Archive for December, 2010

A final thought…

Well, I tried to come up with something positive to post this new year’s eve but for the life of me I couldn’t. Maybe it’s because I don’t drink. The only posts I could come up with were more suited for my husband’s blog than my family-friendly page. So I’ll leave you with this thought to round out 2010, which sums up some of my feelings in a more succinct, kinder way that I am able to manage today:

It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti


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Fer fack’s sake. We’re back on researching power. Have I mentioned how much I hate researching off-grid systems? There’s a ton of information to take in. Generally I’d class myself as an intelligent person. I find after about 8 or so hours of this kind of study I feel like I have the intellectual capacity of a rock.

The other thing that bothers me about this field is that I am cheap by nature and there is no ‘cheap’ solution to going off-grid. Correction, there is no cheap solution to going off-grid and not living like a hobo. Alright, and by ‘hobo’ I mean person who lives without computers in addition to basics like refrigeration.

Having said that, I think we may be close to a solution. We are currently considering a 24 Volt system and 6  x 230 Watt solar panels. The specifics of said package would include:

The Outback Flexpower One

The Outback X240 transformer (so that we can power our 220 Volt Grundfos well)

6 x REC-230 solar panels

A 6 circuit solar combiner box

A 15 Amp DC breaker

2 x 70 foot radox solar cables

3 or 5 battery connection cables (see below)

and either: 6 x 4 Volt Surrette batteries or 4 x 6 Volt Surrette batteries

We’re not sure on the batteries. We’ve pretty much settled on Surrettes for a number of reasons (thicker plates, lead acid, longevity, excellent warranty, made in Canada, etc.) but can’t decide whether to go with 6 Volts or 4. The 6 Volt batteries are the 6CS17PS and the 4 Volt are the 4 CS17PS- both industrial (as opposed to commercial), so 10 year warranty and 3200 cycles rated at 50% depth.

For the whole system- from solar panels to batteries- we’re looking at about fifteen grand. I kind of feel like I’m going to puke just thinking about it. It helps a bit to consider that if we were to spend $100 a month, assuming prices on gas and electricity don’t go up in the next decade (hahahahahahahahaha!), we’re looking at about twelve and a half years to see a full return on our investment. Still, it’s a lot of money to plunk down- about three times the cost of the house itself. It’s going to hurt- no doubt about it.

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Well worth watching. If you still rely on popular media to report the news, ask yourself when that level of trust was built, and on what grounds?



(Part 1 of 7, see entire documentary on YouTube)


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I was flipping through one of our notebooks yesterday and came across a list that Shane and I compiled while building our first earthbag structure, the sauna, in 2009. Some of it is obvious, and other ‘tips’ were decided only after repeated injury or mistakes along the way. I had to laugh at our total disregard for some of the warnings that we failed to heed this year as well, in an effort to ‘do more’. Anyway, here it is, our lessons learned. Maybe it’ll save someone some trouble.

*Nail down the barbed wire to keep it from moving, fence staples work really well.

*Rinse the cement mixer immediately after use, and at least once during the day, for easier cleaning.

*Mix gravel and cement first, dry, and then add clay- so that the clay doesn’t just stick to itself.

*Tamp the sides of tubes/bags, not just the top.

*Lift with your knees.

*Always feel the mix with your bare hands, soil-clay and gravel may differ slightly from mix to mix. Wear gloves in between to avoid rubbing the skin right off your hands.

*Trust your instincts and communicate (e.g if the mix feels wrong, even if you’re not the one mixing, mention it).

*Cut tubes a little long.

*Fill tubes straight, and twist along arc. Don’t try to fill them ‘on a curve’.

*Don’t start late in season. We started the sauna in September, had plans to leave town for a couple of weeks, and ended up working straight into snow.

*Use good weather and daylight for building, bad weather and evenings for prep and planning.

*Don’t make plans/commitments during the building season and be prepared to be a weather watcher.

*Keep duct tape handy for rips or punctures.

*Don’t pretend all things are equal- if it’s too heavy (Brandee!) don’t lift it, if you’re better at something else- do that.

* Gravel piles look like giant litter boxes- keep cats off site.

*Have lots of buckets on hand for transporting mix.

*Scavenge throughout the year- start now.

*Prepare meals ahead of time.

*Get in shape prior to the build.

*Mix up tasks to work different muscles.

*If it’s really hot and you’re working in your underwear, listen for approaching vehicles.

