How to clean a solar panel

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Photo courtesy of naturalturn at Flickr.com

Over time, solar panels will get covered with dust, grime, and even bird droppings. These obstructions block sunlight and will reduce power production. The solution is simple though – clean your solar panel when it gets dirty!

Each solar panel is different, so make sure to review the instructions from the manufacturer before cleaning the panel. Some panels are sensitive to certain chemicals, and others may have fragile components that you should be aware of. So, read those manuals first.

If your panel is a standard design, then cleaning a solar panel is just like cleaning a window. The “live” electrical components are isolated behind glass or plastic shielding, and all that needs to be cleaned is the outside. Before washing the glass, make sure that there aren’t any cracks or loose wiring. If there are, it might be a good idea to call a technician instead!

Here are the supplies you’ll need:

  • *A bucket full of water
  • *A soft sponge or towel
  • *A drying cloth that wont scratch the panels
  • *Cleaning soap (optional)
  • Green cleaning supplies do a great job on glass and solar panels. There are several varieties of streak free glass cleaner available commercially. You can also cook up non-toxic cleaning solution at home. Here’s a simple recipe for eco-friendly glass cleaner:

    Make a great all-purpose window cleaner by combining 1/4 cup vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon liquid soap or detergent, and 2 cups of water in a spray bottle.

    Use the soapy water to wash the surface of the solar panels, and brush away any visible dust or streaks. Gentle scrubbing may be necessary. After wiping away dirt, it’s a good idea to dry the panels off. Dissolved grime has a tendency to move around rather than wash away. Wiping up the wet areas does a thorough job of removing all of the silt and it also prevents water spots.

    That’s it! Compare the output of your solar panels before and after cleaning. When output starts to fall again, it’s probably time for another quick rinse.

    PE - how to clean a solar panel - bkusler FL resized
    Photo courtesy of bkusler at Flickr.com

    For solar panels in hard to reach areas (ie; on the roof of an isolated lighthouse or attached to a satellite in space) automatic cleaning systems are a popular option. Most of these automatic systems work like windshield wipers, brushing dust away from the solar panels with a spray hose and mechanical arm. Automatic cleaning devices add a little bit of cost to a solar panel system, but they may be worthwhile in dirty or hazardous settings.

    Just a side note – roof mounted solar panels are sometimes laid out to be self cleaning. There’s less need to clean a solar panel if it isn’t dirty!

    Interested in building your own solar panels to save money? Check this out.

    Biking to work – a beginner’s guide

    This year, June 15th was “Ride Your Bike to Work” day. When I saw other people riding to work, I decided to give it a try.

    PE - a beginners guide to biking to work - sportpictures FL
    Photo courtesy of sportpictures at Flickr.com

    This is remarkable because my bike has been quietly stashed in my garage since last Christmas (when I received it as a gift). I took the bike out for a few spins, but the two of us had an understanding. If I kept it safely stored away, it wouldn’t try to buck and throw me over the handle bars.

    Before June 16th, I had never ridden more than 5 miles in a day in my entire life. I’m not your typical bike rider – I’m 20 pounds overweight, I’ve never tried an “extreme” sport, and I live in one of the hottest cities of the Southwest. So, if I can commute to work on a bicycle, anyone can.

    Have you considered riding a bike instead of taking your car? It’s a great way to save gas while burning calories and getting more time outdoors in the fresh air. Bicycling can help you be more productive by reducing blood pressure, stimulating serotonin, and helping you arrive at the office fully awake. Bike riders also stand out for promotion – if you’re having trouble catching the attention of management or just want to be known for your dedication, riding a bike is a great way to climb the corporate ladder.

    There are some hurdles to commuting by bike. If you’re not a dedicated bike rider, these hurdles can seem impossible to overcome, but I’ve found out that there’s no reason to let fear or uncertainty keep you stuck in traffic.

