Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Cutting our electricity bill: Exciting Conclusions

Since the last time I have written on our electricity bill and our efforts in reducing it we’ve had a few developments. 
Now keep in mind with all of this.  We do not have some of the typical high energy items that many have.  We have no water heater that draws energy nor do we have electric heat.  We do have, however, an ancient waterbed.  Thankfully that will be replaced very soon.  Another item to keep in mind is this is Fairbanks, Alaska so we have to plug in our vehicles if they are parked outdoors when the temperatures go below -20.  That happens quite frequently here in the winter months so to combat that problem I have purchased an outdoor timer that will only turn on power to the vehicle plugged in for two hours prior to our possible departure time.
Also, originally as I began writing this, my husband had been at home each month, anxiously searching for a job.  That means that we have had one adult around the house for almost 24 hours a day, 6-8 of which he spent with a computer on and possibly a television on.  Great news there? He got a job so that loss of energy is now gone!
Another  important thing to keep in mind as I report all of this, our energy cost is much higher than the average in the lower 48 where the typical price is .12 per kWh. 
Now onto the fun part of all of this; the experiments!  If you remember from my previous blog Cutting Our Electricity Bill,  I was about to conduct an experiment.  I had gotten the idea from another Facebook friend that you can put your chest freezer on a timer to save a bit of money.
Turns out, she was right!  I plugged in my Belkin Conserve Insight Monitor in the beginning after programming it to our local cost of .21 per kWh.  We kept this plugged in for approximately 48 hours and the result was about $5.50 per month.  Next, we plugged in our Monitor first to the wall and then plugged in a timer that was set to a 12 hour cycle.  12 hours on, 12 hours off.  We then plugged the freezer in to that. 
Lo and behold, our cost per month dropped down to approximately $2.75 per month.  I imagine during the summer months our cost will go up a bit since it will be warmer out but our chest freezer is in our garage where it stays cool so I can’t imagine it going up massively.

We have also added a Belkin Conserve Smart AV to our entertainment center which I think is pretty darn cool!  Unlike some of our surge protectors that have a remote control that allows us to shut off the items remotely this surge protector actually just shuts everything off that is attached to the surge protector when the one item (our television) is shut off.  This ensures that all those greedy little Energy vampires are actually shut down when we do  not need them.   Slowly but surely we have been adding several of the Belkin Conserve timers to appliances that only need to be charged from time to time or to  lights that we want on for only a short time.   We use these for things like our electric toothbrushes, kindles, cordless phones, chargeable clock radios and even better, a few of the lights that my son likes to have on when he goes to sleep at night.  This allows us to simply turn on several of his lights with a push of a button and 3 hours later, when he is asleep, the lights will turn off until the next night when we turn them on again.  
This all allows us to keep in mind the expense of keeping certain lights or appliances on without adding extra work of moving appliances and other heavy items around to unplug them, which for us would be immensely time consuming. 
Now, for the really great news.  For the month of January our total usage was 985 kWh. Total cost; $212.00

For the month of February our total usage was 895.  Total cost: $193.00.  That’s a reduction of almost 100 kWh!  With some of these ideas already in place, others that we are currently starting to implement and others that we will be trying out soon I really cannot wait to see how much more we can drop our electricity bill.  

Thursday, March 6, 2014

An update to Paydirt: Sunchokes.

Yet another step made to prepare our backyard for our move from Aberdeen, Maryland to Fairbanks, Alaska.  This past weekend our goal was to dig up as many Jerusalem Sunchokes as possible and since the weather was dry and sunny we figured it was time. 

