The FrontRunner story, beginning to…end?

Thinking AHEAD- (of the box)

New Hampshire turns out more than one type of FrontRunnerFront Runner

 As I sat in the home office of the head honchos of one of the nation’s largest snowplow companies in the upper Midwest in early Fall of 1995 I felt as it my ship was about to come in.   I’d been invited to meet the company’s leaders to discuss the upcoming licensing agreement between them and the company I’d founded five years before to market a product that I had designed and had been selling in New England with reasonable success.  It was a product that would integrate perfectly with their products as my success had demonstrated. What my product needed to make it as universal as truck mounted snowplows was to have it marketed by a major snowplow manufacturer whose name was recognized by anyone living in snow country who owned a plowtruck.

Soon after the big guns joined us at the conference table someone started showing a sales video that I had produced to show the capabilities of my invention, the same video that had construction guys gathered around my booth at trade shows through New England. Those guys typically would prod each other while watching the video and say, “Boy, could we use one of those.” And many of them did purchase one and were usually more than satisfied with it what it could do to save them time and make them money.

It wasn’t long into the video, however, before I felt my ship slipping past the dock when the top guy said, “Who could ever use one of these?”   Was it possible that upper mid-westerners don’t have the vision of us Yankees, or was this guy a bean counter who had risen to the highest level of his incompetence.  Regardless, the outcome of this meeting spelled disaster for the product that I had labored countless hours to bring to market and thought was about to make it into the big time…

Continue reading “The FrontRunner story, beginning to…end?”

Making hot water systems in the age of Solar Electricity


For many years the best way to capture the energy of the sun, other than simply by inviting it through south facing windows, was to use it to heat domestic hot water. It was only about ten years ago that the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative (PAREI) sparked Solar Raisers such as this one organized by the Tin Mountain Conservation Center where 40 people helped install an evacuated tube system on a home in Madison, NH.

The advantage to solar hot water is that it does not require very sophisticated technology to capture the energy of the sun and transfer it into water for either residential or commercial use.  Indeed, there are lots of do-it-yourself schemes such as bread box heaters that involve almost no technology by simply placing a black painted water tank inside of an insulated box glazed with any of several available transparent or translucent glazings, sometimes as simple as old storm windows.  This writer had a hose connected to an old water tank with no glazing but just fully exposed to the sun for use as an outside shower for summertime.  Sometimes the water would almost reach scalding temperatures on warm sunny days.

On the other end of the scale are hot water systems that are used for space heating with storage tanks connected to pumps and controls that circulate hot water through pipes embedded in a floor or other distribution system as in the Tin Mountain rooftop system that heats the building along with a wood fired backup boiler.  These are generally engineered systems requiring a lot of technology and hardware.

The most common application has been for residential hot water  using evacuated tube systems or simple “flat plate” collectors that consisted of glass or other type of glazing covering an insulated box with an “absorber plate” generally made of copper with a series of pipes running through it that connected to a storage tank much like a conventional water heater. I will explain the system that has successfully served my own home since I installed it in 1978.

As my wife and I operated a business we called Alternative Systems in the mid ‘70’s, we built a house that incorporated much of the technology we sold at the time.  A Fisher woodstove, still in use, a composting toilet that served for many years, a story in itself for another time, Window Quilts, and a Daystar solar hot water system.  Daystar, located in Burlington, MA, made very high efficiency flat plate collectors. Curiously, Daystar was actually owned by Exxon, hinting that the oil companies maybe actually have realized that fossil fuel’s days were numbered.

The Daystar system came as a complete package and I sold several of them, some to DIY folks who set them up themselves, and other to customers who had plumbers do the installation.  A few were roof mounted but several were mounted closer to the ground, generally at a 45 degree angle to optimize their ability to capture the sun year round.  An engineer friend mounted his so that they could be tilted with the seasons to gain even more sun, and, I add from my own experience having had to use a very long handled snow rake on my own collectors, to simplify removing snow that crusted over with ice on a very few occasions.

My own system was the subject of a federal monitoring program that consisted of metering hot water and backup electricity and a run time meter on the circulator pump.  A researcher visited my house periodically to take readings that showed that our system provided 85% of our hot water even with two little ones in reusable cloth  diapers!  To optimize the system we even had a switch that would allow us to turn off the back-up electric power on mornings where the sky was clear to the West, indicating that the day’s washing would be in sun-heated hot water.

