Free light bulbs from Mass Save

I received a bunch of free CFL and LED bulbs from MassSave as a blogger. I was very clear that I was going to say what I wanted, not necessarily nice things. I held up my end of the bargain, as you’ll see below.

MassSave is a great program which offers “free” energy audits to MA residents and

CFL samples Mass Save sent.

Some of the CFL samples Mass Save sent.

commercial property owners. Non-profit entities are not eligible for most services. (“Free” is in quotes because the funding comes from all of our energy bills, so we have, in fact, paid for the service. That’s fine and good in my book.)

If you haven’t had a free audit, go sign up for one, now. Go, I’ll wait. Done? Good. (If your last audit was four years ago, do it again. They’ve improved dramatically.)

Some of the sample bulbs Mass Save sent.

Some of the sample LED bulbs Mass Save sent.

They’ll look at your home, hopefully use a blower door (as HEET does) to find leaks and measure how much energy you’re losing, and tell you what you can do to save energy through air sealing, insulation, water and electricity conservation. They’ll do some amount of work for free, provide significant rebates for other work, and give you free energy saving light bulbs.

Good people – replace your bulbs. If you can do it for free, even better. Do NOT wait until your incandescent bulbs blow, this just wastes money. Throw away the old incandescent bulbs.

You probably already know that according to Consumer Reports and a gazillion other sources “It usually takes less than a year to recoup the cost of most CFLs….” It takes even less time to recoup the cost if they’re free.

Or, according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, “About 10 percent of the energy your home uses going to lighting costs. Replacing 15 traditional [incandescent] light bulbs with energy-saving bulbs will save you $50 a year and more than $600 in energy costs over the life of the bulb.” Imagine if those 15 bulbs came to you free from a Mass Save audit. (You signed up above already, right?)

The bulbs provided during the audit (assuming they match what I was given) are good,

Greenlite 8 watt LED

Greenlite 8 watt LED

some are even great. My favorites were, no surprise, the LEDs. In particular the Greenlite 8 watt dimmable LED has stood out as I’ve played with these over the past few months. I’ve used it in recessed cans, desk lights, etc. and the light it produces is great.

The most frequent complaint about CFL and LED bulbs is that the light they provide is ugly. Accustomed to cheap incandescent bulbs, people buy the least expensive CFL they can find, discover it gives terrible light in their kitchen, and swear them all off entirely. That is also in part because they didn’t use the correct color bulb for the lighting situation.


First off, all the CFL bulbs MassSave sent me were Energy Star rated. Why is that important? In order to gain the Energy Star label they have to meet strict quality standards. (LED bulbs do not have Energy Star ratings yet.)

If a CFL bulb isn’t Energy Star rated, then even though they might be in the color range of incandescent bulbs (around 2700 Kelvin), their Color Rendering Index may or may not be terrible. They might last a long time, or they might fizzle quickly. They may get bright right away or they might take five minutes to warm up. Without the Energy Star label you just don’t know.

 About the bulbs

Some of the bulbs they sent me are not great, but most were fine to excellent.

Be honest: Can you tell the color difference?

Be honest: Can you tell the color difference? (A CFL, a LED and an incandescent screw into a fixture….)

The bulbs MassSave sent me all fall in the 2700K range (“warm” bulbs), a color appropriate for a bathroom vanity or dining table fixture. Use that same CFL or 2700K incandescent on your work bench and you’re likely to find it annoying. That’s not the fault of the bulb, that’s because it’s the wrong bulb for the job.

Remember, the higher the Kelvin rating, the “cooler” the color. Get a 5000K bulb for your living room and watch your walls turn blue, if that’s what you like. I don’t, but I do like high K bulbs in my work areas, including my kitchen counter.

So have MassSave do an audit of your home, get your free bulbs, but make sure all the CFLs are Energy Star rated. In a few days, if you decide some are too yellow or too dim for that specific location, use the money you’re about to save on your energy bill from the bulbs they did give you to buy bulbs with the correct color temperature, preferably an LED.

