Off-Grid Lessons Learned

On April 2nd I wrote about our plans to install an off-grid solar system with Aquion batteries on our new bamboo home on the Big Island of Hawaii. It seemed we had little choice. Off-grid solar was less expensive than hooking up to the electrical grid.


Our bali-style bamboo house has nine 275 watt photovoltaic solar panels.

Our bali-style bamboo house has nine 275 watt photovoltaic solar panels.

Seven months later, we live in the home and monitor our 2,475 watt off-grid system on a daily basis. Nine 275-watt panels are mounted on the south-facing roof and an Outback Inverter system and six Aquion 48-volt batteries manage the electrical storage and conversion to the usual AC (alternating) current of our 1,180 square foot home.


We rented another home for the 9 months it took to get through this building project that was also off-grid solar. It had lead-acid batteries and I had a taste of monthly checks of the batteries and addition of distilled water. I could hear the boiling liquid in the batteries on sunny mornings. I used a hygrometer to check the condition of the batteries with coaching from a neighbor. I knew to be careful with any acid spillover and scrubbed away corrosion with a bicarbonate of soda bath. When our electricity suddenly disappeared one day, I asked our solar contractor at the new house to look at the system. He found a loose connection where acid had totally eaten away the bolt connection. He quickly fixed it and it all worked again. It was a lesson in the importance of careful maintenance with lead-acid batteries.


Six Aquion S20+ saltwater batteries sit behind the house in their own shelter, storing electricity each day.

Six Aquion S20+ saltwater batteries sit behind the house in their own shelter, storing electricity each day.

I generally like new technologies because they often demystify existing technology. I am a new adopter with home computer devices but I am not usually a new adopter with mechanical or electrical systems. Off-grid solar systems seemed to teeter on that uncomfortable edge of being a little too technical for me. But we took the plunge into off-grid solar for good reasons. We like getting away from fossil fuels. We love supporting new technologies that make sense. We love the idea of not having an energy bill monthly. It was simply cheaper up front with the great tax credits from the state and federal government. So, HOW DID IT GO?


It’s been great, actually.


  • We have no electrical bill at all. On-grid charges in Hawaii are 48 cents a kilowatt hour, about 4 times the rate in most of the U.S.
  • Our viewscape of the ocean is uninterrupted by power poles. On-grid we would have had to install about $20,000 in ugly power poles, that due to the easements, would have obscured our view. Here you have to drill into solid rock to put in transmission poles and that doesn’t come cheap or easy.
  • An Outback Invert regulates the system and converts the DC storage to AC current for the home.

    An Outback Invert regulates the system and converts the DC storage to AC current for the home.

    The entire system we ended up with cost $24,000, but tax credits give back $11,500. Payback for this system from savings with no electric bill is likely about four or five years.

  • We worried that a 2.475 kilowatt system might not be enough to support our needs so living with it has been a learning experience. We usually draw down the batteries about 15% each night with daily use of a refrigerator, microwave, low-speed overhead fans, lighting and electronics. We also run the washing machine once or twice a week. If we get four hours of good sunlight on any given day, it brings the batteries back up to 100% by noon.
  • It would take seven days of no sun at all to draw down the system to 0 and that just doesn’t happen here. The system has a generator backup system that we likely will never need. With saltwater batteries it is okay to draw batteries down below 50% (a bad idea with lead-acid batteries).
  • We installed propane for cooking and a dryer because stoves and dryers require 220-volt power. Our system only produces 110 volts, a choice we made to save some installation dollars.
  • We went with a Solahart 80-gallon unit for hot water at an extra cost of $7,000 with a 30% federal tax credit (so $5,000 as an after-tax expense.) A heat pump would have met the state requirement for being solar powered because it would get its energy from our photovoltaic cells and would have cost one-fourth as much. We didn’t fully understand this until we were committed on the Solahart system. It works well and we are happy with it, but the heat pump option would have been easier and less expensive and if we had to do it over, we would probably go that route.
  • The control panel shows us the level of charge at any time we wish to check.

