Sunday, June 30, 2013

Yes I Can

With the aid of a library book and some spare time on a Saturday afternoon, I just canned my first ever batch of anything!

I headed out to the blueberry farm early Saturday morning, and was able to pick eight pounds of blueberries in about an hour.  From the there I went the farmers market and bought cucumbers and onions for pickling.

As this was my first attempt at canning, I learned a lot about the setup and having everything in the right order during the first batch.  After that, it seemed to go quite smoothly.  It just takes a little time.

Of course I will withhold total excitement until after I taste this stuff in the coming weeks and months.  But the process is logical.  Very much like a chemistry project where everything must be done in the proper order and at the precise moment (although with canning I think the timing is a little more forgiving).  The tally for the weekend: 10 pint jars of blueberry pie filling and 4 pint jars of pickles.    

Friday, June 28, 2013

Don't Worry, Bee Happy

The volunteer sunflowers bloomed this week, and when I got home from work this afternoon the bees were busily going about their own work.

Although we have blueberry bushes, they are still small and only good for collecting a handful at a time.  I planned on going to a blueberry farm this evening because they are only open for limited times, and I have a lot to do this weekend.  The farm is only about fifteen miles away, but at about two miles from home a large storm blew in.

And then it, I turned around  Of course, it wasn't raining at home.  Weather is fascinating in how localized it can be.  I might be able to pick blueberries tomorrow, but the farm is only open until noon, and I have other engagements prior to that.  

Well, instead of blueberries I ended up picking purple beans for dinner.  I just love how the purple stands out from the green foliage.

The seeds we planted last week are all coming up nicely.  The two rows on the left are more purple beans.

The beans are vibrant green on the inside.  Once cooked, the entire bean is green.

I have found immense satisfaction in growing and preparing my own food.  Nothing fancy, but with the exception of the store-bought mustard and ground pepper, tonight's dinner was all fresh; bread was baked on Wednesday (although the ingredients - except the honey - were store-bought), beans and basil were picked today, and those are some of today's eggs.  Bee Happy.  Cheers!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Keeping Hot Water Hot

My wife and sons are off visiting with Grandma and Grandpa this week.  The house is definitely less chaotic without two energetic boys running around and I miss that.  But their absence does allow me to do some projects that might otherwise be impractical.  

We will soon need to replace our water heater.  Ours is showing signs of age and better to address before we end up with a leaky tank and a flooded basement.  Part of my research into replacement options is to determine approximately how much energy our current water tank loses to its surrounding environment – the basement.  The best way to do this is to shut the water heater off (we have an electric heater) after measuring the hot water temperature at a faucet.  

Last night I recorded a water temperature of 120 deg. F at the kitchen faucet.  Once I recorded the temperature I was conscious of not using any more hot water, and after waiting an hour or so just to ensure the replaced water in the tank was heated, I turned off the heater at the breaker.  This evening, the hot water temperature was 98 deg. F:

Change in T = 22 deg. F (12 deg. C)
Tank volume = 50 gallons (0.19 m^3)
Water density = 1,000 kg/m^3
Heat capacity of water = 4.18 kJ/kg_deg. C
Energy loss = (22 deg. C) x (0.19 m^3) x (1,000 kg/m^3) x (4.18 kJ/kg_deg. C) = 9,760 kJ

There are 3,600 kJ in a kWh, and thus over the twenty-one hour observation, my water heater lost 2.7 kWh of heat to the basement.  That is the same as having a 130 watt item plugged in and running all day, every day.  130 watts is not a huge draw, but that accounts for about 15% of our daily electric usage.  And now for the big picture - multiply roughly 3kWhs by almost every house in the nation and that is probably close to the amount of energy we use just to keep our household hot water hot.  

So now the dilemma: purchase another water heater tank and pay close attention to the insulation, or purchase a tankless heater, which poses additional challenges such as proper utility connections.  There are also a lot of good DIY ideas here.  Stay tuned...    



Sunday, June 23, 2013

The (almost) Summer Solstice Sun Angles

Me and the boys tried to measure the sun angles at our home yesterday.  Although the actual solstice was on Friday, I don't think our crude measurements would result in noticeable calculated angle differences from one day (or even week) to the next.

First we made a little compass by magnetizing a needle and allowing it to hang freely in a glass mug.  We did this to orient our shadow board.  Our homemade compass shouldn't be trusted to shoot an azimuth, but it does point in a general northerly direction.

We placed a screw partially into a wooden board in order to trace the screw's shadow throughout the day.  Once we get a protractor we'll be able to determine the sun's horizontal heading over the (almost) summer solstice (and within some margin of error...).

To determine the vertical angle we used a large stick and measured it's shadow.  A large stick, rather than the screw used for the horizontal direction, reduces some of the impact of measurement errors.  As the shadow got shorter in the middle of the day, or measurement errors increased.  According to the Navy's Sun or Moon Altitude/Azimuth Tables, our calculations were pretty close to accepted values in the morning and evening, but midday we were off by a couple of degrees.  For instance, at 1:30 we determined an angle of 75.5 deg. compared to the Table value of 73.1 deg.  Earlier in the morning, and later in the afternoon, our calculations were within a degree of the Table values.

 Even the cat strolled by to offer assistance  

We'll do this again near the equinox, and during the winter solstice.  The internet is a much easier way to find an answer, and it's cool that so much information is so easily accessible, but sometimes you just need to take a few measurements and observe in order to have a greater appreciation.  Of course, my boys are a little young to understand trigonometry, but the day's lesson was observing the sky and shadows.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Happy Summer Solstice

And may your harvest be plentiful!  We picked our first beans of the year.  The "purple beans" are really good.  The boys snapped them, and I cooked them.  Didn't even need any seasoning.

