What Happens to a Photovoltaics System When the Grid Goes Down?

Four years ago, we installed a net-metered photovoltaic system on our barn roof. Photovoltaics, or simply PV, is a term that means “light electricity” or solar energy.

Solar panels

On sunny days solar powers our energy needs.

We appreciate our PV system. On sunny days, when our system produces more electricity than we use, it runs our meter backward as power flows out into the energy grid. At night and on cloudy days, when we’re using more power than we’re producing, we draw electricity in from Alliant Energy, our utility.  At the end of each month, we pay the “net” so it’s called a Net-Metered System. This eliminates the need to have storage batteries. We’ve had a monthly bill as low as $5!

But what happens when the grid goes down? It did on August 10, 2020, when a derecho roared through Iowa with 140 mile an hour winds. Hundreds of miles of wires were torn down as trees crashed into them. We joined thousands of other homes without power.

Important items to have along.

Solar chargers help keep people connected when the power goes out.

So, did our PV system power our lights, computers, and television? Nope. We used candles and lanterns when it got dark and couldn’t power our computer, television, or any other electric appliance for about two weeks.

Net-metered systems, like ours, have an automatic switch built into them so they don’t export electricity back to the grid when it’s down. It’s a safety mechanism designed to prevent a utility employee working to restore power from getting a shock. Our system produced electricity during the blackout, but it just dissipated. As soon as our power was restored the PV system again sent power outward.

 

An Important PV Safety Tip

Our PV system survived the wind intact but others were ripped from roofs and tumbled to the ground. A PV panel laying on the ground upright makes electricity.  Grabbing wires or the panel can give someone a tremendous shock. If a PV panel is on the ground stay away……or cover it with a tarp to darken it so it doesn’t produce electricity. It’s safest to wait until after dark to flip it.

 

What Happens to Chickens in a Natural Disaster?

Clouds darkened in the late morning of August 10, 2020, as a thunderstorm warning was broadcast by radio stations. That’s common during Iowa summers, so we weren’t overly concerned. A half-hour later, a roaring wind engulfed Cedar Rapids. It was a derecho bearing winds up to 140 miles an hour.

We watched our young trees bend before the tempest. Then came the terrible part.

First, our black oaks tumbled down. Then, the black cherries and hackberries tumbled down before the wind. Our massive black walnut stood until a ferocious blast tore its branches and leaves off.

The derecho lasted longer than most – over 40 minutes – and left as quickly as it had arrived. The damage was mindboggling. We soon learned that Cedar Rapids lost 65% of its trees. A quick count showed that 47 of our 53 mature trees were either on the ground or stripped of leaves and branches. We lost privacy and shade and gained a view.

Free range chickens

For several days the chickens were truly “free-ranging.”

We worried about our 20 chickens. The storm came so quickly that we couldn’t lure them into the coop. The wind destroyed the chicken run’s fence. The birds were fine and, with the fence down, began their first neighborhood tour. Even before the rain stopped!

We couldn’t erect a temporary fence for several days, so the chickens were truly free-ranging. They roamed around, and we often didn’t even know where they were.

But, every once in a while, a hen returned to the coop to lay her egg in the nest.

Each sundown all the chicks came home for the night. All 20!

With power off and vast damage over a large area, we were fearful about food. Our freezer warmed and the wind damaged many of our garden crops. Would grocery stores reopen????. Could we even get through on the tree chocked roads???  We didn’t know. But it was soon obvious that our hens were nonplussed by the storm and kept giving us fresh eggs.

Eggs in bowl

The chickens kept on laying eggs.

Assuming a chicken flock survives an immediate disaster – flood, fire, or storm – they’ll continue laying nutritious eggs when other food may not be available. They are valuable disaster companions.

Drought Lessons and Tips for a Green Lawn

Iowa normally enjoys about an inch of rain a week during the growing season. Not this year. We haven’t had rain for a month and none is in sight. Droughts have their benefits. Most obvious is the dearth of mosquitoes and gnats that thrive during wet years. Less known is what dry spells teach us about plants.

Brown grass. Green plants

Native plants tend to resist drought better.

As we walked across a large brown lawn in a cemetery, we noticed green healthy plants poking through dead looking Kentucky bluegrass. They were mostly native species well adapted to a month of heat and dryness.

 

 

 

Here’s what the brown lawn taught us:

  • Many people spend money and countless hours attempting to create a perfect weed-free green lawn composed of bluegrass and fescue. These shallow-rooted European species are poorly adapted to American dry spells.
  • Prairie and other native plants send roots down as far as 15 feet to tap deep moisture that lets them stay green and healthy through droughts.
  • Lawns established on rich soil with spongy organic matter stay green much longer than those planted in the poor, compacted soil of housing developments.
  • Areas fortunate enough to enjoy some shade stay green longer than counterparts in the sun all day.

Here are tips for anyone wanting a green
yard during late summer’s dryness:

  • Replace the lawn with deep-rooted native species.
  • If a cropped lawn is important don’t water but:
    Build Topsoil:   Gradually add compost over the grass. Maybe an inch a year.
    Compost fertilizes plants and absorbs and stores rain.

