31 August 2011

Someone Else Does the Weeding

We spent the first few hours of our Colorado vacation at the Denver Botanic Garden. It's sort of on the way(ish) from the airport to Boulder, and it was spectacular. (It was also hot -- upper 90s every day we were in Colorado, hardly the respite from the heat we were seeking, but still better than the 109-degree oven we returned to.) You'd think August in a bit of a drought wouldn't make for very pretty gardens, but there were flowers everywhere.

Including some that we have in our own garden -- roses...

...columbine (although it's the state flower, this was the only one we saw)...

...and plumbago (trained into a topiary, which Steve dug).

The garden was laid out as a series of really lovely "rooms" and spaces:

The garden is huge -- acre after acre of gorgeousness. It has countless ponds overflowing with water lilies:

The violet of this lily is so striking that I didn't even notice all the colors in the lily pads until later.

Mini-wildlife was everywhere.

This one only looks like wildlife (the plant is called Redbirds in a Tree):

I thought this pink and white flower would be nice on a handmade card...

...as a single flower or a whole cluster:

These were interesting because they seemed to flower from the bottom up, except that one of them had already bloomed down below and was finishing up its blooms on top:

This sunflower image was a total accident -- the flash inadvertently went off, and after I took the picture again without flash, I found that I preferred this fiery version:

This succulent would be great in our (future) sedum garden:

I'm thinking we're going to have to go pink and green in that little strip of garden between the screened porch and the (future) patio. I have no idea what this scorpion tail-like succulent is, but it would fit right in, too:

There you have the highlights of the Denver Botanic Gardens, through the eyes of yours truly. On a personal note -- while we were there, we started working on a collection of what I think of as "arm photography" (you know, where one of us holds the camera as far away as our arms are long, takes aim, and fires):

Good times.

30 August 2011

The Greenest Town in All the Land

Yesterday I wrote about the Cray supercomputer and liquid nitrogen ice cream. But while these were interesting highlights of our vacation, they weren't actually the point of the trip. (Shocking, I know.)

We flew to Denver in order to spent the week in and around Boulder. Which happens to be, I'm pretty sure, the greenest town in America.

When I moved to Boulder in 1988, recycling was already huge. We didn't have curbside pickup back then, but everyone took their recyclables to the recycling center (which was bigger and nicer -- even back then -- than Austin's is today).

Fast-forward 23 years. In Boulder, recyclables are picked up curbside every other week, and composting is picked up on the in-between weeks. That's not so different from Austin, where recycling is picked up every other week and lawn clippings are picked up every week on garbage day (and presumably, you could include other compost ingredients as well). What really stood out was all the compost bins I saw around Boulder. Many of them were just extra garbage cans labeled "composting," but there were also a lot of these all-in-one bins:

(While we were there, the local newspaper published a story about the neighboring town of Erie, which has harnessed the methane coming from its landfills to generate enough energy to power half of the city's houses. How amazing is that?!)

Then there's Boulder's solar energy. Solar panels are all over that town, which benefits from 300 days of sun a year. And when it snows, it melts quickly, so the panels are largely unobstructed (as long as there aren't tall trees around...which there happen to be a lot of in Boulder...but that hasn't stopped the people of the fair city from embracing solar power).

We saw countless houses with solar panels on their roofs, but here's a solar array we spotted on someone's large, hillside lot (I believe it's about 4.5 kilowatts):

Seeing all of the solar panels around Boulder, I concluded that the city must have a huge rebate program, so I looked it up. Not so. The program, which began in 2006, only rebates 15% of the tax paid on solar systems -- far less than the 60% or so that Austin is paying toward our solar panels. (Another part of the program subsidizes solar panels for low-income housing, but none of the houses I saw were low-income.) While it's not surprising that Boulderites would embrace solar despite lack of financial incentives, I was perplexed at first that the city wouldn't have a more robust rebate program. But then Steve suggested that it might be because Boulder isn't as concerned about having to build a new power plant (which is Austin's rationale for the big rebates -- if they can induce enough individual homeowners to have their own mini power plants on their roofs, the city won't have to construct another power plant). Because the city has a height limit on buildings (to preserve the amazing view of the mountains) and can't expand any further due to public "open space" all around, Boulder may not actually be experiencing increasing energy demands like Austin is. (Just a theory.)

