Farewell to the Solar Water Heater

I call that getting swindled and pimped
I call that getting tricked by business. – Macklemore


It seemed like a good idea at the time.

As some of you will recall, in 2010 we had a solar water heater installed. Thanks to the federal tax credit and a rebate from the electric company, we only had to pay about 1/3 of the total cost, and we hoped to save $30-50/month on our electric bill by using the sun to heat our water. Green? Check. Interesting and unusual? Check. Cost-effective? Probably. I pegged our break-even point at 3-5 years, much better than the 20-year break-even point for solar electrical panels.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way.

For a couple of years, the system worked great in summer, okay in spring and fall, and hardly at all in winter due to changes in roof temperature. That aspect wasn’t a surprise as the system only works when the roof is warmer than the water in the tank. However, I never noticed any significant drop in our electric usage. With so much variability in weather conditions and hot water usage, it would be very difficult to measure exactly how much the solar water heater was saving. However, I expected to see some difference, especially in summer when it heated the water so well.

In 2012, after two years in service, the system stopped heating water as well as it had before. The pump still ran water up to the heating panels on the roof and back, but the water temperature rose much more slowly than it should have. So I had to call the installer back out. He cleaned out one of the filters or something like that, and afterward it worked great for about a year. Fortunately, he didn’t charge for the visit other than a small fee for a failed part. I must add that the failed part was a tube that leaked water into our bedroom closet, which was more than a bit annoying.

Finally, this summer, the pump quit working correctly. Instead of pumping water up to the roof, it merely vibrated and made weird and loud noises, loud enough for me to hear from our bedroom. The installer, along with every other North Texas company who installed the Fafco Sungrabber system, had gone out of business. The one company I could find who still serviced these systems in the area was difficult to work with and not very responsive. But they finally delivered the final straw of bad news: the replacement pump was nearly $700.

I was done. “Come take this thing out,” I told them.

On Wednesday of last week, about a week after I nearly flooded my house by trying to do it myself (always know where to find the key to turn off your water in case of emergencies, people!!), the crew came out and removed my much-hyped solar water heater. Considering how much I paid to have it installed ($1500) and then removed ($250), I am quite sure that I never earned my money back despite my high hopes at the time. My intentions were good. I think the installers did a decent job. But it seems that the technology just didn’t work that well. The boss at the removal company said he refused to install the Fafco system in homes I had because it was “crap.”

Now we are back to having a normal, boring, non-eco-friendly water heater. It isn’t the most efficient, but it works. When we sell this house someday, we won’t need to explain that we’ve got this weird solar thing and describe how to use it, nor will we need to scramble to find someone who can repair it. That’s one less thing to worry about.

Southwest Goes Way, Way Offshore

Yesterday Southwest Airlines reached an exciting operational milestone: our first scheduled flight more than 162 nautical miles offshore, far into the Atlantic Ocean. For now, we are only flying so far offshore between Baltimore and San Juan, Puerto Rico, but other routes will probably follow.

This new type of route takes us into what’s called Class II airspace. Class II includes any area that’s too far away to use ground-based navigational beacons, such as areas far from a coastline or so remote that no navigational beacons are installed. Flying there requires special training, FAA approval, and onboard equipment for long-range navigation and communications. In many cases, such as our BWI-SJU flights, Class II also overlaps with areas that are so far offshore that the FAA requires life rafts onboard. These areas involve Extended Overwater operations.

With No Overwater Equipment – 50nm Offshore

Until Southwest added life jackets to all our planes in 2006, we were required to stay within 50nm of shore. Under the old rule, our BWI-SJU route would have needed to hug the coast, a very inefficient route as shown here:

With Life Jackets – Up to 162nm Offshore

Adding life jackets allowed us to fly up to 162nm offshore, which let us take shortcuts across the Gulf of Mexico between Tampa and New Orleans or along the East Coast between South Florida and North Carolina. On our BWI-SJU flight, we could use a route that went a bit more directly between the two airports. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than the first route, saving 2900 lbs (about $1300 worth) of fuel and 29 minutes enroute.

