Tuesday, December 8, 2009

First half of concrete wall

Now that the digging is done, the next step is the concrete separating wall. We are going to put in a concrete wall, down to bedrock, to keep the bamboo in (or out) to this specific area. To be a bit more attractive, we put a rock edge along the top.

So the first problem is to get the rock. Whittlesey Landscape in Round Rock has some 4x4 rock for 7 cents a pound. I got 520 pounds for $39.40 (27 November 2009). This should be 50 linear feet or more. In the photo below, I just laid them at the base of the fence to get an idea of how much length I have, and what it will look like.

In addition, I will need concrete and mortar mix -- the concrete for the wall and the mortar mix to attach the rocks to the top. The process is fairly simple. I put a black plastic sheet on the "dirt" side, to keep the concrete from mixing with the dirt. I use 1x4's to keep the forms 4 inches away from the dirt, and then put the forms on the outside. For the forms, I just bought a 4x8 sheet of masonite from Home Depot ($12) and cut it down to 3 16-inch tall pieces. I use the plastic bags of bad dirt as sandbags, to hold the form in place. Then I mix up a bag of concrete and shovel it into the space between the plastic on the far side and the form on this side. As I shovel the concrete in, I can pull out the 1x4's -- they are just there to keep the form from collapsing next to the black plastic.

It's a dirty messy job. Part of this is because the weather was sort of wet, but also just the water to clean the bedrock, and to mix the concrete.

Once the concrete is firm, the forms can be removed (and re-used for the next section). The black plastic can be trimmed off (but you can't get it out from behind the wall -- that's intentional; it should help seal the wall from anything coming thru it). Mix up the mortar mix and use it to put on the top edge of rock.

In the photo above, I don't have all the rocks attached yet, but the part that is done looks good. I have to finish all the way around to join up with the first separating wall, and close the wall around the bamboo grove.

But there will be a delay -- I seem to have acquired "tennis elbow", and the doctor says to lay off this work until I get better. I would still hope to be able to finish by the end of the year, but there is no rush. And with the wet winter weather, it's difficult to work. And cedar allergy season is about to start.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Final digging in the Bamboo Grove

It's still pretty wet out there, but seems to have dried up enough to work. I think that the French drain is actually working, and over the past week or more, the water has worked its way into the French drain, down the pipe to the retention pond and then out the drainage holes into the trench from digging and down the
yard to the corner.

But despite that, and the dirt being wet, I dug out the last part.

This gets me all the way from the drainage pond to the fence corner and then back to the retaining wall that should seal the bamboo grove off from the yard.

The next step will be to pour a concrete wall under the fence and put rock on the top to match the retaining wall. This will prevent the bamboo from escaping under the fence, and confine it completely to this one area of the back yard.

I've started collecting together the rocks to go on top of the cement wall. I need to get some "forms" to outline the wall. Previously, I just used some 2 foot by 8 foot pieces of masonite. It's light weight and smooth on one side, and flexible, so it's easy to work with. And I need concrete mix. I'll need to figure out how much.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

More Radiant Barrier

The back yard is still too wet to dig, so taking the opportunity to finish the attic today. The first step was to finish putting the radiant barrier over the finished part of the attic over the garage.

Next we used the last roll of the radiant barrier material to run down the area over the living room. The living room has a vaulted ceiling, so the framing of it is a bit more complex than for the rest of the attic.

When we put the radiant barrier over the living room, we had to remove the light that we had hanging there. So we installed a fixed fluorescent light fixture on the wall between the carpeted cat walk (on the right in the photo below) and the area over the living room.

And finally, we put a shelf in the area over the utility room (the hot water heater and the vent over the stove top) to put the telephone equipment (wiring, plugs, tools, outlets). That gets the box up off the floor and out of the way.

I think this finishes almost everything in the attic. I guess I need to go back over the Energy Audit and see if anything else comes up.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Radiant Barrier for the Attic

I'm off for the Thanksgiving holiday. It's much too wet outside to dig -- standing water in the trench I've been working on, so it was up in the attic to try to finish the area over the garage.

The Energy Audit had identified the area over the garage as having no insulation and no radiant barrier. I last worked on this September 20, and put down a layer of 6 inches of fiber glass insulation between the floor joists. This time I installed radiant barrier on the inside of the roof, and then put R-30 fiber glass rolls down on top of the previous insulation, running the new rolls perpendicular to the old insulation.

