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Sun-Powered

Sun-Powered

This article was published in my free newsletter, Ready for Rain.

From the moment we decided to move to Orcas Island, I became fascinated with the idea of self-sufficiency. I dreamt of using water from a well, growing food, owning a home-based business, and learning to build and repair some of what we need. That dream is becoming more real each year.

Some elements of self-sufficiency are built in at our location. We don’t have the option to connect to community gas, water, or sewage, so we have well water, a propane tank (below, left) and a septic system (below, right),

I take some satisfaction from knowing that my water, for example, is independent of a city water system. It still amazes me that it comes right out of the ground, ready to drink.

Solar energy was always part of the plan for the property, but a lower priority in the midst of ​building Flattop​. At the time, some government subsidies and incentives were being phased out or were uncertain. We continued to say “someday” and added a conduit from the roof to our electrical panel to make future installation easier.

The Reasoning

At our latitude, solar energy is not a slam dunk. The equipment is expensive, we have short, cloudy days in the winter, and lots of tall trees. The alternative, power from the grid, isn’t terrible. It’s mostly clean energy from hydropower and relatively affordable. We spent months debating the options.

A reality of island life is more frequent power outages than the mainland. Our electricity comes from the mainland through an underwater cable and is part of a network across the San Juan Islands. In stormy weather, a fallen tree on another island can take out our power for hours. Before recent infrastructure improvements, many homes were built with diesel generators for powering homes in blackouts. They’re expensive, require regular maintenance, and are not clean energy sources.

For the first three years at Flattop, we did without backup power. Batteries, a chest freezer, cell phone service, and a propane stove could get us through. But we soon discovered a bigger problem: our well and septic pumps depend on electricity to function. To put it mildly, these systems are required and motivated us to consider alternative energy sources. We needed a battery for storing power to use in a blackout.

We met with a local solar installer and learned about all the new subsidies and incentives. The “Build Back Better” bill (2021) reset ​federal incentives​ to install solar and/or battery systems. The federal government offers a 30% tax credit on the cost of the project (materials and installation) until 2032. That’s huge. At the same time, the state of Washington doesn’t collect sales tax on the materials. Our local power co-op also offers a 10-year financing plan at 2% per year. It felt like everything lined up. We pulled the trigger and began a 14-month wait for solar panels and a battery system installation.

The Investment

These projects ideally pay for themselves over time. The big question is: how long will it take? Our installer estimated that solar would cover about 90% of our annual power bill and we’d likely pay it off in 9-10 years. That 90% number may sound surprising. Here’s how that works:

Our connection to the electrical grid is now a two-way system. We pay for the energy we use and can sell the excess energy we generate via solar back to the power co-op. The power we sell back is then credited against our power bill. The excess power from long summer days will offset our winter electricity use. Another factor is that the cost of grid electricity is likely to increase over time. A solar and battery system insulates us from potential increases.

The System

In February of this year, a team installed 37 panels on our roof, which equals almost 16 kilowatts of potential power production. In the photo below, the roof is recovering from a huge amount of pollen this year.

The battery system has two batteries and together hold 13 kilowatts of power. To put that into perspective… Our home, right now, uses between 20-40 kilowatts of power a day. In a power outage, we can reduce our power consumption to make those 13 kilowatts last 2-3 days.

The batteries are connected to the grid, which keeps them continually topped up. In a long power outage in the summer, the solar panels can charge the batteries and power the home. Then, battery power can easily get us through the night. This is more difficult in the winter when the sun is scarce.

We expected the installer to ask for specific circuits to power, like the fridge, etc. That didn’t happen. They connected everything to the battery, except power-hungry systems like heating, clothes dryer, etc. Now that the system is up and running it doesn’t require any maintenance, aside from washing the spring pollen from the panels.

The Outcomes

A week after the panels and batteries were installed, we were streaming a movie on TV when one of the lights dimmed for a split second. The movie continued, the digital clocks remained correct, and we shrugged it off. A few minutes later, we received an alert that said, “Your batteries are powering your home”. We had no idea! It was working! Because the batteries powered the TV and internet connection, we could keep watching.

