Saving Money with Rain Catchment Barrels: Doing The Math

14458354548_b5f423512d_zPrepare yourselves: this post contains math.  (Ack, the horror!)

In case you were wondering, it’s been balls hot in Texas lately.  As such, our garden is feeling the effects.  We’re having to fill the resevoir in the raised bed daily, and our in-ground roses, begonias, salvia, and snapdragon at least every other day.

Which means, we’re using somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 gallons a day to water our plants at the moment

(For those that are interested in the math – we have an approximately 8’x4’x2′ reservoir in our raised bed garden, but it’s filled with rocks.  Assuming that the actual portion that the water fills is about 1/4 of the reservoir, then, 8 cubic feet of water.  8 cubic feet is about 60 gallons.  Assuming I use about half as much again to water the in-ground plants (but that I only do it every other day) then that averages out to about 15 additional gallons a day.)

It’s that hot in Texas from about July – September.  The rest of the year, we water once or twice a week, so even taking the lower once-a week figure, that’s roughly 10k gallons a year just going directly into our flowers & veggies. Considering that our water rate (given our other residential uses – laundry, showers, cooking, etc.) is roughly $7.48 per thousand gallons used, that comes out to around $75 a year.

For water. That we’re putting right back onto the ground.

So what’s an aspiring gardener to do? Our answer: rainwater collection barrels.

We found 50-gallon barrels on Woot for $69.99 a piece.  Given that Texas (and some other states) exclude sales tax for rainwater collection, and our city subsidizes the purchase of rain barrels to the tune of 50 cents per gallon, that means we were able to purchase two barrels (or 100 gallons capacity) for just $90 total – a pretty good price.

According to stats that I found online, Austin averages between 25-40 days a year of precipitation.  Meaning our new rain barrels could help us save up to 4,000 gallons of city water, or approximately $30, a year. In other words, our rain barrels will pay for themselves in three years time, and after that, they’ll start making us money.

But wait, you say. Even if it rains 40 days a year, that doesn’t mean you’ll fill your barrels with every storm.  And that’s true, BUT…the genius of rain catchment systems is that they use the large surface area of your roof to funnel water into your barrels.  The conventional formula is that 1,000 square feet of roof + 1 inch of rain will yield you approximately 623 gallons of water.

I’m not entirely sure of our roof size, but it’s probably fairly close to 1,000 square feet.  Which means that I only need 1/6 of an inch of rain to fill our barrels.  I’m liking our chances.

So if you really want to grow your own vegetables and have it be economical, it’s basically a no-brainer. But beyond that, it’s also environmentally friendly (especially in drought-prone areas) and in an emergency situation, they can even serve as backup water for you and your family (so long as you boil it first). Win-win.

Do you use rain barrels?  Tell us your experience in the comments!  Header image courtesy of Flickr user mwms1916, under a Creative Commons license.


Trip Report: 48 Hours in Philadelphia

Recently, the hubby and I tacked two quick days in Philadelphia onto another trip we were already taking.  Neither of us had ever been to Philly before, and as we’d already be in the Northeast and therefore fairly close, we decided to use our Southwest miles & Companion Pass to make it happen.

Superior King Room at the Le Meridien Philadelphia
Superior King Room at the Le Meridien Philadelphia

For a hotel this trip, we stayed two nights in the Le Meridien Philadelphia, a level 5 Starwood hotel, with free nights ranging from 12k-16k points. This was a fantastic choice, as the hotel was gorgeous and in a great location.  The hubby also claims that, for a tall man, this was the best hotel shower he’d ever encountered – fantastic pressure, mounted above the seven foot mark.  He took two showers a day the whole time we were there, he liked it so much.

The view from our room of beautiful City Hall.
The view from our room of beautiful City Hall.

My Gold status on Starwood meant we got bumped up to a “Superior” room for free, giving us a fantastic view of Philadelphia City Hall – one of the most beautiful pieces of architechure in the country. As Superior rooms during our stay were running $495 a night, we were able to get a points redemption value of 4.1 cents per dollar – a terrific value.

