Category Archives: The Universe

Life, The Universe, and Everything

On helping

A friend sent me a story that got me thinking. I know, sometimes I just can’t help it. Warning: this is a bit of a rant.

As the story goes, a man was in a hurry to get through a supermarket line because he was on his lunch break and didn’t have much time. People weren’t too enthusiastic about letting him go ahead, but were curious why he was buying all these toothbrushes and toothpaste. When he explained that he was taking them to a nearby shelter where people evacuated from a wildfire were staying, and how nobody ever thinks to take a toothbrush when they have to evacuate, they all stepped aside and let him through. And soon everybody was buying something for the evacuees. The store owner even donated goods for the shelter.

I’m still hearing of stories like that from the floods that hit my own state of South Carolina over a year ago, and more recently the wildfires. Many, many people stopped and helped each other, often with little regard for their own property or even safety, working to make sure everyone was safe and taken care of. It seems we’re at our best when things are at their worst.

This time of year so many people volunteer to serve meals to those who have no food. People open their doors to neighbors who are alone. Charities are bolstered by people’s generosity. Toys are donated by the truckload.

Why?

I know what you’re thinking: of course people help each other when they’re in trouble. That’s not what I’m questioning. Turn that around.

What I’d like to know is, why do we do these things just when there’s a calamity, or a certain date shows up on our calendars? We’re pretty good at stepping up when disaster strikes (at least as individuals), or the “season of giving” rolls around. But what about the rest of the time? Why can’t we have at least some degree of that caring, that what-can-I-do-to-help attitude, all the time?

We fuss and fume about the way that idiot up the road cuts their grass, but if there’s a fire, illness, or some other catastrophic event, we can’t do enough to help them. Then, when it’s all over, they’re back to being an idiot. Ok, maybe there’s good reason they shouldn’t cut their grass that way, but that doesn’t make them an idiot or not worthy of our care and consideration.

I’m not saying that we need to call out the National Guard every day, but I think there are plenty of opportunities to help each other out in smaller ways. Maybe you see someone in the supermarket checkout line who’s a little short of cash for their bread and milk. Maybe someone could use a hand carrying or picking up something. Maybe a neighbor is having car trouble and could use a ride or two. Maybe you could hold the door and smile for someone. If we’re so concerned about our neighbor’s safety when a tornado hits, shouldn’t we be just as concerned as we drive by their house where their children are playing?

Wouldn’t the world be a whole lot better, wouldn’t YOUR world be a whole lot better, if we stop calling each other names and instead said “Can I give you a hand with that?”

Rant ends.

Connections, Creation

The other day I was hanging out with a friend and there was a Christian radio station playing. The music was good, but the stations tag line, something like “Music that makes you feel connected to God”, made me think. For me, it’s not so much music, but views like this (near Sugarloaf Mountain, NC, USA):

or this (mini creature feature, over Lake Hartwell, SC, USA):

that does it. This, to me, represents the direct handiwork of God, no translations, no interpretations, just the straight story of Creation.
As usual, click on the pictures for full-resolution versions.

Solar power update

So far, our solar power system has provided a little over 65% of our electrical needs. I’ve been keeping a spreadsheet of the daily electric meter readings (delivered, which is what we got from the electric company; received, which is what we shoved back to the electric company; and net, the difference, which what we’re paying for). Add on the power produced by the solar panels, and I can calculate what our consumption was and how much of that was covered by the sun.

We had a string of cooler and sunny days, and without the AC running, we were able to push that electric meter backwards a good bit. I calculate that we had about 11 days of “free” (in quotes, because the system still hasn’t paid for itself yet) electricity, with our surplus offsetting some days when we had a deficit.

As winter comes, the days will get shorter and that will eat into our production, but then again we won’t be running the AC, so we should come out ahead.

The rock, the hard place

I usually don’t wade into these sorts of topics, but there is a point that I don’t recall seeing in what media I consume. Granted, I’m no news junkie, but anyway…

There are two recent cases of police shootings that, to me, highlight a basic problem. I know I’m oversimplifying here, but bear with me. In both cases, police saw someone brandishing a weapon. In both cases, police officers took instinctively-quick action to neutralize that threat. In one case, the weapon-wielder was an extremist bent on killing as many people as he could at a convention, and the quick police action saved many lives. In the other case, the threat was a young boy carrying a toy gun.

