More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About My Solar Panels

east panels

west panels

After years of waiting for the right house and the right time, I finally installed a solar panel system in March 2016. Technically known as a solar photovoltaic or solar PV system, it sits on my roof and converts sunlight into electricity both for our own use and for the electric grid that we all share. For those who might be interested, here are more details than you probably wanted about the planning and installation process, costs, and benefits.

Basic Details

Don’t want to read the novel that follows? Here are the basics:

Size: 7 kW, 28 panels in 7 arrays facing east and west
Net Cost: $12,856 after all incentives, or $1.84/watt
Estimated Production: 700-780 kWh/month and 8300-9300 kWh/year
Estimated Savings: $75-80/month and $900-1000/year
Estimated Payback Time: 10.7-12 years

Initial Thoughts

Our house is rectangular in shape and faces roughly south, with the narrower sides on the north and south. In the Northern Hemisphere, due south is the ideal orientation for solar panels, but we didn’t have much south-facing roof. The HOA said we could install panels on the west and east sides but not the south side facing the street. I don’t know if that prohibition is technically legal or not in Texas, but since our south roof didn’t have much room anyway and I didn’t feel like a huge battle, I went with it. So my goal was to put as many panels as possible facing east and west to maximize our production, assuming the cost wasn’t too high. Off I went.

Shopping Around

For a project this big, I wanted at least three bids. After researching DFW companies and their reviews online, I contacted four solar companies in November 2015:

  • Longhorn Solar – They seemed like a great company. They said they would get in touch once some Oncor rebate information got published later that month. They never bothered to respond. Either they’re swamped with projects or don’t like money.
  • Native Solar – They are Austin based but also install up here. I talked to a super nice guy for quite a while over the phone, and he was trying to design a system for my roof using satellite imagery. Yes, that’s somewhat possible using their modeling software. After a few weeks of waiting on rebate info and the guy trying unsuccessfully to fit as many panels on my roof as the competition could, I finally figured out the problem: he was looking at the wrong house. I didn’t think it was worthwhile to continue down the Native path.
  • SolarCity – My friend Donny in Euless leased solar panels a few years ago from SolarCity and was very pleased. He actually got the ball rolling for me by hosting a “learn about solar” event at his house in October. I met his sales guy there and later got a bid from him. SolarCity focuses almost exclusively on leases and power purchase agreements. Both are flavors of the same idea – SolarCity installs, owns, and maintains the system on your roof, and you pay them either a monthly leasing fee or pay them for the power that the panels produce. Both are an interesting way to reduce or eliminate the high up-front costs of buying your own system, but there are some drawbacks. I wanted to purchase my system. SolarCity also sells systems, but the sales guy said he hadn’t actually sold any yet.

    Of the two initial bids I actually got for purchasing a system, SolarCity’s was lower. However, the super-nice and enthusiastic sales guy was proposing that we install panels all over the north side of the house as well, facing away from the sun. He said that’s normally what they recommend, just put up as many as you have room for. Even as a solar rookie, I knew the north-facing panels would produce significantly less electricity and were not very cost-effective. So the fact that he would recommend them told me his goal is simply to sell as many panels as possible regardless of their benefit to me. I also did some research on SolarCity afterward and found a ton of reviews from unhappy customers, especially in California. So despite my friend’s good experience with SolarCity, I was leery.

  • PetersenDean – Fortunately, I got another bid, the one I selected. PetersenDean is a roofing and solar company, which was an unusual but smart combination. They operate in California and Texas and have excellent reviews. Clint, the sales guy, seemed genuinely interested in helping me select the right system for my house rather than selling me the biggest system possible. He actually recommended a west-only configuration due to the way our house faces. The western side faces a 240 degree azimuth, or west-southwest. That’s good for solar production. The eastern side faces 60 degrees, or east-northeast. That direction can produce power, but anything facing north of 270 or 90 degrees is not ideal. Clint recognized that and didn’t even suggest any eastern panels, much less northern ones like the SolarCity guy. They also sell only American-made panels rather than Asian or European ones.
    PetersenDean’s initial bid was a bit higher per watt than SolarCity’s, but the system sizes were significantly different, which likely played a role. Cost per watt is the simplest way to compare bids between companies due to differences in system size and other factors. Once I had gotten two bids, I told Clint that I liked the company but his bid was higher. He offered me a discount on some slightly less efficient panels (250 watt vs 275 watt) they had sitting in the warehouse that they wanted to clear out, “last year’s model,” if you will. I also told him I wanted to add panels on the east side as well so I could produce for as many hours in the day as possible. He worked up a new bid that looks great.

So I didn’t actually get bids from three different companies, only two. But I doubted anyone would beat PetersenDean’s bid and felt good about them, so I signed with them.

