Archive for March, 2009

Oregon Inspirations

I have always had a travel bug and I have always been attached to the school rhythm schedule – long summer break, short fall break, relaxing Christmas break, cabin fever spring break.  We almost always went to Florida over spring break and somewhere along the line I started imagining an orange-blossom scent floating on the Indiana breeze every March, summoning me to warmer climates…

This year I was ready for a break but decided to focus on visiting old friends and inspiring places so I headed out to the Pacific Northwest, abandoning Will and the dog.  It was a bit of a whirlwind trip – a day in Eugene, a day in Corvalis, two days in Portland, and two days in Seattle – but it was a wonderfully rejuvenating trip.

Mostly I was traveling to to catch up with old friends and revisit some old stomping grounds (including McCredie Hot Spring – ahhhhh).  Partly I was there to attend a Farm to Cafeteria Conference, which was very cool except that it made me realize how much work there is still to do regarding local/healthy food.  And lastly I was there to soak up the progressive ambiance.

Bloomington is pretty darn progressive, especially for the Midwest, but it just can’t compare with Portland or even Eugene for cool, green, hippie stuff.  I was able to jaunt around car-free using trains, buses, light rail, and trolleys with bicyclists zooming by at every opportunity.  (There were several bicycle rickshaws around but I couldn’t quite bring myself to hire someone to pedal my sorry butt around.)  There was organic vegetarian food everywhere.  The level of consciousness just seemed incredibly high!

Sometimes people ask me why I don’t relocate out west and the only thing I can respond is that I’m very attached to my home state.  Indiana sure isn’t perfect (no hot springs!) but it’s home to me.  I love the flora and landscape around Bloomington and I love being surrounded by my extended family.  So I content myself with dreaming up ways to bring more of the northwest home.

I picked up a few green living directories in Oregon and am debating how they might work in Bloomington.  Portland has a very cool “ReDirect Guide” that I initially thought was a guide to recycling but it ended up being a sort of yellow pages for green living, totalling 322 pages.  Eugene has a more modest 144-page version called the “Natural Choice Directory.”  They both use a pretty broad definition of sustainable living that includes everything from soy-based insulation to electric cars to holistic health care to bicycle shops. All of it is totally awesome stuff and yet I’m not sure I could fill more than 30 pages of Bloomington content.

Still, maybe it’s worth it just to have it all in one place?  Or maybe I published it with some blank spaces for things like “Electric Car Rental” and “Bionic Hydrotherapy” then eventually my fellow Bloomingtonians would fill in all the gaps?

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Laptop Power

Kill-A-WattIt’s been a crazy day. I was up at four this morning to take Maggie and our friend Lindsey to the airport for their separate flights to the same place (Portland). We had some very interesting conversations, including some talk about investing sustainably that I hope to talk about when I’m more conscious.

Instead, let’s talk about something that I can explain even while brain-dead: the Kill-A-Watt (it’s pretty cheap right now on Amazon). Maggie’s parents gave one to me for Christmas and I’ve played with it several times since.

It resets when you unplug it, so it can sometimes be inconvenient to read when, say, you have it plugged in behind the refrigerator. Nevertheless, it’s fun and enlightening to see how much electricity things around the house actually use. I generally think about everything in terms of how long I could power a CFL (or how many CFLs I could power) for the same amount.

My first sample was my laptop. The power supply can draw 120 Watts (about ten CFLs), so I always assumed that was about how much it drew. It turns out that I was way off. Even though it has a big screen and uses WiFi constantly, my laptop only draws about 35 Watts (three CFLs) while in use or about twice that when charging and being used. While in “sleep” mode, it uses somewhere between 0 and 1 Watts, which is amazing.

My netbook uses even less electricity, which goes some way towards explaining the battery life. Running the netbook draws 15 Watts, which is about the same as a CFL. So far, though, Maggie has vetoed my plan to replace all of our light fixtures with netbooks. From reading the specs, the CPU uses 2.5-3 Watts, so most of that power is going to the backlight (which you can turn off while leaving the screen on, although it’s totally unreadable). It just goes to show how efficient LEDs are.

