Blog Archives

Use Companion Planting to Repel Pests and Grow a Better Garden [Gardening]

Companion planting is a natural way to enhance your garden, control pests, and attract beneficial insects (like butterflies). By arranging “friendly” or synergistic plants near each other, you can keep bugs at bay and possibly avoid having to use pesticides. More »







Build a DIY Backyard Fire Pit [DIY]

Summer's coming, and for many of us, nothing cures residual work stress like enjoying a nice fire in the great outdoors—or even just our backyards. A step-by-step guide on DIY site Instructables details how to build a backyard fire pit. More »







How to Build a DIY Dorm-Legal A/C [Back To School]

Ed. note: We’ve covered the homemade air conditioner territory before on Lifehacker, but HackCollege’s Kelly Sutton offers this awesome video guide to the DIY, dorm-legal air conditioner to help students (or anyone trying to save a few bucks) stay cool.

Many campuses have strict policies regarding portable air-conditioners. Because A/C ain't cheap, schools worry that students would overcool their rooms and increase the electricity bill (after all, you don't pay utilities for your dorm room)—or maybe admins are worried about improperly affixed units falling off the sides of buildings. Either way, some campuses are unbearably hot during the earlier parts of fall and give students no way to remedy the situation. Until now.

When you have no other option, just build it yourself

Believe it or not, it’s possible to build your own air conditioner for about $40. Well technically, it’s not an air conditioner; it’s more of a heat-concentrator. It will cool even the hottest dorm room to a nippy 60 degrees Fahrenheit in no time. To get started, you’ll need to make a trip to the hardware store.

You will be building a unit that absorbs heat into some water, allowing you to quickly dispose of that water outside.

Materials

Instructions

  1. Detach the face of the fan and put it on your work bench or table.
  2. Grab your zip-ties and copper tubing. Start coiling the copper tubing around the face of the fan. Use the zip-ties about every 6 inches to attach that section to the fan face. Make sure that both ends shoot out the bottom of the fan’s face.
  3. Take your hose clamps and secure the rubber tubing onto either end of the copper tubing. If you need to cut your copper tubing, don’t forget to sand the edges before you start working with the tubing. Freshly cut copper is very sharp.
  4. Fill up one of your buckets with water.
  5. Position the bucket full of water on a ledge or a desk—someplace above ground level.
  6. Siphon the water through the contraption to the bucket on the floor. (Bernoulli’s Principle in action!)
  7. Turn on the fan.

After a few minutes, all of the water will drain into the bucket on the floor. You can now dispose of this lukewarm bucket as you see fit. Repeat a few times to get your room extra chilled.

Many ways to skin a cat

This is just one way of creating a dorm room cooling device. You can also create something more akin to a “swamp cooler” if you’re looking for something a tad simpler. A swamp cooler is just a device that usually just moves air over a body of water to aid in evaporation and spreading the chill. This isn’t so great if you’re looking to keep the humidity down.

Or you can always just seek inspiration from Mr. Freeze.

The school-bound productivity nuts at weblog HackCollege will be joining us all week to offer their perspective on making the most of your Back to School regimen.





Top 10 DIY Projects that Harness the Power of the Sun [Lifehacker Top 10]

Cheap, powerful, and available almost everywhere—solar energy is a truly great thing. With these 10 sun-powered projects, you can turn a sunny day off into some brag-worthy, possibly money-saving backyard tech.

Photo by david.nikonvscanon.