Our Usage

Although I wanted to produce as much electricity as I could, I also wanted to know how much electricity we used and how much we could offset with the panels. Our house is brand new and energy efficient, including gas heat instead of electric like we had in our previous house in Euless. Despite living in Texas where summer days often top 100 degrees, our winter electric bills in Euless were significantly higher than the summer bills due to the inefficiency of electric heat. So in our new house in Grand Prairie, we need to look at two aspects of our usage: daily activities (lighting, appliances, etc.) and running the air conditioner during the warm months.

Oncor, our electric delivery company, uses the fancy new smart meters to gather detailed data about our usage and makes it available online at If you live in north Texas, Oncor is probably your delivery company, and you can sign up to see your own usage data. It shows you not just how much you use per day and month, but down to fifteen-minute increments. Using this data and a bit of research, I tweaked our house a bit to reduce our daily usage, mostly by replacing many of our incandescent bulbs with LEDs and CFLs.

daily usage before panels

Once I made our house more efficient, we were averaging about 17 kWh per day or about 520 kWh/month. If I were paying 10c/kWh, that’s $1.70/day just to keep the lights on and run the washer/dryer, computer, media room, etc. So I wanted to produce at least that much electricity per day.

The other piece is the air conditioner. Since we haven’t lived here a full summer, I don’t have good data for our summer usage. We moved in August 9 and didn’t get around to programming our goofy Honeywell Lyric thermostats until maybe September. But our September and October data indicated that our air conditioners (one upstairs unit and one downstairs unit) were using more energy than running all the other stuff in the house combined. We added solar screens from Lone Star Solar Screens in March to block out some of the heat and reduce our A/C load. Unfortunately, due to the timing on the solar panels and screens, I won’t be able to compare our summer usage before and after we went solar. But I’m sure it will help.

All in all, I estimated our annual usage without the solar panels at about 11,400 kWh, or 951 kWh/month. But keep in mind that’s roughly 520 kWh/month from November through April and then a big spike during the summer.

Planning and Installation

roof diagram

Installing a solar PV system is a months-long process. I signed the initial contract in November 2015, and they finished the installation in March 2016. After I signed the contract, PetersenDean’s tech folks designed the nuts and bolts of the system. It needed to comply with the electrical code, fire code (turns out you have to leave some space on the roof for firefighters to walk around if necessary), and local building code on top of being a viable system. We selected SolarWorld’s SW 250 Poly panels, rated at 250 watts.

Unfortunately, although we initially agreed on an 8 kW system (32 panels of 250w each), the solar engineer determined that we only had room for a 7 kW system, or 28 panels. That saved me some money up front but also cost me some production. The panels are roughly 3 feet by 5 feet and aren’t generally available in other sizes, which limits the installation options. Also, I initially wanted 24 panels on the west side and 8 on the east, since the western panels would produce more and were eligible for the Oncor rebate (more on that later), due to space constraints, we had to split them up evenly. So the final design has 14 panels west and 14 east. It’s not optimal for production, but like with any project, you make the compromises you need to make. Due to all the different faces on our roof, they had to split our system into seven different arrays (see above).

To estimate my solar production, I used a nifty calculator provided by the U.S. Department of Energy called PV Watts. It allows you to enter your location and PV system details (size, direction, tilt, etc.) and calculate roughly how much electricity your panels will generate by month. I used this data to build a spreadsheet that compares my production to my usage and estimate what percentage I could offset. The warmer months are highlighted in orange since they’ll add usage for the air conditioner.


The installation process itself took a few days, partly because our roof is really steep and partly because the system has so many different arrays to install and link up. The panels attach to metal rails that are screwed into the roof. The electrical wiring runs through the attic to a subpanel on the outside of our garage. So although the arrays are spread all over the roof, it looks clean because most of the wiring is hidden in the attic. Our system uses microinverters, which are more expensive but also more efficient and better suited for a system like ours that is spread out and has different arrays producing during different times of the day. The PetersenDean installation crew was very nice, worked hard, and did a great job under challenging conditions.


The cost of going solar has dropped steadily over the last several years, largely because the panel manufacturers are finding ways to make them cheaper. The tax code still provides a 30 percent tax credit for the entire out-of-pocket cost of the system. Also, some states and local utilities provide additional financial incentives. So solar might be cheaper than you think. Also, if you prefer not to pay for the entire system upfront, solar loans are becoming available from some banks. Some require no money up front.

For our 7 kW, 28-panel system, the initial cost was $20,640. But Oncor, our electricity delivery company that maintains the power lines and transformers, was offering a rebate through their Take a Load Off Texas program. Our west panels qualified for a rebate of $0.65/watt of capacity, or $2275. The east panels faced north of 90 degrees and did not qualify.

