Now We’re Cooking With the Sun

solar_ovenA friend gave me her solar cooker last year because she lives in a shady neighborhood and it just wasn’t working for her.  I was very excited to receive it but had trouble getting motivated to use it until I picked up a book at the library this spring.   “Cooking with Sunshine” by Lorraine Anderson and Rick Palkovic has a great selection of recipes and tips but also talks about different options for when you have more or less time available.  They have some recipes that cook entirely in the cooker and others where you either do some cooking ahead of time (such as sauteing onions) or some cooking afterward (such as converting cooked rice into a rice salad).  They also talk about what foods you can leave in the solar cooker all day without worrying about burning or drying out.  I don’t want to admit how many times I have scorched rice or beans by leaving it on the stove for too long so I was very relieved to learn that wouldn’t be an issue with the solar cooker.

It also took awhile for me to grasp the idea that even if I only use the solar cooker for part of a meal (say cooking a pot of beans which I then incorporate into burritos or chili) I am still reducing my carbon footprint and taking advantage of free, clean energy.  Somehow I got caught up in the idea that if I were going to go solar I had to go all the way and the world would come crashing down if clouds rolled in and I had to put my beans in the oven to finish cooking them.  Silly but true.

solar_oven_condensationAnyway, now I’m starting to get into the solar cooking routine although I’m still learning the ins and outs; we had some rather crunchy baked beans last week that hadn’t cooked quite long enough – although the flavor was excellent!  I’m also on the hunt for the perfect solar cooker dish.  Ideally, it would be an oven-safe dark colored pyrex or ceramic dish with a tight-fitting lid.  Right now I’m using a white casserole dish with a clear lid and covering it with a blue cloth to try and soak up some extra heat.  It works pretty well but the lid isn’t quite tight enough to keep in steam and so the top panel often gets covered in condensation, which reduces the amount of sunlight reaching the food.  It’s a common challenge for solar cooking and one solution is to vent the lid slightly but that also reduces cooking efficiency.  I have seen a lot of variations of solar cookers and it would be pretty easy to build your own.  This one is a little bulky but it’s well constructed with a moveable set of reflectors, a plexiglass lid on a rubber lip, and a shelf inside to keep the pot off the bottom of the oven.


I set the solar cooker up on our front porch (which is south-facing) and let it cook from about 10:00 to 4:00.  If I’m home, I’ll turn it a couple of times during the day so that the reflectors capture as much sun as possible but if I’m going to be gone, I just leave it pointing as close to due south as practical.  On a sunny day, the oven quickly heats up to 250 degrees.  On a cloudy day, it tends to hover at more like 150.  So far I’ve been sticking with grains and beans but I’d like to try some bread recipes and maybe a quiche.  I was surprised to see that egg dishes are considered fairly easy for the solar cooker but the reasoning is that they cook pretty quickly so you don’t have to have a perfectly sunny day.  I am also contemplating using the solar cooker to sterilize some potting soil for my next round of seedlings.

Have any solar recipes or tips to share?

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Let There Be (Sun)Light!

Maggie with hole in ceilingWell, approximately one year after we purchased an ODL solar tube from the Home Depot, we have finally installed it in our kitchen!!  So far we love it and are even contemplating installing a second one, although Will’s a little concerned that it might reduce our energy efficiency a bit since it’s a little less insulative than an intact ceiling with a thick layer of insulation.

The installation was surprisingly easy with two exceptions:

1. Short attics with fiberglass insulation are not fun to work in.

2. There were two pieces of pipe and we managed to swap them, meaning we were almost done and then had to go back to the beginning so it would all fit.  Aargh!

The first step was to stand in the kitchen, think about where we wanted to put in the solar tube, and drill a hole in that spot through to the attic.  I threaded a coat hanger up through the hole and then took the dreaded step of crawling around in the attic looking for it.  (It is surprisingly easy to get disoriented in a small space filled with insulation.)  Once I found the coat hanger, I figured out where the true center point of the solar tube would go (centered between the roof joists) and drilled one nail down through the ceiling and one nail up through the roof.

