Incandescent, Compact Fluorescent or LED?

Thomas Edison shows off a big-ass light bulb.

Thomas Edison shows off a big-ass light bulb.

What kind of light bulb to buy, as it turns out, is not easy question to answer. Energy consultant and off grid expert Dan Fink has an informative story in this month’s issue of Home Power Magazine, “Choosing the Right Light” that takes a look at the bewildering array of choices and what bulbs might be best in terms of cost, energy conservation and aesthetics.

Some takeaways:

  • The current way of comparing bulbs–lumens per watt–does not take into account how the eye responds to color. Incandescent bulbs give off a wide spectrum of light. Fluorescents and, to a lesser extent, LEDs do not give off as wide a spectrum of light which can make a room lit with them seem dimmer. In some situations incandescents can be a better choice.
  • LEDs are good for task lighting due to the directional quality of LED light. They are not so good for lighting an entire room.
  • Many compact florescents (CFL) will have short lifespans if you put them in sealed, enclosed or recessed lighting fixtures. You also have to check the label and perhaps even call the manufacturer to figure out if a CFL will work in a horizontal, base-up or base-down fixture.
  • CFLs perform poorly if turned on and off without at least 15 to 30 minutes to warm up.
  • CFLs contain mercury and other toxins and must be disposed of responsibly.
  • Stick to major brands. Avoid non-UL-listed cheap import bulbs.

A trip to the light bulb aisle at the hardware store is likely to stay confusing for some time. Manufactures are coming out with many new bulbs including more efficient incandescents as well as game changing LEDs and CFLs. And, according the article, the government may consider other factors such as color frequency in its light bulb ratings. Fink quotes Mark Rea, a lighting expert at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “It’s still the wild, wild West out there with residential lighting and consumers still have to choose by trial and error.”

Farm Hack

farm hack

Farm Hack is an innovative blog that synthesizes high tech and low tech in the service of growing food and community. The blog is run by the National Young Farmers Coalition. While geared towards agriculture, many of the posts will be of interest to backyard gardeners. Recent subjects include a project to develop an infrared camera to monitor plant health, smartphone tools for farmers and open source appropriate technology resources. It’s exactly this kind of innovation that gives me great hope for the future.

Thanks to Tommy Berbas for the tip.

Bushcraft Video

Now that we’re car-free, we may be spending even more time together then we already do. How will we keep succumbing to cabin fever, prairie style? (Prairie style means “with axes.”)

Well, while Erik obsesses on those pernicious skunks and even more heinous texting-while-driving music video producers, I’ll be laying low, watching bushcraft videos on YouTube.

We may as well give up our Netflix subscription because this YouHole is bottomless. I’ve discovered there are hundreds of men roaming about the woods with their video cameras in one hand and their survival knives in the other, ready to share their knowledge with you. And they are almost all men. I’ve only found a couple of women who put their adventures on video.

I’m not sure why this is such a male dominated field, except that it is greatly fueled by the love of pointy implements and the display and discussion of such implements–which seems a very masculine past time. But that’s generalizing, because I can attest that around our house, I’m the one with the fetish for sharp blades. And fire. And making things out of tin cans.

Anyway, there are many bushcrafters on video, but only a few rise to the top. Many–many–are hampered by poor sound quality and camera work. Their info may be good, but if I can’t hear them, or see them, I’m clicking on down the road.

In my journey of a thousand clicks, I’ve discovered many nice surprises, and I’ve learned things, too. These video makers are spread all over the world, so it’s a really nice opportunity to see different natural landscapes, and learn how people work in them. Winter survival skills may not do me a lot of good here in LA, but I do love watching video of the snowy Alps.

If you fall down this YouHole, you may find yourself gravitating toward a bushcrafter who lives in your climate zone, or one who shares your world outlook. As for myself, I’m pretty much all about watchability–yes, that’s a word–and that leads me to a couple of recs.

Continue reading…

The Sundiner–A Groovy 1960s Era Solar Cooker

Sundiner solar cooker

Backywards beekeeper Dennis of The Buzz in the Dale, was nice enough to gift me his vintage Sundiner solar cooker that he found at a garage sale a few years ago.

Sundiner solar cooker

Resembling a cross between a portable 1960s record player and a satellite, the Sundiner is compact, light and easy to carry.

Sundiner solar cooker built in thermometer

A built in thermometer lets you know when you have hit cooking temperatures. The unit is so efficient, that when I set it up at noon it hit 350° F within minutes (in February!).

