From the monthly archives:

June 2011

Grow tents provide the perfect controlled environment for indoor and outdoor settings alike. They are, in effect, portable greenhouses that give the grower precise control over the humidity, ventilation, light and temperature or any give flowers, herbs and plants. The come in sizes small enough to fit in a closet or large enough to repurpose a spare room as an ad hoc garden, making them ideal for the urban grower.

Physical Features

Conventional grow tents, on the smaller end, are usually around two feet deep by four feet wide and five feet high. On the larger end, tents can be four feet deep, eight feet wide and seven feet high. Most tents are framed with steel tubing and enveloped with a black canvas exterior, though there are occasional variations in the color and material. The canvas can open in the front or the sides—or both, depending on the design—and are usually closed with zippers. The sides of the canvas will feature one or more cuff-like ports for adding accessories like exhaust fans and filters. Most frames are made with cross members that snap into place, so only minimal assembly is required.

An HID grow light usually illuminates the inside of the grow tent. The interior of the canvas is most often lined with Mylar or a similar reflective surface. Mylar is preferred, since it offers up to 95% reflectivity, and since HIDs are less efficient than LED grow lights, it’s important to preserve as much of the light as possible. The taller the tent, the more plant trays it can accommodate.

Key Advantages

Grow tents (sometimes called grow boxes) are heat resistant, which can protect their contents from hot climates but also from drops in internal temperature. The temperature inside the tent can be regulated with ventilation, or by simply opening or closing the sides at strategic times. In an outdoor setting, for instance, the sides can be opened during the daytime; and just before the temperature drops at night, the sides can be closed. Many grow tents feature brackets near their ports for mounting an exhaust fan, which can be set to a timer if desired.

A grow tent also offers fantastic protection against pests and mold. A common pest indoors is the spider mite. Spider mites can wreak havoc while going unnoticed by growers, since they’re too small to be easily visible without magnification. Since spider mites thrive in hotter climates—70 degrees and up—their infestation inside a grow tent can be discouraged by keeping the internal temperature down to around 60 degrees. By keeping the humidity level inside the grow tent at or below 50%, and maintaining sufficient light, the tent can significantly prevent the growth of mold, particularly bud mold (also known as gray mold) that can be a serious thread to plants. Dehumidifiers and fans can also keep mold growth in check.

Beware of Plasticides

One of the biggest controversies in the recent past of grow tents is offgassing from plants from linings with plasticides like PVC and polyurethane. Offgassing (also known as outgassing) is the release of potentially toxic chemicals from plastics and volatile organic compounds. The “new car smell” is an example of offgassing whose danger is mitigated by ample ventilation and the low dose inhaled by drivers, but small plants trapped in tightly closed quarters are prone to whitening of the leaves and thinning of the branches.

It used to be common to find grow tents with a white plastic inner lining, but these tents have almost all be recalled or replaced with reflective Mylar interiors, which have the added advantage of being 30% more reflective. Despite the fact that white plastic lined tents are largely out of production, it’s not uncommon to see used models for sale through online auction sites and resellers stuck with old inventory, so be on guard for these units.

The Grow Tent Is Ideal for Home Growers

In the past, many residents of smaller homes and apartments would insist that they lacked the space or the climate to grow anything substantial, but grow tents are perfect for germinating seeds and growing flowers, plants and herbs in the city, in cold regions, or just about any other conditions. With only a few square feet of space, homeowners and apartment dwellers can now try their hand at becoming a grower.

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There was a time when LED lights were completely unsuited for use with plant. Early light-emitting diodes only produced either solid red or solid blue light. Homeowners who wanted to grow flowers, cooking herbs and vegetables indoors had to use other technologies that still remain more popular than LEDs: high-pressure sodium (HPS), metal halide (MH), high-intensity discharge (HID) or compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. Now that LEDs can cover a wider range of light bands (from three-band up to full-spectrum), many growers are discovering their advantages over other types of lighting.

Ironically, while LEDs did need to evolve from single-color bulbs, they don’t need to cover many light bands for to facilitate plant growth. It’s commonly assumed that plants need full-spectrum lighting because that’s what they get from the sun. But sunlight is so abundant that it doesn’t have to be efficient. Most plants only need the red, orange and blue parts of the spectrum to flourish. Experts generally consider triband LEDs to be optimal for plant growth.

