Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Comfort Zone

It happened in a moment of weakness. About two weeks ago I slipped back into my comfort zone.

While at the library waiting for Julie, I walked over to the history section and a book caught my attention -- bright red binding with over-sized white uppercased lettering. I flipped through a few pages and tucked it under my arm without a second thought. I finished reading it last night -- "Sixty Days in Combat: An Infantryman's Memoir of World War II in Europe" by Dean Joy.

I'm not disappointed in myself but a little concerned. It will be so easy to be weak again.

After I finished grad school and had free time and energy to read, I set a goal of reading one book every two weeks. I began with the plays of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. I read "A Doll's House" and others and it was wonderful to read once again just for pleasure rather than out of academic necessity. I read for the joy of reading authors who could turn words into living images. I remember the vivid panorama created by a forgotten author in a book whose title I've forgotten about his experiences as a lookout in a fire tower in California many years earlier. As he described a storm I could feel the wind, see the straining trees, hear the thunder and taste the blowing rain. Fantastic! Even today I want to be a lookout for just one summer. I've checked into it and would leap on the opportunity.

I took a job at a college in Kentucky. One day as I walked through the library stacks on my way toward the religion section I saw a book with large silver letters on a black spine -- "IWO". That book by Richard Wheeler started what has become almost an addiction.

My father was in WWII as were two of his brothers. For the rest of their lives one brother wore a brace to support an ankle crushed in a plane crash and the other limped on an elevated shoe after being shot four times in the hip in Belgium. As a child I sat and listened to them talk politics, religion, sports and other topics but never about the war. Curiosity caused me to want to know so I began reading.

Over the years I read from various perspectives -- American, British, Russian, German and Japanese. I read cheap personal accounts and heavy academic volumes. As the years passed it was exciting to learn more and get a better perspective of that insane period. One of the most memorable was written by a woman who, as a young German girl, lost her father and both brothers in the war. I saw a strange world through the experiences of a twelve year old girl -- "To Lose a War: Memories of a German Girl" by Regina Maria Shelton.

It became almost an addiction that I decided to curb. About a year ago I chose to read other subjects. As I age I want to expand rather than contract. However, there is something comforting in returning to a subject to which I've given so many hours.

I'm determined to read more widely but . . . but occasionally, I think I'll slip back into my comfort zone.

Just in case you're curious -- yes, I'm watching "The War" on PBS this week.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Heated Response

Thank you, MojoMan, for posing the following questions in a comment on my post entitled "Free Heat". I enjoy and appreciate the opportunity to write about sustainability.

How will you keep all that heat out in the summer?
  • I have designed the addition with no glazing in the roof. The sun must come in through glazing on the south wall. The roof will be insulated with R-38 insulation.
  • I've calculated the eaves (including guttering) to shade the entire wall at mid-day during the middle of summer but allow maximum sun in the winter. I live at approximately 35 degrees north latitude; calculating the sun's elevation and azimuth at any time of year is not difficult.
  • The prevailing wind is from the southwest and I've designed a door on the west wall and vents in the roof. I should be able to passively vent the room without using electric fans.
  • Some type of vine (pole beans, perhaps) planted in front of the glazing and encouraged to grow to the top of the guttering will provide shade. This will block morning and afternoon sun that will come in under the eaves. Another common option is shade cloth on the outside of the glazing but I prefer the vines.

This past summer I built a gable room over our deck on the north side of the house and built functional shutters on the east and west windows. These passive features kept the house cooler than the previous summer. I expect the addition of the solar room (aka greenhouse) to keep the existing house cooler because it will shade the south wall and the roof design will shade the existing roof.

