Archive for the ‘off grid’ Category

Shane finished up the solar panel mounts a little while ago. They’re looking pretty good. Can’t wait to get the panels up there and whole system hooked up but I’ll have to a while yet with the number of projects on the go.



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This will be more of an update through photos as I’m rushing off to get some other work done. The past week has been busy as tomorrow will mark a full seven days since our last snowfall and we’re running around trying to get things sorted for our full-on season. I went to Calgary on Friday and picked up the lovely batteries you see below- Surrette CS17pS, 4 of them for a 24 Volt system. On Saturday we headed down to Lethbridge to pick up our very solidly built solar panel mounts. Thanks to Troy at Eco Diesel for building us a mount that will easily survive the winds that blow through our property daily. I took a couple of pictures of his system- ours will look just like that once in place except that we have nine panels instead of twelve and will only require two cement blocks to secure the system. And on our way home from Troy’s, we picked up a rescue dog from a woman in the area. The latest addition to our homestead, currently going by No-Name because his new owners have channeled all of their creative juices elsewhere. I will try to write or at least post photos in the next while (I have fabulous worm bins and a new tractor to tell you about) but am so ridiculously busy right now that I can’t say when. Hope everyone’s spring is off to a wonderful start! 🙂



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It’s been a while since I’ve written and it may seem that’s because I haven’t anything new to report but it’s been quite the opposite- too much on the go and not enough hours in the day. Add to which at any given time, I have a dozen ideas on the go and it’s just painstakingly difficult to focus on one thing long enough to write. Our seeds have been ordered (one set already received), we received confirmation of our order for trees and bushes, we bought our power system (less the batteries which we’ll buy closer to the move-in date), we’re busy making firebricks, experimenting with vegetarian meals, and- of course- loads of studying going on.

Since we went ahead and committed to a system, I figured I should learn everything that I can about off-grid systems- PV arrays, batteries, wiring, chargers and inverters, gensets and so on. Holy f*ck. This isn’t my first round of studying this stuff but it might as well be- I feel so overwhelmed. I’ve often thought that stupid people must have such relaxed, pleasant lives but I’ve reconsidered that position. My experience with it is that it’s downright frustrating.

Today I decided to break away from the power side of things and examine landscape design in more detail. It has to be decided by spring as well. I’m thinking of adding a few keyhole gardens to the mix, possibly with the intention of bringing them all together down the road as one big mandala garden. I started soil building last year and will continue with raised beds this year given the condition of the soil out here, add to which with the exception of last year we have limited rainfall at best. Keyhole gardens sound like my best option for maximizing use of available space and limited water.

Well, my head is swimming. Just thought I’d touch base and let you know what’s going on with the Canadian dirtbags these days.


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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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The pocket rocket is a brilliant little invention that Ianto Evans and Larry Jacobs came up with some time in the late seventies, early eighties. (Yes, I did mention to Ianto that he might have thought of copyrighting that name before another, ahem, ‘invention’ made use of it. Hindsight, eh?) We built one for use in our sauna last year, to try out both earthbag building and rocket stoves at the same time. We went out in January to test how it would stand up to colder temperatures and within under ten minutes, we had raised the temperature from -15 C to +35 C, a 50 degree difference!

It requires only a few easily scavenged materials and is a great ‘starter project’. You’ll need a 30 or 55 gallon drum- one with a detachable clamp-on lid is great for a pocket rocket. And a couple of pieces of pipe- one for the feed tube and one for the chimney. That’s it. A little mortar for around the pipe and you’re ready to roll.

Start by burning off any paint on the barrel. We just stuck ours in our firepit and let it go for a while. While you’re waiting for the drum, cut two holes in the lid- one to fit each of the pipes. (Note: if you want to use the top of your stove for heating water, you’ll need to position those holes with enough room for a kettle or pot.) We didn’t cut our holes to the exact size of the pipe- we cut them slightly smaller and then cut tabs to fold up along the pipe for a nice snug fit.

When your barrel has cooled, dust off any remaining paint. Place your rocket stove somewhere away from anything flammable. (Seriously- this thing heats up like crazy!) Put the lid back onto the barrel and position your feed tube. It should be a few inches from the bottom of the barrel. Place your chimney in the other hole. The chimney (exhaust) only needs to go into the barrel a bit, several inches should do you.

