What is Thermal Mass? Playing Catch and Release With Solar Power

As anyone who has lounged in a sunbeam can attest, the sun brings heat to a room. In some climates at some parts of the year, this is a good thing. In a climate that is cold, you want the heat and light of the sun to shine through your windows in the winter time. Ideally, you want the house to help store this heat and release it in the evening or on rainy days. In a climate that is uniformly warm, you want to use passive solar design to create living environments that ward off heat and light or store it for release into the outdoors in the evening. The overall aim of passive solar design is to use building design to equalize the indoor temperature throughout the day and night.

Passive heating is the use of design elements to increase the heating of a building in the wintertime. Passive heating also increases the ability of a particular building to retain heat. Passive cooling is the use of ventilation, shading, insulation and other natural cooling methods to reduce the heat in a building in the summertime. The use of thermal mass in the home can help with both of these objectives, heating the home when it requires heat and storing heat when the outside is too warm.

If you’ve been studying energy efficiency, you probably know about the role of insulation in your home. Insulation creates a fluffy blanket around your home, preventing energy from moving in and out. Thermal mass is not insulation, but it also creates an indoor environment that is a more ideal living temperature. Thermal mass is a part of the house that is used to store and radiate heat energy. Materials that are used for thermal mass include adobe, clay, mud, rammed earth, concrete, and wood. These materials can be part of walls or floors.

How does the thermal mass work? Even when the climate is cold in the winter, the sun still gives energy to the earth. In the day time, the sun shines on the thermal mass and the mass stores the energy. At night, it releases it back into the house. In warm climates, thermal mass collects heat energy and radiates it back into the outdoors as the outdoor temperature drops in the evening. Historically, homes in hot places have been fashioned from thermal mass materials such as adobe.

It is best to have the thermal mass directly exposed to the sun in order to absorb heat. The exact amount of thermal mass required to heat a building varies from place to place and from building to building. Different materials store different amounts of energy. Also, different buildings lose different amounts of energy. A general rule of thumb is that the area of thermal mass that is exposed to the sun should be about six times the area of windows that are exposed to the sun.

Using thermal mass in your home moves your home renovation or building project beyond insulation. Thermal mass creates a home that can keep itself at a comfortable temperature. Sound space age? Not really. Thermal mass is about clay, earth, water and wood.

Homes That Work With the Sun: Principles of Passive Solar Design

The sun is an exploding furnace of gas, and it is anything but passive. Designing your home for the best possible use of solar power is also a very active experience. So what is passive solar design, and why the name?

Passive solar design gets its name because it does not involve machines with moving parts. As a homeowner, the thought of no moving parts is often attractive. There’s nothing to break. However, the process of passive solar design does require a large amount of consideration. Passive solar design creates a home that collects and releases the sun’s energy at times that work for you. To design in this way, you need a deep understanding of your building site and the ways in which the building will interact with that place.

If you love the way your front yard tree provides shade for your home, you know something about passive solar design. However, to be a true designer you need to make an investment in building your knowledge of the site at the outset and make adjustments to the building and the site.

What do you need to know to begin to understand your building site and translate this into a good passive solar design?

Choosing a building site for passive solar design is more complex than it appears. You do not want to simply choose the first site with a lot of sun. To choose a good building site, you need to consider the latitude of the site. In part, the latitude determines the climate. Is this place hot in the summer and cold in the winter? Is it mild and humid all year round?

Track and understand how the sunlight changes over the course of the year or even the course of the day. You may think that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, but where does it go in between? There’s a big difference between summer and winter sun angles. Build a home that changes with the seasons by capturing the sun’s rays when you need them. Online tools such as Sun Angle can help you calculate the altitude and declination of the sun at different times of the year. You need to know your latitude and longitude to use the program.

Walk around the site and map the ways in which major landscape features change the levels of sun, shade, and wind present on the site. Every small part of the world has its own micro-climates. Landscape features such as large trees and other buildings will change the amount of heat and light that are present on each part of the building site. Trees, walls, buildings and arbors also change the way the wind moves through the area. Be conscious of the ways in which any future buildings will change the sun, shade, wind and humidity on the site.

Where do you go first thing in the morning? The kitchen? The living room? If the sun is not too harsh, use it to warm living spaces in the morning and sleeping spaces in the evening. Orient the house on an east-west axis so that you can use the sun to your advantage. Strategically control shade and micro-climates to create the climate you want in each room. Use outdoor and indoor blinds and arbors to make certain rooms shadier at certain times of the day.

