Sunday, December 23, 2007

Trying to green our white winter with LED Christmas lights.

A couple of notes from the Minnesota home front, on the eve of Christmas eve.

Not being ready nor willing to break with the Christmas light tradition, I invested in LED Christmas lights this year. We are pleased with the appearance of the lights on the house. They really have a nice colorful light. One of the strands has already stopped working, so perhaps they are not quite as durable as I had hoped. Because of so much snow on the roof, I won't be able to try and fix the lights until spring.

We also bought indoor LED's to decorate the tree. I really like them -- they burn very cool, and the light is a nice quality.

As an experiment, I bought 60' of solar powered outdoor lights to decorate the fence in our front yard. As I expected, this experiment hasn't gone quite so well. Here in Minnesota, we are at our solar minimum right now, so the batteries do not charge well even though I tried to angle the panel as far to the horizon as I could. We get a few hours of illumination out of the solar Christmas lights, but they are not very brilliant. I plan to leave 'em out through the spring, and this summer will move them to a tree in the back yard, just for fun. I'll look forward to seeing how they perform in the summer, when we have light from about 5 am to 10 pm.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year.

Monday, December 10, 2007

I'm ready to buy my PHEV Plug-in hybrid. Where is it?

Ok, I'm ready to trade in my Mercury Mountaineer SUV and buy my plug-in electric hybrid. I'll even settle for a Chevy Volt.

Who will sell me one?

Apparently, the vehicles that I and so many others are waiting for are still a couple of years off. Honda says its ready to mass produce a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle, if only a national fueling infrastructure existed. I'll even consider one of those.

More than a decade after the Insight and Prius were launched, Toyota and Honda still appear to be the only "real" hybrid plays with credible product for sale. Although GM and Ford offer a couple of token vehicles that carry a hybrid sticker, the incremental benefit is puny. When I think hybrid, want a 40 MPH+ vehicle, not a Malibu that gets another 1 or 2 MPG.

I will buy a PHEV vehicle from the first car company that makes it practical to own one. I am ready to make the leap. Who is serious about meeting this need? Which company will win my loyalty for the next 20 years by bring to market what I want to buy? Where's my car?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Plug-In Hybrids

I'm excited about the possibility of my next car being a plug-in hybrid, which could be on the market in mass quantities in the U.S. by 2010. That means I'll have a few more years to drive my gas-sucking 2004 Mercury Mountaineer, which logged a less-than-impressive 13 mpg over 200 miles at my last fillup.

Plug-in hybrid technology which uses an electric battery powered motor that is charged overnight, relying on flex-fuel technology to recharge batteries only on trips that exceed the range of the batteries. I'm excited about plug-in hybrids, because I'm convinced that this is a great idea. Even a gasoholic like me would make the switch if the vehicles are no-comprise.

For more information, visit Plug-In Partners.

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Meadow - What happens if I stop mowing my lawn?

This summer, I embarked on an experiment with our huge 2 acre lawn. The experiment was to answer a simple question: what would happen if I stopped mowing it? Not all 2 acres (I am afterall a Gasoholic -- I can't go cold turkey), but a sizeable chunk: about 1/2 acre.

My wife was bit skeptical, as were the neighbors. And honestly, I expected it to look like a weedy lot.

But this "lazy man's experiment" was compelling to me, so before the snow had melted from our yard, I had already made up my mind to just let the land sit and see what would happen.

In the spring, the first couple of weeks were the hardest; as the thistles sprinted way out in front of all the other plants, and the dandelions took off, it did look like a weedy lot. But that didn't last very long.

After a couple of good rain showers, the grasses eventually caught up, and are now very thick. They have squeezed out the thistles, literally killed them off. And the shorter weeds that had originally grown faster than the grass were also eventually overwhelmed. A few large interesting plants have also taken root. Some small trees have started to sprout. The "meadow" as we now call it is home to all kinds of insects and small furry creatures, and even a few wild flowers.

What we have now is a very beautiful meadow. We enjoy our meadow a great deal. The kids can often be found back there, playing in the grass (which is now 3 to 4 feet high in some places), collecting bugs, chasing butterflies, scaring out rabbits, and having fun. Meadow birds have also laid claim to this small patch of meadow.

So as the official end of summer draws near, I pledge to remain hands off on this half acre next year. Next summer, I expect the grasses will come back even thicker, pushing through the thick grass mat is forming.

