Monday, April 22, 2024

Removing my old solar augmented heating system

In 2001 my ex-wife and I purchased this property in rural Maine that included an open two-story barn that I converted into a heated and insulated workshop. Moving from California to Maine I was well aware I would need a heating system, but wanted to keep the carbon footprint as low as practical. With that in mind I super insulated the building with a combination of spray in foam and fiberglass resulting in R30 walls and R40 roof insulation.

Original solar collectors in 2003

I then designed a hydronic heating system that included in-floor heating and radiators upstairs.  The heat source came from a Bosch Aquastar propane heater and 4 large 4 x 8' solar water collectors. I was not particularly impressed with the contribution from the solar collectors and my propane bills were relatively substantial over the years. So a few years later I installed a wood stove as a backup heating system which worked out really well. I now use it whenever the temperatures outside drop below 20°F.  I now purchase about one cord of fire wood per year and augment that with wood that I harvest from my own property and other places.

new solar electric panels installed bottom right

In November 2021 I self installed a MrCool heat pump system designed to heat the entire building using only electricity which is mostly renewable thanks to my substantial solar array and renewably sourced utility electric supply. I then removed the solar collectors and replaced them with six solar panels, you can see a video about this process here.  As part of the removal process, I had a great deal of left over copper pipe that I was able to sell to a recycling company for over $130.  I also sold the four large solar collectors to someone who could make good use of them.

I kept the interior plumbing and heating system thinking that I could use it as a backup.  But in the last few years I have not used it so I decided to decommission it.  The large insulated tank seen in the picture is an 80 gallon water heater used as the solar thermal heat storage tank.  And of course there is a great deal of copper plumbing parts, pressure tank, and the propane boiler.

I took everything apart very carefully so that the copper could be recycled and other parts could be reused.  I literally saved every nut bolt and screw along with wire nuts and every other small component and put them back into my storage system.


There is a local guy who recycles metal as his side hustle, so he came by with his large trailer and hauled off all the parts that could be recycled.  I'm sure he made some good money on all that.

Here is a view of my utility room all cleaned out.  I'm now waiting for the propane utility company to disconnect the line so I can remove the boiler.  I'm hoping to find a buyer for this well used, and well loved Bosch Aquastar unit that is still working great.  The interesting feature about it is that it does not require any electricity to operate so it's optimal for off grid situations.


Here are before and after views of the manifold and PEX plumbing that feeds into the floor.  I left the PEX in place just in case a future owner chooses to install a radiant heating system in the floor.  Here is how I installed the PEX.

As someone who is committed to living sustainably, I am invoking the 4 R's - Reduce, recycle, reuse, repair.  So in addition to scrapping out the metal I also donated some of the useful plumbing parts to the Habitat for Humanity Re-store near me so that someone else can use them.  And I'm also selling some of the more valuable parts such as the pumps on eBay as they are in good usable condition.  All in all, very little went into the trash. 

It was sad to say goodbye to all of this equipment because it took me many, many weeks to design and install back in 2001.  Back then, heat pump systems were not common and very expensive.  What has happened over the intervening years is that solar power system installers are also now installing mini-split heat pump systems because it is a natural pairing.  Heat pumps are very efficient and have the benefit of both heating and cooling.  

While heat pumps are relatively expensive, and installation costs can range from $5000-$10,000, I installed my own heat pump system in the workshop at a cost of less than $2000 and another larger system in my home for less than $2800.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

My nearly new Chevy Bolt

Chevrolet Bolt

I have owned two Chevy Volts starting back in 2012 when I first heard about the vehicle and was a huge fan.  It was GM's experiment to see how people would handle a plug-in electric vehicle with a "range extender" gasoline powered generator on board.  They studied aggregated data from their OnStar system and found that the average commute was about 45 miles so they designed the vehicle to run that far in electric mode and then it would switch on a four-cylinder gas engine that powered a 50 kW generator to provide electric power to the vehicle while operating at approximately 40MPG.  It was a have your cake and eat it too solution that worked for me for over 12 years.

