Midcoast Green Collaborative Forum

October 6, 2008

Sustainability Post #35 – Apples.

Filed under: Conversation, Question — Tags: , , — Topher @ 12:05 pm

Yesterday, Some of the family came over, and we picked apples.  About 60 gallons of apples, this all off of one tree.  This is a large 150ish year old apple tree that sits up by the road, and it is the first tree labeled (“A”).  I extracted it from a overgrowth of Japanese arrowroot, and B has been pruning it for the last couple years.  We had it checked, and it appears to be a Baldwin, we call him Alec.

We then proceeded to make apple pie (1), apple sauce (13 pints), dried apples (1 bag), J (sister) took about half of the haul away with her, and there are still TONS left.  There are still a number of trees we haven’t even gotten to yet.  Anyone have suggestions for what to do with apples?  (No root cellar yet).


October 5, 2008

Sustainability Post #34 – Shine through day & Rhythms.

Filed under: Conversation, Philosophy — Tags: — Topher @ 11:23 am

Yesterday was ‘Shine Through Day’ here at Hjälmaren (my house).  That is the day when the setting sun shines in the Western windows, though the house, and out the Eastern windows.  It also bounces off the Eastern windows back to the Western ones.  This is a cause for celebration here, as it is so cool.  Sadly, the clouds reduced the full effect, but it was inspirational nontheless.

Also yesterday, the clock stopped.  This is the wind-up clock in the bedroom which chimes the hours.  It needs to be wound once a month.  I often forget.

These two events brought me to thinking about rhythms, and how they affect us in our lives, and how much they are diminished in modern times.  Many people go through their lives without interacting with all but the most blatant of nature’s rhythms.  They have HVAC systems which automatically keep their buildings at a constant temperature with no direct effort (though much work to pay for it).  They get whatever food they want, regardless of season, from worldwide distribution and heated greenhouses.   And so on.  For me, I enjoy the rhythms, and the feel that they are reminders of the passage of time, and exhortation to enjoy that time, as it will be gone only too soon.  And to celebrate them (no excuse too small).

October 1, 2008

Sustainability Post #33 – Quotation.

Filed under: Philosophy — Tags: — Topher @ 6:36 pm

“Inside the gate there is a footpath, and the footpath must be winding. At the turning of the footpath there is an outdoor screen, and the screen must be small. Behind the screen, there is a terrace, and the terrace must be level. On the banks of the terrace there are flowers, and the flowers must be fresh. Beyond the flowers is a wall, and the wall must be low. By the side of the wall there is a pine tree, and the pine tree must be old. At the foot of the pine tree there are rocks, and the rocks must be quaint. Over the rocks there is a pavilion, and the pavilion must be simple. Behind the pavilion are bamboos, and the bamboos must be thin and sparse. At the end of the bamboos there is a house, and the house must be secluded. By the side of the house there is a road, and the road must branch off. At the point where the several roads come together there is a bridge, and the bridge must be tantalizing to cross. At the end of the bridge there are trees, and the trees must be tall. In the shade of the trees there is grass, and the grass must be green. Above the grass plot there is a ditch, and the ditch must be slender. At the top of the ditch there is a spring, and the spring must gurgle. Above the spring there is a hill, and the hill must be deep. Below the hill there is a hall, and the hall must be square. At the corner of the hall there is a vegetable garden, and the vegetable garden must be big. In the vegetable garden there is a stork, and the stork must dance. The stork announces that there is a guest, and the guest must not be vulgar. When the guest arrives, there is wine, and wine must not be declined. During the service of the wine, there is drunkenness, and the drunken guest must not want to go home.”

Quoted in The Importance of Living” by Lin Yutang.  Original Author unknown (to me).

September 13, 2008

Sustainability Post #32 – Rechargable Batteries in Smoke Detectors?

