My Personal Commitment to Living Green

Growing up in Minnesota I’ve had the opportunity to fish, swim and canoe in many of its rivers and 10,000 lakes, and hike and camp in many of the parks and forest areas both here in Minnesota and in nearby Canada and Wisconsin.  I would like to see remarkable natural resources such as these remain as is for many future generations.

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Many of us hear about the big picture, that being the world-wide issues and possible solutions related to protecting our environment and having less dependence on foreign sources of energy, but I wanted to share a few of the things that I do that makes me feel like I contribute from my own little part of the universe.

My Solar system

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A few years ago I noticed two things that I thought were too expensive, that being the price of electricity and the cost of organic tomatoes. In Minnesota, we have a pretty short growing season between blizzards, and a lot of veggies get pretty expensive.

So I started thinking about alternatives (other than moving south a few states).

I looked closer at the idea of installing some type of renewable energy equipment, and after checking a lot of sources and reading about the possibilities I decided that solar PV (photo-voltaic) modules (panels) would work for my particular needs.
I was fortunate that at the time there were some rebates for solar PV systems available from both the State of Minnesota and my local utility and that really made my decision easier.

Stacy Miller from the State of Minnesota Department of Commerce’s Energy Division made the process of working through all the forms for the rebate very easy, and she also provided a lot of very good information about solar PV along the way (Stacy and Lise Trudeau work as a team there promoting renewable energy and providing technical assistance).

I obtained a few bids for the system, and ended up choosing Northtek Solar . Kevin Baierl of Northtek Services LLC was great to work with, and my system went in on schedule, just as designed, with no “issues” during the installation, and it works great.

My system is about 5.2 kW, and it has twenty-two solar PV panels that is comprised of 14 panels on the front of the house above the garage and 8 panels on the rear addition. Kevin happens to live a few miles away, and he waves to me once in a while as he drives by and admires his project.

I would like to install more panels in the future if possible, and it seems with the advancement in technology that the actual costs of the panels may be coming down, which may encourage more installations.

When my solar system was installed, the utility company placed a new digital electric meter on my house that included the typical numerical count that indicated the amount of electricity I was consuming, but it also had a unique little feature that consisted of a blinking arrow that would either point at my front yard or my back yard.

If it pointed at my front yard, it meant that I was sending excess electricity back to the utility company and if it pointed to the back yard it meant that I was purchasing electricity from the utility company.

Aquaponics

Because of the short Minnesota growing season and due to the high cost of organically grown tomatoes (and other vegetables), I created my own organic garden a few years ago in the back yard.

I started thinking about the excess electricity that my solar panels were producing, along with the high cost of organic tomatoes (in addition to the very short season that these tomatoes were actually available).

I decided to combine these ideas into one plan, that being an indoor aquaponics garden, where I could grow organic tomatoes using the power of the sun to provide electricity for my grow lights and the water from a fish tank to provide food for those plants.

I once worked with a gentleman who has an office outside of Sacramento, California, and he lives on a road where tomato trucks drive past his house on a regular basis, and he didn’t understand why tomatoes cost so much in Minnesota.

I was reading about gardening, and hydroponics, and I happen to see a video on the web about a fellow named Will Allen, who is working with Aquaponics in Wisconsin ( www.growingpower.org ) where he was cultivating plants and aquatic animals (fish) in a re-circulating system.

The water from his fish tank is a source of food for the plants. He is growing Tilapia and Yellow Perch. The idea seemed appealing, so I decided to create my own little aquaponic garden in my home.

In my first version, I installed a 300 gallon tank in the lower-level walkout area of my basement where it generally faced Southeast, and added young fresh-water fish to it.

I then built a series of wood-framed plant supports, recovered from some old oak boards, around and adjacent to this tank.

I originally used the rain-water collected from my roof to fill the tank, and occasionally to top it off, as I thought this might be a way to save water and to have water void of chlorine.

The only problem was that my rain water collection system didn’t work at temperatures below freezing, so I would then need use tap water to top off the 300 gallon tank during winter months. I installed ½ inch diameter irrigation tubing through the knock-out holes of my wood I-joists from my laundry area to the fish tank for this purpose.

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The system worked pretty well for two years, and then I started to run into a situation where those young fish that I originally placed in the tank were now up to 13 inches long, and they needed to be fed often, and in addition, I’ve had fish jump out of the tank if I had the water level too high.