The system did require some maintenance, however, as the water from our municipal system tends to rot out water heaters very quickly, so our biggest expense has been to replace the stone line tank a couple of times until we finally installed a “lifetime” high performance stainless steel tank.  One replacement control module and one or two circulator pumps were the other plumbing components replaced in over forty years of service, while the original collectors still gather the energy from the sun every times it comes out.  The bigger issue is replacing the roof shingles on the south side of our roof, because the collectors will have to be removed and, hopefully replaced with a couple of spare collectors that I have from the old Alternative Systems days.  I’ve been able to get by with the original shingles by painting them with aluminum paint every few years that has been surprisingly successful but has finally run its course.  Note that hot water collectors are MUCH heavier than the solar electric PV panels that are beginning to take their place which has been much of the reason for my procrastination.

It is not so much that today’s solar electric Photovoltaic or PV panels are so much lighter than solar hot water collectors as it is that their cost has plummeted and their efficiency increased while the cost of electricity is constantly climbing.  These are the reasons that our Solar Water Raisers of ten years ago have given way to a greatly increased interest in solar electricity. There are many advantages to PV’s over solar hot water systems, not the least is that there are no mechanical components to wear out or a heat transfer fluid to leak or need changing.  PV’s can be installed almost anywhere within reasonable reach of wiring, either from the roof down or underground from a ground mount system.

PV’s however are not generally a DIY installation unless you are like my engineer friend who installed his solar hot water system and also his own PV system years later so he could follow the sun with them.  PV installations usually will at least need the services of a licensed electrician to make the proper connection into the structure’s wiring system in conjunction with the local utility’s requirements, at least in grid-tied systems (not off-grid with battery backup).

Heat pump water heaters

A new twist with heating domestic hot water is electric water heaters with heat pump technology built in. This means that the heater uses electricity to take heat from its immediate environment and transfer it into the water rather than only use a built in electric heating element as do most electric water heaters. As with other heat pump systems, this make the system two to three times more efficient than a traditional electric water heater by using one unit of energy to produce two or three units. It uses the same technology that is popping up everywhere in the form of “mini-split” heat pump systems with most of the mechanical part of the system, the compressor, outside the house, and one or more “heads” that transfer the heat or cooling remotely inside.

During periods of high demand the water heater can be set to rely on a standard electrical coil built in to the tank whereas mini-splits heating a building might have to rely on fossil fuel backup heating. However, when a mini-split heat pump is working in an extremely cold outside environment it drops back to performing like any other electrical resistance heating unit with one unit of energy in and one unit out. Because water heaters are not usually operating in sub-freezing temps, there should never be a time that a heat pump water heater should never lose an effective level of efficiency.

There are several advantages to this type of water heater besides its increased efficiency including that it can help cool the inside of a building in summer by taking the heat from the room where it is located and transferring it into the water, and also that it can utilize electricity from a building’s PV system resulting in another way of using the sun to heat water.  In addition, several states and utilities provide rebates for heat pump water heaters.

A disadvantage of a heat pump water heater is the fact that it is taking heat from its environment which might be fine if it is in a room with a wood stove or furnace, but not if it is stealing heat that is generated by an expensive non-renewable energy source. I’ve also heard that these systems they can actually chill an already cold basement to the point that pipes can freeze!

As for the future of stand-alone solar hot water systems, the complexity and expense of a system appears to make little economic sense when compared to a PV powered heat-pump system.  On the other hand, keeping an existing solar hot water system operational makes abundant sense so long as major components do not need replacing.  Unfortunately there are existing solar hot water systems that are not functioning simply because of the failure of a minor component that a subsequent homeowner or an unfamiliar plumber does not have the wherewithal to troubleshoot.

We’ve found that Solar Raisers from years ago served to take away the mystery of solar hot water for the several plumbers who took part as they came to realized that solar hot water systems are little more than any other domestic hot water system except that the source of the heat was the sun beaming on solar collectors instead of some kind of gas or oil fired system or some wires hooked to the grid.


Hosting a Community Garden

Tasker Hill Community Garden, Madison, NH


For over ten years we have hosted a small community garden on our property here in Madison, NH just south of Conway Village in the Mt Washington Valley. The garden consists of 25 individual raised bed plots 4’ by 12’. Gardeners come from all parts of the Valley for several reasons including a lack of gardening space or exposure to the sun where they either own or rent.

The garden originally came about when members of the MWV garden club asked me to look at a plot near our local dog park.  It looked to me like it would be a lot of work making a go of this particular location. So instead, I offered the ladies a quarter acre spot on my own property where I knew I could provide water and rich soil and also keep an eye on the garden.

