If you are reading this blog, there is a very good chance that you are concerned about energy efficiency in your home. You may perhaps have read some of my website and considered making improvements to your home to reduce your energy consumption. If you are looking for the ideal book companion to guide you through the process of improving energy efficiency in your home, look no further than Charlie Wing’s newest masterpiece: “The Visual Handbook of Energy Conservation: A Comprehensive Guide to Reducing Energy Use at Home“.
I have just finished reading this book from cover to cover. It is impeccable in every regard, the text is written in plain English and uses easy to understand terms and concepts. Charlie is already well known for his beautiful illustrations and they are there on almost every page of this book. He covers every aspect of energy use, from the building envelope itself to everything in it ranging from heating and cooling systems all the way down to phantom electric loads. I cannot emphasize enough that anyone even remotely interested in energy conservation in their home should purchase this book and read every page, there is no question in my mind that you will recoup the investment.
I have met Charlie on several occasions, in fact he used to live down the road from me before I moved here and he is well known in the midcoast Maine region as something of an expert on sustainable and efficient building design and construction. He and I taught several workshops on how to make interior insulating storm windows, and he asked for my input when drafting the section in his book that refers to these windows. I was delighted to see that he acknowledged myself and some of my friends in the front of the book for our token contributions.
I will say it again: buy this book. You will not regret it.
Okay, so this is a little geeky. Having replaced the interior dome lights with LEDs in our Chevy Volt recently, I decided to move on to our 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid and replace the dome lights, and also the rear turn and brake lights. I found these lights from superbrightLEDs.com which offers every kind of LED light under the sun, and they have an excellent parametric search tool to help you find the right LEDs for your vehicle. In some vehicles it is quite challenging to replace lamps in the turn indicators, but in the Escape, all that’s required is to remove two screws and pull entire taillight assembly out. Then the lamp holders bayonet out and you just pull out the old lamp and insert a new one:
The installation could not have been simpler, and took only a few minutes.
Before I installed the new LED lamps, I did an electrical test to see how much power they save. The original incandescent lamps are rated at 27 Watts and I actually tested them at exactly 23 W (1.9 A) on 12 V DC. the replacement LED lamps consumer only .6 Wwatt (50 mA) yet they are almost exactly the same brightness. This means that the new LEDs are significantly reducing the electrical load on the alternator in the vehicle.
There are other advantages to installing LED lights, one of them is that since these lights come on instantly rather than taking several milliseconds to reach full brightness, the brake lights give an earlier warning when you are braking which could be a lifesaver in some extreme circumstances. There is another interesting side effect in my particular vehicle which is that the turn indicators now blink quite a bit faster which also enhances clarity on the road.
LED replacement lights come in a variety of types, and brightness with commensurate pricing. I chose lights that cost around eight dollars each that are moderately bright, however you can spend as much as $30 for higher brightness lamps. Personally, I do not see any value in increasing the brightness of these lamps beyond that required by the DOT.
SuperbrightLEDs.com offer some solutions: I can replace the Flasher relay for about $13 with one designed for LED lights, or add a load resistor across the LED light to simulate the load of the old lampsfor about $6 each. The former solution makes more sense since it will save power which was the original goal.
It is late fall here in Maine and I am preparing for winter. I packed away my solar charged electric lawnmower and brought out the snow thrower and fired it up to make sure it is ready to go, it is lined up just inside my garden shed door ready for the first snowfall. The snow thrower is my only concession to gasoline powered yard tools.
For those of you who do not live rurally and enjoy reading my blog I thought I would share a little more about what is involved in preparing for winter when you have a wood stove. Starting back in the spring I was cutting and splitting firewood and stacking it near the entrance to my workshop. I leave a tarp over the top to keep the rain off, but the rest is open so that the wood can season (dry) for at least six months. I prefer to use firewood to has seasoned at least nine months.