They introduced the Chevy Bolt in 2017 - this is a fully electric vehicle with a range of over 200 miles.  My 2021 model has an EPA rated range of over 238 miles in theory (more on that later).   I purchased it used from a nearby dealer for very reasonable price of $18,500 with only 12,000 miles on the clock.  The reason it was so affordable is due to the battery issue that this vehicle had which had caused some fires - a couple of which burned down houses.  GM identified the problem as a manufacturing defect in the batteries and offered three options for owners of these vehicles:

  1. They would replace the battery if it was a known defective one.
  2. They would install updated software in the vehicle that would limit the charging range to a maximum of 80% charge so as not to stress the battery.  And the update would also monitor the battery very closely.  If any of the battery cells showed heating or degradation issues they would then replace the battery.  If nothing shows up after 6200 miles they would consider the battery safe to drive and would then increase the battery back to the full range.
  3. They would simply buy the vehicle back from the owner.

Car dealers took advantage of this situation and purchased them inexpensively from GM.  My dealer had sold 40 of these recalled vehicles last year.  In some cases these vehicles had batteries replaced, and in others the software update had been installed.  This was the case with my vehicle so the range is limited to  around 180 miles nominal.  This suits my needs perfectly since over 95% of my driving is local, and on longer trips I can simply stop at a super charging station for an hour or so to add over 200 miles range quickly. 

On a recent trip where I drove around 120 miles round-trip I returned home with 29 miles range left.  I was carefully monitoring the miles remaining and the range gauge which we EV owners refer to as the "guess-o-meter" changed from green to amber to warn me of this limited range when it dropped below 30 miles.  Temperatures on this trip were in the mid 30s and low 40s Fahrenheit so I was using some cabin heating which draws down the battery, and I also took advantage of the heated seats and steering wheel which use a lot less power to keep me warm.  

I plugged the vehicle into my level II (240V) charging station and it was fully topped up after about seven hours.  If I were to plug into a (level III) super charging station while on the road, I could fully charge the vehicle in about 1.5 hours. All electric vehicles are provided with a charging adapter for a regular 120 V outlet and this would take about 16 hours for the Bolt.  So clearly it makes sense to install a home charging station. The Bolt draws more power from my home charging station - about 6 kW compared to only 4 kW for the Chevy Volt so I can get more miles of range per hour of charging while charging at home.  

it is important to know that the Volt and Bolt both need to be kept plugged in to a charging station at all times. The reason for this is that the battery needs to be maintained at a comfortable temperature or it could be damaged.  I have an energy monitor that shows that during the winter months the charger delivers power to a heating system in the vehicle periodically in order to maintain a safe temperature for the battery.  I recently saw a news story about some people who got into their Chevy Bolt and it refused to let them drive it until it had warmed up the battery.  Clearly they had not left the vehicle plugged in so it was actually draining the battery down throughout the day in an effort to keep the battery warm.  If you drive with a very cold battery, it can be damaged. 

Overall I am extremely pleased with this vehicle - it is even faster than the Volt with a neck snapping acceleration of 0 to 60 in 6.5 seconds.  One feature that I enjoy is the so-called "one pedal driving" mode.  When you shift from D to L, the regenerative braking system allows you to lift your foot off the accelerator which slows the car to a complete stop without ever touching the brake pedal.  (note that the letters D and L no longer refer to gears because there aren't any in electric vehicles).  This extends the driving range by putting a lot more energy back into the battery.  I was going down a steep hill recently and the dashboard showed that 50 kW (FIFTY. THOUSAND. Watts!) were going back into the battery for several seconds.  Holding down the brake pedal gently while in D mode would have accomplished something similar, but I find the one pedal driving mode to be comfortable.  There is also a paddle on the left side of the steering wheel which can be used to engage regenerative braking as well.  

There are a few things I need to adjust in this vehicle.  One of the criteria for any vehicle I own is that it should be able to fit 8ft pieces of lumber inside.  A friend of mine has a Bolt and he recently had 6 2X4s inside the vehicle by folding down the front passenger seat and the rear seats.  

In my model year the rear cargo area drops down about a foot behind the rear seats. This would be fine for normal people who use that area for groceries or suitcases, but I prefer a large flat area.  I looked at 2020 models and they had a hinged cover for that rear cargo well that brings it up to the same height as the folded down rear seats.  


I did some research and found that I can put a hinged cover back in to replicate what was in those earlier models at a cost of around $140.  



Another thing I do with all my vehicles here in Maine is put WeatherTech brand rubber floor mats in the two front locations.  Maine is muddy for many months of the year and that can really wear down the front carpets.

Incidentally, the license plate that I've had for many years is SUN PWRD, since all my electric vehicles have been powered from my solar power system which currently has 39 panels rated to up to 7 kW.  This means that I am driving essentially for free from the power of the sun it feels like an Infinite Improbability Drive (a reference to the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy).  I found a nice chrome emblem that I can add to the back of the car to reflect this:

And I always keep a towel in the back of the car, just in case! 😀

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Repair, re-use, recycle, repurpose

Four words that represent a sustainable life.  


My first impulse when anything breaks is to see if I can repair it.  I have enough skills to repair anything made of wood, metal, plastic and electronics.  Sometimes a bit of duct tape will work, and others require glue, soldering electronics, or making a replacement part.  

Recently a battery powered thermometer stopped working.  Inside the battery compartment I found the alkaline battery had corroded the springs as often happens and there is that classic powdery green corrosion.  A simple fix is to use a Q-tip soaked in white vinegar to clean off the corrosion, then wipe it down with a little scotch bright and finally dab it with a paper towel soaked in WD-40.  I threw away the dead alkaline battery that was long past its prime, but if it used a rechargeable battery I would have recycled it by dropping it off in a blue bin at the Lowe's product return department.  They also accept old CFL lamps that contain mercury.
Battery in store recycling


If there are items that I don't need I will turn them into Goodwill to be reused.  or, I might offer something to a friend who can use it such as a light fixture.  Other items that I don't need I donate to the ReStore such as building materials.  An absolute last resort is to put something in the trash.  


Like many people I recycle everything I can, and usually put out far more recycling than I do trash.  In a recent post I talked about how I  ride around my neighborhood on my E bike with large panniers on the back to pick up trash and redeemable cans and bottles.   In the last 12 months I have redeemed over 3000 containers using the Clynk redemption centers at local supermarkets here in Maine - that's over $150 earned!  
The the items I cannot redeem are put in my recycling bin, and the trash that is mostly fast food packaging goes in my trash, but some of the paper materials I can recycle.  I keep a 50 gallon bin in my laundry room that is close to the kitchen so it's very easy to put kitchen recyclables in there easily.  And I recycle a lot of corrugated boxes from shipments that I receive.  Mixed stream recycling is picked up every two weeks and I usually fill it to the top.  

Used rechargeable batteries and electronic products such as cell phones and toys that contain rechargeable batteries can be returned to any call2recycle location, here's a link to find a location near you


Often when something breaks, I will see if I can take it apart and reuse some of the materials.  If there is wood involved, then I can cut it up and use it for firewood in my woodstoves for instance.  I also save all my newspapers to use as kindling.

I teach wood bowl making classes, and each bowl produces several gallons of shavings.  I use these shavings for garden mulch, cat litter, and kindling.

Every year or so I review all my old gallon cans of household paint to see if they  still have liquid paint in them and if I don't need them I can drop them off at my nearest hardware store where the paint is reused.  Dry and congealed paint cannot be returned, so I leave it out in the open until it is fully dried and then put it in the trash.  Maine is the eighth state in the US that has a Paint Care program for repurposing old architectural paint, here's a link to that program sponsored by the natural resources Council of Maine.  

My absolute last resort is to put something in the trash and it typically takes me weeks to fill a 30 gallon trash bin.  I'm sure there are many other things that I do that I have forgotten to mention, so drop me a line if you have other suggestions.

Friday, August 11, 2023

Zero waste compostable garbage bags

It has always bothered me when I throw garbage bags into my trash bin because I know that plastic will last for decades in the landfill or elsewhere.  So I was delightfully surprised to learn about hold on bags that are made from plant-based materials that are non-toxic and biodegradable without leaving any toxic residue.

Apparently they called the company HoldOn because there was a moment when they came up with the idea and went "hold on", there's a better way to do this.

I am using all three sizes:

4 Gallon Trash Bags: Our 17” x 18” small kitchen bags


13 Gallon Compostable Trash Bags


Compostable zip-seal Snack Bags 

(as an Amazon associate, I earn a small commission from sales of these products)

I am really pleased with these bags, they are strong and sturdy and hold up to normal use very well.  I really wish more products were made to be fully compostable like this, we would leave the world a better place for future generations.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

My solar powered lifestyle

I am a DIY guy so I tend to do everything myself.  Pictured above left is my grid tied solar array consisting of 40 solar panels that I have installed with the help of friends over the years.  There is a very detailed blog on my website covering the design and installation of this system.  In peak sun it produces over 6 kW and surplus power goes back into the grid where I get a credit for every kilowatt hour exported thanks to net metering.  This allows me to be largely carbon neutral from April through November.  A few years ago I self-installed heat pumps in both my workshop building (pictured) and my home (here's a video about that).  I am located in Maine at the 44th parallel so in the winter, I have less solar and a higher demand for electricity to run the heat pumps, so for a few months I pay a substantial electric bill to run my heat pumps when the average temperature stays below freezing in the winter. (You can see detailed stats of my solar energy system power here).  The utility power is sourced from more than 60% renewable including hydropower, wind, and other renewables.  I believe Maine has the highest utility supplied renewable energy offering in the US.

