Environmental Projects

by Don Laughlin

My story begins during the Johnson administration and hasn’t ended yet. In those days there was a silent vigil each Wednesday noon for a half hour to protest the VietNam war. It ran for seven years into the Nixon years and the end of the war. In that vigil was a friend, Dr. Don Spencer, professor in the U. I. mechanical engineering department. During lunch one day, after the vigil, he said he had had a visitor who was spending $600 a month to electrically heat his indoor swimming pool. He had asked if Don could design and build a solar system that would do the job. We worked closely together for the next several years.

Our first job was to design collectors that would collect the suns heat and transfer it to the swimming pool. Don had some excellent ideas for efficiency and permanency. Many, many hours of planning, designing, experimenting and ordering materials followed. I’ll skip all the interesting–to me–details but suffice it to say that we  did build a 440 sq. ft. solar system that worked for the next 30 years. We started a manufacturing company and installed solar water heaters of many different sizes in Iowa, Wisconsin, Idaho, and Missouri. One is still working in Iowa. It was a site built collector with high skilled-labor requirements. With current labor costs it couldn’t survive in todays markets. Modern collectors are complete units, hoisted into position,  bolted down, coupled together and that part of the job is done–no wrestling with insulation, cover-glass, hot panels, fitting frames and on and on.

As Lois and I moved into our home in Springdale–five miles east of West Branch, IA–in 1959, my efforts were suddenly focused on improving an old farm house to make it  more tight, more efficient and more comfortable for a growing family. But this was the time when Don Spencer and I were in the solar business. In fact my garage was, for a time, the place where we established our manufacturing processes. We purchased a 20 year old seam welder and set it  up in the garage.

On the south side of our house I built a walk-in (from the basement level) green house. From this I learned that tomatoes can be perennials! I experimented with night insulation beneath the greenhouse glazing, and found that I could keep the greenhouse above freezing in most any Iowa winter. But there were problems. Before leaving for work I had to decide whether to remove the insulation or leave it in for a cloudy day. I sometimes misjudged and missed an opportunity to collect heat from an unexpected sunny day or vise versa.

For years I had read all I could find about electric cars. My curiosity became so strong that I really began to consider building one. I wanted to get my feet wet and see what the problems and joys were. I needed a donar car. Lois wasn’t as excited, but advised me not to buy a junker–buy something I would enjoy driving. I found a 1984 Fiero in such bad shape I was barely able to drive it home–but did. It was a bright red sports car with a body in almost perfect shape.

Several months of reading, figuring, tearing-out and building-in followed. It ran from a 120 volt battery system–20 six volters in series. I added more weight than I removed–ended up with about a 3600 pound car–far too heavy for a good electric vehicle. After heavier suspension springs it handled nicely and was fun to drive and totally silent at any speed. One of the things I learned was that on a flat, paved road–Springdale to West Liberty–I could maintain 50 miles per hour, drawing 100 amps at 120 volts. That’s 12 killowatts–about 12 horsepower. Why do people buy 200 horsepower engines?

The answer to that is “acceleration,” among other reasons. My car didn’t have high acceleration. Modern highways almost require fast acceleration to be “safe.”  We pay an awful, environmental price to be “safe” on the highway.

After driving an electric car my attention turned to electric use in our home. The idea of electricity form the wind was very intriguing.              I ended up finding, on Ebay, a brand new–but several years old–10 kw Bergey still  in its original packaging. In June, 2001 it came on line with the work of an I-Renew workshop of twelve people for three days. It kept us off-grid for the next six years until it came time to sell the place. We learned we could easily live–with all our electric needs supplied–from a three killowatt inverter–except for the 220 volt water pump which stayed  on the grid.

Now that we have moved to town, my last hurrah is living in a super insulated, super tight and solar heated house. Fourteen thermal solar panels supply most of my space heat and domestic hot water. The are two separate systems for these functions and both work automatically with little maintenance. The two drain-back tanks are open top, and often at high temperature, so there is some evaporation which must be replaced every month or two.

This fall I have installed 2.75 kw of photovoltaic panels to provide my electricity. With my minimal use of such, I know it will not pay back in my lifetime, but it is a graphic demonstration of successful distributed generation.

I can envision an ideal electric system  where millions  of PV or wind systems, distributed throughout the population, furnish power where it is needed, with enough extra to supply those who cannot do so. The utility would become the manager of distributed generation. It would eliminate heavy power lines and coal fired or nuclear generators.

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