29 September 2011

"Your Meter is Running Backwards Right Now"

That's the text message I got from our solar installer yesterday afternoon as he was testing our solar system. (Calling it our "solar system" sounds a little, uh, bigger than it really is, but you know what I mean.) He has told me that that's his favorite part of his job -- finishing the installation and attaching his tester tool (which makes the connection between the panels and the house's electrical system before the solar meter is installed to do that permanently) to finally set the system in action and start generating power (albeit very temporarily). That causes the electric meter to slow down -- since solar energy reduces the house's draw from the power lines -- and when the system generates more power than the house is using, the meter actually runs backwards. (To clarify, when everything is finished, we will have two meters: the solar meter and an ordinary electric meter. The solar meter connects the solar system to our house's electrical system and will display an ever-increasing total of the energy the system has generated. The regular meter counts how much energy we've taken from the grid, and since we're now going to be putting electricity back into the grid at times, it will count up when we use more than we generate and down when we generate more than we use.) Unfortunately, I wasn't home to see the meter count down (hence the text message), but it's still nice to know the system is finally to that point. And maybe we saved a few cents in electricity while he was testing it.

But let's back up. Earlier this week, they were midway through installing the panels. They're all up now and all of the electrical work is finished, so we're just waiting for our inspection and the solar meter to get our own little power plant up and running.

The layout is kind of crazy, I know. We were trying to work around things like the solar tube domes, the shadow zone of the fireplace vent, and potential future shade from the crepe myrtle (which is one of the largest varieties). So our 27 panels ended up as seven and five on the left, five and five in the middle, and another five a little lower on the porch roof. Although it's not as tidy as three rows of nine or anything logical like that, we went into the solar project -- indeed, the whole design of the house -- without concern for how the back ends up looking, as long as the front is pretty. (If we were on the other side of the street, where solar panels would have to go on the front, we wouldn't even have considered installing them. That's just how house-vain we are.)

So after about a month of delays due to installation hiccups, it's great that they're finally up. But...have I mentioned that we're not patient people? So right now, waiting for our solar meter, is difficult for us.

However, not yet having our solar panels has freed up some time we were planning to spend rolling around in all of the cash we will be saving, so let's use that time to take a closer look at the panels:

We went with Schuco, a German panel. Another brand our installer has used is Yingli, which is Chinese. Both panels are 235-watt panels, but they prefer Schuco because they're made with better tolerances. Yingli panels are 235 watts, plus or minus 3%, but Schuco panels are 235 watts, plus 5% (no minus). So the power output of Yingli panels can vary from about 228 watts to about 242 watts, while Schuco panels are always at least 235 watts and can range up to about 247 watts. Each panel is individually tested; the one shown below happens to be 236.6 watts (as you can see from the bottom sticker).

As kind of a language nerd (and environmental geek), I like how what I assume was originally an umlaut above the "U" in Schuco became rays of sunshine in their logo.

...And for the time being, we're going to have to satisfy ourselves with umlaut-sunshine and the (questionable) aesthetic value of our panels. (Sigh.) I'll let you know when the plant opens for business.

27 September 2011

Looking on the Bright Side

Our solar panels are finally going up.

Unfortunately, once all of the panels are installed, there's a bit of a backlog for the final inspection (due to the rush caused by the increased rebate, which ends this week) and then a big backlog for a solar meter (due partly to the rebate but mostly to a very poorly timed system upgrade, which led to about a three-week moratorium on distributing new meters). And we need the meter to start using our panels. Early October, they say. (But then, every other time estimate in this project has been wildly off, so who knows....)

26 September 2011

Open Letter to Non-Cyclists

Good People of the World,

Bicycles are slower than cars. That's the reality. We wish we were faster. (Oh, how we wish we were faster.) But we're not. We can't keep up with most traffic situations, and sometimes we slow you down. Again, we wish we didn't. But that doesn't mean that bikes and cars can't share the road. We use bike lanes when they are available, and we do our best to avoid inconveniencing drivers whenever we can.