By using passive solar design, you can construct or renovate a home so that it requires fewer machines to heat and cool the air. For your budget and for your repair bills, that can only be a good thing.

Solar to Go: Small Folding Solar Panels

It’s nearly summer, and it’s almost time to plan vacations. Rambling folks need power too, and those outlets can be hard to find on the road. Going off the beaten path, into less-serviced campgrounds? You’ll need your own power. If you’re going on an extended trip but you need to stay connected to the outside world through phone and email, a folding solar panel might be just what you’re looking for.
Merchants need power too. From solar displays that power tables at a summer festival to solar panels that power the equipment in a roadside vending stall, folding solar panels allow merchants to tap into solar energy as a ready power source. Sometimes there’s no outlet to be found, nowhere to plug into the power grid. At other times, it’s easier to get a good location if you’re not restricted to where your power sources are placed. Using solar also brands your business as a sustainable business.

When you are investigating small scale solar for travel or business on the road, consider the following questions:
How much power do you need? Determine whether you can scale back your appliances or convert to more energy-efficient appliances. You can also change the way you use the appliances to use them in a more efficient manner.  Do you need solar power for your small electronic devices? Small, folding solar panels are the solution for summer time adventures. These panels come on a flexible backing and are a good way to do business on the road. They are ideal charging devices for laptops, cell phones, and other everyday devices. You can also small solar panels to recharge batteries to suit a more diverse array of power needs.

Do you need to store the solar panel when it is not in use? If you need to store the panel, you may want a smaller or a folding solar panel.
How do you install the solar panel? If you need a panel that you can bring to events, it should have its own independent structure and require little if any mounting. A solar panel system for an RV would be better mounted on the RV so you can get up and travel without worrying about reinstalling your power system.
Does the solar panel tilt to ensure maximum light? When you install solar panels on a house, you install them with maximum light in mind. However, an RV or a mobile display or vending unit will move, and it is important to consider how you will collect solar power when you are stuck on a prescribed site. Solar panels that have legs to tilt allow you to harvest the most energy.  
Is it possible to add additional panels to the system? Your energy needs can change over time. Ideally, look for a system that allows you to add solar panels if your needs increase. This helps you have an integrated power system.
Small scale solar panels are ideal for summer time. Summer is the season when you head out into the world to events and on vacations, but you want to pack light. It’s also the season of sunshine, the perfect time to use a solar panel for your power needs.

Hot, Hot, Hot! Connecting Solar Hot Water to a Tankless Water Heater

We like it hot. Our showers, that is. So we stand in the glorious fountain of water that comes out of our shower, enjoying the hot cascade and using up the contents in the hot water tank in the process. Ah, the enjoyment. Oh, the guilt of using hot water.

But what if you didn’t have a hot water tank? What if warm water flowed freely from the tap? What if some of this water was heated by the sun?

What is Tankless or On-Demand Hot Water?
In North America, most homes are built with a hot water tank. This tank stores water in a large cistern and keeps it at a constant warm temperature. However, those who are watching their gas or electric bills creep or leap upward may wonder about the efficiency of the hot water heater. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to heat water over and over, day in and day out, while we only use it a few times a day.

A tankless or on-demand water heater is a device that heats water when you need it. It does not store hot water all day. This makes it far more energy-efficient than a traditional hot water tank.

Tankless hot water heaters do have their drawbacks. Those with hot water tanks worry about the long shower or the shower that occurs after running another appliance that uses hot water. It is possible to run out of the stash of hot water. Those with tankless hot water heaters do not need to worry about running out of hot water. However, all of the appliances that are on a single system need to share the hot water, so it is possible to try and do too many activities with hot water at the same time. By installing an additional tankless or on-demand water heater, you can solve this problem.

What is Solar Water Heating?
The solar water heater is a device that uses the sun’s energy to heat water. The sun is remarkable at heating water, especially when it is assisted by materials that collect heat, such as black cloth. Solar hot water systems are generally placed on the roof of the home to heat water for a pool or for in-home use. Using the sun is a very energy-efficient way to heat your water, but it doesn’t always produce the quantities of warm water you would like, especially on a gray sort of day.

Like the traditional home water system, solar systems have a water tank. However, solar hot water storage tanks are far more energy-efficient than the traditional gas or electric hot water tank. Solar hot water tanks get warm through direct or indirect means. A direct solar system moves hot water from the collectors to the storage tank. An indirect system circulates hot fluids from the collectors to a heat exchanger, which heats the hot water in the storage tank. 

