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The slow cooker period of karen’s cooking

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

As you might remember, a couple months ago, when the new kitchen provided more space, I got a slow cooker (aka a crock pot).

I started out slow with it, making some things you’d expect like soups and stews.

Then I started thinking about it as a way to save propane. (Since we’re on solar, using anything electric is preferable. And surprisingly, the slow cooker doesn’t draw a lot of electricity.) So I went to the library to get some books on what exactly you could do with one of these things, and I found two of the most amazing cookbooks ever (which I promptly ordered several copies of):

Oh my gosh! I had no idea.

Here are a few of the things you can make with a slow cooker: granola (which I often make…it takes hours in the oven, not only using a lot of propane but heating up the whole house), baked breads and brownies, breakfast porridges, baked potatoes (which I love, but hesitate to heat the whole oven up for), enchiladas, eggplant parmigiana, curries, fruit butters, chutneys, and much more!

Here are some more pictures of things I’ve made so far.

I’m gradually working my way through many new recipes and will update this picture set as I do.

If you have a slow cooker and haven’t used it much, do yourself a favor and get one of these cookbooks and give something new a try.


It isn’t easy being green

Saturday, January 18th, 2014

A friend of mind recently asked what green features we’d incorporated into the house, and I thought that would make a good post here.

While we elected early on not to pursue LEED certification for our house (which I’m very glad of…it would have taken a lot longer and been more of a hassle than it was worth), we did try to do things in a way that is sustainable.

One of the first things had to do with the slab that was already on the property when we bought it. It was not the size or layout that fit the kind of house we wanted to build, but we hated the thought of jackhammering it up and hauling all the concrete to the landfill. Our solution, ultimately, was to use the existing slab and to build two separate structures. In the long run, I’m glad we did this as we now have a lovely separate office and guest house.

Of course, the most obvious is that we are living off the grid. All of our power comes from solar with the exception of propane which is used to run the stove, hot water heater, the dryer, and the fireplace. Our hot water heater is one of the instant kinds which only heats water when you need it, rather than keeping water hot all the time. I mostly dry clothes on a line outside, so the dryer isn’t used much. We use the fireplace occasionally, but more for ambiance than for heat. (Also, it is code that you have to have a heat source.)

A consequence of running on solar is that we are careful about the power consumption of our appliances and lights. We always check this when we buy new like fans or other electronics. We have mostly CFL and LED light bulbs. (No halogens!) I am looking forward to having a bigger kitchen that will let me cook more on electric (e.g. a crock pot, microwave, toaster oven) and less on propane. On the rare occasion when we multiple days with no sun, we watch our electric consumption more carefully. (We do have a propane generator, but we don’t need to use it much, because our solar setup is quite robust.)

The biggest “green” feature of our house by far is the insulation. In both houses, we have thick super-insulated walls. (In Virga, we insulated with Icynene, a spray-in insulation made from caster beans.) This keeps the house relatively warm during winter and relatively cool in the summer, even when temperatures reach extremes of below zero or over 110, as they sometimes do. Before we lived here, I really had no idea how much difference insulation could make. Now, I think it may be more of a solution to our fossil fuel dependence than even renewable energy.

We have a bright white roof, which deflects a fair amount of sunlight, keeping the house cooler. (Strangely, we actually got a small energy tax credit for this on the first house.) We also have good double-paned windows that I love.

We do some other things to moderate the temperature. (We have no air conditioning despite living in the desert.) In the summer, we pull down shades on the western-facing windows. During the heat of the days, we keep the windows closed, and in the evenings, when it cools down, which it almost always does, we open then. We also have several ceiling fans.

In the new house, we have a couple big adobe walls, which were designed to provide passive solar and keep the house warm at night. It’s hard to judge yet how effective that will be.

One thing I’d hoped to be “green” about was our choice of building materials. We were able to use some materials that are more sustainable and less toxic. Our floors are stained and sealed with soy based products that we really love. We also used environmentally friendly paints from Yolo. These were more expensive, but worth it, we think. When feasible, we used some locally sourced wood for some of the decorative pieces like our doors.

Other materials, like OSB, dry wall, and stucco, were too difficult and/or expensive to find green alternatives for.

Beyond building, I’ve found that now that we live so much closer to the land, we think a lot more about living in a more sustainable way. In this way, it is much like living in Africa. When you have to dispose of your own trash, rather than having it picked up and hauled off for you, you think more about what you put in the trash. When you get your water from your own pump, you think more about what you put in the water supply. Now, we throw out a lot less and recycle a lot more. We are also vigilant about composting, which not only reduces trash, but gives us safe, organic fertilizer.

We grow a lot of our own food, which means not only better food, but also less trips to town. It’s not uncommon for us not to go anywhere in the car for days on end. (On the other hand, having a truck, which obviously consumes more gas than a small car, is a virtual necessity here.)

