Archive for the 'Fall' category

Fresnel Lens – Solar Cooking will be happening at Suburban Stone Age

Nov 15 2015 Published by under Fall, Information Age, Journal, Stone Age, The Ages

What do you do when you have a bum shoulder and can’t dig your pond? Why, you buy a death ray on eBay so you can melt glass and cook food, of course!

Let me explain…

A Fresnel lens is a thin plastic lens made of small concentric grooves on one side that focuses light like a magnifying glass. You’ve seen them around – they are those plastic sheets that are used to magnify text, and on a large scale are what’s in a lighthouse to create that beam of light.

When you use a Frenel lens to concentrate sunlight, you take the warm embrace of gentle sunshine and focus it into a face-melting, unholy death-ray. Seriously, if you do it right, that spot of light is strong enough to melt steel. Wow!

So naturally I HAD to have one.

Why? Well, to my mind, this Fresnel lens unlocks a whole wealth of possibilities using only the power of the sun. I can cook, disinfect water, start fires easily, and even go to new places such as metal cutting, welding, and making homemade obsidian. All from the benign power of the sun! Which, by the way, will still be available in the aftermath of a major earthquake.

And so enters a new Era of solar cooking and more at SSA. On the way are two Fresnel lenses, one spot and one linear, plus a parabolic mirror just for funsies. I’ll do my solar cooking and experimenting while my shoulder heals, then go back to finish digging my pond before spring.

(Side note – guess what the pond can also be? An emergency store of water for a disaster. Which I can distill into safe drinking water using the Fresnel lenses and only the sun. A beautiful thing, no?)

I’ll keep you posted!

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Go Solar! Our Experience Putting Solar Panels On Our Home, Part 2

Nov 03 2013 Published by under Fall, Information Age, solar

In our previous article, we discussed why we chose to go solar, what the advantages and disadvantages were, and how the process was progressing so far.  This article picks up where we left off.  Today we’ll discuss the final steps in the installation process, and what it has been like to have the panels installed and working.

panels on roof

The Solar Process, Continued

Moving and Installing the Electrical Panel

new electrical panelOur house is almost 50 years old, which means our original electrical panel was an ancient dinosaur.  Through the years, we’ve had various electricians tell us that they don’t even make the breakers anymore, and if one went out, we could have a hard time finding a replacement.

That is why, when our sales rep told us that the solar company would have to upgrade and move our electrical panel (at no charge to us, of course), we were secretly overjoyed.  That was a $4000 job we knew we needed anyway, but just scored for free.  Nice!

The solar company has a fleet of electricians to take care of the work, and after a polite phone call to schedule the work day, the fleet arrived.  Trucks, electricians, and equipment swarmed the house like a hive.  I was told to expect the power to be off for several hours, but these guys were pros.  They did everything they could to prepare, and left cutting the electricity to the last part. The power was out for only 20 mins. It took a full day of hard work from the electricians to move the box, install the new one, patch to holes, and restore power, but they got it done by dinner time.  They were friendly and professional to boot, plus complimented me on my chickens.  It was a crew I was comfortable having at my house, and comfortable having back if they were ever needed.

Rewiring the Power Line

The electrical box was ready, but there was more work to be done.  Our older homes have power poles in the back yards, and and we are connected to the pole by a big, fat, feed wire (sorry, I don’t know the technical name).  This feed line had to be upgraded as well, which involved having an electrician go up the pole and replace a lot of scary hardware.

Within two days of the electrical panel being replaced, a second crew was back out to the house.  Again, we were warned about an outage, but again the crew left cutting the power to the last minute.  We went without power for only 10 mins, and received a fat, new electrical umbilical cord for the house at no charge.  Boo-yah!

Note: I’d like to take a moment to point out how glad I was that I outsourced all this stuff to a solar company.  I’m not afraid to be a DIY kind of girl, but the thought of having to purchase and coordinate all these materials, activities, work crews, permits, and exotic electrical hardware on my own was mind boggling.  I was glad to be under the umbrella of pros who knew what to do, because I certainly didn’t.  Just sayin’.

Power Problem

Before the power was cut during the rewiring work, we were told to make sure all computers were off, etc. This, I did.  When the power came back on, everything was fine.  Except for one, tiny detail.  The power supply to our Internet thingy in the garage fried the next day.

I called Verizon, and they admitted that our neighborhood had had a series of defective power supplies installed, and that the power outage had killed if off at last.  Verizon sent a tech out and replaced it the same day, free of charge.

The moral here:  there may be hiccups when the power gets rewired.  Talk to your electricians about what to expect and protect yourself in advance.  Also leave room in your schedule to make a few phone calls if something goes wrong.  Chances are it won’t, but it’s best to be prepared.

