You are currently browsing the monthly archive for July 2007.

We’ve had the solar system in operation for six days. It has generated 41.8 kilowatt hours in that time — an average of just under seven per day. Not bad. Of course, on the first day, we didn’t throw the switch until almost noon. So the total should have been higher.

We had been averaging 7.5 KWH per day until recently. On Saturday, it turned partly cloudy. Then on Sunday, it was partly cloudy again, with a big rainstorm in the late afternoon that dropped the panels’ output to zero. On Monday, it was mostly cloudy, and the system still generated 5.4 KHW.

On a side note: one reader surmised that the Sharp solar panels we use are 167 watts and not 170. Looking over the installation manual, I can assure they are 170-watt panels. It’s an NE-170U1 model, which you can see here.

In another discussion, I said our installer was saying the current system would generate 7-10 KWH per day. I was mistaken, due to the fact I didn’t look over my notes carefully. When we were first discussing our options with Harvest Solar, we were talking about systems as high as 2,000 watts, which certainly would have generated that 7-10 KWH daily. But because of budget constraints, we went with a 1,530-watt system. So our daily output is probably going to be in the 5-8 KWH range.

We got the solar-power system we could afford, and we’re very happy with it. We will add panels in the coming years, because our Sunny Boy inverter can handle up to 2,100 watts.

From a strictly mathematical standpoint, our new grid-tied solar panels did not give the environment the biggest possible bang for our buck. Donating $10,000 worth of CFLs to the Salvation Army to distribute to needy families probably would have made a much bigger impact. But part of my motivation in shrinking our personal environmental footprint was to serve as an example to those who operate under the mistaken belief that taking care of the Earth means sacrificing all your creature comforts and running away to live in the woods with the Rainbow Family.

A year or so ago, I arranged for John Miggins of Harvest Solar to give a presentation on alternative energy to Tulsa’s local Mensa chapter. It was a great presentation, and most of the members asked good questions and had interesting things to say. But John and I were thoroughly dismayed by the reaction he got from a member who claimed to be an environmental science teacher, but whose comments on the subject made Jim Inhofe look like Gaylord Nelson.

When I described for this woman the simple changes I’d made to reduce my environmental footprint, her response was something between pity and raw contempt. It was pretty clear that she thought I was living in a hovel unfit for human habitation, and no amount of explanation was going to convince her otherwise.

Her attitude and ignorance were appalling, but they made me realize the desperate need for real-life examples of ordinary people living ordinary lives without wreaking havoc on the environment in the process. I realized that every dinner party I threw, every basket of produce I took to the office, every bouquet of flowers or jar of honey I shared with a friend could serve as a testimonial to the benefits of doing right by the environment.

Life is good here at the House of the Lifted Lorax. As I write this, our power meter is running backwards, watermelon is ripening on the vine behind the back fence, and Scout and I are enjoying an omelet Ron made for us out of the eggs our hens laid yesterday. I just brought in five enormous cucumbers, a dozen ripe tomatoes, a half-dozen hot peppers, and a handful of fresh okra pods from the garden.

Last night, I canned a gallon of homemade salsa made from my heirloom tomatoes and peppers, and this evening, I’ll bake a blackberry cobbler — sweetened with honey produced by our bees — while I put up pickles and hot sauce. I need to scrub down the dehydrator so I can dry some basil and peppermint.

We’re going to get in Ron’s Honda Insight and take a Sunday drive in a little while, because I want to check out the LED lamps and camping gear at the Bass Pro Shop. (I’ve got a couple of energy-saving ideas I’m experimenting with; more on that later.)

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to collect photos and sounds for a virtual open house that will give all our blog readers a glimpse into the realities of life in the carpool lane. I’ll also be doing a series of posts on simple ways to reduce your environmental footprint.

Stay tuned. 🙂

Emily

The first day the solar panels were put into service at 11 a.m., they generated 7 kilowatt hours of electricity.

On Thursday, the first full day they were in operation, they generated 7.7 KWH under partly cloudy skies. You could tell when a cloud obscured the sun by the Sunny Boy’s real-time readout — it would go from 900 watts to 150 watts in a hurry.

Harvest Solar eventually will come back to test the system, which is part of the installation contract. Perhaps it needs to tweak the angle of the panels. Maybe one panel is defective and needs to be replaced. But based on what I’ve seen, I’m pleased with how the system is performing.

Also, our power utility, Public Service Company of Oklahoma, soon will replace the analog power meter with a digital one. I’ve read that digital meters are more accurate, and the new meter will allow the utility to take its monthly reading for billing by remote.

