Monthly Archives: May 2015

What I Did On My Solar Vacation

The Journey to Solar
My family’s love affair with solar started when I was a kid, back in the 1970s, experiencing fuel rationing during OPEC. President Jimmy Carter provided $5000 to install passive solar systems on the homes of regular American citizens. This fabulous system was based upon the idea of water heated through the sun’s energy, moving through a series of pipes, going throughout the house, to warm it for the winter. My father, an exceptionally frugal, resourceful and handy man, with 7 growing kids and a wife, eagerly installed it himself on our sturdy mid-1800’s era farmhouse here in Thomasville. I still remember how our Depression era-raised father, looked at our thermostat on the first bitter winter day after installation and euphorically proclaimed “We are saving so much money!” This was not a man given to emotional display and was the first and only time I ever heard him say this in my entire life. It was literally a life changing moment, and it stuck with me over all these years. Decades went by and our passive solar system went the way of the dinosaur when my father had died and parts aged and no one could be found to replace the system. Many years after I left the home I grew up in, we bought it back as adults. We set about restoring not only an aged home, but we vowed to replace the solar power on the house to make it feel whole again, both physically and emotionally. And now, finally, its happened!

The solar company I chose to use is Sundial Solar,  based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and run by an extremely experienced, energetic and knowledgeable installer named Jon Kramer. He has installed solar for decades, works all over the country, and has a team of 20 highly motivated experienced workers.

Learning
Practical knowledge I learned myself about solar, was from online sources and from books at the Glatfelter Library in Spring Grove. I started attending national and Learning_bloginternational solar conventions held here in the US, and asking a lot of questions from those most qualified to provide what I wanted. I saw how the whole world was investing in it, except for America. This is strange considering the technology was invented here. Americans like to claim we are number one, but we certainly are not when it comes to 21st century energy sources. Yet Defense contractors all over the world use solar power. NGO’s operating hospitals and health centers in regular or disaster-affected areas use solar power. Even the Amish, our wonderful neighbors who mostly don’t even use electricity, have solar farms and sell the power as if it was a CROP. There are so many widely used, affordable and modern practical applications for solar energy today. This is not your grandad’s Carter Era solar anymore!

Fossil Fuels
Basically what solar does is cut out the energy middleman, of which there are many! Lets look at coal. It is the product of sun energy feeding plant life that was living millions of years ago. These plants were then buried and condensed into hard carbon-rich rock. To fossil fuels_bloguse coal as an energy source that rock must be excavated, sorted, crushed, cleaned, shipped, crushed some more, transported again, and finally burned. Then the resulting ash – rich in toxins – must be dealt with. Mining coal ruins our environment (“mountain top removal” – how insane is that?!). It poisons the air we breathe and the water we drink. It has reliably killed many, many people for hundreds of years through cave-ins, mine disasters, underground fires, and respiratory disease.

You and Solar
So, how do you go about learning about solar energy? When you have the desire to have solar installed on your place, whether commercial or residential, you should go to the online site called the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency – aka DSIRE, a magnificent database that tells you about the funding sources available to your area. The DSIRE website will guide you, beginner or not, through a many layered wonderland of grants, updated technical information, and basically just help with research-related questions.

If you decide to go solar, first thing is save your pennies. Solar systems cost money to put in, same as a wood stove, or a natural gas furnace. And it increases the value of your home. How long will it take to pay it off? A lot depends on how much energy you use, how much you paid for it, and how efficient you are. Those big outside security lights cost a lot to run. (We have since replaced them with solar ones attached to motion detectors.) Costs of solar have dropped significantly as it is becoming more commonly used throughout the world.

Anyone who complains solar doesn’t pay off quick enough is sadly unaware of the modern solar world. No matter which way you slice it, in the long view solar is CHEAPER than grid power. And grid fuel costs will constantly go up, while the fuel for solar systems is free forever. Here’s what I did:

Permits and Paperwork
You will read this article and get excited about solar, and you will go to your local township and rave about it. Your local Zoning guy, if its like my guy Ray Dietrich at the Jackson Township office, who will cast a patient, experienced gaze upon you and pronounce “This is a great idea. You need permits for that. You will have to pay a fee after permits and paperwork_blogits been approved. (under $200 for both permits) Lucky I got you covered with all the right paperwork!” You will need to fill out a Proposed Use Permit Application. There will also be paperwork involving the Commonwealth Code Inspection Service. Your township office will have everything for you. You will have to fill out everything and then include specifics about every bit of equipment involving your system and how it will be part of your house. Then you call up Met Ed and talk to someone who will direct you to the Metropolitian Edison Company Retail Interconnection paperwork. You will have to submit your application and supporting documents like a Level 1 Application/Agreement, Site Plan Example, a one line diagram, and the application fee, which is $100 for a house. Then submit all your stuff to Met Ed. Any questions, then send an email to me_interconnection@firstenergycorp.com.