First a bit of history, after all, you know if you've kept up with me in the past I love reading the histories of each plant we grow.
The plant commonly called a "sunchoke" is actually called a Jerusalem Artichoke. No, it is not from Jerusalem and no, it is not to be confused with a typical artichoke.  Supposedly Italian Settlers in North America named the sunchoke girasole which is the Italian word for Sunflower.  It is believed that English settlers corrupted the name girasole artichoke to Jerusalem Artichoke.  It is indigenous to North America and was cultivated for its valuable roots.  It is a perennial (meaning it grows back on its own every year) and is actually part of the sunflower genus; Helianthus.
Growing it, I can say it looks very much LIKE a sunflower which appeals to me personally as I love plants that look nice but are useful.  A whole "more than meets the eye"sort of bit. Most visitors who came to my backyard, even if they were possibly people with gardening experience would have NO CLUE that beneath the soil, treasure awaits.
Nutritionally, these are not too bad either as they have 650 mg potassium per one cup serving and are also high in iron, and contain 10-12% of the US RDA of fiber, niacin, thiamine, phosphorus and copper.  One item to take note of, Sunchokes are very high in the carbohydrate Inulin.  This can cause in some issues with gas and bloating.  Luckily for the three of us, we were gas and bloating free after eating some of our harvest for dinner. 
Ease of growth?  Okay, well from everything I've read, you leave even just a bit of root or tuber in the ground and the very next year you will have more plants pop up which equals about one word. Invasive.  Now that could be a good thing.  After all, if you have a part of your yard you don't really care about that gets plenty of sun, well you could always plant a few tubers in the spring, dig up the buried treasure come Autumn but leave some roots and tubers behind and your garden already has a head start.
These also grow supposedly in very poor soil, with just less produced in lower quality soil. 
Now as for this, I can say, our backyard soil is much better than what we had when we first moved in however what we lack is sunlight.  As you can tell in the photo to the left, the sunchokes here are in the shade. The plants we grew received during the height of summer about 4 hours of sun a day. Not much. 
Still all told, our amount harvested was astounding because since that area does not get much sun we typically don't expect much from it. My husband,  Edward had already stored half of the Sunchokes so I couldn't weigh the entire amount from the backyard but what I did get to measure came up to 8.78 pounds.  If I were to guesstimate the total amount from the back yard I would say we harvested almost 20 pounds of Jerusalem Artichokes.  That is a LOT of tubers!  And that is only from the backyard where the soil quality is better. 
This past spring we decided to plant a few in the front yard, just to see how well this plant held up to the very poor soil quality present here.  This is what we got.
Not much.  Almost a pound total.  These unlike the ones grown in the backyard are much more condensed and sweeter where the ones grown in the backyard were bigger and more nutty in flavor.  
So all told? About 21 or so pounds of Sunchoke tubers harvested.  Now the trick with sunchokes for long term food storage? You can't store these like you commonly do with potatoes. Sunchokes rapidly degrade in quality even in the fridge due to their thin skins. The best way to store these first is to just leave them in the soil until you are ready to eat them.  That is great but that doesn't work for us.  Remember, we're about to move!  
So next best way to store these for longer term food storage (at least that I've read, remember this is the first year I'm actually storing this things!) is to take a bucket, fill it with some soil, then place some of the sunchokes in the bucket, top with more soil, more sunchokes in a "lasagna" sort of manner. Finish with a layer of soil and then just put a top on the bucket.  I'll be able to give more feedback on this later on come January or February and hopefully, a few of these will survive long enough to go into our next garden in Alaska.   

Onto the next interesting bit.  Cooking with these.  I have found the few times I have cooked this so far the best way is to simply chop a clove or two of garlic, saute in some olive oil, add sliced sunchokes (I usually go about 1/4 inch thick slices) saute until the garlic is slightly browned.  Then put into oven that has been preheated to 350 degrees. Bake them until slightly soft.  You can also serve these raw but I am not overly thrilled with the taste when they are raw.  Maybe in a salad they would please my palate a bit more.  I still have to try that.  I have all winter after all to experiment with these. 



