We can rebuild him… The six hundred dollar lawn mower

Well, off work and back to the garage.  So I have this electric lawnmower.  A year or two ago, I got sick of fixing various aspects of the fuel system once or twice a year, so I got rid of it.  (the fuel system, that is)  It occured to me that it could be done with an electric motor.  30 amp motor with a 40Ah battery = about 1 hour 20 minutes of run time.  In fact, the motor only draws 20 amps continuously giving nearly 2 hours of operation.  So a few days ago I had to fix it.  It didn’t break down, it was broken.  My nephew hit a bracket against the shed doorway and snapped it off so that the on switch was no longer operable by the lever on the handle.  The on switch was down by the motor and not easy to reach and actuate.  It had to be moved.  I got it moved and hooked up a linkage so that release of the safety kill lever on the handle also shuts off the mower.  I also added a voltmeter on the handle for easy viewing.  Now the kids can keep mowing the lawn with a mower charged by a solar panel on the shed and do it while I’m sleeping because it is nice and quiet!

BTW, got the threaded rod and I’m almost finished with the scooter battery pack, will post pictures in the next day or so.

suburbanecogeek, the oxymoron

It has been said that the suburban lifestyle is inherently non-sustainable.  It is hard for me to disagree.  It is arguably the most consumptive way of living known to man.  Everything is transported from somewhere else, often from other continents.  The legacy of the automobile and the “flight from the cities” that occurred in the ’50s is the infamous commute of modern suburbia.  The modern home construction of 4 or 5,000 square foot homes for three people to do little more than sleep in and yet require air conditioning, irrigation and lighting and pools that need heating has become the epitome of wastefulness, not to mention the status symbol H2 or pickup truck sitting in the driveway.  Even the city dweller lives a lower impact existence in general.  Living in apartments which are (generally) more efficient to thermoregulate, regular use of public transit, and slightly more use of locally sourced food make the city dweller more “green” on a per person basis than many suburbanites with lawns and trees.  While I am not sure that I will be able to meet my goal of net zero for energy, food and materials, there are a few reasons I feel it necessary to look at sustainability from the perspective of the suburbanite.

One reason is that that is where I come from.  I was born, raised and currently am a suburbanite.  I had an awakening of sorts in ’04 a few years after I had bought a house and planted roots.  Relocating to a more rural setting would require changing jobs and taking kids out of school, leaving friends, just not practical.  If I had it to do over again knowing what I know now, I would likely be living somewhere else.  This is the situation that a huge number of others are in as well.  We would like to make some changes but to do so would be cumbersome and, let’s face it, we’ve become accustomed to our luxuries.

Another reason is sheer numbers.  Huge numbers of people live in the suburbs.  There is not enough land for all of us to go back to the farm and live a more sustainable agrarian existence.  These numbers make for a huge potential for improvements, however.  The potential for sustained energy production and storage is huge.  The potential for savings is equally immense.  Imagine replacing 90% of all suburban commuters’ cars with a combination of electric vehicles, mass transit fueled mostly by solar panels, and wind turbines on most houses.  The load can be leveled by distributed storage, i.e., a battery pack in the garage of each house all controlled by a smart grid.  This dream/hallucination may never come to pass, but simply envisioning the scenario can give one an idea of the scale of the potential.

Further is the issue of necessity.  I think we all know that someday energy in the form of oil will become scarce and we will all have to live with less.  The wastefulness that is the suburban lifestyle will have to either come to an end or be adapted to meet the demands of a new reality.

I began by saying that the suburban lifestyle has been deemed by some to be not sustainable.  It is hard for me to disagree, but it is also difficult for me to accept.  It is difficult for me to envision a world without the sprawl.  For better or worse, it is here, maybe not to stay, but with great inertia.  The forces required to eliminate it would have to be immense.  My intention is to show that changes can be made which can make it possible.  Some of it has already been done.

