Get a clothesline or please shut your mouth about climate change

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We’re living in times that are undeniably permeated with hotly-fueled, often polarized debates about many topics. One such topic that certainly has a large share of the opinionated conversation market is “climate change”.

We aren’t here to offer support to either side of that debate. To the denying side, we say that care of the environment is an essential duty given to us by our creator regardless if one believes the climate is truly changing or not. We aren’t doing a good job with this task and need to be honest about such!

To those on the other side, furiously and vigorously raising the climate change alarms we also have an admonishment – buy and use a clothesline immediately or please shut your mouth!

If you have one, good! Now go get your neighbors on board with using them.

We’ve participated in many conversations with people of all stripes, many of which are very concerned about climate change. Many of these have notions of how extreme measures must be taken to curtail the use of fossil fuels and how renewables will solve all our problems. Often the suggested solutions are mind-numbingly complex and the outcomes somewhat minimal or worse, undefinable.

One question we often immediately ask such people is “do you have a clothesline?” To which the majority respond with “no”!

Many of these fiercely chanting about climate change would  probably put a single item through a dryer cycle, go make some toaster treats, microwave some popcorn, and watch their 90″ tv (while texting on their smartphone), then perhaps take a nice long hot shower, iron their clothes, get in their cars and drive two miles to get a cup of coffee – single-origin and fair trade of course, before returning home to peruse facebook for several hours before retiring to bed where they might turn on the tv (for white noise of course) while they sleep.

Folks, sometimes there are simple answers to complex problems. Most of us needn’t look further than the mirror to find the source of most environmental issues.

We aren’t suggesting that clotheslines will solve all the large environmental issues of our planet. Changing our consumption patterns would be a good start tho!

Regardless, the difference that would be made by clothesline use alone offers perhaps the highest return on investment that can be found in the area of consumption changes.  They can cost as little as zero. They require no special knowledge or skills. They require no appreciable learning curve and almost every household can participate in their use.

It’s hard to pin down exact numbers, but most data we have found places clothes dryer energy consumption between 12% and 20% of energy consumption in an average household in The United States. In most households, particularly those with electric clothes dryers, only electric-based heat, and hot water consume more household energy.

Imagine for a moment if all households that used a clothes dryer invested in a clothesline? With nearly 126 million households in the US alone, the possible beneficial impact to the environment (not to mention, family finances!) are not trivial, offering a reduction in energy usage of up to 20%! Those with gas dryers also reduce fossil fuels and still benefit similarly. There isn’t a household that wouldn’t benefit from such with the exception of a few nudists here and there 😉

There is NO simpler solar device, nor one more accessible to the masses than the clothesline.

Folks, if you’re unwilling to do the simple things to contribute toward solutions to global issues, in our book you’ve lost all credibility and with it, your rights to complain about these problems.

Honestly, what basis do you have telling others how their lifestyles should change to address climate change if you yourself can’t make such a simple and meaningful change? Such a change requires no expensive renewables installation, no rebates, no governmental agency or legislation to address.

Ah, but you have an HOA that prevents clotheslines! As the old saying goes – “think globally, act locally”. Start your political efforts with your HOA to allow these climate-saving changes. If you can’t get one neighborhood to change, you think we can get entire nations to do so?

The world belongs to all of us, and if we are to care for it properly, we all must be responsible for such. All should be equally responsible for taking personal steps such as these to reduce consumption. If you can’t do that much, kindly remove yourself from debating such things because you might be a hypocrite.

Simple solar power for outbuilding lights and pumping water

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In this post, we’ll show you the simple steps we took to setup our goat barn with solar-powered lighting and running water.

Note: Though titled as ‘simple’, some will no doubt find this complex. Understandable, however, nothing beyond grade-school math or a calculator is necessary for figuring this out. Take your time and try to understand it, ask questions in the comments if you don’t understand.