Why would Oncor want us to install solar panels? A solar PV home is a tiny power plant that creates electricity during the day. In Texas, the biggest electrical load we have occurs during summer afternoons, and Oncor needs enough power in the grid to keep millions of homes and businesses cool. The more homes generate their own power, the less need they’ll have to fire up their standby power plants or build new ones to handle the maximum possible load.

I like thinking of our home as a tiny power plant.

So our actual out-of-pocket cost was $18,365. But remember we can claim a 30 percent tax credit – not a deduction, but a dollar-for-dollar reduction of our tax bill. So after subtracting $5510 for that, our net cost for the system was $12,856.

Selling Our Extra Electricity

During the day, especially when the air conditioner isn’t running but it’s sunny outside, the panels produce more electricity than we use. It’s possible to add huge batteries like Tesla’s Powerwall to store that electricity, but they are expensive and don’t seem very cost-effective to me. The other option is to sell the excess power back to the power company. Sounds good, right? Right now only a few Texas power companies buy power from consumers. Green Mountain Energy is the best deal right now. They buy back excess power at the same rate you buy it from them. So on a typical sunny day, we overproduce from about 8:00am until about 6:00pm. During that time, we’re pumping power back into the grid, and our smart meter tracks it for us. At night, when it’s cloudy, or when we’re otherwise using more than we’re generating, we buy electricity from Green Mountain. So most months we’ll have a small electric bill, but other months (probably Feb-Apr) we’ll have a credit.

Benefits So Far

Based on my initial estimates, the system would produce 8374 kWh per year, offsetting about 74 percent of our electrical usage and saving $888 annually. Assuming the cost of electricity will go up about 3 percent annually due to inflation, our payback time would be around 12 years with a 6.9 percent return on investment in the first year (ROI).

However, after running the system for about a month, our actual power generation is higher than predicted.

We added monitoring capability so I can geek out on our production numbers, which I can view through a website or an app. I check the app throughout the day. They set up a public view of my system so you can check the production from day to day and see how it varies with the weather.

Here’s a screenshot of the website:

Enlighten screenshot

On a sunny day, we currently produce 30-35 kWh per day, nearly double the 17 kWh that we use. An overcast day drops that number roughly in half, and rainy days do less than that. On average since March 23, when we activated our system monitoring, we’re averaging 30 kWh/day. At that rate, we’re looking at roughly 900 kWh for this month versus the 765 kWh that the PV Watts calculator predicted for mid-March to mid-April. So we’re exceeding our estimate by nearly 18 percent. I can wait to see how they do this summer.

On average, at the 10.8c/kWh rate we’re paying, our monthly electric bill should be $20-30 with the panels versus $105 without them. So we’re saving roughly $75-80/month.

Here’s our daily usage on a sunny day after installation. From about 8:00am until about 6:00pm, we were selling power back to Green Mountain, effectively running the meter backward.

daily usage with panels


We are thrilled with our system and very happy we chose PetersenDean. Actually, we hope to add to our system at some point if we can figure out the right way to do it. We wound up with a bit of extra space on part of our western roof that could hold one or two more panels. More importantly, we might add a solar pergola in the backyard to increase our capacity by a few kilowatts. If you have any questions or want to speak with my contact at PetersenDean about getting a free estimate, contact me.

I’m Back

As you might (or might not!) have noticed, I’ve taken a break from blogging – about an 18 month break, leaving your Facebook news feed more room for funny cat videos, Trump memes, selfies, and whatever else brews your coffee. From time to time I thought, “I should probably blog about something,” but there was always something else to do or think about. Perhaps it’s time to fill you in on some of the highlights of the last year and a half. Think of this as our Christmas letter…in October. Just go with it.


Jenny, after five years and countless hours of work, has finished UTA nursing school and now works as a full-time RN. She’s a labor and delivery nurse at a local hospital and works with my sister in the same unit. Lisa even trained her for one shift, but I don’t think they had time to cover Lisa’s patented “Jive Talking” dance. Labor and delivery is a lot to learn, especially as her first nursing job, but she’s working hard and doing great. In about a month, she’ll get signed off to handle patients on her own. All hail Nurse Jenny!

House News

After 6 years in our house in Euless, we sold it in March to a nice couple with a little girl who wanted to put her in a good school. For five months, we downsized into a small two-bedroom apartment nearby while the boys finished their school year and M/I Homes built our new home in Grand Prairie. The building process might earn a separate post someday, as it was fascinating but quite stressful. Finally we closed and moved in August. We love how the house turned out. It has all the space we need and more, and it’s right by Joe Pool Lake with untouchable Corps of Engineers forest to our north and west. I’ve already spent many happy hours watching sports and playing games in the media room. Plus we finally have space to host events again.