    PE - a beginners guide to biking to work -   StewBl@ck cyclist silhouette
    Photo courtesy of StewBl@ck at Flickr.com

    Distance

    For most people, distance is really a question about endurance. How far can you comfortably ride on a bicycle? It takes a lot more energy to pedal a bike than it does to press the gas pedal on a car. But it can be less draining that driving a car while giving other drivers the finger and shouting loudly (you know, the typical American commute).

    Everyone has a different comfort level. For most people, a 1 mile commute is going to be a breeze, a 3 mile commute is going to be exercise, and a 5 mile commute is going to be painful (but doable). If you live further from work than 5 miles, you may want to consider multi-modal cycling. That means riding a bicycle part of the way, and using a bus or train to cover the rest of the distance. If you have a folding bike or large car, you can also take a multi modal route by using a parking garage along the way.

    The best way to calculate distance is to use one of the free online mapping services. Mapquest, Google Maps, and Yahoo maps can all be used to find the shortest routes between two points, and it’s easy to avoid highways or other danger zones by altering the route. Online maps are easy to use, and in some areas they even offer real-time traffic reports along your route (that’s handy to check before you hit the road). Here are a few other things to consider when choosing a bike route.

    These maps do have one weakness though – they’re primarily set up for roads. Bike trails, parks, and paths are invisible to the software, so the routes they recommend may be longer and more dangerous than they should be. That may change soon (for example, Google recently rolled out a “pedestrian” route option that can map pathways and sidewalks), but until it does, you may want to check out other routing tools such as Bikely.com.

    PE - a beginners guide to biking to work -  kansasliberal FL bike lane shit happens
    Photo courtesy of kansasliberal at Flickr.com

    Safety

    Safety is a major concern for urban cyclists. Not only are we at risk from vehicles that we share the road with, but bicyclists are also exposed to street crime and muggers. It’s important to exercise high situational awareness at all times – that is, pay attention to what’s going on around you. Keeping eyes open and looking out for trouble can prevent risks from turning into injuries.

    First things first – bicycling is not as risky as you may think. Per mile, pedestrians are more than twice as likely to be injured than cyclists. Motorcyclists and drivers on the freeway also have higher rates of serious injury. Believe it or not, the more bicyclists there are, the safer bicycling becomes.

    That doesn’t mean bicycling is a risk free mode of transportation. The first car accident in American history took place between a car and a bicycle – and it killed the biker. Every year, 600 to 800 cyclists are killed in America. Those death rates are among the highest in any developed country. To avoid becoming a statistic, it’s important to follow a few basic cycling safety guidelines:

    1) Always wear a helmet. 75% of all deaths on bicycles occur from head trauma, and many injuries can be prevented or reduced in severity.

    2) Ride with the flow of traffic
    – it’s much safer to go the same direction as cars in your lane. A case study in Washington found that many fatal bike accidents involved cyclists riding in the wrong direction, where head-on collisions are much more likely to cause serious injury.

    3) Yield when entering a road
    . Bicycles have less visibility than cars – it’s important to follow the law and behave just like a car, but it’s safe to act under the assumption that other drivers don’t see you.

    4) Check over your shoulder when merging lanes
    . Even if you use hand signals, signaling does not give you the right of way. Cars behind you may not see a gesture, but it’s easy to spot an oncoming car.

    5) Stay in the proper lane.
    If you’re turning left at an intersection, don’t try to turn from the right lane. Yielding the high speed lanes to cars is a common mistake of beginners: instead, always go to the proper lane for your path of travel.

    6) Stay visible at all times.
    Wear bright clothing, use reflectors and headlights at night, and avoid riding in the blind spots of cars or other bikers.

    7) Maintain your equipment.
    Make sure your brakes are in working order, and that your tires are properly inflated.

    It’s important to find a route where your nerves are steady. If you’re uncomfortable around traffic, that can cloud your reaction times and make you more accident prone. There’s no need to ride like an adrenaline junkie to make your way in to work.

