Wednesday, December 10, 2014

December 10: Happy Heating Quartile!

We are entering the second quarter of our heating season here in North America. I arrived at December 10 some years ago by totaling average heating degree-days for a season, dividing by four, and figuring quartile dates. These are posted on the wall below to remind us how our supply of wood is holding up. Of course, weather each year is different and sometimes it's colder, like last year’s heating season that was much longer than average. So, an actual heating season may differ from average like last spring: when a vernal equinox snow buried sprouting grass and crocus for a few weeks.
Left: Wood Added Last Spring; Right: Wood Being Removed; 
A third of US fossil energy services buildings: lighting, heating water, conditioning space and running appliances. These applications are typically easier for renewable energy than those in industries that need high temperatures in huge amounts, another third, because homes, offices and institutions are spread out and require heat and cooling at modest temperature. Lastly, it is difficult for solar, wind and other forms of today’s energy to address the fossil third that fuels vehicles. They move and can’t manage bulky energy storage that is not market ready. It’s up to us to insure we realize energy resource tools that our children and generations can use forever. Purchasing natural gas, heating oil, propane and fossil fueled electricity for heating and cooling  homes are votes for fossil energy purveyors, with their required fracking, tar sands, ocean drilling, pipelines, barges, supertankers and railcars, not to mention water pollution, habitat disintegration, and climate change. Protests are easy to ignore. Using local resources diminishes fossil fuel profits.

We’ve been burning wood to heat our home since the early 1970’s. It takes more work than paying for oil deliveries, the most common source of heating fuel in our rural area, but it also has rewards:
1.     Spring: exercise gathering, cutting up and splitting 12 tons of wood into chunks;
2.     Heating season: daily workouts loading and transporting wood from shed to kitchen;
3.     Every few hours: loading wood into stove firebox;
4.     Twice weekly: jaunts to spread ashes on fields;
5.     Six months: cooking meals & making maple syrup over an already hot surface;
6.     Warming Shelves: starting seeds, dehydrating food & rising dough; and
7.     Always: enjoying radiant heat along with warm, dry garments.
Selecting wood keeps our woodlot in prime growing condition, our orchard and evergreen trees open to sunlight and utilizes waste wood dropped by utilities, storms and neighbors. We spare good trees for lumber, food, woodcrafts or growing mushrooms, though trimmings do become fuel. Removing dying trees and those that become challenged by more successful plants allow those remaining to sequester carbon faster from the atmosphere.

A shortcoming: we can’t leave home for too long during December and January. Passive solar gain keeps our home well above freezing for the rest of the heating season. We’re planning to back up our cook stove in the kitchen with radiant floor heating that utilizes heat from a solar collector and storage. We then have to add another source, probably a wood pellet burning water heater, that can automatically generate heat when the sun doesn’t shine for extended periods. We’ve already experienced six-weeks in early winter where the sun rarely came out.

We’re looking forward to January 19th and March 3rd, midpoint and third quartile for an average heating season, when ordering and planting seeds, maple syrup and wood gathering take over our lives.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Help Develop High Performance Solar Collectors

High performance solar collectors can readily displace fossil fuels. Though there are none today that are easy to use, perform well in winter, and are inexpensive. We need some that:

   1. Intensify sunlight 1,000 times to power tiny receivers that deliver both heat and power;
   2. Harvest more than 80% of available sunlight;
   3. Are made with home shop tools without welding or expensive equipment;
   4. Can be installed using hand tools and then operate without expert attention;
   5. Replace in less than six months the energy invested in making it;
   6. Operate for 30 years: all parts easily cleaned or replaced;
   7. Utilize only materials that can easily be reused or recycled;
   8. Power both themselves and connected energy systems so they work after storms;
   9. Provide year-round hot water, air conditioning and space heating; and
  10. Pay for themselves in fewer than ten years, without subsidies.

We may be 80% there but will take more work to realize these goals. I’ve been building two-axis tracking solar collectors since the mid 1970’s and some even won national awards. None, though, were homeowner ready. Each generation improved on its predecessor, and we built experimental plants that steam-cleaned aircraft parts, cured concrete blocks, made fresh water from the Red Sea or generated enough electricity for 40 homes. When support for high performance solar evaporated in 1988, I continued building table-top solar collector models to solve problems that earlier equipment seemed all too happy to point out. 

