Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Leaves--Small Victories

This homeowner used to pile leaves out on a busy street. Now she has her landscapers put them in metal corrals and, when the corrals are full, piles the rest loose in the woods. By doing this, she enriches her soil, does her part to reduce flooding in the local streams by making her soil more absorbent, and leaves (no pun intended) the street and sidewalk open for their intended uses.

Last year, this street leading to Little Brook Elementary was choked with piles of leaves. This year, I was able to convince the homeowners to have their landscaper instead pile the leaves in a back corner of their lot. Bicyclists and cars now have enough room to navigate on the street during busy dropoff and pickup times.

STREET LEAVES--A Mess to Address

It's roundup time here, way out in western NJ. Urban cowboys strap on their leafblowers and set to drivin' all the wayward foliage streetward.

Eventually, the township will rustle up all these leaves with big convoys and haul 'em off to the big leafyard outside of town, where they'll be civilized into compost. Nice compost, but what a production.

Even folks who live in the woods feel the autumn urge to push leaves out onto the country road.

What's going on here? Do we secretly wish to see all roads revert to soil?

Streets are not the safest place to put leaves. These skidmarks suggest a truck slid on wet leaves into Snowden Lane.

This photo was taken just after a mother retrieved a boy from a leafpile that, naturally enough, he really wanted to play in. Leaves are such a delight for kids. To pile them in the street turns a joy into a hazard.
(Update, 2011: This homeowner has become an enthusiastic composter of leaves, helped along by the free leaf corrals the township made available last fall.)

Here, the landscaper carefully kept the leaves out of the street, piling them instead on the sidewalk. They've been sitting there for more than a week, killing the narrow strip of grass and inconveniencing pedestrians.

A Step Backwards for Residential Water Meters

NJ American Water installed a new water meter at our house over the past year. Unfortunately, the new meter only measures in 1000 gallon increments, which renders it pretty useless for helping us track whether any water conservation measures are actually working. It's hard enough to track energy and water use in a house, and the new water meter design just made it a little harder.

Faulty Utility Bills

If your PSE&G gas/electric bills have had some mistakes on them lately (one of mine tried to bill me for the last three months, even though I'd already paid for two of those), it may be because they are still working out the kinks in a new computer systems for billing.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Leaves and Flooding

Ever notice how heavy wet leaves can be? They're heavy, of course, because water is heavy, and the leaves can absorb a lot of water. Now, look at the mountains of leaves that people place on the street this time of year. Are these not essentially giant sponges that we are asking the city to haul away? And what happens when a heavy rain falls upon land that has been deprived, year after year, of these large helpings of spongy material? The water, with nothing to absorb it, flows into streams, increasing downstream flooding.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Princeton Recycling Goes Single Stream

Princeton's curbside recycling costs are going to drop in the near future, due to a small but significant change coming in 2010. Up to now, we've been required to put cans and bottles in the yellow container, and mixed paper in the green container. This is known as "dual stream".

Starting in January, 2010, however, Princeton will kick off the new decade by going single stream. This means that only one truck will come by, and combine all the bottles, cans, paper and cardboard in one load. Residents can continue to sort recyclables between the two containers, or combine it all together.

The county, which runs Princeton's curbside recycling pickups, says the single stream approach will reduce the township's annual recycling cost from $183,000 down to $129,000, a savings of $54,000. I don't have figures for the borough as yet. Last year, the borough says it was billed $67,000 for curbside recycling pickup, so the new bill should be less than that.

Another advantage of the new approach will be that only one truck need lumber by your house on recycling day. Single stream recycling has been made possible by more sophisticated separating equipment at the recycling plant.

Waste Management, which serves the public schools and many businesses, went single stream at least a year ago.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Illegal Street Leaves--Whose (As)Fault Is This?

A typical scene in Princeton this time of year--a car swerving to avoid a pile of leaves. This one's on Snowden. Nice clean lawn, leaf-clogged street. Most of the dumping is done by out-of-town landscape crews who are unaware of or openly indifferent towards the township leaf ordinance.

