Saturday, May 31, 2014

Flick of a switch

I went down my basement, flicked a few breakers, and discovered the grid connection was still live. As of now I'm using the grid like it was a really good back up generator.

My lovely wife and I have mixed feelings about it. After all, we did just go two months completely off grid. It feels like a set back, but it might be for the best right now. After one decent sunny day, the weather had turned dark and rainy once again. For the next month I'm planning a lot of heavy duty power tool use and that would strain the system.

Paying a small monthly electric bill for a bit will give me time to work the bugs out of the system. I can focus on other projects for the short term.

After a couple months of trial and error, I have a fair idea what needs to be improved. Going back to the grid gives me a chance to make the upgrades over a longer period of time. If nothing else, it gives me a chance to shop for bargains.

On the bright side, the vast majority of our electric needs are still being met with solar electric power.


Friday, May 30, 2014

Life Lessons

Naval Admiral William H. McRaven recently gave a commence address a the University of Texas. He presented the 10 life lessons that he learned as a Navy SEAL. It's worth listening to.

Excellent advice -if you want to approach life as a Navy SEAL. There are other paths, even other warrior paths, that approach life differently.

Early in his address he points out how one person can influence many lives. He gave examples of soldiers deciding to go one way rather than another and saving 10 lives. Those lives touch other lives and through the years that one action influences many many lives. This is true enough.

How about the person who does not join the military and convinces 10 other people they can do other things with their lives? Not only do they not die from an IED, they aren't at risk for PTSD, physical maiming, homelessness, alcoholism, drug abuse, and maltreatment from a VA center. Talk about an unsung hero.

How about the guy who starts a movement that prevents a war in the first place? Millions are saved. Then what are we to think of the leaders who get their countries into unnecessary wars? The waste and horror reverberates down the generations affecting millions. Are they not evil incarnate?

I am not cutting down the Admiral here, or the Navy SEALS for that matter. He and they are very good at what they do. There are lessons here valuable to anyone about endurance, cooperation, the power of hope and many other things.

Yet . . . I can't help but wonder about some of the people who ring the bell. There's a bell that a SEAL in training can ring and it's all over. He's out, just like that. No doubt many, most, almost all, ring the bell because they just can't take it any more. After all, the SEALS are some of the best of the best. The very definition of an elite unit is one that few can join.

What about that rare individual who can complete the training but decides not to? Imagine such a man who though some inner journey decides he does not want to be a SEAL after all. Perhaps he's read Beowulf and knows the fate of the ultimate warrior.

Imagine the inner strength of such a person. He voluntarily becomes a “failure.” In front of all his peers he rejects their path. Instead, he decides to find a different path in life. Now this is a man who can turn his back on all that training and teamwork. He decides to go his own way. This is a man who joined the military in the first place, completed regular training, and qualified to try out for the very best. At one time he must have bought into the whole warrior culture. Suddenly he decides to go his own way, alone.

A man like that is a dangerous man. He can do anything. Most likely he'll fail, but since he's failed before and moved on, nothing can stop him. He can be killed, but not defeated. These are rare individuals indeed, but they do exist. I've met a couple.
SEAL training is excellent for building warriors. That mind set is useful in many areas of life, but not all. How many formerly elite warriors fail miserably at civilian life? Heck, they even freak out about little things like having an unmade bed, or a bed not made to precise military standards. It can take a lifetime to unlearn some of the lessons taught. What works for the military might not work so well for the individual in the rest of his life.

It would be fun to counter his 10 lessons one by one. I've always been a fan of exceptions and loopholes. However, that would just be mean spirited. Instead, I'll leave you with this thought. Navy SEAL training is not about benefiting the individual. It's about perfecting a fighting tool. That's it.


Thursday, May 29, 2014

New Day

Even though it was cloudy and rainy most of the day, the solar panels did charge the batteries up a bit. The generator ran very little today. Once while pumping a lot of water from the well and another time while using power tools. All in all, not too bad.

It's supposed to be mostly sunny all day Thursday so that should boost the battery bank back up.

I've come to the conclusion that it's a waste of gasoline to try and top off the batteries with this generator. It does a good job boosting the batteries from a low state to a medium charge. After that, it's not very efficient at all. Until I have a better generator I'll just rely on the sun to top of the batteries.

I can limp along with the borrowed generator until it can be replaced with something that charges better. While there's more rain in the long range forecast most days are supposed to be at least partly sunny. That's all I need to get all necessary power from the sun. These dark days have been a strain, both on the electric system and my mood.

Even with a lot of clouds and an inefficient generator, it was still cheaper than being on-grid. I think we'll put that decision off for a while yet. Let's see how the next week or two works out.


Wednesday, May 28, 2014


I must admit I'm not at my best right now. It's easy to write a blog when things are going really well. When they aren't it's tempting to keep quiet. However, in the interests of full disclosure, I'm sharing some difficulties with my solar electric system.

The main problem right now is the complete lack of sun. Days of constant rain cannot be made up with the occasional break in the clouds.

To make matters worse, the borrowed generator is not the best match for battery charging. No matter how long it runs, it never really tops off the battery bank. I know there are reasons that happens, but I just can't remember exactly why or how to fix it.

When we had access to the grid it was easy to give the batteries a full charge. My lovely wife has suggested that we might have to go back to using grid power for backup. This is the first time she's really complained.

I'm feeling a bit under the weather, so that doesn't help. Maybe the world will look better after a good night's sleep.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Special military skills

Memorial day got me thinking of things military. During my firefighting days I worked with a lot of military veterans. Many went through the horrors of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. You've probably heard a lot of stories like that over the past weekend.