The rocket stove prefers small diameter, straight wood. Gather some up and test drive! It’ll sound like a rocket when it fires up- that’s the draw. If it’s roaring when it starts- you’re good. Wait until it cools a bit and then mortar around the pipes. If you’re not getting the draw you want, fiddle with the feed tube a bit until you get it to just the right height. It may take a bit of patience, but this is a stove you can build in a matter of hours, so it’s worth playing around with to get just right.

Have fun- and let us know how it works out for you!

NOTE: If you want to preserve some of this heat, you could easily cob around the lower half or two thirds of the barrel. Otherwise, be prepared for some incredible radiant heat!

DISCLAIMER: This isn’t something you want to be building in your traditional home, as it would be a fire hazard.

Barrel for the rocket stove

top of barrel, with holes for connecting pipe

basic pocket rocket

pocket rocket fired up

A couple of rocket stove mock-ups

A basic pocket rocket used for interior heat

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We intend to go entirely off-grid. I can’t say exactly when we’ll hit that goal, or what the final system will look like quite yet. Redundancy is important to us so that if a component fails or is down for maintenance it’s not an entirely dire situation. So is efficiency. Ideally, we want the greatest return for the least input- particularly where fuel is concerned. We’re confident that the rocket mass heater we’re building to heat our main living space meets this criteria.

A rocket mass heater burns (wood) fuel extremely efficiently. Seriously efficiently– which is important to us for several reasons not the least of which is that we live on the prairie. There are lots of systems that make this claim but I have never seen anything like the rocket stove. When we were in Oregon, one of our projects was a rocket water heater. When we fired up the system to test it we were encouraged to go around to the exterior of the building and put our faces close to the exhaust. (I know, I know- apparently I’ll do anything for a lentil burger.) I was utterly amazed when instead of a face full of smoke, I was greeted by a cool steam. The wood was burning so efficiently, and the system using all of the heat, that there was nothing but a light steam by the time it reached the outdoors. This is the promise of a rocket mass heater.

That’s the other very important feature of the rocket mass heater- efficient use of heat. When you think of a traditional forced air system, or even a regular wood burning stove, it’s clear to see that a lot of heat is wasted. The mass heater, on the other hand, stores the heat for slow release in easy to build, dirt cheap furniture. Excuse the bad pun. The heat travels down a course built into the furniture (in our case, a combination couch/day bed) transferring its heat to the cob that encases it and slowly releasing it. Essentially, the chimney is inside of the furniture exiting only when it has had a sufficient run to use up the heat. For example, a standard 6” system would have a run of about 30’ and be enclosed in about 3 tons of material.

When you hear talk of rocket mass heaters, you’ll hear frequent mention of the combustion unit and the thermal battery. The combustion unit is roughly J-shaped, and is made up of the feed tube, the burn tunnel, and the heat riser. Measured precisely, and with good mortar and insulation, the combustion unit burns fuel very efficiently and draws well. The thermal battery, as mentioned, is in the furniture itself (or the floor, though it’s not a recommended first time project) in which the heat is stored.

It’s important not just to get the measurement of the combustion unit right, but to carefully consider the run. You don’t want to place the pipes too low into the furniture (or maybe you do, for a much slower bleed and perhaps warming the floor in front of the bench) but you don’t want to go to high and risk a burning hot surface. About 6” from the top of your bench is recommended for a nicely toasted bum. Your initial run will be the warmest, with every length doubled back running slightly cooler- assuming that you’re doubling your run (we may be tripling ours).

You’ll also want to insulate underneath the combustion unit and behind your bench (couch, daybed…) if it sits against a wall. No sense bleeding good heat into the wall. Vermiculite (industrial, not agricultural), perlite, or pumice are all good materials. Use your imagination but avoid anything that may off gas, like foams.

For all of this you’ll need only the most basic materials. Bricks (which you can reuse or make), clay soil, sand, straw, urbanite or rocks (for heat storage) and a couple of barrels and stove pipe, or metal duct. The size of your barrels will vary between 15 gallons for the feed tube, and 30-55 gallon for the heat exchanger- depending on your specific design. Most, if not all, of your supplies can be found and reused.

If I’ve made it sound complicated- it isn’t, but there is some patience and tinkering required. You can’t (or rather shouldn’t) just throw your system together and encase it in cob. You build the system, and fire it. Check it for leaks, or a weak draw, or any other issues, rework your design and fire it again until you have a leak-free system that draws well and burns efficiently. You’ll know it draws well because it actually sounds like a rocket. I’m sure I’ll eventually tire of the sound when it first catches but I’m still just amazed every time that I hear one start. You’ll also want to decide how much radiant heat you want as that will decide how much of the barrel to leave exposed. Myself, I’d like to boil water for tea on top of the heater, so I’ll need to position the heat riser to within 2” of the barrel to create a hot spot.