These leaves were dumped in the street ten days before it was legal to do so. Within a couple days, other neighbors had put their leaves out, too, since it's easier to copy one's neighbor than check the township website.

The township, responding to a state mandate, passed an ordinance that strictly limits when leaves can be placed in the street, and how much of the street they can block. But township staff are so busy scrambling to pick up the illegally dumped leaves that they have no time to enforce the ordinance. Fear of rousing anger from highly taxed residents also suppresses enforcement. In a brief survey, I counted twenty violations on just two long blocks of Magnolia and Clover.

Most of the residents in this neighborhood of large yards could easily find a weedy corner for a pile of leaves that would, as it settles back into the ground, recycle nutrients, absorb rainfall, and suppress the weeds underneath. Instead, the leaves are blown into the street, where they become a public hazard and burden.

Below is a partial description of the ordinance, quoted from the township website.

"Residents should have their loose (un-bagged) leaves placed on the paved roadway not more than 7 days prior to the date of collection and must be out for collection before 7:00 a.m. on the Monday morning of the scheduled week. After your section has been collected you are prohibited from putting any yard material on the Township Right of Way until your next scheduled collection. (The Township Right of Way is the paved area and the area ten (10) feet behind the edge of pavement or curb line.)"

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Landscape Crews Creating a Hazard

About this time of year, I start feeling like I'm in the movie Groundhog Day, in which the character finds himself living through the same nonsensical day over and over again.

This photo appears to be a peaceful autumn scene in Princeton. Kids playing after school, a crossing guard waiting to help.

But look again and you may see an accident waiting to happen, and a metaphor for how private interest dumps its problems on public space. A landscape crew has just cleaned a client's lawn by blowing all the leaves on the street. The township ordinance forbids putting leaves on this street until a month from now, but the landscape crews are oblivious.

It may not seem like a big deal, but here's a photo from last year. Add a little rain, a hurried driver, and you get a car skidding out into an intersection crowded with schoolkids twice a day. You also get nutrient pollution in local streams when the leaves start to decompose.

Add to that the constriction of the road, where cars and bikes try to maneuver between piles of leaves, and you have a problem.

I've spoken to all the homeowners on this street. All are open to the idea of utilizing their leaves in their yards, rather than putting them out on the street. But in the meantime, the landscapers they pay to do their yardwork are doing what they've always done, which is to create a hazard by illegally dumping leaves on public space.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Construction Sites and Recycling

A typical sight in Princeton is a construction dumpster full of recyclable items headed for the landfill. This one's at Westminster Choir College, but it could be most anywhere that construction projects are running behind schedule and no one takes the time to sort out recyclables.

It would be nice to think that all the cardboard, paper and scrap metal is sorted out at the transfer station, but I doubt that's the case.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Money For Old Refrigerators

You can now get paid $30 for your old (still working) refrigerator, and have it taken away for free. The NJ Board of Public Utilities just started the program, which works something like the federal cash-for-clunkers program and is designed to get inefficient older refrigerators out of people's houses and safely recycled.

Wonder if there will be a similar program for all of us codglings when we get old and inefficient, ala Monty Python.

More information at: "Call 877-270-3520 to schedule a free pick up of your old refrigerator or freezer."

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Princeton Battlefield

One of the finer ways to spend a July 4 afternoon is on the grounds of the Princeton Battlefield. Chances are, you'll see Historian John Mills, who in stature, bearing and voice seems the very embodiment of 1776, offer a detailed account of the Battle of Princeton.

After the attending militiamen execute some impressive shots from a cannon, John then dons authentically imperfect spectacles to read the Declaration of Independence.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Where Princeton's Drinking Water Comes From

If only a simple question had a simple answer. The borough, township and Princeton University all get their water from the Elizabethtown Division of the NJ American Water Company. NJ American Water Company is a largely foreign-owned (German, I believe) business that reportedly provides water for 75% of New Jersey. (Update: In 2010, the water company became American-owned.)

Our drinking water is drawn from two watersheds: the Raritan and the Millstone. The Raritan River extends north almost to interstate 80, while the Millstone extends south nearly to interstate 195. That means that a raindrop falling anywhere in that vast expanse of real estate could flow downstream and eventually end up in our drinking water.

