Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Thinking Alternative Energy

I've been thinking about solar energy lately. I'm giving serious consideration to putting a small photovoltaic panel on the roof of the house. I don't have any plans to power the whole household or sell power to the electric company. I just want to get a little experience with what I believe will be an increasingly important part of our lives as we move into the 21st century.

I started off thinking about collecting enough solar energy to do something simple like charging cell phones during a power outage. Then, I started thinking about what else could be powered in an emergency situation, and I started thinking about the house phones and heating system. (All the news about blackouts in Houston after the hurricane make such daydreams seem more practical.)

Our phone service now comes through the cable service and this requires a cable modem. It has a battery backup, but I'm not sure how long that would last. We mostly use portable phones, but these won't work without power. We still have one hard-wired phone that we almost never use but it comes in handy when the power goes out. Our heating system is gas-fired steam, but it has electric controls, so if we lose electricity, we freeze.

Okay, but I don't want to invest several hundred bucks just to sit around waiting for the power to go out, so I started wondering what I could power with my solar system on a regular basis. Since my steam boiler and cable modem are in the basement, I'd have to deliver my solar-derived electricity down there from the roof. My little home office is down there, too, so I started wondering how much power I would need to power my desktop computer. I figured if I could power that, I could satisfy my other emergency needs if we have a blackout.

Now, I needed a way to estimate how much power that might be. Thanks to high school hiking buddy Chris, I ordered a P3 International Kill A Watt Electricity Usage Monitor. This is a cool little device that costs less than 20 bucks that measures electricity use. It arrived today and I've just started checking various devices around the house to see how many watts they use.

Here are some examples:

Charging Cell Phone: 4 watts.
TV/Cable Box/VCR: When on, 100 watts. When off (!) 26 watts.
Old Clock Radio: 1 watt low volume, 2 watts loud. (Surprisingly low.)
Desktop Computer and Monitor (Old CRT type.): 130 watts. (I thought it would be higher.)

Thanks to the miracle of YouTube, I found a bunch of videos of homebrew solar systems. So far, it looks like I'll need a panel on the roof, a solar charge controller, a deep-cycle marine battery and a DC-to-AC power inverter. Now, I need to fine-tune the power ratings for the various components and start learning about prices and availability of these parts. Stay tuned.

I'd love to hear from readers who have dabbled in solar power!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

From the Ironic Foot-In-Mouth Department

I was on a bicycle ride with one of the large regional bike clubs today. This is an annual event (The Flattest Century in the East) that attracts hundreds of riders to routes ranging from 25 to 100 miles through beautiful countryside in southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island.

A small group of us from our local club rode together (We did a 68-mile route.) including three tandems (Bicycles built for two.). Someone asked if my wife and I ever rode a tandem (My wife is an excellent cyclist.), and I said: "No, she can't even let me drive the car without constant comment , I can only imagine how she'd be on the back of a tandem. Maybe it would work if I rode in back because I'm better at biting my tongue." (Hey, I'm a pretty good driver, but then, I guess I'd be the last to know.)

We then had a discussion about how it's almost always the male partner that's the pilot (Rides up front and does the steering, braking and shifting.) while the female half of the team is the stoker (Rides in back and mostly just pedals, but can also ride hands-free to help with maps, cell phones, etc.). Just then, we passed a tandem that did, indeed, have a woman as pilot, and as we went by, I yelled out "Hey, there's a woman on the front!"

Later in the day after we finished riding and were enjoying a little tailgate party, my riding buddy that pilots the bike he and his wife share looked out over the parking lot where other riders were streaming in. He said, "You know that guy that was on the back of that tandem? He's blind."

Monday, September 1, 2008

Mower Update

My good friend and most loyal blog reader Wayne saw my post about the crummy push mower I gave up on and gave me one of his to try. (Thanks, Wayne!) This is an American (brand name) mower and it seems to work much better than the imported toy I threw away. This one is heavier, wider and has larger diameter wheels. The reel and cutting bar seem much more solid.

I used it for the first time today and, while not as clean-cutting as my power rotary mower, it does a pretty good job. This time of year, when it's warm and dry, the lawn doesn't grow much and tends to get spotty as different weeds respond differently to the weather and the lawn grasses slow in growth. So, even the most effective mower won't make the lawn look great. I'm finding these manual mowers have a tendency to push some grass blades over without cutting them, leaving an unsightly stubble that make the effort feel a little futile. Also, since I'm low on the learning curve, I don't know how sharp or dull this used mower is. A quick search on the web yielded a couple of sites that provide instructions on how to sharpen a manual reel mower. It seems fairly easy to do, so I'll give it a shot, probably before next mowing season.

This exploration of alternative lawn care may be suffering from artificially elevated expectations. Decades of high-input industrial lawn care has altered our view about what a lawn should look like. Thanks to advertising and social pressure, we all have come desire lawns that look like the Fenway Park outfield. Maybe even the best I can hope for with a push mower, no watering and minimal chemical inputs will look a little ragged. Maybe I should just fence in the yard and get a goat.