’ve taken to wiping the dishes with a slightly damp cloth as we put them in the cabinet to fix this problem, but I know that cloudiness simply is unacceptable to some people. Some days it bothers me and I consider trying out Ecover or another similar green product, but most days I love that it is so much cheaper than anything else. My price per year is about the cost of a single box of brand name commercial dishwasher detergent. Even if we go to a commercial product, I am committed to staying away from dish detergents with phosphates or chlorine bleach.

    UPDATE: See my improved (dare I say, perfected) recipe here.


Green Secret Santa

The Secret Santa exchange at work was green-themed and I had loads of fun with my gifts. We gave reusable produce bags from Etsy (AMK Designs and then a homemade green cleaning kit than I made. I made everything in it, so I hoped the person who got it would appreciate it– and they did. Yay! My husband got a tiny pine tree that we can grow indoors until we have yard to plant it in and I got a coupon for my artsy coworker to do a sketch of any 4×6 picture I give her- awesome! Here is what I put in the kit:

Unpaper Towels
Use these handmade extra-thick cloths for cleaning or as napkins. The small size is to encourage you to do one-use-and-wash, just like you’d use a paper towel one-use-and-toss.

Kitchen Cleaner
This castile cleaner is great for dealing with greasy stains (normally found in the kitchen) but it can be used anywhere in the house. I’ve added some tea tree oil which has antiseptic properties. The hot water melts the shaved castile soap in the dry mix, but you only need to add it once. Give the bottle a good shake before each use to remix everything. This mix will last indefinitely. The recipe on your bottle comes from the book Green Clean. Your bottle holds 1½ batches.

Bathroom Cleaner
Because of the vinegar content this blend is great for dealing with mildew normally found in the bathroom but it can be used anywhere in the house. I’ve added some tea tree oil which has antiseptic properties. The hot water initially added melts the shaved castile soap in the dry mix, but you only need to add it once. Give the bottle a good shake before each use to remix everything. This mix will last indefinitely. The recipe on your bottle comes from the book Green Clean. Your bottle holds 1½ batches.

Liquid Laundry/Dishwasher Detergent
Give the container a good shake before each use to remix everything. Use 1/4 cup per load in a traditional washing machine, 1/8 cup in a high efficiency. If you are especially brave, use 1/8 cup per load in the dishwasher. Put white vinegar in the rinse aid compartment. You can add two drops of essential oil to the soap cup along with the mix, and when it opens during washing it will fill your kitchen with the smell of the essential oil.

Hand-Milled Mint Lather Soap Ball
This soap ball uses unscented, vegan, fair trade soap as its base along with super moisturizing natural oils. It can be used to cleanse over-dry skin, or instead of shaving cream during shaving, or as a shampoo. This recipe comes from the book Beautiful Handmade Natural Soaps: Practical Ways to Make Hand-Milled Soap and Bath Essentials.

Hand-Milled Milk and Honey Soap Bar
This soap ball uses vegan, fair trade soap as its base along with milk and honey and essential oils. It is great for bathing or washing hands. This recipe comes from the book Beautiful Handmade Natural Soaps: Practical Ways to Make Hand-Milled Soap and Bath Essentials.

Bath Bombs
Drop one of these into your bath and watch it fizz! The fizzing ingredients clean you (and do good things for your hair cuticles if you’re laying back in the water) while releasing a light scent. Yellow is sweet orange; green is eucalyptus, tea tree, citron; blue is bergamot. This recipe comes from the book Beautiful Handmade Natural Soaps: Practical Ways to Make Hand-Milled Soap and Bath Essentials.

Reusable Shopping Bag
Okay, okay I didn’t make this one. Keep a stash of reusable bags in the car with you so they are always on hand. Use them for groceries as well as retail shopping. If possible, keep them in the front seat of your car so you can always see them. It takes some time to get in the habit, but is worth it! As a fun added bonus, several grocery stores give a 5 cent credit per bag you bring.


Laundry Soap Close Up

Close up picture of the soap separation. This will begin even as you move it from the pan to storage. A good stir (or shake, in my case) will remix it.

Homemade Laundry Soap

Left Image: Left jug is recently shaken and mixed.
Right jug is unshaken and has settled into soapy layer and watery layer
Right Image: When mixed right before use, the laundry soap is creamy and slightly bubbly

After trying several batches of dry laundry soap, my husband asked me to make a liquid one. The liquid/gel I made is #1 from this great website, Tip Nut. We are very happy with the way the soap works. We now use it for all of our laundry and have successfully used it at all wash temperatures. The three dry recipes we tried were Tip Nut #4, Tip Nut #9, and a mix of half borax and half washing soda. While the dry ones all seemed to work equally well, my husband prefers liquids laundry soap/detergent. Since he does the laundry, I am happy to whip up whatever works best for him!