Maggie caulksNext came the fun but mildly intimidating step of drilling a hole in the roof!  We rented a “Sawzall” reciprocating saw for the job since it didn’t seem like a piece of equipment we really needed to own.  I am mildly afraid of heights but I do love power tools so I had a good time cutting out a big chunk o’ roof.  Happily, the solar tube is designed in a way that the hole does not need to be perfectly circular (it wasn’t) since it comes with a rubber “boot” that fits over the hole, under the neighboring shingles.  Once we had the hole cut, we pried up the shingles around it, put some roof sealant on the rubber boot, and slid it into place.

Solar Tube PipeSomehow we didn’t get any pictures of us sliding the actual metal tube into place, probably because I kept blinding Will with it.  The solar tube is comprised of two very shiny metal tubes and a clear plastic dome.  Sun shines down on the dome and then bounces down through the tubes to our kitchen, where a frosted plastic light fixture lets the light shine through without blinding anyone.

We slid one pipe down from the roof and then attached the dome on top.  Then I headed down into the kitchen with a keyhole saw (not powered this time) to cut a hole in the ceiling.   (The picture at the top of the post is my very ragged hole before we put in the light fixture piece.) Once I was thoroughly covered with drywall plaster I headed back up into the attic to put in the final metal tube.  This was the part of the process that was very difficult, largely because there was not very much room in the attic.  I’ve never been super handy with tin snips (picture giant deadly scissors) but it was particularly challenging to cut the metal tubes to size while lying on my back across three attic rafters.  The idea is to have one tube coming down from the roof and one coming up from the ceiling with about an inch of overlap.  Alas, I realized that I had the tubes swapped and the one I was trying to fit neatly into the ceiling fixture just wasn’t going to work.

Maggie installs domeSo, back up to the roof to remove the dome, swap the tubes, then Will stayed on the roof while I went into the attic and it was much easier to get the tubes together.  He pulled the top tube up while I put the correct bottom tube into place in the ceiling fixture, and then he pushed the top tube down, helping me wrestle the two tubes together and then tape them with the shiny metal tape enclosed in our original kit.  Whew!  I totally used some muscles I didn’t know I had but I would willingly do it again and I know it would go faster the second time.

Will it lower our energy bills?  I hope so, although lighting for one room is not that huge of an electrical draw.  We’ve also entered that charming time of year called Daylight Savings so the solar tube really only helps out at lunch time.   (Oh, I miss the days when Indiana ignored Daylight Savings!)   Still, increasing daylight inside the house is one of the best uses of solar “energy” even if photvoltaics are more sexy.  Having a solar tube makes the kitchen feel a *LOT* brighter so we’re definitely calling it a success.  And it was a great weekend project for improving my confidence in making minor home repairs.

Check out the before and after pictures!  (They’re a bit overly dramatic but the solar tube really does make a big difference.)

Kitchen Before Solar Tube

Kitchen After ODL Solar Light Tube

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Autumn Means Back to Blogging

Saffron Eating Peanut ButterI can feel autumn in the air.  We had an unusually cool summer and didn’t end up doing much of the usual summer swimming and popsicle eating but now the city is bustling with students on their way back to school.  I feel the urge to stock up on school supplies, despite having graduated from college nearly a decade ago.

Will and I intend to use that going-back-to-school energy to wrap up a couple green living projects this fall before winter sets in.  Our top priority is the roof.  It could probably last another year but we want to replace it with a metal roof, add a bunch of attic insulation, and finally install the solartube we purchased months ago to add light to our kitchen.  We’d also like to build a passive solar air heater and get it installed but that one we’d have to do ourselves, which feels a bit more challenging.  Despite having completed a few construction projects around the house, I still feel like my carpentry skills are limited and am nervous about putting holes through our wall…

The project I’m most excited about is adding in some more edible landscaping features.  We finally created a reasonably accurate map of the yard (look for a post next week) so we can figure out where new plantings can be added.  Our friends at Brambleberry Farm have a number of fruit trees and bushes that they suggest we could plant this fall to get a head start for next year.  I’m also contemplating putting in a mediation labyrinth of flower bulbs but that one might have to wait until next year.

