Saturday, February 23, 2013

Light Emitting Diodes
Published in the Sun February 23, 2013

Kelly and Pam Kimbrel displaying some of their LEDs at Texas Bright Ideas

Thomas Edison did not really invent the light bulb.  Scientists had been tinkering with incandescent electric light for 70 years before Edison devised a proper filament.  But Edison made the light bulb practical for regular people to use and, here’s the real genius that revolutionized the world, he figured out how to sell electricity so his customers could use their new light bulbs.


In 1882 the Pearl Street Station of the Edison Illuminating Company in lower Manhattan fired up for the first time.  Edison had 85 customers with a total of 400 light bulbs.  When the power plant turned on at dusk each evening, it might have cranked out enough to power the gadgets and air conditioner of one good-sized house.


Edison is reported to have said that “after the electric light goes into general use, none but the extravagant will burn tallow candles.”  At that time, of course, a person had to be extravagant to use the new-fangled light bulbs.  Edison was charging 24 cents per kilowatt-hour.  Adjusted for inflation over 130 years, that is about 50 times more expensive than electricity today.  Even so within two years the Pearl Street Station had over 500 customers lighting their homes with electricity and generating stations began springing up across the nation.


Other than a few updates to the filament, the incandescent light bulbs available today are virtually identical to the ones Thomas Edison sold 120 years ago.  Modernization has been slow in the lighting industry.  The biggest problem with incandescent bulbs is that they are not really very efficient at making light.  Ninety percent of the energy they consume is wasted in the form of heat.  In a Texas home why would anybody want to generate heat off the light bulbs?  That just requires more air conditioning to combat the heat, wasting even more electricity.


You may have heard that the federal government is trying to ban incandescent light bulbs.  Not exactly.  New efficiency standards for light bulbs require more light to be produced per watt of energy consumed, and some of the old-timey bulbs are not able to meet those requirements.  A few people are upset about losing the inefficient bulbs because they prefer the “warm” quality of incandescent light.  I imagine that in Edison’s time there were people who preferred to stick with romantic candlelight.  Can’t you just hear them: “Turn that danged contraption off, Mabel.  It’s nighttime; it’s supposed to be dark!”


I went over to Texas Bright Ideas, a lighting store in Wolf Ranch, to ask owner Kelly Kimbrel about LED lights.  LED stands for light-emitting diode, and they generate light by the movement of electrons in a semi-conductor.  An LED has more in common with your computer than it does with Edison’s bulbs.  Not only can a 10.5 watt LED produce as much light as a 60 watt incandescent bulb, but it will last about 25 times longer, so it is a great choice in a location where it is difficult to change a bulb, like a high ceiling or a streetlight.  When an LED finally does wear out, disposal is not a problem because, unlike compact fluorescent bulbs, LEDs do not contain mercury.  Also in contrast with compact fluorescents, LEDs come on instantly with full brightness, and can be turned off and on frequently without shortening the lifespan of the bulb.


At present, LED fixtures make up less than 5% of Mr. Kimbrel’s business, but he believes they are the wave of the future.  When he and his wife built their own home, they installed a wide variety of lights, including both compact fluorescent and LED fixtures to compare for themselves.  They have since replaced all the compact fluorescents with LEDs.


One feature of the Kimbrel’s new lights is especially appealing.  LEDs emit very little ultraviolet light so insects are not attracted.  The Kimbrel’s outdoor kitchen has an LED over the barbecue grill and a ceiling fan with an incandescent light over the sitting area.  The bugs swarm around the incandescent and ignore the LED completely.


After visiting with Mr. Kimbrel I headed over to Home Depot to see what kind of LEDs are available to a person who just wants to change a light bulb.  Since an LED is shaped like a computer chip, it can be put into almost any size or shape of device.  It doesn’t have to look like a light bulb, but many of them are made to look bulb-ish so we consumers will recognize them and put them into our lamps.  I found a 60 watt equivalent bulb-shaped LED for $15.  That sounds like a lot, but burning 3 hours a day it will last 18 years, compared to 11 months for an incandescent.  And while the incandescent uses over $7 of electricity a year, the LED gets by on $1.26.  Within two and a half years the LED will have paid for itself.  If it lasts the entire 18 years I will have saved over a hundred dollars in energy costs, which is a pretty bright investment.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Emergency Preparedness Fair
Published in the Sun February 6, 2013

In the event of disaster, do you know how to live without running water or electricity?  If lost in the woods, how long could you live without food or shelter?  What if you called 911, but nobody answered?

