Posts Tagged ‘solar power’

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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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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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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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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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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