Things are great with me. I’m still dispatching for SWA on the night shift and helping out with on-the-job training and overseeing the midnight workload. We’re getting several new midnight desks this year and next, which will help spread out the work better. I’m still thankful to have a wonderful wife and sons and extended family and good health. I’m still trying to run three times a week to stay in shape, only now in our new neighborhood instead of the park I ran through for years. It’s been fun to figure out new routes to cover the mileage I need for each run.

Sleep, I’ve found, is severely underrated. I didn’t fully appreciate sleep as a younger man. Being well rested makes it so much easier to deal with the stresses of parenthood, work, and people who make you mad. So I’m trying to be more intentional about getting enough sleep. Sometimes that means missing out on some things, but it’s better than being irritable all the time and falling asleep on the way home from work in the morning.

The Boys

The boys are also doing great. They love the new house and being closer to Jenny’s family and Lisa’s family. Cousins Reagan and Reid are half a mile away, so we see them often. The boys both have excellent teachers and enjoy their school. Brenden has started tumbling lessons as of a month ago, which teach him some body control and also give him a solid workout. Brenden is in second grade. Jonathan is now a kindergartener. (!) In a decade they’ll be driving and chasing girls. Ok, Jonathan might be chasing girls before then, but still.

That’s all for now. I’ve given up on using this blog to deeply analyze the world’s problems, convince all of you to change your minds on some crazy topic, or solve the mysteries of the universe. Those things can be nice, but they wheeze on my Zen, and these days I’m more into Zen than crusading. If I keep blogging, it’ll be more about just us and what we’re doing. If we interest you, stay in touch!

Princess Cruise to Bahamas and Grand Turk


Over Spring Break, the four of us took a cruise, the first for our sons. As most of you know, Jenny and I love cruising, and we were excited to let the boys try it. In our ongoing quest to try different cruise lines, we chose Princess this round on a recommendation from our friends James and Alexis. They were absolutely right.

Here is our photo album from the cruise.

Here are some of the highlights and thoughts.


Although cruise food has nearly always been tasty for us, Princess definitely served our favorite food of any cruise line we’ve tried. We ate dinner every night in one of the main dining rooms except for one night at the signature steakhouse, Crown Grill. Every meal, every dish featured a gourmet flair…veal cordon bleu, peach soup with prosecco, seared sea scallops, Asian-spiced roast duck, some of the best cheesecake I’ve ever tasted. The Crown Grill was a special treat, a high-end steakhouse that serves a slow-paced, highest quality meal that becomes the main event for your evening. The breakfast buffet offered numerous options, many of which changed daily. Even basic items like the pizza were delicious.


Our dinner at Crown Grill

Unfortunately, all the gourmet food that we enjoyed so much made feeding our picky sons a challenge, Brenden in particular. We never bothered taking them to the main dining halls, feeding them separately before taking them to the youth center. Brenden ate lots of hot dogs on this cruise. One of the only things I would change about Princess would be to add a few more kid-friendly food options and to provide trays at the buffet so we parents could carry stuff for our kids.


It probably isn’t fair to compare our cabin to the others we’ve sailed in. Since we were taking the boys with us for the first time, we needed more space and sleeping arrangements for four instead of two. After much research, we sprung for a mini-suite, which had two TVs, a queen bed, a sofa bed, a pull-down berth, full bathtub, and an enlarged balcony. It. Was. Fabulous. The boys took turns in the upper berth, and during the few times we rested in the room, the boys could watch their TV while I watched the moving map of the ship or the bridge cam.


General Vibe

Princess targets a different crowd than our previous cruise lines (Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian) and does things a little differently. They carry few kids (our ship had maybe 150 total under age 18, less than 50 under age 8, during Spring Break out of over 3000 total passengers) and cater more to middle-aged and older travelers. The older cruisers enjoyed our boys, giving me the impression that Brenden and Jonathan reminded them of their own grandkids. Princess felt more like a relaxing, refined pleasure cruise than a nonstop party. The few drunk people I saw were stumbling back to the ship on our Nassau day. The Cruise Director plans some activities but doesn’t blabber over the PA system every morning about how you can play The Newlywed Game at 9:00 beside the pool. They respect you enough to leave you alone and let you seek out the activities you want, so it’s generally quieter. They also seem to personalize things a bit more for their guests, such as printing your name on a card outside your room, leaving a welcome message on your phone, and providing information specific to the children’s program if you’re sailing with kids. I am sold.