In future posts I’ll cover structures, tracking drives, mounting solar electric panels and making mirror panels that are becoming mature. Other posts will define heat transfer packages and tracking controllers that we’ll need help with so homeowners won’t have to worry about operating these high performance solar collectors. They'll be in charge of the thermostat. Solar equipment should use sunlight for power and operate all by itself, report how well it's doing and how much more it would be able to do if given more tasks, like providing light, drying clothes, cooking, dehumidifying basements and preserving food.

Creating a friendly solar tracking controller is ongoing. I developed models that have the sensors, motors and structural assemblies required for tracking high performance solar collectors and quantifying local solar resources. We showed them at MakerCon at the New York Hall of Science two months ago.  Though hundreds of folks stopped by our booth, no one there seemed interested in models tracking the sun’s daily and seasonal motions or stowing upside down for hail protection and keeping mirrors and PV panels free of frost, freezing rain and snow.
Booth at MakerCon, September17, 2014, New York Hall of Science
We’re looking for help, especially with controls. It will take mechanical me years to write and test code that enables solar collectors to initialize themselves once installed and track automatically, let alone report performance. Developing, spinning and populating the circuit boards will probably take me another year. We offer working models and even larger equipment in exchange for electronics and code help.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Harvest: 2014

There may be a killing frost tonight so I spent the day bringing in the last of the sweet corn, pumpkins, tomatoes, potatoes and peppers. A few weeks ago I had harvested spaghetti and butternut squash because their vines had been damaged by earlier frosts that didn't harm tomatoes and peppers. Figure 1 shows the squash and pumpkins under cover where they’ll be safe for a while longer. Squash that doesn't go to a homeless shelter we’ll store in our basement.
Figure 1: Pumpkins, Butternut and Spaghetti Squash Waiting Distribution
During spring 2012 we inoculated cottonwood logs with sawdust in which oyster mushroom mycelium was growing, see Figures 2 & 3. Two months ago we started harvesting quite a few pounds of mushrooms per week from these logs, see Figures 4 & 5. They fruit on their own schedule and we missed quite a few before we learned to check them every day. Mushrooms are super additions to stir fries, sauces and other dishes and, for variety, next spring we plan to inoculate oak logs with shiitake mushroom spawn. Both varieties should keep producing for years until they completely digest the wood they are living in.
Figure 2: Drilling 1.5" deep Holes in Cottonwood Logs

Figure 3: "Pock-marked" Logs Sealed with Red Cheese Wax Covering Holes Filled with Mycelium/Sawdust 
Figure 4: Oyster Mushrooms Growing 17 Months Later

Figure 5: First Harvest of Oyster Mushrooms, Fall 2013
Figure 6: Typical Harvest Every 2-3 Days, October 2014 
This year we had plenty of sweet corn, see Figure 6, but our third planting is not quite ready to harvest in mid October. Shorter days and cool weather slow ripening: the kernels are still small, though edible. Next year for the last planting we'll have to anticipate a growing period longer than the package estimate.
Figure 7: Mid-season Sweet Corn Harvest, 2014

Friday, September 26, 2014

Tomato Harvest

Most years we’ve grown an assortment of tomatoes to establish which ones work out best, but this year we planted two kinds: 96 plants of “Bears”, a plum variety for making sauce and a half dozen “Grape” tomatoes, for all-around eating. Last year “Bears” out produced three other plumb tomato finalists and they did not disappoint us this year. Most fruits are perfect, with not one with blossom end rot or splits. Though not their fault, a few (1 – 2%) did get damaged by birds, rodents and tomato hornworms but this was hardly noticeable. We had more than ample rain throughout the summer but unusually cool weather slowed tomato growth so ripening really began in September, two weeks later than the last few years.