I put the radiant barrier up first and then filled in with the insulation. That should finish off the unfinished part of the attic, over the garage. I am left with the finished part over the garage, which needs a radiant barrier, and some other random places which also need radiant barrier. I needed to get more over the material. The radiant barrier comes in rolls of only 4 feet by 25 feet, so I needed another 4 rolls for these areas. These were about $184 at Home Depot.

I'll need a step ladder or something to install it over the finished floor part of the attic.

That should be tomorrow's work.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Into the final stretch

October and November 2009

It's been dry now a couple of weekends and I've been able to get out there and dig. I've turned the corner of the fence and started digging along the back stretch. The bedrock is somewhat less smooth here. Part of it is the utility trench. When the development was put in, all the utilities -- electrical, telephone, and cable -- were put underground. Apparently code says they should be 16 to 18 inches below ground level. Of course, as we've seen, bedrock is only 4 to 8 inches below ground level.

So they brought in a rock saw and cut a trench into the rock and put the cables in that. The chewed up rock was just dumped along side the trench and then dirt put over the whole bunch. I take off the dirt, then I'm putting the rock debris into compost and mulch plastic bags. In the short term I will use them like sandbags to hold the cement forms when I pour the cement wall, and then I'll haul them off.

I actually dug deep enough to find the cables near the corner. In the actual corner the rock formation is very different. It goes very deep in dirt. I wasn't able to find the underlying rock. But I did uncover the cables. They are in a big (probably 4 inch diameter) grey PVC pipe. Which is good, since it probably would not be good for me to break into a high voltage power line.

Having gone as deep as I figured I have any reason going, I continued on along the fence. Pretty standard digging, except for a strange notch in the bedrock. It's too rectangular to be natural, so I guess someone did this when the trench was put in.

All this digging has produces a big pile of dirt, but I think I'm just a couple (digging) days from finishing the excavation, so I should have enough room. Once I get the wall poured, I can put it all back (and more!).

I used some of the ground up limestone from when they cut the trench to cover over the electrical pipe, and fill in the corner to a level.

So, a bit more digging, then I can start framing for the concrete work. And I need to get rocks to put on top of the concrete, to make it a bit more "natural", so it will match the other exposed rock walls. I may be able to finish before Christmas. Depending on the weather, of course.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Turning a corner in the Bamboo Grove

September 2009

A couple of weekends of work, digging in the Bamboo Grove. We widened the trench that we dug back along the fence so that we got the most of our work. As long as we were digging in this area, it seems we should get as much dug up and the rocks removed as possible.

The technique we are using is fairly simple. We use the pick-axe -- actually a combination grubbing hoe and axe -- to break up the dirt. We pick out any rocks in the dirt and put them in the plastic tray. They get transferred them to the wheelbarrow and taken around to the driveway to get rid of.

In addition to rocks, we find roots. Bamboo roots. These are cleaned -- knocked against something hard to shake off any dirt -- and then thrown in the plastic garbage can. This is taken around front on Wednesday mornings to be collected by the City as "organic debris" along with any lawn clippings, or leafs. The City grinds it up into compost.

Once everything is separated from the dirt, it is then hoed back out of the way. Eventually there is reasonable pile of dirt, and we shovel it back onto the pile of dirt that we have dug up. This process -- pick axed, hoe, and then shovel -- means that all the dirt is pretty well mixed up, and we avoid having significantly different types of dirt.

In addition to the native dirt that I'm digging up, I buy bags of composted dirt -- the cheapest kind of stuff I can find. This has been stuff called "Organic Humus" at Lowe's. It's about $1.10 per 40 pounds. Mostly it looks like dirt with a high concentration of shredded trees. Each bag is 40 pounds, so I can get about 7 bags in my car, or I take the Forester and can get up to 20 bags.

The only down side of this is the plastic bags that it comes in. We have gotten better, bulk stuff from the Organic Gardener, but it's much more expensive, and further away, so it costs more in both time and money.
I've actually found that the plastic bags become a convenient way to package up and then discard rocks and debris. For example, the ground up limestone that came from the trench they put the electrical, cable, and telephone wires in, seems really useless. It's too fine to be rock, but has no real nutritional value for the trees and shrubs. All it would do would be make the soil really alkaline, and it already is pretty alkaline. So I put it in the bags that the humus comes in and then put it in the trash pick up on Wednesday.