From our home base in the City Centre, we headed out on the night of our arrival to Zahav, a scene-y restaurant cooking modern Israeli cuisine.  And it was amazing.  So amazing, I forgot to take pictures.  Oops.   (But here’s the restaurants own Instagram account, to make up for it.)  After dinner, we wondered down to the waterfront to check out the Spruce Street Harbor Park, a pop up summer park installation complete with hammocks, beer sales, and mood lighting – a fantastic first night in Philly.

Spruce Street Harbor Park. Photo credit: flickr user kjarrett under a creative commons license.
Spruce Street Harbor Park. Photo: Flickr user kjarrett under a creative commons license.

The next morning, we jumped up early to do the “touristy” stuff.  We went to the US Mint (free, but not worth your time), the Liberty Bell (free, only takes a few minutes), and then over to the Franklin Institute for their current exhibit, The Art of the Brick.

The real Liberty Bell vs. the Lego one.
The real Liberty Bell vs. the Lego one, at the Art of the Brick exhibit.

Feeling famished, we headed over to Oyster House for some happy hour action, including their buck-a-shuck raw oysters, as well as their $5 house gin punch. Unable to resist the regular menu as well, we also sampled the crab-topped-fried-green-tomatoes, and this was a fantastic choice.  Philly really shouldn’t have better fried green tomatoes than the South, but, um, they do.

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Oysters and Crab-Topped Fried Green Tomatoes from Oyster House.

Dinner that evening was at Little Nonna’s, the little sister restaurant of the much hyped Barbuzzo. And let me tell ya: the hype was wrong.  Olive Garden was better than this stuff. #Foodiefail.

Pats to the left, Geno’s to the right.

Alas, we recovered well, and set out the next morning to try to settle the cheesesteak wars, the headquarters of which are settled on a single block in South Philly. We tried a “Wiz Wit” (cheesteak with grilled onions and cheese whiz) from both Pat’s and Geno’s, and…..overall we thought Geno’s was slightly tastier, but that Pat’s has better bread. Really, though, neither were amazing – and the pastrami sandwiches we’d gotten for lunch the day before at a little Jewish deli inside Reading Terminal Market were better than either.

With just a few hours left, we headed over to the Rodin museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, then ventured to the airport early to deal with some delayed flight drama. And that brought our 48 hours in Philly to a close.

Overall, I was really impressed with how gorgeous the City Center was.  There was beautiful art, architechture, parks, and people everywhere we looked.  Of course, with only 48 hours, we surely missed something – tell us what else there is to see in Philly in the comments below.

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Trip Review: A Weekend In Portland, Maine

Portland Head Light

This past weekend, the hubby and I crossed one more destination off our domestic travel bucket list, thanks in no small part to our Southwest Companion Pass: beautiful Portland, Maine.

To get there, we redeemed around 17,500 Southwest Rapid Reward points for a round-trip flight directly into Portland via Baltimore for the hubby. Then, using my Southwest Companion Pass that we earned with the help of two Southwest credit cards, I booked my companion flights for free.

And while Maine is know for their quaint B&Bs, we decided we wanted to be in the thick of the action, and instead transferred 36,000 Chase Ultimate reward points to Hyatt, which we used to book three nights at the Hyatt Place Old Port hotel.

A standard King room in the Hyatt Place Old Port.
A standard King room in the Hyatt Place Old Port

This turned out to be a fantastic choice – we were right on Fore Street (essentially the Bourbon street of Maine) among shops and restaurants, and only a couple blocks from Casco Bay. Moreover, the complimentary breakfast saved us a few extra dollars each morning.  So, if you’re keeping track, that means our flights, hotel, and breakfast each day: totally free.

So what did we spend all that money on, since we didn’t use it for travel expenses?  One word: seafood.  Lots, and lots, and lots of seafood.

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As soon as we arrived, we headed over to the Portland Lobster Company for our first lobster roll of the trip, plus some fried clam strips and local beer.  It would turn out that this would be the best lobster roll we had all trip – not surprising, I mean, just look at all that claw meat!  The atmosphere was fun too, with picnic tables and high-top bar tables located on a floating wooden barge, right on the water. A fantastic way to start the trip.