I estimate that not mowing this half acre saves me about fifteen to twenty minutes on the riding lawn mower, more than an hour each month. And my meadow results in less noise pollution from my lawn tractor, requires no chemical weed preventer, needs no fertilizer and saves gas.

I will try to get a picture of it this weekend, and will post it here for you.

Now there are probably more ecologically sound ways to grow a meadow, like seeding with prairie grasses, etc. You could always do it the way the experts say. Or, in my experience, you could just start today taking your hands off the lawn mower. Eventually, nature will take back what is rightly hers.

Next year, as an encore to The Meadow, we might try our hand at gardening, and irrigating it with grey water from our main bath. I noticed that our bathroom tub drain (for the most used tub in the house) is very close to the sump well discharge pipe. With 3 kids and 2 adults bathing each day, an enormous amount of grey water (mostly quite clean) goes right into the sewer system each week. I could install a drain switch thingy that would redirect the draining tub water right into the sump discharge pipe, out of the house, either into a barrel or perhaps directly into an buried pipe that would carry the water directly to the garden.

I'll have plenty of time to plan this over the winter, since winters in Minnesota can be very long. It will give me something to look forward to.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Eating an organic egg

Big news today!

I bought organic eggs from a local farmer last night. This morning I cooked one of these jewels. I have to say.... it tasted better than the non-organic eggs. To be sure, I cooked one of the non's just to be sure.

Organically fed chickens seem to produce better tasting eggs. Well worth the extra $2 per dozen eggs.

Another baby step victory for the Gasoholic.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

How walkable is your home?

Considering a move to a new house or apartment? How "walkable" is it? Here's a site that can advise you.

My home on 2 acres in the countryside has a very poor score.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

How we are getting a little greener, day by day.

We're doing more little thing to try and green up our household.

We are situated on 2 acres just outside of our town of 30,000 people. Not exactly urban sprawl, but 2 acres still requires lot of mowing. I've surrendered the lower 1/4 acre back to nature. Actually, the conversion to nature started at the beginning of summer when the river flooded. A nice meadow is growing, and I appreciate the savings in time and gas.

We've replaced nearly every incandescent light bulb with compact florescents.

I'm going a little bit longer between lawn mowings, trying not to be so obsessive about the grass.

I'm riding bike to work as often as my schedule lets me. I'm really enjoying this, and getting a workout as well. Also fixed up an old moped and am enjoying riding it on days when I'm too lazy to bike or its too windy.

We've cancelled delivery of the local newspaper, opting instead to read it online. We're lucky that our paper has a good online component. I enjoy not having a ton of paper to recycle each month. In addition, we're saving $30 a month ($35/mo subscription delivery vs $5 online subscription).

Earlier this summer, I installed a shade garden over a chunk of the lawn. It helps to return rainwater from the roof back to the ground, as well as water that we remove from the ground with our sump pump (we had been pumping the sump well water directly into the sewer system).

We continue to recycle, and we're trying to be more aware of buying local foods, and bulk foods that reduce packaging.

We signed up with our utility to purchase wind energy for much of our household electricity.

I paid a little bit of money to neutralize the carbon emitted from my Mercury Mountaineer. It was fairly cheap. Learn more about buying carbon credits here. Also am trying to drive more efficiently, consolidate trips, and am experimenting with a fuel additive that supposedly raises my gas mileage.

We hung a clothes line in the backyard. On days when conditions are right, we hang the laundry out to dry.

These things are all small. None of them has required any significant sacrifice in any way (time, effort or finance). Most of these items have been fun, easy to implement and hopefully will make a small difference. The goal is to sustain these changes, and continue to look at our lives and see where else we can make a difference. Its been a fun learning experience that continues to open our eyes.

For a more radical approach, check out the blog of No Impact Man.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The exciting future of Youngstown, OH

After 40 years of population loss and tough economic times, the population of Youngstown has fallen to about 80,000 people, fully half of its population high. While many might consider this a depressing end to a once thriving metropolis, Youngstown, Ohio has decided not to fret. Instead, Youngstown is reinventing itself, creating an exciting future by focusing on becoming a great place to live.

Youngstown 2010 is an exciting vision that challenges the dearly held American value that bigger is always better, that urban sprawl is good.

