Preventing Bathtub and Shower Mildew and Mold

I’ve written about how easy and money-saving it is to wash shower curtains and liners in the washing machine, which does a good job of removing mildew, mold (I can’t tell which is which), soap scum, and the dreaded serratia marcescens bacteria.  Then I got to to thinking: if only there were a way of preventing those gross nasty things!

Some sort of shower spray would probably do the trick.  A DIY homemade shower spray would probably be cheaper than a special store-bought product.

Several websites have recipes for homemade shower cleaners vinegarthat include ingredients such as vinegar, rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, among other things, mixed with water.  I decided to start with plain vinegar, mainly because it’s the least expensive.  Costco sells a jug of vinegar, more than gallon, for about $3.  Regular (sometimes called white) vinegar is usually 5% acidity.  Cleaning vinegar (which isn’t intended to be safe for food use) is usually 6% acidity.  So far, I’ve been using the 5% food-safe vinegar, mainly because it’s more readily available.

All I do is fill a spray bottle with plain straight vinegar.  Once or twice a week I give the bathtub and shower area a thorough spray.  I usually do it after I take a shower and when I’m sure no one else will take a shower for the next several hours.  Before I spray, I give the shower curtains a quick shake to remove most of the clinging water droplets — I don’t want my vinegar spray to be diluted as soon as it’s applied.  I spray the entire tub area, the walls, both sides of the shower curtains and liner, paying particular attention to areas where I’ve seen mildew and mold in the past, which tends to be the corners and lower parts of the shower curtain, liner, and tub walls.  Then I just leave it alone.  I assume that prolonged contact with vinegar is bad for mildew and mold, which is good for me.

So far it’s working, and it’s cheap.  The only disadvantage is the smell of vinegar, which can be overpowering in an enclosed space (remember, bathroom ventilation is important), but I can put up with that for a few minutes each week.  You might want to wear rubber gloves, because contact with vinegar isn’t good for your skin.

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Fixing Flapper Valve in Toilet

If you notice the water coming on by itself to fill the tank of your toilet, the problem could be your toilet’s flapper valve.  You can easily renew it or replace it yourself and save plenty of money.

flapper

Flapper valve?  Most toilets have a flapper valve.  The flapper valve holds the water in the tank until you press the handle to flush the toilet; doing so raises the valve and allows the water to flow from the tank into the bowl.  (There are some other methods of getting the water from the tank to the bowl.  There are other methods of getting water from the tank to the bowl, but the flapper-valve method has been around a long time and is probably the most common.)

Over time, the flapper valve and the seat on which it sits can be fouled with hard water sediment, rust, lime, or other dirt and grime. (Amazing how much dirt and grime is in “clean” water.)  The valves can also lose their flexibility, which keeps them from sealing properly.  Thus, water slowly and continuously seeps from the tank into the bowl.  If you watch closely, you might see it form little ripples in the bowl.  When the water level gets low enough, the toilet mechanism turns the water on to re-fill the tank, and you hear it, which lets you know it’s time to work on the flapper valve.  You can verify that the flapper valve is leaking by putting a few drops of food coloring in the toilet tank and looking to see if any of it ends up in the bowl after an hour or two.

You might try cleaning the valve and valve seat.  Remove the valve and clean it with a scrub brush, scouring pad, or steel wool.  A bit of dishwashing detergent might help. Do the same with the valve seat.  Once it’s all clean, re-assemble it and check to make sure it no longer leaks.

In my experience, once a flapper valve is leaking, it needs to be replaced.  Obtain a new one from your local hardware store.  Remove the old one and install the new.  There are plenty of youtube videos that will show you how.  You might want to save the chain and the metal clip in your hardware jar; they might come in handy for some other job.  I used such a clip once to replace a lost cotter pin.

One final note:  the various toilet cleaners that “clean the bowl every time you flush” are bad for the toilet mechanism in the tank.  Avoid toilet cleaning products that go into the water while it is in the tank.

As usual: Do it yourself and save $$$.

