Feeds:
Posts
Comments

I have a ridiculously short attention span. I’ve probably mentioned that before. I’ve done, what I consider, well with maintaining this blog over a three year period but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to come back to with all of my other interests taking priority. Anyway, it occurred to me that I have not updated this page since our mass heater fiasco and the ensuing mad dash to replace it with a working stove.

After all of the effort required to take this project this far though, I do intend to finish it with our experiences actually living in the off-grid home we worked so hard to complete. So you can expect, sporadic (as usual) updates over the winter and into the spring and we’ll see how I feel about writing anything more (on this subject) at that point.

We’re doing fine- I’ll start with that as I keep getting asked. We’re not freezing. Quite the opposite- there are times when I have to strip down because it’s so hot in here, but I am absolutely not complaining. The humidity that some of my readers were wondering about is pretty much non-existent, with the wood stove drying things out enough that I have to keep a pot of water on the stove to add humidity.

Our solar power is serving us quite nicely, but we don’t have the loads that we did at the other house. More on this in another blog. Suffice to say that I don’t worry about having lights on, or running my computer (and Shane’s five computers), or the speakers, or the fridge and freezer. (Though I will say that Shane’s constant hovering is enough reminder to conserve energy, in addition to being annoying.) We do, however, have generators just in case, or to equalize the batteries during the long, dark winter.

I’m still adjusting to using a wood stove for all of my cooking. My breads turn out beautifully, as do pizzas, stews, stir fries. More precise cooking (like my delicate cookies, or yoghurt) will take a while to perfect. Sometimes I am beyond impressed with my newfound abilities and other times I can be found swearing a blue streak in front of the stove. It’s alright though- I have been swearing a blue streak over something since I was yea high; if it weren’t the stove it’d be something else. “Hot little pistol with a potty mouth,” is how Shane sometimes describes me, which simultaneously makes me laugh and creeps me out (who uses the expression “potty mouth”??).

Bearing in mind that this entire thing was one grand experiment for us, a couple of ‘city folk’ trying to see just how far we could take an off-grid lifestyle, we’re doing quite well overall. I haven’t taken photographs of the entire interior yet but I’ll leave you with a view of our living room. It’s not finished (since our rocket mass heater demolition) but it’s as finished as it will be until spring.

LRoom
LRoom2

Do you remember how glowingly I spoke of rocket mass heaters? How excited I was to have one as the primary heating system in our home? And it wasn’t just me- Shane was equally enthusiastic about the technology, possibly even more so. The potential to build our own heating system, for relatively little money, the possibility of storing heat in mass- that would in turn provide a cozy sitting area, the efficiency of the burn, our very positive experiences with rocket stoves– all of these qualities made rocket mass heaters extremely attractive to us. Add to that the fanfare, oh the fanfare

Well I can’t stand rocket mass heaters. I would never build another one, unless I had an immense amount of time on my hands with absolutely nothing better to do and wanted an outdoor bench as a novelty item to be used periodically in the cooler fall months. And I’ll tell you why…

They are extremely finicky. It can be exciting during the build: getting the measurements just right, reshaping the bell chamber, getting the length of run perfect for maximum efficiency. Sure, it wears on a person after a while, but there is immense satisfaction in finally getting the bloody thing just right. That rocket sound when everything is working perfectly- WOW! But don’t get too excited- just because it’s perfect, doesn’t mean that it will work all the time.

If there is a strong wind, or say very cold temperatures (hello Canadian prairie!) all bets are off. Now you’ll have to fight a down-draft, or a nice column of very heavy cold air. Good luck getting that thing started. Oh sure, you can open a window to rebalance the air pressure, install a fan in the pipe to try and combat the problem- and if you’re persistent (like Shane) you may even get it started. This time. But try again the next morning when your wife has already moved out in frustration and you’re feeling blue- and very cold.

And then there’s the fact that you must not have any other occupation. This is perhaps appealing to some- say monks, or hobbits- who might have all day to contemplate life and feed the fire. But the average person cannot sit by the feed tube all day long, feeding the endlessly hungry beast little pieces of wood lovingly chopped down to (again) just the right size. I can only imagine what was going through Shane’s head (because again- I wasn’t here) but I’m betting it wasn’t, “man am I glad to have all of this time away from all of the other tasks on my list. I hope that I can do this every day.”

