The Straw House Blog

State of the World

Bruce Sterling’s annual ‘State of the World’ address/dialogue is up on the Well right now. As always, it makes for great reading.

Since we’re talking about Bruce Sterling I highly recommend that anybody interested in Green Building/Sustainable Living check out the Veridian Design Movement.

And no, I haven’t yet posted that list, and I wouldn’t count on seeing it soon. I do have a working dining room light though, that I will post pictures of real soon, and some other lighting news.



Six Month Stats

Now that we’ve been in the house for six months I’ve compiled stats for what we’ve generated off of our solar panels since June of 2003. Because we reset the system when we swapped in the new battery in early June the stats for June start at the 11th.

I have no stats for the wind generator because we have no way to track its production over time right now. If I can find a method of storing data for the wind generator that isn’t expensive and that doesn’t consume electricity itself I’ll set it up, until then it’s all anecdotal. Most of the summer was pretty still and winds have been steadily increasing since late September/early October.

All readings are in amp/hours (AH). Our solar panels and battery bank are wired for 48 volts (V). To calculate Kilowatts (KW) multiply AH times voltage (V) which will give you kilowatt/hours (KWH) at 48V, divide by 2 for KWH at 110V.

Our solar collection system consists of 8 BP Solar 85 watt panels, which feed 48V through a Trace C40 into our battery bank. All of the stats are taken from the C40.


Some Links

Wired article on distributed power generation (micropower):

The Energy Web

A look at the Ohio power company that seems to have been the start of the trouble:

Lights Out on Deregulation

Interested in Off-grid or Grid Inter-tie? Home Power magazine is a good place to start:

Home Power Magazine



The big tall new toy

Spent the day working on a job for a client, but still ran into the back room every hour to check on the wind generator, batteries, and charger. For the first part of the day we had both sun and wind, but as of yet we still don’t really know how much power we’re getting off the wind generator at any given time. Dad hooked my multimeter up to the DC outputs on the controller box so we can see how many volts we’re getting, the high was around 57VDC, and the average, seems to be in the 50VDC range. But it’s not just the volts that are important, it’s the watts, and both rise and fall according to the wind speed.

We’ll learn, and we’ve got a new metering system coming very soon.

Took the dogs for a nice long walk around the land tonight, beautiful night, not too many bugs, and everything is green green green. ‘Course I just walked around looking up at the tower, ‘cause it’s the cool new toy.

Oh, and I took the camera.



The Tower Part Two: Turbine

It’s up. J.P. flipped the switch at 5:00pm last evening and we started generating power. There wasn’t really much wind, so we weren’t generating very much power, but it was very gratifying none-the-less. We got a bit more wind later that night and I stood outside for a while, and when it’s really spinning you can just barely hear the turbine down at the house. Unfortunately there is no meter of any sort on the wind generator controller box in the house so I have ordered a separate meter to track the wind power.

The cable that runs from the tower to the house has three 2 guage aluminum wires: a positive, negative, and neutral line, each consisting of five strands. The entire cable is about 1” in diameter. Dad and Simon set the spool (of 650’) up on blocks so that it could unwind as they pulled. Then the dragged the cable through the bush behind the house, across the little valley, and up the steepest part of the back hill. I helped for the last little bit, then helped pull an extra twenty feet through from the house. Seriously hard work. We had exactly enough wire, barely a foot to spare. When Eric comes to put in the septic bed (next week) he’s going to bury the cable.

While Dad and Simon ran the cable, J.P., Jason, and I made some adjustments to the tower. Two of our anchors weren’t lined up properly and we needed to add an adjustable turnbuckle to allow us to drop the tower, when the lines are tensioned. By the time we had that done Simon and Dad were back and we all started working on attaching the generator, running the wire up the tower, and attaching the junction box at the bottom of the tower.

While we raised the tower, Dad and Simon went back down to the house and started working on the inside wiring. And then the yell came from below: “Turn off the brake!”