And then there are the Priuses. Tons of them all around town. This one was fun to see, though, because it's a plug-in hybrid. (As it boldly proclaimed.)

Here's Steve, pretending to plug it in. (It has the regular gas door by the back wheel, but another door for the plug up by the side mirror.)

So there are some of the green highlights from our week in Boulder. Have I mentioned that I'd move back there in a heartbeat? Just as soon as someone invents a helicopter that can lift our house and transport it there.

Oh -- one green feature you won't find in Boulder? Rain barrels. They're illegal in Colorado. Unlike in Austin, where the city will pay thousands of dollars to help homeowners harness our occasional, heavy downpours to keep so much water from ending up in the sewer system, Colorado law (based on principles dating to the 19th century) prohibits anything that keeps excess rainwater from flowing downstream (even just down the street) to its rightful "owner" (water law is wacky). Even setting a bucket out in a rainstorm is totally verboten. So Boulderites aren't on the rainwater collection bandwagon, but I'm pretty sure they'd be all over it if they could.

29 August 2011

A Nerd's Dream Vacation

Well, we finally managed to squeeze some vacation in. (This was the first time Steve and I have traveled together on an airplane since the first month of construction -- nearly two years ago! -- so it was definitely time.)

Some highlights?

Of the kind of nerdy variety?

We saw the third supercomputer ever made. Not the third model, or the third brand...the THIRD. The third Cray supercomputer to ever roll off the assembly line. (It was the first ever sold, but the third one made. I guess Cray kept the first two for itself.)

Where's the computer, you ask? That's it right there. That whole red-and-black monstrosity. With a seat all around it. 'Cause supercomputing is tiring, and you might want to sit down.

Steve, being an engineer, was uber-excited to see it. And be photographed with it. (As I took the picture, someone walked by and offered to take a picture of both of us. I told him it was okay, there's only one nerd in our family. Not entirely true, of course, but I'm not the kind of nerd who needs my picture taken with a Cray.)

Here are some of its innards.

Want to know more about the Cray? Here's the info that was posted on it (or, you know, there's Wikipedia).

Moving on...we also ate liquid nitrogen ice cream, which we learned about a couple of years ago in Popular Science magazine. (Yeah, we're both nerds....) Instead of using ice to freeze ice cream, this ice cream is made with suuuuper-cold liquid nitrogen (like, 321 degrees below zero). Liquid nitrogen is poured into the ice cream mixture -- including my chosen add-ins of lemon, blueberry, and cheesecake bits -- where the nitrogen immediately warms up and vaporizes. At that point, the mixture, which was being prepared in a KitchenAid mixer, started to look like the Thriller video.

I don't know what that Thermos thing is that they use to pour the liquid nitrogen into the mixer, but it must be really well insulated, 'cause it's still a liquid when it comes out. It immediately turns to a gas, though, so it doesn't water down the ice cream. It's supposed to make creamier ice cream because it freezes up so quickly (a minute or two, versus half an hour or longer for regular ice cream), so there's less time for ice crystals to form.

This is how they store their supply of nitrogen:

And here's our ice cream artist in action:

How did the ice cream taste? Pretty much like regular ice cream. (In my ice cream-making career, I've found that the best thing to make ice cream creamier is...cream.) But the novelty of it was definitely worth it.

26 August 2011

Solar: What's That Up on My Roof?

Our solar installation is underway. (We were moved up in the schedule because another customer neglected to get approval from their homeowners' association. We're so glad we don't have to deal with that. Texas just passed a law that prohibits homeowners' associations from refusing to allow reasonably installed systems, but HOAs can still require owners to jump through a bunch of hoops to get the association's blessing.)

I was really, really happy to see that our installers "tie on" when they're up on the roof -- meaning that they use rock climbing harnesses and rope tied to a fixed object (in this case their truck on the other side of the house) so they don't fall off.

Before construction started in the fall of 2009, we met with our builder (R) and our lawyer to get the legal green light to proceed, and our lawyer actually asked if R if his roofing subcontractor has their guys tie on. Workers have been seriously injured and even died in falls from roofs, but unfortunately, tying on still hasn't become a part of roofing culture, and (adept as they are...really, it's amazing) roofers continue to put themselves at risk every day.

