The Sustainable Home: Earthship

Presenting the Earthship. These are amazing homes; made from recycled material and totally self-sustaining. And we are not talking about your rusting cabin in the woods, these are modern homes for people interesting in living their comfortable lives while reducing their energy demand. In fact, neither of these homeowners pays an electricity bill, but that doesn’t mean they’ve given up their computers….

Architect Michael Reynolds refers to his style of construction as biotecture because his homes focus on the recycling of materials in construction and on creating a sustainable system of water and power collection and temperature control without the use of fuel. All water entering the home is from rain and snow melt. All electricity is from solar panels and wind turbines. All sewage leaving the home is treated on site. Homes include indoor and outdoor gardens so that homeowners can grow their own produce. The gardens are watered by sink and shower water. Any remaining runoff is collected and used in the toilets. It is an intelligent and harmonious system that avoids unnecessary waste in the pursuit of total sustainability. With thoughtfulness and a resourceful mind, Earthships create a lifestyle of responsibly and respect for nature little found in our modern world.
Here you can find a series of webinars given by Earthship inventor Michael Reynolds discussing the struggles his revolutionary image has faced.

Weza Portable Power

**Freeplay Energy is no longer manufacturing this product**

Created by Freeplay Energy, the Weza Portable Energy Source is a handy portable power supply with a high potential for emergency use and everyday application. Tough and durable, the Weza can be charged using a foot pedal mounted to the back of the unit. For its compact size, internal lead-acid gel battery is capable of storing up a significant amount of power. At 12 volts, the Weza can be used to jump start any car or boat battery that has gone dead. Of course the Weza isn’t the first emergency power supply capable of restarting a car, but the foot pedal offers a clear advantage. It is natural and unavoidable for batteries, left in disuse, to slowly discharge. If you leave an emergency power supply in the trunk of your car, you may find that a few years down the line, when you suddenly need in, that battery is completely dry. With the Weza, it really doesn’t matter if the 12 volt, 7Ah battery has completely died out in your trunk. After a few minutes of steping down on the pedal, the battery will be recharged and the unit brought back to life just when you need it.

Also, the foot pedal isn’t the only way that the Weza can be recharged. Just plug the unit into any AC outlet and let the battery effortlessly recharge itself. From a completely dead state, it takes about 8 hours for the battery to finish charging. To allow the Weza to be recharged using the cigarette lighter of a car, the unit can also handle DC sources. This functionality makes the Weza a perfect battery option for DIY alternative energy systems such as homemade wind turbines or solar panels. Anyone who has tried to build a solar power system of their own has had to address the same issue of delivering and storing the power that has been created by the solar panels. The Weza already has all the necessary circuits and hardware built in to handle a wide variety of application. This is a tough and portable power supply that can be recharged time and time again. The power mechanism is tested to 500,000 input cycles. If you need a compact power source, this versatile little unit should have all the functionality you are looking for.

Freeplay Energy

The Informative Environmental Traffic Lights

Hernando Barragan has entered his Social-environmental Station into this years Greener Gadgets Design Competition. Though labeled as a traffic light, the system isn’t intended to control cars. The lights are to be an innovative means of informing the public about poorly understood environmental conditions: a very green gadget. Barragan hopes that by displaying this environmental information, such as the parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the air, the impact of these conditions will eventually be understood as well as the temperature.

The purpose of embodying the information in a traffic signal is to convey information to the  public in a manner that they are already comfortable with, even if the information is not the same. Sensors built into the system will record and display readings such as CO2 in ppm, humidity, air pressure, and other indicators. This information can prove useful understanding the natural/unnatural state of our ecosystems. The information can also be used in research by universities and environmental protection agencies. The versatility of the systems also mean that they can be built in any city setting (though high traffic areas is obviously the purpose).

via igreenspot

An Amazing Man: Stan Ovshincky

I am a big admirer of Stanford R. Ovshinsky, an American inventor and scientist. He is the creator of Energy Conversion Devices, a cutting edge invention and development laboratory which has produced some of the most innovative technology of the past century. Some of his inventions include flat screen LCDs, rewritable CDs and DVDs, hydrogen fuel cells, and NiMH batteries. Basically without this man, all of MAC’s most successful products wouldn’t exist. Yet few outside the tech world recognize the Ovshinsky name.

