Wednesday, August 27, 2008


We found a solar oven from Sun Ovens International that we hoped would be perfect for cooking in our tropical weather in Hilo, Hawaii.

Our hope was that a solar oven would allow us to cook most of our meals without electricity or propane, in other words, free cooking using the sun.

Global Sun Ovens are hard to get since the company is backlogged manufacturing them for African countries with the goal of saving trees and providing a solar method to pasteurize water.

We found one online at a lawn and pool supply shop in Virginia and convinced them to mail it to Hawaii. We paid $209.99 for the solar oven and $66.25 for postage.

Setting up the oven was easy. It popped out of the box and was quickly ready for use on our porch. The four reflective flaps can be pointed to the sun. The interior chamber is painted black to maximize the heat and covered by a glass door. A thermometer is easily visible through the glass cover to monitor the temperature inside.

We left the oven outside to cure the paint for a couple of days. We brought it in at night and when it looked like it might rain. The stove is very portable, folding into an easy to carry cube.

Figuring out how to actually cook something in the solar oven was another matter all together. The oven comes with no instructions and no web site recipe support. You are on your own to figure out how to harness the sun and convert digital temperature controlled recipes into recipes using analog temperatures that vary based on the time of day, clouds and wind.

The oven usually attains temperatures lower than standard cooking settings for most recipes in a regular oven (350 oF). Between 11AM and 2PM the air temperature in the solar oven chamber is about 270 oF and the temperature of the food and water (measured using an electronic cooking thermometer) was about 175 oF. We did notice that after using the oven many times, the temperature in the chamber seemed to get hotter. It is possible the days were just sunnier than the days during our initial cooking attempts.

Our first successful cooking project was an egg. After some searching we found a suitable pot that was non-reflective and dark colored.

After waiting for the oven to heat up, we put an egg into the pot which had been previously spayed with oil. We covered the pot and timed the cooking, checking after 3 minutes and again after 6 minutes.

After 6 minutes, the egg was very well cooked. It looked different than an egg cooked in water (poached) or fried. It was completely dry and white.

We had good luck cooking baked potatoes and rice. They don’t seem to mind how long they are in the oven. So if a cloud passes by and reduces the temperature, the potato and rice are not impacted other than taking longer.

We had no luck cooking pasta; it remained hard and then turned to mush. It is a challenge to cook food items that require boiling water for short cook times. We tried drying foods and as of yet haven’t figured out how to keep them from turning into inedible leather.

We used a non-reflective tea pot to cook water for tea. The maximum temperature we could get the water was 174 oF. This temperature pasteurizes water, but is not our usual method of using boiling water to make tea.
When the temperature refused to go higher, we poured it in a cup and made a great cup of tea using a tea bag. Not having boiling water didn’t seem to impact the flavor.

The success of the cooked egg and tea, gave us the confidence to try something a little grander. We mixed up some biscuit dough and popped it into the pot for 20 minutes. The results worked out well – though there was no browning, so we had to cut into it to determine if it was cooked. We then tried cooking a biscuit on an uncovered dish, and we were rewarded with a dryer version of the cooked biscuit.

We have found some challenges with the oven, like needing sun glasses when around it to keep from being blinded by glints of lights from the reflectors. And we need serious heat resistant gloves to keep from being burned while moving and shifting pots in the oven. We rely on testing and sticking a portable food thermometer into the food to determine if it is done. The food doesn’t always look the same as it does when done in an electric oven or stovetop.

We have many other food projects planned for our solar oven like peanut butter cookies, muffins, and bread. It is exciting to be able to cook these things during the heat of the day, without heating up the kitchen from the oven. Not to mention it is completely free!

Thursday, August 21, 2008


The perfect house for Seattle or Cape Cod does not make a good home in Hilo, Hawaii. We have noticed that people build their dream house for the climate they just came from often resulting in a house not suitable for Hilo’s climate.

Hours before the hottest part of the day, when we are still cool from the tropical breeze blowing through our house, we hear the roar of ACʼs being fired up across the street struggling to pump heat out of their mainland style houses. Their windows without covering and thick insulation create a solar oven. Running AC is extremely expensive in Hilo as electricity is 4 to 10 times more per KWH than on the mainland.

During the rainy season, buckets of water pour out of the sky for long periods of time filling Hilo’s deep drainage ditches to the brim and turning streets into rivers. We’ve watched newer houses built with garages and gardens set below street level instantly fill with water creating the perfect environment for mold and mildew.

We are pesky visitors to the bugs’ domain here in Hawaii. You can’t keep them out, you can only make it harder for them to get in and unfriendly for them to stay. We notice Hawaii-style bug proofing is missing from a lot of mainland type houses.

