You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2007.

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As I think we’ve mentioned before, we keep a half-dozen backyard hens here at the House of the Lifted Lorax. We usually keep them in their chicken tractor — a kind of portable henhouse — to give them access to fresh forage while protecting them from the neighborhood cats. (You can see our chicken tractor to the right in the photo above.)

During extreme cold, the hens need a little more protection than the tractor offers, so with forecasts calling for temperatures in the teens on Tuesday night, we spent this afternoon finishing up a project I started a couple of months ago: a passive-solar, biodegradable henhouse.

We started by arranging six hay bales  to form three thick walls:

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(You can see another view of the chicken tractor to the left in the picture above.)

Next, Ron cut a piece of half-inch plywood to fit over the top. I think the dimensions were something like four feet by five feet.

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I used some leftover spray paint from other projects to seal the plywood, which hopefully will help keep it from delaminating in wet weather.

Using L-brackets and T-brackets, I screwed some 1x2s together to form a simple frame that’s reinforced in the center. I attached two hinges at the top and stapled some half-inch hardware cloth to the back side of the frame to make a screen door. (You could probably use chicken wire, but we thought the hardware cloth would be a little sturdier.)

I screwed the hinges to the plywood, we put two more hay bales on top, and — voila! — a little house:

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I will run out to the hardware store later and pick up a roll of clear Frost-King plastic and a couple of cinder blocks. I’ll use about a yard of plastic to cover the door, stapling it to the plywood to make a flap we can raise and lower as necessary to regulate the temperature inside the henhouse. The cinder blocks will be used to secure the door, as there’s not much way to attach hardware to hay bales to make a latch.

I’m guessing our girls are probably the only hens in Tulsa County who will be spending the coldest nights of the year in a passive-solar house with an R-value somewhere in the neighborhood of 45. 🙂

I’ll pick up a couple of thermometers at the hardware store this afternoon and take some readings inside and outside the henhouse to get an idea of how it will perform. Stay tuned….

Emily

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Big ice storms that knock down branches and destroy power lines are really terrible … unless, y’know, you happen to own a woodstove, a chainsaw, and a pickup truck:

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We’ll have to rent a splitter to bust up some of the really huge pieces, but we’re not crying about it. Four ricks of free firewood, all laid in for next year, and all Ron had to do was spend a couple of afternoons driving around the neighborhood, gathering it off the curbs. It’s all too green to burn right now, but by next winter, it will be seasoned and ready to go.

If you have access to a truck and a saw, you can be a big help to your neighbors (and every taxpayer in your community) by removing branches from curbs in exchange for the firewood after a storm. Most people don’t have a fireplace or woodstove … so if you do, they’ll be happy for you to come and haul away their storm debris in exchange for the wood.

Emily

There’s really no excuse for anybody to clutter up the landfills with perfectly good organic material. I started my first compost bin about eight years ago in a plastic tub under my kitchen sink in a small, second-story apartment, and I’ve been composting ever since.

Most people use one of two basic composting techniques: Thermophilic composting or vermicomposting.

Thermophilic composting works best when you have a backyard with a space roughly one meter deep and two meters wide. Start the pile with roughly equal parts “greens” (nitrogen-based materials such as fresh grass clippings, manure, or vegetable scraps) and “browns” (carbon-based materials such as dry leaves, dry grass clippings, or straw). Layer the materials so that you have a pile roughly one meter high, one meter deep, and one meter wide, with greens on the bottom and browns on the top, leaving a one-square-meter space next to the pile. Use a garden hose to moisten the pile to roughly the consistency of a wrung-out washcloth.

At this point, you can just leave the pile alone, and over time, it will break down. But a hot pile is faster and more fun to watch. To heat it up, simply aerate it by using a pitchfork to turn the pile, one forkful at a time, into the empty space next to it, adding water as necessary to maintain the appropriate moisture level.

If your brown-to-green ratio and your moisture level are correct, in a few days, you will start to notice that the middle of the pile is giving off heat — and if the weather is cool, you may even see a little steam.

The heat is produced by thermophilic, or heat-loving, bacteria that grow inside a well-balanced, properly aerated pile.

If you’re in an apartment or house without yard space, you can still make compost. You just need to get some worms to help.

To build a vermicomposting (worm) bin, take a good-sized plastic tub with a tight-fitting lid (10-gallon Rubbermaid tubs are great for this) and drill holes in the sides and bottom for aeration and drainage. Place a quart or so of kitchen scraps in the bottom of the tub. Add a small handful of potting soil for grit (this aids the worms’ digestion) and a layer of moistened peat moss, wood shavings, or shredded newspaper for bedding.

NOTE: I have not had good luck with cedar shavings in worm bins. They’re too aromatic for the worms. Aspen is a better choice.

Dump in a half-pound or so of red wiggler worms (it is VERY important that you stick to this species, as it is one of the few that can not only survive but thrive in a worm bin), put the lid on the bin, and place a tray under it to collect any excess moisture that drains out of it. It’s a good idea to elevate it slightly so it can drain properly into the tray.

Whenever you have vegetable scraps from the kitchen, add them to the bin, cover them with a layer of shavings or shredded newspaper, and spray thoroughly with the water bottle as necessary to keep the bin damp.