Once we get the house more complete, we’re going to put in a rainwater harvesting system.

All in all, I’m happy about what we’ve done. We’re lucky to live in a time when all this is pretty feasible, and I think that things will only get better over time.


Sunday, November 24th, 2013

We had our first snow this weekend. It’s been cold and gloomy for several consecutive days. Not good for solar production. Here’s a picture from our Sunday morning walk.


And Brad clearing snow in hopes of some sun this afternoon.



Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

As much as we love the thunderstorms here (especially during the monsoons), we have come to view them we some concern. Twice now we’ve had damage from a strike. This seems a little funny as the strikes were not really that close. They are delivered to us via our phone lines. Ugh.

The first time this happened we lost a couple of phones, a fax machine and a DSL modem. When we replaced the items I ordered a surge protector for the incoming phone lines and I installed it outside next to the phone box.

The recent strike destroyed the surge protector. Though it is possible it protected something, quite a bit was lost. 2 phones, a DSL modem, a WIFI access point, a small computer and a couple of controllers for the solar equipment. Ugh. (The solar has continued without interruption despite the damage.)

This time I’m going overboard on the surge protectors. I’m installing three in a row outside and inside, one before and one after the DSL modem. I will also connect the solar equipment wirelessly so it has no electrical connection with the phone lines. I really don’t want this to happen again. I’d like to find a simple disconnect for the phone lines that I could throw when it’s looking bad, but have not seem on. Or better, a electrical isolator,,, perhaps a wire to fiber to wire device that could prevent any electricity from coming in through the phone lines.

If anyone has thoughts on the problem, I would be very interested.

Solar power update

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

I believe my last post on our solar power suggested things were not going well with the batteries. Well, I’m happy to report a turnaround.

When I got concerned about the way I wired the batteries together and rewired them, I created trouble. I switched the battery wiring to a spider or wheel style and ended up with seven fat battery cables all held together with a single bolt. At the time I was concerned about the quality of the connection, but they were all touching and the bolt was tight — really tight. I hoped it was fine.

Over time, things continued to get worse. I worried the connection was not solid and finally found this beauty on line:

battery connector

This is how we do it now

Ideally, it would have seven connectors and not five, but this is what I found. It, however, is working great. The batteries have all bounced back. When the sun goes down the initial voltage is higher than I’ve seen in a great while: 50.5-ish. The voltage remains high for much longer too. It’s frequently still above 50 volts late into the night. There was a time when the voltage dropped to 49.1-ish as soon as the sun set. Further evidence of improvement was a day with virtually no sun — we powered through the day and on until the next without concern — or skimping.

It’s such an improvement that I’ve set the generator into maintenance mode in order to make sure it runs once in awhile.

A nice convenience with this battery connector is the wiring block at the top. You can pull off 48 volts for DC powered things here — I’m not using it, but I would have if I’d bought it when I installed the system.


Lights, Camera, Action

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

For most things in our new house, I don’t think I have been very particular (in the “picky” sense, I mean). There just aren’t a lot of things that I feel terribly strongly about. However, one thing my “dream house” must have is track-style halogen lights. :)

Except that halogen bulbs use a lot of power — not good for a solar house.

So for over a year, in our very-nearly-finished house, we’ve had bare bulbs on the ceilings in about half the fixtures, while Brad and I have both looked for lights that satisfied me.

And finally, a breakthrough — LED halogen replacements!

Aren’t the new lights beautiful? I think the Tumbleweed house is really finished now.



Rewiring the Batteries for Solar

Sunday, August 21st, 2011

When we installed the solar equipment, one thing I was never sure of was wiring the batteries. I’d read several articles that suggested it was tricky but had no clear cut instructions. I asked friends and relatives and we all pretty much decided that as long as everything was connected it would be fine. I added some in between connections to make double sure all the batteries received a good charge. Here’s the post.

When I was researching the issue with a drop in solar production I ran across this guide for wiring the batteries that made me question how I wired ours. This article has four ways of wiring the batteries. It looks like method 1 is the worst and method four is the best. I decided to use method 3 because it was dead simple and I had all the parts. The parts are big fat wires and they are expensive.

The method I used is called the star method. In simple terms we have six 48 volt batteries that need to be wired in parallel. To do this you take the red leg from each battery and wire them all together along with a leg that goes to positive on the inverter. Do the same for black to the negative leg of the inverter. It’s important that all the wires from the batteries are the same length. Also the two legs from the inverter should be the same length. This means that the distance from the inverter to each battery is exactly the same. That’s what we are after.

Trouble on the solar horizon?

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

Our system has been running for a year and a half now without a single outage. I did finally order a generator. It’s not here yet, but it’s on its way. I was waiting for a reason to place the order; hoping not to cut the purchase too close – still hoping that. So, what prompted me to place the order? It was the second day ever that we failed to fully charge our battery bank.

