Learning to Cook with a Steam Oven – 1

Post 1. Prologue: We moved into our new house about 24 days ago. One of the appliances I picked out was a Wolf Convection Steam Oven, which I stupidly thought would be simple to use. What I learned is that this oven is designed to be a giant steamer either with or without other (dryer) cooking options. The next thing I learned is that there isn’t a lot of help out there for helping you figure out how to adapt for timing and techniques.

I have to date cooked three different kinds of foods in it. Also, I am using distilled water. It doesn’t say you have to, but that’s what I use in my iron and it’s lasted for 20 years.

1. Frozen pizza, twice. Mixed results, not sure why. I think using the perforated pan turned out better than the solid pan.

2. Fresh spinach & cheese ravioli. I was motivated to steam because so many of the ravioli were torn. It could have used a couple more minutes. I think I cooked it for 13 minutes. Also, I think it’s important to have all the raviolis over the perforations. Maybe spray with water prior to starting would help too. But it was delicious.

3. Hard boiled (steamed) eggs. Perfect! Today I will share with you how to do this. I used six eggs but you could just as easily do two dozen. The directions stated to place the eggs on the perforated pan, but TBH they started rolling all over the place. So I grabbed a silicone “rack” designed to be used in an Instant Pot, and spaced my eggs evenly throughout the rack, on top of the perforated pan. In retrospect, think you could just place the eggs directly on an oven rack if you wanted to.

In any case, they recommend putting a solid pan beneath the perforated pan to catch water. So I did that. (On rack 1).

So we get to the first issue with the oven: operating it. I pressed “Quick Start” and verified that Steam was selected. (Change selections using the left and right arrows). I pressed “Enter.” Next, temperature. I verified that the setting was for 210 degrees F. “Enter.” This causes some confusion because when you press Enter, the temperature setting window appears, for changing the temperature. “No,” I think, “That’s the temperature I want.” I press Enter again and it exits back to the starting settings. So I look at the choices and realize that if I hit the right arrow, I could go to the next setting, the timer. Sure enough. Great, I think. There’s no way to enter numbers! However, if you press the right arrow, a time will suggest itself: 15 minutes. Pressing the right arrow again increments the time.

For eggs, I like my hard-boiled eggs to be cooked through, defined as a consistent light yellow throughout. Also, caveat here: I am at sea level. For 2500 ft, add a minute. The directions I saw suggested 20 minutes, and those eggs had dark yellow centers. I set the timer for 22 minutes. Enter. When it returned to the main setup, there really was nothing left to do, and I saw the countdown timer decrementing. Sure enough, when it finished deleting pixels, it made a little sucking noise and started the cycle.

When the cycle was finished, it told me to turn off the power, so I pressed “Power.” Yep. That worked. “Residual Heat,” it warned. (DUH, said my head.) I opened the oven door, which allowed a puff of steam to escape, and those eggs looked exactly like they did when I started. Fingers crossed!

I used some small tongs to lift each egg into a cold water bath. Then I set it aside for a few minutes. I dried the door with a kitchen towel, and washed the two pans. Then I sopped up the rest of the water that had pooled in the bottom of the oven with a sponge, and used the same dish towel to dry the bottom of the oven. So, yay! it still looks new.

After several minutes I realized my cold water was quite warm and so I changed the water and started peeling the eggs. If you’ve never steamed eggs, you are in for a real treat. They peel like heaven. SOOOO easy. And they were done — perfectly.

I peeled all the eggs, and used a pastry blender, such as you would use to cut butter into flour, to chop them for egg salad. You could just as easily cut them in half for deviled eggs or eat them whole. For egg salad, I added about 3 Tbsp of Marie’s Caesar dressing (a creamy variant) and maybe an equal amount of regular mayonnaise, and a light sprinkle of salt. (Do not add salt without tasting!)

Egg salad using steamed hard-boiled eggs.

Quilts 2015-2018

Late in 2015, early 2016, I made two baby quilts for guys whose wives were expecting. Used a pattern from Missouri Block magazine that was both easy and fun.

The one above was for a baby boy “Asher;” the fabric was Urban Zoology — so cute! The second was for a baby girl, “Violet,” using a pair of charm packs. Both were quilted by me.

Andy Bernard quilt

I made Jane a wall hanging with the LA Skyline appliqued; the quilting is literally a map of the area where she was living at the time. The tiny heart is where her apartment was located, on Heliotrope. That’s my heart, meant to mean that my love was with her. She’s moved since, but it was a fun project and heartfelt. I also made her a couple of little zippered pods using some of the fabric from the applique project. They’re for holding small stuff like extra bobbins.