This is a different type of war story. I'm not going to use the guy's real name so let's call him Mario. Mario was a pudgy kid who got drafted. The army had a very simple way of dealing with a fat kid. They reduced his rations and ran him through basic twice. He came out a lean mean fighting machine.

Mario wanted to be paratrooper. He trained hard. Soon, however, he was separated from the rest of his unit because he had a special skill that was in short supply. The guy could type. Over and over again he put in for combat duty and was denied. Finally an officer pulled his aside and explained that he would never see combat.

“I can get cannon fodder anywhere, good typists are in short supply.”

He spent his tour basically working a 9 to 5 job in the states. The unit he was pulled out of? Almost 100% casualties. Mario didn't like to talk about it.

Being able to type may have saved the guy's life.


Monday, May 26, 2014

The electric car

There's something about electric cars that fascinates me. I want them to be practical, really I do. For decades I've followed their development, both home brewed and commercial attempts.

Clean, quiet, environmentally friendly, simple -what's not to like?

Batteries, that's what.

Batteries are the Achilles heal of the electric car. The rest of the car is easy to do. Energy storage is the issue. Most people do not appreciate the vast amount of energy in liquid fuels like gasoline and diesel. It's immense. Even the best batteries, pound for pound, have only a fraction of the energy of petroleum products.

To make up for heavy batteries often the rest of the car is made as light as possible. That helps, but a light aerodynamic car with a gas engine gets great mileage, and costs less to produce. The numbers just don't work out.

It's a niche vehicle, suitable for short trips in a mild climate. Short, because the range, while getting better, isn't quite there. A mild climate because heating or cooling the car uses energy that cannot be spared from the main drive unit.

That being said, I've come close to converting a gas car to electric a time or two. The last time I'd lined up a donor car, the motor, batteries, control circuitry, -even a welder and machine shop to do the bits I didn't have the tools for. In the end I just could not justify the effort for the end result. After months of work I'd have a slow short range car that would struggle up hills and lose much of its range in cold weather.

Commercial engineering has come a long way. If someone gave me a Tesla electric car I would not refuse it. It's a piece of high end engineering, pushing the envelop of what's possible. Too bad I can't afford to own one. Heck, I can't afford most regular cars -never mind high end niche vehicle.

In spite of all the drawbacks, we will be seeing more electric cars. Battery technology is finally making some big strides. Better batteries are no longer just scientific curiosities in some lab somewhere. Factories are being build to put new technology into mass production.

Now combine that with falling prices for renewable energy sources and you've really got something. For once the trends are going in the right direction. An electric car charged up from a coal fired plant isn't a green vehicle. One fueled by the sun or wind, however, is a different animal entirely.


Sunday, May 25, 2014

Dangerous flood waters

When I was kid back in the early 70s, my dad belonged to a local canoe and kayak club. Some of the best white water trips could only be paddled during spring floods. The water was so cold that a capsize could prove fatal. After 30 seconds or so a person's muscles would seize up and they'd be unable to swim. Death was not far behind. In spite of the danger we did it for the thrills.

Dry suits were unheard of. A few of us had wet suits. Most did not. We thought it was a big deal to actually wear our life jackets. Capsizes did happen but no one died or even got seriously hurt. Part of it was luck, but part of it was that we traveled in a group and knew how to rescue each other.

I really enjoyed paddling trough flooded forests, over farmer's fences, and through corn fields. Those days of flood water paddling were not limited to my misspent youth. In more recent years I've taken advantage of flood conditions to paddle into places that aren't normally accessible. Tiny streams became small rivers that connect to out of the way beaver ponds. Good fun. In recent years I've paddled over flooded parks, looking through the murky waters to picnic tables and charcoal grills. For some reason I just love looking at a flooded world.

Now I'm told that climate change will cause extensive coastal flooding. A recent NASA study of Antarctic glaciers shows them retreating with nothing to stop that from continuing. The oceans are supposed to rise, eventually flooding many coastal areas. The responsible adult part of me thinks: what a horrible upset that will be. The part of me that likes to padded flooded areas thinks it would be loads of fun.

Imagine sailing over the flooded remains of Miami. How about tying up one's boat on a New York Wall Street building? Picture exploring flooding ruins for salvage. What a life of adventure that would be!

Sadly, that sort of future is supposed to be a hundred or more years in the future. However, I am encouraged by the continual reappraisal of when this sort of thing could happen. Sure, they predict problems a hundred years in the future, but they used to say thousands of years. Maybe something like the release of trapped arctic methane gases would speed things up so I can enjoy the floods in my lifetime.

Does that make me a bad person? I don't think so. It's not my fault. My carbon footprint is a tiny fraction of the average American's. Just because there's a disaster going on doesn't mean I can't enjoy it. Being able to enjoy a good catastrophe made me a better firefighter, so it's not always a negative personality trait.

Someday someone will go boating through the flooded ruins of an earlier civilization. Only wish it could be me.


Saturday, May 24, 2014

Hippies, Rednecks, and Libertarians

The real estate search site Estately calculated the most Hippie friendly states. My own state of New Hampshire came out as the third most friendly. We were right behind Vermont and Maine. Apparently northern New England is Hippietopia.

But wait, New Hampshire is also the state picked by the Libertarians as the best place for the Free State Project as it's already in line with many Libertarian ideals.

I'm not sure how those two groups feel about that. Do Hippies and Libertarians really have that much in common? Probably both sides would say no. I'm not so sure.

Then there are the Rednecks. One does not have to stray too far from New Hampshire's few major cities to find the common Northern New England Redneck -a common breed in the hills.