Your existing meter on your house has its own number, did you know that? It’s not hard to find, call up Met Ed and find out. You will have to make sure you show a very specific, very comphrensive line diagram showing how one part corresponds to another. And when the entire experience is done and solar is on your roof there will be yet another form to fill out at the end, mine was called First Energy Interconnection Application Agreement, part two.

Electrical Concerns
Protect your health and the safety of your structure when you have solar installed, and have an experienced team, like my team, at J Miller Electric in Spring Grove. They will electrical team_blogwork directly with your solar installer who will guide them along the way for any specific needs, if the solar team does not do the electrical install themselves. For my solar install, I was required to have local electricians, and I loved this, because I was able to call upon people I trust. J. Miller Electric crew completely wired my ancient barn. They fixed my house after it flooded. They fixed it after an Utz truck hit it. Trust me, these are great guys and are up for anything. They will have to have access to the inside of your house to your electrical panel and install what is needed there to hook it up to your existing electrical system. They will also have to work on ladders on the side of your house bringing a line down to your meter. They will have to drive a grounding rod into your ground by the side of your house, so pay attention to this in particular because if you have something weird and old buried in your yard, the saying “out of sight- out of mind” really does apply here. You certainly don’t want to pierce a water line or any buried electrical wires or discover and fall into a buried well or any such nonsense as that, trust me. Knowing beforehand what is buried in your yard, in any area that is going to have work done right there is extremely helpful.

Ah, Paperwork
Paperwork is a wonderful uplifting part of life, right? I just love it. I have several avalanches worth of it in my office. You can NOT avoid paperwork when it comes to filling out the correct form, correctly. I filled out several for my local township office, and one for Met Ed called a Level One form for residential. A level 2 form is for commercial properties that will have a MUCH higher level of generation than a smaller one on your house will. Many times people forget that a solar field, placed next to your buildings, instead of directly affixed on it, is a wonderful way to generate your own electricity. I urge anyone zoned clean and green to GET SOLAR panels somewhere on your property, whether in a low wet area that is not much good for anything, or in any area well positioned to capture as much solar energy as possible. Even on a house or in a location shaded with trees, remember, those leaves will fall off in the fall, and you will have beautiful clear skies in late fall, the entire long cold months of winter and early spring. Depending on your energy use (look over your electrical bills for this) you may very well be able to generate more electricity then what you yourself actually use. You will be able to sell it to Met Ed, who is eager to buy it from you, to be able to sell it to someone else. Using electricity is not going out of style, and local municipalities don’t want to raise taxes to fund a new power plant that will cost millions or billions, and decrease property values in the area its built. It’s much better to be able to produce electricity locally and sell it back locally.

Politics and Funding
Depending on who is in political office goes a long way towards getting funding for grants and incentives to help home and business owners install it on their buildings or land. I will get a federal rebate when I do taxes next April, of at least 30%. These run out at the end of 2016, so if your thinking of getting solar installed, step on it. Who knows if these will get renewed, as many things are based on who is holding political office. Gov. Wolf, who hails from York County, is working on passing a bill that would increase funding for green energy projects throughout our state, but much of it depends on getting specific bills passed. I always call up my elected officials who represent York County, and tell them to strongly support any green and renewable energy funding for Pennsylvania. For real. This is a great example of showing how being involved in Politics actually will affect your life directly.politics andf funding_blog

If specific bills get passed, state incentives that have run out, and were not renewed under former Gov. Corbett can be brought back to life again and Pennsylvania citizens can quailify and apply for state incentives, as well as existing Federal ones. So prepare your votes, your finances, site plans and permits and get ready to install solar with the added incentives that will come your way if conditions are directed in the proper direction with strong support for solar and responsible energy generation.