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Storm Prep


It’s been a while since our last storm, so a few quick reminders about safety related to energy efficiency. Remember, our safety personnel will likely have their hands full with other emergencies – let’s do them a favor by avoiding some of these basic hazards.

1. Clear direct vents: If you have a “direct venting” appliance such as a boiler or hot water heater, make sure the vents stay clear of snow. The vents are only a few feet off the

Typical direct vent exhaust as seen from outside the house.

Typical direct vent exhaust as seen from outside the house.

ground, so snow drifts can sometimes get in the way, especially if you’ve put anything under the vent. (Hint: Don’t put anything under the vent.)

If blocked, the CO from combustion will go into the home rather than outside. CO is known as a silent killer because there is no smell. Check the vent periodically throughout the storm.

2. Dryer vents: The same holds true for dryer vents – if snow or ice is blocking them they won’t function safely. In the case of a dryer this can lead to additional problems, like burning your house down. Until that happens, it can also dramatically rise the amount of time it takes to dry clothing, which wastes energy.

3. CO monitor: You’ve got CO monitors, right? They’re inexpensive and are required by law. For superior CO monitors that go beyond the standard Kidde models, visit the CO Experts (they’re legit, even if their website is terrible) or ProTech Safety. These detect lower amounts of CO than the typical models.

4. “Ventless” Fireplaces: In short, don’t use these, ever. The idea that you can burn a fuel without the need to vent burnt gasses outside the home is, to my mind, criminal. These aren’t candles or incense folks, these are burning gas. For an excellent article on this see here.

5. Miscellaneous other: Of course there are other things you should do to prepare for the storm including hoarding ingredients for french toast, pulling the sofa cushions off into a pile for a fort and these other suggestions from the Red Cross.

Have other efficiency-related safety tips for the storm? Please add them in the comments.

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Wicked cold: What’s up with that?

The thermometer says it is wicked cold outside, it seems appropriate to address a few questions that always come up this time of year. Please add any questions you may have in the comments below.

Q. When I open my cabinet door I get a blast of cold air. What’s up with that?

A. While there is always a chance that you’ve got a leak behind any cabinet, built-in dresser, closet, etc., the more likely reason is that you’ve got no heat source behind that door. Your kitchen is (hopefully) comfortably warm, and there’s no need to waste energy heating your pasta & cereal.

Q. My basement is freezing – at least 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the house. What’s up with that?

A. Assuming your basement is unfinished, this is just the way it goes. Your exposed foundation (likely either poured concrete or fieldstone) acts as a thermal bridge, bringing the warm indoor air out. Unless and until you insulate that foundation wall (remember to cover with a fire barrier) you’ll continue to lose heat this way. If you look around the outside of your home after a snow you’ll likely see that there is no snow immediately adjacent to your foundation. That’s because heat seeped through the wall and melted that snow.

If the temperature starts to dip near the freezing mark it may be time to take some precautionary action, and make darn sure to air seal that basement once it gets warm enough for caulk/foam to cure properly.

Q. I’ve got condensation on my windows. That means I’m going to get mold and my family will die a horrible death, right? What’s up with that?

A. This really requires a longer answer but no, it is most likely not a problem requiring hazmat teams. The condensation/frost on your windows is pretty simple: your home is humid and the windows are very cold. It’s not your window’s fault – windows are terrible insulators.

Try to keep your home’s humidity between 30-50%. This means shut off the humidifier, run your kitchen and bath exhaust fans when cooking/bathing, and for 10-20 minutes after you’re done.

Even with that, you’ll likely see some condensation – it’s that kind of cold today.

Have more questions? Ask in the comments below, or shoot me an email at:

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Pumpkin recycling

Every Halloween we see a lot of good rotting flesh go to waste. That’s right, pumpkins tossed into the trash.

A trash can and a sign and you're good to go

In Arlington we’re not allowed to put pumpkins in with the yard waste, so they often go in the garbage. This costs the town more in “tipping fees,” a fee calculated by weight, not volume. Pumpkins are, of course, heavy.

