Sorting Through the “Green” Stuff at MaLode

There is a lot to learn about making your home, business or lifestyle “Green”. Here at the River Center we have discovered that if you want to learn how to save money and reduce fossil fuel consumption most cost effectively, it pays to stop listening and start thinking. Yes, more information is good, but so much of it consists of confusing “infomercials” for a new kind of “Green Consumerism”.

Take energy for instance. In 2007 when we drew up our Greenhouse Gas Action Plan (GAP) we were aware that most folks associated solar energy with photovoltaic (PV) panels. In fact, our neighbor had recently installed a fancy new set of PV panels that made us, quite frankly, envious. We heard there were tax credits and good deals to be had, and dreams of PV panels began dancing in our heads.

Then we did the math. Once we ranked the sources of our greenhouse gas emissions in the GAP, we discovered that not only was our use of electricity comparatively low, it largely came from pre-existing hydroelectric sources which produced very little new greenhouse gas to operate. In fact, most of our greenhouse gases were coming out of the tailpipes of our vehicles, not from our electric pole. This led to the EcoBus and our fleet of vehicles powered by waste vegetable oil (WVO), a fuel that produces 80% less carbon emissions than conventional fossil fuel.

Furthermore, we discovered that after vehicle fuel, our next largest producer of greenhouse gases was the heating of hot water with the fossil fuel, propane. Alan Carrozza, our solar expert, then suggested that after insulation, solar hot water heating was our next logical energy investment and that it would be much more cost efficient than PV electricity.

This motivated our first solar water heater, a simple “passive” system that cost approximately $1500 and which produced 28,750 BTUs of energy daily. To compare this system to PV we convert BTUs, a measure of thermal energy, into to kilowatt-hours by multiplying by the factor .0002931, resulting in 8.43 kilowatts. An 8.4 KW photovoltaic system would cost approximately $1000 per kilowatt or $84,000. Bottom line, the solar hot water heater produces the same energy 56 times more cost efficiently than the PV panels!

Just for a point of reference, we asked our neighbor if they had installed a solar hot water heater since, like the average American homeowner, over 33% of their energy is used to heat water. Predictably, the answer was no.

How could this be? These folks are not dumb; on the contrary, they are very smart, idealistic, and trying to do the right thing. What we realized, however, was that they were just like us, at risk of becoming victims of “Green Consumerism”. Like other forms of consumerism, the green variety claims that if it costs a lot, is fashionable, and or looks green, it must be green. Clearly, this isn’t true. BP and its “beyond petroleum” advertising campaign are a great example of “green consumerism” and it is no coincidence that they are the largest seller of PV panels in the US, yet they don’t sell solar hot water heaters at all. Why? Less profit!

We learned several things from this experience. One is that the mantra, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is actually very logically sequenced. Unless we Reduce what we consume first, the Reuse and Recycle have a hard time reducing the net impact on the planet. As the video “The Story of Stuff” points out, the stuff we already produce would require 5 planet Earths to be sustainable. Furthermore, when we produce stuff, it is always “Toxins in, Toxins out” and those toxins always end up somewhere. Since toxins concentrate in biological systems, it turns out that human breast milk has the highest concentration of toxins of any food we consume. Wait a minute, can that be right? Check it out at Once you do, you will probably agree that we should all take the advice of Daniel Goleman who proposes in his book, Ecological Intelligence, that we do the math and determine the total ecological cost of everything we buy, and let these numbers guide our purchases.

So what does this all mean at MaLode? No doubt it won’t surprise you that we now heat all our hot water at MaLode with solar energy. This requires three separate solar heaters of two basic types: active and passive. Each system “pre-heats” the water from the well with solar energy before it goes into a propane water heater. This ensures that the hot water is at the desired temperature and neither too cold (it is warmed up with propane to the target temperature), or too hot (it is cooled down by being mixed with more cold water). The passive system is best suited for a lower volume use such as the kitchens. Both types of system reduce propane use by approximately 70%.

We are particularly proud of the “active” system that powers the showers and which was designed by Alan Carrozza (pictured on the left) and completed last winter by our tenant, Cornelius (on the right). In this case an electronic brain senses the temperature in the solar hot water heating panels. If the temperature is higher than the water stored in the solar hot water reservoir tank, an electric pump is activated to circulate the water from the panels to the solar reservoir. This system can produce more hot water than the passive system, which is why we chose it for the showers where we encounter our highest volume of hot water use.

So ends another happy chapter at MaLode. We are excited about moving forward, albeit deliberately, toward energy independence and ecological sustainability. This season one of our guests suggested that we use a super efficient steam engine he has invented, which derives its energy from solar thermal panels, to turn an electric generator that would produce our electricity. Hmmm, Stay tuned. In the meantime, we look forward to your next visit and, by the way, use all the hot water you want. That is, if you can wring it out of the low flow showerheads donated to us by PG&E!

See you on the River,
Scott and the MaLode Crew

“Solar for Oil” Barter: It’s very Cool

by Scott Underwood

Short on cash? Wouldn’t you like to find a way to reduce your utility bills, decrease America’s dependence on foreign oil, and do a favor to the environment by decreasing your use of fossil fuels? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you should be interested in what the Mother Lode River Center has been up to recently in nearby Cool, California.

