Archive for January, 2010

The generators are in! We still have to move them off the truck but they’re here, and I’m thrilled. So that’s one component of the off-grid system down, several dozen to go. I think that we’ve finally narrowed down our vision and selected the components we’ll go with though. (Save for batteries, batteries are the bane of my existence right now.)

Having discussed it ‘at length’ (read: ad nauseam) we’ve tentatively settled on the Outback Flexpower One, the Otherpower (1 kW) wind turbine, a tilt-up tower from a dealer in Didsbury, and either 8 x 6V or 4 x 12V Trojan lead acid batteries (Trojan primarily because they sell at a reasonable price and tend to be reliable). We’ll settle on solar panels (for back-up) at a later date. With the generators though, we’re set for emergencies.

The attraction of the Flexpower One is that it has all the components we’ll need in one package. It includes the breaker, GFDI (ground fault detector interrupter), 80 Amp charge controller breaker, GVFX or VFX inverter/charger, system display unit, HUB 4 (“input thingy”), Flexmax 80 MPPT charge controller, and Flexnet DC surge protector. If that sounds like Greek, it’s because it is, but like any new language you start to pick it up and then it becomes fun to confuse your friends with.

On that note, I’m back to studying batteries this morning and I have some serious issues with the way that sites are laid out and how information is conveyed. For a novice, it’s completely disorienting to try to disseminate the information and what exactly it means in practical terms. Come on- I’m not trying to build a battery, just select one. I’ve decided that should I ever dedicate a page to batteries for use in RE systems, it’ll have a rating system something like this: “Battery A= Pretty frickin’ excellent; Battery B= Damn good battery; Battery C= Not too shabby; Battery D= Meh, it’s okay; Battery E= Total rip off. How nice would that be? Shane insists it’s more complicated than that (as if I hadn’t noticed) but I think my revised system would get more traffic.

I can hardly wait for spring and a return to building- something I’m naturally good at! I much prefer the aching muscles and occasional serious injury to the strain on my brain of late. Of course, check back with me if I nearly knock another toe off (it’s still healing, 5 months later). Na, I think I can safely say that I’d still rather be building. 

Aurora generators waiting to be unloaded

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Another weekend, another power outage, and another reminder of how happy I’ll be to be off-grid. It’s amazing when you think about it- how dependent we are on power, and really just a handful of companies. Honestly, I can do without lights for periods of time. We have lots of candles and a couple of kerosene lanterns for emergencies. It’s losing heat in the dead of winter that concerns me, and the inability to cook.

The new house will compartmentalize things a lot better. We won’t use electricity to heat our home, or to cook. What we don’t get from solar gain, we’ll supplement with super efficient rocket mass heaters and the house will only very slowly lose heat because of the thermal mass of the heavy walls, floor and roof (and the exterior insulation). And we won’t use electricity to cook. We’re leaning towards the Lorena stove right now, though there are a few (similar) models we’re considering.

I was ridiculously happy about our ‘humanure’ toilet this weekend. It’s a relief not to have to worry about spacing bathroom breaks to (hopefully) match the duration of a power outage. I’m honestly surprised at how “on” I am about this system. I remember telling Shane when we started out, “don’t even think that you’re going to convince me to switch to a composting toilet. Ew.” It was my one hold-out. As it turned out, it was me who convinced him to switch after researching the system and it’s worked out beautifully for us.

Despite being without power for much of the weekend, we did manage to get some work done. We made roughly a couple of hundred papercrete bricks. We went with a 7:2:1 mix (paper: sand: cement). Really high on the paper to increase the insulation value. Having the bricks pre-made will save us come summer when time will be tight. We have to have the papercrete up and dry before we can apply the lime plaster, and it (the lime) needs a long drying period free of freezing. Having bricks to use will allow us to apply papercrete mortar and a comparatively thin top plaster so considerably less drying time.

Ah- and our generators arrive on Wednesday! A few days too late to help with this particular ice storm, but I can safely predict more power failures in our future so I’ll be happy to have the back-up available. We have two coming (remarkable deal from Aurora Generators): a 3000 W Gas generator and a 6000 W Portable diesel generator. I’m really excited- I think as much to have one less decision to make as for the generators themselves.

