Living Sustainably
in the shadow of climate change

August 2014
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Ford MPG vehicle upgrade
Filed under: General, Electric Vehilces
Posted by: Guy @ 11:08 am

My wife and I have been very committed to driving clean efficient vehicles.  In 2001 she purchased the Honda Insight which was the first hybrid vehicle introduced to the US market. That amazing car got over 65 MPG in those days, and was a fun sporty two-seater hatchback that suited our basic transportation needs.  Becky and I have also been doing craft shows since the mid-1990s, and for that we needed a midsized SUV to haul all of our show materials to cities up to two driving days from home.  Over the years I have transitioned from owning a Volvo 240 wagon to a Chevy Blazer and then as soon as I could afford one I purchased a used Ford Escape Hybrid (pictured above on the right).  The Escape got 28 to 33 miles per gallon which was almost double the Blazer mpg, and was also one of the first SUV hybrids on the market in 2005.  It recently ticked over to 100,000 miles and we started to consider looking at other vehicles.

Now that we are no longer doing craft shows we don’t need as large a vehicle so we had been considering scaling down when our local Ford dealer, Brunswick Ford sent us a mailing with an incredible offer that we could not refuse.  The deal which was sponsored by Ford allowed them to offer us more than double the Kelly Blue Book value for our Escape as a trade-in for a new Ford vehicle.  Since they no longer make an Escape hybrid version, we looked at the Ford C-MAX Hybrid and found that it suited our needs perfectly.  We took home the one pictured above on the left.  My wife also test drove various Toyota Prius models including the Prius C but did not like them for various reasons.  The C-Max is an attractive front wheel drive vehicle rated at 43 mpg city and 37 mpg on the highway.  Thanks to their incentive offer, we elected to lease/purchase it for a surprisingly affordable rate.  We drove it home yesterday, and I will be reporting in on what we think of the vehicle as we come to know it better.

Fire Fire!
Filed under: General, Solar Power, Our Chevy Volt, Solar Heating
Posted by: Guy @ 5:54 pm

If someone stood up in a public space such as a theater or shopping mall and started yelling “Fire, Fire!” what do you think people would do?  From an evolutionary perspective humans are barely out of the trees and our mammalian brains are still quite primitive in the way we respond to stimuli. What we would do in this situation is look around to see if we could see any fire and then sniff the air to see if we smelled smoke. Very primitive animalistic behavior that dates back millennia.  Then we would either do nothing or possibly verbally or even physically attack the person foolish enough to have triggered a fear response - this reaction stems from an ancient fight or flight response to threat.

Climate scientists have been doing the equivalent of yelling “Fire!” for over 20 years.  James Hansen who retired from an impressive career with NASA has been speaking publicly and warning anyone who will listen that climate change is a real and serious threat to humanity since the late 1980s.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed in 1988 under the auspices of the United Nations to provide credible information about climate change to world government bodies.  This group has been collating and disseminating comprehensive reports on a frequent basis, and each one has been more and more dire with warnings about the outcome of global warming.

Unfortunately, climate change does not present itself as a clear and present danger and thus our monkey brains do not respond with a sense of immediacy.  There is no clear and present risk to life, and the concept being abstract is not acted upon in a direct way. The threat is largely conceptual until we are confronted with an extreme weather event that may or may not be directly triggered by a changing global climate. Throughout the world for the last several years there have been so many extreme weather events that it is becoming routine to hear of massive floods, droughts, heat waves, hurricanes, hailstorms, tornadoes etc. This is the new normal and still our monkey brains have not correlated these direct threats to our lives with the big picture.

Climate scientists like to tell the story of the frog in the pot. If you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out immediately. But, if you place the frog in cool water and then slowly raise the temperature it will never notice until it has been boiled to death. So here we are swimming around in warming waters!

But we do have highly evolved brains with the capacity to extrapolate a threat into the future.  Intellectually anyone who grasps the concept of climate change realizes that it will inevitably impact their lives in some form or other. The question is what can we do about it? For myself, I have dabbled in the world of politics and years ago I supported Dennis Kucinich in his presidential campaign because he was brave enough to speak about these issues. I have also lobbied for, and testified in front of state committees in support of renewable energy legislation.  And have also worked on committees in my municipality to try to effect change. I have been so thoroughly discouraged by these experiences that I have now pulled back and I’m choosing to operate entirely within the realm of civil society.

Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying “Be the change you want to see in the world”, and that is what I am doing. By investing in renewable energy systems on my property and increasing the efficiency of my home and vehicles, I am modeling the change I would like to see in the world. By writing about it in social media I am sharing the choices that I have made and sincerely hope that in some small way I will influence other people to make similar decisions.  If you feel inspired to consider taking some direct action, I encourage you to visit the Sustainable Living section of my website where you will find pragmatic solutions that may resonate for you. I talk only about things that I have personally done to decrease my carbon footprint and live more sustainably, I make every attempt to keep my text clear and simple and I use lots of thoughtfully considered images.

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Vote sustainably with every dollar
Filed under: General
Posted by: Guy @ 1:36 pm

Almost every time you buy something, you are voting with your dollars for or against a solution to climate change.  For instance, you can choose to purchase your vegetables from a local farmers market or a Community Supported Agriculture farm, or you can purchase them from the grocery store. Most of the vegetables in your grocery store are shipped from out-of-state or even out of the country which increases their carbon footprint. Supporting local agriculture strengthens your local economy and votes for a reduction in wasteful long-distance shipping of vegetables. 

Of course your vote is fully scalable on up to vehicles and houses. Purchasing a vehicle based on its appearance or horsepower rating is last century thinking in my opinion. It is time we all chose to vote with our dollars and purchase the most efficient vehicle we can. By voting with our dollars we send a clear message to automobile manufacturers that we want clean and efficient vehicles.  Detroit is only just beginning to get the message while most European auto manufacturers now offer multiple hybrid and or fully electric vehicles.  to learn more about hybrid vehicles available today, go to  I am particularly pleased that we are able to charge our Chevy Volt from our solar panels and thus drive completely carbon neutral for hundreds of miles every week.

For myself, almost every purchase I make involves a decision in which I balance my needs versus those of a survivable planet. Many times I am confronted with limited options due to the nature of our global business infrastructure. If I wish to purchase a tool - it is almost impossible to find one manufactured in the US. When considering things such as powered yard tools the vote becomes a little simpler because I can choose to purchase cordless battery powered tools rather than gasoline powered ones. I have used a small 18 V cordless weed wacker for many years now, and one of my neighbors recently dropped by to show me his newest Ryobi 40 V DC weed wacker which is a very powerful tool.  Small two stroke gas engines used in lawnmowers, leaf blowers etc. have absolutely no pollution controls on them and are a significant contributor to CO2 emissions.

My choice is to live as sustainably as practical, hence I have invested tens of thousands of dollars in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Most of those investments also required considerable amount of sweat equity to install and I have enjoyed every moment.  I recognize that this is not everyone’s choice, but I certainly hope that more and more people will come to feel very strongly that almost every purchase decision can impact future generations.  When I talk with people about sustainability and hear them say “Oh yes, we recycle” with a dismissive tone as if that is all anyone needs to do, I am deeply saddened.  It is not enough to make token commitments, as Yoda said: “Do or do not. There is no try”.  Business as usual is condemning future generations to an unsustainable ecology in which the world will be ravaged by the effects of rising oceans and extreme weather.  This is unacceptable to me.

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awesome bug zapper result
Filed under: General
Posted by: Guy @ 1:16 pm

I am concerned about the rise of West Nile virus and other diseases
carried by mosquitoes that can be extremely debilitating or deadly.    About six weeks ago (in mid-May) I bought a Flowtron 40Watt bug zapper that is rated for 1 acre.  (here is my original blog post).  I have located it about 40 feet behind the house in an area where we rarely go, and check on it every day or two. From the back porch I can eyeball it and can distinctly hear a zap every few seconds, and sometimes almost continuous zapping. Now that summer is here and the weather is hot, wet and humid, the mosquitoes are breeding actively.  So many are landing on the electrodes in the zapper that I have to take it down and bring it over to my workshop where I can use an air gun to blow off all the dead bugs.  It reaches a point where there are so many bugs on the electrodes that it can no longer zap them.

This morning I went over to check on it and found the biggest catch yet, there is a quarter inch layer covering the entire electrodes consisting of hundreds of dead mosquitoes and a few moths.  Clearly I have killed off an entire breeding cycle within the manufacturers claimed 1 acre radius.  Here is what the bug zapper looks like without any bugs on it:

and here is an image of the way I found it this morning:

At a list price of around $60, this is an inexpensive solution to the mosquito problem and I am quite pleased with my modest investment.

