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Hack a Cardboard Box into a DIY Solar Oven

This week's hack: Make a solar oven

Shade of green: Adolescent spruce

Items needed: Cardboard box at least 18" square and as deep as whatever you want to cook, black construction paper, tin foil, clear plastic, non-toxic glue, pen, tape, scissors or utility knife (put down the beer first, ok?), ruler, piece of dowel or stick or whatnot

Why this hack: Because it's as fun and simple and cheap as they come. Hey, that sounds like the personal ads I've been running lately.

open cardboard box

In a few simple steps, convert an ordinary box into a beauteous, practical solar oven.

Heart of the hack: Trace a border around the top of your box, about an inch inside the edges. Cut three sides, leaving one as a "hinge." This is your oven door. Nice, eh?

Now, cut and glue a square of aluminum foil to the underside of your door, and cut a piece of plastic just a little larger than the opening. Remember how, when you were a devious little punk kid, you used to fry ants with a magnifying glass? This is your magnifying glass, only this time, you're gonna be frying, well, hopefully not ants.


How to Install a Tankless Water Heater

This week's hack: Install a tankless water heater (aka on-demand or instantaneous water heater)

Shade of green: Verdant pine

Items needed: One on-demand water heater, miscellaneous plumbing bits including copper pipe (1/2" and/or 3/4"), pipe cutter, propane torch, solder

Why this hack: Because you can cut your hot water bill in half. Yes, I said "in half." As in 50%.

rinnai tankless water heater, on-demand, instantaneous water heater

Tankless water heaters, like this one from Rinnai, are generally sleek.

Heart of the hack: Ok, folks, this is an advanced hack. If you're not comfy a) handling power tools b) operating flaming torches and c) soldering copper water tubing together, you ought to just call a plumber. Try not to faint when he hands you the bill; it's very rude.

But lets assume you can do all this stuff with one hand tied behind your back whilst juggling a dozen rotten eggs. In which case, you'll first want to shut off water to your current hot water tank (there should be a valve; if there's not, you got problems), drain the tank (there's a spigot on the bottom; you can attach a garden hose and run it out your basement door onto the neighbor's lawn), and tear it out.

What should you do with your old tank? Well, if your day job involves selling used cars or self-improvement videos, you might be able to off load it onto some sucker via Craigslist. Otherwise, you'll probably have to pay someone to take it away.

Installing your new tankless heater is simply a matter of bolting it in place, then installing the vent (it's probably a power vent, whereas your old heater likely had a stack vent, so you're going to need to wire it in. This is a good time to call someone who has experience playing with electricity). Next, run the new water lines. Gosh, doesn't that sound simple?

It is, as plumbing goes. It's just that, you really want to know what you're doing when you're "sweating joints," which sounds like it could land you in the slammer, but is really just plumber speak for joining copper with solder. If you don't have experience with this lost art, it just ain't worth the headache of a leaky hot water system. Lecture over.

The cool (bad pun alert) thing about on-demand hot water heaters is that they heat the water only when asked. Your current "capacity" heater keeps a huge blob of water (probably 30 gallons or more) hot all the time. If you don't draw hot water for, say, the eight hours you sleep each night (you do get at least eight hours of sleep, don't you? You do realize that anything less is detrimental to your health, right?), it don't matter: Your heater is still keeping it warm, just waiting for you to crack the tap. An on-demand heater won't heat the water until you ask it to; when you do, it springs into action with an enormous flame that literally heats the water as it passes through on its way to your shower head.


Optimize Computer Energy Settings and Save 50%

Shade of green: Minty fresh

Items needed: A computer

Why this hack: Because it's free, easy, and tons of fun (ok, so two outta three ain't bad)

Heart of the hack: Did you know that 90% of desktop computers are not optimized for energy efficiency? If yours is the one-in-ten that is, then pat yourself on the back, and get back to darning your handknit socks by the flickering light of a candle. If you're like the rest of us, however, read on.

desktop computer set up

It's stupid-simple to utilize the power management settings on your machine, and according to Intel, it can save you over 400-kilowatt hours annually. Depending on what you're shelling out for electricity, that's a savings of about $40 - $80 each year. Goodness. Whatever will you do with all that money?

Once you've taken a few moments to imagine your vast wealth, head on down to the "start" menu and give 'er a click. From there, you'll want to click on "settings" and then "control panel."

Still with me? Good, 'cause this is where things get scintillating. It's now time to double click on "power management." Oh-la-la. Now, under where it says "power schemes," choose "always on" from the drop-down list. Below the "settings for always on power scheme" tab, look for two drop-down lists, labeled "turn off monitor" and "turn off hard disks," respectively.

