28 November, 2015

The End of November, The End of Hurricane Season

The 2015 Hurricane Season in the Atlantic is officially over.  As much as we complained about the El Nino wreaking havoc on our beach and plants, it did prevent the formation of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean by disrupting tropical depression off the west coast of Africa before they developed into storms and hurricanes.  Dodged another bullet this year.

Listen to Joe Bonamassa's "Dislocated Boy" for appropriate hurricane music while you read further.

I've been gone a long time
Lost in the seven seas.
Sail on, don't you come back
Until you learn the birds and the bees.
Who will you find waiting for you,
Squeeze blood in the wine.
Left to call my preacher
And my very lovely wife.

[Chorus 1:]
I said, hey now, knocked down, why'd you do it,
Roll me like a hurricane.
All is a bust and I'm numb, like novocaine.
Who done it, what's up, you said,
Sell me out why don't you boy,
I'm alone, severely broken,
I'm a dislocated boy.

We take hurricanes and hurricane preparedness very seriously here in South Englishtown for good reason.  There is only one road to Monkey River Village and it is a dirt road that roughly parallels - wait for it - yes, the Monkey River.  And when the river floods, so does the road.  As it has for most of November.  Check out this Youtube video posted by our neighbors Nevan and Cheryl who own and operate "The Monkey House" on the north side of the mouth of the Monkey River.  Cheryl filmed while Nevan drove and Lloydie provided commentary as they braved the road when the waters began to recede a bit.

The little building in the video is the pump house for the village water supply.  The pump has to be turned on and off manually every day or so to fill the water tower.  Last week the only way to get there to turn on the pump was to take a motor boat up the road!  Nevan said that the road looked like this for about 5 miles and that in places the water was 3.5 feet deep.  In fact, water came inside their big GMC Sierra truck.  No way our 14yr old, lower riding Subarau Outback would have been able to get through.  Like most villagers during this wet November, we have been going by boat to Independence and Placencia for our food and other necessities.  Back in 2013 I posted here and here about making a routine trip by boat for shopping.

So, you can see that it is very easy for bad weather to isolate us and we go to great lengths to be self-sufficient.  We have evacuation plans in place for when a hurricane is bearing down on us and we will evacuate until it passes.  But then we will get return (by boat) as soon as possible to salvage what we can and to start rebuilding if necessary and if possible.  We have to make sure we can survive on our own for up to a month (perhaps longer) with no outside source for water, food, or shelter.

I mentioned in an earlier post that we prefer to learn hard lessons by evaluating the experiences of other people.  And there are some unfortunate occurrences in recent history from which we can learn - Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy in the US and Iris and Mitch in Belize come to mind.  What can we learn?

1. EVACUATE IN TIME.  That is one nice thing (the only nice thing?) about hurricanes - they won't sneak up on you.  You have time to lock things down, pack things up, and then get the hell out of the way.  We have friends on higher ground in Independence who have given us a standing invitation to stay with them if a hurricane is headed our way.  We will drive the car and also take one of the boats up a creek near their place.  The cat has a carrier into which she will be coerced and the car will be filled with things we dare not leave behind. It will take some logistical planning to get it done and we update the details of the plan each season.

2.  SECURE YOUR PROPERTY against damage from wind, rain, storm surges, flood water, and vandalism.  Our construction design incorporates many security features and during the next months we will be doing more along these lines. That is for another post.

3.  PROVISION YOURSELF to be self-sufficient for an indeterminate  recovery period.  Clean water, shelter, and food are the big three.  We have been focusing on this for the last year and this is the main topic for this post.

Water - We have 24 rainwater vats plumbed into a central water supply for us and for the caretaker's cabana.  Each vat holds 2500 liters of water and has a shutoff valve at the base.  We have invested in new caps for the vats so that they can sealed off from a saltwater storm surge.