My point, and only point, is that police are between a rock and a hard place with these situations. On the one hand, we expect police to protect us, whether that’s stopping someone from stealing our stuff, taking that drunk driver off the road, or, heaven forbid, taking out someone who wants to shoot us. On the other hand, we expect them to correctly and accurately assess those situations, perhaps in an instant, and make the correct decision every time to use or not use lethal force.

I’m glad I’m not a police officer, and for my part, I do not consider it any inconvenience to keep my hands in view when approached by law enforcement.

We now return to our regular programming.

Bluejay goes green

No, I’ve not changed my plumage or species affiliation (yes, there is a Green Jay). It’s more in the human sense that I’ve “gone green”. I’m now harvesting most of the electricity my house uses from what falls on the roof.

What it is

How I’m doing this is with a grid-tied solar power system. This consists of a bunch (26) of solar panels on the roof to collect energy from the sunshine and convert it to DC electric current (kind of like what you get from a battery, but up to around 400 volts), two inverters in the garage to convert that to AC household current, and an electric meter that measures power going both ways, to and from the electric company.

Because we’re still tied to the electric grid, we can draw power from there when the solar panels aren’t producing enough power for our needs, like at night or when it’s too cloudy. At other times, when we’re producing more power than we need, our excess flows back into the power grid to help power our neighbors. Through the magic of “net metering”, we get credit for any power we push back up the line, and only pay for the “net” usage; that’s why we have the electric meter that records power going in each direction. Not all electric utilities do this, and some don’t credit power you send them at the same rate as what they send you, but Laurens Electric does.

Getting the project going

I actually started this process back around the beginning of 2014, but things got sidelined last year due to a family member’s medical needs. I started by contacting a number of installers in the area that I google’d up, getting quotes and reference lists, checking BBB, etc… I awarded the job to Sunstore Solar in Greer, SC because they’ve been in business a good while, I’ve seen their people in the media (so I had no qualms about them being who they say they are: always a concern when you meet people via the Internet), and they were very accommodating of my constant questions and delays (one installer I was communicating with just stopped returning my Emails).

The project went through several iterations, but we settled on an 8.5kw (that’s the amount of power that can be produced at any given moment, best case) system, which should just about cover our needs based on my electric bills.

I had another delay while the roof got re-shingled. I didn’t want to put a bunch of 25-year solar panels up on a roof that was already 16 years old, so that had to be done first.

The total cost of the project (not including the roof) came to just shy of us$40k. That’s a big chunk of change, but tax credits will return more than half of that. I just have to wait on the next couple years’ tax refund checks. Taking that into account, and the savings on my electric bill (over the course of a year, the solar power should cover almost all of it), we should break even after around 8 years, and after that, for the rest of the 25 year life of the system, it’s all savings.

The money is just one reason I did this, of course. In fact, in business, an 8-year ROI (Return On Investment) would probably get nowhere. Getting power from just what falls on the roof, with no carbon or nuclear, is the other big reason. Now, I realize that my paltry few mega-watt-hours ain’t gonna even show up on the digital readouts at the power plants, but, like a lot of things, ya gotta start somewhere. As more and more of us do this sort of thing, we will make a dent in the environmental impact.

Installation

The installation began on 8-June with the arrival of two trucks worth of installers and parts. Some of the guys started on the roof, marking out where the panels would go, while the rest of them went to work in the garage installing the inverters and all the wiring to hook it all together.


Before long my roof gained a set of pimples:

and the garage got covered up with conduit:

A note about what all that conduit is for: one has the wires bringing power down from the solar panels themselves, and going to each of the two inverters, connecting at the bottom of the disconnect switches below the inverters on the right. From there, another set of wires carries the now-AC power over to the small electrical panel on the left. There the output of the two inverters is combined. Then that has to be fed to a disconnect switch on the outside of the house, before coming back in to the main household electical panel.

