Monday, November 21, 2011

Fireplace Safety!

It’s starting to get colder and colder here in the Midwest, and we’re all looking at ways to get our homes even toastier.  My husband and I just moved into a new apartment that features a FIREPLACE, and we’re pretty excited. Though between visions of chestnuts roasting over the aforementioned open fire, one question still nags at me.

How do I start a fire in my fireplace without burning down the house or getting carbon monoxide poisoning?

 Good question. 

I vaguely remember something called a “flue” being important, but googling “flue” gets you a list of sites from the Center of Disease Control. Hm. 

I try googling "starting a fire in a fireplace.” There we go!

After reading several articles—WikiHow has a good one here—it’s clear that there are really two important words one needs to be familiar with when trying to safely start a fire in one’s own home:
  • Damper
  • Draft

The DAMPER is a sheet of metal, basically, that blocks the chimney, or FLUE (there’s that word!) when it’s not in use, therefore preventing cold air from flowing into the house.  You will want to open this BEFORE you start, or else the smoke won’t be able to escape out the chimney. 

Aside from the general unpleasantness of having a smoke-filled living room, you’ll want to open the damper before you start the fire beCAUSE the damper lever is located inside the chimney. A difficult place to reach if you have to maneuver past a small fire. 

After you open the damper, make life easier for yourself and make sure the smoke is actually going upwards by lighting a match. If the smoke isn’t going upwards, then you’ve got to deal with the draft. 

The dreaded draft. This is the tricky part, because sometimes, you can do everything right, you can open the damper and STILL, STILL the smoke will refuse to go up the chimney, preferring instead to float around your home. 

This happens, according to WikiHow, because the upper part of the fireplace is too cold. You’ll have to warm it up, which is a bit of a trial. 

WikiHow suggests that you use one of those “commercial wax logs” (a la Duraflame), which will be relatively smokeless—important as you’ll have to start this one out with the damper CLOSED.

You then
“Put the [lighted Duraflame or whatever] on the back of the fireplace shovel, light it and place it up inside the fireplace near the flue opening. What you are trying to do is to heat the upper part of the fireplace. When you have heated it (you will need to use trial and error to determine how long this process is) slowly open the damper and with luck and skill you will find that the heat and fire from your little block will force the air up the chimney. When the draft has fully reversed (you will hear the air sucking the fire and heat from the starter block), then you can light your fire.”
It stands to be repeated that you should NOT hold the lit Duraflame in your hand. This is an awful idea.  Use a tool like the fireplace shovel or the fireplace tongs.

Tim Ferriss agrees with this, saying on his blog
“One tip for a smoke free start is to light the end of a rolled up newspaper hold it up the chimney for 10 or 15 seconds before lighting the fire to get the airflow moving and avoid any back draft.”
Once you get the draft moving in the right direction, it’s a question of how to position the firewood inside the fireplace. If you don’t have any of those fancy Duraflame logs hanging around, or would just like to do it cowboy-style with real wood, then I’d look at Martha Stewart’s Step-by-Step Guide for Starting a Fire.

She gives an especially good tip on Step 5:

Don't overfeed the fire, which can smother the fire or cause it to blaze out of control.

Yes! Please don’t let your fire blaze out of control. Oh my goodness, that would be bad. It’s better to err on the side of less wood rather than more wood when adding fuel to your fire. It’s easy to add MORE wood, but not so easy to take wood AWAY.
Once your fire has burned down to ashes, Martha suggests that you leave them to cool for a day or so. Once they have cooled, she writes (in true Martha Stewart fashion)

“Ashes can be deposited onto flowerbeds around the garden, since they benefit roses and other flowers."


I’ll let you all know how starting a fire works for me, though after reading through all of these how-tos cautioning against fires blazing out of control, I may be too scared to try it. Yet winter is no place for cowards! Onward!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Storm Whistle Featured on Fox 2 News St. Louis!

There's been a lot of press over the last few days about Storm whistle inventor Dr. Howard Wright's newest product: Vortex Toothpaste. But it's rekindled interest in Dr. Wright's first invention: the Storm whistle!

The kind folks over at Fox 2 News St. Louis did a feature on Dr. Wright, and dedicated a whole segment to the Storm whistle. Check it out HERE!

Thanks Fox 2 News St. Louis!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Our Video Podcasts Have Been Viewed over One Thousand Times! YAAAAY!

As some of you may know, Storm Whistle inventor Dr. Wright and I have been putting together science podcasts for the last few months, called "Dr. Wright Breaks It Down for You." They've been pretty much a blast to record them, though the viewcounts aren't nearly as high as, let's say, the Siberian Husky saying "I love you." Which is a little disheartening.

