Wednesday, December 23, 2009

First impressions

After three days living in our new "green" house here are some first impressions of all the ecological features we incorporated into the design. Naturally these evaluations might change, as we gradually figure out how to work all these gadgets.

Solar Water Heater: Biggest hit by far, helped of course by a string of sunny days. In the morning, even after the water has been sitting overnight in the tank, the water is still so hot you need to mix it with cold to take a shower. Plenty of hot water for two leisurely showers, though we'll have to see what happens after a couple of cloudy days. We have a back-up on-demand water heater but friends say they've never had to use their auxiliary gas heaters. Solar water heating seems like such a no-brainer it's hard to figure why they wouldn't be universally used in the American Sun Belt, from Florida to Arizona.

Solar exposure: We spent quite a bit of time on the siting of the house and size and location of the windows, so we could get the most sun inside during the winter. That has worked fine, particularly in the bedrooms. The house is very bright, warm and cheery.

Bosch "Intelligent" Dishwasher: A mixed review. We picked this model after much research into the energy efficiency of dishwashers. We either missed some fine print or the "Intelligent" model in the U.S. is different from the one sold in Mexico, which is not so Intelligent. It does a terrific job of washing the dishes and it's so quiet you forget it's on. Very easy on water, using only 11 liters for the short cycle. The problem is that it sucks about 1kw-plus of electricity per cyle even in the "Rapido" setting which lasts only 50 minutes. Use any other setting and the cycles go on for two hours and more, including pauses, and the machine uses even more juice.

If you figure our 12 solar panels generate about 10kw on an ideally sunny day, 1.2kw or so for just the dishwasher is quite a bite. Add a 1.5kw refrigerator humming along on and off all day long, and subtract lower power generation during overcast days, and we could be looking at a pair of additional panels down the road.

We've thought about how we could miss such an important factoid about the vaunted Bosch dishwasher. Maybe 1kw or so per wash is not bad for dishwashers. Originally we suspected that an electric water heater in the machine was the culprit, but there's no reason it should go on: Our on-demand water heater--also a Bosch--is only about ten feet from the dishwasher and produces scalding water in minutes.

More manual dishwashing in our future? Maybe so.

GE Front-Loading Washer and Dryer: Great machines, though very odd in their operation. In a front-loader the cleaning action is plop-plop-plop with gravity doing most of the work, as opposed to the wiggle-wiggle-wiggle of top-loaders, where the motor creates most of the friction needed for cleaning. (Front-loaders went out of fashion sometime during the 60s supposedly to save American housewives the trouble of bending over to put in and take out the clothes.)

What's strange about the washing machine are the pauses, almost like it's hemming and hawing during the cycles. It turns one way, pauses, then it goes the other way.

The result is a very frugal operation in both electricity (about 400w?), and water (don't have any specific figures, though it must be half that of a conventional front-loader.) It uses only half as much detergent too, good for economy and the environment since our gray water goes out on a field behind the house (to be hooked up to an irrigation hose later on).

We seldom use the dryer. Instead we air-dry our clothes. Our latest addition is a "collapsible umbrella" clothesline. Don't know what that is? Check out a 1950s sitcom featuring a housewife who not only had to bend over to load the washer but also go outside to hang up the wash in one of these contraptions.

Solar electric: Ugh. Do we have to discuss that? Along with the carpenter--who is exactly two months behind in finishing--our solar electric system has been the biggest headache and disappointment. Both are cases of high expectations and subpar performance.

The installer has been nothing if not solicitious in trying to fix the problem, except that it may center on the two, 900-lb. batteries which had to be installed using a forklift. He doesn't seem too eager to admit they may be defective and haul them away for a recharger or replacement. However, we paid about $6,000 for the pair and are not about to quit complaining.

According to what we've been told, the batteries should be able to go to sleep at sunset and wake up the next day fully or nearly fully charged. Instead our batteries are all charged up by 10 or 11 a.m but then start losing steam when the sun sets and wake up the next day about half-charged. As I've mentioned in previous blogs, the "floating" signal is the sign of a happy, fully-charged battery. Ours float only occasionally and briefly. A monitor allows you to check battery performance for the previous several days. something Stew does along with checking the specific gravity of the battery fluids.

Our main preoccupation with the sytem is that if the batteries can't hold an overnight charge when the sun is shining, a couple of consecutive cloudy days could spell trouble.

Satellite TV: It's supposedly illegal, or at least not very polite, to use satellite dishes to get U.S. television stations in Mexico (even if we pay a monthly fee, which we do). Yet the practice is most prevalent, particularly among nostalgic exiled gringos, who just can't get used to Spanish-language soaps or Mexican variety shows featuring mostly large-breasted, provocatively clad women.

Reception so far if excellent even if we don't watch 90 percent of the stations that come in. But hey, that's the law of gross oversupply and demand for ya.

