Little Experiments on the Cheap

39 thoughts on “Little Experiments on the Cheap”

  1. A smart guy I know admitted he did the math on his Tesla purchase and concluded that buying any used Japanese car would be far better for the environment, based on the primary manufacturing inputs alone. But he bought it anyway because well, it’s a cool car and he wanted to use the HOV lane on the Bay Bridge.

    Side note, I think technologists’ obsession with transportation is a peculiar blindspot. Hyperloop! Flying Cars! At the end of the day, it’s just point A to point B. What about that point B? Why is it so far from Point A? Why is it dependent on elevators, grids, central heating, the Internet… What’s Plan B for Point B?

  2. Honestly I’m not sure I’d take that ‘low hanging fruit’ package either. Given what I know about construction rates and costs in SF, unless the guy was giving you a huge deal you aren’t getting much more than a guy walking around your building for a day or two spraying spray foam into some cracks. So that $750 gets you basically nothing and probably has a very long payback period – not that different from a few solar panels and a powerwall.

    1. Yes and no. Filling the common attic with fluff insulation (there is currently none at all in our one hundred year old building) would have been relatively fast, cheap, and easy. No interest from the other folks in the building. Shrug.

      Instead I incrementally renovated my own apartment room by room, added insulation to my own exterior facing walls, and put in high quality new windows. It made a huge difference for me personally.

      1. Oh ok, never mind then. The price still seems a bit steep, but they were fools not to pay for that. Even at that price, the payback is immediate.

        1. Considering the size of Johnny’s building, three grand is reasonable. It wasn’t much cheaper for a 1200 sq ft house, one story. We had our attic insulation replaced because of water damage (we were one of the lucky ones in the Valley Fire 2015, the house was saved). We took the opportunity to over insulate. Insurance would pay for R19, we paid extra for R31. A former summer cottage, the house never had insulation. Previous owners did insulate two exterior walls when expanding the house. The fire took out the third. After the wall repair (including new insulation), I noticed the difference the following winter. I usually had a small electric heater under the desk but insulating that one wall made a big difference in daily comfort. The extra insulation in the attic made a difference in our heating (propane) bill.

      2. The “low hanging fruit” included more than attic insulation, but this is the problem with hearding cats and getting in to the piciune details of option X vs. Y.

  3. If it’s “all about status”, that still doesn’t explain that there’s more than one way to assert “status”. I don’t need to show off the car, the watch, the bling, because NO one outdoes me in humility! ( 😉 )
    But, seriously, who’s to say whether a cozy bungalo (debt-free) is less status-ful than an open-plan rancher (with a million-dollar mortgage)? If your acquaintances need to see your car to decide whether or not they can be your friends, there’s not much point in helping them answer the question.

    That little solar panel could also be used to recharge the batteries of a CountyComm GP-5/SSB radio (which has a mini-USB port for that purpose). If you want to hear the news while you’re on the move, you can’t beat a small AM/FM radio.

  4. Johnny,

    I’m with you and Jo. I find it to be a fun adventure, this combination of becoming less dependent on the mainstream systems and figuring how best to use their castoffs. I’m sure there must be a term for it. A couple slogans I use are “living well on North America’s seconds” and “how many different kinds of lemonade can I make of my lemons?”

    A few months ago I took up the game in cooking. What kind of things grow on our little plot of land and what can I turn it into? Or even what’s been building up in the refrigerator, freezer or pantry that needs to become a recipe and eaten up?

    The portability also attracts me though, learning to live such that I don’t feel like jumping off a bridge whenever running water and electricity fail me – and they will. As kind of a by-product I find it amazing how living more “manually” is invigorating. When I have to actively work through my daily routines, i.e. washing in a basin or thinking about the weather in reference to solar charging or bike rides, it really engages me. Boredom is hard to come by.

    Thanks for another wonderful and encouraging post. It’s good to know I’m not the only one.