All of Princeton's stormwater runoff--from streets and rooftops--as well as its treated sewage, ends up in the Millstone River, which flows north to the Raritan. Most of the Raritan's water then flows east to the Atlantic, but some is drawn out, treated to drinking water specifications, and piped the 20 miles or so back to Princeton, where it emerges from our faucets. Water treatment consists of filtration, followed by disinfection with ozone, which kills any bacteria. Ozone is an excellent disinfectant, but because it breaks down rapidly, the water is then given a small dose of chlorine, which remains in the water during its journey to our taps.

About 5% of our water comes from wells rather than a river. The wells are located in Rogers Wildlife Refuge in Princeton, down along the Stonybrook. Every now and then, I am told, the water that flows from Princeton's taps is particularly cold and good tasting. At those times, we are receiving local well water rather than the surface water from the Raritan.

At Communiversity this year, the student organization WaterWatch had a water tasting table, where two brands of bottled water and Princeton's tap water were available for comparison in unidentified containers. Though I'm no gourmet, I found the tap water to taste as good as either of the bottled varieties.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Spirit of Princeton Parade

Memorial Day weekend in Princeton brings out many a fine ensemble.

First down the pike was a formidable assemblage of bagpipers. Perhaps there's a tradition of leading with the bagpipes, as it triggered memories of a movie in which the Scottish army of long ago put its bagpipers out front on the battlefield, where they got summarily gunned down by the enemy. It didn't seem like good military strategy, but it speaks to how musicians often fare in the music business.

Following close on the bagpipes was a very disciplined and dignified fife and drum outfit.

There were also some marching bands--one in the classic Music Man mode, the other a group from Trenton with some fine rhythmic drumming. A third band was fronted by four girls carrying wooden guns, which they shifted back and forth from one hand to the other. Unexpectedly, responding to a cue from the music, the girls launched into ballet steps, lifting the guns gracefully into the air as they leaped forwards. Ballet with guns made for a memorable image.

The Patriotic Bike Brigade came out in force, doing right by the nation and the planet.

Then came a long line of firetrucks and emergency vehicles, followed by a tiger-bedecked calliope playing steam-powered patriotic tunes.

Bringing up the rear was the borough's beloved pair of parking meter patrol vehicles.

Afterwards, it was down to Palmer Square for an outdoor pancake feast and jazz of the "I left my home in Indiana" variety.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Cost-effective Recycling Container

With new recycling receptacles arriving in township parks, I sent an email to the borough to ask if they could also begin recycling again in borough parks. A week later, maybe by coincidence, these buckets showed up, hooked to existing trash cans.

These receptacles, wired to the trashcan to prevent them from "walking away", are a much less expensive approach than buying stand-alone recycling receptacles.

Their presence doesn't mean that recycling is actually happening, though. We can hope that park users will pay attention and put recyclables in the right container, and that the staff that collect the recyclables will keep the recyclables separate from the trash. There are plenty of points in the necessary chain of events where recycling can go amiss. But at least a functional receptacle is in place.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The "Princeton free B" Shuttle

Scattered around town, hidden in full view, are these boxes of flyers with information about how to get a free ride downtown and to the Dinky.

From 5:30 to 9:30am each weekday morning, and 5:30 to 9pm each weekday evening, a free shuttle plies the streets of Princeton. It runs every 25 minutes or so, up Nassau St. and down the StreetOfManyNames (Hodge/Robeson/Wiggins/Hamilton), from Library Place eastward to Harrison Street, with a spur down to the Dinky. You can find specifics about its route at

A May 1 Trenton Times article reported that in its first year of operation, it carried 4,851 riders. Funding this year will be 50% by NJ Transit, and 50% by the university. Anticipated expense from April, '08 to June '09 is $174,000.