Inspections

With the fancy new electrical box and feed line to the house up and running, inspections were in order.  The inspector came and went with out me even knowing.  Everything passed, and the paperwork was submitted in the background like magic.  I didn’t have to lift a finger.

Solar Panel Installation Day

solar panel installation dayBy now it was the beginning of August, and I got a call to schedule the actual panel installation.  I was anxious to get started, and they squeezed me in a few weeks ahead of schedule.  Our panels were now set to go in August 30th.

solar panelThe big day came, and so did the trucks.  Again the house was like a hive, swarming with installers and equipment.  They parked in front of the house around 7:30 AM, put up big, yellow tape across the driveway, and started hauling in the actual solar panels.  It was exciting to see them at last!

The crew was great.  They worked, sweated, and clomped up on the roof until 6PM.  It was a big job, and a very hot day.  There was little I had to do, except keep the dog inside and be on hand for any questions.

I brought the crew ice water, because it was so hot.  I wish I could have brought them a beer, though, because they deserved it.  By the time the sun went down, the panels were up was I was feeling legit, like a real solar panel customer.

More Inspections

Everything had to be inspected again, and I was ok with that.  The day after the work was done, an inspector from the solar company came out to make sure the job was done right.  He spent several hours up there, checking all the details.  Thankfully, we passed.

Waiting

At last, the home stretch was in sight.  The panels were on the roof, wired, and ready to be turned on.  The final hurdle was getting approval from Edison to flip the switch.

We were originally told it takes from 1-3 weeks to be approved.  Edison then revised that to 4-6 weeks. By the 6th week after installation, and with no word from Edison, I started making some phone calls.

I began with the solar company.  They were helpful as always, but their hands were tied.  The ball was in Edison’s court, and there was nothing the solar company could do.  But as an Edison customer, I  had the power to get involved.  So I started making some phone calls to Edison to see why there was a delay.

I’m not going to lie – this took no less than 11 phone calls to Edison.  I started with the general information number, and began working my way from department to department.  I was polite but persistent, I had waited patiently for my panels and now I wanted some answers. I finally worked my way through the phone system to the local manager of our district.  She apologized for the delay (unexpected workloads, shortage of resources, etc.), but was kind enough to approve my paperwork on the spot.

The lesson here is that although your solar company might be prompt and helpful, your electric company probably won’t be.  You are taking away their business, after all.  You’ll be warned in advance that the electric company may take some time, so be prepared to be patient.  But if your time has come, don’t let the slow wheels of bureaucracy stall you project.  Make some phone calls, be persistent.  With a little detective work, you might be able to get your project back on track.

PTO (Permit To Operate)

Our PTO (Permit To Operate) was finally issued and transmitted by Edison to the solar company.  We received some paperwork in mail, along with a tag to attach to the electrical box.  This process only took about two days.

Flipping The Switch

The time had come at last to flip the switch.  A rep from the solar company walked me through the process over the phone.  It was very easy!

solar panel power switch

 Watching The Power Flow

Once the power was on, the panels were working!  Part of the installation process was receiving a wireless router that sent data from our panels to the internet.  We hooked it up, and I was now able to log into my personal solar web account and watch the panels churn out electricity.  Hooray!  It was like watching money fall from the sky.

Life After Solar

As of the writing of this article, we’ve had the panels up and running for about three weeks.  The whole process from start to finish took about 5 months.  We were originally quoted 8 months, so shaving 3 months off the process was a huge improvement.

Now that all the work is done, having solar panels is… boring.  But in a good way.  All the drama and excitement was during the installation process.  Once you go live, the panels just sit there, quietly churning out power day after sunny day. There is nothing left to do but pay the bill and enjoy the feeling that I’m generating clean, renewable energy, right on my roof.  I like that.  A lot.  It was the whole point of the project, after all.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey of putting solar panels on our home.  I’m happy to answer any questions you may have about our experience.  Please feel free to share this information, my hopes are by sharing my first hand account with others, the process will no longer be a mystery and more people will be empowered to investigate solar as an option.  Thank you!

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Cover Crops For The Home Garden

cover crop  home garden cloverWhat Are Cover Crops?

Cover crops are plants that are grown not for the food they produce, but for other beneficial work they do.  Also know as  “living mulches” or “green manure”, a cover crop is an essential part of sustainable agriculture.  Cover crops help bridge the gap between removing matter from the field in the form of the harvest, and returning or conserving  matter in the field by returning biomass, nutrients, and offering protection for existing topsoils.

