Savvy Consumer Tips

It’s not difficult to spot a tree that hasn’t been properly pruned, according to James Cairnes, owner of a Small World Tree Company, a Diamond Certified company. The first thing you might see are ugly stubs. “Basically you can hang your hat on an old stub, and that’s not good at all," says Cairnes. “They can cause decay in the main trunk.”

Weeping holes are another bad sign. This damage comes from a tree trimmer who uses spikes or spurs to climb the tree, another unprofessional practice. One of the worst types of pruning is called “topping.” While crown reduction of the canopy of the tree is good, Mr. Cairnes notes that it should only remove about 1/3 of the height of the tree. When trees are “topped,” more than half the tree is taken away, which is not appealing aesthetically, and is harmful to the tree.

Every time I use my dryer, I clean out the lint screen. Unfortunately, not all the lint is captured there. According to Doug Francone, owner and President of Ductz of Walnut Creek and The Tri-Valley, some lint slips into the duct that’s used to move the hot, moist air from the dryer to the outside. Over time, that lint can build up and cause problems.

Your dryer has to work a little harder when its venting line gets clogged—it might take two hours to dry a load that used to take 45 minutes. Besides wasting energy, clogged venting lines wear out dryers sooner. On a more serious note, they’re also a leading cause of home fires. If you aren’t sure how to clean the vent, get a professional to do it—they’ll use special brushes and high-pressure air lines to push or pull all the lint out.

If you or someone in your family has difficulty using a standard telephone, you may be eligible for a free phone that makes it easier to make and receive calls. The California Telephone Access Program (CTAP), sponsored by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), provides free devices for California residents who have difficulty hearing, speaking, moving, seeing or remembering due to an illness, disability or medical condition. There’s no income restriction, but you do need a doctor’s signature on your application.

The various types of phones and devices do everything from make voices louder and numbers easier to read to flash a light when a call is coming in and convert conversation to text. Visit www.ddtp.org or call (877) 546-7414 for more information. You can even try out the different phones at any one of seven CTAP service centers throughout California, including one in Berkeley.

Did you know you can still get a virus even if you’ve installed virus protection software on your computer? The software protects you from known viruses, but the bad guys are out there creating new viruses every day. There’s no 100 percent guarantee your computer won’t become infected.

According to Laura Kavinsky with Click Away, a Diamond Certified company, here are some things that might help: 1)Keep all your antivirus and Windows updates current; 2) Be careful about opening email attachments, even from people you know; 3) Don’t click on any prompt until you know it’s truly safe. One of the top ways computers become infected is when computer users click on prompts for “free” virus software; 4) Don’t visit file sharing sites where you can download copyrighted music, movies, software, etc. These sites are a hotbed of viruses; 5) Be careful about downloading software from the Internet—it often contains viruses and other malware.

Craig Kozy, owner of De Martini Orchard, a Diamond Certified company, has a lot to say about squash—and pumpkins in particular. Did you know that some are better for making puree for soup or pumpkin pie than others? The best ones are “Wisconsin Cheese” pumpkins and “Sugar Pie” pumpkins (with the speckled skin), which are marketed later than “Jack-O-Lantern” pumpkins. Seeds from all types of pumpkins and squash can be roasted for a tasty snack.

Hard squash come in a number of varieties—kabocha (good for soup), carnival, butternut, spaghetti, Danish, acorn and gold nugget, to name a few—and are often used for decorating a table or front door. Here’s what I didn’t know: These hard squash will keep for several months, and after being your centerpiece, can be cut in half, baked and served for dinner. Just be sure to keep them out of the sunlight and in a dry place.

Here’s a doozy. Have you seen this on a piece of clothing’s care label? “Do not dry clean. Do not hand wash. Professional spot clean only.” Gary Casassa, owner of Marin Cleaners, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, usually sees these types of labels on high-end items such as evening dresses with beads and sequins. Customers don’t like hearing that even a professional dry cleaner can’t do a thorough cleaning on these items. Some garments become unwearable as a result.

The problem with professional spot cleaning is that it requires water in order to rinse out the spot remover. Also, spot cleaning can leave a small circle and/or a watermark. Mr. Casassa suggests that you look closely at those care labels before you spend a lot of money on a garment. Avoid those with an “X” through BOTH the dry cleaning and washing symbols.

A professional arborist like James Cairnes, owner of a Small World Tree Company, a Diamond Certified company, believes that all pruning should preserve as much of the tree and look as natural as possible. Young trees need what’s called “formative pruning,” where you take out competing stems that could cause problems in the future. Directional pruning is also done on many types of trees, mainly to improve the structure and aesthetics of a tree.