But I have to admit, I’ll miss that little metal disc spinning backwards.

As I write this at noon, the solar panels are cranking out more than 1,000 watts of electricity and have generated 1.3 kilowatt hours of electricity in barely an hour.

And the power meter is spinning backwards. You can see the wheel in the center going clockwise, instead of the usual counterclockwise.

We have solar electricity. This is a culmination of a dream that Emily and I have cherished for many years. And now it’s here.

David of Harvest Solar arrived here shortly after 7 a.m. to beat the summer heat. Today was the day he would actually place the solar panels on the roof rack.

I asked him how he kept from zapping himself while carrying the solar panels. He said that the panel wiring has rubber stoppers on the ends that you remove only when you’re ready to hook it up.

Here’s what the finished installation looks like:

After that, David finishes the rest of the wiring that goes to the house:

At 11 a.m., David threw the switch on the main breaker. Within seconds, the Sunny Boy inverter’s digital display read 840 watts. The panels were generating electricity. We heard nothing, except for a very faint hum from the inverter. There was no flickering of the lights. It was all seamless.

This photo was taken about 10 minutes later. As you can surmise, the wattage was going up:

We’ve noticed that the power meter does move forward when the air conditioner is on, but at a much slower pace. When the A/C shuts down, the meter resumes its backwards pace.

It’s a happy day. 🙂

Today, David of Harvest Solar came out to begin installation of the solar panels. Here, he attached the racks to the roof during the early hours before the heat of the day. (By the way, at the upper right is the solar attic fan that Harvest Solar installed last year.)

Here’s what the racks look like when they were done less than an hour later:

Next, David started installing the Sunny Boy 2100 inverter in the laundry room, which is where the main circuit box is located.

You have to attach it to something that’s screwed directly into the wall studs. That’s because the inverter weighs about 45 pounds. It’s so heavy and bulky, I helped David hang the inverter onto the bolts. After that, he screwed in the bolts so the inverter would be flush.

Here’s what it looks like, all finished:

There were plenty of other wiring and junction boxes to install, including an outdoor switch (shown below):

By the time, he finished most of this, it was late in the day. David said he’d be back early in the cool of the morning to install the nine Sharp solar panels that are 170 watts apiece. We’ll probably be able to throw the switch on the system sometime tomorrow.

In case any of y’all were doubtful of my earlier post about how light- or dark-colored roofs can make a difference with your home’s climate control, here is this report from KRQE.com in Albuquerque, N.M.

A reporter flew over the city and took infrared photographs to find out where the hot spots and cool spots were.

One of the cool spots was a water park, in which jets and mists of water help keep the local kids cool. Other cool spots were where grass and trees were planted. Albuquerque is planting 2,000 trees a year in medians, parks and golf courses in a long-term effort to cool it down.

On the other hand:

One of many elements affecting the temperature of the city is by the colors chosen for the tops of the buildings.

In the United States, 90 percent of rooftops are dark colored.

The sun’s rays are absorbed making buildings and surroundings much hotter. That also drives up energy use.

Two neighboring houses recorded from Skyranger illustrate the difference: The infrared camera shows the home with the dark-colored roof as white, hot, while the white-colored roof is recorded as dark and cool.

That 90 percent number for dark-colored roofs is a startling statistic. Maybe there ought to be a public campaign to inform the public about how energy-sucking dark-colored roofs are, especially in the Sun Belt.

As previously mentioned, Harvest Solar & Wind Power of Tulsa is coming today to begin the installation of the solar panels. But this isn’t the first job the company has done for us.

In February 2006, Harvest Solar installed a solar-powered attic fan and lined the attic with radiant barrier (below) to keep the air space there from getting too hot in the summertime.

Fortunately, the fan and the barrier both work when they should — and don’t work when they shouldn’t. The fan contains an automatic switch that shuts it off when it cools below a certain temperature. And the radiant barrier has some insulation value to retain warmth in the attic during the winter.

We decided to install the fan because 1) it made sense for climate control in general; and 2) we had removed a box elder tree that had provided partial shade for the house.

We were reluctant to take down the tree. But box elders are notoriously brittle. In fact, ours had dropped a big limb onto our neighbor’s driveway. It didn’t cause damage. But the tree stood so close to our house, we feared it would drop an even bigger limb (or worse) on our roof or window during the next windstorm.

Secondly, the box elder also would have kept our home’s roof from gaining the maximum amount of sunlight for our future solar panels.

So away it went.