Although our first batch of carrots didn't yield many, we did get some nice ones, including this "yellow carrot."  My boys love carrots.  Last year we had a good harvest of "red dragon" carrots.  And with a name like "red dragon," what kid wouldn't be intrigued.  My older son insisted that I didn't cut the greens off the tops when I'd pack a carrot in his school lunch.  The lunch room helpers got quite a kick out of my son and his carrots.

We also planted more beans, carrots, beets, chard, and flowers.  I've never planted those vegetables in June, so I'll post status updates.

Perhaps it's the long days of summer, or maybe that school is out and the boys are outside almost all day, but they seem to sleep deeper and get up later.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Battle of the Bossche Bol

My wife's family is from Holland.  In 2010, my wife and I were able to spend about a week and a half in Holland, visiting with her relatives and having a wonderful time.  While that was my first vacation trip to Europe, I have been to many European cities along the Mediterranean Sea region while I was in the military.  I absolutely love Europe.  Perhaps it is due to naivety, or maybe due to the enchanting charm of centuries-old buildings, but I always felt more comfortable walking aimlessly around Rome, Constanta, or Barcelona, than I do Baltimore, Philadelphia, or D.C.  Some of Europe's awesomeness that my wife and I discovered during our trip were Bossche Bols; a fantastic chocolate cream puff type dessert from Den Bosch.  Den Bosch is about an hours drive from Amsterdam (well, probably everything in Holland is about an hours drive from Amsterdam).      

Tonight I attempted to replicate the total awesomeness that is the Bossche Bol by following this recipe.  I'll start out by saying that it would take a lot of work to make something with that much butter and chocolate taste bad.  Aesthetics on the other hand, well, okay Den Bosch, clearly I am not your equal.

But I was impressed with how relatively easy this was to make.  And, as I am some 4,000 miles away from the real deal, these are good enough.  Cheers!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Solar Neighborhood

After installation of our solar panels (well, technically we rent them), several neighbors stopped by to talk about them.  This prompted our next door neighbors to further investigate and they eventually decided to move forward with solar. And when I got home from work today, this is how the neighborhood looked:

The neighbor's panel installation will continue tomorrow, and then they'll just have to wait for a new electric meter before switching to solar.

I am very happy with our system thus far.  Since May 9th, when we were able to turn our system on, our panels have "generated" 916 kWh, which is more than 100 kWh than we have used!  The daily output has ranged from 7 kWh (on a day that we got 4" of rain) to 40 kWh.  We haven't received an electric bill since going solar, in fact we haven't received a bill since April.  I like it!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Rain, Rain, Go Away...Unless You Need It

This has been an unusually wet week.  After an inch of rain last Monday, we got four inches of rain last Friday, followed by two more inches this Sunday and Monday.  Yikes!

Either chickens like rain, or maybe its just that they really aren't that smart, but...even though we have two "chicken tents," in addition to their coop, for them to seek shelter from weather and the rare hawk, they stood in the rain all day long...

We were fortunate that, although steady, the rain generally wasn't a down pour, allowing more time for the ground to absorb the water.

While I believe that purchasing locally grown food products is sensible on many levels, I read an article this week (similar to this one) that opened my eyes to a challenge I had not thought about: the water loss due to exporting food products.  The basic gist is that the water contained in food products is lost from a region if exporting those food products, which poses real problems for drought-prone areas or even areas that depend on large volumes of lake or river water for crops and animals.  Just another reason to visit a local farm stand.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Growing Volunteers

Last month I noticed volunteer sunflowers growing amongst the pansies.  Since then they've grown a foot or two.  I love sunflowers and am curious to see how tall they will grow and if they will have nice true flowers.

Today I was pulling the last of the deadened tulips and noticed a tomato plant.  Unlike the sunflowers, I know how a tomato plant ended up in the tulip bed.  Last year while preparing the bed, I filled it with a lot of yard and garden waste, including two grape tomato plants.

We're getting close to some good sugar peas!

Of all our flowers, I am very happy with these calendula plants.  I started these from seed inside, planting in mid-February.

Potatoes don't often conjure up images of flowers, but I like the potato plant flower

...and because watering at my house is often a contact sport, one should always wear a helmet.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Solar Cooking

My wife gave me a solar oven for Christmas a few years ago.  While there are plenty of build-your-own solar oven instructions on the web, let's just say that was one of the many projects I just hadn't got around to yet...Anyway, I like the organization she purchased the oven from.  And it works great, too.  

When sunny, the solar oven usually sustains temperatures of 250-300 deg. F., even in winter

We use it fairly often, mostly on weekends.  Today was a typical Saturday that was full of activities.  We went to the farmers market, then my wife took my younger son to the library's summer reading program kick-off, and I took my older son to the park.  Earlier in the morning, I put a pot of beans in the solar oven and let them cook while we were out.  Until I discovered the wonders of dried beans I usually would just dice some potatoes and slice some carrots for solar cooking.  

My sons are impressed with the steam, especially in the winter

When we all got home for lunch, there was a nice pot of cooked beans to supplement our lunch.  The rest of the beans will last most of the week and be part of several meals.  The solar oven, like a crock pot, is nice for cooking while you are away from home during the day.  Unlike a crock pot, the solar oven needs nice sunny weather.  However, kids won't notice a crock pot, but with a solar oven they get to experience the sun's energy (especially on a cold day) which prompts a lot of good questions.