30 November 2012

Care and feeding of down comforters

I'm cold-blooded, and also cheap. So I keep a down comforter on my bed shortly after autumn gets in full swing, in the interest of keeping myself as warm as possible while sleeping with the thermostat turned down as low as possible. I leave another down comforter on the livingroom sofa, too, for staying warm while I curl up with a book evenings. Love my down comforters! And great thing I learned about them a few years ago is that you can safely launder a down comforter.

It's true!

Now, I don't actually launder a comforter very often. In fact, I probably launder them only every other year. I usually find that it does the trick to let them air out a couple of times during the winter, and then give them one good airing out by a warm, sunny window in the spring before storing them away for the summer. Here's a roundup of things to do to keep your comforters in good shape for longer.

1. Use a duvet cover, and wear pajamas. The goal here is to minimize how often you launder the comforter by keeping your sweat, drool, and smelly feet from dirtying the comforter case or permeating the down filling with odors. The less often you launder anything, after all, the longer it will look and feel like new. So buy or make a machine-washable duvet cover to protect it. Get two, so when you have to launder one (got cats?), you have another one waiting for you in the linen closet. If your comforter didn't come to you with its own removable cover, lay the comforter out, measure it, and dig your favorite catalog, website, or retailer for one that fits. Or score a few king-size sheets and break out the sewing machine, if you're feeling extra cheap. While it may feel irritating to have buy what's essentially a gigantic pillowcase for this blanket, remember that it'll feel even more irritating to find an indelible stain or undefeatable odor in the comforter in a few months because you didn't protect it.

Wearing some kind of nightclothes as a further barrier between your skin and the comforter will also go a long way toward keeping the comforter fresh. This is a no-brainer for me, because I'm so cold all the time. Paradoxically, though, if you tend to sweat a lot at night, you have even more reason to wear pajamas than I do. You'll have to change your sheets less frequently, and it'll be better for your comforter.

2. Air it out every few weeks. Remove the duvet cover and launder it. Shake out the comforter to evenly distribute the down. Lay it out over a couple of chairs or sturdy clothes drying racks. If you can, set it by a window so that some sunlight can hit it. Let it air out for at least 24 hours, or over the weekend. Then put it back in the duvet cover -- be sure that the duvet cover is 100% dry -- and toss it back onto your bed.

3. Don't be afraid to launder a comforter, but don't do it often. Comforters filled with real down don't come cheap (though, to tell the truth, one of mine was a gift, and I trash-picked the other, Penn Christmas-style, from the trash pile of a neighbor who was moving out). They do need to be deep-cleaned every once in a while -- you'd better believe I laundered the trash-picked one before I used it -- in a way that only laundering in water will do, yet no one wants to ruin an expensive comforter.

First of all, unless it's an emergency (got cats?), wait until the weather warms up. That way, you'll be able to set it outside or by a sunny, open window to really make sure it's dry before you put it away for the season. Now take a gander at the comforter's cleaning instructions. It probably tells you to take it to a professional cleaner. This is "CYA"; you can do the job at home if you have a very large washing machine, or at a laundromat if you don't. Use a mild Woolite-type soap, not detergent, and rinse it at least one extra rinse. Then toss it in an extra-large dryer on low heat. I've seen it advised to put a clean canvas athletic shoe or tennis balls in the dryer as well, to even out the down stuffing; however, I've found it just as simple to stop the dryer every once in a while and gently shake out the blanket instead.

After you run out of quarters or just don't feel like hanging out in the laundromat any more, take the comforter home and lay it out on the chairs or clothes racks for at least 24 hours. If the weather is warm, set it by an open window for some extra UV sterilizing, like I did with my daughter's cloth diapers back in the day. Careful, though! If the pollen is out, a significant amount could fall on the comforter, and you may find yourself mysteriously sneezing when you take it out again next autumn.

4. Fold loosely for storage. When the comforter is totally dry and the house is truly too warm to have it on the bed at night, gather it up, fold it gently and loosely, and store it in a dry, moth-free closet. Since you don't want to compress the down, don't store it in a plastic bag. One idea is to store it, folded, inside a duvet cover, which saves a duvet cover's worth of space in the linen closet during the summer.

