Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ Category

Jan 2016 Resolution thoughts

January 6, 2016

Using the analytic categories from last year about reducing my carbon footprint, here are things I’ve explored and directions for 2016.

Substitution. In December 2014 we bought a 2010 Prius to replace Krista’s 1994 Subaru Legacy. The change in mpg was from mid-20s to high-30s (most of her driving is in Moscow, it does better on longer runs on the highway using cruise control so it can do more of the thinking).

Our milage data shows her car drove about 7300 miles in each 2014 and 2015, the latter with a 50% improvement in fuel efficiency.

Replacement. On the other hand, my work has me driving around Moscow. I find that I need to get between places faster, or take things larger, than bicycling facilitates. That is, I can’t achieve the driving reduction behavior I want, so I’m thinking about replacing my ’89 Toyota wagon with a used Nissan Leaf and moving to a carbon free automobile. I drive almost exclusively in Moscow and occasionally to Pullman and rarely to Lewiston. It seems the Leaf will meet my needs.

 Year 2012 2013 2014 2015
Krista’s car (red) 7927 6313 7370
My car (white) 5241 2336 4472 4107
My pickup (blue) 1059 2078 1576  966
Krista’s Prius (silver) 7318
totals  14227  10727  13418 12391

In 2014 I gave away our 15 year old riding lawnmower/snowblower. For two years now I’ve contemplated replacing the remaining gas lawn mower (self-propelled walk behind) with a reel mower and/or an electric (corded or cordless) mower. I think a purchase needs to happen in 2016, even if I keep the gas mower as backup.  Key issue is storage, I need a way to put either of those devices away out of the weather.

More Substitution. Karina and I used a Kill-A-Watt to measure the energy used by our refrigerator (part of a campaign to get a new fridge). Over a 3-day period (73.75 hrs) it used 9.06 KWH for an annual rate of 1076 KWH/yr. Karina has found replacement refrigerators with Energy Star ratings and energy usage ratings as low as 466KWH/yr and multiple options below 650KWH/yr. Now, realizing that the rating is like an EPA milage number (your milage may vary), it’s still hard to imagine we can’t get a better performing fridge.

We pulled out the fridge, it was made in Aug 1998 (17+ years ago). Googling how long a fridge lasts we found 3 sources: 80% last between 9-15 years; 10-15 years; and average 13 years.

SO, owning a refrigerator for its lifetime has 2 energy costs: operational cost and construction cost. One is paid daily, one is paid every 10-15 years.

As an aside, I wondered if there were a fridge that would pay for itself in energy savings (compared to keeping our current fridge (if it would last another 15 years)). I looked up the Avista power rate and multiplied by the KWH savings/year of our current vs potential new fridge = $45/year.

Karina was reluctant to search for a refrigerator that was 18+ cubic feet, 450KWH/year and priced under $700, but she found one (I think). Her reluctance stems from a desire to buy the features in the more expensive fridges she has found– which maybe should be a new category for this analysis: Too much vs Enough.

However, the analysis raised another question. When talking about payback period, are we talking the best sale price we can find, or the suggested retail price? That is, what does price measure: cost of inputs or other intangibles in the merchandising process?

Generation. I regularly observe that the solar air heater is in operation in the Cookhouse. I have resolved to get its water heater running. I intend that project to be the pilot one, with the home water heating to follow. The Barn is partly ready for solar hot water and solar air heating conversions, but it will be the third project to tackle. The house uses gas for hot water, the Barn uses gas for both water and space heating, so I have several opportunities to reduce direct carbon use through generation.

2015 Resolution – Reflect on Conservation

January 3, 2015

Progress on reducing my direct carbon footprint

Following on my conceptualization for the solution to reducing my direct carbon footprint (this analysis), here is the year in review:

Reduction. I think my theme for 2015 needs to be reflection on conservation, and its nuances.

In previous New Years posts I have tracked our car milage and was pleased to see our progress reducing miles driven. Alas, the reduction was lost in 2014. The lesson: bike/walking to reduce miles in town is easily overwhelmed by driving out of town, which should be obvious, it takes quite a few avoided short trips in town to equal the milage of one trip out of town.

