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Thomas Skiffington, CRS, GRI, CRB, ABR, ePro, CLHMS, SRES, RECS, CDPE, ECOBROKER
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Tom's Blog

4 Popular Indoor Uses for Concrete Stamps this Summer

June 21, 2011 6:27 pm

 Stamped concrete has found its way into many different areas of the home. Innovations in this popular technique have inspired homeowners and contractors to find new uses for the medium indoors. ConcreteNetwork.com, an online leader for concrete information, has released a list of the four most popular uses for concrete stamps in the home. 

While consumers are most often used to seeing stamped concrete outside on patios, walkways, driveways, and even public spaces, more and more consumers are discovering the benefits of installing a stamped concrete surface indoors too. Here are four of the most popular interior stamped applications:
1. Entrances, kitchens, family rooms and basements
2. Vertical applications on walls and fireplaces
3. Concrete countertops, bar tops and bathroom vanities
4. Existing interior concrete floors using a stampable overlay 

Stamped concrete offers the durability of traditional concrete, with the added versatility that decorative concrete applications have to offer. The ability of concrete stamps to produce close replicas of brick, natural stone and even wood makes this technique a viable option for consumers wanting to update their interior spaces this summer. 

For a more in depth look into how stamped concrete is being incorporated into homes across the country, visit StampedConcrete.org.
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Illuminating News on Energy-Saving Lighting

June 21, 2011 6:27 pm

Your RIS Consumer Confidant wants homeowners to be very bright when it comes to energy-saving lighting, and that means keeping up-to-date on new developments in the lighting industry. There’s even been some illuminating news lately related to “old-fashioned” incandescent bulb technology.

Though conventional incandescent light bulbs have been criticized by both government and energy advocates as huge energy wasters, lighting companies have been rapidly adapting with new and improved incandescent halogen bulbs that use 25 to 30 percent less energy on average, and can last up to three times longer than older versions.

The light given off by incandescent halogen resembles the familiar warm glow of old-fashioned bulbs. They are dimmable and are the most similar in shape and size to standard light bulbs, but also reduce energy use.

Fans of incandescents, mainly the majority of opponents to new lighting standards, criticize the harshness of the light emitted by older LED and CFL bulbs. But newer bulbs have been developed to emit warmer and softer light.
Other concerns include the delayed start time and inability to dim older CFL bulbs. Similarly, however, newer, higher-quality CFLs are available without these issues.

In addition, CFLs contain an infinitesimal amount of mercury, requiring CFLs to be recycled instead of thrown in the trash.

Meanwhile, new incandescents are mercury-free, and produce light similar to the old-fashioned bulbs with a similarly immediate startup. For a detailed comparison, the Department of Energy’s website has an article describing each new category of energy efficient light bulbs.

Just remember, every time you switch any fixture in your home to a newer, energy saving alternative, that fixture will begin manufacturing savings for you. Start by selecting the bulb appropriate for the light fixture. Then choose a new bulb that will create your desired room ambience.

Energy Star also has developed a guide showcasing the difference between the various types of energy efficient bulbs.

If you are just beginning a transition into energy efficient lighting, first decide which light fixtures you use most, and start by changing out the bulbs in those fixtures. These are the areas where you will see the most drastic results in energy savings.
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Summer Learning: ‘Fun & Games’ Keep Kids Learning All Summer Long

June 21, 2011 6:27 pm

For kids everywhere, summer vacation is an inch away. As their focus turns to sleeping in and swimming pools, students work towards the last day of school, where inevitably many will flip an internal switch— learning off, play time on! But the two don’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, mutually exclusive. 

There is a wealth of research that supports the idea that children greatly benefit from learning over the summer. Without educational engagement, students can forget many of the skills they just acquired—in reading, spelling, and particularly, in math. Similarly, the importance of play in child development is a widely researched topic. According to a 2007 report from the American Association of Pediatrics, play helps children reach essential social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones. 

