Power to the People

Since there has not been a posting for nearly 2 years I suppose you think someone died, but no, we are simply very busy. A prime example is the solar photovoltaic (PV) addition we did last month.  While working steadily to harvest and store our massive garden’s bounty we spent many evenings discussing how to make life a bit easier. We decided to try reducing the amount of firewood we fell, cut, lop, split, stack, carry, and burn using stored sunshine from a different source.

Sure, firewood is a renewable resource but even our highly efficient masonry stove puts out particulates and unburned gases when it first starts up. The obvious way to attempt this would have been to put up a couple of kilowatts of wind turbine to supplement our off-Grid solar system.  Wind often blows at night, when sunshine is not beaming through our large windows, getting passively stored directly into our 30-ton masonry floor slab. But sometimes that same wind would blow when the sun is also shining, overheating our house unless we could think of a way to store the heat, day or night. And at our age we think increasingly about reliability, low maintenance, and less heavy lifting.

So, since we needed to deal somehow with the added heat, we first focused on how to store more heat and where to store it. A heat pump is certainly very efficient since it simply moves heat rather than creating it, but the added cost, complexity, noise, and convective air circulation (moving air makes you feel cooler) or need for a heat storage fluid made little sense to us. It can be far cheaper and simpler to produce heat rather than move it against a temperature gradient, as heat pumps do. And to store heat it’s easiest to work with conducted or radiated energy. There are various sorts of electric heaters on the market, some radiant, some convective, and a few that rely on heat conduction. We settled on some stainless steel conductive heating strips sold by a division of Grainger. Mounting these on the masonry stove’s surface would move extra heat directly into an existing 2-ton mass for gradual release.

And we decided to use more solar PV panels. Raising and maintaining a large wind turbine far from our house where the wind is strongest, has both technical and physical limitations, while adding 2 kilowatts of solar almost doubles our current PV system, from 2.4 kW to 4.4kW. The familiarity and easy maintenance of solar won out. We wanted to either run 120-volt DC directly into the surface-mount heating elements or channel the energy into a couple of MPPT (maximum power point tracking) controllers, boosting the input into our off-Grid battery bank. The 120-volt figure works nicely with off-the-shelf heaters, and achieving that voltage simply requires finding solar panels whose “Vmp” (voltage at maximum power point) totals 120 when added in series. And 2 kW of energy is no magic figure, but it does represent almost 6900 BTUs per hour. Over a 5 hour sunny winter’s day this totals over 34,000 BTUs, which is a little over a third of our average nightly fire’s total output.

Once the heaters arrived we ordered eight, 255-watt, Sainty mono-crystalline solar panels on E-Bay at $0.85/watt, freight included, on Oct. 10th.  These have a Vmp of 30.0 volts, and four in series make up the 120 volts moving to the house. After travelling 250 feet from panels to heating elements they lose roughly 2.7 volts, still well enough to power the heaters. After toying with various design options we we bought all of the parts to make racks for them on Oct. 15th and the panels arrived from California the next day. We started putting up 2-inch, schedule 40 steel pipe on the 17th and finished the concrete work on the 18th. After cutting and mounting Uni-strut channel steel we began to actually rack the panels on the 19th and finished on the 20th. You can see their new location along the driveway just above our orchard.

Wall penetrations into the house were done on the 21st and we laid out cable, enclosed it in 1-inch polyethylene pipe, and used the electric tractor’s 1-bottom plow to bury 230 feet of cable on the 22nd. The last of the clean-up was done on the 23rd. 

Later that week we received two Midnite Solar Classic 200-SL MPPT charge controllers. These were a major investment, at $509 each, that could have been avoided had we only wanted back-up heating, not battery charging. Homes with 24-volt or higher battery bank voltages could get by with a single controller. But since the controllers are limited by the amps they can handle, our lower battery voltage means more amps must be controlled at the same power rating (Watts of power = Volts X Amps). So each controller handles one set of four PV panels. Input breakers were installed for each rack of panels and switches were installed to move input power to either the controller input terminals or to the strip heaters. And output breakers were installed between each controller and the battery bank. When all was wired we started to reap the benefits, even on cloudy days, in the form of quicker charge rates and the ability to run additional daytime loads. And we can independently run each set of panels into either a heater or the batteries.

The strip heater mounting on the masonry stove began next, right after we finished helping a neighbor install a 400-watt wind turbine to supplement her 360 watts of off-Grid PV power. Wind energy is perfect for her ridge-top site, using the simple 33-foot tower kit made for that turbine. The 260-foot distance from the tower site to her house would normally require thick wiring to efficiently charge her 12-volt battery bank. But this turbine puts out roughly 120 volts as 3-phase AC in 14-2 gauge UF Romex,  and it uses an MPPT controller to match the house voltage, saving greatly on wire costs.