The first day the batteries didn’t charge was not a surprise. It was a very cloudy day and the clouds started early. The second time was clear as a bell; there was not a cloud in sight. Hmmm. That’s odd. And a little scary to me. It’s summer. We’re are seeing some solar power production for 11 hours a day. The sweet spot is still before and after noon as always. How could this be?

I posted on a couple of forums that discuss solar power related topics asking what might cause this and got a lot of responses.  Many were useful, some were not. One that said to ignore the problem unless I actually run out of power I marked as not useful despite his being something called a super-moderator. Most people suggested different things that might cause this loss in power: lose or broken wiring, bad solar panels, faulty solar charging unit, poor alignment to the sun, dust in the air and dirt on the panels.

Before I get on to the debugging section, a bit about the problems debugging the system. Well- it’s a system. There are many parts from different companies. Everything they do is somehow tied together. If there were a problem with the batteries it could cause this problem. The solar charging controller uses all available power when bulk charging, but uses less as the batteries get full. This looks like the panels are producing less power, but it’s actually less being used.

I started at what seemed like the beginning to me. I tighten everything that could be tightened. I took apart every cover and found them all. That didn’t help. I washed the panels in plain water with a mop. I realigned the panels to the sun. It was a tiny change and didn’t seem worthwhile, but I would do anything to track this down.

At this point I was feeling like I had looked at everything that I might be responsible for. It was time to consider that the solar panels are bad or the solar charging unit is bad. (The solar charging unit was the least likely to me.) Maybe something really strange like one of the DC breakers was bad.

I did a close inspection of the solar panels and saw nothing interesting or odd. The description I heard from someone with bad panels was that the damage was obvious.

Next I started to test the panels as best I could. Each group of three panels are wired together (in series) and it’s not easy to test them individually. Still, I figured that testing each group would reveal something interesting. I mean, it’s unlikely that more than a few panels would be bad. This means one or two of the groups should show reduced power compared to the rest. I carefully turned off and on each breaker; measuring the power before and when it breaker was off. When I was done every group tested just the same. I tried this again except that this time I turned all the breakers off and then turned each one on and the off. Still no difference. The panels seem fine. Well that, or they are all equally bad.

Somewhere around this point in the debugging it hit me that it’s been really hot lately-much hotter than last year. I started to wonder if heat was playing a factor in this. A few people responded in the forums that high heat did reduce the effectiveness of solar panels.

I contacted Kyocera via email to ask about the problem. They were very helpful. And not just helpful, but they did not prejudge the situation or suggest they were not responsible. They asked me to test a few things. None of the tests found anything very interesting. The amount of power being produced was down to 1900 watts versus 2880, the all time high. I mentioned the extreme heat here to the Kyocera representative and they did some calculations. They were guessing a surface temperature of 150 F degrees based on the outside temperature. At 150F you can expect about a 25 percent loss in power. Assuming the power the panels are rated at: 2520 watts for the 12 panels, a 25 percent loss would put you at 1890. I’m seeing  little better than that. More evidence that it’s the heat is that when I sprayed the panels with water from a hose the power output went up 200 watts in just a few minutes. And best of all was a cloudy day. The sun was behind the clouds for a good half-hour and then it returned strong. The panels had clearly cooled down because I saw 2500+ watts for awhile before it gradually began to drop.

So no, there is not trouble on the solar horizon. The only issue is that I had planned on having more power than I do. Still, this happens in summer and the days are longer. Plus, the generator is on its way. (Just got a call and it should be here tomorrow.) And frankly, I don’t think we’ve ever really taxed the batteries.

The battery voltage drops fast once the sun is down. Until it doesn’t that is. Then it goes slow. And I suspect, slower and slower and maybe slower than that. I’ve never been inclined to really test how long the batteries will last without sun. It seemed too dangerous as the sun would certainly not shine the next day if I ran it all the way down. Once the generator is up and running, it might be time to find out.

November 2010

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Well, it’s moving along towards winter. I just checked the outside highs and lows for the last month or so: 90f-27f. What about inside you ask? The high was 80f and the low 69f. That is very very livable. This is with no heat at all. So far, I’d say that SIPS are a great way to build and the results are excellent.

The fireplace is working now, but other than using it a couple of times for fun, it’s off. I have noticed the floors are getting colder. This slab has no insulation so it’s going to get colder and colder as the ground outside cools. I ordered some moccasins as my feet are naturally cold to begin with. (Since I was a small child I wanted moccasins… it’s never too late. :)  One thing (temperature-wise) about this house is that the south most room is clearly the warmest and it gets colder the more you are to the north–not a surprise. So, here we are headed into our first winter with no concerns.