And that's that. Four E-Z steps to toasty-warm rowhouse livin' with a down comforter when the temperature falls.

26 November 2012

Three old-timey ways to stay warm in cold weather

Between some paying work and a long-awaited week out of town visiting old friends for Thanksgiving, I've neglected this blog! Now I'm back in town and it's gotten actually cold here in Philadelphia. So here's a list of 3 old-timey tricks for beating the cold around the home.

1. Draft dodgers. I don't mean guys who skip signing up with Selective Service. I mean an upholstered roll that you lay at the bottom of a door or window to block cold drafts. You can buy them, or make your own -- but I'm cheap, so I simply roll up an old towel, sheet, or blanket and place it neatly to cover the gap between door and floor. Though I have to re-fold them every couple of days, it still beats hauling out the sewing machine or buying something new.

2. Nightcap. Not a bedtime cocktail, but a literal nightcap: a loose-fitting knit hat or watch cap to keep your head warm while you're sleeping. Seriously, just as if it's Christmas Eve. This is a practice I picked up from going on cold-weather camping trips. No matter how snug the tent or how low-temperature rated the sleeping bag, it's easier to stay warm with a hat. In the house in winter, I've found that I can comfortably shave a good five degrees off my thermostat (and a lot of dollars off my heating bills) if I wear a knit hat while I'm sleeping, or even when I'm sitting at my desk working at home.

3. Heating pad. Electric blankets make me nervous, but I do love an electric heating pad on my lap for that extra "oomph" I seem to always need when I'm curled up on the sofa with a book. And like with a nightcap, I can keep the thermostat turned down and save dollars while I burn a few pennies in electricity.

So, three tips that seem a little old-fashioned to me, but which make the homestead a little more pleasant when the weather turns cold. Later this week: care and feeding of down comforters!

08 November 2012

The two things to do after an emergency

Back to blogging after several days off! Let's see. In the past 10-odd days, Rowhouse Livin' dealt with Superstorm Sandy; a few planned and unplanned days when my daughter wasn't in school; a half-day in continuing legal education (I swear I don't procrastinate to meet my yearly requirements by the end of my compliance period); and Election Day, which I spent supervising a team of volunteers conducting non-partisan exit polls regarding voter ID, a controversial issue here in Pennsylvania and particularly in Philadelphia.

I love working election days, even off-years, and even off-year primaries, when turnouts are crazy low. My usual work involves visiting all the polling places in a ward and gathering information about turnout, poll staffing, and so on for a non-partisan watchdog organization. Usually I do my canvassing in Brewerytown, a neighborhood I don't get to regularly. It's a lovely change in the home-work-school-errands routine; it's a privilege check for when I feel like complaining about how my money is tight; and the data helps inform policy work for better election practices.

But back to Rowhouse Livin' urban home economics.

After Sandy finished rolling through the northeast, I saw a few news items and social media posts about what to do to get rid of your home's emergency supplies. And I said, "What?! Why would anyone get rid of their emergency supplies?"

I mean, I think the intention was noble. I think the idea was to have people donate their surplus blankets, canned foods, and sanitation supplies to others who had lost everything. But here at Rowhouse Livin', we know two things that you should do instead.

1. Keep, rotate, and replenish your own emergency supplies. Whether you used just a single can of ravioli or you went through a week's worth of batteries, bottled water, and beans, now is the time to look at your stores and evaluate what's up. Make a list of what you need to bring your pantry up to the level you need, and get cracking on building up your supply again. Do it in one fell swoop, or pace it out over several trips to the store, but do it soon! Areas of the northeast that got slammed by Sandy were hit with snow and more power outages in a nor'easter just a week later. Anything can happen, and sometimes things happen one right after another. Rowhouse Livin' operates on the principle that "extra" emergency supplies aren't unneeded; they're just not needed, yet.

