November, 2009 browsing by month



Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Last week, we stucco’d the battery house (the first coat that is; there will be one more finish coat done in a month or so). The whole thing only took two days.

Here’s the formula:

stucco bag

1 part STUCCO MIX (We have a pallet full of bags of this. It’s astonishing to think how much stucco’ing we’ll be doing.)



3 parts SAND (We just got a delivery of 13 tons. Eek.)



WATER (We have lots of this.)


(This is our new cement mixer. It is so awesome! I highly recommend one of these. The small ones are quite cheap.)

This kind of stucco seemed to go on quite easy. One thing we learned was that you really want the chicken wire stapled down super-tight before you stucco.

Corners are my speciality.

Corners are my speciality.

The final step is troweling in a mesh fabric. It is supposed to prevent cracking. We found it super easy to work with.

The final step is troweling in a mesh fabric. It is supposed to prevent cracking. We found it super easy to work with.

Here are the final results.


Happy Thanksgiving

Friday, November 27th, 2009

This year, we are thankful to be spending our first holiday season here and grateful that we have made wonderful new friends and have made great progress on our new home.

We spent the holiday with Barry and Elizabeth and a few friends from here. It was a traditional day: football, friends, family, and food (and lots of it).

This week we also made a trip to the nearby Chiricahua National Monument, which is always a delightful trip.


Arches and lath

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

One of the things we wanted to experiment with as we built the battery house is archways. We’ll have several archways in the houses, both inside as doorways and outside as an architectural element. The idea is to have indented archways around a few of the outside doors.

This kind of detail is added by putting Styrofoam on the outside of the house and then stucco’ing over it. Apparently, some people put this inch-thick Styrofoam over their whole house (for insulation value, we hear…that seems very odd to us), but we’re doing it just for looks where we want detail like this.

While I love the design (see below), I have been concerned about how we would do the arches.


Brad has always said he’d just “freehand” it, and it would be fine. Today, we found out.

We began by looking at different shaped arches on the Internet. Then we talked about how we’d do it. Since Brad thought he could just draw it and this was only a test (we could always throw out the foam if it didn’t work; we have lots), I said go for it.

We planned to cut one half first and then use that as a guide for the other half so they’d be symmetrical. Brad started by showing me how this would work and that it would indeed result in the point at the top that I wanted.


Then he drew out the design.

He cut the foam with a jigsaw and used a guide for the straight part.

Here’s the end result.

And on the actual battery house.

After we got the arch done, we mounted it on the wall of the battery house and started on lath. The lath we’re using is called stucco netting, and it looks pretty much like chicken wire (or what they call here “poultry netting;” that cracks me up). We were both dreading how difficult it would be to put up.

It has to be nailed down very tightly so that the stucco goes down smoothly. And the stucco goes on in a very thin coat, so you can’t really cheat it much. On the solid wall, we used a staple gun to nail it down. On the foam we had to use very long roofing screws, which was a lot harder. Overall, though, it really wasn’t bad to put up. More pictures here if you’re interested.

All in all, a very good day’s work.

Making doors: take 1

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

So, we have begun to make our first door. Here are the steps.

First, we chose seven 2×6 boards that were reasonably straight, flat, and nice looking, a challenge given the quality of our lumber. Here the boards laid out on the slab to make sure they are flat.


Then we used a table saw to cut about 1/2″ or so off each side to square them up and help ensure fit.


Then we ran a router around the edge to give a beveled look. There are many shapes of router bits with various angles, etc. We chose one that would make a shallow, slightly rounded edge.


Next, we laid out the boards on a series of four pipe clamps with cardboard underneath for gluing. We smeared the edges of each board with carpenter’s glue and then clamped then tightly together, trying to make sure the boards were all flat with no bowing.


Here it is all clamped together….now to wait for 24 hours.


After it came out of the clamps, everything looked great. It’s going to be a week or so before we get to town to get stain and varnish to finish it, so you’ll have to wait until then to see the final results.

Special delivery

Monday, November 16th, 2009

We are having many deliveries at the ranch this week. Today, the inverter arrived. This driver was really great.



We had a productive building day today as well and got the whole battery house wrapped. We plan to start on lath tomorrow and hope to get it done before the paper begins ripping off. (The gale force winds are a real problem.) The battery house is looking really nice and solid. We’re going to stucco the outside, in part as practice for the “real” house. I am quite certain that are batteries are going to have one of the nicest houses ever.



(This is the back. The inset is for the generator. Boy were the corners of this hard to nail down. The generator needs to be outside, but this will keep it covered and will shelter us from the noise. I don’t think it will be running much though.

The weather here has been freezing. Literally…mid 20s at night. This afternoon we finished work at about sunset, and we were both shivering despite our warm hats and coats. It seems only a couple days ago that it was so hot. The human body has an amazingly narrow comfort range!

The next installment

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

So this afternoon (as I’m walking out the door for work…impeccable timing again), I get a phone call.

“This is Joe from Accurate Freight. Is Brad there?”

“No. He’s at the Sunrise property expecting you.” Actually, he was expecting you three hours ago…but he’s still there.