Well, having attempted to take the truck out to haul paper only to get stuck and end up wet and bloody (and somewhat disgruntled) dislodging it I’m off on foot to try this again. It’s not a long walk, really it isn’t, it’s just freezing outside and the bags are almost bigger than I am and, well, I’m feeling a bit of a puss today. Ah well, such is life on the prairie. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

'humanure toilet'


Compost bins


papercrete bricks


papercrete bricks

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I love living in Canada, wouldn’t trade it for anything. Oh I enjoy traveling, for sure, and could spend months on end in Mexico alone but I always look forward to coming home. At least now that we’ve abandoned city life. It does, however, present its share of problems for natural and conventional builders alike- namely climate.

Here on the prairies our temperature ranges from as low as -50 C to as high as +38 C or so. The heat I can handle, and a few well-placed vents and windows with overhangs will go a long way towards keeping a house comfortable on those long summer nights. Cold on the other hand- now that can be a problem. Having said that, a good plan and some common sense go a long way.

Currently, we live in what (by conventional standards) is considered a quite comfortable home. We have three bedrooms, two bathrooms, large kitchen, living and laundry areas, a sunroom, and a full basement with attached garage. There are lots of large windows for light and expansive views. Sounds wonderful, right? Well, in summer it’s not too bad (save for those ridiculously hot days when it’s clear no one was thinking of a cross breeze during design). In winter, it’s an entirely different story.

There are entirely too many windows in this home. The windows on the north and west sides do nothing to contribute to comfort, they are an aesthetic addition. We lose a tremendous amount of heat through our windows in winter, which brings us to heating… Forced air heating has got to be one of the most impractical inventions ever conceived. Not only does it make me sick, gasping for air after a ‘good’ night’s sleep, it’s so temporary it has to run all the time to maintain a steady temperature. And still I’m not warm. Traditional heating is inefficient, unhealthy and irresponsible. Add to which it keeps us tied to the grid, so tied to traditional work to pay for the ‘luxury’.

So what does a natural builder do to combat these issues? Well, for starters, we build small. I’m far from the view that a person can live comfortably in a single room home like some natural builders would suggest- at least not this person. But I do believe a large amount of space is wasted. Our demonstration home will be small relative to traditional housing and maximize the use the space with storage built into the structure itself, underneath and behind furniture, and overhead. Additionally, we will simply have to adjust to the fact that we can no longer house the junk that we’ve accumulated over the years, nor can we afford to continue to collect it. (Stay tuned for my “Lament for Shoe Storage”; I’m a work in progress.)

Secondly, we will orient our building solar south and strategically place our windows. By orienting our building south, we maximize our solar gain. Windows will be expansive on the south side only, with smaller windows to the east, a much smaller window to the west (where the only solar gain would be in the summer, when heat is already at times unbearable), and none on the north side. The main living area, which all of the additional rooms will connect to, will be partitioned to include a small south facing greenhouse. The greenhouse will provide not only additional food, but (because it is double glassed) provide considerable heat (in the form of solar gain) to the living area.

Thirdly, we will build heavy. There’s no sense in planning around solar gain if there’s nothing to absorb the heat. Heavy clay-sand walls and thick earthen floors and plasters absorb heat quite nicely, and are slow to release it. And this is where heat matters most, in the areas that a person has contact with, not the air as it drifts by. I’m reminded of this now, as I sit next to the heating vent and warm air is hitting the side of my body but I don’t dare yet put my feet on the floor.

On the subject of mass, we’ll build “rocket mass heaters” into the design. If you haven’t yet heard of these, see the pictorial below, or get a copy of the book from Ianto Evans if you intend to build your own. They borrow on the efficiency of rocket stoves and take it to the next level. Basically, it is an extremely efficient wood burning ‘stove’ with a long run of venting built right into the (cob) furniture. It requires ridiculously little fuel and (because mass retains heat so nicely) provides an exceedingly cozy sitting area. And, because of the genius design, it burns clean. I don’t blame you if you’re hesitant to believe these claims (I was) but build yourself a very basic rocket stove for all the proof you’ll need.

Finally- we’ll insulate the heck out our building. As our intention is to build as naturally and cheaply as possible- and use recycled materials wherever we can- we’re going with papercrete. The entire building will receive a papercrete plaster about 8” thick, topped with lime. Additionally, the sub-floor will be made of papercrete. (*Note: there are some problems associated with papercrete and mold in humid conditions but we happen to live in a drought area. I wouldn’t suggest papercrete as a sub-floor in damp environments.) The R value of papercrete is cited ~2.5 per inch, dependant on the mix (the higher the paper content, the higher the R value), so at 8” thick will more than provide for our needs.