Our goal

Our goat barn is over 1000′ from our home, and the thought of running power to it gives us heartburn. Not only would that be tremendously labor-intensive, but also expensive and disruptive. We needed power to light the goat barn when we needed to be in there in the dark, and also to support having running water. We don’t spend more than one hour per day in the goat barn, so the true amount of time we would need to light it or run water was small.

Calculating the loads

To determine what we needed was fairly simple. First, we located the 12v LED lights we wished to use. We wanted something simple and common and found these on Amazon. They had good reviews and only consumed 7w while running. We knew we wanted to install four light fixtures but typically would only have two on most of the time the lights would be on. The maximum “load” of these bulbs (the watts times the hours to get Wh) would be about 28 Wh/day, or .028 kWh.

Next, we knew we needed to pump water from our rain tanks into the barn and out through a faucet and utility sink. This too was easily accomplished by using a 12v Shurflow RV water pump, also available on Amazon. This pump has an internal pressure switch which will turn the pump on when the pressure is low (ie, when a faucet is opened). However, we had an old pressure tank laying around and wanted to run the pump less often than every time we opened the faucet, so we hooked up the pump to fill the pressure tank. When the tank reaches pressure, it triggers the pump to turn off and also has plenty of pressure at the faucet. The maximum load of this pump we calculated at about an hour per day (which is very conservative since it runs more like 10 minutes a day). The amp draw is about 6 amps, so we calculated 12 Volts x 6 Amps = 72 Watts for one hour a day equals 72 Wh or .072 kWh.

So far, we need to support less about 1 kWh per day. No problem!

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Batteries

Now, we’d not typically recommend using deep cycle marine batteries for solar applications, because they’re really not designed for multiple cycles of deep discharging – something you regularly do with solar applications, but we had two on-hand, and let’s be reasonable – we needed to support some pretty small loads. So we wired these together in parallel, which keeps the voltage at 12 V but combines their amps. We did this to be sure that we’d never discharge the batteries below a very very small margin of their capacity, which helps them last a long time.

To help understand how this works, picture this… treat your batteries like a bank account. Treat your loads like withdrawals and your solar input like deposits. If you withdrawal more than you can put back in, you have a deficit (a dead battery). You need to size all your components so that the ratio of withdrawals and deposits keeps the battery happy.

Our system would take about 100 watts per day from the batteries. We need to put at least that much back in. Now.. to figure out what kind of solar panel to get, we needed to know about how many hours of sun we could expect on average. This is called “solar insolation”. There are many useful maps online that show what average hours are for any area. Ours is approximately 5.5 hours. This means that the average amount of usable sun hours per day, across all days of the year and average weather – would be 5.5.

Though we get 5.5 hours of sun a day on average, we can still go a week or so of no meaningful sun in our part of the world. We want to make sure our stuff works when this happens so we might need to support up to 5-7 day withdrawing  100 Watts of power, but with no deposits (no solar). These 5-6 days are called “Days of Autonomy” (DOA), or how many non-sun days we want to run without recharging.We also had to keep in mind that our batteries had to be adequately sized so that we could

We also had to keep in mind that our batteries had to be adequately sized so that we could withdraw 500-700 watts of power from the batteries without significantly discharging the batteries. This is why we used two because the amount taken out of each would be small. With something like a deep cycle battery, you shouldn’t really discharge them more than maybe 20% or you risk killing the batteries. Some solar batteries support much deeper discharges, but not these. The gist is that you need to make sure that after taking all you plan to take from your batteries, you still need to have the right amount of energy remaining. The percentage of how much of the battery energy you can safely take is called the “Depth of Discharge” or “DoD”. Our DoD would be 20%.

If we had been buying new batteries, we would have needed to buy batteries where 20% of their capacity was enough to supply 500-700 Watts. Solar batteries are measured by Amp hours. We have watts. How does that work? Well… take your watts, divide by the voltage of your system and you have the Amps.