And then there are the marvellous fumes. You can’t actually close the top of the stove, for very long anyway, because you need to keep feeding it (remember?) and it needs a bit of air. This is no sealed unit you’re dealing with. So if you have breathing problems to start with, or allergies, you’ll enjoy hours of feeling like someone has your lungs in an iron grip and is slowly squeezing the air out.

There are positives. The mass does actually retain the heat for a good while. And since you can’t leave the heater during your waking hours you will get to enjoy that cozy warmth under your bum, periodically, when you’re not up and feeding the thing more sticks. But that mass does relatively little to add heat to a cold room. And it is indeed efficient- there is hardly any ash left over after burning piles and piles of expertly chopped sticks. And you can shape it to look like a dinosaur, or a mermaid, if that’s your thing.

Unfortunately the negatives far outweighed the positives for me. We tore the f*cking thing out and replaced it with a Blaze King Princess (thank you Analogman, for the very helpful advice and support). Guess what? The house is perfectly comfortable now, and it’s only been in two days. Last night, in fact, I was broiling while we watched movies in our new home and had to strip off the layers of clothing I was convinced would become my new second skin. The fire was still going this morning and kept the temperature of the house comfortable enough that I don’t even require layers. Shane didn’t even need to add wood right away- he just increased the temperature and the fire burst back into life. Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

There’s been no fumes, no leaks, no fighting down-drafts, no fighting air pressure, no swearing and threatening to leave the country for warmer climes (though I could use a vacation after all of our troubles)… Imagine that. Just warmth and comfort.

And before any rocket mass heater fans (I know you’re out there- and fanatical) write me about how we should have stuck it out, or tried a few more things- save it. The reason we embarked on this experiment was because- between a technologist and scientist- we’re game to try out just about any neat sounding idea. And we understand that no experiment goes right the first time, or the second time, and sometimes not the twelfth, or the twentieth time. We’re perfectly comfortable with reworking a project dozens of times to get the predicted results. We’re very accustomed to making adjustments, and careful measurements counting. The build was perfect but this idea does not deliver. Not in our climate and not, in my opinion, as a safe and effective indoor option. And no- I wouldn’t use it in a greenhouse either (as we at one time planned on doing) because I don’t expect to want to sit in a greenhouse long enough to get the mass up to the right temperature to be helpful.

I have a lot of cleaning to do now. Taking out a huge section of the mass heater made quite the mess and there’s dust everywhere. But I can comfortably do that now- in my underwear if I so choose. 🙂

shane

*I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a special thanks to Chad at Fireplace Stove World, in Edmonton, who was immensely helpful and patient with me, even though the road conditions (and lack of heat in days, feelings of total hopelessness, etc) had me in a terrible state by the time I got there. Thank you.

I have never struggled with knowing the right thing to say. Quite the contrary, I believe I’d have been a wonderful speech writer or political strategist. Someone behind the curtain as it were. And that is because though I know what to say, how to spin something, I have terrible difficulty actually getting the words out of my mouth. I get much more credit for speaking plainly.

So. We moved into the new house this week. Three long, hard years of building and at last we’re in. This is where I should say that I am so grateful that all of our hard work has paid off and I absolutely love the new digs. Especially as compared to Mouse-House (named for the plentiful rodents that keep making their way indoors) where we’ve made due during the construction phase.

“I’m enjoying not only the fruits of our labour but the pioneering aspects of our new life, such as hauling wood and starting a fire in the morning to cut through the chilly air.” But that would remind me of the time a good fellow in Oregon told me that we would “fall in love with the healthy and abundant vegetarian fare served during the course of the weeklong workshop.” A special way of describing the pots of beige and of green mush served for every meal, all week long. I have (almost) never been so desperate for a steak or something- anything- that I could chew in my life.

The fact is- I am not happy, yet. I’m f*cking cold to be brutally honest. And I cannot stand to be cold. Many (many) years ago I spent a period of time on the streets, homeless. Not a lot of people know that about me and I don’t spend much time thinking about it, but I did make myself two promises all those years ago. That when I finally made my way out of that situation I would never go hungry or cold again. (I’ve since added I will never again live with rodents to the list.)

