quantified solar lessons
Tuesday, September 26 2006
Recently there was an article published in the Woodstock Times about my solar water heater project. (It's easy to end up in the paper when one of your personal friends is an editor at Ulster Publishing). I've yet to read the article, but I'm sure it doesn't go into much detail; the interview had been a short one. One consequence of the article is that a guy named Wolfgang called me the other day, curious about my setup. Like me, Wolfgang had set up a system to heat his potable water and wanted to maybe swap ideas. From the way he described his setup, it sounded extremely objective and quantified, with extensive computerized data logging. He was doing little to dispel the stereotype of the German computer geek.
Today I went out to see Wolfgang's operation. He lives in a big old Victorian house to the west on State Route 28 in Shokan. Since his house is on the south side of the road, the collectors aren't visible until you're in his backyard. The array is mounted on an iron frame on the ground and totals 72 square feet overall. He got the collectors for free, as well as the 80 gallon electric water heater he uses to store his collected hot water in. Things he didn't get for free include the several square feet of silicon solar panel he uses to power the collector's pump, the scads of data loggers, and numerous gadgets I didn't even know about, such as one that measures the amount of sunlight you capture at your particular location. In his particular case, due to the trees in his back yard, Wolfgang only collects about four hours of sunlight on sunny days. (This isn't too bad; even with my rooftop view of the southern sky, I don't get more than seven hours in the peak of the summer because morning sun is blocked by tall White Pines until 10am.)
Unlike me, Wolfgang circulates potable water through his collector, meaning he will have to shut it down once freezing conditions arrive (or else add antifreeze and a heat exchanger).
It's very easy to get into a cargo cultish view of what solar energy can provide, but Wolfgang provides a good counterweight to such magical thinking. He's quick to point out that with a few adjustments to the firing range of an oil boiler you can save many times the amount of energy an expensive solar panel can collect. He also likes to talk about classrooms in Europe that are heated by the radiant energy of their pupils and houses in Germany that are so well insulated that heating need only be provided to their bathrooms. Such from-the-ground-up strategies run circles around retrofits such as we are attempting. Still, with proper measurements it is possible to find and patch the worst problems even in old structures like his Victorian house (where he found a previously-unknown single entranceway for cold air big enough for a man to crawl through).
At some point I asked Wolfgang about his computer work, since he was obviously some kind of computer guy. He showed me some places where his obsessions with quantifying energy efficiency coincided with is computer interests, mostly in the form of extremely-complex Flash-based multi-parameter calculators.
At some point in all of this Wolfgang introduced me to his mother, who was visiting from Germany. He gave her my last name as well as my first, so she naturally asked "Sprechen zie Deutsch?" "Unfortunately, no. But my father does," I said in English. "I don't speak English," she said, also in English.
Afterwards I drove into Kingston and went to P&T Surplus, where I rooted around in the boxes and cleaned out their entire supply of 9 pin to 9 pin serial cables, which I'll be needing to program esoteric Atmel processors. (Such cables are increasingly hard to find since they aren't used by modern computer equipment and historically they were used for a relatively brief time.) I bought several non-Arduino Atmel processor and development boards, assuming it would be easy to get Arduino working with them. It turns out, though, that Arduino only works on the Atmega8 processor. It's not even compatible with the pin-compatible Atmega168. By the way, it only cost me $8 to completely clean out P&T Surplus's 9 pin serial cables, and that price included four large stainless steel wormgear pipe clamps.
For linking purposes this article's URL is:feedback
previous | next