31 July 2012

To Receive or Not To Receive (Catalogs)

Austin has a goal of zero waste by 2040 (as I wrote about here), and Austin Resource Recovery (formerly Solid Waste Services, the city department responsible for garbage service) is leaving no stone unturned in that quest. Not only are they encouraging recycling, but reducing and reusing are definitely in their tool bag as well.

Earlier this year, Austin Resource Recovery partnered with Catalog Choice to make it easier for Austinites to reduce the number of catalogs they receive.

Instead of having to call each catalog's customer service number and ask to be removed from their mailing list, Catalog Choice lets you create an account and then choose all of the catalogs you want to stop receiving. So easy!  (It works best if you have a catalog with you so you can enter the customer number, etc., from the back, so I add them every time I find an unwanted catalog in my mailbox.)

One of my favorite things about Catalog Choice is that the website keeps a running tally of how many trees have been saved through their efforts, as well as how much paper, water, and greenhouse gases were saved, and they also tell you how much you have saved.

So far, I've submitted 16 requests, of which 12 have been received and processed (according to the status page of my account).  That translates to one tree, 234 pounds of greenhouse gases, 83 pounds of paper, and 562 gallons of water (because paper processing, like electricity, is water-intensive).  Just by taking 10-15 minutes over the last few months to request less mail!

All of this is available to everyone -- free -- not just to Austin residents. (And have I mentioned how easy it is to use?)

29 July 2012

A Smoke/Carbon Monoxide Detector Saga

One night last month, just before midnight, we were awakened by one of our smoke detectors. (All of them, really, since they are interconnected (wired to go off together). And all of our smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, really, since they are designed to test for and alert us to the presence of both smoke and CO.) We stumbled around in a sleepy haze, found the offending unit, decided that its battery was bad, and, since we didn't have any spare 9Vs, pilfered one from our old plug-in CO detector. We happily went back to sleep, but two hours later it woke us up again. Since we didn't have a newer battery to try out, we just took the detector down, planning to take care of it in the morning. (There are 6 other detectors in the house, and the offending unit was in the hall between two (unused) bedrooms that each have their own, so removing it didn't pose any safety risk whatsoever.)

I didn't get a chance to buy more batteries the next day (at that point, realizing we probably hadn't ever changed the batteries, we decided to replace all seven of them), but that night the plot thickened. Around 11 pm (before we had gone to sleep, fortunately), another unit went off. We did some troubleshooting but were unable to silence it, so we took it down. Then another went off. We took it down. And so on, until five of the seven units were removed. And then we knew that it couldn't be batteries going bad, since it was incredibly unlikely that five batteries would go bad within 24 hours.

Around that time we also realized that we weren't really sure whether it was the smoke or CO part that was going off. They have a different light for each alarm and are supposed to sound differently as well, but being sleepy and without the manual in hand, we couldn't immediately figure it out. That was our first hint that the combination smoke/CO detector was perhaps not the brilliant invention we had assumed it was.

Here's where I feel like I should reiterate that, if your CO alarm goes off, you should immediately leave the house and then call 911.

But that's not what we did -- because we knew it was a false alarm.

How were we so sure? How'd we know we didn't have a legitimate CO problem? We're in the unusual situation of our only gas appliances being the fireplace and the range (the HVAC is geothermal, the water heater is electric/geothermal, and the dryer is electric), and since neither one was on, they couldn't be producing carbon monoxide. (We spent a while talking through whether a gas leak somewhere in the house could trigger the CO alarm but eventually concluded -- correctly -- that it couldn't. CO is produced through the combustion (burning) of gas, so without a source of combustion, we couldn't have CO or a CO leak.) In an overabundance of caution, we also checked that neither car was accidentally left on, since cars running in the garage can allow CO to enter the house (with lethal results), but all was good there, too. Plus, neither the standalone CO detector nor the other two hard-wired detectors had gone off even once through all of this.

We were at a loss. We replaced the batteries the next day, but the same five units promptly sounded again. So we knew it wasn't the batteries, there wasn't a fire, and we didn't have a CO leak. It seemed like it was a pure malfunction that had begun in one unit and had somehow spread to four others. I checked with our builder to see if he or his electrician had any experience with that kind of issue. Nope. I called the manufacturer's customer service line, but the person I spoke with refused to acknowledge any explanation other than that we had a CO leak. (Never mind that it had been several days by then, and we weren't dead.) He suggested that I reset all of the units and put them outside, where our CO leak couldn't possibly trigger them. All five went off within half an hour. Our builder tried calling the manufacturer, hoping to get someone with more technical expertise than the customer service representative I spoke with, to no avail. So we were left with replacing the five units.