Rainwater vats under the cabana.  They are all connected via the pipes you can see in the trench, but they also have shutoff valves to isolate them independently.  We have caps to trade out for the caps that have the rainwater downspouts inserted.  The caps screw down and if the tanks are full very little salt water will be able to get in.  
We are well set for water.  We also have a couple of solar powered personal-size water purifiers if the vats get contaminated by organic material.  A cupful of bleach added to each vat and allowed to sit for 3 days will also purify the water.  We should have enough water for drinking, cooking, and sanitation for ourselves and for our neighbors.

Shelter -  I will do another post on shelter because it is such a big topic.  Let me just say here that we have tarps, tents, staple guns, window screen, mosquito nets, DEET, duct tape, space blankets, emergency medical supplies, and lots of other useful items set aside in our hurricane supplies.

Food - we tried out a new strategy this year for food and it looks like it will work for us without being too onerous to manage.  Here is our list of considerations for feeding ourselves in survival mode:

  • non-perishable food items - in case we have no refrigeration
  • organized storage - don't want to be scrambling through a messy hodgepodge when trying to cope with disaster
  • heavy on calories - we'll be burning those calories
  • plenty of no-cook items - especially for the early days when getting re-established
  • plenty of "grab and eat" items - we may not have much time or daylight for meal prep or clean up
  • plenty of variety - life will be tough enough without having boring food
  • plenty of taste - again, life will be tough enough
  • balance of veg, protein, carbs, and treats - the situation could last quite a long time

Dennis found a great little book called "The Storm Gourmet" that has recipes for meals that don't require cooking.   We got some great ideas from this book.

Basically we invested in some large plastic storage bins (Sterilite brand are very nice, but there are others, too) with gasket seals to store food in.  We have 4 "weekly" bins that each have a week's worth of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners inside, 2 "staples" bins with items like salt and powdered milk, a cat food bin, and 3 smaller "condiments and treats" bins.

Gasketed plastic bins.  The large bottom bin can hold a week's worth of food for 2.  The smaller bin holds an assortment of treats like cocoa mix, crackers, cookies/biscuits.  The book was very useful; it helped us think some things through in a new way.  The Camelback water purifier is small; we also have 2 other small water purifiers.
But we want to be able to cook too, so if our regular butane stove/oven doesn't survive, we invested in a small butane stove, along with small fuel cylinders, to include in the hurricane bins.

Our regular stove/oven with 6 burners!  Love this stove.  We will be able to light it manually if we don't have power for the builtin electric striker.  As a back up, we have a little portable gas burner.  It fits in a plastic bin.
Back in the spring, before the start of the 2015 hurricane season, Dennis made some online purchases of items for us to test.  Items like self-heating entrees, meals to eat straight out of the package, dehydrated meals with a long shelf-life, dried fruits.  We made local purchases of canned veg, fruit, powdered milk (we use that pretty often in day-to-day cooking since fresh dairy is hard to find), dried soup mixes, jars of pasta sauce, rolled oats, rice, dried lentils and beans, instant no-cook desserts, jams, jellies, canned butter (which we also use day-to-day), instant coffee, peanut butter, ramen noodles (I know it is weird, but Dennis and I both  enjoy instant ramen noodles, the kind in pouch, not a styrofoam cup).  We divided it into four bins, each holding food for a week.

There is a trick to this, two tricks really.  First, you have to make sure that the food is tasty enough to eat and second, you have to manage it by expiration date.  We had a lot of fun earlier in the summer taste-testing the self-heating meals and "eat straight out of the container" meals.  One flavor of self-heating meal, while edible, is not something I would choose to eat again.  We will use what we purchased, but not replenish that flavor.  Several other flavors were pretty good and one was excellent.  The "eat out of the container" meals were very good.  So good that we included one of them on our Thanksgiving menu - the French Bistro Three Bean Salad that Weaver asked about!  It has lentils, flageolet, kidney, and cannellini beans along with sweet corn and carrots.  Now that hurricane season is over, we have sorted through the bins and pulled out all the items that will expire before this time next year.  We have a bonanza of food to eat in the coming months.

