Photovoltaics Power Winding Pathways

Workers begin on the roof installing the framework. They watch the weather for at least two consecutive days of low wind and no storms to complete this part of the job.

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.

The windmill graphic on my Iowa driver’s license is a fitting symbol for the energy revolution sweeping the state.

When conventional fuel prices spiked years ago Iowa leaders became concerned that vast amounts of money were leaving the state to buy oil, natural gas and coal.

Iowa may lack petroleum but has incessant wind and plenty of sunshine.  Harnessing these limitless resources seemed prudent and governments, utilities, environmentalists, manufacturers and nonprofits converged to position Iowa into its current leadership role in renewable energy.  “We had strong public policy and leaders like then governor Tom Vilsack (now US Secretary of Agriculture) who were interested in making it happen and worked with people to get it done.  Wind manufacturing was a target for economic development.  We added renewable energy training at community colleges and passed production tax credits to encourage small scale locally-owned wind and solar projects,” said State Senator Rob Hogg.

Today 31% of Iowa’s electricity comes from the wind and sun. It will likely reach 40% by 2020 propelled in part by declining costs of renewable installations.  In 1983 it cost 55 cents to produce a kilowatt of wind electricity.  Today it’s a nickel.  Photovoltaic costs, although higher than wind, are also tumbling.

Iowa’s renewable energy boom arrived with little controversy. Farmers receive royalty payments for each turbine on their property and about 6000 Iowans are now employed in the wind industry assembling turbines, constructing and maintaining wind farms, and providing equipment to support the industry. So strong has employment grown that Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids erected a massive turbine that produces 24% of its electric consumption and offers an Associate Degree of Applied Wind Maintenance.     “Our graduates have been hired by many utilities and are now maintaining turbines all over the world,” said Tom Kaldenberg, Associate Vice President.

Van Meter Industrial is a wholesale electrical supply distributor.  “Five years ago we had one employee serving the photovoltaic market. Now we have five.  At least 47 Iowa companies are involved in the solar energy supply chain and at least 680 Iowans are employed in installing, marketing, and supplying the solar industry,” said Brad Duggan, Van Meter’s Renewable Energy Product Manager.

Renewable energy isn’t perfect and won’t completely replace conventional power generation.    Calm occasionally envelops usually gusty Iowa and the sun refuses to shine at night.  Wind turbines kill birds and bats, but this threat has diminished.  Some people simply don’t like windmills,   although I’ve heard few Iowan’s express this.

Wind and solar reduce the negative impact of burning fossil fuels. Once in place these renewables release no emissions to the atmosphere and don’t pull water from rivers or the ground.  There’s no need for dams to block fish movement and no concern about a nuclear catastrophe or mercury and acid raining down into lakes and the ocean.

There are significant economic and legal differences between wind and solar electricity.  Massive wind farms are owned by utilities and like coal or nuclear plants the utility produces and sells the power. To a consumer there isn’t any difference between buying electricity produced at a coal plant or wind farm.  In contrast photovoltaics and the electricity they produce are owned by individuals.

Wind often blows all day and night, while the sun only works the day shift.  To completely rely on solar electricity a homeowner needs a stand-alone system to charge batteries when the sun’s shining and yield electricity when it’s not.  Battery systems are expensive and normally only cost effective if a home is a long distance from the grid.

Increasingly common are grid intertie net metered systems where electricity flows both ways through a meter.  There is no power storage.   Essentially the grid acts as a battery.  When a home is producing more electricity than being used power flows outward to the grid, running the meter backward. At night electricity is pulled in and the meter runs forward. At the end of the month the utility bills the customer for the net amount used.

Over 20 years ago, while Director of the Indian Creek Nature Center, I acquired photovoltaic panels that Jimmy Carter erected on the White House and Ronald Reagan later removed and put in storage. I wanted to create Iowa’s first net metered photovoltaic system but there was no legal mechanism for a grid inter tie.  Fortunately my utility, Alliant Energy, was cooperative and helped legally and technically connect the system with their grid.   This led to a permanent legal mechanism that enables property owners to net meter either wind or solar generated electricity.

