Sunday, December 30, 2007


Love the word; not very fond of the state.

Whatever gremlins have been plaguing us have not left yet- on Christmas Eve, as I was scrubbing the Smidgen-prints off my glasses - the glasses frame just snapped in two.

Ah, joy.  I've been wearing glasses since 3rd grade.  And for 10 years or so, they've been bifocals.  This was my only pair of bifocals...

So now I'm wearing a 20 year old pair- single lenses, prescription a little weird.  I cannot read with them; or work at the computer; good only for distance.  Getting a new pair over the holidays was not going to work out-

It's amazing how big the effect is- one more thing to think about; one more roadblock to just getting stuff done.  My available brain RAM is already near capacity- now a chunk of it has to be used to monitor my eyesight constantly...  kind of like I was riding my bicycle, and somebody shoved a broomstick into the spokes...

Not like I really NEEDED this little nudge from the universe "Dear Sir; Regarding your pending mortality..."  yes, yes, I was already aware, thank you very much.

Hated the bifocals when I first got them, of course- no matter which way I turned, I couldn't see- couldn't see my feet when walking anymore- couldn't read the instruments on the car dashboard without wriggling; but of course I did adapt, and they became second nature.

wham; one more piece of critical technology jerked out from under...

Ah, well; could have been worse, probably.  The frames were weak and worn, obviously; what fun if they'd collapsed while I was on a trip; driving, or talking... with no back-up glasses along...

And we are just about to go on a trip.  My father is 95- and has been hollering for a visit for years.  We're traveling, quite some distance, to spend a week or so with him.  I'm dithering about leaving the laptop behind- that would be the first time since laptops were invented.

In any case.  I'll be back here in a couple weeks.  Hopefully, with the new year, our gremlins will move on.  And hopefully, I'll have some brain RAM freed up to devote to this blog.

Monday, December 24, 2007

It's for family-

Just a few minutes here today; it's Christmas Eve, and we do a pretty traditional type of celebration.  But it's family that's important for us, right now.

I wanted to do a little post here, though; because over the past months, I've come to feel quite a few of you- are family, too.  There's been lots of kind support for us through our various weird disasters; and it's truly appreciated.

So- for those of you who unfortunately live where there is no snow- here's the view out our front door yesterday-  (this may be more enjoyable if you turn the sound off {it's almost a silent snowfall; so the camera mike was high and noisy} - and it's a short short clip; more impact if you repeat it a couple times...)

We enjoy it. Feeling pretty snug, here in the Little House- in spite of the fact we are truly snowed in- unless it were a real emergency, we can't go anywhere right now; the road in (3/8 mile long) is drifted shut, and the tractor to plow it out is not likely to start at 10°F. Extraordinary measures are always possible - but it would take all day.  So.  The weather outside is frightful; but the stove is so delightful-

Happy holidays to you all- whichever the holiday; and wherever you are.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

New solar panels are up!

Hey, Chrusty Churkey!  Here's a nice long dense one for ya!  :-)
(For others- do be aware there will NOT be a test after you finish reading- feel free to skim over some of the technical bits; and you'll find pithy parts here and there, and at the bottom...)

As regulars here will remember, in October we had the delightful addition to our work of having our greenhouse solar power array wiped out by a direct lightning strike.

We did, finally, get the panels replaced, and up and operating.  That was a whole bunch of work- illustrating a number of points regarding attempts to move towards a greener lifestyle.

The solar panels WERE covered by our business insurance.  Mostly.  They're expensive, you know- and critical to the business, since they provide the main power for the greenhouse; so they were specifically listed on the insurance policy (unlike our stolen farm truck- not listed; worth $500 or so, and a minor piece of equipment- that was NOT covered; though our stolen chain saw; not listed, but worth $800 or so- WAS... go figure.)

But.  Insurance has become a game where most insurers spend most of their effort figuring out how to NOT pay you anything for your losses.  They sell you the policy smiling and saying "we're here to help you through bad times!" and when the hurricane hits, it's "no, no, see the fine print here?  Says if the storm hits on a Thursday, we don't owe you anything!  Ha!  Gotcha!"  

