Posts Tagged ‘sustainable lifestyle’


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…




Read Full Post »

There are times when I feel ridiculously behind the ball with how much more I still have to learn. How very “city” I still am. Other times I am impressed by how capable I am, and just how much that I can do compared to a short while ago, in terms of providing for my own needs rather than relying on service providers to meet those needs. Other times still, the two occur within a remarkably short period, hours even.

When we discovered that we had no running water my initial instinct was to pick up the phone, to check for a message from the city regarding water interruptions. Of course there is no “city”, the closest one being four hours away, and we don’t have water service, we have a well. Uh oh. For all my research and studying, I have to admit to knowing relatively little about our well, the pump, and so on- and I understand even less than that.

Shane and I stood and looked at the set-up in the basement, making serious faces at each other while I flipped through the wholly inadequate Grundfos instruction ‘manual’. Not much of a manual in my opinion. Certainly far from the crash course we need. So we called a plumber, who’s not really a full-time ‘plumber’ but the closest we have to one in these parts. Turns out he’s no longer plumbing but he recommended a guy who runs a back hoe service who “knows a lot about these things”. He came out later in the day after warning us that he doesn’t know a lot about these fancy new electronic systems. (Here’s another bit of city in me- what else is there, other than electronic systems? Are people lowering buckets into wells, or is there some kind of literal horse power version that I don’t know about?) Long story short- he couldn’t figure it out so suggested yet another guy who’s not really a plumber but kind of, who turned out to be on vacation but will send his son out when he returns to town, also not really a plumber but ‘may’ be able to help. Oh my. And we’re no closer to knowing what the heck is wrong.

If this problem had presented in the city, I would be flipping mad. I have never much cared how much a service costs me so much as I have that the job is done, and fast. I can’t imagine how I’d have reacted to being told that ‘some time in the next week, someone may be by who may know something about your problem’. I’d have also already booked us into a hotel. How is a person to survive without water? There are dishes to be done, cooking, cleaning, showering- never mind the matter of using the toilet…

I tell you what- having no well water has not slowed me down one little bit, save for the fact that I’m not building right now. But all of the ‘regular’ things that a person needs water for? No problem. We have a large cistern that is always overflowing with rainwater. It’s hooked to the shop roof, so a very little bit of rainfall goes a long way to filling the container. I hauled water yesterday in the buckets we’ve been collecting from a grocery store to use for food storage. It was pouring rain (Murphy’s law) but I have to say- I had a blast! Now if you’ve hauled water all your life, maybe the chore isn’t all that much fun but I have never had to haul water before and the novelty is fresh. I felt like a real pioneer, or as close to one as I get, and it was a ton of fun!

Once I’d filled a dozen buckets or so, I heated some for dishes and for washing up. Got some weeding done, picked a bunch of pin cherries I later used for apple/cherry crisp, cleaned the house and prepared supper. All in all it was a very productive day and I quite enjoyed myself. Far cry from the irritable mess I’d have been in the city.

One key design feature that really helps to pull us through this sort of situation, apart from the lovely rainwater collection, is the humanure system that we use. It’s one thing to be without water for washing and cooking and entirely another situation to have no toilet. (And I have to say- I’d feel utterly wasteful to be using our nice, fresh rainwater to flush our toilet.) As luck would have it, we haven’t been dependent on water for toilet facilities for quite some time. Our humanure system works well all the time, so that was a non-issue.

We do have inefficiencies in the system though, or at least a lack of redundancies, and this experience is useful to us in that we can better plan and design for our needs. One thing I’d really like to have in place is an even larger, underground storage tank for our rainwater harvest. Next year we’ll have to focus in on that, and a line running to the new house. It seems to be an instrument problem that we’re dealing with right now (possibly due to the power surges we had last week) but down the road it could be anything- including the scary possibility that the well will run dry. And even if ‘all goes well’, honestly- I’d rather use rainwater as our primary water source. Our well water is fine for most things but I won’t drink it. Too salty and iron-y. I’d rather bathe in rainwater too.

All in all, I’m feeling pretty good about the situation we find ourselves in. Sure we’re a long way off from being the self-sufficient pioneers we would like to be, but overall we’re not too badly off. And I, for one, am pretty happy to have left behind not only some of my woeful inexperience and dependency in the city but also my bad attitude. 🙂

some of our buckets

our lovely cistern

pin cherries

yummy crisp

Read Full Post »