Columbia family gets expert advice on being environmentally friendly

Saturday, April 24, 2010 | 8:31 p.m. CDT; updated 3:04 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 29, 2010

COLUMBIA — When it comes to living a lifestyle that's kind to the environment, we all could use a little expert help now and then.

We visited one Columbia family's home and brought along two guys who spend most of their time teaching others about living sustainably.

The experts

Mike Heimos is a stormwater educator with the city's Public Works Department. He also used to work with Columbia's recycling program.

Ben Datema is the student sustainability coordinator with the MU Sustainability Office. He founded the Mizzou Dashboard project to raise awareness of energy usage.

The family under the microscope

Both men visited Jay and Amber Sparks, a local couple raising two sons: Jameson, 3, and Eli, 1.

Amber is a coordinator for Opportunities in a Professional Education Network Initiative, and Jay is a bartender at McNally's and the co-founder of the Brickwall Film Competition.

The Sparks said they do what they can to keep their household environmentally friendly but have found some lifestyle changes harder to maintain now that they have two toddlers.

Heimos and Datema looked at how the Sparks family lives and gave advice for simple changes that would make their home more efficient.

We looked at what the Sparks do right and where they needed improvement. Here's what you can learn from the Sparks and the experts.

Energy Use

What they’re doing already: The Sparks try to be mindful of energy usage. They keep their thermostat set low and use space heaters to warm only the rooms they’re in. They've also weatherized their house to promote heating and air conditioning efficiency. Their windows are double paned and their doors have weather strips, both of which prevent warm or cool air from escaping.

What else they could be doing: The family leaves electronics such as their television plugged in even when they’re not in use. Datema said this creates "phantom load," which is energy consumed by devices when they’re turned off but still plugged in. He suggested plugging electronics into a power strip, which would require less effort to unplug when electronics aren’t being used. Datema also said there are “smart” power strips, which sense which electronic devices are not in use and turn them off.

Additionally, Datema said heaters are usually one of the biggest sources of energy use in a home. Different heating units vary in efficiency, so he suggested using a device that measures energy usage to determine whether it's best to use a heater that heats the entire house or space heaters limited to occupied rooms.

Finally, Datema said, weatherizing homes is an easy way for any household to save energy and to keep down heating and air conditioning costs. He recommended the Sparks improve their home’s energy efficiency by looking at the insulation in their roof and around their water heater.

Because the Sparks’ water heater is in their garage, he suggested wrapping a blanket around it, which he said "protects the hot water from the cold outside." Using a blanket to insulate the heater would lessen the energy needed to heat water and ultimately save money on the Sparks’ gas bill.


What they’re doing already: The Sparks reuse and donate clothes and toys from their children. They also only get bags from the grocery store if they know they will use them for another purpose, such as for art projects or storage. Additionally, the Sparks participate in Blue Bag Recycling, a city program that collects recyclables in designated blue bags at curbside.

Heimos said the fact that the Sparks do not buy bottled water goes a long way to prevent waste because of all the excess packaging and the petroleum that’s used to make the bottles.

What else they could be doing: During his visit, Heimos went through the Sparks’ trash and pulled out a milk carton and a plastic cup that could be recycled. He also listed items such as pizza boxes and plastic trays in frozen dinners that many people don’t realize can be recycled. The city provides a list of what’s recyclable on the Blue Bag program Web page.

Heimos also let the Sparks know about Household Hazardous Waste collection program available to residents the first and third Saturdays of each month from April to November. Residents can take hazardous materials such as motor oil and batteries from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on collection days to the collection facility at 1313 Lakeview .

Pollution Prevention

What they’re doing already: The Sparks clean with products that are low in or free of harmful chemicals when they can, but sometimes environmentally friendly products don’t fit their budget. Additionally, sometimes using these products has an environmental trade off. Jay said the phosphate-free dishwasher detergent they used to buy clogged their dishwasher. The plumber who fixed it told him they would need to run the water at a much higher temperature to break down that kind of detergent, so the Sparks have found that in some cases, they face a dilemma with finding the least harmful practice.

What else they could be doing: Datema pointed out that some household items such as baking soda can also be used to clean without taking the same toll on the environment as traditional cleaning products.

Heimos suggested that if the Sparks cut their lawn to no lower than 4 inches, the grass would grow more lush without chemicals, and that thickness would lessen the amount of pollution that runs into streams.

Finally, Heimos suggested all homeowners be mindful of what they put near storm drains. Everything that goes into these drains ends up in local rivers and streams, and causing pollution runoff or clogging them with litter can affect local drinking water. Even leaves and grass clippings can harm storm drains and are the cause of most flooding, Heimos said.

Water conservation

What they’re doing already: The Sparks only run their dishwasher and washing machine when they have full loads. They also have low-flow toilets and shower heads and do not use sprinklers on their yard in the summer.

What else they could be doing: Heimos suggested that the Sparks consider investing in a rain barrel. He said most rain barrels can be filled in a matter of minutes during a heavy rain, and the water can be used for plants.

Heimos also encouraged the Sparks to continue their habit of not using sprinklers to water their lawn. He said  grass goes dormant in the summer, so using sprinklers only wastes fresh water and raises utility bills.

Final advice

The one piece of advice both experts repeated the most is to be aware that nobody will ever perfect the sustainable lifestyle.

"It's all about practicality," Datema said. He advocates taking a balanced approach to environmental living: minimizing harm and working to support the environment.

The Sparks family lives by the policy of letting simple lifestyle choices add up to a more sustainable way of life.

“It’s a balancing act between being real and being ideal," Jay said.

The lifestyle change

The Sparks family has used what they learned from Heimos and Datema to change their mentality toward sustainability issues. Amber said when she walks into a room now, she often checks for appliances that can be unplugged and she is more likely to put extra effort into doing small tasks such as washing out jars so they can be recycled.

Amber also said the family has been recycling more now that they have a better idea of what can be recycled, and they have followed Heimos' advice to mow their lawn no shorter than 4 inches.

Amber said she and Jay had always been aware of environmental issues, but having children has made it harder for them to maintain an earth-friendly lifestyle. Though small changes such as recycling more and using less energy matter, the biggest change in the Sparks' lifestyle since Heimos and Datema visited is a renewed consciousness of the way little changes can add up to make a big difference.

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