Above you can see the two strip heaters attached to the stove’s surface. I used some left-over sanded grout to smooth the brick surface and used Tapcon screws to attach the strips over the wet grout. The high temperature white woven wire insulation on the 8-gauge wiring at the bottom and copper screw-on terminals were used to avoid problems with melted solder and stinking plastic wire insulation. The first layer of the bricks that surround the heaters are grouted level into place.

After cutting slots for the strip heaters into the back of 22 more brick using a diamond blade and rotary saw, I simply stacked the brick, creating a “surround” to protect those walking by. Near the top I screwed a thin piece of galvanized steel into the stove using two more Tapcon screws and drilled holes to match the brick channels. Then two pieces of 1-inch galvanized EMT were threaded down the outer brick channels. This allows us to easily unstack the bricks should anything go wrong with the heaters.

The final stack includes some trimmed floor tiles at the top. As I write the heater has really boosted the brick temperatures. Running for nearly 4 hours the temperature of the stove bricks 4 inches from the heater surround is around 165F. A full day’s sun will add to that and make the heat penetrate even deeper into the stove’s mass.

Soon our neighborhood will be snowed in and frozen over but we certainly won’t freeze or starve in the dark!

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Shifting Gears

If your current car gets good fuel economy but it’s no longer fun, or even very easy to drive, maybe it’s less the car’s fault than your own limited driving skills. After all, most of the energy that a motorized vehicle uses in its lifetime is wrapped up in its manufacturing, from mining and refining the metal ores to drilling and refining the oil used for lubricants and plastic parts to cutting, bending, pressing, welding, and assembling all of those parts. Why waste all of that embedded energy by pooping out on an otherwise serviceable vehicle?

For instance, a common complaint we hear from those with manual transmissions is their inability to easily downshift when trying to climb a hill. They press the clutch pedal and grit their teeth as the transmission grinds noisily into the lower gear, shaking their right hands to remove the sting of the vibration. They wonder how much longer that gearbox will last and how they can hide the embarrassment of sounding like they don’t know the rudiments of driving a “stick”.

Luckily, “there’s an app for that”! It’s something every big rig driver knows quite well, more out of necessity than skill. It’s called “double clutching”. The procedure is mandatory if you want to drive big trucks since the gears in truck transmissions (and many race cars) are built for maximum strength, necessitating squarely-cut, unsynchronized gears. The gears in most car transmissions are more helical in shape and have rotating synchronizing gears that help you shift. Think of them as “automatic manuals”. When those synchronizers wear out you’re left with a grinding gearbox, unless you know how to drive like a trucker!

So here’s the procedure:

  • Press the clutch pedal down and shift the transmission into neutral
  • Let the clutch pedal out and briefly tap the throttle pedal – up to 3000 rpm or so is good enough (depends on the transmission)
  • Quickly (and quietly for a change!) press the clutch pedal down and shift the transmission into the lower gear
  • Let the clutch pedal out and press the throttle pedal to accelerate, as usual

You’ve pressed the clutch pedal twice instead of once – that’s why it’s called “double clutching”. But the secret to its success depends entirely upon that brief goosing of the gas pedal with the clutch pedal out. What you’re trying to do is match the speed of the transmission’s output shaft (driven by the drive wheels, turning at a rate based on your car’s speed and the gear you select) to the speed of the transmission’s input shaft (connected to the clutch, which is connected via that clutch pedal to the engine). By letting the clutch out and revving the engine you spin the input shaft and its gears up to a speed that better matches a lower gear ratio (larger gear, physically) on the output shaft at your current speed. In other words, you do what a synchronizer does when it is still working.

Of course you could just grind those gears, put up with getting your hand buzzed, sound like you’re an idiot, and wear out the gears to the point where the transmission starts slipping out of gear. Then you’ll need a transmission rebuild or replacement, either of which costs some serious money. And cars without a working transmission really don’t have good trade-in value! Wouldn’t you rather learn something new and impress your friends?

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PV Resurrection

A friend of ours recently decided to upgrade the solar photovoltaic (PV) charging system in his small camping trailer with another PV panel. Not having loads of money to spend, he purchased a used 120-watt Kyocera on E-Bay. But buying the panel during winter meant that he didn’t get around to installing the panel for a few months, so it didn’t occur to him that he might want to check the panel before his chance to either return it, or ask for a refund, would expire. As luck, or the crookedness of the seller, would have it the panel did not output any power and, as so often happens with electrical devices, I received a frantic call. The option of returning the panel no longer applied and he appeared to be financially and electrically out of luck.

First, I contacted Kyocera and had my friend send off a warranty claim on the panel, just to see if it was still replaceable. Kyocera quickly shipped a working refurbished panel and when installed it functioned perfectly. My friend was so happy with the outcome that he gave me the broken panel as thanks. After sitting around in our shed for a few months, waiting for its place in the electrical repair queue, I tested its output with my favorite digital multimeter.  This indicated that the panel was putting out only half of its proper voltage.