    In many cities, there are bike lanes and bike paths that insulate riders from the flow of motor vehicles. While some cyclists disagree about the wisdom of building these features (some cyclists feel that bike paths reduce attentiveness to the road and some riders consider bike paths a form of segregation) but the number of paths is steadily increasing. However you feel about the situation, it’s important to find a route that you’re comfortable with.

    PE - a beginners guide to biking to work -  jesse! bike cash
    Photo courtesy of jesse! at Flickr.com

    Cost

    Compared to a car, riding and operating a bike is cheap. You only need a bike and a safety helmet (both of which can be rented if you want to try before you buy). It can cost less than $250 to get all of the tools you need, although it’s also easy to spend more than $5,000 getting top of the line gear.

    There are plenty of bicycles available at all price levels. For a commute to work, just about any bike will do. Whether you prefer a road bike, a racing bike, a mountain bike, a commuter bike, a recumbent bike, or any other style, there are many choices available in all price ranges.

    Other supplies you might want to consider include biking gloves (to reduce pressure on your palms), sunscreen, exercise clothing, headlights, reflectors, blinking tail lights, a bell or horn, and a hydration backpack. In my opinion, biking gloves and comfortable clothes are one of the best investments you can make. I’ve also found that a chilled hydration pack really helps if you’re riding in triple digit weather. Oh, and good footwear also matters – you probably don’t want to bike around in sandals or high heels.

    Riding a bicycle can save you money in the long term. Bike riders will generally enjoy reduced healthcare costs and fewer sick days. Contact your insurer or HR department, and ask if there’s a discount or incentive available. Healthy living programs sometimes offer reimbursement for equipment, promotional pricing on gear, and other perks. In 2009, there’s even a Federal Tax Benefit available for cyclists – you can get $20 of your monthly paycheck declared tax free:

    Spearheading the campaign for a bike commuter bill was Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon. “We have legislation that is designed to promote cycling and to provide a little equity for the people who burn calories instead of fossil fuel,” he says.

    PE - a beginners guide to biking to work - sportpictures FL
    Photo courtesy of sportpictures at Flickr.com

    Work appropriate clothing

    The clothes we wear when cycling probably aren’t very well suited for work in a cubicle. Loose fitting shirts and shorts are ideal for biking, but even if your job has a casual dress code, it’s a good idea to change out of sweaty clothes. An easy way to have the best of both worlds is to bring a change of clothes with you.

    If your job has a locker room, changing clothes is easy. If not, consider using the break room, gym, closet, or even the bathroom. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box – Superman used a phone booth for crying out loud.

    If changing isn’t an option, you can also bring clothes to put on over your workout clothes. Bike in an undershirt, and then put a dress shirt and jacket over the undershirt. Bring a hat to cover helmet hair, or dress pants to put on over biking shorts. Or, you could change your standard of “work appropriate” clothing.

    PE - a beginners guide to biking to work -  5150fantast FL bike pimp
    Photo courtesy of 5150fantast at Flickr.com

    If you’re a manager and would like to encourage workers to start riding bikes, here’s a great bullet point list of ways to build a bike friendly workplace.

    Save the planet with motor oil

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    Photo courtesy of kendrak at Flickr.com

    Eco-conscious drivers pay a lot of attention to how much gasoline their cars use, but what about the motor oil? When cars are properly maintained, they use far more gasoline than they do oil, and driving a car requires more trips to the gas station than the service station. An unfortunate side effect is that our attention is focused on gasoline and oil isn’t something that the average driver thinks about unless there’s a problem.

    Let’s say that you’ve got your ducks in a row. You’re driving a fuel efficient car and getting the best mileage possible. Even if you’re a fuel frugal hypermiler, there are still a few things you can do with your oil to reduce your car’s impact on the planet.

    Oil is not a generic product – there are oils with different viscosity, oils made from different sources, and oils with more endurance than others. Here’s a good primer on the different types of oil out there. Of note:

    Group IV oils… flow more freely at extreme low temperatures and don’t break down at very high temperatures. As a side benefit, they generally can be specified one or two grades lighter than a mineral oil, which consumes less energy as friction inside the engine and saves fuel.

