Blogposts

Doomsday Preppers : Right For The Wrong Reasons

I am very sorry if you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of people in the state of Texas (USA) who are suffering without power right now, on February 18th, 2021. It is likely a dire situation for quite a few people, and probably quite unanticipated. This could be a new normal for at least a while – what do you wish you had done differently to be prepared for grid outages? This makes me think of the doomsday preppers who have spent years getting ready for what they call ‘SHTF’ – the time when society collapses. I’ve always said that the doomsday preppers were right for the wrong reasons – I think that their efforts to prepare for the collapse of society will help them deal with climate change much more successfully, even though they often don’t believe in climate change. For instance, doomsday preppers probably had water, food and backup energy sources ready to go when this awful weather hit Texas. I wonder if there are other ways to manipulate right-wingers to do the right thing by constructing some conspiracy theory that would get them to do the right thing, like convincing them that gasoline powered cars are endorsed by the devil or something, so that they’d all go buy electric vehicles?

I attended a lecture at a Skepticon conference some years ago that encouraged us all to have a Pre-Apolcalypse party with our neighbors, to encourage everybody to think about and actually take actions to prepare themselves for increasingly unpredictable and severe weather events that, until we became accustomed to them, would interrupt the modern just-in-time systems that we have become used to, that we expect to meet our needs whenever we want them to – always available fresh food in always open grocery stores, always on energy sources delivered to our homes, always passable roadways with always available gas stations, and on and on. It’s public knowledge that enemies of the United States have been learning ways to attack our energy grids, so mother nature isn’t the only one we need to fear. But knowledge is power, and this severe weather needs to be a good test case to show us what we need to do harden our infrastructure for a better tomorrow.

Please check out these different disaster-preparedness websites here and here today, so you can have peace of mind now and later!

Growing Real Food In The Dead Of Winter In Saint Louis (Zone 6b), No Energy Inputs.

In this picture you can see what was harvested from our unheated greenhouse on January 31st, 2021. That’s broccoli, swiss chard, kale and arugula, and it was all grown in USDA zone 6b in a cheap, leaky harbor freight greenhouse with no added heating – no plugged in heater, no propane, no in-ground geothermal heating systems. Don’t get me wrong – I’d love to have some sort of geothermal heating system or thermal storage system (like 1000 gallons of water in black tanks) that would allow the growing of much more than just these very cold hardy plants, but I’m pretty happy with this haul. I added in some lentils that I had sprouted in the kitchen and it made a pretty good salad.

I’m mostly interested in producing fresh food in a manner that allows my household of 2 people to be able to eat freshly harvested food daily instead of growing large quantities of food that could be stored for later consumption. It’s very interesting to me to see how much food could be produced even in the dead of winter, and part of what gave me the courage to try this was the video done by a man in Chicago who called his youtube channel One Yard Revolution. I heartily recommend that you watch the video below!

/https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dd-FOj7cuLc&t=14s

Solar Thermal Hot Air Boxes Must Have An Airtight Seal On The Outlet Duct!

There are solar thermal hot air boxes (STHABs) videos and write-ups all over youtube (videos) and BuildItSolar.com (pictures& text) that show how to make them yourselves for maybe a couple hundred dollars USD (or even a lot less if you have the right stuff laying around) but I have yet to find one that includes an airtight seal for the inlet/outlet ducts. An airtight duct seal makes the difference between getting free heat in the dead of winter and getting free heat AND unwanted free freezing air conditioning in the dead of winter. The laws of physics are pretty reliable, and they work the same way during a sunny day and a dark freezing night – air temperature is changed by what the exterior environment is doing to the inside of the the solar thermal hot air box. On a sunny day, the sun sends photons through the glazed front of the solar thermal hot air box, which hits something that changes the sunlight into heat, and thereby heats the air being moved through the STHAB (solar thermal hot air box). In the middle of a freezing cold winter night, the ambient temperature will chill the interior of the STHAB and thereby chill any air that passes through it. You would wipe out any benefits from the daytime heating if you don’t have an air-tight seal covering the exit duct during long winter nights. You might not care about that if the STHAB is just being used to provide heat during the day to a place that won’t be negatively impacted by severely cold weather – for instance, if this is attached to an unheated shed/garage with no plumbing or items that will be damaged by freezing temperatures. This also doesn’t apply to STHABs that are entirely inside a conditioned space – in that case, the cold doesn’t get to it, and it doesn’t become a cold generation machine.

The STHAB shown in my picture is a commercially made box, from Northern Comfort / Sunsiaray, but I think the guy who made them retired in 2018?

