Monthly Archives: December 2010

Legislating Feelings

“One of the reasons Endenburg’s sociocratic process for decision-making works is that it doesn’t require anyone to love each other. You can love if you want, if you have time, if you can, but you don’t have to. It isn’t required to create a harmonious living, working, or anything community. Harmony is about agreements that allow everyone to live their own lives happily and enthusiastically.”
Sharon Villines, 12/11/2010 mentioning Sociocracy in context of an online discussion.

“[W]e always felt that while you can legislate rights, you can’t legislate feelings. If an institution promises a democratic structure and respect for children’s rights, one can see rather quickly whether it is delivering the goods. But if it promises tender-loving-care, one can never know what it truly means.”
– Hanna Greenberg, The Sudbury Valley Experience, 1992, p178

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50 percent smaller TIMES 50 percent more energy equals…

So, say you are thinking of buying or building a house. And you are comparing 2 houses. One is a passive house, let’s say it’s 2000 sqft.

The other uses 50% more energy per square foot that the passive house. But it’s much smaller. 50% smaller. 1000 sqft.

As a reminder, here’s the math:

100 * 0.5 (smaller sqft) * 1.5 (more energy/sqft) = 75

In other words, the smaller, less energy efficient house still uses less energy (75 units, vs 100 units) than the much bigger passive house.

Of course, it all depends on the numbers. A house that only uses twice the energy per sqft than a passive house is still quite energy efficient. And 1000 sqft is a lot smaller than 2000 sqft. And t

Related article on this topic

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ADD and Loving It

“And adults with ADD often make the same mistake in both domains, they marry and work for a caricature of a bad fifth grade schoolteacher. They marry and work for someone who is controlling, demeaning, picking and someone who doesn’t really like them all that much because they got the idea around about fifth grade that that’s what they needed, that they were a hopeless case so they had to be ridden hard on, they had to be controlled, they had to demeaned and put down and so on and so forth. So don’t do that.”

I don’t think I’m ADHD, but this was an interesting program on PBS.

“THOM HARTMANN: The single most consistent predictor of future of adult success among children is self esteem. It’s not intelligence. It’s not any particular type of neurology. It is self esteem.”


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Ken Robinson on standardized testing and raising standards

“[T]he problem with standardized tests is that it’s based on the mistake that we can simply scale up the education of children like you would scale up making carburetors. And we can’t, because human beings are very different from motorcars, and they have feelings about what they do and motivations in doing it, or not.” — Sir Ken Robinson (LINK)

(I’m guessing the excerpts at Maria West’s blog linked above are probably from one of SKR’s TED videos, but I don’t have a link to that at the moment…)

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Turning off the second monitor

For work, I use a laptop connected to a bigger computer monitor, but I rarely use both screens. So I was curious how much energy is saved by turning off the laptop display when not in use. My laptop LCD screen is not an LED model which I assume is even more frugal on the watts, so your mileage might vary, but FWIW, it seems like the difference for me is ~10W-11W.

Times 50 weeks of 8 hour on-time (as an estimate) that is 20KWh (10W * 50*5days*8hrs) and to put that into perspective from a “visualize energy” standpoint, that is almost as much as we make on an average day from our entire 6.9KW PV array. It’s also $4/year assuming 20cents/KWh.

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Visualize Energy

One thing I find useful when thinking about being frugal on energy use (and maybe I’ve written about this before) is attempting to visual the energy involved. Trying to make the invisible more real, more concrete.

So for instance…

- That’s one side-benefit of heating with wood or wood pellets. You can SEE the stack of wood. You can FEEL the stack of wood (when you carry in the bag of pellets, split the logs, etc.) We partially heated our last house with 3 tons of pellets each year (1 pallet = 50 x 40-lb bags = 1 ton). Partially heated. Carrying 3 tons around makes a person think.

- When I think about driving somewhere, I do a quick mental check… OK, so that’s 50miles roundtrip, so that’s ~2 gallons of gas in our 26-27MPG average car. Need help visualizing a gallon of gas? Think a gallon of milk.

- I can do the same with comparing the relative merits of turning something off (negawatts) vs the offset of the PVs in 2 ways: 1) considering the 24KWh per day output of our entire PV electric solar array. “How many days is that?” Or alternatively 2) “How many panels worth is that in yearly output?” (Each panel outputs 300 KWh a year)

- This reminds me of the visualizing energy that one can do when trying to lose weight by exercising. OK, so if I run for 40 minutes, that’s X calories, and if I eat that bowl of ice cream that Y calories, etc. Except for your car or house.

That electricity grid, oil tank, propane tank, etc. is pretty darn convenient, but by it’s nature of being hidden and automatic, keeps me from thinking too deeply about my energy use. Wood and solar have a nice way of getting that a bit more into the open.