    When was the last time you changed the oil in your car? 6 months ago? 5,000 miles ago? The frequency of oil changes can have a huge impact on the environment.

    On the one hand, excessive oil changes are wasteful and use up a limited natural resource. On the other hand, changing oil infrequently can cause damage to a cars engine, increasing pollution from your engine and causing additional pollution from the factory that makes replacement parts. Finding that sweet spot is important.

    The majority of drivers play it safe and change their oil more than necessary. Roughly 70% of drivers surveyed changed their oil too often. This results in excessive consumption of oil, magnifies disposal problems, and hurts the pocketbooks of drivers nationwide.

    A major cause of this overconsumption is the idea that cars should have their oil changed every 3,000 miles. At the service station, mechanics often put a sticker on the windshield reminding drivers to return for their next oil change in 3,000 miles. When you see that sticker, bear in mind that it was put there by someone who will make money every time you buy more oil. Consumer Reports studied taxi cabs in New York City and found that extending the interval did not affect performance or wear on the engines. They also found that oil additives had no noticeable effect on engine wear or oil endurance.

    There is no catch-all rule for drivers to follow – every car has different needs and requires oil changes at different intervals. Read the owners manual for the best information about your specific car, and follow its guidelines. If the manual suggests changing the oil every 7,500 miles, changing the oil every 3,000 miles will only drain your pocket book. Many cars now have an oil change sensor that will notify you when the oil needs to be swapped out.

    About half of the oil changes in America are performed by do-it-yourself mechanics. Many drivers change their own oil, or rely on a friend who knows how to change oil. There’s a problem though – few people know about the harms caused by dumping their oil down the drain or bagging it up in the garbage.

    Every year, more than 300 million gallons of used motor oil are disposed of improperly. Oil that ends up in the sewer or landfill often seeps out into the water table. Just one gallon of oil can contaminate 600,000 to one million gallons of fresh water. That’s enough drinking water to supply 50 people for a year! The amount of oil in an average car can contaminate 4 acres of farmland and make it useless for a century.

    This is a big problem. Less than 5% of used oil is currently recycled. The majority of used oil is burned for fuel or dumped. That’s an easily preventable waste, because there are more than 30,000 oil recycling centers nationwide!

    The best way to dispose of used motor oil is to take it to a chemical disposal facility. It’s easy to find a disposal location – find an oil recycling site near you at Earth911.com. By recycling the oil, you’ll reduce the need for drilling for oil and help protect local waterways from pollution.

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    Photo courtesy of Spiritwood images at Flickr.com

    Earth Friendly ways to mow the grass

    lawn mower at the gas pump
    Photo courtesy of AbracaDebra at Flickr.com

    Everyone loves a well manicured yard, and there are a multitude of power tools that make short work of trimming, mowing, and edging. A surprising number of green options also exist, and more people are setting aside diesel powered leaf blowers in favor of lawn friendly tools.

    At this minute, the majority of people use gas powered lawnmowers. It may not be a coincidence that sales of riding lawn mowers are rising along with our obesity rate. Gas powered riding mowers are the tricked-out SUVs of lawncare. The average lawnmower uses only 0.5 gallons of gasoline per hour, but self propelled mowers can use 200-300% as much fuel while delivering only a fraction of the exercise.

    Even gas mowers that have to be pushed produce a lot of pollution. They emit approximately 11 times as much pollution per hour as a car. Most of this pollution is in the form of volatile organic compounds that can cause cancer and trigger asthma attacks. Lawnmowers emit nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and other harmful hydrocarbon compounds. After they settle on the yard or filter into local rivers and streams, these toxins work their way into our food and drinking water.

