The Perils of Legoman’s holiday at Rurikia

A few years ago, Legoman decided to visit Rurika and had a fairly hard time of it.  He started off in the orchard, but soon found he wasn’t much of a match for the apples.


Next he took a tour of the wine and cider cellars and seemed to be enjoying it


until while viewing the production area he slipped into the drive mechanism of the grape crusher.

After a close call, he decided the woodshop was a better place to hang out. It started out well enough by helping out on a project, but then he decided that selfies with powertools was a good idea.

Fortunately for Legoman, he managed to complete his visit with only minor injuries.

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Going Solar – Part 10: How Having Solar Has Changed My Habits

Part of why I opted for solar was that I believe strongly in minimizing my impact where I can. By putting a power supply on my property I not only have some degree of self-sufficiency (in terms of knowing I am generating the power I am generally using – though with the traditional grid-tie system I am still subject to the system being shut off if power goes out in the area), but I also cut down the transmission distances (and associated losses) involved in transporting power from a distant generating facility to my home. This is the case both for my own use, as well as for the homes around me where most of any power I put back in the grid is consumed during the day. Against this background it is probably unsurprising that by having my own supply of household electricity Some of my habits have changed to bias toward electric usage rather than other energy sources. Here is a rundown:

1) Heating and cooling: Not a huge change here, as the costs involved in switching from a propane heating and hot water system to an electric system is a bit higher than I really desired to jump into. In addition, that would greatly increase my electric usage to the point where the installed system (which was limited to 100% of my prior 12 months average monthly usage – and I had been in a highly efficient mode at that period) would be insufficient to provide coverage. The one change I did make was to design and implement an independent fan and water control system for my swamp cooler so I could take advantage of the cool night air by running the fan longer without water in order to cold-soak the house overnight.

2) Cooking: This is where the big changes happened. I have a very large and very nice propane stove. Replacing it with an electric model was not an option on cost and performance reasons, but I found other ways to switch usage and provide improved capabilities at the same time. I bought an electric pressure cooker, a sous-vide immersion heater, and a convective toaster oven. During the summer I can put these outside and not only use my solar power to effectively cook a meal, I can also reduced the internal heat load for the house and need less cooling. In the winter I can use them inside and the associated heat losses with smaller appliances assist with heating the house. All 3 systems work very well within my cooking activities, and a side benefit of the toaster oven is that for many things I can use it with as good results as the large oven but without having to heat up as large of a volume. In addition, I invested in a large chest freezer to enable more effective storage of many foods as well as saving leftovers from when do cook a large quantity of something.

3) Cleaning: A small electric blower is the best device by far for clearing off a tile patio in the desert, and an impulse purchase of a robotic vacuum has made a huge difference in the overall cleanliness of the house by keeping the daily buildup of dust at bay. Neither of these are huge changes in and of themselves, but they make things easier and more effective so I do them where before I couldn’t be bothered most of the time.

4) Entertainment / Office productivity: I am not as opposed as I used to be about adding more electrical equipment in these areas. I’ve run additional powered speakers to other areas of the house, and I went from a single screen to a 3 screen computer display setup which has been a big productivity boost when I am working on more complicated projects. I also added additional lighting in my workshop and dug out an old electric space heater I hadn’t used in years so it is far more comfortable to work in the (unconditioned / uninsulated) shop during the colder parts of the year. When it warms up in a few months I will probably be adding a portable swamp cooler for a similar reason.

Those are the major changes, and they have led to a slight increase in overall electrical usage to the point where my installed 2.7 kW system was no longer at 100% of my usage. When I had a followup conversation with the company that installed my solar array I mentioned this, and they pointed out that in the terms of my PTO letter from the utility was a clause that after the system was installed I could add up to 1 kW additional capacity without requiring a new agreement.

We ran the numbers, and it came out that that was a reasonable and cost effective option, particularly as I had sized the original inverter to accommodate future expansion up to 5 kW. A few weeks later they had completed all the required paperwork and permissions needed to do so, and a few days ago 4 additional panels showed up on my roof. Initial indications are that, given the relatively small size of the original array and by operating closer to the inverter design point I’m seeing about a 40-45% increase in system capacity.

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Through the Camera – California Gopher Snake

This evening I was graced by a visit from a California Gopher Snake which seemed to want a photoshoot as it meandered it’s way around the back porch, climbed up on the grill, and even seemed to get bored and yawning at one point.



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Book Review: The Plot

The Plot
Bunting, Madeleine
Granta, 2009

Subtitled “A Biography of an English Acre” the general story of the book is a description of “the plot” where the author’s father invested his life’s work. It’s an interesting concept – take a somewhat random piece of land and look into it from a geographic, cultural, and historical perspective.

