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sailing and solar houses
12 feb 1996
ian woofenden  writes, in medias res, to the
alternative energy mailing list:

>nick, i know for me that the sheer volume puts me off at times.

i feel the same way about press releases and legislative alerts... there
should be some easy way to skip over things one is not interested in, in
this sort of manual hypertext. i do try to lighten it up with humor, albeit
obscurely. for those who don't know, a "facultative lagoon" is a low-energy
sewage treatment structure, an aerobic-anerobic pond, perhaps with mechanical
surface aerators, that accumulates sludge in the winter and decomposes it
in the summer. no connection with universities, living or dead. 

>i was sorta hoping for a 25 words or fewer description of solar closets

see below.
>i think the best scientists are the ones who can boil something down
>to its simplest form. then and only then are they qualified to write
>children's books on the subject.

norman saunders seemed delighted with the part of our technical paper that
described the solar closet as lying in wait, lurking, ready to spring into
action on a cloudy day. he thought that read like a children's story. but some
things can only be boiled down so far... it would be difficult to teach a
child to design a tv. most adults would find that a difficult task. solar
closets and sunspaces are a lot simpler than that. designing a solar closet
heating system is about as hard as designing a simple beam or a pv system.

>>perhaps a part of a deep eco/environmental commitment involves getting
>>familiar with this high school physics and math. that's all it is... the
>>physics is easy high school physics, and the math is easy high school math.
>fair enough. i'm working on that. in the meantime, it might be worth noting
>the overwhelming majority out there don't have that knowledge and ability.

well, if you want to do alternative energy, vs. just talk about it, i still
think you have to understand this stuff. if you want to do it well, that is,
ie if you want to put together good, automatic, efficient, cost-effective,
low-maintenance, low-lifestyle-impact systems that people won't ask to have
removed from their houses after a few years. energy really is a technical
subject, one that people have been developing for hundreds of years, and
if you turn your back on all that technical knowledge and basic physics and
math, and fail to somehow embrace it, the resulting systems will suffer. 

the solution to ill-thought out, non-cost-effective systems is better thinking,
not government subsidies, imho. you may have heard people say that almost
anyone can design a system to solve a problem, but it takes a good engineer
(not necessarily a person with an engineering degree) to come up with a
cost-effective solution.

>>there are no sines or cosines here, or waves, or apples
>>falling to the earth, or planets moving in the sky,
>we have apples falling every fall, and the planets still move here. :)

yep. nature does not need cosines. but people do, to understand nature.
> far, i don't see the practical users of re flocking to those
>concentrator panels.

that is partly because they are ignorant. no insult intended.

>and lots of people like to get trackers for fun,

hmmm. like sailing. consider this quote from an ad in the february issue of
the magazine "sailing: the beauty of sail":

   you're hit by a squall and you're sailing in big, breaking seas.
   you don't want to round up to reef or lower your full batten mainsail.
   you just want it down. now! with 100% reliability and no hassles. is that
   possible? yes, and only yes if you have a ball bearing batten car system. 

   the problem with long battens is that they apply load on their cars from
   all directions. they push and pull and above all, they torque and twist.
   slide systems, no matter how slippery, won't do the job. recirculating ball
   bearings sliding in a "v" groove will roll regardless of the angle of load.

   harken battcar systems use only recirculating ball bearing batten cars
   and feature all new batten receptacles and headboards which are lighter,
   easy to remove and cost less.

   insist on the system that is designed to keep your mainsail under your
   control. under all conditions. on all points of sail. not just on a
   sunny day at the dock. the choice is yours.

sailors have fun, but a lot of them are quite serious about it... 

there's a story later on in this magazine about a 40ish california couple and
their 9-year old son and 7-year-old daughter who finally took their dream
sailing vacation, a 5 year cruise around the world on a compass 47 cutter,
a 30,000 pound, long-fin-keel, performance cruiser, which was torn open by a
freighter at 3 am on november 24 "as a vicious northeast gale roared through
the rigging," 30 miles at sea, northeast of new zealand. "only the wife
[a civil engineer] survived, washed ashore 40 hours later. when she was found,
suffering from exposure and severe back injuries, she was able to give the
exact coordinates of where their boat was plowed under by the ship that had
come suddenly out of the black night. co-skipper judy sleavin was that kind
of meticulous sailor."

they practiced by going from san diego to the caribbean and back, through
the panama canal, twice. in her last communication home, faxed from tonga,
_before_ they hit the 50 knot gale with 20' seas, judy sleavin told friends

   this life is by no means stressless. at times i'm more stressed than
   i ever thought i was capable of enduring. you guys probably laugh at this,
   but just think of taking your home through a small pass in the coral with
   a strong current and once you start the approach, there is no turning
   around to ditch out and meanwhile the kids are fighting over a stupid
   little insignificant plastic toy so loudly that you can't hear the other
   person calling out directions.