    Most of this pollution could be avoided if the lawnmowers had catalytic converters, but very few lawn mowers include even rudimentary pollution controls. Some of the worst lawnmowers have 2 stroke engines. This older technology relies on lubricant mixed with gasoline in the fuel tank. This mixture of fuel and oil eliminates the need for a dedicated lubricating system, which makes 2 stroke engines weigh less. Since 2 stroke engines have fewer components, they are also cheaper to build. Unfortunately, these costs savings have an environmental cost. 2 stroke engines burn oil along with their fuel supply and put out far worse fumes than 4 stroke engines or electric drive trains.

    Do you want to breathe diesel fumes or poison your yard with partially burned gasoline? There are much better, greener options out there. Some alternatives to gasoline powered mowers include natural gas mowers, electric mowers, push reel mowers, livestock, and even using native plants for landscaping.

    Cat staring at a lawn mower and jerry can
    Photo courtesy of cheryl at Flickr.com

    Fuel alternatives for gas lawnmowers
    Unleaded gasoline is one of the most popular fuels for lawnmowers, but mowers also exist that are designed to burn other compounds. Some mowers can be converted to use cleaner fuels. Check with the manufacturer – not all leaf blowers, edgers, and lawn mowers can burn ethanol or bio diesel. Other models are made specifically to burn methanol, propane, or methane. These alternative fuels still produce pollution, but they produce far less (especially if you have a local fuel source with a lower associated carbon footprint).

    A propane riding mower - with large tanks on either side of the driver
    Photo courtesy of jgoverly at Flickr.com

    Electrical mowers

    Electric mowers come in two varieties – battery powered mowers and plug-in mowers. If you want freedom from cords, battery mowers are the way to go. They have some drawbacks though, including limited endurance, reduced torque, and increased weight. Mowers with batteries are also less eco-friendly than plug in mowers. Manufacturing batteries is a dirty business, and batteries also waste a lot of power while charging up (20-80% depending on the type and age of the battery).

    If you’re using an electric lawn mower, the source of electricity at your home determines the footprint of the mower. More than 80% of the power on the US power grid comes from coal, and that power is only slightly cleaner than gasoline. If your home is supplied with green electricity from solar arrays, wind turbines, a hydroelectric dam, or similar sources, then a plug-in lawnmower is much cleaner. You can get even more green out of an electric mower by converting it to run on solar power.

    An array of solar panels, charging the 36 volt battery of a lawnmower
    Photo courtesy of M.Barkley at Flickr.com

    Push reel mowers
    People powered lawnmowers are even more environmentally friendly than electric mowers, because they’re powered by human muscle power. Rather than burn calories on an endless climb on the stairmaster, why not use your muscles to accomplish something? Manual mowers have several advantages – they produce no exhaust fumes, they don’t ever need to be plugged in, and they are far less dangerous than other mowers. Even if you run the mower over pebbles, the slow moving blades aren’t going to throw rocks.

    Push reel lawnmowers are pleasant to operate. Since they have no engine, they are almost completely silent. You can listen to birds in the trees while mowing, or bring your phone along and talk to friends while doing lawncare. If you’re an early riser, you can mow at 7am without waking up your neighbors.

    A push reel mower - spinning scythe blades mounted to an axle with a long metal handle for pushing
    Photo courtesy of Beaker’s Glassworks, Jewelery & Things at Flickr.com

    Lawn mowing animals
    If pushing a mower (of any kind) isn’t your idea of fun, you could always outsource the work. Livestock is nature’s own solution to overgrown grass. If you’ve always wanted your own full-time gardener, don’t forget that ruminants make a really cheap labor force.

    Sheep and geese are happy to trim the yard, and they produce wool and down feathers as well as meat. Sheep ranchers are having a tough time with falling prices, and some are making ends meet by leasing out their sheep herds as expert mowers. If you have a larger area, cows are four legged mowing machines. In Australia, wallabies are becoming increasingly popular for their lawnmowing skills.