Class II / Extended Overwater – Up to 1 Hour from Adequate Diversion Airport

As of yesterday, we can now enter Class II airspace and go beyond the 162nm perimeter with a properly-equipped aircraft. For now, only some of our new 737-800s are equipped for these flights. With them, we can fly up to one hour (428nm) from an adequate diversion airport. This is a significant step up for us in terms of both capability and time/fuel savings. The Class II route saves an additional 2200 lbs (about $1000 worth) of fuel and 20 minutes versus the route using only life jackets. Compared to the hugging-the-coast route, it saves a whopping 5100 lbs (about $2300 worth) and 49 minutes enroute.

Here are all three routes side by side with the new Class II route in white. Nice, eh?

Some of our new 737-800s came equipped to fly more than one hour away from an adequate diversion airport, known as ETOPS. Currently, Southwest does not have ETOPS certification, which takes time to obtain and requires additional maintenance and training. ETOPS would allow service to places like Hawaii. I do not know if or when we will pursue ETOPS, but those aircraft will be ready in case we do.

Ten Things I’ve Learned From Parenting

Brenden turned five this week, so it’s not a bad time to reflect on some lessons I’ve learned from being a dad. It’s hard to say whether fatherhood matched my expectations. When Jenny was pregnant with Brenden, I focused on preparing for life with a baby, which is MUCH different from life with two preschoolers. We still make plans for the future with them, but so much of fatherhood now seems to be able surviving each day without having to visit the hospital or the liquor store.

Here are a few things I’ve learned, or at least reinforced:

  1. Nothing in my life has driven me insane like my children have. When they are being difficult, they seem to bring out the worst in me, and I hate that.
  2. Few things in life have made me prouder than my children. Watching them make progress in the pool, seeing them treat their friends and cousins kindly without being prompted, hearing them say they love me, and getting enthusiastic hugs when I come home fill my heart with pride and wonder.
  3. It’s fascinating to see reflections of me and Jenny in them. Brenden got my stubbornness, love of data, comfort with routine, distaste of last-minute changes, and affinity for video games. Jonathan got Jenny’s gentle and kind spirit, creativity, and love of people.
  4. No matter what I do as a parent, many people are going to disagree with it. Maybe I’m doing things differently from the way they were raised. Maybe I’m not following their favorite parenting book or guru. Maybe they are afraid I’m going to horribly corrupt my kid or give him autism or spoil him or send him straight to hell or jail or dozens of counseling sessions later in life. But there are only two people who get a vote in how we raise our kids: me and Jenny. All other opinions are advisory only.
  5. Spending money on your kids is much more fun than I expected.
  6. It can be difficult to know how far to push your kids and when to step in and help. One good example is video games. Brenden loves to play, but many of the games he likes are challenging, and he often gets frustrated or intimidated after dying just once or twice. Then he comes to me or Jenny begging for us to take over and get him through the level or past the boss. On one hand, I want to say no because the only way to get better at something is to keep trying and thinking when things get tough. On the other hand, he’s five years old, and it isn’t realistic to expect him to be able to ace a game that challenges even a lifelong gamer like me.
  7. From time to time a vision pops up in my head. Jenny and I are around 50 years old. The boys are away at college, making the house ours once more. We share a bottle of wine and quietly ponder whether we did the best job we could with them, whether they turned out okay. We relax a bit once we decide the answer is yes.
  8. It wasn’t until I became a parent that I realized how embarrassing it could be when your kid acts up in public. (Sorry, Mom!)
  9. Even though I knew parenthood would significantly affect most parts of my life, thinking about all the different ways still amazes me. Without kids, we would drive different cars, live in a different house, travel a lot more, spend more time with friends, have more toys, spend our free time differently, and make numerous other changes. Although we make many sacrifices for them, I don’t begrudge those sacrifices. They are part of my new mission in life, the mission to give these two crazy boys everything I can give them to help them become men. As difficult as fatherhood can be, I derive great satisfaction from being their dad.
  10. I knew fatherhood would be a lot of work. I don’t think I realized how much fun it would be, how they would make me chuckle almost every day, and how much Jenny and I would enjoy laughing about them together.

I was apprehensive about becoming a parent for a while. If I could have learned some of these lessons in advance before the boys arrived, the prospect would have been more appealing and less scary. But that’s not how life works. Instead, I got to earn these lessons the hard way, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity.