Figure 1: Plum Tomato Plants in September Woven Between Stakes
As described in an earlier posting, we grow our tomatoes among rows of aluminum stakes. It takes only a few minutes per row to weave strips of cloth torn from old sheets to interconnect these six foot long poles with the growing tomato plants. This year it took seven sessions of weaving (every week or so starting in June) to bind the ever taller plants so no vines touch the ground (Figure 1) or block paths between rows.
Figure 2: 240 Pounds of "Bears" Plum Tomatoes (and a Tomatillo)
We pick our plum tomatoes once a week and store them for a few days to insure they fully ripen before we give them away or grind them through our 40 year old Squeezo food processor. It took a good part of two days to transform last week’s 240 pounds (Figure 2) into 17 quarts of very thick tomato sauce and seven quarts of tomato soup stock. Turning the handle drives an auger against a screen that separates pulp and juice from peels and seeds (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Straining Tomatoes Through a "Squeezo" Food Processor
 The latter we feed the chickens (Figure 4) and the liquids become soup stock and tomato sauce that is as thick as canned tomato paste. Since we already have more than 120 quarts of soup stock in the pantry, we now only preserve flavorful variations that include spices and other produce. Earlier in the summer we canned spicy sweet corn salsa that also produced many jars of flavorful stock. This year canning clear yellow tomato plasma isn’t worth the work.

Figure 4: A Chicken Trying Tomato Skin/Seed Mixture
Although 240 pounds of tomatoes produces more than 20 gallons of liquids, this becomes only about four gallons of thick sauce. We’ve found that boiling the thin fluid mixture that flows through the Squeezo separation screen for 20 minutes makes the solids stick together and sink while what we call the “plasma” separates and rises. Floating a colander in the mixture (Figure 5) facilitates ladling out the supernatant yellow fluid so that less than half the initial volume remains in the five gallon pot. 
Figure 5: Tomato "Plasma" Collecting in a Colander Floating in Thickening Sauce
The holes in the colander clog with tomato paste and let in only clear liquid. We add two gallons of the thin fluid mixture a few times, boil and then remove more clear yellow liquid until the pot is over half full of very thick sauce. Turning 16 gallons of this liquid into steam to remove it would take much more time and energy.

In a food processor we chop hands-full of garlic, hot peppers, basil and oregano and add this to the now thickened sauce. To meld flavors, we cook this together for a half hour and then ladle the mixture into jars. Though any canning method would work, for this acidic tomato sauce we use a shallow pan that holds about a gallon of water and is topped by an aluminum disk with holes (Figure 6). 
Figure 6: Rear - Canning Operation with 7 Jars Above Water Ready to be Covered with Top
Front - Finished Jars of Tomato Sauce and Soup Stock
Seven quart jars or up to 10 pint jars can fit on top and are covered by a tall aluminum hat. We start timing 20 minutes and turn down the heat when steam shoots out of two small holes in the top. This energy efficient method is quick and simple. My wife scalded her legs using a pressure canner so we now use this method that has worked well for us for over two decades. 

So the boxes of tomatoes in Figure 1 resulted in 17 Jars of tomato sauce and 7 quarts of bright red soup stock shown in Figure 7. More than 20 gallons of clear tomato "plasma" was discarded.
Figure 7: Left - Tomato Stock, Right: Tomato Sauce from 240 Pounds of Plum Tomatoes
To summarize for our location in upstate New York:
1.      Late March: plant tomato seeds in a small flat;
2.      Late April: transplant 2” seedlings to single 8 oz. containers (we reuse old yoghurt cups);
3.      Late May: transplant 8 dozen 8-12” plants into rows between stakes, two feet apart;
4.      June, July and August: weave 1” wide strips of cloth up, then down each row every week to 10 days,       supporting the tomato vines between the stakes;
5.     September: harvest more than 800 pounds of plum tomatoes and process half, and share the rest with neighbors and a food pantry;
6.      Select 100, or so, perfect fruit, save the seeds (described in a future post); and

8.      October +: remove the stakes and roll up the cloth strips, then mulch the vines so they replenish the soil.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Asparagus, Rhubarb and Wood

It’s May 2 and we just ate asparagus fresh out of the garden. 
First Picking: May 2, 2014
 This weekend we’ll also make a dessert with rhubarb that is now sticking out of the ground over a foot. We’ve pruned some of the current bushes but still have lots more berries to trim so they are not too crowded.