Interior of Sundiner solar cooker

The Sundiner has one big disadvantage. There’s only enough space in the business end to fit a 9 inch square shallow baking tin. And that tin, depending on the time of day and year, may be at a steep angle. Thus the Sundiner is more of a solar grill–anything liquid will ooze downwards and make a mess of the difficult to clean, unidentifiable space age insulation material. Grilling is really not the best application of solar energy–you lose the smoky flavor and grill marks you get with fire–which is probably why the Sundiner never caught on. More recent solar box ovens that I’ve seen, both commercial and homebrew, have shelves with adjustable angles, making it easier to use them as crock pots.

Nevertheless, I admire the efficiency of the design–the legs also double as a handle and the panels unfold and snap together in seconds. It’s easy to aim. The instructions are even printed on the back of the panel that covers the reflectors.

Sundiner solar cooker instructions

More info via the April 1963 issue of Desert Magazine:

Here’s a new product that suits desert living as few others can—it collects and concentrates the heat of the sun and allows outdoor cooking without fuel or fire. They call it the Sundiner. The technical description is “Solar Energy Grill.” Sundiner is a compact unit, 17-inches square and 6inches tall. Fold-out mirrors are metalized Mylar plastic, supported by polypropylene holders. The mirrors focus the sun’s heat on the lower section of the cabinet, where heat slowly builds up to a maximum of about 450 degrees—plenty to cook with. Directly below the apex of the mirrors is an oven enclosure. Plastic foam insulation and a pair of glass plates prevent excessive heat loss. The solar energy grill works in this simple way: point the mirrors toward the sun for a few minutes until the right temperature is reached (built-in heat indicator dial) and pop a tray of food into the oven. There is no fire or fuel to handle. Sole source of cooking stems from the collected, concentrated rays of the sun. Here is a sample of how long various meats take to cook: Hamburgers, franks, and fish, 15 to 20 minutes. Steaks and fillets, 20 to 25 minutes. Quartered chicken, 25 to 30 minutes. Temperature variations are possible by turning the Sundiner toward or away from the sun. The advantage of the Sundiner is that it can be used as a safe substitute for a fuel-fired stove on beaches, parks, decks of boats, and other restricted areas. Carrying handles are standard. The price is $29.95. From Sundiner. Carmer Industries. Inc., 1319 West Pico Blvd.. Los Angeles 15. Calif.

How To Dry Food With the Sun

Drying Apricots in Southern California–early 20th century style.

Dehydration is one of my favorite food preservation techniques. Drying food concentrates flavor and is a traditional technique in our Mediterranean climate. Best of all, drying food is one of the best applications for low-tech solar power. In many places, you can simply set food out under cheesecloth to dry in the sun.

But there’s a catch to sun drying: humidity. Food dries best when temperatures are above 85º F and below 60% humidity. If you live in a desert, humidity isn’t a problem. But in most other places in North America it’s simply too moist to set food out under the sun. It will rot before it dries. In Los Angeles, due to the influence of the ocean, it’s slightly too humid most of the year for sun drying to work well.

But there’s an easy way to overcome humidity: convection, i.e. hot air rises. Most solar dehydrators take advantage of the passive movement of hot air to lower humidity enough to dry food. Here’s a couple of solar dehydrators that harness this simple principle to dry food without electricity:

Continue reading…

A DIY Whole House Fan

Our DIY whole house fan.

How hot is our unairconditioned, uninsulated old house? Kelly has temporarily banned bread baking and I’m thinking of opening my own Bikram hot yoga franchise.

But seriously, a few summers ago I decided to install a whole house fan. What’s a whole house fan? It’s a large fan, mounted in the ceiling, that pushes hot air into the attic while simultaneously drawing cool air in from the outside. You turn on a whole house fan when the air outside is cooler than the air inside the house, usually in the evening. It works best in climates that have hot days and cool nights–like Los Angeles or many other parts of the Southwest.

Diagram from Gear Hack.

Whole house fans are usually placed in a ceiling towards the middle of the house. For us that’s the hallway. Unfortunately, between the attic access door and the intake for the central heater, our hallway ceiling had no room to fit a standard whole house fan. And I’m cheap. So I decided to make a DIY version.

I picked up a shop type fan and installed it in a 3/4 inch piece of plywood cut to fit the attic door. It was a simple project and saved a lot of money. I think I spent around $30 for the fan and used a piece of scrap plywood. I added two handles to make it easier to remove the fan/door and access the attic. The final touch was to install an outlet in the attic wired to a switch hidden in a closet so that I can turn the fan on and off. When cooler weather comes around I simply swap out the attic fan for the normal attic door. Would a commercial whole house fan work better? Yes, but I try not to let perfection be the enemy of the good around here.