Child Care

Although Princess doesn’t cater to families, it does offer an excellent children’s program that our boys adored. The youth center is split into three areas by age. Our sons played in the Pelicans area (ages 3-7), which offered age-appropriate activities such as face painting, crafts, Olympic games, movies, a play structure, and computers. They are used to environments like this from being in school and the gym’s child care, so we figured they would like it fairly well. They wound up choosing to spend every evening there from roughly 6-10pm. They stayed busy and had a blast while Jenny and I enjoyed a delicious dinner, explored the ship, or relaxed in the room. It was like having date night every night for nearly a week.


One more highlight was the kids’ area on Princess Cays, their private resort. It features two large covered areas, one a playground and the other a huge sand pit, and youth workers to watch your kids while you go play on the beach or read a book. Again, the boys had a blast there. If a parent was present to supervise, kids could also swim in a kiddie pool, the only kiddie pool our boys encountered on the trip (none available on the ship).


Since Princess’s focus is different, its entertainment options were a bit different as well. Our ship included one large theater for shows. Jenny isn’t as into the shows as I am, and I only caught one – an illusionist/comedian. He was pretty good. I’m sorry I didn’t see some of the other shows, but we preferred to enjoy the nice meals and relax rather than racing through dinner to make a showtime. In the beautiful three-story atrium, we saw a couple of acts: a pair of acrobats and three Filipino chefs making food art, which Brenden loved. For me, my favorite entertainment offering was Movies Under the Stars. The ship includes a large video screen on one of the top decks next to the pool and plays recent movies at night. They even provide blankets and popcorn. Our sailing included Gravity, Captain Phillips, and Thor: The Dark World. We discussed watching a movie as a family but never found the right movie and night. I, however, did catch an afternoon showing of Top Gun. If we sail with Princess again when the boys are older, we might get to try it. I love the concept.


Port #1 was Nassau, which we had already visited twice but was new to the boys. This time we walked from the dock to a nearby public beach called Junkanoo and let the boys play for a couple of hours. Then we walked another 1-2 miles to Ardastra Gardens, the zoo we visited on our first Nassau cruise that featured the marching flamingoes. The boys enjoyed it but were a bit tired after all the walking. Then the visit took a nosedive when Jonathan lost his balance and fell onto a cactus. We took a cab back to the ship and finished fishing out all the cactus spines before dinner.

Port #2 was Princess Cays, the line’s private resort at the far end of one of the many Bahamian islands. We loved it there – plenty of beach chairs, palm trees for shade, watersports, the kids’ play area, good food, gorgeous beaches. Brenden and I took a 30-minute trip on a kayak, which was lots of fun but more work than I was expecting. This was a very relaxing and peaceful day with ZERO cactus incidents.

Port #3 was Grand Turk, a first for me and Jenny. It’s a very small island that’s the capitol of Turks and Caicos, an island nation that is somehow part of the British Commonwealth. Here Jenny and I initially left the kids onboard in the youth center and enjoyed our only official excursion, a kayaking and eco-walk adventure on the barely-developed north end of the island. I wish we’d brought a waterproof camera so I could have gotten some pictures as this area was rugged and beautiful. We got to see and touch some local, nonvenomous mangrove jellyfish. The guides spotted a nurse shark underwater and tried to grab it (!) but did not succeed. I did get to hold a sea urchin and sea cucumber before paddling back. Then we bought some gifts to take home, picked up the boys, and took them to play on the beach one last time. The island and the cruise lines built a beautiful pier and shopping center to siphon away tourist dollars, and there’s a great beach right next to the pier. We played on the beach with a beautiful view of the ship, which was just a cool experience.


Overall Impression

Jenny and I LOVED Princess. The next time we sail just the two of us, we’ll be strongly tempted to choose Princess again. The food, the quieter and more elegant atmosphere, and the personal touches made this a very pleasant way to travel. If we’re traveling with the boys, we’ll be torn. They had a wonderful time and still talk about our trip three weeks later. However, at least while they are young and picky eaters, we might try a more family-friendly cruise line such as Carnival or Disney to make things a bit easier on us.

“I’m Gonna Turn This Thing Around 360 Degrees!!”


I think I’m about done with these winter ice storms.

Sunday night, I was driving to work after yet another Dallas ice storm (was this number 3 or 4 of the season?). My airline keeps flying whether the Dallas streets are dry or braking action nil, so I refuse to call in chicken to work when the roads are bad. If our Chicago ramp agents can throw bags during a blizzard, I can find a way to make it to work. After my spin-out in December, I decided to drive our gas-guzzling minivan since it carries significantly more heft than our little Honda Fit. You know, just in case anything happens.

Although the street in front of our house was mostly dry, and I’d already criticized Brenden’s school district on Facebook for canceling school AGAIN due to the ice, I quickly found that most of the streets were indeed slick. Maybe I should delete that Facebook comment, I thought. I was in the center lane, driving slowly and carefully. dreading the moment I’d felt three months ago when I could lose traction and begin to slide. But so far, so good. An Accord was ahead of me in the right lane, also driving slowly and carefully.