At this time of year I unfold the tarp to cover the entire pile to keep the snow off and weight it down with bricks or logs so the tarp does not blow off:
I have almost 2 cords of wood stacked of which about two thirds has been seasoning for over one year and it is good and dry. Dry wood requires less kindling to light in the wood stove, and accumulates less creosote in the chimney flue. Too much creosote can cause a chimney fire which is why I hire chimney cleaners every year or two to clear out all the built-up creosote in our chimneys.
When I need firewood inside the building I use a canvas log carrier to bring in five or six pieces at a time and stack them near the stove next to my large box of kindling scraps from my workshop:
Above the wood stove I have installed a Magic Heat - heat recovery unit that includes a fan that blows air across tubes inside the flue, this has a thermostat that only comes on when the flue temperature is above 150°F. This allows me to heat up the workshop very rapidly with just a few logs. But my office on the second floor is a closed room that is heated primarily from a 10 foot baseboard heater connected to my solar augmented propane heating system. The goal of using a wood stove is to reduce my usage of fossil fuel. So I attached a flexible hose to the heat recovery unit that directs heat up to my office floor. I have a small muffin fan at the top that helps to draw the heat into my office. The muffin fan is controlled by one of my ART TEC Solar Differential Temperature Controller units so that the fan only turns on when it senses that air in the duct is warmer than the ambient room temperature. It may look a little odd but it works quite well:
I enjoy the ritual of lighting a fire in the stove, and typically light one in the morning and another late at night before I close up my office. This suffices to keep the downstairs work area to at least 60°F, and if I am working down there for extended periods I will light another large fire to bring the temperature up above 65°F. My building is very well sealed and insulated to R30+ in the walls and R40+ for the roof so my heat loss is minimal.
I have been having an email dialogue with my friend Paul Kando recently about climate change and what we can do about it. Paul is a deeply thoughtful man who writes weekly articles on climate change, the environment, and the economics of sustainability. You can access his articles from the Midcoast Green Collaborative website. He, like many other people concerned about climate change are beginning to recognize that the only way to address it is by tackling the political and financial issues first. In America, we need to recover our democracy and remove climate deniers from office so that we can get on with the business of improving energy efficiency and the transition to renewable energy. In our dialogue Paul summarized his current position on all of this thusly:
“Growth must be replaced and so is monetarism-based economics. Why stop with saying that? The model is nature itself, which operates a system of abundance (not austerity/ doing without) on its current income of solar energy. It recycles everything. We must create a new economic order — management of real resources instead of money and debt. Productivity gains can be rewarded with more time off rather than more stuff. There are promising alternatives being developed to replace the current unequal patterns of ownership as well.
We should stop measuring GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and measure life satisfaction instead. It turns out that material wealth has little relationship to happiness, something that was demonstrated decades ago (Easterlin’s paradox). We know how to reduce energy consumption in housing by over 90%, in transportation by 70%, in power generation by similar amounts — without destroying comfort. In fact we can enhance comfort at the same time as we curtail the use of energy. And happiness (the pursuit of which was declared a universal human right in 1776) is there to be pursued. Based on the same criteria, Costa Rica is the happiest country on earth, Vietnam is #2. Bangladesh is among the top 12. All but 3 of the happiest 15 are Latin American nations. Western Europe is generally middling, about twice as happy as the US, which is #105 out of 181 countries in happiness (Could it
be because we paid only lip service to the Declaration of Independence?). And the country with the world’s highest GDP — Qatar — is next to last in happiness. It turns out the happiest countries use the least amount of energy.”
Food for thought.
I have been adding a few custom mods to our Chevy Volt recently. A while ago I replaced all of the interior cabin lights with LED’s that are much brighter, use a lot less energy, and have a much more aesthetically pleasing high-tech blue white color. I got them from superbrightLEDs.com using their Vehicle Bulb Finder tool. More recently, I replaced the single back up light with a higher brightness LED lamp that increases rear visibility noticeably.
Today I came across an upgrade for the roof antenna that is shorter and more pleasing, it is called the Stubby Antenna, and I have to admit it is purely an aesthetic upgrade while also being more durable.
