What environmental scourges are lurking in my garage?

Plus: What's the best way to fuss with my thermostat? And how can I kill flies without killing the planet?

Shutterstock/Dewey Saunders
Temp Check
ByDevi Lockwood
Originally Published: 

Welcome to Temp Check, Mic’s new climate advice column. The news about climate change can be extremely overwhelming, we know, so we enlisted Devi Lockwood, author of 1,001 Voices on Climate Change: Everyday Stories of Flood, Fire, Drought, and Displacement from Around the World, to help. She’ll be part ethicist, part knowledgeable friend, here to guide you as we all try our best to prevent a climate apocalypse. Read on for this week’s advice, and then submit your questions to tempcheck@mic.com.

Dear Temp Check,

I just saw an article that said my gas-powered leaf blower is worse for the environment than a goddamned pickup truck. What else do I have in my garage that might be destroying the planet without my realizing it, and what should I own instead?


Garage Guilt

Dear Garage Guilt,

It’s true, gasoline-powered leaf blowers are responsible for sending alarming amounts of toxic gases — including carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and carcinogenic hydrocarbons — into the atmosphere. They also stir up dust that can contain pollen, mold, animal feces, heavy metals, and chemicals. Those aren’t exactly things you want to be breathing in.

After the leaf blower, you might want to check on your lawn mower, chainsaw, snow blower, air compressor, and generator, if you have them. The gasoline engines in these pieces of equipment spew out greenhouse gases that are as concerning as the crud coming out of leaf blowers.

As for alternatives, electric or manual gear is the way to go. There are plenty of lists online that can guide you towards the best push mower, battery-powered chainsaw, electric snow blower, air compressor, or electric generator. My town has been having a craze for robotic lawn mowers recently. They don’t work on hills, but if your lawn is flat, consider one of these electric models. They are mesmerizing to watch, cut the grass in a random pattern, and, bonus points, you don’t have to push them around.

To deal with your rainbow of autumn leaves, laziness might be your best bet here. Yale Climate Connections reported that if you leave the leaves in place, they’ll break down and improve your soil while also providing a winter shelter for friendly bugs, and attracting birds who will eat those bugs come spring. A triple win, no?

Of course, there’s another option. In lieu of replacing machinery related to your lawn, you might consider ditching the grass entirely and planting native plants, which will provide a habitat for creatures that sorely need it. And if water conservation is a key concern, you could replace your lawn with rock or gravel features that are beautiful and require little to no maintenance.

Dear Temp Check,

I’m a bit of a Goldilocks when it comes to temperature. I’m almost always too hot or too cold, and I’m constantly adjusting my thermostat in an attempt to feel just right — especially when transitioning from day to night and back again. In the summer, I need the A/C running at a pretty cold temp to sleep at night, but prefer to turn it off and open my windows during the day. In the winter, it’s the opposite: I turn on the heat during the day, but switch it off at night.

I always assumed turning the heat or A/C off when I don’t need it saves energy, but then I heard a rumor that it actually wastes energy to do that because the system has to work harder to get back to the desired temp. Is it better to adjust the temperature to a neutral setting instead?


Hot, Cold, and Confused

Dear Hot, Cold, and Confused,

You’re not the only one who is confused! The U.S. Department of Energy notes that it’s a common misconception that a furnace or A/C unit works harder to warm or cool a space back to a comfortable temperature right after being turned on. In reality though, it’s the amount of time the unit is working to maintain that lower or higher temperature that matters the most. If your HVAC system is set to a temperature that is closer to the temperature outside, it will save you on energy costs because it’s not working as hard to maintain your indoor coziness. That means that during the winter, if your thermostat is set lower, it will lose heat more slowly; in the summer, a higher interior temperature setting will slow the flow of heat back into your house.

The most common recommendation is this: If your home is going to be empty for more than eight hours (say, if we weren’t in a global pandemic and you were able to go to work in an office), then it’s best to set your thermostat 7-10 degrees higher in the summer or 7-10 degrees lower in the winter. When you return home, bring the setting back to where you’re most comfortable. Doing this can save you up to 10% on annual energy costs. (If the idea of doing this manually sounds daunting, there are smart thermostats that can control these settings for you.)

And then, of course, there’s general bodily comfort at various temperatures, which has less to do with the air than with what’s going on directly on your body. To stay cool in the summer, you can use ceiling fans in the rooms you’re in, take cold showers before bed, wear lightweight clothing, and avoid using the oven. In the winter, sweaters, warm drinks, electric blankets, and space heaters are your friend. And perhaps the most effective way to maintain a comfortable temperature at home is to make sure that it is well-insulated.

Dear Temp Check,

I have flies. I hate flies. I also have small children, and a dog. I love my small children and dog. Every time I try to get rid of the flies that have somehow chosen my living room as their airspace of choice, I feel compelled to do so with the crunchier side of the bug spray spectrum — which more often than not doesn’t seem to do anything.

Sure there are flypaper and glue traps, but sometimes I see a fly buzzing in midair, and instead of waiting for it to land on something sticky, I just want to blast it with the most corrosive poisons money can buy. Is there a way to actually get rid of insects that’s actually effective and eco-friendly?


Fix It On The Fly

Dear Fix it on the Fly,

I dealt with an infestation in my kitchen earlier this year, too. There are few things as rage-inducing as the sound of a fly’s buzz where it is unwanted. Flies are the worst. Chemical sprays can work well, but as you mentioned, the toxicity isn’t great for kids and pets.

The best trick I’ve found so far is to create a trap in a glass or bowl using cider vinegar and dish soap. Add an inch of apple cider vinegar to the container and a few drops of soap. The flies will be attracted to the smell of the vinegar, but the liquid dish soap will break the surface tension so that when they land in the liquid, they drown. It’s a bit gruesome to dispose of, but the bait does work, and it all happens sans chemical spray.

As with most things though, prevention is the best medicine. In order to prevent an infestation, you have to think like a house fly. Check your windows and doors for unexpected entrances and seal them appropriately. Trash is a big culprit here: Make sure that it’s changed frequently, and that your bin has a well-fitted lid. Most trash cans are too big; I prefer in-cabinet trash cans like this one that, as a bonus, work well with standard plastic grocery store bags, allowing you to recycle rather than buy separate bags just for your trash. Take out the trash as soon as it’s full.

Other tips: Rather than leaving fruit on the counter, wash it and put it in the fridge. Make sure that you’re not leaving dirty dishes in the sink, and check the house periodically for any dishes or food that might be attracting flies. If you have a garbage disposal in your drain, be sure to clean it regularly. When wiping down counters, consider using an essential oil like lemongrass or lavender instead of conventional insecticides, as they can repel and in some cases kill larvae and adults. It’s also a good idea to disinfect outdoor garbage and recycling bins every so often, and to make sure that there isn’t any lawn or pet waste decaying near your home.