Archive for October 24th, 2010

Trash

Recently there was an uproar in my “home town” because the City decided to cut down on the number of trash barrels they would pick up.  That’s fine when you are a typical American family of 2 children and 2 adults (wait:  that was typical back in the 70s, but today…?) but amongst Orthodox Jews who might have 10 children and 2 parents, 2 barrels of trash is hardly reasonable.  That said, I wonder how city dwellers would survive out here in the woods, where there is no trash pick up at all!

Our town dump is located 9 miles from our house, although it is no longer called “the dump.”  Political correctness has hit even this remote corner of the woods; the proper term is “transfer station.”  I guess it sounds more elegant for someone to say he works at the “transfer station” than “the dump.”  It’s open for very limited hours, 4 days a week.  With the cost of gas this week at $2.90, and bone-jarring gravel roads, it forces you to organize your errands so your forays are infrequent exercises in multi-tasking.

Towns handle refuse costs differently.  In some places, you must purchase marked garbage bags from the Town Office, and that signifies your right to use a particular transfer station.  The bags aren’t expensive, but it helps defray the cost of managing the transfer station, and people are more likely to limit the amount of trash they use if they have to pay for the bags.

Our town doesn’t use such a system; the maintenance budget for the transfer station comes solely out of our property taxes (which are quite low, I might add).  I have a waste permit decal on my front windshield, courtesy of the Town Office; only residents of our town and two neighboring ones have the right to use our transfer station, and they must all have that blue waste sticker on their vehicles.

The dump is a well-organized paragon of recycling. As you drive through the gates, the paved avenue is a giant cul-de-sac.  There are different sections for different kinds of trash.  On your left, in a field, is a massive pile of brush.  On your right is a tower of toilets.

The Tower of Toilets

Then comes the giant dumpster for broken furniture and soiled mattresses.  On the left is a dumpster for common household garbage (food, diapers, plastic bags, and other non-recyclables).  There is a pile for metal objects; another pile for building supplies.  One dumpster is for old computers; another is for old televisions.  There is a dumpster for mixed household recyclables (glass, cans, aluminum, paper).  And finally there is the “nice” dumpster, where people throw household items in good condition that can be donated to poor families (clothes, kids’ bikes, decent furniture).

Weekends are the busiest days for the transfer station.  Whereas in the city busy people might socialize when they run into one another at the supermarket, the place in rural Maine to catch up with your friends is at the transfer station.

By the way, plastic soda bottles do not get recycled at the transfer station. If you look at the plastic bottles you have at home, you will notice in fine print the $.05 deposit refund that is redeemable in Maine.   There are special “redemption centers” throughout Maine (and in most supermarkets) but the process is tedious.  The bottles are fed through a machine (that often jams or breaks) which reads a bar code, so the bottles cannot be crushed.  This means that you must lug a garbage bag-sized load of empty uncrushed soda bottles each time you set out for the market, which is not often because the redemption center/market closest to my house is 45 minutes away.  As a result, we have mostly stopped buying soda, relying on the delicious pure mountain water from our well to quench our thirst, which is surely a healthier alternative.

Still, it’s no fun to have a load of stinky garbage riding in the car for 10 miles (most people use their pickup trucks), nor is it fun to leave trash in the house until dump day (we can’t leave it outside due to marauding bears, raccoons, and fisher cats, a vicious mink-like animal).  So the goal is to limit one’s trash as much as possible, which means rethinking entirely the way you shop and consume goods.  Whenever I go to the supermarket now, I look at the packaging as much as I do the product.  Newspapers are saved and rolled, to be used as fire starters for our wood stove.  Vegetable peels, fruit, eggshells and coffee grounds are thrown into a closed-barrel composter 75′ from our front door.  Granted there are only two people in our household, but I’m nevertheless  pleased we’ve managed to cut down our non-recyclable trash load from the three bags a week we used when we first came, to only one bag per week currently.  Even knowing that most of the trash is disposed of or headed for landfill, it’s a wake-up call to see trash dumped in the beautiful woods that is our transfer station.  We don’t really have a visual connection to trash when we live in a city, but it’s gotta go somewhere. When that somewhere is up close and personal, it makes one want to take a little more responsibility for creating it, and feel a little twang of guilt for being part of that defilement.