My wife and I have also given serious thought to customizing the interior using a kit that covers all of the dashboard surfaces with real or imitation wood grain or other cool finishes like carbon fiber. The pictures make the vehicle interiors look absolutely stunning and we are considering possibly using one of the real wood veneer finishes.
A few months ago my wife placed a small flower arrangement next to my bathroom sink that included a flower and two hosta leaves. Every morning I would look at the leaves and note the slow change as they aged. After a week or so they had turned yellow and my wife wanted to put them in the compost pile. I told her that I wanted to wait because I was enjoying watching the change in shape and color and the beauty of the leaves as they went from green to yellow to brown. I started thinking about setting up a time lapse camera to document this beauty in decay. By the time the leaves had completely died I had designed and built an intervalometer for my 13-year-old Nikon Coolpix digital camera.
The timer operates a solenoid that presses the shutter button on the camera, and the camera triggers a studio strobe with reflecting umbrella. The LCD screen shows a countdown until the next shot and records how many frames have been taken. I placed this whole set up in a darkened room in my workshop to exclude all the other light. I was surprised to see that these leaves took just over three weeks to go from green to brown.
This whole process of documenting decay and honoring the beauty of the transition is mirrored in my own life in which I am surrounded by friends who are older than myself. Most of them are aging gracefully and I have come to appreciate the beauty of the aging process. I am planning many more time lapse movies like this.
Click here or on the image to see the resulting video on YouTube
Back in 2009 I installed a heat recovery ventilation system in my workshop. I did this because in the winter my building is so well sealed that I was concerned about having adequate fresh air in my work environment. A heat recovery ventilator (HRV) contains two fans in a box, one pulls fresh air into the building through a heat exchanger core and a second fan to withdraw stale warm air. As the warm air passes through the heat exchanger it heats the incoming cooler air. My particular HRV is nominally rated to be 86% efficient and what this means in practical terms is that even if it is below freezing outside the fresh air entering my building will be above 65°F. Here is an image of the inside of my HRV:
Fresh air enters on the lower right and is fed to my building from the upper left corner. Stale air enters on the upper right and exits through the wall of the building to the outside from the lower left corner. the two airstreams cross over in the heat exchanger in the center that is constructed from interleaved layers of quarter inch black Coroplast that separates the two air channels while allowing them transfer heat between adjacent channels.
The system has improved my sense of well-being enormously, I often walk into my office and take a deep breath of the air that feels wonderfully fresh. At some point it occurred to me that I could make the air seem even more fresh by adding a couple of small air ionizers inside the unit, and they do seem to have had a pleasant effect.
Since the HRV is in my workshop where I am often using smelly chemicals, paints, and plastics this unit has the added benefit of replacing all of the air in the building within a few hours - especially if I turn it up to full speed. Being in a rural area, one of the other issues that I have is the occasional dead mouse. By the time I find one it is pretty darned smelly, and the odor lingers much longer than any other paint smell. My solution to that issue was to add a can of scent gel to the HRV - after removing all trace of the dead critter. This is the same kind of scent that you can purchase an auto parts store to put under the seat in your vehicle. I have found that it leaves a subtle but very pleasant ambience in my workspace. I am not the kind of person who typically enjoys ambient fragrance, but this does help to mask the occasional malodorous dead critter. The photo below shows the top left quadrant of the HRV with both the ionizer and scent gel.
When I installed our solar array, I signed a Net Metering Contract with our electric utility Central Main Power. Like most Net Metering arrangements, the utility credits me for every kilowatt hour that I export to the grid. This means that if I am paying the utility $.13 per kilowatt hour for the electricity that they deliver, if my solar array is producing more power than we use and we are exporting energy I am getting a credit of $.13/kWh. At the end of the month credits are applied to my bill, and if I exported more than we imported a credit is applied to subsequent bills until the credit is used up. If we were to have a credit after 12 consecutive months, then it would be cleared. So there is no incentive at this point to build a larger solar array than we need.