100 W per day x 7 DOA = 700 W
700 W / 12 Volts = 58 Amps

Now multiply the Amps by the hours you need them. This is where it gets tricky because we don’t need our energy all at once. The most we will ever need at once is about8.33 Amps. How did I know that? Because, our total wattage, while everything is running is 72 Amps for the water pump plus 28 Watts for the bulbs or 100 watts total. Our system voltage is 12V (the voltage of the batteries, the soon to be solar panel, etc). 100 / 12 = 8.333.

If we ran all our loads for one hour, we would withdrawal the power at a rate of about 8.3 Amps per hour (8.3 AH). Assuming we need that for seven days, we’d need a battery that could support 8.3 AH for 7 days with a total of 58.1 AH.

Now… remember, we can only take 20% or so, so we actually need a battery that has a capacity 5x as much to get what we need out of 20%. 58.1 * 5 = 290.5 AH. Most solar batteries are measured in AH at 20 hours. Forget about what that means for now, but that is the number you want to compare when looking at your total AH needs vs the battery capacity. So, to summarize, to support 58.1 AH of need, we need a 290.5 AH battery. That gives us all the storage we will need to support 7 days of 1-hour per day usage and still not kill our battery.

Solar Panel

We needed a panel that provided as much resupply of watts to our depleted batteries as we’re taking out, plus a little room for margin. We were going to be taking out about 700/week, so we need to make sure we could at least put that much back in. So, we have 5.5h of sun per day on average, and 7 days to collect the sun during that week, that means we had about 38.5 sun hours per week to harvest about 700 W of power.  You shouldn’t just divide 100 w by 5.5 hours because there are a few more elements to consider. Namely, how many days we’d want to be able to run without any sun. We can get a week or so of no meaningful sun in our part of the world. We want to make sure our stuff works when this happens, so we might need to have 5-7 days of withdrawing 100 Watts of power, but with no deposits.

Since that represents best-case scenario and the weather and sun isn’t constant, we didn’t want to just divide 700 W by 38.5 sun hours and figure on an 18 W solar panel. It might work but would more often than not be insufficient. We decided on a 100 W solar panel from the great folks at Alt-E Store. They’re super-helpful, have a great YouTube channel, and are eager to help.

With a 100W panel operating at let’s say, 85% efficiency, we could potentially collect 3,272.5 Watts of power in seven days, or 467.50 Watts per day. Since we only should use 100 watts per day, this left us plenty of buffer and room to grow a little. We added this mount to a schedule 40 iron pipe placed 3′ into the ground and were ready to go.

Charge controller

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A charge controller is an important piece of the puzzle. Some try to be cheap and avoid them to their potential peril. A charge contoller manages the incoming solar power and charges the battery until the battery is “full”, at which time it prevents over-charging of the battery. They also often have a ‘blocking diode’ of sorts that prevents the energy in the battery from flowing into the solar panels when there is no sun (i.e. at night). We purchased this charge controller for that use. It is important to note that you need to have a charge controller that can support the charging amps you’ll be putting into it. Those charging Amps are a measure of the panel watts divided by the panel voltage (100 W / 12 V = 8.3 A). Your charge controller should be support slightly higher than your maximum charging Amps. Ours is 10.5 so we’re good.

Miscellaneous

To add some additional security and also to make things more organized, we purchased a marine battery terminal block on Amazon. We landed all our circuits positive wires to this block and all the negatives to the negative block it came with. This also gave us the ability to add fuse protection to all the circuits using auto fuses.

From there we simply wired everything together and turned it all on!

Using this for rainwater collection and pumping

We collect rainwater from our goat barn into IBC totes, some 3″ PVC pipe, a Rain Harvesting First Flush Downspout Water Diverter Kit, and a few misc pieces such as the Leaf Eater Advanced Rain Head and a stainless steel filter. We then use the RV (Shurflow) water pump mentioned above and pump the water through a standard household water filter and into a surplus pressure tank that we had on-hand. The pressure tank can be turned on/off with a valve

We then use the RV (Shurflow) water pump mentioned above and pump the water through a standard household water spin-down filter and a carbonb filter into a surplus pressure tank that we had on-hand. Oh… and we also have found that a 1/2″ PEX/SharkBite check valve is essential to make this work well – prevening the water from draining back into the tanks and keeping the pump primed.