A Technological Approach to Weeding Your Garden

This little invention really made my smile. No one would argue that weeding is a less than comfortable task. You get hot and worn out quite quickly. For me, my knees start to hurt and my back becomes really stiff. All of those complaints aside, this seems like comedic alternative. I guess this Aussi inventor was simply fed up with those little foam pads that you place under your knees or perhaps he got sunburned one too many times.

But all kidding aside, the Wunda Weeder, picture below, is a fairly ingenious creation. This solar powered rolling lounger could certainly change the way that people tend to their gardens. You would need a fairly large garden to really justify such a mechanism, but if you have such a need, the Wunda Weeder seems like the best solution you are going to find. Unless, that is, you are prepared to build a version of your own.

The assembly is really quite simple, though in my opinion, a little over-engineered. Above the occupant, there are two mounted solar panels that recharge the battery pack. The power stored up in the battery is used to slowly propel the Wunda Weeder along your garden, enabling you to pick out weeds and tend to your plants while lounging semi-comfortable position. Lying on your stomach isn’t a particularly natural position, but it would still be much better than crouching over every foot of your garden. The Wunda Weeder also shades the user from the sun and even includes a radio to provide some entertainment as you work.

Though currently only available in Australia, maybe the Wunda Weeder will start revolutionizing gardening in the U.S. in the near future. Then maybe you too can take on gardening while lying down.

via cnet

Let the Sun Keep You Cool

A new application of solar technology has been gaining popularity: The Solar Powered Air Conditioner. One of the leading companies is Silicon Valley startup Chromasun, who has developed a rooftop version of the solar air conditioner. Large building consume enormous quantities of energy, especially in the effort of heating and cooling its floors. By finding new ways to control the temperature of these buildings, we can hope to great more energy efficient and sustainable structures. One of the most popular options for rooftop temperature control is to construct a green roof, though the weight of the soil requires a building’s support columns to be reinforced to handle the additional load. For places that don’t generally need to heat their buildings, Chromasun’s rooftop cooling reflectors are a good and efficient alternative. Once they have been installed, the units perform their function automatically.

As Michael Kanellos at Greentech reports, “The company has created a rooftop system that collects heat from the sun with reflectors and transfers it into a fluid, similar to the process that large-scale solar thermal systems in the desert use. But instead of using the heat to make steam and turn a turbine, the heat is pumped into a double-effect chiller that, through a series of phase-change reactions and heat exchanges, results in cold air. Naturally, the solar system will work hardest at the peak of a hot summer day, providing some relief to the energy grid.”
And with heavy summer use, the system should pay for itself in 2 to 4 years. Not bad.  Not bad at all.

Chromasun via greentech

Tesla Motors and Toyota: A Partnership

Tesla Motors first made it’s mark with the development of the Tesla Roadster, a high-performance electric vehicle raved as the next generation of private transportation. The car is sleek and well engineered, but with a price tag of $100,000+, the Roadster isn’t exactly consumer friendly.
Recently, Toyota announced plans to invest $50 million in the electric car manufacturer in exchange for common stock. The deal also includes collaborative work in the design and production of future models. Plans are already underway to manufacture Tesla’s next car, the Model S, at the recently purchased Nummi assembly plant in Fremont, Calif. The plant was previously run, collaboratively, by GM and Toyota and was the production site of the Toyota Corrola and Pontiac Vibe.
The Model S is an electric sedan with a base price currently set at around $50,000, though it is yet to be seen if Tesla Motors can produce and market the car at that price. Needless to say, Tesla’s collaboration with Toyota certainly wont hurt.

