Archive for the ‘Renewable energy’ Category


I received a note from a reader a while ago asking whether we’d hooked up our solar system and was surprised to note that I never did actually write about that part of the project. I suppose if it hadn’t worked I’d have been on top of writing about that but as it turns out it’s been working quite well for us.

I should start by saying that we do not have the massive loads that we did at the older (traditional) house. And there are some things we do without, or will do without for now until the system can be expanded. The best advice that I can give anyone wishing to go off-grid is: figure out what you can do without, and then cut it back just a little bit more.

Some of the things that we don’t use (and couldn’t if we wanted to, without compromising our energy bank) are any electric devices that convert electricity to heat: coffee percolator, electric heater, curling irons (Shane has to go au naturel), hairdryers, microwave, toaster- those sorts of things. We could get away with using some of these devices during peak energy times but they’re such a draw and there are easy alternatives that we don’t bother. We also don’t run a lot that works on a 24 hour cycle, like clock radios. Our router and cell phone booster are the exceptions to the rule. This house is as solid as a fortress- without the booster we’d be SOL for a signal. (It’s worth noting that we did unplug both last night, and saved ~15 amp hours, so we may start doing that regularly.)

We don’t do without very much. We use stovetop espresso makers for our morning coffee, battery operated alarm clocks, LED lanterns provide nice room light, and florescent bulbs provide brighter light for reading or cooking. Shane works from home and requires two monitors, an iPad, and a standard computer, in addition to his personal computers (2) and I have 2 laptops that I use fairly regularly, for online courses, research and writing. We also have a nice speaker system that we’re running regularly. We have a woodstove for heat and a separate woodstove for cooking, and I have an induction cooktop that I’ve yet to use but plan to check for power usage some time in the next while, though I expect it’ll be primarily a summer item. We haven’t used a television in ages now but we watch movies, documentaries and shows on a big screen computer (below).


Now… there are some things that I don’t expect everyone would be happy to sacrifice. We don’t have running water yet, and I’m not sure what kind of system I’ll ultimately settle on (powered or gravity fed). I have as much rainwater as I could possibly want to last me into the spring and beyond but I do have to move it by pail, whether into the Berkey for filtering and drinking, or to heat for dishes. We also have to dispose of greywater manually, which makes it easy to direct but a pain in the ass sometimes nonetheless. There’s a photo of the laundry sink and pail underneath it at the end of this article. Old school, but it works for us right now.


We also don’t have a traditional toilet, but then we’d moved over to the Humanure system long before we moved into the new house. I’m used to it, and a strong proponent of the system having used one for four or so years now, but it will no doubt freak out houseguests. Which is actually not a huge downside to me because I’m not an entirely big houseguest-person.

Other little things that we do- I have a haybox (which is not so much a haybox but a what-can-I-throw-together-in-under-a-minute box) that I put my teapot inside in between uses and overnight. It’s a rough model but it does keep my tea warm for quite some time. And our fridge is a converted freezer, so we don’t waste cold air pouring out of the fridge every time that we open it. It’s a pretty easy conversion (especially if, like me, you just watch someone else do it- thanks babe) and is decent on energy. And we have a gazillion, or at least half a dozen, LED lanterns and flashlights that we use rather than turning on room lights every time we are passing through, or for use in rooms like the water room where we don’t need a lot of bright light.


We also have a couple of small independent solar powered items. We have a Soulra speaker system that is solar powered. We used to use it as a primary system (with Shane’s iPod) but have since switched to new speakers. Still, it’s good to have. Would I recommend running out and buying it? Meh. I wouldn’t run, but it’s decent- it takes forever to charge by sun but it can be charged electrically as well, and charges quickly that way. And we have a solar JOOS charger- the orange model- and use it to charge everything from iPods to cell phones. Unlike the Soulra it is a very good little machine and I’d highly recommend it.


I think it’s a good sign that I have to rack my brain for things I’ve had to do without, or adjust to. So far, so good. And we’ll see what we decide to do going forward to enhance the system. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly over the years, though I’m fine with a pretty serious off-grid transition I’ve never had any desire to live like a hobbit. Not that I have anything against hobbits, or people who choose to live like hobbits, it’s just not my bag. The longer we live here, the more my fear of that fate lessens. Still, I’m keeping an eye on my hobbit-lovin’ fella…




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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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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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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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