2012 miles 2013 miles 2014 miles
Krista’s car (red) 7927 6313 7370
My car (white) 5241 2336 4472
My pickup (blue) 1059 2078 1576
Prius (silver) new 12/4/14
totals  14227  10727  13418

My friend Stephen has a longer dataset and can demonstrate real progress reducing his driving, so it is possible.

spaeth carbon wedge car

In our cars, reduced use requires constant vigilance. In contrast, the area of lawn I mow is being reduced steadily by orchards, gardens and landscaping at the Cookhouse. I haven’t used the 15-year old riding lawn mower/snowblower in 12 months. Since, I’ve proven its possible to manage what is left without the rider, it needs to go away this spring.

Another notable experiment in reduction was to put a timer on our hot water heater. Now we make hot water for morning showers and again for evening dishes. While the savings from not maintaining hot water is small, we have proven in the past 6 months that we don’t lack for hot water when we want it. This experiment needs more study. For example, can we time the water heater so we use up much of the hot water and only store tepid water (rather than having the water heater reheat the water we just used and then storing that hot water)?

Substitution. Another of the strategies to reduce my direct carbon footprint is to substitute technologies.

The Cookhouse was built with all LED lighting and I thought I was done converting the Barn, but the other day I found one more CFL — a small one in a reading lamp. The house is partly converted, the Kitchen, family room and bathrooms are done.

My efforts at substituting LED lighting for CFLs are producing limited results; my home electric bill is not going down much (if at all), because the refrigerator, freezer, dishwasher and electric dryer are such a large fraction of the use that they overwhelm the savings in the lighting.

The used Prius that Krista will drive in place of the “red” car appears to give her 40+mpg vs the previous 25+mpg in “red car,” so if we can hold the miles driven steady, it should be a decrease in fuel used.

Replacement. The oven in our gas stove died last spring and (sigh) there are no parts to repair a 10 year old stove. The process of deciding has been slow, but we are headed toward an induction stove, all electric. The decision process was explored in this column. Replacing this appliance will produce a permanent decrease in our direct use of carbon, but a small one compared to the gas water heater. I’m having the electrician get me ready to do the water heater, but can’t afford that change yet.

While the 15 year old gas lawn mower is still running, I’m considering replacing it with an electric one. Since I’m not sure how that will work in when the grass grows fast in the spring, I’ll keep the gas one around for another season.

Generation. I have some more data on the impact of the solar air heater in the Cookhouse. My previous report was from a short duration observation. Now I have a year’s worth of data which appears to show April, May & June readings with less consumption than heating degree days would predict. Since the structure is still unoccupied the only energy use is for heating. Goals for 2015 are getting hot water preheating going in the Cookhouse and in our house. This data are also encouraging me to develop solar air heating to supplement in the barn.

849 electric usage

Electric heating in the Cookhouse for 2014

More data on solar air heater

December 12, 2013

The recent cold snap let me collect some interesting new data. Previously I had reported on temperatures in the building with the solar heat on and off, but that didn’t tell how much energy was being captured by the collector. At the end of that post I speculated on a way to approximate measuring the energy.

Each day during the cold snap I read the power meter at 10:30pm. The Weather Depot website gave me the Heating Degree Days for each day. (Heating Degree Day is the indoor temperature minus average outdoor temperature; a measure of how much heating is needed. Colder days have more HDDs.)

This gave me a table, and I could calculate a ratio HDD/KWH which should be a constant

HDD (55F indoor) KWH/day Ratio
52 62.44 0.839
42 51.32 0.824
33 39.75 0.825

The ratio lets me predict, knowing the HDDs, how much energy the building would use.

I turned the solar on Wed, and collected data. It was a fairly clear day, high haze but strong shadows. If the solar is effective it should save me energy, ie, reduce the KWH that would be expected to be used for a given number of HDD

It Worked!  The Solar heater came on for 4-5 hours. While I never saw the temperature inside rise above the 55F thermostat setting, I used 6 KWH fewer than the HDD on Wednesday would predict.

