On the very last day of the old year, about an hour before they closed shop for their New Year’s Eve, DH and I walked into the Volkswagen dealership and bought a brand new VW Jetta wagon.


It was a surprise to myself as well, since we are thorough second-handers. The idea had been to replace our cars with one new (see below) and one second-hand one. However, the second-hand car market in this area is ruined: it’s all dealers and their prices are highly inflated. Individuals sell cars with high mileage and getting on in years. After DH’s car being towed twice in a week, the risks were too steep, the assurance with a new car too enticing. And this dealership had a great deal – ending on December 31!

It’s a diesel and is supposed to get 40 mpg on average. DH has driven it to work and back (his shuttle stops over the holidays), on the highway and in downtown Cambridge, and he’s barely made a dent in the tank. The nifty on-board computer tells him he averaged over 50 mpg. Compare this to his 1998 Volvo, which barely got 20 mpg!

My car will need replacement too – it’s as old as DH’s, though it has held up better. We are waiting for Chevrolet to announce the new Volt: it might be a five-seater, have a better engine, and be cheaper… worth the wait. Our home school plans include a road trip, and though our VW would be up for it, we’d rather have an even more efficient car.

Ah, the dreams of the road trip! Our friends who were here over the holidays are in on it too. We’re thinking the Crooked Road…


I’m a little late reporting but I did calculate the Riot a couple of days back for the months of April and May 2013 for the three of us and three house guests for 2 weeks, making it on average 4 people. My summary of our first three years is here. Edson fixed the calculator: all go tither to crunch those numbers!

Gasoline.  Calculated per person.

12.1 gallons pp.

29.4% of the US National Average

Electricity. This is reckoned per household, not per person. We cook on an electric stove. According to our solar meter, we produced 9015  kWh since the system was turned on in August 2011, that’s  1210 kWh over the last two months, a lot more in sunny April than in cloudy May (you can follow our solar harvest live here). It could have been more: two of the micro-inverters on our system conked off and it is taking Enphase a long time to replace them (they’ll be replaced entirely on their account, and they’ll refund us for the lost production, but those dollar amounts don’t help with the Riot!). We used up all but a 35 kWh of this. I don’t know why. Yes, there were more of us, the grow lights and heat mat are still on, and we’ve been using power tools, but it seems too steep.  I’ll be keeping an eye on this.  So, 1210 our solar + 85  NSTAR Green – 35 kWh credited overproduction)/ 2 (months) makes:

630 kWh monthly average

34.8% of the US National Average

Heating Oil and Warm Water. This too is calculated for the entire household, not per person. This is for supplemental space heating and supplemental water heating (supplemental to the solar hot water that was installed in February). Since we turned off the latter at the beginning April, so since the boiler only had to come on to heat the water, the following number is an important indicator of how well that solar hot water thing is going. That’s still a lot, but calculate into that the fact that more water was consumed than usual (cf. next), it figures. We’ll need more data.

7.5 gallons of oil / month

12.2% of the US National Average

Water. This is calculated per person. This is more than our usual. I’m blaming my sister-in-law!

897 gallons pp.

29.9% of the US National Average

Trash. After recycling and composting this usually comes down to mainly food wrappers:

6 lbs. pp per month

4.4 % of the US National Average


After a couple of days of rain and chill (yesterday morning I even lit a fire in the wood stove) the sun has returned. I got a lot done what with all that pent-up green energy! I cleaned the chicken coop. All the veg beds (‘cept the hoop house ones) are now planted, the potatoes have been hilled up, most weeds have been scratched out, and I went into two hives (one is drawing out a lot of Spring honey, the other is queenless, darn it!). I also harvested: one tiny potato, lots of lovage and heaps of tiny garlics, which I could have left to grow on, but they were in the way. Along with the last carrots from our farm share, which I had been hoarding in the fridge but were getting woody, I cooked up a soup:


This lovage soup is hyper local: the farm the carrots came from is five miles from here. But also the energy it was cooked with was hyper local. No, not because I cooked it on my electric stove, which is solar, but because I cooked it thusly:


This is DH’s solar cooker, which we made in August last year. A friend donated a busted pressure cooker with a heavy, copper bottom. The soup bubbled away nicely for a couple of hours and it smells divine!



Is this neat or what? We have a SECUSOL system, manufactured by Wagner. The MassCEC sprang for the monitoring system. They get valuable data (which they use to determine rebates, etc.) and we get to look in.

The chart above is today’s. It was grey throughout. The top of the water tank (green line at the top), where the heated water hangs out, waiting to be drawn on, hovered around the desired 130F. However, as you can see by the thick red line bordering the pink area, the temperature of the heat exchange fluid coming from the panels was only around 70F to begin with, dipping further as the day got colder and the clouds thicker. That means that our backup (oil furnace) had to kick in the difference.  That also means, however, that it was doing some of the heating (indicated by the pink area) of the water in the cold bottom part of the tank. At 5:30, for instance, the heat exchange fluid released about 10F to that water: it was going into the tank from the panels at 70F and coming out again, as indicated by the thick blue line, at a little below 60F. Around 15:30 (3:30 pm for you Americans) the fluid in the panels was no longer warmer than the cold water in the bottom of the tank, so the system shut down, not wanting to cool the water in the tank.