An attempt to use a bike pump as an air conditioner. Hot cat in background.

It’s still damn hot at Root Simple world headquarters during the day. So maybe I will open that combination bakery/Bikram yoga franchise where you can eat buns while you tone your buns.

Book Review: More Other Homes and Garbage Designs for Self-Sufficient Living

If I could have only one book on my zombie apocalypse bookshelf it would be this one. Though it has to be one of the worst book titles ever, More Other Homes and Garbage: Designs for Self-Sufficient Living, by Standford University professors, Jim Leckie, Gil Masters, Harry Whitehouse and Lily Young has everything you need to set up your off-grid compound. This book, first published in 1975 and revised in 1981, grew out of a heady period in appropriate technology research and DIY hippie experimentation that took place in the late 1960s and 1970s. In some ways it’s the rural version of the original urban homesteading book, The Integral Urban House: Self Reliant Living in the City.Both books, not coincidentally, share the same publisher.

Feeding the digestor on the homestead. An illustration from More Other Homes and Garbage.

More Other Homes and Garbage covers alternative architectural materials, passive cooling and heating, home power generation, solar water heating, methane digesters, sewage reuse and disposal, water supply, small scale agriculture and aquaculture. All topics are covered in great detail with, as is expected for a group of engineer/authors, lots of formulas and tables. While some material is out of date (Art Ludwig has taken greywater well beyond what’s in this book), most of the 374 pages of More Other Homes and Garbage are still very useful.

I especially like the can-do DIY tone of the introduction which describes a middle ground between “terminal pessimism” and “technophilic optimism.” What’s depressing, in fact, is that a lot of the topics in this book have not received much attention until very recently. The frivolous 80s and 90s were simply not the time for More Other Homes and Garbage. Thanks to the great recession, however, this book is relevant again. Get your copy before vengeful Mayan time travelers zap the interwebs in December.

Update July 31, 2012
A Root Simple reader, Lisa, pointed out that you can download this book for free here. Thanks Lisa! 

Sun Boxes: A Solar Powered Public Art Project

It’s not often that my unused music degree intersects with the topic of this blog, but I got an email from Craig Colorusso describing a neat, solar powered public art project that he’s touring the US with called Sun Boxes. From the description on his website:

Sun Boxes are an environment to enter and exit at will. It’s comprised of twenty speakers operating independently, each powered by the sun via solar panels. There is a different loop set to play a guitar note in each box continuously. These guitar notes collectively make a Bb chord. Because the loops are different in length, once the piece begins they continually overlap and the piece slowly evolves over time.

You can find out more about the project at www.sun-boxes.com. Make sure to listen to the recording of the boxes–I could listen for hours–the sound is at once hypnotic and deeply relaxing.

My Trip to Maker Faire


Getting ready for the earth oven workshop this weekend meant that I never got around to reporting on my trip to Maker Faire up in San Mateo on the 19th. I spoke in the low-tech “Homegrown” shed far away from the high powered tesla coil displays happening elsewhere. To add to the low tech/high tech irony, I was not able to use my PowerPoint and had to speak extemporaneously. This worked out for the better, as I was able to pull up a member of the audience to demonstrate her solar cooker–much more fun than showing pictures of solar cookers. And, after all, maybe it’s time we retire PowerPoint.

Some of the things I spotted at Maker Faire:

Long lines for the tiny house. I’ll review Lloyd Kahn’s awesome tiny house book later this week (he gave a talk just before me). Not sure what’s up with the white robe outfit in the foreground.

Also spotted: bamboo bikes!

Cornelia Hoskin, who curated the Homegrown Village part of Maker Faire, her husband and new bambino. Cornelia also runs homegrown.org.

Yes, there were paintings done by snails.

Solar popped popcorn.
A rep from Sweet Maria’s Coffee gave a great demo on all the ways you can roast your own coffee.

Expensive AK-47 toting garden gnomes.

And solar powered bikes. Not sure how this would work out on an LA street.

Someone in the Homegrown area was processing greywater in bulk containers planted with bamboo.

Overall I had a great time. It was a wee bit heavy on the robots and 3d printer gadgets but that’s to be expected. At least there were a few chickens present to balance out the proceedings. However, next year I’m coming with an overhead projector: