Urban Heat Islands

By Elaine Simmons

As Arlington County increases its density of buildings and residents, more people can access our many benefits. However, growth also increases the possibility of the phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect: cities experience higher air temperatures than non-urban areas.

On average, cities tend to be 1–7°F warmer than non-urban areas around them during the daytime and 

as much as 5°F warmer at night. On a summer day, the sun can heat buildings, roofs, and cars to temperatures 50 degrees higher than the surrounding air. Urban air quality also suffers since more pollutants are pumped into the air in densely populated areas, and stagnant air conditions during heat waves can trap pollutants near the ground. 

Natural surfaces like trees and plants have cooling effects from shade and “evaporative cooling,” whereby evaporating water from vegetation absorbs heat (much like sweat cools the human body). Artificial surfaces such as roads and buildings that replace vegetation typically lack those cooling effects and instead absorb and re-emit more heat, which makes their surroundings warmer too. 

As the planet warms, urban heat islands will only intensify higher temperatures. To cope with higher temperatures, cars and buildings consume more energy for cooling—frequently via fossil fuels—which worsens air pollution and contributes to climate change. 

An important way to fight the urban heat island effect is to reintroduce vegetation. This includes planting trees, expanding parkland, and installing “green roofs” designed to support plants. Building cool roofs and  pavements—which have bright coatings that reflect more sunlight and, therefore, absorb less heat—also   can reduce the urban heat island effect. A model by the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub estimated that, if widely implemented, cool pavements could reduce the frequency of heatwaves by 41% across all US urban areas.

As residents, a key thing we can do is plant and properly care for tough native shade trees (like oaks, sycamores, hickories, tulip trees). Those of us with shady yards know that tree cover makes a HUGE difference in how hot it feels. A friend in McLean with lots of shade trees has measured a 10-degree difference in his yard compared to nearby exposed areas. Next time you venture out, notice how much better streets and sidewalks with tall tree overhang feel and look compared to those that are sun-beaten. To get a free tree, including installation, contact the Tree Canopy Fund established by Ecoaction Arlington. You may also register for a free tree on Arlington County’s Urban Forestry Dept web page. Or visit your local garden center.

Let’s Recycle…Properly

Nearly all our residents participate in recycling, but many blue recycle bins contain items that don’t belong there. Plastic bags are a major no-no, since they get tangled in recycling machinery. Anything in plastic bags is discarded as trash. Here is a list of items that should not go in your blue recycle bin:

Does Not Belong in Blue Recycle BinWhere Can it Go?
Plastic bags, bubble wrapSelect grocery stores* take clean, dry plastic bags or put in trash
Glass of any kindPut in the big metal bin at the Quincy Recycling Dropoff on Washington Blvd, near W&L High School, or put in trash
Plastic less than 4 inchesGoes in the trash
Disposable drinking, coffee, and condiment plastic cups/tops and plastic platesGoes in the trash
StyrofoamFor the highly motivated recycler, EPS Recycling in Crofton MD takes Styrofoam. Google them for more info. They do not accept packing peanuts
Styrofoam packing peanutsParcel Plus in the Lee Harrison shopping center accepts packing peanuts for reuse. Other packaging/mailing stores may also
Food and food tainted paper productsPut all food and food tainted paper in your beige, countertop compost bin; transfer to your green yard waste bin for pickup
Wire hangersDrop off at select dry cleaners** if in good shape for reuse or put in the trash
Shredded paperGoes in the trash
Plastic eating utensils (e.g., forks)Drop clean utensils at The Lamb Center for the homeless in Fairfax City for reuse or put in put the trash
Electronic waste, kitchenwareSee Arlington county’s recycling website for more info
* Including Giant Food (3450 Washington Blvd) and Harris Teeter (600 N Glebe Rd)
**Including Hurt Cleaners (3410 Wilson Blvd)

Saving Our Diminishing Tree Canopy

By Anne Bodine

Several months ago, after a lively discussion at an LPCA meeting, the association’s co-presidents encouraged a group of Lyon Park tree lovers to form the Lyon Park Tree Group to explore how to save or boost our precious tree canopy. 

Our Canopy is Shrinking!  Lyon Park lost 11% of its canopy from 2011-2016, the highest percentage of any large civic association in Arlington. The canopy reduction from 2000-2016 was a worrisome 23%. Here are additional key facts that drive the mission of our group:  

Lyon Park Area and Tree Canopy

Total land area30 acres
Potential tree canopy cover59%
Actual tree canopy cover34%
Land area that could be covered with canopy but currently is not25%
Based on 2017 county data

Trees are vital to human and planetary health, and we need more, not less of them. Trees cool and raise the value of our homes, they absorb stormwater and pollutants, they control erosion, sequester carbon, offer stress relief/shade, and provide habitat for birds and other animals. Despite these crucial qualities, we are well below the landscape space that could be planted with trees. As the table above indicates, 25% of the land in Lyon Park could be covered with canopy but is not. 

To increase our canopy, the Lyon Park Tree Group has taken the following actions:

  1. Begun identifying lots where we will approach owners to ask if they would like to receive one of the free trees available through Arlington’s Tree Canopy Fund;
  2. Met with two Alexandria women who increased the canopy in their neighborhood by almost 300 trees via outreach to neighbors. We hope to launch a similar effort in mid-September; 
  3. Coordinated with the Virginia Department of Transportation and Arlington’s Urban Forestry Office to green a section of Route 50 near Cambridge Courts with 129 new trees;
  4. Created an interactive map of the trees in Lyon Park, showing approximate age and species/genus. We were helped by group member and Lyon Park tree steward Bill Anhut. We drew on a 100-year-old map showing the full scope of waterways – part of the Long Branch of the Potomac River – that transected the park back in the day. 

But the volunteer Tree Group can’t do this alone. Community involvement is key to restoring canopy. You can get new trees for free for your property through the Tree Canopy Fund, you can help get more trees planted on other properties, or you can volunteer to save trees via activities such as cutting invasives. Email Lyonparkeditor@gmail.com if interested. Read the Arlington County Tree Canopy Report.

Our Solar Journey

By John Ausink

This is not about billionaires’ vanity projects in space, it is about the process of getting solar panels on our roof and dropping our electric bill to zero. Arlington County has, on average, 201 sunny days per year. Why let that sun go to waste?  Why not use it to save money and reduce your carbon footprint?

Our solar experience began when my spouse saw a sign in a neighbor’s yard with the name of the company that had installed their panels. I chatted with the neighbor and then contacted the company. 

To my initial irritation, the rep wanted our home address before we could set up an appointment. However, in our first Zoom call with the company, they produced an image of our home’s roof, showed the exact panel design, predicted the impact of the growth of our trees on energy production, and determined the exact cost–all in the first meeting!  We signed a contract in February, and the system was installed in May – a 10kW system with 25 panels. 

The Feds still allow a 26% tax credit for solar systems, so comparing the cost of the system (minus the credit) to our annual electric bill allowed us to calculate how many years it would take to “pay off” the upfront cost of the panels. There are two ways your personal electrical production can save you money:

  1. You will remain connected to your power company, but your electric meter will be changed to a “net meter.”  If your panels produce less electricity than you use, you will still draw (and pay for) power from the grid. If you produce more power than you use, the net meter puts it into the grid and your next bill will be reduced by the value of that electricity. In other words, you won’t get cash for over-producing, but you will get credit.
  2. You will be invited to sign a contract related to Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs). SRECs help utilities meet state regulations that require a certain percentage of electricity be produced from renewable sources. Power companies buy and sell them, and SRECs allow you to sell credits for the energy you produce.

Our system is easy to monitor with a cell phone application. Despite what my wife says, I do NOT check our energy production rates every day. Well, maybe sometimes. 