Once your design is perfected, you’re ready to encase the entire thing in cob and wait for your new furniture to set. (It’s a good idea to test it once again, before your furniture is rock hard.) If you’re a patient person, you’ll have a mass heater that will last you for years. If you try and rush this, you will regret it- it’s not as easy as throwing out an old couch.

Now, having said that it’s efficient and simple to build- I’m not going to go through the entire process on this blog, nor could I without writing a book-length piece. Pick up the actual book- “Rocket Mass Heaters” by Ianto Evans and Leslie Jackson- it’s well worth it. You can buy it in book stores but for the (small) profit to go directly to the authors, you can order it at http://www.cobcottage.com/products . The book will walk you through the main components of the system, layout, calculations and exact measurements. And, apart from the fact that you won’t be able to build a mass heater based on my brief overview, the book also provides alternative models and adaptations, including a rocket hot tub, a Guatemalan cook stove, and an ingenious little coffee rocket.

As a prelude to building a mass heater, try your hand at a pocket rocket- a very simple rocket stove. It is really easy to build and throws an amazing amount of heat, but most importantly it will get you started, build your confidence and have you well on your way of being as hooked on these wonderful heating systems as we are! I’ll provide full details and pictures so that you can build your own pocket rocket in my next blog.

The combustion unit of the water heater

The combustion unit of a mass heater

Note the clean-out

Super cozy rocket mass heater, Cob Cottage, OR

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I was going to write on mass heaters today, it being at the forefront of my mind. I picked up the book “Rocket Mass Heaters: Super -efficient Woodstoves YOU can Build” and leafed through it, thought back to our stay at Cob Cottage last year. What an experience. If you ever get a chance to visit Oregon… We learned about rocket mass heaters, and stoves, and fireplaces, and natural plasters and building with cob, and so many things. We also made friends, and shared experiences and stories about our lives.

“Everyone here has a story about fire,” Ianto (the author of Rocket Mass Heaters and cofounder of Cob Cottage) smiled, all of us gathered together in the courtyard one evening. And we all did. Some frightening, some poignant, some comical- all of them moving in their importance to us as individuals. We went around the circle sharing our memories, alternately nodding, smiling, and laughing lowly with each other. So I’ll save my account on mass heaters for the next time, and share instead my own memory of fire and what it meant to me.

I took up camping straight away when I moved to Alberta from Quebec. I was blown away by the mountains and simply thrilled that a short drive from Calgary could find me so deep in the wilderness. It was not at all what I was used to but in no time, I was an avid camper and outdoor enthusiast. Several years into living in the west, I’d still only been camping as part of a group though. Never on my own.

I’m doing it, I decided and proceeded to pack amidst warnings from my friends. It seemed rather suddenly that all of my strong willed, independent girlfriends were afraid that I would starve to death or be eaten by a bear if I didn’t bring along a man. Which, of course, only made me more determined to go- alone.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fly by the seat of my pants kind of gal and it just so happens that I made this decision in April (of who knows what year, long ago) so I packed up my car and hit the road. Well it was decent weather in Calgary anyway. As I drove further down gravel roads towards my destination, the appearance of snow on the ground triggered a bit of concern. I turned the radio up a little louder to drown out my thumping heart as I hydroplaned over sections of icy road and then dipped into patches of heavy slush. And when I got to the closed site, I took heart in the fact that the chain was easily moved and I had the entire place to myself. I was giddy with excitement by the time I chose my site.

Thankfully I’ve always packed enough tarps to cover a small village, as I found myself needing to lay them underneath where the tent would stand when I finally got it up. Even the driest of the sites was covered in heavy, wet snow. Still, my enthusiasm was intact.

I’d bought firewood from an old fellow I’d met the previous year and had plenty to last me for days and soon found a stump down the path to use as a chopping block. I chopped tiny pieces for kindling, slightly larger pieces to get the fire going, pieces larger than that to sustain the fire, and left a few logs aside in case I really got it going. I emptied the fire pit of snow and placed my kindling and small pieces of wood. Several tries later, I was still without fire. The pit was just too wet and the wood not quite dry enough either. So I emptied out the pit again and dug a little deeper until I reached ground that was only slightly less damp and started again.