From each list select the amount of time you want your computer to wait before entering energy savings mode. If you drive a Prius and air dry your laundry, set this for 2 minutes; if you're still sportin' a Camaro and a mullet, you'll want to choose something less ambitious. Try 15 minutes. That shouldn't freak you out too much.


DIY Super Energy Efficient Refrigerator

Shade of Green: 100-year old pine tree

Items Needed: Stack of 2x4's, 4 sheets of 2-inch foamular "pink board," 4 sheets 1/2-inch CDX plywood, enough cedar tongue-in-groove paneling to cover the inside of your framed walls (exactly how much will depend on the size of your "fridge"), 2 small 24v computer fans, 1-3/4-inch hole saw, nails, general carpentry tools.

Why this Hack: Because you live in the north. Because it drives you nuts that you're using electricity to chill your food when it's 20 below outside. Because you're committed.

 Ambient air refrigerator, fridge, an energy efficiency green hack.

Heart of the Hack: The idea is simple, though the execution is a bit more complicated. Basically, you're building an insulated box that's going to attach to the outside of your house (preferably in the kitchen area, and preferably to the exterior of an opening that already exists.

The author's AAF (Ambient Air Fridge) fits snug against the outside of a doorway that leads to a seasonal porch off his kitchen. During the warmer months, the AAF is detached for ingress and egress (pretty fancy words for a hack, eh?). It's the ideal size in the ideal location. Your layout and particulars may demand a greater degree of hackishness.

Whatever size you end up with, you want an airtight box that is insulated all around with pinkboard. First, you'll want to frame "walls" for your AAF with the 2x4's, using a standard two-foot-on-center framing pattern. Then, fill all cavities with pinkboard and sheath the exterior with your plywood. The interior gets the cedar paneling, installed with six-penny finish nails.

At this point, you can drill two 1-3/4" holes in the box, one on each side. Drill one at the bottom, and one toward the top. Then, fit two small fans into the holes (Canon makes 24v fans for use in computers). Connect these to a thermostat, and you've got automatic temperature control! (In our next hack, we'll create a solar-powered ice-maker). The bottom will usher in cold air, and the top will expel warm air.

Getting these wired and working properly is the hardest part of this hack, though the carpentry skills necessary to make the box are rudimentary. If in doubt, hire an electrician to help you wire the fans. Once the box is constructed, attach it to the exterior of your opening with 3-1/2" galvanized screws.


Hack a Wood Stove into an Efficient Water Heater

Editor's Note: The following hack carries a risk of explosion if not done properly. It will also likely void any warranties on your wood stove. Proceed with caution.

Shade of Green: Burnt forest

Items Needed: 1 wood stove (well, duh), 1 pressure relief valve, 1 hot water jacket or heat-resistant loop, miscellaneous copper pipe, miscellaneous copper fittings, 1 circulator (optional), 1 aquastat thermostat (optional), 1 pre-heat holding tank (optional), 1 plumber, stove gasket cement

fThe back of a wood stove, showing copper pipes for hot water in and out, part of the green hacks' modification of a stove into a hot water heater.

A view of the back of the stove/water heater mod, showing in and out water pipes.

Why this Hack: Because you're extremely adventurous. This is an advanced hack, requiring specialized knowledge and equipment and a clear understanding of the danger involved. Wait... come back... where are you going?

Listen: It's true that running a water loop through a wood stove is serious business; without a pressure relief valve, this sort of hack could cause, well, an explosion. This either scares or excites you. There is no in between. But the rewards are at least equal to the risk (and really, there's not much risk if you do it right): Piping hot water with the same quantity of wood you already burn, saving you literally hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars in the long haul.

This hack requires real plumbing skills, so you might want to hire it out. But since few plumbers will be familiar with this sort of tomfoolery, be sure to do the research first. There's a great book available from Rather fittingly, it's titled "Hot Water From Your Woodstove." Pure genius, eh? Anyway, it's got all the nitty-gritty, as well as sources for the hot water jacket you'll need. What's a hot water jacket? It's a rectangular slab of metal that installs inside your firebox, and it is designed to mate with copper pipe that runs cold water in and hot water out.

Heart of the Hack: The tricky part is fitting the jacket (and if a standard jacket doesn't fit, try for custom loops); most stoves are not pre-drilled for water, so you'll have to break out the hole saw and git to hackin' in a most serious way. If yer stove's still under warranty, and you'd like to maintain that warranty, stop reading. That said, if you measure correctly and exercise due caution, you won't do any damage drilling two half or three-quarter-inch holes in your stove to fit the cold water in and hot water out pipes. Actually, you'll want to drill 'em 1/16th-inch oversize for ease of installation and to accommodate expanding/contracting. Once everything's installed, seal everything up with stove gasket cement.