I also made one myself, which my brother sort of remade, but that is not as good looking, and probably not as productive, though I haven’t been able to test that carefully. I used two old window sashes that I got for free as the front glazing, which has the benefit of being able to easily withstand the heat generated inside the box on a sunny day, though putting a sheet of Lexan over those window sashes would trap more heat inside the box, and thereby make it more productive. If you do a really good job of building one of these boxes and then put an acrylic or polycarbonate sheet on the front of it, instead of a glass sheet (window sashes, screen door, etc), you run the risk of that potentially expensive sheet melting. I was able to measure temperatures of over 200 degrees Fahrenheit coming out of my homemade STHAB on a sunny day when no fan was running, and how long would polycarbonate or acrylic stand up to that?

This is really great and durable technology, and I encourage you to give it a try, but remember to make sure you have an airtight seal on the ducts when the sun is not shining on it!

Re-use Old Canopy Frame To Trellis Vegetables

You might already own a low-cost solution for creating trellises for your climbing plants. We had a sturdy old canopy that we left sitting out all summer, which ruined the canopy cover, so it was available for this project and free of charge to us. You might check freecycle sites, craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or the trash put out by neighbors. We set up the metal pole frame of the canopy and attached pieces of this trellis netting using twist-ties, to allow the vines to grow up from the beds to the frame. It’s worth noting here that we’ve now decided that growing purple hyacinth bean vines for vegetables (beans) wasn’t really a good idea, even though the vines are very nice looking and extremely low maintenance. The friend who sold me those plants correctly stated that the vines are vigorous and productive, but the mature beans are toxic, so you have to boil them once in water, throw that water out, boil the beans in another quantity of water, throw that water out too, then boil them again and eat them after all that. Who wants to spend time growing these beans for food when there are so many other good options??? This was a mistake, and I’m sorry we did this. These vines would probably be great for decorative purposes, but I wouldn’t recommend them for food.

Please also note that this canopy frame wasn’t wide enough to sit over our beds, so we re-assembled it at an angle in order to still be able to use this somewhat. Consider the measurements of your beds in evaluating any canopy frames you might be able to acquire.

The purple/green vines on the left in the picture are the Purple Hyacinth Bean vines, and the green vining plant on the right in the picture is a loofah plant.

As an inexperienced gardener, I am just coming to appreciate the value of vining plants – they tend to be more productive, and over a longer time period, so they can be great for fresh, eat-as-you-go vegetables, unlike some other types of plants which produce everything they’re going to produce in a year during one short time period.

Hydroponics Are NOT Set It And Forget It! But They Can Be Less Work.

I had visions of extreme gardening ease dancing in my head when I started out on the indoor-on-my-windowsill hydroponics journey, but I’ve learned a few things in the last 4 months.  It does require maintenance even though it’s less maintenance than required in outdoor-in-the-dirt gardening – no weed pulling, no critters eating plants, few to no bugs, no worrying about serious weather like late unexpected frosts.   It was necessary to check the water levels in the jars every couple days and replenish as needed, especially the kale – it drank at least twice as much water as the lettuce.  Eventually – after about 3 months – I had to clean out the jars and clean up the clay pebbles, and replant.   The greens didn’t seem to be as cut-and-come-again productive as they had been when planted outdoors.   It took about a month for most greens to grow, longer for basil, and the plants seemed smaller than ones growing outdoors, though I didn’t keep exact measurements, and they produced for several weeks as I was cutting leaves off of them for dinner.  I  had about 4 mason jars with lettuce growing in them – some buttercrunch lettuce and something else, 2 jars with basil plants, 2 jars with kale and 2 jars with cilantro.   The cilantro was especially unimpressive – it grew to be big enough to eat, but it seemed a lot more vigorous when I planted those seeds outdoors last year.   Those jars produced enough for 4 cups of very loosely packed cups of greenery in about a month, took 2 – 3 weeks to grow back and produce enough for another 2 rounds of 4 cups maybe?   Then the lettuce plants seemed to be in distress though they’re re-growing somewhat now, the basil plants are anemic but still producing and both the cilantro and kale are still producing a little.   It was a mistake to wait so long to clear out the jars and clay pebbles and re-plant.   I used the made-in-USA HappyLeaf LED light    kit to get started and it has worked well, but $15 LED lights from Menards also worked surprisingly well.

Solar Microgrids That Survive Hurricanes?

60 Minutes did a report on how the Bahamas are upgrading their electrical grid to better handle the increasingly violent and increasingly frequent hurricanes hitting their low-lying islands, and I encourage you to watch their video if you can.  If you can’t watch it, you can at least read the transcript at the link above.