6 KWH is 22% savings – about 1/4 of the energy, which roughly agrees with the collector operating for 1/4 of the day. The building has no thermal storage, its like a greenhouse that warms up in the sun and cools again when the sun sets.

The water heater portion of the system is the way I will store energy. I hope to do a final system leak test on that system this Saturday.

First data from solar air heater

November 30, 2013

I have been making (slow) steady progress on the “Cookhouse” project. The utilities got installed over the summer by some great contractors: Nolan Heating, Jeff’s Electric, Don’s Plumbing, Jamin at Energylock for the spray foam insulation and Tom at Avista for the new transformer. I spent Sept-Nov working outside on the siding which caused me to need to get the solar air and water heaters finished up enough to put the glazing on.

collectors on the south wall. Air heater is the set of tubes at the top, water heater is below

collectors on the south wall. Air heater is the set of tubes at the top (above the scaffold deck), water heater is below (click to enlarge)

I built two things into one collector. The lower 12 feet is hot water (pre-)heating. But having watched the sun angles I realized that there were 5 feet above that which get winter but not summer sun. I made an air heater in that area. I suspect the air heating gets some heat rising from the water heater — I didn’t seal them off from one another.

The hot water system is inspired by this design and will be the subject of another post.

For the air heating, I did a variation on the “solar can heater”  I used pre-made ducts rather than messing with a bunch of cans. I have a fan that draws air from the upstairs ceiling, thru the collector, and blows near the floor downstairs (opposite flow from the illustration).

To control the hot air system, I installed two conventional thermostats. One is typical house heating thermostat (on when cold) and the other is an attic fan controller (on when hot). The combination (hot in the collector, cold in the house) turns the fan on.

When the electric and heating was turned on I hooked up the solar air heater. In late October I measured 172F in the collector, 60F air going in upstairs and 122F air coming out downstairs.

indoor and outdoor temps for experimental and control days

indoor and outdoor temps for experimental and control days (click to enlarge)

Last week I was able to do some more systematic data collection on two sunny days with similar outdoor conditions. Nov 21 was the experimental day, Nov 22 the control. What I found was that the heater can warm the downstairs by 10+ degrees F over the warming I get without the heater (just the sun in the windows and warming the south wall).

I need to get some better instrumentation to take more data, but that will have to wait for another post.


Footnote. I have been mulling over how to get a better measure than these temperature data, what I want is units of energy. Since the only energy use in the building now is heating, I can read the meter for KWH in a 24 hour period. I just found this site where you can get heating degree days (1 degree-day = 1 degree difference in temperature for 24 hours). Even better, you can control the indoor reference temperature.

SO, if I turn the solar off and pick a cloudy day, I have a measure of KWH/day and a measure of delta-T/day which will let me estimate the building overall R-value/day. I think I can use that estimate of R-value along with the KWH & degree-day for a sunny day to estimate the energy gathered by the solar system.

UPDATE 12/29

I made 2 of these manifolds to fit 9 3" duct. Duct material is 5 foot. Backing is 1.5" of TuffR rigid insulation painted black. Once installed the pipes were sealed in with spray foam.

I made 2 of these manifolds to fit 9 3″ duct. Duct material is 5 foot. Backing is 1.5″ of TuffR rigid insulation painted black. Once installed the pipes were sealed in with spray foam.


Inside view upstairs. Hole at top is air going out to collector. Light comes in because collector not installed. 4" duct below goes downstairs where fan draws air down.

Inside view upstairs. Hole at top is air going out to collector. Light comes in because collector not installed. 4″ duct below goes downstairs where fan draws air down.

This is a conventional attic fan thermostat (on when hot) set at 90F. This (plus indoor temp) decide when fan comes on to draw air thru heater.

This is a conventional attic fan thermostat (on when hot) set at 90F. This (plus indoor temp) decide when fan comes on to draw air thru heater.

