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Selecting and Installing a Photovoltaic Solar Array


Checking Out Some Panels

We decided to test out some panels on the lawn.  They immediately started generating a little bit of power!

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Planning & Zoning

Southlake’s Planning & Zoning Commission approved our Specific Use Permit application 6-0.  Next stop, City Council.


Sizing the Array

Our electrical drawings arrived today.  Sixty-eight panels, 17.00 kW, that should yield 90% of our annual electricity use.  I’m often asked how we chose this size, which has is a complicated answer.  In our case, we did extensive ROI calculations and found two key inflection points:

1.  Tri-County Electric Cooperative does offer net metering, but they will only provide a credit for net electricity import/export within the same month.  Because of the extreme summer heat, electricity bills will still be quite high when the A/C runs.  Arrays built to reduce summer expense will produce more than will be reimbursed during the other seasons, and that excess production is a “gift” to TCEC.

2.  The most straightforward way to connect the array to the grid is by attaching it to the load side of the service panel.  It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but you can likely add 20% of the bus bar’s amperage rating in solar power.  We have 2x200 ampere service panels, so we can have 2x40 ampere arrays.  Arrays beyond this size require potentially significant electrical work, either by reducing the size of the main breaker, or replacing the service panel with a higher amperage bus bar.  In fact, TCEC is very familiar and comfortable with the load-side configuration and had no difficulty approving this installation.

Given these two limitations, and the difficulty getting approval from the utility and potentially the city for anything larger, we decided to just install the largest array possible without a rewire — 80 amperes, 68 panels.  Like I mentioned above, we expect it to produce 90% of our electricity usage and 75% of our electrical bill.  If we find that we’re producing significantly more electricity than we use in the cold months, we will consider replacing one of our gas heatings systems with electric.

Bollar Southlake PV PLANS RevB


Making a Sit-to-Stand Desk

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I'm not generally paranoid, but articles like this from 1961 (!) and the Infographic at the bottom of this page really started to get to me.  I do like to stand while I work, but my desk (obviously) and even our kitchen countertops just aren't high enough to work comfortably.  While looking for solutions, we came across adjustable height sit-to-stand desks, which seemed like a great solution.

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Our local Relax The Back carries a nice desk with a wood veneer table top for $1,995.  After adding on the accessories I would have needed, it was going to cost a fair amount more than $2,500.  Although we could have taken the floor model home that day, which really appealed to my desire for instant gratification, the price was too hard to swallow, so we decided to look elsewhere.  

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Relax The Back sit-to-stand desk in black with maple veneer.


An internet search wound up being extremely frustrating.  Prices are all over the map, and although the desks were similar, they all had slight differences and were difficult to compare.  We finally settled on the GeekDesk Max, which would cost about $1,100 delivered.  We placed an order, but unfortunately, GeekDesk has supply chain issues and couldn't commit to delivery in less than five-to-six weeks, so we cancelled the order.  They were quite gracious about that.

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GeekDesk Max in black with beech veneer.


Our search continued and we found The Human Solution, which offered some very attractive desks with solid wood tabletops.  Beautiful, but fully configured, it was going to cost almost $3,000!  They also offered less expensive options and we decided to visit their store in Austin on an upcoming trip.

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The Human Solution Texas native wood height adjustable desk in mesquite.


At the store, their suggestion was to buy the legs and find or make a table top back in Dallas.  They also noted that some of their customers had gotten their tops from Ikea, but they didn't have any additional information.  The legs cost $795 and fit into the trunk of my car, so we decided to take that route.  Back at home, I decided to shove the legs under my existing desk for fun.  I was a little surprised that it worked!  Another thing that we learned was that the legs were made in the USA by Kesseböhmer, a German company.  If you visit the site, I think you'll see that most of the sit-to-stand desks are sourced from Kesseböhmer components.


Online research suggested that the Ikea Vika Byske table top was a good choice at $80.  It's a solid beech butcherblock that just needs some sanding in order to stain.  It was at this point that Leesa, my helper that I trust with all things artistic, said that she had never stained anything before.  Oops.

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After some experimenting on the bottom side, we figured it out and wound up giving the top three coats of Minwax Gel Stain, followed by two coats of polyurethane.  This took a week, but wound up giving us some attractive results.