As we came around a curve, the Accord began to slide as I drew closer. It hit the right curb and bounced off. As I was passing it, the Accord began sliding back to the left. On the ice, I was afraid to make any sudden evasive maneuvers, so I just hoped I could move ahead before it crossed my path.

The Accord hit me on the right rear wheel, sending me spinning clockwise on the ice. I heard a crunching sound and felt a bump when it hit. A similar impact on dry streets probably would have been more dramatic, but the ice allowed my van to start moving more easily, so the damage wasn’t as bad. I know I did one 360-degree spin, maybe two. It happened so fast that I can be sure. I wish I’d had a GoPro recording on my dashboard. After a few seconds, the left rear tire hit a curb, bringing the van to a halt.

Well, this is a bit inconvenient, I thought.

I was wearing my seatbelt as always, and I wasn’t hurt, but I knew the van could be. I pulled over onto a side street and hoped the other driver would do the same. She did. I stepped out to see the damage.

The left rear tire was hissing flat, the rim banged up from hitting the curb. The right rear tire was shredded, which meant I wasn’t going anywhere in this vehicle. The rear fender had popped off on the right side and was hanging off. The right side panel was also dented near the wheel well. Overall, it wasn’t good news, but it could have been much, much worse.




The other driver, a young woman, stayed put, but her boyfriend (?), a young man, climbed out of the passenger seat. We exchanged information and assured each other we were OK. He apologized. Their Accord was drivable but looked worse than my minivan, the front end banged up badly.

I got their insurance card and the driver’s license, taking pics of both with my phone. The insurance card was expired. He seemed surprised at first but assured me that he had renewed it and just hadn’t replaced the card. I suppose I wasn’t thinking clearly because I didn’t remember to record their license plate, photograph their car, or confirm the make/model/color. I didn’t even use my iWrecked app since I was in a hurry to get this resolved so I could get to work. We decided not to call and wait for the police since no one was hurt and both cars were drivable. With ice all over the area, I figured the cops were busy with more serious accidents.

Once we both were satisfied, I cautiously drove the van across the street to a small parking lot outside a self-service car wash. Driving with both rear tires flat felt odd, like I was driving through sand or pulling a trailer. Then I started calling work and Jenny to figure out what to do. I was only a mile or so from home, and Jenny piled the boys into the Fit and drove out to get me. Then I drove her home and set out for work, arriving 30 minutes late and hoping the whole time that I would make it there without wrecking our other car.


Low. Ri. Der. Drives a little slower.

We’ve been dealing with our insurance company (MetLife), renting a car from Enterprise during the week, and talking to the repair shop (Craig’s Collision). So far Enterprise has been great, giving me a sweet Nissan Maxima and billing it to MetLife since I had rental coverage. On the other hand, MetLife and Craig’s both seem stuck in molasses, taking their sweet time to get anything done. I initiate most of the phone calls. I had to call MetLife back Tuesday afternoon just to get them to come tow the van away from the car wash parking lot before someone else had it towed for me. The shop got the car late Tuesday afternoon but didn’t give us an estimate until Saturday morning. So we’ve spent all this week in limbo, wondering whether the damage would be enough to total a 2005 minivan with 90,000 miles.

We looked into both new and used cars just in case we had to buy something fast. Since we’d been considering a replacement for the minivan within the next couple years, we were excited about having a legitimate excuse to move ahead a bit early. However, we haven’t had a car payment in over six years, and financially it would be better to postpone that streak for another year until after we move.

MetLife has determined that the other driver was 100 percent at fault, which I agree with. However, the other insurance company hasn’t made a decision. From my little contact with them, they don’t seem to be the brightest bulbs in the box. The body shop says the repairs will cost $3615, which apparently is too little to total the minivan. I have mixed feelings about that. They estimate the repairs will be done in 1 1/2 to 2 weeks.

Come on, spring!

February News

YES, I am still around, just haven’t felt as talkative lately. Here are some updates.

The Boys

Brenden has become conscious of the fact that school, home, and other venues have a power structure and that he is generally at the bottom. Like his father, he doesn’t really like this arrangement. So for a while he kept butting heads with his teacher (refusing to work, playing around and acting silly) and with us (refusing to follow directions, threatening to move out, etc). Our initial hard-line approach didn’t work and seemed to make things worse. I became overly harsh and critical. I didn’t really like who I became when he decided to act up. Something had to change.