Right now, I'm accumulating these bags. I plan to use them as weights (sort of like sand bags) to hold the forms for the cement wall that I will pour along and under the fence.

So having dug along one fence to the corner, the next job will be to continue digging around the corner and along the other fence. I went out yesterday and used the electric chainsaw to cut down all the bamboo in a swath along the fence some 3 to 4 feet wide. This defines the area that is to be dug next. In the picture below, there is water in the trench that I have been digging. This weekend it has been raining a far amount.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Insulating the Attic over the garage

19 Sept 2009

Too wet outside to dig, so it's back to working in the attic.

I had an Energy Audit on 31 August. The audit was by Green Footprint Solutions who came in and tested the A/C ducts (less than 10% leakage), and a blower door test, as well as checking out the insulation of the windows, doors and in the attic. The audit pointed out that I had not quite finished the insulation and radiant barrier installation in the attic.

The missing insulation was mainly over the garage. Since the attic is uninsulated and the garage is uninsulated, it wasn't clear to me that it mattered, but the suggestion was that it would help cool the garage.
The supports for the garage ceiling are split into two halfs, left and right, by a beam running the length of the garage. I added 6 inches (R-19) in both the sections. This was John Mansville insulation from Lowe's. It slid inbetween the ceiling joists just about perfectly. I needed 3 packs, about 270 square feet.

This area is behind the knee walls that I installed previously. I was careful not to push it too far out, so that there is still ventilation from the soffits up to the ridge vent. There had been some plywood flooring tacked down that I had to remove to get it fully insulated.

If you look at the end of this section, where it abuts the attic area over the utility room, you can see that this is much less insulation than the rest of the house has.

So the next project will be putting up radiant barrier on the roof joists and then adding more insulation to really seal this area off. I have the materials. I had to buy more radiant barrier -- they don't make the kind that I used on the rest of the attic -- and I have R-30 batts to roll out over the new R-19 in this area. This
will bring this area up to R-49, better than the R-38 that is "standard" for this area. Most of the rest of the attic has another R-30 over this, which I guess would make it about R-80.

The R-19 (3 packs 87.18 square feet each) was $61.48 from Lowe's on 6 Sept 2009; the R-30 (9 rolls of 15 inch x 25 feet each) was $115.74 on 17 Sept 2009. The radiant barrier (2 rolls of 4 feet by 50 feet) was $95.99 on 19 Sept 2009.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Energy Audit

The City of Austin is requiring an Energy Audit for the sale of any home. While we don't expect to sell any time soon, it raises the question of what an Energy Audit would tell us. Have I done all that I can, or is there more that I can do?

We checked with the City for the list of officially sanctioned auditors, and chose Green Footprint Solutions. They came out on 31 August 2009, and checked everything over. The cost was $499. Thomas Pardue was the inspector.

The inspector walked around the house and checked on the contents of the house generally. Specific attention was given to:
  • Appliances -- check the hot water heaters, the clothes washer and dryer, the dishwasher, the A/C system (both indoors (the fan, furnace and evaporator coils) and outdoors (the compressor).

  • Lighting -- check that all lighting was CFL (Compact Fluorescent Lights).

  • Windows -- check double pane windows.
All these checked out fine. There was a suggestion that some of our appliances, such as the A/C system, which is 6 years old, could be replaced with a more efficient system, but this is always the case.

Next, he checked the insulation in the attic. All he was interested in was if the insulation was adequate, which in our area means R-38 (12 inches of fiber glass insulation). So those places where I have more than that didn't matter.

A pressure test of the A/C duct system went well. He taped over all the duct vents in all the rooms. Then he used a fan to blow into the ducts to see how much air was leaking out into the attic. As expected (since we had the ducts sealed in 19xx), there was no problem with the A/C ducts.

The inspector did notice that the area of the attic over the garage had no insulation, and no radiant barrier. We need to finish this.