I made myself a little wall-hanging from a pattern in a magazine. Front/back. Love this fabric from Craftsy. Fat quarters are SO SMALL. Hence the pink stripe on the back. This was my first serious attempt at feathers using free motion quilting.

I made a table runner and a couple of placemats for us to use. I regretted the beige I chose for the sashing, just too much like skin tone and the curves I created were unfortunately rather suggestive of cleavage.

log cabin runner and placemats

I started this quilt below in 2016 for my friend Marcia in Sequim as a thank-you for all the ways she made us feel welcome and giving Danny a place to stay while we were there. The fabric was chosen for the lavender–Sequim’s specialty crop– and the gardening theme, as Marcia is an avid gardener. It took two years to finish! I had it professionally quilted, and love how it turned out!

This pattern was from a book on quilts to make from Jelly Rolls. To go with the jelly roll, I also got the dark purple yardage for the back and a border print with the sprigs of lavender and potted herbs. I learned a lot about contrast and value as opposed to just different colors. Notice how some of the blocks almost disappear (“learning experience”). The center photo is a closeup of the middle of the back of the quilt. The piecing on the back was because of not enough fabric, and then I wanted to try an “attic windows” block.

A quilt currently in work (at the end of 2018) is a nine-patch poppies quilt that is still awaiting quilting and binding.

poppy garden

But I still have another baby quilt to do and started a one-block wonder using a Tula Pink electric jellyfish print. Here’s the fabric for the baby quilt:

Dainty Dickens quilt fabric

And then the Tula Pink OBW is in work. I’ve cut out and sewn most of the fabric. The technique calls for sewing three triangles together from each side of the hexagon block, figuring out the layout you want, and then sewing together half-hexes in strips that are then joined. This keeps the piecing easy– all straight lines and no Y-intersections. The repeat on the fabric is 9.5 inches and the hexes are about 8″ wide.


OBW Tula Pink jellies

The final note from 2018 quilting is the finishing of a special Medallion quilt that I reverse engineered without directions. The fabric is from Maywood Studios and the colors are black, green, peachy pink, cream, and a rusty red. I fell in love with it before I ever figured out what kind of quilt I wanted to make with it, so I bought a LOT of fabric. This queen-size quilt was also professionally quilted in a semi-custom pattern that the quilter chose to go with the blocks. And I have enough fabric left to make pillowcases!

finished quilt - queen size


Addendum: More about 2018

Jim reminded me that I had not included anything about his work with the TR6 that I bought him a couple years ago. It was supposed to be ready-to-assemble, but it wasn’t. Lots of the parts were dry-rotted. The engine had never been properly cleaned and refurbished, and would have never worked even if everything else had been assembled. The gas tank had a layer or varnish on the bottom from having been left too long and dried.

TR in April2014

He did a LOT of work, and I even helped some with the upholstery, and it finally became drive-able. Even then it needed brake work and a lot of leaky hoses repaired. The photo above was taken in April 2014 when we bought the car.

He joined the Central Coast British Car Club, and quickly became enamored of their various excursions to local museums and road trips. Here he is below, on a recent trip, enjoying the top down during some typically-gorgeous early fall California weather.

Jim with TR on car club outing

Merry Christmas 2018

xmas letter 2018

[The link  (above) has the pdf version of our Christmas card insert with some pictures included.]

Dear Friends and Family,

As 2018 draws to a close, we can be grateful that it’s been a pretty good year for us. Jim retired in February, for good this time, and I kept on working at Edwards, as we continued to search for our retirement home in Sequim (pronounced “Squim”), Washington. Danny is still in Beijing, China, teaching English, and Jane is still in LA.

Danny plans to come home in January for about a week. He’s bringing his girlfriend, Zoe, and we plan to celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, & both his and Jim’s birthdays all in one week. After they finish their west coast tour, they’ll be heading back to Beijing.

We went to Sequim in July for the Lavender Festival, and stayed at the lovely B&B run by our real estate agent and her husband. We got to see some things we hadn’t had time to look at before and the weather was …. Perfect. OK, heat wave in Washington, but in Sequim that meant 80 – 85 degrees for a high and down into the 60’s at night. No air conditioning needed. The Lavender Festival was GREAT! Free parking, free admission, free shuttle around town to catch the (very impressive) quilt show at the middle school, the farmer’s market in the square, and a few other stops. Lots of nice things to buy, see, and do. We looked at a number of houses, and all had fatal flaws. We visited Port Townsend, enjoying seafood and a beer on the waterfront, and a sampling of brews at the local brewery. We went on some walks at local parks, and Jim borrowed Danny’s bike to do some nice local rides on the Olympic Trail. We spent some time in Olympia visiting our good friends the Slacks, and a day in Tacoma catching the beautiful glass museum there. It went by so fast.