It’s incredibly exciting to see progress being made in the search for hurricane-proof solar PV microgrids, and I really hope they succeed.   The solar panels are much closer to the ground in this new type of installation and will supposedly withstand 180 mile-an-hour winds; I think it would be ground-breaking if this microgrid actually does withstand what are expected to being increasingly frequent category 5 hurricanes.   This type of installation will become more in-demand in more places as our world continues to warm.

I do have one quibble about this otherwise well-done presentation and it’s this – Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis  mentions that he said at the U.N.  ‘First World nations make the greatest contribution to climate change, (t)hey are the ones responsible for the changes that we see. The increase in velocity and ferocity of the hurricanes and the different– and the changes, typhoons that we see today, but we’re the innocent victim. We’re the ones that are being impacted by what you have created.”  Minnis seems to want the U.S. and European countries to contribute to an insurance fund to help rebuild from future storms.  My quibble is this – the electricity generated on these islands is so expensive now that installing solar PV arrays/microgrids even with battery backup will surely cost what they’re already paying now, or, more likely, even cost less.   I could see asking for loans to help with the initial installation of solar, which could be paid back with money paid by electricity customers on their monthly bills.    And I could see asking for some financial help to rebuild after climate-change-influenced storms, but solar is such a good financial move that it would be a freebie /handout to ask for the U. S. and Europe to pay for that.

I Would Like To Know How To Keep A Grid-tied Array Up & Functioning In A Grid-down Situation

I’ve been wondering for years what it would take to keep my grid-tied PV array up and functioning in a grid-down situation, and that question seems a little more urgent these days, though I don’t have any reason to believe the grid would actually be going down for any length of time any time soon.
My grid-tied PV array, like all legally set up arrays these days, will only stay functioning if it sees that the grid is still up and functioning because it has anti-islanding functionality built in.  I’d be happy with a manual solution, but an automated solution would even be better.  We have 2 electric vehicles with a combined total of 46kW of storage capacity but we don’t have a battery bank other than that.  We have a 1000 watt inverter that we could attach to the accessory battery of our 2016 Nissan Leaf, which would allow us to plug in 2 extension cords and pull some power from both the 12 V accessory battery and the traction battery, which is 30kW.
This is a video on youtube that demonstrates a product branded as ‘Setec’ (never heard of them before, seem to be from China) that will pull electricity out of an electric vehicle and provide some minimal power for your house.

The Setec vehicle-to-load device is a product from China (so not sure what availability is right now) which will pull electricity out of a Nissan Leaf (in the US, model year 2013 or newer), Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV or Mitsubishi i-Miev with a CHAdeMO port, but it does nothing to keep the PV array up and happening.  According to a website that seems to be associated with that product, the cost for that device is $4,000 USD, which seems to include shipping to the 48 states in the U.S.A.

My idea is that I would manually disconnect our home’s service panel from the grid in a grid-down situation, connect a small battery bank to our service panel that would fool the two 5000 watt inverters connected to our PV array into thinking that the grid was still up so the solar panels would still produce electricity when the sun was shining, and connect some sort of diversion load to dissipate any excess electricity that the electric cars couldn’t store and that the house wasn’t using.  I don’t want to ruin my inverters, or burn down my house trying to do something that I obviously don’t know enough to do.
If anybody has any suggestions, I’d love to hear about them!

 

 

Happy Leaf LED + 6 Mason Jars

Written 2/27/2020 in Saint Louis, MO USA

I bought a grow light from Happy Leaf LED and a small hydroponics kit (baskets and clay pebbles, a few seeds) and this is what I now have 4 weeks after setting this up (see picture).  The kit from Happy Leaf LED didn’t include the fertilizer that needs to be added to water put in the jars – I bought that from Amazon  for $17 USD.  The sunlight from the window is probably useless; I think all the growing is due to the grow light. The light and 6 black plastic baskets to sit in the top of my mason jars, the pebbles and about 20 lettuce seeds cost about $100 on sale, and most of that cost was the made-in-America light. I think that light is about 17″ long and cost about 5 cents a day in electricity to run for 16 hours (electricity is about $0.10/kWh in the winter in Saint Louis and the Kill A Watt meter said it used .43 kWh for one 16 hour period).  I put seeds of my own in 3 jars – kale, cilantro and basil. Basil barely came up at all and then died; lettuces, kale and cilantro did pretty well.  The picture with this post shows the plants after I harvested enough for 2 salads, so the growth was about double what is shown.   All the growth after 4 weeks is good for about enough salad for 4 people, so since we want at least twice that per week, I might need to double the number of jars per week to grow what we want on a continuing basis.  And since it takes about 4 weeks to get to this point, does that mean that I’d have to have 32 mason jars, one set of jars planted each week, to have a steady supply of the salad that we want?  I’ve got a lot of questions still unanswered about this process and  I’m not sure how to do the financial analysis on this – do we harvest all from each jar and then have to replant, or would the cut-and-come-again capabilities of these plants mean that I’d only need half as many jars as I’m thinking?  How many jars can this one light manage?   How long until this system pays for itself/breaks even?   How tall a space do we need to deal with these plants?   Btw, the onions growing in the foreground in the picture are seated in old glass floral frogs – see my previous post about that for more information.  I’ll post again when I have more data to share.   Thanks for reading this!