The real value of the inspection was a series of Thermographic images. These look at the temperature of the house in the infra-red range, rather than the visible light range. Actually, the camera they had did both visible light and infra-red at the same time, so it is easier to see what the infra-red image shows. Since this was August, it was pretty warm outside, so any problem spots show up as high temperatures. For example, an image of the sky light in the guest bathroom (which is hard to get to directly) showed a temperature of 108.4 degrees on the wooden frame, but this is an extreme case. The main issues are with the metal window frames and the thresholds under the exterior doors.

We might also consider replacing the interior wood doors to the attic and to the hallway utilities. If we could get these to be foam-filled, it might insulate those areas better.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Continuing in the Bamboo Grove

30 August 2009

Continued digging along the fence, and made it to the back corner.

Things were very predictable until I got to the corner. The rock base is fairly level and smooth, and only 6 to 10 inches under the ground level. There was one area where the material just about the rock was pulverized limestone; I've separated that and will get rid of it.

But the corner itself drops way down -- a foot or more. I haven't hit rock yet. I know that the utility people trenched in this area to put the underground power, telephone, and cable wires. I believe the pulverized limestone was the debris from that trenching down into the bedrock. The drop off into the corner is very sharp; in my mind it is artificially sharp, and I believe this is then the result of the trenching tool -- a big rock saw (more like a rock chainsaw).

Which raises the possibility that I am digging in the area with the buried utility lines. Just to be sure, I called the number for marking the utilities -- 1-800-DIG-TESS -- and will wait until they come out to mark where things are supposed to be. They said that would be by Wednesday, so I'll just continue digging next weekend.

Also, I'm going to cut down more of the bamboo, so I can continue with the digging, getting the rocks out of the soil, and improving the soil. I've posted on Craig's List to see if anyone wants the bamboo stalks that I have.

I got a response from Craig's List (a couple, in fact), and someone came by today (Monday 31 Aug) to pick up the bamboo. I used the neighbor's electric chain saw to cut them off just at ground level. It makes a big difference! It is much sunnier now in this area. This gives me the room needed to dig up a larger part. There is still a healthy patch of bamboo over in the other corner. I'm sure it will spread, in time, to reclaim the whole area, but, for now, I can dig up the ground and try to make it a much more fertile area -- more compost, fewer rocks, more uniformly mixed.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Starting along the Fence

2 August 2009

Worked for a couple of hours this weekend, both Saturday and Sunday. Despite the August heat, this work was in the afternoon both days. I'm starting to work back along the fence. If I keep up this pace, I think I could be back to the corner by the end of the month.

The digging is fairly unremarkable. I dig out a section and pull the dirt back into the area where I've already dug it out. As I do that, I separate out the roots and the rocks from the dirt. The rocks go in the wheelbarrow and are taken around to the driveway to, eventually, be gotten rid of. The roots go in a plastic trash can to be recycled by the City (into mulch). The dirt gets shoveled up on the pile to the left in the photo, filling in the area that I've dug out already. As the volume of material that was there is decreased by the rocks and roots, I get more space to work in.

The above photo shows the type of soil I'm digging in. There is a top layer of maybe four inches of brown dirt. This is good soil that we have brought in over the past 20 years. Then there is maybe 2 inches of "sandy loam" as it was called -- a lighter colored dirt that the builder brought in. Underneath that is 3 to 4 inches of native soil -- a combination of dark dirt and light colored limestone rocks. So the top layer has roots that need to be removed; the bottom layer has rocks that need to be removed. In the process, all the dirt that is left is mixed up, along with leaves and such, and then thrown on the pile. It should settle down as the organic material (leaves) decompose, and the soil compacts.

At the same time, on Sunday morning, I took advantage of the lower temperatures and added more insulation to the attic, over the kitchen area -- probably mostly over the utility room. I rolled out another 9 inches of fiberglass roll insulation. Should be R30. This was four packs of 15 inch wide, 25 foot long rolls of insulation. This should take it to about R90 total. The blue Styrofoam are left-over ventilation pieces and the shiny foil is an old water heater blanket. These are left over from other projects, and shouldn't hurt, might help.

My plan at this point is to get a home energy audit, since there is almost no place left to over-insulate in the attic and I'm not sure what else I can do.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Garage door repair

One of the springs on the garage door opener broke on Friday morning. Linda opened the garage door and it flew off. At the end of the spring, the wire is bent 90 degrees to form a hook, and that broke off. You can see by examining the broken spot that the wire is cast iron or steel. This is at least the second time this has happened, on these doors, since these are replacement springs. The other door still has the original springs.