Although small our system cut the electric bill by 41% and the Nature Center is now constructing, with Alliant’s help, a new building that will produce more electricity than it consumes, a concept that can be incorporated into many structures.

Because utilities don’t produce home or business generated solar electricity they face a dilemma somewhat akin to electric cars, where the owner uses roads but does not pay gasoline taxes needed to maintain them.  Utilities must sustain their grid but can’t sell electricity they don’t produce. Essentially net meter customers have free access to the grid.  Utilities are likely to eventually charge a grid access fee.

Economics are driving renewable energy expansion, at least in Iowa.  Cedar Rapids based Paulson Electric recently prepared a bid to place a photovoltaic system on our home.  For a cost of $13,150 a new system will produce 93% of our electric consumption.  We will receive state and federal tax credits of about $6312, reducing our cash cost to $6838.    The payback on investment is about 11.2%.  That’s far more impressive than the microscopic interest we receive from our traditional investments.

Renewable energy isn’t pie in the sky but In Iowa it has created significant employment while reducing environmental threats caused by hydro, nuclear, and fossil fuel.  It is a model that is expanding across the country and holds great promise for a cleaner future.

Solar Panels

Soaking up the sun.

For information Contact

Wind:  American Wind Energy Association at

Solar:    Solar Energy Industries Association at

Solar Electric Power Association at

Paulson Electric in Cedar Rapids at

Van Meter Industrial at


Rainwater Barrels and Gardens

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


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.

Chimney Check

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.

Rain Barrels – Money Savers Good For The Environment

Many homeowners harvest beans, squash, and tomatoes from their garden.  Some collect delicious eggs from a small

backyard flock. Too few harvest one of life’s free necessities – Rain Water!

We set up five rain barrels at Winding Pathways a few years ago. They are so handy we don’t know why we didn’t start harvesting rain years ago. Rain barrels are relatively inexpensive and easy to set up. Water from the barrels irrigates thirsty gardens, provides drinking water for our backyard hens, and is handy for rinsing off dirty hands and tools when working outside. 

Tap water costs money.  Rain water is free. It’s delivered by nature without chlorine. Too many homeowners swish rainwater down storm sewers and pay their city for tap water to irrigate.

Rain barrels yield free water but also create social and environmental benefits. They reduce pressure on municipal water systems and wells during droughts and reduce erosion and flooding caused by runoff.

A rain barrel is simply a container that collects and stores water falling on the roof. A faucet positioned low on the barrel makes filling a bucket or attaching a hose easy.

They are hardly a new technology. People have been catching and using rain for thousands of years, especially in arid areas. Relatively new are myriads of lightweight attractive barrels on the market, ranging from plain and simple to highly decorative. Most hold about 50 gallons.    Do it “yourselfers” can easily make a rain barrel from a 55 gallon drum and fittings sold in any hardware store.

Most first time rain barrel users are astonished at how much water falls on the roof during even a minor shower. For example   625 gallons of rain falls on a 1000 foot roof during a one inch storm. That would fill nine or ten typical sized barrels, and most houses these days are much larger than 1000 square feet. Even during Iowa’s occasional droughts enough occasional showers fall on our roof at Winding Pathways that we always seem to have water in our five barrels.

What’s Needed to Harvest Rain?

Setting up a rain barrel outside a home that has gutters and downspouts is easy. All that’s needed is the barrel itself, a stand to elevate it, and a way to point the downspout so water goes into the top of the barrel.

The Barrel:   Many websites detail how to make a rain barrel from common materials. Simply GOOGLE How to Make a Rain Barrel and several excellent well illustrated instructional sites appear.   Manufactured rain barrels can be purchased in big box stores that sell yard and garden equipment. They can also be ordered from numerous places online.

The Stand:  A stand gets the barrel up off the ground. Normally a hose fitting is situated near the barrel’s bottom to allow complete draining. We made stands from lumber scrounged from construction site dumpsters. They are about 18 inches tall. Placing the barrel on several cinder blocks is even simpler and requires no carpentry. Remember that a rain barrel holding 50 gallons of water weighs around 400 pounds. Stands must be stout.