In fact my business insurance company is WAY better than most- they specialize in insuring nursery/greenhouses, and that whole world is small, and idiosyncratic in spades; so they have to be somewhat accommodating just to survive.  

The coverage on the panels though was a little too specific to be useful, causing an extra 4-6 days of discussions before we could agree on how to proceed.  The policy read "6 solar panels, max coverage $300 apiece; prorated for age; maximum liability #1800.00."

What I actually lost was 6 Siemens single-crystal panels, rated 48 watts apiece, installed in 1992.  All 6 were damaged by the lightning strike- which was just as well, since trying to find panels to hook up and replace half of the array would have been impossible.

No, that's not me, that's Jerry, who came all the way from NY to help out.  These are the panels AFTER the strike, incidentally - they look fine from this distance - but they don't work; blocking diodes melted, and some of the surface wiring between individual cells was vaporized.  Took me several days before I noticed my battery bank was not getting charged.

Nobody makes 48 watt panels today (that I could find) - and the standards for the precise inner workings of the panels have changed...

In fact EVERYTHING about solar panels has changed since I bought my first ones- in 1982, I think (the cost- about $15/peak watt.)  The only option then was single crystal- and a "nominal" 12V panel put out 16.something V max under load; 19V open circuit.  If YOU are the one putting the system together, yeah, you have to know ALL those numbers; they make all the difference in whether the array is going to work or not.

Also, when I first bought panels, there were approximately 3 companies doing business- and the internet did not exist.  Decisions were pretty simple.  

Not so today.  There are about 25 major companies selling panels over the internet- from about 15 different major manufacturers.  And there are minor ones, too.

The good news is- the internet really does let you compare stuff very well.

The bad news is; it still takes hours- and it's still confusing/confused after you've done your darnedest to untangle it.  

Let's just start with the hardware.

There are now single-crystal; poly-crystalline, amorphous, wire-pulled crystal, and hybrid solar panels to choose from.  At least.  Are there differences?  Duh.  Do they matter?  Hey, just read their advertising!  

Is there a good disinterested source that compares the types, based on initial cost, length of service, rate of power loss... fragility... track records...?     Not that I could find.   Actually I couldn't find even a bad, self-interested source with broad comparisons.  Even digging down into the scientific reports and engineering journals didn't help.  Half the technical info is on cells not available to the public- Gallium Arsenide, instead of silicon- and even more exotic stuff.  Wildly expensive, and not going to be available for decades, if ever, to you and me.

Just sorting out, with some level of certainty, the differences between the stuff that IS available took days.

So, here's what I learned, and what I think.  No real guarantees I'm right, though.

The original solar cells were made in the 50's - out of single cell crystals.  (They're still working, incidentally, though at a reduced output.  You own any other gizmo that's 50 years old and still works all day every day?)  

When people got interested in trying to get the cost of solar cells down, they came up with "poly-crystalline" cells.  They were supposed to be cheaper to make (though I don't see any real price differences today).  But- originally, they didn't put out as much power as single-crystal cells; and they didn't last as long.  Today, their specs claim they DO make as much power- and the 20 year/80% output guarantees are very similar.  But.  When you dig down- it seems that the RATE of power loss is still higher for both poly-crystalline and amorphous cells; single crystal cells lose power at something like 1% a year for the first 25 years; the others may lose power at 2-4% a year for the first several years; then slow down the rate of loss.

Amorphous cells rarely last longer than 10 years before needing to be replaced- they're just not as durable.  Cheaper, flexible, lighter weight, but not going to last- barring lightning (or earthquakes, tornadoes, or what-have-you), a good silicon array can be expected to function adequately for - FORTY YEARS.  

Eventually I decided I did want to go with the old single-crystal cell type.  Mostly because they've got the track record.  Some of the newer types are a little more efficient- but they haven't been around for even 20 years, so we don't exactly know how they'll be doing down the road.  Ok.  Now- which ones?  Made by whom?