10. Engrave wood with a “sun laser”

Leave them alone long enough, and nearly every kid will investigate, or at least hear about, the devastating effects of magnifying glasses and clear, sunny weather on insects. Route that fascination with concentrated sunlight into some wood engraving. Aluminum foil (or, preferably, foil tape), sunglasses, a razor blade, and a magnifying glass are all you need to get creative with an old piece of wood or other dark objects. You’ll need to provide supervision, lest bad aim turn into a kindling incident, but it’s a great project for kids, as well as a unique way to leave your mark with style. (Original post)

9. Heat water in your backyard

It’s not an efficient way to keep your hot tub filled, but the kind of solar-powered water heater detailed at the Instructables link above can get a big batch of water up to 170F without requiring any work from your water heater, and the kit costs around $5 with the right parts suppliers. Even if you pay a bit more, think about how often the backyard grill, deck, or pool could use a little cleaning with some hot, soapy water. This project gets you a free source of ever-ready cleaning water, and at a pretty neat price. (Original post)

8. Start a fire with a soda can and chocolate

This little project is the most reliant on a strong bit of sunlight, but totally worth the effort when you pull it off. The chocolate polishes the bottom of a soda can, which better focuses and intensifies sunlight reflections, creating a cone of fire-starting power that leaves your fellow campers impressed—or the other attendees at the park picnic grateful you were there when they forgot the matches. (Original post)

7. Convert a lawnmower to solar power

If you’ve got a small-ish lawn, a battery-powered mower is much easier on your and your neighbors’ ears, and it saves you the hassle and cost of gas refills. Take those eco-benefits to the next level by converting a gas-guzzling push mower to use a solar-charged battery. Appropedia’s version is a definite weekend project for an older model, but if you’ve got a newer battery mower, it’s not too hard to simply start charging it with a solar panel instead of your wall socket, and this guide will help get you there. (Original post)

6. Estimate your home’s solar potential

A solar-powered house sounds like a neat idea in abstract, but how would you know if your house’s roof could really sustain worthwhile energy? Luckily, a big search company has overhead images of just about every house out there, and mashup tool RoofRay can use that image, plus your location’s average sunlight and some roof details, to get a starting estimate on whether you can use the sun to push back on your power meter a bit. (Original post)

5. Extend Wi-Fi to your backyard

Probably the least practical and most expensive of the projects listed here, the solar-powered Wi-Fi extender is definitely the most rewarding from a geek cred and green power perspective. Popular Science explains in great detail how to solder and network together a semi-standard Linksys Wi-Fi router, range extender, solar panel, battery, and higher-powered antenna, and then set it up to grab Wi-Fi from your household's main network and expand it to the great outdoors—or, at least, the outdoors behind your house. That leaves you with regular web access anywhere around your property, without having to worry about running cables across the lawn. (Original post)

4. Cook with a cardboard box

There’s an entire realm of recipes and cookbooks that purport to help you get cooking done in the summer without turning on your oven. Skip the gazpacho and the house-warming heat with an oven built from aluminum foil, construction paper, plastic, and a few other household items, including a firm cardboard box. It’s great for saving energy, saving time, and feeling like you really made the most of a warm, sunny day. Want to get a bit more efficient and physics-y with your outdoor oven? Try a parabolic solar cooker. Photo by thescarletmanuka. (Original post)

3. Build a greenhouse for $50

If you're lucky enough to live where plants and food grow all year, you already know the power of photosynthesis. For those who could use a little more prep time for their seedlings, a longer growing season, or just a buffer against the occasional plant-punching dry spell, The Door Garden explains how to take some light construction materials—$50 if you happen to have most of it lying around, about $150 purchased new—and build a greenhouse that will withstand most winters and thrive in every other season. Just got a few plants you want to get started with condensed solar power? Try the mini-greenhouse made from a window. (Original post)

2. Charge an iPhone/iPod with the sun

We’re big fans of the MintyBoost DIY USB charger kit, a great project for electronic beginners and pros alike. It was only a matter of time, then, until someone switched the power source from AA batteries in an Altoids case to a lithium-ion battery with solar charging capabilities. Completing the modified kit isn’t a great leap more difficult than the original, and once you do, you’ll be glad to get a lot more use out of your windowsills, and hand over a lot less money at the grocery store every few weeks. It’s not necessarily the most effective method of charging, but it’s undeniably cool. (Original post)

1. Sun jar garden light

The solar-powered outdoor lights they sell at your local garden/home improvement store can be subtle or original-looking—if you want to pay a premium. Otherwise, you're stuck with painted plastic and models that hold a pretty weak charge. The sun jars constructed by our own Jason, on the other hand, cost only about $11 each—less if you have jars or batteries on hand—and give off a pretty neat glow, powered entirely by solar energy from earlier that day.