Once the jacket/loop is fitted, it's time to run your copper; cold comes in the bottom and hot exits through the top hole. There are two basic ways to run this system: Bonus hack points for going with a thermo-siphon system, which uses the expanding properties of heat to send hot water to an elevated holding tank. Of course, that means plumbing a holding tank into your second floor, which definitely increases the hassle factor. The other option is to utilize a circulating pump that's thermostatically switched to pump water whenever the fire's a'blazin.'


This Week's Hack: Green-Pimp Your Ride

checking tire pressure

Shade of green: Luscious lime

Items needed: Air compressor, four to six quarts synthetic oil, common sense, willing mechanic

Why this hack: Because you can't afford a Prius

Heart of the hack: This one's simple, folks. First, you gotta check tire pressure. Consider: There's a 1% loss of fuel efficiency for every 2 PSI under maximum pressure (usually in the 35-psi range). So if you're running at 26 psi, you're giving up about 5% fuel efficiency. Why, on my 1990 one-ton Chevy pickup (454 and four-on-the-floor, if you care, which you should), that's... um... 1/2 mpg.

You, presumably, drive a smaller, smarter vehicle, so you could be looking at a 1 to 2 mpg improvement. At $3/gallon, it'll add up, and if all of you send the savings to this blogger's Paypal account, he can afford to keep driving his Chevy.

Part 2. A synthetic motor oil can improve fuel efficiency quite a bit. Even if you don't believe the outrageous claims from oil and additive makers (and you shouldn't), you can realize a 5% to 10% gain by switching to a synthetic motor oil such as Mobil 1.

Part 3: Slow-the-heck-down. It's that simple, folks. Most modern automobile engines are most efficient at below-highway speeds. Figure around 55 mph for maximum efficiency, then add another 5 mph so you don't get rear-ended by the hotshot in the Lexus (or me in my truck). The gas mileage difference between 60 mph and 80 mph is going to be in the 15% range.


Hack Your Own Super Fridge

Welcome to Green Hacks, where our passion is getting more for less (legally, of course). Here you will learn how to make ordinary household systems run cleaner and more efficiently.

Be warned: Should you choose to follow the instructions set forth, your hands may be dirtied and your patience may be tried. You may void the occasional warranty or risk having your friends call you "eccentric." But in the end, you will know the incomparable satisfaction of greenhacking.

This week’s hack: Turn a chest freezer into a hyper-efficient refrigerator

Items needed: 1 chest freezer, 1 external thermostat (available at, 1 very understanding spouse who doesn’t mind pawing through a chest freezer to find the leftover lasagna.

Why this hack: We begin with this hack because it is simple and because the green return on money and time invested is impressive. Utilizing an inexpensive Energy Star chest freezer (about $400 for a 15-cubic foot model) and the aforementioned thermostat ($60), you can save more than half a kilowatt hour per day (and possibly much more: When I implemented this trick on a used Vestfrost freezer I picked up for $200, it consumed less than 1/8th of a kilowatt-hour per day).

If you’re paying $.16/kilowatt hour, that’s a savings of... ah, forget it. Repeat after me: "I hack for the hack, not the payback."

Why it works: Well, for one, freezers tend to be better insulated than refrigerators. And for another, cold air settles. Every time you open the door to your fridge, cold air is essentially falling out of it; when you lift the lid on a chest freezer, the cold stays where it belongs: In the freezer.

Heart of the hack: Plug in external thermostat. Stick thermostat sensor in freezer (just run the capillary tube between the sensor and the thermostat over the lid gasket; the gasket will protect it from damage when opening and closing your freez... er, fridge), and set thermostat at 40-degrees or so. Plug the freezer into the thermostat and voila! You are a greenhacker.

Handy tips: If this is going to be a long-term arrangement, get some internal dividers for your new chest fridge to minimize the cluster factor. It also helps to elevate the freezer on some sort of base to ease the strain on your back.


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Learn how to hack ordinary household systems to run cleaner and more efficiently.

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Ben Hewitt

Ben Hewitt

Ben Hewitt is a freelance writer who lives off the grid with his family in Vermont. He blogs and writes for a wide range of titles. read full bio.
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Ben Hewitt blogs at WickedOutdoorsy .com. Following the "Greenneck Way," the site serves up real-world rural perspectives on a sustainable world, straight from the Green Mountains of Vermont.
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