(The thin black lines are interesting too: this flow rate indicates our water consumption. That tall peak around 9:30 is me taking a shower, and the two peaks around 13:30 are us replenishing our fish tank, and the last two peaks are DH clearing the drains).

Below is yesterday, the 22nd of Feb, a very sunny day and a very different chart from today’s. The panels provided enough and, between 9:30 and 15:30, sometimes even more than enough, heat to get the water in the tank to the desired temperature.


Now I’m thinking we should adjust our water consumption schedule: shower on sunny days, and later in the day too. But first we’ll gather more data.



Well, that was cheaper and quicker than the PV. Took them seven hours to install the entire system. We have two Wagner collectors,  one 92.5 gallon storage tank, in a drain back arrangement (it’s basically this Secusol system), with our super-efficient oil boiler as backup (second heat-exchanger). A fun addition was the monitoring system, which the State of Massachusetts paid for. We’ll have data soon! We like data.


And here we go again. Nemo is upon us, starting to throw what will amount, according to the forecast, to buckets of snow. Of course the power is going to go: we expect it now. And as I alternate staring out the window with staring at the Wundermap, I realize how contradictory and conflicting my feelings are about all this.

Staring at the Wundermap, it bugs me that our power grid, our communities, our homes are not resilient. Put the darn lines underground – but who will pay for that? Why didn’t we at least get a generator?  Why are we dragging our feet on the issue that when the grid goes, the solar array goes as well? Should we get a battery backup or some other way of storing the energy? I check on the chargers, powering up all the batteries in the house. I crank the emergency radios. Did mice get into  the bug out bag again? Half that bag is electronics. We’ll have the Kindle and DH’s smartphone to go on the net. The freezer is stuffed: if we don’t open it, the food in there will stay good for a couple of days. We should move our cars to the bottom of the driveway…

Staring out the window — at the towering, whitening, waving trees, the snow horses blowing through, the raccoon’s tracks, erasing — I calm infinitely  down. I know there is a big wood pile and lots of dry firewood on the porch still. The wood stove is idle now but it’s ready to warm our house when the temperature drops, and for cooking and boiling water. The pantry is stuffed, and I just made bread. We have enough books and games to keep us entertained for weeks-years. I’m thinking, if he power goes out for a long time we’ll just put everything in our fridge in a box on the porch – latch the door so the raccoon won’t get in. The tropical fish in the heated tank would perish, but the chickens and the bees will be fine. I wish we had a cat, to take care of those mice. Amie can play for us on the cello. I wish I could play the cello…

I find more comfort, more safety in those things:  in what Ivan Illich called “tools for conviviality,” in wholesome sources of energy made available by nature, and in the fruits of hard work on our part, and in companionship. The wishes and wants that these conjure are sweet and slow.

In my work I promote both these sides.  I am trying to make my community “go solar,” working on energy “solutions” while promoting skillshares, arranging potlucks, joining in hope and despair work. But more and more I know that it is only the latter that I am passionate about because only they make me feel truly safe, fulfilled and connected. No extra machine is going to make me feel secure in the face of the fragility of our technology. I may rationalize that we need “green technology” to buy us the time we need, but I believe it less and less.

More and more it feels like just another postponement of the inevitable, and we’re the kid who did something wrong (terribly wrong), taking a detour on the way home, where the reckoning awaits. But we must and do want to and will go home to the deep and dark ecology.

Update: the next morning:


We are very close to choosing our solar hot water system and installer. It is something we were thinking about even before we went for the solar PV, and when the latter system was designed, we made sure there would be plenty of room for thermal collectors. Now that we have whittled down our oil consumption, solar hot water is the natural next step.

And how much we’ve whittled it down became obvious last week. An enthusiastic referral brought in a last-minute installer for a site visit – we have nine estimates already lined up, but a tenth can’t hurt. This lady was very down-to-earth and she loved our small home, with the wood stove, the insulation, and the PV array, of course.  When we told her how much oil we use for hot water, and for that and heating, she said: “that’s not possible.” Then I told her about the Riot, and she looked around again, and believed it. “I’m glad you told me,” she said, for the sizing of the system.

According to our August Riot, when we had a full house (5 adults, one child), we used about 10 gallons of oil for heating water. Over the year, our total consumption of oil (hot water and heating) is about 200 gallons. That is about 25% of the US National Average.

So, we’ve reduced our barrel of oil (in the first year of our Riot – before we had the wood stove – we used about 600 gallons of oil in general, that’s 75% of the US National Average) to a bucket of oil (200 gallons), and now we’re looking at reducing it even further, to… half a bucket of oil (since it turns out, then, that we use about half of our oil for heating water and half for heating the house).

Now it’s just a matter of deciding what we want as a secondary backup (for when the sun isn’t quite up to heating the water enough): oil, electrical (we do have *some* solar PV overproduction), or heat pump?