A buddy of mine who self identifies as a Redneck doesn't think there's much difference between Hippies and Rednecks. He just figures Hippies are Rednecks who can't hunt. I think that might be an oversimplification, but they do have plenty in common.

I have noticed that there are plenty of Hippie chicks who marry Rednecks. They want a guy who's comfortable in nature, but can run a chainsaw to fill the woodshed and put venison in the freezer. Even Hippie chicks don't like to starve and freeze to death.

Their biggest marital conflict is over windows. No, not the operating system, but those glass things in a house. The Hippie chick wants plenty of big windows to observe nature and to have good light for arts and crafts. The Redneck wants small windows for less heat loss in the winter. Often they compromise by having large windows on the southern wall. The Hippie chick sells it as a way to get free solar energy that might save the Redneck from having to cut and split so much firewood.

Personally, I think that maybe the labels don't mean what people think they mean. They are putting people in categories where they don't quite fit the stereotype. Maybe this part of the country is a place where it's fine to be anything you want to be? Maybe there are so many garden variety weirdos that Hippies, Rednecks and Libertarians really don't stick out much.

Not sure exactly where I fit in . . . except that I do.


Friday, May 23, 2014

Do what you love, and you'll do what you love

It's said that if you do what you love, the money will follow.
Anyone else think that a bunch of BS? Granted, there are some people who get paid doing something they'd do just for the joy of it. Unfortunately most things people love to do does not pay, or at least doesn't pay very well.

I've had some great jobs in my past. (Okay . . . distant past). However, that doesn't mean I loved them above all else. Given a choice between going to work and taking the canoe out on the river, the job would have always come in second. Take away the alarm clock and throw in a fishing pole and it gets even better. As much as I loved to take the canoe out, the money never followed.

Sure, I could have taken my love for canoing and started a guide business where I was paid to take people fishing in a canoe. There are worse jobs. However, I would no longer love it. There's all the stuff that goes with running a business: licenses, forms, insurance, taxes, all that crap. Since the guy paid me money, he probably expects me to show him a good time -like I want to be responsible for someone else's happiness.

In this economy, it's even harder to find something that is both the love of your life and makes a lot of money. Most of us are lucky if our monetary efforts are less than horrible.

However, we can plan our lives in such a way as to spend enough time doing what we love -money be damned. Following one's joy is its own reward. Just don't expect that reward to be in the coin that pays the rent.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Bat Country

Every year colleges and universities turn out Journalism majors. It's a pity. They might a well be turning out Phrenologists, alchemists or practitioners of some other pseudo discipline.

There are darn few practicing journalists left in a America today, and none are working in main stream media. Those who in reality practice the trade are unpaid, or poorly paid schmucks who work in alternative media.

As Hunter S. Thompson once said, “We are in Bat Country now.”

Indeed we are. It's a surreal land, the land of the free, home of the brave . . . and the NSA. No wonder he blew his own brains out.

Shame really. He was one of the last of the widely published journalists in America, and only because he was a clown. Gonzo, if you will. Kings once kept jesters. Only they could tell the truth about and to the king. Hunter was a prancing jester, so he could tell the truth. It might not have been real, but it was the truth.

The field of Journalism gasped and died around 1982. on a personal note, in the interest of full disclosure, I received my Journalism degree in 1999 at the ripe old age of 39. The beauty of going back to college at 35 is that you are what you are. The college system can do little but round out a few rough edges . . . and sometimes there's beer.

Fortunately, I knew back in the 90s that the field was dead. That doesn't mean it's study was useless. The skills are worth the price, but only if you don't try and work professionally. The formal study of Journalism provides the serious student with a foolproof bullshit detector. Too bad there is no call for such skills.

Media is controlled by a handful of giant corporations. Nothing that threatens the status quo can ever be published. The last thing one is allowed to do is to actually practice their art. Soon they learn what stories get published and which are career limiting. They are like doctors are paid well, but only as long as they don't cure anybody. No wonder alcoholism is rampant in their ranks.

We are in bat country now.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Solar laundry day

Sometimes it's the little victories.

The work to equalize the house's solar electric battery bank paid off. The washing machine was able to do a load of laundry without my starting the generator. It doesn't sound like much, but it's a good sign. The battery bank wasn't charging fully but now it's much closer to working the way it should.

Laundry puts the off-grid system through its paces. Not only does the washing machine draw a fair amount of power, the water pump is also working. At times both motors kick in simultaneously, drawing a lot of amps.

The voltage would drop just enough to mess up the electronics of the washing machine, especially the timer. The quick and dirty fix was to run the generator while doing laundry. It was cheaper and more convenient than hauling the laundry to town. Even so, I hate to run the generator.

Being able to do laundry using solar power alone is satisfying -one more sign that I'm getting this off-grid stuff to work the way it should.

Speaking of off-grid, I ran into the meter reader checking my nonfunctional meter. I pointed out to him that it's been shut off since mid October.

“That explains why it barely moved,” he said.

“Barely moved? It should not have moved at all.” I complained.

He claimed the heat from the sun can move the meter. It's not a smart meter, so maybe he's right. I asked him about disconnecting the power lead from the house. The guy wasn't sure if it would be free or if it would cost something like $35. It might be worth having it done, especially before winter. The entrance wires and meter are in a bad area for ice formation. Besides, it'd be one less excuse for someone to come on my property.

Another cool think is that I may have found a source of used 75 watt solar electric panels for $35 each. I'll take as many of those as the guy can get for me. With panels at that price, all kinds of nifty solar electric projects become practical.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Adaptation and the law

Peak oil, economic collapse, environmental degradation -pick one or all or add some more collapse threats. Odds are something is going to go down rough for a lot of people. Highly educated people run the numbers and make doom predictions. In fact, there are so many making doom predictions that some of them will be right. Call it the shotgun theory of doom narratives.