It’s also time to replenish the wood we burned over the winter to keep warm. This year we consumed 5.7 cords, about a cord more than usual. It’s been very cold and we even need a fire going tonight. A cord of the mix of wood we gather weighs over two tons but drying it for over a year reduces its weight by about one third. Cutting trees into pieces that are easy to handle, loading them into a trailer and carting them home, then reducing them to chunks that fit into our stove gets me into shape every spring. Deep snow prevented harvesting dead wood during the winter while the ground was frozen so I’ve had to judiciously fetch loads when the ground is not too wet. The trailer tires sink deep into muddy soil so many lighter loads prevent getting stuck or making unsightly ruts in lawns and fields. Eight loads so far will fill about half the hole we made in the wood pile.
2014 Wood Being Added on Left; 2013 Wood Remaining on Right

Four-wheel Drive Diesel Tractor and Wood-filled Trailer
Besides gathering branches and cutting down dead or diseased trees, I've planted some fast growing trees that can be harvested over and over again. Most trees die if cut off at ground level but some like willow and ash-leaf maple send up shoots that develop into large branches. Because an extensive root syatem is already established, these trees are able to grow very rapidly, adding over an inch of diameter on each branch every year. In seven years this one tree produced more than a half cord of wood. It is growing in a former barnyard and gets watered by rain off the barn roof, so this productivity can't be expected in depleted soil - but it's still neat to see.

Seven Years of Growth of A Single Ash-leaf Maple with a Trunk That Is More Than 40 Years Old

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Transforming Our Kitchen

For years, my wife, Jenny, used sagging floors, drooping cabinet doors and failing appliances to convince me it was time to redo our kitchen. Her not so hidden agenda was to replace my favorite color yellow: the Formica counters, floral back-splash and vinyl floor tiles, with cobalt blue and black that have been taking over the kitchen for a while. The timing of this project had more to do with our daughter’s summer wedding in Montana, followed by an October party at our place here in upstate New York. Endless conversations with Jenny’s two sisters about how much they enjoy their new granite counters on wood plank cabinets and that have doors and drawers that close themselves. My contention that our 35-year old decor and limping appliances still fed us well and provided every amenity was lost to her threat that if I wouldn't redo the kitchen, she’d hire someone who would.

Old Kitchen’s Yellow Counter and Tiles Dominate Cobalt Blue Accessories
January 10, 2013: Our kitchen is a big room, 18 by 23 feet, with windows only on the east and west walls so it needs more light both midday and at night. For years I've wanted to use sunlight to power the lights so we wouldn't need candles when we lose utility power. Since we have two large batteries and an array of solar panels for charging them, all we needed were the fixtures, wire and switches. Solar panels produce direct current like vehicles use, not the alternating current available from the utility. These panels make enough voltage to charge 12 volt batteries, the same voltage used in cars, boats, RVs and many other places. Light bulbs that utilize this voltage are common, and LEDs, light emitting diodes, are becoming the most efficient devices for transforming electricity into light.

All but very few light fixtures and bulbs sold in big box stores operate on utility power though I found two for 12 volts but were very expensive: $25 to $35. Much of the world, though, does not have access to grid electric power and hundreds of companies are developing lighting products for cars, boats, RVs and huts that utilize power from a battery, often charged by a solar panel. I ordered more than a dozen different designs in three categories: spot/flood lamps, strings for under-cabinet lighting, and light bulbs that look good in glass globes. None cost more than $5 with some strings of 50 less than a dollar.

January 21, 2013: Though shipping is often free, it takes a long time for products to arrive from China. And one out of three items either didn’t work or were for the wrong voltage. Power in most of the world outside North America is 240 volts and eight LED bulbs for this voltage arrived instead of those I ordered. Whoever packs fixtures leaving China must assume that everyone wants the voltage they use, or else they have too many and know they are difficult and expensive to return. It costs more for return shipping than the cost of a bulb and they won’t replace “defective” product unless you return it.

Many of the LEDs worked well and I temporarily mounted them in our kitchen ceiling so we could decide what look and color we liked best. Initially Jenny preferred the “warm white” versions, also called 3,000 K because they are the color spectrum radiated by any material  at 3,000 degrees Kelvin, but these made everything slightly orange and were not as bright as the 6,000 K solar spectrum variety that made colors stand out. I also experimented with dimmers and voltage controllers. Dimmers allow tailoring light for doing detail work or leaving the room with enough light to see.