Through the book one learns a bit about the geography and ecological of the North Yorkshire Moors; the importance of Scottish drovers and the routes they took to the communities through which they passed; the few touches of “great” history to which this relatively remote piece of land may have felt the footsteps of the parties involved. Intertwined within it, however, is the much more recent story of an inspired sculptor who, as a schoolboy, felt an attachment to the place. Years later he acquired it, used the stones of the long abandoned structures to create a shelter and a memorial chapel to his heroes, and hosted gatherings of family and friends in his personal retreat when the mood struck him. As the family relationships began to break down and the success he aspired to never came, it became much more of a symbol to his daughter of him.

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Real Life Review: Purple Air PA-II Air Quality Sensor

Living in the high desert of Southern California and within distant sight of Cajon Pass,there have been many days when I can see the wall of haze / smog / general yuck in the air rising up the pass from the LA basin and Inland Empire and overflowing the pass, spreading out in the Victor Valley. It is not unusual for days to start out clear and the San Gabriel Mountains are clearly visible, yet by mid-evening the pollution has obscured them entirely.   When I turn and look the other way, however, the air is usually perfectly clear.  It’s prompted me to wonder how much of the pollution I see actually makes it to my location, and if there are elements I can’t see which are making it up here.

The local air quality district does have monitoring stations, but they are few and far between and do not have nearly the spatial resolution to be of use at an individual level. I looked into renting a similar sensor for a few weeks, but the cost far outweighed my curiosity.  I basically gave up on being able to lean more about the air in my specific environment.

A week or so ago I found out about a novel, web enabled, air quality sensor for measuring particulates that was starting to gain a following in the “citizen science” community which is being produced and distributed by “Purple Air”, which also hosts a real-time map of the installed sensors which have had data sharing activated.   It uses the same type of laser particle detection and quantifying system as some of the higher end (and much higher cost) certified systems, but instead of being aimed at the regulatory and compliance side of the spectrum it is targeted more at regular people.  Rather then being a calibrated and NIST traceable instrument the approach of the organization involved seems to be to go for sensor-to-sensor consistency rather than absolute accuracy, however they have had the sensors evaluated by the Air Quality Sensor Performance Evaluation Center, a branch of California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District, and a technical result of that evaluation is available on their website.   At slightly over $200 it seemed a reasonable way to satisfy my curiosity, if still a bit on the expensive side, so I ordered it.

Delivery was faster than I expected, which was a good thing as in the period between ordering and receiving I began looking for additional information about installation, setup, and use, and found basically nothing, which launched off a major research activity that could well have spun on for weeks.  When I did receive it, it was deceptively easy to get going – plug it in, connect to it’s standalone wifi network in order to configure it to your wifi network, and then go on the PurpleAir website to register it as a monitoring station.  All told it took under 10 minutes from pulling it out of the box to streaming data. I was interested in making sure it worked prior to doing the final install, so for that initial test I simply hung it on an existing nail on the front porch and let it run for a few hours while I looked into other installation options.

I ended up deciding that the front porch was probably the best spot overall as it offered a good combination of protection from the elements, separation from “domestic” pollution (e.g. my smoker and grill on the back porch) and good access to ambient air.  I had no objection to where I had first put it, but it comes with a 33 foot power cord and that location was only a few feet from the plug and left a mess of extra cable, so I basically neatly ran the cable up and around the porch structure and located the sensor at the point where I ran out of power cable.  The sensor itself is basically the size of a 3″ PVC pipe cap (which is what the outer cover actually is) and has an aluminum mounting strip attached to it.

The initial data showed what I had been suspecting – my local air quality was much better both on a relative and absolute scale than the official data, which was basically an extrapolation of the reading from one site about 15 miles away from me.  Areas “down the hill” in the Ontario / San Bernardino area were showing air quality index values of low 60’s, whereas I was in the low 20’s (on the AQI scale 0 is best).  A few hours later though I had a test case in the other direction – the smoke plume from a distant forest fire settled over my location for a few hours, moved elsewhere, then came back, …  which resulted in the PM2.5 values shown below.  At the peak of the smoke, my local AQI value was up to 130.  By sheer coincidence, I had data for both high and low ranges within my first 24 hours of usage, which has increaed my initial confidence in the values the unit is putting out.