The voltage test was performed first on the two outermost screws in the junction box, the main positive and negative terminals (shown with wires connected).


When it became apparent that only half the usual voltage was present I next tested the two screws on the left and the two on the right. These each connect to 18 series-connected PV cells on either side of the panel. One side tested to a proper 10+ volts when exposed to sunshine while the other side indicated zero volts. This meant that there was a broken circuit somewhere on one side of the panel. Since the panels are covered with glass on the front and a thick coating of plastic on the back, the only ways to test for electrical output within the panel are visual inspection (looking for an obvious flaw, corroded spot, or actual break in the thin silver-colored “traces”) and “back-probing” through the plastic with sharp test probes.

It’s easy to see these electrical pathways through the glass side of the panel, but if you want to find where to stick a probe through the plastic backing you’ll need a powerful light source. You could use the sun itself, but working indoors I simply used a very bright flashlight. I first traced the major connection pathways on the plastic backing using a pencil. Then, placing the panel back in sunlight, I put one meter probe on the negative screw terminal and started probing the large, conductive, back surface of each cell with the other probe. I marked each probing spot with a pencil for later caulking.

It turned out that I had increasing voltages as I moved toward the final positive output trace, with voltage falling to zero only at the final trace itself. So, scraping the plastic backing away at the last known point where I found a  voltage, I soldered a jumper wire to that point and ran the wire to the junction box’s main positive terminal. At first I had a poor connection, until I realized that the conductive trace had a very thin plastic coating that needed to be sanded. When the soldered wire held well I tested the output and found a full 21 volts at the outer terminal screws. Caulking the wire to the back of the panel, and sealing all of the tiny probe spots I made completed the repair.


It doesn’t look terrific, but with about an hour of work, and the use of ordinary step-by-step thinking, we were able to add another panel to our system at nearly no cost. Sometimes it’s not WHO you know, or even WHAT you know, but what you can work out for yourself.


Since then another PV panel, shown above as the far left, top panel (a mere 8-watt monocrystalline model) suddenly failed. Since I had been using that set of nine panels wired in series to produce high-voltage DC, one failed panel completely shut down the entire array’s output. You can see the corroded spot between two of the silicon cells in the photo below. The glass surface, back plastic, and side seals all seemed perfectly intact. But for some reason corrosion was causing an open circuit at this point. Since the panel was under a 25-year power warranty I asked for, and quickly received a replacement which I wired back onto the rest of the array.

Once again I scraped away the plastic until I reached good-looking wire traces on either side of the corroded cell. Soldering on a short jumper wire proved to restore voltage to the output terminals, although at a slightly reduced voltage due to bypassing one cell. I will no doubt reuse this panel for some other upcoming project.



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Sticking With Wood-Burning

There are all sorts of ways to heat a home in the winter, but given the carbon-neutrality, low technology, and local abundance of wood in our region, the wood-stove is a popular choice. In our case this is a masonry stove, one that combines a fast, clean, efficient burn with a great deal of energy-absorbing mass.

A fast, high-oxygen fire is the secret to both efficient combustion and low particulate pollution. But doing so with large chunks of wood means that most stoves tend to overheat their indoor environment, especially when outdoor temperatures are not extremely low. Masonry stoves manage to regulate the temperature by simply storing the bulk of the heat for release later, so they can burn even big logs quickly. But smaller stoves would do better stuffed full of smaller sticks. This is where a good set of loppers comes in handy, whether as the main wood supply for a small stove in more temperate weather, or for getting the daily load of larger wood to ignite here in the frozen north. Below you can see the cutting heads on four of the loppers we use, or have used, in the past few years.


These are all either “anvil-type” loppers or, on the upper right, a bypass lopper. Anvil loppers have a cutting blade that mashes branches against a flat surface, some with ridges that grip the branch and some with an end tab to prevent the branch from squeezing out of the cutter’s grip.  The lighter-duty bypass types are more like a scissors, working best to trim branches you don’t wish to damage below the cut, as in trimming fruit trees. The top two were made by a Canadian company called “TrailBlazer” which has gone out of business, but they are still available. The bottom right is from Mastercraft and the bottom left is the “G2” from EZ-CUT .

All of these can quickly handle “green” branches over 1 inch in diameter, some up to 3 inches, mainly through the use of their ratcheting action and because of their extendable, telescoping aluminum handles. Greater handle extension gives both better “reach” when working overhead and more mechanical advantage (less strength required). The complexity of the ratchet mechanisms varies widely, as you can tell from the photo, and this affects their long term reliability, durability, and ease of maintenance. And the most complex model (top left) always cycles through four pumps of the handle, whether the branch is 1/2 inch or 2 inches in size. The most durable and simplest mechanism (bottom left) ratchets anywhere from zero to seven times depending on branch size, saving time on smaller limbs.