The basic idea is simple. First, we construct a homemade “box” hot water heater from a sheet of plywood, an old retired propane water heater, a cast off shower door and some fittings from the hardware store. We plumb it all together with simple hand tools using plans available for free on the Internet. We then install it as a “pre-heater” to feed into the existing water heater at one of our favorite restaurants in nearby Cool, Ca.  This reduces the restaurant’s use of propane to heat water by 70%. Since over 33% of the energy consumed by an average household is to heat water, this cost savings and major reduction in carbon footprint is available to you too. I hope you agree that we have closed a Cool deal.  But hey, it gets better!

This restaurant uses vegetable oil to fry its food and normally pays to get it hauled off. We then barter the hot water heater for the restaurant’s waste vegetable oil (WVO).  Barter is “the exchange of goods or services without money” and is definitely a good thing because it keeps trade close to home.  Mother Lode is one of the few companies in California that runs its diesel vehicles on 100% WVO. This has several advantages. First, it produces 80% less carbon dioxide than conventional fossil fuel diesel and therefore vastly reduces our carbon footprint. Second, using WVO also reduces the particulates (the greatest disadvantage of diesel engines) by 45% and hydrocarbons by a comparable amount. Amazingly, it also reduces carcinogens by 90%. Bottom line, it is one of the cleanest and ecologically responsible fuels on planet Earth.

That’s it, “Solar for Oil”! We have created Green Collar employment for our staff, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and spared the planet’s ecosystems, helped reduce the concentration of chemicals in the air that cause asthma and cancer, and refused to ride with Osama Bin Laden. Do you support this idea? Write us a note and let us know what you think.

Mother Lode's 100% WVO Fleet

Many thanks to Alan Carrozza for his inspiration and great idea, Greg Hawkins for his construction skills, Ray and Lorrie for their patience and Emily for her photos.

Tawonga Meets the Ropes Challenge

youth learning teamwork at Mother Lode's Outdoor Education School

youth learning teamwork

The dark-haired teenager, Shawn, stood on a platform located high up in the Ponderosa pine and gazed down. Far below, just over a dozen faces stared up. He moved cautiously to the edge then broke into dance of exuberance.

“Pterodactyl, pterodactyl,” came yells from below.

Shawn raised his arms, flapped them several times like the ancient dinosaur taking flight, gave out several convincing shrieks, and launched himself into the air.

He was not committing an act of juvenile irresponsibility, responding to peer pressure but, along with his fellow campers, achieving a goal for which they had trained all day. He had just met the “Leap of Faith” challenge.

His rope harness caught him before he could fall, and while he was gently lowered to the ground he continued his dance of delight midair to the cheers of his friends.

The group was attending Mother Lode River Trips outdoor adventure course, based at the company’s campgrounds along the South Fork of the American River in Coloma. On June 7, 2010, they were taking part in the Ropes Course.

The 12 teenagers, along with their two councilors, were spending the final few days of a two-week expedition organized by Camp Tawonga, a youth organization headquartered in San Francisco, at Mother Lode. They were there to learn about self-confidence, teamwork, the environment, and the river. They were also having a great time.

Low Ropes

The day had been spent preparing for “The Leap of Faith.”

The morning started off with “low ropes” activities, led by Mother Lode guides Mary Maliff and Emily Underwood.

One of the first games was the ball toss. The object of the game was for a baseball-sized ball to be thrown to each member of the circle until it was returned to the original thrower as fast as possible and without being dropped.

“There are only three rules,” said Mary. “Be kind to each other, be kind to each other and be kind to each other.”

As the ball zigzagged across the circle, faster and faster, the group also discussed plans for how to improve their time.

“Move in closer,” came one suggestion. “Each person take a step back once they’ve tossed the ball,” was another. “Call out the person’s name.”

Then, unexpectedly, more objects were thrown into the circle; another ball, a stuffed animal, a toy. Some started hitting the ground amidst peals of laughter.

The game was not only an exercise in communication and planning, Mary explained to the group, but also to show “plans change,” she said. “We all have lots of stuff going on.” When circumstances change and the original plan no longer works, she urged the group to come up with ideas for new plans.

Another game was called Norbert’s egg. Emily explained the rules as the group gathered in a grassy clearing with the sounds of the rushing river in the background. Somehow, she said holding up a golf ball, poor Norbert the pterodactyl “egg” had been separated from his nest and needed to get back. Each person was given a length of V-shaped metal bar. “Don’t use them as swords,” cautioned Emily with a smile. The “egg” could not be touched, had to always be moving down, and could not be rolled backwards.

After a brief planning session, the ball was placed on the first bar and began its journey. The group formed an interlocking chain with their bars, guiding the ball down the trough toward the “nest,” a hole in the ground. The ball was carefully passed from person to person moving closer and closer.

And fell just short. A collective “Awww,” arose from the group.

Undeterred, and drawing from the lessons of the previous games, the group came up with new ideas and new plans. Very quickly, they became proficient at saving Norbert the pterodactyl.

Emily explained the game demonstrated both personal and group responsibilities. They had to work together to accomplish their goal, but at some point each person was individually responsible for getting the ball safely to the next.

“You can control your own space, but not what others do,” said Emily.

Additional games followed at various locations around the oak-studded campground. Some of the games emphasized trust, others personal perspectives and how everyone views the world differently, leadership, and communication and teamwork.

“Humor helps,” said Maayan, her red hair shinning in the sun.

Julia was complimented for coming up with the idea of a “talking rock,” where the person who held the rock was the one to speak during planning stages so everyone could be heard.

Charlie, a Camp Tawonga councilor, praised the group for staying positive. “There was no ‘oh, you dropped this, oh, you did that’ kind of thing.”

Return next week to see who actually makes the Leap of Faith