The rocket mass heater that worked so beautifully last year is completely useless at the moment. And it was our main source of heat for the living room, which borders our bedroom. It is brutal in there. My shoulders are sore by mid-morning from crunching them up to my ears. I’ve taken to warming bricks on the wood stove and packing them inside of rice sacks so that I can at least keep my feet warm in living room. But I hate it. Hate, hate, hate it.

Now I’m pretty rough and tumble as a general rule. I can work like nobody’s business, I’m fine with injuries, long hours, the sight of my blood has never bothered me- or slowed me down for that matter. I’m who you want around if there is a serious crisis, or if you’ve suffered a severe injury. Unless you’re looking for a nursemaid, or require coddling- then I’m definitely not your girl. But if it falls into the category of “hungry” or “cold” (and now “mouse-infested”) I am one of the most vocal, whiniest b*tches you ever want to meet.

I don’t know how many times a person can say, “I can’t live like this” in four days but I’m sure I’ve already hit a record and the day’s not done yet. This morning I actually said to Shane that, “I guess my new retirement plan is just to die young because I’m sure I’ll be completely crippled and useless by 50 at this rate.” It was a struggle to get the words out without my own mouth dropping open from the absurdity and overblown nature of the statement but I kept a straight face- because it’s important to me to look earnest when I’m in full-on whining mode.

You might wonder how Shane is holding up to all of this. Remarkably well, but he is the strongest person I have ever met- and I say that having very high standards of what rates. He has a higher tolerance for cold than I do, by a long shot. And he’s very easy going, so he’s sure that we will solve this problem. I’m probably wearing on him more quickly than any other hardship will. And if I’m being honest- I’m only partly bothered by that, because I need him to fix this and now. There’s not a lot that I need help with, or will admit to, but by the time I get to seeking Shane’s help it’s because I want it done yesterday.

It’s a lot of pressure to put on one guy. Before you send me comments, you should know that I’m aware of that. And I do- somewhat- feel badly about that. I have bursts of, “oh we can do this- we’ve handled tougher” and other sunshiney bullsh*t moments. And those are strictly for his benefit. So I’m trying as best as I can. There are some things that I’ve even enjoyed about the new house- and once I’m in better spirits I’ll share those with you. But in the meantime, I’m cold. (Well, not at this very moment because I’m back at Mouse House, with the heat cranked so high that I could easily walk around naked.)

So- not exactly a ringing endorsement for this pioneering lifestyle that we’ve embarked on. As I started with- I could tell a different, and still true, story that might make you want to join us on this quest for a more simple, environmentally friendly life. And I’m sure over time that I will. But it doesn’t happen to be what I’m feeling in this moment, so you’re left with the harsher side of reality for today.

It’s true. Or at least that’s how it feels. I work ungodly hours on a daily basis, ramping up- not down- on weekends, and yet it seems nothing ever reaches completion. The farmers around here laugh and quip, “welcome to the neighbourhood”. I don’t find that particularly funny so I can only assume they’re laughing at, and not with, me.

Well, today that came to an end. I actually completed a project, and what felt like a monumental one at that. I placed the last of the shingles on the roof today. I shingled the whole thing by myself, having had no experience going in. I have to admit a feeling of immense self-satisfaction.

The satisfaction is amplified by the amount of work it took to even get to shingling. We began with three round rooms of varying heights, sloped for drainage, and built two gable roofs that come together at the bedroom. No easy task. In fact, I can in all honesty say that blood, sweat and tears went into the building.

Some of you will note that this is no longer an entirely ‘green building’. True enough. While we continued to salvage and reuse what we could find at various transfer sites, those are indeed new shingles (made only in part of recycled materials) and we did of course need to purchase a certain amount of new wood. A lack of viable and timely options (and a mouse issue, which I may share at a later date but am entirely too happy to right now) necessitated deviating from the plan. I’m okay with it. There’s been next to zero waste which compares extremely well next to traditional construction and what few scraps I have left over are in the shop waiting to be used on other projects.