Yes, I’ve been there in the winter, and no, it doesn’t rain that much in Sequim. Google it!

Not long after our midsummer visit, we found a one-acre lot for sale in the “right place” … close to the Dungeness Bay but up at 130’ elevation, in an area that is pretty much close to everything. You can look it up on Google Maps using 2041 Lotzgesell, (Lots’-gazelle) Sequim. We don’t have an assigned address yet, but that’s Google’s best guess.  We closed on it just in time for our 31st anniversary and are now working with a local architect to nail down the plan. The great thing about Sequim and environs is that it’s small enough so that builders care about their reputations and large enough to have a really great Costco.

Now what’s left is to get our current house up to snuff so it’ll sell without needing a bunch of work. We got all the backyard drainage fixed (OMG the TREE ROOTS!) and Jim’s been replacing faulty water valves and corroded fixtures in the main bathroom (bath/shower), so it may not look like the latest magazine ad, but it’ll be attractive and fully functional, for a fraction of what I thought it would take. Next will be resurfacing the pool and getting that system all running automatically. Then fixing the backyard landscaping (giving a much smaller grass footprint). By the time we’re done, the new house should be under construction. We’re thinking I can retire by my birthday 2020. So—one more Christmas in the Giovanni house after this.

Love to you all, and wishes for a wonderful holiday season!

Below are more photos from our trip to Sequim at Lavender Festival time.


Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah December 25, 2016


Jim with Tier III Minus at Boeing Museum in Seattle


The year 2016 brought many changes to our family. Everybody changed jobs, for one. Jim retired from Lockheed after being given a surprise early retirement package, and after a couple months off, he rejoined the Air Force to work for a couple more years, and is now working at Global Hawk. During his time off, he managed to get the front yard completely re-landscaped, getting rid of most of the grass and making the yard much more drought-tolerant.

I left Global Hawk in the spring, and went to work up at the test wing headquarters in a career-enhancement position as assistant to the technical director. It was a huge honor to be chosen for this position, as it was intended to be for a younger person with a long career path ahead of them. It was also intended to be a temporary, 9-12 month assignment, but my boss has decided he needs me there for another year. All I can say is that it is surreal to be rubbing shoulders with senior leaders at the base.

In addition to a new assignment, I undertook a master’s degree program online from Western Governors University, a non-profit with a unique model that allows students to take as many classes each term as they can get through, all for one low price. It is a MS in Management and Leadership, and I have enjoyed the course materials a great deal. The master’s degree is required in order to advance, and I hope to complete the coursework in about 18 months total (by the end of 2017).


Lavender Farm in Sequim, WA


During the summer, over the 4th of July, we made a trip to Seattle to visit with Danny and see the area. Our trip included several days in the Olympic Peninsula to the northwest of Seattle, and we fell in love with the lavender farms, bike trails, and incredible vistas of both mountains and water. I was fortunate to re-connect with an old high school friend who graciously showed us around. Located in the “rain shadow” of the Olympic Range, the area gets remarkably little rain or snow. Seattle was gray and cool and a bit rainy, but the OP and Victoria, BC were spectacular.


Danny and Ann at Boeing Museum, Seattle


Honestly I’m not sure how much longer we’re going to wait before we retire for real; I managed to get most of my service credits at the Air Force sorted out and am eligible to get a small retirement now. It sure sounds like a great idea to move up close to Canada, get a little sailboat and a retirement house, and enjoy ourselves for a few years.


Jane at Blacktop Coffee, Los Angeles



Jane and Danny are both well, still single, and probably best described as typical struggling Millenniels with a fiercely independent streak. Jane’s still in LA and is now taking classes in couture sewing and design, and supporting herself working at Blacktop Coffee in downtown. Danny’s still in Seattle and pondering what he wants to do for the rest of his life.monster

wolfWe still have our pets Wolfie and the Monster, and Jane still has Minnie the rescue cat.

Quilts I’ve Made


The very first quilt I ever made was a tiny wall hanging for my brother and sister-in-law sometime in the early 1990’s. It was in shades of purple and teal.

Some years later, I went to the local quilt shop and fell in love with my first experience with fabric families, buying way too much of a bunch of fabrics and ending up making two wall hangings, a placemat, and still having enough leftover to make …. something.


But I took kind of a long break for almost the entire decade 2000-2009 which was my teaching career.

Then I got ambitious and made my son Danny a blanket quilt with green batiks. I added gold and aqua contrast fabrics, but the overall effect is green. There were enough leftovers to make a nice pillow sham.

I made friends with another quilter at work, Julie, and she inspired me to do more. So when an engineer friend was having her first baby, and I saw this kit at a quilt show, it seemed like the perfect next quilt.