“Well, I’m at the end of Noland Road, and it’s about to turn into a dirt road.” (This is the not-NM way to go…the dirt road way.) “I’m not sure whether to keep going this way or to go back to the interstate.”

OK…. My first thought is, Why are you asking me? My second thought is, Really? you have cell coverage there?  We’d been told earlier that he would be driving a truck that was licensed for NM *and* that had a liftgate and pallet mover. At this point, I decide not to about the latter. “Do you have the paperwork to drive through NM?” I say.

What ensues is a long, complicated story about how he has the appropriate paperwork for taking the batteries through NM but the truck isn’t multi-state licensed (or something like that…I really wasn’t clear), and his boss is worried and told him to take the dirt road.

Without hesitation, I say, “Take the dirt road. It isn’t bad at all. Trucks take it all the time.” At this point, I think that getting the batteries here is the most important thing.

He hesitates. I reassure. We go back and forth.

“Well, I don’t have directions to go that way.”

I give him directions. They are not difficult. He sounds unsure and says that he will probably call me halfway to get clarification. I tell him that he won’t have cell coverage and then instantly regret saying that for fear he’ll reconsider and go back to Tucson.

He agrees to try. I call Brad to convey the information and leave to go do some work.

When I get home, I am anxious to hear the rest of the story. Did the batteries actually arrive?

Well, the short answer is yes. The long answer involves Joe stopping in Portal (which wasn’t on the way according to my directions…he admitted to taking a right when I suggested a left) to call again to clarify where we were. It also involves Doug going out to search for him (he didn’t find him) and an incident in which the truck’s mud flap apparently fell off….and part of his hydraulics had been tied to that mud flap. A kind motorist (really? on the back dirt road?) stopped to help him tie up his hydraulics so he could continue on. The whole thing took several hours, and it is only a 30 minute drive. At any rate, he got there and had a liftgate and pallet mover to boot.

More good news is that with all day to work on it, Brad and Doug managed to construct and mount the shelves for the batteries.



Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

It’s a busy week at the ranch! First, we have a guest visitor this week — Brad’s long-lost (just kidding) brother Doug. He’s here all week, and you better believe we are putting him to work! I’m not sure he knew this was what he was signing up for. He has his own business, and it’s the first time he’s taken time off in a long time, so we are honored that he chose to spend it here.

Secondly, we’ve had all kinds of adventures related to the delivery of the various solar components. They were supposed to call ahead about deliveries so we’d be there, but you know that wasn’t going to happen! On Monday, I was home by myself (getting ready to go out to a school I’m working with here) and I got a phone call — 4,000 pounds of batteries are on their way here now (with no forklift), and they need directions. I give them directions, but there is a major problem — they don’t have paperwork to drive through NM….but that’s the only way to get here, on paved roads at least. So I tell them about the back road. Several phone calls ensue. Brad gets involved. The end result is that the batteries go back to Tucson.

In the meantime, we’ve got our very nice neighbor to drive his tractor with forklift attachments over. It’s sitting on our property now…waiting.

We got a call today from the freight company who says that they will be coming again tomorrow, this time with a truck that is licensed for NM and with a liftgate and pallet mover. Hallelujah! Let’s hope even half of that happens.

We’re also expecting the panels in the next couple days. Brad and Doug started assembling the supports for the panels today. It seemed to involve a lot of reading and re-reading of directions and a fair amount of unhappiness, so I mostly worked on finishing the battery house walls and moving some dirt while they did that.


Other than that, with the whole battery thing, we’ve kicked the battery house construction into high gear. Yesterday, we put in blocking, insulated the walls, and put the inside OSB decking on. (Lots of hammering for me.) These will be the first walls to be completed. We didn’t have enough insulation to finish the whole thing, but three walls are up, which is enough to build the shelving for the batteries.

The weather here is glorious this week. It’s hot, sunny, and clear. Our garden continues to thrive, and we have more arugula and lettuce than we can eat. I’m hoping for one more batch of tomatoes this year as well.

We are celebrating

Monday, November 9th, 2009

…because the electrical work has commenced, and Brad has ordered the solar equipment!

Here’s the Mini after Brad’s trip to Lowe’s to get electrical supplies.


Solar Power Revisited

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

It’s been awhile since I last looked at solar power (with difficulty, I’m not calling these solar systems). With the battery house coming along and the house getting electrical, we decided to recheck my energy/solar calculations and place an order. One bright note is that prices have dropped since I last looked.

Part of the learning curve here is learning to think in things like watts and kilowatts and amps (still working on amps). And a difficulty is that people you talk to may think in amps when you’re thinking in watts. Ugh. Not to mention that some people are on the grid which means they have solar panels, but don’t need batteries.

One thing I did was redo the calculation (guess) of our requirements. This is an odd thing to do because your current requirements don’t really apply. They could, but I’m leaving computers on all the time and not all the lights have been switched to CF. Also, the refrigerator here is old… we’ll need to buy new appliances as we sold all ours when we moved. All the new appliances will have the best energy star ratings that make sense; however, they are not here and I cannot measure them. For all I know, in another month or two they will be even more energy efficient.