*When working with cob- work wet to dry.

*Wet the cob and then roll it out a few times before stomping.

*A good cob mix that we found was 1.5 sand, 1 clay, .5 manure, and straw.

*Don’t try to mix too much cob at once- it will not save time.

*And finally- if you’re not both committed to the project, don’t even bother.

Not a bad list. If you can stick to it, you can avoid a fair amount of frustration and injury. I didn’t, even though the lessons were hard won. I almost always carry more than I’m comfortable with. Shane works off the property so during the week it’s just me and I’ve gone with the argument that I can get more done if I just suck it up. It’s true- I get a lot done. But I’ve injured myself a lot and sometimes quite seriously.

On that note, if you’re bleeding- take a break. Honestly, I felt like superwoman some days- working through the pain and the blood- but if you injure yourself seriously enough without breaking, you’ll probably injure yourself again. And while we’re on the subject of breaks, a person can only work seven days a week for so many months before you’re ready to bite the heads off kittens. Or maybe that’s just me…

I also didn’t get a lot of meal prep done ahead of time. There’s nothing quite like working your ass off for 10 hours straight just to come inside and start preparing a meal to make you feel bitter. At least that was my experience. This year, I’ll start freezing meals for the building season in February.

The tip on scavenging- seriously a good idea. You never know what you’re going to need. One really good find for us were grader blades. They make excellent supports for above windows if you’re going with a straight line instead of arches. We had no idea what we were going to use them for when we brought them home but they’ve been beautiful to work with.

And one that didn’t make the list but has got to be the funniest lesson learned this year- measure your doors carefully! We took into account our own builds, and what we thought was ‘reasonable’, and totally didn’t factor in things we might want to move into the house- like a couch. The only way any larger furniture is getting in there is if we drop it in from the top before the roof is on. Ya- not going to be happen. Luckily we’d planned on building most of our furniture into the house but good to know…

There we go- lessons learned. Or lessons accumulated. We’ll see. 🙂

Wear sunscreen and a hat, and a silly scarf

Gloves- good idea, sandals- not so much

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Of all of the changes that we’re making, I think the switch to ethical eating may be the most challenging- for me anyway. I love to eat. I always have. But I don’t like to eat just anything (though, alright- I will if I’m hungry, or moody, or bored). I prefer foods rich in spices and exotic flavours. I love fresh fruit that can’t be grown anywhere near our zone (which borders on a 3 to 2) and cheeses that I couldn’t possibly make myself. And meat… don’t get me started. I really enjoy a good piece of meat. So a switch to ethical eating is, well, daunting to say the least.

I use the term “ethical eating” to refer to eating foods that I don’t feel guilty consuming. So for instance, eating produce that we grow ourselves or is produced locally as opposed to the yummy mangos and bananas sprayed with chemicals that have to be flown in. Avoiding processed foods containing such ingredients as palm oil, which is destroying huge tracts of land and displacing families, never mind the environmentally unfriendly factory practices that produce the final products, and the shipping… Not eating factory farmed meat, and so on. Things that leave me with an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that isn’t indigestion but good old fashioned guilt.

I think that I can handle the local produce. With our soil building and plans for a small greenhouse, I believe we’ll be able to meet most of our needs. Eventually, all of them. Maybe not as exciting as coconuts and fresh lemons, but sufficient. Cheese, well we do plan on keeping goats within the next couple of years, so I could foreseeably learn how to make my own cheese. Besides which, I’m lactose intolerant so if I have to give up some dairy it’s not an entirely bad thing. Chocolate- I’m not a huge fan anyway, that’ll be a bigger adjustment for Shane who I think would be happy if all foods were dipped in it. The meat… now that concerns me.

I have no vegetarian inclinations. None. My favourite food after a long day of work is steak. I’ve ‘gone vegetarian’ for periods of time when there was no choice and the drama was downright comical (to everyone but me). I moan, and swoon, and put on a great big show worthy of Scarlet O’Hara and when I finally escape whatever vegetarian home we’re staying at, I race to the closest place that serves meat and wolf down a man sized meal. “I’ll have the bacon, sausages, steak and eggs- over easy please. Oh, you’re supposed to pick one? Mmm, I’ll just pay extra thanks.”

So I have nothing against eating meat. But I do take issue with the way that animals are raised for food. Easy enough right? Raise animals, treat them well, make sure they have a good life, and then butcher them. Or, equally palatable (no pun intended)- hunt. I think I mentioned in an earlier blog that I did learn to shoot this year, and I’m a natural, so I could take up hunting next year. Problem solved, right?