Winter Salad 2012

February 6, 2012

Back at the New Year I posted about several Fall/Winter gardening experiments, including a Greenhouse Crop that I was re-seeding much more densely and a Cold Greenhouse Crop that I had planted.

The new planting in the greenhouse, under lights only, no soil heat, is doing very well. After a month I was able to harvest enough greens (leaf and romaine lettuce, beet greens and spinach) for salad for 4 people. Parts of the planting are not dense (a result of the November initial seeding). Had it been more intensive it would have been better. I cut individual leaves from each of the plants with the hope that they would grow back. It a couple cases I pulled the plant because things are very (over)-crowded and harvesting is difficult.

The Cold Greenhouse suffered a structural failure in late January after a very heavy snowfall and rains. I examined the inner cloche and row cover and can find a couple seeds just starting to break ground. Can’t identify the plant yet.

The salad from the greenhouse was tasty with Huckleberry Vinaigrette dressing.


Experiments in Winter Gardening

January 3, 2012

This is an update on my three winter gardening explorations:

Digging fall carrots Nov 13

Fall crop. This experiment was to plant carrots, beets and chard in late July for fall harvest. I had old seed, so I over-seeded and became challenged to thin and weed effectively. Nonetheless I got all three crops to produce. I gambled with the weather leaving the crop in the ground (unmulched) into November. Animals ate the beet leaves in October and the chard leaves after that. The ground froze before I got all the beets and carrots pulled, I assume the chard is lost, the beets and carrots are an open question.

Digging fall beets Nov 13

LESSONS: The usual challenge of other activities keeping me from weeding and thinning; mulching with leaves or straw and a light row cover would probably have extended the harvest and kept away animals; the harvest needs to be finished before the freeze (or better protection is needed).

Greenhouse crop. November 1, inspired by Square Foot Gardening, I planted a 2×4 foot bed to carrots, leaf and romaine lettuce, beets, chard and spinach.  Individual seeds were planted at recommended their spacing.

The bed is on a bench in my (poorly insulated) greenhouse, a 2×6 frame filled with amended soil sitting on a heating pad set for 70F.  Four full spectrum fluorescent lights were 6 inches above the soil on a timer from 5AM to 7PM. Carrots and leaf lettuce came up fine. The romaine and chard did not germinate, and the spinach only poorly. I replanted spinach mid-November (no more chard seed). One spinach from the first planting seemed to be doing OK and then about Thanksgiving got wilty.

December 1 I raised the lights to 18 inches, and wrapped a plastic curtain around the lights making a terrarium of the bed and lights. The spinach recovered, perhaps due to the increased air temp and humidity.  Three leaf lettuce plants were coming along slowly.  The carrots continued slowly.

Mid-December, after reading Coleman’s 4-season gardening, I replanted spinach, romaine and leaf lettuce at Coleman’s 1” row spacing. One of the original leaf lettuce failed after Christmas due to lack of water (its hard to water in the confines of the terrarium).

January 3 I harvested 3-4 spinach and 3-4 leaf lettuce leaves to start an experiment in regeneration. Lights and heating pad draw (on average) 0.110 KW, lights only draw 0.062 KW (measured by WattMeter). So, my energy cost Nov 1 – Jan 1 was   0.11KW * 24hrs/day * 61day * $0.07689/kwhr = $12.38 (An interesting experiment but spendy for a handful of lettuce leaves.)

I’ve now turned off the heater to see how things grow with the light (and its heat) only.

Dec 2 (31 days since planting)

Dec 14 (looking west)

Dec 31 (looking east)

LESSONS: Heated growing space is costly and plants need to be planted densely and then thinned for eating as they grow. Carrots at 3” spacings need to be interplanted with something faster growing. The goal is to cover every square inch of soil with edible leaves as quickly and completely as possible, then retreat the number of plants as the plant size increases.

Cold Greenhouse crop. Based on more Coleman reading, on January 1 I planted in my hoop house under a cloche and a wire frame covered with row covering. Spinach, leaf and romaine lettuce, and beets and carrots. The first question will be can I get germination.

