A few of my favorite things . . . .

I made a goal to post every day just recently, but I have tons of work today (my day job, gardening, canning and being a mom) and I can’t seem to focus enough to write anything coherent. So, I will just leave you with a photograph of my new favorite, best ever, wickedly delicious treat:

retail-chocolate_bourbon-nib-brittle_01

TheSmartMama’s Guide to Surviving an Emergency – Turning off the Gas

thSo we have now lived at the Land of Fruits and Nuts for a year.  Moving to the Land of Fruits and Nuts has resulted in a drastic change in my outlook.  Just dealing with the abundant harvest on 6 acres has driven me to learn to preserve the harvest – pickling, canning, dehydrating and more.  Trying to learn to preserve the harvest ultimately lead me in my research to a number of homesteading and doomsday prepping websites.  And that lead me to wanting to be much more self sufficient.

To the consternation of my husband. Who walked into our house after being gone for work for a week to a demand for a solar generator and more ammo.

But, that was somewhere in the middle of my journey and I didn’t blog about it.  I’ve been so caught up in gardening and preserve and chasing crows that I only recently woke up and realized I hadn’t blogged for ages.

Oh well.

Now it is a new year and we just had what I’ve dubbed our survival Santa Christmas. And I thought I would start blogging about my emergency preparedness tactics and tricks in 2014.  Because one of my resolutions for 2014 is to be more prepared for emergency situations.

First things first, I live in earthquake country, and knowing how to turn off your gas supply is critical.  Of course, only turn off the gas at the meter if you smell gas, hear gas leaking or have other signs of a leak, and only if it is safe to do so.  But EVERYBODY in the house should know how to do it, including your kids (of course, if they are old enough).

So, yesterday, on January 1, 2014, I disrupted the Minecraft games to teach my kids (1) where the gas meter is located at our house; and (2) how to turn it off with a wrench.

Many homes  in Southern California (and I presume other areas prone to earthquakes) have natural gas seismic shut-off valves.  These valves automatically shut off the gas service when an earthquake of a sufficient magnitude occurs.   You could also have an excess flow valve – this valve automatically shuts off the gas service when a significant gas leak or overpressure surge occurs at a pipe or appliance located beyond the point where the valve is installed.

If you don’t have such a valve, then you do need to know where your gas meter is located and how to turn off the gas flow in the event of an emergency.   You gas meter may be located in a cabinet, under the house, next to the house or in an underground vault. Go find it.  Then, you will need a 12 inch wrench in your emergency supplies to turn off the gas flow

SafetyMeterhand

 

As you can see from the image, the gas flow is “on” when the valve is in line with the pipe, and it is “off” when the valve is cross wise to the pipe. Keep the wrench with your emergency supplies so you have it ready if you need to turn off the gas.

That’s it. Pretty easy. And  your kids should know how to do it – it may save their lives.

Buyer Beware – Junk Escrow Fees In Home Purchase

EscrowMy husband and I just sold our house and bought a new one. And boy did I learn a lot. Last time I was involved in a property purchase, I didn’t pay all that much attention to the documents. Yes, I read my loan documents and understood them and read the title, but I didn’t really pay much attention to the escrow stuff. Now being older with more experience, I did. And boy – one of our escrow companies really tried to rip us off with junk fees! So lesson learned – make sure you carefully review your escrow’s estimate of closing costs.

For some background, our sale and purchase were separate transactions – that is, we sold our house in one transaction and one escrow and purchased the other in a separate transaction with a separate escrow. Generally in California residential transactions, it seems that the seller picks the escrow company. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Your escrow company matters in terms of the fee being charged. With the house that we sold, the buyer wanted a specific escrow company, which was fine but we agreed on the maximum rate per $1,000 of purchase price that the escrow company could charge. And you can do this whether you are seller or buyer. It makes a big difference. On the house we sold, the escrow company charged us (and also the buyer) $1.00 per $1,000. However, on the house we bought, the seller picked the escrow (big mistake – we should have been more careful in our offer), and the escrow company was going to charge a $195.00 base plus $2.50 per thousand. We got that down some, but wow – Tradewinds Escrow really charged us significantly more than others for the basic escrow fee.

That basic escrow fee should cover what escrow does. But no, Tradewinds also tried to charge us a loan tie-in fee of $200. Now, a loan tie in fee is supposed to be for services rendered tying in two or more loans. But we had only one loan, so why a loan tie-fee? Because it is a junk fee that simply nets more profit to the escrow company for no real service when you only have one loan. We objected and initially were told that Tradewinds always charges the fee and there was nothing we could do. Well, we kept objecting and got the fee removed.