About two months ago, after the move in to our new house was complete, we were becoming more organized in our house and getting more settled, we suddenly realized.  These containers of dirt and sunchokes have been sitting outside our house, in -30 and -40 temperatures.  Right away I wondered "will they be any good?  They are not supposed to be frozen but I don't know what will happen.  What if they are like winter squash and turn to mush once frozen?  That's a lot of work to lose, a lot of sunchokes that we could eat through the winter.  Well lo and behold, sunchokes do NOT like being frozen at all.  Instead of mush they turn more into jelly.  When warmed up they become a liquefied, stinking mess.  So it seems first we will not have any sunchokes to eat nor to plant this year.  Instead we have compost.  Sad.  I was looking forward to seeing how these sunchokes grew here. As it almost always goes in the garden and in life.  You win some, you lose some. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Cutting Our Electricity Bill

Fairbanks, Alaska, dubbed the Golden Heart City has a lot of positives to it.  The people here are welcoming and friendly.  The town is a great place to raise kids; it has a small town feel to it; there is very little traffic except for the two usual times of day and even that, after driving in I95 traffic on the East Coast is nothing.  All in all, after all the places I have seen in the US, it’s the type of town that I feel I can really settle down and put down some roots.  However, a big negative here are the energy costs.  Unfortunately, gas for cars and generators, fuel for heating and fuel for electricity runs high here so this makes the cost of living much higher here than it is in many places in the lower 48. 
When moving here, we moved from a townhouse in the military community where we did not pay for our electricity, back to our house where now we do.
When I first saw our very first electricity bill I was shocked.  $299 for one month, our usage was 1427 kWh.  At first I thought “well this is because of Christmas, it’ll go down next month”.  After overcoming my shock, I did look a bit at our bill and realized our cost for electricity here is .21 per kWh with all the surcharges, and taxes.  Ouch.  Still we made a bigger effort at turning lights off when we exit a room, making sure the television was turned off when not being watched and making sure to turn off the surge protector to our big computer when it was not in use since I read that computers in general can be lumped with many other electronics that are called “energy vampires”.  We also invested in a remote controlled surge protector for our entertainment center.  We did not get this until late January so it was probably too late to see a massively big difference on our next electricity bill.  My goal at that point was to get our bill down to around $150 so I knew we had to buckle down here and do our best. 
Next month, February.  I opened the email from the local electricity company here with great excitement, expecting great things!  Instead I see $219 for 985 kWh.  Upset, disappointed and frustrated I went back to the drawing board.  I pulled out every tool I could think of and then some.
We ordered some Belkin Conserve Sockets for items like electric toothbrushes or our kindles.  These are rather neat as you just simply plug this into the wall. Then plug in whatever item that only needs to be on periodically to be recharged.  It has three settings on it; 30 minutes, 3 hours or 6 hours.  We tend to use the 30 minutes setting most.  We then about once a week turn each one on to recharge items.  This way we can turn it on and then walk away without having to worry about coming back to unplug it later. I also ordered a Belkin Insight Conserve Energy monitor because I really wanted to become more educated about how much energy each appliance uses? How about when it’s not in use?  How much energy does it use then?  Is it really drawing that much of a charge?  Is it really costing me that much money to keep a toaster oven or an electric can opener plugged in, even though I am not using it?
This thing was actually really fun to play with as I hopped around the house unplugging various appliances and electronics to discover “which is using the most here?”  I have it now programmed to give us an approximate estimate of how much does each item cost us all based on our current charge of .21 per kWh.  Our findings?  It turned out I discovered our REFRIDGERATOR is the top user in our household.  This is for two reasons, first our fridge is older and the seals are not so great on it.  This lets a lot of cold air out which makes the refrigerator work harder to stay cold.  We will be replacing those seals here soon, and then later the fridge.   Next reason though is my entire family, myself included, has a really bad habit of just opening the fridge whenever we are looking for a snack, especially on the weekends.  I have advised my two guys that this habit needs to be nipped in the bud.  No more. 
The next biggest energy user was a no brainer. The Clothes dryer.  Unfortunately, this time of year here in Fairbanks there is little that we can do other than utilize our drying rack that we typically use during camping trips. 
Another appliance in our household that I thought would possibly be a bigger energy drain was our chest freezer.  I am currently conducting an experiment on this.  I noticed another Facebook user had mentioned that she has hers on a timer that switches off in the evening and then turns on the next morning.   At the time of writing this we have learned that our chest freezer costs us about $66 a year to operate.  Of course that is right now, during the winter season when the temperature is lower in the garage.  During summer I’m sure the cost will slide up slightly.  Soon I will be using a timer that will turn off our freezer at night and then turn it back on the next morning.  That too will be monitored to see; is there a difference.  One thing to keep in mind if you are thinking about doing this.  It’s important first to always keep your freezer full.  When we moved here, of course, it was empty when we plugged it in.  I quickly took milk jugs, filled them with water, let them freeze outside and then put them in the freezer.  A full freezer is a happy and energy efficient freezer. 

