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Posts Tagged ‘off grid’

To say this post has been a long time in coming is quite the understatement. Those of you who know me know that it’s not entirely unlike me to go missing, or just very quiet, for periods of time. This space was originally intended to document our experience going off-grid and building an earthbag house and, having done that, I suppose the blog has been put to bed for me. One project of many, off the list. But I continue to see notices coming in of new followers and subscribers, both here and on the Facebook page, and the occasional pang of guilt gets me. Generally, I’ve found that ignoring a feeling makes it go away but it has been the better part of a year- so, for an update…

We finished demolition of the old house that was in the spot we chose for the new rock house. It was a bitch and I’m saying this as someone who mainly watched. There’s an amazing amount of work that goes into tearing down a house, sorting through reusable materials, breaking down unusable sections and hauling the lot to the dump. But the site is perfect. For all the work that went into prepping it, there is no other spot on the property that offers the advantage of a complete wind block on 3 sides (crucial to comfort where we are on the prairies) and an incredible view as well as an ideal spot for setting out solar panels without any obstructions.

We then ran our measurements and stringlines and dug out the trench for the new house. We got the gravel down into the trench and leveled that and then topped it with landscape cloth. Shane built the forms that we would use for the slipform rockwork, I protected them with linseed oil, and after a period of immense frustration, er- patience got those locked together in the trench. Whilst all this was going, I spent a good portion of my days continuing to collect larger and still larger rocks for the foundation.

The set-up for this project was ridonculous. I mean seriously. We normally get started on a build as soon as the snow has melted, somewhere around April. We placed the first rocks in the foundation in July. By the end of September we had finished the foundation (which measures 2’ wide x 2’ tall, and 50’ x 32’ around) and got a good way towards site cleanup for the year. At the time of writing, the site is entirely ready to go for next year but all we have is a foundation. If you were to drive by the site, all you would see is some rebar sticking out of the ground in a rectangular shape. That’s it.

That right there is about $6,000 in savings though- money we didn’t pay to have someone else put in a foundation and a ton of cement that wasn’t required (and won’t crack later on) because of all the rockwork. Of course it doesn’t factor in the labour I personally put in 5-7 days a week for weeks on end- a fact I made a point of reminding Shane on my grumpier days. But given that he works full-time and is very good at keeping me in books and well-timed compliments, I think I’ve all but let that go. I am going to have a fantastic library by the time we get this house built.

That’s about the sum of it folks. I will try to break down the steps if mostly in pictures over the next while. Hope everyone has had a productive and interesting year so far! And thank you, for being so good to follow us despite the long absences.

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Voila- final product!

Voila- final product!

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No matter how long the winter season, and how much I intend to get ahead of my to-do list, spring always sees me rushing to prepare for the building and gardening season. There are a few things I’ve learned over the last few years and this year I may just be ready on time, if not ahead of it.

I have learned that moderation/reason is not really my thing. I could try to work on this but why? I get sh*t done. In the process I will inevitably hurt myself, sometimes quite seriously. This year, in preparation for the back-breaking labour I’ll participate in, the too-heavy loads I’ll carry, and the insanely acrobatic moves I’ll endeavour, I’ve started Jillian Michael’s 30 day Shred to strengthen up my core and (hopefully) prevent some injuries.

I’m past the 30 day mark, and though I could hardly walk the first few days in, I’m now doing it twice daily. I feel like a motherf*ckin’ beast. My neck and shoulders are feeling remarkably solid and I think that- just maybe- I can get away without any serious neck injuries this year. So- my first tip for prepping for a non-stop building season: get in shape. There’s no time off for injuries.

Second thing I have learned to get on top of: food preparation. It doesn’t matter if I’ve been working alongside Shane for twelve hours straight: food falls to me. If we depended on Shane we’d be eating Fudgeo’s and Corn Pops. There are a number of meals that I can make in advance and are easy enough to warm up for lunch and supper. Jamaican patties, biryani, bolognese sauce, and calzones are among some of the easier dinners to make ahead and then simply heat up. Sandwiches are another easy meal so I try to bake and freeze some bread as well. And desserts like cranberry blondies freeze well and are a good treat after a long day.

I also shop in bulk for items I don’t want to make a last minute town-run for, bearing in mind that’s an hour round-trip. Plain tomato sauce, tea, pasta, olives, honey, coffee, a couple kinds of flour, balsamic vinegar- all on hand in bulk. Yogurt made 4 quarts at a time so that I’m never low. Carnation milk (gag) because I can’t drink coffee black and I don’t need to discover we’re out of milk first thing in the morning. Whatever you use frequently, or use when you’re in a rush to knock out a meal- buy it in advance. It’ll save loads of time and frustration.

Seeds have already been started and my garden is plotted. It’ll be weeks before anything can go outside but when they can, my plants will be ready for our super-short growing season. I’m trying out a 10 by 15 foot Three Sisters garden this year (in addition to my regular plots) and I’m putting it in a poor-soil area. Before anything’s ready to go into the ground, I’ll need to have all of my soil amended, paths graveled and waterways plotted. If you’re putting in a garden remember that it may be too early to plant, but it’s probably not too early to start conditioning your soil, building raised beds, putting up fencing- whatever will save time and allow you to focus on tending the garden and not on the myriad other tasks that go along with it.