So that’s the plan for surviving the Canadian winter, and I dare say we’ll do so more comfortably (efficiently and cheaply) than we currently do.

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Barrel for the rocket stove

top of barrel, with holes for connecting pipe

rocket stove inside of dome

inside of dome

lit with Caragana branches


rocket water heater at Cob Cottage

Fuel feed for water heater


New water heater being built at Cob Cottage, OR

rocket water heater


Rocket mass heater, Cob Cottage, OR


very cosy mass heater bench

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Going off-grid is a major goal of ours. We happen to live in one of the best areas in all of Canada for wind, and are close to one of the top areas for sun, so it makes sense to make use of our renewable energy. Add to which we intend to be completely independent and there’s really no question about it, only questions about “how?”

Originally the plan was to leave the “power” side of things to Shane. I’ve never been (even remotely) interested in anything electrical and know nothing about the subject of renewable energy. He, on the other hand, is a technologist and I assumed it would be an easy transition (much the same as I assumed he could cut hair because of his background in drafting). Unfortunately, renewable energy and its associated components is a much broader field than either of us imagined.

Well, Shane is no slouch and before long he was picking up all sorts of information that he was excited to share. “Wah, wah, wah, wah…” (remember Charlie Brown’s teacher?) “…wah, wah, wah…” I nodded my head as he shared his latest finds. I was doing well nodding and smiling and saying “mmhmm” at all of the appropriate times- right up until he asked me what I thought. “Ummm…” think quick, think quick… “I think whatever you decide will be great,” I lamely offered. Unless, of course, it isn’t. And that’s when I realized that if I were to have any opinion at all, it had better be now because after the fact I’d better be prepared to keep my mouth shut.

Never one to keep my mouth shut, and not one to tempt fate, I decided to apply myself to learning everything that I can about renewable energy. Batteries and chargers and inverters and wind turbines and solar panels and generators and true sine waves versus modified sine waves and… God help me, I feel like I could study for another five years and still be no further ahead. All I wanted to do was have an informed opinion and help with the decision of what system to go with.

There’s a lot of information out there. And everyone has an opinion. I just wish that I could enumerate the opinions and come up with a majority rule that I could side with but it seems it’s not going to be that simple. If it were a cheap proposition I could probably just go with the information that I do have and make a decision, live with the consequences and switch things up later if need be- but going off-grid is not an inexpensive goal.

So far, the opinions that I have formed (subject to hourly revision) are: I’d like to go with a hybrid system rather than putting our eggs all in one basket. I’m thinking 1 kW of windpower and ~600 Watts of solar. I’m leaning towards the Bergey hybrid system (though I’d prefer a 48V system to a 24V which would cancel out Bergey). I think Trojan batteries are a less expensive option than Surrettes and may be able to meet our needs. But I can’t for the life of me decide between the Outback and Xantrex systems, and Shane’s asked that I weigh Magnum into the equation as well. And generators??? Briggs & Stratton, Honda, Yamaha, propane, gas, diesel- never mind sizing…

My head is swimming. So much so that I find myself leaning towards a Yamaha generator because I like the sound of it, “Ya-ma-ha,” it rolls so nicely, doesn’t it? That’s what my brain has been reduced to. University educated and yet here I sit doing research and giggling, seriously considering a major purchase based off the fact that I like the way the brand name rolls off my tongue. Oh they get good reviews too, but I can’t in good conscience pretend that’s why I like them. I’m losing it in a serious way.

Today I’ll start a spreadsheet with pricing and pros and cons of all of the components. Maybe that’ll bring me closer to where I need to be to offer an opinion and have a reasonable discussion with Shane. Bitch as I may (and I will and do often), I have to admit I’m impressed that I know what a “genset” is, and that I know the difference between true and modified sine wave inverters. And Shane seems pleased that my eyes don’t glaze over when he starts talking electricity.

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In order to make green building accessible to all, there are a few major hurdles to overcome. Issues that are paramount are cost, skill, labour force, and aesthetic value.