To make it easy to manage, I made a spreadsheet (I do love a good spreadsheet. Really, I get into spreadsheets.) to track what is in each box and what has been removed from each box.  It will be an easy matter in the spring to restock the boxes.

This part of Belize is tucked away in the south, protected somewhat by Honduras and Nicaragua.  Since 1864 only 4 hurricanes with windspeeds greater than 100 MPH and 7 with windspeeds between 70-90 have made landfall within 50 miles of Englishtown.  150 years, 11 hurricanes - those aren't bad odds.    I'll be adding pages to this blog layout with more details on hurricanes.  Dennis has assembled some great data worth sharing.  (First I have to figure out how to use blogger "pages" function.)

Depending on how hard a hurricane hits us, we could still have local food such as coconuts, available at South Englishtown.  We have what we consider reasonable risk mitigation and contingency plans in place, but we could have a cabana with no roof or no solar power.
Coconut palms of various ages.  Well away from the cabana where the coconuts pose the least risk as damaging projectiles in a hurricane.  You would almost think we planned it that way.
Or we could have nothing, absolutely nothing; no house, no beach, no water, no land. No guarantees in this life!

26 November, 2015

Thanksgiving in the Tropics

Our third Thanksgiving in Belize and the first one that we have not hosted a large gathering.  That makes this the first Thanksgiving in our retirement that is not frenetic and harried; for that I am thankful.  We do have a feast for two in the works:
  • French 3 bean salad in Belizean avocado boats
  • roasted butternut, onion, jicama, and tofu
  • grilled chicken breast
  • mashed potatoes
  • cheesy biscuits
  • caramelized ripe plantain (from our plants) in port reduction topped with mascarpone for dessert
  • prosecco to accompany all courses

We are also thankful that our beach is recovering, and thankful that we had the wits and means to stop the erosion.
Lots of sand under the end of the dock again.
 I estimate that we have gained back about 1/3 of what we lost.  A rough calculation is that we recovered about 72 cubic yards of sand.  And we still need to recover another 144 cubic yards to be back to where we started.
You can walk on the beach again.  Some of the sandbags still show, especially where we piled them high under the tropical almond tree, but most have been covered by new sand.
Last year we planted 25 palm trees and almost all of them died in the fierce and unrelenting east winds that lasted for about 6 months.  We are trying again.  Another 25 planted and this time we are putting little windbreak fences in front of each one.
Mason and Jovanie working on the windbreaks.
The windbreaks are made from palmetto trunks.  Palmettos grow very quickly and their trunks are quite straight; perfect for sustainable harvest for fences, etc.
Nine or so palmetto stakes pounded into the sand 3 feet and 3-4 feet above the sand to protect the young palm trees.
We planted some very close to the water and some a little farther back.
A few more palmetto stakes to add.
Once they get established, the palms close to water's edge will be another line of defense from the crashing waves.  And all palms will be good windbreaks, too.  The nice thing about the palms is that we started them from our own yellow dwarf coconuts, so we didn't have to buy them - the first time or the second time!

Dennis did some research and found that cocoplums, which grow wild along the seashore and are prolific in nearby areas, are also good at stabilizing the beach and providing shelter from the wind.  You can't find them at plant nurseries, so we got a friend to pick a bunch of fruits for us and we are trying to start them from seed.
Grow little Cocoplum seedlings, grow!
We hear that the success rate for the seedlings is low, so Dennis planted about 100 seeds from fruit that we cleaned.  We'll see how it goes.  They are in a raised bed so we can tend to them and get them to a nice size before we set them out.  We will probably make palmetto windbreaks for them too.  The palmetto stakes should last several years, plenty long for the cocoplums and the palms to get established.