Here some of the panel sellers ARE useful- the best ones list good, uniform technical specs for each panel- with the manufacturer's spec sheet available as a downloadable PDF.  Great- still very time consuming, and you have to be conversant in the language; and able to sort out stuff like:

Performance under standard test conditions (STC)
Peak Power (Pmax): 175 watts
Maximum power point voltage (Vmpp): 35.7 volts
Maximum power point current (Impp): 4.9 amps
Open Circuit Voltage (Voc): 44.4 volts
Short Circuit Current (Isc): 5.4 amps

Performance at 800w/sq m, NOCT, AM1.5
Peak Power (Pmax): 131 watts
Maximum power point voltage (Vmpp): 33.1 volts
Maximum power point current (Impp): 4.0 amps
Open Circuit Voltage (Voc): 41.1 volts
Short Circuit Current (Isc): 4.4 amps

Minor reduction in efficiency under partial load conditions at 25C at 200 W/sq m, 95% (+/- 3%) of the STC efficiency (1000 W/sq m) is achieved

And, what does that all mean?  Basic translation: "these panels claim to be 175 watt output, but "Standard Test Conditions" are unrealistic; slightly more realistic ones suggest 131 watts is a better average guess; and if it's a little cloudy, subtract more.  These are "nominal" 24VDC panels- which is why they're putting out 35.7V under good conditions, of course- so your 24V batteries actually get charged."

Getting a headache yet?  I sure was, around day 4 of trying to sort this stuff out.


Slight aside #1: if you're thinking of getting solar panels- or a wind generator- do you really have to know all this technical stuff?

Answer: It's very much like getting your car fixed.  You either have to be able to do it yourself; or you need to be able to TRUST your mechanic.

There are plenty of mechanics who will rip you off if they CAN.  "Hey, your infrahydraulic-frammulator is totally clogged!  Dangerous to drive with it that way!  I can put in a new one for only $320!"

Unless you know SOMETHING about it all; you're at risk of being ripped off, but good.  And the more you know; the better.  Not to mention that even good honest mechanics DO sometimes make boo-boos- and it helps if you're paying attention- knowledgeably. 

The good news again- is the internet.  You CAN educate yourself enormously faster, and better, than you could 15 years ago.  But you still need to go into the process with your brain turned on; and be aware that there are thieves and liars on the internet, too.  Surprise.


So - back to my installation- here is what I wound up with: 

Two panels; instead of 6.  And they're 24VDC instead of 12 (greenhouse battery system is 24V.)  Those numbers above are for these panels; nominal 175 watts.

Basically, as more folks are installing solar arrays, the available panels have been getting bigger- and cheaper. Some economies of scale do seem to be kicking in. These panels were advertised at one site as $4.60/watt - which is CHEAP. Buying 50 watt panels to replace my 288 watt array would have cost me over $6/watt, best I could find. Some good incentive there for me to go just a bit larger; I can always use the extra power.  Now- which panels, exactly?

The basic specs on a lot of panels have changed since I last bought some, 10 years ago.  They all operate at slightly higher voltage; and they ALL come with built-in blocking diodes; something my first ones didn't have.  All that is good- part of the learning process I'd helped pay for, by buying the early stuff.  

And yes, I intended to support a growing, immature industry, by paying outrageously high prices for electricity- when friends and advisors kept pointing out "that's not even close to a competitive price for power, you know."  I knew.  We need to support green processes with our own dollars- they'll die on the vine, otherwise.

When solar panels were experimental, the engineers naturally  - put them out in the sun, right?  And measured their performance.  Unfortunately, residences and small businesses have some other factors in their reality - they're called "neighbors", "utility lines", and "trees".  All of which make "shade".  It turned out that having just ONE CELL shaded on the old panels could make the whole array quit producing power.  The voltage would drop on one panel- so the other panels would now push power- into that low panel, not the batteries.  The blocking diodes prevent that from happening; so one shaded cell doesn't mean you lose the output of the whole array; just that one panel.  And the higher over-all voltage also helps - better performance when it's a little cloudy, for example.  Quite significant in terms of power delivered to the batteries, over the years, in the real world.  Ok; having sorted THAT out (took one day, I think); I started looking just for bigger single-crystal panels, with an open circuit voltage around 44V...