The Downspout:   Most downspouts extend from the gutter to the ground. Situate the stand and rain barrels below or near a downspout. Common soft aluminum or plastic spouts are easy to cut with a hacksaw.  Cut it off above the height of the rain barrel so water falls directly into the top of the barrel.  Or, if the barrel needs to be set to the side of the downspout buy a 90 or 45 degree angle elbow from a hardware store and attach it so water reaches the barrel. Be sure to drill a few holes in the joint and secure it with sheet metal screws.

Where to Locate the Barrel. Obviously a rain barrel needs to be located near a downspout, but most houses have several of them.  Put the barrel as close as possible to the garden or wherever the water will be used.

Hooking More Than One Together. Most people start with just one rain barrel and then discover that it fills quickly in just a light rain.   And, it’s easy to use all the water quickly. The solution is simple. Set up several rain barrels in a way that once the first barrel fills water flows through a small tube into the second, third, and any subsequent ones.

Rain Barrel Maintenance. Barrel maintenance is important but simple. Every five or six weeks we drain our barrels, brush the inside to dislodge the slimy material that forms on the plastic, and wash it out with tap water from a hose. Ice can crack a rain barrel, so in late fall we drain ours, turn them upside down for the winter, and put a rock on top (actually the inverted bottom) to keep the wind from blowing them away.

A Caution.  Most roofs are constructed of nontoxic materials, but some may leech toxic chemicals into rainwater.  Most cedar shakes have been treated with chemicals so don’t harvest water from such a roof. It’s best to wait three or four months after installing a new asphalt roof before collecting rain.

It’s exciting to bring fresh eggs into the kitchen from a flock of backyard hens, and another satisfying delight of the yard is the delicious beans, chard, and other vegetables that come from the garden.  Harvesting free rain after a summer shower is another pleasure offered by a wondrous yard.

Rainwater Solutions



 A few years ago Lynn and Mike Ruck, owners of Rainwater Solutions, helped the Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa mount a major effort to encourage residents to buy and install barrels they make.    Eager residents retrieved barrels they had ordered from the back of a huge semi-truck, and soon nearly 1000 residents began harvesting water.

Many companies make and sell excellent rain barrels. We use ones made by Rainwater Solutions at Winding Pathways, and they’ve served us well. One of their models, called The Moby, holds 65 gallons while its slimmer cousin, The Ivy, holds 50.

Rain Water Solutions rain barrels are made in the USA of 100% recycled content. It is their mission to work with government agencies and non-profits to use rain barrels as an education / outreach tool for water conservation and water quality issues. They also design, consult, and install above and below ground rainwater harvesting systems. For information check their website at

Surviving the Deep Freeze

People have the good fortune to sit in a warm home watching birds glean seeds outdoors in winter’s frigid weather. It is amazing that they remain active in temperatures that cause human frostbite after just minutes of exposure.

Birds have several adaptations that enable them to function in extreme cold. Perhaps most important is being clothed in highly efficient insulators – feathers. Even in our era of modern high tech insulation, goose down quilts and coats are warmer than any synthetic insulation, so the hundreds of feathers covering small birds keep them warm.

Birds have a high metabolism that produces toasty body heat but requires huge quantities of fuel. They must eat often and spend much of the day foraging. To fight the cold they devour high calorie foods such as weed seeds and frozen insects. But beef suet and sunflower seeds stocked in bird feeders also help keep them warm.

During extreme cold birds often overnight in the security of a dead tree. Tiny birds snugly pass howling blizzards tucked into small crevices. Wood is a relatively efficient insulator and birds squeeze between the bark and wood or in holes excavated by woodpeckers. Bird houses erected in spring to attract nesting wrens or bluebirds serve double duty as safe roosting sites.

Unfortunately winter is the season of death for many birds and other small wild animals. Cold, wind, snow, lack of food and predators take their toll and only a fortunate small percentage of young wild animals live until their first birthday.

Bluebird in January

This winter we have seen as many as four male and one female bluebirds at one time at our “dogfeeder” waterer.

During the winter provide plenty of seed and suet for the birds. And, remember that critical element – water!

Homeowners can help birds safely winter by protecting dead trees and erecting bird houses before cold weather arrives. Put the latter on your list to do this spring and give the birds a hand for next winter.