I’m not sure how long that went on. Long enough that I couldn’t feel my toes anymore, my fingers and cheeks were freezing, it was getting dark, and I was questioning my own good sense, or lack thereof. I contemplated going home, or at least checking into an inn. Well I’d have sooner frozen to death than admit defeat and was beginning to reconcile myself with the fact that might just be my fate when the flames took off. I quickly loaded in more kindling and, I’m embarrassed to say, toilet paper having run out of newspaper hours earlier and the flames continued to leap from the pit. A short time later, I was sitting on the chopping block stump in front of a beautiful roaring fire.

My toes did eventually thaw, if not before my shoes were smoking, and I felt my whole body relax in spite of the cold. I would be okay. I remember that thought as clearly as if I had been there yesterday. I would be okay. I had proven to myself that I could indeed take care of myself with just a few basic items, a bit of determination, and a stubborn streak to rival a mule. And fire- wonderful, life saving fire.

I guess that’s all I’m really doing now, but on a bigger scale. I want to be able to take care of myself. This year alone I have learned to use a pick axe, moved a small hill (no, really), dug a rubble trench, started building a house using mainly clay and gravel, learned about soil building and developed several garden plots, shoveled too many tons of earth and gravel to even guess at- repeatedly, and learned how to fire a gun. I’m a natural- with a gun that is. I suspected I would be.

We’re still not there. There’s so much left to do. But I’m left with that same almost eerily calm feeling I had that day in the woods. For all of my concern about the uncertainty of the future (or certainty I suppose, that it won’t be what it is today, that it’ll probably be worse than the most cynical of us imagines at this rate) I am left with the unshakeable feeling that we will be okay. There’s something spiritual in that.

So, next time- rocket mass heaters. I promise. In the meantime, maybe you’ll be lost off in your own thoughts of fire, and what it means to you.

my favourite camping ground, in nicer weather 🙂

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It seems we’re always racing time, or the weather, or some other factor completely outside of our sphere of influence. It’s a typical October in Alberta, which means we’ve had our first (second and third) snowfall. It hasn’t snowed in a few days now but we haven’t hit above freezing temperatures either and the acreage looks like a veritable winter wonderland. It’s beautiful really, but not entirely conducive to outdoor work- at least not until we’ve more fully acclimatized.

We’ve just about finished plastering the buildings for winter. A few half decent days and we should be done. And we need to get some above freezing weather (forecast for next week) to finish the last row of bags at the front entrance. Other than that, we need to finish temporarily roofing the structures and fit the windows so that we can work indoors through the winter.

We have plans for a rocket mass heater in the living room, as well as a greenhouse sunspace, and have cabinets to build, a bathtub to form, and pipes for greywater reuse to lay out. We’ll also need a part wall in the kitchen. I’m sure there’s more that I’m forgetting. One of these days I’ll get around to writing out a handy ‘to-do’ list but in the meantime…

We also have plenty of outdoor work to complete, including moving tons of earth (quite literally) to build up the garden around the kitchen and living room areas. Because of the sheer mass of the buildings, and the materials we’re using (primarily the earth beneath our feet), the zone immediately around the building on the south side will be different than elsewhere on the property and we hope to be able to grow plants that would not otherwise do well on the property. The ‘surround garden’ will also further shelter the building from some of our more extreme temperatures.

Add to which there are the day to day tasks and preparing for winter- clean up (long overdue), preparing the garage and shop for indoor work, reorganizing materials, covering the last of the raised bed gardens, and so on. (And this doesn’t even speak to the commitments that we have off the property…) It could be overwhelming but strangely it’s not. I think I’ve finally found my ground in this pioneer lifestyle and have come to appreciate the work, even the sheer amount of it. Maybe it’s because I can’t think of another time in my life when the work that I was doing felt so right. And maybe it’s partly due to the fact that my body has had time to heal from the abuse heaped upon it during the building season. Either way, I’m feeling good about it.

Section of kitchen still to be plastered

West side view

Southwest view

Southeast view, from front

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Some of you may be wondering where we’ve been these last few weeks. We’ve decided to abandon the earthbag building in favour of digging a hole in the side of a hill. Holes are notoriously cozy, animals have favoured them for years as comfortable living spaces, and we think this will get us into a natural building that much sooner. So we’ve been busy dig, dig, digging.

Okay, I jest. We’ve been hard at work getting the kitchen and living room domes to level so that we can put in the second floors and cover them for winter. That done, we’re working on the front entrance which I expect we’ll be done by end of weekend. Then we can work on the floors.