The pressure tank can be turned on/off with a valve in-case we don’t want to bother with it. It can help the motor run less often by storing pressurized water. The pump has to run for longer periods of time, but less often. This can be handy for say… filling the pressure tank during peak sun hours then using the pressurized water during non/low sun hours.

Here are a few pictures:IMG_0238

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Tips for reducing your electric bill by up to 30%

Here in PA, we’re ever so fortunate (sarcasm) to be headed into a new era deregulated electricity. Our utility provider (PPL Electric) has announced that they expect most residential electric bills such as ours to rise about 30%-32%! Somehow, this is supposed to be a help to our electricity cost. We’ve not figured that out yet.

As the old saying goes, rather than curse the darkness, light a candle. If your bill is going to go up by 30%, try lowering your consumption by 30% or more. This will not only keep your cost down, but reducing demand lowers prices for everyone.

So what are some relatively low-investment ways you can reduce your electric bill by 30% or more? Here’s a few ideas:

  1. Setup a clothes line. This is the cheapest way to go solar there is! According to Dept. of Energy statistics, clothes dryers account for nearly 6%  of household electric bills (average).
  2. Go Green One Day – unplugging most of your non-essential electricity for one day a week. This could save most households up to 15% of their electricity cost.
  3. Track down and eliminate “ghost loads” of electricity – appliances that use power when not even on (DVD, TVs, Phones, etc). A Kil-A-Watt is a great way to find these. Conservatively, we think this could save most households 1-2%
  4. Install a high-efficiency, water-saving shower head. Doing so appears to reduce our family’s utility cost. This is not direclty reducing the electric bull by a whopping amount, but reduces our utility costs in an amount that equals approximately 5-8% of our electricity cost. This is roughly the cost of one month’s electric bill! See our recent post for details.

So, the above simple steps could reduce your expenses by up to 31% of your yearly electric costs (by our estimates). None of the above are expensive or difficult to implement or require advanced DIY skills.

Have additional tips? Post em’ in the comments.

Why water-saving shower heads are a good investment

Many people might not think to look at their showers as being a source of potential energy and cost savings. That’s unfortunate, because there’s money to be saved in the shower along with natural resources too.

Consider the following scenario: Here’s the simple math for a family of four each taking a 7 minute with an average water-saving shower head (2.6 gallons per minute, or “gpm”):

  • 4 people x 7 minutes x 2.6 gallons = 72.8 gallons per day
  • 72.8 x $.0015/gallon = $.11 per day
  • 72.8 gallons x $.02 to heat it = $1.46 per day
  • Cost per 7 minute shower = $.37
  • $1.46 + $.11 = $1.57 per day to purchase water and heat it for showering
  • $1.57 X 365 = $573.05 per year!

Here’s the math for the savings this family would see by just installing a high-efficiency shower head:

  • 4 people x 7 minutes x 1.6 gallons = 44.8 gallons per day
  • 44.8 x $.0015/gallon = $.07 per day
  • 44.8 gallons x $.02 to heat it = $.87 per day
  • $.87 + $.07 = $.94 per day to purchase water and heat it for showering
  • $.94 X 365 = $343.10 per year!

So just by installing new shower heads, there’s several hundred dollars a year to be saved in water and energy cost. We’ve installed Peerless 76154 1.6 GPM Water-Amplifying Showerhead, Chrome units that cost us less than $15 – money well spent!

As you can see, hot water heating can be a major expense. As we aim for a simpler life, we’re aiming to use less water, and less commercially-provided energy heating the water. Stay tuned for our future posts about our attempts to heat hot water in some non-traditional ways!

Finishing the Root Cellar

When we moved into our house years ago, we had no idea that we had a root cellar. From our point of view, we had a wet, nasty closet area off our foundation that needed to be cleaned up and made to stop leaking. Needless to say, as we came to understand the value of root cellars and what they were, we were glad that we had not been able to make a significant change to our root cellar since moving in.