The three shorter models, shown fully extended above, have tiny springs that control the ratcheting action which are buried under parts of the cutting head. If/when they break they are hard to replace. The EZ-CUT on the right requires the removal of only a single bolt. The shortest one (the bypass model on the left) is also the lightest, so it makes fast work of small branches but is pretty maxed-out in limbs of 1.5 inches. The tallest can handle up to a 3-inch branch with ease, as long as it’s green, not dry, and often replaces our electric chain saw.

We had also looked at two other heavy duty loppers, one from Barnel, a company whose telescoping pruners and loppers work wonders in our orchard. But the connection between the handles and head is rather lightweight, making them durability challenged. The other (Florian) cost around $180 and while made in America, and heavy duty in other respects, its wooden, non-telescoping handles didn’t appeal for several reasons. Fiskars, Felco, and numerous other companies make similar models, none of which could reliably handle really thick branches.


If you can only buy one lopper, the EZ-CUT G2, at $90 to $125, isn’t the cheapest, but its speed, size, solid handle-head joint, ease of maintenance, and lifetime warranty on all but the cutting blade (which slowly wears on any of them and needs periodic sharpening) made this our overall favorite for serious winter heating preparation. You just latch onto the branch and pump the red rubber-gripped handle. It’s great for coppicing our hazel bushes.

And if you simply want to read about how others prepare their winter wood supply, in a country famous for long winters and large forests, we recommend reading, “Norwegian Wood – Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way” by Lars Mytting. Other than a mistranslated confusion between “chisels” (cutting teeth) and “rakers” (or depth gauges) on chain-saw chains on pages 71-72, its an engaging, inspiring, and nostalgic trip through the whole wood-making process. If you burn wood we’d call it a “must read”.

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Baby, It’s Cold Outside

It’s currently around zero degrees F (-18 C) outside on a clear, sunny day. We heat our home both with sunshine and by burning dead or thinned-out trees. Every so often, usually during the annual process of firewood cutting late in early Winter, we reconsider how we heat our already highly efficient home. We’ve pretty well maximized every conservation method using R-50 (U-factor of 0.02) walls, an R-60 (U-0.01666) roof, and R-15 insulating shutters over the large south-facing windows that heat us on sunny days. And our masonry wood-stove very efficiently supplies both plenty of heat and heat storage for hours after the fire is out. But cutting more firewood than necessary can be hard on the body, possibly hazardous at times, and it can sometimes feel like an ordeal.

We considered various methods to make firewood cutting, splitting, and moving easier, but we have pretty well maximized that too. The solar-charged  electric chainsaws (both Makita corded, and Greenworks cordless) are light, quiet, low in vibration, and quick to get the job done, and smaller limbs and branches are quickly cut into kindling using various ratcheting loppers.

We considered adding some sort of additional active or passive solar system that could store the heat of a sunny day for some additional time. This could be a vertical air or water heating panel on the south wall of the house, a full-length greenhouse addition on the south side, or a free-standing structure optimized for the process. But at a design temperature of zero degrees F, 240 square feet of double glazing shining on 17 cubic yards of concrete, all enclosed in a heavily insulated structure would only supply the heat needed at night after one sunny day, plus one day and night extra. That’s a huge expense, plenty of embedded energy and CO2 footprint in the building materials, and locally rare flat, sunny space taken up by a structure that has limited year-round utility.

We considered using wind power or additional PV panels to supply radiant electric heat. We need about 175,000 BTUs to heat our home at zero degrees F for a full day. We already receive about 90,000 BTUs per day through direct sunshine in our south-facing windows. That leaves a deficit of about 85,000 BTUs on a sunny day, and the full 175,000 BTUs on a cloudy day.

A cloudy day would require a 3000-watt wind-turbine running “flat-out” for 17 hours. If we could add enough to our already large off-Grid battery bank to store the needed power, and utilize a “mini-split” heat pump to remove latent heat from the outdoors instead of simply turning amps directly into heat, we’d still need at least a 1000-watt turbine, again running at full design speed for 17 hours per day.  Just supplying what sunshine doesn’t on a sunny day would cut these figures in half.

Converting solar PV power directly into 85,000 BTUs of heat would require an additional 6 kilowatts of panels, assuming a 4.2-hour sunny day, mid-Winter, at about 45 degrees of latitude, just to supply what we’d need at night. The heat pump would still need an additional 2 kilowatts of PV panels, nearly doubling our current solar system, and in either case we’d need plenty of added battery storage. And this is just for the deficit on a sunny day, not a fully cloudy day!

Additional PV and wind resources are sometimes plentiful, often sporadic, but never cheap. whether purchased individually or combined into a smaller hybrid system. A house running on the Grid might consider a heat pump as the lesser of two evils, but it still burns non-renewable resources whether you consider the Grid as your sole source, or as the “battery” (which it isn’t, it’s a temporary, non-renewable, energy buffer) in a Grid-tied renewable system.