Doom happens and then we are all dead.

Few account for people's adaptability. I remember during the oil shocks of the 70s. Before long you could not give away big American 8 cylinder cars. Little foreign 4 cylinders were in high demand. Car pooling became popular. Miles travel were reduced. Trips were carefully planned to get as much done in a single trip as possible.

People do adapt. Houses get insulated and drafts are plugged. Thermostats are turned down. People switch to less expensive fuels. Solar energy is used more, even in simple things like placing a house to make best use of sun and shade.

Gardens are planted. Life styles change. We don't go gently into that good night.

Of course, survival may be illegal in your community. They don't exactly make survival illegal. They just outlaw anything that's outside the current norm. Property values have to be maintained.

Here's the simplest test: are clotheslines outlawed in your community? Are there HOA rules or town ordnances against it? What about other things? Wood stoves banned? Some places don't allow solar panels on private residences. Are private wells outlawed? How about private septic systems, or horrors, a composting toilet! Will someone freak if you tear up your lawn and plant carrots?

That's just a few tried and true strategies and technologies for getting by in tough times. How many of them are outlawed in your area? If these simple things are frowned upon, imagine how they'd react to more radical coping mechanisms. We don't even know what tools for survival people will develop in the future.

I'm betting that if you can't do much outside the norm where you are currently living, don't expect things to change radically in the near future. In fact, enforcement of these silly rules could even get worse. People heavily invested into the old system of property values will try to hold onto the old illusions as long as possible. You will be made an example of.

As for me, I've got a clothesline. It runs right past the solar electric panels near the garden.


Monday, May 19, 2014

When Rome fell

When the Roman Empire fell, a lot was lost. Literacy became rare. Many manufactured goods disappeared. Engineering techniques were lost. We forgot how to make concrete. Marine navigation made no progress for a millennium. Roman ships had the equivalent of modern cruising guides with port descriptions, water depths and a type of latitude and longitude system. Medicine, and science of all sorts were lost.

The same thing could happen to us. How? Civilization is like a chain of links leading down through the ages. Break one link and its gone. When the Roman empire collapsed there were all kinds of people who knew how to keep Roman civilization going. The problem was that they were occupied with more pressing matters -like trying to stay a live. With the collapse of Roman agriculture and food imports, keeping fed was hard to do. Add in the collapse of Roman military might and personal safety got pretty iffy. All those nasty barbarians waving swords around didn't make for a stable work environment. Nobody had much time or energy for the finer things.

Then there was the problem of specialization. To make anything complex requires that industries and systems can function together. If too many of those links break then work arounds can't be found fast enough to keep things going. A man might know how to make a good pottery glaze, but had no idea how to get the clay, build a kiln, turn the pot, or transport all the materials.

Fortunately, knowledge was preserved in monasteries. Not everything, but quite a bit. Much of the knowledge had no practical application for hundreds of years so it wasn't used. Another fortunate thing was that Rome was not the whole world. Much of what was important was saved by other cultures and empires.

Now our civilization is global. Either everything that's important works or nothing works. Many of our complex devices need materials and expertise from all over the planet.

Two generations of illiteracy and civilization is gone. The kid who spends his time learning math and science loses out to the kid who's studied how to shoot and knife fight. The family that tries to keep the arts alive starves while the drudges who farm all day endure.

Much of our knowledge only exists in electronic format. We have already lost information as the machines that read the data become obsolete. Imagine how bad it would be if we lost global manufacturing and electricity?

I hope there are still some monasteries stockpiling books.


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Van repair

The problem with going to a very good mechanic is that he's a busy man. Everyone knows he's a good mechanic. My van sat at his shop for a week before he had a chance to look at it. As I suspected, it was a bad fuel pump. The little electric pump has 188,000 miles on it, so it's no surprise it finally wore out.

He asked me to come down to the shop to answer some questions about my veggie conversion. I'm lucky to have a mechanic that's willing to work with me on my weird experimental veggie fuel system. His concern was that that there seemed to be veggie in the lines and that the filter might be plugged. While there was a trace of veggie in the diesel, it wasn't enough to cause problems. I'm guessing that the dying fuel pump was unable to clear all the veggie out of the diesel side.

His computer revealed that the #1 cylinder wasn't firing properly. That could have been bad -bad injector expensive as all heck bad. Fortunately, it soon cleared. My mechanic said it probably had air trapped in it.

Normally the guy doesn't work on weekends, but it's the only way to catch up. In fact, he's been so busy that his wife has been unable to keep up with the paperwork. My bill won't be ready until Tuesday afternoon.

At least the timing was pretty good. My lovely wife and I have been in town watching my granddaughter all week. Since her parents are on a trip, we've had the use of their car.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Trespassing and poaching

I must have been around 12 years old when this happened. I was tall and strong for my age so dad had no problems with me helping him out. Dad had a little side business making traditional style snowshoes. My grandfather would build the harnesses and help with the woodwork. Dad paid me to do some of the lacing. I was fast enough to make about double minimum wage, pretty good work for a kid.

The frames were made from ash trees. It's strong wood, straight grained and good for steaming and bending. One year there was a shortage of suitable ash trees. The local timber companies had high demand for things like baseball bats and hockey sticks. They used to let dad take the occasional tree, but that access was cut off. Every stick of ash was being shipped to Canada. The weird thing is that these very same companies also bought snowshoes from dad for their timber surveyors.