Sometimes, even when we're in a bike lane, a car that's right behind us wants to turn just ahead of us, and we waste maybe fifteen seconds of your time. That happened this weekend as Steve and I were riding our usual 18-mile route around town. I was a few yards ahead of Steve when I heard a honk. I looked back and saw a car right behind him. Right behind him. Steve continued along, and after he passed the driveway of the church we were driving by, the car raced in and sped ahead to the next driveway, which led back out to the road. I assumed the driver was trying to pass us by driving through the parking lot, and I passed that second driveway right as the car was approaching it. Fortunately, the driver applied the brakes in time to avoid hitting me, but as I turned back, I saw it peel out right in front of Steve. But what happened next was the weird part -- it turned left, not right, going back the way it came, and then turned back into the first driveway again and found himself a parking spot. This guy was going to church -- CHURCH! -- and was so irritated that Steve delayed him by fifteen seconds that he honked impatiently in front of his church, sped through the parking lot of his church, and intentionally cut Steve off in front of his church. I followed him to his parking space and had a conversation with him (where, to his credit, he apologized...sort of). I'd like to think he realized that his actions were stupid, dangerous, and unnecessary (and certainly didn't save him any time), but I know he is just one of many, many drivers who are prone to crossing a line from merely frustrated to downright reckless when dealing with cyclists. Over a mere fifteen seconds!

I'll admit that I'm an impatient driver, and getting stuck behind a bike can drive me crazy. But what really makes me mad is when I see a cyclist ignore the rules of the road -- run a stop sign, fail to signal, cut off a car, etc. These kinds of things give drivers justifiable grounds to resent cyclists and put all of us in danger. Cyclists bear a lot of responsibility to be safe and courteous on the road, but drivers do, too.

Fifteen seconds.

22 September 2011

Almost Worthy of the Name

It's been a while since I've shown what's going on in the great room. There's still a lot of work to do (real window coverings, anyone?), but it's looking a little, uh, greater than the last picture I shared.

So here it is:

The biggest difference is that I finally put a right-sized piece of art on the wall between the windows -- this print of the Picasso painting, Paul en Arlequin.

I've loved this painting since the year I spent in France during college. There was a Picasso exhibit in Venice at the time, and this picture was used in posters advertising the exhibit in train stations all over Europe. If I were ever going to steal anything, it would have been one of those posters...but I didn't, so I later bought the print from art.com or something. Background on the art: Paul was Picasso's son, and the title refers to his harlequin costume. Probably my favorite thing about this painting is how it's unfinished at the bottom, with two sets of feet sketched in, showing that Picasso was considering positioning Paul's legs and feet differently.

(This painting used to hang in the hall of our condo, where the stairs were and where we had space for three fairly large framed pieces and some smaller pieces. We called it "the gallery." Without stairs, and with surprisingly few large walls, we are struggling to find places to hang all of our old art now, so most of it has been in boxes for more than two years. Finding places to hang all of it, at least temporarily, is finally moving up on our list of small-project priorities.)

We've gotten more creative with accessories, trying different configurations of items and switching them as often as we feel inspired to try something new. Nothing is set in stone, right? I've been loving those intricate blue and purple dishes since I bought them several months ago, and then I found this egg-shaped blue vase on clearance at West Elm a while back and popped it inside. I'll change it sometime, but for now I like the way the shape of the three items together plays against the smooth grey bowl on the other side of the table (which I put, along with some cloth coasters we've had forever, in a gold leafed tray from West Elm).

Then there are the shelves, which have started to come together a little more. The left (which I've already tweaked since taking this picture a few days ago):

And the right (some adjustments here, too):

The challenge is to find ways to break up the three-three-three configuration of the things on display. I guess I should start studying Pinterest for pictures of well-done bookshelves.

Our latest addition? The black, white, and silver vase right in the middle.

It's Missoni (the fancy-pants Italian designer Target featured for about ten minutes last week, before everything sold out). Ooh la la. (Or, to be culturally appropriate, ciao bella.)

In front of the shelves on the right side, between the chair and the fireplace, I put this garden stool I picked up on clearance from Ballard Designs:

I needed something to raise the peace lily up off the floor (so Benjamin won't keep trying to eat it), and I loved the idea of a garden stool that we can use in the great room, the screened porch, or even, you know, the garden.