“One of the best, most effective, ways for students to learn is through play. It is both a natural and research-supported approach that educators use all the time,” comments Senior Vice President for Curriculum and Instruction for Connections Academy, Dr. Patricia Hoge. “The great thing about summer is that it offers students a lot more time to play to their hearts content—to really explore a subject, ask questions and think—and this helps kids’ brains stay sharp. For parents who are uncertain about where to find the ‘teachable moments’ in play, our teachers have come up with some great tips to get you started.” 

This summer, the educators at leading virtual school Connections Academy are encouraging parents to use games to combat summer learning loss. Here are their “Top 10 Summer Learning Tips” featuring games to help give kids an educational boost while enjoying summer fun! 

1.Take a Chance!
Monopoly and Monopoly Junior are classic board games that put math skills to the test. Counting money, buying and selling, and making change, all reinforce math concepts that many students are learning as early as first grade and kindergarten. Be sure to stop the game as needed to explain and assist with math problems. 

2. Move over Milton Bradley—invent a Game
Encourage children to get creative and develop their own board game. Use a piece of cardboard as the “board,” break out the crayons and markers, and let imaginations run wild. Refer to favorite games like Candy Land for ideas about structure and format. Kids will have a ball making their own playing pieces and even dice with modeling clay. This activity is an artistic way to boost logic skills. Don’t forget to ask children to write directions—it’s a great way to support reading and writing. Fun Fact: Check out the history of Candy Land on Hasbro’s website. 

3. Test your knowledge—Online Trivia Quiz Challenge
Check out an interactive online educational activity that you and your kids can play together. Connections Academy’s free online Quiz Bowl Challenge is available to the public and features 20 trivia questions about “fun & games” – board games, playground games, sports, and more. 

4. Chalk it up
Replicate and enlarge a word search outdoors—in your driveway or in your favorite park—using sidewalk chalk. Kids will love the giant scale of their word search and will have fun practicing reading and spelling while searching for words. Try using different themes for each puzzle (book characters, presidents, states, etc.) to encourage your child to learn more about that particular subject or topic. Need an extra challenge? Have your child make up a word search for mom and dad! Be sure to check park rules to make sure that sidewalk chalk is allowed. 

5. Be Wordy
With Scrabble and Scrabble Junior Edition, students can dig deep into their vocabulary for words that will get the highest score—and they won’t even realize that they are practicing spelling at the same time. Ask kids to use vocabulary words from the previous school year, and award extra points if they can use the words in a sentence. When children come across a word they don’t know, refresh research skills and break out the dictionary and explore the definition together. Try making a rule that words must be three or more letters. 

6. Deal out the Fun
Pyramid solitaire is a great way for students to keep those basic math skills in check—it’s a great game to play when family and friends are not available. Students will practice their addition finding pairs of cards that add up to 13, and removing them from the pyramid until there are no more pairs left. To learn how to play, visit http://www.solitairecity.com/Help/Pyramid.shtml. Seems too simple for your child? Try racing the clock! Can your child beat his or her time the second and third time playing? Better yet, let them race you! 

7. Jump on it 
Add an educational twist to Hopscotch that will challenge children’s math skills. Instead of drawing the traditional hopscotch board with chalk, replicate a calculator large enough for your child to jump on the buttons. Kids can pick a number and then start creating math equations using addition and subtraction! To learn the details of how to play, visit familyfun.go.com, and search for Do-the-Math Hopscotch. Want more of a challenge? Try multiplication and division for a real brain boost. 

8. Game (show) on
Trivia-packed Jeopardy is one of the most popular and educational television game shows around. Why not develop your own, modified, version? Children will enjoy coming up with their own trivia categories and can use their research skills to come up with tricky trivia questions to stump their friends. To play, assign dollar amounts to each trivia question. For each correct answer kids are “awarded” the dollar amount. No real money is used, but keeping score of their winnings reinforces math skills. And be sure to encourage educational topics that stretch beyond “The Life of Justin Beiber.” 

9. Seek, Look, Find
Scavenger hunts are fun for all ages, and adding an educational element is easier than you think. Instead of using a list of objects, give your child clues that will lead to various objects around the backyard, playground or park. (Example: Find an object that might be classified as igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic. Answer: rock.) For an extra challenge, use riddles for identifying objects. Kids will be so wrapped up in the hunt they won’t even realize they’re using problem solving skills! For a large group, divide everyone into teams. 