We checked the total BTU usage of our house using real-world experience, just to be sure. Burning a cord of local boxelder (soft maple) trees, with their fairly low BTU content of 17.9 million BTUs per cord, or 6194 BTUs per pound (figuring in a 20% moisture content) over a typical 4 month, or 120 day heating season, means that we average about 24 pounds of firewood per heating day. The small fires use about 20 pounds and the really cold nights burn around 30, so we’re right in the ballpark. As tedious as the firewood cutting may seem, the single cord (4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet, 128 cubic feet) that we need each year is already growing on our land, needs cutting and thinning anyway for the best growth of the trees, and it would turn into CO2 whether we burned it or not, simply from rotting on the ground. It feels hard to neglect or waste such an abundant resource.

There’s an old expression from Henry Ford, “Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice“. While sawing, lopping, splitting, stacking, and hauling all indeed generate some personal heating, the benefits outweigh the merely caloric. Firewood not only heats our home but gives us domestic hot water for about a third of the year (when excess sunshine doesn’t). It also cooks our meals and supplies wood ashes for liming the garden, orchard, and pasture  when necessary. Firewood is a renewable fuel, often found locally, and the tools needed to process it are only as extensive and expensive as you decide to make them.

As we age further, even if we decide at some point that dealing with trees is just too difficult, we can either hire some help for the process, buy already dried, split, delivered, and stacked wood from someone locally, or simply swap wood-stoves to use bagged wood pellets, purchased locally by the ton, in a more automated stove. Trading convenience for added expense may seem wimpy at some point in your life, but if it keeps renewables in the loop it could be just another option in a wide continuum of possibilities.

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Radio-activity and Inactivity

Back in 2008, since the test kit was free from our county’s office of environmental services, we decided to check our very tightly-built and ground-contacted home for radon levels. We used short-term charcoal test kits in both the pantry, with its water pump pit that reached down below the concrete floor slab, and the bedroom. We figured that radon was most likely to accumulate in the pump pit, since radon is a gas that percolates up through rock fissures and soil from very deep, underground uranium deposits. The gas could enter the house from any point either below, or penetrating, the floor slab.

The initial results from a test in the pantry, above the pump pit, done in January when windows were never open, showed a moderately high level (according to the testing agency) of 18,5 pico-Curies per liter of air (18.5 pCi/L).  The “actionable level” is supposedly 4 pCi/L and above, although if you read about the way these standards came about, this level is no doubt meaningless. A follow-up test in May showed levels of 14.8 pCi/L in the pump pit and 8.9 pCi/L in the bedroom.

Based on this data, and before we had read either about how meaningless the standard was or about how certain levels of radioactivity could actually promote immune response in humans, we did some work to seal up air leaks in the pump pit and planned for a retest at some point. Another short-term test was done in the bedroom in February of 2012 but the result was higher than the earlier test, at 12.9 pCi/L. Rather confusing, but we read about how inaccurate the short term test results could be and opted for a 7 month, long-term test the following year. The result then was 6.1 pCi/L; still higher than the standard but a significant decrease.

After doing still more reading about Geiger counters, and about how they could possibly be used to do a real-time test of alpha and beta particle counts (the decay emissions of radon and its progeny, the “short-lived radon daughters”), we decided that we needed a unit sensitive enough to detect the easily-blocked alpha particles and accumulate particle count data over a period of time. A friend who does home health work (a “bau-biologist”) lent us his digital meter and we took 3-hour-long samples all over the house. The highest reading, of 30.2 counts per minute (CPM), occurred in the pump pit, as expected. Out of 20 readings taken, the lowest readings were outdoors (17.13 to 17.58 CPM) and in the bedroom (14.98 CPM). So the indoor level of a closed house in all but the pump pit actually tested lower than the outdoors!

Comparing “apples to apples” required additional reading to come up with the equivalence between the radon measurements and the particle counts. The pCi/L figure is hard to compare, but it turns out that our 15 CPM average level was equivalent to a very low reading of .0125 milli-rem. The 1-in-1000 chance of increased cancer risk occurs after roughly 432 days at 100 CPM, nearly 7 times our level. In addition, the dose response of humans to radiation is far from linear, and the standards for radon were based on the 5-year exposure of underground miners at up to 2,720,000 pCi/L-hours. This was mathematically extrapolated for a 70-year, 18 hour/day residential exposure of MUCH lower levels. The bottom line is that we had little to worry about after all, not that we were terribly worried from the beginning.

Just goes to show that a just a little data can be dangerous in the hands of bureaucrats, and even more so as multiple agencies get involved in interpreting it. Numerous scientific studies stubbornly refuse to back the current radon standards, but woe be to any radon mitigation “expert” who alerts the public to this “emperor’s new clothes” situation, lest they lose their EPA accreditation.

