Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Predicting the Weather, National Weather Service

usbackroads information-predicting the weather, National Weather Service

Those of us that have held outdoor jobs become obsessive about weather predictions.  The weather determines if a day working in the woods is a joy, or a miserable cold and wet slog through the forest.   If the forecast is wrong and you forget to bring the rain gear that cold and wet day can also get dangerous due to hypothermia or wearing the wrong boots.

An easy way to tell if someone is an outdoors person is to ask them about the current weather forecast.   They will know.  It is something you never get out of system.  While I was working in the woods we listened to the radio every morning.  No, not for the news but for the weather forecast.  Sometimes, we even waited for the forecast before going to work.  In the Forest Service, the break was always taken around the 10:00 am fire and weather forecast if we were carrying radio's.  Clearly, it becomes an obsession that one never sheds.

I will get my biases out up front.  I like weathermen.  Somewhere, in the 80's the Forest Service discovered that having a weatherman assigned to a Incident Command Team (Fire Teams in those days) was a good idea.  Fire behavior is obviously influenced by the weather.   The twins on a ICT are always the fire behavior analyst and the weatherman.  The weatherman provides "spot" weather forecasts for very specific areas on the fire in some cases.  Yes, those weathermen are supplied by the National Weather Service.

In my humble opinion, the public perception of science is colored by astronomy and physics.  For much of the public that is SCIENCE.  Rigid laws of science and theories that must be tested.   I suppose that the natural world in the end operates on "rigid laws of science", but we know so little about how the natural world functions.

My professional Forestry education provided scientific information on what we KNEW about the natural world, but more importantly we also learned how little we really knew.  So that was the reason for those statistics classes!!  Back to probabilities.  No wonder I have always liked weathermen.

With the internet you now have access to a wealth of weather information provided by the National Weather Service.  So lets start on how you can be better informed on the weather.

Here is the link to the standard National Weather Service Forecast.  Notice is gives you the forecast for the next week, complete with probabilities of rain.  Current conditions and just below that radar and satellite images.  And then down below additional forecasts and information.  Additional forecasts??  Is the weather service NOT telling the complete story??

The Forecast.  Here is the forecast for today as I write this blog:

Today: A slight chance of rain and snow showers. Partly sunny, with a high near 49. Breezy, with a west wind between 20 and 22 mph, with gusts as high as 26 mph. Chance of precipitation is 20%.

That is their best prediction (guess, for you cynics) of what will happen.  I read the forecast, and here in the northwest tend to discount the three day plus prediction.  Not throw it away, discount.  It is subject to change that far out.  I also look at the satellite photos to see what is out there in the north Pacific and headed my way.

It goes on for several paragraphs.  Here is a copy of the partial discussion for the weather forecast above.


Today`s weather will be dominated by the approach and passage of a
strong cold occluded front. At 2am this front appears to run north
to south along the Cascades...and models appear to be handling
the timing and location plausibly. The front is expected to
quickly move across the forecast area this morning and well into
Montana by mid afternoon. Thus...the forecast today will be
characterized by a wet...breezy and mild pre-frontal regime this
morning...followed by a raw...windy...gusty and showery post-
frontal afternoon regime. Model soundings suggest this afternoon`s
air mass will resemble Sunday afternoon`s unstable
sounding...which features an active snow and graupel shower regime
featuring isolated thunderstorms. Today`s best convective threat
will be over the northern tier zones and orographically favorable
panhandle mountains...but just about anywhere in the forecast area
will be subject to at least a brief snow or snow/rain mix shower
this afternoon as the cold cusp of the upper level trough transits
the region after the morning frontal passage. Local minor to
moderate snow accumulations are possible under any organized
shower complexes...but forecasting the location of this sub-
synoptic threat is currently beyond the state of the science...and
if it occurs at all will likely be highly localized.

Winter highlights have been removed from the western zones where
the threat of steady pre-frontal snow has largely ended. Winter
Storm warnings will continue for the mountains above 3000 feet in
the northeast Washington and north Idaho panhandle mountains until
the anticipated frontal passage around 18z(11am) today.

the winds will be another significant issue to deal with today.
pre-front southerly gusty winds will veer to southwest and
increase in the wake of the front as a tight gradient forms
feeding into lee side Rockies cyclogenesis and strong cold
advection spills over the Cascades and breaks into the basin.
The gradient winds does not appear too much beyond generally
breezy to low end windy...however gust potential in the well mixed
air mass this afternoon may easily approach 40+ mph on exposed
terrain...especially if assisted by convective downdrafts. Wind
Advisories for much of the area inherited from previous shifts
will remain in effect today. This well mixed air mass will play
havoc with high temperature forecasting...with some locations
achieving maximum temperatures during the morning in the warm
advection ahead of the front...then remaining steady or falling
during the afternoon. Other locations will be influenced buy
strong adiabatic mixing from aloft during the afternoon and may
experience spikes up into the upper 40s or 50s even during the
cold advective phase in the afternoon. Needless to say...today`s
high temperature forecasts at any particular location are rather
low confidence.