So working from a grant through the MWV Chamber of Commerce we kicked off preparing the site, building the beds, putting up a deer fence and getting water to the site.  Fortunately a friend of mine set volunteered his portable sawmill that he set up on my property and milled out a pile of 2’ x 8’ lumber from pine trees I had already felled and were waiting for such a noble purpose.  It would have been better for them to be hemlock but these worked fine for more years than I would have expected.  (I now have my own sawmill and am scoping out some Hemlocks standing nearby that may soon find themselves part of the garden.)

We filled the 4’ x 12’ beds first with a layer of leftover newsprint from our local Conway Daily Sun and then a layer of fresh leaves topped with a layer of the leaf compost that I make every year when local landscapers and homeowners haul me their “used” leaves that I turn into a very rich compost.  We soon learned that the layer of newsprint was not necessary as the bottom layer of leaves in the beds seemed to stifle the field grasses underneath quite adequately.

I initially ran a water line from our town water supply to the garden but have since dug a well very capable of supplying the Community Garden and all of our other outdoor water needs without having to pay a water fee to the town.  Even the cost of pumping the water is avoided as our 11kWh solar system provides all of our electricity free.

The first few gardening seasons the Chamber provided a monitor funded by grant money and bed fees. The monitor collected the modest rent fee from the gardeners and also tended to a couple of raised beds that those gardeners helped tend to raise vegetables for the community.  Then when my daughter Jennie who is a NH League of Craftsmen potter returned to our “compound” (which is what my kids have named our growing homestead), she also started gardening and expanded the community garden area and her farming operation now offering CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture)  to a couple of dozen local citizens. She has taken over monitoring the garden and puts much of the bed rental money back into improvements to the garden.

So now after more than ten years we still have many of the original gardeners coming.  Some have more than one plot.  Many are religious in their attention to their plots while some start with enthusiasm and then lose interest or are called away to other things. A few have been able to start gardening now that they have had a taste of gardening and have acquired a place of their own.  Jennie makes sure that everyone follows organic practices.  I still donate compost to the gardeners which amounts only a tiny part of the hundred or so yards of compost I make each year.  This is something I recommend to anyone thinking of starting a community garden as “used” leaves are free and readily available and best kept out of landfills.

Much of the initial grant through the Chamber of Commerce was used to provide a porta-potty that we thought would be necessary but found in time that gardeners were seldom at their gardens long enough to require such a facility and we have not had one since that first year.


Toilet backup or overflowing or septic backup

Several things can make a toilet or drain overflow, from a blockage in a toilet itself or in a sewer pipe in the house or on its way to the street if you are not on municipal sewer. If you are on your own septic system, there are many other things that can go wrong.  To find the problem with your sewer drains and/or septic system go to the Septic System Troubleshooting Guide and follow it down until it leads you to your problem.

                                                                      septic Flowchart

If you are totally unfamiliar with septic systems, go to the Evolution of the Septic System to find out how they came to be and gain an understanding of the different system components.

                                                                    septic systems



Drying out a Wet Basement

Wet basement, why it happens, how to solve

Keeping Your Home's Feet Dry

Many homes in our part of New Hampshire are built into hillsides that have ground water close to the surface, especially in the spring and after heavy rainstorms. Because they are on a slope, the dewatering system for these homes and businesses can simply use gravity to carry groundwater safely away. The system that is used to gather the water is often called a “french drain,” a footing drain, or a perimeter drain because it usually is installed around the perimeter of the footing of the foundation. Ideally such a drain carries the water down slope to “daylight.” Properly installed and maintained, such a system can be very effective at its job. However, many systems are poorly installed and even more are not at all maintained and often totally forgotten until water backs up into the basement or living space.

Since gravity basement drainage systems are seldom examined by home inspectors unless there is or has been a problem, and new homeowners have too many other things to fill their minds, foundation drains are too often overlooked. So how can a diligent home owner tell if the building has a drainage system or not? Sump pump systems are obvious, but gravity perimeter drains usually are not. One easy way to tell on newer homes is to look at a copy of the septic system plan that should be available and kept with important documents such as the deed. If the house is on a hillside and the septic system occupies a mound in the yard usually downhill from the house indicating that the area has a high water table, there should be a sketch on the plan showing a drain outlet at least 35 feet from the corner of the leach field., 75 feet for older systems.

For years I’ve helped home and business owners locate, troubleshoot and repair these drainage systems, sometimes with as little as a couple of scoops with a shovel to uncover the end of a forgotten drain outlet and other times with the major undertaking of excavating around the foundation to reinstall a proper drainage system. After having written several articles about basement drainage over the years I’ve put them all together in an on-line publication called KEEPING YOUR HOME’S FEET DRY.  This document covers sump pumps and gravity perimeter drains in great detail, with photos and descriptions from personal experience.  It is available free at /wet-basements/