The solar panels are up.  My electric bill for the month of March was $17.  True, July was $170 but my neighbor’s was $450.  I will soon reiterate my offer to the electric company to use my battery pack for research toward a smart grid.  I have almost finished upgrading my electric car to perform my 26 mile each way commute with ease.  Our house uses about 1/4 the water of the average house in the county with low flow toilets and about $150 of plumbing parts! Rainwater collection is coming.  Food production is a work in progress.  We recycle about twice as much mass as we throw out in trash.  Then there are the other things such as the Excursion which runs on waste fry oil , the solar-powered lawnmower, LED bulbs, the list goes on.

Everyone would not need to do this in the same way.  I just recently met a man who was selling electricity to the power company every month with a solar array a fraction of the size of mine.  He conserves a lot more than I do.  He has a great garden and he and his wife get a good portion of their food from it while living on a half-acre lot.  They have a rain water collection system, a hand cranked clothes dryer, a better solar hot water system than mine and a work truck that runs on waste vegetable oil.  Vive la difference!  For him being a suburban eco geek is far from being an oxymoron.

Although some adaptations are cheap like low flow shower heads, some, like the photovoltaic panels, are not.  (They will pay for themselves in about 7 1/2 years after installation.)  It’s hard to say if the electric cars in the end will be cheaper than gas or not.  The point of this has not been to save money, though I may eventually.  I did it because I felt a moral imperative to do so.  There is a problem with energy consumption.  I had the ability to do something about it.  How could I not?  In the end, it has been surprising how little we have given up.  What I can say is that the satisfaction of listening to the A/C running, the pool pump working and the refrigerator cooling while watching my electric meter running backwards is priceless.  It would make me happy if someday many more suburban eco geeks could know that feeling.


Where did I get that nylon threaded rod?

Well, I’m finally off work for a few days.  I was hoping to finish building the battery pack for the scooter, but it looks like that won’t happen now.  I thought that it would be a simple thing to get some more 3/8 inch nylon threaded rod to hold the pack together.  It really needs to be nylon because it is non-conductive.  It is one of the few plastics that is made into useful fasteners.  I tried about nine different local stores, shops, supply houses and salvage yards and no one has any, let alone in the size I need.  I finally had to order some through Grainger but it won’t come from South Carolina until three days from now when I will be back to working again so the whole thing will have to wait for about another week.

The thing that bothers me the most is that I can’t remember where the heck I got it in the first place.  You could pick just about any bit of material or tool in my garage, (and there’s a LOT of crap in there) and I can tell you where it came from.  Not so with the threaded rod.  This is bothering me.  I know that I got it at least 5 years ago when I got it for a few things for Sparky the electric car.  I just can’t remember where.  Maybe this is just early dementia.  I prefer to think that as I get older,  there are so many facts stuffed into my brain that I just can’t keep them straight.  Just like my garage.

Whatever.  I will try to get some work done on Sparky this weekend and probably post some pictures by Monday night.  Have a good weekend folks.


frankenscooter battery pack etc.

I have finally learned how to upload a picture!  The parts were ready after all at the plastic shop.  Now imagine one of those 3D puzzles of something like the capitol building or a castle only this one looks more like a nuclear reactor core.  The puzzle has no instructions and I have to make some of the pieces myself.  Oh yeah and if I put it together wrong, it will catch fire and destroy itself wasting several hundred dollars worth of parts that it took me months to accumulate.  (NOT AGAIN!).  I have been taking my time and tripple checking everything.  The blue things are the batteries themselves (Headway 16 ah Lithium iron phosphate 3.2V each for those who care).  That is the first row out of three for a total of 16 cells and 48 volts.  I would rather have spent the time working on the electric car, but it has been too wet and humid for me to be motivated to do it.  At least I can work on that battery pack in A/C.  Should be cooler and more importantly drier soon!