  5. I keep reminding myself – Jane Austen lived off-grid. So did my great-grandmother. Off-grid is not necessarily cabin-in-the-woods. It is possible to live refined and civilised lives whilst using basins and jugs to wash in and having a chamberpot under the bed. I like to experiment with all sorts of granny technologies, like washing my hair using a jug instead of the shower, and heating with wood and cooling with carefully managed airflows, plus canning and mending and knowing which weeds I can eat.. it is a fun game which also means I get to live cheaply, and adds that extra layer of resilience to life. There really isn’t a downside that I have found yet. The bits and bobs approach is extremely practical, adding an extra resource or skill as cash or time is at hand. Plus it’s a joyful life experiment.

    1. I believe that Jane had plenty of servants. Life was a little rough without them, hence why so many of our ancestors left for the New World. Life was still off the grid and plenty rough, but at least it offered prospects.

  6. Yes. Two things. Do you have a Northern Tool around you? They have a lot of solar panel options that one could modularly expand.

    The other: Yes. I consider solar on my roof, but I warned the solar guys about the amount of shade I had — they came out and discovered that I could not do it sanely without cutting down a bunch of BIG trees — my roof is shaded in Summer a good part of the day.

    But not the whole day. I live in a stone (granite) house, so my air power bills are not very high — it’s a little like a cave. I consider removing the legacy black shingle roof and installing instead standing seam-type metal roofing of an off-white (very light green would do very well.)

    Think of it: there are more advantages than just saving energy in the summer — a light colored roof LASTS longer in general — it also allows the sheathing to last longer too (but that is likely a non-issue in the medium term) — metal roofs last longer than asphalt roofs even when they are dark red or something.

  7. With a Powerwall battery backup, the solar panels should still be useful in the event of a grid outage– or at least that’s what the Tesla folks told me when I installed mine. 🙂 You might sound out your upstairs guy about it.

    1. There are several options here. One is to get all the latest bells and whistles at the Tesla (or competitor) price point – plus pulling permits, working with the utility company, and satisfying all the official requirements using creative finance.

      The other is to organize plain vanilla room temperature work-arounds that get the job done on a tight cash basis and skip the whiz bang technology and middlemen.

    2. Don’t be deluded about the powerwall: to quote physics prof Tom Murphy, “batteries stink.” Tesla has not come up with new battery technology — it’s the same old. FYI we have 35 solar panels on the roof & own a Volt. We do not have a backup system because our solar contractor [who would have made a profit on it] strongly recommended against installing battery backup. Also, and this may not matter in California, batteries do not work well in cold weather. We need much better batteries for solar & wind to carry a major load.

      1. Batteries can’t replace the grid as a whole but you can probably run your house from a Powerwall setup if the grid is down. You will have to do some efficiency measures like timing appliance usage and minimize opening the fridge but it’s adequate except for nighttime air conditioning.

        1. People forget that until about a century ago (just one long human life span) no one anywhere ever had any electric. It’s entirely possible to run a home without it – or with radically less. It just requires compromises. Most people aren’t interested. That’s fine by me. But it can be done. I’m aiming for a reasonable compromise.

  8. You can do a tremendous amount of cooking on a simple propane gas grill on the patio, especially one with a side burner.

    Although if you have natural gas service at the house for your stove that is usually pretty robust and generally keeps on working away even in the power and phone lines are out. Most hurricanes and natural disasters that take out electrical power tend not to affect natural gas distribution. Although I can’t find any handy data on that at the moment.

    1. I think the exception is earthquakes. Underground utilities are vulnerable; those who have lived through the major ones can say whether the gas companies turn off lines in affected areas.

      1. I like to remind people in earthquake country that the quake could hit two hundred miles away and still cut off your water, gas, and/or electricity. Our attenuated infrastructure and complex supply chains make us vulnerable.

    2. Propane isn’t really off grid. It has to be extracted, processed, packaged and shipped. It’s a different grid, but it’s still a grid. It’s similar with coal or wood. If you live anywhere except a rural area, odds are that coal and wood have to be gotten elsewhere and brought to you. It’s been this way for centuries, at least.

      Solar power is different, in that the sun shines everywhere, but making solar panels requires an advanced industrial base with access to concentrated energy sources and powerful chemical reactants.