To harvest finished compost, simply move all the compost to one side of the bin and place a handful of vegetable scraps and fresh bedding in the other side. The worms will naturally migrate to the food, at which point you can take out the finished compost and use it to grow herbs and flowers on your patio.

Never place meat, dairy, or grains in your compost pile or bin; they tend to create problems with odors, vermin, or both. Also, manure is great in a compost pile, but DO NOT use dog or cat waste, as they yield potentially pathogenic compost that is considered unsafe to use on food crops.

If the pile or bin smells nasty, try reducing the moisture level and/or increasing the amount of “brown” materials, as odors are usually the result of excess moisture or nitrogen.

City Farmer has great advice on composting; click here for detailed instructions on vermicomposting or here for instructions on building a backyard bin.

In the interest of making this blog a little more useful to readers, I’m adding a “tip of the week” feature to help those who are interested in moving toward increased energy and a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. Most of these tips will be small, simple, inexpensive projects you can do to reduce your impact on the environment.

This week’s tip is about reducing phantom loads.

Wikipedia defines a phantom load as “the power consumed by any device when it is switched off.”

Some electrical appliances and gadgets use power even when they’re supposedly shut off. Televisions, for instance, constantly draw a small amount of power. Built-in digital clocks, such as those found on microwaves and VCRs, draw power. Anything with speakers is a potential phantom load. Anything with an LED that stays lit all the time is a phantom load.

You can reduce phantom loads in one of three ways:

1. Unplug these appliances when they are not in use.
2. Connect outlets to a wall switch and shut off the switch when the appliances plugged into the outlet are not in use.
3. Plug appliances into a power strip (such as the surge protectors used for computers and other electronic equipment) and switch off the power strip when the appliances are not in use.

Individually, phantom loads don’t seem like a big deal. But together, they add up … and it’s galling to think about paying for electricity to power something that you aren’t even using.

Do the environment a favor: Pick up a power strip next time you’re at an electronics store and use it to eliminate a phantom load or two around the house. It’s an easy, inexpensive way to make your environmental footprint just a little smaller.

Emily

The past month has been a strange one at the House of the Lifted Lorax.

I usually check the solar array’s performance of a 31- or 32-day intervals. But in early December, Oklahoma was ravaged by a historic ice storm that downed trees and power lines all over the place. At one point, more than 600,000 customers were without power in the Sooner State. More than 10 days after the storm, there are still tens of thousands in the state without power.

Even though we get much of our power from the sun, the solar array is a grid-tie system. So we were in the dark along with thousands of other Tulsans. Our house had no power for a total of eight days. We did fine in the meantime — we had heat from a wood stove, hot showers from our gas water heater, and a number of LED lights to read and see by at night.

From Nov. 19 to Dec. 19, the solar array generated 70.1 kilowatt-hours of electricity. I lopped off eight days for the power outage, the average was 3.04 KWH per day. Given the fact these are the among the shortest days of the year, along with a long spate of cloudy days, the solar array did quite well.

In the meantime, I’ve been collecting downed tree limbs to become next year’s firewood. We probably already have enough wood for next winter.

A few weeks ago, I said “nearly 90 percent” of the power we consumed came from our solar panels.

I had a hunch it was higher, but wanted to be conservative in the estimates. The power meter fiasco a few weeks ago skewed the numbers, so getting a fix on what was being generated and consumed was difficult.

A few days ago, we received our AEP-PSO bill. According to the the utility’s actual meter reading, we used 12 kilowatt hours of electricity from Oct. 26 to Nov. 26.

No, that’s not a typo.

Twelve.

That’s barely one-third of a KWH per day.

I don’t have the solar-power numbers from that exact period, but they’re close enough — from Oct. 19 to Nov. 19. In that time, the solar array generated 158.5 kilowatt hours of electricity. And weather conditions between AEP-PSO’s billing period and the period that I track were similar.

So … 93 percent of all the power we used came from the sun.

Remarkable.

By far the biggest power drain we have is the air conditioner during summer. The solar array’s portion of electricity we use drops to as low as 50 percent during particularly sweltering months.

But the central A/C unit is well over a decade old; we plan to replace it during the spring for more energy savings. We’ll keep you posted on how that goes.

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With a woodstove in the middle of the living room, we have a ready supply of very warm, very dry air to dry our clothes. Sometimes that air is a little too dry, which is one reason I keep a teakettle of water on top of the stove at all times.

I decided to kill two birds with one stone this evening by putting up this handy-dandy winter clothes dryer, which hangs next to the woodstove, saves us money on gas and electricity, and effectively turns our wet garments into makeshift humidifiers.

All I did was screw some hooks into the wall just above our bay window and hang large-link decorative chain from the hooks. I just put all the laundry on plastic coathangers (no metal — they’ll rust and ruin your clothes) and hang it from the chains, which will easily accommodate an entire load of laundry. When the clothes are dry, I just put the clothes in the closet and stash the chains in the laundry room.

As you can see in the picture, the hooks are also performing a decorative function at the moment, holding up a string of energy-efficient LED Christmas lights, which I got for about $8 at Home Depot.