Tuesday, November 08, 2011

repairing our front-loading washing machine

broken shock absorber

We've generally loved our front-loading Kenmore/Sears washing machine. It doesn't use much water or electricity, gets clothes cleaner, and leaves clothes dryer than our old top-loading machine ever did.

But for a while, it's been behaving strangely. It was vibrating a lot during the final spin, occasionally spilling water from the hose, and sometimes making a whomping noise audible in the rest of the house. Still, it was getting clothes clean, so I didn't worry about it too much. Then last week it stopped in the middle of a cycle—it had tripped the GFCI breaker, and resetting that didn't do any good.

That meant I actually had to do something about it—at least after some hours at work, then taking the half-done laundry load to the nearest laundromat to wash. I took the front panel off and immediately noticed the broken shock absorber-type thingy that connects the drum to the frame. There wasn't a great puddle of water or anything else obviously wrong that I could see, so I let it sit while I got some replacement parts.

After it sat and dried for a couple of days, I tried it again, and it was ready to go. My theory is that it splashed itself during one of its violent episodes. So I unplugged the washer again, and set to replacing the shock absorbers. The old ones were challenging to remove, and the new ones almost as challenging to put in. Fortunately the parts came with instructions which helped, but it still involved a lot of awkward reaching, grunting and pushing and pulling pieces to get done. I ended up taking the back off, too, which helped get access to the plastic pins that hold each end of the shock absorber.

I also took the opportunity to clean out the water inlet filters. The hot water (which we don't use much) was pretty badly clogged. It was also interesting to note that there's a lot of empty space and some cement blocks (attached to the drum, to reduce vibration) inside the washer. And interesting to note that the replacement shock absorbers use a different design—I don't think we're the only ones to have this particular breakdown.

In any event, $35, some banged knuckles, and a test cycle later, the washing machine is back to its wonderful self.

Monday, June 20, 2011

solar in California

There was potentially big news for solar in California. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) decided that PG&E and other utility companies have to pay homeowners for excess solar power. In the past, it's been simple net-metering, and any excess was used to offset their bill. Now PG&E has to pay a market rate for the excess. In theory that means solar panels can be paid off sooner, and eventually even make money.

Why isn't this huge news? Because the price was set based on daytime wholesale electricity rates paid to power plant owners, which fluctuate daily based on market conditions. That means when supply is low and demand is high, all is good for power producers. But much of the day and much of the year, California has an excess of electricity available, which means low prices, sometimes even negative.

Part of my day job is writing software for a small power plant, one piece of which is a program to monitor the energy price through the day. The price is set by the California ISO (CAISO), and is affected by supply and demand, loss, and transmission costs. After deregulation, companies like Enron gamed the market, resulting in power shortages, rolling blackouts and high prices. CAISO is designed to hopefully eliminate that possibility in the future, in part by always making sure there's more than enough power to meet the demand.

This year in particular, prices have been relatively low in part because demand has been low due to cooler than normal temperatures (until last week), and in part because of higher supply. Why not just dial back production if there's too much? Some generation is hydroelectric, and generates 24x7 depending on water flow, which has been higher this year. Even fossil-fuel based plants that can be adjusted up or down usually can't be adjusted that quickly, so there's generally a large excess.

The other factor is that solar is still a tiny portion of the power generated in California. Yesterday, for example, solar in California accounted for 4,142 MW hours of power, mostly between 8AM and 7PM. That's out of total system demand of 602,261 MW hours, or less than 0.7% of the total. A residential solar install is going to be a tiny fraction of that tiny fraction. All that means that with prices set based on market rates, the payment amounts are going to be very small.

As noted in the article, some people think this is fair, while others think the price paid should be higher to encourage further solar development. What's the right answer? I don't know, but in the short-term this doesn't change much, even for most solar owners. We still don't have solar power, but now that our neighbor's big tree is gone, it may make sense.

Monday, May 02, 2011

gardening with a sawzall

pampas grass

We're still getting used to the absent tree. The additional light in K's office is nice, and I'm loving having fewer pine needles to clean off the roof and the front walk. And I've still got some work to do on the stairs from the carport. But all those improvements have made some other things more clear.