New Year’s Resolution: Reducing my carbon footprint

January 3, 2012

Making my Resolution was pretty easy, figuring out how to implement and assess it, not so much.

I’ve been doing a bit of reading over the holidays, Bernstein’s Aquaponic Gardening, Coleman’s The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year Round Vegetable Production Using Deep Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses and some of the blogsphere including Roberts’ Brutal Logic posts here  and here as well as some discussion about the “marketing” of climate change with scare tactics like Roberts vs. a gentler approach to reach the electorate, see two sides here and here.  I’ve also glanced into some alternate perspectives including Worstall at Forbes arguing that delay in addressing climate change can save money (I think his logic is faulty). Also supporting the go-slow path a friend recently wrote me “But considering that 50% of American’s make less then $26,000 a year [what with] buying food and paying rent…well there isn’t money for those high end [climate saving] purchases. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip.”

I’ve got my monthly utility bills from Avista for gas and electricity in 2010 and 2011 which gives me some baseline. Avista’s electricity comes from a mix of fuels, including coal, gas and nuclear. They give information that should let me adjust my KWH to the fraction that is carbon-based. I don’t have records of gallons of gasoline purchased. My house is heated with wood, which raises some different issues about pollution and I have no handle on the amount of wood I use or its carbon content. And then there is the issue of adjusting my use of heating energy to account for the weather in the 2011 and 2012 heating seasons. Avista gives degree days in its bills but with a wood stove, there are days when you just don’t heat because you are not around to stoke the stove.

So, I am going to make my Resolution more specific:

Regarding gasoline – I will track how many miles I drive and how much gas I use and return to this challenge in 2013.  I put log books in each vehicle to begin tracking miles and gallons purchased. I can use these logs to also record gas purchases for lawnmower, chain saw and the like.

I previously challenged myself to buy only one tank of gas a month, but that challenge is complicated by having multiple vehicles and by using the in-laws’ vehicles at times. To give me something I can assess for 2012, I will aim to buy no more that 150 gallons of gas for the white car and blue truck I drive and for my various gas powered tools. Bicycling around Moscow has shaved my waistline, this is a path to continue.

Regarding electricity and natural gas – Last January I was thinking about these issues in terms of “buy local” and how to shift my purchases from Avista to spending locally. I have experimented enough with a clothesline in the greenhouse that I can see some reduction in electricity use. I need to build on this effort to reduce our footprint with Avista.

Sharon Cousins has advocated solar ovens enough to get me to try one and to build one, but I’ve not lived with them enough to make any claims that I am substituting solar energy for Avista energy. This is a path to continue. I’ve played with a mud oven and retained heat cooking, again not enough to make any claims about substituting wood as my baking fuel. Recently I found a hybrid idea, retained heat solar oven. Something to explore designing into the shared use commercial kitchen I am building.

In the Peterson Barn Guesthouse, my next steps are probably to use solar to supplement space heating and in our house, I’m working on pre-heating our hot water with solar. Both projects are low budget, a fan and ducting to blow excess warm air from the greenhouse and a homebrew rooftop solar collector.







UI, Sodexo and Local Food

December 19, 2011
Last Wednesday Mark McKinney and I had a very interesting meeting with representatives of Sodexo the food service contractor for the University of Idaho, Charlie’s Produce, their supplier and UI’s Sustainability Center. The question was how to supply UI with more local produce. It was motivated by Sodexo’s contract with UI that sets a goal to use 12.5% local food (measured in dollars, local defined as Latah county).

Here is my attempt at a summary of what we learned:

Sodexo/UI works in large quantities (eg 400 lbs of potatoes/week) and wants to deal with a limited set of suppliers that can guarantee its needs.

Sodexo has a contract with Charlie’s to seek out local supplies that are competitively priced. Charlie’s is willing to serve as a middle-man between a local grower and UI’s needs.

UI requires Sodexo and Sodexo requires Charlie’s to carry a large food-borne illness insurance policy. Charlie’s places insurance and quality assurance requirements on its suppliers.