Since we purchased the Chevy Volt in May 2012, we have not had a net export for any given month because the Volt requires up to 13 kWh for a full charge (about as much energy as our house uses daily). We do not always use up a full charge - on some days when we only run short errands we may only use a partial charge (meaning less than 40 miles range in the summer). So our monthly electric bills have averaged between $15 and $18 from April to September 2013. Here is a chart showing our total daily import versus export:
While most of the variation in our daily net energy use has to do with cloud cover affecting the solar arrays output, there are also periods where our use of the Volt has a significant impact on the net energy for the day.
Below is a chart showing net energy for a typical solar day recently where we were exporting power while the sun was shining, but then we charged the Volt in the evening which used around 3700 W for 3 1/2 hours. So on this particular day we nearly broke even. If this had been a clear, sunny summer day - we would have had some slight export even after fully charging the Volt.
The bottom line is that we are driving our electric vehicle nearly for free within its electric range on average while also providing all of our domestic needs via the solar array.
After the Fukashima nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan I became interested in detecting ambient radiation. So I purchased a kit and built my own Geiger counter that can read alpha, beta and gamma particles. It is the latter particles that can be detected during coronal mass ejection’s (a.k.a. solar flares). I connected my Geiger counter to a live web interface on my site that shows counts per minute over the last 24 hours and seven days. The average counts per minute in my region range from 2 to 10, and I programmed my interface to email me when counts exceed 18. I received at several alerts early this morning and looked at my live webpage to see what was happening, I had been aware that there have been reports of auroras in the northern hemisphere for the last several days. Here is the 24 hour chart from my webpage:
and here is a chart pulled from a website that documents solar activity from satellite data:
allowing for conversion from UT to local time (-4 hours) you can see that my counter has detected recent flare activity. You can click on the images above to go to the relevant webpages to see recent data. I think it is kind of cool that I have a simple and inexpensive instrument that can let me know about peaks in local radiation that might indicate a good time to go outside and look for or Aurora in the northern night skies. And, of course if we have a nuclear event, I will get an early warning. It is always good to be prepared for the zombie apocalypse ;)
I recently purchased a new TracFone for $9.99 and added two hours worth of minutes for $20. This is a recent model LG “smart phone” with minimal web capabilities.
Since I rarely use a mobile phone this deal works very well for me, since I have an OnStar phone in our Chevy Volt. Previously I had been using a Jitterbug phone which was costing me over $18 a month, and it was just not worth it for the few minutes I use per month at most.
So then I was confronted with having to recycle the old phone and battery. My first thought was to take the phone to Radio Shack since I remembered that they recycle batteries and cell phones. When I went into my local store, I asked the salesperson they if he would mind posing for a picture of me handing the phone to him for my blog.
If you are looking for someplace to recycle your old rechargeable batteries (that contain toxic lithium and cadmium which definitely does not belong in a landfill) you can go to the Call2Recycle website and search for a location. Some time ago I found that my local Lowe’s store offers recycling bins in their returns area that accept rechargeable batteries, compact fluorescent lamps and store bags.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2013 report has just been released today. Quoting from Jeff Masters blog (founder of the Weather Underground) review of the report:
“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.” Thus opens the landmark 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report issued today. Working without pay, hundreds of our most dedicated and talented climate experts have collaborated over a six-year period to create the most comprehensive and authoritative scientific document on climate change ever crafted. The first 31 pages of what will be a 4,000-page tome was released this morning after an all-night approval session that stretched until 6:30 this morning in Stockholm, Sweden. This “Summary For Policymakers” lays out a powerful scientific case that significant climate change with severe impacts is already occurring, humans are mostly responsible, the pace of climate change is expected to accelerate, and we can make choices to cut emission of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases that will limit the damage.”
Jeff ends his review of the report by saying:
”As I read though the report, digesting the exhaustive list of changes to Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and ice that have occurred over the past few decades, I was struck by how the IPCC report reads like lab results from a sick hospital patient. The natural systems that civilization depends upon to thrive have been profoundly disturbed, and the forecast for the future reads like a medical diagnosis for an overweight smoker with a heart condition: unless the patient makes major lifestyle changes, the illness will grow far worse, with severe debilitation or death distinct possibilities. . . . We must elect new leaders and pressure our existing leaders to take the strong actions needed to advance us into a new, 21st century energy economy. You can all help make it so!”