What sun-powered projects are in your mental queue for some sunny weekend? What great solar hacks have you pulled off already? Tell us all about them in the comments.



Position Your Plants and Trees for Optimal Home Cooling [Beat The Heat]

Plants and trees can both cool your home and help cut down on your A/C bill, all the more so if you know their optimal positioning spots. Fortunately if you don't, Bob Vila—yes, Bob Vila—does.

For those looking to optimize their energy use during the summer, southfacing trees and plants aren’t the way to go. Instead, position your greenery to the east or west of your home to block low, early, and late day sun. Decidious trees are a good bet in colder climates.

Bob adds:

Trees on the southern exposure have to shade only a small angle of high summer sun. For that reason, fast-growing, or columnar trees may be used. It is interesting to note that a tree 25 feet distant from a building must be over 50 feet tall to provide shade on the south side in summer. It takes a long time to grow a tree that tall. But if it’s planted 10 feet from the building, it needs to be only 25 feet tall. In summer you’ll want trees on the western exposure to protect the house from the hot afternoon sun.

Hit up the Vila-player for the full audio, then et us know if and how you use greenery to cool your home in the comments.





Give Your Air Conditioner a Check Up [Beat The Heat]

Modern air conditioning units are quite dependable and long lived, but that doesn’t mean you can install one and forget about it. If you’ve never given your air conditioner a checkup, now’s the time.

Photo by macinate.

There are a dozen little things that can contribute to your air conditioner being less efficient than when it was factory fresh. Worn fan belts, bent cooling fins, damaged insulation on the coolant line, and other small signs of wear and tear on your unit all chip away at efficiency. Individually, most of them won’t contribute to a catastrophic loss of cooling power but if you’ve got ten minor things wrong with your air conditioning unit that only sap 1% efficiency, you’ve got a cumulative drop of 10%.

At the home improvement site HomeOwner.Net they have a list of ways you can tune up your air conditioning unit whether you’re using an evaporation “swamp” cooler or a refrigerated air conditioning unit. Here are a few tips from the checklist for refrigerated units:

  • Be sure the suction or cool line from the condenser to the compressor is insulated with snap-on urethane or other high R-value insulation.
  • Straighten all of the evaporator and condenser coil fins with a small pointed stick or a special plastic fin comb. Bent fins do not allow proper air distribution.
  • If the condenser is at ground level, be sure no vegetation or foreign material is restricting the air flow path. If possible, shade the condenser with trees or bushes, which will improve the cooling efficiency by elimination of direct sunshine.

I went through the checklist with my own air conditioning unit and found that exposure to sunlight had caused the insulation around the coolant pipe going into the house to start crumbling and there are a few spots that could use a little grooming with a fin comb. If your unit is more than a year old you’ll likely be able to find a few items off the checklist that require your attention. Once you’re done with your air conditioner checkup you’ll have lowered your energy bill and made your house an even more pleasant refuge from the summer sun.





Mythbusting: Four Myths About Staying Hydrated Debunked [Beat The Heat]

Your mom wasn’t completely wrong about the need to stay hydrated in hot weather, but your sweet old mum, and many others, have been needlessly worrying about the wrong things. Here are four hydration myths you can safely discard.

Want to check out all the myths on a single page? Try this gallery-free link.

