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posted: 4/27/2012 5:34 AM

About real estate: Homeowners can take easy steps to save both money and the environment

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Q. Thanks for your recent tip about using vinegar, baking soda and boiling water to clear a clogged drain. It worked like a charm and saved us about $10 for a bottle of liquid drain cleaner, not to mention the $75 or so that it would have cost for a plumber. Do you have more "homegrown" remedies like this?

A. Sure. I was surprised at the number of letters that I received from my beloved readers after that column was printed a few weeks ago, and many of them sent along other tips that can save homeowners money while also helping to safeguard the environment.

April 22 was "Earth Day," the day that we thank our little planet for the great stuff it has given us. But let's face it: The oceans are dying, air quality is getting worse and the nation is running out of places to throw its garbage. The government's efforts to clean up the mess have been largely unsuccessful.

Yet, some experts say the most important battleground in the war against pollution isn't on the sea or in the air -- it's in our own homes. Below are some good, chemical-free and cost-saving ideas I have received from readers in the past few weeks. All have been vetted by experts, ranging from chemists to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (commonly called "PETA"), a nonprofit group that supports various environmental campaigns as part of its efforts to protect our four-legged friends.

Mothballs: They're effective to keep insects away from clothes in a closet, but they don't come naturally from moths or their, er, you-know-whats. They are instead made in a factory with dichlorobenzene, a chemical that has been linked to cancer among humans and has killed millions of fish after the discarded balls are thrown into the garbage or flushed down the toilet.

Mothballs also have killed numerous children after the kids ate them believing that they were harmless candy.

A safer way to protect your clothes, kids and the environment is to store your outfits in a bug-proof cedar closet or chest. If that option is too expensive, says a representative for PETA, slip a few cedar chips (available for $10 per bag or less at most home-improvement stores) into the cover that holds your fancy suit or gown.

"It's like having a cedar closet, but only costs a few bucks," one letter writer agreed. Three others said that an inexpensive sachet of dried lavender, tucked into one of the garment's pocket or covering bag, will work just as well.

Fleas: More than one half of all American homeowners have a dog or cat that's roaming about their abode. Many pay hundreds of dollars a year for fancy prescriptions, canned sprays, collars or over-the-counter drugs aimed at keeping the little buggers away.

Trouble is, inhaling sprays or simply handling flea collars can pose risks to both people and their pets. And when the cans or collars are used up, they get tossed into the trash and wind up taking more space in our nation's dwindling number of landfills.

There are cheaper and more eco-friendly alternatives. A PETA representative says a small amount of fennel, rue, rosemary or garlic added to a pet's daily food bowl can bust the bugs, save money, and lighten the load at the nearest dump.

Floors and stainless steel: Home economists say that a cup of white vinegar mixed with two gallons of water can remove dull or greasy film buildup on floors, while baking soda or mineral oil is good for polishing stainless steel. Both are safer and cheaper than store-bought cleaners.

Mildew: A mixture of lemon juice and salt, or white vinegar and salt, can replace store-bought (and sometimes dangerous) mildew removers.

Vinegar, which typically costs only a dollar or two for a bottle, has lots of other money-saving and eco-friendly uses. It's a biodegradable and effective way to clean a stained toilet. A few readers said that one part of vinegar coupled with three parts of olive oil also makes a good furniture polish. Other letter writers suggest a mixture of two parts olive oil and one part lemon juice.

The garden: Many insecticides are particularly dangerous to both personal health and the environment, especially when rain or a sprinkler system washes the residue off the grass, down the curb, into the sewer and out to the ocean.

Surveys suggest that about half of all insecticides are sold to combat ants. But simply washing countertops, cabinets and floors with equal parts of vinegar and water can help keep the bugs out of a kitchen.

Several readers offered an alternative. "You just pour a line of cream of tartar where the ants are entering the house, or even the garden," wrote one. "They won't cross the line."

I tried it in my own garden, and it worked. The small can of tarter cost me only 99 cents at a local discount store.

Fertilizer: You might think that the manure you put on your lawn or garden is chemical-free. But many aren't, in part because potentially harmful chemicals must be added to kill bacteria and spur the vegetation's growth. No bull.

Starting a backyard compost heap instead can be a penny-wise, environmentally sound choice, says the Sierra Club. Leaves, grass, fruit rinds and other organic waste account for about one-third of all trash collected from single-family homes.

Compost kits can be purchased for less than $100 at most home-improvement or hardware stores, or can be built with a simple wood frame and chicken wire. Their mulch "makes a great fertilizer, but doesn't have the chemicals that those store-bought fertilizers have," wrote one reader.

"My tomatoes are already popping up, and so are most of my flowers. I saved money, and I think that maybe I did a little bit to save the Earth," she wrote.

• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405.

2012, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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