Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Post #13 Reusing the energy in hot water

Question: How hot is the water that comes out of your shower head?  Answer: Somewhere between 105 and 120 degrees F (depending on your preference).  Question: How hot is that water as it goes down the shower drain?  Answer: Still hot, perhaps 90 degrees F.  Question:  What happens to that energy in that water?  Answer:  Usually it is completely wasted- at the Armstrong House, the energy is reused.  Question:  How?  Answer:  I'll explain the process in a bit, but first:

Think of boiling a pot of water on your stove.  Have you ever tried to boil a pot of water that started out really really cold?  Once in Maine I had to fetch water from a spring that had frozen over the night before.  I had to break the ice to get to the liquid water and when I returned to the cabin with our cooking water it had chunks of ice floating in it.  That morning, it took more time and energy to boil the  near freezing water.  Similarly, it takes less time and energy to boil water that is already hot- like when you reboil a kettle that was recently boiled.  

Now, think of a picnic on a hot summer day.  The night before you prepared an awesome potato salad and set it in the fridge over night.  Once the picnic is underway and the food is spread, your cold potato salad starts to loose its chill.  After an hour or so, your potato salad has totally lost its chill (and its appeal) so you decide to put it back in the fridge.  What has happened to your potato salad?  More importantly, what does the potato salad and Tate's frozen spring water what have to do with saving energy at the Armstrong House?

At the Armstrong House Education Center we have installed a drain water heat recovery unit, which is a fancy way of saying 'we passively heat up the potato salad so we don't have to boil frozen spring water'!  What the heck am I talking about?

He have one of these:

The Armstrong House's drain water heat recovery unit.  

Notice the copper piping that runs vertically through the photograph- this is our drain water heat recovery unit, which takes the hot waste water from the shower and preheats the cold water coming into the house.  The following two diagrams are of the installed unit that I took from the manufacturer's website.

The waste water heat recovery unit connected to shower and water supply.  

The waste water heat recovery unit in action.  It takes hot water from the shower and preheats the cold water coming into the house. 

But, why is the water coming into the Armstrong House cold?  Like everyone in Pound Ridge, I get my water from a well.  The temperature of well water is governed by the temperature of the earth and rock that it collects in- which for our area is somewhere in the low 50's F.  50 degree water is cold- very cold.  50 degree water must be heated like crazy before you can even think about using it to clean dishes, wash clothes or use in a shower.  With the use of our drain water heat recovery unit, we can essentially split the difference between the hot waste water and the cold water from the ground.  For example, if it comes into the house at 50 degrees F. and the waste water is 100 degrees F. the new preheated water will be 75 degrees F.  If the water comes in at 60 degrees and the wasted shower water is 90 degrees, the new preheated water will be 75 degrees F.  By using preheated water, we have to use less energy when heating it back up to 100 degrees F (remember the pot of boiling water).  For more information and a formal energy/cost savings review of the drain water heat recovery unit click here.
This is just one of the many ways that we are reducing our energy consumption at the Armstrong House.  Stay tuned for more.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Post #12 The first garden harvest

This weekend marked a very special occasion for the Armstrong garden: the first harvest.  While I was tending the garden I noticed that the radishes were literally climbing out of the soil (see picture).  They weren't very big but they had a delicious flavor.  I sliced them thin and added them to vegetarian springs rolls that evening.  Mmmmmm.  Next on the menu: my lettuce.  

The first radish to be harvested at the Armstrong House!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Post #11 The sun fuels my MacBook

My next thread will be dedicated to the Armstrong House and its neat energy efficient technologies.  Today's post is an introduction to the Armstrong House and its primary source of electricity, a set of south- facing solar panels.  

Inside the house, when I flip a switch, charge my cell phone and print out a map, I do it with energy harnessed directly from the sun.  A photovoltaic solar array sits securely on a rocky outcrop just a stone's throw from my back door.  In times of sunshine, the solar array produces a DC current which- when routed through an inverter- enters my home as AC and runs my appliances.  Excess energy is stored in a series of batteries to be used during a cloudy day.  For fun, a sample of some cool electricity websites here and here.

