Furnace fixers

Thumbs Up: The brutally cold winter has taken its toll on heating systems in businesses, apartments and homes in the Douglas County area. Fortunately, there's a group of unsung heroes who came to the rescue - heating technicians and installers. These highly skilled workers are called upon at all times of the day and night, weekends included, to repair failing furnaces that conk out in the cold. Yes, they get paid for their work and they expect the erratic hours of their trade, but their quick, professional service is easy to take for granted. It takes a lot of training to stay on top of all the different types of heating systems and to know exactly what to do, whether the system is five days old or running for 50 years. The best workers are also friendly and reassuring - very helpful traits when customers are worried about pipes freezing up or how their children will stay warm through the night. So here's a big thumbs up for all those workers in the heating industry who repair not only our faulty furnaces but restore a warm calm in the chaos of the cold.

Disrespecting the plows

Thumbs Down: So far this winter, there have been more than 25 crashes in Minnesota involving vehicles and state snowplows. C'mon drivers, we can do better than that. With winter far from over, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is urging motorists to use extra caution during plowing and snow removal operations. "The main causes of these crashes are motorists driving too fast for conditions, driving too close to the plow and driver inattention," said Todd Stevens, acting state maintenance engineer. Minnesota law requires motorists to turn on their headlights when it's snowing or at any other time when weather conditions impair visibility. Other recommendations from MnDOT include: 1. Stay alert for snowplows, which turn or exit frequently and often with little warning. They also may travel over centerlines or partially in traffic to further improve road conditions. 2. Stay back at least 10 car lengths behind the plow. Don't drive into a snow cloud. 3. Slow down to a safe speed for current conditions. 4. Turn on your headlights and wear your seat belt. 5. Turn off the cruise control. 6. Be patient and remember snowplows are working to improve road conditions for your trip. 7.Don't drive distracted.

Fighting straw waste

Thumbs Up: Have you ever thought about all the straws that go to waste when they're provided, but unused, at restaurants? It may seem like a very small thing, but all those plastic straws add to the waste stream. Over 500,000,000 plastic straws are used each day in the U.S., according to "The Last Plastic Straw" a project of Plastic Pollution Coalition. In the past 20 years, people have come to expect plastic straws in every drink, which the coalition points out is an example of extreme waste being generated for minimal convenience. Fortunately, people are doing something to reduce the waste. Travelers Inn Restaurant in Alexandria, for instance, has a policy of offering straws to customers only upon request - a move that drew a thumbs up from a customer, Debbie Hoven. "If more restaurants followed their lead, we could help our beautiful planet recover from plastic overuse," she said. "It seems like such a simple thing, but I think it could have a big impact, one straw at a time." The state Legislature is also addressing the problem. Sen. John Marty has introduced SF 756 to reduce the usage of plastic straws in restaurants. This bill discourages the excessive use of plastic straws while preserving access to straws for those who need or prefer using them.