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Here's the finished product from the back side.  An Ikea Galant cable manager spray painted black keeps everything under the desk tidy.  Monitor arm clamped to the desk's edge keeps the Cinema Display at the right height.

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From the front, you can see the large workspace and the great finish.

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And here's a view with the desk all the way down.

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Parts Inventory

  • Kesseböhmer table legs - $795
  • Ikea Vika Byske Butcher Block Table Top - $80
  • Ikea Galant Cable Management - $10
  • Staining Supplies - ~$100
  • Innovative LCD Arm 7500-HD-1500 - $203
  • Apple VESA Mount Adapter Kit - $39
  • Human Scale 550 Big Compact Keyboard Tray - $284
  • Human Scale CPU 300 CPU Holder - $99


So, the total desk cost was about $1,000, plus an additional $600 for the ergonomic accessories that all of the desks would have required.  Was it worth the effort?  Sure - the goal wasn't to come in least expensive, rather it was to get a sit-to-stand desk that would look good in my office.  I'm definitely pleased with the way the top turned out and I now know what it will take to replace or upgrade it in the future.


Sitting is Killing You Infographic


Social recommendations didn't stop us from buying this lemon dishwasher

I generally put a lot of stock into social recommendations and I incorporate them heavily into my product analysis.  When we moved, we needed a new dishwasher, so I of course went to Home Depot and checked out their selection and settled on the GE GDWT768VSS, a high-end appliance with most features, including quiet operation and an innovative detergent dispenser that meters the exact amount of soap needed to get the dishes clean.  Reviews were fine and most noted how quiet it was.  In any event, GE is my favorite appliance brand, so it seemed low risk.

So, I ordered it.  I should have known, I guess, when the first arrived broken.  We got lots of apologies from the very friendly installation crew and the second arrived a week later.  It was operable, but wouldn't get the dishes clean.  At this point, I got a request to leave my own review on homedepot.com and I was happy to do so:

We called the very friendly GE customer service team and the repairman arrived another week later.  He found that a part had been installed incorrectly and once he installed it correctly, the dishwasher ran more-or-less fine.  The dishes were nowhere near as clean as the 10 year-old dishwasher it replaced, but we were told that was because of the EnergyStar requirements.  The repairman advised us to use "added heat" and "steam heat" together to get the dishes clean -- I'm sure that's not EnergyStar recommended.

Dispenser

We decided that doing more dish pre-cleaning than we're used to was okay, but the dishwasher's automatic detergent dispenser uses five times more detergent than we used before.  This can't be good for the environment and the gel detergents it requires are expensive!

Since we couldn't return the dishwasher (Home Depot only allows 48 hours for returns, we're told) we stopped using the automatic soap dispenser and lived with marginal cleaning quality.

Then the thing broke again!  This time, it dumped water on the floor, but continued its cycle, baking food onto the plates.  We called for the fourth service visit and four days later another repairman arrived.  He found that the water sensor was stuck "on", so it shut the water off (though why it continued to allow us to run the heating elements without water is a mystery).  He fixed the sensor, so the dishwasher operates again and he agreed that the built-in dispenser uses too much soap.

We're now on our fourth visit, so of course we're annoyed.  The very friendly GE customer service people tell us not to worry, as it's under warranty and they will send a repairman in the "unlikely" event that it breaks-down again.  Super.  Just what we expect from a $900 dishwasher.

We also now see that this model has been discontinued by GE and no longer for sale by Home Depot.  It seems like it's a fairly new model, so I wonder why it's no longer for sale and I wonder what they'll do if this one craps out?

Update June 8, 2012

GE is still working on this with us and we've now had a fifth visit.  The installer had been on one of the earlier calls and the visit was brief.  With help from the support line, he verified that the heating element was working and that water was flowing through the arms.  Not finding anything obvious with the dishwasher he suggested the following:

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  •  Water temperature at inlet was too low.  He measured 110 degrees.  I later measured 120 degrees, but whatever.
  •  Possibly we aren't loading the dishwasher correctly.
  •  Maybe we're letting the dishes sit for too many days before loading.  We run the dishwasher daily, so I don't think this is the case.  

He and the phone support had no suggestions for the excessive detergent use.  Two times, we went through a 125 oz bottle in three weeks.  Surely this is excessive.

Anyway, after he left, we increased the setting of the GE hot water heater to ensure that inlet temperature was at least 130 degrees.  After that, we loaded the dishwasher and ran a normal cycle with added heat, without improved results.  We also ran with added heat and steam.