In my pictures you can see that I have the laundry soap in milk jugs. I do not recommend this unless you have hosing available to siphon the cooked soap from the pot through the slim necks of the jugs. Since my husband homebrews, we did have a suitable plastic tube, but this ended up being messy, frustrating, and time consuming as the liquid congealed into a gel. Stick with a bucket! The soap will separate and requires stirring or shaking before use to remix the water (which will settle) and the soap gel (which will float). In the picture on the left, the left jug is recently shaken and mixed, the right jug shows the settling and separation.

n.b., Homebrewing husbands may not be thrilled with such use of said tubing since soap makes beer go flat. Eeek!


Why in the world I would make my only laundry soap? For us, there are four answers to this:

Environment – Environmentally, making my own laundry soap is a good choice because it doesn’t require an endless cycle of new packaging production, shipping, and disposal/recycling. Also, most commercial liquid detergents have petrochemicals in them. Not only are petrochemicals bad for the water supply, but they use petroleum which is a non-renewable resource and is so very politically charged right now. Here is a link on Dr. Bronner’s Soap (eco-friendly, organic, and fair trade) which is the soap I use in my cleansers and laundry soap: here.
This site lists many names for petrochemicals that you might see in the ingredients list of your soap/detergent (should the manufacturer actually disclose what is in their product).

Health – My husband has contact dermatitis so artificial fragrances are bad for his skin. The artificial colors, scents, and additives in most commercial detergents are of concerns to many people. Personally, this is an area that I approach with caution, but am not alarmist over. Look up your favorite detergent here so you can make a decision about what is best for your home.

Cost – Making laundry soap is dirt cheap. Though I personally have not calculated the cost, others who use similar recipes cite $0.03 per load. For me, the low cost is just an added bonus to the more important reasons above.

Fun – For me, stuff like this is an enjoyable hobby that yields a usable result just like cooking, homebrewing beer, etc. I find it fun and I like the whole “science in action” aspect.


Paper Towel Alternative

Eight months ago we decided to phase out paper towels in our house and switch to one-use-and-wash cloth towels. To maximize the eco-friendliness of this move, we wanted to repurpose something that we already had rather than go and buy a new cloths from the store. Enter my husband’s old, holey T-shirts.

I started by cutting down each side seam, then cutting out the sleeves. With the shirt in more manageable chunks I was able to start cutting it into useable pieces. I decided that I wanted each cloth to be the size of 1/2 paper towel. This size is big enough for most clean-up jobs, but small enough that we aren’t tempted to reuse them (and thus spread harbored bacteria).

Storing the cloths in discreet way was important to me. I didn’t think a big wad of rags, even clean ones with a noble purpose, would encourage my husband to stick with it. So, I decided to use a small canister. While it is easy enough to just lob the cloths in there, I like a more streamlined approach. I stack all of the cloths, then invert the pile and push it in the canister so that just one cloth is visible (like how a box of tissues is packaged). That way I can grab one cloth without taking seven others out.

Once a cloth is used, it goes in an open plastic basket in the laundry room. Note that the holding area must be an open container (and be sure your wet cloth isn’t balled up when it goes in) otherwise you will end up with a seriously stagnant stench. Blech!

In our house, white cloths are for kitchen jobs and they can get washed with any towel load. Any cloth made of colored or patterned cloth is for outside or bathroom cleaning. They have their own separate basket in the laundry room and get washed by themselves. (If you use cloth diapers or pads you could add these to that load). Honestly, I don’t know if laundry cross-contamination is a legitimate concern or not, but I’d rather not risk it.

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Saving With Green Cleaning and Beauty

For beauty and cleaning supplies, if you simply replace traditional commercial products with commercial eco-friendly products it really will hit you hard. You have to go into the green with a mentality of consuming and buying less.

One-for-one product replacement misses the point of going green since even the eco-friendly commercial products still come in plastic bottles, require shipping, and generate waste (or need to be recycled which uses energy).

Here are some ideas that might be worth trying: Can you use olive oil instead of lotion? Can you shampoo half as much as you do now? Can you make your own cleaning supplies for cheaper (with the added bonus of less packaging)? Can you buy castile soap in bulk and then use it for many things (from cleaning your home to cleaning your face)? Can you use baking soda instead of deodorant (just rub a generous pinch into each pit)?