The day Harvest Solar installed the attic fan and radiant barrier was an uncommonly warm one for February. It was hot in the as attic the workers began stapling the barrier to the ceiling and truss boards. But as they progressed, they told me the temperature had dropped 15 to 20 degrees by the time they had finished.

It was barely installed, but the radiant barrier was already doing its job. And it still is.

The solar panels and inverter are going to be installed tomorrow! Harvest Solar of Tulsa is doing the job for us.

When we moved into our house in Tulsa, it came with a 50-gallon electric water heater that was close to 10 years old.

We knew we would probably replace it soon. It started to run out of hot water if showers ran over 10 minutes. A thermostat started heating water to scalding temperatures. The water heater developed a small leak in one of the valves. These problems were repaired, but they were danger signs that the water heater was about to go kaput.

This spring, we decided to replace it with a 40-gallon gas water heater from Kenmore (shown at left). We were a bit nervous about trading down to a smaller-capacity water heater, especially when we were already having problems with a 50-gallon model.

But I learned a few things from Consumer Reports:

Capacity isn’t as important as the first-hour rating, which is how much actual hot water the device can deliver in an hour. This Kenmore model delivered 81 gallons an hour, one of the best I could find. In comparison, a 10-minute shower should use only about 20 gallons.

Go with the longer warranty. Consumer Reports says to buy a water heater with 9- or 12-year warranty. The magazine said these models tend to have better parts and more insulation, and the cost difference isn’t all that much (usually $100 or less). The Kenmore we purchased is packed with 2 inches of insulation and a 12-year warranty.

Make sure you have room. I would have gone with the 50-gallon model, except a well-insulated one with a 12-year warranty would have not fit in the utility closet. I elected to go with a well-insulated 40-gallon model instead.

We’ve been very happy with the Kenmore’s performance. We haven’t run out of hot water yet. At one point this week, I bathed three dogs, took a shower, washed a load of laundry, and still had hot water. When you take a shower, you can hear the gas burners go for about 10 minutes, and then they shut off for the rest of the day. That shows you how insulation can make a big difference in keeping the hot water’s temperature stable.

But what shocked us is how much energy the Kenmore saves. Most experts recommend that you buy a gas water heater instead of an electric one because it’s more efficient. But going from an old electric water heater to a top-of-the-line gas heater has created some dramatic changes in our utility bills.

In the months we had an electric water heater, our electric usage was between 500 and 625 kilowatt hours per month. In the three months we’ve had the Kenmore, we’ve seen our consumption drop to 300 to 400 KWHs per month. We estimate that’s a drop of 150 to 200 KWHs each month.  With local power rates at about 10 cents per KWH, that’s a savings of $15 to $20.

That also means our forthcoming solar panels will provide an even greater percentage of electricity for our house.

Our gas bill? It averaged about $12 a month before installing the Kenmore. Afterward, it’s been $20. We’re saving money each month.

In the three years we’ve lived in Tulsa, we’ve never had an electric bill of more than $90. Our average is $50 a month, and dropping fast.

With our natural gas bill, we’ve never had a bill higher than $78. Most of the time, it’s $20 or less.

Yes, you can cite the usual suspects for our miserly power consumption — compact fluorescent light bulbs, Energy Star appliances, and a thermostat that’s set at 78 degrees in the summertime (bumped up to 80 when we’re not home) and 68 during the winter (nudged down to 62 when we’re sleeping or away from home).

But the big reason our energy bills remain low is that our house is small. It takes a lot less juice to heat or cool the air in a house that’s a hair under 1,000 square feet than it is to heat and cool a 3,000-square-foot behemoth.

We’ve been a big fan of small houses, namely because the economies of scale make it easier for climate control, maintenance and our pocketbook. We’ve had no desire to keep up with those who want to flaunt their materialism by showing how elaborate of a house they own.

When you buy a house, you should ask these questions:

  • Does it provide a solid roof over your head?
  • Is it well-maintained?
  • Do all the appliances work?
  • Is it comfortable for you and your two- or four-legged companions?

If you can say yes to these questions, then you shouldn’t worry about square footage or whether the house has a decorative gryphon or some other nonsense.

An addendum from Emily: I’ve known a lot of people who insist they have to have a big house because a small house would just be “too cluttered.” Nonsense. If your house is cluttered, your problem is the housekeeper, not the house. Our house looks cluttered when we forget to pick up after ourselves. When we put things away where they belong, it looks fine. If you don’t have room to store all your possessions, that’s a pretty big red flag indicating a pretty serious problem with mindless consumerism. Decluttter your house … and then quit buying things you don’t need and don’t really want. If you’re not sure how to declutter, Flylady.net is a good jumping-off point.