A flow meter on the water line going into the hot water heater, and devices for monitoring electricity use, like the TED5000, Kill-A-Watt, eMonitor, etc. can help with this too.

Google Powermeter is an interesting project too. If one could compare one’s own energy use to your neighbor easily, that would be informative.


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On houses and hairdryers

Temps in the 20s today. House seems to be operating pretty much as expected. Needs only the equivalent of 1-2 hairdryers to maintain inside temps according to the readings I am seeing from our eMonitor device which is attached to the heating circuit on our house. As our current president would say, “Now let’s be clear about something…” A Passive House in New England still needs heat. Somehow. So beware the wood stove behind the curtain. Or the air-source heat pump. Or the electric floor heater in the bathroom. An enthusiastic owner might claim they have no furnace. And that the “mini split heat pump” is just for back up. Or the pellet stove. But they need something!

The more ambitious will have elaborate active solar thermal systems which truly do heat their homes, even if there is a string of 5 days of clouds let’s say. But this is rare to have a 100% solar heated house. I have only read about them! (Norman Saunders, MIT Solar1, etc.) More common are “passive solar” or “solar tempering” where there are bigger windows on the South with high SHGC. This does help. But it’s probably not going to get you all the way.

So when I say that our house needs a hairdryer to keep warm, run some quick numbers! Let’s say one used two 1500W hairdryers (same as a typical electric room heater from the hardware store) running straight for 7 months let’s say… Oct/Nov/Dec/Jan/Feb/Mar/Apr. Then that’s:

7*30*24h*2hairdryers*1.5KW = 15,120KWh. What do you pay for a KWh? Let’s say it is $0.20/KWh. So that hairdryer just cost you $3024! That’s why people do not like to heat with electric baseboard. It’s expensive!

Now, in our case, we also get to divide by approximately 2.5 because our air source heat pumps actually pump out about 2.5x more heat than they use. (Same idea as a geothermal heat pump setup). And reduce it by a bit more since certainly they won’t be running full capacity for 7 months. Let’s say 50%

So 15,120 / 2.5 * 0.50 = 3024 KWh times $0.20/KWh = $604.80 for heat for the entire winter season 2010/11.

BTW, you’d probably get approximately the same numbers if you heat with propane or pellets vs a heat pump. That was my conclusion last time I ran the numbers. The main point is the KWh. It’d still be better to use solar or wood/pellets though from a carbon footprint standpoint. And this is regardless of whether you have PV panels on the roof or not. Don’t let that confuse your choice of how to heat your house!

BTW2, I don’t recall exactly, but that’s probably about the same ballpark that the PHPP software for Passivhaus predicts this house will use “on average” per year for heating.

I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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Sudbury Valley School is for young kids too

For young kids too… (or especially I would say!)

I was read and agreeing today…

“unless parents give their kids ample room to think for themselves in their early years, they shouldn’t expect those kids to grow up escaping the horrible stress and madness that most middle- and upper-middle-class American tweens and teens experience. “


“childhood is a training period for adulthood, so children who embrace adult institutions and ways of thinking sooner have a head start on the race to become adults.”

These are quotes from this blog post.

And for me, one way to help with the former approach is Sudbury Valley School. And not waiting until middle school. Start now when they are 4, 5 or 6! For at least a part of the day, 180 days of the year, our little guy gets to do totally what he wants to, within the context (and rules and community norms) of an established school community with a culture of respect for individuals and a full range of ages to mix with and keep a bit of an eye on them. I’m tellin’ ya… it is totally cool!

What our family gets for taking this alternative approach to school:
- Kids without the idea that learning usually comes from an expert rather than from their own explorations and ideas
- Kids without labels (“I’m good at X. I’m bad at Y”)
- Flexible schedule. No battling to get kids out the door in the morning before sunrise!
- Amazing family time. No homework battles. If there is any homework being done, it is by THEIR choice alone!
- Friends are not exactly the same age. I see our oldest running around at school with a crowd of kids varying in age by 4-5 years. Teenagers regularly say hi to him as he walks around the building. The adults speak to him with the same tone and respect that they do the other adults.
- The school building itself is an converted mansion. It feels like a home inside. Packed with people talking about and doing interesting things. Not institutional.
- Kids who are practically begging to go to school on Mondays and at the end of the summers. And mentally and/or physically exhausted by the end of the week. It is hard hard work!