Mick Thurber and Emma Winners making arrowheads
We like to imagine that we are completely self-reliant, but modern Americans have become perilously dependent on our wonderful infrastructure of utilities, grocery stores, and emergency personnel.  Without sounding too apocalyptic, it is worth remembering that the infrastructure could fail.  Just ask the people in Haiti, or closer to home, the people affected by hurricane Katrina and superstorm Sandy.

Rudy Bischof with the most important tools in his survival kit, a sturdy knife and a fire starter
On Saturday, the Georgetown Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) hosted an Emergency Preparedness Fair.  In a grove of trees outside the church, members demonstrated techniques that would help a person survive an unspecified disaster for 72 hours.  Rudy Bischof, an experienced survivalist, explained to me that it is simply common sense to develop the skills needed to take care of yourself in the event that you have to evacuate your home.  Shelter would be the first priority, especially in cold weather, because hypothermia can kill in as little as three hours.  The most important tool in Mr. Bischof’s survival kit is a sturdy knife, used to build a rough shelter out of branches.  The second most important tool is a fire starter and he shows me how easily it sparks to ignite dry tinder.  There is no food in the 72 hour kit because a person can live for 3 weeks without food.

A cardboard cutout of a .22 caliber revolver represents the third critical tool in the kit.  No actual guns are present at this fair but Mr. Bischof quite reasonably argues that in an actual life and death emergency a gun would be handy if not essential.

Randy Brinley has dug a solar still to produce drinking water
 A person can die in three days without water.  Randy Brinley reminds people that if the tap water quits running, about 80 gallons of water remain in your water heater.  Another six gallons of pure water is stored in the toilet tank, so don’t be foolish and flush it away.  If all else fails a solar still can be built from a hole in the ground, a sheet of plastic, and a tin can.

Michael Winners and an oven made from a cardboard box and aluminum foil
 A troop of Boy Scouts are building ovens with cardboard boxes and aluminum foil.  A few glowing charcoal briquets in the bottom of the box can bake a pan of biscuits to perfection.  If charcoal and biscuits are not available, Maria Nicholls explains how to make nopalitos from prickly pear cactus, after removing the spines of course.  She likes them boiled with garlic and salt, but in a disaster plain prickly pear would be better than nothing, and there is plenty of it around here.

Maria Nicholls and daughter Danielle Peralta with edible prickly pear
Carl Robertson, a professor of Chinese at Southwestern, is showing his Chrysler minivan tricked out with tarps and cardboard to make an insulated shelter if he were to become lost or stranded in the wilderness while driving.  He has a sleeping bag made from a space blanket.  Too many people abandon their cars and end up dying of exposure in the woods.  Dr. Robertson recommends staying with your car and building some smoky fires to summon help.  Get that fire starter and keep it in the glove box.

Inside the church building the focus is less on disaster preparedness and more on long term self-sufficiency.  Bob and Janine Hall are giving a tutorial on aquaponics, the symbiotic relationship between fish farming and hydroponics.  Bob raises bluegill and catfish, and their waste fertilizes his plants.  I get to taste a delicious cherry tomato picked from Bob’s garden that morning.

Jeannette Cox and her homegrown eggs
Jeannette Cox, a city girl from Chicago, proudly displays a basket full of multicolored eggs from her hens.  Pat Dekay is letting people taste the variety of foods that she preserves herself.  Today she has dried pears, strawberry fruit leather, jerky, and tomato sauce.  She keeps at least 6 months of food in storage at all time, in accordance with her church’s advice to “prepare every needful thing” in case of adversity.

Nobody at the fair appears particularly worried about a specific disaster or a breakdown of society.  Nobody even mentions a “zombie apocalypse.”  This group is just enjoying learning new skills, taking care of themselves, and being prepared for any surprises the future might bring.

Carl Robertson knows the dangers of hypothermia