(This story first appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette.)
A few months ago, my wife called me to her computer to view our electric bill. Although the weather had been mild the previous month we were still proud to see a $13.18 bill, or about 45 cents a day.
That’s a low bill for us but even when we figure in higher use during hot and cold seasons our monthly average bill is $38, or about 32% of the average $114 residential bill. Our medium size home has typical appliances and lights yet we annually pay Alliant Energy about $936 less than other families.
We’ve done nothing magical, and nearly any home following our strategy is certain to reduce their costs without sacrificing comfort or convenience. Here are gradual steps we took to save money and electricity.
First, we exercise the power of the human index finger. If it’s not in use, we turn it off. The sun provides free light and heat yet never sends a bill. In winter, we open south facing blinds to welcome the sun’s light and warmth and close them at sunset.
Sunlight hits our solar panels at a different angle in the fall and winter.
To: Robert Dix, Brad Duggan, and Lisa Henderson (all helped us with photovolotaic)
What we’ve learned from our PV System
This week our photovoltaic system has given us a great learning opportunity. We’ve now had several crystal clear days and the envision monitoring system clearly shows the electric production hour per hour. It’s fascinating to me to learn that our peak power comes at 12:30 p.m. and when I go out and look at where the sun is this is when it is precisely pointing at the PV system.
The PV system and the monitor have encouraged me to observe how the sun moves throughout the day and over the seasons. This education is a strong positive side benefit of PV.
One late October afternoon Rich brought only three eggs into the kitchen. In spring and summer our 15 hens normally give us a dozen beautiful eggs every day. Like so many signs in nature our chickens are telling us it is transition time.
We have lucky chickens. They enjoy good food, safe living space, and daily fresh air, sunshine, exercise and natural food. Seasons shape their lives, but even their unfortunate counterparts living in cramped cages in factory farms are not completely immune to seasonal changes of nature.
When molting chickens lounge, take dust baths, and re-grow new feathers.
A hen starts laying when she’s four to five months old and stays laving for 12 to 14 months. Egg laying is tough on bodies and after a year chickens need a vacation. So hens call time out. They shed old worn out feathers and grow new ones, rest and eat as they build back strength. After a month or two they look great in their new feathers and begin laying again – if they are fortunate enough to live in a backyard flock.
Commercial egg operations kill hens as they begin to molt and replace them with young birds. Not us. We keep our birds for at least two years. In their second lay cycle our hens give us slightly fewer eggs but they are huge with bright yellow/orange yolks in shells of various hues.
Molting is caused, in part, by the age of the bird, but declining daylight is a major factor. Nature has programmed chickens to lay the most eggs in spring. As fall’s days shorten production drops. We let our chickens enjoy seasonality. Commercial eggeries don’t. Their unfortunate hens live in windowless buildings with lighting that simulates spring to stimulate peak production.
Declining day length triggers thousands of reactions in our world outside the living room windows. Here are just a few things we notice:
A still day of reflection on Turtle Stump.
Leaves of our sugar maples turn vibrant red/orange before drifting to the ground like snow. Our black, white, and red oak leaves wait a bit later until turning rust colored and shedding, although some oaks keep dead leaves all winter.
- White footed mice, box elder bugs, and Asian beetles try their best to get into the house before cold weather settles in.
- There are comings and goings in the yard. We’ve said “goodbye” to house wrens, orioles, grosbeaks, warblers and many other birds but are delighted to welcome back juncos from their nesting grounds up north. Hawks, geese, and even pelicans pass overhead on their way south.
- The world sounds and looks different as humid summer air transitions into fall’s dryness. Colors are more vibrant in low humidity air, sound transmits more clearly, and late afternoon sunlight dances across tree trunks and drying prairie grasses.
Sunlight hits our solar panels at a different angle in the fall and winter.
We produce a bit less electricity from our photovoltaics because the sun isn’t shining as long each day, but peak production is earlier in the day than in midsummer
- Sitting outside on a bright autumn day lets us soak in the sun’s delicious warmth but it cools quickly as the sun drops. Then, we go inside to enjoy the warmth our wood stove provides.
- Clouds drift by and sunrises and sunsets are particularly colorful.
- Autumn and winter constellations enchant viewers and linger into the darker mornings. Because the temperatures are mild, star gazing is pleasant.
Fall is a beauty filled season. We encourage you to “Go outside and play!”
An excellent company to work with.
Just before the summer solstice Winding Pathway’s new photovoltaic system began producing electricity.
A few months ago Paulson Electric Company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, did an analysis of our home and provided us with an airtight proposal. Thanks to tax credits from both the US and Iowa governments we could install a system that will produce about half our electricity without combustion, moving parts, or noise. We’ll receive at least a seven percent return on our invested money, better than we can do at any bank or the stock market.
Our system is net metered. Sun hitting the solar panels produces DC electricity that inverters convert to AC. It flows through our electric meter. When we are producing more electricity than we’re using, typically on sunny summer days, our meter runs backward. When we’re using more than it’s producing – at night and during winter’s short days – the meter runs forward. Each month we pay Alliant Energy, our utility, the net.
We love solar electricity. It takes some natural resources to construct and move the system but once in place it will last at least 25 years and continue producing electricity without burning fossil fuel or causing air pollution. And it saves us money.
Iowa is a national renewable energy leader with over 31% of the state’s electricity being produced by wind or solar. Within four years it will be around 40%. Our state isn’t alone. Solar and wind power are growing everywhere. They are a way for people to enjoy the benefits of electricity without worsening climate change.