And, of course, we also intend to return to our regular twice weekly blogging schedule.  Sometimes posting to the blog can seem like one more chore to deal with but it’s also a great way for us to constantly evaluate our progress and keep living well.  We’ve done a lot since we started this blog, including some big life steps like getting married, buying a house, and adopting a dog.  It’s exciting to find new ways of greening our lives and enjoying the simple pleasures of life.  Blogging is just one little way to share our stories and to motivate ourselves to keep improving.

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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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Solar Homes of Evergreen Village

Evergreen solar housesI think we may have mentioned before that we live near a neighborhood of solar homes that was developed by the City of Bloomington Housing and Neighborhood Department (HAND).  It’s called Evergreen Village and it’s a cute little development of energy efficient homes planted with rain gardens and equipped with photovoltaic solar panels (which I believe were donated by Duke Energy).  We considered buying one when we were looking for a house but decided they were too expensive.  It’s a little odd; they’re designed to be affordable housing and yet they’re priced around $120,000-$150,000.  We’ve been wondering how that’s supposed to work.

Well, as I was walking the dog today (they have a nice walking trail) I saw a “for sale” sign and decided to call the realtor.  She was very nice and explained the whole program to me.  It’s actually pretty cool.  Fist of all, if you want to buy one of the houses, you have to meet their income guidelines, which means you can’t make more than a certain amount of money.  For a couple, your combined income can’t be more than $39,100 which means Will and I would definitely qualify.  You have to take a homebuyer class through the HAND department that basically talks about how mortgages work, expectations for upkeep of your house when you live in the city, and maybe some basic home maintenance stuff.  You also have to take a special class about how to care for your solar panels, how to maximize the energy efficiency of the homes, and how to care for your native landscaping rain garden.

Then you go to the lender of your choice and apply for a loan.  Here’s where it gets interesting.  Lets say the house you’re looking at is $130,000 but the bank says they will only lend you $100,000.  The city has a special loan/grant fund to help make up the difference so if you qualify (I’m not sure exactly what the guidelines are here), they will give you the extra $30,000 to buy the house.  If you keep the house for a certain amount of time, lets say ten years, the loan from the city is forgiven.  But if you sell it after a couple of years, you have to pay back the loan, I think with interest.

When we first started considering these houses, I thought it was a little surprising that all the appliances are electric (water heater, furnace, oven).  I’ve always heard terrible things about how inefficient electric furnaces and water heaters can be.  However, I’ve read a lot of studies about how people who want to switch to solar power end up dramatically increasing the efficiency of their homes before they put on any panels because once you start trying to figure out how to make it work with solar, you realize it’s all about insulation and passive solar heating.  So even though it’s unlikely that the homes can really heat themselves year-round using PV solar panels, I’m sure they’re way better than your average home, even if it uses a gas furnace.

The ultimate goal for Evergreen Village is to help low-income families invest in really cool efficient homes for the long term and I hope the program will be really successful.  It looks like only about half the houses are currently inhabited but they were constructing the last phase (about a third) all through 2008 so it sounds like the city is just getting started selling the latest group of houses.  It’s also a crappy time of year to move so we’re figuring maybe in the spring we’ll have some new neighbors.

In the meantime, we’ll keep admiring the solar panels as we walk by.

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A solar epiphany

Energy Smarts article coverLooks like we spoke too soon. Financing is taking longer than expected, so we probably won’t close for another two weeks.

In the meantime, I’m reading up on electrical work and solar panels. Electricity is so cheap in Indiana that it’s hard to justify the expense of solar panels, especially given the other things we could be spending money on (like an electric scooter or a metal roof). There also aren’t any local subsidies for photovoltaics, although the federal subsidy is nice.

I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that it’ll be best for us to start small and work our way up. Maybe put some solar panels on the garage to run the lights and stuff there. Of course, even that’ll need a pricey connection to the grid or an equally pricey battery system. If we do eventually get an electric scooter, it might be worth it to set up a solar system to charge that, since we’ll already have the batteries.

Even so, I still like to read about whole-house solar conversions. That particular article, about a couple in Vancouver who set up a whole-house system, was interesting and even inspirational! It lays out the steps they took and the cost of all of the components (in Canadian and US dollars). Their overall cost was about $10,000 (US), which seemed low compared to the systems I’ve priced before.

After getting curious and reading the article, rather than skimming the tables and pictures, I realized that it’s because getting solar panels wasn’t their first step. The first thing they did was to reduce their electrical usage to 3kW/day. That’s a little less than 1100kW a YEAR. At our electric prices, that would be about $80 a year. We spend more than that per month!

Okay, that’s not quite a fair comparison since our current place is heated by an electric furnace. Even in the summer, we spend about $60, which amounts to about 12kW/day. In addition to the energy saving techniques that we use (CFLs, air drying clothes, etc.), this couple replaced their old appliances. replacing those appliances reduced their electrical needs by 78%! If we could manage that kind of reduction, we’d be using less than 3kW a day as well.

While we’re still in the apartment, we can’t change appliances. It’s hard to know what to expect when we move into the house. Many of the appliances seem pretty old, so we might be able to cut our usage down to 3kW or less. On the other hand, it’s a lot more space to heat and cool and I’m not sure the ceilings are high enough to install ceiling fans.

In any case, I’ve decided to shift my focus from solar panels to efficient appliances. Reducing our consumption is a lot easier than trying to power it all with solar!

And I fully expect frequent commenter Andy to chip in with an I-told-you-so. He’s been saying the same thing for a while and it just hadn’t clicked for me. I may be slow, but I do get there in the end, Andy! 🙂

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Dreaming of Solar and other Green Home Additions

Yes, This is The House We WantRemember how we have been trying to buy a house? Well, it looks like we’ll be closing on our new (to us) home this Friday. It seems like every day our mortgage broker calls us with one last question.  For awhile, I couldn’t think about the house without getting stressed out but now I’m excited again. We have started whispering to each other at night about how glorious life will be as homeowners.

“We can have a real compost pile!”

“And a real garden. With perennials! Maybe even fruit trees!”

“We should totally get an Energy Star on-demand water heater.”

“Oh, and we should build a solar shower in the backyard!”

It’s a lot of fun although we’ve already had a few discouraging reality checks. The sellers had originally offered us $1000 so we could fix the roof on the garage (which is leaking) and so we started thinking about putting up a metal roof and collecting all the rainwater runoff. But then it turned out that the sellers felt like they might be short-changing us so they went ahead and replaced the roof… with more asphalt shingles. We can still collect the rooftop water and use it for irrigation; it just won’t be quite as pure and clean. Ah, well.

Our latest topic of discussion has been solar panels. Financially, it still doesn’t make much sense in this land of cheap electricity, but we love the idea of renewable energy. There is also a new group in town called the Southern Indiana Renewable Energy Network (SIREN) that is creating a cooperative dedicated to alternative energy. They are just getting started so the details are murky but the idea of having a group of people right here in Bloomington all working to create solar and wind and micro-hydro systems is totally awesome.

But first we have to get the house. Keep your fingers crossed on Friday at 9:00AM (ET).

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Solar Water Heating Lessons

Solar Water Heating bookI just got back from an 8-hour training in solar water heating offered through the Indiana Office of Energy and Defense.  My brain is a little oversaturated but it was a good course and I’m glad I went.  We even got a really cool book published by Mother Earth News!  Solar water heating is one of those technologies that makes infinite sense to me – capture the sun’s rays to heat our water?  Of course! – but I wanted to learn how they actually work.

The class was taught by a solar system installer from Wisconsin who is associated with the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, which is an awesome resource for sustainable living ideas in the Midwest.  They run a Renewable Energy Fair every year that covers a wide range of topics from constructing a windmill for water pumping to making window quilts to growing food organically.  There’s also a trade show featuring fascinating products like a whole range of hand-operated kitchen appliances and solar ovens that were developed to purify water in third world countries.  I’ve been twice and highly recommend it.