Since I spend most of my waking hours thinking about conserving energy, I figured that it would be great to light the kitchen with the power a 60 watt incandescent bulb consumes. When Jenny saw how good these new LEDs look, and how they dress up the decor, she wanted more of them. We ended up with 10 spot lights that mount in the ceiling. Costing less than $2 each, they are super easy to install, weighing only an ounce, and snap into an opening it takes less than a minute to make with a hole saw. Over the couch we installed a fixture that has four flood lights that can be pointed in any direction. And we hung two pendant fixtures with glass globes over the kitchen island and one over the sink. My wife’s preference for brilliant nine watt bulbs wrecked my lighting power budget that emphasized three watt bulbs, but altogether they take less than 100 watts so in four months we've never run short of power.
Display Showing Voltages of the Two Batteries and the Current (Amps) to the LED Lights
In one corner of the kitchen is a display panel that shows, in bright blue digits, the voltages of our two batteries and how much current the lights are consuming. My wife doesn't have to multiply voltage by current to get watts, but she is getting very conscientious at keeping the current display below 5 amps (around 60 watts) so that we don’t run the batteries down. The voltage displays also shows the power of the sun when it pumps energy back into the batteries as their voltages climb, when fully charged, to above 15 volts. Regulators on each lighting circuit limit voltage to below 12 volts so the LEDs last their 40,000 hour life. By placing them downstream of the three light switches, these DC-DC converters only consume power when the switch is on. If a single regulator were placed upstream of the switches it would continually draw power even when we are away or sleeping. The three light switches have two dimmers each to power the six zones: island lights, under-counter lights, wood hearth lighting, counter and sink lighting, refrigerator/pantry lighting and lights for reading on the sofa and illuminating the book shelves beside it.

February 8, 2013: Installing new lighting fixtures requires making lots of holes in Sheetrock and support structures for running wires to the switch assemblies. The new fixtures and switches are in different places, so I had to remove the old ones and blend the area into the surrounding ceiling and walls. And the extra holes required to snake the wires across joists and through wall studs had to be patched.
Perspective View of New Kitchen Layout

February 16, 2013: Making way for new: tearing up the old floor. The process begins by heating vinyl floor tiles so that their adhesive lets go and are more easily peeled off the plywood. Next off is the plywood that covered many layers of floor cover history. The transition from the original wide pine plank floor to linoleum occurred in 1933. This era was documented by hundreds of pages of newsprint and farming journals used to shim up the worn pine boards. This basic portion of the house was probably built in the 1840s using post and beam construction. Ninety years of boots and shoes wearing down the floor sculpted valleys between the harder knots. Since power sanders were not yet available, they filled in low areas with newspaper so the linoleum would lay flat. The patterns wore away and faded and had to be replaced four times before someone installed the shag carpeting over plywood that we encountered in 1978, the year we moved in.

Linoleum Examples from 1931 to the Shag Era
Many years ago we had removed the plywood and shag that covered our living and dining rooms. We sanded, sealed and refastened the pine boards hidden underneath that are now exposed. I had also doubled the size of our kitchen in the 1970s and this new portion had only plywood that has proven too bouncy underfoot. Adding an additional floor joist between the existing ones made the floor stronger and able to support the much heavier granite counters. I also used this opportunity to integrate the floor with the tiled hearth around the wood stove so they are at the same level.

In a December 25, 1932 newspaper, new cars were selling for $355, kerosene for $0.085 per gallon and coal for $8 per ton. Many of the articles sounded like those that covered the 2008 recession and covered jobs and programs for those looking for work. Some, though, were very different: getting together a coalition of “dry” senators with those in favor of repealing prohibition. Filling one valley between floor knots was a National Farm Journal that featured tires for $3.52 and a one and half ton truck for $615. Articles included how to rig a water pump for providing indoor running water even when the ground is frozen and sewing patterns for dresses and other clothes.

February 24, 2013: Late this afternoon I received a call that the truck contracted to deliver our new appliances was 15 minutes away. When asked why they didn't give me more time to prepare, the driver told me it was not his job. He was only responsible for delivery. The day after Thanksgiving we had ordered a stove, refrigerator, dishwasher and microwave oven for amazingly low prices and postponed delivery to as far in the future as they allowed: three months and then we forgot about it – thinking they would let us know when they were ready to deliver the items. I had time to empty only our seventy year old electric range before the truck arrived. They carried out the stove after they had me remove both the main and storm doors to the kitchen so they wouldn’t scratch one of the new appliances. I had to sign off that we’d keep the other appliances so they could be paid without having carted them off. I had hoped to have the local utility dispose of our old refrigerator but that energy efficiency improvement program had expired in January. Craig’s List enabled us to sell it for $100 and we were happy to have the extra room to work on the floor of the kitchen. I’ll miss all the photos on the old refrigerator door that have been banned from the shiny stainless steel doors of its replacement.