We were able to put an insulated door on the root cellar, paint it, run electricity to it, and build shelves turning it into a great place to store our potatoes, sweet potatoes, homemade wine, canned goods, etc.

Vented Root Cellar

A good root cellar has a few components – good insulation, high humidity, and good ventilation. We had plenty of humidity, plenty of insulation (the ground) but no ventilation. We fixed that by adding vents. This was easily done by drilling holes in the foundation (through the cement block) and running 1 1/2″ PVC pipe through the side, then up through the flower beds outside. We used a bend at the top to keep out rain and a screen on each one to keep the critters out.

Root Cellar

The way this works, the supply vent should bring cold air (when it sinks) down the pipe and into the root cellar. The source pipe goes nearly to the floor and the vent pipe on the adjacent wall has a vent at the top, to let the rising hot air escape. We decided to give it a little assistance by adding a powered fan to the vent. This was done using a few PVC fittings from Lowes and carving out a spot for an old computer exhaust fan wired to a 12v DC cordless phone power cord. We then plugged it into a timer like this to have it come on at the cooler parts of the day to cool off the root cellar and keep the fresh air moving through.

Root Cellar with Shelves

Lastly, we added shelves made from furring strips. This was a cheap alternative to purchasing shelves and allowed us to make custom-fit shelves for the root cellar. It took just under four bundles of furring strips (10 to a bundle) to finish – so for about $40, we were able to build simple shelves that would allow the air to circulate through the shelved items.

We plan on covering the nasty floor that is currently there with some small gravel. This will allow us to spray water on the floor that will then evaporate to maintain the humidity at or around the 95% humidity that root cellars need.

If you don’t have a root cellar, they’re easy to make in many homes. Just find a non-heated section of your basement (preferably with no window), wall it off with well-insulated walls and a door and vent it. Most people tend to aim for an ideal temperature in the mid 50’s. This keeps things like apples, potatoes, onions and garlic, sweet potatoes, etc. good for just about the entire winter.

In our case, this allows us an energy-free (mostly – when the fan isn’t running) means of preserving the freshness of our summer harvest. If you don’t yet have a root cellar but enjoy growing your own produce – consider a root cellar as your next DIY project!

Reduce Refrigeration Power Consumption up to 95%!

We’re Saving About $135/yr

As I’ve been researching ways to reduce power consumption, I’ve been measuring the annual power use of each appliance in my house (see my post on the Kill-A-Watt for details). When I measured my refrigerator, I found that it used 2.17 Kwh in just 13:22. That means that at our average Kwh cost of $.1007, my fridge costs me $$.3896/day, $11.85/month, and $143.20/year. That might not sound significant, but what if it could be less? A LOT less?!

I’d recently seen some info about using a chest freezer in place of a fridge. I thought the idea sounded whacky at first. It’s being done by many power-miserly people – particularly those who use solar power. You see, refrigerators are inherently inefficient in their design. When you open your fridge door, in goes all sorts of room-temperature air that must now be cooled and the cool air you’ve been paying to cool comes out. This is where a chest freezer has quite an advantage. Aside from being better-insulated than refrigerators, chest freezers don’t lose much cold air when you open them because cold air sinks and hot air rises. You ever notice the open coolers in the grocery store with no lids, yet the contain frozen items? This is because the cold air stays down in the freezer.

So how does this work as a fridge, I mean freezers freeze stuff, and I just want my stuff cool, right? It’s simple:

You take a chest freezer, turn the thermostat to as cold as possible (so that when it’s on, it’s running at full-steam), then purchase a separate thermostat such as this Refrigerator or Freezer Thermostat (Temperature Controller). These have long been used by people who brew their own beer to keep their beverages at given temperature range for long periods of time.