Filed under: Philosophy, Question — Tags: , — Topher @ 1:43 pm

Today, I was awakened by a smoke detector beeping.  Not, the constant beeping of a fire, just a short beep once a minute or so, for a few minutes.  This is an indicator that the battery needs to be replaced.  Now, I have I think 7 smoke detectors in my house, and can hear all of them from any place within the house.  So, I spent some time looking for which one was beeping.  Since they only beep for a few minutes every hour or so, this was not a easy task.  Meanwhile, I am getting more frustrated.  These are, mind you, AC connected smoke detectors, the battery is just backup should power go out.  But they aren’t rechargeable batteries, nor is the unit designed to recharge them should I put rechargeables in.   How stupid is that?  I suspect many people just disable the whole thing when this happens.

Why can’t I find an AC smoke detector with rechargable batteries, which never need replacing?

September 9, 2008

Sustainability Post #31 – Building Shape Efficiency.

Filed under: Conversation, Philosophy — Tags: , , — Topher @ 9:57 pm

While looking at a number of local houses, I noticed the degree to which they suffer from inefficient shapes.  Lots of corners, lots of wall surface area, not much enclosed volume.  Thus hard to heat.  I decided that I needed a numerical value for this concept.  Building Shape Efficiency is thus defined as Enclosed area / (Perimeter / 4) ^2.   A good house should have a Building Shape Efficiency of 93% or more.  Some I have done audits on are under 45%.

How does your house shape up?

p.s. I make no claim to being the first to invent this metric.

September 7, 2008

Sustainability Post #30 – Lowering the price of gas and oil

Filed under: Conversation — Tags: , — Topher @ 12:15 pm

There are many people talking about how to lower the price of fossil fuels recently.  The suggestions I have heard range from governmental action, to massive new drilling, to nationalizing oil companies, to converting over to renewable sources on short time scales (10 years or so).

These all have one thing in common, they give the person suggesting them something to complain about, while usually not doing anything themselves.

Well, I have an idea for how to lower the amount that one personally spends on fuels, while at the same helping to lower the price for everyone.  Buy less fuel.  As long as demand is high, prices will keep going up.  The recent small decline in prices was preceded by a reduction in consumption.  If everyone keeps reducing  their fuel usage, the price will not see huge spikes like the ones we recently saw.

That said, the global demand for fossil fuels is likely to keep increasing, production is unlikely to keep pace, and the supply is strictedly limited.  Prices are on a trend to increase.

September 4, 2008

sustainability Post #29 – Ditty.

Filed under: Philosophy — Tags: , — Topher @ 12:02 pm


If I should die before I wake,
All my bone and sinew take
Put me in the compost pile
To decompose me for a while.

Worms, water, sun will have their way,
Returning me to common clay
All that I am will feed the trees
And little fishes in the seas.

When radishes and corn you munch,
You may be having me for lunch
And then excrete me with a grin,
Chortling, “There goes Lee again.”

‘Twill be my happiest destiny
To die and live eternally.

Words by Lee Hays (1979) Music by Pete Seeger (1979)
© 1981, 1982 by Sanga Music Inc.

August 17, 2008

Home Performance Technician Classes

Filed under: Information — Tags: , — Topher @ 11:34 am

Richard Burbank, who came to the last MGC meeting is teaching a number of courses for energy efficiency professionals.  Details available at: http://www.evergreenbuildingscience.com/

August 8, 2008

Sustainability Post #28 — Paying all costs.

Filed under: Conversation, Philosophy — Tags: — Topher @ 1:26 pm

One of the problems which prevents sustainability being the obvious choice, is that many costs are hidden.

One small solution that a friend of mine uses, is to include in the cost of any new electronic devices he buys. the cost of enough photovoltaic panels to run said device.  The money goes in a special account, and when enough accumulates, another PV panel is purchased.

August 1, 2008

Sustainability Post #27 — Attitudes.

Filed under: Conversation, Philosophy — Tags: , — Topher @ 9:00 am

The other day I was driving, and feeling guilty about it.  This made me grumpy.