2. Donate only cash. Unless you know you can meet a specific, stated need from a shelter, agency, or family, don't donate goods -- whether food, household necessities, clothing, or equipment -- for a few reasons. One, groups like the Red Cross don't have the person power to process non-cash donations. Every sack of clothes you donate takes time, hands, and physical space away from providing services. Even if you donate brand-new things, like underwear in the original package and a case of MREs, it takes time and personnel to sort and deliver the items. Two, groups like the Red Cross know what they need better than you do, and they can get a better deal on supplies than you can. To illustrate these two points, let's say the Red Cross knows that a shelter in north Jersey needs soap. Should you buy a pack of soap, or even a case, and drop it off at the Red Cross office in town? Heck, no! The Red Cross can negotiate larger quantities at a better price than you can, and may even be able to get a pallet donated and delivered to a particular location, free of cost. But if you donate a pack of soap, now people at the Red Cross have to coordinate delivery of that soap: research where it needs to go, organize the delivery, put it on the truck, deliver it, unload the truck, direct distribution, and complete the paperwork involved. If you had given cash, they could have delivered more soap to the shelter at a lower cost in person-hours and in money.

What about the Salvation Army, you say? Same principle. Give only cash to the headquarters or local offices. Give saleable clothes and household items to the thrift stores (call first or talk to a manager to ask what kinds of items work for them), because that's where they have the person-hours and physical space to process donations and turn them into cash.

Huge exception: have you received a very specific request for particular things? Then see what you can do to help. For example, I'll be attending a Sandy relief fundraiser this weekend where the organizer has specifically asked for blankets and flashlights. I hope people bring blankets and flashlights -- but I hope they bring brand new blankets and flashlights that they bought that morning, not blankets and flashlights they retrieved from their own homes. Because if they do, then what happens the next time there's an emergency here?

Bottom line, your own "extra" emergency supplies? Keep 'em, and give cash, instead.

01 November 2012

Superstorm Sandy recap

Rowhouse Livin' made it through the storm completely unscathed, and the people in the communities and states that were affected by anything from power outages to flooding and fires are in my thoughts. Like many people from the mid-Atlantic, I've spent my share of summers at the Delaware and Jersey shores; the damage at Rehoboth, Dewey, Ocean City, and elsewhere is saddening. And the personal losses of those who lost their homes or friends and family is heartbreaking.

Philadelphia was so lucky in its location -- we were near the center of the storm, directly in its path, which is unexpectedly a safer place to be than on the outer edges -- and our officials worked hard to ask people to stay inside during the high winds, to evacuate residents from flood-prone areas, and to get services up and running very soon afterward. The worst damage on my block was a commercial sign that lost a single zip-tie, so that the bottom half of the sign was left dangling awkwardly. It's far more amusing than hazardous.

Here at the homestead our utilities never failed at all. We kept our computers and other devices plugged in, to keep the batteries fully charged in case the electric did cut off, and I spent much of the day watching cable news streaming online. (Whether that was completely wise is another question!) We were stuck inside, because of the danger of debris being blown around the streets. But we ate ordinary meals, able to use the fridge and stove with no trouble. I even baked a bread pudding out of bread crumbs I had taken out of the freezer to make room for extra ice.

Now I'm about out of eggs again.

I have only two complaints about the storm. One, I've had to figure out how to incorporate bean sprouts into three days' worth of suppers, since I had started three days' worth ahead of time, certain that our electric would go out. I've done a penne rigate with pesto sauce and bean sprouts, a butternut squash soup with bean sprouts, and . . .  I don't know yet what I'll do tonight, but I'm glad tonight's the last night with these crazy bean sprouts! (My daughter likes to eat them raw by the handful, but I'm wary.)

Two, my bathroom ventilation fan failed sometime early on Tuesday. Now, I'm honestly a little glad that it failed, because it's wired on a single switch with the bathroom light, so it engages every time the light is turned on, whether you need it (odors, shower steam) or not (brushing and flossing). But it's actually bad news, because I don't have a window in the bathroom. It's a wholly interior room of, natch, a rowhouse: the east wall is the west wall of a bedroom; the west wall is the east wall of a hallway; the north wall holds the door to a hallway; and the south wall is the party wall to the next rowhouse. While I'm happy this happened now that it's cooler and less humid outside, rather than during the summer, when mildew would be harder to control, it's a very high-priority project. Maybe the silver lining is that this is a good opportunity to put a fan and the light on different switches. Anyway, I guess I have a my work cut out for me this weekend.

Did the storm take out my bathroom fan? I probably wouldn't be able to convince my homeowners' insurance company so. And if it's the least of my Superstorm Sandy problems, I know we're one lucky, lucky household.