How well is your existing home insulated?
  • R19 walls - Net R13.7
  • R30 ceiling - Net R25.5
  • R11 floor - Net R9.9
  • R1.75 windows
  • R5 doors
As I designed the addition, I measured walls, windows, doors, etc and calculated net R-values. For example, the walls have R-19 insulation between studs set on 24 inch centers. The studs have an R-value of 6.88. Exterior siding, interior wall material and air films have other R-values. I was pessimistic when making calculations and estimates to make sure I didn't under-size the solar room and solar closet. (Heres's one resource that lists the R-values of various materials:

Just 'wondering': Is the solar closet really worth the space and cost? Could a well-insulated massive concrete slab with a dark finish do almost as much for less?

The short answer is that water filled barrels in a closet are less expensive and more effective than concrete. Also, the closet gives me other design options such as a solar hot water heater. The closet can get to a temperature of 130 degrees and I can vent the solar room to make it comfortable when I'm using it.

Here's a longer answer. I don't think there are rules that can be applied to all situations. What works for me -- given my existing house, elevation, latitude, weather patterns, trees, slope of land and other factors -- may not work for others. I want a greenhouse to raise plants for enjoyment, beauty and food. I want a solar room to enjoy the sun on cold windy winter days and to watch birds, rabbits, hares and other animals at the feeders. The addition easily lends itself to passive heating and cooling. The inclusion of a solar closet takes a reasonable amount of space at a minimal cost. The closet takes about 120 square feet and, since it's inside the solar room, is minimally two additional walls, barrels and water.

For a cost comparison let's assume a cubic yard of concrete cost's $65. A cubic yard of water contains slightly over 200 gallons and will fill four barrels at $14 each. 200 gallons of water costs $3 (one and one-half cents per gallon). Thus, I'm comparing $65 of concrete against $59 of water-filled barrels. Here's the catch -- water stores three times the heat of an equal volume of concrete and convection currents in water enables it to accept heat more quickly.

"Water is less expensive than masonry, and stores about three times more heat by volume, with a lower thermal resistance." (

I estimated the addition -- 480 square feet -- would cost me about $4,000, excluding interior furnishing. Thus far, I'm within that estimate. The addition of the solar closet is well under $1,000. Assuming it saves me $300 in propane each year, it should pay for itself in 3 or 4 years. Doing the labor myself and searching for the right materials at the right price has kept the cost down. For example, the barrels cost $14 each -- no tax --and are recycled soy sauce barrels. I've seen similar barrels advertised on the web for as high as $150! (I can't imagine who pays that much.) Also, the glazing is new double-paned tempered glass and cost $30 each. 167 square feet of glass cost $300.

This only scratches the surface of this issue. If you've read this far, I'm amazed!

Thursday, September 20, 2007


The bill was over $23,000 and had 4 for 5 line items two of which were

1 unit - $10,000
122 units - $12,000

It was late last night and I didn't try to interpret it except to guess it meant $10,000 to call the helicopter and $12,000 for flying 122 miles one way.

I have insurance and it appears my share will be $1,000.

I wonder what the actual cost was of the flight. How much profit?

The most recent AARP newsletter had an article about people going to Thailand and other countries for medical treatment because it is much less expensive. One hospital in Bangkok treats 60,000 foreigners per year. The facilities, equipment and staff are top quality. In one example, a person spent $14,000 including airfare for treatment in Thailand and would have spent $40,000 in this country.

I have the education, job history, salary and insurance to get quality health care. Most people don't. I'm determined to remain sensitive to their situation and to advocate affordable health care.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Free Heat

It’s an ambitious goal but it’s do-able. I’m going to get close to 100% of my heat from direct solar radiation.

I’m building a 12 by 40 attached room on the south side of my house -- a greenhouse or solar room. I’ll have almost 240 square feet of double-paned glass to capture the energy of the sun. The room will provide additional living space, an area to start and raise plants and will include a solar closet.

Last year I took a class in passive solar greenhouse design at the community college. I learned that buildings in Flagstaff with a south-facing wall reduce their heating costs by 50% by constructing a version of the type room I’m building. A neighbor who lives a few miles away estimates he gets 60-70% of his heat from the sun. We’re about 1,400 feet lower than Flagstaff and northeast of the city so we get more sunshine which may help explain the better performance.