In summary, so far I really like my PA-II air quality sensor, and it is nice to have data to back up the observation that the air quality where I am is as good as I think it is.  There are a few issues with some details of their site registration process when you want to share data with other sites such as Weather Underground and link it to an existing weather station, but I’m certain that will get smoothed out over the next few months if not days.  At the moment it appears that slightly over 500 of these sensors are installed worldwide, so time will tell how they do in terms of drift and longevity… but assuming that remains good, at under $250 including shipping and no direct operating costs, I can easily see a day when every public building and many private ones incorporate something like this.  That would allow a huge improvement in our ability to monitor and mitigate particulate pollution, and is something I would much rather see my tax dollars flow into than building a wall across a desert.

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Random Food of the Day

Grilled ponzu and chili oil marinated tuna steak with salad

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Going Solar – Part 9: Joining the Smartgrid

A few days ago a postcard showed up in my mailbox advising me of an impending deadline for an energy storage incentive for households with installed solar arrays. Interested, but assuming it was a scam of some nature, I did some research and found that it was a real program.  Put simply, the state and local utilities have decided that the model of distributed solar generation and storage, already widely used in Europe and Asia, is indeed something worth looking into.  This was something I had wanted to incorporate into my system from the start, but when I decided to install the solar array there was no incentive program and costs were excessive, the optimized hardware had not yet been certified, and the utility was, quite frankly, dead set against the idea.

The buzzword at the moment surrounding this approach is “Smartgrid” and there are numerous ways it is being considered and implemented.  At it’s most basic in this context, the idea is that the rapidly increasing availability of the “Internet of Things” (IoT) can be used to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the electricity network. Using my solar installation as an example of a typical grid-tied, net metering system, the system works in a basic mode.  Assuming that all is normal with the grid, when the sun is shining my panels generate as much electricity as they can.  This electricity is then basically dumped into the power grid between my house and the utility meter. If my house needs all of that electricity at that moment it goes into the house; if not any excess goes into the grid.  Likewise, if my house needs more electricity than the panels are producing, the excess is supplied by the grid.  Per the terms of my net metering agreement (and indeed, what should be the terms for all end-user interconnect agreements) it is a 1 for 1 trade: for every kilowatt hour I give to the grid, I can pull one at a later time at no net cost.  This can easily be seen as using the grid as a “battery” backup for the nominal cost of the minimum monthly fee charged by the utility to help offset the cost of the distribution network, and at the top level it works well.

The challenge in this system is that as more solar generation is added to network as a whole a cyclical generation cycle develops – all the solar rolls in during the day and out in the evening.  The grid has to anticipate and react to this effect in order to maintain a steady supply to all users, and becomes yet more complicated as wind energy is included into the mixture.  This drives a very different operating mode relative to the traditional structure of large base load generators (e.g. huge nuclear or coal fired steam turbine stations) with a very narrow band of peak operating efficiency and relatively slow response to changes and smaller peaking stations (e.g. diesel or gas turbine stations) which are capable of fast response to the changes in demand.

One approach to help balance this dynamic is the implementation of “Time of Use” energy tariffs.  This breaks the day up into periods of high and low use, and the price of a kilowatt hour of electricity varies in relation to what time block the energy is used in.  The underlying principle behind this is that in a traditional, non-solar, network there is a significant overcapacity through the night while most people are sleeping if the system was sized to accommodate the peak daytime demand.  The idea is not new – when I was living in Germany in the early 1990’s this was already an established structure, and most large household appliances which did not need to run continuously (dishwashers, laundry machines, …) incorporated timers so they could be set to run overnight when electricity was less expensive, and electric water heaters had programmable cycles to optimize on energy price.  The coin-op laundry in my apartment building charged different rates depending on the time of day, leading to the busiest time being 3 AM on Sunday morning because it cost about half the price to wash and dry a load at that time compared to washing only at a more normal time.

Unfortunately, time of use charges combined with a solar supply cycle on the grid don’t necessarily work as they do in a non-solar grid.  To make most effective use of the solar supply, energy prices would need to peak at night when the solar supply is offline and then drop in the middle of the day when supply was highest.  Given the relative percentages of solar vs non-solar supply, the overlapping model becomes quite a complicated system, particularly when one looks at the regulatory environment that this occurs in.

Here is where the Smartgrid concept comes into play.  By using a network of interconnected sensors to actively monitor the systems involved, the overall grid can be continuously optimized and near-term predications made based on real-time data.  As the technology grows and becomes more prevalent, the granularity of the involved systems improves – where once this was used to help determine when to bring peaking stations online, now it can be used both to do that as well as to throttle back demand by reducing discretionary loads at the end user level.  This can take many forms, such as utilities providing discounts to residential customers who allow the utility to install remote disconnects for high load devices such as air conditioners or swimming pool pumps or commercial customers who enable the utility to manage their building thermostats within a given range.

