Ask Jeff Yago
Solar & Energy-Related Issues
By Jeffrey Yago, P.E., CEM
Alternative energy for apartments
My wife, son and I live in an approximately 440 square foot studio apartment in Queens, New York. We have watched helplessly as our monthly utility bill has increased over the past 6-12 months from roughly $70 to over $120. I am certain that you have heard something to this effect from many people.
Are there any alternative energy sources that we can use to power our individual apartment and reduce our reliance on the local utility? I am envisioning a renewable energy source that can be stored inside the apartment and power, e.g., lamps, television, home computers, kitchen appliances, etc., but that doesn't cost unprecedented sums of money. Is there something out there to your knowledge?
Thank you for your time and attention.
Forest Hills, New York
I know the area well. One of my clients is Rego Park, the shopping center in Queens, and we remotely monitor all the tenants monthly utility usage. There is only a limited amount of things you can do since you are renting and cannot alter the electrical systems and may have only a limited amount of exterior wall and no roof access.
As I have described in many past articles, if your refrigerator is over 5 years old, it is costing you more money to operate than a new model. If it is over 12 years old then it is really costing you money each month, and may represent 15 to 20% of your monthly bill. This is the first thing I would replace.
You can also replace all of your light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. If lighting quality is critical like a work light, replace with halogen having half the watts as the incandescent bulb being replaced. Do not replace only a few bulbs at a time, take a week end and replace them all, then wait a few weeks to see the impact on your bill. Many appliances like TV's, stereos, cell phone chargers, and anything with a remote control will still be using electrical power 24 hours per day even if they are turned off.
Buy several multi-plug strips and use the switch to turn off all power to all your entertainment equipment when not in use. If you have an electric range, this is also a real energy hog, so limit its use by using a micro-wave oven more often. These also use lots of power, but they cook much faster so are only on a few minutes.
Finally, I am expecting electric rates to climb even higher next year and remember there are lots of city and state taxes added to your electric bill each month by New York which are some of the highest in the nation.
Time to move?
Solar pond aeration
We have two ponds at our ranch in south Texas. one is about a half acre in size and the other is about an acre. we have stocked both with bass and minnows but I feel we need more aeration for the fish and to help with algae growth.. i would like to use some type of solar powered units but i am unsure of sizing and types available. thanks,
There are many companies now offering solar-powered air pumps to provide pond aeration and in many sizes. Here is one to get you started.
I have a very small (one room) cabin and an equally small (90 W) solar panel system for lights and the occasional rainy day dvd. I currently have three AGM batteries that have all week to charge before they are used again. They seem to be getting tired, only charging up to about 12.9 v. I'm guessing it is time for some new ones. My problem is that the cabin is very remote and unheated when we are not there. The temps drop quite low during the winter. I know extreme temps can affect the batteries, but I don't have the luxury of keeping them between 50-80 degrees. Any suggestions as to they type of battery I should buy and/or ways to tweak my battery box?
I would switch to an AGM style sealed battery which are better than gel type sealed batteries in low temperature applications. I also suggest using two (2) six-volt deep-cycle AGM golf cart batteries wired in series for 12 volts, instead of using 12 volt RV type batteries.
I own a lot on tidal water in southeast Virginia… there is approx 2-4 foot of tidal shift per cycle. I know very little about home energy production or the technology that drives it, but I’m wondering if there is any available technology that would allow me to take advantage of the natural tidal shift at my property in order to generate sufficient energy to supplement my residential energy needs or perhaps even go off grid?
There are several large tidal power systems in other countries where the tide is very dramatic that are providing a large amount of electrical power. Although there are attempts to make smaller scale systems, most are very large and have massive underwater structures or ballast.
Several years ago I worked with a client who was building in a remote area that had no ground-water so no well. However, there was strong year-round stream on his property so we designed a pump system that had the pump down inside a 3 foot diameter concrete culvert that was 10 feet deep and located a few feet from the stream bed. Since the stream bed was large rocks and gravel, the creek water would easily fill the culvert and the pump would pump this water up to a holding tank in his basement. A second pump then pumped the tank water through several different filters and an ultra-violet light to kill any remaining bacteria.
Anyway, 2 years after this was installed and working, a flash flood came down the small creek and took out everything. All that we could find was the end of the pipe and the electrical wires from the house. It was like all this heavy structure was never there. The point being, you may be able to build some type of small system to generate a small amount of power during those hours when the tidal flow is peaking, but there will be a real risk that all this would be lost during the next storm. In addition, I would not expect much power from this unless the tidal flow was greater.
Small solar applications
I have been looking for a source for how to construct small solar projects, but all I ever find is information on how to power your whole house or save the world with solar.
I'm looking for what I need to run my pond aerator or similar applications and how to build it, what to buy, how to spec. it out, etc.
Can you recommend such a reference?
I know what you mean. There are only a few of us that started when solar power was not grid connected systems and everything we did was put together from parts and not pre-designed solar kits. With most of the solar industry today heading towards grid connected systems since they require the least amount of design and installation effort and are lower in cost, there are not many solar firms still selling individual parts.
Here is a link to one solar supplier that can help you and has been around for many years,
I have a question related to heating and cooling using a geothermal system.
We built a new home 2 years ago. It's a conventional framed home, but I tried to incorporate the most energy efficient products I could as far as insulation and windows. It is a brick ranch, and I do know this adds no insulation value. We are in the country on 3 acres, so we use propane for fuel.
At the time we built I hadn't researched geothermal heating and cooling systems, but with the sharp increase in propane since we built, I have been checking into it more, and also a friend of ours is in the process of building a new home right now with this type of system.
I forgot to mention our location is Verona Illinois, west of Chicago about 80 miles.