Combining Tankless and Solar Hot Water Systems
It is possible to combine these two energy-efficient technologies to reap the benefits of the instant hot water of tankless and the extremely efficient nature of solar hot water heating.

The tankless hot water heater goes on when water is below the temperature that you’ve set as your desired hot water temperature. Use a controlling mixing valve to combine the solar-heated water with the tankless system. When the water is at the correct temperature, the tankless element will not go on. When the water is too cold, the tankless heater will go on and heat it up to the desired temperature.

To combine your solar and tankless systems, you must have hot water systems that are compatible. If you currently have a tankless or solar system, work with a water heating contractor to determine whether the systems will be compatible.

Energy Efficiency, Water Conservation and Tankless and Solar Systems
One word of warning: for those who love to love hot water, the energy efficiency of a tankless system may not be up for the challenge. A tankless system used alone or on a gray day will still use energy, especially if your showers are long.

Water conservation is still a concern for those who are looking into tankless and solar hot water heaters. Making water messy and sending it down the drain to be cleaned means that you still have an ecological impact and send waste-water to be treated, unless you treat the water yourself in a greywater marsh.

Climb aboard the solar and tankless hot water train, and you’ll find a better way to heat your water: two better ways, in fact! While you’ll still need to remain conscious about the amount of time you spend in your shower, you’ll be spending some quality time with water that has been heated by sunshine instead of lurking in your basement all day, and that’s a wise choice for energy efficiency.

Find Recycling Locations Near You With This Online Directory

Do you have a bunch of old electronics sitting around, just waiting to be recycled? Is it difficult to find a location near your home that will accept even standard recyclables such as paper, aluminum, and plastic? Thankfully, this website will let you know exactly where you can deliver items to be recycled, based on where you live. 1-800-Recycling is an online directory that you can search for locations to drop off all sorts of recyclable items.

From their website: “1-800-Recycling.com features comprehensive recycling location database that gives the user the ability to easily assemble a recycling to-do list. The database is location based, and aims to make your recycling needs as easy as possible, whether you’re clearing out the house during spring cleaning or simply looking to recycle a few shopping bags.”

The easy-to-use website lets you search by category and zip code. After inputting what kind of item you would like to recycle and where you live, the website will offer several suggestions with directions to each of the locations, making the process a very simple operation for determining where you can most easily deliver your items. The list of categories is quite vast, too, and includes lots of not-too commonly recycled things such as packing peanuts, old paints, and expired automotive equipment.

I highly recommend 1-800-Recycling! Check it out so you can safely recycle all of those things you’ve been meaning to get rid of!

Buying Green and Renewable Energy: Weighing the Options

Many of us want to buy renewable energy for our homes. We are tired of burning natural gas or coal, both of which contribute to climate change and changes in air quality. However, for many people renewable energy is a challenging thing to create at home. You might live in an apartment and be unable to install solar panels or a wind turbine. If this is just not possible, there is a way to contribute to the production of green and renewable energy without installing it yourself.

What energy are you buying right now, and how green is it? In the United States, most electricity comes from coal. Coal emissions cause smog, particle pollution, and acid rain. Coal is also the largest energy-related source of global warming emissions. Oil is another dirty fuel. Burning oil pollutes the air and leads to global warming through its production of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide. Natural gas is cleaner than coal and oil, but it is still a fossil fuel that leads to emissions. Nuclear power does not contribute to global warming, but it does create radioactive waste that will be dangerous for many generations to come.

What is considered green power? Geothermal energy is energy from the ground. The heat from the earth creates energy. Solar power is sun energy. Wind energy takes the power of the air and uses it to move a turbine. Large scale wind energy has been criticized for its noise and its interruption to the flight paths of migrating birds. Two controversial forms of renewable energy are hydroelectricity, the use of water from dams to create energy. While this does not burn fossil fuels, it does cover forests and farms with water. Bio fuels are made from plants. Some of these plants may be waste products, while others may be grown specifically for their use as fuel, displacing food crops. When you buy green energy, take a close look at what you are buying and whether you support its use.

The simplest way to support green energy is to switch your home electricity bill to green pricing. Check to see if your provider offers this option. This electricity is sold at a higher price and supports the electricity provider in its efforts to increase the renewable energy it has available. You can also switch providers if your current provider does not have a green option. You can find a list of green electricity providers at the US Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

If you want to buy and support green power but your electricity provider does not offer that option, you can show your support by buying Renewable Energy Certificates. Essentially, these are a contribution to the production of green energy, and each credit usually equals one kilowatt-hour of energy. You can’t say that you’re using this energy yourself, but you are paying for it to be added to the grid.