So I went to Home Depot to get a replacement spring. They only sell them in sets of two, so I got two. The box suggests that both springs be replaced at the same time. The problem is that there are 7 different "sizes" of springs, and how do I choose the "right" ones for my door? The springs seem to be categorized by the weight of the door. I have two doors -- roughly what, 8 feet by 8 feet? That's not an option, but it's close. The largest size is for 16 ft by 7 ft doors -- that would be like most of the neighbors that have one large door for two cars. But I have two doors, one for each car slot. The size below 16x7 is for 8x7 and 9x7. So I must have doors that are eight 8x7 or 9x7.

Then for the heaviest 8x7 or 9x7 doors, the package lists a 130 lb spring. But since I have wood doors, they may be somewhat heavier, and I expect it is better to error on bigger springs, rather than under-sized ones, so I bought the 140 lb springs.

It took about an hour to remove the old springs and put on the new ones. The new ones come with cables that can be threaded thru the springs so that, if (when) they break, the pieces are "contained", and don't fly all over the garage. I probably had those for the previous set of springs (the ones that just broke), but it seems that I decided to put the cables on the other door, the one with the original springs, from when the house was built. I probably figured that they were more likely to break than the new ones, and it would be better to then be protected with them. Now I have cables on both.

The new springs look to be better designed too. Instead of just the last half of the spring turned 90 degrees for a hook, the new ones tilt out the last two loops of the spring. This should mean less stress on a given point of attachment, and it means there is a complete loop (two!) to thread the cable thru. If it does break, even the little loop should stay put. I still haven't found the piece of the old hook that broke off. It's probably embedded in some wall or ceiling spot in the garage.

Digging more dirt.

In addition, on Saturday, 25 July, I mortared another line of stone onto the rock wall around "the Jungle" where it meets the Bamboo Grove, and then today (Sunday), Lauren and I moved dirt from the big dirt pile (that has accumulated from my various excavations) and put it into the newly dug out area by the Bamboo Grove. I mixed a lot of leaves in with it, to try to increase the organic content and make it better soil. We worked for about 3 hours, digging dirt, moving it, and spreading it out.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Summer in the Bamboo Grove

June and July 2009

So far this summer has been mainly digging in the Bamboo Grove. The wall dividing the Jungle from the Bamboo Grove is in place. The rocks are on top. I need another layer of rock, to make the dividing wall a bit taller, and I have those, although I have not yet put them securely in place. So I've been digging out the Bamboo Grove, at least in those places where the bamboo is not growing right now. I have a ground level wall/divider between the Bamboo Grove and the other area behind the Jungle. I started at that end, digging up the Bamboo Grove.

I can dig down to bedrock. Bedrock is only 6 to 9 inches deep. In doing so, I dig up a bunch of bamboo roots and a bunch of loose rock. The loose rock gets put in the wheelbarrow and taken out to the driveway. When I have "enough" rock on the drive, I have to get rid of it.

The dirt gets piled up in the back. I basically do a trench and fill approach to digging. I dig down to bedrock and then move the edge forward, digging the dirt out and piling it behind me. As I move forward, the pile behind me gets bigger and bigger.

I'm trying to dig out all of the rocks and roots and get to just soil. I mix a bunch of leaves from last Fall into the dirt that there is, and sometimes some compost. I get the cheapest compost in 40 pound bags from Lowe's -- about $1.10 -- and mix that in. In addition, we have our own compost pile, but it takes a long time and doesn't produce very much.

This particular area, the area on the left in the photo above, was a very thin layer of dirt on top of a big mass of mostly crushed limestone. I think when they dug the trench for the electrical, phone, and cable lines, thye cut right thru the limestone bedrock, to get the lines at least 18 inches deep. Most of the rock that was cut out of the trench was just dumped on the ground here. Later the builder put an inch or two of dirt over it, so he could place sod and get things to grow, at least until the house was sold. Normally there is not a lot of debris, and I can just mix it in with the dirt, but in this case, it seemed really excessive. So I shoveled out the
solid limestone "soil" and put it in the plastic bags that the cheap compost comes in. I'll dispose of it, and fill this area back in with real dirt.