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I'm not sure what else we can do.  We're basically pre-washing the dishes and still not using the detergent dispenser due to excessive consumption.

And here's one last before and after pic taken June 16:

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Networking your older house

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Now that almost everything is internet-connected, serious consideration needs to be given to how to make them play well with your house -- it's no longer enough to place a wi-fi base station and connect everything to it.  One user streaming a HD movie will saturate the network and will ruin performance for the rest of the users.

If you have a newer house with Structured Wiring (CAT 5 or better cable placed from each room to a central closet), you're in great shape!  All you have to do is complete the wiring and this will only cost you a few hundred dollars in parts.

But, if you have an older house, the answer is much more complicated.  You're going to have to consider several different solutions and you'll probably need to use all of them to get the best performance.

Wired Ethernet Network

Even though an older house isn't prewired for internet, a good start is to wire as much as the house as you can.  In a single story house, or any house where you have access to a room's walls through the attic or basement, this is the best way to ensure a reliable, fast connection.  There are plenty of sites that give the gory details on how to fish the wires.  The only tips I have are to try the MagnePull wire fishing system -- I found it works better than fishing tape.  Also, run more cable than you need -- it's just as easy to run three cables as two and it will save you lots of time if you ever decide you need another connection.

Expect fishing and wiring to take an hour or two for each outlet.  Yes, this is time consuming, but each device you can get onto ethernet leaves bandwidth for the other alternatives, which are slower.

Something else you might try, but it is a long shot, is reusing your existing telephone wire.  Older houses usually have telephone wire strung as a daisy chain, which means the cable runs directly from outlet to outlet and isn't in a home run.  If the wiring is CAT3, it has eight conductors, like CAT5 and can be reused for ethernet, at the possible expense of speed.  To reuse the wire, disconnect the wire coming from the target outlet from the other outlets and splice it to CAT5 or better cable in a convenient location (probably in the attic above the room).

It might go without saying, but make sure that your switch supports Gigabit Ethernet.  This is the benchmark for wired networking speed.

For those rooms that you can't get to, you're going to have to consider one of the other networks.

Wired Network Over Powerline

Next up is Ethernet over Powerline (HomePlug AV),  a network that runs over your household's electrical wiring.  This setup uses two devices that plug into your electrical outlets -- one near your ethernet router and one in the room without access.  The system works okay.  In my experience, you can expect 20-30% of ethernet speed.  Because of split-phase wiring, it's very particular about where the two devices are placed and this network's speed will depend on good proximity.

Probably the best part is that installation is dead simple.  Plug the devices in and a few seconds later, they're connected.  I'd use this network for desktop computers and other devices that aren't mobile.

Wired MoCA (Coaxial Cable) Network

One set of structured wiring that your house probably has is coaxial cable for television.  This wiring has its own network called MoCA (Multimedia over Cable Alliance).  It's pretty fast and the speeds are reliable, but the problem is that there's aren't many hardware choices.  But if you have Verizon FiOS, good news!  FiOS routers and DVRs have MoCA built in.  Also, if you have TiVo, the newest TiVo Premiere Elite also has MoCA built-in.  This is a big benefit, because it take high-traffic multimedia content and puts it onto its own network.  In fact, because of the poor hardware choices, I have chosen to only use MoCA to network my DVRs.

Wi-Fi

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And this leaves us with wireless networks.  You almost certainly have a wi-fi router already, but you're probably due for an upgrade.  If you live in an urban or suburban area, you're probably surrounded by other networks and you're likely sharing bandwidth with your neighbors.  The best thing you can do is make sure that your router is one of the latest generation devices that supports 802.11n on the 5Ghz band.  

If you have one of these routers, I would make the 5Ghz band (n) only and I would point as many devices as possible at this network -- this will probably be your laptops and this will ensure that they get the best possible throughput without interference from your neighbor's networks and with the advantage of having as much of the other traffic shed onto the wired networks.

Point all other wireless devices at your 2.4Ghz network that supports b/g/n protocols.  I wouldn't expect the throughput to be great, but it will be way superior to having everything on the same wireless network.

About the Nest™ Learning Thermostat

UPDATE: Nest released a firmware upgrade that adds some cool features - most notably you can see exactly when the HVAC unit is running and what made it run (weather, user changed temperature, away from home, etc.)  This addresses some of the "blackbox" issues I noted below.  Although I do long for more detailed operating data, like I could get with ecobee, this update is a huge improvement. 

