Monthly Archives: October 2009

Planting trees in the winter

I made a fall order of fruit trees from St. Lawrence Nursery in Potsdam, NY. They should be on the way, so I gotta finish digging the holes for them. We are nearing the end of our rather unusual, pleasant autumn. Yesterday I finally saw snow (which did not stick) and today the ground was quite crunchy. It’s supposed to get a few degrees above freezing for the next couple of days, but nights are quite below and in a few days it’s not even supposed to creep above during the day. I’ve dug 4 holes, and I have 8 more to go (it was supposed to be 6, but they were out of Adirondack Apricot, so I’m getting 2 unimproved manchurian apricots and another russian olive instead). I’ve got some pears and pie cherries and hazelnuts coming as well. I’m digging the dirt into buckets, then setting the buckets in the holes. When the trees come I’ll pull the buckets inside to thaw a bit, then pack the bareroot trees in the holes with the thawed dirt. If the buckets aren’t stuck in the holes with ice by then! I’m not quite sure where all these trees are going, but I’m thinking I’m going to have quite the dense fruit/nut/berry hedge in front of the neighbor’s apartment, with the pears overhanging the parking – yet another incentive for everyone to ride bikes – you won’t have to scrape pear scunge from your windshield!

Then I put my tools away, get out the snow shovel, put the studded tires on the bike and hopefully enjoy a quiet winter. I command thee, pipes and heat, no leaking or breaking this winter!! I am going to have to tackle another bathroom remodel though – our bath is ugly and the tub surround is not doing its job. So, once I have the energy, another tile job, maybe in the early spring again. Here are all my planned big projects for the next 3 years or so:

Efficiency/Alt. Energy:
Exterior insulation on the upper part of the building/residing.
A bit more attic insulation.
Reducing the window/door area on the north side.
Wood or masonry stoves in the bottom 2 units.
Solar hot water.
2 energy efficient fridges
Energy eff. washing machine

More trees/gardens/chickens/bees/greenhouse/bike parking

Better sound insulation between units
replace dropped ceilings with drywall
nicer bathrooms in bottom 2 units
more interior insulation in basement unit (bath has none).
replace fluorescent tube fixtures with more efficient and pleasing light.
Solatube lighting in some areas
eventually replace old carpet with cork, local birch, or other flooring.
eventually replace old vinyl flooring with tile or marmoleum.

One Year Anniversary!!

I wrote this exactly a year ago!

Recording was today. Dang, now I have to take a crash course on being a landlord, and things are busy at work too…..I also changed from dumpster to regular trash service, so I need to buy 32 gallon garbage cans (technically I can have 3 per unit, I can’t imagine needing that many – once I provide recycling and compost – my family of three has about 5 gallons of trash per week), and I need to get a good snow shovel – and pray it doesn’t snow again soon (it’s not supposed to). And type up a letter to the residents, and move, and….busy busy! Exciting!

So I think the last year has been a good crash course on being a landlord! We have moved in, and then moved downstairs to a bigger unit. We have painted and maintained and upgraded almost all the units. I have chosen 3 new sets of tenants as people moved on. I have dealt with plumbing and heating and appliance repairs and tenant issues. Everything has always been resolved satisfactorily, so far. I have not made any money, but I don’t think I have done too bad, especially compared to the owning my own single-family home option, which was the basic alternative.

So far it has not snowed yet this year – we are having a nice, warm, drawn-out autumn. The ground is still soft and diggable – good because I have some more trees to prepare for. As for the trash – I started out with 4 32 gallon cans – wind storms have blown away two of those – so now I have two. I have put in recycling and a compost bin, and two cans seems to be enough, though they get pretty full sometimes.

Here are the major upgrades and such since gaining ownership a year ago (and it has been a very busy year – I can take about one more of these, and then I better be in easy-maintenance mode!): All 5 zone valves on the boiler have gone dodgy and been replaced, evenly spread over the last year (it was their time). Hopefully we are good to go for a while! I have replaced the water heaters with an efficient indirect one. I have put in low flows – including 2 new shower heads, 8 faucet aerators, and 2 new toilets. We have tiled a bathroom and installed a wall mounted sink. We have entirely replaced two leaky faucets (tub and sink). We have upgraded a 40′ fence. I have planted at least 15 trees and bushes. We have dug down 4′ and insulated the foundation exterior. I have created gardens and paths and filled big driveway potholes. I have cleaned out the storage sheds. I have painted about 3 whole rooms, patching walls and such. I have installed 4 programmable thermostats, and insulated some pipes. I have had an assessment done for solar hot water and for energy efficiency. I have caulked gaps in the siding, installed sweeps on both doors, and installed an efficient dryer vent. I have replaced an inefficient fridge, removed a garbage disposal, and ‘fixed’ a dishwasher by plumbing the drainage hose better. There is a loooooong way to go, but a lot is taken care of too! It’s been a good year.
This weekend is Bioneers, but hopefully next weekend I can have a party to celebrate!