that part of the world is known for fierce storms, "howlers and screamers,"
that circle around the world over water with few land interruptions. a few
years ago i heard another sailor talk about sailing around the world without a
compass. he had a 60' steel boat, and talked of a storm in the tasman sea, that
_pitchpoled_ the boat end for end, lengthwise, leaving it upside down with
the mast sticking down in the water. he said "the boat was well buttoned-up,"
and, he went on calmly, "after a few minutes, she righted herself." 

i'd like to see more of that kind of spirit among solar house owners :-)
but without the stress and fatalities. needless to say, sailors are more
interested in the performance of a boat than how it looks, altho many people
find sailboats beautiful. sailors don't worry if their boat looks different
from their neighbor's boat, or looks like it wasn't built 100 years ago.

they care about cost, and they care about performance.

i met another courageous sailor in annapolis, on his sailboat, all built
of recycled aluminum, donated by alcoa. it was a single-handed ocean racing
yacht, built for a round-the-world race, beautiful in its way, built without
any wood or fiberglass. very strong and sleek and hi-tech and simple. no
curtains or cushions below, just thick diamondplate decking below, with lots
of heavy struts for strength, and a serious-looking fishing chair welded to
the deck in front of a thick window looking forward, with a racing car seat
belt, and a composting toilet welded to the deck a few feet away. lots of 
electronics, loran, radar, etc. with a generator to run the electronics and
powerful pumps, but this boat had no propellor, just beautiful sails... the
pumps were to move water fast through very large pipes from one side of the
boat to the other, transferring the water between two 2' diameter 60' pipes
on each side. the pipes also made the boat very strong. that was how he would
balance the boat, since there was only only one crewman. on the longest
passage, he said he would not sleep for two weeks. he was a licensed captain,
like the exxon valdiz driver, as was his wife. pat hennin of the shelter
institute ( would probably call this a racing machine, as
he calls solar houses solar machines. are they beautiful? chacun a sa machine.

third-world fishermen may dream of outboard motors, but for many people these
days, sailing is something they do because they want to do it, not because
they have to do it. sailors enjoy harnessing natural forces to do something
that can be done far more easily with fossil fuels. they enjoy the feelings of
power and competence and getting something for nothing, in this old art which
is somewhat mysterious and not easy to master, even without race competitions.

sailors do not like to use motors, even if they have one. but they almost
always motor in and out of crowded harbors, because sailing into a crowded
harbor is often extremely dangerous and difficult. a couple of years ago,
a group of sunday sailors on vacation in the british virgin islands watched
a breathtaking sailing performance as a crack captain and crew sailed into
the crowded harbor at soper's hole in a moderate wind on a 60' boat, on their
toes, skillfully and economically tacking and veering around many other
expensive anchored boats, missing some by inches, until they dropped the sails
at  just  the right time to allow the momentum to carry the boat into a slip
and let the wind gently push their boat against the dock. they were nonchalant
about this tour-de-force, as they tied up the boat to a round of applause from
open-mouthed people standing nearby.

this is a peculiar game, no? trying to make a 100% solar house that uses no
backup heat, or perhaps one that has no backup heating system. it is futile
of course, because it can never be accomplished. no matter how fine the solar
house, mother nature in her stochastic way will someday supply a combination of
cloudy-degree-days, a new record  that will exhaust her solar thermal storage
capacity. it is clear to me that there is a happy economic compromise between
the expected yearly backup energy required for a house (something related to
the tail of a gaussian distribution?) and the cost of building the house,
but as they say, a boat is a hole in the water...

>a solar closet is an insulated box filled with sealed containers of water,
>with a solar air heater attached to one insulated side of the box.

oops, 26 words, but close :-)

>ok, i get the basic idea. do you have one of these up and running?

yes. i think i've said that about 83 times now. but it is fairly small, only
2' x 4' x 8' tall, and it doesn't have a water heater, altho it has a nice 
data logger and modem, and it isn't running at the moment because we are
replacing the fans with 2 watt motorized dampers, to increase the cop. we are
trying to lower the cost and beat the 50:1 cop ("98% solar power, 2% fan
power") that john christopher ((603) 756-4796) achieved in his much larger
csi building in walpole, nh, in 1981, using doe money.

>when do we see the _home power_ or _solar today_ article?

as soon as somebody builds something bigger :-) 


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