We’ll be using lengths of the telephone poles that we were fortunate enough to have donated as centre columns and we’ve purchased some inexpensive round wood that will converge at the centre, something like a wheel configuration. From there we’ll nail down our floor and then tarp the whole thing for winter, while we work inside.

I’ll post photos of the building once the floor is up, with any luck in the next week or so.

We’re also working on the plaster and it’s coming along, if not “nicely” well enough. And we’ve continued to collect materials, the best find of which was a woodstove for $75. It’s in beautiful condition and I can’t wait to try it out.

Well friends, thanks to those of who’ve been kind enough to search us out and ask where we’re at. As always, we appreciate the support and community! And on that note, I’m off to plaster…


Ready for plaster & second floor installation



Front entrance should be up to level this wknd

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We’ve met a lot of new people in the course of our building and gardening adventures. Preppers, doomers, natural builders, gardening enthusiasts, permaculturists, homesteaders, as well as a whole new wave of people “dropping out” for various reasons. It’s quite the ragtag community.

Not everyone’s “in it” for the same reasons, but the goals are similar- to rely more on personal efforts for such things as food and energy, and to do so in a sustainable fashion. I have to say, of all the circles I’ve run in over the years or groups that I’ve found myself a part of, this community is the most impressive of all.

Most of our community we’ve met online and I look forward to the new blogs on most recent adventures as they go up. It’s just amazing, what people are capable of when they have a determined endpoint. Stories of people building with natural materials, reusing waste in the most inventive ways, learning about water treatment and power production, successes and failures with polycultures, not to mention the interesting political conversations… It’s really heartening to know that so many are on the same path, and working really hard to be part of the solution.

I don’t know how you’d class Shane and me. We started off with a retirement plan of sorts. Our intention was to spend as much of our lives “living”, rather than working towards an arbitrary end date at which point we might foreseeably enjoy our time left. And with that plan in mind we came to the realization that in order to properly ‘retire’ from the game, we would need to provide for ourselves those things that we currently pay others to provide for us. Simple enough idea, if rather more difficult to implement. But only difficult- not impossible.

We’re not environmentalists by any means. In fact, we really don’t want to be associated with that particular group, knee jerk and short-sighted as they so often are. But we do take our responsibility to the environment serious. In our minds it is not only possible to lessen our negative impact on the environment, but to improve it in small ways.

We’re also not doomers, or religious at all. Nor are we really preppers- though I quite strongly believe that the shit will hit the fan- not if but when. And who knows on how many fronts, but undoubtedly we can only go so far on the energy train we’ve already run into the ground, and food shortages (whether due to lack of said energy for either production and transport, or natural disasters as we are seeing all over the world this year, or the mismanagement of our land) are as much as a sure thing. And don’t get me started on the rise of fascism around the world and in our own backyards.

We can’t quite yet be classed as permaculturists, though we are working towards it, and my own lack of gardening experience has been glaringly obvious in previous posts so I don’t qualify as an ‘enthusiast’ by any stretch, though I do approach my misadventures with enthusiasm.

We are, I suppose, homesteaders with a vision. Off to a rocky and somewhat comical start, but homesteaders nonetheless. I guess that’s as close as a category we’d fit as any.

But I digress. Our common ground and values far outweigh our differences. The community that we find ourselves a part of is amazing. And surprisingly tight. I don’t think we could be any more supportive if we lived next door to each other, rather than communicating primarily online. Anytime that I find myself lacking in inspiration, knowledge or enthusiasm, the community is right there- inspiring, sharing information, funny personal stories or encouragement. We’ve even occasionally been surprised by donation of materials for various projects.

While we use the phrase “self-sustaining” to describe much of what we’re doing, and planning, it’s rather misleading. Self-sustaining in that we plan to provide for our own food, energy and shelter- certainly. But buoyed by a community of like-minded individuals without whom we would surely find ourselves lacking. For all of our differences, the common thread is a surprisingly strong bond.

Down the road, we’ll most likely welcome work traders as well. There’ll be so much to do, between gardening, and tending animals, and the bees… The two of us could pull it off, but it would be a more comfortable load for four or five people- leaving everyone with plenty of downtime. We know that some people are unable to purchase their own property, and as such can’t provide for themselves off the land, so it seems a reasonable trade. And will no doubt lead to even more interesting friends and lifetime bonds.

So to all of our friends in our newfound community- thank you, for everything. We’re on the right road, and so long as we’re traveling together I think we’ll be just fine.

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