      I appreciate an attempt at resilience. I have an earthquake survival kit that might get me through a few weeks. If it is going to take longer than that to start recovery, I’ll have go to plan B or C or something.

      If you look at how civilizations respond to major changes, you’ll see an occasional total collapse, but more often a series of adaptations and restructurings. Dams and canals get built. Fuel and food sources change. New administrative centers become dominant. Religions change. Look at Rome. As it started its collapse in the second century, the imperial center moved east, but Rome stayed a major city. It wasn’t until the trade route with Tunisia was cut off in the fifth century that the population collapsed, and by then, there was a parallel, more decentralized civilization around Rome that offered prospects for refugees.

      1. My goal isn’t to survive the collapse of civilization. I just want to organize my own affairs so as to be able to ride out difficulties. Although if everyone did that and got really good at self reliance it might actually go a long way towards avoiding a collapse.

    3. Even more resilient than a gas grill is a simple backpacker’s stove like the ones at I was curious about these and bought both the Lite and Campfire sizes (the small one actually nests inside the larger one). They work great with just small twigs and sticks, common yard waste for us suburbanites with trees and shrubs, or visitors to “naturalized” parks. These are great for impromptu marshmallow and hot dog roasts.

  9. The difference is that the same new technology can be used different ways, depending on the lifestyle you already have.

    Which is why cell phones, bicycles, solar panels, and LED lights will lead to a huge standard of living increase in the developing world. Mobility, connectivity, productivity, health. Most of the developing world, conveniently, doesn’t require the big energy need — heat.

    Whereas in the United States “alternative technology” will always struggle to keep up with the lifestyle that has built up in the past 100 years.

    I see many of the new technologies and business practices as enabling life with less of an environmental footprint, less effort, less space, less waste. Shared instead of owned goods, for example, and books, music and photo albums in digital format rather than carried by large physical objects. Choices are becoming available.

    1. The big problem with “sharing” through internet-based apps and cloud storage is the storage and retrieval uses vast amounts of (grid) electricity to both run the servers and to remove their huge amounts of heat.

      1. Right.

        My wife and I have actually reverted back to having all our family photos printed (loose individual photos or photo albums) periodically for long term storage/use/history. I don’t believe digital storage of ‘precious’ family memories are sustainable long term. I’d rather be ‘hassled’ by 2 cubic feet of photo storage boxes than worry about a system/network/personal computer failure and/or outdated hardware/software file storage.

        Plus, having to pass the tablet or smartphone around to look at family vacation pics is annoying in my opinion.

        As a corollary, I will need to replace my 2008 minivan soon and am considering buying a 1992 Oldsmobile big sedan with 37,000 original miles (aka practically brand new) for $5,500 as opposed a new car for $20,000.

        1. Replace all the rubber belts and hoses on the ’92, and check the idler/tensioner on the serpentine belt. Have a mechanic look hard at the brake lines, radiator, heater core, and AC if you need it where you live.. (Free advice from a guy who drove 90s sedans until a couple of years ago.)

          And get a “classic” plate if your state issues them for 25+ year-old cars.

          1. Yep.

            Though the dealer that has the car is good with sourcing execllent condition ‘old’ cars and doing some minor updates as needed. But I will certainly have my mechanic check it over first.

            Because you’re nicely helpful, the car is a 1992 Olds 98, which has the 3800 V6 GM platform which is eminently reliable platform and may provide another 10 years and/or 100,000 miles on the car. Talk about minimizing carbon footprint.

            1. That engine is a workhorse and easily good for 175K. (In the reverse way of my life, I had a 98 Intrigue and a 99 Grand Prix, both castoffs from my kids, and both with the 3800 V6. I exploded the brake line on the GP in a panic brake…not the time to lose braking! Fortunately I was just blocks from home and lived a couple of blocks from my mechanic.)

              An environmentalist friend once told me that the best thing to do with an old car is keep driving until it dies…which I finally did to my last old sedan.

              1. Funny, still running a Plymouth Acclaim I bought June ’92, 177K so far. But I’ve never thought of it as a “classic”. Just a plain ol’ mule (without the kicking and braying).

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