Category Archives: Environment

Articles of particular interest on environmental matters and issues.

Massachusetts getting bad news all over

Last winter was tough for many in the northeast with the polar vortex. Unfortunately, just because the winter of 2013-14 is overmassachusetts and 2014-2015 is starting, many are still paying for the cold weather last year.

Utility rates in the northeast have skyrocketed in some cases, but it seems that those in Massachusetts are among the hardest hit. National Grid was approved as of November 1 to an increased rate to 16.18 cents per kwh-nearly double the previous rate.

NatGrid

 

The Boston Globe reports an expected 29% increase in the Nstar rates-from 8.379 to 14.972 cents per kwh.

These two are among the highest increases out there and it seems, at least NatGrid, is expecting this trend to continue!

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Oh, HaBee day!…..NOT!

We were truly thrilled to install our newly purchased nuc’s in our bee hives in April, it was a truly HaBee day, but along with issues in our other projects, and being behind on getting our garden beds done, we lost over half our colony to 2 swarms.

About two weeks ago, laying in our bed, looking out the window at the bee hives, my wife and I noticed a flurry of activity around our most active hive. It looked as though 10,000 bees were playing gleefully in the air above the hive.

We went outside to see why there was so much activity and saw that the bees were flying to a neighbors property and congregating on one of their bushes. The picture below is not very good, but the bee swarm is circled:

Bee swarm in neighbors tree
Bee swarm in neighbors tree

Bees will swarm for various reasons, but it boils down to the hive not being able to sustain the colony. In our case when opening up the hive, it looks as though the bees were very productive and bore far too many bees for a 2-box hive. The hive still looked very full and productive, even though we had just lost, I am sure, over 10,000 bees.

Our original queen was evidently a very fertile and active queen. Queens can lay up to 1500 eggs a day, so my guess is that she was doing just that and had plenty of worker bees to maintain the growth. I guess I have a better understanding of over-population now when it comes to hives.

I did not have a third box readily available to add to the hive, but the bees were already lost, so I did not worry too much about it. Yes, I could have captured the bees and put them in a new hive, but remember this is only my second year. I am really not that confident yet.

Well, the bees stayed in the neighbor’s tree for about 2 days before moving to a permanent location that they had chosen. I again checked my hive and all was going well. They were filling the 2 boxes with their winter stores and all seemed habee again.

Yet………two weeks later, to the day, a second swarm occurred from the same hive. Wow was it overpopulated-2 swarms in 2 weeks. Again, had no extra equipment, so again lost the swarm. Another 10,000+ bees gone.

Heading up to the local supplier to buy more equipment, don’t want to take a chance on a third swarm, since the hive still seems very full!

Greenhouse Project-Phase 1 Completion

The Greenhouse project is moving forward with completion of Phase 1, the exterior build of the greenhouse. Yesterday we received our final inspection approval on the exterior.

Greenhouse from rear.
Greenhouse from rear after completion certificate issued
Greenhouse side view
Greenhouse side view-before flashing installed at peak
Greenhouse front view
View from front

We are thrilled to finally get to this point, but did get some bad news after it rained last night. The upper windows are leaking, not just a little but severely.

All of the window framing is permanently installed-would have to do major construction to re-install windows, so we are going to try and work from the inside to get the leaks repaired. Hopefully we can because I really don’t want to have to do a partial tear down. Of course, we really can not proceed to phase 2 (the interior) until we are sure there are no more leaks.

The interior will take some time, since we will need to dig out approximately 3 ft of earth to install a rocket-mass heating system, along with all the insulation and interior walls. Not to mention the electric (solar) and plumbing for a 1200 gallon aquaponics system. I am excited about moving forward to this phase, but that won’t happen until we repair the issues in phase one.

Greenhouse Project-Inside

Aquaponics-the adventure continues

Northeast Polar Vortex Causing Havoc with Utility Rates

Polar Vortex Northeast
Polar Vortex Northeast

The winter that never ends in the Northeast U.S. has caused much trauma with people when it comes to paying energy bills. The Polar Vortex has caused a huge spike in energy demand, thus causing prices, especially variable rate products, to increase dramatically.