Mr. Cairnes is often asked to help with view restoration. That means cutting off branches with the idea of balancing the homeowner’s view while maintaining the integrity of the trees. Sometimes fruit production is the goal for trimming and pruning, and another specialty is Asian pruning, which used to achieve a certain look for the landscape and garden.

Eating fruits and vegetables when they’re in season makes sense. Not only do you get the best prices, variety, quality, and flavor, according to Craig Kozy, owner of DeMartini Orchard, a Diamond Certified company, you also support local producers when you shop this way. This reduces transportation costs and the environmental impact.

If you’re eating seasonally, right now, that means you’re buying fresh asparagus. Mr. Kozy says that asparagus is a root crop from the lily family. This time of year, the best product is coming from Stockton and Salinas, his personal favorite for flavor. (White asparagus, by the way, is not grown locally. It’s from Peru.) The thinner asparagus stalks have a stronger flavor and can be stringy because they come from older rootstock. Thicker asparagus is sweeter and not stringy. Look for tight, closed buds on the tips to make sure you’re getting a fresh bunch of asparagus.

It’s not too early to get your planting soil ready for a spring garden by spreading compost, fertilizing, and turning over the soil, according to Alan Kostelnik, owner of Gardens of the Wine Country, a Diamond Certified company. A few veggies, such as peas, lettuce, rhubarb, asparagus and spinach can be planted now, but you should hold off on all the others because we might still have a frost or two, and possibly heavy spring rains.

Mr. Kostelnik says it’s time to plant your annuals—petunias, pansies, snap dragons and nasturtiums. Prune the perennials, ornamental grasses and shrubbery now to encourage late spring and summer blooms. And why not get a jump on a general clean up? Eliminate weeds with Round Up or simply use good ol’ elbow grease and pull them out by hand! Finally, add a layer of fertilizer to your lawn to enhance color and root development

Most people I know have at least 3 remote controls near their television sets, one for the cable box, one for the DVD player and one for the TV.  If they have a surround sound system, it can be 6 or 7.   You almost need a tutorial to learn someone else’s system! But help is on the way according to Jim Hage, owner of High Definition Designs, a Diamond Certified company. Mr. Hage says universal remote controls are getting better and better, and in some cases, you can control your entire house, from sprinkler system and TV to lights and heat, with just one remote.

The typical universal remote will let you control all of your remote controllable equipment, TV, DVD, CD, iPod, etc. with the touch of a button.  There are remotes that can be set up by a do-it-your-selfer, but the best ones are custom programmed on a laptop by a professional.

If you’ve been unlucky enough to be get tagged with graffiti, you know it’s tough to remove. Tim Covington, owner of Big Al’s Grime Fighters, a Diamond Certified company, and an expert on graffiti removal, has a few tips to make the job easier.

On a painted surface, it’s best to paint right over the graffiti.  If tagging is done on concrete, metal or brick, start with a paint remover.  Some products are aerosols, but it’s more economical to buy a large can of it. Next, apply paint remover to the graffiti and power wash the surface, which is easier than wiping off disintegrating paint by hand.  Always remove graffiti as soon as possible. This will give you better results and discourage taggers. If the problem continues, consider applying an epoxy sealant. This coating makes it easy to simply wipe off the paint with a rag after applying the remover, thereby eliminating the need for power washing.

When we set up our AOL account, we didn't have a special strategy in mind for minimizing unwanted e-mail advertising, but we inadvertently made a wise move. We chose a screen name as the master name on the account. No one planned to use that name for e-mail. Because AOL allows up to 6 screen names per account, we added four additional e-mail addresses under that same account. We quickly discovered that the add-ons don't get the junk mail the master screen name does.

Once a week I delete 50-60 ads for Viagra, free pornography and easy money. We do get a few ads on the other sub-accounts, mostly generated by our individual shopping and browsing, but I can live with that.

It may be just an excuse, but I rarely clean my desktop computer because I am not sure of the best way to do it. Do I need special products for the monitor and the keyboard? And what's the easiest way to clean a sticky mouse? I got the help I needed from Erik Sagerdahl, General Manager of Techs to Go, a Diamond Certified company. Mr. Sagerdahl recommends using a damp scratch-resistant cloth on the monitor. For the keyboard, try a product called Dust-Off, available at your local computer store, which blows dust off safely and effectively.