So what if after the holiday, the neighborhood pumpkins all came to you for composting, perfect to mix with the fallen leaves? (Leaves are carbon-rich, or “browns”. Pumpkins are nitrogen-rich, or “green”. You need both for rich compost.)

This Halloween put up a sign telling visitors that after the holiday you’ll take their pumpkins, with certain limitations. You’ll be building great compost, saving the town money, and letting the kids know that their “used pumpkins” will replenish the yard or garden.

I made a very quick sign, as a sample or for use as-is: Pumpkin Recycling Station flyer.

Smashing the pumpkins with a shovel or something else will help them decompose much faster and is highly recommended. You can even lay out a tarp and have neighborhood kids crush them (stomping, sticks, whatever) and serve cider, turning it into a neighborhood event, if you’re ambitious.

Send us photos of your haul and any celebrations!

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Solarize Arlington

If, dear reader, you live in Arlington and have considered going solar then please read this.

Ryan Katofsky, Arlington’s “Solar Coach,” will be speaking Thursday, May 31 about the discounts available for solar installation. Whether you’ve considered buying or renting PV panels, wondered what it would really take to make it happen or are only considering it now for the first time, you should go to this event.

Full details in the letter below.

Dear Friends,

As you may have heard, Arlington is among 17 communities selected to participate in the 2012 Solarize Massachusetts (Solarize Mass) Program, which helps residents and business owners adopt solar photovoltaic (PV) technology. To encourage participation in the program, discounted pricing will be offered by a state-approved PV installer, with the discount increasing as more homes and businesses sign up to go solar. If you are interested (and I hope you are), please attend the “Solar 101” public meeting at Town Hall on Thursday, May 31, at 7:00pm. At this meeting you will be able to:

  • Learn about solar power basics and the Solarize Mass price discount
  • Hear about affordable lease and purchase options
  • Meet your local Solarize Mass representatives

If you cannot make the meeting, you can learn more about the program and sign up to participate by going to or by calling the MassCEC at 617.315.9306. You can also follow @MassCEC on Twitter for Solarize Mass updates.

Even if it turns out that your home is not suitable for solar power, this is still a great opportunity to learn more about Solarize Mass as well as other energy saving and renewable energy options that you may be able to take advantage of.

Thanks and hope to see you there.


Ryan Katofsky
Solar Coach for the Town of Arlington’s Solarize Mass program

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“Window replacement has a 200 to 300 year payback period”

That quote is from Michael Blasnik, who has been mentioned on this blog several times. The full article can be seen here.

I have the discussion with people all the time – people who insist that they’re going to save money over the long run by replacing their windows; people who insist they NEED to replace their windows. The reality, Blasnik says, is that payback is typically going to take 200-300 years.

Typical basement replacement window - 3/4" gap between sill and window.

There are, of course, many times that replacement windows will pay back sooner. For example, if your neighbor’s kid sends a ball through a window, I strongly encourage you to do something about it. If you are de-leading a home and the windows must go then the windows must go.

However, if you are feeling a draft from your window – do NOT get a new window for $400 or more. Instead spend $10 on some good v-seal (good stuff can be purchased at the Boston Building Resources, formerly Boston Building Materials Center, in Boston.) If that’s too much work, then pay someone $100 to do the work for you – you’ll still save $300 and likely more.

Why likely more? I say that because of all the replacement windows I’ve looked at, I have seen exactly one home where replacement windows were installed properly with flashing, exterior caulk, weep holes and minimally expanding foam.

So instead of getting replacement windows, spend $10 and use the rest for a month of really nice dinners at fancy restaurants… or just pocket the savings.

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Cheap is as cheap does

A quick post with a pic from travels this weekend. Cheap bulbs aren’t worth what you pay for them.

Cheap bulbs

These bulbs cost much more than what you pay to buy them.

These bulbs may not cost much but you’re goingkeep need to keep replacing them as they burn out. Until they do, you’ll be spending three times as much on electricity compared to CFLs and far more when compared to LEDs.


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Three types of people, three types of compost


NOTE: Each year Arlington holds an EcoFest where people gather to learn about various environmentally related issues. This year I was asked to discuss compost with people. Below is a version of what I will distribute at the event.

