Saturday, January 16, 2010

The weather outside is frightful but the fire is so delightful. Or maybe it is my new geothermal heat pump.

Last August when I returned from the weekend at Middleton I noticed that Abner started blowing his summer coat about 6 weeks earlier than he had ever done and wondered initially what that was about. Ultimately when it continued at its normal hairy pace I speculated that we would have either an early or cold winter, or both. Turns out that is exactly what we are having.

Earlier this past fall Amy Musser filled me in on the perks being offered to people who install geothermal heating and cooling systems in their homes and I decided to explore doing it at my new house even though I had promised myself that I wouldn’t spend any more money on the place until I had lived here for at least a year. So much for that promise. Between the State of North Carolina’s 35% tax credit, the IRS’s 30% credit, and a $300 cash rebate from Progress Energy, our electricity provider, and finding out from the previous owners of my house that the existing heat pump was already 14 years old and nearing the end of its predicted lifespan, I decided I needed to look into having one installed.

There are two companies in Asheville that have been doing these systems for several years and I felt had enough experience to trust them. Bullman Heating and Air had bid a geothermal system for me when I was planning on building up on Elk Mountain Ridge and I think the guy who handles their geothermal projects knows his stuff, but their communication, or more to the point, lack of it was so appalling that I decided to talk to their competition instead.

Gentry Heating is an established Asheville company currently being run by Duane Gentry, the second generation of his family to do so. So I called and made an appointment with Duane to talk about the possibilities here. Duane came well prepared for talking to a prospective client but I suspect was not ready for me. He had all the ammunition to sell me on the idea but since I had already had the experience of putting these things into client’s houses in California I told him he was preaching to the choir.

In fairly short order I had a proposal from him and went ahead and scheduled the installation. We were originally planning to start drilling the bores the week before Thanksgiving but due to a delay at the drilling company we missed the first two days of that week. At that point Duane felt that starting would run the risk of running into the holiday leaving me potentially with no heat for several days, so we postponed to the Monday after. As it turned out, that wasn’t the best plan. No sooner did they start the drilling process than a series of days of rain ensued. Because of saturation of the soil, and the continuing rain, the drilling process ended up taking almost a whole week. Not only that, but at a depth of about 80 feet (out of 225) the drillers hit granite. Consequently, the first of the two silt fences they set up to prevent the water and sludge from cascading down my hilly front yard failed to hold once there was about a foot or so of grey mud completely saturated and piled up behind the fabric. The short version of this was that for two weeks my front yard, side yard, and driveway were a horrible mud pit. Amazingly, once all the drilling and trenching was complete, it took Gentry only about three days to get the whole system up and running and at no point did I have to spend a night without functioning heat.

Good thing too. Shortly after the system went online the weather turned to full on winter. On December 18th, after almost 5 years in Asheville, I finally got to see some snow. . .real snow. The snow had started modestly Thursday night but started falling in earnest early on Friday. Abner and I went out for a walk in it in the late morning when the depth was around 6 inches. It was a riot. This was the first time Abner has been in snow like this since we left California and I doubt that he remembered the experiences there since he was so young. He loved it. Between the feel of it and his ability to lick and eat it, he was jumping around and excited like a puppy. At the end of my street is the main street that runs through the neighborhood and it is a pretty substantial down slope from where we are on the ridge. Neighborhood kids and quite a few parents had gathered on the street, which had become pretty much unusable for cars. There were a couple dozen people sledding, skiing and generally playing around in it. Dogs were running after sleds or in some cases, riding on them in laps of hysterically laughing children and adults. Abner loved the pandemonium. We walked for about 45 minutes and at several times the snow was falling so heavily that he had to shake substantial amounts off his coat.

It continued all day and well into the night, and by the time it stopped, I had 14 inches on my back deck and pretty much all around me. There had been no wind so everything had a perfect frosting of heavy snow, and I do mean heavy. Not only was it 14 inches deep (and more so in some other spots) but it also had 80% more water in it than typical snow according to the Weather Service. This became quite significant over Friday night and Saturday morning.

We got up on Saturday to assess the situation and made several discoveries. My cable TV, Internet, and phone service, all of which come from Charter Communications, had gone down on Friday night around 11:00 and were still not working. I also couldn’t get any signal from WCQS, our local NPR affiliate. With no source of weather information, I decided the best thing to do was to go out and walk around just to see how things looked. As we tromped through the deep unmarked snow in my driveway Abner realized that at this depth it wasn’t quite as much fun. It took him awhile to figure out the best way to walk in it and eventually he decided that following footprints and ruts cars had made was the best plan. He also was beside himself deciding where to pee since all his normal marking spots were buried under the deep snow.

