Archive for March 2012

Switching the brain channel for solar.   Leave a comment

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about making my house solar powered.  I see two problems with it, but neither are really technological problems.  They are mental problems on the part of the end user.

This the Cansolair 240.  It has a heat output approximately equivalent to a 1200 to 2400W electric heating element, or 10,000 BTUs.  It’s actually a pretty good thermal solar panel, one of the best.  The first mental problem you have to get over is the ratio of size to energy output.  My toaster and the 240 both produce about 1200W of heat.  The panel is nearly 4 feet wide and 8 feet long.  It has volume of about 15 cubic feet.  The toaster can be held in one hand and has a volume of less than a 1/6 a cubic foot.  I don’t feel like running the numbers, but I suspect, all things considered, that the panel actually takes up less space if you tally everything.  The panel is an energy producer.  For a fair comparison the toaster needs to have added it’s individual share of the the hundreds of miles of power line, the tens of thousands of cubic feet of coal mine, transportation system, and power plant.  (If I was feeling up to it, I could average those things out and get a number, but meh.)  The point is here, you are not used to seeing your share of the entire power production and consumption apparatus  combined and attached to your wall or roof, so it seems disproportionately large.

The other issue is winter heat.  A problem with heating a house with solar energy is that when you need the most (winter) you have the least available and when you need the least (summer) you have the most available.  Winter in the midwest sometimes passes days without sun, and if you are going to go 100% solar, you need a huge thermal mass, and correspondingly huge collection area to make up for it.  The house, in essence, becomes an inhabited box behind the solar thermal collector, which in turn dictates virtually every aspect of the house’s shape and size.  This is particularly a problem if you are being environmentally responsible and rehabilitating an old house instead of building a new one.  The technological solution to this is to separate the house from the collector, and make the collector a fence like object in the backyard.  However, there is a simpler mental solution: drop the requirement for 100%.  The law of diminishing returns kicks in at different points in different locations.  Accept 100% when the sun shines, 0% when it doesn’t, and cover the gap with the responsible use of the lowest foot print technology you can.

100% renewable is almost a religious fanaticism. People use huge amounts of non renable resources to get that last 15% or so. Just slow down, relax, and be content with very good instead of best.


Ice Box ice usage   Leave a comment

So remember how I mentioned that I want to use a small solar powered freezer?  Specifically, this is the freezer I want:

The Sundanzer 50L Why a freezer?  Because if you have a freezer you have ice, and if you have ice, you can refrigerate.  Thus, a freezer grants you both the ability to freeze and the ability to refrigerate. A straight refrigerator grants you only the ability to refrigerate. Why choose one or the other?  Because you have to use a chest type, for efficiency. Chest type reefers are more efficient for a variety of reasons, but the biggest is that they don’t dump all their cold air out every time you open the door. In fact, you can strongly reduce your power usage by just turning a Chest type into a refrigerator by putting a refrigerator thermostat in it.  But the point here is that no one makes dual compartment chest types.  The freezer and reefer unit have to be separate,  so if you can only get one, get the freezer.  Why the Sundanzer 50L?

The Sundanzer because it has 4″ of high quality insulation and uses the same premium compresser that all high end, high efficiency units use.  The 50L because it is the smallest, lower power using one they have.  It only uses about 100W  a day.  That’s the same energy requirement of using a microwave for about 6 minutes, or two bags of popcorn.  That’s why you can use solar power for them.  The idea hear is make a real, old fashioned icebox (only with premium 4″ insulation), and us that as a refrigerator while using the SunDanzer to make ice for it.  How much ice?

Today’s handy fact: Ice use in a well designed icebox is around 1 lb of ice per cubic foot per day.

A 50 quart cooler (The Model T of coolers) has a capacity of 1.671 cubic feet, you’d expect it to use 1.671 pounds of ice a day. Premium stock coolers are listed as staying cool for 5-7 days. That’s 8.3 to 11.7 lbs of ice which takes up 16.6-23.4 quarts. which is approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of capacity…perfectly in line with manufacturer recommendations, and confirming the 1 lb per cubic foot per day.