Grid Down? Electric Cut Off? You’re Camping now!

I was pretty impressed by something my brother did last fall, and it was a light bulb moment for me.   He was checking out some rural land that he intends to buy and decided to live in the falling-down house on that land for several weeks but the utilities  were turned off.   He has done so much camping that living off the grid for several weeks was no problem.  When he was indoors he spent most of his time in one room and used a small propane powered heater for heat, for light he used his battery-powered light from a tool set that he already owned, and the radio from that tool set also had a micro USB port he could use to charge his cell phone and his iPad, as well as play the radio. He also had a small battery bank that he used for some charging.   He had a propane powered cook stove to cook his food, he hauled in jugs of water, and used a lot of non-perishable food except for some things in a super-efficient cooler that only needed fresh ice every couple of days.   He was able to go to a neighbors house twice a week to recharge the batteries he needed for the light and radio/charger.  He was able to drive to a convenience Mart some miles away to get fresh ice and food. I think the propane tank he used lasted for quite a few days, and he was using the sort of small propane tank that’s easily available and often used for BBQ grills.   He was comfortable and well fed as he checked out that property, and I think that’s a pretty good example of how you, too, can be comfortable in a grid-down or utilities-off situation.   This presumes that you can get someplace to charge your batteries, so doesn’t apply to all situations, but I thought it was a good concept.

This applies more to a temporary grid-down situation than to having your utilities shut off, but you really can be off-grid in a basic way and still be comfortable.   You would want to either have a smaller room (maybe 10′ x 10′) where you could close all your doors or be able to put plastic up in any doorways that didn’t have a door in them, in order to be heating a smaller space, which requires a lot less energy/fuel (in other words, less propane).   If you are without grid power in a standard american house and the temperatures outside are near or below zero you may have to winterize the rest of your house – drain the water lines, put anti-freeze in your toilet tank and bowl, drain the water line going to your refrigerator.  That would be more necessary in an extended power outage – if the temperatures in the house get to below freezing any sitting water is likely to expand and break things.   If you had hot water heat, you’d need to drain that system too.

If you’re living just-off-grid (you don’t have utilities but places accessible to you still have utilities)  your best bet for showers is to go elsewhere –  a gym membership is often quite inexpensive, and would include all the hot water showers you would like.   Laundry can be done elsewhere.

If you’re trying to live off-grid in the summer heat a fan is your best bet since air conditioning takes so much power.

If you were going to be just-off-grid  for an extended time, I would highly recommend either buying or building a solar oven.   There are lots of examples of solar ovens that you can build yourself on youtube.com – though if you can buy one you’ll probably really appreciate the power and convenience of a professionally made oven.

And yes, there’s always the waste disposal issue – as in, human waste.   If this is a very short term situation, a trash bag in a trash can can be utilized.   For longer term comfort, a 5 gallon bucket, a toilet seat and sawdust are probably your best bet.   People do compost human waste, but you need to learn how to do it properly or you will have a stinky health hazard to deal with.  There’s lots of info on this around the web.

Regrowing Green Onions With Vintage Glass Floral Frogs!

I have tried and failed so many times to re-grow green onions but finally found some success, and I want to share this tidbit with others.  I tried half a dozen times to re-grow green onions but they always rotted.  I tried different containers – same result.   On a whim I put the one inch bottom stem pieces that I had cut off the long green onions  into a vintage glass floral frog and this kept the onion stems from rotting, like they had so many times before.   I have to change the water out every couple of days, but I just use tap water and that has worked out fine so far.  Just so you get a better idea of what a vintage floral frog looks like – click here.  I have no association with that page, I’m just including the link so people can get a better idea of what floral frogs look like.  Hope this helps somebody!