But that's not the only stool to come into our lives recently. I also picked up this hexagonal storage ottoman from Target. I thought its nubby texture and deep grey color would be nice in the guest room, but the height didn't quite work how I anticipated, so I moved it to the great room, where it works with the low chair. (Update on the guest room coming...someday.) And the flowers? Plumbagos that I grew myself! In my garden!

So, to recap:

Great room five months ago:

Great room after:

Not a ton different, but a little greater, I think.

20 September 2011


No, that's not a typo. It's how our solar project has been going. (Sound it out if this still isn't making sense.)

If you've been thinking it's about time for a post about the completion of our solar panel installation and all of the money we're saving on electricity...we think so too. Unfortunately, we're still stuck at this stage of the project:

The company we hired had never worked with our particular type of roof before. The typical metal roof is called "standing seam" because the seams are made of two panels crimped together in a standing-up configuration. Ours has seams that stand up, but the pieces snap together to form a triangular seam, as you can see at the bottom of the roof here:

This kind of roof is called "Pro-Snap"...although I'm guessing our solar installers have thought up lots of nicknames (none of them flattering). This type of roof has proven extremely difficult to attach the clamps that hold the panels in place. The installers first finished installing the clamps back before we went to Colorado last month, but concerns about the way they gripped the seams led them to replace the clamps with heftier ones. Then they called for the rough inspection...and failed. After many, many e-mails between the installers, the clamp manufacturer, and the city inspector, they tried another method...and still didn't pass the inspection. Another round of e-mails and phone calls, and a fourth attempt to securely attach the panels finally succeeded at the end of last week.

But the day before we passed the inspection, we received a notice from the city that, due to the impending conversion to a new billing system, they aren't giving out any more solar meters until next month. So the free electricity that was supposed to be coming our way around the end of August won't start rolling in until at least the middle of October. Boo.

In the meantime, before the panels go up, I was informed that the roof will be power washed. I had first thought the dark smudges all over were from the workers' shoes, then I concluded they were probably just dirt and dust being pushed around (since we hadn't had rain in months), but last week I learned that the installers had poured 7-Up on the roof to make it sticky for better traction. So our roof will soon be cleaned of all soft drink residue. (Twelve words I never thought I'd type....)

Once the roof is cleaned and the panels go up, we'll just be waiting on the meter. The rest of the electrical infrastructure is already in. I'm pretty happy with how they routed the conduit from the panels on the roof over and down to the meter area -- it follows the valley down to the eave then around the edge, hugging the underside of the eave until just above the meter.

(Picture taken minutes before the gutter was expertly cleaned by the sheer power of avoidance of a long, sweaty run.)

19 September 2011

Cause and Effect?

Saturday I woke up staring down the barrel of a 9-mile run. Back around June, I had signed up for a half marathon taking place next month. (Back around June, I had expected the summer to be more pleasant, more conducive to running, and back around June I expected to be in much better running form by now.) Over the last few weeks, I've tried to ratchet up my long runs (by which I mean, do some long runs), although I reserve the right to skip the half marathon if it's still unseasonably warm on race day.

So I woke up, are some breakfast, put on my running gear, and did some Olympic-caliber...procrastinating. I haven't run 9 miles since the marathon (and we know how well that went -- specifically, not well), and the prospect was not thrilling. But it was mostly overcast, which would surely make it more pleasant. Or at least less unpleasant.

But it was mostly overcast, which also made it a good time to take a few more pictures to augment my black and white construction/house picture collection-in-progress. So, before hitting the road, I dragged the ladder out of the garage, set it up in various spots around the house, and snapped some close-ups from architecturally interesting angles.

A favorite from the day:

But back to the task at hand: time to run.

But while I had the ladder out, shouldn't I go ahead and clean the gutters? Yes. When faced with the prospect of running for an hour and a half, cleaning the gutters of the leaves that recent winds have blown down into them suddenly seemed terribly important. So that's what I did.