Picking a manufacturer was an odyssey, too. In case you haven't noticed, the big petrochemical companies have been buying up the solar cell manufacturers. Eww.

The first panels I bought were Solarex.  They were among the first to sell to consumers; based in Maryland, I think- big plans for building a "solar breeder" plant; where all the power to make their cells would come from... solar cells.  BP (British Petroleum) bought them, quite a few years ago now- so BP can print tons of ads about how wonderful BP is, for doing all this advanced research on solar power.

Same thing happened to the Siemens solar division- which made the panels the lightning hit.  They were bought out by Shell Oil.  Double Eww.  I will run out of gas, and walk, before I buy gasoline from Shell.  Long story.

Then I ran into very similar panels made by Conergy- which, it turns out, is a German company.  Cheap, too.  Except.  As it turns out.  When you dig into the technical sheet - THESE particular German panels, imported into New Jersey, are actually made in China.  Which you can really only tell IF you can decipher their product code- they don't exactly brag about it.

Now- I'm the opposite of a China-basher.  I love the place; love the people, and I think as a country they have huge potential, if they can just avoid making all the mistakes we already have.  Sure, they have some corrupt politicians and greedy businessmen - uh - SO DO WE, in case you haven't noticed.  They also have huge numbers of very good people, including some politicians and businessmen, doing their darnedest to make China; and the world, "work".

But it IS on the other side of the planet- and the energy required to ship them just doesn't make environmental sense, as we know.  I'd rather pay more money for panels made somewhere closer.  Back to the drawing board.

There was another panel; made by a company I'd never heard of- "SolarWorld".  Kind of a cheesy name; sounds like they hired a consultant to choose it...

Digging to find out who they are- turns out, it's a German company, with what looks like a good track record- and - guess what!  These panels are being made in the California factory that they just bought- from Shell!  Who bought it from Siemens.  Round we go.

I liked the quality of the panels I'd had - these are probably made by the exact same PEOPLE - and Shell is now out of the picture.  The engineering and manufacturing is critical on anything that SHOULD last for 40 years.  These guys seem to know how.  Ok, we have a winner.

I didn't buy the panels where they were cheapest.  A) they didn't answer my emails; B) their website was a little slick and short on information; C) they shipped from the east coast; and these panels are made in California.  I bought my two panels (a tiny order) from a company that ships from California; and they answered my emails, and even called on the phone to see things were going ok with the order.

The panels arrived on a semi (too big for UPS) - like 2 days after I made the order.  Took several more days to get them installed; the old mount really could not accommodate the much taller panels; we managed to modify the old mount with some new steel; lots of sawing and drilling.  Used an old "post drill" hand powered drill press to make most of the new holes in steel.  Then took most of another day to get the panels bolted on, and wired (VERY CAREFULLY).  And we added MORE lightning protection; another ground rod, just for the panels; heavy ground wireS.  With any luck; it should be good for 40 years.
That's most of the story on replacing the panels.  A huge part of my reason for detailing it here is to highlight the real difficulties of sorting out "what's green; what's greener; what's true; what's false; what's real; what's fake..." out here in the real world.  

That's a topic that's come up several times in all the blog conversations I check into; for example No Impact Dude; Chuncky Chincken, and Green as a Whistle.  And others.

Just the topic of "exactly how useful/green are Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs" turns out to be complex enough to keep people writing about it, including me.

At the moment there's a serious shortage of authoritative and trustworthy voices on green consumer practices, and a worse shortage regarding particular practices.  The US Federal Govt. occasionally puts out some good comparative data- sometimes very extensive- BUT; you really have to dig for it, often it's in a weird incomprehensible form, and sometimes- it's biased by politics.

The only way to get this problem fixed: 

1) Get everybody to understand that you have to take ALL "this is green" statements with a grain of salt- and do some homework of your own to see if you can believe it.  And always will.