Anxiously I await an email from our electricity company.  I would love to see a bit of hard work and perseverance pay off and of course, the extra money I don’t have to pay would be nice too.  After all, who wouldn’t want to have a bit extra money in their pockets at the end of the month?

Looking for an update on this?????
Click HERE!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Patience is the key


Once again, we are rebuilding, starting from scratch.  A new yard, new plans, this time more permanent than the last time in Aberdeen, Maryland.
Originally, as we moved back into our home in Fairbanks, Alaska we had plans, great plans, for a garden of permanent raised beds, for chickens and honey bees.  Then it was just the honey bees.  Then it was just the chickens.  We’re still certain about the raised beds.  Now we have decided however that what is needed more is patience. 
Saadi, a Persian poet from the medieval period once said “Have patience. All things are difficult before they become easy”.  I think that applies here.
Fairbanks growing season is extremely short.  Our last Frost free date here is approximately May the 25th.  Our first usual frost is approximately August the 30th.  That gives us a little more than 100 days total to get our raised beds built, filled with soil, compost and vegetables and fruits and try to see if something will grow. 
We learned after our first year in Maryland that when starting a larger garden that it’s best to take it slow, to not get ahead of ourselves.  So now we are having the difficult task of holding ourselves back, even though we want to dig right in and get our hands dirty.  Currently our backyard is covered in about two feet of snow so while we have walked back there, it’s pretty hard to gauge what things will look like come Spring time which is still about 60 days away. 


Plans for this year?  We definitely will be building the raised beds that will be made out of concrete cinder blocks.  The challenge there? Building supplies are expensive here.  Lowe’s and Home Depot currently have concrete blocks for sale for approximately $2.21 so for us to build the three or four raised beds we would need approximately 100 to 150 concrete blocks. That equals an investment of about $330 which right now, is just not possible on a US Army retirement paycheck and my own paycheck as an Official Government travel counselor.  Trying to find these free on sites like Craigslist is almost impossible as building supplies in general are in high demand here, so that is out. 
Along with the expense of the raised beds we also have to use hardware cloth at a cost of about $80 because one of the bigger pest issues we have here in our area of Fairbanks is Voles, also commonly called Meadow mice.  These can wreak havoc in our garden as they can both climb into our raised beds and tunnel in to have their midnight snack.  After my fight with groundhogs and squirrels last year I am really not looking forward to fighting these horrible little creatures and I will do almost anything to keep them at bay.
Now add soil, organic material, manure and compost.  Thankfully we can get fill dirt which isn't too expensive, and then manure which is given away every year here in Fairbanks.  If we can snag some off craigslist here, we’ll be in business.  I have also made a deal with a local shredding company.  I provide trash bags, they provide the shredded paper.  Plain shredded paper with only black and white print is great for compost.  It breaks down pretty quickly and provides a bit more organic material.  Just make sure to never use the colored paper from newspapers.  There is too much toxic dyes present there. 

No matter what, starting the garden up will be slightly expensive, especially when we’re relying on almost one income! What keeps us going?  We keep moving forward with the thought that while we have the expenses now, if we work hard we will have fresh food grown in our backyard that will sustain us in the lean winter months ahead.  The thought that by this summer we will have our backyard garden built up and we can once again, get our hands dirty and our yard productive. 

The past is a great teacher.   We just need to remember to stop and revisit it from time to time.  
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