Bioneers this weekend!!

Bioneers is this weekend – here is the link to the Alaska page. It’s a good time, you should go! That plus the good ‘ol boy camping I did this weekend with some other families (sleeping in trucks and campers, starting the fire with gasoline, fireworks, beer, skoal and handguns, 4-wheelers, oh my! At least much of this didn’t get used!) should rebalance my life!

despair, right livelyhood, and thermostats

I’ve always been pretty emotional about, well, lots of things. I cry every time an Alaskan Airlines attendant won’t let me use my own mug. I’ve been saying for years that I can’t live in Oregon (at least Willamette Valley) because of the despair caused by all the people and clear-cuts. I just today realized that I am a coward because of that. I have run away to a place where most of the clear cuts are hidden on remote places you can’t get to by road and where its too (expletive) dark to attract crowds – so I don’t have to cry about that all the time. I am avoiding. I’ve been crying a lot lately anyway, not wailing, but choked up in a rich, emotionally complex way. Over things like relationships with people and reaching understanding; over the scene in the preview for ‘no impact man’ where the whole family is stomping on laundry in the tub to wash it (I had to wash cloth diapers in the tub by myself when I did that); over many parts in Derrick Jensen’s videoed talk on Endgame; when I use the last q-tip and throw out the big plastic container and realize I’m so a part of the problem and don’t know how to break the addiction (to q-tips anyway). I’m feeling a lot of despair. I’m feeling (even before listening to 2 hours of Jensen) that I/we/etc are ineffectual. That I can be a hypocrite and travel the world, using lots of resources, and find a way to visibly promote change and possible engender a little, or I can move into a teepee, live off the land (for a day or so until I starve to death), and be part of the solution – but completely ineffectually, drop-in-the bucket wise. Yes, I know those aren’t the only choices. It’s like a bad case of PMS that won’t go away.
So what do I do?? And what do I do for a living? Sit at a desk and write reports on soils and put in programmable thermostats made in china sold at lowes that do the same thing my (expletive) fingers can do when I leave the house and go to bed with my old, perfectly good thermostat!!??? (yes, I did change out the last 2 thermostats for programmables, and I felt good about it for almost a day). I sit at a desk for 8 hours, occasionally travel somewhere and stand behind a drill rig, eat lots of snacks bought for us at costco, gain weight, lose muscle tone, lose touch. I’m even despairing at the part of my work that involves geothermal, because I’m fairly convinced that renewables are a very small part of the solution/sustainable picture.
Jensen says, and it is good advice that we have probably all come to understand anyway, (I paraphrase) ‘what are your gifts and how can you best use them in service of your landbase?’. So what does my landbase need? First of all what is my landbase? I’m going to say it is the Anchorage bowl, though I could get more specific and say it is the border between the Fish and Chester creek drainages. As I live in an urban area, most of the non-exported, local problems involve those associated with lots of people, pavement, and garden variety toxins (literally) like lawn chemicals, vehicle chemicals, etc. We don’t really have a water shortage problem, or too much local, bad industry. We have a lot of people that depend almost entirely on barged in food and goods from down south and further out west (Asia). So the things that seem to serve it best involve things that keep the effects of population and resource importation in check. Less lawns, more urban food production, less chemicals, fewer cars and car trips, etc. The global picture becomes important since we get so much from the outside. My gifts involve highly developed analytical thinking skills, a sound body, some grasp of the use of the English language, a willingness to learn, enjoyment of a challenge, hardiness, good teeth. Now what do I do that is big enough to combat my despair? Or is that not the point? Is the despair inevitable and appropriate, and I work and love and find happiness despite the despair? In any case, what do I do? I’m working on that…


This one is for you, David Zetland!

Interesting stuff going on with our natural gas utility, Enstar. These excerpts are from a news report earlier in September:

Southcentral Alaskans can expect a significant reduction in their heating bills starting in January … at this point it looks like the percentage drop could be “double-digit,” said John Sims, spokesman for the Anchorage company.

Enstar purchases its gas from Cook Inlet area producers and the price it pays is based on oil and natural gas price indexes in the Lower 48. As allowed by regulators, the utility passes that cost along to its customers, adjusting its rates for the cost of gas once per year.