I'm trying to gather as much info as possible to make a good decision regarding adding this type of system. Do you have any recommendations as far as these systems go?
What I have to say may not apply to your colder part of the US, but here in Virginia where we have both a heating load in the winter and a large cooling load in the summer, there has been mixed results with geo-thermal systems. For most of the systems I have been asked to check or were installed on homes that we provided a solar system, they cut the winter heating bill almost in half. However, the summer cooling performance was not much better than using a high quality air-cooled unit. I think this was not a problem with the indoor units, but a problem with an under-sized ground loop, well, or ground-coupled piping. Since it is costly to drill several deep wells or dig up half of your yard to install a large ground loop system, perhaps this part of these systems gets under-sized? Since you may not have much of a summer cooling load this may be less of a problem, but then you may have the problem in reverse from us since our winter temperatures may not cool down the earth as deep as where you are which would reduce the winter heating savings.
Regardless of heating system type, I would first reduce my heating load with low cost solutions like more ceiling/attic insulation, added under-floor or crawl space insulation, and seal all cracks and air infiltration. There are low cost testing services that can do an air door pressure test of your home which might identify some high loss areas.
Blue 55 gallon drum
I want to store some kerosene. I have one of the standard blue 55 gallon drums you see everywhere. Is one of these safe for storing kerosene?
Thanks, Dave Hubley
These are usually food and chemical grade drums and are pretty rugged. However, any fuel should be stored in a can or tank that is easy to identify and includes a pressure relief type vent. For example, anyone who sees a red gas tank knows it most likely contains gasoline. Anyone who sees a yellow gas tank knows this is diesel fuel. I do not think a blue tank would convey that it contained any type of fuel, and these usually have screw-on lids that would not allow for release of vapors when the temperature increases.
I would do this for these reasons.
Car/Truck Battery power for existing well pump
How would you convert a well pump to run off of a truck battery? This well pump takes care of my house and spout near my horse barn.
Most likely you would not unless the engine was running at fast idle and a high capacity alternator was charging the battery. I have an 1800 watt sinewave inverter in my dual battery F-250 diesel truck and it may be able to start and run a small 120 VAC well pump in the 1/3 to 1/2 HP range if it is not too deep, but remember most well pumps are 240 VAC. This would require using two large inverters designed to work together to provide 240 VAC output since most residential inverters are 120 VAC output.
Also keep in mind that the current draw on a 12 volt battery from an inverter will be 10 times the current of any 120 VAC load due to the voltage difference. A 1/2 HP deep-well 120 VAC pump can draw over 20 amps at startup surge with a run-time load of around 12 amps. This is over 200 amps draw on the battery and DC side of the inverter. Most vehicle batteries cannot take this high current for more than a few seconds, and your battery cables would need to be the size of welding cables, and most inverters this large are 24 volt.
If I were you, a much less costly way to do this is a transfer switch and a plug to connect to a generator.
DIY solar panels
I've seen 'how-to's' advertised for diy solar panels and wind mills that are to save thousands on the cost and installation. Is it really possible to do it for hundreds instead of thousands such as Earth4Energy says? Or is it a scam?
I have reviewed many of these web sites and if I have ever learned anything in this life, if its too good to be true, its time to turn off the computer.
Can you build a home-made wind mill for $200. Probably, if you are handy with tools and use lots of scrap materials. But will it tear itself apart in a strong wind, or get rain into the contacts and fail, or actually produce enough power to make it worthwhile? I see the low cost solar system is based on using "free" deep cycle batteries. I wish I knew about this deal as I have to pay thousands of dollars each month for solar grade deep cycle batteries and did not realize the manufacturers would just give them to me if I ask!
Comparing PV, wind, and hydro-electric
Have you seen a well documented study comparing PV, wind and hydro-electric, cost vs return, short and long term?
The comparison you request may not be in the format you want, as there are better ways to evaluate these systems. The first problem is local weather. A power plant that puts out the same power for a given amount of fuel input day and night, rain or shine, summer or winter. This makes it very easy to project the future costs, fuel use, and income for any conventional form of energy production. With wind, solar, or hydro, they are greatly affected not only by weather in general, but also local conditions and these change for every hour of the day, for every day of the year, and for each location. This means you can accurately know the construction costs to build a solar, wind, or hydro system, but future energy production can only be a rough estimate based on past years weather data, and most of this published weather data will not be near the specific location of the proposed installation.
If you estimate the system will provide some given amount of energy production per month, and you know the construction cost, then the real comparison is how does this estimated energy output verses cost compare to the present cost of conventional electricity. Of course you also must assume current electric costs will increase over the life of a system, but can you install a solar, wind, or hydro system and produce power at a cost that is lower than the rate you can buy. In general, solar still needs help in the form of grants, utility rebates, or tax credits to make this cost payback worth the effort unless you are in an area that already has high electric rates. I know that here in Virginia which has fairly low electric rates in the 8 cents/kWh range its very hard to sell a system just on the economics alone, while the same system would be a much better investment if moved to a high rate state like New Jersey.
On the other hand, wind systems have already shown that they can compete with most utility electric rates even without these incentives, as long as they do not have to get into a lengthy permit process related to local environmental impact concerns. One of the oldest alternative energy systems are existing small hydro plants along rivers and creeks. However, its almost impossible to get approval today to dam up any river or stream, so must of these successful systems were installed on older existing dam or raceway structures that may remain from a former mill.
If you want a very short answer, I think if utility power passes 12 cents/kWh then these alternative systems are worth a consideration, and when the utility rates reach 15 cents/kWh they will provide a very good return on your money. There are some "carbon tax" and other groups that are willing to pay small producers of solar, wind, or hydro power from 30 to 50 cents /kWh just to be able to advertise they are "green",
Hope this helps,
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