Friday, December 26, 2014

Upgrading my weather station

Old WS1090 station
NEW Ambient WS1400 station
In 2010 I was considering installing a small 1 kW wind turbine on the roof of my workshop.  In order to evaluate the site to see if I had sufficient wind, I installed an inexpensive weather station for under $100 (now obsolete).  I upgraded it by adding a server that would send my weather data directly to the Weather Underground.  I also hacked on a small solar panel so I did not need to replace the batteries. The station transmits data wirelessly to a receiver in my office.  I could now access logs of all of my weather data on the web and see it in graphical form like this:
1 year of temperature and wind speed data
After one year I learned that my site was not appropriate for wind power, more about this on this page of my site.  I deliberately installed this weather station 10 feet above the ridge line of my two-story workshop which would be an ideal location both for the weather station and for potential wind turbine in the future.  Weather stations, like wind turbines need to be installed where they are least affected by wind shade.

The original weather station served its purpose and I learned quite a bit about our local weather conditions while also being a responsible source for local weather information for Weather Underground.  Eventually the rain gauge in that weather station failed and I decided to upgrade to a new weather station that incorporates solar power and a simple easy to install web server:
 Weather server

Ambient Weather WS-1400-IP

The big climb
Removing old weather station
It was scary to climb up onto the top of the roof, and take down the pole that holds up the weather station.  My wife, Rebekah was my spotter and photographer for this process.   The 10 foot guyed TV mast is split into two 5 foot lengths so that I can remove the upper section in order to service the weather station.

New instrument installed
I expect this new better designed weather station to provide many years of service.  In addition to all the usual weather statistics, this unit also reports solar radiation in watts per square meter, and a UV index all of which can be viewed in chart or table format by day/week/month etc.  Here is a link to my Weather Underground webpage which also includes a web cam view of my property.   To see live real-time weather conditions click this link for my "rapidfire" page.  

And finally here is a live feed from my weather station:

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Sustainable Christmas gift giving

At this time of year I look around at everyone acting like sheep and doing what everybody else does, buying Christmas gifts.  This only endorses the unsustainable commercial farce that the celebration of the birth of Jesus has become.  This is such a tragic indictment of the way that religion and capitalism have co-opted and corrupted the message.  I am not Christian but I am quite certain that Jesus of Nazareth would be utterly horrified by what the celebration of his birth has become.  With this in mind I would like to offer some suggestions for sustainable Christmas gifts, gifts from the heart with little or no carbon impact.

Handmade Christmas card.
Make your own Christmas card by hand or with the help of a computer and express your gratitude for the recipient's place in your life.

Entertainment gift.
Buy a ticket for a performance: music, movie, theater, poetry reading, performance art etc.  Or perhaps for a sporting event for the recipients favorite team.

If your recipient has a book reader and you know enough about their reading taste perhaps you can find an e-book that they would enjoy.   Resort to a paper book or print magazine only if you must.

Offer to cook a meal for your intended recipient at some future scheduled date, or take them out to a restaurant that endorses local and sustainable foods.  If you are someone who likes to make jams or jellies or other food that keeps, then give a gift from your garden.

Lend a hand.
Give the gift of your time and offer to help fix your gift recipient's home or vehicle or teach them how to do it themselves.  Share your skills or experiences in a meaningful way.

Handmade gift.
Traditional handmade gifts include knitted items such as mittens, socks and sweaters.  Be creative and think of the things that you can make that other people would value and enjoy.  Write a poem, sing a song or any other form of creative expression that is meaningful to you or to your recipient.

These are just a few thoughts that come to mind, if you have other suggestions please offer them up in the comment section below. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

There is no gas pedal in my car!