Ancient History

Cover crops have been used for thousands of years to ensure the long term health and productivity of the land.  Some 2,000 years ago, the ancient Roman poet Virgil writes in his book Georgics of sowing spelt following  a cover crop of vetch and lupine.    F. H. King documents, in Farmers of Forty Centuries,  the ancient tradition of Chinese farmers who were “turning under Chinese clover to ferment as green manure, preparatory for the rice transplanting”.  Use of cover crops is ancient agricultural wisdom that can still be applied today to the home garden.

Why Bother?

The benefits of a cover crop to a home gardener are many.  The questions isn’t why grow them, it is why would you not grow them.  There are too many advantages a cover crop provides to pass up.  A few examples include:

  • Cover crops are used to enrich the soil. Green manures that fix nitrogen, such as fava beans and clover, work to take atmospheric nitrogen and fix it in the soil where the next crop can use it for food.   
  • A vigorous cover crop can be planted for weed control, smothering young weeds and starving them for sunlight before they can become established.
  • Cover Crops create habitat for beneficial insects, who become allies in other areas in the garden by providing pollination and pest control.
  • Living mulches protects topsoil from erosion. By breaking up and diffusing heavy rain, the cover crop prevents soil from washing away.  A cover crop can also diffuse wind that can blow away precious topsoil.  By breaking up air currents at the soil surface and keeping topsoil anchored with roots, a living mulch can protect a field or bed from ravaging winds.
  • Cover Crops conserve soil moisture through reduced evaporation.  By keeping the beating sun off naked soils when used as a mulch, cover crops form a protective layer that helps underlying soils retain moisture.
  •  Cover crops act as a buffer for soils, moderating swings in soil temperatures.  Baking sun and exposed nights are moderated by the layer of living mulch.
  • Cover crops can improve tilth and soil structure, in addition to breaking up compacted soils.

By planting cover crops, you can add a multitude of benefits to your growing system, all in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.

Types of Cover Crops

There are many types of  plants that can act as cover crops.  To simplify, most can be sorted into three categories, legumes, grasses and grains, and other.  Which you use and when will depend on your garden’s needs.

fava bean cover crop home gardenLegumes

Legumes are plants belonging to the family Fabaceae.  Vetch, fava beans, peas, and clover are examples of legumes.  Legumes are prized for their ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen through a symbiotic partnership with bacteria.  This process happens in nodules attached to their root system.  When the plant dies, the nitrogen that was fixed in the nodules returns to the soil and becomes available to future crops.  In addition to this wondrous ability, legumes can act as living mulches and as animal forage.

Grasses and Grains

Grasses and grains and grains such as sorghum-sudangrass, annual rye, and winter wheat are used to add biomass to the soil.  These crops are killed before they go to seed, leaving roots and stubble to add organic material and improve soil tilth.  Some grasses have extensive root systems that can penetrate deep into the soil, bringing nutrients to the surface that are left behind when the crop is killed.  These roots also improve soil structure by aggregating soil particles and breaking up clumpy, compacted soils.

Grasses, with their tremendously extensive root systems, may relieve compacted surface soil layers. Sorghum-sudangrass can be managed to powerfully fracture subsoil. - Marianne Sarrantonio

Other

Buckwheat, mustard, turnips, and oilseed radish are examples of cover crops that aren’t legumes or grains and grasses.  They can be planted to attract beneficial insects, deter pests, or shade out competing weeds.  However, some have challenges all their own.  According to Charlie Nardozzi with Edible Landscaping, oilseed radish “kills nematodes when tilled into soil, but may harbor brassica-family diseases”.  Choose your cover crops wisely according to your garden’s needs, and you can make this group of crops work hard for you.

Cover Crop Strategies

There are several strategies to using cover crops.  The Minnesota Department of Agriculture shares:

  • winter cover crop is planted in late summer or fall to provide soil cover over winter.
  • catch crop is a cover crop planted after harvesting the main crop, primarily to reduce nutrient leaching.
  • smother crop is a cover crop planted primarily to out compete weeds.
  • green manure is a cover crop incorporated into the soil while still green, to improve soil fertility.
  • Cover crops can serve as short-rotation forage crops when used for grazing or harvested as immature forage (green chop).

Timing is Everything

Cover crops can be planted from spring through late fall.  The type of cover crop and it’s purpose will determine the best times to plant.  For example, fava beans – grown for their nitrogen fixing abilities – can be planted in the fall.  They take a long time to mature and can handle the cooler temperatures in a mild winter climate.  By spring, as they begin to flower, fava beans can be turned under and the soil conditioned for the spring crop.

Rye, however, can be planted at different times of the year.  According to the University of Connecticut, “Rye is superior at capturing nutrients in fall and winter and provides a more persistent weed suppressive mulch in summer.” Planting rye at different times will encourage different results, enabling you to fine tune your home garden and soil management strategy.