And a good thing, too -- not five hours later, we had our first rain since the first day of summer. (Yes, since June 21. Nearly three loooong months ago. And with highs over 100 almost every single one of those days, it's been a rough summer.) Although it didn't amount to enough to make much of a dent in our drought, there was enough to get a first glimpse of our rain chains in action:

The water fell mostly from the diverter because there wasn't quite enough to send it down the center of the chain. In a heavier rain, the chain will do more of the work (like the house we saw on the Cool House Tour back in June).

Do I think it rained
because I cleaned the gutters? Probably not. (It was almost certainly thanks to the good people who washed their cars on Friday.) But I am glad I took the time to clean them before my run...which -- sure enough -- was three miles of slow followed by six miles of torture. It was about 85 by the time I finished, which I didn't expect would feel so toasty (given the 105-degree temperatures I've run in a handful of times this summer). And that's how I decided that if it's projected to be over 80 at the time of the race, I ain't doin' it. (Maybe the gutters will need cleaning again that day?)

16 September 2011

Simply Dining Room

A few weeks ago, another Austin blogger, Kelly of Simply Kelly, announced that she was interested in taking on some room design projects. I like the direction she's going in her new living room, and the price was right -- free! -- so I sent her these pictures of our dining area:

(Definitely still the sparsest room in our house.)

(You know a room needs help when a Roomba is the main accessory.)

Although Kelly wasn't charging for her work, she took the project very seriously, asking me a lot of really detailed questions about what we like, how we use the space, what we thought of some of her preliminary ideas, etc. She even studied this blog to get a sense of our style. And then, a week or two later, I was thrilled to get my first look at what she had put together:

You can check out all of her explanations, as well as source information, on her blog here. Some of my favorite elements? (1) the metal table (I would never have thought to use something so industrial, but I love it), (2) that great, graphic rug, and (3) the metal and organza light fixture (which I first saw while we were making our lighting selections during construction. If we were going to have a chandelier, we would definitely get this one. Instead, we put in recessed lights so we can add leaves to our dining table without worrying about keeping it centered under a hanging fixture...but boy does this chandelier call out to me).

As I told Kelly at the outset, we're busy with other things, and it's going to be a while before we can really focus on putting the dining room together, but I am thrilled with the road map she gave us and look forward to seeing it come together. In the meantime, though, I moved our koa console table (which started out in the entry and more recently spent some time in the master bedroom) out to the dining area so we can get a feel for the size and whether it would interfere with the traffic pattern to the guest room (good news -- it doesn't). So it's still decidedly a "before," but the dining room is slightly less sparse now. (The way-undersized "centerpiece" is by no means permanent. I borrowed the pieces -- a cute peachy-pink flowery vase from Anthropologie and an intricate green glass plate -- from the great room a couple of months ago and haven't had the time or inclination to try something new.)

Obviously, the table still needs some action above it. And that's what that stack of white objects on the right side of that picture is -- frames (from FOUR different Target stores!). Kelly had an ingenious idea for what to put in them. She didn't include it in her write-up (it came up in an e-mail), but it's quite possibly my single favorite thing to come from the whole design process.) So we're taking baby steps, but at least we're on our way. Thanks, Kelly, for the nudge -- and the awesome design!

One final note. If you noticed the lone napkin on the table...that's Steve's. I found these on clearance at West Elm, so we switched over to cloth napkins to stop wasting so much paper in the kitchen. Now we each have our own napkin that we can use for a week or so (or until a really messy spaghetti dinner) and then wash.

But don't worry; if you come over, we'll give you a clean napkin. Promise.

12 September 2011

Boulder Wrap-Up

After writing about hiking, botanic garden-strolling, green living, vegetable gardening, beekeeping, and nerding it up in and around Boulder, you'd think I'd be ready to accept that the vacation is over. And yet I'm not. I could use every byte of space Blogger will allow me to extol the wonders of that Utopian town...but I won't. So in this post I will try, briefly, to touch on some other highlights of our trip.

We had planned to run and swim and generally keep up our exercise routines while we were there (despite knowing how hard it is to exert ourselves at a mile above sea level). But the fun (and hiking exhaustion, and sometimes sheer laziness) tended to get in the way.