Because this is a grid-tied system, there has to be a ready way for utility workers to disconnect the system when they have to work on their lines and equipment. They can shut off the power from their end, but they need to be able to ensure that no power is feeding back the other way, which can be a hazard to the workers. The inverters are designed to detect when utility power shuts off and to shut themselves down automatically, but having worked in a lock-out/tag-out environment (where energy sources have to be secured and locked out for safety), I understand the need for a way to ensure that, yes, this wire is really dead and will stay that way.

Anyway, back up on the roof, the racks that will hold the solar panels go up:

and then the solar panels themselves;


According to the spec sheet, those panels weigh 18.6kg (41 lbs.). Yeah, those guys worked hard to get this done.

Eventually all the panels made it up on the roof.

Not being one to be up on a roof myself, I understand why they had all those ropes there. The guys working on the roof were very careful to stay tied off, and it paid off as no one fell off. That would have thrown the whole project off.

By the end of the 3rd day, everything was installed, the area had been cleaned up, and a brief “smoke test” had been accomplished.

Now we had to wait on the county building inspector to come and inspect. That happened on Friday of that week, and didn’t take long. Actually, most of the time was spent by me pointing out the components and what they did. I suspect that the inspector had prior experience with these guys’ work, and knew just what he was looking for. He said it was all “neatly done”.

The last hurdle was Laurens Electric. I was thinking that, since this is a co-op, I own it and could just call ‘em up and make it happen, but that wasn’t necessary. Once they got the report from the building inspector, they came out and changed the electric meter. That happened on Tuesday of the next week.

A couple days later the SunStore folks were back to formally commission the system on 18-June, which included connecting the inverters to my network so they could report back data to the manufacturer’s (SunPower) site, where I could monitor the operation and production. When we built the house, I was smart and put a network drop in the garage. Unfortunately, I put it on the opposite side from where the inverters ended up.

I said that the solar power shuts down when utility power goes off, but the inverters I put in do have a provision to provide power via a separate circuit directly from the solar panels in that event. This can be used during an extended utility outage to run a refrigerator or charge phones, so long as the sun is shining. Those outlets are mounted right below the inverters.

Early results

So far, the system is performing to expectation. With the current heat wave and running the air conditioning almost all the time, we’ve been getting a bit over half our electrical power from the solar panels. As the weather cools off, I expect that will increase, even though the days will be getting shorter. In fact, we had one day when the heat wave broke (briefly) and with cooler temperatures (mid-80′s F) and good clear bright sun, we got 92% of our power right from the sun.

There’s nothing on the inverters that’s accessible from the local network by default (they just talk out directly to the manufacturer’s portal), which is a good default setting (too many equipment manufacturers don’t even give a first thought to security), but after doing a bit of research, I found that they will speak modbus (a protocol used in industrial control and building management systems, and which I just happened to be familiar with due to my work around the data center) if you turn it on using the manufacturer’s software (SunnyExplorer). So now I’m able to read data directly and add it to my weather web site on my The Sun page. You’ll probably notice that you don’t see the green “Inverter 1″ line on the graph. Both inverters have the same configuration of solar panels, so they’re generally almost identical in output and the two lines lie right on top of each other.

You can too

If you’re interested in doing this sort of thing, I suggest you contact some installers in your area. Each situation will be a bit different: different electrical loads, different siting, different financing… It would be good if you could provide a year’s worth of electric bills, or at least the kWh and cost, so they can design a system to meet your needs. Do check the specs carefully on any proposed system: at one point, I had two quotes where one was double the other; turned out that the cheaper one was also 1/2 the capacity of the other.

The future

Right now we have gas heat and hot water; everything else is electric. The next project is going to be the HVAC, and I’ll be looking into something more like a heat pump with gas backup, rather than just straight gas heat. I’ve got room and inverter capacity to add several more panels to cover that if needed.

One thing I wonder about is how we’re going to pay for all the wires and equipment that makes up the electrical grid. Ultimately, if we all put solar panels on our roofs, producing enough power for each of our needs, and if net metering continues as we have it here, there would be no money going to the electric companies because our “net” usage would be zero. Yet we’re still using the company facilities to keep us suppled when the sun isn’t shining. Maybe the way some utilities reimburse for power (different rates for what they provide vs. what you provide) is the answer, or maybe just some fixed fee for being connected to the grid. I’m sure they’re thinking about this.