One is the ugly mound of pampas grass that's been growing near the base of the stairs since forever. The plumes may look pretty when it's blooming, but the main mound is full of dry, yellowed leaves, and the green leaves have a nasty sharp edge to them. K has been wanting to get rid of it for a while, so today after I dropped her off at the airport, I came home and set to work. On Friday I'd purchased a machete from our local hardware store, and between that and judicious use of my sawzall to cut off the dense central clumps, I managed to get rid of 2/3rds of it. I filled our green bin, so after that's emptied on Wednesday morning I'll attack it again.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

changing scenery

Yesterday was not a productive day. I wasn't expecting it to be super productive, but I basically got no work done. Our uphill neighbor told us last month that she was going to have one of the big Monterey pines next to her house taken out. I've always been aware of the trees -- the many (non-Eucalyptus) trees are part of why I bought the house where I did. But this particular pine was right next to her house, with a major branch hanging over ours. Over the years, she had an arborist take care of it, but it had become somewhat unbalanced over the last few years. Even before that, K and I worried a bit during big storms or earthquakes that all or part might come crashing down. So I was torn when I heard it was time for it to come down -- it's beautiful, but can be a little scary.

hecka big crane

Taking down a tree that large between houses and power lines is a tricky business. So they brought in a crane. It's a big tree, so it needed a really big crane. (They were also taking out a smaller dead cypress tree near the other side of the house, and the crane would help with that, too.) Between the crane, chainsaws, wood chipper, and general mayhem, I was anticipating a noisy day. I stayed home hoping to work and to deal with any issues that might come up, and K wisely went to the Mercy Center for a day-long retreat. Guess who was more successful?

Friday morning we woke to the sound of a big crane lumbering its way up the hill. We also woke to the news of the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Although we currently don't have family there, K's brother and sister-in-law used to live in Tokyo (their oldest daughter was born there), and I was there several times on business and worked with some software engineers from Toshiba for a couple of years. So I was not only distracted by the mayhem outside, but I was frequently checking the web for news, praying, thinking of former colleagues and was generally very distracted by the events there. Add to that the relatively minor worries about the tsunami striking California, and it was not a peaceful or productive day.

Despite all that, the they did safely bring the tree down. They started by lowering a guy into the tree with the crane. He proceeded to tie off then cut branches, which were then lowered by crane to the ground for others to deal with. This went on all day, and by 6pm or so, it was all over but the cleanup. They did a lot of that last night, and then came and finished up this morning. We haven't counted the rings yet, but it was a very large tree. You can get some idea of how big it is from the picture of the slice in the back of the truck. It's about 5 feet across at the widest point.

We'll miss the tree (not so much during storms), but removing it has already made a big change in the neighborhood. People further up the hill have new views. We have a lot more light on the north and east sides of the house. And I'll have a lot fewer pine needles and branches to clean from the roof and front walk. One downside is that the azaleas along the path will no longer be self-watering. During the summer, the fog would condense on the tree and drip down onto the flower beds below. Now we may actually have to water them some. On the other hand, it reduces the fire risk, and improves our prospects for solar PV panels.

Monday, February 21, 2011

urban homesteading

I'm still not 100% done with the stairs to the carport, but they're fully functional and passed the elderly mother-in-law test. I still need to add more spindles to the railings, and some more lighting, but the stairs and railings are there.

Once that's done, I probably won't have as many DIY projects to blog about, so I plan to blog more about urban homesteading. I was inspired in part by Novella Carpenter here in Oakland, who wrote Farm City: the education of an urban farmer and runs Ghost Town Farm. I've also found inspiration from City Homestead here in Oakland. They don't have much in the way of an urban or city homestead yet, but they both feel strongly about local food and are taking steps in that direction. Quite a bit further along are my friends at Casa Decrepit in Alameda. They grow all sorts of fruits and vegetables, and have kept chickens for eggs for a number of years.

But the real inspiration of where to head is from Root Simple (formerly known as Homegrown Evolution) and authors of The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-sufficient Living in the Heart of the City. Back when I was first reading Farm City and started following various urban homesteading blogs, Root Simple was one of the first and best I came across. K didn't know I was following their blog at that point, but came home from a business trip with a book for me -- The Urban Homestead.

For me, it's not about saving money (though that's a bonus), it's about knowing where your food comes from. That's a large part of why I became a vegetarian over a decade ago -- the idea of factory farms and having no idea what's going into your food, and a process that's damaging the environment -- it's clearly not sustainable in the long run and not very healthy in the short run.