Control your freezer temperature externally

Control your freezer temperature externally

This device (or others like it) plug into the wall, and your freezer plugs into it. It consists of a temperature probe which is placed inside the freezer (no tools required) hooked to a relay that turns the power (at the plug) on and off. This is totally safe and already how your freezer works, so no wear and tear. This just way easier than modifying the freezer’s internal thermostat and voiding warranties, etc.

Once plugged in, your set the external thermostat to your desired temp (mid to high 30’s) When the temperature inside the freezer moves above your set temp, it powers on the outlet, turning on the freezer until it reaches the desired temperature. Once reached, it cuts power to the freezer. Many people who use this arrangement report their freezer compressor running 2-5 minutes per hour!

So just how much does this save? Most people report an electricity use doing this between .10 Kwh to .4 Kwh per day. Our current average Kwh price is $.1007 (just a hair over ten cents). That means that doing the above will cost you between $.01 and $.04 cents per day. That’s between $3.67 and $14.70 per year! You will not find a fridge that approaches even half this energy use. Because I bought a new energy star freezer, I am projecting somewhere in the middle – $.20 Kwh/day. This is twice the cost that many people are experiencing, but I don’t like to get my hopes up. If I am anywhere close, my cost will be just $7.35 to run my freezer fridge for one year. That’s a 95% cost reduction. It could be even better, it could be even worse. Even if it were $.40 Kwh/day, the cost will still be less than $15 for the year, an 89% improvement!

Have a hard time believing that? A brand-new Energy Star freezer will use about $38 per year as a freezer – it’s right on the tag. When it’s used in the energy-sipping capacity like this, it uses a fraction of that energy.

Of course, you have to 1) have or obtain a decent chest freezer 2) have a place to effectively use a chest freezer as a fridge 3) and purchase or make an external thermostat capable of powering the unit on/off frequently. In our case, we had the willingness, the room, but not the freezer or thermostat. We decided on purchasing a new Energy Star 14.8 cu.ft. freezer for $398. We purchased the above thermostat as well. This unit should be going strong for 5-10 years, long after we’ve recovered our purchase price.

If this is something you want to consider, I recommend the following:

  1. Use a Kill-A-Watt to measure your power use and determine your real kwh cost per day
  2. Multiply this cost by 365. If you live in PA, remember that once we experience deregulation this winter, power cost will likely rise at least 30%.
  3. Consider if you can purchase or locate a decent freezer
  4. Consider if you can purchase or construct a thermostat relay (I could not build one for the cost of the one above)
  5. Consider if you could live with a chest freezer rather than a traditional fridge.
  6. If so, Consider the cost savings over 3-5 years after your cost to purchase the freezer (if need be) and a thermostat.
  7. If the cost is justifiable, go for it!

Regarding the last item, my wife was suprisingly willing to do this after going and looking at freezers. There’s some nice benefits of this approach:

  1. It can be hard to see items in the freezer, harder to reach them, etc. The top-down effect of using a chest freezer offers a bird’s eye view of the contents.
  2. The chest freezer doubles as quite a bit of effective work area
  3. The former refrigerator area can be re-factored into a pantry, more counter space, etc.
  4. The right chest freezer can be nicely organized. Ours came with four nice sliding baskets that make it easy to organize.
  5. Should you decide to implement an alternative source of power (solar or wind), the less power you need, the better.

This might not be for everyone, but we’re excited to give it a shot!

I’ll post an update in a few months with my power usage.

Audit Heat/Cooling Loss to save up to 20% on heating and cooling cost?

I spent some time today using our utility company’s online self-help portal to determine some areas of cost saving measures. Without a doubt, heating and cooling is the #1 area of energy use in our home – and probably most homes.

Some of their tools show a savings of up to 20% by fixing areas of air infiltration throughout the house, as well as sealing leaks and drafts in the duct work.

In searching on Amazon, I discovered a device for $49 that scans for thermal differences so you can actually KNOW where the leaks are. I am wondering if anyone I know has had experience using this device. Here it is – Black & Decker TLD100 Thermal Leak Detector

Please comment if you’ve used it. I am considering getting this as soon as possible.