Materials and Delivery
Now, your concerns will be ordering materials, inspection upon their delivery, and storage until actual use. Your solar company will know exactly what to chose for your project from an array of options. There will be a variety of choices for them to make for you, depending on the type of system you want, either residential or commercial, roof-mounted or ground-mounted. Once these things are on their way to you, and get delivered, someone will have to be present at the work site to take a receipt of the materials being delivered. These companies are professional and will NOT make delivery unless someone will be there to conway trucking_blogsign for your wonderful equipment. I used Conway Trucking, who got my entire shipment delivered here in two trips from Alburqueque New Mexico in about a week. Upon delivery, the solar panels were delivered on a custom made wooden skid, because these are not going to fit a standard sized wooden skid and you really don’t want the edges to overhang a conventional one and get all broken up and smashed. Even though mine were delivered in perfect shape (Conway is awesome!) I still worked with a patient driver to hand down each and every single panel by hand and inspect them all. Trucks bonk over holes and debris in the road all the time, and any particularly unpleasant jolt will smash the weight of the upper panels down on top of the bottom ones. Very unfortunately for you, all of a sudden the 18 panel solar array turned into a 14 panels one, and you don’t have an panel delivery_blogextra week to get additional ones delivered. I was looking for cracked or shattered glass, or damaged metal edges, and found none, thankfully. Immediately after ascertaining things were fine, I stack the panels SIDE by SIDE, standing on their edge. You may be handed a manifest that details everything delivered to you. GO THROUGH THIS, and make sure of everything, even though your trucker guy is impatient to get back on the road and make his next delivery. If you don’t have everything you need, you are stuck at a work site later paying for workers to sit around and twiddle their thumbs because you were not through about your job a week earlier. Once everything shows up in good condition, then and only then do you sign a bill of lading that your friendly trucker guy hands over to you.

Weather
The weather is going to screw you over no matter what, so just plan, and plan again. Try to have a day or two extra in order to accommodate unforeseen events that will always pop up. Spring has many wonderful days in it, and will also have days that will screw you over when it comes time to plan for outside activities. The best time to install solar is when the ground or the roof is not covered in 4 feet of ice and snow. Sounds sensible, doesn’t it? Very windy, wet rainy tornado hurricane-type weather is not good. Storms have electricity jolting all over the place and you do not want to be on a metal roof or a metal scaffold when Zeus starts tossing those thunderbolts around, so get DOWN from your high perch and be careful with yourself. Things will dry out and become safe to work on again. I promise you. As it was we had torrential rains of 3 inches the night before the last day of install, and it was remarkable how the clouds cleared away exactly when we needed them to.

Scaffolding and Your Safety
I had been told by my solar guy that we needed to use a particular type of scaffolding that has steps, NOT ladders. This is actually harder to find then it sounds. It is primarily used on church restorations, by workers that are carrying large objects up and down, not scaffolding_blogjust ferrying them up by a crane or packed in a backpack as you crawl up and down a ladder. I called around to many places and the only scaffold business who had what we needed was up in Harrisburg. We ordered it from Safway Scaffolding in Harrisburg, about an hour away, who delivered on time and behaved well above and beyond a typical business in responding to any interactions I had with their service and equipment. One of their employees drove out on a Sunday afternoon in response to a query about assembling the equipment. The reaction of my solar guy, who has assembled hundreds of scaffolds for projects, was to say “Now that’s what I call great service”. You can pay to have it delivered and assembled. It is possible to assemble this yourself, which is how we did it, provided you have about 3 or 4 very fit, very competant individuals who are well able to lift heavy objects high above their heads and have a decent workable understanding of how these things are put together. Building it is one thing, using it is another. Safway recommends taking an online test to obtain “competant status” regarding scaffold use, which is a nice safeway scaffolding_blogway of saying please pay attention to details and do everything OSHA tells you and you will come out of your scaffolding experience alive. If you are not wearing a hardhat, somebody’s gonna lose an eye, and if improperly rigged up, you will die if you take one wrong step. Always follow safe practices, and check on each other, your life is worth it. You want to be around to enjoy your solar system, and 25 years is a long time!