If we had it to do over again, we would have opted for smoke-only detectors (without the CO function) in the first place and just bought two or three plug-in CO detectors to install around the house. We didn't realize that smoke detectors typically last for 10 years, but CO detectors are only good for 5 to 7 years, so we'd be looking at replacing (or at least supplementing) all seven units well before the smoke detector part would go bad. (We spec'd combination units with the intention of tying them into the security system so that 911 would automatically be alerted to a fire or CO leak, but we ended up going a different direction with the security system, and knowing what we know now about how buggy the units can be, it could definitely be problematic for the fire department to be called for every false alarm.) So when I called the manufacturer (First Alert) back to pursue replacement under the warranty, I asked if they would send me seven smoke-only detectors instead of five combination units -- and they did, so (with the purchase of a new standalone CO detector and plans to buy a replacement for our old one) our curious saga was nearing its conclusion.

But there was still the issue of disposal of the smoke/CO detectors and the old standalone CO detector. I was going to toss them in the trash, but during one of our various rounds of removing and reinstalling the old smoke/CO units, I noticed a warning about radioactive materials:

I'm not up on all of the city garbage department's rules, but I'm pretty sure plutonium is not allowed. (Just kidding. They actually contain Americium 241. But Americium is made with plutonium, and it's still radioactive.) So I googled around a bit, and although I still haven't found an answer for the smoke detectors, this ehow article taught me two interesting things: 1. Some of the pieces of the CO detector casing may be recyclable. 2. When disposing of batteries in the trash (which is fine for regular alkaline batteries), wrap them in something or otherwise keep them separate from other batteries. (If two touch, they can become "live" and heat up or even leak.) Good to know.

Coincidentally, while all of this was going on, I learned that there's just one brand of CO detector that's truly reliable. (And First Alert isn't it.) Kristof Irwin, a building science expert and the owner of Positive Energy, introduced me to CO-Experts, a pretty crazy-looking website created by George Kerr, the (rather elderly) authority on CO issues. Apparently, to be able to sell a "carbon monoxide detector," a company has to obtain the certification of the Underwriters Laboratories (UL). And apparently the UL is overly concerned about avoiding false alarms, so they will only certify units that will not sound below 70 parts per million (ppm) of carbon monoxide -- and, indeed, will only sound after one to four hours of exposure at that level. That's more or less fine for healthy adults, but according to Mr. Kerr, that level of exposure can be very dangerous for children, pregnant women, or people with health challenges. So he has developed his own unit, being sold as a "health monitor," which has a display of the exposure history that can be helpful in treating carbon monoxide exposure (although it's unlikely to be necessary, as the alarm will sound immediately, even with very low levels of exposure). It's pricey -- $249, compared to about $30 for most UL-listed units -- but I'm convinced it's worth the cost. Oh, and one more tidbit from CO-Experts: since hotels are by no means immune to CO leaks but hotel rooms rarely have CO detectors, it would be wise to bring one with you when you travel.

So that's the end of the saga. I'm still perplexed by what caused five of our detectors to fail at the same time, but I'm feeling much better about the measures we've implemented to protect us from fire and from a carbon monoxide leak. (Separately.)

18 July 2012

Solar Magnetic Poetry

Austin celebrated Solar Day last month by hosting, in connection with an IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference, an expo of solar manufacturers, installers, and related businesses. Austin Energy had a booth, too, and that's where I picked this up:

This set was lacking some of the essentials -- like "is" -- but fortunately I have an old set of regular (coal-fired?) magnetic poetry that I was able to draw from to cobble together a few lines.

A haiku would have been nice, but there was too much I wanted to say, and with terms like "renewable energy" and "photovoltaics," I just don't think it was meant to be.

16 July 2012

At First Flush

When we last talked rainwater collection, I had drilled a hole in the cistern to install the bulkhead, the black plastic fitting to which I would then attach the plumbing that brings water from the gutters to the tank.  (This project is teaching me lots of new plumbing vocabulary.)