For those of us who are unable to install green technologies, contributing to the overall production of green energy is a good way to reduce the impact of the energy system as a whole.

Outdoor Temperature and the Efficiency of Home Solar Panels

The weather outside is hot: really hot. You sit inside, pleased because all of this sunshine must be good for your solar panels. You expect great returns on your energy investment, so you’re surprised when the efficiency of the panels seems to be dropping. Surprise! In extremely hot temperatures, photovoltaic solar panels actually become less efficient.

Around the home, you may use thermal solar panels for heat energy. These common solar panels are used to collect heat and warm up hot water. Place them on a hot roof and they work wonderfully. However, photovoltaic solar panels do not use heat to make energy. These solar panels use the light that falls on your home and turn it into energy to power appliances. When you are researching, installing, and using solar panels around the home, it is important to understand that these different solar systems work in very different ways. Heat is what is required for solar hot water systems. These systems work well on warm days. Light is required for photovoltaic solar systems. These solar systems work well when it is sunny, but it does not need to be warm. In fact, a cold, clear day is ideal for solar energy.

Why is this the case? Temperature changes the efficiency of photovoltaic solar panels. The efficiency of a solar cell is expressed as a wattpeak (WP). On the package for your solar equipment, you will generally find the efficiency in wattpeaks. This number gives the efficiency of the cell under laboratory conditions. The laboratory temperature used for peak efficiency is 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

A photovoltaic solar panel is designed to collect visible light. However, it is also very dark. Dark colors absorb heat. When the air temperature is a nice, stable 77 degrees, all is well with the solar panels. However, as temperatures climb to 100 degrees and beyond, the energy output of the solar panels decreases. To reduce the effects of heat on solar panels, avoid placing solar panels on a metal roof. Allow for some air flow around a solar panel to provide ventilation. Also, consider what use the solar energy will go to. If you live in a desert climate and plan to use solar panels to power an air conditioner in the heat of summer, this is possible, but the panels will certainly not be at their most efficient.

Oddly enough, photovoltaic solar panels work extremely well in light, cold environments. Actually, all electronics work best in the cold, because cold materials are good conductors of electricity. Cold locations such as Colorado and Scandinavia have been very successful using solar power on a large scale. If it’s hot where you live, you can certainly use solar panels to generate energy. However, be gentle with the solar panels and give them good ventilation to improve their efficiency. In the peak of the summer heat, reduce your use of household appliances and lights since the panels will not be operating at peak efficiency.

Solar Kits for Kids

While it is winter and the sun has yet to make an appearance for more than a few minutes, it is coming. At least I hope that it is. While we wait for the sun to shine, teachers and parents can plan for summer and for children’s birthdays by thinking about toys that teach creativity and sustainability. What are these sustainable toys? They’re solar kits for kids.

Many adults hear about solar and keep it on the fringes of their ideas of what is possible. Solar power is something to place in vast arrays in the desert, or maybe it sits on the roofs of those who are very motivated to make a difference. It’s not at the front of everyone’s mind as an option for power and warm water, and that’s where solar kits come in.

What solar toy kits are out there? One perennial favorite is the solar-powered race car. There are any number of companies that create solar-powered vehicle kits, a good alternative to a battery-operated car. There are also solar boat, dog, and robot kits available. One of the most intriguing solar cars is actually powered by hydrogen: the H2Go Radio Controlled Hydrogen Powered Car fills up with water. It then uses solar energy to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen gas, and the car can run for up to an hour.

For those more into crafts than building, Sundance Solar has toys like UV-sensitive photo paper, an alternative way to create and process your photos. They also have very groovy sun-sensitive beads.

For teachers, Sundance’s Solarlab Learning Kit is good for teaching children about the basics of electricity and electrical circuits. Sundance also has small solar panels available so that children can build their own solar kits. The 6 in 1 robot kit is also a good choice for the classroom, since children can build any number of different movable solar projects with the pieces in the kit.

If you can’t find a solar kit that is suitable, purchase a solar-powered battery recharger for parents of small children. This uses the sun’s energy to do something that parents need to do anyway, whether it’s recharging batteries for a flashlight or a singing, dancing toy. Their wallets will thank you, and so will the landfills and toxic waste collectors, for being rid of the toxins from disposable batteries.

