Adventures with Water

Adventures with Water
By Malar Ganapathiappan

Wednesday, January 27, 2016, GreenTown Los Altos and Acterra presented Adventures with Water at the Los Altos Library for children in first through sixth grades. About thirty children came to explore interactive topics like water pollution, water bugs, and how much water it takes to produce food and to enjoy an art lesson of coloring and drawing water birds!

A scale lit up measurements of hidden water usage in common foods, teaching attendees the number of gallons of water used to cultivate those foods. Guesses were hazarded for the number of gallons each pound of food required.

Beef turned out to be the highest culprit at 5,000 gallons of hidden water usage; vegetables and fruits (lettuce, apples, and tomatoes) were the kindest choices at only 50 gallons. Which uses more, the chicken or the egg? Upon pondering this question, the scale revealed the answer to be chicken at 1,000 gallons, tied with a pound of cheese. Both popular choices for favorite foods. Do you prefer oranges or orange juice? Brown or white rice? While our taste buds might have a preference, the environment prefers pure fruit and brown to white rice.

Dog poop, fertilizer from lawns, factory waste—what do they have in common? The EnviroScape, contributed by Acterra, displayed through a realistic map model how these pollutants gather in the environment. While storms aren’t so fun to weather through outside, they’re fun to create, especially during the drought! Make it pour! But uh-oh, all the rainwater washes these pollutants into the creeks and bays—a good reason to pick up after dogs and stop using chemical fertilizers.

Bugs? Eww. But not these babies! These water bugs are valuable for telling us about a creek’s health. Participants had fun catching them in troughs of water supplied by members of Acterra, direct from Stevens Creek. Identifying these little invertebrates lets us know if they are pollution tolerant, resistant, or in-between. The existence of a variety of those little bugs is a sign of a creek’s good health. Thanks for being there, bugs!

Ruddy-Nosed Gutter Flooder. Waterlogged Tub Soaker. Double-Breasted Sudsucker. Have you heard of these flashy birds? Stop them—they’re water wasters! These birds waste water through faucets, hoses, and washing machines. We aren’t like them! We turn off faucets and fix leaks! Ingenious attendees even drew their own water birds, complete with impressive wings and colorful water-wasting beaks.

Category: Drought, Water Stewardship, Water use · Tags:

The Winter Solstice Night Bike Ride Success.

By Gary Hedden

Several adventurous GreenTown members gathered in Los Altos on December 22, for our first ever Winter Solstice Night Bike Ride.


Ready to ride!


Scott Vanderlip and Gary Hedden led the 12 mile bike ride to Palo Alto.

Riding from Los Altos to Palo Alto to check out the holiday lights was the night’s expedition. Impressively, the group of 15 adults and kids made it all the way to “Christmas Tree Lane,” the famed street loaded with bright Christmas lights.


Using back roads picked out by event organizer Scott Vanderlip, the group avoided most of the car traffic though couldn’t avoid the rain. That didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits one bit!


Enjoying a well deserved hot chocolate to charge up for the ride home!

The hot chocolate stop at Starbucks helped warm everyone up for the leg back.  Along the way a stop at our friend Sven Thesen’s house to sing a happy rendition of “Jingle Bells” was an energizing and welcome treat.

Fearless riders Margie Suozzo and Maddy McBirney insisted, “Let’s do this again next year.”  Scott opined, “Why wait, how about next month?” which is now under consideration because we’re always up for a fun biking adventure. Won’t you join us next time?

WoW! You Did It Again! Another reCYCLE Bike Giving Success!

It happens every six months. Our reCYCLE Bike Drive. The last one was November where we collected a record 74 bikes, the next one will be May 2016.

It’s your chance to give away the bikes that aren’t used, collecting dust or need a tweak here or there to get going again, literally.

So a team of bike geeks get together to clean and fix ’em up to give to someone in need. Someone who appreciates it. Will use it. And thanks you! (As do we). For a glimpse of the behind the scenes process, pictures speak louder than words.

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A Building That Blows Away City Codes. On Purpose.

Hillhouse Construction Company lives and breathes sustainability. And that purpose pays off.

Kevin Bates with Sharp Development Company explained that their latest project is built far beyond city code requirements. Property owners and their tenants in Silicon Valley look for sustainability and because of their business ethic, they get beyond what they ask for. They get long term economic benefits, improved health and increased productivity of their employees.