Living off the grid.  The Armstrong House Education Center is unique because it gets all of its electric energy from the sun- it is completely 'off the grid'.  There are no power lines connecting it to the power company, I don't receive a monthly electricity bill and when the town's power goes out in a storm I will be happily streaming videos while I charge my computer.  Most houses or buildings that use a solar array are still on the grid, they just simply reduce the amount of power they take from it by capturing the sun's energy.  This 'grid tied solar array' is a cool option, but The Pound Ridge Land Conservancy wanted to go to the next level- we chose to be completely powered by the sun.  Our electricity doesn't come from burning fossil fuels and its associated environmental effects: acid rain, air pollution, climate change, etc.  My house's solar array can produce roughly 5 Kilowatts of electricity on a sunny day.  I searched around for equivalencies in coal and found this neat websites:  A 100 Watt bulb running 24 hours a day for a year requires 714 pounds of burned coal.

The current solar array at the Armstrong House Education Center.  

A guiding principle for The Armstrong House is energy efficiency- we want to see how far we can stretch each watt (see future Blog posts for how we do this).  That all begins- of course- with choosing the source of the watt.  We had a choice: tie ourselves to the grid via an overhead (or buried) power line or rely on a solar array to produce our energy.  After crunching the numbers, we determined it would cost more to tie ourselves into the grid than it would to buy our solar array and the first installment of batteries (this is, in part, because we are in a remote location).  We decided to stay off the grid.
There is another huge difference between being on or off the grid.  If the Armstrong House was on the grid, I wouldn't be forced to monitor my power usage.  I could waste as much as energy as I wanted and never worry about it running out.  The alternative-locally harnessing a finite amount of solar energy each day- dedicates me to ultimate accountability of my energy use.  I have to be mindful of an energy schedule (for instances, doing laundry on sunny days) and always aware of the forecasted weather ('I better do my vacuuming today because we have 3 days of rain coming').

I think about it like this: my solar home is like a living organism with a finite amount of inputs and outputs- in order to live happily I have to think about my actions, my environment (the house) and their combined ecology.  In essence, its not just about me anymore.  The house is not without luxuries- the downstairs bathroom has an heirloom claw foot bathtub and most floors are of beautifully finished wood- but a luxury that I don't have here is the luxury of infinite resources.  I can't ignore the sun.  I must mind the rain.  On some level, I'm forced to admit that my domestic prosperity is reliant on the weather.

Like I always say, Living Lighter on the Land is about rethinking our place on the planet.  Here at the solar-powered Armstrong House Education Center, we are rethinking the relationship between home and homeowner- the more I live here and understand the energy systems, the more it feels like the house and I are in a partnership.                    

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Post #10 Planting our future forests

Here in Pound Ridge the forests lack a dense understory of native bushes, wildflowers, shrubs and young trees.  Why?  White tail deer.  While we can't blame the state of our forest solely on one factor (the deer), but there seems to be a strong consensus among scientists, conservationists, and land managers that the deer are playing a large role in shaping the forest's architecture.
The Armstrong Preserve.  Notice that the understory is very sparse and consists solely of Pennsylvania sedge.  
While it's true that the white tail deer is native to this area, the current herd density is high enough to strongly affect the rest of the forest.  Here is a good primer to get up to speed on the Deer issue in the southern New England area.  Today's Blog post is not really about the deer, its about the trees.  Pound Ridge, New York is mostly forested. The trees range in age from roughly 15-200 years old with most trees falling between 50-150 years old.  Take a walk on one of the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy's preserves and you will notice that there are no young trees - an entire age class (1-15 years old) is missing.  In speaking to some of the veteran land managers in the area it seems that the recently instated deer hunting programs have yet to achieve desired results (more forest regeneration).  Herein lies the problem- every day, our forest looses trees- people prune or cut them down and storms blow them over- and the white tail deer eat the forest's seedlings (young trees).  If this trend continues our forests will grow more and more sparse over time. See The Nature Conservancy's report on New York's forest regeneration here.  If we want to preserve the forest in our backyards we must do something about it.  