The trip to the hydroponics place was educational.  The way to keep animals from eating OUR food: chicken wire.  I was hoping for something more creative, but some sort of screen should work.  We’ll see when we start construction.  It will depend on how much my wife builds and how much I have to build.  Maybe over time we can become self sufficient in Florida after all.  Yes, of course there will be a lot more to it, but sustainability without ability to grow your own vegetables just won’t happen.  Another part of the plan is to visit the sustainable farm /intentional community of a friend, John Butts www.ecofarmfl.org.  I expect that there will be a lot to learn even from a one day visit.  My wife has even found info on a peach tree that will thrive in Florida!  Fresh peaches are a weakness of both of ours.

Well it’s back to work, so probably no more posts at least about project progress for about a week.  I do feel a monologue about the nature of sustainability particularly as it pertains to the suburban lifestyle coming on though.  Stay tuned.


september 9th

Another day in the life…  First day off in a while.  Tomorrow will be quite the greeniac day.  Will start off by making a run to the hazmat disposal facility for a variety of things.  Next will be a stop off at my friend’s place to see if the new plastic battery holder for my upcoming lithium ion powered frankenscooter is done.  Then to lunch with the wife and on to a hydroponics shop to research what we can think about growing in our back yard.  So far in our gardening attempts, the zucchini fares well.  Everything else seems to have an animal eating it just before it gets fit for harvesting for human consumption.  I hope this will be different.  Maybe the local storeowner can give us some advice as to how to feed ourselves instead of the indigenous wildlife.  The cool thing is that this should tie in well with the rain harvesting project that I plan on starting in a few months.  No new projects though until Sparky is back on the road and I at least have the Lotus on four wheels.

Mental note: even though no one is reading this yet, I should still figure out how to post pictures on this blog.  Until next time…


first effort

Welcome to Suburbanecogeek!  This space is meant to be a blog about a a guy (me, Matt) with a family, who lives in the suburbs and is trying to live more sustainably.  This is intended to be a chronicle of my experiences and projects for the purpose of sharing the reality of successes, failures and trials of trying to find ways to use less and produce more.  I hope that others will share their experiences with me so that we can share information, learn from each other and sometimes just comiserate.

About me…

I am in my 40’s.  Old enough to know about a lot of things going on in the world, young enough to feel compelled to do something about it and naive or foolish enough to think that I may be able to effect some change.  One of my favourite quotes is “I reject your reality and substitute my own” Adam Savage, Mythbusters.  Another is “Be the change you wish to see in the world” M.K. Ghandi.  Everyone has heard that current consumption of various natural resources is not sustainable and will end at some point in time.  The only question is when and how painfully.  I see most people waiting for a flawed government to do something about it.  I (and a surprisingly large number of others) am taking matters into my (our) own hands.  A few years ago I decided to reject the petroleum based reality thrust upon me and substitute my own lower impact and more self sufficient way of conducting my life and the life of my family.  I decided to be the change I wished to see in the world.

This has been a slow and imperfect and as yet incomplete process.  It started with converting an old jeep to run on batteries.  It was driven for about three years and is now in the process of being converted ftom lead to lithium batteries.  Right now I drive my gas car to work.  My wife drives her Prius.  We have enough solar panels on the roof to cover most but not all of our electric bill.  I live in Florida and depend on AC, this is no small feat.  I converted a diesel truck to run on used fry oil, but that will be sold soon as we don’t need it anymore.  We still get some power from the grid. While we only use a quarter of the average water use per household in our county, we still need to be connected to public utilities.

The point of all this is to say that one man can make a difference.  OK, that may be an overstatement,  but a few people who lead by example and refuse to shut up may be able to make this world a better place.  If I can do these things, so can others.  I’m a white collar worker, but I learned to weld and fabricate metal.  I’m not an electrical engineer, but I was able to design and build a reliable electric car that worked and was practical for daily use.  IF I CAN, SO CAN YOU!  That is my reason for doing this blog, to spread the word and show people that this can be done.

This is an ongoing story, just like life.  Stay tuned…  For now I have to go running and then finish assembling the battery management system for the electric jeep “sparky”.