I got most of the central area to the left dug out and then continued up on the right. Once around a clump of bamboo, I'm almost to the fence. The objective is to clear out all the dirt up to the fence, over to the rock pond, and make it better dirt -- mostly rock free.

The excavated dirt, mixed with leaves and compost is filling in the area where I started to dig. It will compact over time, so the area needs to be "over-filled" to start with. And I may need to bring in even more, it if subsides too much. And, as you can see, there is still a lot of empty area. That should represent all the rock that has been taken out. I have a pile of dirt in another area that I will bring over to fill in, once I have the rest of the area dug up.

I am thinking now that I should continue to wall in the bamboo on all sides with the concrete wall down to bedrock. The easiest way to do that now would be to finish this section of digging and then trench all the way around the bamboo, next to the fence, down to bedrock and fill it in with the same sort of 4 inch wide concrete wall, topped with a white rock level with the bottom of the fence.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

More work on the Bamboo Grove

May, 2009

It's been raining the last two weekends, so it was hard to get much done outside. But this weekend was nice, so it was back to work!

I've got the cement wall poured from bedrock. The cement wall will all be underground. It took about 15 to 20 bags of Ready-Mix concrete, to pour the wall around the back half of the "Jungle". I dug out about 2 feet around it, down to bedrock. I went straight down from the previous stone edging, which allowed me to use the dirt on the Jungle side as one half of the forms. I used simple (cheap) masonite for the other side, with a 1x4 between them to keep the two sides apart. As I shoveled concrete in, I pulled out the 1x4. Let sit overnight, remove the masonite and it's done.

Now the problem is to put the stones back on top of it. I hired a day laborer with some masonry experience to do that, but, all in all, I think I could do as well. And it seems that the one row that he put on is too low, so I'll put another row on top of them. We were low on rocks, so I went to Custom Stone and got another 30 or so (Blanco chop). These were from Austin Custom Stone 400 pounds for $23.82. I've got those placed, but figure I'll put most of the dirt back in before doing the rest of the masonry.

So this weekend it was digging again. Try to go down to bedrock and get the smaller rocks out, and mix the dirt up with compose and leaves, so that it will be more organic and less rocky wasteland. Remember bedrock is only 9 to 12 inches down, so it's not a lot of digging. But it's rocky and rooty.

Another problem that I had forgotten about was the old sprinkler system. There are still PVC pipes for the old sprinkler system. I've taken out most of it, and will work on getting more, but there is at least one piece that goes from the current working area over to the far corner of the fence. I guess it will have to stay until this whole area is dug up.

There is a trench along the back fence that has telephone, cable and electrical lines in it. But that seems to be quite a ways down. They cut thru the limestone bedrock to trench it down at least 18 inches. I dug (carefully) into the trench at least 10 inches and found nothing. So this area should be clear of anything except roots and rocks and the occasional PVC sprinkler pipe.

I got two wheelbarrows full of rocks today, and a pile of dirt. My approach is effectively to dig a trench and then move it forward, putting the dirt behind me, pulling out the rocks (which go in the wheelbarrow) and the roots (which go into a plastic trash can to be taken to the curb for lawn waste recycling once a week).

At the moment I am digging in the Bamboo Grove itself, mainly because I have the opportunity to clean the dirt that is not yet overrun by the bamboo. This will probably take another 2 to 3 weeks of digging. Then I can do the same on the section that is next to it. This area is separated by the cement wall and stones that are to be at ground level (not an edging), to just contain the bamboo. Since this area is behind the Jungle, it's not visible from the house, so we will move the compost pile to this area when it is done.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Replacing a Solar Panel

Our solar system was in the direct path of the hail storm of March 25. Almost every house in our neighborhood is having its roof replaced. The hail was literally golf ball size. We took a direct hit on one of our 24 solar panels. Davis Elementary School, just blocks away, has a much larger solar system, probably twice the size we have. Two of their panels were visibly damaged by the hail.