Finally, the first electric refrigerator for the middle class, the GE Monitor Top was 5-7 cubic feet. GE chose that size because it was a close approximation of the average icebox of the late 1920’s. Going with the above formula, the average icebox should have used between 5-7 lbs of ice a day. Ice came in 25 or 50 lb blocks, so you would need around two 25 lb blocks a week or one 50 lb block. Which if I recall, is reasonable reports of people who remember using iceboxes.  How big is a 25 lb block of ice? 10″x10″x7″ is the standard.

Survivalists and preppers are nuts.   6 comments

As I’ve said many times before, I grew up in a cult like environment, though not a cult. One of the things my parents got really excited about was the end of the civilization. I think within their peer group of religious fundamentalists this was totally normal, so it’s not like they were bizarely fixated on it, with in that group.  It’s just that group was (and I’m sure still is) bizarely fixated on it.  I think it adds a lot of unnecessary unpleasantness to your childhood/adolesence when your big concern in choosing a girlfriend is someone who is really pumped about living in a crawlspace with your family while you wait for the radioactively of the fallout to decline to safe levels.  In short, my parents were a little…um…touched.  On of the interesting things that has happened recently is that being a bat shit insane survivalist has gone mainstream.  There’s even a show about it.  These otherwise normal people buying pellets of freeze dried food so when the “big one goes” they will be living it up in MRE luxury. It makes me laugh, honestly.  Societies don’t fall apart on their own.  They fall apart when the social and physical infrastructure that hold them up rots out.  You have these people who think they will be fine in the total collapse of society because they have an AR-15, a 1000 rounds of ammo, and a 55 gallon drum of cracked wheat, but it just ain’t so.

Under normal circumstances if you use lethal force, the strong arm of society comes in and applies due process.  Unless you want to go jail for murder for the rest of your life, you’d best call the cops after you shoot a thief, even better before you shoot him.  Even under circumstances where the society is near breaking point, police still make an effort to investigate homicide, and you can be certain that Billy Badass’s mom or brother or girlfriend knew he was going out to your place, and will send the cops out there when he doesn’t come back.  If Billy is crow’s food, or burried in a shallow grave, you are going to jail for a long time IF society is functioning well.  If its not, you might just be shot there for “resisting arrest”.  Remember? Society is failing?  The cops are being given more latitude to keep the peace.

“No, man! I don’t mean like society is failing. I mean it’s totally destroyed! No cops. No phones. Nothing!”  So their idea is, society fails to point where you can just use lethal force with impunity, law of the jungle, everyman for himself.  Here’s why that A-15 and barrel of wheat are going to amount to jack squat.  Because if the law of the jungle is really in effect, there are people who can exploit that much more effectively than the average gun savvy home owner.  Like the police, who are already armed to the teeth, wearing body armor, and trained to work together.  Or the military, whose first action will be to sieze fuel stores and make sure that they control who has the capacity to project force using mobile infantry and who doesn’t.  Tell my how that AR-15 works against an enemy who has air superiority.  Oh…also both those groups will have the support of the locals because people crave legitimacy and authority MORE, not less, when times are bad. It gives them a sense of order.

If you really want to survive doomsday show up at city council meetings and have a good middle of the road, pro-everybody, pro-community attitude, and volunteer for every police related volunteer function available.  Power keeps power.  Always. The people in charge, and the people legally allowed to utilize force will have it the best.  If your mayor likes you and the cops like you…you will be the first one to get stuff and the last to have stuff taken away.  Read history if you don’t believe me. This survivalism stuff is self-congratulatory BS for grownups who want to live in an adolescent fantasy world: “I don’t need you!  I DON’T NEED ANYBODY!  I’m going to run away with my friends and we’re going to be HAPPY. I’ll show you! I’ll show EVERYBODY!”

All that said, preppers and survivalists are onto at least one truth: the world changes in unexpected ways, and preparation can help ease the transition.  So my wife and I have developed a simple principal to be as prepared as possible without becoming wack-jobs: joy.  When survival preparation adds to our self-worth and joy we do it. When it doesn’t, we don’t.  Fuel supplies can be erratic at random times, and fireplaces are beautiful.  So we want a fireplace.  Electricity can save lives, but solar is insanely expensive, so we’re just powering a small freezer with solar.  Home made food is delicious, and food supplies can be erratic, so we will have a garden, and some ducks.  Above all, no one survives or thrives alone, so we are going cultivate relationships with people.

