Thursday, September 13, 2007

My September Green Report: Compost & Solar Power

Here's an update on our own solar power usage -

Solar Heated Water:
In June I wrote about our latest "solar" addition, our hot water heater: Going even more solar!

Our second gas bill reflecting use of solar heated water shows that for the month of August 2007 we used 14 CCF of natural gas, compared to 20 CCF in August 2006 (prior year) and 13 CCF in July 2007 (prior month). So we're continuing to consume less gas compared to last year. We had a few chilly days (and nights) in the middle of August and I think the heat may have kicked on for an hour or two when the temperature dropped below 69 degrees in the bedroom; that may explain why we used a little more gas in August versus July.

The temperature of the water in the solar-heated water tank continues to be consistently above 100 degrees (F) and is usually much closer to 130-150+ in the middle of the day and late evening. We haven't needed to turn on the heat yet, but by the end of September there may be a few chilly nights. Our gas consumption should also increase then, since our home is heated using gas.

Solar Electric:

We also have solar electric panels which generate electric current to feed the "grid"; this helps reduce our electric bill. We use electricity for our lighting and appliances and the biggest consumption of electric is from the air conditioners during the summer.

In August 2007, we used 983 KWH, which brings us to a total of 5,430 through KWH 8 months. I think we're past the air conditioning season, except for a few days here and there, so hopefully our KWH usage will decrease over the next few months.

We're still on target for about 50% of 2005's usage. We sold our 5 SREC's for $1,000; so far this year we've paid $800 for our electric bills, so we're still ahead by $200 with four months left this year. If we generate the same solar power as last year, we'll end up with a net annual electric bill of about $200. Compare that to our annual bill in 2005 of about $1,800. That's pretty good in my book.

Today's Bergen Record had an article regarding the future of the New Jersey rebate program and future sales of SREC's: Solar Power Incentive to Shift: Long-term payback will replace rebates.

Compost:
Recently, our local newspaper published this article about composting: Compost becoming key part of green living in North Jersey.

We've been composting our grass, leaves and food scraps for about 5 years. It all started when I was watching "Gardening by the Yard" on HGTV (back when that channel actually was about home and gardens!) and the host constantly talked about compost and compost tea and how good it is for the garden. We were tired of bagging the grass clippings, so we started by mulch-mowing the lawn. Then, one autumn, instead of bagging our leaves we mowed them into small pieces and left them in a thick layer in one section of the yard where the ground was especially hard. By the following spring, they had broken down and we could dig them into the ground; that's were I have my "shade garden" now.

One spring, the Bergen County Utilities Authority offered an "Earth Machine" compost bin for $35 to residents. The only requirement was to sign up in advance, which we did. Once we got the bin home and decided where to locate it (right next to the veggie garden), we had to fill it up. Finding the "green" stuff was easy -- we had plenty of grass clippings. Finding the "brown" stuff took a little extra effort, since we'd already spread our leaf mulch from the previous year. So we learned that it takes a little planning to keep the right mix of materials on hand.

Now, we have an "add as you go" kind of pile next to the garden and in another section of the yard we have last year's leaves and other garden debris, so we always have a good supply of the "brown" to add as needed. It's also important to turn the pile frequently; we have a special tool for that, but I think a good old-fashioned pitch fork works best.

We keep a bin for kitchen scraps under the kitchen sink. What goes in there? Coffee grinds, teabags, egg shells, banana skins, peanut shells and any other kind of vegetation. I had to mark it as compost one day after a guest mistook it for the garbage pail and put non-compostable material in it. This bin has a carbon filter on top which helps control odors. Also, we purchased liner bags made of a "plastic" that decomposes in the compost pile. This helps keep the bin cleaner.

So -- all year long we add to the compost pile, even in the winter. Then, in the spring, before it's time to actually sow any seeds or plant anything, we empty out the bin. On the bottom of the pile is finished compost. You know it's good when it's full of earth worms! I usually divide this good stuff up and spread it into each of my vegetable garden beds. I also save some to spread around the various perennials throughout the yard. The top of the pile usually is not fully composted; I just toss it back in to start the next year's compost.

Does it really make a difference? Well, in terms of what we throw away in the garbage, it's reduced our trash by at least one full bag every week. That's significant for two people. I'm thinking about shredding my junk mail and adding that for extra "brown" material. That should cut down another bag of trash every month.

And as for the garden -- well, I think I've got the best tasting tomatoes anywhere. Our soil started out as hard, sticky clay, and now it's dark and rich and full of earth worms.

Composting takes a little time and effort to get the "system" set up, but once it's part of the routine, it's really quite easy!

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