BUT, I logged onto Youtube the other day to check our lifetime viewcounts of the video podcasts, as we're at 1,015!  That's quadruple digits! Not too shabby.

To everyone who's tuned in, thank you so, SO much for your support. We hope to make science easier for everyone to understand, one Microsoft Paint animation at a time.

Here's the newest one, if anyone's interested:

In this week's episode, Dr. Wright and I discuss how exactly all those glow-in-the-dark frisbees, yo-yos, and Glowstorm Whistles work. I jump to the conclusion that these items clearly must be emitting nuclear radiation, and have to be reminded about the Law of Conservation of Energy. Oops.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Finally, the Wheels Are Turning

Dr. Howard Wright did a pretty good job inventing the Storm and Windstorm whistles, right? They've saved over a dozen lives, work underwater, and look darn stylish . Some of you might even be wondering, "Hey, did Dr. Wright ever invent anything else?"

Well, the answer is officially a resounding yes.

Dr. Wright's been working on Vortex Color-Changing Toothpaste for about ten years right now, and everyone over at All Weather Whistle is super-excited that the product is finally coming to market this November. Pre-ordering will start around mid-October, and the toothpaste tubes should start shipping to customers by mid-November (!!!!!!!!!!!!).

So exciting.

Press release below for those interested:



After a ten year struggle, retired dentist and inventor Dr. Howard Wright will successfully release his color-changing toothpaste this November

Dr. Howard Wright’s smile seems brighter these days—blame it on the toothpaste. After a ten year struggle, the retired dentist will finally see his color-changing toothpaste, called Vortex, hit the market this November. Vortex Toothpaste, designed to help children brush their teeth longer and more vigorously through changing color, has become “a labor of love,” says Dr. Wright. “Ten years is a long time to spend fighting for your product. But if you truly believe in your invention, the fight is exhilarating.”

With a background in chemistry and biology from the University of California, San Diego, and a doctorate in dentistry, Dr. Howard Wright knew exactly what he wanted in Vortex: a safe, palatable toothpaste with minimal chemicals. The color-changing phenomenon itself is refreshingly simple:  Vortex is dispensed as twin streams of red and blue toothpaste onto the toothbrush and, as the child starts to brush, the colors are mixed into a vivid purple. “By brushing vigorously, kids delight in watching the toothpaste change color,” says Dr. Wright, “which is accomplished not through a chemical reaction, but by simple optics.”

Vortex Toothpaste also has an emphasis on natural ingredients, and contains no sodium-lauryl-sulfate or SLS, a common foaming agent. “When brushing with conventional toothpaste,” says Dr. Wright, “children find that the heavy foaming makes breathing through the mouth difficult, making the experience frightening. Remove the SLS, make it change color, and you have kids wanting to brush their teeth.” Likewise, Dr. Wright discovered a study by the University of Oslo determining that SLS was directly linked to the development of canker sores, making the elimination of that foaming agent a priority to him.

While the chemical side of Vortex came together swiftly, the toothpaste tubes themselves proved to be nearly impossible to manufacture. To prevent the colors prematurely mixing, the Vortex Toothpaste tube must have an interior barrier to separate the red and blue colors. “Every plastics manufacturer I spoke with told me it couldn’t be done—that no one had ever made a toothpaste tube like that before,” says Dr. Wright. “I had pretty much given up hope, and was ready to let my patent lapse when I decided to call one last manufacturer. And they had the perfect tube.”

This is not Dr. Wright’s first innovative invention. Twenty years ago, the retired dentist and scuba-diving enthusiast patented the Storm safety whistle, which can be heard up to fifty feet underwater and is the loudest whistle in the world. Over the years, Dr. Wright’s All Weather Safety Whistle Company has sold millions of Storm whistles in over thirty countries around the world.  “The easiest way to deal with someone who says your idea is impossible,” says Dr. Wright, “is to deal with someone else.”

Vortex Color Changing Toothpaste retails for $6.95, and is proudly manufactured in Muskegon, Michigan. For purchasing information, please visit

ABOUT: Invented by Dr. Howard Wright, DDS, Vortex Color-Changing Toothpaste is a brand-new, patented toothpaste intended to solve children’s poor brushing habits. Simple physics make the red and blue toothpaste combine together to form a vivid purple; by brushing vigorously, kids delight in watching the toothpaste change color. Kids also start to truly enjoy the brushing experience with Vortex Color-Changing Toothpaste, as Vortex contains no choking foaming agent. Recent field testing for Vortex has been overwhelmingly positive—kids love the color-changing element, and parents love the virtual absence of artificial ingredients. Vortex Color Changing Toothpaste is proudly manufactured and packaged in the USA, and has recently become FDA approved.