Another technology that’s coming into play is batteries. Tesla recently cannon-balled into that market with household batteries to be used with renewable energy sources. Theoretically this can enable you to completely disconnect from the grid if you have the generation capacity to store enough power during the good times and battery capacity to get you through the bad times.

Some time when I get an ambition attack, I’ll put another network drop in the garage by the inverters and eliminate that cat6 wire stretched across the ceiling.

Conclusion

I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time (at least since before my Sister put up solar panels several years ago – sibling rivalry?). Finally, I’m there, and I’m glad I did it. I was taught to not leave a mess, and I’m hopeful this will help clean up some of the mess my being a productive member of this society has caused.

I think I begin to understand, just a bit, what it must be like to be a farmer. The farmer’s crops, and my power production, are at the mercy of the weather. When the clouds roll in and I see that wattage drop to next to nothing, well, there’s not a darn thing I can do about it. But the sun will shine again :) .

Why?

“sometimes, the answers created to address the question of ‘why’ do
more harm than good. There is a ‘because’ for every ‘why’. Some of
these ‘becauses’ start wars. They beget atrocities. ‘Why’ is a
slippery question that lends itself to abuses of power.” – A.J.Axline

With that caution in mind, I’ll go ahead and ask the question: Why do we do things?

I think sometimes we do things just because everyone else is doing them. Many years ago I stopped short one day and wondered why I was drinking coffee. I didn’t really like the stuff. The only reason I could find was because every one else around me was drinking coffee. So I quit. I realized that “because everyone else is doing it” is just about the worst reason in the world to do something.

To be sure, there are things that a lot of people (if not everyone) do, but they should be done for their own merits. Breathing might be an extreme example: everyone does it, and I do it too, but I don’t do it just because everyone else is doing it; I have my own reasons.

Health care in America

Recently we had a cherished family member in the hospital, and they were handing out masks for the visitors.

I can’t help but think that, somewhere, in a small, beige, windowless cubicle deep in one of many office buildings owned by some giant medical supplies conglomerate, someone is laughing.

2015!

This time of year has been a time of observances since the planet got its axis tilted (creating seasons) and there has been life around to notice that fact.

For those living in the wild, the change of seasons is critical for timing migrations, breeding, finding food, and just surviving. The Solstice is a key timing mark, and is a sign that (in the northern hemisphere) the worst of winter is yet to come, since we’re still cooling off, but also spring will follow in turn, because the days start getting longer.

Probably because of that, other celebrations and observances have accumulated around this time of year throughout history, be they spiritual or secular: the Solstice itself, Bodhi Day, Hanukkah, Christmas, Saturnalia, New Year’s, Yule, Kwanza, mall sales, breaking open a new calendar, and many, many more “reasons for the season”.

The neat thing is that this time of year is special to so many of us, regardless of our backgrounds, beliefs, ethnicity, or even species. This is something we all have in common, something we all share. As we come together with Friends &/| Family, let us remember that we also have this connection to every other Earthling.

Thanksgiving Thoughts

We live in a universe where everything is connected.

From the galaxies of stars that created the elements we’re made from, to the solar system that shaped our world, to the plants and animals that nourish us, down the the little subatomic bits that make up everything, it’s all connected, and nothing works without something else.

On this Thanksgiving Day (USA), let us give thanks not just for all those connections to which we owe our existence, but also to those special connections between family, friends, partners, team members, and others that gives our existence its Deepest Meaning.

Ekom Fire Station Open for Business!

I noticed early this chilly morning that the heat was on:

Later I stopped in while passing by and talked with one of the first responders and he said that everything is pretty much done (I suppose, as much as any building is every “done”), and their equipment is in place:

Big sigh of relief that is project is now done, and we wish the Ekom Fire Station Volunteers the best of luck with their new home. It really does look nice.
The whole saga as I saw it can be found via this search.