May 29, 2012

Preparing for a Disaster–Are Your Financial Records in Order?

Nan Jensen,
Extension Agent,
Family and Consumer Sciences

A disaster strikes. Your home and possessions are destroyed. Will you be able to pick up the pieces? Disasters are a part of life. June 1 marks the start of hurricane season and we all need to become familiar with hurricane preparedness strategies such as taking care of our property and how to handle life without electricity for long periods of time. What many people don’t often realize is that financial preparation is another key to survival and to cleaning up after the event.

Important Records
To start, it's important to know where your family records and valuable documents are and be able to pick them up and take them with you, if you must evacuate. Create a “to go” kit for those documents. Purchase a folder, briefcase or other carrying case. Better yet, purchase a fireproof portable cotainer. Examples of papers to include in the kit are:
  • Checking account numbers and bank 
  • List of savings and investments including CDs, stocks, bonds, and mutual funds 
  • Credit card safety record 
  • Household inventory – videotape, paper copy, and or disk 
  • List of insurance policies with name of company, type of policy and policy number 
  • Copy of will and trust documents, living will 
  • Copy of titles (house, car, other property) 
  • Copy of certificates: birth, marriage, divorce, death, and adoption 
  • Passports 
  • List of family advisors: accountant, attorney, banker, doctors, dentist, employer, financial adviser, insurance agents, religious leader, banker. 
  • Bank account numbers 
  • Educational records 
  • Investment records 
  • Military records 
  • Other special papers that would be difficult or impossible to replace if lost. 

Take advantage of paperless record keeping for financial and tax records. If you have access to a scanner, scan your papers and documents into an electronic format and store on a flash drive or CD. Leave the original in a separate storage place. Many important papers should be kept in a safety deposit box. If you use a software package to keep track of your finances, you may want to keep a back-up copy with your "to go" papers.

A Household Inventory
An up-to-date household inventory is especially important to have. Before a disaster, an inventory will help you determine if you have enough insurance to cover the contents of your home. After a disaster, it will help prove the value of the possessions that are damaged or destroyed for insurance or tax purposes.

An inventory consists of a description of each item including model and serial numbers, when and where you bought it, and the cost of the item. Be thorough and include items such as towels and clothing. Costs add up and it would be expensive to replace these things entirely. Also include photos or a video to accompany your inventory and keep it up to date.

The University of Illinois, College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences provides an excellent guide and relevant forms for conducting a household inventory. Access the guide online at

If you take time to prepare and organize papers now, it will save you from unwanted stress and chaos in case of a disaster.

May 21, 2012

Urban Agriculture: What is it and why is it important?

Mary Campbell,
Extension Director and Urban Sustainability Agent

In the past few years, there has been an ever increasing interest in home vegetable gardening, community gardens, and backyard poultry. All of these can be considered a form of urban agriculture. Urban agriculture is defined as the growing of plants and the raising of animals within and around cities. There has been a resurgence of interest for local food production since it supplies fresher, healthier and tastier foods, saves money, and provides recreation and relaxation. 

The most interesting feature of urban agriculture, which distinguishes it from rural agriculture, is that it is integrated into the urban community with urban residents as farmers, and has direct links to consumers and impacts on the urban environment. Urban agriculture includes the growing, processing, and distribution of food through plant cultivation and animal husbandry. It is vegetable plots in community gardens, food production in vacant inner-city lots, fish farms, poultry/vegetable growing at jail facilities, municipal compost facilities, community supported agriculture, schoolyard gardens, restaurant-supported salad gardens, backyard fruit trees, rooftop gardens and beehives, window box gardens, and much more.

There is a large potential for food production in cities and dozens of model projects are demonstrating successfully that urban agriculture is both necessary and viable. Health and nutrition supporters are joining with community gardeners, Extension, and faith communities in city-wide coalitions and food policy councils to maintain and expand urban food availability. Community economic development organizers, city planners, and environmentalists concerned with urban waste reduction and recycling, see the potential of urban farming. A growing consumer demand for fresh, local, and often organic food creates new markets for urban food production. Many of these efforts address the needs of urban residents who are living in poverty and experience poor nutrition and hunger.

In American cities such as Detroit and New York, thousands of acres of land have been given over to unemployed workers for food growing. Urban agriculture contributes to local economic development, as well as to the greening of the city by turning derelict open spaces into green zones and cleaning up blighted areas. Vacant lands are often used as informal waste dumpsites and are a source of crime and health problems. When vacant land is turned into productive green spaces, not only is an unhealthy situation eliminated, but the neighbors will enjoy and possibly participate in farming.

Innovative examples of urban agriculture are popping up all over. In Brooklyn, New York, Bright Farms will put a hydroponic greenhouse on top of a former Navy warehouse that the city acquired last year and will occupy up to 100,000 square feet of rooftop space. It is expected to yield a million pounds of produce a year — without using any dirt. Lettuce, tomatoes and herbs will be grown for local markets. A Michigan State University study indicates that a combination of urban farms, community gardens, storage facilities and greenhouses used to extend the growing season – could supply local Detroit residents with more than 75 percent of their vegetables and more than 40 percent of their fruits.