Not quite. I don’t know if I can kill an animal. Sure, I can eat something that someone else killed. (For the record, I am very easy going on hypocrites- I give them a long leash. Don’t email me your thoughts.) I just don’t know when push comes to shove if I can actually kill an animal myself. I’d like to think that I could, but I’m the same person who tries to warn the spiders that Shane will see them if they build their webs in such conspicuous areas and physically moves them to ‘safer’ locations (they never listen). And our so-called “barn cats”, which I’m madly allergic to and swore never to bond with, have a carpeted area in our garage with a double insulated house and are fed and watered daily. I just don’t know.

I have this romantic vision of hunting, a quick kill and giving the animal proper thanks prior to butchering it and bringing it home to feed my family. I’m just not sure it’ll play that way in real life. I could very well end up sobbing and throwing up over the poor dead thing.

So I’m left with a dilemma. Either develop the stomach for killing or stop eating meat. Sure, I could leave it to Shane but that doesn’t sit well with my conscience either. I believe if you can’t do it yourself, that speaks too loudly to ignore. Oh, I guess not entirely ‘too loudly’ to be ignored since it is my current practice but I suspect it will eventually get to me as all my nagging does. It’s funny, how doing the ‘wrong thing’ is so amazingly easy while doing the ‘right thing’ (and I’m of course being entirely subjective here) is ridiculously difficult and sometimes requires years of self-talk and condemnation.

Guess we’ll see what happens. I do know that we can’t go on eating the way that we do. A move to more ethical practices would not only weigh easier, it may be the only option left sooner than later. And maybe that’s the ticket- having no option but to do the right thing. You still get points for that, right? 😉

Beautiful, and probably tasty

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Most people wouldn’t guess my history from looking at me, or even speaking with me, and I have to admit to liking it that way. I wouldn’t say it’s been a long road, that sounds entirely too self pitying and trite, but there have been times it’s seemed long. I’ve led a very intentional life though, and that’s provided the energy needed to push through even the most difficult passages.

My earliest years were about survival. That’s the easiest (briefest, least messy) way to sum it up. (So that you don’t think I am saying all of my ‘intentions’ have been altruistic- I merely mean to imply ‘focused’.) That changed when I had my daughter, and life became about her. I centred my whole world around one perfect being and that served me quite well for many years. When she died, a little over a year and a half ago, I found myself in desperate need of grounding, and purpose.

The world is a chaotic, sometimes surreal place to live in. It’s easy, at least for me, to get caught up in all of the crazy things that people do or the details of what ‘must’ be done in order to get along in society. It’s easy to be angry. I admit to having spent a lot of time there. There’s nothing really brave about anger though, is there? Unless it leads to some action, which it seldom does, there’s no real point to it other than that it’s easier than actually determining a path and having the courage to follow it through.

Don’t get me wrong- I am bothered by a lot of what I see happening around me. Shane and I have long and frequent discussions on politics, and the economy, and society, and war, and… I’m quite frustrated with the direction I see we (society) are headed in, like lemmings to a cliff. And, of course, I miss my child. But ultimately I need to maintain my own personal direction, the only thing that I have any real control over.

I can’t say that I knew where we were headed when we started on this off-grid, natural building ‘thing’. We had some vague concept of ‘providing for ourselves’, of spending our time together rather than off somewhere working to pay someone else for our needs and our wants, of aligning our lives more closely with our values. Some notion of not paying into a system neither of us is inclined to support on ethical grounds. Some inkling of teaching others how to do the same, a small but life affirming rebellion. All very romantic.

Those of you who have followed our blog know that, for the most part, it’s been anything but romantic. It’s a lot of hard work, which I don’t mind but… It’s a lot of hard work. And I still find myself utterly discombobulated a lot of the time. “How? What? Why? Where? And then I what?” There’s a lot to learn, and soooooo many adjustments. There are times when I just want to drive to Second Cup and order up a caramel corretto, go shopping all day and not think about anything. Of course that’s now a 4 hour drive and I’m entirely too practical to get any enjoyment out of spending money frivolously so it’s a fleeting, albeit satisfying, daydream.