Loving the fabrics that inspired the baby quilt, Moda “Paris Flea Market,” I decided to go for a layer cake (10″ square pack). I picked a pattern and laid out a quilt. That one is only partially assembled.


When I broke my wrist in 2013, my cousin Mary came to the rescue and spent several days with me helping out. To thank her, I made a wall hanging and tote bag in Robert Kaufmann Persian-inspired fabrics of turquoise and gold with green and purple accents.

Julie and I kept going to Strip Club events at the local quilt shop, and I decided to make this half-scale wall hanging using the “Prickly Pear” strip pattern and Moda fabrics from the “Vin du Jour” family.

red quilt-finished-sm

For Christmas 2014, I decided to try some different quilting patterns to see how they looked, playing with color and fabric by making tote bags for family members which seemed to be appreciated by all.


My 2015 projects included making some potholders, although I did not do as many as I would have liked because I had trouble making the edging and so put them aside. Then we got a wooden bar counter refinished, and I decided to make giant placemats, really more at table runners, to custom-fit the two sides of the counter. This used some fabrics I had bought several years ago as a fat quarter bundle.

The latest effort is a Christmas quilt– Moda’s “Fete de Noel” kit, which I decided to buy in the kit and also a jelly-roll pack so that a table runner could be made to match. I’ve learned that if you love a fabric line, you need to buy the fabric when it’s available–it will be gone in a year!

Finished quilt
Visit Ann’s profile on Pinterest.

Christmas 2015


This year brought many changes to the family. The kids are farther away and deeply involved in their own lives. We are one year closer to retirement, and looking forward to only having to worry about hobbies. Why is it that by the time you’re permitted to sleep late, you wake up automatically at 5 a.m?

Jim is still at the Skunk Works and spent most of this year working on an experimental aircraft, the X-56, an unmanned small aircraft which was flight testing at NASA up at Edwards. IMG_0434In his cycling adventures this year, he completed a number of “smaller,” 200-400 Km rides, and attempted a 1000 Km ride from Portland OR to Whitefish MT in June. Unfortunately the weather was well into the 100’s without regular water supplies and not a stick of shade after the first 50 miles. None of the cyclists finished the ride, with all but one pair of riders abandoning that first day. But we turned it into a IMG_0139vacation, and got to see some of Glacier National Park, eastern Washington including Yakima and Spokane, and central Oregon, including Bend, a beer Mecca where Deschutes Brewery resides. Jim got to cycle the parts of the route he wanted to, with ample water and rest. One of the most impressive things we saw was a volcano caldera with a fairly fresh lava field surrounding it (like, only thousands of years old instead of millions.)

Ann is still at Edwards working for the Air Force and starting to feel comfortable as a lead with a half dozen engineers under her guidance. Working on an unmanned aircraft, the Global Hawk, is a much different experience than working at the bombers. One of the biggest surprises is how many people it takes to fly one—many more than piloted aircraft! Other than work, Ann also did some quilting and gardening this year. The new “pop-up greenhouse” produced many peppers and tomatoes which gave us many delicious meals.

For Halloween, we visited one of Ann’s high school friends in Desert Hot Springs (near Palm Springs). The party was a murder mystery with a 1920’s theme and probably one of the most fun things we’ve done in a long time. We were Mayor and Mrs. Biggs, from Chicago …

Danny moved to Seattle where he now works sales for a tech startup called ZipWhip, a texting service that provides interesting cell phone services for businesses. Stuff you’ve seen but never thought about, like sending out group notifications to customers. IMG_0014This season they’re doing a “text Santa” promotion, where anyone can send a text to Santa and get a personalized reply. I tried it, it was fun! Seattle seems to be very much to his taste. It’s loaded with great brew-pubs and very cyclist-friendly. He’s even able to commute by bike almost every day from the house he shares with a bunch of girls in Montlake to his workplace downtown, mostly along bike paths. Danny has seized the opportunity to visit both Yosemite and Glacier National Parks with friends who are also park rangers, and enjoyed spectacular visits not afforded to every traveler.

Jane still lives in Los Angeles, in a much nicer, 1-bedroom apartment she moved into in the spring. IMG_0089We gave her Minnie the huntress-cat to be her live-in companion, and the two of them seem to be perfect housemates. She still works at Dinosaur coffee in the Silver Lake area. She has started taking couture sewing classes in her free time, and still knits and crochets. She dyed her hair red for Halloween to be Poison Ivy from the Batman comics, and is quite a beautiful redhead.Jane Fiercely independent, she didn’t tell us she had landed in a neurotrauma ICU with a fractured skull until she was released. This was just a few weeks before Thanksgiving. She has no recollection of how it happened but fortunately seems to be recovering well.

