Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The perfect washing machine

When we moved into our current home in 2001 we purchased a new Staber washing machineIt is the most efficient washer available based on energy, water, and detergent usage.  It is particularly pleasing to know that it was designed and is still manufactured by a family owned business based in Ohio. 

Looking down into the hexagonal washing chamber
What is distinctive about this machine is that it is a top loading horizontal axis design.  See this promotional video that shows its features, and a cool video about How It's Made.  When you open the lid, you are presented with two stainless steel doors that open into a hexagonal washing chamber that rotates inside a larger water tank.  This means that it uses significantly less water, detergent, and also electricity due to its very simple and elegant design.

Front view with cover removed
We noticed a little water underneath the washing machine yesterday so I jumped into repairing it today.  To be clear, this is the first repair I have had to do on this machine in over 13 years!  I remembered that another major feature of this washer is that repairs can be accomplished from the front which is quite unique in the industry and a very thoughtful piece of design.  It was quite simple to remove four screws from the bottom front edge and then take off the front as seen in the image above.  I discovered that a flexible rubber hose had developed a leaking seal where it exits the bottom of the large stainless steel water tank.  It was a relatively simple matter to clean off the existing silicone sealant and replace it with new silicone.  Problem solved!

While this machine is relatively expensive at $1300, I am sure it has saved us hundreds of dollars in energy, water, and detergent.  Overall we have been extremely pleased with it, although my wife occasionally complains that it is a bit harsh on delicates.  If you are looking to replace your machine with a beautifully engineered piece of American design and want something extremely efficient - look no further than Staber!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Propane: the dirty little secret of rural living

propane tanks below my solar collectors
Living in rural America, one notices propane tanks everywhere because we do not have natural gas pipelines out in the country.  It is a convenient fuel source for cooking, water heating, clothes drying and building heating.  The tanks pictured above are used to supplement the heat from the solar collectors that heat my workshop, and also run our backup generator during power outages which are frequent in the winter.

While propane is a fossil fuel, in the grand scheme of things it is one of the cleaner fossil fuels and is also relatively benign.  I found this webpage promoting propane that offers the following bullet list:
  • Propane is not considered a greenhouse gas.
  • Propane is not damaging to freshwater or saltwater ecosystems, underwater plant or marine life.
  • Propane is not harmful to soil if spilled on the ground. Propane will not cause harm to drinking water supplies.
  • Propane vapor will not cause air pollution. Propane vapor is not considered air pollution.
  • Propane vapor is not harmful if accidentally inhaled by birds, animals or people.
  • Propane will only cause bodily harm if liquid propane comes in contact with skin (boiling point -44°F).
This webpage also states: "damaging emissions following LP Gas combustion is far below that of any readily available carbon based fuel used in vehicles and engines today."  Despite all of the above slightly biased factoids, I have been doing everything I can to reduce our usage of propane, for instance over the last 10 years or so we have dropped our propane consumption from about 800 gallons a year to around 400 gallons a year in our house.  This propane is used for heating, water heating, clothes drying, and cooking in pretty much that order.  This reduction was  created by installing solar collectors for water heating, and replacing our old propane water heater tank with a tankless unit.   Here is a chart showing our annual propane since 2003:
propane statistics for our home
You can also see live statistics of how well my solar collectors are working on this page of my website.

In my workshop, I have dramatically reduced my propane use - largely by burning wood that I cut on my own property:
propane use in my workshop 2000-2014
workshop propane usage - reduced by using solar and firewood
 Live performance statistics for the solar heating system are on this page of my site.

Many of my neighbors have traditionally heated their homes exclusively with firewood.  Two neighbors in particular have added supplementary propane heat over the last five or six years.  One of them rationalized it because he did not want to worry about freezing pipes in his house if he needed to leave it for more than a few days in the dead of winter when temperatures dip below 0°F frequently.   Another neighbor added an in-law suite that was at the far end of his home from the wood stove and elected to put in a propane heater rather than another wood stove.  Unfortunately, propane heaters require electricity to operate so if the power does fail as it often does during winter storms one is still without backup or emergency heat.  This makes a wood stove and/or a propane fired backup generator an important asset.

I have come to accept propane as a necessary evil.  I remember a quote from an author writing for Home Power magazine in which he stated: "propane is the dirty little secret of off grid living".  And that has stuck with me as a way of focusing my consciousness around this relatively benign fossil fuel.