Unbroken and the Mystery of Enemies Who Become Friends

I drive a Japanese car, a Honda Fit. Unlike some Japanese cars that are built by Japanese companies on American soil, my Fit was actually made in Japan and shipped over. One of my favorite foods is sushi. Another is anything prepared hibachi-style. My family plays video games on a Wii U, a Japanese system, with audio run through a receiver made by Sony, another Japanese company. I love the spare, haunting simplicity of Japanese music and art and the minimalist beauty of its architecture and furniture design. One of my favorite spas is a Japanese gem outside Santa Fe called Ten Thousand Waves. In my lifetime, Japan has always been a country full of innovation, great culture, and solid values that offer an interesting alternative to our Western individualism.

Obviously, had I been born half a century earlier, my perspective on Japan would have been radically different.

A Tale Worth Reading

This realization hit home for me while reading Laura Hillenbrand’s outstanding World War II biography called Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who served in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific theater. After his plane crashed, he crawled into a life raft with two men from his crew and began drifting west toward Japanese-occupied territory. His story was one of the most extraordinary journeys I have ever encountered. The book taught me much about the Pacific side of World War II, a subject I sadly haven’t studied in depth even though both my grandfathers served in the Navy during the war. It also gave me a portrait of a will to live that is strong enough to endure unfathomable suffering, despite circumstances that would have made me want to give up many times over. Hillenbrand, also the author of Seabiscuit, spent seven years interviewing POWs, historians, and Zamperini himself, poring over scrapbooks and photographs and military records, and weaving together this mountain of information into one of the most compelling nonfiction books I have ever read.

Japan as a Hostile Nation

The disconnect between the 2013 Japan I know and the 1940s Japan in the book jarred me a bit. Without spoiling the book for you, I will say that Zamperini does eventually encounter some Japanese soldiers, and the results will make you squirm.

How can two countries go from being mortal enemies in the 1940s to being begrudging allies against the Communists the next decade, to say nothing of our strong relationship today and our affinity for Japanese culture and products? Political necessity certainly played a role initially, as the United States wanted all the allies it could get against the Soviet Union and China. Economic considerations also helped, as helping Japan to rebuild presented a large trade opportunity. The passage of time faded painful and fearful memories, and the millions of babies born in the post-war Baby Boom were already separated by time from the horrors of the war. For me, a child of two of those Baby Boomers, the idea of Japan as a hostile nation feels strange and out of place. And finally, as many of the World War II veterans learned after returning home, hatred and bitterness make a terrible burden to carry for the rest of one’s life.

Closing Your Eyes Is Easier, but Opening Them Is Worth It

Studying the horrors of World War II filled me with a variety of emotions: sorrow at the suffering and death of so many people on both sides of the conflict, anger at the people who started it, confusion at how so many people on the Axis side could believe in ideas like racial superiority, wonder at the amazing resilience and bravery of the soldiers and the civilians, and a wave of many types of gratitude.

I am thankful this brutal war ended as soon as it did. I am grateful that my grandfathers and so many others returned safely despite the enormous risks they faced. I am grateful that people, and nations, can change over time, that former enemies can shake hands and sometimes even form friendships, and that forgiveness is possible even in some of the worst situations imaginable.

Random Facts About Me – May 2013

I haven’t done a true Random Facts post in a while, so let’s mix things up a bit, shall we?