Wolfie and the Monster Wolfie 08-2015are both about six years old now and in the prime of their lives, and Monster is MUCH happier now that Minnie isn’t in the picture. For all how tiny and cute she is, she never made friends with him and both are clearly much happier being only cats. And the bird population is rebounding …IMG_0221

Wishing you and yours a very merry Christmas and happy New Year!


–Jim, Ann, Danny, & Jane Harris

I Want Solar. Now What?

Many of my friends say, “I want solar, but where do I start?” So I’ve been thinking about how to teach them what I learned when shopping for solar panels. Let’s start with some basic knowledge about the electricity for powering your home.

1. Electricity

Speaking of Watts (W). Watts are a unit of power, and a function of both voltage (V) and current (A). Don’t run away screaming yet. This part is just to help you understand the difference between “watts” and “kilowatt-hours” (KWh) because “watts” are what you use, and “kilowatt-hours” is how they bill you! First of all, kilowatts are just thousands of watts, just like kilometers are thousands of meters. It makes things easier to understand if the numbers are not too big … imagine having to write 900,000 W instead of 900 KW. But the solar panels will be rated in watts, not in kilowatts, so you have to know that.  If each solar panel is rated at 250 W, then it’ll take four of them to make 1000 W, or 1 KW.

So what about the “hours” part? Well, all your appliances use a certain number of watts. Like the microwave uses maybe 1200 W, your hair dryer 1800 W (1.8 KW, remember?). Well that’s how much it’s using every instant that it’s on. So the total amount of power your hair dryer uses depends on how long it’s running. Duh, right? So to figure out how much electricity it used when you ran it for 12 minutes (which is .2 hours), you just multiply the kilowatts times the number of hours, and get .9 KWh. So just running that one item for that long just cost you about $.30.

Now the electric meter just keeps track of the whole house at once; it can’t itemize your electric use. So it samples the amount of watts being used at regular intervals (say, once per second) and averages that over a certain amount of time (say, maybe 12 minutes) to keep track of the KWh that you’re using. It may not be exact but it’s close enough. And then all those KWh are added up for the month and the electric company goes through some complicated and incomprehensible tiered rate system and squirts out your bill at the end. And you say, “Holy SHIT, electricity is EXPENSIVE. I really want to go solar!”

2. Photovoltaic Solar Power Generation

Photovoltaic (PV) simply refers to “voltage created by light” and so without getting into what goes on inside the panel, this is the big difference between solar power generation and solar pool heating. A system for heating pool water makes hot water; the PV kind makes electricity.

First, one important assumption. The following information is for a grid-tied system. That means that you don’t store any of the electricity. At any given moment, if you are generating more than you’re using, your meter runs backward as you put electricity on the electric company grid. Importantly, it also means that if the power goes out, you lose power too. Your system won’t keep your house running. This is a critical safety aspect for the electric company—because otherwise, the men making repairs on the power lines could be electrocuted by home-solar-generated power.

A system that is not grid-tied has to have a bunch of big ol’ batteries to provide your house with electric power when it’s dark out, which is a headache and carries risk of explosion if not well-maintained. If you live in the Outback of Australia, that’s probably your only choice, but for most of us, it’s an advantage to be grid-tied.

Solar panels are rated in watts, but that figure is only good for new panels. The power generation drops slowly over the years, too, but you can still expect something like 80% of the rated power after 20 years. The wattage rating on those panels is the PEAK—you know, noontime, no clouds, perfect angle to the sun. So over the course of a perfect day for a 300 W panel, you’ll get something like 2.3 KWh. On one panel, on June 21, assuming a perfect peak of 300 W at noon. You won’t really get that. (By the way, the calculation I used was (panel rating in watts) x 7.64, which is based on a 12 hour length of daylight.) Bottom line is that a 300 W panel, even when new, will not produce 300 W for you, but it’s hard to say what your peak generation will be without knowing exactly where you live.

Your power generation will of course vary as the day goes by, peaking at noon; and by season, with the greatest generated in the summer and the least in the winter. Another factor determining how much electricity you can generate is whether you live in a sunny or rainy climate. Very little power is generated on a cloudy day. Seattle is probably not a great place for generating solar power from your rooftop. You probably already have some idea if your area is sunny enough to make solar power generation a cost-effective option by watching your neighbors rush to install theirs.

3. How many panels do I need?

This is a painfully personal process, which is why you have to do it yourself or trust the salesman. Most of us want to be able to tell if the salesman is in the ballpark of what WE think we need.  I have heard some wildly erroneous estimates, and I just wouldn’t skip this.