Old Electric Range on the Way Out

Last View of Photo Covered Fridge
February 28, 2013: I arranged to use a neighbor truck to pick up plywood, lumber and the Appalachian Maple flooring we had ordered. We decided to replace our vinyl tiles with a native wood after considering all kinds of engineered laminates, remanufactured bamboo fibers, cork and many others that involved considerable amounts of petroleum. Our pine plank floors are still good after 170 years and maple, a much harder native wood, should last even longer.

March 2, 2013: Began inserting additional floor joists between the existing ones and insuring that their top faces formed a plane that intersected the hearth at the proper level. It took a few 16-hour days to accomplish this and laminate half inch plywood to a three quarter inch tongue and groove plywood base. Twenty seven tubes of construction adhesive and over 1,000 screws later, the floor is now very solid. And I feel sorry for anyone who has to take it apart. I certainly hope I never have to.

Marvin, the cabinet maker, phoned to tell us he was ready to deliver the cabinets. We chose March 14 to give me almost two weeks to paint the ceiling and walls and finish the floor.
Insuring Level Floor Joists While Installing New Plywood

March 9, 2013: Now that the ceiling has been painted it’s time to finish spackling, sanding and painting the walls. Besides working full time Jenny has been busy selecting colors of paint, material for the counter and a faucet for the sink. After we rejected manufactured quartz products that are purportedly better than any natural stone, she decided on granite from Finland called Volga Blue. Because every natural product has variations, she had me make an appointment to visit the supplier near Boston to choose the actual slab that a local artisan fabricated two window sills and the cabinet and island counter tops. We’ll be living with this most visible part of the kitchen, hopefully, for a very long time, so we did not want to risk taking a random item out of stock. On display in the warehouse were hundreds of slabs of not only granite but marble and soapstone covering an incredibly wide assortment of colors and looks – some, usually very expensive, were incredibly beautiful but no other variety fit our decor as well as the one my wife chose.

The Finished Maple Floor with the Hearth at the Upper Left

It took two hours of calculating to figure out what line the floor should follow. Make it parallel to the front of the cabinets? Align it with the most visible uncluttered wall, or the hearth? The kitchen floor is not square, and in fact, it is a trapezoid, more than three inches wider at one end than the other. We decided to split the difference and lay the boards so that they form the same angle with the east and west walls but in opposite directions.

March 14, 2013: Cabinets arrived! During the next two weeks I plumbed the sink and dishwasher, using plywood for the counter. Though I wanted to give our old yellow counter one last hurrah, it was not allowed back into the kitchen, even for the two weeks it took to finish the granite pieces so they exactly matched the installed cabinets, walls and windows. We had lived more than a month without a kitchen sink and dishwasher and were very tired of washing dishes in the bathroom sink.
The New Cherry Cabinets with Some of the Lights Visible

I had only finished the portion of floor that involved the cabinets by the time they arrived and spent the following days completing the subfloor and laying down the maple to complete the rest of the floor. It took an additional week to complete the trim, including the floor transitions between rooms and cherry frame around the hearth.

April 1, 2013: Counters arrived! What a difference it is having solid stone surfaces on all the counters and the two window sills! Areas of the Volga Blue granite shimmer when lit or viewed from different directions making it a very lively surface. But because Jenny covets open surfaces, only a few of the jars of food and kitchen utensils have been allowed back on the counters and shelves. No stacks of magazines have been allowed back in the kitchen. We’re still missing a few necessities that were put away for “safe keeping” (or were surreptitiously discarded when I wasn’t looking).
Granite Counters Installed
Volga Blue Granite Showing Iridescent Blue Streaks
May 5, 2013: Only one job is left: installing tiles for the backsplash between the upper cabinets and counter. Jenny has to pick out the tiles and decide if she wants them all the identical, or to include a cobalt blue accent strip. Since the planting season is now in full swing, I hope she takes her time acquiring the tiles.

April 19, 2014: A year later and there are still no backsplash tiles – but the painted walls are doing fine. We’re just finishing up a great maple syrup season with 11 quarts from eight trees. The winter was exceptionally cold and we burned a lot more wood to stay warm. Time to bring in and process many cords of firewood!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Growing Tomatoes Is Easy!