To get closer to the 100% mark, I plan on including a solar closet which is a well insulated room with mass to accept heat from the sun and store it until it’s needed after dark. It is simple math and physics. I’ve done the calculations on my house to determine how many BTUs are needed based on heating degree days, size, construction and insulation. To check this figure, I divided by 93,000 which is the number of BTUs in a gallon of propane. The net figure matched the number of gallons of propane that I’ve bought each of the last two years. The next step was to calculate the amount of glass and quantity of mass needed to capture and store the heat. Water is the best mass – better than stone, concrete or steel. At present I have enough barrels to store about 2,000 gallons of water and plan on adding another 1,000 gallons.

We've signed an agreement to fix the price for half the propane this winter that we've used the last two years. Based one my experience this winter, I'll add more glazing next summer to get to the optimum amount to collect enough heat. I think I'm a little short at this time but have plans for the future.

For more information about solar closets and passive solar design, see these sites: and

In future articles, I'll post photos and some details about costs, materials and construction. The sun provides free heat but collecting and storing it isn't free. However, it's much less expensive than you might think.

This is a major hurdle to significantly reduce our contribution to greenhouse gases. The last two -- which are the toughest -- are transportation and food.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Polar Bear and Wildebeest in Cyberspace

I'm 90% polar bear and 10% wildebeest.

Like the bear, I enjoy solitude. I am content wandering the landscape of ideas, books, thoughts and mysteries. I enjoy the alone-ness of wilderness and a sense of self-sufficiency. I like tackling problems by myself and, when entering new situations, I like to do it alone.

Like the wildebeest, I have some need for a herd and social contact but it's a weaker need. Each winter, in the early mornings, I look forward to going to a hot tub in a resort near Phoenix and renewing friendships with snowbirds from Washington, Minnesota, other northern states and various Canadian provinces. If the conversation is good I'll sit for an hour or two and talk or listen. Finally, I feel the need for breakfast and the need to be alone.

What defines 'good conversation'? Ideas, debate, opinions that are new and alien to me, subjects that are complex without easy answers. When I was young I used to wonder why I couldn't enjoy talking about sports, the weather and the latest episode of some TV series. I'm old enough now to see this as a non-issue. We are male and female, young and old, introverts and extroverts, those who enjoy one type of conversation and those who enjoy another.

In my mid-twenties I had the desire to join some group of men in a semi-formal setting to talk about whatever subject may be the topic of the day. It never happened. Most small towns don't offer this type of opportunity. When I returned to college after four years in the military and two years working, I looked for this opportunity but failed to find the right group.

Last Fall it finally happened. A psychologist on campus started a "men's group" to talk about male issues, stereotypes and growth. We met during the Fall and Spring semesters and the experience was great.

Last Wednesday I received a last-minute email concerning the men's group meeting for supper at a restaurant in town. Four of us met and ate on the patio of a restaurant in the historic part of Flagstaff. The weather was perfect. For two and a half hours we caught up on one another's summer experiences. One man -- an electrical engineer who teaches at the university -- updated us on his wife's recovery from lymphoma. Another man -- a young man from Canada -- is in a wheel chair due to a motorcycle accident years ago and his activities and spirit are inspiring. The third person is a psychologist who has vast knowledge and a consistently wholesome and soothing demeanor. That evening was enjoyable and I left feeling euphoric.

This coming Wednesday the group resumes for the Fall semester. There will be some new members this Fall and I look forward to their perspectives. I had hoped a man of another sexual orientation would join the group that that failed to happen. I think that would have been a wonderful opportunity to get another perspective on what it means to be male.

As I pondered my need for periodic interaction with other men and a need to bat ideas around, it occurred to me that the web can meet some of this need -- admittedly not as well as sitting in a group but it can be a source of significant interaction. Occasionally, I encounter someone with a blog that leads me to feel a sense of connection and engagement. I'm intrigued and motivated by their opinions, experiences and the personality and values they project.