Step 1. Find out your average monthly electric bill and usage in kilowatt-hours (KWh). For example, before we went solar, our monthly electric usage was about 1300 KWh for a total of $283 average per month.

Step 2. Determine if you want to have all your electric usage covered, or just part. Usually it’s most cost-effective to only cover MOST of the required energy. My plan was to generate about half of the estimated 1300 needed , and my installer agreed that was a good number. It would keep the electric bills very low—I was thinking in the bottom two tiers. But it turns out that’s not a good way to think of it. More about that later.

So, HELLO, come back to Earth! I just want it all!! How many panels is that?  OK, now here’s where it gets REALLY personal, because not only does it depend on how much power you want– it also depends on where you live.

To help you, there are some cool online tools out there to help you determine how much power you can expect to get from your general location, on average, for a given wattage system, so you don’t have to go through any painful math to get there . Try this one: http://www.wholesalesolar.com/StartHere/GRIDINTERTIED/GRIDINTCalculator.html

The site above asks, “How Many Sun Hours a Day Do You Get?” –nice and simple. But you might also hear or wish to Google the term “insolation,” meaning how much sunlight you get per square meter, not to be confused with “insulation,” the pink fluff in your attic. The insolation figure can be considered “effective hours of sunlight per day,” and varies depending on who you ask, which really isn’t fair, and is based on historical averages, which in these days of climate change might be pretty worthless. Here in California’s high desert, I’ve been getting about a 6 or 6.5, which may be a reflection of the ongoing drought more than the typical average over years. Our annual generation has been 11 Megawatt-hours when the prediction was 8. So that’s significantly higher than we had any right to expect. The map suggests it should be more like 5 to 5.5, which matches what the installer recommended. So here’s a table you want to keep:

System Sizing Based on Sun Hours

System Rating

1kW 2kW 3kW 4kW 5kW 6kW 7kW 8kW


6.5 Sun Hrs 150 300 450 600 750 900 1,050 1,200 1,500
6 Sun Hrs 140 280 420 560 700 840 980 1,120 1,400
5.5 Sun Hrs 130 260 390 520 650 780 910 1,040 1,300
5 Sun Hrs 120 240 360 480 600 720 840 960 1,200
4.5 Sun Hrs 105 210 315 420 525 630 735 840 1,050
4 Sun Hrs 95 190 285 380 475 570 665 760 950
3.5 Sun Hrs 80 160 240 320 400 480 560 640 800


The installed system was rated 5.75 KW with an estimated annual power generation of 8.2 MWh (Megawatts are 1000 Kilowatts, so that’s 8200 KWh.) That should have covered about half our use.  So how many panels is that? Well, nowadays panels are upwards of 315 W each; we could have gotten our 6 KW for 19 panels.  As it was, our panels were only 240 W and so 25 of them was 6 KW. You’ll note the system was rated at 5.75, but that’s because some of the panels were facing east, some west, and the rest faced south, the best direction.

So take the number of watts desired (6000) and divide by the number of watts per panel (315) and it’ll tell you how many (19).

Woo-hoo! Now I know how to figure out the size of my system and compute the number of panels.

4. Other considerations

You also want to consider where the panels will be located. If you have enough property, I recommend installation on the ground. Yes, not very pretty … plant a row of shrubs to hide them. But a ground installation means no worrying about the integrity of the roof installation. It also guarantees you can get the most advantageous angle to the sun, whereas on a roof you are at the mercy of your architect. The other thing is that they are much easier to clean if you can reach them easily. (Always clean them when they’re cool.) It probably goes without saying that wherever you put the panels, they need to be in direct sunlight all day if possible, but you might be surprised what some people will forget.

And you’ll also note that we could not get all our panels on the south-facing roof. So we used a new technology to help make that OK.

In the Old Days, solar panels were ganged together like Chrstmas Tree lights, the kind where if one goes out, they all go out. In that kind of arrangement, if one panel had some shade thrown on it, then ALL the panels acted like THEY had shade too. Sort of a cosmic empathy. The lowest-generating panel controlled the total output! That SUCKED. So the industry invented a way to make each panel an individual using little devices called microinverters. So each panel produces what it produces and if one of them is offline, it’s just one panel, not the whole system. The microinverters also got rid of the big inverter panel, allowing all the panels to come together and bring a single wire to feed the meter.

So our system had microinverters and therefore we could have panels on every part of the roof. It took a little more to get the total output needed, but hey, small price!

If you have to have a roof mounted system, make the salesman talk to the details of the installation AND the warranty on the roof. Our installer brought close-up photos of the racks and mounts, and explained exactly how they were installed and how that would prevent leaks. Perfect. Most sales folks not only don’t know that stuff, they don’t care.