For teens, there are a number of gadgets that are powered by or can be recharged with solar energy. How about a solar charger for a phone? These are widely available. How about a laptop for teens to use, powered by a flexible solar panel like a SolarRoll? Or how about a SoulRa, a dock for an iPod that is powered by solar energy? If teens have gadgets, you might as well take the load off home power and invest in solar chargers at the outset.

To many of those in urban areas, energy comes from the wires above the house or buried below. We’re disconnected from our sources of energy, whether they are sustainable solar, hydro, or coal. When we no longer have to burn fuel to stay warm or use candles to keep the darkness at bay in the winter, we lose a connection between us and the relative sustainability of our power sources.

Giving a child a solar kit or a toy that is powered by solar energy brings this technology to the foreground. It becomes a normal way to collect energy, and that’s important if this technology is to be popular one instead of technology for a niche market.

Image courtesy of dynamic at Stock Exchange.

Growing Water Wise

It’s the heat of summer. The plants are wilting rapidly in the garden, and you reach for the hose. Wait a moment. If you want to be water wise, you might want to reconsider your watering habits.

If you live in a desert, chances are that your water comes from groundwater, underground reservoirs that gradually fill up as rainwater seeps into the ground. In areas with intermittent rain, your water might come from surface sources like large lakes or reservoirs. In either case, saving the water that we do have for areas other than the garden is just plain sensible, especially if your garden is purely ornamental.

In some ways, summer is glory days for plants. They grow abundantly, they reach for the light, they produce fruit and seeds and the garden becomes huge and overgrown. However, summer can also be a challenge for plants because it comes with drought. Can you grow plants in the heat of summer and still be water wise?

Using treated city water in the garden doesn’t make much sense. Storing rain that would have become runoff does. Use a rain barrel. Rain barrels come in apartment size to massive, and some can even be stored under the ground to act as large reservoirs.

Water deeply and less-frequently. Although drooping plants seem to call for the immediate emergence of a hose and a thorough watering, some drooping is normal. Encourage your plants to develop deep root systems by watering them for a long time, rather than spraying each area of the garden for a few minutes. Watch your plants to see how long they can go without watering. Deep root systems help the plant gather water from far beneath the soil, helping it sustain itself without frequent watering.

Water in the morning. This is the time of day when plants are turning to the sun, beginning to make their morning food, and slurping up water with their roots. They need water to make their root. When you water in the early morning, you help your plants grow.

Create shade in your garden. Use hardy, drought-resistant trees if you live in a desert. If you live in a place where there is a summer dry and dormant period, use native trees or well-adapted fruit or nut trees to create shade. Make sure that the trees do not have chemicals that discourage other plants from growing. Spreading deciduous trees love the sun and let dappled sunlight in. Grow plants under and around these trees to conserve water.

Use the contours of the landscape to grow smart. If there is a damp area in your garden, use it to its full advantage by growing the most water-hungry plants there. If your garden is flat, flat, flat, consider adding some contours in the form of swales so that the water will move effectively around your garden.

Grow native plants and those that are adapted to the climatic conditions in your area. This does not mean that you only need to grow cacti. The key is low input: you want a plant that will grow in your garden with very little assistance. Ask around and see what thrives in your environment. Begin by looking at the plants that naturally grow in your area, the successful hybrids of your plants, and the plants that local organic farmers grow with ease.

Weaning ourselves off the infusion of extra water in the summer can be hard, but it’s worthwhile. You can create a durable, low-maintenance garden that will flourish in the heat while the high maintenance gardens around it wilt for want of water. 

Home of the First Drive-Thru Bans New Fast Food Restaurants

Baldwin City, with a population of 80,000 and home to a whopping 17 fast food drive-thrus, was home to the very first drive-thru back in 1948. But now the city wants to put a ban on any new drive-thru fast food restaurants, in hopes of fighting pollution from idling cars and decreasing the city’s rapidly rising rates of obesity.

Fast food is bad enough. No one has to tell you that it’s not good for you or the planet. It’s obvious. And drive-thrus just add to the ultimate environmental and cultural tackiness that is a fast food restaurant. From The Independent comes a quote from Baldwin Park city planner Salvador Lopez: “We here in Baldwin Park have taken strides to create a healthy community, and allowing one more drive-thru is not going to meet that goal.”

Amen to that. Unfortunately, it’s a nine moth moratorium, so the bill will have to renewed to continue the ban on new fast food drive-thrus from opening their doors. However, it’s a start, and a good one at that. Will other cities follow suit? When will our national obsession with the obscene drive-thru come to an end?

Check out The Independent for more on this story.