A “New” Way to Get Around

As an employee of a major airline, I probably shouldn’t like this idea. However, as an environmentalist, opponent of traffic jams and the hassles (sorry, boss!) of airline travel, I see some benefit in high-speed rail.

My experience with trains involves not high-speed rail but slower commuter rail in major cities – London, Paris, Washington, Dallas, New York, and Chicago. I was always impressed by how many people these subway and light rail systems could move around. Jenny and I have taken the Trinity Railway Express to downtown Fort Worth and the American Airlines Center many times to avoid traffic and parking hassles.

Admittedly, I don’t know much about high-speed rail. I know they are popular and very successful in Europe and Japan. In terms of carrying a person or pound of cargo a given distance, they use less fuel and produce fewer emissions than a car, truck, or plane. Sure, even a high-speed train is much slower than a jet. However, if you account for the chance of flight delays and the extra time and trouble you spend at the airport prior to the flight, the difference in overall travel time drops.

Leaders in Texas have discussed a high-speed train network to link Dallas, Houston, and Austin at various times. It appears to finally have a chance of success thanks to significant private investment. Southwest campaigned strongly against the idea in the early 1990s for obvious reasons. You won’t see me campaigning against my employer, but I think the idea is at least worth considering.

Check out this article in Time for details about high-speed rail possibilities in the U.S., particularly in Florida.

Solar Update

First, the bad news: SolarCity evaluated our house and determined that our big cottonwood tree casts too much shade onto the roof, so we are not good candidates for solar panels right now. I hope that over the next few years, solar technology will advance, becoming more efficient and less expensive. Smaller, better panels might fit on our roof and get enough sun to make them worth adding.

Now, the good news: our solar water heater has been working hard. The roof has reached at least 149, heating the water to the upper 120s during a sunny day. The solar controller disables the electric heater from 5am until 7pm. We try to shower and wash dishes in the morning or early afternoon so the solar heater can reheat the water. When the solar heater isn’t running, the water in the tank slowly cools, maybe a degree or two per hour. The hotter the water gets during the day, the longer it takes for the electric heater to kick in after 7pm, saving us more money.

The solar water heater helps in two ways. Most importantly, it heats the water after we use it. I think that’s where most of the savings occur. Second, it keeps the electric heater from running for 14 hours a day, whether to recharge after use or simply to maintain the desired temperature. I recently learned that you can buy a special timer for your traditional water heater to receive some of this second benefit. By letting the water cool when you don’t need hot water, such as during the day while you’re at work or at night while you’re sleeping, supposedly you can save anywhere from $2-20/month by adding a $40 timer.

Solar Power for $35/Month?

Thanks to my awesome mother-in-law who sent the article, I just learned of a fantastic program that could allow you to lease a 4KW solar power system for your home for only $35/month. If you know anything about solar power, you already know what a great deal that is.

I’ve looked into adding solar panels to our house, but the up-front cost would be tens of thousands of dollars with a payback period of 15-20 years, which is unacceptable. But TXU is partnering with SolarCity to let Texas residents lease the equipment for a 15-year period instead, even if you’re not a TXU customer. They estimate the savings at $50/month, but if your system can generate more power than you’re using at the time and you’re a TXU customer, you can pump power into the grid and actually run your power meter backward. Needless to say, I just signed up to be considered.

Intrigued? Visit the TXU Solar Leasing website. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram posted a good article on the program that explains it it more detail.

Solar Water Heater is Here

UPDATE: When I woke up around 1:00pm on Thursday, the system was working. Even though the outside temp was about 60-65, the roof temp was about 120, hot enough to activate the pump when needed. I’m guessing it ran for 2-3 hours total on Thursday when the sun was highest overhead. We’ll definitely see more benefit from March-October, but it could still help a bit during the winter.

The system makes a cool gurgling sound, like a waterfall, but you can’t hear it well from the bedroom or living room.


Success! The guys from Innerline Plumbing came over on Wednesday and installed our solar water heater. It took all day for a crew of 3, but they worked hard and got it done. Tomorrow’s forecast calls for sunny weather, so I’m hoping it will get hot enough on the roof for the system to run a bit. The controller compares the roof temperature to the water tank temperature. If the roof is at least 10 degrees hotter, the pumps kick in and send water up to the roof to get heated. Naturally, it will run more in the summer , but it should run some in the winter since the roof soaks up so much heat. Here are some pictures:

Panels on the roof – water flows through tiny tubes in these black plastic panels and absorb the sun’s energy


Storage tank – This tank stores the water that flows through the solar side of the system. When the system is running, this water is very hot, so the tank and pipes are covered in insulation. The tank is in our master closet because there wasn’t room in the utility room.


Controller – This little computer compares the temperature in the existing water heater to the room temperature and turns the pumps on and off as needed.


Heat Exchanger – This black box contains heat exchangers. The solar side of the system is closed-loop, meaning it has a self-container water supply. Hot water from the solar side of the system flows down into this box, transfers the heat to metal plates, which then transfer the heat to the water that we actually use to shower and wash dishes. It flows into the bottom of our electric water heater so it doesn’t have to run as much.

heat exchanger

Solar Water Heater, Part 2

UPDATE: Oncor has approved their partial funding of our project, and we have scheduled installation for March 3.


About a month ago I wrote about solar water heating, which using the sun’s energy to heat water for showers, laundry, and other household needs. Due to overly conservative tax withholding last year, we are getting a big tax refund. Hmm…what to do?

I know! Let’s install a solar water heater!

So we are. Our contractor is Innerline Plumbing in Mansfield, one of the only plumbing companies in the area that can do this type of work. Our system is a Sungrabber, an active system that uses a pump, heat exchanger, and small storage tank. As needed during the day, the system pumps a dedicated water supply up to the roof, where the sun heats it. We get “solar panels” on our roof, but they are made of black plastic tubes that absorb heat rather than photovoltaic cells that generate electricity. Then the heated water flows back down to a heat exchanger that transfers the heat to the water we actually use, which is stored in our existing water heater. When the system isn’t operating due to insufficient sunlight or freezing temperatures, the system’s dedicated water supply remains in a drainback tank inside our house so it doesn’t freeze. Our electric water heater can pick up the slack as needed.

If we change our usage patterns a bit to use hot water mainly during the day, this system should be able to provide 50-80 percent of our hot water needs, dropping our electric bill $30-50 a month. Although the up-front cost is high (about $4800), with the 30% federal tax credit and Oncor’s rebate, our effective cost is only about $1500. The system should pay for itself in 30-50 months.

Since this project combines saving money with helping the earth, I feel like a kid at Christmastime! We hope to have it installed sometime in March.