Monthly Archives: March 2012

Tour De (HFH) ReStore

In congruence with my idea about using as many re-used, recycled, and repurposed materials as possible in The COMET before purchasing newly manufactured eco-products, I have decided to visit every Habitat For Humanity ReStore (PLUS the magnificent EcoBuilding Bargains store) in Massachusetts in search of materials. I’m calling it the Tour de ReStore and it began today! I went to the HFH ReStore in West Roxbury. Though I didn’t find anything I could use in the COMET, it was still a fun trip. I’ll have to post some pictures of the turqoise linoleum tiles and cork flooring I found at the other ReStores recently.

Of course I don’t have to explain how much I adore the ReStore and what it stands for. I think I mention it often enough! On my Tour de ReStore adventure I’ll be specifically looking for things like countertops, wood material to build a kitchen/dinette table out of, and other surfaces. Of course, I always find something I didn’t even know I needed, like textured glass in the exact size of the broken window in the COMET! You just never know.

Tomorrow I’m going to try to go to another ReStore that’s pretty close by, just to see what they’ve got. I’m also open to using weird materials from their free pile or other unusual things and modifying them into what I need. I’m always wondering, how can I make that door into a countertop? How can I use that window in the bumper greenhouse/garden?

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Cheap Green RV Living Resource

Good Morning!

I have been a big fan of the website cheaprvliving.com for a long time now. It is full of really useful information from Vandwellers and Fulltimers who have been living the alternative, mobile lifestyle for a long time, in everything from minivans to school buses. I really appreciate the no-frills attitude of the site and the vans/RVs/camper conversions that they feature. They have simple ideas about simple living.

I just recently discovered that cheaprvliving.com launched a sister site, called Cheap GREEN RV Living, and it’s all about how to live more sustainably in a camper, bus, converted van, or car. There are lots of ideas for off-grid alternative energy systems, boondocking tips and tricks, and how to respect the planet while living more freely. Some of the articles on CheapGreenRVLiving.com talk about how to pare down your possessions, some talk about the logistics of using the toilet, and others give detailed step by step instructions for installing a PV system on your van’s roof. My favorite page is the product reviews page. This guy is super honest and has actually used all of the products he reviews, so I found this article really useful.

Anyway, check out both sites if you haven’t already, you won’t be disappointed!

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COMET Update – Documenting Progress

Well, the weather has been steadily improving here in Massachusetts, and I’m getting really excited about “breaking ground” in the COMET. I’ll be moving her away from her factory parking lot home to my house where I can work on her. Soon I’ll be peeling back the walls to see what surprises wait for me there (most likely a rotten wood surprise). Then I’ll be testing the electricity and looking at the wiring to figure out how to best implement my totally DC solar system, while fixing up the tow wiring/lights.

This may be a little premature, since nothing has really been set in stone yet, but I’m VERY excited and honored because Derek Diedricksen, fellow MA tiny house guy and artist (check out relaxshacks.com) asked me to bring the COMET to his summer Tiny House Workshop this year, and give a little talk about the project and show it’s progress. It’ll be great for people to be able to feel the space and see my work in progress: a behind the scenes sort of thing. The fact that I’m going to be towing the COMET around while it’s being worked on makes me think I should work backwards: design and repaint the exterior first, then work on the inside. I want to have a really eye-catching and informational exterior design so that people know what the project is all about, and maybe put the website on the side so people can find more info about it. Anyway, more details on the COMET’s live appearances this summer will follow.

This past week I have been reflecting on the progress of The COMET so far, putting together a very large and detailed presentation about what I’ve done in the last few months. There’s so much research behind the scenes, behind every blog post. It’s so interesting to look back on my preliminary project ideas, my first grant proposals, and other material from a few years ago, when the COMET was just a dream, and then look at how much progress I have made in terms of the concept and what the project really means and needs to accomplish. It’s also amazing to see how much my knowledge of sustainable sciences, materials, and systems has increased and grown from a general interest to a real understanding.

One thing that I have been thinking about in particular is the pros and cons of using newly manufactured “eco-products” versus recycled and repurposed materials, which may not be “eco” per-se, but would have otherwise ended up in the landfill. In my mind, it is better to use an existing material (reused, recycled, or just leftovers) than purchase something brand new, because no matter how sustainable the new product is, it has to be manufactured using some form of energy, it has to use fuel to travel, etc. I think instead of using as many “eco-friendly” products as possible in The COMET, I am going to focus on the repurposing and recycling of existing materials, and whatever I can’t find used, replace with eco-friendly new. I’ve been thinking of innovative ways to re-use things that I already have in order to make what is currently missing in the COMET.

This post was really scattered, but I just wanted to give you all a general update :) Thank you to everyone who has been reading along and following the progress of The COMET. Contact me with any feedback you may have or ideas you think I should be incorporating into the project!

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All-DC Solar Power System in The COMET

Here’s a follow up to the last post, where I talked about how to calculate your (kilo)watt usage and shared my own table showing what electricity-using appliances I will have. Here’s why that “AC or DC” column is important.