This map displays a forest regeneration index for New York State.  Red indicates 'poor' regeneration. 
There is hope, and it looks like this:
The first bed in my tree nursery which currently consists of red oak, American elm and shagbark hickory.   In about 3 or 4 years these trees will be planted back in the wild.   
Go walking this week and you sill see thousands of newly emerging trees on the forest floor.  I've seen oaks (4 kinds), ash, hickory (2 kinds), maple, birch, tulip and elm growing in the shade of their parents.  I've even seen some older saplings (2-3 years) growing in piles of brush which apparently act as natural deer fences.  Most of these baby trees will live all through the summer but when the air starts to cool, herbaceous plants start to wither and the deer's food supply starts to fade, death will come to our forest's future.  To circumvent this process I have started a native plant nursery at the Armstrong House Education Center where I currently grow trees to be planted in the forest.  At the nursery I will acquire plants in two ways: 1)  propagate trees and shrubs from seed (see this awesome book) and 2) transplant seedlings from the forest into my nursery.  Once there, the trees will spend 3 or 4 years protected from deer before they are planted at a chosen site.  It is the second method -transplanting wild trees into deer protected areas - that I am urging you to do as well.  As stewards of your own backyard forests, the protection and cultivation of a few trees is an easy way to make a lasting difference.

Planting trees is to create a better future.  Drive around Northeast Westchester County- the big trees are stunning.  They line streets, mark important buildings and grace cemeteries and farms.  We must remember that many of these giants were intentionally planted a long time ago and the only way to ensure big trees for the future is to plant trees today. You can protect and plant baby trees to mark special occasions in your life- the birth of a child, your kid's high school graduation, your retirement- and let the memory grow with you and your family forever.  A white oak tree planted the week of your child's birth would be over twenty feet tall by the time they graduated college.  Along with planting beautiful landscaping trees (like dogwoods and which hazels), consider planting native trees in the forest behind your house.  If we don't replant our forests they will continue to grow thinner and our beautiful historic landscape will be lost.      

Isn't it bad to take seedlings from the wild?  I have seen many seedlings growing on people's property where the deer don't browse, which is good news.  The bad news is that these trees are found growing where people don't usually want trees to grow (next to your foundation, pool, or garden).  Instead of marching into the forest to find your seedlings, just search around your home.  If you resort to removing seedlings from the forest on your property, make sure to do it properly.  If done with care, transplanting and protecting a seedling increases its chances of survival.  Remember, in the forest the deer eat almost all unguarded seedlings.                

How do I transplant properly?  The #1 rule with transplanting baby trees is avoid desiccation!  Don't let the plant dry out!  Don't transplant on a dry day, don't transplant on a windy day, don't transplant on a sunny day, don't transplant to an area of complete sun.  Instead, choose an overcast day with rain in the near future.  If it is not forecast to rain for a couple days then be prepared to apply water manually.  While in the process of transplanting you must keep the soil and roots wet.  When transplanting, don't forget the roots- dig up a root ball (the size of a small bowling ball) with your seedling.  Here are Tips for transplanting.  As you research more about safely transplanting trees you will read that it is best to transplant trees in the early Spring (before leaves open) or in the Fall (after leaves drop and before the ground freezes). Although this is true, it is not always possible;  we are forced to transplant first year trees which are impossible to see before they leaf out in the Spring.  Transplant as early as possible and do not transplant in the summer.  An alternative to transplanting at the wrong time is protecting your trees while you wait for the right season to transplant.  To protect potential transplants, place a small fence around them.