You'll probably have to replace the keyboard if something like soda or coffee is spilled into the keys. To clean a mouse, unscrew the cap that holds your mouse ball in place by turning it counter clockwise. Take the ball out and clean it, along with the three rollers inside, with a Q-Tip and rubbing alcohol.

I don't know about you, but I have at least 3 or 4 old cell phones cluttering up a dresser drawer. The problem is only getting worse now that we can switch service providers and keep our same phone numbers. You usually have to buy a new phone. Seth Heine, President of Collective Good, runs a website that lists charities who need phones. Many are reused in developing countries. The group also recycles phones for their parts, keeping toxic materials like Mercury and Cadmium out of landfills. You can recycle instruction manuals, batteries and chargers.

Whether you mail your phone directly to a charity of your choosing or to Collective Good, you will receive a donation acknowledgement letter with a tax deduction receipt. Some charities offer free shipping labels on-line. And finally, you can drop off used mobile phones at local Staples office supply stores. For more information, go to www.collectivegood.com.

Pearls are a great addition to any woman's wardrobe. They can be worn day or night, for sporty and dressy occasions. Like all fine jewelry, pearls require some special care. Terri Brooks, owner of the Willow Glen Diamond Company, suggests that pearls be stored away from gold jewelry, and because the beads are soft, they should be wrapped in cotton or a silk pouch.

It's important to apply your hairspray or perfume before putting on your pearl necklace. Chemicals can damage cultured pearls. And if your pearls need cleaning, Ms. Brooks warns against using anything abrasive such as baking soda, a toothbrush or scouring pad. Rather than submerging pearl strands in water, it's better to wipe off surface debris with a soft cloth. Once the string is wet, it attracts dirt and can stretch. If that happens, the pearls can be re-strung, but why ask for added expense when it can be easily avoided

When choosing a dance studio, you have to consider your own goals first. Do you want to be a professional dancer, or are you dancing just for personal enjoyment?  Would you like to perform occasionally or dance competitively? Knowing the level you want to achieve and atmosphere you want will help you choose the right place.

Some of things to consider before signing up at a dance studio are: 1) Does the studio offer the styles of dance you like? 2) How well trained and experienced are the teachers? 3) What is the studio’s philosophy and does it match your personality? 4) Will you get the opportunity to network and perform, if that’s important to you? Finally, ask about the dance studio’s flooring. To prevent serious long-term injury, look for a facility with the very best sprung wood flooring available.

One of the keys to taking better photographs is to know how to use natural light. Most of us amateurs make the mistake of using the sun as a lighting source for pictures. People squint with the sun in their faces and their noses cast shadows. The light is too harsh and colors have a burned out appearance.

Use indirect light whenever you can. Sunrise and sunset are the best times to take pictures because the sunlight comes from the side. If it’s a bright day and the sun is overhead, move the group under a dense, shady tree. This is called “open” shade. Here’s a good solution for eliminating red eyes, caused when light bounces from the subject’s retina into the picture. Use a camera with an external flash unit, because when the flash is farther from the lens, eyes don’t turn red.

The best thing you can do for your new digital camera is to keep it in a case when it’s not in use. Soft cases are fine if you stash it in your purse or glove compartment. A hard case is better though for when the camera is stored in an airplane’s overhead compartment or your trunk. Lenses are easily damaged when dropped, knocked or even just bumped.
When your digital won’t zoom, focus or turn on, batteries are the first things to check. First, try another set of freshly recharged batteries. Read the trouble-shooting section in the owner’s manual for more ideas on what to do. If you still can’t get the camera to work, get professional help.  Most digitals are well built and trouble free. The problems that come up are mostly owner-induced.

If you spend time out on a boat, you know that wind, water and especially the sun, cause a lot of wear and tear on upholstery. Seats, usually made of vinyl, will start fading and become discolored. Once brittle, the vinyl will start cracking and be ruined in a couple of years. Not cleaning upholstery after use to get rid of body oils and suntan lotion will decrease life of the vinyl.

The best way to protect your investment is to use a boat cover. Today’s custom designs allow you to use the covers on the bow while you’re out in the water. When the boat is stored, you add another piece, which snaps on over the cockpit. A cover will also keep out feral cats, which have been known to stow away in boats and completely destroy upholstery with their claws.

Most people do not realize all the options they have when it comes to cremation services and products. Patsy Daniels, President of Daniels Chapel of Roses Funeral Home and Crematory, a Diamond Certified company, emphasizes that when a family chooses cremation, they can celebrate someone’s life in a number of different ways.

