Remote energy- on the water


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When my wife and I bought our first rectangle cabin of a whopping 320 sq. ft. (before kids, obviously) there was grid power available and thus for the first summer and fall an electric 120v plug in oil radiator heater was fine to keep the place livable.  We were off the ground on sono-tubes and had 2×6 walls with 2×8 ceiling I believe, with fiberglass insulation and lots of windows.  When winter set in we needed something stronger for heat- and we had built a wanigan for a whopping 384 sq.ft.!

We started looking at boat stoves.  My wife recalled the oil drip heater on her family’s boat and the occasional belch of exhaust back draft in rough waters. We knew whatever we ended up with we would need to vent it, so a propane catalytic heater or Coleman stove with heat drum wasn’t going to work for us.   With  internet just coming out to the Big Lake area at the time, we got a few phone numbers to the known boat stove companies down in the Pacific Northwest. We had looked into Toyostoves, but understood that with a small cabin as such, the stove would probably turn on and off quite frequently as efficient as they are, and carbon build up would occur.  We had a lot of birch from clearing our land but wanted continual fuel rather than worrying about cordwood loading. (In the end, we ended up buying a Perfection-Schwank oil drip heater (the 3 foot high, dark brown enamel ones that load the interior cabins for heat) from Sampson’s for ~$380  in Fairbanks and had it trucked down.  It ended up being overkill and while almost always set on 1 of 6 gradients we had to open windows on the shoulder seasons).

For a dry cabin 500 sq. ft. or less, boat stoves are a great alternative and there are several styles readily available online.   Some are oil drip style, and though they are about a quarter the size of the dark brown enamel Perfections, they are spendy- usually over $1000 (though one of the big box stores has a premiere brand at the moment for just over $800). Other options include propane models for ~ $600 and for the same price range a heater utilizing the antifreeze coolant off the boat engines (obviously not a helpful choice for a dry land cabin).  Electric heaters are available yet they usually are 220 volts and something you would probably hook up straight to the breaker box. Charcoal fueled, vented samovars are available for minimal heat and with bio-bricks available this may be a viable option.  Lastly, there are cooking units that have one burner electric (220v) and one burner alcohol; a stainless steel lid slides over the top and possibly such a unit could be adapter.    Please let me know of other alternatives you have seen to warm micro-houses, dry cabins, or maybe even the famed mother-in-law apartments!









Which is cheaper- oil or salmon?

Now we all know since the Exxon Valdez spill that ‘oil and salmon don’t mix’….But how about vie as competitors as far as cost goes? OK- obviously one is used for transporation and heat while the other primarily as food.  Yet when looking at crude oil prices, the last time they were this low (~$30/barrel as of the weekend) was a decade and a half ago.  In that time period, salmon caught by Norway’s fleets has doubled in price (from $2.90/Kg to ~$5.90/Kg).

According to an article in Bloomberg news ( salmon is more costly per Kg than oil.  The article isn’t real deep, but it brings to the surface the age old competitors of most Alaskan’s budget expenses, energy and food.  And of course the fact that 95% at best (and 98% at worst) of Alaska’s consumed foods are transported (via oil for the most part) up to our state from other locations.

In fact, the overall state usage of energy products is transportation.  While some of this is certainly passenger and parcel transportation, an important part of it is used to get us the food we need.  Now whether Alaskans are buying their salmon or catching their own is a whole other question!

Emergency preparedness for everyone

With the East Coast getting snow dumps (that are not unheard of for parts of coastal Alaska), storm surges that are causing flooding into the streets have complicated people being able to move.  Officials have called for residents to ‘stay in’.  Thankfully power outages have been partial, so that heat at this point is being provided for most residents along the seaboard (even though insulation in the homes is not what we’d expect in Alaska).

Yet with earthquakes and tsunamis being disasters Alaskans can experience, it is always best to be ready at any moment to ‘head out’. With the remote conditions and lack of infrastructure in Alaska it has been suggested that every resident/family has one week rather than typical 72 hour pack of supplies available in an emergency kit for evacuation. And of course that would include a type of heating device that can be used for cooking, water sterilization and possibly electrical generation.

Yet the most important thing to remember is that almost all propane catalytic heaters, biomass stoves or white gas burners are NOT vented and thus the carbon monoxide created in the combustion process of making heat goes into the ambient air and as a general rule of thumb should not be used inside a dwelling.  Now some manufactured combusting appliances, in their instructions, will mention how much minimal fresh air from a window or vent which needs to be allowed to come in if used indoors -and in such cases such recommendations should be followed.  Take a look of what you have  prepared and how you would get it out of the house if there was a sudden evacuation, and look at the UAF Cooperative Extension publications site at for information that may help you prepare!


Radon testing services


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Though home testing of radon is relatively simple for those who want to do it themselves, this type of testing will give you one average number of the concentration of Pico Curies per liter of air for the entire time it was employed.  So when you go to the hardware or building supply store and buy one of the several brands of kits (remember to check the back of the package to compare the various costs of the lab fee) you will get one average concentration level as a single number- whether it was exposed for 24 or 36 hours.  During those periods, you might have an afternoon where kids are running in and out of the house or one of the evenings where a window is inadvertently open.  With such a short testing periods,  an afternoon or one evening of high ventilation could bias the test quite a bit when conditions are not kept closed for the entire testing period.

Yet some people may want to analyze the testing period during a particular part of the day or even hourly segments.  By hiring a service (there are two in Fairbanks) to bring in a monitor you can get detailed information taken which can be looked at from various time segment composition on a graph.  The machines used look like a small metal box, with a sniffer tube coming out of one of the ends.  The device can be  placed in various parts of the house so that unlike charcoal kits (or even long term alpha track kits), the data can be looked at to see what portions of the home run higher concentrations.