Less than ¼ mile from my house we encountered a man driving a snowplow (our neighborhood has private streets and has a contract with a plow service that was really on the ball) from whom I obtained good information about conditions outside our little area. In a word, things were a mess. He said none of the streets had been plowed other than private ones like ours. I guess the freeway was pretty decent but none of the roads leading to it had even begun to be cleaned up. The weight of the snow had broken branches or completely toppled thousands of trees, which resulted in impassable roads and massive power and communication outages. At one point the news reports said 167,000 households in our region were without power and more 70,000 of those were in Buncombe County. As we spoke, I was beginning to be thankful that the only thing I was missing was communication services.

He also told me that it took him 2 hours to get from The Ramble, which he plowed before coming to our area, when it would normally take about 8 to 10 minutes. The roads were, in short, a mess.

So we finished our brief walk and went home thinking that we would hunker down for the day and wait for things to get cleaned up a bit.

As the day progressed I kept seeing cars coming and going at the end of the street. . .not in large numbers, but there were people going in and out, so I decided to see what I could do. Now I should point out that for the first time since 1995 I don’t have a car with 4-wheel or all-wheel drive. My Toyota Highlander does have front drive and is a fairly heavy car so I was in better shape than people with lighter rear-drive vehicles, but still I knew I was going to have to take it easy.

Since our streets were clean there was no drama getting out to the main road. It too was remarkably easy to negotiate since a number of other cars and trucks had already driven down the hill and established paths. It got a little dicey toward the bottom of Avondale Road where there were three downed trees. The maintenance crews had only removed enough of the trees for one lane of traffic to get through and the snow was wet and slippery so it was pretty exciting getting down to the traffic light at Charlotte Highway. Once there though, it was surprisingly easy going. I headed into downtown on I-240, which was still pretty snowy but could drive 45 mph or so without any trouble. There were very few cars on the road and visibility was good.

I ran my errands downtown as quickly as I could, and got into the car to head back home since it was snowing again and I was in no mood to get stuck at the bottom of my hill. That was my adventure out.

We went out again on Sunday and found things were a bit better but still pretty quiet outside. I did take Abner to Biltmore and was shocked to see how much damage there was from the storm and how little of the estate we could get to. Our walk was very abbreviated. We could barely make it around the Bass Pond. The snow was deep and crusty since it had melted slightly the day before and then froze overnight. Abner had a terrible time negotiating the crust. At first he thought he could walk on it and then he would break through the surface and find himself in snow most of the way up his legs.

By Monday though, things were getting close to normal. My cable etal. had come back on by 5:00PM on Saturday and we never did lose power. Most of the people I knew whose power had gone out had it back by Monday night. The week of Christmas was a bit warmer so a lot of the snow melted resulting in some flooding at Biltmore and a whole lot of water in all the creeks and rivers. So there was a white Christmas here but it was mostly leftover bits and pieces from the weekend before.
Still, with the freeze thaw cycle, the snow had become very crusty. On the Sunday after Christmas, Bruce, Nora, Madeline, Abner and I went hiking on a stretch of the parkway that had been closed due to downed trees and Abner was actually able to walk on top of the crusty snow without breaking through. Pretty impressive for a dog who weighs just shy of 100 pounds.

No sooner than we had gotten past the big snow of 2009 (not the all time record for depth but tied for second. . .in 1993 there was a blizzard here that brought over 20 inches!) than the weather changed again and it got really cold. With few breaks it has been bitterly cold here since a couple days before New Years. Today, for example, the prediction is for a high temperature of 19 with wind. This is very very cold for Asheville in January. Normal temps at this time of year would be in the high 40s or low 50s. Consequently, I am really enjoying my new geothermal system. While other people are either cold because their systems cannot keep up with this weather, or they are watching their gas and/or electric bills go through the roof, I am cozy and warm with my geothermal system. I won’t really know for awhile how much money it will save me in heating bills because I think I need several months bills and I will have to compare them with people whose houses are heated by conventional means, but I suspect that it will be a substantial savings.

And so, we are now in the quiet time of winter in Asheville. The bulk of the tourist traffic has disappeared for a few months. One can actually hope to get into good restaurants at a decent hour for dinner. Downtown strolls are more like that. . .strolls as opposed to slaloms. The skies are blue most days and the sun shines. Row upon row of the Blue Ridge Mountains are visible from many spots that we habituate and everyone here seems ready to slow down for a couple months. The most significant thing I am trying to do is to sell one of my rental houses. Aside from that, Abner and I are hunkered down for another winter of quiet joyful walks at Biltmore and the Arboretum and casual visits with local friends.

In a week we will have been here for 5 years and it seems like a good time to reflect on this great experiment. When I decided to leave my architectural practice and 33 years of life behind me to try something new, it seemed to most of my friends and acquaintances to be a rash act. Some told me they thought it was courageous, but most, I suspect, thought I was nuts. I had been something of a workaholic. I had spent so much of my adult life being an architect that my profession and my work had largely become who I thought I was. But a perfect storm of conditions occurred to force me to realize that I wasn’t happy. It culminated in a visit from a former friend. I hadn’t seen this woman in more than three years but she showed up at my house in Sacramento one night unannounced and came in for a brief visit of about 45 minutes. The conversation, I realized the following day, was a virtual duplicate of dozens if not hundreds we had had over the decades I had known her. In spite of more than three years having elapsed, nothing had changed. She was still complaining about the same disappointing aspects of her life that I had heard her bemoan for almost the entire time I had known her.