These are the actual modules that I have. 3 x 185W modules. Thanks Cotuit Solar!

I want to design a PV system for The COMET that is DC-only, and has no AC inverter (which turns the DC power from the panels into the AC power that comes out of your wall sockets). The reason is because of the nature of inverters for PV systems: inverters are the single most expensive component of a PV system. They also are the point at which 20% of efficiency from what the panels are actually producing gets lost. That means it takes 20% of the energy you are producing with your panels to power the inverter. That’s a lot of lost energy, especially in a small system! So I am devising a unique system that requires no inverter.

Here is a diagram of how the system will look. Modules, charge controller, battery bank, then DC load or outlets.

In order to do this, I need to convert ALL of my electricity-using appliances to run on DC power (see previous post for details, but basically everything in The COMET runs on DC anyway, except the laptop computer, which I will buy an DC power adapter for ($20 as opposed to $2000 for an inverter). It isn’t unusual for camper and RV appliances to be wired for DC and use only DC, so that’s another reason this conversion will be feasible. I’ll also need to make sure everything is running at 12V – meaning I will need a 12 V battery system.

DC plug

I have seen some grid-tied systems that use this principle to power what DC appliances they have (check out this Instructable as an example). For example, charging all of your fans, lights, cell phones, ipods, and basically other electronics with car chargers, with power from the panels using no inverter (and maybe even no battery if you only want to access the free power during the day). However, my system will be very unique in that it is off-grid and completely DC. I’ll have wall outlets like everyone else – they’ll just be DC and look like the ones in your car!

Small 150W inverter for just-in-case AC scenarios.

The one thing I am worried about with this system is not having the flexibility to use anything with an AC plug. Who knows what will come up, there may be a day when I need to test something or use an AC plug to power something. Of course, I can only plan so much. For this scenario, I will have a small car inverter (probably somewhere around 300 W) that can plug into the DC wall outlets when I need it (or maybe it’s mounted in the wall somewhere, but I see it as being more of an emergency use kind of thing).

I’m still working out the kinks, but this entirely DC system will save me a lot of money and be much more efficient than an inverter system. I’ll keep you updated as I experiment with this concept!

 

Totally unrelated, but I just wanted to point out how awesome the Habitat for Humanity ReStore is. I went to the one in Worcester on Saturday, because I was driving by, and they happened to have a few click panels of cork flooring. I picked them up for a $1 and will hopefully be able to use them in the bathroom!

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Mobile Solar Electricity with PV

Hey everyone! Happy Monday!

So as you may know all last week I was in Vermont attending an intensive photovoltaic design/installation class (at the Yestermorrow Design/Buidl School – check it out here). By the end of the week, I realized it would be very difficult to sum up everything I learned, so I think I’ll just get into it little by little. There are so many factors and variables when designing a PV solar electric system for your (tiny) house or mobile house. Weight and stability came up a lot, as well as mobility concerns with roof mounted systems.

For today, I thought it would be fun to introduce you to some of the stuff we covered in the course with an activity you can do yourself. It’s really enlightening and will definitely surprise you if you’ve never really thought about how much energy you use.

For this it’s helpful to know that Volts x Amps = Watts. It’s also really helpful to have a Kill-A-Watt meter around, so that you can plug in your electronics and see how much power they use.

Here’s a Kill-A-Watt meter like the one I used.

Also, note that my calculations are in Watts, because I am dealing with mostly smaller electronics and appliances, but usually if you were sizing a whole house system or something larger you would use kilowatts.

*Efficiency first! Make sure you consider your efficiency before sizing a PV system. Consider phantom loads, insulation, and other factors to see how you could use less in the first place! For example, I am choosing not to have an electrical pump (my faucet will have a hand or foot pump which creates water pressure, and my solar shower will be gravity fed). Because I am going off-grid in a small space, I really have to be careful about where I use electricity.

Basically, we are calculating how many watt-hours we use in a day in order to be able to accurately size an off-grid solar PV system. Finding out how much energy you use in day is really cool, and I feel like it immediately makes you think more about what you use and when. I made a chart with the headings Appliance, Watts, Hours/Day, and wH/Day in order to break down my energy usage. From this I could figure out how much energy I use in a typical day. My chart is pretty simple, and I only have a couple of power-using appliances. The stove and heater in The COMET run on propane (PV cannot efficiently produce heat with electricity). Like I said, no electrical pumps for water. All of my lights will be LEDs to cut down on watts (which is generally an expensive endeavor – to replace all of your lights with LEDs – but I only have about 4 wall sockets so it’ll be affordable and worth it in the energy-usage long run!). Also, I overestimated in some cases just to be safe.

Here’s my chart!

So you can see that I only have a few electricity-using appliances. The other thing to consider here, especially for me because I spend a good amount of time on the road (and even more once the I live in The COMET camper) is that I often charge my phone and other things in the car. Anything with a USB port usually gets re-charged on the road.

I hope this is useful in helping you figure out how much energy you use. For some of your appliances, you will be able to see how many watts it uses on a spec sheet or by looking it up online. For others, it’s just easier to plug it into the Kill-A-Watt. And if you have the voltage and amperage of an appliance, you can figure out the watts by multiplying V x A. The total watt-hours/day ( that 790) will be integral to figuring out how much PV you need for an off-grid system. I will go into that later!