I can login and get my wildebeest need met by reading, commenting or emailing someone and feel a social connection. Then -- well, then I can logout and return to my polar bear life. I like that -- introversion or extroversion as and when I choose.

Friday, September 14, 2007

I'm Glad I Did

I don't know how I discovered Natala but I'm glad I did.

I'm cautious about what I read, the movies I watch, the news I hear, the people I engage and the thoughts I think. I know I'm not immune to frustration, despair, anger and other bad emotions. My humanity can be dried, shriveled and twisted. I chose to minimize the possibility that I'll become a bitter, cynical old man by looking for literature, movies, people and blogs that challenge me, inspire me and help keep my humanity healthy and growing.

Here's the first thing I read today: send them home

I don't know how I discovered Natala but I'm glad I did.

After I posted the above, Natala wrote another article. I think it's worth reading also: protesting this sat.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sidewalk Classroom

The Fall semester has begun. I haven't heard the exact count but there are over 4000 new freshmen. NAU has a total enrollment of about 20,000. My sidewalk classroom is open. I don't teach academic classes. I teach common courtesy.

Julie works on south campus about a mile from my office. We park south of her office and walk to my office. She then walks back to her office and, at the end of the day, I walk south and we meet. This gives both of us about two and a half miles of exercise each day.

I was raised to respect elders, give up my seat to a woman, say "Yes, Ma'am" and "No, Sir" and to know my place in a community. It wasn't oppressive. It made things work smoothly and I knew that one day I'd be an elder and younger people would give way to me. It was a belief and expectation that will never be realized. But, that's OK. The world isn't static. Young people should not treat me with respect because I'm older. They should treat me with respect because we live in community. They should learn to respect all people and learn courtesy that benefits everyone.

As I walk across campus I often encounter two, three or four students walking abreast coming toward me. Courtesy dictates we share the sidewalk. Neither I nor they should have to step into the street or on to the grass. However, many and perhaps most will take the entire sidewalk and expect me to walk around them. I refuse!

I enjoyed -- and contine enjoy -- being a father. I know young people need an example and enouragement. We're always examples so let me clarify: young people need a good example. When I encounter students taking the entire sidewalk I dont' give way. I move to the right half of the walk, smile at them and continue at my current gate.

Do you know how difficult it is to hold shoulders steady when about to collide with an petite young lady who refuses to move to her half of the walk? I don't enjoy it but I feel it's my responsibility to teach them to share!

Community. I think more and more about that concept. In a global economy we need to maintain a sense of local and global community. We need to learn -- or relearn -- empathy, courtesy and respect.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Cardiologists, Frogs and Concrete

I enjoy manual labor. Throughout the week I sit at a computer developing software. My knees get stiff and my eyes have more and more difficulty focusing. When the weekend arrives, I enjoy doing something outside that is physical and strenuous.

For the last few weeks I've been leveling an area about twelve feet by forty feet and digging 104 feet of footer averaging 30 inches deep. I've moved about 27 yards of earth and filled the area with 10 yards of gravel. This weekend, Julie and I finished pouring the concrete for the footer.

The work that has taken me several weekends could have been done by a backhoe in about three hours.

This frog is missing one toe. (Larger version)

I chose to do the work with hand tools for several reasons.

First, but not the most important, the cardiologist I saw in July said LDL cholesterol should be below 100 and mine tested at 123. Exercise and weight loss lower LDL and raise HDL cholesterol. I try to exercise daily but don't have time for the sustained exercise that I get on weekends. The labor has helped. I used to average 205-207 pounds. I'm down to 194. Next month I'm going to have another cholesterol test and I expect to the near 100 and hopefully below.

Second, slow hand work protects life. Three years ago I decided to locate my cistern behind some trees. When I dug a hole for the cistern and 100 feet of trench for a water line I dug over and under major roots to prevent stressing the Junipers. A backhoe would have cut them and possibly killed the trees.