2) SOMEBODY (not me, I'm really busy) needs to found a green version of Consumers Union; the publishers of Consumer Reports.  They're non-profit; never accept advertising from ANYONE; forbid any maker to use their name to recommend any product (and they'll seriously sue when someone does)- they really try hard to be independent.  Perfect? no; always right, no- but the best thing I know of out there in terms of thorough independent testing and information.  But they're not about to take on this chore of green certification, on top of what they already do.  We need a new organization.

Somebody could make a good living doing that, actually, very fairly; and provide an invaluable resource for the rest of us.

And, such an organization could start to push for changes (Consumers Union members have considerable political clout) - like- how come, when you're buying a computer, or TV, or something similar- you have to absolutely BEG for the information on power consumption?  Why isn't it listed right up front; always?  Why don't businesses like Gaiam, which totally focuses on being "Earth-friendly" - actually give you the numbers?  What they say there is "Energy Star Compliant."  Oh, be still my heart.  What that means is; some bureaucrat thinks the energy use is "not too bad".   I WANT TO KNOW EXACTLY.

I NEED to know, exactly- because I'm off the grid; and every photon counts; today.  I not only want to know their "wattage" - which tends to be kind of meaningless - but I want average power consumption under 3 conditions; max load; half load, and light load.  Because EVERYTHING varies on how much power it actually pulls.  And I want numbers for average watt/HOURS/day, for each of those conditions- because a watt is just a measure of instantaneous power use- not power consumption per time.

Other stuff we need to know- embedded energy content; per gizmo; exactly how many ergs went into manufacturing this thing; and transporting it HERE.  Lifetime - lifetime energy cost, and cost/year.  Standby power use.  (And EVERYTHING needs a switch on it; up front; so there is NO standby power drain.)

We label our food like we care about it.  We've GOT to start labeling our energy consuming devices the same way.

The government is NOT going to do this, anytime soon- we're going to have to demand it, ourselves- and there's almost nothing out here, as an organized, authoritative green voice.

So.  Who's going to DO it?  You?  

Why not?

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The blocked weep hole

And what the heck is a weep hole?

Something quite real, and critically important to me right now- and a metaphor too, for larger difficulties facing us all.

We've got winter this year; kind of a surprise.  According to the Minnesota weather people, we've got the earliest, heaviest, and most widely distributed snow cover in over 10 years.  We had a white Thanksgiving, which the oldtimers here say used to be far more common than the rare brown Christmas.  I can remember 5 brown Christmases out of the last 10- and a couple that were borderline.

It's cold.  Down to -8°F last night; 8 below zero.  We get our water for the Little House from a good ol' Aermotor windmill.  It's frozen.  Because the weep hole is blocked.

This is a windmill I put in, shortly before Beelar was born, 30 years ago.  I watched the whole process avidly, the entire well-drilling process, installation of pipe, erection of the used windmill - and I kind of freaked out when our well-guy took out his file and - cut a hole in the pump pipe.

"What in the heck are you doing!?" I asked quite proprietorially.  "You're making a LEAK in my pipe??"

The well-guy was quite calm about it- he'd obviously been here before- "That's the weep hole."

He explained.  "You have to have one, to keep the well from freezing.  Most guys around here put the weep hole about 6 feet underground- I put it 8 feet.  I've seen it freeze 8' deep here, once every 15-20 years.  It's just a little hole- you don't lose much water; and it lets the water drop back down below the frost level when you're not actually pumping.  If you don't have a weep hole, the water will stay right up at the top of the pump- and freeze solid in any kind of cold weather."

Ah.  Ok.  So, my well has to leak a little, in order to work all winter.

I'd had no idea, of course.  Mostly, these days, water systems in northern locations just keep everything down below the frost.  Mostly.  Here was a totally simple bit of old technology- that almost everyone had forgotten.  Luckily for me, I found someone who still remembered.

My weep hole functioned perfectly for 20 years.  Then clogged, froze- and in a particularly bad way; the well was pumping slowly in very cold weather; then the wind came up.  After it had frozen.  The wind ripped the immovable sucker-rod (I love the old names) right off the power head, where it had been specifically BRAZED on, not welded.  The braze broke- and a good thing, too- if it had been welded, it probably would have destroyed the power head.  I'm pretty sure the guy who brazed the rod on knew that.  (My rod repair man wanted to weld it. It's brazed.)