The Tower Part One: Erection

We could not have asked for a better day to raise the tower. 22 degrees, nice breeze, warm sun and clear blue skies. The breeze helped keep the black flies and deer flies away, mostly.

Simon and J.P. from Generation Solar were here to provide the know-how, my father, and myself to help. It took us four trips up the hill with the truck to carry all the pipe and tools. We had seven lengths of schedule 40 pipe (from Turkey, oddly enough), two at 22 feet, five at 18 feet. Five of the pieces were for the tower proper, and two were for the Gin pole. It turned out we had to clear a bunch of brush to make way for the guy wires. You try to be green and you still end up cutting down trees!

It took us from 10am to 5pm to assemble, raise and tension the tower properly.  Next week we’ll lower the tower and attach the wind generator. Then the real fun begins.

Rather than try and explain the whole process I have annotated the pictures. Enjoy.



No more safety net

We’ve got our phone and water (thanks Simon!!) back. The phone line was fixed with a quick underground splice, and Simon fixed the pump by turning it off, and then on again. Which, I would like it noted, Dad and I both did several times over the previous 24 hours, but apparently not with the years of experience, and skill that Simon alone possesses. Now we’re coming to terms with having to keep a very close eye on our energy consumption since we don’t have a generator to fall back on anymore.

Yesterday was pretty interesting, since it had been cloudy the day before, and yesterday was cloudy and rainy, our battery voltage was dropping slowly as the day wore on. We had friends over and with just the iPod and stereo running we were drawing one or two amps. But for most of the day we were only producing

two amps from the solar panels. By dinner time the battery voltage had dropped down to about 46.5 volts. Our low voltage cut off is at 43 volts, that’s when the inverter shuts down to protect the batteries from damage due to excessive discharge. 43 volts is a pretty big buffer zone, and we could probably let it drop down to 40 before we did any damage to the batteries, but while we learn I prefer to play it safe.

We got through the night, and woke to a beautiful sunny day. Right now the batteries are charging at 8 amps and we’re up to 50.5 volts of charge (full charge is around 54 volts). We’ve also done two loads of laundry, which we felt safe doing, since it’s supposed to be sunny for the next three days. Since we have no dryer it’s all hanging in the gallery to dry. At this time of year our peak electrical production time is between 10:30am and 3:30pm. In that period we seem to hold a steady 8-10 amps depending on haze. Our record so far is 11 amps, but that was on a super cold February day, with a piercingly clear blue sky. In February you only get about four hours of useful sunshine, total, so that peak is pretty short term.

Right now the solar hot water system is also running full tilt, and the return water temperature is 70C (170F). More than hot enough for domestic hot water. We’ve noticed that the boiler rarely comes on anymore, even though it’s still restricted to only operating every other hour. I’ve set the thermostats down to 15C so the radiant floor system will only come on if it gets fairly chilly.

We’ve got all of the computers, appliances, and stereo on switched power bars. The problem with all of these devices in an off-grid home is that they present phantom loads of one sort or another. What does that mean? Well many appliances, VCRs, stoves, microwaves, etc, have clocks built into them, these clocks are always on, and always draw a little power. TVs have electronics to keep the picture tube pre-heated, this makes the TV come on quicker when you push the ON button, the same circuitry exists some of my stereo components. Individually these loads are very small, but when you add them all together they are much more significant, they also conspire to keep the inverter out of search mode. When the inverter is on it uses about 10 watts.

But the big surprise for us the the sheer number of things that we own that require chargers. Cordless phone, iPod, digital camera, laptop, cordless tools, cellphone… yikes!! So when we woke up today I plugged in all the chargers to get everything topped up. The benefit to all these devices of course, is that yesterday I could use my computer, and tools without effecting the batteries. The cordless phone though, is a write-off. It doesn’t seem to hold any kind of charge, so my original idea of just plugging it in when the phone rings doesn’t work. This is a problem because we only have one working corded phone, so when it rings you have to jog to that one phone.