We switched back to more of a Love and Logic approach, which takes more thought but works better for him. We’re trying to give him more choices so he feels like he has some control over his life. We’re trying to be more loving and positive, which really seems to make a difference in whether he wants to cooperate with us. We’re rewarding him and Jonathan for good behavior at school. Good news from their teachers earns them marbles, and we take them to do something fun each time they fill their marble jar. So far, these changes have made a big difference in his behavior and his attitude.


Life in Dispatch is going well. We are scheduled to move into our beautiful new office across the street in May, giving us a tornado-resistant facility with lots more space, better equipment and support, and a slightly shorter commute for me. During a long stretch of time off, I set a personal record with eight overtime shifts in a row this month in between all my Olympics watching and facility activities. I also passed my ninth anniversary in the Dispatch office.


Jenny is now in her second semester of UTA nursing school and continues to do well thanks to her intelligence and hard work. She has two clinicals this semester, psych in Bedford and med-surg in Mansfield. Like last semester, she is really busy but keeps pushing through. Two weeks until Spring Break!


We replaced our bathroom countertops and sinks in November with solid surface, sand-colored counters and white sinks from Lowe’s. I am very pleased with the results. Our next project is scheduled for Monday and Tuesday of next week: refinishing the boys’ tub and surround. The tub is chipped, the tile is white with weird brown speckles, and the caulk is terrible. Miracle Method, the company that refinished our kitchen countertops, will redo the tub and tile in solid white. Except for replacing the carpet after we move out next summer, this should be our last major project for the interior. We are thinking about having a few trees removed or trimmed in the front yard, and we’ll replace the side fences at some point as well. I feel good about leaving the house better than we found it.


My mom always worried I would end up “dead in a ditch.” I’m still alive, but I did take care of the ditch part last weekend.

Let me back up. As most of you know, the Dallas area experienced a bit of an ice storm last week. It started Thursday evening and dumped a few inches of sleet and freezing rain over the area. I had to work every night during the storm. By Friday morning when my shift ended, the streets in Dallas were slushy but still drivable. I slept a few hours in a Company-provided hotel room. It was a nice gesture, but due to a noisy heater and my constant expectation that the housekeeper was about to knock on my door, I didn’t sleep well and finally gave up around lunchtime.

By then the Dallas streets still looked the same – dirty slush and drivable. However, since the temperature was forecast to stay below freezing all day, I didn’t want to drive all the way home and then all the way back that night for my next shift. So I hung out in northwest Dallas all day. I ate unhealthy and delicious food (try the Cinnabon things at Taco Bell – oh my). I slogged up to the Cinemark and watched the new Christian Bale movie (great acting, OK story). I felt a little proud of myself for not being one of Those Texans who cower in their homes the minute a snowflake appears.

Trying to kill some time, I looked for a Starbucks where I could enjoy warm coffee and play on my iPad. However, the neighborhood I was in didn’t seem to be a Starbucks kind of place. So I parked at McDonald’s near a big shopping center that was surrounded by low-income apartments. Lots of people were wandering around in the parking lot, some walking to the grocery store or a restaurant, others chipping ice off their cars or trying to tweak something under the hood to get the engine running. My Sheltered White Boy senses started to tingle. I decided not to carry my iPad into this tiny McDonald’s and sip warm McCafe. Instead I hurriedly chipped ice from my wheel wells and hoped no one would ask me for Help.

Confession time: I try to be a generous person. I want to help people and like the idea of helping people. I give money to build wells in South Sudan and feed/clothe/educate needy children in Ethiopia and repair damage from tsunamis and chemical explosions and Storms of the Century. But there’s a catch – I always prefer to keep my distance.

By giving money through a computer rather than time, I can keep control of the situation. Actually getting involved with people’s problems directly and having conversations face to face and looking them in the eyes is way, way out of the comfort zone for a shy, introverted guy like me. Sometimes real people need something tangible like money, or a ride somewhere, or help with their cars, or gas, or a job. Situations like that involve talking to strangers and starting relationships. Relationships can be messy, inconvenient, and awkward. It’s easier not to get involved, especially with people you’ll never see again.

“You know where the nearest Wal-Mart is?” a voice from behind me asked. I turned and saw three young men. They seemed nice enough, but The Voice inside kept asking whether they were sincere and what else they might want. I have helped a few sincere strangers who approached me in the past. I have also gotten scammed. I once heard the same sob story from two different guys in the same parking lot a few weeks apart. For situations when someone might approach me needing Help, my default answer is no.

“Sorry, I’m not sure. I’m not from here,” I replied truthfully. They moved on.

I finished cleaning my car and found a Starbucks, a place where people who can afford to drop six bucks on a coffee and a cookie can hide and not get asked for Help. There, I felt safer, but also a bit ashamed. Those thoughts got stuffed into a dark corner of my soul as I warmed up with my venti cappuccino.

