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.

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