Anyway, in the solar water class we talked about several types of systems and their various benefits and drawbacks.   The  simple DIY version is a black 55-gallon drum enclosed in a glass box (to provide some insulation) mounted somewhere in your yard with good solar exposure.  You run pipes to carry water from your water supply through the drum (where it’s heated) and then back into your house (to your hot water tap).  It’s simple, it’s cheap, and it works pretty well during the summer.

One major drawback is that this system is very vulnerable to freezing so you really can’t use them during the fall, winter, or spring.  The solution is to set up what’s called a closed system.  Instead of running your water directly through the collector (the black drum), you run a propylene glycol solution outside to the collector and then back into the house where it goes through a heat exchanger (picture your car radiator) and transfers its heat to your potable water before returning to the collector. The gylcol solution will stay liquid to a temperature of negative thirty degrees so you can use it all winter long and take advantage of those clear, sunny, cold days.

I found the class very inspiring but I’m still put off by the cost of purchasing a professionally installed system – approximately $10,000 for a family of four.  The instructor ran some calculations showing that if electric rates keep increasing by 7% a year, the system will pay for itself within 20 years.  It’s true but 20 years seems like a long time.  So I’m rather tempted to try the drum-in-a-box version for awhile and see how that goes during the summer.  I also question their estimates on how much hot water people use on average.  20 gallons per person per day seems like a lot of hot water.  Granted, we wash our laundry using cold water and take short showers every 2-3 days so we’re definitely going to be below average but I figure we use less than a third of that.  Do you know how much hot water you use?  And how to measure it?  The book suggests that if you have a plug-in electric water heater you can use a kill-o-watt but ours is hardwired (and isn’t working very well right now anyway – I think it’s 75% full of lime) so I’m not sure what else to try.

There will be two more renewable energy classes this spring so I’m excited.  It’s not often the government throws education and books my way so I plan to take advantage of all of it.  Oh, and for those of you who are curious about the Indiana Department of Energy and Defense, my understanding is that someone somewhere figured out that one of the biggest weaknesses of Homeland Security is the fact that we’re highly dependent on foreign oil (I know you’re all shocked) so they decided to merge Energy with Defense.  I guess it kinda makes sense and if we can divert some tax money away from building bombers and towards building solar panels, I’m all about it.

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Why I don’t buy green power

Although the best way to live sustainably is to reduce consumption, that often requires sacrifices I’m not willing to make. A good second option is to make sure that the things I consume are as sustainable as possible. In the case of electricity, Duke Energy has a program called GoGreen that would allow us to purchase 100-kWh blocks of green power. The price isn’t totally unreasonable. It’s $2.50 per block, with a required purchase of $5. Since we always use more than 200-kWh a month, we could go totally green for about 25% more than we’re paying now. That’s not insignificant, but we could probably swing it.

Green plugSo why don’t I take the green option and take advantage of GoGreen? Because it’s not really that sustainable. The 100-kWh blocks that you buy don’t necessarily change the makeup of the electricity you receive. If it was 100% coal before, it’ll probably be 100% coal after. Instead, what you’re getting are renewable energy certificates (RECs).

Whenever a green energy source (wind, solar, some hydro, etc.) produces 1MWh of electricity, it is assigned one REC. These RECs are then sold on the open market, subsidizing part of the additional cost of green energy production (since the green source is also paid for the electricity generated).

To me, green energy means holds a lot more promise than just a reduction in CO2. Unlike other sources, things like wind and solar scale down (or, as I prefer it, scale personal) well, which makes it feasible to create electricity locally. Just as with food, there’s a meaningful cost to shipping energy. Paying people in other states to feed their sustainable sources into the grid is encouraging the wrong behavior.

I could pay Duke Energy $25 a month and make a small, indirect impact. Or, I can save that money and make a more direct impact by reducing my consumption of electricity off the grid. In the near future, I can get some small solar panels to power things like my digital camera and cell phone. Once I’ve saved some more, I can invest in more solar or perhaps in a small wind turbine.

This way, not only am I converting my non-sustainable energy requirements to sustainable sources, I’m directly funding the companies who are creating green energy sources. I’ll also be creating my own localized power, which means I’ll be less affected by blackouts and brownouts. Maybe sometime in the future, I won’t need those power lines at all.

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