The building, at 415 Indio in Sunnyvale, was an old tilt-up, last used as a racquetball club is now repurposed as a very modern, successful retrofit. The concrete walls and floors were largely saved, providing the thermal mass to smooth out temperature swings. Kevin described a recent day when the temperature outside was 94, while inside it was only 69. Almost chilly! When the building is occupied, equipment and human heat warm things up.

The building is all-electric, no natural gas, using all solar photovoltaic panels. One twist, recent demand for high efficiency panels has dried up the supply and Sharp had to settle for less efficient panels, but they made it work. For Kevin, net zero means net zero bill, not net zero energy. PG&E simply doesn’t pay enough to justify overproduction of electricity.

Kevin delved deep into the details:

  • There are temperature sensors in the concrete, CO2 sensors and rain sensors. All these sensors are connected to a system that opens and closes windows to bring in outside air as needed.
  • They used fabric to finish the industrial looking ceiling. It is fire rated sail cloth, with light reflective and sound deadening properties. It looks great, though a bit unusual. A team of upholstery workers eventually nailed the technique, and it is now less expensive than conventional t-bar drop ceiling construction.
  • The building is so energy efficient that plug loads now account for 70% of the demand. That means owners and tenants really need to understand how to use the building. It’s not rocket science, just different.
  • The lights and fans have wireless control. There is so much wireless technology that the Fire Department was concerned their emergency channel would be blocked when needed. It wasn’t which saved the cost of a $15,000 booster.
  • The green plant wall is a hugely dramatic, beautiful, punctuation point that will improve air quality, and connect employees to a very natural element. How will it look next year? We’re optimistic its beauty won’t fad.

In fact, we are optimistic about the whole project. This really is the look of the sustainable future!

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WoW! School’s In Session & So Are Biking Rules!

images-3 copyWith school in session our Walk or Wheel (WoW) program masters are touting rule safety. If you haven’t seen this info, read it and pass it on.


1. Protect Your Noggin!
Make sure your helmet fits properly (See the “Fitting a Helmet” attachment below).

2. Know the Rules of the Road
See attached “Bike Safety Basics” from GreenTown.

3. Be Visible and Predictable
Wear light colored clothing, reflective vests and/or backpack reflectors and consider a rear blinking light on the bike, helmet or both (the vests, reflectors and lights all make good WoW! prizes!). And we can’t emphasize enough the importance of riding predictably.

For those of you with kids riding to school, please ride with them a few times so you know both the route and the pitfalls of the path they’re taking and can remind them to follow the rules.

Also, encourage them to do a weekly (if not daily) ABC Quick Check. One goofy video that shows the ABC Quick Check is here.  Or you can check out the League of American Bicyclists’ video here.

Happy biking!

Margie Suozzo

GreenTown Schools Initiative

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Getting Your Gray Water Mojo

Gray Water. You’ve heard the term, but what is it and why should you care about it?

Now that your lawn is no longer a water burden, if you’re looking to save even more water then gray water is one option to easily “reuse” water.

Gray water systems use the water from your washing machine’s laundry cycle to irrigate your outdoor plants. Gray water from your washing machine is relatively clean, while black water is waste water, such as from toilets, that cannot be reused until it is cleaned and sanitized through the sewer system.

If you missed this Gray Water Workshop, contact us to find out how you can join us next time!

Professional installer Alan Hackler, owner of local sustainable landscaping company Bay Maples, recently led a hands-on Laundry-to-Landscape Gray Water Workshop at a Los Altos home. Those attending learned about and contributed to the step-by-step process of attaching and installing the piping to use the gray water directly from a washing machine to water trees in the landscape.

Hackler’s company uses Blu-Lock piping with its high-density polyethylene and pressure fittings and a switch to direct the gray water route between sewer and landscape. Water used to wash dirty diapers, greasy materials, or otherwise soiled loads unfit for landscaping use is considered black water and must be transferred to the sewer so segmenting the water is the key to success.

Why reuse water from washing machines?

Washing machines are good sources of gray water because they already have a pump and are usually located near the exterior of the house, providing easier access than other sources of reusable water in the home. Washing machine water is considered gray water (not black water) because it is clean enough to reuse in landscaping.

How muchDSCN2994 water does the laundry-to-landscape option allow me to use in my garden?