As I dug the footer, I saw a frog. Apparently, he had buried himself in the ground to escape the sun and I unearthed him and he fell to to the bottom of the trench which was about 24 inches deep at that point. When I caught him I noticed blood on my hand. I must have injured him with the shovel. He was missing one toe but appeared strong. I took him to what I hoped was a safe place and set him free. This isn't the first time I've dug up a frog. Last summer I was working on a stone walkway and uncovered one. A backhoe operator would never have seen him.

My camera-shy assistant, water girl and quality control specialist. (Larger version)

Third, manual labor strengthens the bond between Julie and me. Several times each day she brings water, tea and an occasional salt tablet and demands I stay hydrated. She helps with the lighter labor and we discuss the plans together. When the project is finished and the years pass, we'll enjoy the results because we worked together to create it. Writing a check to a contractor can't build that depth of shared experience.

Cleaning equipment at the end of the day. (Larger version)

Fourth, I have lots of plans and ideas for the future. Julie and I have discussed Habitat for Humanity and other volunteer projects that require physical strength. I remain determined to hike all 800 miles of the Arizona Trail after I retire. Physical labor keeps these dreams alive as viable options.

Souvenirs of enjoyable labor. (Larger version)

Fifth, if I hired the work done and it wasn't done to my satisfaction, I'd be irritated. I don't get irritated with myself. If I make a blunder, I chalk it us as a learning experience. I like learning; I don't like irritation.

Possessions can be enjoyable but they are a distant second to experiences and good momories. I like doing manual labor for the experiences and memories.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Learning and Adapting

I believe in evolution which I define as "change through time". We evolve or we wither and die -- individuals, families and cultures. For thousands of years people have adapted to new situations.

When the Cherokee were forcefully moved from North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia to Oklahoma they adapted to a radically different environment. I'm in the same process. When I moved from the rolling hills of central Kentucky to the plains of Texas I experienced a different environment. However, there were some similarities. Water was readily available. Kentucky has plenty of rain and Texas pumps water from the aquifer as if it's limitless. Both places had commercially available electricity which translated into air conditioning.

Now, I live in Arizona and have to adapt to a desert environment. Water is 1,400 feet deep. I generate electricity from solar with a small contribution from wind. The cost of installing a system large enough to pump water and provide air conditioning is prohibitive and unnecessary. Native Americans adapted to this environment without electricity, pumps and air conditioning. I can do it also.

One of the keys to staying cool is to avoid the sun and, when in the sun, wear light colored clothing. It's no different for housing. Choice of material and color can provide natural passive relief when the temperature hits 100 as it does by early June each year.

About 2 years ago I purchased an infrared thermometer to measure the surface temperature of objects. Point the thermometer at an object, pull the trigger and it displays a temperature. I keep thermometers on both out-buildings, on the deck, in the oven and in the refrigerator. I've tested the infrared by checked the temperature of these thermometers and it's accurate.

The photos below record temperatures of various materials of differing colors. They were taken on Sunday, June 2, when the air temperature was 89 degrees.

Stone landing.
This is the stone landing at the base of the steps leading from the deck. The temperature in the sun was 116. The temperature about 3 feet to the right in the shade was 101. The sun has been on the shady area earlier because it's west of the sunny area. (Larger version)

Siding and trim.
This is the siding and trim on one of my out buildings which is painted to match the house. The off-white paint was 115 degrees and the trim color was 127. (Larger version)

I had moved a small table saw to a shady area early in the morning but the shade disappeared. The temperature of the black portion of the table was 140. (Larger version)

The temperature of this white sheet of insulation behind the thermometer was 106 degrees -- the lowest temperature of any item I checked.. (Larger version)

The temperature of this blue rain barrel which was full of water was fascinating. The blue was 132 and the white bung was 107. (Larger version)