The Thing About Plastics…

Popular science suggests that it takes a plastic water bottle 450 to 1000 years to completely biodegrade. To make matters worse, the compounds that common plastics breaks down to can be described as hazardous at best. The actual amount of time depends on the conditions the bottles are placed in, but the message should be crystal clear: it takes a long time. Plastics cannot be incinerated using low heat incinerators (like those used at most trash to power plants) because the combustion creates one of the most deadly gases humanity has discovered, Dioxin. Dioxin is a organic compound class that includes Agent Orange, produced by Monsanto during the Vietnam War. The greatest threat of dioxins is not the immediate deaths and ecological destruction, but the residual effects and birth defects that destroy the lives of generation after generation.

Photo by Chris Jordan, part of his Running the Numbers series.

In 2006, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation conducted a report on the growing use of bottled water in the United States. The report was full of staggering figures and awesome percentages. Like: Did you know that Americans spend nearly $11 billion a year on bottled water and that bottled water costs roughly $10 a gallon while tap water costs less than one cent per gallon. That is an inexplicable discrepancy considering the water sources are so comparable. While most bottled water in the U.S. does come from springs or underground reservoirs, 25% of bottlers simply sell packaged tap water. In truth, it is a brilliant business model: let the city do all the costly and energy demanding work to filter, treat, and chlorinate the water supply before placing it in cheap plastic bottles and selling it at hundreds of times the production cost. If you drink Pepsi’s Aquifina or Coke’s Dasani, you are most likely drinking processed tap water. If the label says “purified” or “drinking water,” that is a sign that the water is not coming from a glistening mountain stream like the image suggests.

Considering the importance of clean drinking water to our daily lives, it is quite surprising that water remains a grossly unregulated resource (in most places, if you own the land then you are entitled to the water in the reservoirs under your property). Bottled water companies exploit this fact, which is completely legal, in order to earn billions selling people their own water resources.

Manila Bay,  Philippines

Of the over 31 billion bottles of water sold a year, only about 10% are recycled. That means that 27.9 billion plastic bottles end up in landfills and oceans every year. And water bottles are one of the few recyclable kinds of plastic. Of the 7 types of plastics, only 2 are readily recyclable. That means only 2 types are worth TRYING to reuse. The rest are dumped, no questions asked.

The NY DEC report also found that every day, 30 million single-serve non-returnable plastic containers are discarded. That means water bottles, microwave dinners, takeout containers, etc, are all used just once before being sent of to a landfill to sit for 450-1000 years. Of course, that assumes these plastics even make it to a landfill. Even though the toxic conditions of a landfill are not well suited for biodegradation of plastics, it is still an improvement over the significant percentage of the plastics that end up in rivers and streams. From there they are carried off to the ocean. Once in the ocean, the litter collects with other garbage floating around in islands of trash and slowly deteriorates into tiny bits of plastic. Seabirds are known to mistake these colorful bits of plastic for food and to feed them to their young. Entire species will likely disappear before they learn that plastic is not edible. As these bits float down to the ocean floor, they are eaten by fish, adding a further stress to already over-fished populations.

For anyone who thinks that bottled water is safer and cleaner, it simply is not true. The only truth is that Americans are very easily exploited by advertisements. (If you have ever heard someone say “My clothes express who I am,” you should realize that that mentality is the result of clothing advertisements in the 60’s and 70’s aimed at recapturing a youth population that had rejected the homogenous styles that characterized previous generations.) Bottle water companies have created distrust in tap water through years of advertising, the tried and true American way. Almost all industrialized countries have high water quality standards which guarantee that tap water is clean and treated (water resources even includes traces of chlorine to prevent contamination and fluoride to prevent tooth decay).