I also find myself sometimes stuck between two groups of people, not quite belonging to either camp. There are my friends who live in the city and continue to, more or less, enjoy lives much like my own used to be. And there are the newfound friends we’ve made along the way, many of whom have been living off-grid and/or been self reliant for a good deal of time. I can’t fully relate to either group. I get a lot of “are you crazy?” looks from the former group, and a lot of raised eyebrows that seem to ask, “are you retarded?” from the latter. Neither, thank you, just learning and maybe not on the fastest curve possible. Thankfully most of my friends seem to have endless patience with me, and I think I provide amusement, maybe occasionally bemusement. I think my daughter would have been more amused than any, but also proud of me.

I am learning. And I do have purpose and direction in my life. Which is crucial, no, because I don’t think that life is meant to simply be a test of endurance and I think that’s how it would feel without some clear connection to what I’m doing. I may not understand the details of what I’m doing, the mechanics of it all, but I know what I’m doing. If that makes sense. There’s a connection… And it helps, immensely, that it’s a vision I share with my husband, a man I respect and adore with all of my being.

The further we get into this- the building with earth, building soil, building gardens, using resources carefully and sparingly, giving more than we are taking- the more grounded I feel.

At the end of the day, I feel good about what I’m doing. What we’re doing. I don’t think it’s an easy road, for anyone, but it does help to know where you’re going- if not, entirely, how you’re going to get there.

Erica, whose memory propels me forward still


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Rocket (cook) stoves are as cheap and easy or as expensive and full on as you want them to be. Our first one was made using materials on hand: a coffee can, two progressively smaller cans, and a couple of handfuls of diatomite. It was never intended to be anything more than an experiment, as evidenced by the fact that I left it outside to rust for the last year, though it did come in handy when we lost power and wanted hot tea.

The basic idea behind the rocket stove is to use minimal (wood) fuel to heat a concentrated area. The stoves are generally meant for outdoor use as they don’t include a chimney. I did, however, find a video online for an industrial size rocket stove with a chimney and have posted it below. A person could scale down the design and make a reasonably sized rocket stove for indoor use based on that design.

For those of you who just want to get started though, and intend to use the stove outdoors, here is a list of what you’ll need: a large can, and two progressively smaller cans, some scrap metal, clay (optional), and some nonflammable material for insulation like industrial vermiculite, perlite, or diatomite.

For the sake of this article, I’ll assume you’re using a large coffee can for your main barrel. It’s the perfect size for a starter project. (Personally, I’m planning to use a 5 gallon canister for my next effort. I like the size of the surface.)

Basically what you’re looking to do is connect your two smaller cans so that they form an “L” shaped elbow and house this configuration inside of your largest canister. Insulation is packed inside the large can, keeping the heat isolated to the inner sleeve. Your wood is inserted in the horizontal portion of the elbow on a piece of metal used as a ledge.

Your smallest can needs both ends removed- easy enough with a can opener.

Then make a hole in your mid-sized can. You’ll want to make this on the lower portion of the can, right near the bottom, so that when you insert your smallest can, together they’ll form an elbow. You’re going to trace the hole to cut from your smallest can since that’s what it will need to fit.

Then take your biggest can and trace a hole in the side a couple of centimeters above the bottom using your smallest can. (I’m assuming you’re using a coffee can for your largest container, if you’re using something bigger adjust your measurements accordingly.)

On the lid of the coffee can, trace a circle the size of your medium can and cut this out.

Get your insulation ready.  Use a light, non-flammable material such as vermiculite, perlite, scoria, diatomite or even wood ash.

Insert your medium can into larger so it is vertical with the open end up and the hole you cut facing the hole in the coffee can. Now insert the smallest can through the coffee can into the can in the middle. This will form the elbow within the coffee can. Pack underneath and around the elbow with insulation.

Now push the lid of the coffee can into the top of the coffee can until it rests on the top of the elbow inside. Be careful, there are sharp edges.

Finally, take a piece of metal scrap the width of the smallest can and insert it for use as a shelf for the fuel. You don’t need too long a piece and can even use the lid you removed earlier if you don’t have any scrap.

The basic shape of a rocket stove

Rusted, but still usable in a pinch

That’s how to make a very simple rocket stove. You can see that by applying the basic premises though, you can build a larger stove or a considerably more fashionable one with just a bit of effort. We went super lazy on our first one and it was still useful when push came to shove and we needed boiling water. I’ve posted a video of a considerably more polished version that I found on YouTube below.


Here is a video displaying two models that are very similar to our own first effort.


Finally, the video for the industrial size rocket stove with chimney. (Note: this is part 1 of 8 videos available in this instructional.)


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