One option is to use a rental casket, which contains the cremation container inside, for a traditional service. Another choice is having a memorial service without the body present. Remains may be taken to a cemetery and buried or inurned in a niche, scattered at sea or on private property, or returned to the family to keep at home. The best idea is to discuss all the options with your loved ones ahead of time, so your desires are known and can be carried out according to your wishes.

Custom designing your wedding rings is not as difficult as many people think, according to Jay Cresalia, graduate gemologist and President of Cresalia Jewelers, a Diamond Certified company. You begin by looking around at jewelry stores and pictures in magazines, and talking to friends to get ideas for your creation.

Mr. Cresalia says a good designer will ask you about the thickness and weight of the ring, what is comfortable on your finger, and what type of settings and stones you like. The designer should build on and clarify what you say and then create a sketch, wax model, or the actual ring. Metals are pliable so minor adjustments are easy to make. Get a clear understanding up-front on the metals to be used, completion date, guarantees and the final price. Be sure to sure to ask if an appraisal is included because it's a good idea to have one for insurance purposes.

In the past few years, more people are purchasing diamond rings over the Internet. On occasion, consumers may save a few dollars, especially sales tax, when dealing with out of state companies. But are they getting all that they bargained for?

What you miss when buying a diamond from a website is the chance to compare the beauty and brilliance of the gems. Up to 80% of a diamonds characteristics can be quantified by the information provided by a certificate like those provided by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA).  The other vital 20% of the evaluation must be done based on the aesthetic appearance of the diamond. How does a diamond shine in comparison to another? No certificate can replace the valuable information provided by the human eye.

Nowadays, when you take electronic items (e-waste) to the dump, it’s likely you will have to pay a disposal fee. That’s on top of a recycling fee you may have paid at the time of purchase. A computer monitor can easily cost $25 to unload. Another option is to take your e-waste to a recycling center where they accept everything from computer cords, cell phones, stereos and speaker wires to remote controls, TVs and VCRs.

E-waste recyclers act as middlemen who make sure these items are dissembled properly and anything of value is put to use again.  Some parts are valuable. For every 4,000 pounds of e-waste, for example, three ounces of gold are extracted from circuit connections and microchips. Recycling this type of waste keeps it from being dumped illegally here or overseas on highways, in rivers and landfills.

Retirement is a time to downsize. Moving into a retirement community means having to decide what to take or leave behind. Seniors probably won't be able to take all their possessions with them. Linda Johnson, Administrator for the Diamond Terrace Retirement Community, a Diamond Certified facility, suggests using a digital camera to make the move easier.

Material objects hold memories--of other times, or people, places and events in our lives. Using a camera to capture those memories will ease the sense of loss the move is certain to trigger. Ms. Johnson suggests photographing every room in the house and outside too. Even a banged up recliner headed for the trash heap, says Ms. Johnson, might bring back the memory of a pet or shopping for furniture with a now departed loved one. Photographs help clear away the clutter so you'll have room for a new life to begin.

With the growing popularity of cremation,  we’re seeing more choices for families. The urns now come in all sizes and can be made of cloisonné, hardwood, porcelain, metal or can even be hand-carved. You can buy a keepsake urn or even necklaces and bracelets to store a trace amount of the ashes.

When it comes to the burial for the cremated remains, you can have an in-ground burial with a headstone, or choose to store the urn above ground in a niche at a columbarium or mausoleum. Another option is to scatter some of the ashes. This can never be done from a bridge or from less than 500 yards from the shoreline in California. The ashes can be scattered on private property with the owner’s permission, and some parks allow it, if you have a special permit.

If you’ve been unlucky enough to be get tagged with graffiti, you know it’s tough to remove. Tim Covington, owner of Big Al’s Grime Fighters, a Diamond Certified company, and an expert on graffiti removal, has a few tips to make the job easier.

On a painted surface, it’s best to paint right over the graffiti.  If tagging is done on concrete, metal or brick, start with a paint remover.  Some products are aerosols, but it’s more economical to buy a large can of it. Next, apply paint remover to the graffiti and power wash the surface, which is easier than wiping off disintegrating paint by hand.  Always remove graffiti as soon as possible. This will give you better results and discourage taggers. If the problem continues, consider applying an epoxy sealant. This coating makes it easy to simply wipe off the paint with a rag after applying the remover, thereby eliminating the need for power washing.