Last year I decided to downsize the tank. I removed the 300 gallon tank and replaced it with a 37 gallon tank that served as a home for a handful of guppies and other undefined fresh-water fish.

I rebuilt most of the surrounding wood platforms for my plants, including a new system of drainage pans and a pump placed in the tank that directs the water from the fish tank up into a water storage container about three feet above the tank that is connected to a series of ½ inch diameter water lines that serve all of my 40 tomato plants in one-gallon containers that I repotted from seedlings.

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Above all of my plants are a series of grow lights that are timed to stay on during the daylight hours and turn off otherwise. This year I will only grow tomatoes indoors, along with some flowers for color and accent.

When late spring arrives (and the three feet of frozen ground has thawed), I will also place some new plants in my outside garden that I will start from seeds indoors during the late winter.

This year I installed a ceiling fan above my plants to provide better air circulation for the plants, as I didn’t really understand before the negative effects that moisture sitting on leaves too long can have on the plants.

I have also created additional raised planting beds along the same Southeast-facing wall that are positioned in front of another window and glass patio door, but at this time I transport water to those plants with a watering can.

I’ve been asked over the last few years if I ever have any problems with water or excessive moisture in this aquaponics area, and it has never been an issue. I have in-floor heating, and even when I spill some water on the floor it evaporates quickly.

Rainwater collection

There are three valley locations on my house roof that provide a wonderful place to collect water. My plastic rain barrels hold about 50 gallons each, and during a heavy rainfall they will fill up in fifteen minutes.

This is a great way to capture water that I can use later for outside shrubs and plants during dry periods.

A couple of years ago I photographed a new home being constructed where they placed a 2,000 gallon storage tank in the ground adjacent to the house that was to be used for future rainwater collection for the purpose of landscape irrigation. I would suggest that this practice will become more popular in the years to come.

Front landscaping

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My neighbors on both sides have really nice lawns with irrigation sprinklers installed, and those lawns are pretty green for the portion of the year when they are not covered with snow, which works out to about three or four months of green.

Last year, we removed most of the dead grass in our front yard, and installed small native plants, ornamental grasses and flowers within a series of rock gardens and gravel paths.

Each of these small shrubs and a few trees adjacent, receive their watering needs from a series of below-surface water lines that include a small branch line (drip line), covered with wood chips/rocks.

With the drip-lines, the irrigation water gets right to the plant, and there is no water lost to evaporation as in a typical above-ground water sprinkler system. The process took a lot of labor hours (and kneeling down), but the results are worth it because it looks really nice now.

Interior lighting

I’ve replaced all of the incandescent light bulbs in my home with high-efficiency lighting. It is an easy and economical way to save electricity.

Recycling

I’ve always tried to recycle paper and aluminum cans, long before it was the thing to do. When I was about ten years old, I used to haul a wagon around the neighborhood with my oldest friend Dick Clarke (not that one), and we would collect old newspapers and bring them to Waldorf Paper Company where we would make a couple of dollars on a good day. Another way that we save paper now is we use reusable cloth grocery bags whenever possible.

Many communities, such as the city I live in, have gone to co-mingled recycling containers where paper, aluminum and glass are combined into a single recycle container that can be picked up by the city. Research has shown that more people will consider recycling these materials is they are not required to pre-sort them into separate containers.

Recycled office equipment

When I began working out of a home office for the first time, I was able to save some on expenses and to make use of existing available office furniture by purchasing those at the State of Minnesota Surplus.

I ended up buying surplus office file cabinets, a chair, bookcases, a small handful of computer monitors (the older heavier models), and loads of small office supplies.

I am sure that I bought most of this for pennies on the dollar and made use of equipment that may have been close to the end of its useful life at the State.

I would suggest looking around in your location for re-use centers, as many are associated with local colleges, universities, local government, and organizations such as Habitat For Humanity, which benefit from the sale of this used equipment.

Toy Chest

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Years ago, my neighbor was starting to remodel his home, and during the demolition stage I noticed that they were filling his dumpster with 1 x 6 tongue and groove (T & G) pine boards. They were stained from years of cigar smoke, and a little damaged from the removal process, but I decided to recover as many of those boards as possible.

I ran them through my planer, cut a new edge on both sides, and sawed them up into usable lengths. I designed and built a 24” x 48” toy-box with a curved top for my yet-to-be-born first child. It seemed like a great re-use for boards that were originally destined for a dump-site somewhere.