Be aware that several considerations will affect the financial impact of a solar system. First, since the panels have a guaranteed 25-year life, our company required a roof inspection before installation to make sure the solar panels won’t outlast the roof. Second, our house was built in 1920, and our electrical panel required an upgrade to accommodate the solar panels ($1800). Finally, we added an electric vehicle charger to the system ($2200) so the sun can power our future car as well. 

You can explore savings on your own by going to this website: https://www.novasolarmap.com/. Simply enter your home address and a map will show an image of your neighborhood, your roof, an estimate of annual savings on your electric bill and the reduction in your carbon footprint. I hope you will check out the website and consider how you might help the environment and your pocketbook.

Don’t Commit “Crepe Murder”!

By Elaine Simmons and Dean Amel

The gardening term “crepe murder” has been called the high crime of horticulture. If refers to turning crepe myrtles or other trees into ugly stumps by indiscriminately cutting the ends of healthy branches. This practice creates stress on the tree, can lead to decay, and destroys the natural form of the tree. No one should do this to any tree. 

Large shade trees should be pruned by reputable companies with trained arborists specializing in tree care; these are different from a lawn service. Smaller ornamentals are suitable for select trimming by owners, but it is important to know what you are doing. Websites such as the International Society of Arboriculture (Trees Are Good), extension services from universities such as Oregon State or Clemson, and even commercial websites such as Fiskers provide good information on basic principles of pruning: tools, techniques, when to trim and what to trim. 

You can also call a local arborist in for a walk-through for all your trees to learn more about what to trim and how. Some people hire consulting arborists, who are paid to evaluate your trees but not to do any tree work, because such professionals don’t have any incentive to recommend unnecessary tree work. If cost is an issue, you can Google Tree Stewards of Arlington and Alexandria, a group of volunteers who have gone through classroom and field training on how to plant and prune trees. Tree Stewards are not professionals and can’t advise on tree diseases and cannot do extensive pruning, but they love to give free advice.

Often the pruning problem starts when the tree is planted in the wrong place and gets bigger than the owner desires. Thus, it is important to know the mature size of trees before you install them, since no tree should be topped because it is too big.

What should you trim?  Weak, dead, or diseased wood is fair game. Crossing branches are also candidates for pruning. Very select trimming is also acceptable to increase air circulation and penetration of light. But please, the less you trim the better and be aware that poor pruning can wound a tree in such a way that it is damaged forever. Pruning can be like giving someone a bad haircut; there’s always one more cut you need to make. So please be careful and remember that it is much more expensive to remove a large ailing tree than it is to take proper care of it throughout its life.

When Your Windows Are A Pane

By Heidi Ananthakrishnan

Have you ever accidentally bumped into a glass door? You’re not the only one.

Bird collisions with glass kill up to a billion birds a year in the United States. After such an impact, birds usually die or face life-threatening injuries. These collisions mainly affect songbirds during their spring and fall migrations, when they are exhausted and hungry. We often do not see dead birds near windows because scavengers quickly consume them. According to the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), the only thing more lethal than window collisions are habitat loss and domestic cats. While we may imagine glass-covered skyscrapers to be the worst death traps for birds, half of all collisions occur on homes and buildings up to three stories in height. The other half mostly occur on buildings up to 11 stories. The reason birds collide closer to the ground is because they feed there. Glass that reflects vegetation is the most dangerous, as birds think they are flying toward trees or bushes. This often happens at windows located across from bird feeders, baths, or fruiting trees.

Thankfully, this is one conservation issue we can easily do something about. ABC identifies cost-effective retrofits to glass that do not impede the view from inside. One of the easiest fixes is the most common: window screens. Others run the gamut from decorative decals to frosted tape to stencil-rolled paint to stained glass. Even having your first-grader make pat- terns with a window crayon on the outside of the glass could save lives. The company Acopian Birdsavers sells cords that hang outside windows and sway in the breeze, adding an element of calming movement to an outdoor view.