Working together.  Protecting and planting trees is something that every landowner can do to help ensure a forest for the future.  My goal is to team up with other local conservationists to support a region-wide initiative to replant our forests.  Contact me if you are interested in learning more about forest regeneration and what you can do to protect and plant trees for our future.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Post #9 Great Success: Soil amending workshop at The Armstrong House Education Center

Like I espoused in Post #6, a garden's fertility and productivity comes from its soil.  Composting has recently gained popularity among lay people, food activists and conservationists so we are seeing an explosion of creative composting methods: composting barrels, worms that eat food scraps, anaerobic bokashiindustrial sized apparatuses, whole cow composting, clean and classy indoor systemshumanure, and- the topics of today's post-  1) 'green manures' and 2) sheet mulching'.  1) Green manures are not manures at all; instead, they are plants- such as the nitrogen fixing clover- which add nutrients to the soil.  Green manures are usually planted in lieu of more desirable plants (vegetables, crops) in order to make the soil better for future growing.  2) Sheet mulching (also known as lasagna gardening) is a way to make compost in the place where it will be used.  Unlike other compost operations that are done 'off site' and brought to the garden, sheet mulching starts and ends right on your garden beds.  The 'sheets' of organic debris are laid down by the gardener in a systematic way and simply left to decompose.  See these websites for examples.

Today at the Armstrong House Education Center, Sarah Bush of Edible Revolution and myself hosted a sheet mulching workshop where participants gained first hand experience in amending soil.  In attendance were eight garden owners from Pound Ridge who all shared one thing in common: they wanted to learn more about how to build and maintain healthy soil.
A demonstration piece from the workshop.  These are the ingredients we used in our sheet mulching (in order).  The ingredients of your sheet mulching may vary depending on their availability and your needs. 
The workshop was full of enthusiastic energy:  piles of organic material (manure, wood chips, leaves, compost) laid ready to be applied to the existing soil, workshop participants stood with open eyes as Sarah spoke intimately about gardening nuances, and each participant shared their personal story of garden frustration (weeds, rocks, pests) as the others nodded with empathy.  After roughly 30 minutes, the group was driven inside by worsening weather where we continued our discussion over warm tea.  With the help of diagrams I spoke about the mechanics and importance of nitrogen fixation, the microbe- induced process of taking stable gaseous nitrogen and turning it into a usable plant nutrient.  The group continued to share stories, ask Sarah and I questions and take notes on their new discoveries.

Garden designer Sarah Bush teaches workshop participants about making healthy soil.

After my second cup of tea I realized that although the workshop was based on amending our garden soil for the future, it became much more than that.  As most participants left the Armstrong House Education Center, they recognized the community resource we had created for them.  In the classic phenomena of synergy, all of the elements of the day- me (a student of soil ecology), Sarah (an experienced food producer and garden designer), all the workshop participants (with their combined experience and enthusiasm) and the Armstrong House (a prototype for Living Lighter on the Land) - came together to create something special.  Spontaneously and sincerely, the workshop became a very real learning environment- a place where people could share what mattered to them in order to grow and solve problems.  There was a tangible energy in the air.  There were new friendships and partnerships established.  Life experience was passed between near strangers.  Perhaps there was something in the tea.

Living Lighter on the Land is about coming together to solve problems.  As social animals, it's natural to gravitate toward cooperation, partnerships, shared experiences and community, all of which are alive at the Armstrong House Education Center.

Post # 8 Moving Day!

As of this week- the last week of April and first week of May, 2012- I am living full-time at the Armstrong House Education Center.  With the completion of its recent off-the-grid renovation, the Armstrong House will be my permanent residence and the primary location of the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy's programming. Except when noted, the posts of this Blog will be coming directly from the Armstrong House and reflect my experiences there as I ponder, research and practice ways of Living Lighter on the Land.  I will share the house with my partner Sarah Bush (of Edible Revolution) and our indoor tuxedo cat, Loki.  To stay abreast of our adventures check back every week.  Thanks for reading, I hope to hear from you!  

The Armstrong Family.  Sarah Bush, Tate Bushell and Loki the cat.   Follow us on our adventures at the Armstrong House.