What a mess.  All this was not something I could fix on my own, had to pay folks to do it.  Found a different well-guy this time, a local Amish man who did regular work on windmills for his community.  Should know what he's doing, I figured.

Alas- he'd recently moved here from southern Ohio.

They don't use weep holes- don't need to, where he had grown up.  He kind of knew about weep holes; but it wasn't something on the top of his mind- so after servicing the well, replacing the pump leathers after 25 years, he put it all back together- with the weep hole still blocked.  This time, at least I was watching for problems- so was able to prevent the windmill from ripping out the sucker rods again- but we spent a lot of time hauling water from the greenhouse well (pumped by solar power, with a modern "pitless adapter" below frost).  Far more work than just having a house well that worked.

Next year- found a different well-guy; got the weep hole cleared out, and slightly enlarged- since something seemed to be blocking it these days.  Worked fine for a whole winter- and now, it's blocked again.

And frozen.  Sigh.  Hauling water from the greenhouse again.  The most likely cause of the blockage is an increasing presence of "iron bacteria" in the well, slowing building biofilms on everything.  Possibly it just took 20 years for the iron bacteria to become a problem.

Cleaning out a tiny hole 8' down a 1" pipe with a half-inch steel sucker rod in it is a problem.  There's 140" of steel pipe to pull up- not trivial.  At the moment, we're just living with it- along with the daily need for firewood, to keep us warm in zero weather.  So far, the well pipe hasn't ruptured from the freezing, though I'm not sure why.  We'll just have to wait for it to thaw, right now.  Then try all the remedies being recommended (bleach, first of all.)

The metaphor part- our world is built on technology.  Our lives depend on it.  And a huge proportion of critical processes are increasingly understood by fewer and fewer people.

Going back to Rome- at the peak of their civilization, they had incredible roads, incredible city/province wide water systems, sewers, passive solar heated housing, floors with built in radiant heating- and on, and on.

But as their world aged, with fewer and fewer "spare" resources for anything beyond immediate survival needs- the technology failed, and disappeared; for centuries.  Eventually, no one understood how it had been done- no one remembered how to do it.

Our own world is orders of magnitude more complex.  It worries me.

Had a CAT scan recently?  10 years ago I was privy to a situation you never heard about.  My brother was working on a project to design a computer program that could diagnose CAT scan machines that were broken.  It was urgent.  Because, at the time; there were a total of FIVE people, in the world, who were fully trained and competent to fix CAT scan machines.  Five.  And thousands of machines to keep running.  Those 5 repair men were about to collapse of exhaustion, flying from Dallas to Hong Kong to Paris to LA to...

Just my cheerful thoughts for the day.  Spice is doing better, as am I- but we're not quite back to full speed yet.  

Keep warm.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Guest post- the Caped Crunchy Strikes.

It has indeed been too long; sorry about that.  Just going through some complex/tough patches here, and I don't really want to burden everyone with every little silly thing.

Found this in my mail this morning, and it made me smile a lot.  An excellent nudge, Crunch.  Thanks.  

I DO have a new post in the works here; within a couple days.  


Hey there,

I hope you guys are doing okay. I noticed it's been almost a month since you've had time to post anything on your blog and I'm sure your readers are getting restless.

Anyway, I took it upon myself to write up a little guest post that you can slap up if you want. Don't feel like you have to, I just hope that things aren't too horrible over there that you don't have time for us anymore :)


I know Greenpa has been quite busy with home and life and I wanted to share why I like this blog so much...

Top 5 reasons to read Little Blog in the Big Woods:

1. The unapologetic tone
2. The willingness to slap the rest of us mere mortals out of our consumptive-driven stupor
3. The super-long, ultra-dense posts that take hours to wade through and fully digest (for example)
4. The years of experience in doing something that the rest of us are just now dipping our toes into
5. The man's got a THWASPCO, for crying out loud

- Pollo Crujiente