By getting to know what types of cover crops serve what purposes, you will be able to insert them into your crop rotation for maximum efficiency.  Click on the image below for a handy fact sheet on when to plant cover crops.

Cover Crops for the Home Garden

Table By: R.L. Rackham and R. McNeilan

Born To Die

Part of the job of many green manures is being returned to the soil, adding nutrients and biomass and building fertility.  This is all accomplished by killing the crop before it reaches maturity.  In other words, cover crops are born to die.

When the time comes to recycle a cover crop, some can be cut and mulched in place, such as buckwheat or hairy vetch.  This involves cutting down the crowns of the crop as it begins to flower, and leaving the tops in place as a mulch.  The roots die, adding organic material to the soil and making passage through the soil easier for future crop roots and beneficial soil organisms.  Other crops, such as rye, can be mowed and then tilled into the soil.  For cover crops of this type, it is best to give the soil about four weeks to condition before planting the next crop.

Each crop requires a different strategy, know your crop and what work it will take to re-incorporate it for the maximum benefits.

Seed Sources

The seeds of many cover crops are easy to find.  A local garden sector should carry common seeds, such as clovers.  Amazon.com has a wide selection of seeds as well.  You can also try a local seed and feed store that carries agricultural supplies – they may be able to get seeds in bulk quantities and competitive prices.

Give Cover Crops A Try in Your Home Garden!

Don’t let a season go by without leveraging the advantages of a cover crop.  Now is the perfect time to start planting to enrich your home garden’s health.  Make cover crops an important part of your home gardening plans.

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California Tarantulas Are Looking For Love This Fall

california tarantula suburban stone age

The hubby saw this (big) little guy and jumped out of his chair saying “WHAT THE …?!?”

To explain, we have native California tarantulas, and in autumn, the males wander around looking for a hot date. This male somehow wandered into Suburban Stone Age and we found him stuck to the side of the house.

I am sorry to inform you Sir, but there are no tarantula women here for you today.

I put my little friend in a jar and am taking him to a luxurious tarantula resort, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. There he can live in bliss and find the big, hairy woman of his dreams.

How to Help Tarantulas

If you see a tarantula on the move in your area, give them a break.  Instead of swatting them with a newspaper, quietly observe these gentle giants.  Chances are you aren’t what they are looking for, and will move along to find a mate elsewhere.  If you need immediate help, call a spider-friendly friend or neighbor to remove and relocate them for you.  Local wildlife centers may also have staff or volunteers who may be able to help you.

More Info on Tarantulas In California

If you would like to know more about the California tarantula, this video from Baynature.org is a great resource.

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Monarch Butterfly: How To Help

The Iconic Monarch Butterfly

The monarch butterfly is one of the most beloved and widely recognized butterflies in the world.  Its vivid orange and black wings make it easy to recognize.  The monarch butterfly and its beauty have come to represent butterflies and conservation issues everywhere.

monarch butterfly

What Makes Monarch Butterflies Unique?

Monarch butterflies migrate over 2,500 miles in search of warmer climates to over-winter.  However, not every single monarch butterfly does this.  Only the last generation of monarchs born in a year will be the ones to make the round trip migration.  This is multi-generational migration is a unique occurrence among the insect world.

The Monarch Butterfly Is In Danger

Human activities have had a dramatic and negative impact on the monarch butterfly.  Populations are under pressure.  Activities such as logging at wintering sites, destruction of milkweed habitat, and use of herbicides and pesticides are threatening monarch butterflies.  However, there is hope.  Here are some things citizens can do to give the monarch butterflies a helping hand.

What Can We Do To Help?

  • Plant Milkweed Host Plants: The caterpillar of the monarch butterfly only eats milkweed.  Milkweed is often considered a pest plant by humans and is destroyed.  When the milkweed is gone, there is no food for the next generation of monarchs.  By planing milkweed for monarch caterpillars in a small corner of the yard, you can help the monarch butterfly lifecycle stay intact.  Milkweed seeds can be ordered here and here.
  • Grow Herbicide and Pesticide Free Gardens: Herbicides and pesticides can have a dramatic and negative impact on monarchs and their host plants.  By adopting gardening practices that avoid the use of herbicides and pesticides, you’ll give monarch butterflies a safe haven to feed and reproduce.

Take Action, Help Monarchs!

monarch butterfly sunflower nectar suburban stone ageIn addition to taking action in your garden, you can help monarchs by spreading the word about the challenges they face.  Tell your family and friends the interesting facts you have learned about the monarch, and what you are doing to help.  In addition, there are many great monarch butterfly conservation groups, such as MonarchWatch.org and Learner.org,  you can become involved in that will help support the monarch at the community level.  We hope you will join the effort to help this beautiful and iconic butterfly survive for many generations to come!

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