10. Read to me
Although it doesn’t possess the same “game” qualities as the other tips on this list, no summer learning tips list would be complete without paying homage to the simple and joyful act of reading to and with children. Take turns reading pages, start a chapter book that can be read in installments, and make up your own stories—maybe even about a magical playground or spooky board game. Parents and children alike will benefit from this activity and it will encourage a lifelong love of reading. 

To learn more visit http://www.ConnectionsAcademy.com.
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Question of the Day

June 20, 2011 6:27 pm

Q: Is there anything I should know about closing day?

A: Yes. The following to-do list can help save you a few headaches and keep the closing on track:

• Keep extra money in your account. Something unexpected can pop up during the closing that will require more money out of your pocket. Take your checkbook. Even better, find out how much you will need to pay and write a certified check for the total amount.
• Take your loan commitment letter. Use it to verify loan approval in case of a mistake or misunderstanding with the lender.
• Take your contract to purchase. Pull it out if something a little suspicious comes up.
• Take your personal ID. A driver’s license or other personal identification will due.
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Word of the Day

June 20, 2011 6:27 pm

Blanket mortgage. Single mortgage that covers more than one real property, i.e. a house plus the vacant lot next door.

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Climate Right: Keeps Pets Safe & Healthy during the Dog Days of Summer

June 20, 2011 6:27 pm

Climate Right—the patent-pending, portable air conditioner designed for small spaces—is being touted as a go-to product for pet owners concerned about pet safety during the "dog days of summer." Featured on Good Morning America recently, the unit is built to cool up to 350 cubic feet of space—more than enough power to moderate temperatures in outdoor dog houses.
Unlike humans, dogs lack sweat glands, which means they can be more susceptible to summer heat issues than people. As summer heats up, help your canines stay cool by incorporating these climate control tips. 

• Manage doghouse temperatures. Outdoor doghouses are heat traps during the summer. Just as people are taken aback by extreme temperatures inside cars, dogs feel similar shock from their doghouse. Keep temperatures between 75 and 80 degrees—not too cool, not too warm. The Climate Right, as featured on Good Morning America, is a doghouse air-conditioner specifically designed to protect dogs during the hot summer months.
• Prevent sunburn. Yes, dogs can get sunburned, too. Keeping fur/hair a bit longer in the summer months or using a sunscreen specifically formulated for dogs can help keep the burn away. Apply sunblock to ears, nose, lips, groin and other places where skin is exposed to the sun.
• Keep pups hydrated. Hydration helps regulate a dog's body temperature. According to experts, animals should have about 28 milliliters of water per pound of body weight per day. (In other words, a 40-pound dog should have a liter of water every day.)
• Have fun while staying cool. Staying cool can actually be enjoyable—for both you and your dog! Just see what happens when you throw your dog an ice-cube dog bone! Additionally, if your furry friend enjoys the water, try a "puppy pool," or even a dip in the swimming pool or lake.
• Monitor for heatstroke warning signs. According to the AKC, heavy panting, rapid breathing, excessive drooling, bright gums/tongue, balance challenges, uncontrollable urination and lethargy/unwillingness to move are all potential warning signs of heatstroke. If your dog exhibits these symptoms, contract your veterinarian right away.
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Tips to Keep Insects from Driving You Buggy

June 20, 2011 6:27 pm

While the joys of summer are just around the corner, so is bug season. It is no surprise that summer welcomes more than just barbeques, pool parties and outdoor fun—it also brings back a variety of pesty annoyances. An insect invasion may be hard to avoid unless proactive steps are taken to prevent a major infestation.

“When it comes to choosing a product to control pests, one size rarely fits all,” says Larry Coltharp, director of insect control research and development with Black Flag®.

Black Flag® experts recommend homeowners protect their homes both indoors and out by spraying early in the spring, reinforce protection in the summer during peak insect season, and seal homes in the fall to keep bugs from seeking shelter. By doing so, homeowners may save more than $100, the average cost of contracting a pest control service.