That's when my dad resorted to trespassing and tree poaching. He'd disappear into the woods by himself and search out suitable trees. When he found one he'd get me. We'd snowshoe up into the woods. Using a two man crosscut saw we'd cut down the tree we needed. Chainsaws were too noisy. We weren't supposed to be there and certainly not cutting trees.

Dad had built a little sled for skidding logs out of the woods. We'd load one end of the logs on the sled, letting the other end drag. Together we'd pull it down the packed trail that we made coming in. Dad was pretty good about picking trees where it would be a downhill drag all the way.

For some reason it was always dark by the time we got down to the truck. It took no time at all to load everything up and get the heck out of there.

The next year a cousin had bought some timber acreage. There was a good stand of ash trees that my cousin let us have. That was the end of our tree poaching. Too bad, trespassing and tree poaching was a good father/son bonding experience.

Happy memories.


Friday, May 16, 2014

The planning area

Lately we've been blessed with some sunny afternoons. I moved one my tables from the van into the sunny part of the yard, along with some folding chairs. My lovely wife and I have fallen into the habit of taking our afternoon coffee out there in the sun. We soak up some rays, watch the wildlife, and examine our property.

That's where the projects are planned and perfected. Right now there are only a couple pressing ones left: mounting the small solar panel and setting up the solar hot water tank.

Our coffee spot is perfect for such plans as we can easily see every likely place for those items. The solar panel is going to mount on the pole with my larger solar array. Seem like that would be a no brainer, right? When I bought the panel I also bought some DC electrical cable. That stuff isn't cheap, so I'd planned on mounting the panel right on the house. However, once I really looked things over it became clear that mounting on the house would not be as straight forward as I thought. The panel would have to be placed so as not to cause leaks in the roof. Then there was the issue of it being in the way of my chimney cleaning ladders.

Mounting the panel on the existing pole is much easier, but too far away for the DC cables to reach. Then I remembered I have some very heavy duty outdoor wire that can be salvaged from somewhere else. That should keep voltage loss to a minimum.

As for the solar water tank, we looked into moving it to a place with better sun. Some plumbing would have to be changed in the basement as it would be coming in from another side of the house. Plumbing is no big deal. After further consideration and consultation we decided to pretty much leave it where it is. While it's not a perfect sun location, there are other qualities. We are building a rocket stove type wood fired heater to boost water temperatures as needed. The current location is pretty good for that.

The third thing I can see from our sunny spot is my little boat project. I can't wait to get back to doing projects just for the fun of it.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Fried charge controller

Don't you just love it when a circuit board fries to protect a ten cent fuse? I opened up the sailboat to discover a funny burned electrical smell in the hold. The little Instaspark brand charge controller had burned out.

When I bought the 30 watt solar panel for my boat it came with the cheap little charge controller. Frankly, I'm surprised it lasted as long as it did. The marine environment is harsh. The Instaspark was only rated for 3 amps. The panel is rated for just under 2 amps. However, I'm betting it put out more than that in the bright Florida sun reflecting off the water.

I've been told to not take charge controller ratings at their face value. A buddy of mine kept replacing 25 amp charge controllers when his panels put out just under that amount. Finally the dealer told him that yes, a 25 amp controller will handle 25 amps, but it won't do it very long.

If you are putting together your own solar electric system don't completely trust the ratings. Allow plenty of extra capacity. The replacement charge controller I've ordered is rated at 7 amps. It cost a few dollars more, but it'll be worth it in the long run.

While on the subject of over rated equipment, don't trust the ratings of inverters too much either. Let's say you have a mid sized inverter rated for 1000 watts continuous power. Don't believe it. While it might (or might not) put out the full 1000 watts, the quality of the electricity produced plummets. That doesn't do your electrical equipment any good.

Often the money difference to bump up a size or two is a small one and more than worth the price.


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Selling a soul

Selling one's soul to the devil is such a cliché. Just the other day I saw the idea used in a comic strip. It's part of the culture. We think of a horned demon tempting some mortal with the riches of the world.

In the real world people sell their souls all the time. They don't sell it to a red monster with cloven feet, but sell it they do. Every time a scientist accepts money to “bend” the facts, a bit of his soul is bought and paid for. Anyone selling their professional opinion is selling their integrity and bits of their soul. When bureaucrats leave regulatory agencies to work for the companies they were supposed to regulate, they make a deal with the devil.

The devil doesn't appear with the stench of brimstone. Sometimes he appears as an old classmate. Some years back I was approached by an acquaintance from high school. He offered me a well paying job as a financial advisor. I told him I didn't know anything about the financial instruments he was pushing. No problem, he said, I didn't need to know. That wasn't important. What he wanted was my reputation. It was a lot of money and the family could have used it. All I would have to do is sell a bit of soul to convince people to buy something they didn't need. I walked away.

Sociopaths do really well in business, having no soul to sell.

Sell a soul is pretty easy if it's a shriveled up thing that never got any care or nourishment.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

And then there were none

So the van in the shop, waiting for my very busy mechanic to get a look at it. Yesterday my lovely wife comes home and says the brakes on her car are soft. Yep, it's leaking brake fluid from somewhere. That's two vehicles out of commission.

We are down to one bicycle -which is working great by the way. Sometimes I think it's a mistake to have machinery more complicated than a bicycle. Of course I think that way on pleasant sunny days when I don't have very far to go or much stuff to move.

The canoes are working fine. One of these days I'm going to take a canoe into town. Its a little over a two mile walk to the river, not all that hard using portage wheels. After that a pleasant 12 mile paddle puts me into town.

I do miss living on a simple sailboat. I did have problems there too, but they were small problems. One of these days we may live on a boat full time. It will not be a big one, nor will it be complicated.

