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.