We finally had a break from the rain, but the Monkey River Road is well and truly flooded after 35 inches of rain in November.  The Monkey River was more than 16 feet above flood level for several weeks, which totally floods the unpaved road.  Yesterday was the first day land vehicles managed to get through for at least 2 weeks.  But the road is still too bad to get our wood flooring delivered by road.  So we used 2 of our boats to bring it down from the contractor's place of business in Placencia.
Look how low the boat is riding in the water!  It is full of very heavy Santa Maria tongue and groove flooring.
Normally, the trip from Placencia takes about 30 minutes, even less when sea is this calm.  With this heavy load, the trip took about 3 times that long.  But now the flooring is here and as soon as the flooring crew can get here, next week probably, they can start installing the floor in the addition.  Good timing since Dennis has almost completed the wiring.

Do you ever see things your pictures that you didn't expect when you took the picture?  At first glance this looked like a big shark fin!
Did a shark photobomb me?  No, but a swallow did.  I was just taking a shot of the pink clouds sailing on the sea at dusk when this swallow flew by.
And here is another unexpected sight - a Mayan ruin in the distance.  Make that Mayan ruin-shaped cloud.
Mayan castle in the sky.
 Sunset yesterday was a real beauty.
The black speck at the bottom of the blue sky is a little commercial plane flying south to Punta Gorda.  The last flight of the day since none of the airstrips have lights or radar for night flights.
I'll end this post with one last sunset photo.
Very dramatic!
Happy Thanksgiving to all our American family and friends, and to everyone who is thankful for the wonderful things, large and small, in this world.

21 November, 2015

Time To Get Solar Again

It has been quite some time since the last posts on the grand Solar Installation, July 2nd and July 23rd, to be exact!  Lots of reasons for the delay, such as trying to keep our beach from washing away (improving daily after massive efforts for 8 weeks), good computers gone bad (resolved, for the time being), lousy internet connection (OK at the moment), travel for Dennis (routine medical in the US), travel for Wilma (family holidays in the US), and riding herd on the construction crew (ongoing).  But right this minute, while the plates are spinning nicely on the poles, we will get Dennis's 3rd installment of the solar installation posted. 

Welcome back my friends to the solar show that never ends. We’re so glad you could attend. Come inside; come inside.  So far we have 1) ascertained how to orient the roof for mounting solar panels, 2) estimated how much electricity we use and need to replace each day, and 3) how large a battery bank to set up.

In this installment, we decide on which solar panel to use and how many.  In the final installment, we will get the Pro’s in to install the solar power system!

Which Solar Panel?  There are a few ways to approach this.  You could let a sales person steer you in the direction they want or you could perform your own due diligence.  I decided on the latter, despite not knowing everything I needed to know.  I looked over a variety of vendors and decided I did not want any cheap junk solar panels that have flooded the market the past several years.  A 20 year warranty on a solar panel does not mean a whole lot if the vendor goes out of business or if the panel fails and your system will be underpowered for months while trying to get the warranty claim settled while living off-grid in a “developing” country.  Here is a website for comparison of solar panels, but it is not all inclusive.  I narrowed down the list of numerous vendors based on quality and reliability.  I also wanted high wattage panels.  Here is a more thorough listing of what characteristics and parameters that should be considered for purchasing panels, found after the fact, but useful nonetheless.  Wished I had found this when I was looking for the panels.  