    The control panel shows us the level of charge at any time we wish to check.

    We simply have no maintenance requirements with the saltwater batteries. Checking the battery storage level daily is reassuring, but is not really necessary for the system performs as promised. RES, a family-owned business in Honokaa, has been our contractor and their installation work went very well and it all works as expected.


Certainly, there will be lessons to be learned over time. Aquion batteries are sealed, require no maintenance and should last 20 to 30 years, but time will tell. This is technology available only in the last few years so we

A Solahart 80 gallon collector heats and stores water for our home.

A Solahart 80 gallon collector heats and stores water for our home.

took the risk of seeing how long these batteries will last, having only the manufacturer’s projections.


The tax credit incentives provided by the federal government and most state governments are “window in time” opportunities. Eventually the window will close and those incentives will disappear, but they are making affordable solar energy systems a great bargain in most situations. If you haven’t looked into the costs and potential return on investment, now is the time to take a look. The sun will always be shining for you but you have to have the right system to take advantage of it for your home or business.


– Tim Merriman


Festival of 1000 Bowls

IMG_3105We recently stopped by the Cool Fusion: Festival of 1000 Bowls held by the Donkey Mill Art Center at Keauhou Shopping Center south of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, with only a little idea of what the 4-hour event held in store for us. It was lunchtime and a Somen Noodle lunch is part of the fun of this event highlighting local pottery.


For $20 in advance of the event or $25 at entry you may pick a pottery bowl from the specified tables to use that day and take home. A volunteer with an iPad and Square app stands by to let you use a credit card to pay. Then you can shop at the other tables with pottery items to purchase, listen to local musicians or the Innovations Youth Orchestra or join one of two lines for food.


IMG_3097Volunteers served up home-style Somen noodles or gluten-free rice noodles. We could add up to eight or nine items of choice including a variety of veggies, kelp, shitake mushrooms, wasabi and fresh ginger. Home-style soy-based soup finishes the dish. We milled around, enjoyed the noodles and went back for seconds. The price includes as many visits to the food table as you wish. For $15 you can buy a pottery sake cup and taste sake samples or you can enjoy iced Kona coffee and tea for free.


I like this approach to fundraising because it directly supports the mission of the organization. Pottery sales support local potters, many of whom learned the craft at the DMAC. The food honors the many Japanese-American coffee and macadamia nut farmers that live in this area. The entertainment is local and very much a part of the arts scene for the community.


IMG_3100 (1)Too often smaller organizations hold bake sales, car washes and rummage sales to raise funds. These do not usually match the organizational purpose or build a stronger image for the sponsor. When the fundraising event is programmatically aligned with the mission, it works at all levels to build brand. Repeating the event annually usually allows fine-tuning each year to improve profitability. This was the Ninth Annual Festival of 1000 Bowls and it seems to have growing support in the community, fun for residents and tourists alike.


Fundraising can be a tedious chore for nonprofit organizations. When events are both purposeful programs and successful in building revenue, everyone has a better time.


Tim Merriman


Six Good Reasons to Stop Displaying Taxidermy Animals

I recently visited a major natural history museum in a U.S. city and again wondered at the tradition of displaying dead animals as so-called “live mounts.” I say “so-called” because the animals do not look alive. They just look dead, and are often displayed in unnatural poses or scenes. I will not judge the wisdom of taxidermy mounts in the past, but I sure question their use now or in the future. Much has changed since they became a major part of any natural history exhibit. I think there are NSbisonclassroommany good reasons to phase them out everywhere, but here are six to think about.


  • Videography is widely available and shows any animal in its natural habitat, behaving normally. You learn little from a still scene with stuffed animals other than how the taxidermist feels the animal might have looked at one particular second in time.
  • Some young people see taxidermy animals and want their own trophy. Encouraging trophy hunting in a world with declining wildlife populations is a dubious choice. A camera captures a trophy shot or video of a living creature that is far more easily shared with others than a mounted specimen. Why would we not choose that option over killing an animal for anything less than our own survival?
  • Making a stuffed animal "touchable" usually results in degradation of the skin and fur with some danger from arsenic if its an older live mount.