And the food. When we weren't eating my aunt Patti and uncle Robin's fantastic meals, we were stuffing our faces around town. One morning we tried the Boulder-Dushanbe Teahouse, which was a gift to the town of Boulder from its Soviet (now Tajikistani) sister city in the late 1980s (piece by piece, in a series of crates). While I was growing up, there was a lot of discussion about this incredible gift Dushanbe was sending to Boulder -- and where the heck they were going to put it. Well, twenty years later, it's in the perfect spot right next to the Farmers' Market), and the building is breathtaking.

And while I suspect my orange focaccia French toast wasn't technically an authentic Tajikistani dish, it was delicious nevertheless.

Our teahouse breakfast led into the laziest day of our trip. The details are fuzzy, but I recall a lot of reading, a world-class nap, and another sandwich from the vegetable garden. We did finally make it out for a swim -- around four in the afternoon. At Robin's suggestion, we tried the Eldorado Springs Pool, which neither of us had ever been to...and WOW was it an experience. It wasn't a lap pool -- in fact, I'm not sure we ever put our heads underwater -- but it felt like we had swum right back to 1968. The pool is set among some buildings that seemed untouched by time (among them I think are guest rooms at the least resort-y resort I've ever seen).

(Eldorado Springs pool pictures from

Did I mention that the pool is set right up against a mountain backdrop? So cool.

The pool is spring-fed, so it was chilly (although not nearly as cold as Austin's Barton Springs), but after a little while we had both made our way in and were enjoying the trip back in time.

Further proof that this pool had not found its way into the 21st century -- a slide that no code official (or, probably, insurance company) would sign off on.

It actually wasn't the slide that was so dangerous -- although it discharged into water that couldn't have been more than three feet deep -- but rather the steep, steep ladder and minimal handrail. Scary. But fun.

Then there was the day we drove up to Vail for some mountain biking. We did this once before, several years ago, and as we planned that adventure, I thought it would be no big deal -- I grew up riding a mountain bike around town. But riding a mountain bike on roads and paved paths is 100% different from riding a mountain bike on a mountain. I fell on a particularly tricky part of a trail and ended up with a series of chainring-shaped puncture wounds in my calf. Somehow I let myself be talked into mountain biking on a mountain a second time, and I certainly haven't gotten any better.

I love any excuse to go to Vail. That's why agreed to give mountain biking another try. I spent a summer there between finishing college and moving to Texas for grad school, and it's pretty much perfection -- quaint, gorgeous in every direction, still temperate on days when it's just a little too hot down in Boulder. It's too rich for our blood, though, so we just take day trips, but the hotels are gorgeous:

Anything that isn't naturally beautiful is made so with picture-perfect landscaping, like this bed full of gaura:

I'd love to know how many separate gaura plants this is. We have two in the bed behind the guest room, and they currently have two of those butterfly-like flowers between them. How many plants would I need to add to have this kind of showing, I wonder.

But now I'm stalling (just like I did after we got our bikes and were on our way to certain death...by which I mean up the mountain to the trails). The way mountain biking works at Vail is that you rent the bikes (right there at the resort, from the same little shops where you would get skis during the winter) and buy a lift pass for the gondola. (Four hours of bike rental and an all-day lift pass cost us about $60 each.) We went on Friday because they have a band and food and stuff at the summit on Friday afternoons, and the lift pass is good for that, too. But since the forecast indicated rainstorms in the afternoon, we ended up going first thing in the morning and finished our four hours long before the festivities got started (without a drop of rain in sight, by the way). But our four hours were enough for four trips up in the gondola (which you can see in this picture) and four white-knuckled trips down the trails (which criss-crossed the slopes):

And one fall by yours truly. It was both not as bad and way worse than this picture suggests:

I'm not too sure what happened, but I lost a shoe, and the bike ended up on top of me. ON TOP OF ME. That's a sure sign that something bad went down. But I was able to get right up without more than some scrapes and bruises (and a hole in my favorite bike shorts -- sad face), so I guess we can call it a successful day...?

Our trip included a lot more good times that weren't captured on film, but I'll wrap up with this picture of the Flatirons that I took the morning before we left Boulder:

The Flatirons are always majestic -- and Boulder is always pretty much my favorite place in the world to be -- but I definitely prefer this sunny vista over the cloudy, snowy view I captured during my trip last November:

Can't wait for the next trip back. In the meantime, though...lots to do (and write about) at the house.