The bright aluminum portion of the table saw illustrates an issue that I've discovered before. The temperature reads 51! A cloud had passed over just before I took the photo but the air temperature was still 89. How could it read 51? I checked the frost on the side of my car one winter morning and found it to be wrong. It appears -- though I haven't confirmed this theory -- that some surfaces don't reflect or radiate infrared. Any physicists out there have the real answer? A reality check was easy. I measured both the bright and black portions of the table and put my hand on them to check the difference. (Larger version)

This 500 gallons cistern had about 300 gallons in it. The temperature of the top in the sun was 128, the side in the shade above the water was 89 -- the same as the air temperature -- and the temperature below the water level in the shade was 77. Ah ha! Yes, this concept can be extended to provide some passive air conditioning and I have a plan for this. (Larger version)

I took one other temperature reading without a photo. The lumber of my deck in the sun was 131 and the area in the shade on the same board was 90.

As I've mentioned before, I'm building an attached green house or solar room. I'm designing it to heat the house in the winter and provide relief from the sun in the summer. The infrared thermometer helps me make plans, test and manage my adaptation to a high desert environment.

This is just a small sampling of what the tool can do. If you're trying to live in a sustainable manner, I suggest getting an infrared thermometer.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Sunday Morning Walk

Rocky Mountain Bee Plant. I plan on collecting seed and sowing a large area visible from our deck. (Larger version)

Actually, I took this photo on Saturday. I tried to get a photo of this creature's entire body but he refused to pose and was faster than I expected when I put him on the ground. Within 15 minutes, I saw two more in different areas around the yard.. (Larger version)

. (Larger version)

. (Larger version)

My grandmothers grew large impressive flowers that commanded attention. Many years ago I relinquished the bigger is better philosophy and learned to see the beauty in the small, the fragile and the delicate. (Larger version)

We've had some strong winds recently. It appears this dead tree was uprooted and rolled bottom-up. (Larger version)

Notice this little guy's spiked tail. It's a tail and not a horn -- unless he was walking backwards. (Larger version)

. (Larger version)

We found this Sacred Datura a little over a mile from the house. I had spotted one plant on a bank a few miles from home and was planning on collecting seed. On our walk we found several Datura close to home. (Larger version)

Julie placed a twig in front of this bug to slow him down because he refused to pose for a photo. We saw a snake -- the first non-Rattlesnake that I've seen this year -- but he refused to pose also. Julie has picked up snakes but this one was too fast. (Larger version)

. (Larger version)

. (Larger version)

Julie is fascinated with Horned Lizards -- Horney Toads. This little camouflaged guy was invisible on the ground -- until he moved. (Larger version)

This is about the larges Horned Lizard we've found near home. Most are smaller. (Larger version)

Saturday, September 01, 2007

More on Recycled Glass

Last night Julie was reading the most recent issue of "The Week" magazine when, by coincidence, she encountered an article about crushed glass. A beach in Florida that has been eroding for years is now being replenished with crushed glass because it's less expensive than transporting sand. The glass is crushed so that it's like regular sand. One can walk on it bare footed.

Typical larger crushed glass.
Typical larger crushed glass. (Larger version)

On the last post, Mojoman commented about recycled glass being used in roads. Search the web and you'll find articles about glassphalt. Um! I didn't know that.

Typical smaller crushed glass.
Typical smaller crushed glass. (Larger version)

Laura asked if the crushed material could be used in place of sharp sand in mortar. I think it could if crushed fine enough and sifted. However, the material available locally is neither crushed fine nor sifted. Much of it is appropriate for use as a mulch.

Piled crushed glass before whole material and the crushing equipment.
Piled crushed glass before whole material and the crushing equipment. (Larger version)

I have never taken the time to count the quantities of various bottles and jars in the dumpster but it appears most of the glass is from alcohol bottles -- wine and beer. See the larger version of the photo below for a sampling of items.

In my opinion, recycling glass by crushing a small percentage of bottles and jars and producing new containers to be crushed at some future time is a losing proposition.

Material waiting to be crushed.
Material waiting to be crushed. (Larger version)