Which reminds me of a story:  I had a friend, a little old lady, who called a plumber when the water in her toilet kept coming on.  The visit from the plumber cost her something around $100.  That seems like a lot to charge for the few minutes of labor needed to replace a part that costs about $6 (retail)  — but I can understand that the plumber had to take the time to go to her home and he could have been working on another job (maybe something that would better justify a plumber’s time) instead of replacing a flapper valve.  Still, I wish she had told me about the problem before she called the plumber.  I would have been happy to do it for free.

Cold Showers

I had a recent experience with cold showers, which got me to thinking that they’re not so bad — at least in the summer.  Not only does taking cold showers have many health benefits (i.e., there are many claims of health benefits), it also saves money.

Every time you turn on the hot water, cold water flows into your water heater and that increases the amount of power (either electric or gas) it uses.  One sure way to reduce your bill is simply to reduce the amount of hot water you use.  If possible, don’t even touch the hot water faucet handle when you wash your hands or shower.  Use less hot water, and you save money every day.  Cold showers have the largest potential for saving money by reducing hot water use, because hot showers use a lot of hot water.

Cold showers are easiest in the summer, when the temperature of the “cold” water might be above 70° F (~ 20° C).  That’s not as warm as most people like for a shower, but it’s far from really cold.  For the past several days, I have taken only 100% cold showers, no hot water at all, and I’m getting quite used to it.  It’s really not bad.  Quite refreshing, actually.  (Of course, it’s July now.)  I’ll probably continue taking cold showers until fall, but I anticipate using less hot water than I’ve previously used during cold weather.

cold_showerNot only am I saving on the gas bill by reducing the amount of gas used to heat water, I’m also saving on the water bill.  Here are three reasons I use less water by cold-showering: (1) I don’t send water down the drain waiting for it to “heat up” as hot water moves through the pipes from the water heater to the shower.  I’m only using cold water and it’s there as soon as I turn the faucet handle.  (2) I use less water in the sense of gallons-per-minute of water flow and (3) I take shorter showers.  I also use the minimum amount of shampoo and soap, so as to reduce the amount of time and water it takes to rinse off.  No question about it, a cold shower is a quick shower.  Of course, I still use a shower shutoff valve.

Q: If cold water saves money, why not just turn off the water heater?

A: Hot water is absolutely necessary for washing clothes and dishes.  When doing laundry, hot water does a great job of killing germs, dust mites, and getting all of the grease and dirt out of your clothes.  Even though some detergents claim to work well in cold water, I still use hot water for the reasons stated.  If you try to wash dishes in cold water, you’ll find your dishes come out greasy and spotted.  (However, it’s a good idea to turn the water heater off when you go on vacation.)

To sum up: The shower is the place to save money by reducing your hot water usage.  Why not take the cold shower challenge?  Ease into it.  Reduce your hot water use in the shower by about half for your next few showers, then go total “cold shower” after that.  Good luck!

 

Make Your Own Soap

The basic principle of avoiding convenience applies to soap.  You can make your own soap and save money in the process — and probably get better soap.  Exact soap-making instructions are a bit beyond the scope of this blog (you can find plenty on the internet and there are lots of instructional videos on youtube), but I’ll give an overview of the basics.

All you need are three ingredients:

  • Fat (such as lard, coconut oil, or olive oil)
  • Lye
  • Distilled water

You can also add some other ingredients for scents or added effects (such as lavender, peppermint, honey, oatmeal, and various coloring).

The preparation method for basic soap-making is

  • C-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y add the lye to the water (rubber gloves and eye protection are mandatory)
  • Warm the fat over low heat
  • Get both the fat and lye-water to the correct temperature (which usually means warming the fat while waiting for the lye water to cool)
  • C-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y blend them together
  • Mix until thickened
  • Add any optional ingredients
  • Pour into molds and cover
  • Allow to cool slowly
  • Remove from molds
  • Allow to cure in the air for several weeks

That’s all.

homemade_soapYou can get very creative with the scents, colors, molds, and packaging.  You might be inspired by the soap-makers in your family tree.  (“Your great-grandmother used to make her own lard soap in the backyard.”)  You might explore the soap-making traditions of your ancestors.  (“This is the kind of soap they made in the old country.”)  Once you’re a skilled soap-maker, you have an excellent and one-of-a-kind unique gift for all-purpose giving.