    Making a stuffed animal “touchable” usually results in loss of fur with some danger from arsenic if its an older live mount.

    Many older live mounts were preserved with arsenic to discourage insect damage. Placing these specimens where the public can touch them to feel the fur is a bad idea. It transfers the arsenic to anyone who touches it and hastens the loss of fur on the specimen.

  • People who see a taxidermy mount often ask, “How did you obtain that?” You are faced with the opportunity to say it was found dead or tell the unflattering truth that it was shot or trapped to become a display. In either case the person asking will likely be wondering if your organization’s ethical position is one they want to support.
  • Even expertly mounted specimens do not always look like the live animal. It is not easy to precisely recreate its look when building a body from artificial materials. In some cases, specimens are placed out of context or in juxtaposition with other animals in a scenario that would be highly unlikely in nature, misrepresenting reality and negating any educational value that might be gained from the display.
  • Lions of Tsavo exhibit in Chicago, IL, at the Museum of Natural History.

    Lions of Tsavo exhibit in Chicago, IL, at the Museum of Natural History.

    Taxidermy mounts often show only a single example of a species and sometimes that example is the largest, the most unusual, or some other hyperbolic example instead of the average. The diversity of colors and shapes among that species may be bypassed. The man-eating lions of Tsavo National Park in Kenya were anomalies in lion behavior but display of them at a Chicago museum keeps this unique and frightening story alive instead of celebrating the important role that lions play in African savannahs, usually with very little danger to humans if we behave appropriately.


My views on this grew from observing people viewing taxidermy mounts at a state park visitor center in Illinois in 1972. I watched and listened as children approached them and asked questions of us. A few weeks into that job, I pulled all of them off display and moved toward photography and works of art to show examples of animals. I enjoyed not explaining how we came to be displaying dead animals at a place where we were charged with protecting living animals. I had inherited the exhibit from a previous manager, but could not ethically keep it in front of the public.


The media we choose to interpret natural history also tells people quite a lot about our ethics. Isn’t it time to take dead animals off display and share the amazing experiences of seeing them in nature?


– Tim Merriman




Encouraging a Community of Arts

Today we stopped by the Donkey Mill Art Center just south of Holualoa, Hawaii, and enjoyed a small but fascinating exhibit based on area artists taking the challenge of creating a unique work of art from one eight foot two by four, the most basic unit in wood home construction. The variety of results achieved by the artists inspired us.


By Kathleen Dunphry

By Kathleen Dumphry

I actually liked all of the pieces to varying degree. The burnt one to create charcoal to write on a graffiti panel, the carved birds and chameleon, the large colorful face, the sidewinder and the people figures were my favorites (my names for the examples, not the names provided by the artists). The Art Center invited the artists to participate in this year’s event, but may offer a more open event in the future that would allow anyone to submit a creative 2x4x8’ entry.


We have lived near Holualoa the past eight months while building a new home near Kealakekua Bay about fifteen miles further south. Holualoa is a charming heritage community that has seen good times and tough times over the last century and a half with the economic challenges of growing sugar cane, coffee and avocado on the rugged terrain of Hualalai, one of the five

Bus Stop by Kate and Will Jacobson.

Bus Stop by Kate and Will Jacobson.

volcanoes that make up the Big Island of Hawaii. But even before European and Asian farmers began larger scale production of those crops, the area comprised part of the ancient Kona Field System that Hawaiians used to raise breadfruit and other crops. In recent years Holualoa has become well known, not only for its exceptional Kona Coffee, but for the many artists and art shops in the two-block downtown area.


Started in 1994, Donkey Mill Art Center states their vision as”


We are a gathering place where people develop as creative, conscious and healthy human beings through art, education and experience.


Charcoal by April Matthews.

Charcoal by April Matthews.