  1. Despite being surrounded by people knowledgeable in a variety of areas, I very rarely ask for advice on anything. My pride and stubbornness deserve part of the blame, but much of it lies somewhere else: I can’t help but feel obligated to take someone’s advice if I ask for it, and I haven’t figured out a way to gracefully reject that advice without feeling guilty. So it feels like asking for advice paints me into a corner. So I just don’t do it.
  2. On a related note, I tend not to tell everyone about my problems partly because I don’t want people trying to solve them. Unsolicited advice is one of my pet peeves.
  3. On another related note, I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to my own life. I like being the “captain of my soul,” as the poet said. But I hate being in charge of other people and imposing my will on them. That’s the main reason I have so little interest in leadership positions. That’s also one of the main reasons that parenthood is so frustrating for me. I enjoy playing with the boys, teaching them, talking with them about their day, and encouraging them. I hate trying to get them to do things. They are just as stubborn as I am, and it sucks having to butt heads with them over and over again. Maybe that’s why being a grandparent is more fun than being a parent. You get the fun stuff without the moral obligation to mold them into good people.
  4. Heavy whipping cream is my favorite thing to add to my coffee. It’s fun to pour in a bit, watch it sink to the bottom, and watch it reappear on the surface. It you do it gently, little dots of cream appear on top rather than a big swirl, a bit like bubbles from a tiny scuba diver.
  5. Right now, my plan is to dispatch for Southwest until I’m about 65 (31 more years), retire with Jenny, and turn into my Aunt Kathy’s parents. They divide their time between relaxing, doing family stuff, and traveling. They do all sorts of amazing trips, sometimes picking up great last-minute deals since they have so much flexibility. I might volunteer somewhere as well. I’ll need something productive to do to avoid driving myself crazy.
  6. When I was a teenager, I went through a “purge the evil music from my collection” phase and destroyed my two Nine Inch Nails CDs. I lost some good music that way.
  7. Part of me wants to update the heck out of our house. The other part wants to use that money to pay it off sooner and move. Lately, Option 1 has been winning. I love the idea of taking something old and worn out and making it new.
  8. Some people like to work out to upbeat music for motivation. I don’t like to run or bike with music, but I do listen when I do cardio at the gym. I (strangely?) prefer relaxing music like smooth jazz, Yanni, or Sarah McLachlan. Mellow music helps me relax and feel like I’m not working as hard as I really am.
  9. When I’m working, I generally eat the same thing for breakfast (cereal) and my work meal (bagel, banana, yogurt, and something else like a protein bar). So the only meal that changes much is dinner with the family. I like not having to think too hard about my food.
  10. I shave my head every couple of weeks at most. I don’t trust a regular razor, so I use electric clippers with no guard, which means I always look a little fuzzy rather than looking like a cue ball.

Knee Update

Since early February, I have run a grand total of one mile. It’s been so long since a real run that I’ve mostly stopped thinking of myself as a runner, which feels a bit weird. However, I still feel a tiny stab inside when I see someone out for a jog. I should be out there, too.

As you might remember, my orthopedist checked out my knee in early March and found no problems. His prescription was rest. It didn’t work. Maybe I didn’t rest it enough, but even two weeks of no leg activity at all didn’t change how it felt. So I went back for an MRI earlier this month.

The MRI wasn’t bad at all except for the price tag. I just had to lie still on the machine’s moveable table for 30-40 minutes while it made all sorts of loud noises as it captured the images. The technician let me listen to Jack FM on a nice pair of headphones and stay warm under a blanket.

The orthopedist also prescribed a fancy knee brace from The Brace Center in Bedford. Judging from the array of autographed Dallas Cowboys pictures in their office, I’m guessing many pro athletes find their braces here when they get injured, so that seemed like a good sign to me. I tried on a few and took home a hinged one called The Gripper. Despite a bit of chafing at first on the back of my knee, it seems to be helping. Knee-intensive activities such as cycling and elliptical are noticeable more comfortable. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s nice to find something that makes a difference.

I finally met with the orthopedist Thursday to get the results. Structurally, my knee is nearly perfect. I have the “knee cartilage of a baby.” So the good news is that I’m not having knee surgery, and the doc gave me the green light to do any form of exercise I want. Although certain activities I enjoy might cause some discomfort, they won’t cause any damage to my knee, so the question is how much discomfort I’m willing to tolerate and how I can manage it.

The bad news is that after all the visits and imagining and money, I still don’t really know what’s wrong, so there’s no clear solution. I’ll keep wearing the brace when I ride the elliptical or my bike. He suggested trying to strengthen my quads to help keep my kneecap in place. I might meet with a PT later about therapeutic taping for my knee. But that’s all I have.

Will I return to running? Maybe. I might try a short run soon with my brace and see how it feels. I’d like to get back into 5Ks or 10Ks if possible. But I’ll be OK if I don’t. Riding makes me happy. Despite my initial reluctance, the elliptical machine isn’t too bad, either. And I also enjoy lifting weights now. From lifting 2-3 times per week for a couple of months, I’ve grown noticeably stronger and a bit more defined. So I’m mostly done feeling sorry for myself. Bodies change over time, and our interests and activities change with them.