Today we have phone apps and a tablet in our kitchen that display real-time data for the solar system: what the house is using and what’s powering it. It’s fascinating and satisfying. Our home is a generator! Sachi of course, watches the data every day and this time of year is exciting because we’re breaking records each week. On recent sunny days, we sold back twice the amount of power we used.

I see the romantic attraction to living “off the grid” like a homesteader in the wilderness, but that’s not the goal. What we want is a home and lifestyle that’s reasonably sustainable, self-sufficient, and balanced with convenience.

It Went Viral

It Went Viral

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

It should be no surprise to Ready for Rain subscribers that I share much of my life online. This tendency goes back to at least 2003, when I started blogging, and has continued since then.

Over the last decade, sharing photos and videos was fun, but not exciting. A few followers here, a few likes there. Instagram and other services helped me keep up with friends and share tidbits of my life.

That all changed in December of 2023 when I started sharing videos of the ​Solstice Wall project​ in 1-minute videos, mostly as ​Instagram Reels​. To my surprise (and delight) the project went viral and changed my online experience, albeit temporarily.

Between December and March, over 15,000 people followed ​my account​. One day saw over 2,000 new follows.

Who are they? Where did they come from? I have no idea. 🤷🏻‍♂️ The algorithm works in strange ways. My account is now full of strangers with high expectations.

The Most Viewed Post

In the middle of the project, I summarized the progress in a brief video titled “​Let’s Review​“. This post has been the most popular by far. Some interesting stats

1.5 million plays? Nearly 19k likes? This is not normal for me. A stat for ​the video​ still boggles my mind:

9,500 Hours? Of a 1-minute video? ​Watch the video​.

The Comments

This influx of people led to sometimes hilarious discussions in the comments of a few posts. It gave me a front-row seat to how people use Instagram.


Many people were focused on the solstice idea and the sundial aspect of the project.

I appreciate snark and unvarnished opinions from internet randos.

Apparently, people don’t like using the “follow” button. Instead, they talk to the algorithm or request someone else to act on their behalf. So weird.

Why did it work?

A few theories… First, I wasn’t selling or promoting anything. I think people are distrustful when money is involved. Second, it was a story to follow. Once people saw the big idea, they were motivated to see it through and share it with friends. Third, it appealed to the Instagram Reels algorithm which showed the videos to a LOT of people I could not reach otherwise. Lastly, it was visually compelling.

This experience taught me that people love following a project from start to finish and it’s important to show them the expected outcome early in the process.

What now?

For all the effort, fun, and excitement, the online attention from this project had virtually zero impact on my offline life. As expected, I’m not earning income from it and no one has contacted me. It was a blip that came and went.

I feel a little awkward about the future of my account. The vast majority of my current followers arrived during the Solstice Wall project, and from here, they are bound to be disappointed. As I’ve said many times lately: I hope they like gardening!

A recent post about ​digging holes​ prompted over 100 people to unfollow me in one day. Over 1,800 have unfollowed my account in the last 90 days. I don’t blame them. Going from the Solstice Wall to hole-digging content is quite the leap.

What Matters

Social media is ephemeral. Ideas, projects, and memes come and go. Most of it is disposable and offers only a few seconds of entertainment. However, amidst the noise, there are real people and real connections. I hope the Solstice Wall project served as an introduction to me, a real person who does a lot more than art installations. I dig holes and catch crabs and obsess over plants. If a few new people feel a connection and stick around for all of me, that will feel like a win.

I continue to share videos of ​things I’m building​. If you feel a connection, I’d love to share with you.

Solstice Wall – Now Complete

Solstice Wall – Now Complete

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

The Solstice Wall project is now complete. It all started nearly three years ago, when we marked a shadow’s position on our wall in 15-minute increments, as the sun set.

Since then, we’ve gathered tools and materials, brainstormed, debated, and experimented. There was no instruction manual. We had to figure it out and that problem-solving was part of the fun.

People see it as a kind of sundial. And the design is based on the sun’s movement and position. But because it’s based on a single day, the summer solstice, it’s more like a clock that’s only correct once per year.