The legislatures of states like Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York have been in much discussion since the huge increase of complaints lodged against many energy suppliers. These complaints have prompted the utility commissions and legislatures to take a hard look into “price gouging” in the energy market.

EnergyChoiceMatters.com has published several stories relating to the debates going on in the northeast states. One of the most recent concerning U.S. Senator Charles Schumer calling for an investigation into Polar Vortex Pricing.

A Pennsylvania Energy Boss has also put heat on one supplier that has imposed a surcharge to recover high costs this winter, even though the customers are on a legal fixed rate contract. I believe a large percentage of people in the Northeast this year have opened at least one bill with a look of disbelief at the cost.

Consumers are scrambling to find ways to reduce their energy bill, whether through reducing consumption or finding alternatives to the current energy supplier.

One alternative that is growing significantly in popularity is the addition of  Windmills or solar arrays to the home. Over the past few years these options have become very doable for the average homeowner. We hope to have our home converted later this year when I catch up on the many other projects happening now.

Looking for alternatives does not have to be hard. Doing a little research will offer the consumer a plethora of  options from which to choose. Finding a fixed low rate for either a short term of 6-9 months or longer terms up to five years with some companies, can be an easy choice.

I know in our situation, not only was I concerned about the rate I was paying, but I also wanted to make sure that we could have some environmentally friendly options as well. Finding a company that offered both a great fixed rate and a green energy option that still saved me money had me jumping up and down. I was thrilled to lock in at a great rate, lower than the local utility AND still was able to get a minimum of 50% of my energy use from Green sources.

We have also began the process for solar installation on our home. Although a total off-the-grid package was completely out of the question for us, we have been able to settle for an option that does allow us to get around 55% of our energy usage from installed solar panels. We originally thought solar was out of the question, but with advances in technology and reduction’s in costs, we can achieve a large part of our goal.

I won’t say that this Polar Vortex was a once in a lifetime occurrence, but hopefully we don’t see another winter like this one for many years. But at least we will be prepared if it does.

 

 

 

Oh, HaBee Day!

The weather begins to give us a glimmer into warmer days, a tease that we may actually be through this winter. Truly that just means that as a suburban homesteader, my days are about to get long to get everything done to start outside planting.

Starter plants for 2014 garden
Starter plants for 2014 garden

This spring is even more tumultuous than previous years as we are in the middle of our greenhouse project (wet, cold weather has severely delayed the project), and I have begun building aquaponics tanks for other enthusiasts. Both of these projects are keeping me hopping (16 hours yesterday), but on the bright side, I beginning to lose that excess winter weight very quickly!

As harried as yesterday was, I took great delight in installing our new bee colonies in their new permanent home in our backyard. In my last bee post, I told of our problems last year and how we lost the colony.  I am very optimistic this year that we will have 2 strong colonies survive next winter.

Instead of package bees, like last year, I went ahead and spent a little more to buy “nuc’s”. Nuc’s are 5 frame units  full of bees born from the queen in the nuc. Since these bee’s are all “brothers and sisters”, they are already well adept at working together. They will only need to adapt to their new home in my hives.

I opened my hives, pulled out 5 empty frames and replaced them with

Nuc frames in new hive
Nuc frames in new Hive

the filled frames from the nuc’s. The bees were so busy they never even really took the time to notice they were moving into new  digs! At least the first nuc didn’t notice, the second one was a little more observant and not happy about the change.

In working with bees, I have never “suited up” except for a pair of gloves, since I have to grab full-of-bee frames. These bee’s decided I should be taught a lesson, maybe they thought I was a little cocky for not wearing protection, but……….Having longer hair and a full beard is not good when you upset a bee colony.

Ok lesson learned, I will at least wear my head gear with the gloves, since 6 or 7 bees gave their lives to teach me to bee humble. This encounter may discourage many. Anytime one learns a new task, there is always a learning curve and sometimes mistakes are made. Mistakes are always painful, but become a necessary tool in the learning shed.