The vendors I considered were Kyocera, who has been in the solar business for years; Canadian Solar, which has an excellent reputation; Helios, an American manufacturer of high power high quality panels; and Solar World, an international company with US manufacturing producing excellent quality panels, but a bit pricey.  Helios had the highest wattage (300W) and best quality panels, but they went out of business due to alleged unfair marketing practices.  This occurred just before I was going to order the panels!  However, Real Goods, a “Green” vendor in California, had a sale on Solar World 275 watt panels.  Bingo!  I ordered a pallet-load of 30 panels at a greatly reduced price.  With what we ended up doing here, we would have 9 panels atop the Caretaker Cabana, 15 panels on the Main Cabana, and 6 panels for other use including as spares in case of damage to the panels by a falling coconut or tropical almond fruit (while I may be a wise-ass at times, I am not being facetious here), or loss from high winds. 
Potential solar panel destroying missiles and canon balls ranging from lemon-sized tropical almond fruits to rugby ball-sized coconuts.
We take our lessons where we can, especially if we can avoid learning things the hard way.  Our neighbors, the Harrises, lost half of their high quality BP solar panels due to 70 mph straight-line wind one night. They found their missing panels in the morning, in the trees behind their house. They could not immediately replace the lost panels with BP panels since these are not vended locally, and so had to use lower quality panels available in Belize. The restored system had lower efficiency for capturing solar energy.  Learning from their hard experience, we opted to have spare panels available just in case of similar circumstances.  We made a similar decision to have a spare battery on hand.

How Many Panels?  The decision to go with the Solar Word 275 watt panels filled in several of the parameters needed to determine the number of panels required to meet our electricity needs.  We already had established we needed to capture an estimated 7500 watts daily from solar energy.  The panels produce a maximum of 275 watts and they have an active solar cell area of 1.47 square meters for each panel (calculated from the number and size of solar cells in the panel from the spec sheet), and their efficiency for converting sunlight to electricity is 16% (from the solar panel spec sheet).  To complete the calculation, we need to figure out the amount of sunlight falling on each square meter of those panels during a day– the “insolation” values.

Getting the Insolation Values.  Insolation is essentially how much sunlight strikes the surface of 1 meter square.  If you want to know more about insolation try here for an entertaining read (trust me). There are several ways to verify how much sunlight is available at a particular site.  I used three different methods of calculation: one involving the average number of “Sun Hours” per day (aka Peak Sun Hours) from data available on line.  While this may be a fairly coarse approach, it provides a quick approximation.  You can try it here for your location.

The values we used for this calculation were:
  • Daily energy usage = 7500 watts, determined from a separate calculator, which indicated adding an additional 25% factor to allow for system expansion, and unsuspected system losses (such as dirt collecting on the panels during the dry season) or 6000 W X 1.25 = 7500 W
  • Days without Sun = 5 (AKA “days of autonomy” – note from Wilma - sounds like a good book title)
  • Lowest Battery Temperature = 60 degrees F (now that is nice! If we were back in Minnesota it would have been -30 degrees F).
  • Battery Bank Voltage = 48 (from wiring twelve 4 V batteries in series)

The output at this step is the number of watt.hours needed for the battery bank. 

They then go on to calculate the minimum number of solar panels needed to meet this wattage, and additional inputs are required and is redundant from an earlier calculator.  Sun hours for Belize (a measure of how much sunlight is received) = 4 (from the convenient insolation maps provided with the calculator).  It then calculates the total wattage needed from the solar panels.

Once you input the wattage for the solar panel you will use, it calculates the number of panels needed.  Our panels are rated 275 watts maximum under brilliant sunshine conditions.  This results out that we needed 12 panels to accommodate the estimated electrical usage.

When we discussed this with our Solar Installer, he advised adding an additional 25% for the number of panels, since that would improve the collection of solar energy on cloudy days, and minimize the depth of battery discharge, prolonging battery life. 

Have you noticed that an additional 25% is added a lot in solar estimates?  It was used to estimate the electrical usage (6000W X 1.25 = 7500 W).  It was recommended here to increase the number of panels from 12 to 15. It is also used to size the charge controller you need for charging the battery bank from the solar panels.  Furthermore, 25% is used in increasing the size the electrical wire conductors from the solar panels to handle the current – do you really want to know more? 