The borough is planning to expand the hours of service, to see if that increases ridership.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Communiversity and Sustainability

Heading to Communiversity past a line of strange contraptions that seem to be holding their occupants prisoner. On my bike, fortunately, riding past each vehicle, I feel a wave of heat emanating from idling engines. Only 0.3% of the energy these contraptions consume actually is used to move the occupants. The rest is spent moving tons of steel and producing heat. You could say, then, that while we think of cars as transportation, their primary function--99.7%--is to hasten global warming. Somewhere far overhead, traveling through the universe to monitor progress, the unrepentant members of Planet Killers Annonymous must be watching our folly with glee.

At the festival itself, a booth offered a good demonstration of how plastic bottles can be converted into blankets, which apparently were headed to people displaced by natural disasters. They said it takes 70 plastic water bottles to make a blanket.

Meanwhile, continuing the tradition of dysfunctional recycling at Princeton festivals, there was a complete lack of accommodation for recycling at Communiversity. Lots of drink containers being sold by vendors, but only trash containers to receive them after their ten minutes of service to society. Princeton has a recycling ordinance, it has two recycling coordinators, it has good intentions--all to no avail.

Doesn't anyone find this strange?

I did, but then of course there were some positive aspects: good music, a strawberry smoothie, friends. Maybe the sustainability movement in town will bring some changes next year.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

New Recycling Containers for Township Parks

New recycling containers are showing up in township parks. Paired with trash cans, and with small holes on the top, they stand a good chance of working.

Borough parks, as far as I've been able to tell, are completely lacking in functional containers for recycling.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

John Williams--Telling Stories on Guitar

John Williams performed at McCarter Theatre last night. Not the John T. Williams of movie score fame but the John C. Williams of classical guitar fame. I know him mostly through his phenomenal recordings of the music of Paraguayan composer Barrios.

The house was packed, the stage nearly empty but for a chair and two mics. Seems like the fewer people in the band, the more people in the audience. Perhaps people think that large bands don't need as much company. Williams walked out, gave a quick bow and smile, and set about weaving delicate fabrics of sound, making it look deceptively easy as he coaxed all manner of tone qualities out of the instrument. "He tells stories!", my companion declared at intermission, in awe at what an acoustic guitar could evoke.

As he re-tuned his guitar inbetween tunes, Williams gave descriptions of the compositions in an understated, humorous way that I'll guess goes back to his Australian roots.

I would have been more transported by the finely wrought tapestries and tales if not for the percussive accompaniment provided by the audience. It's been a cold spring in Princeton, and Mr. Tickle was getting mischievous with quite a few throats. Williams made a good humored request for more self-control after his first tune, with good results, but the Tickle Monster had a reprise in key sections of Williams' heartfelt performance of Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe's "Djilile" in the second half, bringing winces from the master, and a diplomatic but firm request for silence that tamed the monster for the rest of the program.

Memories were triggered of classical performances at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, years back, repeatedly sabataged by deep winter communal hacking, until finally copious supplies of cough drops became a standard presence in the lobby. (Four flavors! Try them all!) A small basket of them was out in the lobby at McCarter, but I wish there had been a seventh string Williams could have plucked that would have blanketed the audience with medicinal magic.

A more common problem with musical performances (not at McCarter fortunately) is that the musicians are overamplified and the audience lacks not cough drops but earplugs. Even with the coughs occasionally shattering the miraculous fabric of sound, I was glad for the kind of music that draws you in rather than bowls you over, and the chance to see a master of the artform at work.

Saturday, March 07, 2009


An important meeting for the environmental future of Princeton is coming up on Wednesday, March 11. The public will get a chance to learn more about and comment on the Sustainable Princeton Plan. This is the document that will guide Princeton's community-wide shift towards greater sustainability. Everyone--residents, schools, businesses, local governments--has both a stake and a hand in this effort. Please come to this event, to learn and give input.