Building supplies. Oi vey. I couldn’t even hazard a guess how much time I’ve spent at UFA and Home Depot. Suffice to say that I sweep right past the personnel at the front asking if there’s anything they can help with because I know the layouts better than anyone who works there. Building supplies are not something you want to run low on in the middle of a job- especially with the ridiculously short Canadian building season. Now is the time to stock up on those items you know that you’ll need. I buy a little extra, because I will always find a use for any leftover materials but I don’t like to get stuck midstream.

On that note- do you have a date in mind for starting your build? Unless you live in BC, scrap that. Start as soon as weather permits. That might mean you have two days of building only to see it snow again, but that’s two days in. Summer storms, broken ankles, short supplies- all sorts of things can happen to cut into your building time once the build starts. You will not regret starting as early as possible. If you get ahead of the build (hahahahahaha! ha!) great- you will have some time to relax before winter is upon us again. But more than likely, even having started early, you’ll be busy right up until the snow flies again.

Speaking of snow- are you prepared for next winter? If you’re heating and cooking with wood, like we are, you are probably going to need to start on your firewood supply. Wood needs time to dry after it’s been cut. Remember when I said, “a lumberjack I’m not”? I take that back. We went out four weekends in a row, getting up at 4:30 am and home to bed by midnight or so. I am the whiniest lumberjack you may ever meet, but a lumberjack I am. What can I say? Heat and food outweighed my disdain for the task.

We’ll be out several more times this year, the sooner the better. I don’t know exactly how much wood we burned this past season. We bought a cord and a half. But we supplemented that with pallet wood from our now dwindling pallet-supply. It’s hard to say how much that amounted to. On the subject of pallets- if you can get them (free), do. They’re excellent for all sorts of projects, but also for burning. A lot of stores will put off taking them to the dump (can you believe people just toss them out?) so it’s not a bad idea to take a peak behind some of the big box and building supply stores and find out if you can take them away. A lot of businesses are thrilled to have you take them.

Finally- have a plan, a back-up plan, a last-minute plan, a weather plan… Plan, plan, and plan some more. You need an idea of what goals you should be hitting and when. That way if you get to week three and you haven’t hit a goal that was due in week one, you know that you need to kick it into overdrive. Similarly, if you’d planned on building but it’s pouring buckets you should be able to carry on with other work- like weeding (which is ideal in the rain) or prepping more meals to be frozen, or running out for supplies you forgot to stock up on. But don’t make plans off-site. You’re not going anywhere. There’ll be no dinners out, no get togethers with friends, no weekends away- you’re booked. Solid until winter. Sound like fun? Ready, set, go!

Beginning of our wood stack

Beginning of our wood stack

Still to be cut and stacked

Still to be split and stacked

Lumberjack right there baby!

Lumberjack right there baby!

A few of my seedlings

A few of my seedlings

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Of the many things that I am not, I can now add lumberjack to the list. I had a feeling that I might be, as is often the case when I try something new. I had romantic visions of heading out to the forest, picking out trees, efficiently cutting them down and then into pieces and hauling them back to the trailer. I brought my camera because I expected there would be plenty of time to wander around taking pictures, and I expected to be in a good mood because I love being out in nature. Well let’s just say it didn’t quite work out how I envisioned it.

It was a beautiful day, warm (+5 C or so) and sunny. Snow was melting, there wasn’t a hint of wind. And then we started the walk into the cutting zone. What appeared to be fairly hard-packed snow wasn’t- at all– but it was deep. Up to my knees deep, which made getting moving again quite the trick. And I had worn my Ropers, the most comfortable little work boots that I own. Work boots that come up to my ankles.

Within about 5 minutes of walking into the forest, my boots and socks were soaked through, and my jogging pants were wet to above the knees. Within about twenty minutes my pants were sopping wet and so heavy that I had to keep pulling them up to keep from losing them in the snow. The backs of my calves were frozen and scraped raw from the ice. Nevertheless, I tried to tell myself that it would get better. And then we started hauling the trees back through the snow to the trailer.

Shane will be the first to tell you that he never makes me do anything. But how am I going to stand there and let him do the work? I can’t do it. But I should have. I’m not sure how many muscles I pulled in my neck and back, trudging through the knee-deep snow and carrying more weight than I ever should have attempted. I think it would be safe to guess “all of them”.

After the first few loads of wood, I stopped by the trailer and looked at our pitiful collection- and that’s when I started to whine. It was either that or cry, and I do not like to cry unless I’m alone, so… I opened with, “I think this was a stupid f*cking idea.” And it went on from there. Shane suggested that I just sit on the back of the truck and relax, but you know that I couldn’t do that. How would he hear me whining from the forest?

So even though this is the same man who chopped just the tops off telephone poles and proceeded to move the heavy ends around the property with a chain slung around his waist, I made the decision that he needed me and went back out to finish what we started. After witnessing Shane wielding a chainsaw with one hand, and using the other to push the tree in the opposite direction of where it wanted to go (refusing to listen to my frantic yelling at him to let it go and get out of the way), I decided it was best not to watch him and to just haul the lighter lengths to the trailer while he was cutting.

I’m glad that I didn’t watch. I don’t know what crazy stunts I missed but I did catch him leaping into the air with a running chainsaw at one point. “You’re too heavy,” I keep telling him. I don’t have the upper body strength to carry him if he seriously injures himself. He listens about as well as his wife though.

Long story short- we did not great but not too badly, all things considered. Just under a cord of birch wood, for five dollars and a tank of gas. The next time we head out should be much easier without the snow. That really impeded our ability to move quickly. And the next time I plan on dressing appropriately and bringing extra footwear. But I think it’s safe to say, a lumberjack I’m not.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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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