    Some towns and HOAs have started keeping herds of farm animals instead of sheds full of gardening equipment. On the Google campus, a trial is underway using goats to keep the lawn trimmed. Several urban homesteaders have reported problems with goats though, because they’re escape artists and they can be unpredictable eaters. That means that they’ll eat some weeds while ignoring the grass, or that they’ll chew one area down to the roots while ignoring thigh high blades of grass on the other side of the yard.

    sheep and geese on a lawn
    Photo courtesy of albatrail at Flickr.com

    Slow growing / native plants
    Another way to control your landscape is to use alternative plants. Some species of grass grow at a much slower rate than the popular St. Augustine and Bermuda. These slow growing grasses require less maintenance, and they often require less fertilizer (further reducing their environmental impact). Clover and bluebonnets are popular alternatives because they naturally fertilizes the soil.

    When choosing plants, think about using native species. Native plants are very well suited to the climate and wont run out of control like invasive plants. Xeriscaping your yard will also reduce the amount of water needed to keep the landscape lush and green in the middle of summer. Cactus and wildflowers aren’t the only native plants to consider – moss works surprisingly well and prairie grass also has great eye appeal.

    Native grass growing in Lurie garden with skyscrapers in the background
    Photo courtesy of one2c900d at Flickr.com

    Greening the Military

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    Photo courtesy of Army.mil at Flickr.com

    When you think of environmentally friendly groups, Greenpeace, REI, the Sierra Club, New Belgium Brewery, and Seventh Generation are some of the green companies and organizations that are likely to come to mind. But what about the US military?

    The armed forces are surprisingly green. For example, the Air Force is the third largest buyer of alternative energy in the US. The US Army is also rapidly seeking energy alternatives. Officers are trying to adopt solar, wind, and bio-diesel energy sources to reduce logistics problems and conserve resources:

    The effort will have to be really serious, as their energy costs have increased a full 40% during the last seven years, even while they have cut consumption by almost 8%. According to their latest numbers released this week in Washington, D.C., right now they are spending $2 billion on fuel every year.

    Reducing energy use in Iraq and Afghanistan is a top priority. By reducing the need for fuel convoys, energy efficiency reduces exposure to IEDs. It also protects soldiers from toxic emissions that come along with diesel generators. In recent years, the focus on energy conservation has really started to pay off.

    That’s all well and good, but helping the environment is clearly a fringe benefit for most military planners. There are signs that a green culture is growing within the armed forces though. Several branches of the military are working to reduce the use of toxic chemicals in everything from paint and electronics to fuel and explosives. For example, the US Navy is testing lead-free bullets.

    If these bismuth alloy bullets perform as expected, there’s a good chance that shooting ranges will soon be lead free. Cleaning up lead is a huge expense, and lead dust is a major health danger that affects cleaning crews at every gun range. Also, lead can leak into groundwater from outdoor berms and harm the environment.

    In recent years, environmental activists have also been successful in forcing the military to adopt several earth friendly policies. Protesters are increasingly likely to raise environmental issues. While the supreme court rejected arguments against the use of high intensity sonar, other efforts have resulted in legislation prohibiting sewage release in the ocean and disposal of toxic paints in furnaces. Due to environmental concerns, the US Marines are currently looking for eco-friendly ways to dispose of toxic ordinance and recycling mothballed equipment.

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    Photo courtesy of ScottPartee at Flickr.com

    Activists are crucial to enacting change – just look at Vieques. Vieques is a small island in Puerto Rico and the area was used as a naval firing range for most of the 20th century. After decades of public outcry, the Navy was forced to stop using Vieques as an ordinance testing ground.

    There is a surprising twist to the story. Due to the Navy’s use of the island, Vieques has higher biodiversity than many surrounding areas. The firing range prevented development while most of the Caribbean was covered in resorts and boardwalks. Believe it or not, firing high explosive at wildlife is less destructive than building permanent structures. As a result, Vieques is currently booming as an eco-tourist destination.

    The military still has quite a ways to go, but there are encouraging signs that the armed forces are becoming much better stewards of the planet.

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    Photo courtesy of Brent and MariLynn at Flickr.com