Lyon Park sits in the path of the Atlantic Flyway, a major migratory bird route connecting Canadian Arctic breeding grounds with South America. The Audubon Society estimates 500 species of birds ply this aerial freeway. Birds have lost much habitat along this route due to development and deforestation, which has decimated their populations. North America has lost 29% of its birds since 1970. That is more than one in every four birds. With such battered populations, every bird we save is a feather in our cap.

Know the Basic Rules of Recycling

By Elaine Simmons

If you stroll around the neighborhood on collection day, you will unfortunately see many blue recycling bins filled with items that will not be recycled. A major problem is that people put plastic bags full of plastic or metal containers directly in the bin. The County has made clear that any item in a plastic bag will be treated as trash. So if you collect your plastic and metal containers in a plastic bag, remove these items from the bag on collection day and place the items directly in your blue recycling bin. Then put the plastic bag in your trash can or reuse it as a trash bag. Never put plastic bags of any kind in your blue recycle bin.

This rule also applies to the County’s impressive new composting program, where you can place any food item in your green yard waste bin and it will be “cooked” and turned into loam. You can use the light green compostable bags to collect food waste or you can put food items directly in the bin. You can also collect food waste in a paper bag. Compostable bags and paper bags can go in your yard waste bin. Do not put plastic bags of any kind in your yard waste bin. You can buy compostable bags on-line or at the nearby MOM’s Organic Market on Lee Highway.

Finally, if you rake more leaves than your yard waste bin can hold, put the leaves in paper yard waste bags. This way the leaves will be turned into mulch. Do not collect leaves in plastic bags. The County provides free paper yard waste bags at various locations such as Thomas Jefferson Middle School. Home Depot and COSTCO sell paper yard waste bags.

The theme: limit use of plastic bags to collecting garbage. Environmentally speaking, the fewer plastic bags you use, the better.

Environmentally Safe Ways to Control Mosquitoes

By Elaine Simmons

With hot, humid weather comes a plague of mosquitos. We can take steps to reduce mosquito populations without harming “good” critters like bees and butterflies.

  1. Eliminate standing water. Unfortunately, mosquito larvae can live in as little as one teaspoon of water. Black, ribbed, flexible downspout extenders hold water and are thus a prime culprit, even if they are sloped downhill. Blocked gutters are also a major problem, as are tarps (like on pools or cars), toys, bird baths, trash and recycling bins, watering cans and wheelbarrows, and pots and saucers. Check and empty these sources every two to three days.
  2. Treat your rain barrel. Rain barrels are great for saving on water, but they are major mosquito breeding grounds. To avoid this, buy mosquito “donuts” or dunks, which last for months, or add ¼ cup of any type of cooking oil to your barrel per week, or secure fine mesh netting to the top with bungee cord.
  3. Avoid mosquito spraying that harms other bugs. Many companies claim that their insecticide treatments for your yard only harm mosquitoes, but critics disagree, saying that chemicals typically used to cause paralysis and death in mosquitoes (pyrethrins or pyrethroids) kill monarch caterpillars (even weeks after spraying), bees, and fireflies. These chemicals can also kill arthropods, such as spiders and centipedes. Losing these critters means reducing a food source for some birds. Finally, critics claim these insecticides are toxic to certain earthworms.
  4. Try natural sprays to repel mosquitoes in your yard. Alternatives to insecticides are products such as Garlic Barrier, with its considerable amount of natural sulfur providing a repellent. According to reviews, Garlic Barrier smells extremely strong for 30-60 minutes but then the smell goes away; the repellent lasts several weeks.
  5. To avoid being bit while outside, cover up and spray yourself with mosquito repellent. The EPA has approved DEET; it’s been around for decades and breaks down quickly, so does not harm the environment. Alternatives to DEET include plant-based products that contain oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE).
  6. Finally, use a fan at your outdoor gathering. The fan disperses the carbon dioxide you exhale, so fewer mosquitoes are attracted to you in the first place. Also, mosquitoes are weak fliers and can’t compete with the “wind” from the fan.