Pretty much everyone needs to take a hard look at their home's thermostats.

Heating and Air Conditioning account for more than half of a typical home's energy bill and most families don't do a great job managing HVAC energy use.  The concept of a programmable thermostat has been around pretty much forever, but the systems are rarely set correctly and in all of the places we have lived, the thermostats have been left at the Energy Star recommendations (and sometimes operating in temperature hold mode).  Texas electricity bills average $2000 per year, so HVAC savings make a tangible difference.

Operating at the defaults is better than operating on "hold," (the EPA suggests a 20% energy savings) but it's possible to wring quite a bit more savings out of the system and to be more comfortable by programming the system to meet your family's needs.  The challenge is that traditional thermostats aren't intuitive to program or adjust on the fly.  

Fortunately there is a new generation of thermostats designed to help.  First ecobee and now Nest are available to help manage your HVAC intelligently.  I've had ecobee for several years and will write about it soon.

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Nest is new and until recently has been hard to find.  It is interesting because it takes a different approach to thermostat design and energy management -- it's basically a very attractive "black box" that displays little information, supposedly all you need to know:  set temperature, current temperature and when appropriate, how long it will take to reach the set temperature and a "leaf" icon to help guide you into making energy-wise choices.  Things like "time of day" are deliberately left off of the screen.

Although it's possible to program Nest's schedule on the device, or via web or iOS device, Nest is designed to learn based on your actions.  Are you too cold?  Turn up the heat.  Going to bed?  Turn down the heat.  After a week, Nest learns your preferences and will begin to set the temperatures automatically.  Not comfortable?  Change the temperature and Nest will eventually learn the preference.  The temperature adjustments get instant feedback on the screen -- the leaf indicates an energy efficient choice and requests that require more energy give a brighter red or blue color.

So, how well does it work?

Pretty well.  We adjusted each of the three zones controlled by Nest everyday based on our comings and goings and after several days of this, Nest began managing the temperature setbacks itself.  The first schedules were close to what I would have programmed myself, so there's no additional savings there, but what was different was that people began adjusting the Nest to make themselves more comfortable.  It was here that the interface really shined (literally, I suppose).  The color and leaf feedback kept the adjustments low -- often a degree or two at a time and I think this ensures the best balance between energy conservation and comfort.

The extreme simplicity of changing temperature using the control wheel is satisfying and people like to use it.  This completely sets Nest apart from any other programmable thermostat, including ecobee, with its somewhat finicky touchscreen.

So, what's not to like?

If you like data, Nest will drive you nuts.  Its features (or at least the way they are applied) are mostly undocumented  This contrasts significantly with ecobee, which has minute-by-minute recordings of HVAC activity, inside and outside temperatures and more available on your personal page on their website.

Nest is also limited in the types of systems it can control, but Nest does have a helpful compatibility check to let you see for yourself.

Nest is $249, which is expensive, but I figure it will pay for itself in less than a year -- basically by the end of the Summer.

So, should you get Nest?

If you're not a geek, then yes, I think Nest is a good choice that is also aesthetically pleasing.  If you are a geek, then maybe ecobee is a better choice.  Consider your family first, though.  If they're not into the technology like you are, look again at Nest.

Are we finally home at last?

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Many of you know that we lived in New Orleans and lost our house in Hurricane Katrina.  Since then, we've been trying to find our way and we've moved six times.  It's a distraction that I think is behind us.  We finally found a home in Southlake, Texas and closed on it on February 1st!

It's a modest home by Texas standards, with only 3500 square feet and it's missing the requisite pool and media room that most of our neighbors have , but it also has 2 1/4 acres of land, supposedly suitable for livestock.  The house was built in 1999, so it's not particularly old, but it's missing all of the things that I consider to be "necessities," such as structured wiring (whole-house ethernet and cable TV).  This gives me an opportunity to do upgrades on all of these systems and I have begun a fair number of them already.

Things on my list are ethernet (of course), security system, home automation, LED lighting and some other stuff.  Oh, and on the non-gadget side, I also got a John Deere tractor to take care of the lawn, which may have been the most exciting part of the move so far!

Welcome to the new "World According to Rick."

© The Bollar Organization 2016