We also had a junk fee for “e-docs” of $200. Now an “e docs” fee is nothing more than a charge for printing out electronic documents or sending documents electronically. Most companies consider the cost of email to be part of standard overhead costs. And the escrow company is charging you a fee that should encompass its services. We objected and got this fee removed after some back and forth. You should too – it is a total junk fee.

We also had an audit fee of $110 although the escrow agreement only allowed $60 to be charged.

Lesson learned – carefully review the escrow closing statement for junk fees and object as soon as you can – don’t wait until closing day. Better yet, get recommendations for escrow companies before listing your home or making an offer. That way, you can investigate the company’s fees and select a good company. Also, you can write the escrow company into your contract specifying the amount to be charged for escrow.

Moving & Murphy’s Law – What can go wrong, does go wrong

bigstock-Bad-day-7213682Okay, so the title isn’t quite Murphy’s Law. Murphy’s Law is “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” That being said, I like my saying better because I’m going to hope that nothing more goes wrong.

In any event, the universe’s tendency towards perversity seems readily apparent when moving. So first we had running toilets. Then we had a broken furnace. Then our dog went missing for two days (but we luckily found her thanks to Noah’s Bark Rescue Organization). Then a waste line broke under our house. After that was remediated and the line fixed, the master bath’s toilet and shower backed up. That seems to have been due to somebody prior to us putting Swiffer dusters down the toilet. Now we have a water leak under the house. Oh the joys of home ownership.

But . . . . my first seed catalog came and I’m plotting what I can plant on our almost six acres. I’ve been thumbing through the 2013 Bountiful Gardens catalog looking at the wonderful heirloom, untreated, open-pollinated seeds. So I will just soldier on and plan my garden . . . .

 

Technical Thursday – Preventing Dryer Fires

Many of us use a clothes dryer – the appliance has become indispensable to modern living. In fact, clothes dryers are found in 80% of US homes. Of course, we could do without it. And some of us do ~ drying clothes on the line saves money and energy. I love drying clothes on a line during the warm late summer months – except when one of my dogs decides that the flapping clothes are worthy of attack!

But I often don’t have the time to dry on the line and use a clothes dryer.  And, if if you use a clothes dryer, some easy preventative maintenance can prevent a dryer fire.  More than 15,000 fires every year are caused by dryers.  The National Fire Protection Association states that in 2006, an estimated 17,700 home fires involved clothes dryers or washing machines and resulted in 15 deaths, 360 injuries and $194 million in direct propety damage.  92% of those fires were due to clothes dryers and washer dryer combinations accounted for 3%.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that “failure to clean” was the leading cause of clothes dryer fires, and the first material ignited in almost 28% of the fires was “dust, lint and fibers.”  To keep your clothes dryer in good working order and reduce the risk of a lint fire:

  • Clean the lint trap before and after drying each load of clothes. Not only will this reduce the risk of a fire, it will save you money too because your clothes wlil dry faster and your dryer will consume less energy.
  • Use metal dryer ducts to help prevent dryer fires. Consumer Reports says that flexible dryer ducts made of foil or plastic are the most problematic because they can sag and let lint build up at low points. Ridges can also trap lint. Metal ducts, either flexible or solid, are far safer because they don’t sag, so lint is less likely to build up. In addition, if a fire does start, a metal duct is more likely to contain it. If you have plastic or vinyl exhaust hoses,  you can replace them relatively easily.
  • Clean inside, behind, and underneath the dryer, where lint can also build up.
  • Don’t use the dryer for clothing or textiles with volatile chemicals such as gasoline, cleaning agents, or finishing oils and stains. Wash the clothing more than once to minimize the amount of these chemicals on the clothing, and line dry instead of using a dryer.
  • Occasionally wipe the sensor with a soft cloth or cotton ball and rubbing alcohol to keep it functioning accurately or follow the manufacturer’s recommendation. The sensor is usually located on the inside of the dryer, just below the door opening.  The sensor is usually two curved metallic strips, shaped somewhat like the letter “C”.

TheSmartMama up for Top 25 Eco Friendly Moms

Circle of Moms is looking for the top 25 eco-friendly mom bloggers. And I would love to be included. But right now, I’m way behind. So, please, go vote for me – TheSmartMama – just click on the circle below. It will take you to the list of sites up for the listing, and you need to scroll down to me – TheSmartMama.

You can vote one time per day through April 17, 2011. Thanks so much!

#ecowed Twitter party with ecomom – Getting Organized!!

Get ready for yet another fabulous #ecowed Twitter party with sponsor ecomom.com. This Wednesday, April 13, 2011, from 7 to 8 pm Pacific time, we will be tweeting with @ecomom and our guest experts about organization!

Okay, so getting organized is always a hot topic. How does a busy family do it? Don’t you envy those families that never seem to forget anything? I do. But every time I try to get organized, I feel overwhelmed. And I feel frustrated because all of the organizing storage bins and similar items are made of plastic.

But, ecomom.com does have some options, such as the Way Basics Storage Cube. Or check out the Way Basics Tribeca Bookcase. It is made of zboard, which is made from 99% post consumer recycled paper and is lighter to ship than particle board so reduced energy consumption in the shipping. And no formaldehyde like particle board.

Plus, organizing isn’t just getting all of our stuff put away. I also need to organize the communications with my kids’ school, their sport teams, etc. And that is where one of our guest experts comes in. Guest expert Aparna Vasshisht-Rota is the founder of Parentella.com, a private parent-teacher social network. It is designed to improve communications between teachers, parents, and room parents. It is a lot better (and more greener) than send home notes!

We will also be joined by guest expert Molly Gold, present and founder of GO MOM! Inc. Molly Gold is a lifestyle media expert, spokesperson, communications consultant, consumer productsd specialist and online media mom.

So let’s talk tips and strategies for organization. Join us at the #ecowed Twitter party, 4/13, from 7 to 8 pm Pacific. Don’t forget to follow @thesmartmama, our sponsor @ecomom and @ecomomkimberly, and our guest experts, @parentella and @myGOMOM.

And we’ve got prizes. This week, we will be picking prizes only from those that participate in the #ecowed Twitter party using the #ecowed hashtag. It will be random draws from the participants and perhaps those answering questions. We’ve got three (3) $25 gift certificates to ecomom.com and a grand prize of a $100 gift certificate to ecomom.com. So join us for #ecowed, 4/13, from 7 to 8 pm Pacific.

Plus, don’t forget to enter ecomom’s absolutely fabulous Healthy Home Makeover contest. You could win a $75,000 Healthy Home Makeover! Plus ecomom has daily giveaways – just check out the ecomom blog for today’s contest.

How to Participate in a Twitter Party

A Twitter party is a real-time conversation on Twitter on a certain date, at a certain time, using a specified hashtag. Basically, it is like-minded people tweeting (that is, talking) about the same thing at the same time. That’s it.

First, to join a Twitter party, you need a Twitter account. So, if you don’t have one, go sign up for one.

 Then, during the Twitter party time, just join in the conversation. You don’t need an invitation to join a Twitter party – Twitter is an open, public forum. However, some Twitter parties require you to RSVP in order to be eligible to win prizes. Usually, that information will be tweeted.

Also, make sure to use the specified hashtag to mark  your conversation as part of the Twitter party. The hashtag is a word or saying with the pound symbol “#” in front of it – so the EcoWed Twitter parties use the hashtag #ecowed.

Now, if the Twitter party is hosted, be sure to follow your host or hostess. To see what everybody is talking about, you can use Twitter’s search feature with the hashtag (that is one of the reasons to use the hashtag). You can also use a program specifically designed for Twitter – like TweetChat, Tweetdeck or Tweetgrid.

For some Twitter party etiquette, keep in mind that it is a conversation. Just like at a cocktail party, you don’t want to be the party-goer that only talks about herself. Or only promotes herself. Also, if the party is sponsored – which usually means that a company or organization has paid the host or hostess or given him or her some consideration – then really don’t spend all your timepromoting your products or services.

That’s it. Hope to tweet with you at an #ecowed Twitter party.

Understanding How Oil Is Traded

Okay, so this is a bit far afield from the normal fodder for this blog, but I thought it was interesting. I received a pitch to post some articles on my blog written by Jack Lee, Founder and Chairman of 4Refuel, the largest onsite fuel management company in Canada and a global leader in technology designed to help businesses reduce their fuel expenses. Most of the articles were not well suited to the blog being focused more on companies as opposed to the consumer, but I thought this one was particularly interesting in light of the unrest in Libya and rising fuel prices, I thought I would publish it.

Disclosure – The views expressed in the article below are Jack Lee’s views. I did not receive any consideration for posting this guest article.

So, here it is, from guest expert Jack Lee, Executive Chairman and Founder of 4Refuel:

CBS-TV’s program “60 Minutes” has been a reliable and informative show for decades giving in-depth reports on a variety of topics.  In a segment aired January 11/09 CBS correspondent Steve Kroft showed that commodity traders – and not oil supply or market demand – were responsible for sharp climbs in fuel prices. The broadcast was revealing and surprising.