I think that might be what survivalist get wrong, above all.  They draw back and hide in the hills, because they think that’s safer.  But it’s not.  Community is an evolutionary development.  At it’s most basic, human survival is calorie problem.  Calorie output is required to cause calorie input.  The input must excede the output, or you starve to death.  Community was adopted as a strategy before humans existed because it works.  Communities generate more calories while expending less to do so, than the same number of individuals collectively.  If they didn’t, societies that embraced community would die out from the evolutionary pressure of societies that didn’t.  The ultimate survival tool is a community.  People who pull away from that increase their risk, not decrease it.

Narrow gauge dreams   Leave a comment

So, often when I’m gone for awhile, I’m thinking about one of my subjects of interest obsessively.  Of late it’s been nuclear reactors, intermodal freight and Star Wars.  It is far easier for me to write about one part of  the intermodal freight thoughts than an the others, so here goes.

I like to pretend that I could take over Russia in the early 1800’s, and what I would do for a transportation network.

I’d begin by switching to the metric system, and then adopting a sort of Decauville system, 80 years early.   Decauville had several standardized engines and track systems which worked like a giant model railway, with pre-made sections of track that were made to portable by one or two men on foot.  It was a fantastic idea.  All the trench railways of WWI were Decauville or Decauville compatible.

My first idea was start with the smallest narrow gauge that has ever been profitable, the 400mm, and then advance in 50% increases, like this.

0.4 m, 0.6 m, 0.9 m, 1.35 m, 2.025m, but decided to simply squish the 900-1350mm section in the middle into one, 1m gauge, and simplify the 2025mm down to a nice, simple 2000 mm (It’s only 2.5% difference after all.)  That gives a nice, simple 4 part progression of of.

400, 600, 1000, 2000 mm.    Why all 4?

The 400mm gauge is TINY.  This is why the militaries did not consider it for colonial or military narrow gauges.  Why bother at all?  2 reasons: First, tiny means light, and portability is often an advantage worth the compromise.  They could be reliably and safely pushed around by a single person, something larger ones could not. Remember that the days of these things were before trucks, before conveyer belts, and before tractors.  These toy-like trains were the 4×4 trucks of their day, and thousands were used by contractors.  As you dug a hole, the dirt went in the train. As the digging moved, it was no problem to pick up the light track and redirect the trains.  The second, sometimes inches matter.  A purposed railway through a terrible pass in Burma was suggested to be 400mm because the extra handbreadth of 500mm or more was simply undoable in the terrain.

(Let’s skip the 600mm for the moment)

The 1 m is the world standard for narrow gauge. 750mm up to 1067 (Cape gauge) covers virtually every major narrow gauge on earth.  Oddly, at these narrow rail gauges, the loading gauges are surprising similar, which was one of my reasons to go with the 1 m standard.  If you need a normal run of the mill railroad, with mixed freight and passenger service, through rough terrain, 1 m gauge (or the nearly identical 3 foot gauge) is used worldwide.

2 m is larger than any normal gauge in use, but not as much as you might think.  India and a few other places have thousands of kilometers of 5’6″  gauge (1676mm) rail.  The reason for jumping the extra 324mm up to 2 m is for sake of containerization, intermodal transport and standardization.  The 1 m loading gauge is about 2.25m.  2 m gauge allows you load 2.25m wide cargo 2 across, for a loading gauge of 4.5 m.  They could be double stacked as well which allows for terrific capacity, yet clearly not unreasonable since it is only an improvement over what is currently available.  The 400mm would have a proportionally higher loading gauge, and could take a standardized pallet of 1.125 m (very close to the standard US pallet, which is the most profitable type in existence.)

But what of the 600mm?