This all applies to production and usage, but there is another large area still to be integrated: storage.  Various forms of energy storage have been available for decades at both large and small scales, however they were generally quite expensive, limited in scope, and relatively inefficient.  One example of a large scale system is a hydroelectric peaking plant: when electric demand is low excess production is used to drive pumps that send water uphill into a reservoir, but when extra power is needed to cover peak loads the water is routed back down through turbines.  Variations of this have been demonstrated using air in abandoned salt mines and with giant mechanical flywheels turning in a vacuum chamber.  At a smaller level some commercial users have either battery or capacitive storage capability, mainly intended as an independent system backup rather than a grid level storage, but the end effect is that depending on how these systems ae set to charge it can have a positive effect on stabilizing the grid.

What has been missing from the US grid is a homeowner level grid storage capability of sufficient capacity to aid in stabilizing the grid as a whole.  Again, this technology has been on the market in other regions for years, but the US utilities have until recently been strongly opposed to the concept. What is currently happening, though, is that as homeowner scale installations of solar and / or wind energy increases, utilities in certain areas such as Southern California are finally coming around to see homeowner generators as a potential source of the overall solution rather than a problem to be excluded from consideration.  By offering suitable incentives to bring the homeowner’s cost of the necessary infrastructure down to a reasonable level, the utilities hope to create enough capacity to be an effective overall tool in better managing the grid.

Which brings me back to the postcard I received.  The sender turned out to be a consulting firm that represents several of the “home battery” manufacturers and performs system design activities on behalf of independent system installation contractors.  After doing a bit of research to get an idea of what was available and typical pricing, I called the number on the postcard and spent a bit over an hour having a detailed technical discussion with a system designer, and we ended up deciding that a Tesla PowerWall 2 would be the most cost effective solution for my installation within the incentive program.  When I initially purchased my solar array I selected a SolarEdge inverter in order to be upgrade ready for when they came out with the StorEdeg system in the US market, and while there was a LG battery which potentially could have worked with the StorEdge DC-DC coupled approach, by the time the cost of upgrading my inverter and the battery were combined the Tesla with the built in inverter made more sense even with the added efficiency hit of having to go DC-AC-DC. In addition, although currently not set up to do so, the DC-AC-DC option provides an ability to eventually use grid charging capabilities at a future point.

So what does adding a battery to my system bring me?  At the moment I have to admit not a whole lot.  My current system is pretty close to a net zero system, e.g. I produce basically what I use, so I don’t have much in the way of excess capacity to store.  My local grid has been very reliable, and there are relatively few cloudy days or even periods within a day due to my high desert location.  If anything, I actually stand to lose from both a cost and production basis, as despite the incentives the battery system will still run me about $5000 installed and whatever electricity goes through the battery is subject to around a 10% loss due to storage and transformer losses.. and I’ll still be paying the monthly minimum utility fee for being grid tied.  In the event that I was living in one of the backward utility regions where they use a producer / consumer accounting system (whereby any excess energy production to your own needs is “sold” to the utility as a low rate and then any additional consumption is “bought” from the utility at a higher rate, even if the net energy comes out to be zero) instead of net metering, the situation would be different as there is a direct cost advantage to storing and using your own production.

So what do I stand to gain? In large part it’s simply the feeling of doing what’s right for the greater good.  More expansively, it’s taking one of the steps within my power to actively demonstrate my opposition to Mr. Trump’s misguided and disastrous energy and environmental policies. More concretely, I do gain slightly stronger self-generation capabilities in the event of a grid outage.  Without a battery system, a grid tie solar installation is required to be turned off whenever there is a grid outage in order to prevent current flowing from the solar array back through the grid to the point where it is being worked on and potentially injuring a utility worker or others who may come in contact.  With a battery system part of the control circuitry will isolate the grid side as before, but will still allow the panels and battery to supply the household needs.  In this case the panels will only be shut down in the event that the battery is fully charged and there is no household draw.

How does this help the utility?  Quite simply, it helps them to shave off the peaks and troughs of solar production going into the grid.  If every solar installation had a battery and was properly configured, the excess energy produced during the day would be stored locally and then available for overnight use.  This helps to shave the peaks and troughs of solar supply and night demand at an individual site, and by extension to the rest of the grid.  When these individual storage capabilities are then integrated into the Smartgrid as part of a distributed generation and storage network, it provides a dynamic energy reserve for the system to be able to draw on in.  Likewise, in the event that there is a grid outage, even a few residential batteries in the affected region could be used to help buffer the step load to the remainder of the local grid as power is restored to the affected region.

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