I have lots of other news that I’ll probably (maybe?) get to at a later date but I’m rewarding myself today with a partial day off. I think I’ll read a chapter or two of a book, or maybe just lie flat on my back on the living floor for an hour or so. Tomorrow we’ll be back to work again.

before

me

ridge+

house

As often happens on the acreage my carefully laid plans for the day went sideways this morning, a result of nature’s more urgent plans. A massive storm swept through the area last night and although there was not much damage, the beautiful sunflower patch that was only just beginning to bloom was hit hard. Had I planted the patch myself, I’d have probably just resigned myself to the fact that sh*t happens and moved on. It just so happens that I have a particular affinity for this little plot of towering flowers because it wasn’t me at all who planted it. The birds did.

I planted several sunflowers last year, a half dozen at most, to see how they’d fare in this environment. Four of them made it, growing to about eight feet tall. I planned on harvesting the seed and replanting this year but when I went to retrieve the seed there was none. Not a single seed left. I checked the garden around them but nothing. No surprise really- we have a tremendous number of birds that both live on the property and migrate through. They’re why, although I have a number of berry bushes, I never have any berries. Fair enough.

In early spring of this year, I noticed a good number of plants growing in areas where I hadn’t planted anything. Dill and borage have largely taken over the “lawn”, with patches of milk thistle and mint spread throughout. Some of this is due to moving gardens and letting things go to seed without harvesting them, some is due to wind, birds and other critters. The sunflower patch must be entirely due to the birds and because of the lovely surprise that it was to find them growing (and all in a relatively concentrated patch with the odd outlier), I feel somewhat obliged to take care of them. So I spent the first part of the day replanting and staking them. With any luck they’ll take and continue growing.

As for the building- we’ve been working on the roof almost exclusively, another unexpected change in plans. “A roof?” you might ask, “didn’t you already have a roof?” Why yes, yes we did. And do. This will be roof-part-deux. The last one was insufficient. While it kept the weather out well enough, I was not thinking about protecting the lime plaster that I spent soooo much time on last year, and the fact that the lime was on top of a clay plaster, which incidentally melts in water. My brain power returns only in the off-season when the round the clock hard labour slows, so… A roof. That’s what I’m working on and will hopefully have an update on that any day now (not likely).

A final note- I have no idea what several of the wild plants are that grow out here. If you can identify any of the plants below (apart from the obvious sunflower), would you mind letting me know what they are?

sunflower
flower3
flower2
flower1

I don’t know where exactly a person has to live to be able to comfortably deny climate change but it certainly isn’t here, in a drought zone so desperate that the government bought land back from the settlers so that they could leave in the late 1930s, where it’s been raining steady since April. This following an extremely wet and early winter, with record snowfalls. Following an even wetter spring of 2012. Anyway- suffice to say this ain’t no drought area anymore and we’ve been adapting to the wet weather the best we can.

 

A lot of work has been delayed because of the rainfall but one thing it’s good for is gardening. Granted, the leaves of some of my plants are pretty pale and could use some sun but they’re doing alright so far and with any luck we’ll get sun some time in the next couple of weeks. (Not this coming week- another 50+ mm of rain is predicted.) Once again, I’ve moved the gardens around. I think I must just love moving earth because I keep changing my mind and move my gardens every year. The upside to that is with all that beautifully conditioned soil the grass isn’t competing well, and dill and mint and milk thistle is popping up all over the “lawn”.

 

I did a few bucket gardens again this year, this time with kales and mustards and zucchini. The Giant Red Mustard is delicious and the Tasoi is quite nice too, and I’m thinking in another week or so I’ll be able to harvest some of the kale varieties. I have French Sorrel in the garden and am hooked on the light lemony taste, and some broccoli coming along quite nicely, with celery, rhubarb, strawberries, oregano, basil, tomatoes, beets, string beans, and peppers all off to a good start.

 

I have a few smaller gardens too, with everything from carrots to turnips, assorted peppers, and more kale, a bit of mustard, poppies, and a few things I’ll remember once they’ve matured and I distinguish the leaves. I’ve found keeping everything mixed together keeps the pests down and the bees happy, is the best use of space, and looks just beautiful when it’s all in bloom. A couple of weeks of sun and the space will be transformed. I put some flax straw down thinking to keep the moisture in, but that was a premature decision.