2012 Chevy Volt electric vehicle

When I take people for a demonstration drive in my Chevy Volt, I have to remind them that I am not using the “gas pedal”, I am using the accelerator pedal.  The pedal has no direct connection to the gas engine generator that GM refers to as a “range extender".  The pedal is hooked into the control computer of the vehicle and its only function is to modulate the amount of energy going to the electric motor.  It is interesting to note that when I punch the accelerator to the floor, my energy gauge shows over 80 kW of power going to the motor. Yes that’s Eighty. Thousand. Watts!  That is a truly enormous amount of energy capable of getting the 3800lb vehicle to 60MPH in 8.5 seconds with neck snapping acceleration in the 1st 40 feet!   And no gasoline involved unless I am running in "range extender" mode, in which case the four-cylinder 1.4L gasoline powered generator can contribute up to 50 kW to the battery to help maintain a safe battery level. There are times when that engine generator will ramp up to over 4000 RPM, and you really hear it, but most of the time it is barely audible.

Since we charge the vehicle largely from solar, the EV range of around 33 miles is literally a free ride for us (with zero carbon emissions!).  When the battery is low, the gas generator allows us to continue driving at about 40MPG.  

Observant passengers often notice that I leave the shift lever in "L" and not in "D".  Since this is an electric vehicle, the designations of Low and Drive are irrelevant, so GM just left the labels there as a convention.  "L" mode simply enables an aggressive regenerative braking feature that allows for one pedal driving.  By lifting your foot off the accelerator the vehicle slows so dramatically that you barely need to touch the brake pedal as you come to a stop.  This feature puts a great deal more energy back into the battery as it is recovered by the electric motor.

I have devoted a page of my web site to all the features of my Volt and it's performance and energy use/savings.  It is such an amazing vehicle - GM totally got it right with this one, and owners all agree by giving it the highest customer satisfaction ratings year after year.  With over 40K miles on my 2012 Volt I still consider it the best vehicle I have ever owned and love driving it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Learning lessons from living off-planet

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 environments. (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".

Monday, December 8, 2014

Why you need a home energy audit

I have a well deserved reputation as an energy efficiency and renewable energy guru and people frequently ask me what it would cost to put solar panels on the roof.  My immediate reaction is to ask them if they have done everything possible to ensure that their home is as efficient as they can possibly make it.   I point out that solar power systems are very expensive and in order to reduce the cost of that installation you first need to do everything you can to reduce the energy consumption within your home.  I encourage them to have a professional home energy audit done first and this can be done for between $300 and $600.   Some state utilities will do it for free, so do your research.   The quality of an energy audit will vary significantly from one entity to another, but bottom line they should provide you with a shopping list of things that you need to repair or change around your home starting with the "low hanging fruit" of the least expensive options and working up from there.

Blower door test in progress
While it is possible to do an amateur DIY home energy audit yourself, is really no replacement for a professional audit.  Professionals use a blower door test to find leaks in your building envelope, and a thermal imaging camera to identify energy leaks.  Several years ago, I followed my friends Paul and Topher around when they did an energy audit here in Maine, here is a link to my photo essay that details what they did and why.  The report they provided to the homeowner ran to over 10 pages and included a very thoroughly detailed analysis of their energy use and many suggestions for improving efficiency by reducing heat loss and energy waste.  

Here in Maine, typical low cost suggestions might include installing gaskets under the outlet and switch plates on the exterior walls to prevent cold air from infiltrating from the outside.   Next, you should look at weatherstripping the seal around your attic hatch.  Due to the chimney effect of warm air rising within your home, heat wants to exit at the highest point which is typically your attic hatch.  It is also quite inexpensive to weatherstrip around all your doors and windows to prevent cold air entering.  If you have a basement you should look very closely at any basement entrances or windows.   One way to dramatically improve the energy efficiency of your windows is to install interior storm windows.  Here are instructions on my website for making them yourself at a cost of around $1.25 per square foot.  Commercial interior storm windows can be custom-made at around $9/sq. ft. from AEP in Albany, New York.   Before my friend Topher came up with the DIY version, I installed some of the custom commercial panels in our home, here is a detailed overview that includes thermographic images showing how well they perform.