Beautiful black gold - finished and screened compost

“The beauty of compost is that it only needs to be as much of an art or science as we wish it to be. It’s like walking. You can train for a marathon or you can simply put one foot in front of the other, and eventually you will get where you need to be.” – Wayne Morris of Bloomingdale, N.Y.

There are at least three basic types of people who compost, each with their own method:

  1. Good Citizen Composter
  2. Garden Composter
  3. Compost Fanatic

The Good Citizen Composter and Garden Composter will both compost very similarly. To do either method requires the same basic steps:

  • Add all vegetable scraps and paper (tissues, paper napkins and paper towel) waste.
  • Add carbon-rich materials and mix. Carbon material (leaves, newspaper, hay, etc.) will both facilitate composting and keep smells down.
  • When full, start a new pile and within a year your first pile should be mostly decomposed.

If you’re a Good Citizen Composter that really is all you need to do. The finished product can be tucked under bushes, tossed into a back corner somewhere or given to a friend. You’re doing a great thing keeping waste from the incinerator and keeping garbage trucks from hauling that stuff around in 3 mpg trucks. Thank you!

If you’re a Garden Composter then you’ll want to do a few additional things:

  • Make sure materials you add to the compost unit are chopped small. You don’t need to cut up your paper napkins or chop a head of lettuce that’s gone bad, but if you’ve got vines in your garden, cut ‘em up so they decompose faster. Tall kale stalks at the end of the season? Chop it up. Your compost will do its thing faster, and you can get usable compost sooner.
  • Turn the pile. You don’t need to turn the whole thing at once. Turn as you add items, and every once in a while try to dig deeper to turn things. This can be done with a compost aerator tool or a four-pronged “cultivator” rake. For the daily mixing/turning I like the cultivator rake, which doesn’t require any strength or serious effort.

If you’re a Compost Fanatic you follow the same basic rules but you will need to work harder. In the winter of 2011/2012 I made three cubic yards (about $75 worth) of compost using this method:

Free, sanitary used coffee grounds. Plentiful, easily obtained almost anywhere.

  • Get free used coffee grounds from the local coffee shop as frequently as possible. Be nice to the staff and share some of your harvest.
  • Make sure you add at least 2 – 3 times as much carbon material as coffee grounds by volume (not by weight). Without this the pile will stink and you’ll produce ammonia, which is no good for plants or humans.
  • Turn frequently once it gets hot. Use an aerator tool, cultivating rake or a pitchfork, but turn often, daily if possible.
  • Watch the moisture. Once a pile gets hot, microbes need water – aim for “damp sponge” moisture level.
  • To help maintain the pile you’ll do well purchasing a compost thermometer for $30.
  • In short, actively seek out your nitrogen rich/carbon rich materials and add them as quickly as possible (in the appropriate proportions) to your pile.

You can see more information & lab analysis of compost I made with only coffee grounds & newspaper.


  • Anything vegetable (except walnuts or excessive amounts of oil) is fine.
  • Avoid all animals/animal products (eg, bones, meat scraps, cheese) in home composting, except egg shells.
  • Leaves are good. Shredded leaves are better – they break down faster and leave you with a finer compost.
  • Newspaper is good but shredded newspaper is better. Avoid glossy pages, inserts and (last checked in 2011) avoid local papers which sometimes use non-vegetable inks.
  • Don’t add sticks, they’ll only annoy you. Cork will not decompose in your child’s lifetime. Skip it.
  • Soak bread products in water until it is mushy – this makes it unattractive to rodents.

A special note on yard waste:
Grass clippings are a great item to add to compost, but for a few things:

  1. If you let the clippings fall on the yard, you’d avoid much of the need to add compost to your yard because the grass would decompose in place and nourish the lawn.
  2. The National Academy of Sciences found that homeowners commonly use more pesticides per acre than farmers. In large municipal piles the pesticides and herbicides should become inert – that is not necessarily true for small home compost.
  3. So if you’re using grass clippings, make sure they’re not treated with any toxic chemicals.