As more and more of the city's land is falling under control of the tax assesor because of delinquencies, the people of Youngstown are using this as an opportunity to revisualize their city. Instead of a sprawling city with lots of vacant lots, Youngstown 2010 is about coming to terms with being a smaller city, and finding ways to create a more sustainable city. They are rethinking where future development should occur, where infrastructure and services should be provided, and the best ways to utilize the cities assets.

I applaud the people of Youngstown for undertaking this amazing journey! If the initiative is not hindered by petty interests, Youngstown, OH will certainly become a text book case of sustainability and smart planning.

I've never even been to Youngstown, OH, and already I am excited about what's going on there. Any preceived ideas I may hold about Youngstown have been replaced by curiosity and a hearty respect for the visionaries the call this rising city their home.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

What's the big deal about the Chevy Malibu Hybrid?

Finally. Eight years after Toyota introduced the Prius, GM is introducing a hybrid for the Chevy Malibu.

Lets see.
The 2007 Chevy Malibu got 24 city, 32 hwy.

The 2008 Malibu hybrid will get 24 city, and 32 hwy.

That's it?? Thats the best GM can do? Hopefully their other hybrid models will show a more impressive MPG improvement.

Increasingly, I am becoming convinced that there is no hope for the U.S. auto industry. What a huge disappointment.

Hey, GM -- just in case you've decided to listen to your prospective buyers, I will offer this bit of wisdom from the market place: we don't want hybrid cars that get the same mileage as last year's non-hybrid models. We want comfortable cars that get great mileage, and if hybrid technology delivers that, then we will buy them. We will not buy a hybrid just because you slap a hybrid logo on it. What we expect is that there to be some benefit to the hybrid technology, like great gas mileage.

Gas Back at $3.20, set to go higher.

Because of a flood in Kansas that impacted a refinery, our gas prices in Minnesota have jumped almost overnight from $2.95 to $3.20.

I hope to goes to $5. I firmly believe thats the only way that we'll be able to find the national will to make the change.

If it were up to me, I'd slap a $2/gallon tax on gasoline and use it to fund national healthcare. Kill two birds with one stone.

Biking to work, thanks to Al Gore and Live Earth.

I was inspired by the Live Earth event. So much has been written about it that I won't elaborate. Suffice it to say that Live Earth inspired at least one person (me) to start thinking differently about getting to work.

I commute about 6 miles to work one way. It occurred me after signing the Live Earth pledge that, hey, if the weather is nice, its not too windy, rain is not expected and I don't have to pick up the kids -- I could bike into work and save a gallon of gas in the Mountaineer. So far I've had 3 recent opportunities to ride the bike.

Without going too hardcore too fast, Live Earth challenged me to look at what I could be doing. What little steps can I take right now, today, tomorrow, to do just a tiny bit. If its easy and fun, I should be doing it. Eventually, I'll find the strength and will to do the hard things. And so my journey has begun with this baby step.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Continuing on in a world with expensive oil: shopping for a hybrid

I had not planned to continue this blog following the end of "World without Oil", but I changed my mind. I find that I enjoy blogging about such things, and one more small voice appealing for change perhaps can't make much too much a difference, but it certainly can't hurt.

The post about the old Sachs moped wasn't just for show. I've actually enjoyed resurrecting the old beast, and have enjoyed riding it to work. There are some qualifications for a "moped day": I need to be able to wear comfortable clothes (i/e no meetings), no kids to pick up, and no rain expected. I had been hitting about 1 to 2 moped days a week, which wasn't bad. On each moped day, I would save about two gallons of gas over driving my Mercury Mountaineer which gets about 13-14 mpg in the city.

Last week I test drove a '07 Honda Civic hybrid, which gets about 49 in the city and 52 on the highway. I must say, its my new dream car. I always remember Civic's as being tiny, cramped little cracker box cars that drove like plastic soapbox racer. But driving the hybrid Civic was a really fun experience. The interior is much roomier than I had imaged a Civic would be; the roof was higher than I remember. Most interesting to me was the Civic's spacious backseat. Even with the drivers seat set comfortably for me, there was still plenty of leg room in the back seat. This is in CONTRAST to my Mercury Mountaineer, where I need to scrunch the drivers seat forward if I am going to be able to fit in the back seat.

The only thing missing from the Civic was a sexy digital gas mileage indicator which would track the high mileage I was receiving in this car. I would think that Honda would really want to reinforce that.