Tips for Keeping Pests under Control:
• To kill bugs attempting to enter the home, apply a continuous, uninterrupted spray around the home's foundation and other possible entry points such as windows, doors and crevices.
• Check walls for cracks and crevices where spiders and ants can enter.
• In the kitchen, avoid open food containers, or water leaks under the sink, and other sources of food and water. It’s also a good idea to inspect paper grocery bags to make sure they don’t contain any uninvited guests.
• In addition to attracting mold and mildew, cardboard storage containers can make an attractive meal for many insects, such as spiders, roaches and silver fish.
• Keep kitchen trash in a closed container, both indoors and out.

To learn more about keeping your home pest free, visit www.blackflag.com.

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Top 10 Tips to Create a Backyard Tropical Paradise

June 20, 2011 6:27 pm

Summer is here, so fire up the grill, design an outdoor kitchen and set the mood with your pool ambience.

With the uncertain economy and high gas prices, homeowners are doing more staycations than vacations. But there's no need to stay inside—move the party out.

"Enhancing the backyard for entertaining has become popular," says Mary Kennedy Thompson, president of Mr. Rooter Corporation. "Homeowners find outdoor living spaces make their homes more appealing."
Follow these top 10 tips from Mr. Appliance Corp., Mr. Rooter® Plumbing and Mr. Electric® to create your backyard tropical paradise.

Grillin' Guru:

• Fire it up! Burn off last summer's leftovers by turning burners on high, closing the lid and letting the grill run for 30 to 45 minutes. Once complete, brush burned leftovers away.
• Seasoned to perfection. Just like chefs have seasoned cast-iron skillets, grill masters have seasoned grates. Avoid soap or strong chemical cleaning products on the grates.
• Nice catch. Make sure to dump food that falls between the grates housed in the large drip pan and to check for grease overflow in the smaller one below it.

Water Works:

• Take the plunge.
Purchase stainless steel sinks for their sturdiness and their ability to withstand weather better. Heavy duty brass fixtures don't corrode and are rust free.
• Chill out. Install a water line for outdoor kitchen sinks, refrigerators and icemakers and a drain line for the kitchen sink. These can be DIY projects, but hiring a plumber is recommended.
• Summer heat. Set up a gas line for outdoor ranges and grills as well as patio heaters and fireplaces. It's best to hire a service professional to ensure proper and safe installation.

Pool Party:

• Set the mood. When installing lights near a waterfall, pool or garden, hire a certified electrician to avoid electrical hazards.
• Dig deep. To ensure the safety of children and pets, cover all electrical wires.
• Rock on. What's a party without music? For outdoor speakers, enlist an electrician to make sure there is no faulty wiring that could cause a fire.

Use these tips to impress your guests. By turning your bland backyard into an outdoor oasis, you can be off to your own little paradise in no time.

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Conference of Mayors: Finding Ways to Advance Energy, Sustainability

June 20, 2011 6:27 pm

Despite challenging economic conditions, a landmark survey of nearly 400 mayors in all 50 states has found that energy and sustainability efforts have maintained momentum within cities. The study, prepared for The U.S. Conference of Mayors and sponsored by Siemens, was based on survey research conducted from April to May, 2011, by the international research consultancy GlobeScan.

Among its key findings, the survey noted:
• Three in four cities expect their use of clean energy technologies to increase over the next five years.
• LED/efficient lighting, low-energy building technologies and solar electricity generation are the top three "most promising" technologies for reducing energy use and carbon emissions.
• Mayors are looking to the economic benefits of these clean energy solutions as drivers of their energy strategies.
• For one in three cities, adapting to climate change is already an element of their capital planning or capital improvement programs.
• One-quarter of all cities have already set targets for the use of renewable energy.

According to the study, acknowledging financial restraints, cities are taking full advantage of available federal resources and looking to partner more with the private sector, among others, to continue their energy drives. The full survey report, Clean Energy Solutions for America's Cities, is now available at: usmayors.org/cleanenergy.