Fifteen panels it is!
OK, We Are Good to Go Based on Average Values -- 15 panels it is! However, the amount of sunlight varies on average from month to month.  Less sunlight reaches the panels during the rainy season, more during the dry season which is a bit variable, starting mid to late February and ending some time in June through August.  Less sunlight or insolation during the winter, more during the summer.  This is shown below using data from NASA on how much insolation is expected for a nearby site about 40 miles south of us (Punta Gorda, Belize, see the Magnetic Declination Map in the first installment for PG’s location relative to us) using data from the Table of SolarEnergy and Surface Meteorology.  We will be fine during the summer, but December and January may be more of a problem.

If you sum up the monthly values and calculate an average watt.hour per square meter per day (ignoring the different number of days per month) you get 4.69 kilowatts of sunlight per day hitting each square meter of surface on average.  But December's value is only 3.44 kilowatts, a 27% reduction from the average.

You can, as I also did, perform a de novo calculation on the amount of solar energy captured for any given month, based upon the insolation values given above per square meter of surface, the area of the solar cells in the panel (1.47 square meters calculated from the spec sheet for the panels), the number of panels (15) and the efficiency for converting sunlight to electricity (16% from the spec sheet for the panels).  For December, this calculates to a bit over 12 kilowatt hours on average per day, which is sufficient to charge the batteries and take care of normal electrical usage.  It is always good to verify the rough calculations from above are correct.  But if there are several days of uninterrupted gloom, we would have to use a generator for charging.

If you would prefer an easier online method, you can try this instead from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the USA, which I again found after doing everything above, which also has data available for international sites (see below).

After I put in the size of the solar panel array in kilowatts (4.125 kW, using the maximum wattage value, 275 watts times 15 panels), a few other parameters regarding the orientation of the solar panels (azimuth 180 degrees and 32 degrees of tilt – remember from the first solar blog?), I received the following calculation for our approximate location, which used data from a weather station 45 miles away in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala:

Yup, December is the only month that will be a little dicey, and will likely require some generator use after a series of cloudy days.  By the way, the 5,221 value at the top of the image and at bottom of the middle column is 5,221 kilowatts, or 5.221 megawatts of potential AC generated over a year that we can collect from a dinky little 4.1 kilowatt.hour solar panel system. Now we are the South Englishtown Electric Company!

Changing various values in the program could not improve the December monthly value by more than ~1%.  Changing panel orientation and or tilt was not effective.  So like I said in the first installment: don’t sweat the small stuff.  If we want more solar energy in December, we have to add more panels – it is good I have some spare panels on hand.  Alternatively use the generator a bit on cloudy days or be especially vigilant in minimizing power usage.

How does our 5221 Kw.hr/year compare with some other parts of the world?  Well here are some representative values:
Max. Kw.hr/year
Miami, FL, USA                  5975
Kona, HI, USA                    5386
Sydney, AU                        5861
Madrid, Spain                     5822
Berlin, Germany                 3670
London, UK                        3808
Torquay, UK                       4488
Kuala Lumpur, MY              5584 (using the closest weather station about 700                                                        miles away)

You can put in more locations into the program and play with this if you wish and it will use data from an International Airport weather station nearby (hopefully).  Intuitively, locations with fewer clouds have more solar energy available.  As you go north in Europe, the cloudiness increases and the insolation decreases (Madrid vs London for example). 

A bright spot however, does show up on the “English Riviera”, with Torquay having about 18% greater insolation than London.  This appears to have caused some hotel owners to install solar panels.  But it looks a tad overcast to me (LOL). 
Fawlty Towers Goes Solar!
Looks to be about a 10 kw.hr installation. Poor Mr. Basil! Did he hire Mr. O’Reilly on the cheap to install the solar panels? It would be better if the panels were rack-mounted and not sitting on the lawn, and not going around a curved driveway that changes the azimuth! (See re-runs of the television series acclaimed by the British Film Institute  “Best British television programme ever made” – Fawlty Towers !!!  (exclamation marks mine).  And thanks to Microsoft Office for their image manipulation programs used to create this chimeric image.

In the final installment, we will go over the easy, but nail-biting part for us: the installation of the system by the solar pro’s, and taking out some insurance on the solar energy system.