At this point, the DC column at the end of the chart may not make sense, but I will do another post later about why that column is so important! I am figuring out a way to have a much more efficient PV system than most, and I think you will find it interesting to think about! So stay tuned for that later on.

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Photovoltaic Installation at Yestermorrow School

The last 5 days I have been in a very intense class learning the ropes of PV installation. We’ve done sizing of a system (I haven’t done this much math since high school!), flash-mounted roof mounts, and we’ve wired up our solar panels. Based on my calculations, I think I have way more than enough PV power with the three panels I recently got from Cotuit Solar.

Tomorrow is the last day, when we finally plug the panels into the combiner box (then charge controller, then AC breaker, then batteries, then inverter – whew!) and see how it all fits together. This class has been super enlightening and I can’t wait to share what I’ve learned. The Yestermorrow Design/Build School offers a learning experience like no other. It is really amazing here. Every person I meet is either building a tiny house (or has built one) or is working on an Airstream retrofit/renovation or already lives in an Airstream. My kind of people!

Anyway, this is all I have to show you for now, more later!

And here’s the tiny house that’s currently in the parking lot outside!

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Yestermorrow update + The Greenest House in LA

Hi!

I have just arrived at Yestermorrow Design/Build School in VT for my Solar Electric Design + Installation course! I am very excited, and the class begins tonight, so we are jumping right in. I’ll be here for 5 days learning how to design and install a PV system for The COMET. My experience here will also come in handy when I help Beth Ferguson of Sol Design Lab (check out the pumps!) install a solar powered bus stop installation on campus at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA next month.

 

 

Okay, here’s a cool project!  “On Begley Street”

On Begley Street

For all of you sustainable design/green building fans: I was listening to “ACE On The House” (Adam Carolla’s carptentry/construction podcast) the other day and heard Ed Begley Jr., celebrity/environmentalist who was driving a solar powered car way before it was cool, talking about his new building project. He and his wife Rachelle are building a LEED platinum home (I believe it is net zero energy?) in place of their existing one. They have had their original home completely deconstructed so that each piece can be re-used in some way. Their new home will be “The greenest home in LA” and will be an example of sustainable building practices. They hope that others in the neighborhood will follow suit!

I think this is a great idea. If more celebrities had more gardens and less lawns, people might be inspired to follow their lead.

You can support their green building project via Kickstarter. They are asking for funds to be able to have a webshow that details “How to build a LEED platinum home”. I can’t wait to see the upcoming episodes!

 

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Thank You Social Venture Fund!

I recently received another grant in support of The COMET project. The Social Venture Fund supports projects with social impact on a community. Thank You Social Venture Fund, your support will help make The COMET possible!!

As always, you can support The COMET, and education in sustainable design and living, by heading over to the “DONATE” page of this website and clicking the Donate button!

Thank You!!

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Fermenting Foods

For me, sustainable living and self-sufficiency are very closely linked. Self sufficiency usually means growing at least a portion of your own food, which sometimes means preserving your harvest! From another perspective, buying real sauerkraut can be real expensive (and sometimes the sauerkraut from the store isn’t even actually fermented, it’s just cooked in vinegar). $8 for a pint of kraut is too much to spend on my habit. And since you know I wholeheartedly believe in DIY for a million reasons, I wanted to point out a cool DIY tool I found a while ago that I want to try out. It’s a sauerkraut/pickle making jar system. It’s called the “Picklemeister”.

The Picklemeister fermentation jar

The Picklemeister comes in 1/2 gallon and 1 gallon sizes. It’s basically a big glass jar with a seal and an airlock. You cut up your cabbage (for sauerkraut), add salt, a plastic bag of brine, and let the jar sit for 3 days. Then you have a gallon of sauerkraut!

Here’s a video that I love about making sauerkraut (with a really tasty recipe at the end!) with Mark Frauenfelder. Check it out here. He swears by the Picklemeister.

I found the Picklemeister for sale at a few different websites. It’s about $20 + $10 shipping. I feel like it’s definitely worth it and will pay for itself after just one 1-gallon batch.

Simply Natural

Wisemen Trading (and on their Etsy, which seems to have run out of Picklemeister’s today…check back)

Glass jar, with screw-on plastic lid

However, if you’re super thrifty like me, and like the fun and satisfaction of making things yourself, you might just make your own Picklemeister type tool. I’m on the look out for a big glass jar with a screw-on plastic lid. It’ll probably be one of those old fashioned glass juice/sun tea jars with the funny fruit/flower screen prints on the outside. I have seen them at the second hand store for about $2 (of course not since I’ve been seeking them out – but I’ll find one!). Then I’ll just need to buy the airlock ($1.50) and drill a little whole in the lid of the jar for it (and put some sort of gasket around the opening). Total estimated cost? My budget is $5.00! Not too bad!! I’ll do a post about my DIY picklemeister experiment when I find the jar!

Looking out for something like this!

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