We’re currently using the Kill-A-Watt to determine whether we should keep our current fridge or swap it for the old one that Maggie’s parents have. It’s plugged in and running at their place right now, but we’ve already gotten the results on our current model. It uses about 950 Watts (about 73 CFLs) while not running the cooling pump and even more when actively cooling. It used 28kW over a typical period of 382 hours (a little over two weeks). That averages out to about 1.75 kWh per day. That certainly makes it hard to hit my 3 kWh a day target but it’s slightly better than my 2 kWh per day estimate.

Unfortunately, we can’t use the Kill-A-Watt to measure some of our biggest energy users (the dryer and the water heater) because it won’t work on 220-volt outlets. I’m hopeful that eventually we’ll have measured all of the other important stuff so that we can just subtract them out and get better estimates for them as well.

Once we’re done with the refrigerator, my plan is to check my TV and stereo to see how much phantom power they actually draw. We have them on power strips because we’ve heard a lot about the waste of phantom power, but I don’t know how much of a concern it actually is.

What about you? Is there anything you’re interested in hearing about now that I have the means to measure energy consumption?

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Solar panel fancier

//, spring. The weather is warming up, the sun is shining, and a young man’s fancy turns to solar panels. Well, perhaps not all young men, but now that the weather is nice, the Evergreen development just south of us has been finishing up their solar installations. It doesn’t take much to get me to look at solar panels again. They look cool, they’re pretty green, and they’re basically magic, which is all appealing.

Figuring out how big a solar panel you need for a given project can be complicated, though. Just because a panel is rated for 15 Watts doesn’t mean that you’ll get 15 Watts out of it continuously. I’ll take you through the steps to discover what you’ll actually need.

First, you’ll need to use something like a Kill-A-Watt (cheap right now at about $22) to figure out how many kWh your device uses over the course of a day. For example, my cell phone charger uses 0.5 Watts over a period of 6 hours for a total of 3 Wh (Watt-hours) per day of use. However, I only use it about once a week, so the overall use is 0.43 Wh per day. My laptop uses 15 Watts while it’s on and I use it for about 8 hours a day. This adds up to 120 Wh a day.

Next, use an insolation map to figure out how much sunlight you’ll get in an average day. If you’re worried about a minimum value (like if you were planning to go totally off the grid), then you’ll want to find a winter map so that you’ll know that you should always get that much sun. This map shows how many “sunlight-hours” you get during the day. Each sunlight-hour is equivalent to one hour of direct sunlight. For example, here in central Indiana, we get about 10 hours of sunlight a day. However, much of it is at an angle so this is the equivalent of 4.3 sunlight-hours. These numbers assume that your solar panel isn’t shaded and is angled according to your latitude. If that’s not true, you’ll have to adjust this number down.

Using your insolation number, you can figure out what you’ll need as a Watt rating for your device. My cell phone charger needs 0.43 Wh per day. I get 4.3 sunlight-hours per day, so I need a solar panel with a Watt rating of 0.01. My laptop, on the other hand, needs 120 Watts per day, so its minimum requirement is 28 Watts.

Now you can start looking for solar panels. You can often find lists organized by Watt, which makes it easier. Depending on your needs, you may want to build in a safety factor. For example, if I don’t want to have to worry about my laptop running out of batteries after a couple of rainy days, I might want to get a panel rated for more like 40 or 50 Watts. In my case, I’m not going totally off-grid (like I would if I were hiking, for example), so it wouldn’t bother me to have to plug stuff back in under that sort of circumstance.

A 1-Watt panel runs about $30, so a full kit with battery and inverter would probably cost about $100. That would be enough to charge both my cell phone and Maggie’s. That only replaces about 13 cents’ worth of electricity, so the payback is on the order of 750 years, but it’s a reasonably affordable way to play around with solar. A 30-Watt panel and inverter runs about $400 and would allow me to run my laptop off-grid. That has a much more reasonable payoff of about 100 years.