Then I had an epiphany, here I was using up fossil fuels, adding to the CO2 in the atmosphere and other detrimental effects and it was making me miserable.  That’s crazy.  I resolved to enjoy the time I am driving, to squeeze not only as much efficiency, but also as much happiness out of each gallon of gas.  If I wasn’t going to be happy, I wasn’t going to use fuel to accomplish it.

July 17, 2008

What we can do, to help people get ready for winter.

Filed under: Conversation, Question — Tags: — Topher @ 3:16 pm

This is a continuation of a discussion started in email.

The question is what can we as individuals and as a group do, to help people who are likely to be hard hit by recent increases in the price of heating fuel?

July 13, 2008

Sustainability Post #26 — Questions before photovoltaics

Filed under: Conversation, Information — Tags: , , — Topher @ 3:06 pm

Here are some questions to ask yourself before making the decision to install photovoltaic (PV) panels.

1. Am I sure I don’t have a micro-hydro resource?

If you have a stream which runs all year long, and it drops more then ten feet over your property, you should investigate putting in a micro-hydro generation system rather than PV.  It will save you a lot of money.

2. Am I sure I don’t have a wind resource?

Although not as cheap as hydro, wind is certainly cheaper than PV. You will need a reasonably reliable source of wind, and a tower tall enough to get about 30 feet above obstructions.

3. Have I taken advantage of all solar heat opportunities?

Solar hot water systems can heat much of your domestic hot water needs, and some of your heating needs, in most parts of the U.S.  Solar hot air is another option for heating the house.  Both are about 6 times as efficient as PV and cheaper.

4. Have I reduced my electrical use to the absolute minimum?

Solar photovoltaic panels are not environmental friendly to produce, don’t but any more of them than you absolutely have to to offset your electrical usage.   Replace all lights with CFLs or LEDs.  Improve the efficiency of your appliances or buy new high efficiency ones.  Get your family into the energy saving mindset.  Post the electric bill on the fridge, and reward those who help lower it.   Consider a heat pump to replace electric baseboard heat.

5. Is the place I plan to put them optimal?

If your prospective location is partially shaded, consider looking for another location.  Does your neighbor have a better spot; consider working a deal.  Can you sacrifice a tree or two to improve the solar exposure?

6. Does my state ave a net metering law, or a feed in tariff?

If you are going to connect to the power grid, you should be fairly compensated for the power you produce, otherwise the financial aspects are much less favorable.

7. What are the current tax incentives?

Be careful, some state offer rebates but only fund them for a limited number of applicants.  If you miss out, you get nothing.  The tax situation changes all the time, check on it often.

8. Does the power go out for extended periods of time (especially in the winter)?

Consider having some battery backup, even in a grid tied system.  Put vital systems on a separate circuit connected to the battery backup.

July 10, 2008

Sustainability Post #25 — Composting Toilet

Filed under: Conversation, Information — Tags: , — Topher @ 12:17 pm
Humanure Handbook

Humanure Handbook

I have two composting toilets in my house. The basic method is one advocated in the book at the left.  A book voted most likely to change the planet.  It might at that.  I have purchased 5 copies of this book (including one for the local code enforcement officer, and the local library), and as my lending copy seems not to have returned home, I may need to buy another one.

The basic idea is that wastes are collected and covered with carbonaceous cover material (sawdust is a common material).  This is then moved outside, and allowed to aerobically decompose in a compost pile and produce fertilizer for gardens.  The high temperature of the aerobic decomposition (up to 140ºF) kills all human pathogens.

Outhouses and chamberpots, this is not.

Unique advantages: During power outages, my system just keeps on working.  Neighbors have no water, and no way to flush.  You can buy a camp toilet, a 5 gallon bucket and some sawdust; and keep it in the basement for emergencies.  When a member of my family broke their leg, the hospital wanted to send us home with a commode (basically a tall stand with a pot under it), I told them I would just raise the toilet to the right height (and put it a grab bar).  They looked at me strangely, but after getting home a spare wooden box under the toilet was all I needed.  The need for many gallons of drinking water every day to be contaminated, transported, separated, filtered, poisoned, and released into the environment is gone.  Aerobic decomposition produces carbon dioxide, while anaerobic produces methane (which if released if 20-30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas).