Per laundry cycle, laundry to landscape would give you 10 to 15 gallons of landscaping water from new washer models and 25 to 30 gallons from older models.

Are there tips for using washing machine gray water in my garden?

The laundry-to-landscape method has some dos and don’ts. This method cannot be used with a drip system or with lawns because the gray water comes from underground, is filtered through mulch and plants, cannot be sprayed, and must be released without runoff. Mulch or other material must cover the release point, which can have a flooding effect from the laundry-to-landscape piping.

Landscapes that benefit from the water from washing machines are water-loving riparian native plants that can survive the flooding effect, but you can attach a hose to water other plants and trees, such as ornamental plants and fruit trees.

Does it matter where my washing machine is located in my home?

The water from a washing machine needs to be pumped into the landscape, and the farthest distance a washing machine can pump water is 50 level feet, measured from the bottom of the washer. The preferred location of a washing machine is by an exterior house wall to enable easy transfer to the landscape. Pipes can be positioned through a home’s crawl space if the washer is not near an exterior wall, but piping over concrete patios is difficult.

For washing my clothes in a laundry-to-landscape system, must I be mindful of the soap and laundry additives I use?

The best laundry soap DSCN2999to use with a laundry-to-landscape system is one that is biocompatible, which is distinct from biodegradable soap in that biocompatible soap breaks down and benefits the soil while biodegradable soap breaks down but does not benefit the soil. Popular biocompatible brands are ECOS, Oasis, and Dr. Bronner’s.

For your garden to thrive, your detergent should not contain boron, bleach, sulfides, phosphates, and salt. Powdered laundry detergents are salt-based so should be avoided.

By Malar Ganapathiappan

Here’s Where Your Water Will Come From

Purifying Water for a Sustainable Tomorrow

Recently, some members of GreenTown Los Altos’ water team got to tour the new Silicon Valley Water Purification Center. The Center, which processes waste water to levels of drinking water uses an array of processes for delivering their high quality water.

While currently the processed water is used for landscaping and air conditioning, plans are afoot to inject the treated water into sources of Silicon Valley’s drinking water.

According to the Center’s website, “The $72 million state-of-the-art facility receives secondary-treated effluent from the neighboring San Jose-Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility and purifies it to a very high quality using proven purification processes- microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet disinfection.

The result is 8 million gallons a day of highly purified water that is expected to match California drinking water quality standards.

If you want to read GreenTown member, Charley Pow’s perspective, check out his blog post here.

Confused About Going Native? Best Drought Tips

Stumped on where to go for drought tips. GreenTown has info:

Websites for Drought-tolerant Gardens:

And go here to find out about Santa Clara County Water District’s rebates.

Are Those Toxins In Your Skin Cream? Yup.

Coal tar? Parabens? Butyl what? When was the last time you thought about what you were putting into (and on) your body through your skin? Maybe it’s worth a look to avoid potential problems.

As an organ, the skin absorbs much of what is applied to its surface. So the majority of synthetic chemicals layered during a conventional skincare routine get soaked up by the skin, thus entering your bloodstream. GTLA 15.6 cosmeticsThese chemicals can accumulate in the body throughout life, especially if the liver and kidneys aren’t doing a good enough job filtering and flushing toxins out.

At high concentrations, they can not only wreak havoc on the endocrine and reproductive systems or even cause cancer but the manufacturing and use of products also impacts the environment. If there’s any doubt, check out reputable sources like Canadian-based David Suzuki’s “Dirty Dozen Cosmetic Chemicals To Avoid” or’s list of toxic chemicals or even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) site where they admit “Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, cosmetic products and ingredients do not require FDA approval before they go on the market.”

Should ingredients in cosmetic products really be a concern given their wide distribution, sold in nearly every store and being used by so many people seemingly without harm? Evidence from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) show that certain ingredients may act as allergens, irritants, carcinogens, hormone disruptors, pollutants, or environmental contaminants. So what can you do?