You’ve probably heard that lye is dangerous.  It is dangerous.  That’s why you wear gloves and safety glasses.  You should also wear long sleeves and pants.  It’s also a very good idea to work with the lye outside, as combining lye and water creates toxic fumes.  But, in my opinion, the danger level isn’t so inordinately high that soap-making must be left only to professionals working on an industrial scale.  I’d say it’s not too far from the danger level of making using hot oil on a stove to make a large batch of french-fries.  Of course, you do need to be careful and, to repeat for emphasis: wear safety glasses.

Do some research and if it interests you, procure the ingredients and make a batch.  You should find a tried-and-true recipe and follow it exactly.  Measuring quantities and temperatures precisely is absolutely essential when you’re making soap.  It’s not like making a stew or soup that you can easily vary by adding more of one ingredient or less of another.  The fat, lye, and water must be combined in the correct amounts and at the right temperature for saponification to occur.

Depending on what fat you use and how you obtain it, I think there’s a good chance that you’ll find the money savings and the high quality of the product are worth the effort.  You might come to see, as we have in my household, that making your own soap isn’t much different than making your own breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Washing Shower Curtains

shower_curtainAccording to the internet, when confronted with a shower curtain or shower curtain liner that has become icky with accumulated dirt, limescale and hard water deposits, mildew and mold, soap scum, and serratia marcescens bacteria (!) … many people will just throw it away and buy a new one.  Even members of my own family would do this!

However, a spin in the washing machine will make shower curtains and liners as good as new and repeated washings can add months or even years to their useful lives.  Just put them into the washing machine with a few heavy towels (especially for top-loading machines, which can tear up shower curtains without the towels to act as padding and buffers) and add the usual amount of detergent.  As a booster, add about a half cup of ammonia (my favorite), or some baking soda, borax, vinegar,  or bleach.  [Of course, never use ammonia and bleach together.]  Run the machine on the longest cycle with hot water.  You might pause the machine for some additional soak time.  There’s no need for a high-speed spin.  Don’t put the shower curtain in the dryer.  Just re-hang it in the bathroom and admire it as it dries.

You can also admire the money that stays in your bank account each time you do this.  A new shower curtain might cost at least $8.  Washing it in your home washing machine costs about 50¢.

If you have a mildew, mold, and serratia marcescens problem in your bath and shower area, a fan in the bathroom might help.

The Salux Washcloth

The Salux washcloth is one of those things that made me wonder, “how did I not know about this before now?”, when I became aware of it a few months ago.  After using a Salux washcloth, I now feel that when it comes to showering, “I’ve been doing it wrong”, at least for my whole pre-Salux life.

saluxWhat is a Salux washcloth?  Materially, it’s like the bath pouf (“pouf”, yes I guess that’s the word) that is common in showers in North America and probably elsewhere.  Both the Salux and the pouf are made of nylon and polyester or similar synthetic fabric.  But while the traditional bath pouf is bunched up into a spherical shape (usually with a cord loop for hanging), the Salux washcloth is shaped like a scarf, flat, about 10 inches wide and 35 inches long.  You might not assume this difference in shape would make much difference in performance, but … you’d be wrong— it really does.

The Salux washcloth has a bit more texture than the pouf, so the Salux does a better job cleaning and exfoliating.  After I’m done, I feel really clean, cleaner than I’ve ever felt after showering any other way.  (Although I should mention that I don’t think I need that much cleaning every day; I use the Salux once or twice per week.)