A special note on coffee grounds:
Used coffee grounds are free and full of nitrogen. They are very helpful in getting a compost to heat up quickly. Used coffee grounds are NOT ACIDIC, despite what generations of gardeners have said. The acid all washes off into the drink itself.

If you read online about how to make compost it can be very exciting and very confusing. Follow the advice above and you’ll be fine. Here are a few more pieces of useful information:

  • You can spend hundreds of dollars on fancy compost contraptions that may or may not work as well as ones you can get from the town for $40. Studies show that one cubic yard is the ideal size for getting a good hot compost – the town sells the New Age Composter Bin-24, which can be sized to one cubic yard.
  • You do NOT need to start with a full container of raw materials. Many web sites make it sound like you need to have all the materials on hand and dump them all in at once in order to make compost. That is not the case. Add as you gain materials or, if you want to make lots of compost fast, actively seek out materials (eg, coffee grounds and leaves) but there is no need to have everything on hand at once.
  • If your compost smells like ammonia, you’ve got too much nitrogen/not enough carbon. Add shredded leaves or newspaper and turn the pile, perhaps daily, for a few days.
  • If your compost smells like sewage it is too wet. Add dry materials (eg, shredded leaves or newspaper), turn frequently and try to prevent water from getting in (eg, cover the top.)
  • If you see ants in your compost it is too dry.
  • If you bring the kitchen compost container out daily you shouldn’t have any indoor odors.
  • No matter how finely you shred and no matter how much you turn, you’ll end up with some spots where materials didn’t break down. Toss those into the new compost pile and they’ll help get things cooking in no time.

“Finished compost” is almost a term of art. The finished compost from your back yard is great stuff but will look nothing like what you buy from the store. Why? Because the compost you buy in bags has been “screened” or sifted through wire mesh.

Finished and screened compost with 1/2" screen and 1/4" screen. Click image for larger version.

The quality of your finished, unscreened compost is just as good (often better) and can be used just like the stuff from the store, unless you’re spreading it on your lawn or making potting/seed starting soil.

If you want that fine composted product for your lawn or seedstarting, you can make a screen (AKA sifter) using scrap lumber and some “hardware cloth” (like chicken wire, but a square mesh) available at any hardware store. Using a ½” screen is good, but if you really want the look and feel (literally) of the stuff you get in a bag then do a ¼” screen. It isn’t easy to sift though, as finished compost is typically wet. Remember, if you’re going to want to screen your compost then try to make your life easier by adding only smaller, chopped items to the compost. This is especially true of the carbon materials.

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EcoFest in Arlington Saturday March 31

This guy makes sure the edibles grow.

This Saturday, March 31, Sustainable Arlington will host its annual EcoFest. This year the focus is on local food. Local in the sense of buying from a local farmer, and in the sense of growing it in your yard.

Heaping bowl of cherry tomatoes from the back yard? Yes please!

I’ve been asked to present on compost – not just my fast urban compost but for people who don’t want to spend the same time/effort I do to create three cubic yards over the winter. I’ve drafted a piece for “Good Citizen” and “Garden” composters that I’ll put online soon is online now. I’ll answer questions and provide tips. Please visit and hang out for a while.
The featured speaker this year is Charlie Radosolovich, also known as the Rad Urban Farmer. Some may also know him as the guy who had a plot in my yard for three years as part of his CSA, which uses land in people’s yards to grow food which gets distributed among the CSA members.

Saturday, March 31
10 am – 2 pm
Arlington Town Hall
Saturday, March 31 from 10 am – 2 pm in Town Hall


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Q-Lon Training for Team Leaders

This Sunday, March 18 at 9 am we’ll hold another Q-Lon training for Team Leaders/potential Team Leaders in East Arlington. There will be people from HEET groups around the area learning how to install our favorite door air-sealing kit.

If you’ve thought about becoming a Team Leader for any of the HEET groups and want to attend Sunday please send an email to

If you can’t make it but want to learn the PROPER way to install Q-Lon, I’ve written up instructions with photos.

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