BTW: The film mentioned in the post is showing in Stow on Jan 25 or Newton on Jan 11

BTW2: The quote above talks about the madness of the teen and tween years. But what about the young twenties? How many of us are floundering around even after college wondering what it is we really want to be doing in life? To me it is not surprising that this happens, since as the blog post linked above discusses, in traditional schools, we are often quite sheltered from ourselves while very exposed to “information” about X, Y, and Z. But left with little in the life skills category. Which, BTW, I’m not saying that this is the role of school, but just that school (and homework, etc) fills up an awful lot of time that could be spent on other things.

BTW3: In the end, obviously school should be about choice. I wish kids and parents had more choice of diverse educational models for their public schools. But I understand how this is difficult or impossible to pull off with the standards/testing/no child left behind situation.

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100% solar hot water

There are 3 ways to have a nearly 100% solar fraction for one’s hot water heating for the year.
I think for us at least, probably 90% is for showers and baths.

1. Have a large collector area and a large storage area so that you can build up a huge amount of heat to get you through the inevitable days of clouds. If you assume cloudy days are like coin flips, then if you store enough hot water for 5 days, then that’s 1-0.5^5 = 96.875% solar. From there it is mostly about some algebra. Usually it is recommended to do an unpressurized drainback system ala Alan Rushforth if you are oversizing. The problem is that it is hard (impossible?) to find someone that has done a system like this recently in MA or New England!

2. Since #1 gets expensive… (even a more typical 50-70% solar fraction system usually costs around $8500-$9000 in MA I’ve heard) what we decided to do is the following:

2a- heat our water with a hot-water heat pump (an air-to-water heat pump). Also sometimes called a “hybrid” heat pump. Rheem and GE make them. And Airtap and Nyle (Geyser) make add-ons. We bought a Geyser and have it connected to a large 105gallon tank because I like the idea of keeping complicated stuff separate from the uncomplicated stuff (the storage tank) so if the heat pump breaks, I still have a tank. It’s a little loud but I have it on a timer and have tweaked the temps and run times such that we always seem to have enough hot water.

2b- upsize our PV array according to the estimated hot water usage. My estimates are that we will use about 1100-1200KWh in hot water heating. So we upped our PV system by 900W which will cover that (~9000KWh per year is about ~1200 more than our original 6KW system).

So the math here is:
- Upsized PV array by 0.9KW * $6/W = $5400 (this is before tax credits, etc.)
- hot water heat pump ($1200?). This part could actually be dropped if you are in a “normal” house and already have a propane or natural gas HW heater since as I’ve written before, there isn’t a huge advantage in terms of fossil fuel use of using heat pumps vs fossil fuels directly. In our case, we do it because the house is very tight and so we wanted to keep combustion out of the house for IAQ reasons.
TOTAL: Let’s say $5400. And that’s for 100% solar hot water, vs 50-70% (optimistically) for a traditional $8500 system.

3. Do not use hot water! Shorter showers? Low-flow (Bricor) shower heads. Wash clothes on cold. Etc. Negawatts.

4. If you live in a warm place, do this:
Summer Solar Showers

A few final thoughts
I like our PV+heat pump approach so far. No maintenance (Until the heat pump breaks I suppose!). Vs I think it would be nice to keep a little more of an eye on a drainback system like I mentioned, but maybe I am wrong about that.

A drainback system is perfect for DIY, so that would be the one to choose if you have the time and inclination. See and the Yahoo Solar Heat group. Plus it would maybe work more years than our heat pump without replacement. But unless you are doing DIY, the $8500 is approximately 3-4 times more expensive than the PV+heat pump approach.

What other factors am I forgetting. I think that’s a reasonable summary of the various issues involved. The ideal green technology I guess is:
1. cheap up front costs ($ payback is ideally from day 1 — meaning: no down payment and extra loan payments less than the utility bill savings)
2. long lasting
3. local/low tech if possible
4. high solar/renewable fraction — (well… high renewable KWh/$ spent)
5. ideally has little or no lifestyle change necessary
6. doesn’t take up a lot of room
7. scales to everyone doing it.

I think that last item could be an item that makes our PV+heat pump approach not as ideal as the traditional approach because it is putting extra strain on the grid (we are essentially using the grid as our storage tank) vs a typical solar hot water system that heats the water directly from the sun has very little to do with the grid, expect for powering the VERY low power pumps involved. And those can usually be done with dedicated little PVs if you wish.

Other than that, I think it will score quite well on all the other items above. We’ll see how long it functions reliably. I’ll get back to you in 5, 10, 20 years.

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Their version of utopia…

“my two boys are still living in their version of utopia, Sudbury Valley, … where play is not a dirty word and time on task means figuring out what it is a person loves or wants to do at any given moment, where standardized tests are forbidden and where kids from four to twenty one play four square, make music, make art, talk about what they think is most important, read, knit, run, jump, skip, flip, build, dig, shoot baskets, and somehow I believe they are all learning, every single minute of every single day.”


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