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Pack Man

Sometimes you just sort of fall into something. That’s what has happened with me and the reconditioning of Honda Insight/Civic hybrid traction battery packs. What began as mere curiosity, and then a necessity, is turning into a useful service. I am currently reconditioning a third Honda battery pack with two others now back at work in their vehicles. The gain in miles per gallon, the lowering of carbon emissions, the boost in torque, and improved driver satisfaction has been significant. And my personal gain in knowledge about these cars has been pretty significant too.

I used to just see the early Honda and Toyota hybrids as cars that were too  impractical and expensive for serious consideration. With the added weight, cost, and complexity of the battery packs and associated electronics, how could they be expected to compete in the market. How reliable could all of that extra hardware and software be? With batteries that slowly wear down and eventually fail, leaving their owners in the lurch, who could trust them. Did the advertised mileage improvement pan out in the real world and did it pay in the long run?

Well, after buying our first hybrid back in 2002 “as is” from a scrapyard and getting it to work again, we gained a bit more confidence in the concept of hybrids. Eight years of pretty much trouble-free driving certainly helped. And the problems that cropped up and caused us to sell it weren’t due to the hybrid system at all, just regular “car-type stuff” that happens when the temperature hits -20F. The next owner got a good deal too!

But I was resistant to think seriously about Honda hybrids since they didn’t run in the much more highly efficient (80+% versus 25-35%) full electric mode, as the Toyota sometimes did. It turns out that my technical snobbery was ill-founded. The true comparison was in overall fuel consumption, not short-term consumption. That’s what keep the carbon emissions, and other noxious output, to a minimum.

The 2001 Prius averaged 43 mpg year-round. An 1100 pound lighter Geo/Chevy Metro averaged about the same, without the complex and expensive hybrid system, but they were no longer built after 2001, and those that remained were quite rusty. The older series (2000-2006) Honda Insight weighs the same as the Metro, even with the hybrid system’s added bulk. It can only hold about 400 pounds of passenger and cargo (with OEM springs) but their aluminum chassis and aluminum/plastic bodies mean that they can’t possibly rust, leaving many still in circulation. How they ever made a profit on these at $20k is beyond me. The new series of Honda Insight has a steel frame and body – much cheaper to build, but it’ll become a rust-mobile and doesn’t get nearly the mpg’s. The old Insight’s fuel consumption can be amazingly low (60-70 mpg TANK AVERAGE, not the usually advertised and often inflated “highway” figure). But the problem of eventual battery failure seemed problematic, even though they can start and run with their common, on-board, automotive back-up systems.

Bob removing a battery pack

Finding a local Insight with a failed pack turned out to be pretty easy. Many folks sell them because they start to have battery issues and Honda dealerships charge $500 just for a pack recharge. Reading web forums about how to recondition their battery packs certainly made them more palatable in terms of financial risk, especially when a new or “factory reconditioned” replacement pack can cost between $1200 and $3500, depending on the cells used and their warranty. You may have already read the PDF I posted previously about the on-car reconditioning process on our 2001 Insight.

There is a fair market for “Grid Chargers” that allow owners to maintain the peak condition of their packs, delivering a high-voltage, low-power trickle charge between uses, but they require some mechanical and electrical ability to install, something many simply don’t have or are unwilling to attempt.

The process of reconditioning takes three progressive steps:

A) Installing external charge ports for high-voltage DC power to the battery pack and a 12-volt supply for the battery cooling fan.

B) Charging the pack while it’s in the vehicle (once/month routine is best), and perhaps also discharging it to progressively lower voltages in three steps if the IMA light comes on repeatedly.

C) Removing the pack to diagnose low capacity battery “sticks” (6-cell series strings within the pack) and possibly replacing them, then repeating step B.

So providing a reconditioning service isn’t something that can simply be done online, but requires actual hands-on help and some expertise. Anything that keeps these cars on the road instead seeing them replaced by gas-guzzling replacements is worth the effort.

Pack removed and being tested


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Homeopathy on the Homestead

Never being one to blindly believe in something, I researched what I could find about homeopathy years ago, and none of its claims seemed to hold up under scrutiny. But these days you have to ask, “Who’s doing the scrutinizing?” and, “Who’s paying for that research?”.

For those of you not familiar with the term, homeopathy is a healing discipline well rooted in Europe that has made slow progress here in the States. Its basic tenet is that something that gives you certain symptoms, when consumed in astronomically infinitesimal doses, can also cure those symptoms. Using the “highest potency” homeopathic pills available (200C), the dilution of the active ingredients with water, in this case 1-to-100, done 200 times, dilutes the ingredient to a point beyond the density of atoms in the known universe (actually, about 2.5 known universes!). So if some active principal remains in those tiny sugar pills it’s certainly no longer based on particle physics.

So it was with some great deal of skepticism that I embarked on two admittedly rather unscientific tests of its efficacy. The first was on myself.