The Honda Civic drives nicely. You get used to the slightly perceptible "shudder" that occurs when you start up from a red light. Its just the Civic kicking on the gas engine, which it automatically shuts off when the car is stopped. It would be ideal if this shudder were imperceptible, but it really wasn't a big deal to me.

The only thing that kept me from buying the Civic was the extremely low trade-in that was offered on my Mountaineer, which won't let me pay off the loan on the Mountaineer. I was told (actually by two other dealers before this one) that the resale market for SUV's has gone into the toilet during the past 6 months. Even though the Bluebook indicated my car should be going for about $17,500, the best I've been offered on a trade is $12k.

Oh well...

I know that my next car will not be another SUV, even though I've driven SUV's since 1984. The times have changed, and I ain't going back.

Lets see what those 2008 model Civic's look like. If they've put in a sexy MPG computer, I may just have to bite the financial bullet and dump my SUV for a loss.

Meanwhile, the old 1978 Sachs Westlake moped is still cranking out 150 MPG, twice a week (weather permitting).

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A little more about us

Life here isn't so bad, compared to what I'm reading.

We live on 2 acres in a rural development. There are probably about 40 houses within a 2 mile radius. We are just outside of Moorhead, Minnesota, along the Red River of the North. In our 2 county metro area we have about 200,000 people.

We can still find gas around here for about $7.50 per gallon, higher than national average. If you want gas right now, on the black market you can get it for about $10 per gallon. It's great if you need more gas that the stations are willing to sell, or if you're just in a big hurry.

I live with my wife and 3 kids. We have a garden out back that we just planted with carrots, lettuces, potatoes, peas, pumpkins and some other stuff. We have an established flower garden with hearty native flowers that we have been working on for about 3 years.

We don't see things like oranges here at all, but I expect to see lots of local crops in the farmers market pretty soon. There will be corn, beans, lots of apples, etc. We have 4 apple trees that bloomed this month, so I think we'll be able to trade apples for stuff, but the problem is that everyone around here has apples... we may be trading apples for the proverbial apples. I expect we'll be sick to death of apples by October.

We still get plenty of electricity here. The mail comes almost daily. Crime is not a big issue right now, and we've always had the lowest crime rate in the U.S., and I think we still do.

There are four local colleges which just got out for summer break. It's presumed that student enrollment is going to drop, but a friend who works at the college says that what is really happening is that enrollment is steady. Lots of kids from here who were going to school elsewhere are moving back in with their parents, and then enrolling in the local colleges. This is true of a neighbor, who just saw there 20 year old son move back home from Minneapolis, where he was going to school at MacAlister College. He's now enrolling in Concordia College here, to finish his degree.

One of the things that is concerning us is the relocation of people from the Twin Cities to these work farms, where they work the fields. There is one about 15 miles from here, and its been nothing but problems, so I've heard. Lots of fights. Not the greatest "quality" of people, so I'm told. They don't have much, they don't earn much, and so far haven't demonstrated much affinity for this area. They miss their ball games, favorite bars, etc. To lose all that and suddenly be working on a farm must really suck for them. But then again, its not much fun to have 2,000 people thrust into your community who don't really want to be here.

Return of the Old Sachs Moped: Neighbors Envious

The old 1979 Sachs moped requires a 1:50 oil to gas ratio, which I think would be about 8 ounces of oil mixed with about 3 gallons of gas.

The Mercury Mountaineer still has about 3/4 of a tank, so I was able to siphon out a couple of gallons into a red gas container. The oil I had to borrow from my neighbor, who "loaned" it to me on the condition that he could ride the moped into town next week. Deal.

I don't know much about gas engines, but I'm willing to learn. I found a musty old book in the basement called "Small Gas Engines: how to repair and maintain them" by Paul Weissler, and have been reading it as quickly as I can. Hopefully I won't have to overhaul the engine, but I thought a bit of background couldn't hurt as I tinker and troubleshoot the moped.

A couple of things I have had to fix: a rear flat tire that required a patch on the tube (used a bike tire patch but it seems to be holding); reconnecting the rear break cable; the choke thingy was disconnected from the doohicky so I reconnected it; adjusted the seat to the appropriate level; cleaned up the spark plug; discovered I need to replace a brake light; adjusted the tension on the chain.