Obviously, solar panels at this scale are never going to pay for themselves. However, the convience, greenness, or just plain coolness might make them worth it for you.

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I Need a Junkman

Junkpile picture from -johnnybergSpring is finally here and I’m feeling an urge to do some major spring cleaning.  We haven’t been in this house for very long (seven months) and yet somehow we’ve done a pretty good job filling it up.  Well, maybe it’s not full but it’s feeling a bit cluttered.  Part of the problem is that I’m a packrat.  Part of the problem is that Will has a boxes stored in the living room until he figures out exactly how he wants his office set up.  (My boxes are hidden in closets.)

And part of the problem is that we have a lot of stuff we’re not quite sure how to get rid of.  Some of it we could donate to Goodwill or the Habitat for Humanity ReStore but some of it seems like junk that nobody wants.  Used carpet backing?  Old carpeting?  Old wood paneling?  Pieces of broken ceiling trim?  Scraps of treated lumber?  A gigantic tarp that used to cover our carport until it collapsed in the snow?  Old laptop computers that sorta work?

A lot of this stuff seems like it might be useful some day so I feel bad throwing it away.  Some of it probably ought to be thrown away but I can’t find a good way to transport it to the dump.  Then there’s some stuff that seems like it could be useful to someone with the skills to fix it up but I’m clearly not that person.

So I need a junkman.  I really love the image of the gypsy tinker who goes from house to house mending pots and collecting old scraps to build new toys and tools.  Unfortunately, I think the position has become obsolete in this world of throwaway design and cheap replacements, although some of the peak oil planners will tell you that tinkerers are about to be in high demand.  Still, I’d settle for the junkman service in Denver where a group of strapping young men will come to your house and haul away your junk for a fee.  They do their best to salvage and recycle what they can from your pile.   It sounds like a pretty cool business and I wonder if a similar business could be successful here.  Alas, I don’t think I’m the one to run it, but maybe I’ll get motivated next weekend and at least take a load of stuff to the ReStore.

Of course, the danger there is that I’ll find some awesome building materials to buy and bring home.  Oh, the vicious cycle.

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Shoemaking 102: Making Lasts

Maggie with STS sockWe really enjoyed making shoes on our honeymoon but we also enjoyed acquiring the skills and some of the tools it takes to be a shoemaker.  Glen helped us each make a pair of shoes and a pair of lasts.  Lasts are basically molds of your feet.  They are used in what is called the “lasting” process where the shoemaker forms the top of the shoe and attaches it to the sole.  It’s totally possible to do this process directly on the wearer’s feet but that means the person has to be there for several fittings and adjustments.

Commercial shoemakers have a selection of generic lasts that they use when making shoes.  So you could go out and buy a pair of Women’s Size 8 lasts if you wanted to make Women’s Size 8 shoes.  (There used to be a bunch available at American Science & Surplus but they seem to have disappeared.  I’m sure there are some on eBay.)

Maggie preparing for last-makingOf course, every pair of feet is a little different.  Commercial shoemakers try to accommodate by using a variety of lasts so they might have size 8, size 8.5, size 8 wide, size 8 narrow, etc.  Still, there are a lot of feet in the world that don’t fit in any of the standard sizes, or at least not terribly well.

Glen’s favorite clients are people with exceptionally unusual feet.  Often they have suffered from burns or severe circulation problems that cause their feet to take on extremely unusual shapes.  He loves helping them find a way to walk comfortably and one of his key tools is making lasts of their feet.  The advantage of using lasts is that the shoemaker can tinker around with the design and adjust as needed without having the client come back repeatedly for fittings.  They are also really handy for folks who want to make shoes for themselves; it’s a bit awkward to bend down and fit a shoe to your own foot.