1 comment
renewable energy systems ROI
Filed under: General, Solar Power, Solar Heating
Posted by: Guy @ 8:38 pm

I started deploying renewable energy systems on our rural Maine property shortly after we purchased it in 2001.  The first system I installed was the solar collector based heating system for my workshop. That system has expanded and grown over time from a 2 collector system to 4 along with several other improvements. This makes it challenging to figure out at which point the system broke even on costs, so I can only hazard a guess that it may have taken approximately 5 years for my investment to pay off.  There were no incentives in place for solar thermal systems at that time, and of course I did not pay for any labor to install the system. Since I designed the entire heating system from scratch it is difficult to establish how much of the original cost was strictly attributable to the renewable side and how much of it was the backup propane system and costs. I think I spent around $3000 on the collectors and associated pumps and plumbing and I am confident that it has saved me a significant amount of propane over the years.  You can see my annual costs for propane on my site.  Over the years I have reduced my annual propane bill for the building from almost $1000 to $425, this is partly due to installing a wood stove and burning increasing amounts of locally sourced firewood most of which I cut myself on my own property.  I am pleased that my super insulated conversion of the original open barn building now costs me very little to heat.  As an investment I am confident that I have saved many thousands of dollars on heating this building while also reducing my carbon footprint.

When I decided to install solar collectors for the hot water on our house in 2006, I was able to calculate the ROI at about 4.5 years using some Canadian software designed for this purpose.  This was based on a net system cost of $1500 after tax rebates and Maine state incentives.  Again, of course I paid for no labor because my friends and neighbors helped me to install the system.  Based on a 25 year lifespan for the system I expect to save over $11,000 in propane costs for heating the water in our home.  I doubt you could get a better return on investment in the stock market!  By significantly reducing the propane needed to heat our hot water, we are significantly reducing our CO2 emissions.

In 2009 I began the installation of my solar power array by refinancing our home to cover the $21,000 cost of equipment.  I continued to expand that system from the original 24 solar panels until 2013 when I had 31 solar panels on the roof at a total cost of about $25,000.  Thanks to tax breaks and state rebates, totaling over $9000 our actual cost turned out to be approximately $16,000, and again all the labor was done by myself with the help of friends, neighbors and relatives.  After installing the original array, I calculated the return on investment would take approximately 16 years, I believe that has now been shortened by a few years thanks to less expensive and more efficient solar panels that I have added over time.  If I were to install the system today it would cost significantly less due to the dramatic price drop for solar panels over the last few years.  Of course, this would shorten the return on investment significantly.  I was able to pay off the loan early thanks to an inheritance, so we now get most of the energy for our home and electric vehicle for free.  Once again, this has all been an excellent return on investment even if I was still paying off the loan.  There are detailed statistics  about this system on my website.  On a sunny day in the summer we generate so much energy that we are able to drive over 60 miles in our Chevy Volt at no cost and with no carbon footprint because all the charging energy comes directly from the sun!  It is hard to beat that!

When I see climate change denial trolls posting absurd responses claiming that renewable energy is ineffective, I realize that they do not have a clue about the realities of investing in renewable energy systems.  From my perspective renewable energy is not only good business sense it is a win/win situation for myself personally and the world at large since I have dramatically reduced carbon footprint of my lifestyle.

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Why I live sustainably
Filed under: General, Solar Power, Solar Heating, Geek Stuff
Posted by: Guy @ 11:54 am

recently asked me why I am so committed to living sustainably. The question took me completely by surprise, and I was unable to come up with a cogent response in the moment. After pondering this question for almost 2 weeks I came up with a response.

Part of my response can be summarized as: “I’m an engineer dammit!”. Most of what I do for a living is design and develop electronic products. As an engineer, it is my job to use technology to solve problems, and in this case I am addressing climate change directly using technologies that I find engaging. If misusing technology has gotten us into this mess then appropriate use of technology should be able to get us out of it. By transitioning our global energy systems to renewable ones, I have hope that we can limit the damage to our planet.

I also fall into the demographic category known as the “Cultural Creatives“. Cultural Creatives is the term coined by Paul H. Ray, Ph.D., to describe the group of individuals who are the early adopters of progressive trends in a society. They are the ones who are creating and defining the future of life and living. As a rare combination of both artist and engineer, I am someone uniquely suited to think outside the box and vision an inspiring future for humanity.

I also read a great deal of science fiction, particularly the subgenre of extrapolative fiction in which authors take an existing facet of our contemporary society and explore outcomes.  A number of authors have tackled climate change in various ways.  Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a trilogy: “Forty Signs of Rain“, “Fifty Degrees Below” and “Sixty Days and Counting“. These books are set in present day Washington DC and center around the sociological and political aspects of abrupt climate change. The central character endures significant challenges personally and professionally and makes the whole story come alive with the direct impact of climate change on his life.  These books left a profound mark on my perception of the larger issue and imbued me with a sense of urgency to do what I can personally.

I have spent some time at the Maine Statehouse lobbying for renewable energy bills, and I became so discouraged by the response within the Utility and Energy committee that I gave up.  As I watch the American federal government become more and more dysfunctional, I realize that the solution to the world’s problems will not be political it will be up to those of us operating within civil society to take direct and personal responsibility for the well-being of our planet. The good news is that a large number of cities, counties, and states in the US are choosing to take action independently of the federal government, and I find that very encouraging.

Solar equipment warranty
Filed under: General, Solar Power
Posted by: Guy @ 10:56 pm

A few weeks ago I was using the Enlighten web interface for my solar array and noticed immediately that one of the solar panels was dropping out at different times of the day and producing only 1 or 2 Watts.  By clicking the play button in the center of the graphic, I can replay the energy produced by each panel throughout the day - or over several days if I wish.  This is a very helpful user interface and is one of the best features of using micro-inverters because you can isolate and identify specific issues very readily. 
I immediately emailed Enphase tech support and they responded by saying that they would try uploading new software to the microinverter behind that panel.  A week later the panel dropped out completely and was no longer producing any power so I called tech support and talked to very helpful person who explained that they had tried the upload and it had not worked so they had already issued a replacement microinverter.

Enphase inverters have a 15 year warranty which is quite similar to the standard 20-25 year warranty on all solar panels.  Once the replacement inverter arrived, it was a relatively simple matter to shut down the array and go up on a couple of ladders with my neighbor and remove the solar panel to access the inverter.  At which point it is largely plug and play to replace and then bolt down the new inverter and solar panel.  And now I am back to normal again: 

The value of my solar power system is enhanced by excellent warranties and customer service.

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Bye-bye beaches
Filed under: General
Posted by: Guy @ 3:31 pm

My extended family has a cabin on Frenchman’s Bay in “Downeast Maine”.  It is a stone’s throw from the beach with a spectacular view of the bay.  In the center of the bottom image is a view of Mt. Cadillac (the hill in the center) which is the easternmost point of the continental United States where the sun first strikes the continent.

This is my sanctuary, the place where I go with my wife to rejuvenate and shut out the world for a while.  As beaches go it is not exactly your tropical island paradise, but the rocks are endlessly interesting and the tide moves so quickly you can actually watch it as it changes over 6 feet two times per day.

I am sharing this as a reminder to everyone who has a favorite beach somewhere in the world that most of these beaches will be underwater by the end of the century.  Climatologists estimates of how high the ocean level will rise by 2100 continue to escalate, at present they are saying 6 to 13 feet but I suspect it may be more by the time they factor in all of the other feedbacks.  Take a moment to fully process this concept - the beaches will be gone, period.  This means that within your lifetime you will lose what cherished memories you have because we have so thoroughly screwed up the planet that the oceans will inevitably rise and take away many of our favorite places.

If this is not enough of a wake-up call, I do not know what is.

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Future of humanity is extra planetary
Filed under: General
Posted by: Guy @ 4:20 pm
Nasa blue marble

Anyone who has been paying attention is well aware by now that humanity is destroying the planet’s ecosystem quite systematically.  While the planet Earth may well survive humanity, humanity may not survive the planet in the long run.  In my mind humanity’s final lesson will be to learn how to live off planet.  Consider the small manned space missions we have undertaken so far, including the International Space Station.  These tiny spaceships represent a small closed ecosystem with a minimal inputs and outputs, and the ideal space colony whether in the asteroid belt, on the moon or Mars will need to be entirely self-sustaining in the long-term.  If we were to view our home planet as a similarly small closed system, we would certainly treat it with a great deal more respect.  Once humanity begins to reach towards the other planets we will be living in completely closed systems and our consciousness will change because our very survival will require maintaining these enviromnments. (I am reminded of the classic Bruce Dern movie: “Silent Running“).  For this reason, I admire Elon Musk for his proposed long-term goal of making humanity extra planetary and colonizing Mars.  His company SpaceX put out a T-shirt a few years ago with a picture of Mars and the text “Occupy Mars” and I have been wearing mine ever since.  Sadly, it has not stimulated conversation around the potential for humanity to become extra planetary. 

The nations and economies of the world seem to believe that sustained economic growth is possible into the indefinite future but we simply do not have the resources. The reality is that we simply cannot continue to support an increasing population all of whom require products and services.  So if/when we become a multi-planetary species, I am hoping that we will have learned the lesson of living in small, contained ecosystems.  Hopefully we will treat the planets that we colonize in the future with more respect than we treat our home planet which may be doomed to a future as a garbage heap as imaged in the movie: “Wall-E“.

Felling a tree with solar power
Filed under: General, Solar Power, Geek Stuff
Posted by: Guy @ 12:17 pm

A month or so ago I noticed that one of the pine trees on our property line had died, so I asked my neighbor if he would like to help me take it down on the condition that we did not use any fossil fuel.

I have two electric chainsaws, one is a 14″ Oregon cordless chain saw that is very powerful, and the other is a 16″ Poulan electric chain saw that I run on a 100 foot 10gauge cord.  The electric chainsaw is effectively solar powered because with full sun on our solar panels we generate a slight energy surplus.

I let Charlie cut down the first major trunk using the corded saw and despite the fact that the blade was a little dull, he made relatively quick work of bringing it down while I stood by with my cordless saw to “debone” the branches after it came down.

We split the piles of cut branches into our separate burn piles out in our open field areas.  While this tree was not directly shading the solar collectors in the winter, it had the potential to grow tall enough to do so and it is nice to open up this view a little. The image below was taken from my neighbor’s driveway facing north towards our property.  Charlie’s wife Jennifer had planted these trees as seedlings back in 1986 and they have served well for privacy and a good windbreak.

I enjoyed the relative quiet of the saws and Charlie and I could talk over them as needed. While Charlie opted for earplugs, I felt that none were necessary compared to a gas powered saw. Charlie said he missed the smell of a classic gas chainsaw, but I certainly do not.  Gas powered yard tools are an emissions nightmare and I avoid them at all costs.

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Mosquito mayhem
Filed under: General, Geek Stuff
Posted by: Guy @ 11:22 pm

It is mid-May in Maine and the black flies are about to start biting, and pretty soon the mosquitoes will show up.  For the last five years or so we have been using a Mosquito Magnet to trap and kill mosquitoes in our yard so that we can sit out on our open porch without being bitten alive. 

Unfortunately despite their effectiveness these devices are expensive and go through a lot of propane per season.  Propane (along with a pheromone attractant) is used to create a plume of CO2 that attracts mosquitoes into the trap.  Last year, the Magnet stopped working and I decided it was time to stop putting more CO2 into the atmosphere.

So this spring I did some research on alternative mosquito eradication devices and came across the Flowtron series of high-powered bug zapper’s.  Most of the reviewers on were very impressed with this relatively inexpensive bug zapper.  I purchased the model rated for 1 acre which is quite affordable at under $40 and decided to place it about 25 feet out behind our house where the ground stays damp and swampy.   It is a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes back there!  It is enhanced by the use of pheromone attractant just like the Mosquito Magnet.

I installed a new outlet on the side of the house and plugged the zapper into an automatic timer that turns on at dusk and can be set to turn off 4/6/8 hours later, or at dawn.

Mosquito season has barely started, but I am already hearing the occasional zap and noticing a few mosquitoes stuck to the ultraviolet light inside.  The goal with mosquitoes is to kill off the first breeding cycle so that they do not multiply.  The front half of our property is the part that we use the most and it occupies about 1 acre of our 2.5 acre lot.  I have high hopes for this bug zapper and expect to report that we can hang out on the porch on a mid-summer evening without being bitten.  Stay tuned!

Solar energy seasonal cycles
Filed under: General, Solar Power
Posted by: Guy @ 4:16 pm

Here in Maine, we are approximately at the 45th parallel which means that we have significant seasonal changes in solar elevation from winter to summer.  At the spring and fall equinoxes the sun is approximately 45° elevation at noon.  This means that the available solar energy in the winter is approximately 25% of the maximum solar energy available in the summer.  This is best explained graphically by this chart taken from my TED energy monitor:

The blue bars show the kilowatt hours that we import from our electric utility. The yellow bars show the amount of solar energy actually produced by our 5.7 kW solar array, and the green bars show the net amount of energy that we pay for.  Clearly our electric bills drop to near zero in the summer, and since we have an electric vehicle we need to charge your round our bills peak at around $100 per month in the winter.  At this time of year it is always nice to see our solar energy increasing, and our electric bills dropping.

The amount of solar energy we produce is significantly affected by the weather and cloud cover as the chart below demonstrates.  I have the impression that climate change is changing faster than the models can keep up with.  But the chart clearly demonstrates the significant seasonal variation in solar energy available here at the 45th parallel.  Clearly, people who live further south gain a much greater benefit from solar panels on their roofs.  For instance, if you lived at the equator you would have around 12 hours a day of sunlight available with no seasonal variation other than cloud cover. 

What I did on Earth Day 2014
Filed under: General
Posted by: Guy @ 10:39 am

It was Earth Day yesterday April 22, 2014 and my wife and I decided to walk along our local rural roads for a mile or so and pick up trash.  Becky took this picture of me at the end of our second pass:

Overall we picked up about four medium-sized garbage bags full of trash.  The mix was about 30% redeemable bottles and cans at five cents each, 30% recyclable plastic and aluminum, and 30% or so trash. Different areas had different types of trash, for instance where the teenagers hang out and drink there were Bud Light cans and miniature liquor bottles. And clearly there are some heavy smokers in our area who throw their cigarette packs and butts out on the road.  It is so hard for me to understand the mentality of someone who will drive along and throw garbage out of their car. I certainly hope that by providing a cleaner roadside people will feel less inclined to sully it with their garbage.  I am planning to be more proactive about picking garbage up this year and go out every month or so to do maintenance around our neighborhood. The boat ramp to our local river and lake is about a half mile from our doorstep and that area tends to get a lot of garbage from people that hang out and picnic and leave their fishing bait containers etc. on the ground.

I encourage anyone who has a little spare time to go out in your neighborhood and pick up trash at any time it can only improve the quality of the neighborhood.

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cleaning up the back roads
Filed under: General
Posted by: Guy @ 4:54 pm

It is mid April and now that the snow has finally melted here in rural Maine, the garbage that people toss onto the road is being exposed.  There is one particular stretch near the local boat ramp where people hang out and drink apparently.  My wife and I went for a walk along a 1/2 mile stretch of the road centering around the boat ramp and over the period of an hour or so filled 2 large kitchen bags with garbage, recyclables and redeemable bottles and cans.  I think we made about $1.00 on the five cent redeemable cans and bottles, so in some small measure we were rewarded for our efforts.  We carefully sorted the recyclables from the garbage and only about one third of it was actual garbage such as food wrappings and cigarette packs.  It is interesting that over the years the types of trash we find has varied.  Several years ago we used to find lots of cans of Cool Whip - apparently the kids were huffing the nitrous oxide.  More recently we are finding a lot of cans of Bud Light, and also miniature bottles of liquor.  I enjoy cleaning up our neighborhood, and hope that by reducing the roadside trash it will reduce the inclination for people to leave more trash out on our roads.  One can only hope!

If you have the urge to take a spring walk in your neighborhood, take a garbage bag with you and see if you can clean up your neighborhood.  I find it quite rewarding and several of our neighbors stopped and thanked us.

Improving water heater energy efficiency
Filed under: General, Solar Heating
Posted by: Guy @ 11:25 am

Up to 20% of the energy use in your home can go into your water heater, and much of that energy is wasted.  The easiest way to reduce energy use of your water heater is to turn down the thermostat.  For every 10 degrees you turn it down, you’ll save 3% to 5% on your bill while also reducing your carbon footprint.  If you have a gas-fired tank style water heater, it is quite simple because the thermostat is clearly visible on the outside of the tank and it looks something like this:

Gas thermostats are not marked with actual temperature settings in degrees which is inconvenient.  The markings are often simply hot, warm, and vacation which is relatively meaningless.  If you turn it down toward the low end of the WARM range, you will be somewhere close to 120°F.   Typically, the factory will set the water temperature toward the hot end of the range at around 130-140°F, and this is much hotter than is really necessary.  Think about it, when you run hot water at the sink or in the shower, do you always mix in some cold water?

For an electric water heater, you will first need to turn off the power at your circuit breaker, this will typically be a large double breaker rated at more than 20 Amps and should ideally be clearly labeled as the “water heater”. Then remove one or both of the access control panels on the side of the water heater that are often blue in color to expose the thermostat:

Some water heaters have two thermostats, an upper, and a lower one.  The large black module with all of the screws on it is the thermostat - do NOT touch those screws just in case it is still live!  You will see a small screwdriver adjustment that is often calibrated with temperature markings like this:

Note that in this image the temperature is set at nearly 150°F which is quite dangerous because water that hot can cause third-degree burns within 5 seconds.  I advise setting it at or slightly below 120°F.  Put the cover back on and don’t forget to turn your circuit breaker back on!

If you run hot water from a faucet that is relatively close to the water heater for a minute or so, you can measure the temperature of the water with a thermometer and see what the setting is for your thermostat.  If you do not have a convenient thermometer to do this test with, then I have another suggestion:

Every day, adjust the thermostat down by a very small amount until you or a family member notices that the water is “not hot enough”.  At this point you may wish to turn it back up a small amount to make everybody happy, but typically that threshold is at between 115°F and 120°F.  Many people have become accustomed to adding a lot of cold water whenever they need hot or warm water, and this is simply wasteful because the energy that is going into heating that large tank of water is being lost as the heat leaks out through the walls of the tank.  A typical water heater can lose over 10°F or more every 10-12 hours, so another simple solution is to wrap the tank with a fiberglass blanket that is readily available from most hardware stores.  Be careful to follow the instructions because installing a blanket on a water heater in a cold basement can cause condensation problems that can damage the water heater jacket.