They offer art education and experiences to people of all ages and abilities at the center, which is a beautifully restored part of the agricultural history of the community. Holualoa hosts a “community stroll” one Friday evening each month that keeps the varied creative businesses and cafes open later than usual to invite everyone to stop by and enjoy “pupus” (snacks), beverages and local music while celebrating the artistic creations of the community.


Several thoughts come to mind from looking at the important work of Donkey Mill Art Center.

  • Communities with an artistic vision create a very strong sense of place that brings people, stories, and ideas together to grow and embrace heritage.
  • A simple challenge like “make something creative from an 8 foot 2X4” can demonstrate the depth and power of creativity in any community.
  • Cultural heritage, agricultural identity and artistic endeavors create a beautiful community fabric of expression, a stronger identity.


Sidewinder by Ken Little.

Sidewinder by Ken Little.

Art centers are often seen in large metropolitan communities but this one in a small town makes the point that the arts help us identify our own sense of self and place and could be in any community. The creative 2x4x8 exhibit could be used by nature centers, zoos, aquariums, museums and parks as a way of bringing attention to recycling, reuse, biodiversity, and any number of other concepts. Creative expression is a great way to engage people of all ages and build a stronger community. Kudos to the Donkey Mill Art Center.


– Tim Merriman


Though Boys Throw Stones at Frogs in Sport

A very long time ago Bion of Borysthenes, (325-250 B.C.) wrote,


Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest.


This Greek slave, later a freedman turned philosopher, shared several ideas that get interpreted lots of ways and still resonate today. The boys throwing stones quote came to mind as I read the many Facebook posted stories about the Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil, the 13-year old male lion, in Zimbabwe. It died for no reason beyond the grownup greed of a dentist wanting a trophy.



National Geographic Society estimates that 100,000 elephants were poached in the past three years for their ivory. Yet some licenses were still sold in Zimbabwe to allow shooting of these incredible animals using the claim that it was necessary management, not just the big price claimed for a license.

Trophy hunters like the dentist rationalize their big kills of large predators and vulnerable but rare hoofed animals. It’s easy to rationalize if you are rich and the government allows your bad behaviors because you’ve paid for the right to take a life. A poor person shooting any animal on a preserve for food is simply labeled a poacher.


Here’s the problem with trophy hunting rationalizations. They’re just plain wrong. Some of the most common lies told in the name of excusing a completely unnecessary and undesirable behavior:


  • I removed an over-mature male from the population (big antlers), making room for younger healthy animals to grow up. What this really means is I removed a dominant, successful breeder. It’s kind of like a farmer saying I killed my best bull for meat instead of keeping it in the breeding herd. No farmer does this but wildlife agencies allow trophy hunting of the biggest and best breeders in wildlife populations because they want the fees, which brings us to the next misconception.
  • My big fee for hunting supports the local community and gives them jobs as guides, porters, food preparers and drivers. Photography safaris do this even more effectively because they leave the animals for others to see instead of putting a head on the wall. Also the big money for licenses and safaris goes mostly to large landowners, resort owners and sometimes to corrupt government officials. There are many more effective ways to help local communities around the world. Mountain gorilla tourism in Rwanda and Uganda shows the real power of non-consumptive tourism to help local communities and protect vulnerable wildlife populations. Every license fee includes a percentage back to local communities. Mountain gorilla populations have increased over fourfold in two decades due to the protections offered by non-consumptive tourism.
  • We are keeping the herd numbers controlled. If we really wanted to keep a herd or population of animals from overeating the food supply, we would return the appropriate predators to the area to do that job. Trophy hunters do not want old, sick and injured animals which are the ones targeted by natural predators.
  • We removed a dangerous predator to protect people. The only real predator of consequence for humans are other humans. Large, dangerous predators in natural areas play a key role in removal of prey from populations based on natural selection of sick, injured and unfit to survive animals.
  • We killed this animal to protect local villages from damage to their farms. All over the world, people are finding creative ways to live next to wildlife without having someone fly in from halfway around the world to kill animals to “help.” When outsiders take it upon themselves to solve a problem, there’s a good chance the animal killed is not even the one causing the problem. And if this is a real need, shouldn’t local people be involved in the decision and asked whether that kind of help is really needed?