Sodexo and Charlie’s each have production requirements for growers, things like: no animal manure, fenced fields & hand-washing facilities. The requirements may vary with the crop. I have not seen them.

Sodexo/UI purchases many processed vegetables (lettuce shreds, baby carrots) because they don’t want to spend kitchen time with whole vegetables.

Charlie’s has delivery trucks coming to Moscow and proceeding to points south, and returning mostly empty to Spokane. They also have capacity to back-haul from Spokane to Seattle.

Charlie’s is willing to pick up from a local grower in Latah County, but only if the grower can provide sufficient volume to make the stop cost effective (think about a pallet load of cases of product).

Processing facilities require Federal inspection and are capital-intensive so they can handle semi-truck volumes quickly.

Charlie’s has a processing facility in Seattle, WA. Consequently, a local head of lettuce might travel 350 miles to the Seattle processing facility, become shreds, and travel 350 miles back to UI, all the while consuming 3-5 days of its shelf life.

The produce industry is moving to a system of vendor product tracking, so when there is a quality or health issue, the product can be traced back to the source field. Charlie’s is beginning to implement tracking on a voluntary basis.

Vendor product tracking is anticipated (by Charlie’s) to become mandatory and to be a requirement imposed by retail distributors on their suppliers (eg, grocery stores will begin to require it of their suppliers).

[The exception to all of the above is UI Soil Stewards, a student group farming just east of the Moscow City limits. Because they are covered by UI insurance, and because they are a student group that advances the idea of local eating in other ways, they are selling root vegetables (fewer health risks) directly to UI kitchens.]

From this, I conclude that there are real challenges for the local produce grower wanting to sell to UI, either the grower must:

  • work on sufficient scale to wholesale vegetables to Charlie’s, who will insure, track, process and deliver them to UI, or
  • participate in a grower’s co-op that can serve the role of Charlie’s in insurance, quality assurance, processing, delivery and relationship management with growers.
Either option will be capital intensive. Either faces challenges to get established in the county.


Building my first solar oven

October 1, 2011

I celebrated the Fall Equinox by building and testing my first solar oven. One of those projects I’d been thinking about all summer and the waning sun motivated.

It was a project made of scraps. I had the plywood box from a WSU Auction. The 1/2 inch reflective insulation was left from building garage doors on Peterson Barn Guesthouse. It took a little practice to recover my (ca. High School) glass cutting skills, but they allowed me to re-use a piece of glass from a defunct cold frame.

The lid still needs a reflective treatment and a means to prop it at an angle to reflect into the box. As it was, I got 3 cups of beans and water to 135F from 11AM till 3PM. Needed another hour simmering on the stove to finish cooking them.

I needed to rotate the box to track the sun. To reduce that need, I want to think about wings that will bounce light from the side — ultimately having a bit of a light funnel.

Next Steps in Finding My Role

August 25, 2011

I have been watching the University of Idaho job listings site and in the last 6 months have not seen an opportunity that I recognized fit my skills, interests and qualifications. This has led me to realize that most of my employment history was guided by mentors & patrons who helped me find opportunities that were more-or-less created to match me.

I’ve given myself a learning task of answering:

  1. What am I good at?
  2. What do I like to do?
  3. What do I want to do with my life?
  4. Who should I be talking to about this?

I have been fumbling toward the answer to #3 this spring: Community sustainability in the face of the multiple challenges we face is my broad answer [see What now about climate change]. These interests are probably a circle that connects to or encompasses the focus of the University of Idaho Sustainability initiative. My application for GM at the Moscow Food Co-op job gave a vantage to work on a subset of the problem: community food sustainability. It was interesting because it had a variety of resources at its disposal to work on the issue. Developing South of Downtown Moscow is another subset of the problem — creating more urban land use and development. Moscow Ecovillage, the idea that Christie Beery is exploring is a different take that integrates land use and collaborative living. I connect My Own Home‘s focus on independent living for an aging population to the sustainability notion in terms of less dependence on institutional care. The Transition Town movement is another angle, an effort to build organizations to support community-wide transition to a new energy and climate future.

Who should I be talking to about these ideas?