Pictured in the photo above are also the following items:

2017 Chevy Volt.  This is my second Volt and it is an amazing car that is the fastest and sexiest vehicle I have ever owned.  With over 50,000 miles on it I still get a thrill driving it knowing that it is fully carbon neutral and I even put vanity plates on it that say: SUN PWRD.


Aventon Level.2 E bike.  This is my second E bike and it has an impressive 60 mile range with pedal assist and somewhat less than that if I were to use it in throttle only mode (riding it like a motorcycle without pedaling).  It is capable of level III, meaning that pedal assist can take me up to 28 mph easily.  (Level II goes up to 20 mph).  Despite all the electric assist, I get a lot of good exercise riding an average of 10 miles a day in good weather.  And as you can see in my previous post I have large panniers on the back that I use for picking up garbage and redeemable bottles and cans around my neighborhood.

Green Works self-propelled 80V cordless lawnmower.  This mower is an absolute beast and chews through tall grass with no problem at all.  I really like the self-propelled feature in the summer when it's unpleasantly hot and humid.  My lawn areas are relatively modest, just to keep a setback around the building and open areas around my garden beds, and fruit trees and this mower can cover the whole area on a single charge of the two 80 V 4AH batteries.

Black & Decker cordless 20V string trimmer.  This is a surprisingly powerful machine that chews through tall weeds with abandon.

Black & Decker 20V cordless hedge trimmer.  I refer to this as my "light saber" because it will cut anything up to half inch branches with ease.

Friday, June 30, 2023

Redeeming cans and bottles for fun/the environment/exercise/profit

My e-bike with panniers

I purchased my first E bike over a year ago and put over 1000 miles on it in the first year.  Prior to that I used to walk around my neighborhood with my friend to get exercise and we would also take a garbage bag and pick up trash and recyclables and redeemable bottles and cans.  After we both got E-bikes, I installed large panniers on my bike so I can carry more than two grocery bags full of trash.   


Partial screenshot from the Clynk app

In the last seven months, I have redeemed over 1700 containers.  It is shocking how many beer cans and bottles and miniature liquor bottles I pick up every week.  Apparently there are dozens of people who drink and drive and then throw these containers out of their vehicles onto the side of the road.😲 I cover a range that encompasses roughly a 3 mile radius from my rural home here in Maine which is all two-lane blacktops. 

The redemption system here in Maine pays $0.05 per container redeemed and $0.15 for vodka and wine bottles.  I signed up with a system known as Clynk that makes redeeming these containers easy.  You just put them in their special biodegradable bag with a barcode and drop them off.  They process them in the next few days and then give me a credit that I can pick up at the grocery store as cash.

This is a typical catch from a 10 mile bike ride

When I get home, I separate out the trash, recyclables, and redeemables.  There are many containers that I cannot redeem because they've been crushed on the road, I also clean up dirty cans and bottles before redeeming them, many of the beer cans are filled with dead slugs which is really gross.  There are also a lot of fast food containers and other general trash that I pick up.

Shown above is just the separated out redeemables.  There is a surprising number of miniature liquor bottles.  The state of Maine only recently enacted a law requiring $0.05 per miniature bottle, previously they were not counted as redeemable materials.  This does not seem to have diminished the use of these bottles much.

I enjoy getting the exercise and cleaning up my neighborhood - it's like a treasure hunt for me - looking for shiny objects along the road.  I call this my "get rich slow scheme" since I make around $100 per year, but it's not about the money for me.  I just use some of it to buy candy or lottery tickets.

I encourage those of you who might live in areas where you find a lot of trash along the roadside to walk with a garbage bag and pick it up.  Even if  your state doesn't have a redemption system, much of the trash I find can be recycled.  I feel strongly that it takes all of us working together as a community to improve the planet.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Whole house surge/lightning protection


As an engineer, I have a lot of electronic equipment in my home and separate workshop building.  While I could plug all of these items into separate surge strips, that would be unreasonably expensive and would not offer as much protection as installing a Delta surge protector in the main breaker box.  These devices are designed specifically to absorb the massive energy spikes that come from lightning and other transients.  

