Science-Spiced Money-Saving Tips
    By Enrico Uva | May 27th 2012 02:00 AM | 1 comment | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Enrico

    I majored in chemistry, worked briefly in the food industry and at Fisheries and Oceans. I then obtained a degree in education. Since then I have...

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    Although some of these tricks may seem obvious or perhaps even border on the ridiculous, they all work as money-savers and are reminders of key concepts in everyday science.

    (1) Replace the sacrificial anode in your hot water tank before the iron bottom rusts out. A sacrificial anode consists of a metal such as magnesium which gets oxidized more easily than iron. When the two metals are linked by a metal conductor and electrolytes, iron does not lose electrons to oxygen. Instead the sacrificial anode loses electrons to Fe2+, consequently reducing the ion and reversing the initial stages of iron corrosion. More hot water-tank related details can be found here.

    (2) A simpler trick related to hot water tanks involves lowering the thermostats on the upper and lower sets of heating elements. The factory setting is 140o F (60 oC), which is unnecessarily high. I lowered mine to 130o F fourteen years ago simply by turning the little screw in the red area (for both top and bottom parts), and while photographing the following I decided to try 126o F. The rate of heat loss is proportional to the temperature gradient between the source and external environment. Not many people appreciate or understand this. Not only is more energy consumed in attaining a higher temperature, but more heat is wasted because it leaks out faster when the temperature is higher than that of the surroundings.

    (3) On that note, there is a way to avoid buying digital thermostats. Aside from manually and tediously turning the knob on conventional ones, you can place a screw on the inside which will block movement past a desired setting. This low cost-measure will prevent children or cold-sensitive spouses from cranking up the heat. :)

    (4) I have nothing against the intelligent use of herbicides and synthetic fertilizers, but too often they are used routinely and indiscriminately. There is a tendency for undesirable plants--so-called weeds--to grow between gaps in walkway or prefabricated patio stones. For starters, you don't necessarily have to buy prefabricated stones. Producing them involves converting calcium carbonate to calcium oxide, which releases carbon dioxide. Instead, if you happen to live near empty lots, you can easily use a wagon to haul some into your backyard, as I did last weekend with my daughter. She initially thought it was a crazy idea, but eventually she had fun doing it. Also, when certain models of prefab stones fall out of fashion, people actually dump them. 
    Returning to the weed problem, it turns out that thyme, which is adapted to well-drained soils, can easily grow in between stones and will prevent plants like dandelions from settling in. So by distributing inexpensive thyme seed in the cracks, you not only save on herbicide but have a nice herb available from your backyard.

    (5) The combination of a dog and a water hose can be used to fertilize lawn for free. Dogs are carnivores. Their high protein diet leads to a high concentration of urea in their urine. The urea molecule consists of two amino groups attached to a carbonyl group. With bacterial action the urea is converted to ammonium ion, a great fertilizer for plants. The problem is that if you let your dog randomly pee all over the lawn, yellow spots develop because the concentration of urea is too high, which draws water out of the grass roots. After the grass recovers, there is a tendency for the areas around the former discolored spots to experience higher rates of growth due to the more pronounced concentration of ammonium. To prevent the unattractively spotty, overzealous growth from occurring and to prevent the yellow spots from forming, hose down the pee to dilute the urea.

    (6) If you like gardening, you can grow many useful and aesthetic plants for practically no cost. The cedars to the right of the picture below were left for dead by a plant nursery. In about 5 years they have grown into a decent 7 foot hedge. I simply used bone meal (rich in phosphorus and calcium) and planted them in the fall when they received plenty of rain. Instead of buying daisies I found some growing as "weeds" in my lawn and moved them to the flower garden.

    Many of the strawberries in this patch are from two plants I found during a hike in the woods. Thanks to their "runners", they cloned themselves very efficiently in just one year.

    I also have an  avocado and a grapefruit which were grown from seed. In the latter case, I must admit that citrus grown from scratch revert to a wild state and take decades to flower, especially when, due to our climate, I have to keep them inside for at least 9 months.

    Finally, this fig tree is producing fruit thanks to a money-saving trick I used while our contractor was building our home. He was planning to fill the empty area underneath the steps leading to our house with stones. But  I asked him to leave it empty and to connect it to our basement. After insulating it and creating a valve-equipped air passage , I not only have a cold storage area for wine and food, but the cold and dark area allow the fig tree to enter a dormant stage in the winter months. Every mid-May, I find small pale leaves and fruits on it, which quickly synthesize chlorophyll and glucose when they're exposed to light and warmer temperatures. My 87-year old uncle and his son who live in Massachusetts are masters at growing fig trees. Should-be gurus of money savers, they're the ones who taught me to be patient and not to take anything out too early after seeing the first signs of growth. Otherwise the frail fruits fall to the ground.




    The thyme tip sounds useful.  Here is a picture of some wild thyme growing at the ESRF, Grenoble, doing quite well in the hot summer sun of Southern France.

    As for
    Otherwise the frail fruits fall to the ground.
    I thought of this:

    And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.
                       (Revelation 6:13)
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England