Primitive or Pampered? That is the question.
As a teacher and writer, if I have a strength or gift, it is that I understand the basics of a wide range of endeavors. My true expertise is limited to rhetoric and composition. I also worked as an electrician for 15 years (union member) with a formal apprenticeship before going back to college. Beyond these two fields, I am no expert, merely knowledgeable. But I also learned that a bit of solid knowledge is quite useful and should not be dismissed. So I share freely what I learn and hope that I know where to draw the line—and on a blog like this I trust that we have at least one expert from every relevant field who will keep us in line and hopefully contribute to the community.
While in high school in 1974, I decided to study electronics for my “shop class.” Aaaah, Mr McMullen! He was our shop teacher for electronics. He was also the weight-lifting coach for the football team and had muscles bulging all over his stout body. Of course, while putting together our electronic circuits, my lab partner Scott and I would do anything but read our schematics and build stuff. Conflict was on the horizon. This was about the time when teachers were not allowed to “beat” kids in school anymore, so they came up with creative means of discipline, like threats, large paddles sitting on the desk that were never employed, sitting in the corner or the coat closet and being sent to the principle for a tongue-lashing. Not Mr. Mcmullen. One day, while Scott and I were chuckling about something very funny, Mr McMullen sneaked up behind us, put his head between ours with his arm around our shoulders. He started mussing up our long hair in a manly, fatherly way. He said, “You guys know that I love you, right?” We nodded, suspiciously. He continued, “and you know that you have to do your labwork to pass this class, right” … THUNK, as he cracked both of our heads against his own. Oh, that really hurt. But we both knew it hurt him twice as much. He knew what we both knew, that no self-respecting tough guy, like either of us, would go whining to the school principle that the teacher whacked both our heads against his “So I want you to get busy and have your circuit built by the end of class” he concluded. He knew how to keep a room full of young men inline. He also knew how to teach. We got back to work and I learned my lessons. I like to think Mr. McMullen knocked some sense into me that day.
I am very thankful today that I learned those lessons. They helped me fly through my electrical apprenticeship and today they are helping me design a modest and cheap solar system for my “new economy” home.
One must seriously consider your energy use habits as you mosey into the world of solar electric systems. Do you have high electric bills? Are they due to genuine consumption, or due to waste? If your home is like mine, I spend my time going from room to room being busy, leaving lights and bathroom fans on everywhere I go. I stand in front of the refrigerator trying to decide which snack to have and then I get cold showing off my lame six-pack and turn on the heater. I love a long hot shower. Meanwhile my wife follows me around turning off the lights, fans and puts on her sweater to stay warm. We also have two fish tanks with bubblers and filters running full time. Need I mention the kid’s energy use habits? We also have no fewer than three computers running full time. We are not good candidates for a solar system at this time unless I want to invest $15-20K. We really will have to change.
Primitive or pampered—or somewhere in between?
As we prepare a home for the new economy, we must face the obvious question of our family’s level of luxury. I recall my father taking us to see some elderly relatives in the back country of Colorado in 1973. This 70-something couple lived in a small cabin with a low roof. Their bathroom was an outhouse, and they heated and cooked with wood. They didn’t have electricity. I think they had been living this way since the 1920s. We had a wonderful dinner of roast venison (probably poached) and I could see that they were healthy and happy. What a different life they had from our large luxurious homes today. Honestly, in the new economy, I know I cannot afford to keep my opulent American lifestyle. I’ll need a smaller home, which means a smaller system will do.
We can start with frugality without sacrificing anything
• We can purchase low wattage LED lights.
• We can open the windows keep lights off
• We can turn computers off and wear sweaters when it is cold
• Long hot showers? Not with an electric water heater!
These are all common sense items. Now if you use gas or propane to heat water, run the stove, and even other appliances, it may or may not be more economical and you still pay for it.
While all these little things add up, the largest consumers of electricity are the devices that make stuff hot or cold. Fortunately, these devices run intermittently, but when they do, they suck down the power like a hard-working turdite drinking pints at the pub while ranting about banks.
My prior home had a solar water heater. We lived in southwestern Ohio and while it kept a good supply of water warm, it did not stay “hot” from November to April, but it was warm enough. The system was complicated and one needs to understand plumbing (or have a friend) to install or repair the components. This is the direction I choose, and I’ll have to learn more about plumbing to get there. But that is a post for the future.
Home heating should not rely on solar systems. We currently live in the American southwest. I installed a used 5’ x 6’ window ($50) on a south facing wall a few months ago. I am amazed how the sunlight from that single window keeps the house about 5 degrees warmer when we open the curtains. I wish I had more south facing walls in this home. As I build our new-economy home, I will install much south facing glass and have an overhanging roof calculated to block the sunlight during the summer months when it shifts overhead. I am convinced that I will not need to have a heater in the home except a small wood-burning stove for snowy days and deep-freeze nights.
So my planned solar system will need to be large enough to run lights, a smaller refrigerator, a well pump, and various small devices. I’ll heat the home with sunlight and wood. I am still struggling to figure out a good, long term plan for cooking. Perhaps solar ovens is the answer? Again—fodder for a future post.
If you live in a city and are planning to make your home your fortress of refuge for hard times, there may be some limitations to how much power you can save. You’ll need a larger system.
The system begins with energy production. You can use either solar panels, a wind generator, or an ADD generator.*
The system has 4 basic parts
1. Power generation (solar panels, wind generator)
2. Charge controller (to give the batteries what they need)
4. Power inverter (changes DC power from the batteries to AC power for your house components)
I am starting with a 1000 watt system to see how it goes. I can add power capacity and swap other components as needed. This should be enough to run a small refrigerator, a well pump, and my home lighting.
My budget in fiat is as follows
1. Solar panels ($1300 @ $1.30 per watt) purchased from the factory
2. Charge controller ($100)
3. Batteries ($1200—8 glass-mat batteries @ $140 each)
4. Power inverter (1500 watts, off the shelf from the store for $100—not appropriate for electronics.)
5. Wire and hardware ($300)
I am hoping to build it all for $3000. I suspect that the hook-up fee for a new home from the local power company would cost half that much. I have everything ready but the solar panels since I am trying to build them myself more cheaply (future post again). But I could buy them of the shelf and have them tomorrow for about that price.
The point of this post is that a solar system is not as expensive as a contractor would charge you, that they can be built by a layman, and that with wise energy use, a small system will suffice. I encourage you to aim this direction and live off the grid, to find a balance between primitive and pampered life. We have the expertise on this blog to “figure it all out” and the willingness to share what we all know. And where I may misguide you on various aspects of new economy preparation, I know our sharp and witty members here will provide correction. So just start doing something that takes you the right direction. Get the cart moving and we’ll steer as we go.
As metals move up in price, the components we need may actually get cheaper in fiat due to deflation and desperate, overstocked vendors cut prices to generate some cash flow for their businesses.
* I am currently theorizing an ADD generator that uses the extra energy of my kids to generate power, but can’t seem to breakthrough the challenge of video game addiction.