Raising 150 tomato plants from March through August typically takes me less than hour a week. But it started out taking much longer and involved considerably more effort. In the early 1980’s I sold our rototiller because we covered soil with deep mulch (as suggested by Ruth Stout) that keeps soil moist and almost eliminates weeds (all without tilling). 

The goal? Grow enough tomatoes for canning 100+ quarts of soup, 40 quarts of very thick tomato sauce, 40 pints of hot ketchup, and 30 to 50 pints of salsa. Actual numbers depend on how many of each are still on the shelves from earlier years.
Tomatoes Ready for Processing

One Batch of Tomato Sauce (left) and Soup (right)
The tomato plants start life in a one pint container that originally held mushrooms. When they are a little over an inch tall, I transfer them to individual 6 to 8 ounce cups that originally held yogurt. These are arrayed in flats in sets of 24. In mid April, the flats are transferred to our larger greenhouse after moving the chickens outdoors. The chickens spend the winter in the greenhouse where they eat everything green left from the harvest. They also do a pretty good job tilling and fertilizing the soil. 
Flats of Peppers and Tomatoes in Our Attached Greenhouse
Flats of Plants Growing in  Solar Heated Greenhouse

Summer View of Growing Tomatoes
The next few photos illustrate the benefits of using smooth poles as the warp, and strips of cotton sheets as the weft to hold up tomato plants. Each of 24 plants in a row is between two five foot long poles (with 16 inches, or so, hammered underground). When the plants grow to a height where they can no longer support themselves, a strip is connected to a pole with a clove hitch. The strip is then given one wrap around the next pole and every subsequent one, passing by one side of the tomato plants. At the end of the row, the process is repeated only passing the other side of each tomato plant while also wrapping a few twists around the original strip in order to capture the plant so that wind cannot blow it along the strips.
Early Spring (April 6) View of Tomato Vines Shown Above

View with Tomato Vines Removed
At a gardeners discretion, additional strips can be either clove hitched to a stake to knotted to the last strip. The beauty of this method is that once the dried plants are removed, a process that takes less than 10 minutes for three rows of 24, the stakes can be pulled out and all the strips slid off the upper end. This keeps the strips clean because the lower end of the stake is covered in April mud. Altogether, it took less than half and hour to deconstruct this tomato patch with the strips ready for this year's crop.
Stakes Pulled Out and Cloth Strips Removed
Cloth Strips Ready for This Year
Every year we grow two or three varieties separated by about 300 feet to reduce cross pollination. We've tried more than 50 varieties over the years and try to promote the best ones. We squeeze out the seeds from the most desirable tomatoes of each type and let them ferment for a few days in a glass jar. This process removes the gelatinous material. They are then washed and spread out on wax paper to dry. It takes only a few minutes to process a few thousand seeds and the rest of the tomato becomes sauce. Once thoroughly dried, seeds are sealed in a zip-lock bag with desiccant packets and stored in the freezer where they remain viable for more than a decade.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Model Solar Collectors - Our First Video

My brother, Bob, narrated this video that we made to introduce our work.
Solar Collector Model Showing Target Image in Fresnel Lens

Plants “banked” solar energy as fossil fuels long ago.  It’s been easier to rob these underground vaults than harvest sunlight ourselves. But why not make solar more exciting than dirty energy?  A solar collector that runs itself, reports how much energy it harvests, displays issues that occur,  and even documents free energy going to waste? Why not have them make power, cook, dry laundry, dehumidify basements, and dehydrate food, warm hot tubs, saunas or swimming pools? One day even make liquid fuel for vehicles or energy in bad weather during long winter nights.

Though freely available everywhere, it takes good equipment to power and condition homes and even energize vehicles. Harvesting intercepts an area of sunlight so it does a variety of tasks on its way to warming the outdoors that would happen without a solar collector. They don’t change climate. We use inexpensive glass mirrors to intensify sunlight 500 to 1,000 times and direct it into a tiny receiver that captures it. Because the parts that do the work are small, this minimizes cost. The receiver of a backyard solar collector is the size of a waste paper basket. By following the sun from rise to set, these perform well all day capturing 40% more energy than a stationary collector.

We hope that others will become interested in learning about this technology and help us develop controllers that make them easy to use. Once these little models work well, it’s straightforward to progress to larger equipment since the same controllers that operate models can just as easily run much larger solar collectors.