Realistically though, we'll rely on family and friends for any transportation needs until something gets fixed. If you are gong to live out in the boonies, better have some community to rely on.


Monday, May 12, 2014

Stone knife

I don't remember where I head this tale, or even if it's supposed to be true.

An old Australian aboriginal man is met by white foreigners on the beach. He'd never seen white people before. The visitors give the old man a steel knife. He was impressed by its sharpness, how it held an edge, and how strong it was. In spite of its obvious superiority to his stone knife, he refused the gift. The aboriginal man knew how to make a stone knife. He did not know how to make a steel one. The aborigine not want something he knew nothing about.

It was very unlikely the white visitors could build a steel knife either. They were the beneficiaries of a long line of interconnected processes overseen by an army of skilled people. That's modern life. Some hard core primitive skills people could perhaps duplicate the old aboriginal tool kit, but they are a tiny fraction of the population.

Many years ago, while staying at dad's hunting camp, a friend and myself tried to build a crossbow. Our tools were an ax and a knife. We had modern cordage, saving us from having to make our own. We wouldn't be at camp long enough to gather fibers and twist our own rope. After several days work we had a sort of functional crossbow. While it would throw a bolt, it was too underpowered and inaccurate to be more than a toy.

Years later, my friend went on to build fully functional replicas of medieval crossbows. While intended for reenactments, they are accurate and deadly. All it took was years of research, practice, and a well stocked modern workshop with power tools. If he had to, I bet he could put together a good crossbow with medieval tools. Still, even a medieval toolkit is a long ways from the tools needed to build a stone knife.

Should we reject anything more complicated than a stone knife? That's not really practical, nor is it possible to try and reproduce complex technologies from scratch. We can pick and choose technologies that are more easily maintained that others. We might not know how to build a knife from raw iron ore, but we can keep it sharp and rust free.


Sunday, May 11, 2014

Leashes and programming

At one time people came home from a day's work and they were done for the day. No cell phone calls, text messages, or office e-mails followed them around all hours of the day. At one time being able to be called back into work was reserved for life and death professions. Doctors and firefighters were on call 24-7. Now it seems work can get in touch with just about anybody at time for anything. This is not progress. It's an electronic leash.

Worse than the leash is the programing. People have started to believe that work should be able to contact them at any time. Some even take pride in it. News flash: really important people set their own schedule and agenda. People with no time to truly call their own are slaves.


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Firewood tools

I've a problem with gas chainsaws due to my damaged lungs. Their dirty 2 stroke engines send me into uncontrollable coughing fits. You don't want to have a seizure with a running chainsaw in your hands. I've got a nice German steel three foot long crosscut saw. It's a beauty. When sharp it did a fine job of cutting up firewood. When gathering firewood I'd cut it to truck length then buck it up at home with an electric chainsaw.

Sadly, I've neglected the saw the last few years. It's pretty dull now and even the file had rusted. That's an embarrassment, letting tools go bad.

Fortunately, a buddy of mine works for the Forest Service. They use manual saws in wilderness areas. He once took a week long training course on the care and sharpening of cross cut saws. The guy teaching the class wrote the definitive book on the subject. Now all I've got to do is have my buddy teach me how to take proper care of my saw.

My favorite ax lost another handle. It seems I'm always replacing those things. There are “unbreakable” fiberglass handles, but I like a good wood handle. They feel better in my hands. When chopping wood all day that's important.

I've a lead on some good free firewood, so I'd better get my tools in order.


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Right size for two

A friend was complaining about having a teenager living in his house. There's his 20 minute showers, standing in front of an open refrigerator door unable to make a decision, and never turning off lights.

The poor kid would be suffering at my house. His shower would run cold and he'd probably drain the house batteries down to nothing, to be left shivering in the dark.

My lovely wife and I are living with a pretty small energy budget, but we aren't suffering. In fact I think we are living extremely well. We try and get by with what the sun provides. That doesn't always work out, but our generator usage is still less expensive than grid power.

We were always pretty frugal with our energy usage, at least by American standards. However, after living on a small sailboat for a while, we've cut our usage even more. It doesn't take all that much to be comfortable, but it does take some awareness.

I'm thinking it's not the teenager's fault. Unless taught otherwise, electric power comes from those plugs in the wall, hot water comes out faucets, and food comes from refrigerators. Few really have a handle on how all those things are provided. Maybe they have vague ideas, but since it's usually someone else doing the providing, they don't really get it.

Growing up I spent a lot of time at my dad's hunting camp. How comfortable the camp got was a function on how good a job I did filling the woodshed. I could use all the water I wanted. There was 5 gallon jug and a trail down to the stream. There was no electricity at all. The big luxury items were the propane stove and two propane gas lights. When the propane ran out we cooked on the stove and used an antique kerosene lamp for light. I loved life at that camp.

Now I've got a well pump, electric lights, and the Internet. I'm living large and don't take it for granted.


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Walk in the dark

My van's been having issues due to a load of crappy diesel fuel. I thought the problem fixed as I went all the way from northern NH to Boston and back without any issues.

I was wrong.

The universe had a good laugh at my expense as the van died a little over 2 miles from my house. I tried to clear the problem but with no luck. Whatever clogged the line somehow made it past my transfer valve. No matter which tank I used it would feed into a plugged line.

Just to make things more interesting, the van died in the middle of a cell phone dead zone.

My lovely wife stayed with the van while I had a pleasant two mile walk in the dark to fetch her car.

At least it's off the road in a parking area where I'll be able to work on it. The job should go a lot better in the light of day.

At least it didn't die in Boston. That could have been nasty.