It could only take the pallets at single width, just like the 400.  It couldn’t take containers at a 2.25 width like the 1m.  Why then?  The 600mm (virtually identical in service to the 2 foot gauge) has been described as “the biggest little”.   In many places which had both 3 foot and 2 foot equipment, it was the 2 foot gauge that lasted the longest.  This was the gauge all the militaries chose for their military and colonial railroads.  Thousands of kilometers of 2 foot gauge rail criss-cross Australian sugar  plantations.  The promise of narrow gauge was go further for less, and it seems that the 600mm is the best gauge at meeting the promise of narrow gauge.  The 40% larger 1 m gauge frequently costs nearly as much as full gauge, and is only justifiable in very rough terrain.  The 50% smaller 400mm is often just too small to be worth the effort.   400mm has been the choose of odd circumstance and portability. 1 m the chose of common service in uncommon terrain, but the 600mm is the ideal compromise gauge.  Further, while containerization and pallets are nice…they are not the only thing railroads to.  Railways often carry both bulk freight and passengers.  The 1524 mm  loading gauge of  the 600 mm gauge allows bigger cars and comfier seating.  If you truly need minimal, scraping by but barely rail service, 600mm is the way to go.  Also, there are special railways.

The longer and faster the train, the more profitable.  Long fast trains need shallow changes of elevation (not much more than 2%) and gentle curves.  In rough terrain this can be horribly expensive, which is why long, fast trains through mountains are so often 1 m gauge. (Narrower gauge means smaller tunnels, and tighter curves).  With short enough trains and specialized engines (all axles powered) inclines of up to around 10% are possible, but for around 11-24% inclines, you need cog railways (essentially you put a pinion on your drive axle and rack between the rails.  For 25%-50% you need a different kind of cog railway, with the rack making a T in the center, teeth pointing out, and the cogs turning horizontally, 90 deg off from vertical. (For anything over 50% your technology becomes much less a train and much more of an elevator on rails. It’s called a funicular.)  I think that the 600mm gauge should be the specified gauge for cog ways, since such specialized railways are rarely common carriers and often twist through rough terrain. (Yet you want to do it with the largest common, making the 400mm to small.)

So my plan (if I could start fresh circa 1800) would go like this:


Standardized containers of 2.25 x 2.25 x 9 m  (About 7 x 7 x 29 1/2 feet)

Pallets of 1.125 m square for the containers.

Five key features matter when laying out railways: gauge, loading gauge (for tunnels and right of way size), grade, curvature (the radius of turns), and axle load (tons per axle.)

The 2 m gauge would have three standards.  Heavy, Standard, and Light.  Heavy and Standard would have identical loading gauge, but would be different regarding grade, curvature, and axle load.  The heavy would be specified to have shallow grades, long radius turns and high axle loads.  Standard would be just be rougher and slower, but sill made for the same 4.5 m X 4.5 m cargo size.  Light would the steepest (perhaps around 10%) and curviest with the lightest possible axle load, and the 2.25 m loading gauge of the 1 m line.

The 1 m gauge would have 2 standards: Standard and Light. (There is no heavy, because if it needs to be heavy for 1 m gauge, it should be laid as 2 m gauge).  The goal for 1 m Standard would be to meet or excede the right of way standards for 2 m Light standards whenever possible, with the acceptance that some tighter curves are acceptable hear and there, but with shallower maximum grade.  (In both the Light 2 m and the Standard 1 m, tunnels are avoided when ever feasible, with the plan being to put in Standard 2 m tunnels when traffic warrants conversion from either Light 2 m or Standard 1 m). Light would be the steepest, curviest, and lowest axle load possible.

The reason for these over lapping standards is that very lightly built full gauge is usually preferable to narrow gauge.  Narrow gauge is made without the room to grow that full gauge has and costs more per ton to operate.  Thus, it should only be used when truly necessary.  Despite the loading gauge problems of small bore tunnels and the axle load problems of light bridges, the fullest single network (even if some is composed of low grade parts) is better than two separate networks.  If nothing else, the ability to move things without break of gauge (even through a highly restricted loading gauge) is superior.  The reason is that light full gauge equipment has 100% interchangeability thought the network, where as narrow gauge can only be used on narrow gauge.

The 400 mm Standard would be very simple, as it it would be standardized components rather than standard practice, more like laying pipe than laying street.  Being it is designed to set on, rather than in the land it operates in.  The preferred loading gauge standard would be to accomodate the standard pallet, but pallet handling is only one facet of the 400mm railroad’s applications, and should not be a hang up.

The 600mm would have 2 standards.  The Short Term and Long Term.  Short Term would be a scaled up modular “toy train” system like the 400 mm, and subject to the same ad hoc basis. Long Term would be more like a miniature version of the Standard 1 m.