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Posts Tagged ‘alternative energy’

It’s been a long time since I thought about posting here, or even bothered to check in. That’s because we officially finished our experiment a while back. We built the house, proving to ourselves that yes- we could do it. We’ve been living in the house. We’ve been eating loads of our own produce, now frozen for the winter. We’ve been burning wood that we either cut down or scavenged from local sources and staying nice and warm. We’ve been drinking and cooking with rain water that we collected and filtered. Shane put up a clothesline for me and hanging laundry has become my new favourite chore. Our energy needs are being met nicely with solar power. Our electricity is more reliable than our grid-tied neighbours. There are no mice in the new home, making us probably the only people in the area who don’t have to deal with pest control. Our experiment has proved successful on a great many fronts, especially considering when we began we did so with the intention of just trying it out to “see if we could do it”.

Having said that, there have also been things we’d have done differently. Personally, I find the humidity in here unbearable in the summer. We bermed the north side of the house completely and partially bermed both the east and west sides. We didn’t put any windows (or other ventilation) on the north side, as per recommendations for our climate. Given how thick the walls are- I don’t know that was necessary. But ventilation- that might have been nice. I have extremely sensitive skin and find it difficult to tolerate humidity once the temperature gets over a certain point. Lesson learned but not of much practical value. The thing with walls this thick and solid- you’re not easily adding a window at a later date.

Also, this whole “sharing space” thing… Much more romantic in theory than in practice. We were going to use the main “living area” as a proper living room as well as to house office space for each of us. In retrospect I can hardly believe we were sober when we made that decision. It strikes me as very hippy-like and totally unmatched to our personalities. I require complete silence and no distractions when I’m working, Shane paces, talks with clients on the phone, needs music when he’s going hard… Add to which we never actually “leave” our work space. Shane sits next to the same computers he’s been working at all day (and sometimes into the night) when he’s done and supposed to be unwinding. I’ve completely abandoned writing at my desk and now work elsewhere on the property.

And on the subject of space- there isn’t enough and it isn’t well planned. Our largest “free space” happens to be in the same area as our wood stove (which is lovely- I am still in love with our stove). That’s great if you’re not planning on working out in the area but I’ve developed a bit of an obsession. It is impossible to work out as hard as I like to go next to a roaring wood fire. So again, I’ve had to go elsewhere to do that. And guests? Not a chance. We literally don’t have the room.

Shane still likes the round rooms and would do that again but a larger round room. I wouldn’t. Architecturally it is beautiful. But practically? I think there’s too much wasted space and it’s difficult to plan around. Personally, I would go with the far less aesthetically pleasing rectangle. Much easier for appliance and furniture placement.

Which brings me to our news. We’re building another house come spring. I know, I know. My initial reaction (upon realizing that we don’t have a lot of choice) was, “You’ve got to be f*cking kidding me.” I don’t have a particularly long attention span. I’m generally lucky to follow-through on a project to completion. I never finish a project and say, “let’s do this again.” But there are enough little issues and a few bigger ones that we can’t comfortably conclude that this is our retirement home. And ultimately that’s what we want. We love the area and can easily picture living here forever. The only thing that we need is a home that suits our needs and will last us.

The next house we’ll build will be made of rock. Yes, we know that’s not the fastest build and no, that’s not a knock against earthbags. But if we’re going to build another house we might as well try something we haven’t yet. And we still want to keep the advantages of a heavy house, namely that it will hold up well over time and require minimal repair and that we will not have mice. (Not having mice in HUGE in my books, in case you missed that in previous articles.)

It’s going to take some time. We don’t expect to move into it next year. Luckily, this house isn’t that bad. We’ll live here in the meantime. My goal is to have the shell of the house built by next winter and I expect that’ll be pushing it to the limit. I’m not sure how that’ll fit with my goal of achieving a little more work-life balance. Not well I suspect. I’m still adjusting to the amount of time that just living off-grid and away from basic amenities consumes. I could easily make “keeping house” a full-time job, if I were so inclined, but I’d rather just about drive myself into the ground attempting more. And so be it- we’re about to experience just what “more” feels like.