If your refrigerator is more than 10 years old, you may want to consider replacing it.  Refrigerators are the single largest energy user in the average home and newer refrigerators and freezers are a great deal more efficient than they used to be.  When shopping for any new appliance is important to look at the Energy Star label as a guide to comparison shopping.

Thermal camera showing cold air leaks
(blue) around our front door frame.
I did a thermographic imaging analysis of the exterior of my home and workshop several years ago and you may find it informative to review the images to see what I learned

In cold climates, it is essential to ensure that your attic is very well insulated.  If you can see the exposed top of the joists, then there is room for improvement.  You can add another layer of fiberglass bats across the top, or have a contractor blow in an additional 10 to 12 inches of cellulose.  Here is some helpful information about doing it yourself.


Self-installed solar power and heating
collectors on my super insulated
Maine workshop building.
Once you have achieved optimal efficiency in your home,  you will have significantly reduced your energy consumption and thus the size and cost of a solar power system .

I encourage you to get at least three estimates from local solar installers.  You can find solar installers in your area on the site.  There are multiple options for installing solar energy systems on your home and a qualified professional can explain them for you.  You may also wish to explore the systems I self installed on my home and workshop buildings.  If you are comfortable doing things yourself I suggest you start by looking at the Living Sustainably page of my site.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Great Climate Change Debate - NOT!

The media in the US and around the world continue to frame Climate Change as if there were some debate as to whether it is occurring.  What we mean when we say the phrase "Climate Change" or "Global Warming" is the abrupt change in the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere with the resulting dramatic increase in the average surface and water temperatures of the planet.  A more correct term to describe what is going on is Anthropocentric Climate Change, meaning that it is being created largely by carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels being burned by human beings.  

The science of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere trapping heat has been known for over 100 years.  The effect was first described by Svante Arrhenius a Swedish scientist who was the first to claim in 1896 that fossil fuel combustion may eventually result in enhanced global warming.   His theory was not verified until 1987.  In 2003 NASA scientist James Hansen published a paper called "Can We Defuse the Global Warming Time Bomb?" in which he argued that human-caused forces on the climate are now greater than natural ones, and that this, over a long time period, can cause large climate changes.  From this point forward he spearheaded awareness of abrupt climate change caused by greenhouse gases and became a controversial figurehead.  

Climate science has advanced dramatically in the intervening years and there are literally thousands of PhD climate scientists around the world that have verified various aspects of abrupt climate change and the forcings that are accelerating this change.  In 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed to "prepare, based on available scientific information, assessments on all aspects of climate change and its impacts, with a view of formulating realistic response strategies."  The IPCC continues to produce highly detailed reports every seven years about climate change and its impacts.  These reports are drafted in order to enhance awareness of this issue for policymakers and the public and include suggestions for mitigation.
I thought I would create a hypothetical TV interview to point up the foolishness of the so-called "debate" centered around climate change.  Picture a reporter interviewing 3 individuals in a kitchen looking at a pot of water on the stove with a gas flame turned up high beneath it.  Here is the transcript of their conversation:

Reporter: "Gentlemen, in front of us we see a pot of water on the stove with the burner turned up high, what are your opinions about the temperature of the water in the pot?"

Politician: "I saw that when you put the water in the pot you used the cold faucet, so eventually the water will warm up to room temperature as a natural process.  I am not a scientist so I can't say what the effect of the gas flame will have on the temperature of the water.  Furthermore, I question any implication that the natural gas flame is harmful in any way or that it could potentially raise the temperature of the water to dangerous levels." 

Reporter: "You raise an important point about natural gas."

Fossil fuel lobbyist: "Yes, it is called natural gas for a good reason.  Burning clean natural gas to heat water is an optimal way to heat water.  I look forward to sharing a nice cup of tea with you gentlemen in a few minutes."