Smell: No really, they don’t smell much (I contend no more than water toilets).  I have far more trouble with the smell from the cats not finding the litter box.  Admittedly, there is a tendency to become desensitized to local smells, so I am heartened by the number of people who comment on how good the house smells when they come in (usually related to the food being prepared).

Work: Yes, This system involves some manual labor moving buckets (I have a yoke for carrying them). Dumping the buckets is an onerous chore by anyone’s measure.  However, this is not a property unique to composting toilets, septic tanks need to be emptied (and they are truly foul, due to anaerobic decomposition), and municipal waste treatment facilities produce waste that no one wants to deal with.   Thus, the difference is that a composting toilet doesn’t currently have a infrastructure for someone else doing the dirty work for you (though, of course, you can hire someone).  I never have to plunge my toilets.  I expect when and if these become accepted, there will be a truck to pick up your buckets, and another to deliver certified organic manure to those that want it.

Cost: My cost was under $50 for 9 buckets with lids, two toilet seats, two toilet structures (made from leftover wood), and three composting bins made from pallets.  On going expenses are negligible, toilet paper being the largest expense, sawdust is obtained from a local lobster trap manufacturer for the cost of a gratuity.  I save money on compost, getting about 2-3 yards worth every year.  The size of the leach field (required by code) was reduced by around $3000.

July 8, 2008

Sustainability Post #24 — Cooling your house.

Filed under: Conversation, Information — Tags: — Topher @ 10:02 am

Ever wondered how our ancestors survived without air conditioning, in (basically) uninsulated houses?  They had a number of techniques, some of which I have adapted for my own use.

1) Proper control of windows:   When spring finally arrives, I start opening windows, a few at a time, whenever it is nicer outside than in.  The next day I start installing screens and killing bugs 🙂  As it gets warmer, I leave the windows open all the time (except for thunderstorms).  When days get hot (as this one threatens to be), I close the windows in the morning to retain all the coolth I collected over the evening, and open them again when it cools off at night.  If it remains hot at night, I just open some top windows (for me that is the attic as it is part of my living space) and some lower windows  to let the stack effect empty out the hottest air.  If there is a wind, the upper windows get opened on the downwind side, and the lower on the upwind side.  (If the lower windows are in the basement make sure you don’t exacerbate a moisture condensation problem).  Stack effect is most aided by having twice as much window area open in the low windows as the high windows.

2) Shutters:  Many modern houses have their shutters nailed or screwed open (or even fake plastic shutters, ick).  What use is that?  Shutters are meant to be closed on hot sunny days to prevent sunlight from entering and to allow cool breezes to enter.  These are especially useful on the west side, where the low afternoon sunlight comes in.   The south side isn’t as much of a concern since the sun is high and most of the window will be shaded by roof overhang or even just as they are.  Skylights are generally the worst offenders, and shuttering them is near impossible.

3) No added heat: Look at your electric bill (for a month without air conditioning), multiply the number of kiloWatt-hours per day by 3412, that is how many BTUs of heat you are adding to your house every day.  If all that heat was just warming the air each kiloWatt-Hour would raise the temperature of your house by roughly 10ºF.  (It heats other things too).  Don’t use electrical appliances unless you absolutely need to, find and unplug any phantom loads (TVs, VCRs, etc. that can be turned on by remote; power supplies with transformers (those heavy block plugs); Things with clocks, that don’t need to have clocks.  Take colder shorter showers (refreshing as well).  If you take them at night they will help cool you down from a long hot day.

4) No added moisture.  Well if it isn’t the heat, it’s the humidity, then quit adding humidity.  Take cool baths instead of showers, or just take a dip.  Cover any pots on the stove (yes, you should be doing this anyway).

5) Wind: Fans can substitute for a bit of wind to get circulation going (see point #1), but generally they are best pointed directly at skin.  Use fans which are directly pointed at humans to help with evaporative cooling.  Ceiling fans should be set to blow air down.