Jessica Wright, Marketing Director

vortex ( at ) vortextoothpaste dot com


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why Aren’t There Any Seatbelts on School Buses, Again?

I had honestly never really thought about this question, despite having ridden on the yellow behemoths  countless times over the years. I rode a school bus every day to (and from!) kindergarten, and I can’t remember much about it. Except how much I liked bouncing on the springy seats. 

 I never thought about why there weren’t seatbelts on school buses while I was riding them—I always assumed that the school buses on which I had the pleasure of being a passenger were as old as dirt, and had just been grandfathered in to the seat belt law. But I never assumed that NEW school buses also didn’t have seatbelts, and I sure didn’t think that there were people who defended a lack of passenger restraints. 

But this is, APPARENTLY, a pretty controversial topic.
The argument against seatbelts in buses is given mainly by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the school bus drivers themselves.

The NHTSA claims that:
“School age children transported in school buses are safer than children transported in motor vehicles of any other type. Large school buses provide protection because of their size and weight. Further, they must meet minimum Federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSSs) mandating compartmentalized seating, improved emergency exits, stronger roof structures and fuel systems, and better bus body joint strength.”

 This all makes sense, but still doesn’t answer the question about why no seat belts. Do soldiers riding in tanks get to wear seatbelts? I feel like that's a legitimate question…

I found the perspective of several bus drivers in the comments section of a DotMom's blogpost,  a cooperative parenting blog. Each one of the school bus drivers argued AGAINST having seatbelts, with one saying:
“[Imagine if] the bus [DID] have seat belts. A drunk driver cuts the way of the bus driver and in trying to avoid the impact the bus rollovers. The fuel tank is leaking and now we have 55 students trapped on the bus. There's a very high chance that the bus will catch fire. How do We take all those kids out of the bus? What if they went to a river or lake?”

From another bus driver:
"The school district I work for has harnesses for pre-school aged children. If an accident was to occur and we have to evacuate quickly, I would be in trouble! They have four clasps that attach behind the student and it takes a huge amount of precious time to undo them in an emergency. We are told to cut the straps with a razor knife if these situations occur. Although, it is illegal to have a knife on the bus, so where am I supposed to get one? How is a bus driver expected to get 72 children out of a bus safely in an accident"

(Wait, how many children are being crammed onto these buses? Is there really a discrepancy of TWENTY kids between the two bus drivers? Though I guess that’s not really the point…)

The solution, according to one of the bus drivers, is that the “…money should be spent to increase vigilance for drivers that do not respect[...] passing school buses.”  

So the arguments against seat belts are that they may make rescue difficult in case of a fiery crash, and that school buses are so incredibly safe, that it would be silly to have them. And that the money that WOULD have been spent on seatbelts should go to other safety measures, such as educating the public that school buses, in fact, carry children. And that you should be really careful around them. 


The counterargument is given by the American Society of Pediatrics, the National Coalition for School Bus Safety , and, quite strangely, the very group that argues vehemently AGAINST seatbelts, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (again, NHTSA).

The argument that the NHTSA gives FOR having seatbelts in buses is contained in its“Guideline for the Safe Transportation of Pre-school Age Children in School Buses,” which recommends having a child safety restraints for use of any child “who weighs less than fifty pounds.”

This policy is, apparently, very secretive, as I've never heard anything about it. DotMoms pointed out this very fact in the aforementioned blog post, also wondering, “if a bus has no seat belts, what does one use to strap in the preschooler’s car seat?”

I would like to point out, however, that according to the Center of Disease Control’s Age/Body Weight chart, some girls won’t reach fifty pounds until they’re nine and a half years old, which is around the third or fourth grade. Not exactly pre-school.

All right. Obviously, something’s pretty screwy here. It’s almost as though the NHTSA is just trying to cover all of its legal bases, and doesn’t really care to think critically about the issue. I mean, I don’t even know where you would go about buying one of these “child safety restraint systems” designed specifically for school buses. The internet tells me I can buy it from this company , but they don’t even have prices on the website. Which means they’re probably pretty expensive.

For now? I suppose I’d recommend just holding your nose and riding the bus, unless your child is under fifty pounds. Then, per the NHTSA, I’d reconsider the school bus.

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