I don’t consider it a clock or sundial. To me, it’s an installation that uses a single day of the sun’s movement as a template. It documents a natural rhythm.

I want the Solstice Wall to stand on its own, with no explanation required. I hope everyone who sees it feels a connection to the rhythm, even if they don’t know the idea behind it.

I’m sharing this process on social media. Follow along!

Solstice Wall – The Installation

Solstice Wall – The Installation

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

Since the beginning, I looked forward to having all the pieces of the Solstice Wall ready and installing it all at once. It was not, of course, as smooth as I expected. The panels on the wall needed to be painted multiple times. A few of the rays needed dowels.

It finally happened on February 11th, 2024. It took less than an hour to place the rays and tap them into the wall. To my surprise, the rays looked just as expected and didn’t need changes. I couldn’t believe it was finally done.

Watch a one minute video of the entire process

I’m sharing this process on social media. Follow along!

Solstice Wall – Almost Done

Solstice Wall – Almost Done

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

Sometimes I think about the amount of time and energy I’ve put into the Solstice Wall project. That goes for Sachi, too. I’ve taken the lead, but she’s been a part of every decision, and the endless brainstorming and problem-solving. Now that the project is days from completion, I’m both excited and a little sad.

As I’ve written many times in this newsletter, I believe happiness lives in anticipation. Since June of 2021, I’ve been anticipating the completion of this project and it will soon be behind me. Then what? I have plenty of things to look forward to, like warm weather and the garden coming back to life. But those require little creative effort.

This project has taught me that I get real satisfaction from taking on big creative projects that require learning and experimentation. I want ideas to brainstorm and problems to solve. I want to try and fail and try again. I want to learn about tools and materials and how to be more detailed and diligent.

Since early December, the work on the Solstice Wall happened in our garage. At the end of the work day, I looked forward to heading in there, putting on a podcast, and pushing the project forward. Whatever is next, that’s where the work will get done.

Current Status

Right now, the plywood panels that will hold the rays are mounted on the wall of our great room. Getting to this point was a relief because everything was built on the floor of our garage. I worried that I’d missed a detail or flubbed a measurement. I imagined the panels, which contain 79 holes for holding the rays, would not match up as expected. Then what?

The moment of truth was installing one of the longest rays, which stretches across three panels. Thankfully, the holes in the plywood matched the dowels in the ray and everything came together as expected. Phew!

I severely underestimated what would be required to complete this project. This, as Sachi will tell you, is not a surprise. My optimism gets the best of me. Here’s an example…

The rays will be held onto the plywood panels with 79 metal dowels. The dowels hold the rays off the surface and will be visible. Each one will also cast a shadow. It occurred to me that the placement of the dowels shouldn’t be willy-nilly. To be elegant, they needed to be carefully organized and aligned into neat rows. It sounds pretty simple, but it wasn’t.

The challenge had multiple variables. The rays relate to one another, their locations on the plywood panels, and now the dowels. To get the dowels to line up, I placed the rays on the plywood panels in the final form. Then I had to ensure the rays didn’t move while I measured and made 79 marks indicating dowel locations.

It was one of the most taxing parts of the project because, well, I’m clumsy. The chances were high that I’d knock something out of whack and not notice. For that reason, I put weights on the rays as I worked from one side to the other.

When it was all said and done, it was close. A few dowels were way off. A few were imperfect. Most were close enough. And is always the case, I needed to learn something new. This time, it was how to use wood filler and make it strong.

Next Steps

The plywood panels were attached to the wall with countersunk screws. All those holes have now been filled with spackle and need to be sanded down and hopefully disappear.

After a bit more cleanup, the panels will be painted our wall color. Once that is complete, the rays will be installed and we’ll be done! More on that soon.

I’m sharing this process on social media. Follow along!

Solstice Wall – The Perfect Stain

Solstice Wall – The Perfect Stain

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

We chose to use Baltic birch plywood for the rays because the built-in cabinets and benches at Flattop are Baltic birch. We both love seeing the plies and plywood is exceptionally stable.