08 September 2011

The Bees' Knees

A highlight of our recent trip to Boulder was seeing my aunt Patti and uncle Robin's new pets -- 40,000 honeybees! (Is "pets" the right term? Perhaps "livestock" is more fitting. Or "fleet.") Patti and Robin decided earlier this year to become beekeepers in order to do their part to help combat the colony collapse crisis, which is threatening the world's food supply (since many crops are pollinated by bees). So earlier this summer they set up these bee boxes in anticipation of housing 20,000 bees in each one (they call them "hives," but I just can't...they're boxes):

Their neighborhood is on the outskirts of town, and their large lot has a ton of space for the bees, which they keep at the far end of the side of their lot behind their vegetable garden:

They got the bees earlier this summer, so they're still learning and like to check on them a lot -- which they did while we were visiting, and I got to help. (Sort of like a child "helps" with chores, I think....) Anyway, we started by putting on our beekeeper suits:

I didn't have bee-proof pants, but neoprene bands around the bottom of my jeans created a seal between my pants and socks so bees couldn't go exploring.

It was getting close to harvest time (which is usually around Labor Day), so Patti and Robin wanted to be sure the bees had enough honey for themselves to get through the winter. These three-tier boxes have one layer where the bees stockpile their own honey, and everything in the other two boxes is harvested. I'm amazed that the bees make the honey and then turn around and eat it all winter, although that's really no different from humans growing food all summer in order to feed themselves over the winter...except that the crops don't come from our own bodies. But I digress....

The boxes have two lids -- the metal one, then the wood one inside, and they're configured with gaps so that the bees can come out through the hole in the wood lid and then escape through gaps under the metal lid.

There's a main entry at the bottom of the box, with a ledge so bees can land and then mozey in. A bunch of bees are charged with the task of guarding that entry, and you're not supposed to hang out on that side of the box (as I was informed after boldly stomping around in that area).

Each bee has a job, actually. In addition to those that guard the box, some make the honeycomb, some go out searching for pollen and then come back and deposit it in each little cell, some "cap" the cells of the honeycomb,.... (I don't know what all of the jobs are. Some of them probably paint the queen's fingernails, make her tiny little roast beef sandwiches, etc.)

Anyway, removing the inner wood lid reveals a row of frames. That's where the bees do their thing.

Removing them seems like a dangerous business.

The frames are made with a white plastic honeycomb texture on both sides. Bees build up the honeycomb to the proper depth with wax, and then other bees can start packing them with pollen. (I don't know how the pollen turns into honey. But the process keeps enough of the pollen intact to act like allergy shots. That's why you sometimes hear that local honey -- local to the area that makes you all sneezy -- can alleviate allergies.)

On the far right side of this frame, you can see some of the plastic honeycomb under the bees' own honeycomb, many of which are filled with beautiful, golden honey.

And on the far left side of the frame, you can see all of the honey-filled cells that have already been capped.

Sometimes the honeycomber bees get carried away and start honeycombing everything in sight.

If the bees could talk, I wonder if they would tell us to mind our own beeswax.

But on a more serious note...the queen. Each colony has a queen, and everything revolves around her. I don't have pictures of either of the queens because they are kept hidden away in the boxes. The two queens were packed separately from the other 39,998 bees Patti and Robin ordered, and they were each packed in a little capsule with a marshmallow that they had to eat through to get out into the box. (Bees love sweets.) Once there, they're relegated to the lower levels so they can't escape (which would mean disaster for the colony). Since the queens are larger than the other bees (a result of being specially fed by bees whose job is to raise a queen), they can't pass through these metal bars separating the top compartment from the lower levels of the box (yes, those are busy bees on the supers along both sides of the picture):

There's a whole lot more to beekeeping -- what to do if the queen dies? How do you harvest the honey? Etc. -- but we enjoyed our introduction to beekeeping. And we look forward to some homemade honey. Especially after learning that their harvest last week yielded two and a half gallons (29 pounds!) of honey.

Mmmm, honey.