The cost of green building (one could argue ‘green living’ in general) is simply prohibitive to many. It seems contradictory, that using more natural and recyclable materials, should cost more but somehow it does. Over the course of our research we’ve watched many documentaries and television programs, read countless articles and books, and reviewed internet forums all with the same message, “this may cost more but it’s the right thing to do.” Really now? So my paying you an inordinate amount of money to “intern” with you (read: provide whatever labour you need to complete your projects) is somehow for the greater good? Or buying ‘eco-friendly’ paint or cleaning products is somehow preferable to looking to more traditional methods that would cost me a quarter of the price for comparable results? There are a lot of people, and companies, out there that present themselves as altruistic while profiting greatly taking advantage of people’s fears and good intentions.

Some of it is just silly and can be easily addressed but it’s a matter of doing away with a paradigm that exists that tells us that living naturally means doing the same thing with different resources. Systems for example- be they electrical or water- can cost a great deal. But the need for an expensive septic system is something that can be done away with as simply as recycling greywater and using a compost toilet (see Jenkin’s “Humanure Handbook”). Likewise, save your money on expensive stains and paints and use natural plasters and lime finishes. “Rocket Mass Heaters” (see Ianto Evans and Leslie Jackson) are a beautiful and remarkably efficient way to heat your home, doing away with the inefficient and expensive forced air systems that we’re all so used to. There are so many more examples, many of which you’ll find in our finished home. The point is- if the system or product is too expensive, ask yourself whether it’s necessary and if so whether there isn’t another way to do it. And look to your resources for inspiration rather than trying to attain materials for a predetermined idea. It’s a simple shift that can save a lot of money.

Skill is another hurdle many natural builders find themselves having to overcome. There’s a great deal of skill required to build a traditional house, and a great deal of skill involved in building some non-traditional houses. A lot of people don’t have the time or resources to devote to interning for six months or more in order to learn how to build a home for themselves- and they shouldn’t have to. A single mother myself for many years, I have been particularly put off by some of the current trends out there that require you to put your life on hold and live in a tent while helping someone else to build just in order to acquire the skills (never mind the materials and labour force you’ll require later) to build your own home. It’s simply not feasible for a large majority.

There are, however, some very simple building techniques that require more practice than skill. Cob for instance. Cob is a remarkably easy, if somewhat time consuming, material to build with. Anyone can do it. You don’t need extensive training or tremendous upper body strength or a workforce of twenty of your closest friends to put up a cob house. Likewise with earthbag building. In fact- with earthbag building (should you construct a dome, incidentally the strongest structure you can build) you don’t even need the basic skills (or materials) required to build a roof- because there is no traditional roof– simply more bags.

Another of the issues we’ve come across is the need for a large labour force. Again, this makes natural building inaccessible to many. Sure, it’d be great if communities returned to a more communal way of life, helping each other as the need presented, but we simply don’t live in that kind of world at present. I’ve seen many websites and forums looking desperately for ‘helpers’ to finish up some work or other only to come up short and put their plans on hold yet again. A big part of our research was devoted to determining what building methods required the least amount of time and labour. Again, we came back to cob and earthbag building.

Finally, an issue dear to my own heart, is the matter of aesthetic value. It seems there are two camps- those who spend a fortune on “green building” and end up with a rather traditional looking, attractive home and those who go to the other green-extreme and live in a shack, or an “adorable hobbit house”, or (as a friend so kindly pointed out) a home that looks “just like what they had in Planet of the Apes”. Call me superficial but aesthetics are important to me. I like my environment to comfort, inspire, and receive me- not just provide me with shelter- but I don’t feel I should have to spend a small fortune to achieve such luxury.

Cob is extremely versatile. I’ve seen some quite incredible buildings, much nicer than traditional homes, made of cob. Earthbags are also versatile, to some extent, though many dome homes end up looking rather strange and a little too Star Trek-y for my taste. As we intend to build with earthbags though, I’ve been actively researching older buildings in search of attractive shapes that can be achieved through this building method. (Adobe bricks also lend to beautiful shapes, though are suited for warmer climates than ours.) I’m determined that we do not need to compromise aesthetic value and if we do really intend to appeal to the masses the end result needs to be attractive.

If we can overcome the issues of cost, skill, labour required, and visual appeal I believe we can speak to a broader range of people and help people of all backgrounds and means build naturally. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Helping not just ourselves but one another while preserving our natural resources and respecting the planet.