Tonight things will quiet down with a between-systems weak upper
level short wave ridge and a moderating surface pressure gradient.
Still the flow regime continues to be moist and progressive...so
while the valleys and basin will be generally quiet and
cool...mountains and the panhandle will experience lingering
overnight snow showers.

Well, that little simple two line weather forecast with a slight chance of rain is much more complicated in the forecast discussion.  What appears to be a fairly run-of-the-mill forecast is actually an active weather day if your working outside.  Wet in the morning and very windy in the afternoon.  If I plan on fishing in my float tube I will take the rain in the morning over the wind in the afternoon.

When the forecast is iffy, the forecast discussion section will give you the likely weather IF the forecast is wrong.  If the forecast is for cold rain, it is helpful to know if the odds favor snow or partly sunny skies.  You can find the  Forecast Discussion by looking at the box below the written day by day forecast.

Computer models.  The Weather Service uses them to help predict the weather.  And it is subject to interpretation.  However, when ALL the computer models line up the odds are that the forecast will hold.  

Yes, I do use the forecasts and trust, but verify the weather forecasts.  Now you have the information you need to do the same thing.

These days you can also get detailed maps of weather RIGHT NOW.  This is great if you are traveling and want to see what the weather will be doing two or three hours down the road.  My favorite is Intellicast--Active Weather Map.  This overlays a google map base showing current rain, freezing rain, and snow.   You can use this information with pass camera's to see if it is worth going over the pass today!!

With today's weather information there is no reason for getting "caught" in the weather.  Well, it still is not an EXACT science, but at least the odds are now in your favor.   Weather an obsession for those of us that have to live in it.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Solar Panels for Camping

usbackroads products--Solar Panels for Camping

I counted all the solar panels I own and came up with 24.  You can see 18 of them is this picture as they provide power for our vacation home rental at Camas Meadows.  Solar for homes is expensive, but worth it when the alternative is doing without electricity or running a generator 24/7.

Fortunately, for camping you can get by with a fewer number of panels.  There are basically two types of solar panels silicon and thin-film.  Silicon panels are more efficient and expensive.  They are have the drawback that if even a small portion of the panel is shaded electrical production is significantly reduced.  The thin-film panels are less efficient, but cheaper to produce.  This also makes them larger than the same electrical output for a silicon panel.    Buy whatever, works for you.  Most of my panels are silicon, but that is because of the application that I use them.

All solar panels do is basically charge batteries.  Yes, I do run a fan and my solar powered fishing boat with just solar panels, but the boat also has a battery.  At some point, the solar panel becomes large enough that you need a charge controller to be sure that you do not overcharge the battery.  I generally have all my 20-watt and greater panels hooked up to a charge controller.

I started using a 30-watt "unbreakable" solar panel.  Here is a 20-watt panel from the same company from Amazon.  This panel comes ready to go with a cigarette plug attachment.  You will need other adpaters over time.  Pilot and the other large truck stops have the best selection of 12 volt accessories that you need.  Yes, you will start wandering that section of every truck stop as you get more and more panels.

This is a great size to buy for your first solar panel.  It will keep charged a "jumper battery" and with a 12 volt adapter for your computer keep it running.  You can also use it for charging cell phones and other small electronic devices.  I have no recommendations on "jumper batteries" but you do want one with a 12 volt charging input.  That way you can directly hook up the solar panel and most "jumper batteries" have a built in charge controller to keep from overcharging the battery.

This is a serious solar panel at 125-watts and five feet by two feet in size.  I pack it when we use the tent trailer.  It will keep the battery charged plus run my laptop.  The Honda Generator puts out 7.0 amps at 12 volts to recharge batteries.  So does this panel.  When my friend takes along his electric trolling motor we use the panel to recharge his trolling batteries.  I attach it to the roof bicycle rack with those plastic electronic twist ties.  Now think about how you are going to transport a 5X2 foot solar panel made of glass.  I kept the original packing box and put it just behind my tool box in the bed of the truck.  This is a very good price on a 125 watt solar panel, but I do not own it.  However, most solar panels are commodities and construction quality, etc. is pretty similar.  They are all pretty much made in China.