That evening I slogged my way to the office and worked my shift, finishing around 7:00am Saturday morning. The incoming morning shift people reported fairly good roads. Tired of hiding in Dallas and missing my family, I chose to brave the ice and drive home. Playing with my sons in a winter wonderland is a rare treat, and my wife was a bit stir crazy from being cooped up at home with all their energy.

As expected, most section of the roads and highway provided decent traction. However, the bridges, overpasses, and a few other areas were coated in ice. The slushy mess that covered the roads on Friday had frozen solid overnight as the temps dropped into the upper teens. I discovered my first so-called cobblestone ice, the tooth-rattling washboard of bumpy ice that tested both my shocks and my nerve. Along the way I passed a few cars that had gotten stuck and been ominously abandoned. Finally I turned north to highway 360, the final leg of my journey home. Just a couple of miles lay between me and my family.

I would be exiting to the right, so I stayed in the icy right lane instead of moving over briefly to the smoother, drier left lane. Suddenly, I felt the back of my car start to slide. I’d driven on ice a few times over the last several years and recognized the feeling, but I had always managed to keep the wheels straight and pull out. This time, though, my back end kept sliding left. It happened so fast that I can’t remember exactly how I tried to recover. Soon I was spinning sideways into the left lane with my front end pointing toward the right shoulder. I kept spinning and started moving forward toward the shoulder.

“Hmm. This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

I kept sliding. A shallow ditch appear on the other side of a wide, icy shoulder. Finally, I came to rest with my left wheel in the ditch on a patch of icy grass and mud and my right wheel on ice.

Beyond feeling out of control, the experience wasn’t particularly scary. No other cars were nearby at that moment. My car was mostly on the road. The ditch was shallow. All I needed to do was back out and turn around. This was an embarrassing but minor inconvenience, I thought.

The ice and my front-wheel-drive, 100-hp Honda Fit had other plans.

Using reverse only spun my wheels. I tried rocking forward and back, turning right and left, and got absolutely nowhere. I got out and tried pushing but couldn’t get any traction on the ice. I wasn’t going anywhere. I had stumbled onto a problem I couldn’t solve on my own.

I needed Help.

After I flailed about for five to ten minutes, the first car stopped and backed up. A man climbed out and walked toward me. I initially waved him off, embarrassed and determined to fix this mess myself somehow, but he kept walking toward me. His message was simple: you’re screwed, so call a wrecker. I had already suspected that, but he helped me accept it. So I guess that was helpful.

I called my insurance company to get some use from my roadside assistance coverage. Due to all the other people who had crashed or gotten stuck on the ice, the wait was at least four hours. That was an awfully long time to wait in the car. On the other hand, my house was far enough away that if I walked there in those conditions, I would need to come back soon after I arrived. I didn’t want Jenny to pack up the kids and come rescue me, nor did I want to ask my dad or a friend to go out in these conditions. There was no good option.

As I debated, another car spun out directly behind me in the same icy lane. That’s when the gravity of my situation became a bit clearer. If I waited in or beside the car, I might get hurt or even killed. If I walked home, I might return to find my car smashed. I sat in the car trying to decide which bad option I would choose.

That’s when Help arrived.

The next car to stop contained two guys about my age or a bit younger, both wearing service technician uniforms from a Grapevine car dealership. For all I knew, they could have lived near the McDonald’s from the previous day that made me nervous. They said they couldn’t just leave me alone beside the road. They drove a Civic Hybrid and offered to try to pull me out with a tow chain. As we were discussing that plan, two other cars stopped and three more guys got out, probably on their way to work. First we tried it with the Civic Hybrid. One guy drove while the other four guys tried to push me out of the ditch. The Civic didn’t have enough power to get me out, so another guy hooked up his pickup to me while the other four pushed. After a few cautious attempts, Plan B worked. I was free.

And it was only because five strangers interrupted their commutes, took pity on a guy they’d never met, and helped him out of a bind he couldn’t undo himself.

I thanked them profusely. It might have been appropriate to pay them something for their trouble, but my car was blocking traffic and they needed to get going, so it didn’t work out. The guy who drove the pickup left me with a big smile and a simple, “Be safe!”

I tried not to cry.

At the very least, those strangers got me out of a major jam. In light of the other cars that could have spun out in the same spot and potentially crashed into me, it’s possible they even saved my life.

I’ll probably never see any of those guys again, nor can I ever repay them for their kindness. What I can do is remember this experience the next time I see someone who needs Help. Few things can humble a man like needing a hand from a complete stranger who has zero obligation to do anything for him. Perhaps one day I’ll have a chance to pay this forward. Until then, all I can do is be grateful and tell their story.