Hilo has a 12 month growing season and grass and plants grow and shed leaves at a science fiction pace. Lawns and gardens require mowing and weeding several times a week. Acreage properties can turn into jungles if they are not constantly worked. We’ve heard stories of owners getting lost on their acreage in Puna due to overgrown foliage hiding their landmarks.

We’ve been studying the Hilo style house over the past 9 months and here are 10 attributes we believe can help make living in a Hilo home paradise:

(1) Long over-hanging roofs.

Long overhanging roofs prohibit the sun from shining directly in the windows keeping the house significantly cooler. The overhangs allow the windows and doors to remain open during driving rain which also keeps the house cooler and the air fresher.

If the house is multiple stories, overhangs are needed for each level to provide the same protection from the sun. Structural engineers say that long overhangs are the best design for high winds because they add stability to the structure by taking some of the load off the walls and putting it onto the roof. The length of overhang we are talking about is 5 feet or more.

(2) Designed for wind cooling and energy efficiency.

In the summer months the trade winds blow over 90% of the time. A house located so that it gets unobstructed access to the wind does not require AC. It can be raised up on poles or geographically situated so that it is not blocked from the trade winds by hills or other structures. The house needs to be designed so that wind can blow end to end through the house, preferably in all directions. The windows should open fully and have good screens and security latches so they can be left open all day and night.

Solar water heaters make a lot of sense in Hawaii, along with anything to minimize usage of electricity or propane. We have a water heater that we keep shut off most of the time and we use solar lights as night lights. Mainland style houses are designed for cheap energy which is not available in Hawaii.

(3) Foundation Perimeter.

Houses in Hilo last longer with an outside perimeter around the foundation that is gravel or lava. This keeps vegetation from growing up against the house and maximizes airflow under the house.

Any damage or bug invasions are easy to spot. Maintenance of the perimeter requires constant patrol and herbicide.

(4) Bug barriers on the house poles.

Pole and pier house construction needs metal bug barriers between every concrete footing and wooden pole to keep bugs from crawling up the poles to get into the house.

Bugs can also be kept out by using screens over windows, doors and roof openings to keep out birds and bugs. The screens have to be maintained as birds and bugs will slowly work their way through them.

Let the geckos inside though, as they eat a tremendous amount of bugs. We’ve even seen them make a dent in a termite swarm.

(5) Crawl space under the house.

Having a crawl space under the house creates airflow which deters bugs and dampness. You can check on the state of the foundation and put down pesticide if bugs show up.. Roaches and mosquitoes like damp enclosed spaces, rather than breezy crawl spaces.

Post and pier construction is very common in Hawaii because of these benefits.

(6) Termite control.

Unlike a cedar home in a forest of white pine, termites in Hilo will eat any wood if there is nothing else to eat, including cedar and redwood.

They will also eat books, wooden furniture, and concrete foundations if they are hungry enough. Most people recommend that houses be tented every 5 to 6 years to slow them down. Using treated wood helps slow them down as well.

But, it really isn’t a question of if your house will be eaten by bugs but how long you can keep it standing through bug proofing, insecticide, and replacing parts of walls and floors.

(7) Yard control.

The Hilo yard size should be proportional to your passion for mowing, trimming, and weeding. Labor is expensive and hard to find in Hawaii; it is not like the mainland where you can get five bids to cut your lawn or trim the trees. A lot of locals have lava front yards to deal with their yard maintenance.

Lack of maintenance of a yard can cause a lot of problems like having loud coqui frogs move in, plugging drainage ditches, and creating places with standing water.

Tropical fruit trees and lawns require a lot of work all year long and in this climate it is very intense work. It is always summer with no growing season slow down.

(8) Flood and dampness control.

Hilo homes have to plan for flooding. The house should be up high, with drainage around the foundation of the house. Any standing water has to be drained so as to not attract mosquitoes, frogs or other nuisances. Gutters need to deal with large amounts of water and put the water far from the house into an area that drains away from the property.

Without AC, mold and mildew patrol is a constant requirement. We check our walls and behind paintings. We use dampness absorbing packets in closets and work to keep mold at bay in bathrooms. Airflow helps minimize the problem. If we didn’t have large windows in the bathrooms, it would be a challenge to keep the dampness there under control.

(9) Metal roofs.

Metal roofs abound on Hilo houses. They reflect the heat, readily deal with rain, are bug proof, are fire proof, and can handle the rapid changes in temperature during the day.

Though they rust, they can be reconditioned or replaced. We are surprised at the number of mainlanders that build mainland houses with wood roofs.

(10) Great Neighbors.

Neighbors can be the highlight or low point of Hilo living. We spend more time outside, the windows are always open, and the walls are thin. We are lucky we didn’t move next to a neighbor with 5 dogs leashed outside our bedroom window, but we see houses down the street dealing with that very problem. We are blessed with wonderful neighbors that are generous and eager to keep watch over each other in a county with few police and lax enforcement.