5. Cost. COST! Buy or lease?

First, what if you BUY the system?

So you need to know that the panels themselves are not too expensive but like with all construction work, you will pay the big bucks for the labor. Plus there are SO many parts … the racks, rails, microinverters, inspections, permits, etc. By the way—do NOT do this yourself unless you know what you’re doing (like are a licensed electrician.) Edison does not have to approve it if they don’t like it, and it must be permitted, which means plans on file with the city.

I’ve seen estimates of a net cost of $3-$5 per watt not counting “extras.” Our system was about $29,000 ($4.95/W) before rebates and $18,000 after rebates, which is closer to the $3 per watt price. We had two rebates: first, the California Solar Initiative was $3110, and those rebates are almost gone. Then there was a 30% tax rebate on the cost after the state rebate, for almost $8000. But we had to wait until the next year to claim that, which is based on the year of installation. That rebate is still around. But the point is, a typical system should probably NOT cost more than $5 per watt installed.

How to pay for it?? There are lots of loans out there right now just for solar installation. They are low-interest (whatever that means.) If the system costs $25,000 and you get a 5-year, 4% loan, the payments will be something like $450/month. That’s quite a bit more than you’re paying for electric, isn’t it? But your electric bills are going to be Zero or Low. And in 5 years, you’ll still be paying Zero or Low for that electric use. So it’ll take awhile, but if you have the payment space in your budget, it’s better for you than that new car you don’t really need.

Will the purchased system pay for itself, and how long will it take? Well of course it’ll pay for itself, and how long it takes is based on your electric bill and how much you pay for your solar. At this year’s production rate, ours will be paid for in about 5 or six years.


Leasing is great if you just don’t want to OWN the thing—can’t do the payments, can’t pay cash, but want relief on the electric bills. Leasing will not save you as much as an outright purchase but it beats the shit out of paying the electric company and there’s no money out of pocket. You pay the leasing company for your electricity at a much lower rate than the electric company charges. The only thing about leasing that kind of scares me is that the leasing company will peg their rates to the electric company, so your rates may increase over time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a great deal. But it’s hard to compute the savings.

6. Your new electric bill

Not like the old bill, that’s for sure. The old bill had five tiers (maybe more) and I based my estimated need for the solar system on trying to keep it within the first two tiers. But when you switch to solar, you also switch (not automatically! Take action! Call the electric company!) rate plans. For homes with PV solar production, you get something called net metering. And with this comes on-peak and off-peak rates. On-peak, as you can imagine, is EXPENSIVE energy. It’s daytime, when the stores and offices are open, running their air conditioning full blast. As the proud owner of a PV system, you are GENERATING extra power during those peak hours, hooray! Those kilowatts are valuable!

On the off-peak (dark) hours, you’re using electricity. But it’s cheap.

So for us, with an average production of 900 kwH, it’s paying for that 1300 or so that we use!! Magic! No, it’s really just that the produced energy is more valuable than the consumed energy. But that also means that all the calculations you might have made based on tiered systems is way wrong.

There’s nothing to keep the electric company from raising their rates, and no one knows how the future will affect solar customers. Southern California Edison already charges about $1.50 a month for delivery fees, which honestly seems fair. That’s your charge for being grid-tied. To make that more convenient for me, I paid upfront about $25 that they can continue to draw on during the year. But in states where they didn’t already have those charges, solar customers have been outraged when the charges began.

The other thing is that although you pay delivery fees monthly, the total charges for electricity are annual. That’s right: one bill a year. Edison keeps a running total so you can see where you are and it’s no surprise at the settlement month, but it took me several months to figure it out. Our first year we owed Edison about $300, the second year they paid us $45—totally unexpected and indicative of an unusually sunny year.

Is it all worth it? In areas like ours, the deserts of southern California, that’s an easy question to answer. OF COURSE.


Hear, Hear, for Engineers!

In 1975 I was trying to decide what I wanted to major in when I would be headed off to college in 1976. I had NO IDEA. I was pretty good at most everything, and especially good at, well, nothing. Probably the only clear path was that it would not be anything related to athletics.

My dad, who was a Captain in the Coast Guard at the time (equivalent of a bird colonel for you Army/Air Force types), said, “If you don’t know what you want to major in, then go with engineering. You can always change to something else, but if you were in something else, you couldn’t change to engineering without starting from scratch.” You see, math below calculus doesn’t count as math for engineering majors. All you folks with college degrees that have trouble with algebra, think about that.

