Archive for February, 2009

Taking Solar on (and off) the Road

When Julie and I were planning out All Things Renewable, I told her that I ultimately wanted to manufacture portable solar power stations and car ports.

Recently, we had a company request information on solar for construction trailers.  During the initial meeting with the client, it became clear that they typically didn’t own the construction trailers, and installing solar directly on them was complicated and impractical.  I presented the idea of a trailer-based solar power station, and they liked the idea enough to ask us to spec one out.  So, Brian and I sat down at a local diner one afternoon and started penciling out design specs and load requirements. Brian Matzen is my systems installation contractor and electrical consultant, and has years of experience in custom solar application design.

Solar generator is easily towable to a job site or field use

Solar generator is easily towable to a job site or field use

Anyway, we did a bit of competitive research, and Brian found a company that already builds these things to military specification.  It didn’t take long for both of us to realize there was little point in trying to build something to the customer’s requirements without having field tested a generic unit, so the logical decision was to talk with the manufacturer.

As a result, All Things Renewable now carries solar power stations. These units come pre-designed to military specs, so they are incredibly durable and sized to replace a 10kW diesel generator, except quiet and with no fumes.  These solar generators can be customized to suit specific output requirements, include wind turbines, propane backup systems, and even  mobile workstations.  Stop by the store to find out more.

Sean.

Composting: Learning the hard way

A couple years ago, I was watching a spot on the local news station on ways to go green. The reporter had been composting for years, and using her backyard bin, she spoke of how easy it was to throw a bunch of stuff in and end up with a nutritious garden amendment.

Sounds like a good plan.

Now, I’m not a gardener, but I do want to reduce what I send to the landfill, especially since, with the lack of oxygen, my food scraps and yard clippings will take a very long time to decompose. Personally, I won’t be composting for the benefit of my sad, weedy landscape. But, who knows? My grass and perennials might appreciate the attention.

I bought a plastic compost bin at a discount store and started throwing stuff in. I had read a little about composting, so I knew that I needed more ‘brown’ (leaves, soiled straw) than ‘green’ (kitchen scraps). Unfortunately, I had no brown.  So, I went over to the local recycle center and picked up some free mulch as my brown material.

Julie's raccoon-resistant compost bin

Julie's raccoon-resistant compost bin

Over the course of the next year or so, I threw stuff into the compost bin. Everything from kitchen scraps to dog hair to used paper plates from a picnic went in. I didn’t pay it much attention, except to note that the latch didn’t seem to work well, because lid would open overnight. (The mystery was solved when Sean busted the neighborhood raccoon climbing out of the bin, grasping a peach. Solution: bungee cord.)

In early fall, I figured I should have something to show for my not-so-conscientious effort, and I decided to check the status of my pile.

Opening the bottom doors of the bin, which is where the good stuff is supposed to hang out, revealed the mulch I put in as my ‘brown’ material, tightly compacted, and impossible to dig into. Hmmmmmm…

So, I grabbed various yard tools and went into the pile from the top down, determined to both aerate and find some good composting action. With a lot of effort, I got about a foot down, only to discover the paper plates, corn cobs, and various food items from that picnic, looking exactly the same as the day I put them in. To be honest, the food did look different — it had shriveled and dried.

You mean I have to WATER this? I know that Colorado is dry, but I can’t even manage to water my houseplants.

At this point, I realized could possibly be doing something wrong. I might be doing something wrong. I relieved some frustration over the next several hours by hacking away at the pile, trying to get some oxygen in there.

A couple months later, when autumn had truly arrived, I rescued bagged leaves from my neighbor’s driveway for a supply of brown material. I even watered my pile, from time to time.

(In actuality, ‘watering’ consisted of emptying my compost pail, filling it with water to clean it out, and dumping the water on the pile.) Still, aeration was too much of a pain, so I didn’t bother.

Then, FINALLY, I found a manufacturer of a compost aerator and brought some aerators into All Things Renewable. They arrived last week! I brought one home and, on Saturday, I ventured out into the snow to test out this product, expecting a completely frozen pile and a frustrating struggle.

My new favorite tool

My new favorite tool

I’m happy to report that this thing ROCKS! I was able to fully loosen and turn everything in the bin in a few minutes and with little effort. This is when I experienced one of those ‘simple pleasures’ moments. My pile wasn’t frozen, which means that something is working. I didn’t see ANY identifiable corn cobs or paper plates, and I even found some actual compost!

I did get a little too excited in my aeration efforts and managed to bust open the corner of the bin. Did I mention it was a cheap bin? I’m planning to switch to a tumbling composter in the spring, or perhaps a worm bin. Maybe both! I’ll decide after attending our composting seminar.

Although it has been a small challenge, composting has made a huge difference in the amount of trash Sean and I send to the landfill. We’ve always recycled the usuals – newspaper, aluminum, glass, plastic bottles, etc. When we started composting and taking cardboard, paperboard, and mail to the local recycling dropoff, the results were amazing.

Those two simple changes took us from landfilling between one and two 45-gallon trash bins a week down to less than one 10-gallon bag every week. Now, we put our trash on the curb less than once a month.

If you are interested in reducing your waste and improving the health of your garden through composting, I highly recommend that you join me on Saturday, Feburary 28 at 10:00 a.m. for a workshop led by Steve Lawrence.

Steve will help you avoid my newbie mistakes

Steve will help you avoid my newbie mistakes

Steve is a Master Composter and a volunteer with Denver Urban Gardens public education program. He’ll cover all kinds of great stuff, including
* what you can compost,
* how to maintain water content,
* the problems you may encounter, and
* how to build an indoor worm bin.
(If you want to try worms but don’t want to build anything, you can buy a worm bin.)

If you register in advance and attend the workshop, you get a free gift from All Things Renewable. Is that a good enough bribe to make you get up on a Saturday morning?