Another simple, inexpensive way to reduce hot water usage is to install low flow shower heads, if you have not already done that.

transitioning from CFL to LED lighting
Filed under: General, Geek Stuff
Posted by: Guy @ 11:21 am

Over the last few months, I have been replacing the fluorescent light fixtures in our ceilings with LED lamps. In some cases I have been able to repurpose the fixture by replacing a circular fluorescent and balanced with one or more LED lamps.  It was much easier to simply replace the flood lamps in our recessed ceiling fixtures in the kitchen, and office track lights.  When I was talking with a neighbor about what I am doing he questioned the validity of the relatively small energy savings between a CFL and LED lamp considering the cost and return on investment. While there is a dramatic energy savings difference between an old incandescent lamp and a CFL, the difference between CFL and LED is smaller. But the price of LEDs now is so amenable at $10-$15 per 60 W equivalent lamp that I have gone ahead and replaced most of the ceiling lamps in our home.  It occurred to me today that the most compelling argument in favor of switching to LEDs is the much longer lifespan.  While a CFL is rated for around 8000 to 10,000 hours, LED lamps are rated more like 50,000 hours.  For a lamp that is used 4 hours a day this adds up to over 34 years of usable life meaning that I would not expect to replace these LEDs in my lifetime.  Another way of looking at this is an LED lamp last as long as 41 incandescent lamps or more than six CFL’s.  This makes the cost of an LED lamp seem like a bargain.  Here is a great fact sheet that compares LED, CFL, and incandescent light bulbs.

I have dropping off my old CFL lamps in the recycling bins at my local Lowe’s store.  You can find recycling locations using the web site.

Reviewing our energy use and costs
Filed under: General, Solar Power, Solar Heating
Posted by: Guy @ 12:44 pm

Over the last 13 years since we purchased our home in Maine I have been working at reducing our energy footprint as part of my commitment to live as sustainably as practical. My strategy has been to reduce usage by improving things like building insulation and consumption in general. But also I have added renewable energy sources such as a solar heating system for the hot water in our home, and the solar electric system I installed. I decided to review my progress so far since I have extensive data on all of our energy sources and costs.  This information is derived mostly from our utility bills.

We use propane to heat the house and also for cooking, clothes drying, and water heating.  Below is a chart showing our annualized cost for propane per heating season.  Some of the variations such as the spike in 2010/11 are due to fluctuations in the cost of propane, but the trend is largely due to my efforts since the cost per gallon has been increasing.

Not factored into our relatively low propane costs is the fact that we burn approximately 2 cords of firewood per year at a cost
ranging from $300-$500 per year. Last year we spent $425 for firewood which brings our recent total heating cost to a little over $1400 which is less than half the state average for home heating costs.

As you can see our propane consumption dropped about 50% over the years from almost 800 to a little over 400 gallons last season. Part of the reason for our initial lower cost was that our home (constructed in 2001) was reasonably well-built, insulated and relatively tight compared to an average home. Some of the things responsible for this reduction are:
* Improved basement insulation added to exterior concrete walls.
* Tightening up the building envelope by foam insulating air gaps around window and door framing.
* Adding interior storm window panels and closing honeycomb insulating shades in the cold winter nights.
* Weatherstripping around exterior doors and improving attic insulation.

Thanks to the solar power system I installed, our average electric bill would be around $10 if we did not have the Chevy Volt electric vehicle which adds approximately $45 per month to our monthly bill.

The $45 average electric cost to charge the Chevy Volt is significantly offsetting our gasoline usage (and cost) for that vehicle since we drive in electric mode about 80% of the time.  (The remaining 20% of our miles driven in “range extender” mode is at approximately 40 mpg.)  And since a large percentage of the charging power for the Volt comes from our solar array in the summer, we are driving for free and largely carbon neutral during those months.