Urban agriculture supports a healthy community and a healthy environment, while providing food availability where the majority of people now live – in the cities.

Urban Agriculture: 
University of Florida
University of Georgia
University of Nebraska

May 16, 2012

Oh Deer…

Photo by Tyler Jones
Lara Miller
Natural Resource Agent

Tired of planting trees, shrubs, vines and flowers only to find them damaged by deer just days later? Pinellas County is a very urbanized county where human developments have replaced native deer habitats. This in turn limits the availability of natural food preferred by deer. In cases like this, deer adapt by feeding on gardens around homes. While fencing and chemical repellents are options for reducing damage by deer, a simpler, less expensive and usually more effective alternative is to landscape your yard with plants that deer do not like to eat.

Deer feed upon a variety of vegetation, but are turned away by certain tastes and digestibility. This preference for certain plants can be altered if deer populations increase in an area forcing them to feed on other vegetation they wouldn’t normally consume.

There are many common garden plants in Florida that are least susceptible to damage by deer. For example, many palms, some holly, several ferns, and certain lilies have been identified as deer-resistant plants. The tables of rarely damaged plants found in the link above may be used to guide planting decisions in areas where damage from deer is likely to be problem. Additional information on Pinellas county natural resources can be obtained through attending educational programs offered by University of Florida Extension Agents. For a list of upcoming programs visit the page.

Frequently asked questions of Pinellas County residents are posted at . Visit this site to see if your question has already been asked or to post a question of your own. Stay up to date with publications from Extension by liking us on Facebook.


May 14, 2012

Is Your Home and AC System Ready for Cooling Season? Part II

Ramona Madhosingh-Hector, Urban Sustainability Agent
James Stevenson, Energy Educator

Last week we examined ways to keep heat out of the home to keep the HVAC system from working harder than necessary. This week we will explore ways to make the system itself run as smoothly and efficiently as possible.

Terms to Help Get You Started
  • HVAC    Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning equipment 
  • SEER    A measure of efficiency for air conditioning units; the higher the SEER number, the more energy efficient the unit is in cooling the air 
  • SHR    A measure of efficiency for air conditioning systems ability to remove moisture or humidity; the higher the SHR number, the less capable the system is in removing humidity 
  • Air handler    The indoor unit that moves the air through the heating/cooling system 
  • Cooling load & Load calculation    Measurements that calculate what size system is appropriate for a particular structure given its square footage, ductwork analysis, insulation, windows, etc. 
  • Condenser    The outdoor unit that keeps the refrigerant cool
  • Aluminum/foil tape    Specialty tape with an acrylic-based adhesive that performs consistently under extreme temperatures 
  • Mastic    A thick paste that provides a permanent seal at duct joints and connections; sometimes used in conjunction with a fiberglass mesh tape 
Let’s start with the thermostat. This is where your choices can make a huge difference. UF recommends setting the thermostat between 78°F-80°F and using ceiling or other fans to keep comfortable in the summer. Note however that higher temperatures and a lack of humidity control (i.e. turning the AC off for periods of time in the summer) can allow conditions that make the growth of harmful molds possible.

A programmable thermostat can make a big difference in HVAC operational costs. There are many makes and models. Choose one that has settings that make the most sense for your family’s weekly schedule. If you have a programmable thermostat in your home, make sure you are using it properly; not just as a high-tech on/off switch! When shopping for a programmable thermostat, look for the EnergyStar® logo. This will indicate that the particular model has proven to perform in an energy-saving way when used properly.

Percentage Increase
In Cost
80°F $100 -
78°F $116 +16
76°F $132 +32
74°F $148 +48
72°F $164 +64
70°F $180 +80

The Thermostat controls the “guts” of the HVAC system. The air handler, which may be located inside the home, is where air is blown across coils filled with very cold gas. This is your cooled air “supply.” These coils can become covered in dust and debris as they are constantly wet during the cooling season. Dirty coils in the air handler are the single most common cause of poor AC efficiency.

The pressurized refrigerant gas in the coils themselves is put in when the system is installed. It is worth having the refrigerant’s “charge” checked periodically by a licensed contractor. It is possible for a system to be over or under-charged, leading to inefficiencies.

The outdoor coil in the compressor unit also has to be checked from time to time. Make sure the outdoor unit is kept free from debris and has a 3’ clearance from plants or other barriers to air flow. Often the compressor is “hidden” behind plantings or a structure to keep the unit from view, but without adequate circulation, the heat that has been removed from the home has no easy escape, resulting in the system’s need to run for a longer period of time. Check the fins of the condenser as well. These very thin metal strips are where the heat is removed from the system. They are easily bent or damaged, resulting in inefficiency. A fin comb can be purchased to straighten these delicate structures out.