Maggie foot formsGlen says he’s still searching for the perfect method of making a custom last but is pretty happy with his current method.   He uses STS casting socks, which were designed for making shoe lasts. Step number one is to tape a plastic straw and a metal band to the front of the foot.  (You’ll see why in a minute.)  Step number two is to cover the foot in a plastic bag.  Step number three is to pull on the fancy STS sock.  It has some sort of magical chemical in it that when you get it wet and rub it, it solidifies.  Pretty crazy feeling, let me tell you.

Once it’s nice and solid, you pull out the plastic straw and then slit the sock (the metal band is there to protect your foot) so you can step out of the mold.  Glen had us trim off the tops of our molds because we don’t really need to know what our feet are like above the high-top level.  (He was running low on socks so Will got to use sexy knee-highs that reminded him of his soccer days.)

filling forms with plasterI guess you could theoretically stop here and have a hollow model of your foot but Glen’s technique is to tape each mold shut (yay for duct tape!) and then fill it with plaster to create a solid mold.  After the plaster dried, he spent a little time cleaning them up by removing the tape and sanding them down to make him smoother.  He also cut them in half.  Can you guess why?

The big difference between a plaster mold of your foot and your actual foot is that a plaster mold doesn’t bend at the ankle.  The way you get around this is to cut the mold diagonally from the top front of the ankle to the back bottom of the heel.  Put both pieces in a piece of pantyhose to keep them together and then you can slide the toe piece into the shoe and place the ankle piece in second when you are testing the fit of a finished shoe.

Pretty cool, huh?  I think I need to make some more shoes…

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Cap and trade

It’s been a crazy week, so when I sat down to write tonight I had no idea what my topic would be. Luckily, I procrastinated (I mean… researched) by reading a couple of posts arduous wrote recently. The first is a short description of why cap and trade systems aren’t a good solution to global warming. The other is a longer discussion that came out of the comments on the first article.

The gist of it is that arduous doesn’t like cap & trade. I do (and not just because it sounds like the dread pirate Cap’n Trade), so I thought I’d run through and see where we differ.

For those who aren’t aware, a cap and trade system is designed to produce an economic incentive to reduce pollution. In this case, we’re talking specifically about CO2, which is covered by the Kyoto Protocol, but it could be anything. The government steps in and sets a limit (the “cap”) on production of CO2. To produce CO2, you have to buy an equivalent amount of credits, either from the government or from other businesses. If your production of pollution increases, you’ll have to buy more credits. On the other hand, if your production decreases, you can sell your extra credits (and there’s the “trade”). Over time, credits drop out of the system. Either the government just doesn’t produce as much or non-profits buy and retire credits. This drives the price up and makes it more expensive to pollute, so companies find cheap ways to reduce pollution.

That’s the theory, anyway. Not everyone thinks that’s how it plays out in the real world. Arduous is one, obviously, but she’s not alone. The major criticisms I see of cap & trade are either about how the system fails to work in practice or how it is a fundamentally flawed approach.

The practical criticisms are easier to answer, since they can be fixed by adjusting the particulars of the cap & trade system. For example, arduous repeats an argument from Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre. In this view, when a company in the EU needs to get carbon credits, it buys clean energy to replace a dirty generator in a town in India (so far, so good). But then, that town sells its generator to a different city, which starts producing just as much pollution. Net effect: zero.

But wait! Sure, the net effect on carbon emissions is zero, but there are some interesting secondary effects. For one thing, we now have two towns in India with electricity with no increase in pollution, which means that pollution per unit energy is down. That’s not a big deal unless you think that India’s demand for energy is going to increase. In that case, we haven’t produced demand (since it was there anyway), we just managed to keep our second town from buying a new dirty generator. That sounds pretty good. An even better secondary effect is that these solar panels were paid for by a polluting company. This makes pollution expensive! If every time you pollute, you have to pay for someone else’s solar panels, you’ll try your best to  pollute less.