I’ll keep you updated!

PS. We also just we filled up our two oil tanks (the previous owner needed two so her 50-year-old furnace could overheat her uninsulated house) with 358 gallons of BioHeat, a biofuel. May it last us three years, even more!

The Nor’easter of October 2011 hit our town pretty badly. Actually, it was just a small snowstorm, not too heavy, not long-lasting. But the trees were not ready for it. It was only the fourth time that there was snow before Halloween in NYC since the civil war! Add to that that the trees now “think” (for good reasons) that it’s summer at the end of October…

So they were still flush with green leaves, which had only just started turning. The snow stuck to them and that’s what weighed them down. This was the view out my living room window the morning after the storm.

Gorgeous, but dangerous. None of those trunks or branches are usually that diagonal. Several tops snapped off after the picture was taken.

The night before this picture was taken, the night of the storm, I lay awake in bed listening to the creaking and straining of the trees, the tearing of wood fibers, then the crack, then whoosh and finally thump of limbs and branches crashing to the ground. After a couple of hours of this, you just fall asleep from exhaustion, your brain telling you: que sera, sera.

None hit the house, the cars, the roof with the panels. But the hoop house was hit, and two of our fences (metal) are beyond repair. The veg garden is a mess.

There are still a lot of snapped limbs – some the size of small trees – hanging in the canopy, waiting for a good gust of wind to tear them loose. It’s the reason why Halloween is canceled!

Well, to be precise: the town is leaving it up to the discretion of the parents but advises to do an “alternative Halloween”. DH and I know what swords are hanging above our heads, so we’re not letting Amie venture outside.

Another reason for canceling Halloween is that, after over 50 hours, 25% of the town’s population still doesn’t have power back. School was canceled today too, and Amie’s elementary school might still be out of power tomorrow. 56% of people in my town were without power.

We were among them. The evening of the stormwe heard a loud thump and then the power was out.  Our solar is entirely grid-tied. The grid goes down, all our solar harvest gets diverted into the ground.

But we were prepared with one head lamp each with batteries that are always charged.

We also had our trusted stove – the best investment we ever made – and lots of wood! It provided heat, crucial because the temperature dropped to 25 F the following night. The town opened an emergency shelter in one of the schools.

The stove also allowed hot water for washing dishes and even for a bucket shower with shampoo, and for tea. I also made a wonderful stew on it of garden vegetables and sausage.

Our power was restored after 40 hours. Not too bad, compared to last time (after Irene), which was a little over two months ago. That time we were without electricity for 6 days. So we knew the drill (it was warmer then and I cooked outside on the camping stove).

With the way the economy is going I don’t see all those wires and cables going underground, as they are in most of Europe. So we’re looking into battery backup for our solar.

{UPDATE} When I told Amie we couldn’t go trick or treating she burst into tears, so we went along the safe side of the street, just 10 or so houses. She also opened the door and doled out a lot of candy. So she was happy. Not our usual Halloween, but some of it, anyway. Many people from the North of our town, which is still without electricity, came to our neighborhoods.

We’re back. On Sunday, Irene knocked down a couple of trees on our block, which mostly missed people, houses and cars, but got hung up on the electricity cables. Power was restored yesterday, after four days. More on that, later. First:

This is the Riot for the month of August 2011. August saw ebbs and flows of people at our house. Averaging them out, we were 4.9 people (roughly, 3.9 adults, 1 child). Throw me a bone and call it 5. Our first year’s averages were calculated here, our second year’s averages can be found here.

Sharon is getting the Riot up and running agai on Facebook. Edson fixed the calculator! My Wayland friend Andrea has started her own Riot and began, bravely, with electricity.

Gasoline.  Calculated per person.

11.09 gallons per person

26% of the US National Average

Electricity. We got our first bill after the installation of our solar, which was tuned on  on 9 August. It has been a sunny month, and the array is performing wonderfully – except when the grid is down and the whole thing shuts down, no matter how sunny the days after a hurricane.

Solar doesn’t get as high a “percentage discount” (as a green technology) as wind does, but there not being a new Riot percentage calculator yet, and to make it easier on my calculations, I’m counting solar and wind as the same, percentage-wise.

The calculator reckons per household (5 people), not per person.

312 KWH (our solar) and 154 KWH (NSTAR wind) =466 KWH total

13% of the US National Average

Heating Oil and Warm Water. This too is calculated for the entire household, not per person. It’s up from the last Riot because there were more of us using the hot water for showers, which is basically all our heating oil is used for these days.

9.35 7.15 gallons of oil

17% 11.6% of the US National Average

{UPDATE} 3 Jan 2012: The way I have been calculating our heating oil consumption is by reading off the furnace how many hours it ran, then multiplying it by .85 because that’s the amount of gallons of oil I *thought* it used. Now DH just told me that our furnace is more efficient than that and the correct number is .65. Hence the correction

Trash. After recycling and composting this usually comes down to mainly food wrappers.

10 lbs. pp per month

7% of the US National Average

Water. This is calculated per person.

504 gallons pp.

16% of the US National Average