Now, let’s move onto green cleaning specifically. I suggest reading the books Green Clean and Organic Housekeeping if you are serious about this kind of cleaning. OH talks about the science of cleaning and how it works (which makes you feel that you really can clean organically, if you are doing the right things) and gives some recipes. GC gives lots of recipes and is more anecdotal in tone.

Here are some common ingredients and where I found them (in Northern Virginia).

Washing Soda
If your grocery store doesn’t have washing soda then request it! Barring that, you can get washing soda at Amazon or look for “PH Up” at a pool supply store. Get it for hot tubs and not pools as the pool kind tends to have other things added. Another place to look is an aquarium store since fish tanks need to have their PH changed. You want it to say 100% sodium carbonate on the label. It is also known as soda ash. It will be quite pricey at a pool store, though. I paid $8 for 1 pound at a pool store before I found it at a grocery store where it was $3 for 4 pounds.

I found borax at Wal-Mart in the laundry aisle. The brand I’ve seen at several places is called 20 Mule Team. It is also available on Amazon.

Fels Naphtha Soap
I haven’t been able to find Fels Naptha Soap locally. Amazon sells it by the bar or in a package of thirty bars.

Instead, I decided to go with Dr. Bronner’s which they sell at Whole Foods. This will make a much milder product than the Fels Naphtha would. I currently am using the unscented/baby variety.

Most dry recipes call for grated soap, so I used our food processor to grate it into a chunky powder which I store in a jar.

Baking Soda
Baking soda in normal quantities can be found at any grocery store. I think I got my 4 lb box of baking soda at Wal-Mart in the laundry aisle. At work they have a twelve pound resalable bag of baking soda (probably from Costco), which I covet.

White vinegar can be found at any grocery store. The longer your jug lasts you, the longer between consuming plastic bottles, so the bigger the better!

Storage Jars & Spray Bottles
All of our dry cleaning mixes are stored reused jars. Containers that cannot be recycled are particularly good for this since otherwise they would just go in the trash. (We have a few #7 plastic ones.) Our spray bottles are from Wal-Mart and Dollar Tree. Some people save the spray bottles from commercial cleaning products to refill with their new homemade cleaners. Personally, I am hesitant to do this.


Non-Food Products Grocery Savings

    Cleaning Supplies

    Moving to the dirt cheap organic homemade cleaners is cutting our costs, for sure (see green clean tagged posts). There just are a few basic, cheap ingredients required. Baking soda and vinegar are readily available and cheap. Borax is also readily available once I started looking for it (also cheap). Soda Ash/Washing Soda/Sodium Carbonate (three names for the same thing) was hard to find at first. From a pool supply store I bought Hot Tub PH Up which is the same thing with a fancier name (not to be confused with Pool PH Up which contains other things). It was rather pricey $8 for 1 pound. After awhile, though, I was able to find it in the local grocery store at 3 pounds for $2.49. A much better price!

    I suggest the books Green Clean, and Organic Housekeeping: In Which the Nontoxic Avenger… to get started on green cleaning. They will tell you how to do it and why conventional products aren’t all they are cracked up to be. (Be extra cheap and check your library for them instead of buying them.)

    Laundry & Dish Soaps & Detergents

    Take a look at your soaps and detergents. Are they concentrated or say use one third less or similar? If so, the good news is that your product probably uses less packing than traditional ones. Yay! The downside is that in reality it is hard to use one third less. How exactly one can use one-third of a squirt of dish soap is a mystery to me. In this case, just be aware that your soap is super-concentrated and overusing it is literally putting money down the drain. So, stick to just one light squirt or add water into the bottle and shake to thin the soap out.

    Soap & Shampoo & Razors

    As for soap and shampoo, I always put them on my birthday and Christmas wish lists. Yes, that sounds strange, but hang with me…while my family thinks giving normal soap, etc. is lame, they are just fine with getting me fancy ones from Lush or the like. I am loaded up on fancy soap for probably two years after this past Christmas! Same thing with shampoo. While I am fine with cheap shampoo, my mom thinks it is girly-fun to buy me special shampoos. I go with it ;) I haven’t bought razors in years. I either get them as stocking stuffers or I also take advantage of “free after rebate” razor offers in the weekend coupons.

    Ladies Only

    If menstrual products seem expensive to you, consider a Diva Cup (about $25 for 10 years worth of no tampons is a beautiful thing to some people). Want to go even more hardcore cheap? If you are crafty and have scrap fabric, make cloth pads or liners (you can also buy cloth pads from Etsy). If this stuff is not your style, that is A-OK with me. I’m just the idea lady!