Immediately after the hail storm, I tried to contact the company that installed my system to have the panel replaced. Our system was installed in August, 2006, but the company is no longer here in Austin. Of the eight companies that I worked with in getting our solar system, only two are still on the City's directory of participating companies now. Once I was able to find another company to work with, we found that the panels I have are no longer being made. The panels are different sizes with different specifications; it's not clear if how they can be mixed. We eventually found a panel in a warehouse somewhere that had been forgotten about and had it shipped here.

When they brought the panel out to install, they found that it was wired differently, but were able to use parts from the broken panel to re-wire the new panel and install it.

We have 24 panels, arranged in two rows of 12. Each row is electrically separate, so losing one panel meant that we were generating only 50% of our normal power. Think of it like Christmas lights -- when one goes out, everything in that strand goes out. But replacing the broken panel did not improve our power output. Testing the broken panel, once it was removed, showed that it was working fine. The glass cover was broken, but not the silicon -- it had continued to generate power. (Of course, it was not thought to be working when it was removed, so it's really not functional now).

But why then were we only generating half power? Since January, the City has been printing how much we generate each month on our utility bill. Those numbers have been consistent, but it turns out, they have been at 50% for months. How long I can't tell. When the system was installed, I carefully monitored it for several months, recording the power generated every day. But that proved really boring ... another day, another 14 kilowatts. The system requires no maintenance. I don't need to add gas or check the oil or change the filter or mow it or water it or anything. Or so I thought.

After a couple hours of investigation, we determined that something -- most likely a squirrel -- had chewed thru one of the power cables. That short circuit was what was causing the problem, not the hail-damaged solar panel. We expect to have that repaired tomorrow.

So I have learned several things from this episode:

1. Solar power is still in its infancy; companies will come and go with great frequency. Any customer needs to be prepared to switch companies as necessary, or take over maintenance and repair themselves.

2. While solar systems are very hardy, they are not indestructible and they will not last forever. A solar system needs to be designed to be maintained, monitored, and repaired.

3. The parts that are available now will not be available in the future (not unlike just about anything else in life). So if panels need to be replaced, they will not be compatible in size or appearance (at the least). On a long-lived system (these are
supposed to last 20 years or more), expect it to become non-homogeneous -- not all parts will be the same.

4. Even a system that requires no maintenance will need regular monitoring.

5. Squirrels are evil.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Hail storm

March 2009

There was a major hail storm on 25 March. Lauren collected some of the hail stones from around the house. They were quite literally the size of golf balls. My visual inspection didn't show major damage. A lot of small tree limbs and leaves. But both cars were in the garage (mine was still at work); no skylights broken.

There was damage to our photo-voltaic solar system -- one panel (out of 24) has a large white area of damage.

I went up on the roof and checked for obvious damage and didn't see any. But I did notice that the roof vents were being chewed on by squirrels, so I needed a roofer to come repair/replace those. So I called my roofer, Drury Roofing, to take a look.

I also tried to find the company that installed the solar system, but they no longer seem to be in Austin. I tracked down the person who used to be in charge of their Austin work, Kenny Grigar, who is now with another Austin company (Green City Austin), and was able to talk to him. He had me e-mail pictures of the damage. kgrigar@greencityaustin.com

Kenny said that someone would be out to check on the system on Saturday 4 April, from 10 to 12, but no one showed up. I've been leaving phone messages daily but am not getting any response.

The roofer finally came out tho, on Monday 6 April. It will run $200 to $600 to repair the roof vents. But he also showed me significant damage to the roof. It's not visible if you don't know what to look for, but once he showed me, I could both
understand the damage and find it myself. He said that it will show up more as time goes by.

So I called my insurance agent, State Farm, and they said they would submit a claim and have an adjuster come out, probably not for a week (given the heavy load).

Weds, April 8, I got a call from Mike at State Farm. He had an opening from 10 to 12 on Tuesday 14th. I called back and left a message that included my cell phone number and work number with the mention that I am only 10 minutes away from home and would like to be there.

PostScript: The adjuster from State Farm walked around on the roof and pointed out the same sorts of problems that the roofer had pointed out. He declared the roof "totaled". We will need to replace the roof, the gutters, everything. The damage may not be obvious now, but in a couple of months or years it will show up. He wrote us a check for the damage on the spot. We have two years to replace the roof. Given that it still looks in good shape, and there may be more hail, or other problems, I figure we will wait until there is less roofing frenzy in the neighborhood.