Karen has gotten us into something new:  Fil mjolk… or just fil (phil) as we call it. Basically, it’s a bacteria that does interesting things with milk products. It’s also like sourdough in that you keep it around as a starter. I have a friend who lives in Sweden where it’s very common and very popular. He gave us a few tips, but mostly it’s been Karen figuring out what to do with it. Most simply you put it in some milk and let it sit out for 12-24 hours, until it thickens. The longer you let it set the thinker it gets. Also, half and half produces a thicker fil. When it’s on the thin side, it’s nice on cereal and particularly granola. When it’s thicker and it’s more like sour cream or yogurt. (Unlike making yogurt, there’s no heat needed… other than what is in your house.) Yesterday Karen made fil into cream cheese. Wow! It’s so good. That was a little harder. You take fil that’s ready to eat and then heat it. Once it’s reached the proper temperature you let it cool and then put it into cheesecloth. The whey drips out and there it is… cream cheese – amazing! Karen’s using goats milk too. This gives you a thicker fil and is not recommended as a starter. We’ve even made it from soy milk — I was surprised it worked, but it was tasty.

We are off to work on the farm in a bit. Pleasantly, we are still surprised with the things we are learning there. The lettuce is as lovely as it has ever been right now. Apparently it can freeze without obvious side effects. The basil (on the other hand) died and turned black after the first really cold night; a total loss. The tomatoes too died off, we are now learning all the things to do with green tomatoes. I used to think green tomatoes were just a local thing to do in certain parts of the country… now I know it’s what you do when you have tomatoes that got green that you can’t bear see go to waste. It’s also interesting to see that the propagation house is being planted now for stuff that will go in the ground in January / February. Also, things like garlic and onions are in the ground now.

A small update on the solar power… I did adjust our panels for winter on the first of November. Karen’s dad was here and gave me a hand. I can do it by myself, but it’s easier and less risky and certainly more fun with help. I noticed some gain in power, but not a ton. I think our panels are pretty forgiving as far as positioning goes. Also, we are seeing a lot more sun than I was lead to expect. All the people I talked to and all I read said to count on 6 1/2 hours a sun a day in the winter-even where we are located. (Yes, we have not reached the solstice yet.) Right now, we are getting measurable sun (.5 KWH or better) for 10 hours a day.

I have picked out a generator. We’re going with a model from Generac. I’m waiting a bit because I need to get one of the newest versions because they have a 2-wire kit that can be added on so it’ll work with our solar equipment.

That’s it for now except for a bit on the weather here… It very much seems that here there is almost always a time of day that is lovely. During the summer we often hide out when it’s hottest, but the evenings outside are always awesome. Right now, the nights are a little cold, but the middle of the day is sunny and warm (75ish). In the middle of winter it’s a lot colder, but it’ll be warm inside and there’s lots of sun in our office. Living the life…

Thoughts on Calculating Solar Power Needs

Friday, September 10th, 2010

I’ve talked about planning and calculating solar equipment/batteries before: here and here. Read these first if you’re planning for solar. Now that we have made all our decisions and are living daily with result, I have a few thoughts on the whole calculation business. These thoughts are affected by the realization that you really have to get a generator and that ours will turn on and off automatically as needed.

Why do you need a generator? No matter how well you plan, something could go wrong. A couple of my neighbors discovered this recently when one lightning strike took out both their inverters. If you agree about needing a generator, calculating what you need in the way of solar power should take this into account.

1) You absolutely need enough battery power to last 24 hours. (In three months we have never failed to charge the batteries each day.) I don’t know where they came up with get enough batteries to last three days. It’s nice, but batteries are very expensive.

2) The most important thing to calculate is the continuous average wattage you expect to use. Things that are rarely used like vacuum cleaners really don’t need to be calculated except for a maximum watts at one time calculation.

For us, this is about 450 watts. At night we often creep down to 200 or so watts; never under this. During the day it’s usually between 400 and 500 watts. If the refrigerator is working hard, it can go up to 800 watts or so for awhile.

3) You need to have an idea of the maximum watts you’ll ever expect to need at one time. Inverters are rated by the maximum number of watts they can deliver. Our inverter can deliver 6000 watts. I doubt we’ve ever used 3000 watts at one time. We for sure have used 2000 watts.

4) Plan your system so you don’t go broke running your generator, but also plan your system so you don’t go broke trying to live without a generator.

Other thoughts on solar power-

No one ever talks about this- (I realize it’s probably because it’s a bad idea, nonetheless…) I increasingly feel that a few panels facing east and west would be of value. For us I think 600 watts each direction would be pretty useful. Basically it would extend the number of hours a day you produce power–you start generating power earlier in the day and later into the evening.

I’ve thought a lot about wind energy and I’ve given up on the idea. We have great wind quite often; however, it’s not reliable enough that you could count on it. If you can’t count on it, then you need another plan.