I had developed a chronic form of tendinitis in my right shoulder and arm which a physical therapist referred to as “tendinosis”. It eventually prevented raising my arm beyond about 30 degrees to the side, and scratching my back, even by my waist, proved impossible. I started physical therapy at a nearby clinic but was making very slow progress. Arnica Montana is supposed to be great for pain and inflammation, so I figured, what could it hurt, right? I took three doses per day of 200C Arnica Montana for two days. The next day, when I woke up and tried stretching, I got a huge surprise! The arm was totally cured, and I could move it freely in any direction. That was the day for my next therapy session, so I just strolled in and said, “Look what I can do!” Needless to say, jaws dropped. “You took what?” I may not be terribly impressed with Arnica’s ability to reduce pain, but as a highly safe, side-effect free, non-narcotic anti-inflammatory it seems unsurpassed.

In a similar test, but without the belief (or disbelief) systems of a human in tow, I decided to try homeopathy on one of our pet sheep.

11 year old Hazel had a variety of symptoms two months or so ago that indicated she had possibly contracted either Lyme disease or one of its co-infectious cousins from the bite of a tick. Her pasture partner Lena had the same symptoms about 10 years earlier and we successfully treated her, under veterinary advise, with a single injection of Tetracycline. So we tried the same with Hazel, and initially all went as planned. Her odd posturing, stumbling, inability to get up, and swollen “knee” joints all went away for about a month. We had been having to move her periodically (dragging her up by the wool at her sides to forcibly march her forward), bring her forage, make sure she wasn’t stuck on her side, etc. But the symptoms swiftly returned, and I began twice-weekly injections of Tetracycline, treating her case as one of chronic Lyme disease. This was continued for 5 weeks, along with twice-daily feeding of plain, high-dose aspirin to relieve joint pain (also vet-recommended). But after 6 weeks, still no improvement. She was completely “beached” most of the time, unable to graze, pee or poop while standing, or even right herself if she fell on her side.

Since she had no preconceived beliefs on this matter, what better test than to try 200C Rhus Toxicodendron (poison ivy) for symptoms of arthritis? I didn’t even tell Larisa what I was attempting so as not to influence her observations. On the third day of treatment Hazel walked again, all on her own, for the first time in over a month! She wasn’t fast, but she could get up on her own and shakily stroll to the next spot she liked, then lie down without simply crashing. If we want her to go somewhere we now simply nudge her side, she gets up, and we either encourage her forward with a food reward or pull lightly on the wool at her rear sides, which causes a sheep to pull forward away from you in whatever direction they are facing.

She is currently on her fourth day of treatment and it’s such a joy to see her periodically act like a sheep again! She loves the taste of the tiny “sugar pills” I offer 3 times per day. I have no idea how long to continue treatment or what to do as far as dosage changes, and I don’t know what will happen if I discontinue treatment, as I did for my shoulder injury. But for now, you can be assured that I have a newfound respect for homeopathy on our homestead.

Some updates:

After 8 days on the homeopathic arthritis treatment, Hazel the sheep can now get up and walk a couple of hundred feet on her own. I’ve got to remember to keep some gates closed now that she can wander out of areas she hadn’t tried in 2 months!

After 3 days off of the homeopathic treatment Hazel is now walking all the way out to pasture again, across sloping, uneven ground. And although she still doesn’t do stand-up grazing, her progress is notable. After seeing her “beached” on her side a couple of times per day, though, mainly because one front leg still works better than the other, we decided to resume the homepathics.

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A Smashing Success

For many years we had a really lovely set-up for crushing apples into pomace and pressing it for cider, but it was just such a pain to clean up, so noisy to operate, and it left the cider tasting a bit “rusty” from all of the exposed steel parts. The combination of a 1/2 horsepower electric, 12-inch hammer-mill and a hand-operated 6-ton hydraulic cider press was very fast and delivered plenty of juice, but that combination worked best for really large batches of apples. Any small batches were hard to justify because of the problems mentioned above. And getting a large batch of apples together, all ripe at the same moment, with a small orchard full of variably ripening varieties was always a challenge. Couple this with planning for advancing age, which makes moving large quantities of anything a bit harder, and you can see why we were thinking ahead for a solution. We sold the hammer-mill and press to a young farmer who had more trees.

A few years ago we purchased a small, 3.2-gallon capacity, swing-away top, screw-type apple press with a stainless steel base from Pleasant Hill Grain as our new small-batch option. They now offer 4- and 5-gallon models.


To go along with this, for the last few years we have tried using a Kitchen-Aid mixer and a fine shredding cone to grind apples into pomace.


But the shredding action just isn’t the same as the crushing and smashing the apples encounter in a hammer-mill. The resulting juice had better flavor, free from a rusty after-taste, but the juice output from a given quantity of apples was lower. You could tell the difference in the juiciness of the remaining apple pulp (the “press cake”). So we searched online for something better and found three basic sorts of apple mills. One is the “scratter”, represented by this unit which is available from many sources.