If you have a trailer with a battery I would get a solar battery maintainer.  Batteries are very expensive these days and a solar battery maintainer will keep your battery from discharging and being ruined if it is not constantly being charged.  I use it on my tent trailer to keep it from discharging over time.  Note this panel is too small to re-charge a battery for that you need at least a 20 or 30 watt panel.

For some applications solar is much more effective than grid power and its required wiring, etc.  One of the best applications is an LED solar powered motion detector light.  I have two of these at my house at Camas illuminating the walkways.  The neighbors say that the coyote's use the lights to walk down my walkways alongside the house.  Yes, when the lights come on they use the binoculars to see who is walking next to our vacation house.

Here you can see the 10-watt panel that drives the fan that vents the battery bank inside the generator shed and the solar panel for the motion detector light.

Solar panels.  They are more than just a government boondoogle.  They are the right electrical source for camping, special applications, and the International Space Station.  Prices have come down.  So buy a panel and start exploring the world of solar powered electricity.  It is suppose to be the wave of the future, you know.

If you missed the previous posting click on this link generator or solar panel  for additional information of usage of solar panels.  

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Solar or Generator for Camping??

usbackroads product--Solar or Generator for Camping?

When I first started working as a Forester and camping in the backcountry the only thing we had that Lewis and Clark did not was a Coleman White Gas Stove.  It was the summer of 72 on the Clearwater National Forest and it is highly likely that Lewis and Clark passed through within a mile of our camp in 1805.

The camp was pretty spare.  A wall tent with  sheepherders stove and oven and  another with cots for sleeping.  Water came from the creek in a large milk can.  It was cold and wet.  A Forest Service radio for work and emergencies and a good AM and shortwave radio for night time news of the outside world.  I am sure that Lewis and Clark would have been astonished at the luxury of that camp.

In all my working years, I never used a generator or solar panels for electricity.  The slippery slope started when we bought a tent trailer with a water pump for the hot water shower and a fan for the furnace!!  Now we needed to make sure that we never ran out of electricity!  In my late 30's I discovered I hated sleeping dirty all those years so that shower was a required accessory!!

So I bought a 30-watt solar panel to insure that I had a hot shower every night before bedtime.  The 30-watt panel worked great in summer.  It was too small for fall and winter camping.  Besides it was about this time I discovered that I needed to keep my laptop charged and I believe a cell phone showed up shortly after that.

Slowly, the need for electricity on a daily basis grew and now it seems a "necessity" rather than a luxury.  The next panel I bought was 125-watt and it fit on the bicycle rack on the tent trailer.  Now I had enough power for everything in the tent trailer including that furnace fan on those cold fall mornings.

Well, then the 5th wheel arrived with all "those" items.  So we bought a Honda 2000 generator.  That ran the lights, TV and the microwave.  Oh, and that water pump for the hot shower!!  We also discovered that we needed the generator to charge up our electric bicycles.

So what do you need for camping these days?  Well, it depends.  But my recommendation is both!!  Remember solar works great, but you need 67 of those panels to generate the same power  as that generator.  And yes, those panels will only match the generator on a sunny day for about four hours.  So you can easily see why you would want that generator.

One other reason for purchasing a 2000 watt or so generator is power tools around the house.  I stick my Honda on a little red wagon and use it to run the hedge trimmer, power drill, power saw and of course, that all important electric chainsaw.

IF you have a trailer with microwave and other goodies a generator is simple to hook-up and everything runs. We found that we only ran the generator at night for a few hours to cook dinner and read.  But it is very handy to have everything hooked up electrically so you just flick a switch.

I strongly recommend a Honda or Yamaha generator due to the quiet factor.  We run a Honda 2000 generator and it is an impressive product.  I have used Yamaha generators on forest fires and you cannot go wrong with them either.  Just make sure your generator is VERY quiet.

So if I have a generator do I need a solar panel?  Yes.  When we travel in the 5th wheel we use the generator at dinner time, but the rest of the day the little 30-watt panel keeps the computer charged as well as the cell phone and all those rechargeable AA batteries.  I even converted my fishing boat to solar with the 30-watt panel so I can troll for the monster trout.  Notice that I use the same panel and battery for fishing!!

If we take the tent trailer I will lug the 125-watt panel along and use electronic zip ties to fasten the panel to the bicycle rack on top of the tent trailer.  That size panel keeps the battery charged even in late October in Washington state.  My friend that trolls with an electric motor uses it to charge his trolling batteries.  That is much more efficient that using the Honda Generator.  The 125-watt panel stays home when we travel with the 5th wheel.

Next stop.  Solar panels.