Public Auction

My house is going up for public auction. Well . . . it's not exactly my house anymore. I sold it years ago to move out into the woods. I'm not even sure who the last owner was.

My lovely wife and I have fond memories of the place. We lived there with our three daughters when they were little. There were other young families in the neighborhood. We looked after each other's kids. There were even neighborhood parties. Back then we all had pretty solid lower middle class jobs.

People expected things to gradually keep getting better. In the late 80s I had a chance to buy my place in the woods. It took 14 months, but eventually I was able to sell the house in town. The local housing market had collapsed, but nobody had noticed yet. After 6 months it occurred to people that that no one was selling their house for what they thought it was worth.

The mill closed and the good factory jobs went away. Families had a lot more stress. We hadn't moved all that far so we ran into the old crowd from time to time. The town lost population and things slowly got progressively more difficult over the years.

Now the place is up for auction. It's probably a good thing I don't have any money to spare. I'd be tempted to do something foolish and bid on the place. I've no idea what I'd do with it, but it was a solid old house. My lovely wife and I put a lot of work in it over the years. Of course, there's no telling what the place is like now.

It is an odd feeling to see a place that we valued going up for auction. Things fall apart.


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Food Doom

Our agriculture is in trouble. It's highly mechanized and dependent on oil. Oil to runs the machines. Oil is a feedstock for fertilizers and pesticides. Cut off the supply of cheap oil and the industrial food production machine comes to a halt.

Doomers will then say that hungry people will riot and it's the end of everything. The problem with that thinking is assuming food production has to continue to run the way it has in the recent past. It doesn't. The best example is when the Soviet Union fell and oil was cut off from Cuba. They had some lean years, but totally changed their agriculture, putting enormous efforts into organic methods. Any bit of idle land went into production and a diversity of crops were planted.

Cuba is the inconvenient truth that there are alternatives to industrial machine agriculture. We don't all have to starve, but we do have to change the way we grow food.

Cuba is one way, but that's not to say the only answer is for a totalitarian government has to take charge and forcibly change food production.

There are other ways to produce food. During WWI and WWII citizens were encouraged to plant Victory Gardens, and they did much to increase national food production. It worked.

Of course, the world has a more urban population and many don't have a clue about growing food. Fortunately, we are in the information age. People can learn. Already there are price pressures to grow one's own. The pressure will only increase.

There are crops that produce a lot of food in a small space. The humble potato is one of them. Sunchokes are productive and so tenacious that once planted it's difficult to get rid of them as they come up year after year with no effort. There are other plants that produce well but few people have heard of. Discover what grows in your area.

Governments: Federal, State and local are often part of problem, not the solution. Does your area have laws against raising chickens, bees, or planting veggies in your front yard? There are people working hard to change such laws, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

That's great, but why let silly laws prevent you from feeding yourself? If marijuana growers can produce mountains of the stuff, the average person should be able to grow a few carrots. Food safety is too important to let something as trivial as laws to get in the way.

I don't think we all have to starve. In fact, we should be able to eat a more healthy diet. Cubans have a healthier diet than they did before oil was cut off. Shouldn't we be eating as well as Cubans? Don't wait for a crisis. Grow food now. Benefit now.


Monday, May 5, 2014

Suddenly, Boston

A friend's son had some job opportunities come together in the Boston area at the same time a buddy needed a roommate. I got a call on the off chance I could help move the kid. Sure, why not?

It was a long day, but we made it happen. The van burned about 30 gallons of waste veggie oil for the trip. That could have been $120 in diesel as opposed to free veggie. That's one more factor in making the move possible. Nobody has much extra money these day.

Boston driving has never been my favorite thing: narrow roads, one way streets, and traffic signs that are only there to confuse visitors. All the drivers are survivors of a massive demolition derby and have no fear of death.

Later that evening, driving on rural roads, I had to slam on the brakes to avoid a deer. Talk about varied driving hazards. I got in around 1:30 a. m..


Sunday, May 4, 2014

More off Grid updates

One thing about coming home after a long absence, there's plenty of things to catch up on. The good part is catching up with friends and family. The less good part is catching up with all the little projects around the house.

Some projects were pushed back as more immediate concerns were dealt with. My last little emergency concerned the veggie van. Somehow the veggie tank refused to heat up. As I'd have to burn that expensive store bought motor fuel until it was fixed, the veggie tank became a priority. After several days of head scratching and systems checking, a tiny vacuum hose was found to be disconnected. Problem solved.

The solar electric system isn't working at 100% efficiency. It's been working somewhat, and I've had the use of a backup generator so more pressing issues got attention. You don't paint the trim on your house while the attic is on fire.

The battery bank badly needs an equalization charge. The house runs on a dozen deep discharge batteries. Over time some of the batteries get out of balance with the others. For a variety of reasons, they end up with a lower voltage than the rest of the battery bank. That really hurts the efficiency of the whole system. The charge controller shuts down too early as the high voltage batteries signal that they are full. Then the lower charge batteries suck down that surface charge, hurting the whole bank's capacity.

When I was connected to the grid, it was easy to equalize the battery bank. First the battery water would get topped off. Then the grid would be used to over charge the whole bank. Over a number of hours, the sluggish batteries caught up to the rest of the battery bank. Top off the batteries again and it's good for a number of months.

Of course, now I'm off grid so things are little more complicated. The generator I've borrowed does not top off the batteries like the grid could so equalization doesn't happen. Bummer. It is possible to do it with the solar panels and the charge controller, but it's been too cloudy too long to make that happen. One way is to test each battery until the lower voltage ones are found. Then they are put on a charger and brought up to speed one at a time.