Nuc Transport Box 2
Nuc Transport Box 2
Nuc Transport Box 1
Nuc Transport Box 1

Oh well, I finished installing the new colonies, filled and installed the feeders, and closed up the hives for the night. I sat the boxes in front of each hive since there were still many bees in them. They will make their way to the hive soon, since they are working for the queen that bore them.

New Home
New Home

Well the journey has begun, again. I am hopeful that we have better results this season than we did last year.

The Greenhouse Project-Phase 1

We have never been a family to just do one thing at a time. We are always in the midst of several projects at once and as one gets completed we tend to add two more. So on top of our bee’s, chickens, rabbits, tilapia, & aquaponics, we are in the middle of completing our 21′ X 10′ Greenhouse attached to the side of our home.

Of course the original plan was to have this project completed before Thanksgiving 2013, but best laid plans………

We found that starting the project before pulling the permits was probably not the best idea we ever had. We got a little excited and started building,  thinking that we had the required set backs etc, so getting a permit should not be a big deal. After we started, I thought, I ought to go ahead and get the permit to be safe.

So down to Baltimore County Zoning I went, thinking I would have the permit in hand when I got home. Well, that did not happen. I found that because we sit on a corner lot that the setbacks are 25′ vs the 6′ I was expecting. So here we go again having to get a zoning variance to get our permit.

About the same time, one of our neighbors across the street from my backyard, decided that she would call in to see if we pulled the permit. This neighbor does not understand or want to understand our green, homesteader lifestyle, so complains about anything we do. Note: Also the neighbor that turned in our chickens to the county.

Ok, so we were issued a stop work order until we were able to

Greenhouse
Greenhouse when stop work ordered issued

secure the proper permit. Fortunately, we were not issued a citation, so we were able to file for an administrative zoning variance, meaning we would not have to go in front of the judge.

We needed to file all the proper paperwork with site plans, and reasoning for our greenhouse in the location we had chosen. This seemed a lot better than compiling everything and going in front of the judge to plead our case. He either signed it or not. The only hold up would be if a neighbor complained and demanded a hearing in front of the judge.

So we were on pins and needles until the day that the judge was supposed to make a decision on our case. We contacted his office every few days to see if anyone had complained or demanded a hearing, although we knew there was only one that would.

And of course they did, the day before the judge was to make a decision. They were unwilling to pay the fee’s associated with demanding a hearing, so they simply lodged a complaint and let it go. But it was enough for the judge to go ahead and order a hearing so he could here both sides.

We were scheduled for a hearing on December 19, 2013.  So on top of our holiday preparations we needed to compile our case for our greenhouse.  We worked hard the few weeks leading up to the hearing date, including securing signatures of every other neighbor within 500 ft of our property.

To my amazement, when securing signatures, twelve of our closest neighbors offered to go to the hearing on our behalf. This just shows how good of a neighborhood that we live in, most neighbors watch out for their neighbors and help whenever they can.

The day had arrived and our caravan of neighbors journeyed toward the courthouse.  We felt there was no real reason we should be denied, we had all our ducks in a row, we thought. We were excited, yet apprehensive, since we had no idea of what our complaining neighbor would say. Whatever it would be we felt we had compiled plenty of counterpoints with supporting documentation, including neighborhood pictures.

We entered the courtroom about 15 minutes early and waited patiently for the judge and any others to arrive. About 10 minutes after scheduled start time the judge entered, saw the crowd, and asked if the complainant was in attendance-they were not. He allowed a few more minutes for them to arrive before starting the proceeding.

No arrival, so the judge began and asked us to state our project details and why we needed a variance to accomplish it. After laying out our case he asked the others in the group to speak, which were all in favor of our variance—–no opposition.

The judge was courteous and weighed the arguments vs county regulations and immediately approved our variance. He stated that the only reason he requested the hearing was to see how serious the complainant was and what arguments they could have against a greenhouse.

What a relief! Now we could move forward. Although we were already 3 months behind, maybe we could get a few nice days, get the tarp down and at least get the exterior done where I could work inside during cold days.