So it was finally time to start attaching pipes to the tank. A vital component of any large-scale rainwater collection system is the "first flush," and since it's what actually connects to the tank, we decided to work on it next. This device catches the first of each rain before it comes into the cistern, keeping the dirtiest water (containing roof dust and any other debris small enough to fit through the gutter screening) out of the tank. This diagram shows how the first flush works:

 (Image from Earth Energy Unlimited)

We bought a first flush kit from Innovative Water Solutions (an awesome local rainwater/ graywater/drainage/irrigation company whose help has been invaluable on this project):

The kit included everything except for the regular ol' plumbing pieces, which I picked up at my local plumbing shop, Crump Plumbing Supply (really knowledgeable staff, and much better prices than Lowe's). The first flush system went together in pretty much the same way as the other piping I've been working on. Here it is (before I painted and permanently attached it):

Most of the plumbing is 4" pipe, but the inlet into the tank is 3" wide, so a reducer ("bushing," I think) was necessary to make the transition.  (I've been assured that this bottleneck won't interfere too much with the flow into the cistern.)  The left side of the T is still open here.  That's where the pipe leading into the tank will go.

At the bottom of the first flush, I added a 45 degree turn for easier cleaning.  There's a hole in the rubber dripper at the bottom that lets the water in the first flush slowly drain between rains.

The bottom screws off to reveal a long plastic strainer and the round rubber stopper with a hole in it (the kit came with eight stoppers with holes of different sizes for optimal draining):

(What you can't see here is the hollow plastic ball that goes inside the pipe, as shown in the diagram above. The ball floats up in the first flush pipe as the water level rises; a bracket holds it just below the T so water can flow freely into the tank once the first flush is full of water.)

Before I could permanently attach the first flush, I needed to assemble the pipe that would bring water up from the underground lines.  (I didn't want to be trying to glue pipe at the weird angles that would be required if I attached the pieces one by one.) Once that was done, I painted the whole assembly with hammered silver spray paint (to approximate the look of the tank and the metal roof)...et voila:

Next up?  Put in the underground pipe between these pieces and the first downspout, then expand outward from there.  We're also working on the line from the tank outlet to the pump, and I'm scouting supplies to build the pump house (we're shooting for an aesthetic similar to the house house).

12 July 2012

Green News: Energy

This week's Green News focus is on energy and energy-efficiency. Enjoy!

Groundbreaking home energy research right here in Austin. This great video summarizes Pecan Street Inc.'s research into areas including distributed (rooftop) solar, electric vehicle use, and home energy management. Based at the Mueller airport redevelopment site, Pecan Street's research is giving us a first glimpse into the impact of smart meters and how widespread adoption of electric vehicles might change our energy use habits.

Renewable energy credits for geothermal systems. Forty states have implemented renewable energy requirements for utility companies, and Maryland has just become the first to allow utilities to count geothermal systems toward these requirements.

60% of homes will have smart energy management systems by 2020? A consumer research study says so (even though less than 1% had such systems by the end of 2011).

The ins and outs of solar net metering. This New York Times article does a great job explaining the considerations surrounding the different methods of charging solar customers for their usage and reimbursing them for electricity they put back into the grid, and whether these systems are fair to regular customers.

Austin's streetlights undergoing energy-efficiency and "dark sky" upgrades. With a goal of 2015, Austin's city-owned utility has begun the process of replacing its 70,000 streetlights with flat LED light fixtures that will not only save money but also help combat urban light pollution. Although the retrofits are costing $15 million, this project will pay for itself in energy savings in three years thanks to the efficiency of LED bulbs and automation upgrades that are being implemented at the same time.

Is solar energy finally on the verge of going mainstream? Pretty detailed analysis of the cost of solar power and why it may finally be at a point of widespread adoption (including long system life, low maintenance, and minimal degradation loss). But some of the commenters question the authors' assumptions, so you'll have to draw your own conclusions.

Water is energy-intensive.
Like everyone else, water and wastewater facilities are trying to reduce their energy bills, and you can help by conserving water. (Energy is water-intensive, too, but that's another topic for another time.)

08 July 2012

Rainy Days

With rain (possibly) in the forecast for the next week, it seems like time for another rainwater harvesting update. Spoiler alert: no matter how much of that rain materializes, none of it will end up in the cistern.