Preping
Once on the roof, we treated rusty spots in the metal with a bit of light sanding, and pretreated it with a shot of rust inhibiting metal primer, followed by a coat of Rustoleum metal paint or enamel, since the roof will be covered over for literally 25 years with this new system. The sun and heat of the day will dry the primer and paint very quickly. This is a good time to mention that you need to drink a lot of water, and take breaks every 2 hours or so, a 70 degree day with full sun beating down on you with no breeze will raise the temperature of your roof to easily 20 degrees higher. Now imagine doing this on a 90-degree day. Completely slather yourself with sunscreen and wear sturdy jeans and long sleeves.

Installing the Physical Support System
When this quick and easy paint job is done, the S-5! Clamps are attached directly on the clamps_blogupraised ridges of the roof. There are different heights of roof ridges and this is something that has to be pre-measured to know exactly what size of clamp will accommodate not only the roof, but support the type of racking and panels you will be attaching later. Then these get tightened through a series of bolts that use pressure to tighten them and keep them, and your panels, off the roof. The racking system is what you call the long supporting metal bars, or “rails” that will be attached next, horizontally across the surface, and each one is screwed in by a screw gun, using hex bolts. I recommend using battery powered tools, and avoid electrical cords at every opportunity, no one wants to get their feet tangled up in cords while balanced on the edge of a roof and fall down to their death. Always plan for safety first.

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Installing Electrical
Next, the electrical components go on, each Enphase microinverter is attached to a stainless steel bolt placed across the surface of the racking system. These things are going to be outside for decades and your bolts need to be stainless steel. Turns out we were not shipped enough, and I had to make a quick run to Forge Hardware in Spring Grove. inverters_blogDarlene who runs the place has pulled me out of many a “home improvement/water barrel building/what was I thinking of” crisis and always has what I need on hand, from the most common to the most obscure tool or material. I simply love my local hardware store, they have made themselves indispensible. Saved me time making a trip into Hanover or York as well.

Setting Up the Panels
Depending on which size you get, they can be easy or a bit of a struggle to get up to the roof. Turns out that the ones we got with the configuration of scaffolding used, still were panels_blogtoo large to be hand-carried up the scaffold, so a pulley system was set up and each panel was lifted by rope and grabbed by our solar guy on top. Then attached wires were untaped and it was quickly secured onto the existing electrical microinverter and physical racking system. With a few bolts attached to keep panels from bumping into each other, your system is now physically installed! The rest is up to the electrical team to finish off.

Monitoring System
For an additional fee, you can have a monitoring system set up, inside your house. Always plug directly into the wall outlet and not a power cord, which will literally allow you to go online and set up an account that will allow you to monitor the output of electricity that each panel produces. You can see when you make more then you use, and you can detect if there are any faulty panels. (it happens, rarely). You can literally check this online from anywhere in the world. If you have solar installed on a vacation home or cabin somewhere else, you can monitor it easily as well, without even being there.

You Now are Solar-rific!
Things to do when your are done- jump for joy! Call up Met Ed immediately and tell them to install a bi-directional meter. This will now replace your old meter with one that goes forwards for when you use regular electricity, like during the evening hours, and also go backward and make you money when your system is powered by the sun and is so efficient you can’t possibly use it all. I have to say when it’s all said and done it is an energetic and deeply rewarding experience and one of the best decisions I have ever made, and I look forward to using this system for the next 25 years!

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Why Straw Bale Gardens Will Save the World

strawbale6_blogAt the Go Green in the city event several weeks ago in York, I displayed a version of a straw bale garden on Beaver Street, and in the back of my trusty yellow truck, Sunflower. The concept of straw bale gardening is simple and easy. This will take several steps and so I’ll list them here, in order.

Check out your yard or future garden site this week. Walk around and check it out. Is your soil rocky, or poor in nutrients? Is it full of weeds or garbage or lead paint? Is it LITERALLY AN ASPHALT PARKING LOT?  I’ve got you covered in terms of being an amazing gardener, and the cure for crummy or even non-existent garden soil is Straw Bale Gardening! These are also extremely excellent garden experiments for those of us with knees that are not what they used to be.  Bending is not as much of a chore as it usually is, and straw bales can even be double-stacked, to make it even easier to reach, and work at. As they wear down, they will be a bit mushy, but still be safe to work with as they morph into a large, undefined mountain of plants.