LED grow lights specialize in providing the narrow light spectrum of Photosynthetically Active Radiation (PAR). A high PAR output matters more than a high overall lumen output. Up to 90% of the light emitted by an LED grow light can be used by plants for photosynthesis, compared to only 15% of the light emitted by an HID or CFL bulb. The light produced by LED grow lights are less impressive to the human eye, since we key on lumens of green and yellow more acutely than red, but red is what chlorophyll “sees” and needs.

This spectrum efficiency greatly contributes to the LED grow lights’ energy efficiency. LED lights consume 40% to 75% less electricity than HPS or MH lights for the same yield. A 120 watt LED system can outperform a 600 watt HID system while having hundreds of dollars a year. The greater efficiency of LED grow lights can be seen most clearly in their much greater lifespan. While HPS bulbs for grow lights typically get around 5,000 hours of use before burning out, LED bulbs get anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 hours.

LED grow lights plug directly into standard household outlets without the need for a ballast to regulate the current. They also run much cooler than HPS and MH lights, and often require no additional heat removal system (though some models do feature built-in cooling fans). There’s no need to worry about raised humidity levels or burned out leaves. Most importantly, LEDs don’t burn themselves out from constant use. If you looking for higher performance and lower maintenance, consider an LED grow light.

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Walk in shower enclosures are essentially two or more walls surrounding a shower head and little or no ledge at the base. Having to reach one’s legs over a leg to begin showering might seem like a minor impediment, but it’s still an irritation that should be avoided in luxury bathrooms. Moreover, walk in shower enclosures are more than a mere luxury to the infirm or disabled. A relatively high ledge represents a serious accessibility issue and a major trip hazard. Aesthetically, a walk in shower enclosure is also better suited for displaying any custom tiles or fixtures that accentuate the look of the bathroom.

For comfort and safety, walk in shower designs should be at least 36″ in one side. A conventional enclosure square enclosure for corner mounting in tight spaces is 36″ x 36″, while a rectangular enclosure will probably run 30″ x 46″. Other common widths are 32″, 48″ and 60″, while common heights are 59″ and 72″, though some go as high as 96″.

These spaces can be enclosed with framed or increasingly popular frameless shower doors, which are available in rectangular, curved and square configurations. Some have a “neo-angle” outline, which is basically means that the base is a quarter cross-section of a hexagon, and the enclosure will consist of three vertical panels assembled at 45-degree angles.

The most coveted material for walk in shower enclosures is tempered glass—clear glass being more popular than frosted. Frosted glass provides additional privacy for bathrooms with more than one user at a time. Fiberglass and acrylic models are the cheapest, but they tend to be the least elegant—particularly fiberglass units. However, if the homeowner’s priority is accessibility rather than aesthetics, fiberglass is quite acceptable. Prices on the low end are between $300 and $600, but depending on options (e.g. the materials used for fixtures, the amount of finishing needed for custom installations), luxury walk in enclosures can range between $1200 and $1800.

Single-piece enclosures may not be practical for installations in existing bathroom constructions, as maneuverability may be limited. Multi-piece walls for more conducive to transporting up staircases and through existing bathroom spaces, and they’re easier to assemble in place. You may wish to consider replacing the shower base along with the rest of the enclosure to optimize drainage.

Many homeowners who love tile on their walls regret using tile for the shower floor due to its higher maintenance and hard texture. Shower bases (also known as shower pans) are a much more low-maintenance option, better contoured for drainage and free or porous materials that get waterlogged. Adding a walk in shower enclosure is the best time to reexamine all of the wall materials, floor materials and fixtures for possible upgrading.

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Frameless shower doors and shower screens have been popular in Europe for many years, but they’re only beginning to catch on in the United States. Traditionally, showers have been enclosed by curtains, swinging doors and sliding doors, but a modern shower screen that’s essentially a large plate of glass that only partially spans the length of the bathtub or shower stall is often much more appealing, both aesthetically and functionally. Let’s look at some of the options available.

Since the main purpose of any shower enclosure is to contain water spray, a frameless shower door uses the least amount of hardware necessary to do the job. These doors and screens come in frameless and semi-frameless versions. A frameless shower screen, which typically weighs between 55 and 80 lbs., is entirely supported by a pair of wall mounted hinged screwed into the wall though some use continuous hinges or other types of fixtures.

Ideally, there should be a stud behind the tiled wall for optimum support. With or without stud reinforcement, drilling into tile without cracking it is precision work. For the sake of the wall and the glass, you should seriously consider hiring a contractor to install glass shower door hardware for you unless you’re already a home improvement enthusiast.