Then, that evening, we headed to what is probably Portland’s most decorated restaurant, Vinland, for an 8-course chef’s tasting menu. Chef David Levi, who trained at Noma in Copenhagen, cooks in a similar new Nordic style but with only (yes, only) Maine ingredients – meaning you won’t find things like pepper, olive oil, or lemon in his dishes.  Moreover, since he’s gluten free, the entirety of his menu is too.

The meticulous preparation of a dish at Vinland
The meticulous preparation of a dish at Vinland

With meticulous attention to detail, we got to watch the Chef and his team crank out each course – the standout of which was a raw beef dish with pickled onions, cranberry, and horseradish.  Still, the privilege of this carefully orchestrated dinner sets you back a pretty penny – $150 per person for the tasting, and an additional $75 per person for wine pairings. While we were glad we did the dinner, we thought an edited 5-course tasting would have been more than sufficient.

Our second day in Maine, we headed down the coast to Freeport, Maine, home to LL Bean, and more importantly for our purposes, the LL Bean Discovery School.

The giant boot at the LL Bean Flagship.
The giant boot at the LL Bean Flagship.

The school offers all sorts of classes – some free, some paid – in things like fly casting, kayaking, backpacking, and our object that day: skeet shooting.  We got the chance to try pulls from two different traps using a 20-gauge shotgun, and we actually did pretty good!  More than that though, it was a fun outdoor excursion and chance to meet other travelers – I’d highly recommend the Discovery school.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the town of Freeport and driving up and down the coast, before enjoying Sicilian style pizza at Slab for dinner, followed by local beers at biergartens Novare Res and the Thirsty Pig.

The oyster bar at Eventide Oyster Company.
The oyster bar at Eventide Oyster Company.

For our final day in Portland, we took to the water for a Lighthouse Lovers Cruise around Casco Bay, then lunch at Eventide Oyster Company.  Here, we had our third lobster roll of the trip, but unlike the mayonnaise-and-garlic-bread affairs we’d previously experienced, this one was marinated in brown butter and served in a steamed bun – different, but still good.

Finally, it was time for our final meal in Portland, so we headed just across the street from our hotel to Portland raw institution, Miyake.

Uni, oyster with foam, and sashimi plate from Miyake
Uni, oyster with foam, and sashimi plate from Miyake

Here, we did the omakase (chef’s choice) menu and were treated to some of the best seafood dishes we’ve ever had. Fair warning though: if you’re going here planning on filling up on countless spicy tuna rolls, you may be in for a disappointment.  Sushi is part of the offering here, but the real highlights are their unique preparations of both raw and cooked local seafood.

The next morning, we headed back to reality, but thoroughly loved our weekend adventure in Portland.  Soaking up the cool 70-degree weather while Austin sizzled in triple digits made this a perfect summer getaway.

Where did you go on your summer vacation?  Tell us in the comments. Header image by Flickr user binkley27, under a creative commons license.

Five Steps For Handling a Delayed Flight Like a Pro

IMG_2616Right now, dear readers, the hubby and I are sipping on margaritas, writing this with complimentary wi-fi, with our phones charging, awaiting a flight to Chicago from the Philadelphia airport. All in all, life’s pretty good.

The rest of the passengers around us, however, are not sharing our zen. Due to bad weather up and down the Eastern seaboard today, a vast majority of my fellow travelers out of this airport had their flights delayed or cancelled, resulting in missed connections and next-day rebookings.

In fact, our original flight was set to to suffer the same fate: an hour weather delay of our flight from Philly to Atlanta would have caused us to miss our connecting flight from Atlanta to Austin. But we managed to get ourselves rebooked way before most other passengers even knew there was a delay.  And you can too. Here’s how:

  1.  Check flight status early and often on your day of travel

We like to do this a couple different ways. First of all, I have the app for each airline I usually travel preloaded onto my phone, making it easy to check directly with the airline whenever I please.

Secondly, because the hubby uses an Android phone and a Gmail address, all his travel automatically populates within “Google Now“. I don’t know where Google pulls their info from, but oftentimes they alert us long before the airline does of a delay or cancellation – sometimes even 24 hours ahead of time.

That’s what happened today.  Our flight was scheduled for 5:10pm. We probably wouldn’t have normally arrived at the airport until around 3:30pm, by which time all the available rebooking options would have already been taken up by other passengers; we would have been stuck in Atlanta for the night.