Another point. To reduce the cost of our home insurance, we talked last year (just about a year ago, yup!) and raised the deductible to 2% of the value of the house. We pay the first 2%; State Farm covers anything over that (to the amount that the house is insured for). Replacement cost for the house is apparently $550,000, so we will pay the first $11,000 to replace the roof. (I also switched to a high-deductible medical insurance plan, since I for years have had no major medical issues. Sure enough; skin cancer, diagnosed at about the same time as the hail storm. Probably from working outside on the house and yard in the Texas sun.)

Monday, March 9, 2009

Spring arrives for 2009

March 7, 2009

It's a little early for Spring -- the average date for the latest freeze is near the end of March -- but the plants do not seem to know. The trees are blooming, the daffodils are coming up, and the irises are starting to look perky. So it seems like it would be a good time to do something about the lawn. The lawn, especially in the front is looking worn out. Linda thinks it gets too much shade. But I figure it can not hurt to make sure it has good dirt. So I got 8 cubic yards of Farmstyle compost from The Natural Gardener for $430.40.

They delivered about 9:00 AM on Saturday and I spent the rest of the day putting it in my wheelbarrow and spreading it around on the lawn. Did not have enough for the full yard -- just the front and one side. Probably needed another 4 cubic yards. And another day to spread it. We went back and got another 10 gallons to put in the herb and flower beds.

March 9, 2009

A plumber came to fix the sprinkler system. About two weeks ago, when I went out to get the newspaper, I notice that the driveway was wet -- water was seeping up from near the water meter and running down the driveway. I dug that area up and it was coming from the sprinkler system valve. All the water for the sprinkler system comes off the main line and goes thru this large valve that only allows water to go one way. It has two cut-off valves, one on each end. I turned the water off and then went looking for a plumber.

The plumber was Jonathon Griesheimer, doing business as Accent Sprinklers. He did a good job of taking out the old pieces and putting on new pieces. It took less than an hour, since I had already dug up the spot and identified the problem. He was easy to work with and did not seem to mind me watching everything he was doing.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Bamboo Grove

There is a bed area in the backyard that James Conner designed and implemented. His original design was for a two-level planting around the edges, with Nandina and another plant around the existing small oak trees and a couple of mountain juniper trees. He did this in December to January 1990, and over time, it became quite overground. Linda calls it "the jungle".

There is a small triangular area behind the jungle, bounded by the jungle in the front and the fence in the back, that then becomes pretty unused. You really can't see it from most of the rest of the yard, or from the house. There was one old mountain juniper tree in that area, but nothing much else.

So I planted bamboo in that area.

Initially, the bamboo was planted in August 1997. One plant marked as Phyllostachys Aurea (golden bamboo). There are a number of descriptions of it on the web. It likes full sun, and is hardy to 0 degrees F. It seems very happy in this corner of the yard. It took years before it started to spread, but has since become "aggressive".

To contain it, I have been digging around it. The French drain terminus forms one wall to stop it from advancing into the yard. I cut down the mountain juniper and in late summer 2008, dug up the stump and the area around it. This produced several barrels of bamboo roots which I separated from the dirt and recycled. The ground in this area is only 6 to 12 inches deep before we hit bedrock. So it can't go very deep. I poured a cement wall down to bedrock, with white limestone rocks on top at ground level to keep it from expanding to the yard in the other direction.

So the bamboo has only three directions to go -- under the "jungle" bed, or under the fence. Current plans are to extend the cement wall under the rocks that encircle the jungle bed. At this point, I have dug a trench down to bedrock along the jungle bed edge. The trench is about 18 inches wide, and should allow me to work on replacing the edge of the jungle bed.

22 March 2009

Continued work. I used the jackhammer to break up the stone wall around the "jungle" in the back, next to the bamboo grove. I used the chisel point to go down between the stones, in the mortar, so that I can re-use the stones. Then I switched to the big flat blade to go vertically down thru the rock and dirt to bedrock. This gives me a very clean vertical surface from bedrock up to the ground floor of the "jungle". My intention is then to put a concrete wall in to hold the vertical surface while also providing a clean strong separation between the "jungle" and the bamboo grove. I have a little more clean-up to do -- separating out the rock from the dirt and getting a good clean bedrock surface -- before I can pour the concrete.