Photographic safaris help people make a connection with the majestic large predators of the world, while protecting them and their habitats.

Trophy hunting has been a blind spot in wildlife management for many decades. Sport hunting is a big industry with powerful lobbies. Animals suffer incredible indignities and very real suffering as injured animals, shot by ego-junkies. Cecil was injured and tracked 40 hours before being killed. Surely there’s a more humane way to decorate a living room.


Aldo Leopold is often regarded as the “Father of Wildlife Management” for writing an early textbook on the subject. Over time he has become even better known more widely for his land ethic. He wrote,


The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land… In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.


Human greed trumps and perverts our understanding of ecological principles. The power of money and large egos have twisted our ethics on every front. We allow trophy hunting despite there being no basis for it in wildlife management that makes sense.


Bion of Borysthenes also is quoted,


The miser did not possess wealth, but was possessed by it.


A dentist who will pay $50,000 to kill a large animal for its head and the joy of killing cannot make that action make sense to anyone but another greedy trophy hunter. We need a real movement to change the decision-making in wildlife management toward practices that are more humane and sustainable. It’s a good time to get started. This lion died in earnest, but perhaps he will not have died in vain.


– Tim Merriman



Mass Media Ethics in Films and Videos

Early in my career I delivered snake programs with live snakes for people to touch or see at a state park. Each year my live snake show at the Illinois State Fair would draw four or five daily audiences of hundreds. I was trying to provide an alternate narrative to the misinformation about snakes delivered through movies, TV news reports and friends’ flawed stories, exaggerated over time. One of my examples from that time period, the 1970s:


Remember Tarzan movies with Johnnie Weismueller? Tarzan is walking through the African jungle, an Austalian cockatoo sings from the treetops, an American alligator yawns in the river nearby, a Central American jaguar growls from the underbrush and a South American boa constrictor falls 5,000 miles sideways from a tree landing right on Tarzan’s chest. The 200-pound man wrestles the 15-pound snake with only his bare hands and a 10-inch knife. Most of what we hear and see about snakes is just as bizarre and just as made-up as that scenario.


Movies back then employed stock footage from diverse sources to tell their stories. Accuracy and ethics were not discussed. But decades later, it seems little has changed, or has it? We expect movies based on fiction to present unbelievable events and we overlook things that are unrealistic since it’s supposed to be entertainment, but what if credible non-fiction videographers and storytellers do that same thing?


Animal Planet, National Geographic Explorer and Discovery channels provide cable programming on diverse nature and culture topics. From Shark Week to Rattlesnake Republic to Finding Bigfoot, these programs attempt to build an audience with seemingly real content. Are their producers concerned about accuracy, conservation issues and the ethical treatment of animals?


Chris Palmer is a successful wildlife videographer who teaches about his profession at American University. In a recent TED talk he spoke candidly about the ethical choices a filmmaker makes routinely. Much of what we have seen and enjoyed in video storytelling about wildlife is a blend of real footage shot in the wilds and staged shots that help tell the story. The public is usually disappointed when they find out that seemingly realistic views into the private lives of animals are often confections, not the amazing videography they seem to be.


Palmer points out that our very best cable channels about animals now tilt heavily towards overly dramatized dangers. Rattlesnake Republic on the Animal Planet follows four groups of rattlesnake hunters to varied setting for roundups that make a spectacle of animal cruelty. On another program, “researchers” seek the mythical creature, Bigfoot. Pseudoscience gets better ratings than real science and program executives give us what we want, not what we need. Chris Palmer ends his TED talk with his thoughts on what we might do to improve the situation. I urge you to listen to his talk and consider his ideas.


Nature centers, zoos, museums, aquariums and wildlife sanctuaries seem to be the logical alternative for people to learn about the real world and counter what they think they know from sensational but inaccurate and overdramatized cable shows. But it may be a challenge to draw people away from their videos and TVs to take part in activities based in the real world. How do you compete with and/or complement the virtual programming in your area?