I installed this equipment in my breaker boxes many years ago and I'm really glad that I did!  I remember sitting on my front porch watching a massive thunderstorm come through and I saw a lightning strike hit the power pole 20 feet from workshop building with a massive FLASH-BANG that was terrifying. (That's not my home in the video above). 

The next day I noticed that my appliances were making a humming sound so I checked the voltage of the electrical outlets and found that I was getting 140 V AC and not the specified 120 V AC.  This implied that the pole transformer had been damaged by lightning so I called the utility company.  They showed up literally 20 minutes later with a replacement transformer and it took them about 1/2 an hour to replace it.  If I had not installed surge protection I would have lost thousands of dollars worth of electronic devices including all my consumer items like TV, DVD, stereo, computers and kitchen appliances like the microwave etc.  The only item that fell victim to that massive lightning strike was my cable modem because there was no protection on the cable line.  I have since added protection for the cable itself.

My house is on a rise in rural Maine surrounded by tall trees and lightning has hit and destroyed a couple of trees near the house.  My workshop building has 38 solar panels mounted to the roof.  For this reason I hired a company to install lightning rods on both my home and workshop building.  Back in 2010, they installed the systems at a total cost of around $3500 for both buildings. 

The roof mounted rods are connected to very heavy woven copper wires about 1/2" diameter that run down to two opposite corners of the building where they are connected to ground rods pounded deep into the ground.  If you are at all concerned about the risk of lightning hitting your home this is your first line of defense.  Lightning frequently destroys homes with fire and explosive damage.


Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Bedding in my garlic with wood shavings from my bowl turning classes

it's early November and the time of year when I plant garlic so it will come up in the spring.  I purchase heirloom garlic from the local farmers market and simply break off cloves and put them in the dirt about 2 to 4 inches down.  Then it is recommended to cover them over with mulch to protect them.  So I use shavings from the wood turning classes that I teach.  (More info about those classes here).  In the spring I purchase basil seedlings from the farmers market and plant those in the same vegetable beds.  The whole idea here is to make basil pesto from a combination of my own plants and garlic.  I typically can nine or more 8 ounce jars of pesto and store them in the fridge to tide me over through the winter.  And of course I enjoy garlic and many of the foods and stir fries that I prepare.

I also use my wood shavings for litter and kindling to light my wood stoves - one in my home and one in my workshop.  This particular batch of shavings includes some Osage Orange shavings that a student sent me from a tree on his property in Texas.  Here's a photo of the prepared bowl blank and a finished bowl:

 This blend of shavings looks quite nice on my vegetable bed:

I rake the shavings off once I see shoots poking up in the late spring and will either dump them out in the woods, or mulch them in two other garden beds.

This is all about living sustainably for me and also being self-reliant and saving money.

Monday, October 31, 2022

100% Recycled paper


When I buy printer paper from Staples (or any other office supply source), I always spend a little extra to purchase 100% recycled copy paper from a forestry certified source.  Staples also sell 30% recycled content office paper that is slightly less expensive.  It's a simple way to vote with my dollars for a more sustainable planet.  if more of us did this, we would support an industry that creates fully sustainable paper.

In my small town here in rural Maine we have a biweekly pickup of mixed stream recycling of plastics, metals, paper and cardboard.  I like to think that some of the paper I recycled has been turned into fully recycled content that I then purchase later. 

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Chives from my garden


I have two chives plants in my garden beds, on the left is regular chives and on the right, garlic chives.  The chives plant is over 15 years old and the garlic chives I've had for over three years now.  These are the only perennials in my vegetable beds and I use fresh chives in scrambled eggs and stir fries throughout the growing season which runs from April through October.  Today was our first frost night so I have harvested a bunch of chives and dried them for use through the rest of the year.

I cut them up with scissors and lay them on parchment paper and then put them in the oven at 150°F for about half an hour or so.

Once dried I store them in an 8 ounce ball jar with a reusable plastic lid.  4 to 5 ounces usually lasts me through the winter and into the spring.  

I usually make scrambled eggs with fresh chives and shredded cheddar cheese.  Back when I was running an air B&B from my home my guests really enjoyed my special scrambled eggs.  They would watch as I walked out to the garden to cut fresh chives for the breakfast and enjoyed the local resource.  I would also use locally sourced free range chicken eggs that I bought at the farmers market.  Garlic chives when fresh have a real zing to them that have a definite garlicky flavor.

I enjoy making optimal use of all of the resources on my property as part of my commitment to living sustainably.