How to use it:  While you’re in the shower, skin wet, you put a small amount of soap, body wash liquid, or shower gel onto the Salux washcloth.  You should turn the water off, so that you don’t rinse away the soap before it’s had a chance to do its work.  Then, holding the Salux by the ends, one end in each hand, you wash yourself with a back-and-forth “shoeshine” motion.  This is especially good for washing your back.  (See the picture.)  The Salux makes lots of suds — more than the pouf, probably due to the quick back-and-forth motion.  You can also bunch it up and use it as you’d use a pouf or old-fashioned (cotton terry) washcloth, but I mostly use it fully stretched out between two hands pretty much everywhere: my back, underarms, legs and feet, even between toes.  (But not my face, the Salux experience is a little too intense for face cleaning.)

How it saves money:  The main advantage to using the Salux washcloth is that it allows you to use less soap.  With the Salux I use only about 1/3 the amount of body wash liquid as I normally use without it.  Getting cleaner while using less soap means that the Salux will pay for itself long before it wears out.  One reviewer on Amazon mentioned that after a Salux washcloth is too worn out for use in the shower (because it begins to fray at the ends and loses some of its texture), he saves it and uses it for household cleaning in the kitchen and bathroom.

Another nice thing about the Salux is that because of its shape it’s easier to rinse clean after use and it dries quickly and completely, thus making it more sanitary.  Poufs don’t dry as well because the bunched-up shape doesn’t allow as much contact with air.  You can also wash the Salux in a washing machine (same for the pouf), but this doesn’t seem necessary.  They get clean just by rinsing them well after use.  The need to launder cotton washcloths is one of the main reasons they are inconvenient and inefficient.  (If you launder your Salux washcloth in your washing machine, be sure not to put it in the dryer.  Heat is not good for synthetic fabrics.)

A couple final notes.  (1) Some webpages use the word “towel” to describe the Salux.  I think that’s a mis-translation (given that these are made in Japan).  The Salux is a washcloth, intended to be used with soap and water for cleaning, not drying.  It wouldn’t be good for drying off after a shower.  (2) It’s been reported that Chinese-made fakes and knockoffs are common, but the consensus seems to be that these are inferior and that the real Japanese-made Salux is much better than any imitator.

Bathroom Fan

“Bathroom fan” usually means a fan that takes air from the bathroom and moves it outside, i.e., it’s an exhaust fan.  A bathroom fan performs two functions: (1) removing unpleasant bathroom odors, and (2) removing humid air from the bathroom.  If it’s the first function you want, the typical bathroom fan connected to a duct that leads outside is what you need.  But if you want to reduce the humidity in the bathroom, there’s an alternative you might want to consider, especially in the wintertime and perhaps also during the months of moderate temperatures when you’re neither air-conditioning nor heating.

First: It’s a good idea to reduce moisture and humidity levels in the bathroom and running a fan to move air out of the bathroom is a good way to do that.  If you take a shower or bath and then do nothing to dry out the bathroom, you’ll eventually have all kinds of problems with mold and mildew, peeling paint, rusting metal, rotting wood, decaying drywall, … and your towels won’t dry between uses.  You might also get nasty stuff growing on your shower curtain, but you can wash your shower curtain instead of throwing it away and getting a new one.

In the summertime, it makes good sense to use the bathroom exhaust fan to remove the post-shower warm, humid air from your bathroom and replace it with cool dry air that comes from the rest of your house.

But in the wintertime, your house actually could use that warm humid air.  If you move it outside with a bathroom fan, you’re not only getting rid of something useful, but you’re also getting rid of air that you paid to heat with your home’s heating system.

desk_fanDuring cold weather, I’ve had good results dehumidifying the bathroom with a desk fan placed on a bathroom shelf with the airflow directed to the open door.  This moves the warm humid bathroom air into the hallway, and from there it circulates throughout the rest of the house.  As air moves out of the bathroom it is replaced by drier air from outside the bathroom.  Some of it comes in from the hallway, as the fan is mixing the bathroom air with the hallway air.  But there is also some air movement from the bathroom heating duct of the forced-air system.  Houses generally need some additional humidity in the wintertime, and this practice helps out in that regard.  It also helps warm the air inside the house by capturing the heat from the hot water.  All in all, it seems to work.  The bathroom, and everything in it, gets dry.  The rest of the house gets a little heat and humidity that it needs.