Posts Tagged ‘electricity’

In Search of the Perfect Clothesline

(click to enlarge)


Because we are living mostly off-the-grid and are highly dependent on sunny days for our electricity, I needed a washing machine that used very little electricity or water.  Our water comes from a well, but its source is hundreds of feet below the ground.  To get it up to the surface requires a 3/4 horsepower pump – which uses electricity.  So the less water used, the less the pump has to work.

We also want to avoid wasting water, because that flows into our septic system.  A full septic tank is not a pretty smell.  Do you feel frustrated and unfulfilled by your current job?  Realize that there are people who make their living doing nothing but pumping out septic tanks day in and day out, in all kinds of weather.  Makes you start appreciating the persnickety boss and suffocating cubicle at your current place of employment, doesn’t it?

If there is cloudy weather for days and days, and our battery supply is depleted to the point of no electric service, we do have two possiblities:  one is that we simply flick a switch and we are reconnected to the grid via our local power company.  When we’ve had to rely on this, our electric bills have typically been $10 – $25 per month.  The reason they’re so cheap is that we’ve invested a lot of time and thought into how we can cut down on energy expenditure.  Our house is super-insulated which means in summer we don’t need a/c even on the hottest days; in winter it retains heat so well that the woodstove is more than adequate and at times we’ve even had to crack open a window because it gets too hot inside the house!

We’re extremely careful about turning off lights that aren’t in use and using power strips that can be easily turned off to avoid energy vampires.  Most of the lights in the house are LEDs, which use much less electricity than CFL bulbs – – only 10 watts per fixture.  These look like any old recessed lighting fixtures, but they give off wonderful light, are much more pleasing and softer than CFLs, yet more natural looking, brighter and more intense .  I highly recommend them to anyone considering an update to their home’s lighting system:

We put the largest windows on the south and west sides of the house.  On clear winter days the sun’s rays are absorbed by the glass and warm up our rooms nicely.  This is known as “passive solar.”

There are some things in the house that are powered by propane gas: our back-up heating  system, our kitchen range, our hot water, and our generator.  If we have a week of no sunshine and then there is a major storm and the power lines are down (and this happens a lot), the generator is a life-saver.  The downside, besides the noise, is that propane gas is rather expensive.  We have a 1000-gallon propane tank buried underneath the ground, but at $2.30 a gallon, it’s not something you want to drain quickly.  That’s why we don’t have a clothes dryer – – it eats up too much propane gas.  When I cook, it’s usually on top of my stove, because I find that using a pressure cooker cooks food very quickly and uses a whole lot less gas than if I bake something in the oven.

When looking for a washing machine, I first went to This was very useful also when looking for a refrigerator.  You can find out how much energy a particular appliance consumes, and compare different brands.  I found out that a medium-size Miele washing machine was the lowest for both electricity and water use, and it had excellent reliability ratings.  I wasn’t scared off by the smaller capacity, since I’m doing laundry for only 2 people these days.

There is only one problem with a Miele washing machine: the price.  At $2,000 – $3,000 there is no way I was buying one – – new, that is.

Thank you, CraigsList!  A guy in New Hampshire was selling his as-new Miele machine for $1200.  I waited a couple of weeks and then I emailed him.  “I noticed a couple of weeks ago you were selling a Miele washing machine.  There is no way I can pay you $1200, but if you’re willing to take $450 cash, I can be there tomorrow and take it away.”

It even came with an extended, transferable warranty.  I was very excited.  And, I’m happy to report, it does live up to its promise.  Our Miele washer really does get the clothes cleaner, using a bare minimum of detergent, water and electricity!

Hanging the wash is a work in progress, however.

Our laundry smells of fresh mountain air – it’s wonderful.  And we have lots of trees from which to string a clothesline!

A sunny November morning

But the trees have to be at least 20′ apart and here the woods are too thick.  And the line can’t be too far into the woods, because of mud in the spring and snow in the winter.  The clothesline has to be in an area of sunlight, because the cold temperatures and short days in the fall and winter mean the laundry will otherwise not get dry.  Location, location, location!

I do have a single clothesline strung, but am looking into stringing more on the side of the shed.  That’s when I found the Cord-A-Clip.  Even though we did not end up getting a Cord-O-Clip, as I watched the info video on YouTube, I got positively teary-eyed.

It made me think of my mother-in-law, a’h.

My mother-in-law was a TV addict.  She always felt grateful for television.  When she came to this country after the War, she didn’t understand or speak English, and everything and everybody was so different from what she was used to.  She had no money, but she did have a husband and two small children to nurture.  Rent had to be paid and food had to be put on the table.  There was no time to go to night school – – there weren’t enough hours in the day between caring  for the children, and she and her husband working their heads off.

At night when things quieted down, my mother-in-law watched TV.  She learned English from “I Love Lucy” and “Bonanza.”

But as that age of innocence devolved, TV embraced the culture of marketing.  And with it was born “As Seen On TV.”

My mother-in-law was its biggest devotee.

To my mother-in-law, if something was As Seen On TV, it was irresistible.  A product had to be good if it was clever enough and wonderful enough to be As Seen On TV!!!  Soon, the mail carrier  and UPS man were on a first-name basis with my mother-in-law, due to the weekly arrivals of innovative gadgets that were all stamped, “As Seen On TV!”

In her later years, she was thrilled when WalMart and Target created special sections in their stores, whose aisles were limited to items that were As Seen On TV.  It made shopping so much faster – she only had to go to that particular aisle when looking for presents to buy for her family!  Because if it was As Seen On TV, it was surely the most unique, clever and perfect present in the world!

When I saw the Cord-O-Clip, I knew my mother-in-law was smiling down at me from Above.

If my mother-in-law were alive, I imagine this Chanuka we would have gotten presents marked “As Seen On YouTube!” because towards the end of her life, she really loved shopping on the Internet . . .

We miss her!


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, 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.