Over the last several weeks, I've been busy trenching to run underground water lines from our gutters to the tank. (This is the time-consuming part. If we could have placed the cistern right under a gutter and avoided all of the trenching, we'd be finished and merrily awaiting summer rains right now.) I started digging by hand, knowing that a trencher wouldn't be able to go right up to the house or under the edging that outlines the patio-to-be:

Then I mapped out the rest of the trenches:

We rented a trencher a few weeks ago...

...and officially entered "it has to get worse before it gets better" territory:

Now the yard is a hodgepodge of trenches and the beginnings of a maze of pipes:

With only a couple of hours a day cool enough to work on all of this (on the shady side of the house, fortunately), we still have A LOT of work ahead of us. This weekend we inched closer, finally drilling the holes in the cistern for the underground pipes to tie into. Part of the delay in getting that done was because, gosh, making holes in the cistern sounded so permanent, but it went fine. The only tricky thing was that the cistern was built with ribbing that doesn't allow the bulkhead (the piece that makes the connection between the tank and the pipes) and its gasket to sit flat against the tank at the very top. Here's the bulkhead (about the size of my hand, with a 3" opening through the center; the arrows point to the gasket):

As you can see from this picture of the drilling in action (or maybe you can't...but trust me), the bulkhead doesn't quite fit in the top segment of the tank, so we had to drill just below it.

So that we don't lose the top few inches of rainwater capacity, we will add 90-degree connectors (at both the inlet and the overflow bulkheads) to effectively extend them up those last few inches.

Drilling through the metal took a while (it was a "slow and steady" process if ever I've seen one), but once I finished, I popped the bulkheads in -- and as I tightened them, I could see them cinch up against the tank -- especially on the all-important (and therefore gasketed) inside:

I haven't calculated the total length of pipe infrastructure that needs to be installed to get the rainwater system going -- maybe on the order of 200-250 feet? -- but with the bulkheads in, we're several inches closer....

Also this weekend, we finally glued the first downspout (which we built a couple of weeks ago, but hadn't cemented together). Now this...

...is in the process of becoming this:

Progress, progress....

03 July 2012

35 Megawatts

What does 35 megawatts of solar (roughly 6,000 times what's on our roof) look like? This:

Austin's first solar farm opened earlier this year, and since it's open to visitors, you know I had to check it out. The
Webberville Solar Farm is waaaay out east of town, on a 380-acre parcel near a substation (which kept to a minimum the transmission infrastructure that needed to be built to accommodate all of the new generation). The project is a collaboration among several different entities, as the sign at the entrance indicates:

Austin Energy is committed to purchasing the energy generated at the site -- expected to be over 50,000 megawatt-hours each year -- for the next 25 years, as part of its goal of 30% renewable energy. (I hear they have another solar farm in the works, too.) Solar power is optimal for a location like Texas, where there is ample sun, especially at times of peak demand. It's no secret that we need more generation capacity, but it doesn't make sense to spend $400 million to build a traditional power plant whose power will only be needed from 4-7 p.m. during the hottest summer months; solar farms (and rooftop systems -- called "distributed solar") are ideal because they happen to generate most of their power during the times we need it most.

But back to the stars of the show:

The panels are mounted on frames that allow them to pivot to follow the sun throughout the day. Every few minutes, we could hear one segment or another pivot a degree or two. The farm has this great observation deck for viewing the site:

Like the
wind farms we drove through earlier this year, the solar farm is pretty expansive, but this map helped to give context to its acres and acres of panels:

(Although now that I compare the map to the aerial picture at the top of the post...they're not a match. Hmmmm.)

Each of the red notations within the solar field on the map (the ones that start with "E") indicates the location of an inverter (which converts the power being generated by the panels from direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC)). Unlike our inverters, which are the size of a car stereo and each convert the power from a single panel, these inverters are huge because they serve entire segments of the farm. There they are in the white container buildings.

Solar power is low-maintenance compared with traditional forms of energy, but there are two maintenance issues at this farm. The first, which is an issue for any solar array, involves cleaning the panels. They explained that they hadn't yet cleaned the panels (the installation of which began last summer), but they are closely monitoring the panels' production and will only clean them when it stops being cost-effective
not to.

The second issue is more site-specific: weeds.

When the rows and rows of panels were constructed in the midst of last summer's drought, weeds weren't an issue, but with this spring's rains, some of them have grown tall enough to begin to block the bottoms of the panels, compromising solar production. But they have a plan to deal with the weeds, and that plan is...sheep! Solar sheep!