Feel if your future garden site is squishy under your feet, or how much sun and light it gets. Is it exposed to particularly strong winds? Perhaps you may want to reconsider NOT planting taller plants in that area, as they will grow in grace and beauty and get knocked down at fundamentally sensitive points in their growth cycle. Where does your water drain? Gardens can use a lot of water. It’s a good idea to have any water drains on your property pointed towards your garden, but not directly AT it. Forceful water can drown or even knock down plants in the garden as effectively as a strong wind, and depending on how well a traditional garden can, or will not absorb additional water, your plants may very well drown. I also check and see where my neighbors direct their rain spouts as well. NO one is allowed to drain directly into their neighbors property, technically swales used to exist in between older property lines, so that heavy storm waters would be drained there and allowed to flow AWAY from your building foundations. I always plant straw bale gardens where I know the water will accumulate, naturally, according to the direction of the natural or artificial grade of the land. Needing water can get expensive when you need it.

strawbale4_blogTHIS is where you put your strawbale garden! Now put your strawbales EXACTLY where you want them to be for at least a year. Once these are moistened, they become very heavy and should NOT be moved. Place them with the straw pointing “up”, like a regular straw would be used for drinking. The whole point of this is that moisture and nutrients are trapped inside, and can travel up and down the straw bale like an elevator, going wherever needed most.

Basically, straw bales are purchased in the fall, allowed to over-winter and sort of “soften up” with the combination of exposure to many types of moisture and freezing and thawing temperatures. strawbale8_blog

 I let them completely warm up with the springtime weather, and when growing season approaches, its time to apply a hose full of water to each straw bale. Jam the hose directly into each straw bale, and let it run until the water finally starts to pour out. This will take a bit of time, and will take a lot of water, but is a very necessary part of the preparation process.

 Now let the bales sit for a day, and then add granular fertilizer to them, adding up to 2 to 3 cups, per bale, over a period of 2 weeks. Add fertilizer, at 1 quarter cup measurements, increasing up to one half cup at a time, interspersed with serious bouts of watering. You can take a trowel to help sort of poke the granules of fertilizer deeper into the bale. The point of this is that straw is a lovely neutral base, basically a big wet sponge, when it is full of water. But it has NO potential to grow any crops until it is fertilized! And the straw acts exactly like a straw is expected to, allowing the flow of moisture to travel up and done. Now, you have a wonderful big fertile block of nutrients that is perfect for growing all sort of vegetables in your garden!

With the combination of warmth, moisture and time, the bales have indeed loosened up, and its now possible to use your trowel to force its way down deeper into the trowel a few inches or so, all over the top of it. When the two weeks are done and no fertilizer is left to be seen, now you take a bag of potting soil and spread up to an inch of it all over the surface of the bales.  You want purchased potting soil and not your own regular garden dirt, because you want to avoid  introducing weed seeds at all possible times. 

strawbale3_blogNOW, you are able to add vegetable plants, by digging a hole into the loosened bale, no more than two per bale. Stake those plants, whether tomatoes, or eggplants or okra or peppers, on the top of the bale. Some of the stakes can be rather large, 5 or 6 feet in height, even. Lettuce can be planted and harvested in between the taller plants, and will grow quicker and be able to be harvested by the time the tomatoes are large enough to block out the smaller plants.  Squash and pumpkins and cucumbers can be inserted into the sides of the bales, and so you can literally be able to plant all 5 exposed sides of this six-sided wonderful garden block of nutrients. Basically both plants and seeds will grow very well when this is prepared properly. And there simply is no better way to grow potatoes, ever.

When it comes time to choose what to plant, it’s usually a good idea to plant what you know you will consume at its freshest and healthiest state.  Some gardeners plant for strawbale2_blogappearance, some for donations, some for long term storage, (squash) or its ability to can or freeze well. Some people strictly want fresh from garden to table. The basic question is, what do you like to eat? Does someone in your family have a sweet tooth? Enjoy pies and jams? Then plant some strawberries!  There, that was easy. Rooted plants are easy enough now to purchase from nurseries, and pop into a freshly fertilized straw bale.  Don’t forget flower gardens! 

Weeds will be minimal unless birds add waste to them from above, or blow onto them. Have fun! Any specific particulars  about trying out this new method can be gleaned from the fabulous book by Joel Karsten, Straw Bale Gardens. Ask for it at your local library!

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Next blog- Barrel gardens for City and Country Beautification!