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So … yeah. Three years between posts. My excuse? We’re just too bloody busy. So busy, in fact, that while we continue to adhere to a more or less environmentally friendly lifestyle, we haven’t really done anything new since that last post. We’re just maintaining.

That said, we have discovered a new product or two, and we’ve seen our efforts pay off in several practical directions. As winter settles over us and my hippie instincts kick into high gear (an annual occurrence for as long as I can remember), I’m feeling inspired to write about the joys of living lightly. A few quick updates:

1. Product endorsement: LED lights have taken a quantum leap forward in terms of quality and price since we bought our first one in 2007. Back then, they were hard to find, expensive (over $30 apiece, plus shipping), and ill-suited for general illumination. Today, LED “bulbs” are much cheaper ($10 to $20), readily available at big-box hardware stores, and will illuminate a room as evenly and effectively as the spiral CFLs we’ve been using since the late ’90s.

2. Solar panels: Still going strong. We still have cheaper power bills than any of our friends, and we’re still delighted with the performance of the system.

3. Chickens: Hot weather and old age took their toll on our flock, so we bought two buff Orpingtons and a barred Rock from an ol’ boy down at Broken Arrow. They’re producing well and seem to be getting along well with our rooster, Bond, who is a remarkably quiet chap.

4. Bees: We had a record honey harvest and captured an incredibly strong, productive Buckfast swarm this spring.

5. Garden: Droughts, heat waves, blossom-end rot, fusarium wilt, and an intolerably busy schedule have more or less destroyed our tomato crops every year. Someday, when I’m not a teacher any more, I will have time to baby my plants and get them through these issues. Until then, the best I can do is support the local farmers’ market.

6. Woodstove: We haven’t had to pay for heat since the ice storm of 2007. Between that and Oklahoma’s frequent tornadoes, we find a steady supply of firewood piled up on curbs, readily available to anyone with a truck, a chainsaw, and a little initiative. I just used some of the money we saved on heat to buy a ridiculously expensive teakettle from Lehman’s.

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Recently, something happened that we’d always dreamed of when we first installed our solar-power system in July 2007 — we generated more power than we used.

I had a hunch it might happen in April or May. Those were the days in which we saw a lot of intense sun but mild temperatures — perfect conditions for solar-power generation. In fact, one day in early May, we generated an all-time high of 10.02 kilowatt-hours of electricity, and there were several other days of 9 KWH and higher.

According to our AEP-PSO bill, the meter reading on April 25 was 89377. On May 27, the meter reading was 89354. (Remember, this is the utility doing the reading, not us.) That meant the solar array was generating so much juice that month that the meter turned backwards to the tune of 23 KWH.

I always wondered what that would do to utility bill. The residential service total was $13.95, but the actual amount due was $12.64. AEP-PSO credited us $1.31 for the power the power we provided to them.

After seeing their KWH totals go lower instead of higher, it wouldn’t surprise me if AEP-PSO repairmen come out for a third time to replace the meter. It’s not like that hasn’t happened before.

Spring has arrived, and with it is a significant jump in our solar array’s production.

From Feb. 19 to March 19, our solar panels produced 158.3 kilowatt hours of electricity. So that means in 29 days (remember, February is a short month), the solar-power system produced an average of 5.46 KWH per day.

It’s apparent to me that some of the best production days are not in the summer, but in the spring and fall when temperatures are mild but the sunshine is intense. Hot temperatures depress solar panels’ efficiency 5-15 percent. But in the milder months, it’s not uncommon to see days of 8 KWH or higher. Just yesterday, I saw the inverter read 8.12 KWH with several hours of sunshine remaining.

This morning, I was working in my office when I heard a scraping sound on the side of the house. I went outside, and there was an AEP-PSO repairman, taking the cover off my electrical meter box.

“Hi,” he said. “We got word that there must be something wrong with the meter … that it’s going backwards.”

Not again, I thought.

“Well, the meter is going backwards, and I’ll show you why,” I said. “Take a look on the roof.”

He stepped back a few feet and saw the solar panels.

“Well, I’ll be,” he said.

He turned out to be a nice guy. He peppered me with questions about the system … how much it cost, how much power I was getting from it, etc. He thought it was cool that we were getting so much power from it.
He shook his head a bit.

“I think we need some training on this,” he said sheepishly. “We just don’t see hardly any systems like this. There’s one other one I know about, and he has the same problem — the power company’s always checking to see why the meter’s running backwards.

That sounds familiar, I thought.

He started to walk down the driveway. “Well, sorry to bother you. I’ll try to explain to them what’s going on so we don’t keep coming out here,” he said.

****

On a semi-related note, the system generated 134 kilowatt-hours of electricity from Jan. 20 to Feb. 20. That’s an average of 4.32 per day.

We’re really starting to generate juice now. The cool temperatures, combined with lengthening daylight, and we’re seeing days of 7 KWH and higher.

I’m a bit behind on my usual reports, but I did collect the data.

From Dec. 19 to Jan. 20, we collected 4.53 kilowatt hours per day. With our current electric bill from PSO, we used just 10 KWH of power from the utility during the entire month. So we were getting well over 90 percent of our power from the solar array.

In the six month since the solar-power system was placed online, it has generated 971 KWH of electricity. Divided by 175 days (I took off seven days because of the ice-storm power outage), that’s 5.54 KWH per day.

I took temperature readings inside and outside our passive-solar henhouse on New Year’s Day. At 2:30 in the afternoon, the outdoor air temperature was in the high 40s, the temperature in the sunshine on the ground in front of the henhouse was 61, and the temperature inside the henhouse was 72.

Getting the hens out of the chicken tractor and into the new structure was something of a trick. We were using pavers to hold the door shut, and our barred Rock, Solitaire, proved much stronger and much more willing to squeeze through a small space than we’d expected. We’d put Solitaire into the henhouse, carefully secure the door, and as soon as we turned our backs, she’d come sauntering back out the side. It was pretty funny. We finally gave up on the pavers and used a couple of big logs from the woodpile to hold the door shut, which worked a lot better.

Once the girls were back together, they calmed down and quit trying to sneak out. The quarters were a little tight, and I don’t think they liked being walled in like that — after all, they’re used to being outdoors — but their temporary home did a good job of protecting them from the elements when temperatures dropped into the teens for a couple of nights, and I slept better knowing my girls were safe and warm, even if they weren’t very happy with me.

Emily

ronsolitaire.jpg

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:

henhouse2.jpg

(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.

henhouse1.jpg

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:

henhouse3.jpg

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

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.

The days grow shorter, but in the past 31 days the solar array has generated 158.5 kilowatt hours of electricity. That’s 5.11 KWH per day, which is about equal to the previous month.

That’s all attributable to good weather. It’s been remarkably sunny and pleasant, with almost no rain at all. At one point, during a three-week period, we used just 24 KWH from the electric company. Nearly 90 percent of our electricity came from the sun.

And, yes, the new electric meter is still going backwards on clear days.