For the Solstice wall, we wanted to make the plies even more obvious, so I started experimenting with stains. I found that the stain we used for our western red cedar ceilings and soffits worked well.

After more experimenting, I developed a simple process that created consistency in every ray. I applied the stain and then immediately wiped it off.

The results were startling to me and exactly what I hoped to see. The stain soaked into and darkened the wood pleid, while keeping the laminated strips nice and light.

As a friend said online, the plies look like a cookie.

Here’s a short video on the process of staining the rays:

I’m sharing this process on social media. Follow along!

Solstice Wall – Tools of the Trade

Solstice Wall – Tools of the Trade

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

In planning the Solstice Wall, I experimented with the tools I’d need to make it work. I don’t own table saws or drill presses, so I set out to find what would work. This introduced me to a variety of woodworking gadgets that I now consider essential.

One of the design ideas is using metal dowels to hold the rays off the wall so that they would cast more interesting shadows.

To make this work, I’d need a way to drill consistent holes in each dowel. The holes needed to be centered on the rays and at a specific depth. Freehanding it was possible, but I needed real consistency.

One of the early discoveries was a self-centering jig. This is a metal contraption that pinches a strip of wood and provides centered holes for drilling. It seemed like the perfect solution.

The next issue was hole depth, which also needed to be consistent. There are 79 dowels that all need to be the same length once placed in the rays. For this, I used a collar for a drill bit. With a simple set screw, you can place the collar on the bit at the exact location where the hole should stop.

It was the combination of these tools that got the project rolling. I used them to drill all the holes for the dowels, and holes in the plywood panels.

We set out to make the outcome as perfect as possible and an invaluable tool was a laser level. We didn’t need it to make things level as much as straight. We pointed it at the wall and the plywood panels on the floor to mark the shadow lines. It was exactly what we needed.

Another tool that impressed me was a track saw setup (Thanks, Jim!) A track saw makes it possible to cut perfect lines on long lengths with a circular saw. You attach a “sled” to the circular saw and the sled fits into a track that is placed on the plywood. The track guides the saw across the panels in perfect lines. We used it to cut the angled lines that make the plywood panels match our sloped ceiling.

Here’s a short video of the self-centering jig and bit collar in action:

I’m sharing this process on social media. Follow along!

A Visit to Meow Wolf and Omega Mart in Las Vegas

A Visit to Meow Wolf and Omega Mart in Las Vegas

Las Vegas is slowly evolving into a place for experiencing more than hangovers, debts, and regrets. I recently visited with family and asked friends for things to do. This is when I first heard about Meow Wolf. Thanks, Jenn!

Before going further, let me explain the Russian nesting doll that is this experience. Meow Wolf is a collective of artists, based in Santa Fe, that creates immersive experiences. The group is partially funded by George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones.

Meow Wolf created an immersive experience called Omega Mart in Las Vegas. The Omega Mart experience is found inside a building that is part of a new district in Las Vegas called Area 15. The name is presumably a play on the highly classified Area 51. The location is a couple of miles from the Vegas strip and the cabbies know it as “Area 15”, “Omega Mart” or “Meow Wolf”. 

You arrive in what looks like a recently constructed office park, with multiple three-story buildings. This collection of buildings is Area 15 and inside them are a wide variety of tech-oriented experiences.

As you enter, a loudspeaker detects your presence and barks orders as if you are entering a prison. This is where the apocalyptic future feel of the entire experience begins. A few art installations on the exterior set the tone.

It’s obvious that Omega Mart sees huge crowds. I visited on a Thursday afternoon in January and was mostly alone. This allowed me to experience it all on my own time. 

The building that houses the Omega Mart is like a huge warehouse that houses a modern mall, of sorts. There are multiple levels of entertainment options, with bars, restaurants, shops, axe throwing, golf simulators, and more. There are multiple paid experiences that fit into the psychedelic future theme.

Dominating an entire side of the space is a “store” called Omega Mart. The mart is main experience at Area 15 and it’s $49 to enter. On the day I went, walk-up tickets were available. 