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How ironic that many homeowners don’t harvest the rain that falls on their property, yet they buy water to irrigate their lawn and garden. Harvest free water by using rain barrels and rain gardens.
Since ancient times families have captured rain falling on their roof to use for irrigation. It worked thousands of years ago and still works today. A rain barrel is a large container positioned under a gutter downspout to catch and hold water for later use. They can be homemade but most people prefer buying one. Hundreds of models are on the market and range from simple and inexpensive ones to elaborately designed barrels that are practical and decorative. We purchased ours from Rainwater Solutions and have placed six under the downspouts of two buildings. The free water irrigates our vegetable garden and provides water for our small flock of chickens. For more information see the Winding Pathways blog of April 2015 or check http://www.rainwatersolutions.com/
Rain gardens are more permanent than barrels. Like the barrels they range from the simple to the elaborate. Rain gardens aren’t used to harvest water for irrigation but channel roof runoff into the ground rather than into storm sewers.
Our rain garden is simple and cost nothing to create. We dug a shallow basin in the lawn about the size of a bath tub where our downspout discharges gutter water. During a light to moderate rain our rain garden absorbs all the roof water and puts it back into the ground where it moistens roots and eventually helps recharge the aquafer. During a fierce thunderstorm it overflows a little but we channel that to the lawn. Between the garden and lawn all the rain falling on our roof stays on our property, benefiting our plants and not creating flooding downhill.
The Indian Creek Nature Center and Linn County Master Gardeners will hold workshops in March 2016 to help participants learn how to make their own rain garden. Other nature centers, master gardener and Extension Offices hold similar workshops in many locations across the country. Books and websites are available to help homeowners plan their rain garden. One of our favorite information sources is the Low Impact Development Center.
Besides harvesting water and reducing downstream flooding there’s another benefit of having a rain garden. Flowering plants that require wet soil flourish in rain gardens but can’t live in nearby dry soil.
Nothing is as cozy as basking in wood stove’s warmth on blustery January nights, but planning efficient and safe stove operation is a year round activity. Well before the first frost we have our chimney cleaned and check the stove for safe operation.
August’s humid heat is a great time to anticipate plunging fall temperatures. Cool air is only a month away to be followed by frigid winter blasts. Now is the time to check the wood stove and clean the chimney. When few other people are thinking about winter.
Chimney fires are one of the great dangers of burning wood. These happen when creosote builds up on the inside of the chimney walls. This crusty stuff is flammable and can be ignited from a hot burning stove. Flames roaring up the chimney are terrifying and often set the house on fire.
At Winding Pathways we do these things to reduce the odds that our chimney will catch fire:
CLEAN AND CHECK: In late summer we hire a professional sweep to clean and inspect our stove and chimney. A chimney sweep will remove creosote and inspect the stove and chimney to make sure they are safe. So, we start the cool season with a whistle clean chimney.
BURN CLEAN, SEASONED WOOD: Creosote buildup is most frequently caused by burning wet or dirty wood. Wood from most pines and some other species burns with much smoke that creates creosote. Except to use a little pine for kindling we avoid burning it and other wood from coniferous trees. In general wood from trees that drop their leaves each fall, called deciduous trees, burns cleaner than pine, spruce, and fir, but it must be well seasoned.
A living trees’ wood contains an amazing amount of water needed for tree health. Wood from a recently cut live tree doesn’t burn well. It hisses as hidden water evaporates from the fire’s heat. Boiling water out of wet wood consumes energy that doesn’t end up as heat in the home and creates a cool fire that’s likely to deposit creosote in the chimney.
Wood needs to be properly seasoned. To make sure we burn dry seasoned wood we do these things:
- Split all firewood. Wood dries from the cut surface, rather than through the bark. Splitting exposes much more wood to the air than unsplit pieces, so it dries quicker and more thoroughly. Generally the smaller the piece of wood the faster it will season.
- Keep firewood off the ground and under cover. We season firewood on pallets to allow air to circulate underneath. Most of our wood is stored in a woodshed with excellent side ventilation and a solid roof to keep off rain. The rest is stored under a tarp in a breezy place.
- Give it plenty of time. Six inch diameter pieces of unsplit firewood could take up to two years to thoroughly cure, even when stacked in a dry place. If split and if stacked in a dry breezy place seasoning can take as little as four to six months. Seasoning usually means cutting wood this year for burning the next year’s winter. Not the on-coming winter.
- Pay attention to species. We’ve learned to identify species by looking at cut wood and also the tree. The amount of energy held in a piece of wood varies greatly by species. For example a chunk of hickory contains about twice the heat as the same sized piece of cottonwood or aspen. We don’t turn our noses up at woods that yield less heat. Plenty of cottonwood, silver maple, box elder and aspen have kept us warm. These species may hold lower amounts of energy than oak or hickory but their wood burns cleanly if properly seasoned. Of course, we prefer oak, hickory, locust, or sugar maple but if other species are convenient and available we cut, season and burn it.
OPERATE THE STOVE CAREFULLY: Most creosote forms when stoves are allowed to burn at cool temperatures. This normally happens when fueled with unseasoned wood or when the stove’s air intake is reduced. Choking down the air intake so a fire smolders all night is a recipe for creosote buildup. We run our stove with a brisk hot fire all day and never choke down the air intake. If our fire goes out overnight we simply light a new one the next morning.
To find a certified chimney sweep check Certified Chimney Professional.
A good chart of wood energy content by species is at Chimney Sweeps Online.