In addition to wall hinges, semi-frameless shower screen has support from a continuous hinge that runs along the ledge of the tub. Instead of using hinges, some shower screens are affixed with aquarium corners sealed with clear water silicone. Shower screens and wet room screens are also easier to clean. There are no tracks to rust or collect water, soap scum or mold.

Frameless shower doors and screens are made of tempered glass (heat treated for shatter resistance) and range from 50″ to 72″ high, 28″ to 32″ wide and 3/8″ to 5/8″ thick in many models. Frosted, tinted and etched variations are available, but most showerscreens are clear by design making them virtually invisible. With their clear screens and lack of pronounced metal outlines, frameless glass shower enclosures give the entire bathroom a more spacious ambiance.

These screens and doors are ideal for showcasing the tile on the other side, and from the inside, the person showers gets additional light that reduces or eliminates the need for an overhead light. Hinges and doorknobs are usually made of chrome or brushed aluminum, but other popular options are brass and pewter—you can almost always find frameless shower door hardware to your existing bathroom fixtures.

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While there are hundreds of solar panel manufacturers to choose from, there are only a few brands that are exceptionally popular with homeowners. Most of the solar power market is business-to-business, since manufacturers know that for regulatory or public images reasons, the demand for commercial solar panels is far greater than residential panels. Homeowners looking for the advantages of solar panels on a residential scale often find comparison shopping a confusing experience.

A typical mini solar panel for home use consists of any array of solar cells that deliver between 150 and 240 watts in a unit priced between $500 and $1500 plus shipping. Unfortunately, getting exact prices online is not recommended for inexperienced shoppers. The exact same panel will differ in price by hundreds of dollars. Often, reading the fine print will reveal that these panels are only sold in bulk, and that that price shown is wholesale.

In addition to a solar panel, the homeowner will need to purchase in inverter, which converts the panel’s DC output to the AC power used by the house. The benefits of solar panels can extend around the clock with batteries. To keep the supply of power constant during low light or nighttime conditions, panels can feed their power into one or more 24v batteries. The number of panels needed for a particular house will depend on the size and energy requirements of that house, so homeowners are highly encouraged to contact a professional domestic solar panel installer instead of attempting to estimate the energy requirements themselves.

There are three main types of silicon wafers used in domestic solar panels: monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin film. Most panels for residential use are comprised of polycrystalline silicon wafers. The most popular types of home solar systems are grid tie systems (also known as grid-tied, grid-connected or on-grid), which are connected to the public electrical utility grid, and can route any excess power back to the utility for credit by way of net-metering.

The Top 4 Solar Power Manufacturers

Based on extensive customer feedback, here are the best solar panel manufacturers that make units for home use.

Suntech. Founded in 2001 in China, Suntech has become the world’s preeminent manufacturer of residential and light commercial solar panels. Their most popular panel, the STP180-24/Ab-1, outputs 180 watts at 35.6 volts. The MSRP is $1046.00 per panel, but many online resellers offer them for as low as $800. With this and the other panels that follow, it definitely pays to comparison shop thoroughly.

BP. It may seem odd for an oil company espouse solar energy benefits. But even if some cynics question their motivations, no one argues that BP makes second-class panels. The BP 175B is the latest follow-up to their extremely popular SX 170B panel, upgrading from the original 170-watt/24-volt output to the current 175-watt/24-volt specification. Online reseller prices less frequently cited for this unit (most sites ask you to call), but a couple of sources show that this panel can be purchased for around $600. The company also makes EnergyTile roof shingles, whose design mimics the shape of flat concrete roof tiles. Check with a BP-partnered retailer, like Home Depot.

Kyocera. Formed in 1959 as a ceramics company in Kyoto, Japan, this manufacturer eventually branched out to telecommunications and office electronics before moving into the solar energy space. The Kyocera KD-205-GX-LP is the company’s most popular solar panel for households, delivering 205 watts at 26.6 volts. The MSRP is $530, but it’s fairly easy to find online resellers offering it for under $500. As always, make sure that an individual unit can be purchased for the listed price, as many prices are for volume purchases.

Evergreen Solar. Like Suntech, Evergreen Solar core competency is solar panels, but with their own unique technology. The company’s proprietary Solar Ribbon panels are comprised of wafers that are manufactured by stretching molten silicon between two parallel high-temperature filaments, rather than die cast and cut like traditional wafers. Their main panel in North America, the ES-A-201-fa3, is compliant with both U.S. and Canadian UL standards, outputting 210 watts at 12 volts. The MSRP is $940, but online resellers list them for as low as $550.

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