– Tim Merriman




The Uncertain Future of Elephants

Earth’s largest land animals, elephants, have never been more threatened. Dozens, if not hundreds, of organizations and individuals are working on various tactics in hopes of turning the current very negative trend.


Sheldrick Wild Animal Trust allows daily visits to the orphaned elephants, a chance to tell the story of poaching and habitat destruction.

Sheldrick Wild Animal Trust allows daily visits to the orphaned elephants, a chance to tell the story of poaching and habitat destruction.

Since 1977 the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has been devoted to protecting elephants. Their Orphans Project is noted for rescuing, raising and rehabilitating elephants and rhinos for eventual release at Tsavo National Park. Tourists are moved by seeing orphaned baby elephants at Sheldrick Trust’s elephant orphanage in Kenya and they chip in to help by “adopting” an elephant or rhino, helping to pay the costs of raising these big babies. It’s hard to resist these youngsters and certainly, we didn’t even try to do so on our visit there, promptly adopting two elephants and one rhino for a two-year period.


Females have tusks so they are at risk with poachers. The little ones will only survive if their mothers do also.

Females have tusks so they are at risk with poachers. The little ones will only survive if their mothers do also.

Safaris take people out to see elephants in the wild, but too often people enjoy the safari experience without understanding the unseen threat of poachers that is one of the causes for so many elephant and rhino orphans. These highly engaged tourists could be donors if their guides would share the stories of how populations are declining and options for where to make contributions.


An old bull is nicknamed a "tusker." This identity reminds us that their tusks are so valuable that these mature animals are especially at risk.

An old bull is nicknamed a “tusker.” This identity reminds us that their tusks are so valuable that these mature animals are especially at risk.

Elephant orphanages and ecotours do not offer a panacea in the battle to save elephants. They are one piece of a complex puzzle that might build greater empathy among tourists for the plight faced by elephants. Better monitoring of populations is important to detect and interdict poachers. Research informs biologists how populations are changing. Enforcement officers must be on hand to catch poachers and get them prosecuted. Laws have to hold poachers and ivory buyers accountable. Sadly, the big money behind ivory poaching also contributes to corruption among government officials. Some are paid to look the other way and in many places this allows poaching to go unchecked.


Legitimate government and non-government organizational commitments to support habitat conservation, anti-poaching efforts, and education programs all require money and very often, that does not come unless there is broad understanding by people of the importance of the issues involved.


Most folks will never take a safari or see baby elephants in an orphanage. The zoo or a television program provides their one chance to learn about the plight of elephants in the wild. Can you imagine telling your grandchildren one day of the majestic herds of elephants that once roamed the forests and savannahs of Asia and Africa that have been wiped out? Although keeping such a large, social animal in a zoo is certainly controversial, we need opportunities to tell the elephants’ stories skillfully. Many zoos, even some without captive elephants, do that quite well. Some also take donations to protect habitat, hire rangers and guard remaining wild populations.


We live in a time when our knowledge of environmental threats has never been greater. And yet our political will and tools to protect elephants may not be adequate to the challenge. About 400,000 African elephants remain in nature with more than 35,000 being killed each year. About 40,000 Asian elephants live in their greatly diminished range. And the current rate of killing could reduce this noble animal to near extinction in a dozen more years at this level of poaching.


I think it has been shown over and over that we need ecosystems approaches to how we deal with the world’s environmental problems. Thoughtful policy, law enforcement, habitat protection, monitoring and interpretation each play a vital role. Some agencies and organizations choose one or two of these tools in preference to using all of them, but a balanced approach is needed overall. Strategic partnerships are vital in getting organizations working together to save the world’s elephants. Individuals can simply reject the purchase or display of anything made of ivory and help advocate for better support for elephant conservation.


World Elephant Day approaches on August 12th and it’s a chance for people from all over the world to speak up about the threat to elephants and the need for diverse approaches to protecting them. A balanced approach is needed if elephants are to be saved as keystone species in their natural ranges.


– Tim Merriman


Only elephants should wear ivory.