You can see some of our projects at http://www.facebook.com/pages/New-Brigden-Alberta/Canadian-Dirtbags/128912733998?ref=mf

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the first ring


making good progress


earthbag portion completed


cob complete & plaster started


almost done


completed earthbag sauna!


Our pilot project, a sauna. We wanted to try our hand at earthbag building while also experimenting with cob, earthen plaster and a rocket stove. We fired it up the other day to test it out in winter conditions and were able to jump from -10 C to +35 C within a matter of minutes. Not bad for a lot of mud and a few sticks.

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A couple of years ago, Shane and I fell in love with an acreage in the “middle of nowhere”- a small parcel of land on the Alberta prairies. We decided, pretty much on the spot, to trade our high-powered, fast paced careers and home in the city for a new way of life. It took some adjustment as we moved from a “wants”-based lifestyle to evaluating needs, and learning to prioritize and carefully plan our limited trips to the nearest town. No more running out to the store at 11 p.m. for those last minute items, or ordering pizza (or anything else!) for delivery! Even more surprisingly- no more fresh, potable water straight from the tap. (I now take the opportunity to guzzle tap water whenever we travel to the city.)

After a period of adjustment we began to notice the spiritual value in our new lifestyle. While we gave up the convenience and economic advantage of city life, we also left behind a stressful pace, noise and air pollution, and a “go-go-go” mentality that often saw us moving fast but without much direction. We now find ourselves working hard but enjoying life considerably more, and feeling more satisfied and accomplished.

A while back we started to reevaluate the “working hard” portion of our lives. We fantasized about what would we do if we could do anything that we wanted to with our lives, if we were free of obligations and bills and general expenses? The answer for us was very simple. We’d stay home most of the time and travel occasionally. That’s how much we enjoy our property and each other’s company. We have a wonderful vegetable garden to tend, beautiful landscape to wander, deer and horned owls and coyotes to watch and wile away the day…

The question then became- what’s keeping us from doing that, from being able to live and enjoy our lives right now rather than planning for the day some thirty years from now when we’ll have achieved the ‘freedom’ to do so? (And heaven forbid one or both of us doesn’t make it to our ‘magical sixties’- or seventies at this rate- then what have we been working for?) Well, we work to pay the bills. We work to provide our basic necessities. Or, more accurately, we work to pay someone else to provide our basic needs- food, electricity, and gas for heating. Whoa- wait a minute now- we work to pay someone else to provide our basic needs??? And so the question changed once again and became- what’s to stop us from providing for our own needs? The answer, quite simply, is nothing.

I’ll save my socio-political tirades for later and keep this introduction focused on the ‘planning’ aspect of our goal for the sake of brevity. Moving on- we began to research sustainable living. Let me tell you, with the internet what it is today this is no small feat. There is a wealth of information available if you’re willing to put several thousand hours into sifting through the practical to the idealistic. It just so happens that Shane and I are both obsessive by nature so we have taken up the gauntlet and digested tremendous amounts of information- some helpful, some silly, and some downright hilarious.

Michael Reynold’s “Earthships” initially caught our interest. Reynold’s himself is a man of the future with many great thoughts on sustainable living and integrating practical, modern solutions. (See http://www.earthship.org for further information.) We bought all three volumes of his Earthship series and began planning. During the planning stages we also researched alternative heating and building techniques and came across Ianto Evan’s work with cob and rocket mass heaters and Nader Khalili’s domes. Which led us to Owen Geiger, Kelly Hart, Kaki Hunter and Doni Kiffmeyer… Long story short, we have abandoned our Earthship plans in favour of building earthbag domes, which we intend to cover and partly furnish in cob, heat with rocket mass heaters, and integrate with Reynold’s greywater reuse system and passive solar design. Phew!

Oh, and Shane will build a wind turbine for generating power using the design concepts of Bartman and Fink of “Otherpower.com”. And we’ll raise some animals (should be interesting for a couple of city folk). And while some of you may already be laughing, we’d like to have this done in the next two years. (We’re also planning on harvesting and treating rainwater and incorporating permaculture techniques into our landscape, for those of you who think we’re slacking.)

So stay tuned and feel free to offer suggestions or feedback. We’re always happy to hear new ideas or about your personal experiences with sustainable, off-grid living. And of course we’ll answer any questions that we can along the way. We expect it will be a fun-filled, magical, painful experience with lots of ups and downs and comic relief to keep us (and you!) entertained.



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