So seeing as Dad’s advice made pretty good sense, I followed it. I loved chemistry, but ended up with an Air Force ROTC scholarship in Electrical Engineering. I honestly think I probably blacked in the wrong dot; maybe chemical engineering wasn’t a choice, I don’t know. But the die was cast. So I struggled through five years of engineering school/part time working, got a great job, and felt incompetent working on a digital flight control system with half a dozen inputs and a jillion feedback loops.

Eventually I found a place where I could enjoy a level of expertise, what I felt was *reasonable* expertise. It was working system integration of electronics gear. I decided that flight controls was for aerospace engineers or at least for people a whole lot smarter than I.

Lots of time passed. I ended up leaving engineering after about eight years to become a full-time mom for about 12 years. In 2000 I went back to work getting a multiple-subject teaching credential and then taught second graders for another eight years. Part of my motivation for doing that was to try to help other kids get a good start in math. I wasn’t always happy with the level of math instruction that my own kids had received in elementary school, and I thought—sheesh! I can do better than that!

Being a teacher was an entirely different sort of proposition. I met teachers who were very strong instructors, and some who were terrible. Some who were really sharp, and others who couldn’t spell. Sometimes their level of ignorance was appalling. Many almost took pride in the fact that they weren’t good at math. (Not surprisingly, ) almost as a rule, my linear-thinking, visual-processing, knowledge-valuing self wasn’t fully appreciated. Kind of a, “who do you think you are?” suspicion. (Teachers are pretty clannish.) For the most part, though, I felt that I eventually earned my place as a colleague. But it was a tough slog.

But after I had invested eight years as a second grade teacher, my school district got caught in a budget bind and had to lay off a substantial percentage of its teachers. After the dust settled, I was the next person on the chopping block. Not only that, but state auditors came through all the time and it was a constant, “Not good enough” that beat me down. Especially when I knew that many of their ideas were just wrong. I thought, “OK, I at least have a bachelor’s degree that can buy me a different kind of job.” So I started looking.

In 2009 I was hired back as an engineer. I was hired by people who knew me from 20 years earlier, and liked me. (Fortunately not by people who had known me really well, I thought.) But it turned out to be the best decision of my life. I was home!!! I realized that I hadn’t laughed really hard for years. That I hadn’t had real fun at work in years and years and years. All that stuff I learned in my 20’s came back, flooding back. I knew what to do and how to do it. Age and teaching experience had given me a level of courage I hadn’t known as a young engineer, and a willingness to just ask questions. Fresh from a job that required 60 hour weeks, I had no trouble putting in an honest 40 and loving the weekend off.  I asked the right questions, got the right answers, made the right recommendations. I received recognition for a job well done. My colleagues liked me, respected me, and actually treasured me. Within MONTHS of starting that job, I felt stress melting away.

What is so great about engineers? They are hilarious. They laugh the hardest at the joke about “How do you tell an extroverted engineer? He looks at your shoes when he’s talking to you.” They are clever and fun-loving. They drink beer and don’t apologize. Hell, they BREW beer. They think about things linearly and they value straightforward communication. Engineers love music and computers and knowing how things work. They admire you if you can rattle off genus/species or know Latin. They caB-52 landingre about doing things right and they measure the goodness of that job with a standard and don’t apologize for standards. If you get drunk, they don’t talk shit behind your back, they get drunk with you and bond. I love engineers. I can’t imagine being married to anyone BUT an engineer.

And that job I have now? I’m the flight controls engineer. Go figure.


Near San Simeon, CA, December 2012

Near San Simeon, CA, December 2012

Throw away confirmation bias, try different perspectives, and put on a different pair of glasses. Dare to think differently, because sometimes the obvious answer is wrong. Think more deeply and critically. This is how I try to live my life.

I grew up a military brat (Coast Guard) and lived in quite a few different states. I graduated from high school in Virginia, and went to college in Georgia, moved to Texas, and settled in southern California. I love living in the desert for the sunshine and dry climate. As both my husband and I are engineers in the aerospace industry, we won’t be able to move out of the area until we retire.

My husband Jim is an avid cyclist, and those long rides are one reason I have time to blog. My two kids no longer live at home–Danny is now in San Luis Obispo and Jane will graduate from UCLA in a few months. We have a lovely sheltie, Wolfie, and two adorable/infuriating cats, Monster and Minnie.

I’m interested in science, economics, education, and Truth. And how everything works together synergistically, including the Law of Unintended Consequences. As an engineer, I’m a problem solver, and I love solving puzzles. Nothing, but NOTHING, is as easy as it looks.

“Abandon the urge to simplify everything, to look for formulas and easy answers, and to begin to think multidimensionally, to glory in the mystery and paradoxes of life, not to be dismayed by the multitude of causes and consequences that are inherent in each experience — to appreciate the fact that life is complex.”
―    M. Scott Peck