Busted: “Drink eight glasses of water a day”

Snopes.com does a great job breaking open this health advice snippet that everybody and their grandparents (and especially your grandparents) offer up when nearby people say they’re parched. It might have started as a reference point for the easily dehydrated, like infants and the elderly, or it might have derived from measuring IV drip output over a day. Either way, it is, at best, akin to stating that one should cook all their food to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, just to ensure every single living thing is dead inside it; at worst, you’re over-spending on bottled water and working your kidneys a bit too hard. Photo by Oslo in the Summertime.

Busted: “Caffeinated beverages don’t count”

The Center for Human Nutrition released their study results after monitoring the hydration of 18 healthy men drinking water, coffee, caffeinated and caffeine-free sodas, and juices. Their results "found no significant differences" in hydration with any combination of drinks, and suggests that those who normally take in caffeine retain at least half the fluid in their coffees, Mountain Dew Code Reds, or other boosters of choice. Of course, that study is based on drinking a "normal" amount of coffee by a "normal" person, and it doesn't quite extend to alcohol—that actually produces a net loss of fluid, but that's at a "noticeable" level after more than one drink. Photo by André Banyai.

Busted: “Feeling thirsty is ‘too late’”

Some of us sit at a desk for most of our working day. Some of us get serious exercise. Some of us break a sweat just heading out to our car at noon in our sunny states, while others are lucky to break 72 in the summer. The one common denominator of how much water you need? Your mouth and its ability to tell you you’re thirsty. Those nutritionists and doctors who don’t believe in arbitrary fluid amounts say that drinking for thirst is fine, and that being thirsty is not “too late.” Photo by DownTown Pictures.

Busted: “You need sports drinks for outdoor exercise”

As WebMD points out, and as almost every coach we've ever had will tell you, plain old tap water is fine for the vast majority of sweat-inducing outdoor activities. If you're running or undertaking another strenuous activity for an hour or more, you might consider one of those crazy-colored liquids to replace the sodium, potassium, and magnesium you're losing through sweat—but watered-down fruit juice can often get the same trick done, and it definitely sells at a much lower mark-up. Photo by Yezi9713.





Hang a Damp Towel to Cool a Hot House [Beat The Heat]

If the air in your house is hotter and more humid than it is outside, you don’t have to crank up the air conditioning. A damp towel, as suggested by a Death Valley park ranger, can even things out.

Photo by tsmall.

The damp towel, preferably light-colored, should hang in a window, where its trapped water evaporates and cools the air flowing through it into your house. It’s the kind of temperature hack you should only have to tend to once or twice a day, and might be easily pulled off by just wetting your towel a bit more after a shower.

Once you’ve got the cooler air running through your house, be sure to run your ceiling fans counter-clockwise to keep the proper air circulating around. If you’ve got another hack for manipulating the air running around your house, tell us about it in the comments. Meanwhile, hit up the link below for 22 other suggestions (click by click, unfortunately) to cool down your house.





Twist and Press for Better Grilled Chicken [Food]

Grilling whole chickens is a healthy, cheap, and tasty use of your food dollar, assuming you don’t overcook them. BBQ dude Chris Lilly explains when to pull the poultry off the fire.

Photo by thebittenword.com.

If you’re frequently cutting open your chicken to inspect the inside meat for pinkness, you’re letting a lot of moisture out far too quickly. And if you’re stabbing the bird every few minutes with an instant-read thermometer, you’re no longer enjoying your grill. Lilly’s two-step process for better, more consistent chicken is worth writing down near your recipes. Before you toss your chicken on the rack, give its breast meat a little massage:

To even out the thickness, press firmly with the heel of your hand on the thickest part of each breast immediately prior to putting it on the grill. This will ensure more even cooking.

And when you’re watching the chicken, you don’t need anything more than your hand to check if it’s done:

Twist a chicken leg with your fingers. If it doesn’t budge, it isn’t done. If it spins like a roulette wheel in Las Vegas, it has cooked too long. Ideally you want to feel slight tension and then a release of the joint.

While you’ve got the apron on, read up on the basic chemistry of marinades and your standard chicken grilling technique. And tell us your own chicken pit boss tips in the comments.





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