But Google Now alerted us to the delay around noon. So we were able to call the airline, and by 1pm, still 2.5 hours before most passengers arrived at the airport and learned of the delay, we were already rebooked via Chicago, and checked in to that flight instead.

2. Know The Alternate Routes You Want

When you call the airline to get yourself rebooked, know what you want to make happen. Your options at this points are varied: you could ask to get rebooked on an alternate route that day, you could ask to get rebooked on the same route the next day and also get a hotel voucher, you could ask to see if they’ll place a hold on your connecting flight (essentially delaying that flight – an option they’ll usually only agree to if there are plenty of other passengers also making that connection), or you could just ask for points to make up for your bad experience. Because there are so many possible solutions here, it’s important to know what it is you’re asking for.

This is the other reason I have all the airline apps cluttering my phone. As soon as I get notice of a delay, I can check both on that airline and any of their codeshare airlines for alternate same-day options to my destination. This includes checking alternate nearby airports as well; once you get to the airport you’re locked in to leaving from that location, but at the point you first learn of the delay, you have plenty of time to explore other options.

For us, we saw that there was an alternate route that took us through Chicago, also on Southwest (which we were originally booked on). I noted that there was still availability on those flights, and proceeded to call Southwest to see what I could do.

3.  Be NICE. Insanely nice. Ridiculously nice. 

When you make the call, a few things to keep in mind: the person you are talking to is not the one responsible for delaying your flight. In fact, they want to help you. So don’t take out your frustrations on them. Ask them how their day is. Say please and thank you. Be nice.

You may think that it’s their job to rebook you to your destination, and that’s true.  But the phone agents still have a lot of extra favors that they can decide to bestow, or not.  Like waving change fees, giving you priority boarding, assigning your seats, etc. So be nice.

However – if you get an agent that doesn’t seem to want to help you at all? Just hang up and try again. Keep calling until you get a friendly agent, and don’t be afraid to reference any premium status you may have with the airline to your advantage.

For us, we got a friendly phone agent on the first call.  I explained that we would miss our connection, but saw there was another route with availability through Chicago that arrived about an hour later – could she help us get on that flight?  And she did, without any additional fees, which is impressive considering that we were booked on award + companion pass travel and so weren’t generating any revenue for the airline. Score.

4. Get to the airport early, anyways. 

If a lot of flights are cancelled, delayed, or just generally going to hell in your destination, get to the airport early.  The booking agents are going to be having to take extra time to try to rebook disgruntled passengers, and so baggage check, security, and even boarding can take longer than expected. Give yourself an hour more than you would normally, and followup with every single airline representative you encounter (following rule #3, of course) to see what other extras they may be able to provide.

For us, while the phone agent was able to rebook us, she wasn’t able to give us the “Earlybird” status we’d paid for on our original flight- we got late C boarding passes on our new flights, meaning it would be unlikely we could sit together given Southwest’s rather unique boarding process.  Similarly, the agent at the checkin desk just told us to contact customer service by email after the fact.

But once we got through security, the gate agent was able to help us out, bumping us up to “A group” boarding passes with little to no hassle. And we were able to make it happen because we had plenty of time to wait in line and chat with each of these agents, instead of stressing and fretting about making the checked bag cut off because the booking agent line wasn’t moving fast enough.

5.  Followup After The Fact

Once you’ve survived the travel drama and made it to your destination, it’s time to email the airline and let them know how they could have done better. If you paid for any extras (like priority boarding, or a higher class seat) that you didn’t end up getting because of the rebooking, ask to have it refunded.

But even if you got everything you paid for, it’s still worth writing the airline, and explaining how you were inconvenienced. Most airlines will offer up some token of apology – either in points, or travel credit – especially if the delays were their fault (e.g. caused by staffing issues or mechanical problems.)  Keep in mind that according to the ticket contract, they owe you nothing, and once again, be nice.

We’ll be doing this once we get home tomorrow, and will update to let you know how it goes.

But there you have it – five steps that, if followed, can help prevent huge headaches when your flight itinerary goes wonky for whatever reason. Got tips for getting rebooked you’d like to share?  Tell us in the comments.