At first glance, the Omega Mart appears to be a grocery store: brightly lit, with shelf after shelf of dry goods and deli cases. Soon you realize that everything is a surreal and fake version of actual groceries.

It’s interesting and extremely well done, but it’s a facade of what lurks behind it. 

You soon find yourself in the back rooms of the mart and step into a new realm of reality, where the products sold in the mart are made, I think. There is a very long and detailed backstory about the fictional Dram family behind the Omega Mart and their use of the “Source” which is an ingredient in its products and is toxic to produce. The glow of the experience is caused by toxic runoff.

The back side of the Omega Mart is dark, cavernous, and complicated. Incredible effort has been put into the music, the lighting design, the installations, and the overall feel. It’s very impressive and otherworldly. I’ve never been anywhere that so clearly appeals to psychedelics. 

Overall it’s all very dark and lit with neon colors. Ethereal music plays in almost every context.

The space must be explored to fully be fully experienced. The creative installations are mixed with very normal-seeming office situations. This juxtaposition added to the apocalyptic feel. The banality of toxic runoff, you might say.

These normal office scenes often included surprises. A small door inside a nondescript office may lead to an entirely new realm. A fireplace may actually be a two story tunnel that must be climbed with the use of a rope. A modest office door may open to a hall of mirrors. All the while, Dramcorp’s company messaging is on screens and installations.

The creativity (and entire experience) is overwhelming. Perhaps too overwhelming. I wasn’t fully engaged in the backstory and probably left without exploring everything. The overall message is about the folly of consumerism, capitalism, and corporate greed. And in true capitalist fashion, you can buy a huge variety of items from fake food to t-shirts. 
I left feeling amazed by the experience and particularly the breadth of the creativity and investment.

If you find yourself in Las Vegas and want to kill a few hours, this is something that should not be missed.

Solstice Wall – Making the Circles More Circular

Solstice Wall – Making the Circles More Circular

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

The design of the Solstice Wall involves two 6′ circles. The circles will be made of strips of plywood, what I call “rays”. Sachi and I had a number of discussions about how to manipulate the rays to be more circular. She had the idea of shaping the end of each ray to reflect the flow of the circle’s curve.

This direction meant that each ray needed to be cut to have a unique curve. After some experiments, I used the same chalk and thread to draw the curved lines on each ray.

The lines looked great. I was ready to start cutting.

I’m pretty good with a miter saw, but this project tested my ingenuity. The problem was the flat angles that the saw didn’t make easy. I built little jigs and used clamps to keep the wood in place while cutting (not pictured).

Once it was all done, I placed the rays on the panels and experienced the circles with a more elegant look. Sachi was right.

Here’s a short time lapse video of the process:

I’m sharing this process on social media. Follow along!

Solstice Wall – First Look at the Rays on the Wall

Solstice Wall – First Look at the Rays on the Wall

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

A quick review…

We started the project when we noticed the shadow being cast on the wall of our living room. Over each evening in the summer, it moved up the wall.

solstive wall shadow line

On the summer solstice of 2021, we marked the shadow’s location in 15-minute increments using thumbtacks.

solstice wall 15 minute increments

These lines created coordinates for the shadow’s location over a single evening: the summer solstice.

solstice wall lines

With these lines documented, we could think about using them to create an art installation on the wall. This set off months of debate and experiments about design, materials, etc. We decided that the lines, or “rays” needed to be three-dimensional and held off the wall. This made the project more complicated but could create a unique look. I built multiple proof-of-concept models.

We decided to mount the installation on plywood panels and create the installation on the floor of our garage.

These panels on the floor became our canvas and I got to work documenting the shadow lines with chalk and tape.

Over time, these lines represented the final design in two dimensions. Just recently, the lines were used as guides producing the rays in the form of strips of Baltic birch plywood.

I recently planned, documented, labeled, and cut each ray to a rough length and placed them on the panels. It was the first I experienced an early version of the three-dimensional final product.

A lot of work remains, but it’s so exciting to see the vision of the project come to life.

Here’s a short time lapse video of the process:

I’m sharing this process on social media. Follow along!