Tying on not only makes our solar job about a million times safer (and gives me a huge amount of peace of mind), but it also allows the workers to work more confidently on a fairly steep, very slick surface.

The first two work days were all about attaching the brackets that would hold the panels. These C-shaped clamps attach to the standing seams of the roof, and the L-shaped brackets attach to the clamps:

They ended up using larger clamps, and I didn't get close-ups of them, but you get the idea. Once the L-brackets are in place, these rails are attached to hold the panels:

By the end of the first day, the clamps, brackets, and rails were installed on the left part of the roof (which will hold 12 panels):

The crew got a lot done that first day because it was overcast. The irony of the solar business? On sunny summer days, it can get too hot to work. Even with the clouds, by about 2 p.m. the metal roof was too hot to touch, so they work fairly short days (although they make the most of the time they have by starting pretty much the minute the sun comes up).

The second day was more of the same, except that they held off putting the rails in place on the right part of the roof (15 panels):

Day three, when the last of the rails were installed, was where things started to get interesting.

But let's back up for a brief lesson in solar power, Idiot's Guide-style (because, honestly, that's all I'm capable of).

Solar panels generate power in direct current (D.C.), but we need to convert it to alternating current (A.C.) to use in the house or send into "the grid." All solar systems include one or more inverters between the panels and the electric meter, which change D.C. to A.C. Many systems have a single inverter near the meter, but another option is to use "micro inverters" at each panel. The advantage of micro inverters hinges on the way shade affects today's solar systems. With a single inverter, shade on one small part of an array (the whole series of panels on a roof) dramatically reduces the energy production from that array. With micro inverters, each panel generates power completely separately, so if one panel of 27 were shaded, we would lose only one twenty-seventh of our maximum production. Since we have trees on either side of our house (in each of our next door neighbors' yards) that shade the right part of the array early in the morning and the left part late in the afternoon/evening, we chose to go with micro inverters to maximize our production.

Those six boxes are micro inverters. Each one will be attached to a panel and will do that D.C.-to-A.C. conversion magic right up there on the roof. You know, once the panels are up and running.

More soon.

24 August 2011


After posting last week about our new drip irrigation system, I discovered that the installers missed one plant -- our winecup.

Not their fault, really, as it's currently looking less like the picture above and more like this:

I don't know why we can't make it happy. But my botanical woes aren't the subject of this post. (It will likely be the subject of other posts, but not this one.)

Anyway, we needed to add another drip line to the winecup. Since the main 1/2-inch line is already in, we just needed three things (all of which are available at home improvement stores): 1/4-inch tubing, a special hole punch tool, and a emitter. We found the tubing and the hole punch at Lowe's:

Lowe's was out of the emitters, but fortunately, I found one in the yard that the workers had dropped:

Emitters come in 1/2-gallon per hour, 1 gallon per hour, and 2 gallon per hour models to accommodate each plant's specific needs. This one happens to be a one gallon per hour model. Since the system is programmed to come on for about 20 minutes at a time, the winecup will be getting about a third of a gallon of water -- definitely more than I've been able to give it (since it just flows away from the plant, and most of the water probably ends up evaporating).

I started by digging up the 1/2-inch main drip line and poking a hole in it at the point closest to the winecup:

The hole punch came with some spare hole stoppers (in case we put a hole in the wrong place or change our minds about where to run a line). But this hole is just right:

I plugged the connector into it:

And attached a length of tubing (note the red 1/2-gallon emitter at the top of the picture, which serves one of our lavender plants):

The only complication was that the tubing had been rolled up in the box for so long that it wouldn't lie flat, but I used the heat to beat it into submission and was able to stretch it straight to the winecup after a few hours.

And then I put the mulch back over the tubing, and it was done. (I didn't take a picture of the finished product, since all of the drip line would be hidden -- and it looks just like the second picture above.)

The whole operation probably took five minutes and really couldn't have been easier. I'm glad we are going to be able to handle our own modifications to the system so it will suit our needs as the landscaping evolves.