Going Solar

 

This was supposed to be straight-forward. We had ordered a bunch of catalogs from solar equipment distributors and installers. The material was good. They all included chapters explaining how solar energy systems work; what to buy; how to configure them; etc.  We knew we needed the following equipment: batteries for storing the electricity captured by the solar panels, the solar panels themselves (frequently called PVs, as in photo-voltaics; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photovoltaics), an inverter for converting the DC voltage to AC voltage. After doing our homework, we understood that we also needed to buy something called a charge controller, whose job was to control the voltage and current from the panels to the batteries.

Our system isn’t small. We have 24 6-volt batteries, configured to put out 48 volts. Each battery weighs 67 pounds!

Bottom: batteries.   Top (left to right): digital readout for charge controller, charge controller, inverter, circuit breakers; junction box for generator

We have 8 solar panels that put out about 1200 watts of power on a good day.

The solar panels in winter: maintenance & snow removal are a lot easier when they’re mounted on the ground instead of the roof, which is why we went this route

So is that enough to power our entire house in Maine? We don’t really know yet — ask us after this winter!  But it does seem to be close, perhaps too close.  In a future post we willl  write about  the appliances and other electrical items in the house that were specifically chosen due to their small electrical footprint.  (Just to give you an example, our Whirlpool refrigerator consumes about 340 kilowatt hours of power per year! That’s the lowest rated power consuming fridge of its size (19 cu ft)  on the market today.)

And just to be on the safe side, we have two backup systems in place. Our house is about 500 feet from the road where there is grid power courtesy of Central Maine Power (CMP). When we originally started to build our home, we decided to bring power up to the house (even though we knew, a priori, that we wanted to live off-grid) for a couple of different reasons. We knew the solar system wouldn’t be in place until the house was finished. Also, the contractors that were building our home, were going through gas with their portable generators as if it was water — and of course charging us for the gas and the rental of the generator that they needed to power their tools. Lastly, we thought that whoever one day would buy our home, might not want to rely on solar power and would therefore appreciate a grid connection.

So CMP is our backup system if the battery voltage goes below a certain predefined threshold. In addition, we installed an 8.5 kilowatt generator as a secondary backup. That double backup system is how I viewed our electricial power solution. It seems that our solar guy, our electrician, and our generator man didn’t have that same view or vision.

When the generator was installed, we had only been using grid power from CMP. The contractors tested the system; and indeed, when we cut the power from CMP, the generator kicked in and completely powered our house. Very cool!

And then the solar panels and assorted hardware were installed. Suddenly, the house was being powered by the sun. It was such an incredibly cool feeling. I loved the idea.

But that cool feeling didn’t last that long. After a couple of weeks of living in our solar powered house, we suddenly noticed all the lights went out for an instant and then came back on. We also heard our generator kick on. Uh oh. We were on generator power and I had no idea why.  I had myself to blame, really. Our solar system had two display panels that could show all sorts of information about our system. I just (a) didn’t look at it; (b) wouldn’t have known what to look for as I had not really read any of the manuals nor asked sufficiently detailed questions. But now it was too late.

I called our solar guy and explained the problem to him. I also mentioned that we were going back to our other home for a few weeks and hoped the problem would be resolved before we got back.

A subsequent email from him said that everything is working fine. The batteries had been drained too low and he simply had them recharged. Had I been running on batteries the whole time without solar recharging? That was my first (and incorrect) thought. It wasn’t until months later that I realized our solar panels had simply not been able to keep up with our electrical demand. I now monitor our system on a daily basis and this is, I believe, the correct thing to do — unless you are rich enough to buy sufficient panels to cover any amount of power consumption you might have.

Everything I have said up to now is, more or less, historical and simply background information. As a result of the incident above, I realized something rather quirky. When our house is being powered by the generator, the batteries are not being recharged. When the house is powered by CMP, the batteries are being recharged. What’s worse is that if I turn on the big CMP breaker switch, our house automatically switches from solar to CMP (and the batteries start charging).  There is no way for the system to automatically go from solar to CMP when the batteries are too low. Rather the system goes from solar to generator; and then the batteries don’t get recharged.

So this is where we are today. We have hired a new solar person who is also an electrician (eliminates the need to talk to two contractors). He understands what we want — but he doesn’t (yet) know how to get there. He is speaking to the company that makes the hardware we purchased and hopes that with their help, a solution will be found (that hopefully won’t be overly expensive).  They all said that had we wanted only one backup solution to our solar system (that is, CMP or a generator), then the wiring would have been straight-forward.

So yes there eventually will be a follow-up to this story. I hope it’s soon, before the winter comes, as we would really like to spend much of that season in our cabin/house in Maine.