After assessing the obvious mechanical problems, I poured a gallon of the precious oil-gas mixture into the moped and miraculously, it started right up! I immediately took it for a spin, driving down the road. About 5 blocks from the house, the thing stopped and wouldn't start. I peddled the thing back home (mopeds truly were not built for peddling) and tried to figure out what was wrong.

Apparently, the fuel filter was clogged by crap from the bottom of the gas tank. I hadn't considered that there may have been 25 year old gas-crud in the tank. I had to remove the fuel valve to drain the tank. My precious gas was completely ruined in the process.

I opened my engine repair book to chapter 7: "Servicing fuel systems." Lots of good stuff in chapter 7, but no advice on cleaning out crud from the gas tank. Unsure exactly how to proceed, simply ran water through the tank to clean it out the best I could. All kinds of black oily crud came out, which I drained into an old milk container. Then I let it dry for a couple of hours, reconnected everything, and poured another gallon of gas-oil mix into it.

This time it did not start right up. I removed the spark plug and poured a tablespoon of gas into it. It fired for a moment, then quite again. After quite an effort, it eventually started, and seems to be running ok now.

I just got back from a five mile pleasure run. It was gratuitous, I know, but so what. A guy's gotta live a little, even a world without oil.

Now I just need to keep the neighbors at bay. I know everyone is going to want to borrow the moped. I think I feel another mechanical problem coming on...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Gift from dad: the old moped returns

My dad showed up today with a surprise gift! It was my old 1979 Sachs Westlake moped. It needs some work, but I am very excited about it. It was last licensed in 1983, and has just been sitting in his storage garage for all these years. I had completely forgotten about it.

He dropped off the title with it, and it shows he paid $500 for it back in '79. This moped was my first set of wheels when I was in 8th grade. For my dad, it represented freedom, because now the kid could drive himself to school a couple of days per week. For me it also represented freedom: I couldn't drive in 1979. In 2007, it again represents my freedom!

The old moped gets 150 miles per gallon! This is great! With gas at about $6.50 per gallon right now, this will become my new commuting vehicle. Meanwhile, the Mercury Mountaineer (13 mpg) just sits in the driveway. How I wish I had sold that thing 2 years ago. Who would touch it now with gas so high.

Update: added some precious gas to the moped, and it fired right up! Just a few small mechanical adjustments and I'll be ready for a joy ride!!

The last news paper

Today is a big day, representing a major technological shift in how we've been doing something for my entire life: consuming news.

Last week, my wife and I have made a big decision: we're cutting the cord on the newspaper. The gas surchage that is being charged now for home delivery is just way too much for us, effectively pricing home delivery at about 5x what it was just a year ago.

Instead, we've subscribed to the online version of the paper. I've been reading it more and more anyway; the news is more timely since its posted throughout the day.

We've been recycling for the past few years, and have gotten pretty good at it. The weight of collected newspaper is by far the heaviest load that I tote. I am also looking forward to not having to recycle so much paper. Less paper means I will make fewer trips to the recycling center, which will also save gas.

So over all I think getting our news from online will be a good change for us: less work, save money, save gas, and save trees.

I mention saving trees as a by product of cancelling the newspaper -- but we'll probably need to save the trees for burning in the fire place this winter to save on our oil/electric furnace -- I am joking just a bit now, with heating season 4 months away, but I am very worried about the cost of staying warm next winter. It gets very cold in Minnesota. Very cold, for a long time. I need to start planning now to have enough wood to last us the winter.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Sharing the shopping.

We're actually doing ok. It has helped to have the great neighbors, and we're getting to know them much better.

We take turns running into the city to get groceries and supplies. Tomorrow is my turn, and neighbors have been leaving me notes, telling me what they need me to pick up. No one ever goes in without checking with the others. Its kinda nice to know that they're thinking of us.

I've gotten to know the cereals that Bob and Nikki gotta have. I know Frank's favorite pino. Mrs. Peterson needs her Vogue. I'm sure they're getting to know me pretty well, too.

Sharing the shopping duty is proving to be a good thing. I like not having to shop so much. Where we used to run into town for milk, and then back again to get eggs -- now we're much more deliberate about when we go, and what we get. We actually make shopping lists now.

I've been reading about some of the unrest around the nation. We're good here. Lots of complaining, and a few fisticuffs at the long gas lines, but apparently, it could be worse.