Bottled water, by contrasted, isn’t regulated. Plus the deterioration of a plastic bottle may be slow, but it begins the moment it is created. Leave a bottle of water in the sun for a couple hours and you will be able to taste some phthalate that leaches into the water. A few years ago people were all up in arms about BPA in hard plastic water bottles, but ordinary plastic bottles are much much worse.

The solution: buy a metal or hard plastic water bottle, drink tap water, and stop polluting nature’s water resources. I shouldn’t even need to convince you.

Sources: MSNBC,

Window Farms

A window farm is an affordable and space efficient way of growing produce of your own. The idea has been pioneered, as far as I can tell, by With the tag-line of “hydroponic edible gardens for urban windows,” the site provides a free and easy to follow manual so that anyone can construct a window farm of their own. The driving intent of the project is to create an international community of environmentally conscious individuals. Through such a community, people can share their research and experience as well as aid each other in a more global effort to spread environmentally responsible practices.

MetalCell : Portable Battery Powered By Saltwater (or Urine)

The MetalCell (which originally appeared in an issue of Popular Science) is all over the blogs, but I cannot find where the product can actually be purchased (or any details about the voltage produced by the cell). Anonymity withstanding, the idea of an emergency power source that can run off of saltwater or urine is pretty cool.

The technology behind the MetalCell is said to have originated in South Korea for use by the military. The battery is powered by the electrochemical reaction between the magnesium plates in the cell and the sodium contained in salt water or urine. In theory, the MetalCell can power a laptop for 4 hours, though the actual power output is going to depend on the sodium content of the fluid in the cell. The batteries are best suited for use as an emergency power source since the magnesium plates will eventually corrode from use. In the meantime, the cells are small and easily stored away until they are needed.

They Call it “Vampire Energy”

Little do consumers realize that most electronic devices are using up energy as long as they are plugged in. That means that your TV and home theater are wasting power while they are turned off. The popular term for this quiet energy consumption is Vampire Energy. There has certainly been a recent increase in public awareness of vampire energy, but most people are still throwing away a lot of money on their electricity bill because of electronics that they are not even using. In the simplest sense, the wasted power consumption is caused by the process of transforming electrical currents for AC to DC (the black box attached to the cord that heats up and wastes power in the process) and by more advanced devices like televisions, video game consoles, and desktop computers which contain on-board circuits that basically have to tell themselves  to “Stay Off, Stay Off, Stay Off…” as long as they are connected to the power grid. When you press the power button on you TV, you are not connecting/disconnecting the power but merely telling the device that is should turn the screen on/off. The convenience of being able to turn on your TV with a remote costs consumers in the form of vampire energy waste. Researchers have estimated that, in the U.S.,  wasted vampire energy accounts for over 4% of all the energy consumption. At first, 4% doesn’t sound like an awesome figure, but 4% of our energy consuption menas 100 million tons of oil each year. And since the U.S. uses more energy than any other country on earth, 4% of U.S. energy consumption translates to 1% of all the energy used in the entire world. Remember that we are talking about electrical devices that are, for all intents and purposes, turned off.

This image first appeared in a 2007 edition of Good Magazine as a comprehensive introduction to the significance of vampire energy. The figure shows some easy to understand stats about the costs of vampire energy. It should be quite apparent that once you add up the costs of all the electonic devices and appliances, vampire energy has a noteworth impact on the energy consumption of homes across the country. Until designs begin to adress the energy wasting character of devices, comsumers can take simple and hands-on steps to eleminate vampire energy in their homes. The best option is to install additional switches (next to the light swithes in every room) that connect and disconnect (turn on/off) all the wall outlets in the vacinity. If you use power strips or serge protectors for your most energy consuming devices, another simple solution is to turn off or unplug these outlets when they are not being used. This effort may feel tedious or inconvineint, but it is guaranteed to reduce the energy costs of your home and that means saving money on your next electricity bill. There is sure to be vampire energy in your home and it is up to you to eleminate the wasted power consumption.