Over a one year period the price of oil went from $69 per barrel to nearly $150 and then in just three months collapsed with the stock market.  Kroft reports, “Many people believe it was a speculative bubble, not unlike the one that caused the housing crisis, and that it had more to do with traders and speculators on Wall Street than with oil company executives or sheiks in Saudi Arabia.”

Kroft explains, “To understand what happened to the price of oil, you first have to understand the way it’s traded. For years it has been bought and sold on something called the commodities futures market. At the New York Mercantile Exchange, it’s traded alongside cotton and coffee, copper and steel by brokers who buy and sell contracts to deliver those goods at a certain price at some date in the future.”

Dan Gilligan is the president of the Petroleum Marketers Association who represents more than 8,000 retail and wholesale suppliers, everyone from home heating oil companies to gas station owners.

When 60 Minutes talked to him last summer, Mr. Gilligan said his members were getting blamed for gouging the public, even though their costs had also gone through the roof. He told Kroft the problem was in the commodities markets, which had been invaded by a new breed of investor.

Gilligan said these investors don’t actually take delivery of the oil. “All they do is buy the paper, and hope that they can sell it for more than they paid for it. The volatility is being driven by the huge amounts of money and the huge amounts of leverage that is going into these markets.”

About the same time, hedge fund manager Michael Masters reached the same conclusion. Masters’ expertise is in tracking the flow of investments into and out of financial markets and he noticed huge amounts of money leaving stocks for commodities and oil futures, most of it going into index funds, betting the price of oil was going to go up.

60 Minutes asked who was buying this “paper oil,” Masters told Kroft, “The California pension fund. Harvard Endowment. Lots of large institutional investors. And, by the way, other investors, hedge funds, Wall Street trading desks were following right behind them, putting money – sovereign wealth funds were putting money in the futures markets as well. So you had all these investors putting money in the futures markets. And that was driving the price up.”

27 barrels of crude were being traded for every 1 barrel of oil consumed…

In a five-year period, Masters said the amount of money institutional investors, hedge funds, and the big Wall Street banks had placed in the commodities markets went from $13 billion to $300 billion. Last year, 27 barrels of crude were being traded every day on the New York Mercantile Exchange for every one barrel of oil that was actually being consumed in the United States.

CBS News points out, “A recent report out of MIT, analyzing world oil production and consumption, also concluded that the basic fundamentals of supply and demand could not have been responsible for last year’s run-up in oil prices. And Michael Masters says the U.S. Department of Energy’s own statistics show that if the markets had been working properly, the price of oil should have been going down, not up.

As an example, the price of oil jumped $25 in a single day. That day was Sept. 22. Michael Greenberger, a former director of trading for the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the federal agency that oversees oil futures, says there were no supply disruptions that could have justified such a big increase.

“Everybody agrees supply-demand could not drive the price up $25, which was a record increase in the price of oil. The price of oil went from somewhere in the 60s to $147 in less than a year. And we were being told, on that run-up, ‘It’s supply-demand, supply-demand, supply-demand,'” Greenberger said.

“From quarter four of ’07 until the second quarter of ’08 the EIA, the Energy Information Administration, said that supply went up, worldwide supply went up. And worldwide demand went down. So you have supply going up and demand going down, which generally means the price is going down,” Masters told Kroft.  “So you had the largest price increase in history during a time when actual demand was going down and actual supply was going up during the same period. However, the only thing that makes sense that lifted the price was investor demand.”

Is there price manipulation by these huge investors? The Petroleum Marketers Association President  Dan Gilligan told Kroft, “I can’t say. And the reason I can’t say it, is because nobody knows. Our federal regulators don’t have access to the data. They don’t know who holds what positions…federal law doesn’t give them the jurisdiction to find out.”

Kroft adds, “Most of the trading is now conducted in secret, with no public scrutiny or government oversight. Over time, the big Wall Street banks were allowed to buy and sell as many oil contracts as they wanted for their clients, circumventing regulations intended to limit speculation. And in 2000, Congress effectively deregulated the futures market, granting exemptions for complicated derivative investments called oil swaps, as well as electronic trading on private exchanges.”

There is more to this story and for a complete transcript of the 60 Minutes Program, go to our website. (www.askthefuelexpert.com)

As consumers, we can’t control the price of fuel, but we can control how we use and manage our fuel consumption.  Many companies invest thousands of dollars each month using fuel – in fact it’s the highest cost of doing business after labour. Fuel Management gives you the tools necessary to control the cost of getting fuel and using fuel.