"The overwhelming response to this survey—396 mayors in all 50 states, representing about 74 million people—underscores the strong commitment of the nation's mayors to clean energy technologies and energy efficiency solutions," says Conference President Burnsville (MN) Mayor Elizabeth B. Kautz. "Mayors are acting on these commitments, which also support our nation's greater goals on energy independence and security," she explains.

"As a company that provides many of today's technology solutions for cities, we're pleased how cities are embracing the many economic benefits of sustainable technologies," says Daryl Dulaney, president and CEO of Siemens Industry, Inc. "Our next challenge is to help cities come up with financing solutions that have minimal budget impact and keep cities on track with their sustainability goals using proven technologies."

"LED and other efficient lighting sources are the technology of choice for cities aiming to reduce future energy use and climate-harming emissions," says Conference Vice President Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa. "We know from our experience in Los Angeles that LED streetlights are the way of the future and having a tremendous impact globally. They save money, protect the environment, and create jobs." The City of Los Angeles is now replacing 140,000 existing streetlight fixtures with LED units in order to save energy by a minimum of 40 percent, reducing carbon emissions by approximately 40,500 tons per year.
Conference Second Vice President Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter—whose home to the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster for Energy-Efficient Buildings—says, "Making our buildings more energy efficient through the use of new technologies is a clear priority for the nation's mayors. It is something we can do today, paying dividends to all us well in the future."

"The key drivers behind much of this activity are, not surprisingly, economic: to attract new businesses and jobs, reduce energy costs, and more generally, develop a greener economy," says Tom Cochran, the Conference's CEO and Executive Director. "Mayors credit energy block grants (EECBG funds) delivering federal resources directly to cities as crucial to the expanded investment partnership between businesses and cities on clean energy technologies and energy efficiency."

Rob Kerr, Vice President of GlobeScan, which conducted the survey, says, "The survey reaffirms trends that we're seeing in different countries around the world - that cities are taking the practical lead in pushing national sustainability objectives by actually deploying the technologies today. Sustainability efforts are not going to just go away in tough economic times."

About The U.S. Conference of Mayors: The U.S. Conference of Mayors is the official nonpartisan organization of cities with populations of 30,000 or more. There are 1,210 such cities in the country today, each represented in the Conference by its chief elected official, the Mayor.
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10 Tips to Conserve Water

June 16, 2011 2:25 pm

Summer is around the corner, and it's more important that ever to conserve water. From checking the kitchen faucet to watching your laundry loads, there's plenty we can all do to save water.

Here are some tips from Pennsylvania American Water on how you can conserve water and reduce the environmental impact of water consumption both indoors and outside the home:

1. Water your lawn only when it needs it. An easy test to tell if your lawn needs water is to simply walk across the grass. If you leave footprints, it's time to water. (An added benefit of watering less often is that fewer, deep-soaking waterings encourage deep root growth and stronger turf.)

2. Water in the early morning. As much as 30 percent of water can be lost to evaporation by watering during midday.

3. Set your lawn mower one notch higher to make your lawn more drought-tolerant.

4. Use drip irrigation hoses to water plants, and water in the early morning or evening.

5. Use a broom instead of a hose to clean your sidewalk, driveway, or patio.

6. Forego the hose and wash your car with a bucket and sponge instead. According to EPA WaterSense, a hose left running can waste as much as six gallons per minute while a bucket and sponge uses only a few gallons to do the job.

7. Keep a bottle of cold tap water in the refrigerator. You'll avoid the cost and environmental impact of bottled water and you'll have cold water available in the summer without running the faucet.

8. Run dishwashers and clothes washers only when they are full. If you have a water-saver cycle, use it.

9. Adjust the water level of your clothes washer, so that it matches your load size.

10. Regularly check your toilet, faucets and pipes for leaks and have them fixed promptly. An easy test for toilet leaks from EPA WaterSense: Place a drop of food coloring in the tank. If the color tints the water in the bowl without flushing, there's a leak. Check your water meter before and after a two-hour period when no water is being used. If the meter changes at all, you probably have a leak.
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