Along with making sure the batteries are equalized, I'm going to check all the connections for corrosion and clean them up as needed. Battery maintenance might sound like a pain, but once done I can forget about it for months.

Regular readers of my blog may remember a second smaller solar electric system was set up to run all my small loads. The solar panel is just sitting out in the driveway, but it is hooked up. Now that my long ladder is unfrozen from the ice it can be mounted up high where it'll get more sun. Getting only partial sun now, the system is only getting partial use. Even so, it's nice to have. When the main system is shut down for service, the small one can still run my Internet cable modem, wifi, and Vonage phone.

Getting totally off-grid has required a number of tweaks, but it's worth it. Even having to run a generator more than I'd like, it's still been cheaper than being on the grid.


Saturday, May 3, 2014

Tools and workspace

The car is back in the garage. This time it's for an exhaust leak. It should be a quick and easy fix -with the right tools. Put it up on the lift, a bit of cutting with a torch, and then bolt or weld in a new section. That's how the garage will do it.

I could have done the job at home. Put the car up on some ramps, crawl on my back on the wet ground, struggle with a hacksaw to cut out the bad section. Then I'd have to go 20 miles to the parts store to find the parts. Back under the car I'd work at an awkward angle to bolt everything back together.

I've done it both ways.

At one time my dad owned a home garage with a pit. It was great for fixing cars as a person could work standing up. Had that still been available it would have been worth doing the exhaust repair myself.

Most jobs are like that -much easier with the proper tools and workspace. Unfortunately, with the high price of quality tools, it's not in my budget. Who can justify spending big money for a tool that only gets used once in a great while? Heck, even my well equipped mechanic complains about that. The guy has a small fortune tied up in specialized equipment. At least for him it's a business expense.

With that in mind, I'm excited to hear there's a local effort to form a maker's space. For a small fee people would have access to tools and a workspace. There's also the advantage of being to work with other people and share knowledge. For someone who's always tinkering with different projects the idea excites me. Imagine having access to a full machine shop rather than a vice, hacksaw and a file.

Few of us nonprofessionals can afford fully equipped shops, but together we can make it happen. That sounds like my idea of a fun time.


Friday, May 2, 2014

Preparing for lower income

I had a chat with my local representative in the New Hampshire State House. NH has something like the third largest legislative body in the world. There's over 400 representatives for a tiny state. Good thing they only get paid for mileage. Since there are so many of them it's easy to talk to these guys now and then.

The bulk of my income comes from a small pension from when I was a Firefighter and got hurt in the line of duty. It's takes an act of the legislature to give me a raise. My representative said that just isn't going to happen. In fact, in recent years they cut out a $1000 yearly bonus. Poof! $1000, gone. They've even gone through old retirements with a fine tooth comb to see if anyone's pension was too high. One guy I know discovered they've been paying him $30/month too much for 6.5 years and he has to pay it back. It's not a huge pile of money, but I'm sure he's going to miss it.

At one time I used to get tiny raises in my pension instead of reductions. About the best I can hope for in the foreseeable future is that my income will stay the same. With inflation, that's a steady decrease in real income.

Right now I've got a little slack in my budget. That surplus can be used to further reduce my expenses. It does take money to save money. Solar panels provide free electricity, but they are costly up front. My diesel to waste veggie vehicle conversions have saved me thousands over the years. Recently I figured out how to heat hot water from the woodstove and how to cool the fridge with cold well water.

In the past I've been in situations where I've known how to reduce expenses, but did not have the up front capital to make it happen. When you can barely make monthly expenses, scraping up extra for something as simple as more attic insulation is out of the question. You know that in the long run it will save money, but short term survival exhausts all resources. Forget about spending a couple hundred dollars on something that may or may not work. That's right out of the question.

My efforts have kept me ahead of the curve. I suppose a normal person would just get a job. I can't afford a job right now. It would have to pay amazingly well. It would take time away from gathering wood for the stove, collecting and processing waste veggie oil, gardening, building and repairing things. Those activities would either have to stop or someone would have to be paid to do them. I'd need a reliable car to drive back and forth to work every day. No doubt my wardrobe would need to be improved. Heath expenses would go up.

I'd also probably have a lot less fun.

There are a few little projects that I'm involved in that may or may not pay off in the future. I know how fortunate I am to be able to do things of a speculative nature. Many people have to take the sure thing, even if the pay is little. I've been there in the past and it sucks. Besides, I'm not a kid anymore and few want to hire people my age, even if I can do the work.

If my income does improve, so much the better. If not, I don't expect to miss too many meals.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

Food desert

My rural area is known as a “food desert.” There's not a lot of food shopping options. Most folk just drive over to the regional big box store. I'm not a fan of that store myself. When people shop at that particular chain very little of the money spent stays in the area. Most goes back to headquarters, and I think there are already enough mansions in that part of Arkansas.

A local group is pushing for a co-operative food store. That's great and I went to a local meeting to show my support. A co-op would promote local food production and provide some decent local jobs. I wish them well and would definitely do a significant part of my shopping there.

Speaking of local foods: nothing is as local as a home garden. My lovely wife went through our saved seeds today. We took a trip to the local garden supply to fill in a few gaps. Our garden area is small, but we are expanding it, using even narrow strips of land to plant food.

We had some tall trees cut this past winter that were blocking the solar panels. In their place will be hazel nuts and sun-chokes. While tall plants, they won't get so tall as to block the sun from the panels.

There still snow on the ground here and there, but we've already used some chives from the garden. Wild greens will soon be ready for harvest. My plan is to eat more wild foods this year. They seem to thrive even during harsh years when cultivated plants suffer.

It's funny, they say we are in a food desert, but the woods and fields are full of useful food items.