Rennai heaters: They are supposed to be high-efficiency and all. We've had a non-vented one for a while (model RCE 592ACPA) and it's excellent except for the fumes. So we bought a larger one (ES38 HIgh Efficiency, 38,000 BTUs for the living room) that's vented through the wall. The latter also works fine though it may not be big enough to heat the living/dining room area with its cathedral ceiling (even with a ceiling fan blowing down). We'll see. In the dead of winter it can get down to freezing briefly at night, though the temperatures quickly rise into the 70s by noon.

Refrigerator: We couldn't match U.S. energy efficiency ratings with the models sold down here, so we found a two-door GE model that works fine while soaking about 1.5kw of electricity daily, which is supposed to about average for that type of appliance.

Further complicating the selection was that many (most?) American-brand refrigerators are made in Mexico and sold under different names and brands. We were told to stay away from Mexican-made MABE refrigerators because they were of terrible quality.

But guess what: Our fancy-schmantzy GE is a MABE (the factory is about 50 miles from here) and the two units are identical and made in the same place.

So to GE or to MABE? That was the question and we went for the GE, which was actually cheaper than the MABE.

Internet: There are no land lines here for Internet, cable, telephone or electricity. Cell phones were the only option, though I've heard people talk about satellite phones. They're not very good unless you're in Afghanistan and the Taliban is on your tail.

For the Internet we had two options. One was a Hughes satellite connection, via a TV-like satellite dish. Expensive and erratic, we were warned.

The other was a module, similar to a data stick, that plugs in one of the USB ports of the computers and works through the cell phone lines. The cost is $60 for the unit and about $40 monthly for the service, which you replenish by buying cards.

The results are slow and... capricious. When it's on it's on, when not, you're screwed. Service seems to move much faster in the city than in the boonies.

It works best for e-mail. Downloading the day's edition of the New York Times can take 45 seconds to a minute, unless the connection conks out in the middle and you have to start over again. So we'll probably watch more MSNBC, PBS or BBC America news. It's faster and you don't even have to read any type or press any keys.

Just sit and watch the nattily dressed news readers tell you what's going on and what you should think about it.

Fireplace: Stew and I asked for a ambidextrous fireplace, one that could burn wood or fit a gas-log unit. In addition, and I don't know who came up with the idea, we had lined with 1/8" steel which reflects the heat and glow of the fire back into the room . Really cool idea.

I will post a picture, as soon as we can get the cell phone Internet to upload it. That might take a while.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Clara's love offensive

In a blog a couple of months ago I told the story of an emaciated Doberman we had inherited and named Clara, as in Rancho Santa Clara.

She had been abandoned by her owners in the fields somewhere near our new house. So Clara joined a pack of dogs who followed Luis, our young velador, or watchman, who came to our house late every afternoon and stayed the night. Clara came along and we started feeding her.

Luis was later fired for stealing. On his way out he handed me Clara on a leash and told me she was now mine. His wife didn't want another dog around, Luis explained, and anyway, he was taking off for the U.S. to find work. "It wouldn't be fair to abandon her," he said.

Indeed. Despite her miserable life and sorry appearance Clara retained a cheerfulness and trust of people that was as disarming as it was disconcerting. As I took the leash, Clara just went over and started licking Stew's face, as if that was the next natural thing to do.

We couldn't adopt her and instead took her to the Sociedad Protectora de Animales, the local humane shelter. I'm the shelter's director and I plead guilty to running roughshod over the long list of abandoned dogs waiting to be admitted and getting Clara into the shelter on a Saturday.

She received the usual care: A period of isolation in case she had some contagious disease, and over a few weeks, some vaccines, followed by sterilization--and lots of food. Her body naturally filled in and her dark brown coat started to shine. A dog trainer at the S.P.A. remarked how unusually cheerful and clever she was, even to the point of quickly learning some basic commands.

For all her charm offensive, though, it took about six weeks before she was adopted. I suspect that people who wanted a gentle dog were afraid of adopting a Doberman with a long snout and what seemed like 150 sharp teeth.

Those looking for a menacing-looking junkyard dog were put off by this specimen of a supposedly fierce breed that somehow couldn't stop squirming and licking strangers.

Someone finally adopted her but the odd details left me worried. Clara was adopted by two school teachers and would live at a school in the tiny town of Corralejo, only a couple of miles from our new house.

How could a dog be adopted by a school? Who would take care of her after school hours? Would she become one of those dogs, all too typical in Mexico, who spend their lives on a broiling rooftop barking all day long, sometimes tied to a post by a piece of wire? At the S.P.A., abused dogs, and abused dog tales, are daily fare so my mind was imagining the worst.

The S.P.A. manager tried to reassure me that the two middle-age school teachers seemed like responsible people who even bought some flea medicine and shampoo for Clara. She would live at the school but there was a janitor who stayed there after hours and make sure nothing happened to her.