Such a service is not as cheap as short term do-it-yourself kits; in fact having a professional come in may be four times expensive.  Yet it is an opportunity to provide insightful information for those who want to “understand” their home!


Happy New Years (and protect those lungs)



With the new year here, January is Radon Action Month.  It is important to test for radon as it is the second leading cause to lung cancer.  While the house is ‘closed up’, this is the best time to test for Radon gas concentrations.  Realizing that it has been more like break up at the very end of the year, rather than the frigid north, I still would encourage you to test at this time of year.  Your furnace and HRV systems have probably been balanced and tuned, and though there has been unseasonably warm weather chances are you are not keeping windows and doors open.  This is good, as it allows the gasses to collect in the house for testing.

You can conduct a simple couple day charcoal test (available at hardware/building supply stores), a long term alpha track test (Cooperative Extension sells them at our District Offices or campus Statewide Office), or you can buy a continuous digital readout monitor from a local fire and safety store.

Feel free to call with any questions at 474-6366 on testing, interpreting results or mitigating high concentration levels.

Outage- in Maui



While visiting family in Maui this past weekend there was a front page article mentioning Friday’s outages on this island of ~160,000 people.  Right during rush hour people were stuck in elevators, traffic lights were out and on top of ALL that, the premiere viewing of Star Wars was interrupted to the point that people left the theater.

Being an island, Maui is somewhat like Alaska in that when the ‘grid goes down’, there is not a vast network outside of its borders to borrow or buy electricity from obviously. Almost three quarters of the electricity on the island is generated from oil, and just over a fifth is procured by wind.  Thus there a few other renewables such biogas, and solar, yet almost no hydro such as is capitalized by Alaska’s rain forest clime. Having said this, renewables make up just over a quarter of Maui’s total electrical generation which certainly is promising -yet being that much of it is variable, this requires quite a storage system and coordination with diesel generators.

So while terrain and weather are quite different, the 49th and 50th state certainly have similar challenges in electrical distribution.  In fact you could say, they are the only two states that have a grid unto their own!


Interior gas project


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Last night a disappointing hand was dealt toward the effort of trucking compressed natural gas off the slope down to Fairbanks distribution centers.  The Golden Valley Electric Association board voted across the board to not not throw in with the natural gas plan but rather utilize naphtha.

Though there had been a focus on residential distribution for natural gas it was hoped that GVEA might utilize the gas (and drive the price down by bringing in a larger quantity, among other advantages).  Sen. Gary Wilken has written an email expressing disappointment due to the overall advantage it would lend to the community- and also due to the utility (GVEA) being set up as a sort of community co-op.

We will see what happens in the jockeying of possibly other large quantity purchasers/vendors!

Interior gas on the march as oil prices stay low

The headline in yesterday’s News Miner was somewhat relieving in announcing that the Interior’s gas project is still be moved forward.  With the extent of the State’s fiscal difficulties, it was easy to imagine that there may be a retreating of support but that doesn’t seem to be the case.  In the last year of Governor Parnell’s administration an assistance package with varying parts worth over $50m helped proponents get a foothold on pulling gas off the North Slope, compressing it close by and trucking it down to Fairbanks.  Then crude oil prices dropped, and of course with an ongoing decrease in Alaskan production of oil the following revenue levels dropped drastically….

Looking back on an article three years ago posted on the Baker Institute’s site ( it was clear at the time that supporting gas production was thought of as a post oil “exit strategy” for exactly those times when oil revenues would drop for the state.  Yet interestingly the article also predicted:

“Baker Institute analysis projects that Alaskan LNG may have trouble competing effectively with stranded Canadian natural gas proposed for export via British Columbia and could someday face additional competition for Asian markets from Argentinian shale gas“.

Of course, in part due to the drop in crude oil prices, shale gas is having a difficult time in the current oil producing market.  We shall see in the future if global shale ends up being a threat -if, or when, the market recovers to $100/barrel levels.



“Layering” those windows this winter


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I was talking to someone in Eagle River at last night’s Healthy Homes workshop (in the UAA Center).  She mentioned that after taking part of the AHFC energy audit and rebate program, their house was so tight that mold started to grow on the white vinyl of her windows.  After trouble shooting many things, it seemed obvious that the windows were old enough (medium quality vinyl slider window, duo paned) that the interior pane of glass was immediately having cold air infiltrate and condensing interior moisture onto the inside surface.  Thus, I mentioned creating another layer inside- no more thick than a half inch- which may stop the condensing.

Though I don’t endorse any brand or vendor, I did mention the 3M, adhesive style winter clear plastic that can be tightened up with a hair dryer.  Here is an example of the product, for FIVE windows (at around $2 each with cyber sales this week yet).  It is a pretty simple attempt as far as effort and cost:




Many people in the Interior know that burning green wood is going to add creosote to their chimney and be inefficient (as the combustion is often expending many BTU’s on driving out moisture in the fibers rather than being thrown out for space heat). And many know that the best level of moisture is below 20% in any prospective logs.

With respect to burning,  what about different types of wood?  Black Spruce is often full of pitch, yet fairly easy to cut up. Birch splits well yet adds a fair amount of ash with its bark. And while many people don’t like poplar or Cottonwood, it too can be heated enough to drive out moisture.  (If you have any tips from personal experiences on burning wood, please add it to the comment section).

Pellets often will have reduced moisture by almost half of that amount due to the manufacturing process. Though pellets have specifically made stoves for their automatic feed and burning,  there are now pellet baskets which allow you to hand load and burn pellets in your regular cordwood stove.  Check for reviews on their efficiency.



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