6) Drink:  I am not an advocate of huge amounts of water, but have a cool glass of water next to you at all times, and you will drink enough and be cooler (IMHO).

July 2, 2008

Sustainabilty Post #23 — How Much Insulation?

Filed under: Information — Tags: , , — Topher @ 10:50 am

Last week after our  talk on insulation, I sat down to write a post here about what the optimal amount of insulation in a house should be.  Given the recent prices of heating fuels, I thought the speaker undervalued the benefits of insulation.

After a week, and some forays into the world of economics that I would have been happy to skip, I finally have this web page which tries to tell you how much insulation is most economical.  It takes values for fuel type, and price, insulation type, and price (price is divided into fixed costs and variable costs based on thickness of application), mortgage interest (or opportunity cost if no mortgage), and several other things, and computes the optimal amount of insulation, free of any building constraints.

So, how is this useful, you ask, given that there are always building constraints?  Well here are some examples:

1) Your attic,  it is the one place in many house which is free from building constraints.  You can put as much insulation up there as you want.  So, how much is that?  Say, your attic is 26′ by 40′ (1040 square feet), you live in midcoast Maine with around 7500 heating degree days, burn #2 fuel oil at $4.40 / gallon, have a high efficiency boiler at 87%, you think that oil price increases will continue on the current line from 1946 – May 2008 of 2.81% per year,  you are on a fixed income, you can get a 30 year home equity loan for 6.00% to do home improvements, plan to put fiberglass batts perpendicular to the rafters (and existing insulation), which should improve the whole wall factor to 90%, the current insulation is R-20, and the contractor say it will cost $900 (total) for labor, and 10 cents (per square foot) for each inch of thickness.  How much insulation should you add?   19 more inches.  Given that fiberglass only comes in specific thicknesses, this probably means a 6 inch batt and a 12 inch batt.

2) You are building a new house, and are wondering about whether to do 2 x 4 construction, or 2 x 6 on 24″ centers for the walls with dense pack cellulose (both including 1″ foam insulation on the outside).  Using the same economic characteristics as the previous example, and 2000 square feet of wall surface, The whole wall calculator (follow the link on that factor) says that 2 x 4, 16″ on center with 1″ foam outside, has a whole wall factor of 87%, and 2 x 6, 24″ on center with 1″ foam outside has a whole factor of 77%.  And you could discuss that with your builder to see which is cheaper in the long run.  However, there is a problem.  The calculator is telling you that you want 20-22 inches of cellulose in those 2×4 or 2×6 walls.  Oops.  Maybe you should throw out the idea of using old fashioned stick framing altogether.  Perhaps look into double walls or Larsen trusses.

3) You are looking at oil prices and think they are going to track the last five years growth rather than the last 50 years.  That is 36% increases every year.  You are prepared to live under a mound of insulation if you have to, and are planning on buying the newest 97% efficient boiler.    The calculator returns 0, which means you exceeded the limit of 200 inches of insulation.   The solution to your problem is not insulation, but rather ceasing to use oil altogether.

* * *

There are websites (such as this one) which give recommendations for how much insulation you should have.  I have found a couple of problems with them. First, the assume status quo in terms of building construction techniques.  They recommend R-19 for wall because that is what fits in a standard 2×6 wall.  Second, they have embedded assumptions about the price of fuel, and the rate of increase of said, as well mortgage rates and other things.  These assumptions are all hidden and there is no way to change them without going through governmental committees.  Hopefully this site will provide insight into those issues.

It shold be noted that this software is in beta test, and there could be bugs, and it could change without warning.

June 26, 2008

Maine to Host 2009 EnergyOcean Conference

Filed under: Information — Tags: — joanofacre @ 8:58 pm

I just read this little article and I feel that our group should have a seat at the table, so to speak.

We should make sure we get in on this.

I will see if I can find out more about, i.e. days and times, fees, etc.

