Sunday, September 20, 2009

Almost Show Time?






During the past month construction speeded up to the point that the architect triumphantly announced, a couple of weeks ago, that the house would be finished...a month ahead of schedule? That would be a landmark event in home construction probably anywhere in the world and certainly in Mexico. If the house in fact is finished by November 15, that would be exactly nine months from groundbreaking to moving in.

As if to underline his point, the architect had the tar paper storage shack, which doubled as a sleeping hut for the night watchman, dismantled. Leftover bags of concrete, wood construction forms, surplus roofing tiles were hauled away overnight. Guys with sledgehammers busted up the island of concrete where they've been mixing cement for months. A backhoe came by and scooped up the debris and made a first pass at leveling off the scarred land around the house.

I'm impressed but not convinced.

Many key components of the house have arrived, and some have even been installed. But these pieces still have to be hooked up to one another to make the house functional. The solar panels are up on the roof, presumably sending electricity to the inverters in the garage, except that the two 900-lb. lead acid batteries have not arrived from Monterrey, Mexico. And even if they arrived tomorrow it'd still be a no-go because the electric panel remains a spaghetti bowl of wires.

Plumbing is not there either. The first piece of the water filter is hanging neatly on a wall of the mechanical room under the kitchen, but the rest of the filters, as well as the pressure tank are still in the garage. Someone took the tank out of the box but that's as far as our water pressurization system got. The solar water heater, a contraption far larger than I expected, hasn't even been taken out of the box and is waiting next to the uncovered pressure tank.

At this point the plumber would tell the electrician: Hey, there's no point hooking up the water pumps and filters until there's electricity. The electrician would then interject: But wait, the solar guy didn't finish his part of the job yet, so what am I supposed to do?

So here we sit, looking not so much at a house but a Tinkertoy set, the pieces scattered all over the living room carpet, waiting for an adult to come put them together.

Of all the pieces, the one I'm most curious about is the solar electricity rig. All 12 panels, each supposed to generate 1 kw a day, now sit on the roof of the garage looking more like receivers silently awaiting the signal for them to start buzzing to arrive from outer space. Their high-tech silicone faces look odd butting up against the old Mexican clay roof tiles covering the other part of the house.

Why am I curious, perhaps even a tad nervous, about whether this is going to work? Photovoltaic panels are a mature technology; it's not as if we're trying to get electricity out of a biomass generator hooked up to the compost pile.

Solar electricity is fairly common around San Miguel and not just in mud huts belonging to die-hard hippies in granny dresses and bib overalls. You see them on the roofs of fairly large homes--some I would guess as big as 5,000 sq. feet--with double-door monster refrigerators, dishwashers and other large electric gizmos inside. Our architect built a Tuscan-style maisonette with two kitchens and 20 photovoltaic panels mounted all over the roof.

The other advantage is San Miguel's climate, which almost guarantees a minimum 320-odd days a year of blasting sunshine. Even during the rainy days, the sun comes out for at least a few hours (it usually rains late in the day and overnight). If we were in Minnesota or Chicago, where the sun disappears for weeks at a time during the winter, I wouldn't be quite so ready to tell the electric company to take their watts and shove them.

So no problema, heh? Well, there are occasional horror stories, or if not quite horrible, at least scary enough for you to mutter: "Shit, I hope that doesn't happen to us."

There's the ongoing case of two women friends who built a house on the other side of town and who keep having electrical outages or brownouts. They've added panels--they're up to 18 for a house that's only about 2,000 sq. feet--and yet the problem persists.

Their system was installed by the same American guy who is working on ours. He blames the failures on our friends' profligate energy use. A refrigerator and a freezer, neither one particularly energy efficient according to the installer, plus a couple of jumbo flat-screen TV sets blabbing away most of the day. In addition, they have some sort of TV recording contraption that is also on all day.

Who knew there was so much television to watch.

The solar installer temporarily replaced the batteries to see if the problem was with the solar system or the batteries, but both checked out. So the issue is either too many watt-sucking gadgets or a gremlin residing deep inside the wiring of the house. We haven't heard if the problem has been finally solved. I hope so.

Even with properly functioning systems, though, living off photovoltaic cells takes some adjusting. An electric oven or water heater, or other gadgets with resistors or coils to generate heat for protracted periods, are out of the picture. Air conditioning, particularly a two-ton central system, also is off-limits.

Some relatively small issues can pose a problem too. Our water filtration system comes with an ultraviolet 60-watt tube. Doesn't sound like much but 60 watts shining idly 24/7 adds up to quite a bit of electricity. We thought of hooking up the light to the water pump so that it would go on only when there's water flowing through the system. Then Stew said a simpler solution would be to put the UV light on a timer that would shut off for 10 hours at night.

We'll discuss those options with the plumber and the electrician as soon as they come back.

A myriad little conservation details suddenly become important. You wash dishes or clothes during the day, when the sun is shining. Halogen bulbs, those intense little buggers that have become a staple of modern decor, are used sparingly if at all. Fluorescent bulbs replace incandescent: Just make sure they are of the warm tone variety so you and your guests don't look like cadavers.

The Christmas tree of little lights blinking all day long--the Internet modem, two computer printers, routers and other computer gadgets--also need to be shut off when not in use. Battery chargers, each with its own warm-to-the-touch transformer, have to be unplugged.

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Our solar installer is an expert at all these small tricks. His wife calls him the Watt Nazi.

I guess we'll see whether it's all a chronic pain in the neck or just a new lifestyle one gets used to. But before then, theoretically by November 15, we need to have someone come and finish putting this Tinkertoy together.

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