One can look at all of the investments I have made in reducing our energy footprint in terms of return on investment. In actual dollars most of these investments have already paid for themselves, such as the solar hot water heating system which according to my calculations paid for itself in approximately 4.5 years:

In general investing in energy reduction yields a better return than investing in the stock market. Even my relatively expensive solar power installation that has cost me over $25,000 would pay for itself within 16 or 18 years assuming it had been financed at below 5% interest.  Since I have already paid off that system, the energy savings is all pure profit at this point.

repurposing ceiling light fixtures
Filed under: General, Geek Stuff
Posted by: Guy @ 8:00 pm

When we moved into our recently constructed home in 2001, all of the ceiling light fixtures were bare ceramic sockets with 100W light bulbs in them.  We replaced most of those ceiling fixtures with attractive white domed units we purchased from Home Depot with circular fluorescent lights that used only 30 W but produced an equivalent light of 150 W compared to an incandescent bulb.  We found these fixtures to be quite attractive, very bright, and the color temperature was pleasantly warm.

Over the years we have replaced both the tube and the ballasts in these fixtures once per fixture. 

Now I am on an LED light kick, I realized that I could re-purpose these fixtures and replace the fluorescent ballast with a basic lamp socket and install a screw base LED light.  I made up a small metal L bracket that I riveted to the fixture and drilled a hole for a standard screw-based light socket, I also reused the original wire from the fixture.  Here is a photo of all the parts:

On the left is the original fluorescent ballast, and on the right are the L bracket, light socket, mounting nuts, and a rivet to secure the bracket to the fixture.  A completed unit is shown at the bottom with an LED light screwed into it.   This only required a few minutes work, very little expense, and we have managed to maintain these fixtures without having to send them to the landfill.  An 800 lumen LED lamp (60 W equivalent) is perfectly sufficient for these fixtures and they only use 13 W and reduces the power by more than 50% compared to the original 30 W ballast and lamp. 

Here are before and after pictures:

My wife and I are very pleased with this inexpensive upgrade.

Satirizing our trust in digital technology
Filed under: General, Geek Stuff
Posted by: Guy @ 12:41 pm

Those of you that may have visited my website may have explored the electronic artworks that I make.  In particular there is a series that I started in the mid-1980s that I call “Digital Numeric Relevators“.  These are electronic sculptures that make use of different technologies designed to display numbers such as LED, liquid crystal, and early vacuum nixie tubes.  My purpose in making these works is to satirize the implicit trust we have in any electronically represented number.  It is inconceivable that a gas pump or cash register would display incorrect information, and I do my best to make my artworks display numbers in the most meaningless - yet entertaining way.  I make the numbers slide around, blink, or fade in and out while the numbers displayed are completely randomized.  In a sense I am creating number ballet by choreographing the numbers in the firmware that I write to control these displays.  In 2006 after creating the 26th piece in the series I thought I was done, but then last year I was inspired to create two more, and have created another two this year.  Here are some of the recent pieces:
Click on the images to see more details about each piece including a short video, or click here for an overview of the whole series that includes a video.  As you can see, I attempt to make the artworks look as if they have an intended function as if they were a Sharper Image product from the Twilight Zone.

I have exhibited these works in galleries and museums around the world over the last 20 years.  Currently I have two pieces in the MAD Museum in Stratford on Avon, England.  I am hoping to find other venues for exhibiting these works, and welcome any suggestions for galleries or museums.  Send me an email if you know of a gallery that exhibits technology-based light sculpture that you think may find my work interesting.

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LED flood lights vs halogens
Filed under: General
Posted by: Guy @ 5:14 pm

My wife’s office is in our daylight basement, and she has a large L-shaped desk that she likes to light brightly so that she does not feel like she is a hobbit in the basement. We installed a track above her desk with 4 50 Watt halogen lamps.  It has bothered me for a while that she is using 200 Watts to light her desk.  So I decided to take advantage of the new lower-priced LED floodlights available at Lowe’s and other major hardware stores. 

These 9.5Watt, 465 Lumen, PAR20 sized lamps are selling for around $10, and I happened to have some track light fixtures that would hold these lamps.  I started out by replacing two of the fixtures without telling her, and then waited several days to see if she would notice the difference. I was surprised that she did not because my wife is an artist and photographer and is highly sensitive to colors and quality of light.  When I pointed out the change, she observed that she liked the LED light quality better because it seems brighter and more even than the light from the halogen lamps.  Here is a before and after picture showing two halogens and two LED fixtures, and all LEDs:

There is no question that her desk is now brighter and better lit while using less than one fifth of the energy!  Given the long hours she puts in at her desk, I expect to see a drop in our electric bill.  During the winter most of our electricity supply comes from the utility, and here in Maine about 30% is sourced from renewables.  Our solar array also contributes around 25% in the winter, and I continue to look for ways to reduce our energy consumption and thus our carbon footprint for the remaining amount of energy sourced from fossil fuels.

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