Mow high and infrequently:  Forget the “once-a-week” contract. Buzzing off the grass stresses it
and doesn’t allow roots to penetrate deeply.

Promote diversity:   A bluegrass monoculture invites problems.  Diversity of plant species ensures
that some will thrive no matter what the weather   If it’s green when nearby grass is brown,
enjoy its health.

Avoid herbicides:  Chemicals tend to kill drought-resistant native plants.

Fortunately, even exotic lawn grasses green up as soon as cooler damp fall weather arrives, but at Winding Pathways we simply allow the brown grass to rest and enjoy our green native plants that have evolved to thrive during dry spells.

Why Is There a Snake in My Garden?

Image of a garter snake

The garter snake lounges in the shade of the cool garden eating insects and worms.

On a July evening, Rich reached down to pick string beans and was startled to spot a garter snake peering up at him from beneath a plant. We’ve seen the three-foot-long snake many times this year around the yard but it seems to particularly like lounging in shade cast by bean plants.

We’re used to snakes, have no particular fear of them, and appreciate their benefits. It’s helpful that no poisonous snakes live in our area. Yet, it’s startling to see one inches from our fingers. “Our” garter snake practices social distancing and is probably more alarmed than we are with an encounter. He or she quickly vacates, letting us pick beans and tomatoes without its company.

What Do Garter Snakes Eat?

Garter snakes are common across the United States and range north into Canada.   Constrictors wrap their bodies around a hapless mouse or chipmunk to eventually dispatch it. Garter snakes use a different strategy. They’re versatile carnivores and enjoy dining on insects, worms, slugs, and just about any other small enough animal to fit in their petite mouths. They quickly grab small prey and swallow whole and alive.

How Do Garter Snakes Help in the Yard?

We like our garter snake because of what it represents. If we’d doused the garden with toxic spray to kill insects, we would have no snake. Its presence signifies a healthy yard.  Although garter snakes eat both beneficial and harmful insects, they probably devour many more of the latter. And, our compost-rich soil produces an abundance of worms, so the snakes can have all they want. Plenty will survive to aerate the soil.

striped garter snake

This garter snake was seeking cool shade on a hot summer day.

Startling as our snake may be, it’s as beautiful as a goldfinch or bluebird. Spotting it gives us a moment of joy. After we are done being startled.

  • If having a garter snake around really troubles you, Iowa State University Extention has non-lethal ways to reduce the appeal of your yard.

How Parents Help Our Fledglings – birds and people

This summer we enjoyed watching wren couples set up housekeeping at Winding Pathways. One pair nested in a small box under our porch ceiling, while another chose a box a few feet outside the dining room window.

Baby wren looks out of the nest box.

The world is big, bright and intriguing.

We watched these tiny, industrious birds make dozens of trips bringing sticks to make nests. Then, for a few weeks, we saw them infrequently. Only the female visited to lay eggs. Once her clutch was complete, she incubated them for a couple of weeks until they hatched. Then our fun began.

Wren parenting is hard work. Every two or three minutes one parent or the other brought juicy caterpillars and leggy bugs to feed the rapidly growing brood. Baby wrens hatch helpless and blind, but in just a couple of weeks, they grow almost as big as mom and dad. Finally, it’s time to fledge.

On the morning of August 9, we sat on the deck watching a young wren peer out the entrance hole, begging for breakfast. Mom or dad brought bugs, but mostly they urged the youngster, and its siblings, to take the plunge and abandon the only home they knew.

It’s scary. The nest is secure and safe. Mom and dad bring food and keep it clean. Then they expect their kids to leave and earn their own living in a world fraught with danger.

Our young wrens peered outside for a day or two before fluttering into the world. Huddling in low lying vegetation they called hungrily. Fortunately for wrens and many other birds, the adults help them out.  We continued to hear these “branchers” calling in the nearby woods and caught glimpses of the parents bringing bugs to them. Slowly the babies figured it out.

After a few days, the young re-appeared around the yard, flying awkwardly. They have much to learn, and all sorts of perils to avoid. The parents continue to support them and many will wing south as the weather cools. We’ll watch for their return next April.

This year millions of American teenagers and new college grads are in the same fix as young wrens.  Childhood and Youth are over. Peering out the door and knowing they must leave is scary. It’s tough enough to leave home during normal times, but this year coronavirus is making the transition extra challenging.

Young people heading for college don’t know whether classes will even be held.  If so, will they be online or in-person?  Will college include exposure to a virus that could sicken or kill? Recent high school and college grads seeking a job face different challenges. High unemployment and lurking viruses can make finding work difficult and, perhaps, dangerous. Join the military?  Move across the country for a job? That’s perilous, also.  Nothing seems safe. Everything’s confusing.

Like the young wrens, parents still help guide their offspring, providing support, advice, and encouragement as the “young” leave the nest. We send good wishes to the youthful wrens that started life at Winding Pathways and to young people about to launch into a confusing and challenging world.  May they all thrive.