Have you had your ductwork inspected? Leaking ducts can allow cooled air to escape into the attic, wasting that valuable commodity. More importantly, leaky ductwork can allow heat to enter your home, making the AC have to work harder. There are many causes for leaky ductwork, so a periodic inspection is a very good investment. Our local utility companies offer incentives to have this work done, check with yours for more details. This can be done on an annual basis to prevent a loss of up to 40% of your conditioned air.

Leaks in ductwork are most likely to be found around connection joints, around the air handler and near vents. Ductwork should be held together with mastic or acrylic-foil tape, which has been approved for your type of ductwork. If you see duct-tape, that familiar grey fix-all fabric tape with a rubber adhesive, your ductwork is not properly sealed. This product, despite its name, becomes dry and brittle over time, leading to failure.

Finally, ceiling fans can be found in most Central Florida homes and can make a big difference in your comfort when used properly. A ceiling fan can allow you to increase your thermostat setting by 4°F without feeling any difference in your comfort. Keep the blades clean for most efficient operation. Many fans have a directional control. To operate most effectively, fans can be switched to rotate counter-clockwise in summer and clockwise in winter. The effect of the fan is only detectable by your skin. When air passes across your exposed skin, a bit of moisture is evaporated away making you feel cooler than the ambient temperature. This is known as the wind-chill factor; more recognizable when referring to cold winter temperatures “feeling” colder in the wind. The same effect can make us more comfortable in warm weather. Note, however that ceiling fans have no effect on the temperature of the home. Therefore they should not be left on in an unoccupied room or home.

As conditioning air both in summer and winter accounts for up to 50% of your power bill, it makes sense to keep that system working as smoothly as possible. If it is time to replace an old system, or if your home has changed in size (closing-in a porch for example) it is very important to know the facts. Determining the size of the system requires a complex calculation based on the size of your home, configuration of supply/return registers, even window type plays a role. For more information on proper sizing and HVAC selection, please see Energy Efficient Homes: Air Conditioning, FCS3262, 2008.

Energy Efficient Homes: Ceiling Fans 
Energy Efficient Homes: Air Conditioning
Energy Efficient Homes: The Duct System
Energy Efficient Homes: Easy Steps to Improving Your Home’s Energy Efficiency

May 7, 2012

Is Your Home and AC System Ready for Cooling Season? Part I

Ramona Madhosingh-Hector, Urban Sustainability Agent
James Stevenson, Energy Educator

After one of the warmest winters on record, making for some wonderful weather here in Central Florida, we are now moving into the expensive cooling season. In our area, Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) accounts for 40-50% of our utility bill. If a system is not working efficiently, that could be considerably more. How can you reduce the pressure on your AC system, and how do you address your AC’s efficiency level? The University of Florida has answers for residents in our region.

Let’s begin by reminding ourselves that our homes are a combination of structures (the physical building), systems (Heating, Cooling, Plumbing, Electric) and finishes (paint, carpet, furnishings, etc.). These components all affect each other in various ways. Appliances, lights, entertainment systems all add heat to the interior of our home. The combined effect is an increased “cooling load” or burden on the AC to keep things cool. In addition, windows allow the sun’s rays to enter the house and increase the temperature of all the objects they strike. This is similar to what happens when you park your car in the sun. The rays enter and increase the surface temperature of your car’s interior—making it much hotter inside than out.

How can we minimize the pressure on an AC system? Using the two examples above, simple steps would be to switch from hot, incandescent lighting to a cooler compact fluorescent light (CFL) or an even cooler light emitting diode (LED.) An incandescent bulb can heat up to between 200ºF-400ºF (source: Kirk’s Fire Investigation, 4th Edition, 2001.) The average home has 45 of these bulbs; you can see how that could impact the indoor temperature significantly.

Keep the sun’s rays out by drawing the blinds during the day, especially the east and west-facing windows. When it is time to replace your windows, choose windows that help keep the heating rays out and insulate against heat loss in the winter.

Another source of heat in the home is heat that gets in from outside. The obvious way that heat can enter is through open doors and windows. But the home’s envelope can be riddled with tiny holes and cracks. The sum of these tiny openings to the outside is the same as constantly opening a window! Examples of places to look for openings include: electrical penetrations through the wall, the dryer’s exhaust, recessed lights, gaps around windows and doors, plumbing vent stack, etc. Seal these cracks and gaps with weather-stripping, caulk and expanding foam, depending on the situation. According to a study done at UF, a Saturday Morning Makover, sealing gaps and cracks as described resulted in an 11% reduction in leaks. That is $30 invested and 4 hours of labor.(Source: John Linhoss, University of Florida.)

Attic insulation is a major barrier to heat gain from that hot place. Do you know your insulation’s R-Value? R-Value is the insulation’s Resistance to the flow of heat. The greater the R-Value the better it insulates against heat gain. UF recommends an R-Value of at least 38 for our area, (source: Insulation for Your Home; Florida Energy Systems Consortium, 2010.)

Next week we will explore ways to keep the HVAC system itself running as efficiently as possible.