It uses a single rotating drum, usually made from wood or aluminum, with metal parts sticking out that slowly chew away the apple.


We had used this type before and found it slow and far less than durable. Often many of the metal teeth would be bent from encountering really hard apples. A second type is the “smasher”, which beats the apples into a literal pulp. It uses either a fixed or swinging hammer, or a series of them. An ordinary kitchen garbage disposal is one option. This photo shows one of its two swinging stainless steel hammers mounted on a horizontal plate above the motor.


We have friends who use this method successfully, although it required removing the motor casing and adding cooling fins to the motor to allow for continuous use. The feed rate is a bit slow since these units normally require water flushed down the sink to move things along. And the resulting pomace is extremely fine, requiring a “press bag” and a rather slow pressing rate. A hammer-mill looks like this internally.


The swinging steel hammers all line up on a horizontal shaft and the pomace falls through a semi-circular steel screen that determines the final particle size. They normally use steel parts instead of stainless steel and there are lots of places for apple juice to react with iron, leading to taste issues. There are also loads of nooks and crannies to clean. But the pomace size can be large enough to give a fast press rate without requiring a bag.

A third type is the “roller”, which uses counter-rotating metal drums to crush the apples.



This all stainless steel model from the U.K. looks like it would work well for our use, but its long stainless “teeth” that pull in the apples are relatively fragile and the price for a $227 imported mill has a steep $105 shipping premium. We’ve seen videos of it being used with an electric drill, and it’s clear that it will chew up apples, but its relatively light weight and high price spurred us to search for an older technology.

Many years ago a neighbor had an antique cast-iron crusher that mangled apples between close-fitting, interlocking, counter-rotating drums. It worked very well, and we figured that if we could “season” the cast iron, to avoid the metallic flavor component, it might work well for our needs. Durability would probably not be a problem. But it turns out that few of these turn up for sale. Three years of admittedly intermittent searches resulted in finding this.


It looks like it came straight out of an old barn, but it appeared to be mostly intact. The cast-iron drum at the top has two ribs that pull in and crush apples against the ribbed, cast-iron side of the unit.


From below you can see the differential-speed, counter-rotating drums that pull the apple fragments down for further shredding. Buying stuff online is always somewhat of a risk if you’re depending on photos to tell you the full story, but after paying $127 in an E-Bay auction and spending a little over $50 to ship 120 pounds of cast-iron a couple of hundred miles, we ended up with a two week, spare time restoration project.

It appeared that a metal plate at the top which was supposed to keep pomace from flying back out of the hopper had fallen onto the crushing drum, suddenly halting the unit. The flywheel’s momentum caused three teeth to shear from the smallest gear. And a rotting wooden base allowed enough play in the grinder’s base to break a thin cast-iron plate where a screw was supposed to secure it.

After complete disassembly, wire-brushing with a drill, repairing a few metal parts using an oxyacetylene torch and nickel-bronze rod, rebuilding and regrinding some worn shaft key-ways, seasoning the cast parts with camelina oil (baked at 360* F in our solar oven), building a wooden chute, adding a new handle, and reassembling with new bolts on a 2-by-4 wooden base, we ended up with this.

A little bit of online research revealed that the grinder was made in St. Louis, Missouri by the Whitman Agricultural Manufacturing Company. The original design patent was from 1872, with a switch to differential drum speeds, which cause more shearing action, in 1876. Our unit has the toothed drums instead of the original multiple-bar drums, which means they were made in 1878. So 137 years sets a pretty high bar for durability!

Trying it on our first really big harvest of apples is soon to come, but our first experimental batch showed great promise. After adjusting all of the clearances, lubricating the shafts and gears, and finding a place to put it, we tried it on some early, fairly dry apples, which yielded a surprising quantity of juice. The oil finish appears quite durable, the grind isn’t super-fine (meaning that we don’t have to use a mesh “press-bag” in our cider press), and with a 24-pounf flywheel and synthetic gear lube it was very fast and easy to crank. I think that we may cut larger apples in half to speed the feed rate, but that’s common with roller-type crushers. Every design has its pros and cons. We saw one of the Whitman grinders restored, repainted, and including the screw press for over $1900 on E-Bay, but keep your eyes open for a deal and you may be as surprised as we now are.





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From Dead Hybrid to Plug-In Hybrid

We recently purchased a 2001 Honda Insight Hybrid to replace our aging 1999 Chevy Metro while we wait for the eventual production of the Elio Motors trike we reserved two years ago. Paying only $1000 we weren’t expecting a lot from a car with 275,000 mile on it and a mostly nonfunctional hybrid traction battery pack. But after some rather extensive, but low-cost work we now have a fully functioning, very high-mpg, plug-in hybrid. To see the details, check out this PDF, also found on our website’s Transportation Page.



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