Reporter: "Mr. Climate Scientist, perhaps you can give us some scientific background about what is going on here?"

Climate Scientist: "I have a PhD in climate science so I am fully qualified to explain the science to you.  Since we know that the flame temperature of natural gas is approximately 1960°C (3560°F).  If we do not turn down the gas flame, the water temperature will inevitably reach a boiling point at 100°C (212°F) at sea level.   Using science we can accurately predict when that boiling point will occur and we can be certain that there will be a significant amount of steam and the water will be significantly disturbed by bubbles rising from the bottom of the pan.  Some boiling water might escape the pan so I advise you to keep your distance."

Reporter:  "Are you sure about that?  I can put my finger in the water and it is not very hot, but thank you for sharing your opinions about the potential increase in temperature of the water.  But isn't it true that if we were at a higher elevation that the water would take longer to boil?"

Climate Scientist: "To clarify, I have not expressed any opinions I am simply citing scientific facts as they are known by almost all the scientists on the planet.  It is not true that water would take longer to boil at a higher elevation, in fact it would take less time because water boils at a lower temperature when the air pressure is lower.  For instance at 10,000 feet water boils at 193.6 °F (89.8 °C).  This too is a known fact.  Perhaps you are referring to the fact that it takes longer to cook food at high temperatures because the boiling temperature of water is lower."

Reporter: "It is kind of chilly in the room isn't it?  Why don't we all hold our hands up close to the stove so that we can be more comfortable.  There, doesn't that feel better!"

Climate Scientist: "Given the relatively small size of this kitchen and the amount of gas that we are burning.  I am quite concerned that the CO2 levels in this room will reach harmful levels in the foreseeable future.  I have an instrument that is tracking the parts per million of CO2 in the air and see that it has already risen significantly, and I can warn you that if we do not open a window or turn the flame off that CO2 levels will be unhealthy in the foreseeable future."

Fossil Fuel Lobbyist: "Don't be such an alarmist, it would take hours or maybe even days for the CO2 from burning clean natural gas to have any significant effect.  I for one would rather be warm wouldn't you?  You are talking about something that may not happen for a long time and I am cold right now."

Reporter: "Great, so while we are waiting for the water to get hot enough to make tea, we have a side benefit that the room is getting warmer too.   We can worry about CO2 levels later if that even becomes a concern.   Thank you gentlemen for your time."

Climate Scientist: "Don't say I didn't warn you!"

Politician: "Thank you, I look forward to a nice cup of tea with you."

Fossil Fuel Lobbyist: "Don't forget that Natural gas is one of the cleanest burning fuels on the planet."

Reporter: "We are out of time let's go to Fred at the weather desk who is reporting on the massive snowstorm that has dumped 6 feet of snow on Detroit."

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Surviving a major snowstorm and power outage in Maine

 On the day before Thanksgiving a snowstorm swept through the Northeast dumping 6 to 8 inches of very heavy wet snow in our region.  This caused the Birch trees to bend over all the way to the ground under the weight of the snow on them.  The power failed after 6 PM and our automatic generator kicked in, but it stopped working after 3 hours.  We called the guy who services it and he was running around like a madman trying to service all kinds of problems with generators.  He got to us by 12:30 AM and left us a voicemail saying that the electronics controls were fried and he could not repair it for almost a week.  For the first time in many years we were stuck without electricity with our niece visiting from Boston for Thanksgiving.  Here in rural Maine most people are used to dealing with loss of power for extended periods of time during heavy winter storms, but we have been spoiled by having the automatic generator.  Unfortunately I am learning the hard way that the inexpensive Generac generator that I purchased from Home Depot is unreliable and has let us down many times over the years due to various failures.  I can in no way recommend Generac generators for anyone considering an automatic emergency backup generator.