Some Ways To Go Green In Cosmetics:

  • Search the EWG’s database for toxicity.
    • Search products you use, including safety ratings and whether the ingredients are considered toxic.
  • Understand how to read labels so you aren’t swayed by often faulty marketing claims.
    • Anything can be written on packaging to convince consumers to buy products. It’s wise to check labels to know the exact ingredients and concentrations.
  • Ban unhealthy and toxic products from your household.
    • Erring on the safe side is better in many dimensions, from the environment to preventing future harm in the form of allergies, asthma, fertility problems, or cancers.
  • Simplify your skincare routine.
    • Minimize products and keep in mind that just like food, as a rule products with less ingredients are often safer.
  • DIY products.
    • Simple DIY recipes and tips abound online and in books. Buy some basic materials and have a cosmetics-making party.

Oh No? Oh Yes! FDA Has No Say On Ingredients

Although the Safe Cosmetics Act was introduced to Congress in 2013 to give the FDA the authority to create and enforce safety standards, it hasn’t been passed yet. Which means, believe it or not, the FDA doesn’t currently have the authority to force companies to test their products for safety. Even more, according to PETA’s cruelty-free company search, animals are not safe either given animal testing is still used by hundreds of companies.

So What Can You, As A Consumer, Do?

Since US cosmetics aren’t regulated, it is up to consumers to protect themselves and the environment by evaluating ingredients and sending a message with their dollars. A win by any measure.

Author: Malar Ganapathiappan

Category: Make-up, Toxics · Tags:

Will You Reduce Water Use By 32%? Try These Tips.

Remember this number: 32.

Water use by type. Source: Linda Gass

That’s the percent mandated for Los Altos residents to reduce water starting in July. Knowing how water is used is a good starting point for hitting that reduction number.

Landscaping (50%):

With around 50% of water typically used for irrigation, your lawn is the best source to tap for most savings. Cutback irrigation to about 1/3 of 2013 use, no more than twice a week.

Install drip or subsurface irrigation which is 95% efficient, making it 35% more efficient than spray watering so if you haven’t looked into it, now is the time.1

Climate appropriate native plants require only 1/10th the water of lawns. Why? The shallow roots of turf require significantly more water to maintain than native plants, which can survive on a minimum amount of water. Native plants initially need watering weekly, then monthly or less after roots are established.

Mulching around trees and plants can help in preventing water from evaporating.

Cover your pools for minimal evaporation.

Using a running hose when washing concrete, asphalt, or a vehicle is forbidden.

How the Other Use Areas Can Be Minimized.

Toilets (10%)

Efficient toilets can reduce the amount of water flushed by 20-60% compared to older models.2 “Ultra Low Flow Toilets” use 1.6 gallons per flush, “High-Efficiency Toilets” use 1.28-.8 gallons per flush while older pre-1990 models use 3.5 – 5 or more gallons per flush.3 Switching to a high-efficiency toilet can save 19 gallons per person each day.4

Dual flush toilets have separate flushes for liquid and solid waste.

Toilets can be flushed with saved water from warming up taps.

Shower (10%)

Low-flow showerheads can save 2.5 gallons per minute.4

A five versus 10 minute shower saves 12.5 gallons from a low flow showerhead and 25 gallons with a standard 5 gallon per minute showerhead.4

Turning off water while washing hair (daily) can save up to 150 gallons per month.4

Water from taps that are warming up can be captured and used for plants or to flush toilets.

Laundry (10%)

Only running full loads in a washer will save both water and energy.

A water-efficient washer can save 16 gallons/load.4

Greywater can be utilized by directing water used by washing machines to outdoor landscapes, thereby reducing need for outdoor watering.

Leaks (9%)

Finding and fixing all leaks can eliminate 9% of average water usage. A free house call from a Santa Clara Valley Water District representative can help detect leaks and determine other ways to save water.

A toilet with leaks can waste around 200 gallons a day. Yes, a day.2

Faucets (8%)

Faucets usually run at 2 gallons per minute, so closing the tap while brushing teeth or shaving can save over 200 gallons per month.2

When hand washing dishes, closing the tap and using the sink or a basin uses half the amount of water than running an open tap when washing dishes does, which uses up to 20 gallons of water.2

Baths (1%)

A full bathtub can hold up to 70 gallons of water so filling it halfway or less can save 12 gallons.4 Shorter showers use less water than a bath.

Water can be caught in a bucket while it is warming up and used to flush toilets or water plants.

Dishwashers (1%)

The dishwasher can be used more efficiently by only running full loads on the “light” setting instead of normal cycle. Refraining from rinsing dishes before loading into the dishwater can save up to 10 gallons per load.2

Author: Malar Ganapathiappan