 

We also planted close to 900 trees, and when I say “we” I’m kind of going with the royal use of the word because Shane was entirely busy with work when they came in. That was a lot of work. With the soil being so bad out here, each hole has to be dug deep and amended with compost to prepare for the seedlings and it was the one week we didn’t have rain so I had to haul buckets of water along with me. This year we planted more lilac, Siberian larch, oak, green ash, hawthorn, Scots pine, spruce, and crabapples.

 

That’s a little over 2,000 trees planted since we moved here six years ago. I am so pleased with the growth of the previous years’ trees. I was told there were certain trees that wouldn’t take out here (like maple) but it just goes to show what a little extra care will get you- they’re doing beautifully. (That pretty 3′ tree in the middle photo was an itty bitty stick when I planted it 2 years ago.) It’ll be several years yet before the property really transforms because we’ve started almost all of our trees from tiny seedlings but I’m already excited just having them in the ground.

garden1maplegarden2

 

And some music for you, for no other reason than I’ve been listening to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars album (again) and I can’t be the only one to end the day leaping around and playing air guitar (again). 🙂

 

Junk in my Trunk

Still amazed by how much (and what) people throw away. Our most recent score was a couple of very large towers, some perfectly good garden trellis, a couple of rolls of tin, some cinder blocks, and some pallets from the dump. Driving past someone’s house we noticed some logs and Shane asked if they were throwing them away- sure enough. All of the wood in the picture has been salvaged from one place or another, including the wood roof which Shane is going to cover with our found tin.

pallets etctowerswood

New Solar Mounts

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.

 

mount1mount-3mount-4mount-5

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! 🙂

 

solar-panels1solar-panels2batteriespups

Spring Planning

We headed off to Cuba a while back thinking that a vacation was looong overdue and hoping to return to spring-like weather. No such luck. We drove through a near province-wide blizzard to get to the airport and returned to a blizzard that started up just minutes into our (normally) four hour drive home. Winter continues to dump a massive amount of snow in the region. It’ll slow down this week according to weather reports but we’re still due to get between 5 and 10 centimetres more by Friday.

 

So what’s a girl to do? Order seeds and dream of warmer days! And that’s what I did last week, finally whittling down my wish list to a more practical (affordable) one. Still not entirely cheap (by my standards anyway) by the time I was done, but a considerable savings if even half of it produces and saves me gas money and grocery store prices.

 

I’m not sure if I mentioned here or elsewhere (a friend keeps suggesting that I buy gingko for memory but of course I never remember to) but we’ve been following Michael Pollan’s suggestion to “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. Let me tell you, in our region that is a bitch to follow. Walking into our grocery store is like being transported in time- hardly any fresh produce, mostly root vegetables and nonsense like iceberg lettuces, all at ridiculous prices. If we ate canned or frozen food we’d be set but, well, ick!

 

I don’t have any difficulty avoiding processed/refined foods because I am making everything from homemade bread to yogurt to gnocci, soup, pasta, crackers and more but getting our hands on healthy produce is a trial. So I’m looking forward to gardening this year and determined to make the time, regardless of how busy the building season is.

 

On a related note, it looks like we have just about finalized our plans for an attached grow space. ‘Grow space’ rather than greenhouse because it’s not going to be a traditional greenhouse, not with the limitations of our climate and materials available to us right now. But it’ll do for the basics, we hope, and we’ll continue building up the outside gardens as well as look at plans for more buildings down the road.

 

Also making our ‘great news’ list is the fact that our tractor has come in! Yeah baby! Now there’s a tool I’m looking forward to having, after three years of moving every bit of material (clay, gravel, sand, soil) one shovel-load at a time. It looks like we’ll be picking it up this weekend and I can hardly wait! I’m hoping that we’re able to use it to move some of the heavy snow from our lower areas on the property before spring thaw and flooding. Couldn’t be better timing!

 

I’ll definitely be taking pictures of our new addition once we pick it up but here are a few totally-unrelated-to-anything photos of our trip to Cuba for now. Check out the Man o’ War. Shane had a run-in with one and they’re not nearly as harmless as they look. 😉

man'o'war church building2 building beach beach2