I did all the calculations from scratch. When I did, I used my handy-dandy Kill A Watt to determine the actual energy we use for certain devices. These were mostly networking and computers. For the rest I used charts and energy star ratings from possible appliances. Anyway, my estimate closely matched my previous estimate of 8 to 9 kilowatt hours a day. (Try figuring how much power you need a week to run the vacuum cleaner, hair dryer, etc.)

Once you get this number, you can plan what you’ll need to support it. The price on solar panels dropped since I last looked; and the watts produced went up. We’re getting a dozen 210 watt panels, which (warning: math to come) means in one hour of sun, you can generate 2520 watts of energy. We get between 6 and 7 hours of sun here from a solar calculation standpoint. So, we are looking at 15120 to 17640 watts of energy generated per day or 15 to 17.5 kilowatts hours. This is best-best case. The panels likely will not produce this much energy and there are other places you lose power. Still, I believe it should easily provide what we need each day plus enough extra to get us through the cloudy days.

Now comes the battery calculation. Standard thinking is that you want enough battery reserve for three days without sun. For us, this means about 27 kilowatts hours of batteries. But, wait… there’s a catch. Depleting a battery below fifty percent is a big no-no. The two things that most determine the life of your batteries are temperature and charge. So you need to double the 27kwh to 54kwh to get your three days.

There’s another important issue with batteries. They say never to add new batteries into a functioning system. The issue has to do with charging the batteries as a group. Let’s say a group of batteries put into a system the same day and never separated are called a flock. They say the individuals in a flock all need about the same amount of charging each day. This means that when you charge the flock, none will be undercharged or overcharged (both are bad for battery life). If you were to add a new battery into a flock it would need less charging than the rest, ergo, either it gets overcharged or all the rest get undercharged.

One last thing on batteries is that you can get them sealed or unsealed. Unsealed seems the norm, but there are a couple of issues using unsealed batteries. When they are charging, the batteries give off a dangerous gas (hydrogen gas). It’s explosive for sure and probably not good to inhale. You need to install an exhaust system for when the batteries are charging. This is not too hard (the inverter has a power-out line that comes on when the batteries are charging), but an added expense. Also, I think the room temperature will be more stable without this. The other issue is that water in the batteries has to be maintained. Letting them get low hurts battery life. (Of course it does…) Filling the batteries is an opportunity to spill the battery acid. There are special battery caps to aid in the process, but again an added cost. And, it’s one more thing that needs attention. We decided to go with the sealed batteries and ignore all these issues.

Obviously, you need to be pretty confident about your battery purchase. Solar panels on the other hand, can be added as needed… or one could add wind generators or hydro power (if they lived somewhere else that is). Ho hum. So I gave the battery requirement a bump up somewhere in the 70kwh range.

Plus, you really need a generator. This is too bad, but it seems unavoidable. There will be times when there are four or more days without sun; it’s entirely possible that when it’s not sunny you’ll spend more time indoors, use more electricity, you get the picture. The power center, (inverter, charger, etc.) will also turn a generator on and off as needed to charge the batteries and to provide extra power assuming you need to run the arc welder, while you’re building a time lapse movie, and… running the washing machine. OK, it’s unlikely. Anyway, it’s not a big deal. We’re getting a propane powered generator because we can and it does not need fuel carried to it. I’m getting a smaller generator than I planned on because I don’t think we will need it that much.

There are nifty controls to prevent the generator from coming on while you’re trying to sleep and to run the generator at scheduled intervals for maintenance reasons. (so it can charge its battery, etc.)

All this concern about battery life? Yes, they are the most expensive single item in the system.

The power center we decided on is the Xantex XW System. The main reason for getting it is that Xantrex has a great reputation and everything fits together. We’ve visited a lot of systems around here and most are made from different parts from different companies. They seem complicated and sometimes a little wacky.

If you’re wondering, we’re going with a 48 volt system. I’m not sure this matters much in our case, but the trend in solar equipment is toward higher voltages. As far as I can tell, the biggest reason for larger voltages is that they can travel (over wire) farther with less loss of energy. We aren’t planning on long runs of DC… but we could. The only real downside to a higher voltage (like 48 volts) is that you have to buy batteries in blocks of 48 volts. Which is to say, in our case, (we are using 12 volt batteries) we have to get batteries in multiples of 4. Four batteries at 12 volts equals 48 volts… assuming the four are wired in series, but that’s a whole new can of worms – ask if you really want to know.

We are getting ground mounts for the solar panels. People keep wanting us to mount these on the roof. If you have lots of land, mounting on the roof isn’t that good an idea. For one, it’s windy up there. (A friend had all his panels blow off his roof — he was lucky most were undamaged.) For two, I don’t want the batteries near the house so I would have to run wire some distance to a battery house – easier to put the panels near the battery house. Also, I can more easily adjust the angle of the panels, when they are on the ground. (The sun here, in the entire northern hemisphere really, is more to the south in the winter and more overhead in the summer.)

This will all get real soon. How close will my estimates be… stay tuned…