Will there be new regulations to protect consumers from price gouging?  Who can say?  But whether the price of oil is it at $50 per barrel or $150 per barrel it’s essential to minimize consumption and maximize your efficiency wherever possible. Fortunately, automated Fuel Management is available now to deliver on both.

Jack Lee, President/CEO, 4Refuel Inc.

Jack Lee is the President and CEO of 4Refuel Inc, The Leader in Fuel Management.  If you have any questions or comments about this article Jack can be reached at AskthefuelExpert@4refuel.com

FTC Green Guides – The End of Eco Friendly? Plant Friendly? Earth Friendly?

Most of us will say that we are green.

We all have different definitions of what green is, but ask most people, and they will say they are for protecting the earth. For limiting trash. For saving water and energy. For stopping pollution.

And becauase we are for those things, we will spend money on products that claim to be eco friendly or planet friendly or earth friendly. We might not actually spend more money than we otherwise would, but given the choice between a product with a green claim and one without, for the same price, most of us will choose the green product (assuming, of course, that we believe the product works the same as the conventional product).

But still. We have a niggling suspicion that those vague claims of planet friendly, eco friendly and earth friendly might not mean exactly what we think. But we still buy products with those claims, believing that we are doing some good.

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) proposed revised Green Guides may well end those vague, unqualified green claims.

The FTC released its latest revised Green Guides on October 6, 2010. If you aren’t familiar with the FTC’s Green Guides, they are the FTC’s guidance to industry that helps marketers avoid misleading environmental claims in advertising.

The Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act) requires that advertising:

  • Be truthful and not deceptive;
  • Be supported by evidence to support the claims; and
  • Not be unfair.

Under the FTC’ Policy Statement on Deception, an advertisement is deceptive if it contains a statement or omits information that is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances and is material (or important to a consumer’s decision to buy a product).

What is important that the FTC looks at an advertisment from the perspective of the reasonable consumer, and considers the advertisment in context. It isn’t just the words, but also the pictures and everything else. And, and this is critical, the FTC evaluates both express  and implied claims made in the advertising.

So, back to the proposed revised Green Guides. To update the Guides, the FTC conducted its own survey of consumers and green advertising. And the findings are of critical importance to the proposed revisions to the Green Guides with respect to unqualified green claims.

So, the FTC’s Consumer Perception Study found that consumers, reading an unqualified green green, believed that the product had a number of specific attributes implied by that unqualified green claim. Specifically, 61% believed that the product was made from recycled materials, 59% believed that the product was recyclable, 54% believed that the product was made with renewable materials, 53% believed that the product was biodegradable, 48% believed that the product was made with renewable energy, 45% believed that the product was non-toxic and 40% believed that the product was compostable. And, 27% of respondents interpreted the unqualified green and eco friendly claims as suggesting that the product had NO negative environmental impact.

Remember, a marketer must have evidence to support both express and implied claims. Therefore, because the FTC found that a reasonable consumer implied all of this attributes from an unqualified green claim, the FTC notes that making an unqualified green claim “remain[s] very difficult, if not impossible, to substantiate.”

As a result, Section 260.4(a) of the revised Green Guides, if adopted as proposed, state that “[i]t is deceptive to misrepresent, directly or by implication, that a product, package, or service offers a general environmental benefit.”

Further, Section 260.4(b) states:

Unqualified general environmental benefit claims are difficult to interpret and likely to convey a wide range of meanings. In many cases, such claims likely convey that the product, package, or service has specific and far-reaching environmental benefits and may convey that the item or service has no negative environmental impact. Because it is highly unlikely that marketers can substantiate all reasonable interpretations of these claims, marketers should not make unqualified general environmetnal benefit claims.

From this, it appears that any general claims of eco friendly, planet friendly or earth friendly, or similar unqualified general environmental benefit claims, will be a thing of the past if the Green Guides are adopted as proposed. The examples given make this even more clear.

Example 2 is as follows:

A product wrapper bears the claim “Environmentally Friendly.” Text on the wrapper explains that it is environmentally friendly because it was “not chlorine bleached, a process that has beens hown to create harmful substances.” Although the wrapper was not bleached with chlorine, its production releases into the environment other  harmful sustances. Since reasonable consumers likely would interpret the “Environmentally Friendly” claim, in combination with the explanation, to mean that no significant harmful substances are released into the environment, the “Environmentally Friendly” claim is deceptive.

So, it will be interesting to see what will develop. Other claims addressed by the proposed revised Green Guides include certifications and seals of approval, degradable, compostable, ozone-safe/ozone-friendly, recyclable, free-of/non toxic, made with renewable materials, made with renewable energy and carbon offsets.