A 2-Year Experiment in Eco Living: What Works, What Doesn’t

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Susan Carpenter, also known as The Realist Idealist blogger for the Los Angeles Times, has been experimenting with solar panels, gray-water systems and chickens for two years. The budget-minded consumer takes stock of what worked and what didn’t in her quest to reduce her family’s footprint and conserve precious resources.

She has divided her projects into two categories: “Worth it” and “Second Thoughts.”

Worth it

• Grey Water: In August 2008 Susan retrofitted the plumbing on her laundry machine to send its gray water onto her landscape. Over the last two years, that simple switch has sent 9,720 gallons to passion fruit vines instead of the sewer, and it required only one change to her usual routine. She had to swap laundry detergents because her usual brand, like many, contained salt and other ingredients that kill plants.

Cost: $1,988 ($312 for the laundry-to-landscape plumbing, $1,676 for bathtub and bathroom sink tie-in)

• Solar Power: Photovoltaic systems pay off most quickly for consumers who use a lot of energy because tiered rates impose a penalty for heavy use, but solar electric still makes sense for low-energy users such as Susan.

Using less electricity means she can get by with a smaller, less expensive photovoltaic system that not only covers her use but also produces a credit on her power bill. Going solar also meant her house was upgraded with a time-of-use meter. This type of meter allows her to receive credit for the electricity she generates during peak hours when electricity costs the most, but pay the least for the electricity during off-peak hours, when she recharges her cellphone and laptop and perform other tasks requiring power.

Cost: $5,939 ($11,564, minus a $3,898 DWP rebate and a $1,727 federal tax credit)

• Rain Barrels: Having lived with rain barrels for a year, Susan has learned that their small size makes them manageable and affordable. The water they catch isn’t stored only for summer use. It can be drained in between rains to water nearby plants. An added perk: reducing storm-water runoff to the ocean.

Cost: $500 ($300 for rain barrels, $200 for installation and parts)

• Earth Works: Rainwater isn’t only a resource. It’s also a potential pollutant if it runs off property onto pavement, picking up fertilizers and automotive fluids that are washed, unfiltered, into the ocean.

To prevent her home’s contributions to runoff, which could be as much as 10,000 gallons per year, according to L.A.’s Bureau of Sanitation, she’s sculpted my landscape to retain as much rainwater as possible.

Cost: Not easy to determine because it was part of a larger landscape project, but for DIYers, potentially free

Second Thoughts

• Water Wall: The Waterwall was expensive, and installation was a nightmare. It’s an excellent idea that simply wasn’t worth the money for a person of Susan’s means. If California’s drought persists and water prices start going through the roof, she’s likely to change her attitude. But so far, the $4,078 she has spent to store 634 gallons of water she could have bought from the city for about $3 is an embarrassment, particularly with so many ways to conserve.

Cost: $4,078 ($2,300 for two walls, plus $944 for shipping and taxes, plus $834 for installation)

• Edible Landscaping: Having transitioned her low-water ornamental landscape to edibles, she’d say this is a project for people with time, money and a love of gardening and cooking. It isn’t a job for single mothers with high-stress jobs who’d rather not spend their precious down time watering, pulling weeds and bringing in their harvest.

Cost: Outrageous

• Composting Toilet: The final frontier of green living, the composting toilet is a low-tech option. There are a surprising number of commercial composting toilets on the market that look nice, cost a fortune and can’t handle heavy use, which is why she went with something called a Separett. Developed in Sweden, it’s a piece of plastic foam that looks like a toilet seat except it’s outfitted with two holes — yes, No. 1 and No. 2. Each empties into its own 5-gallon bucket she accesses through a trap door on the side of her house.

Susan admits, as committed as she is to living green, this is not a system she uses all the time. In fact, she uses it rarely, and only for No. 1

Cost: $627 ($127 for Separett, $500 for construction labor and materials to convert built-in cabinet to toilet)

• Chickens: This is one of the projects she was most excited about and one that’s turned out to be among her biggest failures. After buying a chicken coop, feed and hens procured through L.A. Animal Services, she got only four eggs.

L.A. may be a sprawling metropolis, but it isn’t devoid of wild animals. Some people have coyotes. She has possums and raccoons, which breached her coop and gobbled down her ladies. Even after raccoon-proofing and trying again, the coop was ransacked again and a second set of chickens disappeared.

Cost: $530 for coop, feed and chickens

In the end, she found the easiest fixes were installing a laundry line, changing her diet to eat less dairy and meat, composting and recycling. All things we’re very well acquainted with here at Re-Nest.

Please share your own experiences in the comments section below.