I look at all of this information about climate change, and see so little action being taken both by individuals and by political entities that I feel completely helpless. Ultimately billions of people are going to suffer and die due to the inaction of people with the power to make change. While I am doing everything I possibly can, it sometimes feels like I am swimming alongside the Titanic trying to steer it away from the iceberg. I sincerely hope that anyone reading this who is conscious of the issues will do everything they can both directly by reducing their carbon footprint and less directly by trying to influence policy on any level they can.
Recently I was talking with a friend of mine whom I had assumed was somewhat knowledgeable about solar energy. I was surprised when he made the assertion that “solar panels only produce power in direct sunlight”. I corrected him and informed him that even on heavily overcast days, my solar array can produce over 3 kWh. But on a typical sunny day like yesterday, September 20 you can see the power curve shows power being generated before and after sun strikes my solar array which is facing West at 270°. Sunrise on this day was at 6:25 AM and it set at 6:38 PM, and my array was producing power for every minute of this time.
Total amount of power produced on this day was 22.9 kWH and the sun first hit the solar array at around 9:20 AM and Dropped behind the trees at around 5:30 PM (17:30). As you can see my solar array was producing hundreds of Watts before and after the sun was shining directly on the panels.
Compare this with the power curve from today which was heavily overcast with the sun barely making an appearance, yet the array produced 9.71kWH.
Last weekend Becky and I harvested over 20 pounds of crabapples from our tree, nearly filling a 5 gallon pail with fruit. We harvest by laying a large tarp on the ground and then shaking the tree with a long pole. Then we sort the good ones from the rotten or worm eaten apples and leaves right there on the tarp.
Last night we made our first batch of 24 jars Crabapple Pepper Jelly which is a spicy jelly with hot pepper in it to give it some zing. Here we are in the process of canning the first jar:
The big black pot on the left is for boiling/sterilizing the jars while the smaller pot on the right is sterilizing the lids. Becky is ladling the jelly into the jar while I hold the lid ready to cap it off. We use that large black pot for boiling the crabapples as the first part of processing them - it’s really a lobster boiling pot, but does the job nicely. While we were working, huge thunderstorm blew through with continuous lightning which was a little distracting. We ended up working all the way through till midnight to get all of the jars filled.
We have used up about half the crabapples and plan to use the remaining 10 pounds to make some more jelly and also Crabapple Butter which is popular with our neighbors as “barter wampum”.
My neighbor John called me this afternoon to see if I would like to go out boating. Several times a year we load his kayak and my handmade wooden canoe onto his pickup truck roof rack and go find a nice place to paddle. Today we put the boats in at the boat ramp round the corner from my house and paddled up the river onto Lake Nequasset. It was a hot and humid day and we followed the shore around to the sandy beach at the northern end of the lake. I always take a garbage bag with me to pick up trash that people leave along the shore. Recently I got over two dollars worth of redeemable beer cans from a wild party earlier this summer. But today we were shocked to find over two dozen used syringes. Here they are sitting on my front porch.
I called the County Sheriff And he came over to pick them up and just nodded and said: “Oh yes, these were used for hard drugs probably hydrocodone or heroin.” He was so matter-of-fact about it, but I was deeply shocked. I have been aware that hard drug use is on the rise in rural Maine, but have never been directly confronted by it. He bagged the syringes and took them to the local hospital to drop them off for safe disposal. This really changes my perspective on drug use in our region. I can understand the occasional late-night drunken party on the lake, but hard drugs like this are a whole different story.