On Friday the insurance adjuster came out with two contractors to look at the damage done by the generator. They’re going to replace the soffits, plaster, window, flashing, window bucks, and the portion of the ICF foam that melted, but they are not going to replace the generator (I’m not sure why, I’m going to get that clarified). We will be approaching the manufacturer because the beast is still under warranty, but I just have a feeling that an excuse will be made not to warranty it. We certainly can’t afford to buy another right now, so we really will be flying without a net. And you know what? I’m kind of excited at the idea.


New Homepower

There’s a new issue of Homepower out. It has a big article on a house with a massive solar system and all kinds of monitoring software. Looks like the Maui stuff, but I haven’t had a chance to read the article yet.

We’ve been getting between 10 and 11 amps out of our panels on the sunny days but we’re only barely keeping ahead of our requirements - and that’s with no fridge. We need to get the wind generator up to give the batteries a boost. The tower was recalled though and isn’t back yet, and the wind generator was recalled and is now going back to the factory for a retro-fit. All of which is moot though since we haven’t got any cable run, and won’t be until things thaw a bit more. Obviously we’re going to have a problem in the shoulder months when we have the heat and the fridge going at the same time. Although once we turn the heat off we can put the inverter back into Search mode, that’ll save us a little.



Drywall Part One

Saturday. Beautiful day. Sunny, warm (-2C). The panels were pumping out 10 amps (which is about the max). We ran the generator all day to refresh the batteries. The timer seems to be working, Dad ran the generator on Monday, and it wasn’t run again until today. The batteries seemed to be just fine.

I got lucky again at Eurolite, somebody returned five of the lights we wanted to use in the kitchen, so they gave us a deal. Earlier we lucked out with the fans. We like Eurolite, they’re good people.

So today I hung the first kitchen light to see what they’ll look like. I’m going to Photoshop in all five at the proper heights, I might post the pic. We also took delivery of this really fantastic Italian florescent fixture, two 4’ skinny tubes and one hell of a reflector makes a bright bright light. Plus an electronic ballast for low noise. So I put that in the battery room and it really helps.

Mom continued her taping, she’ll be happy when that job’s done. Dad worked on the bathroom doors. And then, after lunch, we drywalled. Yessir, nothing says fun like drywallin’. We got one wall and the ceiling done, taping and mudding tomorrow. We’re thinking of doing the entire west wall in tongue and groove cedar. After we got home Dad and I spent a couple of hours planing and jointing some of our cedar. It looks like we’ve got enough for the west, north and south walls. “But Glen,” you say. “What will you do behind the shower?” Hey all of that boat building experience hasn’t gone to waste, we’re going to put a layer of fibreglass and epoxy over the wood in the shower stall.

This morning and this afternoon I took the dogs for a walk. Apparently all of the rain that we got in Toronto last week was snow up here. The snow is up to my knees in the bush. That’s a serious impediment to the dogs. They are exhausted.

Last, but absolutely not least, a big congratulations to Steven and Laurie who just gave birth to their first child, an (undoubtedly) beautiful baby girl named Malaika. Way to go guys!

I have no pictures of the baby, but I did take pictures at the house.



Noxious Fumes Redux

We had a great day today. I caulked the outside windows. Dad and I put the second pane of glass in the front door. Dad is building a little hut for the generator so that it can sit outside and be locked up safely. We’ve been charging the batteries with the generator over a fairly thick 100’ extension cord. By putting the generator outside of the battery room we can use a shorter length of #10 wire. So what? Well there was a 10 volt drop across the 100’ cord and we could only charge at 15 amps. With the #10 cable we get no voltage drop and can charge at 25 amps. That makes a big difference when you are charging the batteries.

Mom and I worked most of the day on cleaning up the floor in preparation for sealing the remaining area. We finished the remaining three back bays, the kitchen, dining/living rooms and the gallery. So the whole slab has been sealed. I expected that we would only get half done today and we’d do the rest on Sunday. This means that we can start drywalling in the bathroom.

Monday we’re heading up to see Pete and Tina to see about the finish coat of stucco for the inside. Pete’s got some samples where he’s added marble dust to the stucco. Sounds very cool.