The first thing we did was find our LED flashlights so that we could light all of our candles and kerosene lamps.  The next step was to light up the big wood stove in the basement that has the capacity to heat the entire house.   Throughout the outage we kept that woodstove fully stocked and the house remained quite comfortably warm.  Our other heaters are all propane/electric that do not operate in an outage. 

Then we started thinking about water and how we would flush the toilets.  The pressure tank from our well holds up to 50 gallons, but we knew we needed to conserve that for drinking water and dish washing.   We still had a little water pressure after three days by conserving every drop.  We started out by placing a big pan on top of the stove so that we could melt snow.   This worked but it was very slow and it takes A LOT of snow to get just a few gallons of water.  So I started thinking about other ways to get water.

The following morning the sun came up and the temperatures rose a little above freezing and I noticed that the downspout that I had rigged to feed a rain barrel in the summer was dripping.  So I set up 5 gallon buckets under the spout and we were able to put 3 to 4 gallons in each of five buckets throughout the day, this works really well, but the following day the temperatures remained below freezing.   Fortunately, we had enough water to get us through the total of three days of power outage.   We only used this water for flushing number two in the toilet and reminded our niece: "If it's yellow let it mellow".  
We left one of the buckets under the downspout overnight and in the morning it was filled with water but lined with ice and the top had iced over. 
After breaking out the ice on the top we were able to pour some of that water into another bucket.  By this time we realized we could use our propane stove to melt snow and warm water up for dish washing etc.  Shown at right is the ice lining from the 5 gallon bucket before my wife dropped it in the pot to melt.  Amazing!

After every snow storm, the first thing I do is clear all my solar panels and collectors.  The collectors have pumps that run on solar panels - so they could store hot water as soon as we got sun.  My workshop building heating system stores heated water in an 80 gallon tank, but I could not use that stored heat until the utility power was restored because the circulation pumps are AC powered.   But it is good to clear the collectors early in order to gain the benefit of free solar heat for when we can use it. 
Because  our solar power system is grid tied, the inverters shut down in the absence of utility power.   It is good to clear the snow off as early as practical so that it does not freeze hard onto the panels.   As soon as any part of the collectors or panels are exposed the suns heat helps to melt and clear the rest of the snow.
My niece, Gaia helped out by raking the snow off the solar array.  It is kind of fun - almost like playing Tetris or something because you have to use some strategy to clear off the snow and she enjoyed herself.   This heavy wet snow comes shooting off the roof making a loud "thump" as it hits the ground and you have to stand well clear as it comes down.   We were fortunate that she was staying with us because I am still recovering from major surgery three weeks ago and was not fully up to the task of heavy physical work like this.

It was an interesting Thanksgiving, because our propane oven does not work without electricity, although we were able to light the flames on the stove top manually.  We were able to take our small turkey over to our neighbors early on Thanksgiving morning to use their stove before they put their bird in the oven.  These guys bought their automatic backup generator after they saw mine, but I had already warned them not to get a Generac brand.  They purchased a Kohler that so far has been perfectly reliable.  Kohler units are significantly more expensive, but in hindsight I would have spent the money if I had known how badly made the Generac units are.  The three of us had a nice quiet Thanksgiving dinner without the distractions of television or even the sound of a refrigerator running in the house, it was really quiet.

In the evening, I remembered that I have a 40 amp hour lead acid battery that I use to power my solar lawnmower conversion in the summer.

I charge it up before I store it in my workshop for the winter and remembered that I also have a small 300 W inverter.  So I brought them both over to the house to use for charging our cell phones.  We were also able to run one of the LED lights in our home so that we could all have enough light to read and play board games.  The battery lasted over seven hours and really boosted our spirits by providing a bright light. 

When the power finally returned late in the day after Thanksgiving, we were so used to not having lights or being able to use the faucets that it took a while to adapt.   Of course we all took a nice long hot shower the following morning!

In some ways, this experience was a wake-up call to remind us all what life would be like without the conveniences of electric power and running water.   It is so easy to take all of this infrastructure for granted.