When I installed a tracking system for the two solar panels that I added to the south wall of my workshop back in June, I did not expect to notice them moving very often. Theoretically they would move incrementally every day to continuously adjust for seasonal solar elevation changes. However, what happens is that whenever clouds pass over the sun on a partially cloudy day the panels tilt down toward a brighter part of the sky in the south. Today I went out with my camera and took time lapse images every 10 seconds for around six minutes. The wind was gusting from 15 to 20 mph, and small dense clouds were moving across the sky fairly quickly. The GIF animation below condenses 6 minutes into 6 seconds and you can clearly see the panels tracking even the slightest cloud cover.
I cannot be certain, but I believe this is squeezing a few more Watts out of those 2 240 W panels that are fed through Enphase M215 inverters that can produce a peak of around 220 W when facing directly into the sun on an ideal day.
How do you prevent someone from wasting electricity? The same way you prevent them from picking their nose — make them think they are being watched. So from now on just know that I’m looking over your shoulder every time you turn on a light and leave the room. Every time you fall asleep watching your 300 Watt big screen TV. Every time you leave the AC turned down really low. I’m secretly reading your electric meter every hour of every day.
This has been proven to be an effective strategy by Carnegie Mellon University. Here’s the story. Got that haunted feeling yet? Good.
For the Cliff Notes, see this slide from his presentation:
Somehow the world has still not woken up to the fact that what we have done to our climate is irreversible. There’s not much chance that the world will muster the political will to make the massive carbon cuts needed to prevent global catastrophe. So it’s up to us - meaning you dear reader to take direct action and reduce your carbon emission in any way you can. If you have a family then do it for them and their children, they will thank you. For some suggestions base on my personal actions, check out my Sustainable Living web page.
I have been keeping meticulous records since I installed our solar array in 2009, and have been keeping all this information in a spreadsheet. One of the things I have been doing is comparing the estimated power I should expect with the actual power generated. The National Renewable Energy Lamps tool called PVWatts allows you to input the specifics of your solar array including its location, number of panels, and orientation etc. so that it can give you an estimate of how much power you should expect. At the end of every utility billing cycle, I access the records from the web interface for the solar inverters on my system to determine exactly how much power was produced by the array for each month. The chart below shows the calculated estimate vs. actual production. Notice that the estimated production bumps up each year as I have added panels to the array. The scale on the left represents kilowatt hours per month.
The acorns are falling from the trees, and the farmer is finishing up haying the large field across the road from our home. I really enjoy watching the whole process of cutting, tedding, and baling the hay. it is impressive that it only takes one or two guys with a tractor and all the relevant equipment to bale up a full field of 50 to 60 acres. The only real handwork involved is stacking it in the barns a few miles down the road.
At this time of year, I begin to look forward to all of the fall activities that give me pleasure and exercise working outdoors. Recently, I helped a neighbor cut down a large old maple tree that was dying in his front yard. He gave me some of the wood to cut and split for the stove in my workshop. It is a bit warm still for cutting and splitting so I have been pacing myself, but I got this small amount of wood split and stacked next to firewood I cut in the spring. There is enough to last a few weeks added to my pile.
Recently we had two cords of green firewood delivered, and as soon as the weather cools off a little I will need to stack it and cover it for the winter. I look forward to the simple pleasures of vigorous physical outdoor activities that take me away from my desk job of designing and developing electronic products.
Recently I discovered an unexpected benefit to the tracking system I designed for the 2 - 230 W solar panels I added to the south wall of my building. Since my office is on the second floor I notice whenever the linear motors activate to move the panels because I can hear the motors running. I had not expected to notice them moving since the whole idea is simply to adjust the tilt angle seasonally. But one day a storm blew in from the north and a big dark cloud came in over the building leaving the southern sky bright and sunny. My tracking system automatically tilted the solar panels down to point directly at the brighter part of the sky. And since then I have noticed the panels adjusting slightly whenever heavy cloud moves over. I had not expected to be squeezing every tiny watt out of these panels, and it is kind of fun to watch them adjusting to condition. in the photo below, you can see the tracking sensor in the red plastic dome. Inside there are two small light sensors on each side of a horizontal piece of metal painted flat black. When that metal shades one of the sensors it sends a signal to drive the motors to move it out of shade ensuring that the panel is always directly pointed at the brightest source of light.