Maine to Host 2009 EnergyOcean Conference

It was recently announced that Maine will be the host of the 2009 EnergyOcean Conference. The conference is an annual event that focuses on renewable and sustainable energy created from the ocean. The event draws policymakers, technology firms and financiers who are interested in ocean-based energy opportunities.

Maine is home to some of the largest tides in the United  States. Passamaquoddy Bay has tides that reach nearly 20 feet. In the 1930’s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt started a Public Works Administration project to harness the power of the tides to produce electricity for residential homes and businesses. The project was short-lived and funding was soon cut off by Congress.

The conference features all aspects of ocean energy including tidal, offshore wind power and algae-derived biofuels.

Sustainability Post #22 — Food

Filed under: Conversation — Tags: , — Topher @ 8:15 pm

Here is a website which claims that the best  path for reducing fossil fuel usage is a change in the way we get our food.  The whole website is worth a look.

June 22, 2008

Sustainability Post #21 — Garbage Disposals

Filed under: Philosophy — Tags: , , — Topher @ 10:48 am

Garbage disposals waste water, energy, composting resources, and most importantly space in you septic tank, and leach field or municipal sewer system. The price for a new leach field is thousands of dollars, and require digging up a (new) section of your lawn. Garbage disposal might reduce the useful life of a leach field by half. Get a compost bucket for the kitchen instead. I have friends in the city who export their compost bucket to friends who have a compost pile (or use one of these composters.)

June 20, 2008

Sustainability Post #20 — Efficient Refrigerators

Filed under: Information — Tags: , — Topher @ 4:57 pm

The recommendation often seen is that you should replace any refridgerator made before 1993.

Here is an extensive list from Energy Star.

The quick things to take away, 1) Top or bottom freezer beats side by side, 2) Manual defrost beats Automatic defrost (if you defrost once a year),  3) Through the door whatever sends energy out the window.  Also beware of the energy guide labels, they compare similar fridges thus a ‘best’ which is large, auto defrost, with through the door ice and water, will use much more electricity than a ‘worst’ which is small and manual.  Use the kWh / year as your number for comparison.  If you have a chest freezer, a refrigerator only will be a big win (be sure to buy based on the capacity of comparable refrigerator portions of combo units.

Well, all of those can be handily beaten by this idea ( a conversion of a chest freezer into a refrigerator):




Instead of the custom made thermostatic control you can use this beer making fridge control.

— Topher

June 17, 2008

Maine Transport Rant

Filed under: Conversation, Philosophy — Tags: — joanofacre @ 1:18 pm

At a recent meeting that was presented by the Maine Department of Transportation,  they were speaking about planning a by-pass to go around a choke point on Maine’s very own route 1.  Currently the three routes on the table are likely to piss everyone off. This does not come as a surprise.

What does come as surprise is the fact the the DOT has no money in which to do this proposed by-pass.  I was underwhelmed.  So right now, they have an uphill battle with no funding for a project that is likely to be defunct in about 20 years.

I am not understanding why they (the DOT) has not seen the writing on the wall already, as much of the country suffers from oil price sticker shock.  I mean come on. Yes we do want to continue to have the tourist population come visit but we should be focusing on the states health at a time like this.

I realize that a public transportation system is not likely to make money until it is the only option. but we should look at putting something in place now. Before everyone is stuck at home with no work and can’t pay their taxes. and suddenly the state of Maine is trying to bankrupt it’s self trying to fund a network of buses, ferry’s and trains.

It is not like they can’t start small.  A ferry from Bath to Boothbay Harbor.  Rail service that goes up the coast or (shock) across the state to likely destinations.

The sad part is I am not really sure everyone would be willing to use this so called transportation even if it was put into place. We American’s are so fiercely independent and, hey I have a car.  Even in big cities such as New York or Boston.  Places with real systems in place, there is still plenty of traffic, plenty of cars and their owners who will not -willing – give them up.

And I will not even bring the folks in California into this. they are a land of highways and are slowly choking on their own smog.

This is only my opinion.

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