We are above a favorite drifting site (drifting is when a car speeds down a street quickly swerving to get the car to slide and spin around in circles making loud screeching sounds similar to a car crash), which wakes us up at 2AM on many a weekend night. Like barking dogs, locals and police look the other way.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


In our rat race life in Silicon Valley we never had enough time. From early morning breakfasts about social web sites that would change how people lived, to luncheons reviewing investment tools to create Micro mutual funds, to late night meetings at Starbucks with telecommunications engineers heading to China, it was non-stop every day. It all seemed so earth shattering and important at the time.

Now that we live less than 30 miles from a continuously erupting Volcano, we have a new understanding of what an earth shattering event could be. Living on the slopes under the exploding Kilauea, we have been able to slow down our life and enjoy napping and reading and thinking about the issues of the day.

On the golf course yesterday, our golf partner talked about the few decades he has left and what he wanted to put into that remaining time. We thought about that and came to the conclusion that the thing we want to put in our remaining decades is not a thing at all, but the luxury of time to enjoy the beauty that surrounds us and live life simply at a slow pace.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


We ended up houseless in California when we took too long looking for a new house after we sold ours in 2006. Prices climbed from crazy expensive into the stratosphere, far beyond what well paid techies could qualify for. Being old fashion, we still believe in the old algorithm, that we can only afford to buy a house that is three times our income.

Now we are living in Hilo, Hawaii far from the California bubble economy and we can’t help but look at housing prices here with our calculators. In our zip code, the average price of a house has gone up 291% since 1999. During that time, average wages in Hilo have gone up only 39%. Houses for sale in our immediate neighborhood are listed for $700,000 to $900,000. These are not McMansions, but fairly ordinary houses on smallish lots with 1200 to 2000 square feet of house. The yearly income needed to qualify for these houses (assuming a 6.5% fixed 30 year loan and 0 down) would be between $212,000 and $275,000.

The average employee pay in Hilo is $38,539 (based on the US Census County Business Patterns). A current job opening for a senior civil engineer with the county of Hawaii, one of the largest employers in Hilo, advertises a maximum yearly salary of $72,000. Most Hawaii county jobs in Hilo pay under $35,000. Senior professors at the UH in Hilo are paid under $150,000. Two senior PhD professors at UHH could jointly afford one of these houses. A two career couple with average Hilo incomes would qualify for a $231,000 house, less than a third of the price of the modest houses in our neighborhood.

The website shows 17 houses listed in our zip code in some phase of foreclosure and 608 houses for sale. A house across the street from us that sold in 2004 for $161,000 has been for sale for 9 months, first at $899,000, and now at $599,000. If this house were priced in relation to wage increases in Hilo since 2004, it would be priced at $193,000, a price that a two career couple in Hilo could pay. In 1999, the average house sales price in our Hilo neighborhood, as defined by, was $128,000. Based on average wage increases in Hilo, the current average housing prices should be $179,000, not $350,000! In Hilo, as in Silicon Valley, the math of the current housing prices just doesn’t make sense.

We created a “housing affordability graph” showing the average house sales price in Hilo between 1995 and 2006 compared that with the amount of house an average Hilo salary can buy and since it didn’t come close to being able to buy anything, we added the amount of house a two career couple with two average Hilo salaries could buy.

In 1999 the math worked for two career couples to buy a house in Hilo. By stretching financially or getting lower interest rates, a two career couple could still buy a house up until 2003. After 2003, house prices went completely out of reach financially and lost all relationship with the income earning potential of families in the community.

These unrealistic house prices are holding constant even as more houses are steadily added to the backlog, unemployment is rising (Hilo unemployment increased by 56.6% from May 2007 to May2008), tourism is falling off ( Hilo had 40% less tourists arrive by air in June 2008 than June 2007) and county tax revenues are down (26% so far this year) impacting income of the biggest employer in Hilo.

As boomers, our priorities have changed from local school ratings to local golf course ratings. A huge backyard no longer has the appeal it did 20 years ago and the energy and naiveté we had for our first fixer upper house is long gone. We are too old to count on increasing wages or inflation to cover for buying an over-priced house.

After two decades of home ownership, or more accurately mortgage-holding, we are starting to see the upside of renting. We like having the flexibility to move where ever we want without having the cost (6% to sell and 6% to buy: 12% just to change houses) and the financial risk of not being able to sell a house for what we paid. It gives us peace of mind to be able to downsize our monthly costs by moving to a cheaper rental or area. In this volatile economy we find it nice to sit back and watch what happens next. And as we wait for a time when housing prices make sense again, we are beginning to wonder if we will ever buy another house again.