At the March 11th workshop (7 p.m., Suzanne Patterson Center behind Princeton Borough Municipal Building, One Monument Drive), the draft document will be summarized, general comments will be made, and then the participants will break into small working groups to discuss how to carry out specific actions of the plan. Light Refreshments will be available.
For further information, please contact the Princeton Planning Director Lee Solow: 609/924-5366 or

Additional information:

Sustainable Princeton Steering Committee, composed of municipal officials, representatives of Princeton groups and institutions, and local residents invites the public to participate in a Tuesday, March 11th, 7 p.m., workshop at the Suzanne Paterson Center , 1 Monument Drive, Princeton to review and comment upon the Sustainable Princeton Community Plan (SPCP). The draft plan outlines the goals and objectives of the Sustainable Princeton Initiative. The workshop will provide the input needed to finalize the SPCP and to launch the community on a course of achieving – and sustaining - a green and greener Princeton. Copies of the draft are available at the municipal buildings, the public library and online at

The SPCPoutlines goals, identifies the sectors of the communities that would be implementing these goals, and presents action plans for fulfilling the goals, as well as strategies for measuring/tracking progress. The six goals are: green the built environment; improve transit/transportation; build local green economy; protect health and natural resources; curb greenhouse gases; foster community. The sectors - schools, businesses, residents, government - would be tasked with implementing specific action plans.

Sustainable Princeton had its roots within the Princeton Environmental Commission, which asked the municipalities to form a Sustainable Princeton Steering Committee two years ago and to hire New Jersey Sustainable State Institute (NJSSI) to help the municipalities embark upon a cohesive and effective plan to make the Princetons a model of sustainability in New Jersey. With a grant from the Municipal Land Use Center of New Jersey, the municipalities were able to sustain the Sustainable Princeton Initiative and to develop the Sustainable Princeton Community Plan on which the public is being asked to comment.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Breakthrough in Home Energy Monitors!

If you've been wanting to reduce your home energy use, to save money and reduce dependence on fossil fuels, you've no doubt wondered how much electricity various appliances use. Without that knowledge, it's hard to know how to most strategically cut back. Incredibly, a $500,000 home gives its owner less feedback about its workings than a $500 car.

When I first explored this issue, I bought a Kill a Watt meter that can measure the energy use of most anything that plugs into the wall. But it couldn't measure the real energy hogs, like central air conditioners, electric dryers, recessed lighting or dishwashers. So I bought a $150 T.E.D. meter that provides a real time measurement of your home energy use. With that device, I learned that my A/C unit uses 3500 watts of electricity when on, and the electric dryer uses nearly 4000. But energy meters like the T.E.D. are potentially dangerous to install, because there sensor has to be attached to the fuse box.

So, I wondered, would it be possible to design a device that could be placed on the electric meter outside, where it could measure how fast the dial turns and transmit the measurement to a handheld device inside the house? Lo and behold, such a device has finally been made available by Black and Decker! It's safe and legal for any homeowner to install, and costs less than the other whole-house energy monitors (about $100). After an hour spent installing it, you'll be able to walk around the house with the handheld monitor, turn various appliances and lights on and off, and see how much energy each one uses. With this knowledge, it's much easier to make decisions about how to cut back on consumption.

UPDATE, Jan. 13, 2010: The Black and Decker model has some drawbacks, primary among them is that the meter only tracks energy use in 100 watt increments. A CFL lightbulb may use only 14 watts, so if you turn several of them off, the meter won't show any reduction in energy use. My house generally uses so little energy that I couldn't even get the B&D model to register anything. It may work best for houses that use lots of appliances. For now, I'm using my T.E.D. meter, which, though trickier to install, tracks energy use in 10 watt increments and is much more accurate.

For informative reviews, go to:

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Skating on Carnegie Lake

Here's the website where the township provides up to date info on skating conditions at three locations in Princeton: You may have to scroll down a ways.

For a "review" of the lake's two days of glorious skating, see

Friday, January 23, 2009

Adopt a Sidewalk

One of the disadvantages of being tall is that you serve as a walking early warning system for tree limbs growing out over sidewalks. By default, you may find yourself taking on the role of "first responder", arriving on the scene with a pair of loppers to clear the pedestrian lane of pesky impediments. In this particular case, I must have ducked under this limb a hundred times before heeding the call to public service.

Have to say, though, that it makes for a great before and after shot. All our actions should lead to such clear improvements.