We did some prep this past summer in addition to regular homesteading work. The pad we’ll be building on is pretty near prepared (Shane tore down a house that was standing on the spot we chose) and we’ve several pretty sizable piles of rocks, sorted by size. We’ve done a good amount of research and decided on how we plan to build as well as house design. Ultimately, perhaps most importantly, we’ve spent a good deal of time discussing what we want and need and what’s practical for us over the long-term. And that’s key because this is our retirement plan. It has to be practical now and thirty years from now. We’re no longer in the experimentation phase. Well, apart from the fact that we’ve never built a rock house. But how hard can that be? 😉 10906114_10152549511826976_5112321309607628753_n

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5000 litre cistern

In all my years as a city girl, it never occurred to me that not everyone (in Canada) has access to good, clean drinking water. Water has long been my favourite of all beverages and all I’ve ever had to do was turn the tap. That’s not been the case since moving to the country. Our well water is heavy in both iron and salt. The iron can be filtered -more or less- easily enough but the salt would have to be distilled out. I can’t stand the taste of it, even in tea, so I don’t drink it. I drink rainwater that’s been boiled and filtered instead and, with our long winters, I won’t have access to that pretty soon and will have to drink bottled water until the temperatures rise again in the spring.

I’ve been assigned the task of researching our ‘water options’ for the new home. (Shane has taken on the altogether easier task of ‘power’- generating it, storing it, distributing it, determining how much we need, possibly learning to build a wind turbine to accompany our solar panels, redundancies in the system- for back up support, etc… Like I said, easy.) I’m already feeling a little overwhelmed by my assignment. Fortunately, this is old hat for me. Feeling overwhelmed that is. At least since moving to the country…

comic relief in trying times

Our well ‘blew’ this summer and we had a period of about 10 days without access to well water. It was quite the experience. Initially we found ourselves impressed by our ability to carry on. I reveled in the feeling of being like a pioneer, hauling water from our cistern for everything from drinking to cooking to bathing. That lasted until about day 3. By day 7 I was getting a little testy, and by ‘testy’ I mean very near to having to hold back tears and making snappy comments to Shane, who I felt was handling not having a hot shower better than I was.

And then I left the tap on the cistern open overnight and drained it completely, necessitating going to the dugout down the road, about 800 meters, filling the buckets and climbing back out, wailing the whole while… Anyway, I’m getting off track- I’m in charge of water for the new place, right…

Some of the decisions that I have to make are: how much water do we want to store indoors and in what kind of containers? I do want to be able to access rainwater throughout the winter, so storage is a biggie. Besides which- we can’t count on the well working all the time, obviously. And where exactly do we plan on storing the water, and exactly what kind of ‘space’ are we talking about, bearing in mind that I was hoping that my building schedule would be lighter next year? (Hahahahahahahaha! Ha! Ya, it’s not funny.)

How do we want to heat the water? Electric heat is too ‘expensive’ in terms of power consumption, wood heat is a little impractical given the lack of trees in the region, propane just strikes me as not an altogether good long-term plan, and solar hot water is kind of expensive at the outset, at least the kind of system that works well in our climate… But right now I am leaning towards solar water heating, maybe with a preheating mechanism in place, maybe by building pipes into a heavy mass structure behind glass… (You can see how one bit of research can lead into a tangled mess of ideas that also require research.) Then again, manure is plentiful in the area, maybe there’s a way to build an efficient heater powered by cow poop.

There’s distributing the water, i.e. the pipes and pressure tank or combination pressure tank and gravity feed. And pumps of some sort, that use little or no power-which I have to constantly keep in mind is limited- to dispose of the water. (Whoa- any idea of how many options there are on that front? Pressure tanks and pumps alone? Good grief.) Which I also want to reuse, cycling it through some sort of graywater system, that will function even at 40 degrees below. And then what type of graywater system? How big? Indoors or outdoors, or both? And again- more building? You’re f*cking kidding me, right? I don’t know. I’m kinda thinking that at least if the water was confined to a single room it’d be an easier plan. Like, say, we do the dishes in the greenhouse/bathroom/laundry room/graywater recycling plant? I’m not sure if Shane’s raised eyebrow was tacit approval or skepticism when I threw it out there.

And then there’s filtering and/or distilling the water for drinking… There has to be an easier way. We have a Berkey, which is a lovely little unit but it gets a little slimy when I pour unfiltered rainwater into it and it needs to be washed too often. It removes the iron from the well water just fine but not the salt, so it’s still not entirely potable. Shane drinks it but his taste buds are questionable. So I could prefilter the rainwater but how much prefiltering needs to be done? And what’s my best way to do that?

Yup, so there are ‘a few’ decisions to be made, and loads of research to do prior to making any decision. There’s nothing like planning to go off grid to make a girl feel like a total idiot. I miss coming up with the ideas and having staff figure out how to implement those ideas. I miss tasty tap water. I even sometimes miss the misguided simplicity of just paying for whatever I need. But I suppose I don’t miss that feeling of being trapped…

scenic little dugout

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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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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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPddd5CoyII

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

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-BQMpaW-E0

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

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdhLWMW7IXA

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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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