Oil and gas prices started rising dramatically earlier this decade, with oil hitting historic highs last year.

This year, Enstar raised its overall rates 22 percent. In 2008, it lowered its rates 2 percent. In 2007, it raised them by 30 percent. Rates have more than doubled since 2004.

After 2007’s big rate increase, a survey of AARP’s Alaska members showed that nearly half of them reacted to the rate increase by “substantially” lowering the temperature in their homes, Secrest said.

The increases were “a difficult hit to take. It really hits customers where it hurts,” Sims said.

This year, the average prices of oil and gas have plunged amid the sharp Lower 48 recession.

Enstar isn’t the only utility reducing its rates because of oil and gas price declines.

Chugach Electric Association, which unlike Enstar, adjusts its rates quarterly, reduced its rates by 11 percent in July and has proposed an additional 4.5 percent decrease for the final three months of 2009.
The electric company uses natural gas to produce most of the power it sells to its Southcentral electricity customers.

I will ignore the other recent Enstar news that some of that last rate hike was trying to make us customers pay for a very large billing mistake Enstar made with a military Laundry.

But on the heels of the rate decrease, we get this news story today (edited of the boring bits for this post)!:

City unveils plan to reduce winter gas use

Cold showers, chilly living rooms and microwaved cuisine could be in store for Southcentral residents this winter as local utilities and government leaders search for ways to conserve natural gas.

Under the new scheme, city officials, working with the utilities, created a three-tiered alert system advising consumers how they should help conserve fuel to cut back demand in cases where the system faces an overload.

Last winter, the gas distribution system on several occasions nearly reached its limit. Utility leaders say the problem isn’t a lack of gas, it’s keeping the lines pressurized during the periods when demand is at its highest.

Here’s the new system’s color-coded advisory setup, which asks more and more of consumers as conditions worsen:

• Green: Normal operation. Residents are asked to “use energy wisely.”

• Yellow: Residents are urged to set living-area thermostats at 65 degrees; 40 degrees in garages. They are asked to lower water heater settings to “warm.”

• Red: Thermostats should be set to 60 degrees in living areas and water heater gas valves set to “pilot.” Household activities should be consolidated into as few rooms as possible and people should use the microwave for cooking.

Sullivan said there will be a test of the system Oct. 21 from 6-8 p.m., in which consumers will be asked “to curtail energy use” under the terms of code yellow to see how much power is saved.

At the press conference, Sullivan said officials plan to launch an advertising campaign urging people to adjust their habits if needed, though he acknowledged there was no way to force people to comply. However, executives from Enstar Natural Gas Co. and Chugach Electric Association said their customers are willing to make sacrifices.

“We’ve actually done surveys to answer that question,” said Chugach chief executive Bradley Evans. “Generally speaking, we had about a 70-80 percent reaction that said that they would do voluntary action to reduce the load.”

Bob Pickett, chairman of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, said he thought creating the plan and getting the public on board was “a very responsible effort” that could help avert a potential crisis in the darkest, coldest months.

“I think it’s fair to say that the deliverability issues are real and this has been a situation that’s been a long time in the making, a lot of reasons for it,” he said. “This is real and the actions of conservation on a short-term emergency basis could actually prevent the problem from happening.”

The gas fields in Cook Inlet have long supplied the demand, Sullivan said, but as gas has been extracted the reserves and pressure have declined. And dropping pressure means less gas can move through the lines.

To keep it flowing, the utilities have added compressors to give the gas a push into the Enstar system, ML&P general manager James Posey said. But if a compressor fails, as happened several times last winter, supply might not be able to keep up with demand.

In a worst-case scenario, which Sullivan said was unlikely to happen, utilities could implement rolling blackouts around town lasting from 20 to 30 minutes for residences and gas curtailments for commercial accounts.

This is ludicrous! The first article points out that with high prices, people were using less gas. Now we are getting lower prices and being asked to use less gas! Go read David’s blog on utilities (specifically water) and economics – Aguanomics – if you don’t get why. The incentive to lower the thermostat and put in more insulation is higher prices!! Under the above system, I get penalized for spending eight grand insulating my foundation – I still am morally required (but in no other way) to keep my house at 60 degrees if things get tight, even though I’m using much less gas than average to heat anyway. Hmmm…however, if the heat does get forcibly turned off for a while, my place will stay a lot toastier than those ritzy houses with the high cathedral ceiling and all the glass!

Bottom line: Enstar should not lower rates – they should charge more for natural gas, in a tiered manner (some gas for little, more for $$). Excess profits should be divvied up equally and refunded to customers.