I waited another month but finally couldn't contain my morbid curiosity. I asked for the phone of one of the teachers who had adopted Clara and that turned out to be upsetting news. The phone number didn't exist.

So Stew and I took off for Corralejo to check on all the public schools to see if one had adopted a dog. The principal of a grammar school said he didn't know about any dog or recognized the name of the teacher. Likewise no one knew anything about Clara at a nearby kindergarten.

By now Stew and I were concocting nightmare scenarios of what had happened to "our" dog. Why would someone give the wrong phone number in the adoption application? There was no school in Corralejo with an adopted Doberman.

I went back to the S.P.A. and someone remembered something about a Telesecundaria in Corralejo de Arriba vs. de Abajo (in effect, Upper versus Lower Corralejo, an odd distinction for such a micron of a town.) Telesecundarias are public schools in Mexico, usually in rural areas, where some of the instruction comes via televised programs from a satellite network.

After an amazingly good lunch at a tiny restaurant--in what must have been Corralejo del Medio, or Middle Corralejo--the owner told us there was in fact a Telesecundaria in Corralejo de Arriba. It was off the road to our house.

This was the place. All the kids, mostly early teenagers, knew about Clara and took us to see her. She kept her name but in typical Mexican fashion it has been turned into "Clarita" or "Little Clara."

There was nothing little about her--she's on the verge of chubbiness, perhaps 60 lbs. She also seems to have grown, her legs no longer so disproportionately long in relation to the rest of her body.

She jumped on Stew and dispensed her usual slobbering. Stew thinks she recognized us, but I doubt it. That's just Clara.

One of the teachers who had adopted her showed me Clara's house, a small concrete bunker that the janitor had created for her. Dog food was plenty, as well as tortillas and other human fare. Clara posed for pictures with some of her school fans but only briefly, before going off to a fenced-in backyard to attend to something apparently more interesting than all this adulation.

The teacher, Lic. Guillermina Torrecilla, a smiling, pudgy woman in her 40s, said "security concerns" had prompted the adoption of Clara. Someone had broken into the school and stolen not the television sets or the satellite dishes--but the copper plumbing off the bathrooms.

As for the wrong phone number, she doesn't understand what happened.

The teacher hopes that Clara's imposing presence and the reputation of the Doberman breed will scare off any other intruders.

"But she is pretty worthless as a guard dog," I whispered, as if I were telling the teacher a confidential bit of news.

Lic. Guillermina laughed out loud. "I know, I know. We can't even get her to bark."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Watt crisis?

One night, about three weeks ago we had our very own Thomas Alva Edison moment. We went to the kitchen, flipped a switch and the ceiling lights went on. Eureka!

Indeed, our $30,000 solar electricity system came alive. Over the next few days the gauges reported more good news: The batteries were "floating," which in solar energy lingo meant they were charged, fat and sassy.

But then the "floating" message failed to show up. The screen registered "snoozing," "sleeping," "absorbing" and various other states of consciousness. But no more "floating."

More ominously, a couple of nights later we noticed a certain flickering in the lights throughout the house.

We called the guy who installed the system and he was out there the next day. Jim is nothing if not responsive. He says sometimes he loses sleep obsessing over some gremlin bugging one of his solar rigs.

He checked the specific gravity of the electrolytes in the batteries, a key signal of their health. The levels were near the "honey, get the candles and the flashlight ready" range.

Moreover, another indicator showed 22 volts in the system when then minimum was supposed to be above 24.

It could be that one of the elements in the system was defective, most logically the batteries. Or perhaps the wiring in the house was somehow faulty and the malfunction was sucking the air out of the batteries.

Or we suspect far more likely, the workers at the site had plugged their radial saws, sanders, compressors and other industrial-strength equipment into the nearest outlet instead of using the gasoline-powered generator, inconveniently located outside the house.

Jim had warned us about the workers tapping into the system out of sheer laziness.

We asked the workers and a consensus rapidly emerged: It was the other guy's fault.

So Jim brought his own gasoline-powered generator and plugged our system into it, in what looked like the solar power equivalent of an IV. It ran for several hours each day, for three or four days.

The vital signs of the batteries crept up, though there still was a difference in the electrolytes between the two batteries, and even among the cells in the batteries.

We ruled out a short circuit. None of the 22 breakers in the entrance panel had tripped. Stew tested the grounding of several outlets and that checked out too.

After several days of ministrations by Jim and his electric generator, yesterday the batteries were floating again. Voltage levels were normal and so were the readings in the battery cells.

Today, the voltage was up to 26 and change and by noon... the batteries were merrily floating.

The most hopeful sign though is that the house is nearly finished, and in two or three days, the occupation army of carpenters, electricians, iron workers and assorted others will finally float away, leaving us to enjoy our brand-new home.