That was not to happen either, this winter has been very cold and very wet compared to our usual winter. Plus it just keeps hanging on and on and on. Maybe we can get done by this Thanksgiving.

Greenhouse
Greenhouse facing side street

We did get a nice weekend last week-mid 50’s low 60’s but windy. We took the opportunity to get some work done, before the next snow storm that they were calling for the following Tuesday.

Front view GH
Front view GH
Front of GH
Front of GH
Rear of GH
Rear of GH

 

 

 

 

At least we were able to get the house siding put back on and make the house and greenhouse look a little more presentable. But it is now back under cover until we can get another break in the weather, which looks like it may happen in a couple of weeks.

GH re-covered
GH re-covered

Read On: GH Project Phase 1 Completion

Greenhouse Inside

Best Laid Plans-Our Venture into Aquaponics

Chickens, bees, rabbits, dogs, and cats; How much more can you add to a 1/5 acre lot in the suburbs of a major metropolitan area? Living on a corner lot in a major sub-division of our suburban town tends to make it a little more difficult to homestead the way I would like. Too many regulations and  a couple of neighbors with nothing better to do than worry about what anyone else is doing.!

Sheep, goats, pigs are not WP_001445allowed, but there is no regulation regarding fish! So I guess fish it is, tilapia fish to be exact. An African Cichlid that many believe is the fish that Jesus fed the multitudes just outside Capernaum.

Using Tilapia as our tank fish for the grow beds  for aquaponics just made sense. They proliferate quickly, they do their job very well in adding nutrients to the grow beds, and they taste great when they become too big for the tanks!

This part of getting the Aquaponics system together was probably the easiest choice, but there are drawbacks. These fish are from a very warm climate and cannot live in water below 60 degrees. Actually everyone I talk with says the water temp should be constant between 80 & 90 degrees. So no matter where we have our tanks in our area (Mid-Atlantic U.S.) the tanks will have to be heated. We will work around that hurdle as we need, but for now it is Tilapia.

We started the fish in our house in a standard 55WP_001439 gallon tank. We bought 25 fingerlings from a breeder and started our fish family about 9 months ago. We let these 25 grow to about 6 months of age and then allowed them to breed, then moving mama into a breeder tank to take care of the babies when they dropped from her mouth.

Our plan was to have our greenhouse built and 4-300 gallon tanks installed to handle the babies which were bred. We should have been done around Thanksgiving 2013 which would have been good timing for the fish to move to the larger tanks. Unfortunately, we hit a snag with local zoning and ended up in court until Christmas. Refer back to the last line of the first paragraph.

Anyway, we did get everything passed and gained approval for our permits. We hadWP_001412 about a week to work before this long drawn out winter hit the east coast hard and stopped our work. So the greenhouse has been under tarp for several months. As soon as the weather breaks, we will return to our work on it.

So back to the fish! When we had our plans and started getting material for greenhouse, we went ahead and an allowed some “breeding” to happen. Since Greenhouse construction would only take a few weeks, when we were done, we would have fish ready to go into the four 300 gallon tanks.  BUT……

I was not expecting that our first pairing would yield over 300 fish. Not that it really mattered at the time, but once we realized the greenhouse was going to be delayed until spring, we had to make other arrangements. We only had 2-55 gallon tanks inside, which was not near enough for 300 babies and 25 adults.

Thank God for craigslist and Amazon! We were able to quickly put together WP_001438another 30 Gallon and a 125 gallon tank, plus I quickly put together a 275 gallon aquaponics tank in our basement. All with heaters, filters, & pumps.

I had to cut the tank and grow bed from an IBC tank outside and then try to fit it through a 30″ door, so I hacked it up pretty bad. But for a quick makeshift tank, it works. I have 4 other IBC tanks to use when the greenhouse is finished and I will do a much better job on them!

Well hopefully soon the weather will break here and I can get back to work.  I will update on the greenhouse soon, but at least for now we have plenty of fish for the new tanks when it’s done!

Aquaponics-the adventure continues

Gutter Garden

Greenhouse-Completion Phase I

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