Maggie has also pointed out to me that this has a third side effect of increasing demand for renewable energy sources. This investment in clean technology can be even more direct in cap & trade schemes where you buy your credits from the government. For example, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative has raised over $70 million by auctioning off carbon credits. All of this money goes to fund technologies that reduce greenhouse gases. If you’re interested in cap & trade, you’ll definitely want to look at the RGGI. They only started auctioning off credits a year ago, so it’s too soon to tell if they’ve been successful. Their third action is this month, so keep an eye on it!

The other big argument against cap & trade is ideological. In this view, we’re going about carbon reduction all backwards. Instead of using economic incentives to create social change, we should create social change and the economic incentives will follow.

As an optimist, my main response to that is, “let’s do both!” Even assuming that they’re exclusive, I still think that cap & trade may be the way to go. We’ve had some success with cap & trade systems in the past. The Clear Air Act set up a cap & trade system that got rid of the acid rain problem quickly and cheaply. Greenhouse gases are harder because it’s a more abstract problem (“global temperatures might increase” vs “you can’t go outside today”), but the principle is the same.

To me, the great thing about creating an economic incentive to reduce pollution is that it makes obvious the costs already in the system. As arduous says in her second post, people understand when it affects their checkbook directly. Unfortunately, as my mom wrote to me in an email recently, it’s really hard to figure out what the overall effects of your choices are. There are even people who argue that solar panels are worse for the environment than a coal power plant because of the environmental cost of mining and producing its components!

With a cap & trade system, something with zero measured value (our current climate) is given a value that will start to show up in all products. If my shoe plant produces twice as much carbon as yours, then my shoes are going to cost more because I’ll have to pay you for some carbon offsets. Suddenly, consumers can see in a direct way (price) how much something is going to affect the environment. Even better, the most environmental thing you can do in that case is also the cheapest!

Okay, this is still reasonably abstract. Maybe it’s even too abstract for most people. Maybe people will just be mad that their favorite brand of sneakers suddenly cost $5 more a pair. Unfortunately, I don’t think those people are reachable. They value their SUV more than they value the lowlands in Bangladesh. Local, organic bananas might taste better than those from halfway across the world, but they’d rather have a Big Mac anyway.

I don’t think we can afford to wait on this until we can convince those people that they really should care about Bangladesh and local food. Instead, we need to make our environmental costs into their economic costs. Then they can help the environment doing what they like best: buying stuff for cheap.

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Urban Maple Syrup

Our maple with two taps in itI don’t know if our location should really be considered “urban” but our sugaring operation is a far cry from when I worked at Fair Oaks Farm a couple years ago.  We have four pretty large sugar maples in our back yard so we could probably produce a reasonable amount of syrup but it still won’t compare with tapping sixty trees and pumping the sap up to a continually operating evaporator pan.

Tapping trees is pretty easy to do.  I was a little concerned we wouldn’t be able to find stiles (taps) easily but luckily our town has an awesome local hardware store called Kleindorfer’s and they have everything you could possibly imagine (and a bunch of other stuff).  My dad lent us his cordless drill and a 5/16″ drill bit and we went to work.  Our maple trees are large enough that we could have put in 3-4 taps per tree but I could only scrounge up two containers so we just put in two taps.  First I drilled the hole, then pounded in the stile, then hung the sap collection container (e.g. empty juice jug).

A maple tap in our treeOf course, collecting the sap is only the first part.  It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.  The general method is to boil the sap to concentrate it into syrup, although if it stays cold enough I might try the alternate method of freezing it and letting it thaw (the sugariest part thaws first and you can then remove the watery ice).  If it comes down to boiling, I plan to use the crock pot outside with the lid off.  (I have a friend who accidentally stripped all the wallpaper off her kitchen walls from generating 30 gallons of maple steam.)

If we’d been really good we probably would have set the taps a couple weeks ago.  The sap was flowing as we drilled the holes, which was exciting but definitely a sign that we got a late start.  I’m hoping we can make about a half gallon of syrup from our two taps, which would be plenty to last us for the year.  We might also try to make some maple soda from unrefined sap as another fun home project.  We’ll keep you posted.

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