It made me realize that if I didn’t do something about my own dissatisfaction in my life, I ran the risk of becoming just like her. I didn’t want to become one of those people who do nothing but complain about the same things year after year to an ever-decreasing circle of people willing to listen. I came to the conclusion that staying where I was doing what I was doing was a guarantee that things wouldn’t change and as such, couldn’t get better. At least if I ventured out of my safe little box I had a 50-50 chance of finding a happier life. It seemed like a good risk.

What I have learned is that these transitions aren’t as hard as we think they are going to be. Part of the reason they are easier than we expect is simply the intense stimulation we get from exploring the unknown. When you go through a life week after week that is completely familiar to you, it is a lot easier to be unhappy about things. When everything is new, you actually have so much to deal with that you tend to focus less on the disappointing elements of your life. It would be absurd to say that there aren’t imperfections in my new life, but the great things that have happened, at least 5 years into this, certainly outweigh them.

Another reason that this move has been easier than I had expected is that it is surprisingly easy to meet new people if you are willing to. What I have found is that most people are basically pretty nice. Some are going to be more interesting than others. Some will be a better fit for your personality than others, but on balance, the locals tend to be pretty kind to newcomers. Here I get the occasional remarks about Yankees or Californians but even that is usually said in fun. Given a chance, most people will treat you pretty decently. One recommendation for people moving to a place where they know nary a soul. . .get a remarkable dog. It has been a real shock to me how many people want to meet and learn about Abner. Without exaggeration, I have to think that at least half the people I have met, I probably never would have were it not for my big furry friend.

The biggest lesson that I have learned though, is one it seems like I have to learn every few years. My fear of the unknown or of failure is always far more serious and scary than the actual consequences of taking on the unknown or failing. I am really glad I came to Asheville when I did. There are a lot of people in Sacramento I miss and still think fondly of, but my life is so much better because of my self inflicting boot in the ass 5 years ago that I have no regrets whatsoever about having come here. After 5 years I feel like I am a part of this community now. I am comfy in my new house. I look out on spectacular natural beauty everywhere I go here, and I have put together a life that allows me the luxury of noticing the world around me to which I was largely oblivious when I was working.

My postings to this blog are very personal. They aren’t meant to imply that doing what I did will work for everyone and absolutely not that Asheville would be the magic place for everyone that it has been for me.

Writing this blog has been a surprise. I have found that most of the people I thought I was writing for don’t read it but there is a whole population whom I will probably never meet who do read it. I have been sent very flattering emails from strangers telling me how much they enjoy reading my ramblings, and others who hide behind pseudonyms at other blogs have ridiculed me. This is the risk one takes when embracing the public nature of blogs. These journals are no longer personal letters to my old friends. They are simply stories of what my life has become and they are out there for whoever wants to read them. I will probably continue to post to this blog as sporadically as I have for the last year or so. I hope those of you who read it on a regular basis still find it interesting. For me, it forces me to pay attention about once every month or two to what I have been doing with my life and how I have interacted with the world around me. I think that is a good thing.
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Fall was very pretty this year although perhaps not as dramatic as in some of the previous ones. We did get a few deliciously warm days and on one of them, my friend Ken Ettermen and his exuberant dog Maggie joined Abner and me for a hike on the Parkway. This particular stretch of the road was closed due to a very large rock slide so we got to walk it in peace.

I find that nature sometimes does the most amazing things. The delicacy of these rain drops all dangling so precariously from these pine needles really struck me as something tiny and perfect that I never used to notice. It continues to surprise me that I notice so many things I used to miss when my head was too full of work related thoughts and my time eaten up by activities that didn't bring me joy. Things are certainly better now.
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These pictures are of our house at the beginning of the big snow. Sorry about all the blobs of snow on my camera lens on the top shot, but it was really snowing like crazy that Friday morning.

Late Fall at Biltmore was, as usual, serenely beautiful. Even when all the trees are skeletal there is a kind of barren beauty to them. We are so lucky to get to enjoy this place so often.
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The deep snow was very impressive and actually quite beautiful around our house. Venturing out to other areas I found that it was actually quite devestating. Thousands of trees fell over or lost huge branches. More than 100,000 people were without power for days.

The deck looked surreal the night of the 18th. The view below was early on the 18th looking out my bedroom window down to Abner's yard.
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This huge predator has been hanging out on this same branch three times when I have been up by the Inn on Biltmore Estate. He looks like he is well fed. Below is a shot of the top of the Deerpark trail about a week after the big snow.

These views from my house were the morning after the big snow. Above is from the front looking down the hill to one of the neighbors' houses and the shot below is of my back deck. The snow on the tables measured 14 inches at its greatest.
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