How do we survive winter?

I suspect that most of our church can do without winter survival tips, but here we go. As a modest start, I’ve adapted a list of mostly inexpensive ideas from the Environmental Protection Agency’s site. These are small steps anyone can take, or at least explore.  We’ll have more ideas as the weeks go by—but for now, here are a few as starters:

  • Consider using non-toxic de-icing substances such as clean clay cat litter, sand, or fireplace/stove ash to avoid spreading hazardous waste from chemicals. Chemical de-icers can be harmful to pets, plants, and the environment. Antifreeze that leaks from car engines and chemical snow melters can pollute surface waters and groundwater.  It’s a good idea to try some safe alternatives.
  • Winterize your vehicle by checking your air filter and fluid levels, checking tires for tread wear and proper inflation, and checking the condition of your windshield wipers. Steps like these can increase safety, as well as prevent pollution when broken car components or escaping chemical waste end up on roadways.
  • If you have a wood-burning fireplace, save your ashes. Cold wood ashes make a great addition to compost, and eventually to the soil where we spread the compost.
  • Use electric snow removal products rather than gasoline-powered ones. Electric products do not emit greenhouse gases. Of course, if you don’t mind some winter exercise, snow shovels, ice crackers, and brooms work well and are even more ‘energy efficient!
  • If you have a manual thermostat or no thermostat at all, one way to save energy and money this winter is to install a programmable thermostat. The EPA estimates that this step can save about $100 a year for many homes. Many people also find programmable lights very useful and energy-efficient.
  • Close the recycling loop. When shopping for clothing, check for labels on jackets, scarves, gloves, and boots, to find items made from recycled materials. Many fleece products are made from recycled plastic soda bottles, and some clothing and shoe manufacturers use recycled cotton scraps and rubber tires.
  • Winter storms often cause power outages. Prevent waste by keeping rechargeable batteries rather than disposable ones for emergency use. If you do use disposable batteries, reduce hazardous waste by buying batteries with low mercury content. And once again (note added by Jen), candles can be a low-tech alternative, assuming they can be monitored and used safely.
  • Recycle old newspapers by making rolled paper logs for your fireplace. Roll newspaper sheets around a broomstick, then soak your paper ‘log’ thoroughly in water. Dry the log overnight and use it like ordinary wood. Always follow proper safety precautions with any fire, of course.
  • To make sure your heating system (boiler, furnace, or heat pump) is operating at its most efficient, it is a good idea to have regular servicing done before the serious cold weather sets in.

Winter De-Icing Tips

The salts that are easily bought as de-icers for our driveways and walks can damage soil, plants, water supplies, and pets. So it’s worth seeking other alternatives.

  • Shoveling early is energy-efficient and good exercise.
  • Snow-blowers (preferably electric or battery-powered) use energy, but do prevent icy buildup.
  • A “snowmelt mat” of underground heating wires may work for a new or rebuilt driveway.

For an eco-friendly substance to improve traction, consider sand or bird-feed over kitty litter or wood ashes, which leave messier residues. If you think ahead of the winter storms, consider using wood chips and straw to improve traction. If you feel the need to use chemicals, explore the choices.  Calcium magnesium acetate is touted for being environmentally friendly, but maybe less effective at very low temperatures; urea is less damaging to pets, but possibly more harmful to plants.  In any case, less is probably best for any chemical solution.

For a chart listing properties of a range of de-icers, please check this out. For some really safe alternatives, the Farmer’s Almanac recommends unconventional choices:  these include an alfalfa meal and a concoction made from sugar beet juice.  While looking for solutions new to many of us, I recently located a ‘recipe’ for de-icing a car that’s been encased in winter ice:  two-thirds vinegar, mixed with one-third water, applied with a re-purposed spray bottle.

Jen Fontaine

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