Fish may be an important part of a healthy diet, but the way we harvest our seafood can be very bad for the health of our oceans. Some species are over-fished, or caught using methods that kill significant amounts of non-target sea life. In the case of farmed seafood, some aquaculture methods pollute the ocean. The challenge for sushi and seafood lovers is how to know which choices are better for the environment. 
To help eco-conscious consumers, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Blue Ocean Institute, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium each have created a “pocket” guide to more sustainable seafood selections. Download one or more of the guides and refer to it the next time you’re trying to decide between bluefin tuna (an environmental no-no) and wild-caught Alaska salmon (a better choice).

According to the Nielsen Company, parents and students will spend just under $1.6 billion on back-to-school supplies this year. Spending even a portion of that on “green” products would have a meaningful impact on the environment.

When buying paper, check the labels and choose the product with the highest post-consumer waste (PCW) content. (That’s the waste paper from our homes and offices.) Treecycle.com and Green Paper Company are two of the online retailers that make it easier to buy tree-friendly back-to-school supplies.

You’re going to need pens and pencils to go with that paper. Forest Choice #2 cedar pencils are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council “to have originated from environmentally well-managed forests.” Biodegradable cornstarch pens and other green writing tools are available from Green Earth Office Supply.

Once your kids are back in school, encourage them to start their own classroom recycling program.

Eco-friendly oenophiles will be happy to know that their conservation efforts don’t have to stop at recycling the bottle—wine corks are wanted too. ReCork America has drop-off locations in San Francisco and Napa. The recycled corks can be used for everything from insulation to ping pong paddles.
Yemm & Hart, a Missouri recycler, collected 1.5 tons of cork stoppers between 2004 and 2007, converting them to cork tiles. Visit the site to get mailing information for your own donation or to request tile samples.
You might think you’re saving the Mediterranean’s cork oak groves by purchasing wine with synthetic or metal closures, but the tree is not killed to obtain its cork bark. In fact, according to Audubon Magazine, the cork oak groves are part-time homes to more than 250 species of birds and still stand since they provide a source of income for the farmers who own them. Non-cork stoppers now threaten that ecosystem.

One of the hottest “green” building materials on the market today is insulation fabricated from denim scraps leftover from the jeans manufacturing process. Made by Bonded Logic and sold under the brand name UltraTouch, the denim insulation contains over 85% recycled denim and cotton fibers. The material, which is also fire retardant, doesn’t contain any toxins or irritants. And unlike other types of insulation, it doesn’t itch or require any protective clothing during installation. Use of UltraTouch may even qualify you for an energy conservation tax credit.
Though old, well-worn jeans aren’t used for the bulk of the denim insulation being produced, Green Jeans Insulation, an UltraTouch distributor in Wisconsin, does accept donated jeans, which they send through the recycling and manufacturing process. What comes out is typically donated for use by nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity. Visit www.GreenJeansInsulation.com/donate for the mailing address and details.

Do you know the difference between a universal remote and an intelligent remote control device? Ty Carstarphen, principal of High Definition Home, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, explains that the computer-programmed intelligent remote has many more capabilities, and can remove all the confusion associated with operating your audio/video systems because it understands all the inputs and settings.

An intelligent remote can handle controls for more than your big screen TV, DVD player and sound system. It can also manage your lighting, irrigation system, fireplace, burglar alarms, heating & AC. The device will ask, “Do you want to watch a movie, or listen to music?” You simply make your selection from the tabs on the device. Intelligent remotes can also be highly customized, where you can pre-select your favorite radio stations, or TV shows. With a properly designed system, anyone in the house should be able to operate your audio and video, not just your teenager.

The odds of being reunited with your jewels and watches are a little better thanks to an online registry for stolen and recovered pieces. If you’ve been robbed and would like to put law enforcement personnel, the jewelry industry and the general public on alert, you can place a listing on StolenJewelry.org.

Items listed must be valuable, and they must be unique or have distinguishing characteristics. (The Jewelers’ Security Alliance, owner of the site, will determine whether your listing meets the criteria.) There is no fee to search the recovered items database or to list an item, but you must register, and you must have filed a police report before you can place a listing.

It’s soil, not dirt, says Lynn Jackson, owner of Jackson Landscape, a Diamond Certified company. Soil is a living material full of microbes and minerals, and it needs to have the right balance of those things in order for the plants in your garden to thrive. That’s why he recommends getting a soil analysis, especially if you’re planning a large landscaping project.

A soil analysis will cost you somewhere between $35 and $55, and can save you a lot of money and time in the long run. For one thing, you’ll find out how much nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous is in the soil and you’ll receive a report of recommendations of what minerals the soil needs for the type of plants in your garden. Toxic materials such as motor oil, paint and cement may be discovered in the analysis and solutions can be provided.