Posts Tagged ‘Energy’

Gas Tube Arrestors, Busted Wind Turbines and Spiders from Mars

I’m maturing as a person.

Oh, I still have my fits and tantrums, but I’m getting much better. As one approaches their 60s perhaps this resignation to certain outcomes becomes easier.

Several weeks ago we had a major storm blow through with tornado warnings in our area. I never remember one in the middle of September, but the brutal heat of summer carried on into September so it shouldn’t surprise me.

As I was walking towards the front screen door at one point during the storm, the loudest thunder bolt I’ve ever heard struck simultaneously with the flash of lightning. It was terrifying, like a World War I artillery barrage, and more worrying from an off-grid standpoint.

We have a marvelous 1 kilowatt wind turbine on a 100 ft steel tower that reduces our generator run time significantly. But let’s be honest, it’s just this massive, tall lightning rod screaming “Hit me, hit me, HIT ME!” during a lightning storm.

Sure enough the following morning the turbine was spinning very slowly, even though the wind was still high. Not a good sign. This is when my newfound maturity appeared. Rather than grabbing an axe and chopping down the nearest tree on the “To Be Cut” list to deal with my rage, I just assumed the turbine was toast and shrugged my shoulders with resignation.

The absolutely wonderfully brilliant news was that there was no noticeable damage in the battery room. The last time we got hit by lightning (3 summers ago, a week before my younger daughter’s wedding! Read about it here.)  it took out the inverter and lots of other expensive equipment.

So the other day, my neighbor Sandy and I brought down the turbine, which is on a gin-pole tower. It’s still kind of scary, but pretty gratifying when you finally get it down. The problem last time (3 years ago) was that the DC Rectifier had been blown up. I say “blown up” because you could see where there had been sparking and big chunk of plastic was missing. A rectifier is like the opposite of an ‘inverter.’ It takes AC electricity, that the alternator on the turbine produces, and it converts it to DC to go in to the batteries. All those black ‘bricks,’ the black plastic boxes that you plug into wall outlets to power your computer or charge your cell phones are DC rectifiers, converting AC from the plug to the DC the phone battery wants.

When we replaced these the last time we got hit, Bergey, the manufacturer of my wind turbine, suggested that we add a “Gas Tube Arrestor.” A Gas Tube Arrestor is basically a fuse. And low and behold, as soon as we got the turbine apart we could see that one of these had blown.

view-of-turbine

guts-of-turbine

 

gas-tube-arrestorThe bad news was that I have to replace it and the rectifier. The good news is that it blew up and apparently took the short or surge of electricity down the turbine into the grounding wires to the grounding rods, rather than into the battery room. How cool is that?! Which begs the question … why hadn’t they provided them when I installed the system a decade ago? Continuous quality improvement I suppose.

As we were taking the turbine apart I noticed this little spider hanging around. Let’s call him/her Ziggy. I sort of assumed she had jumped on from the sunflower nearby where the turbine had ended up when we took it down. But then I noticed she didn’t want to leave the area.

ziggy-on-the-edge

ziggy-at-home

So finally I looked down the tower and noticed that she had a web there.

Nature is a funny thing sometimes. We live in the bush and have no shortage of bugs but all the things the bugs want … pollen from flowers, people to bite, etc. are at ground level. How many bugs would want to hang out at 100 feet, the height of the tower when it’s erect?

But there was the spider, and there was the web, so apparently she had a thing going.

And since she was a spider that hung out at high heights I started singing David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” with the lyrics “Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with Wierd and Gilly, And The Spiders from Mars.” And I could not get that song out of my head all day, and it was a good thing.

Taking down a wind turbine is kind of a stressful process so there is a great sense of relief and accomplishment when it’s finally down. So you have a natural buzz afterwards. I’d rather not bring it down, but when I factor having to bring it down twice in 10 years, with the huge amount of electricity it has generated to improve the quality of my life, without the carbon I would have produced if I’d run my generator, then it’s a pretty good trade off.

Couple that with a catchy tune from a recently deceased musical icon, and it was a pretty good day all and all. Luckily we haven’t yet hit the grey days of November, so the wind power hasn’t been missed. Every time I bring down the turbine I get better at it and learn more. I finally understand this whole DC rectification thing.

I’m intrigued to see if Ziggy hangs in for a week or two while I order the replacements and install them. Fall is in the air; I’m thinking she’s probably better to find a place to overwinter at ground level.

I just wish Bergey could figure out another improvement that would take the lightning jolt at ground level so I didn’t have to drag the whole thing when it gets trashed. I can dream, can’t I?

 

A couple of notes from Michelle;

  • Thanks to RH for his recent (second!) donation. As you can imagine, it will help pay for these wind turbine repairs! Even though Cam does the repairs himself, the parts and various bits & pieces are not cheap! You’ll find the “TIP JAR” above on the right hand side of this page. Every bit helps and is most appreciated!
  • Many of you probably found this blog through our writing in Mother Earth News magazine. They’ve offered us a small commission for every Mother Earth News subscription that is purchased using our link; https://www.motherearthnews.com/store/Offer/EMEBGGAF. Mother Earth News magazine is one of our favourite magazines!
  • HAPPY THANKSGIVING to our Canadian readers! We’ll be celebrating here at Sunflower Farm with our family and lots of great food from our garden. We have so much to be thankful for!

Off-Grid: So Awesome! And So Much Work!

I was reading The Toronto Star recently and was excited to see a documentary by Jonathan Taggart called  “Life Off Grid” and then I became even more excited when I realized that we are in it! … well sort of …

Here’s the link to the article;

https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/movies/2016/03/24/documentary-shows-canadians-living-off-the-grid.html

Professor Phillip Vannini from Royal Rhodes University in Victoria visited us a few years ago when he was doing a study on why people live off grid. He was accompanied by Jonathan Taggart who was making a film about living off grid.

We saw some “proofs” of it early on a while back and as I told Michelle, I didn’t like it “because I wasn’t in it enough!” So there you have it, life with a narcissist. And now that I’ve been brutally honest, I also was a bit disappointed because there seems to be too much focus and emphasis on people who really fit the ‘off grid’ kind of profile. Long grey pony tail, pop-bottle house, goats in the living room, no communication with the outside world, Bob Marley t-shirts … you know the image. And this is all fine and good, I get it.

Our experience though is that people like Michelle and I are, well, just kind of bland. Our house looks like the little white house with the dark green trim in the Anne of Green Gables books. Inside our regular toilet flushes, the regular fridge keeps food cold, the regular TV watches regular Netflix, I prefer my hair short, don’t find Birkenstocks conducive to our winters and mosquitoes, so we’re, just kind of… too “normal.”

We had a journalist here a few weeks ago and he asked if I could recommend other people living sustainably that he could also interview for the article. And I couldn’t. This is partially my choice to be a bit of a hermit (except for political campaigns) and also because I feel at times like the whole sustainability ship has sailed. There was that blip in the 80’s where people wanted to recycle, and that blip in the mid 2000’s where people wanted to put up solar panels, but there doesn’t seem to have been a huge follow through. It kind of feels sometimes like the big box stores won the war.

And I get it.

At many times of the year, I find myself questioning the whole living sustainably thing. And there is a clear distinction between someone who lives off grid to be sustainable, and someone who just does it because they don’t like paying utility bills. A lot of people move off-grid and on to propane for their thermal or heat loads (home heating and hot water) which make up 80% of your home’s energy requirements in the north. So really, you’re just switching which utility you send the cheque to each month.

Michelle and I continue to try and be as close to ‘zero-carbon’ as we can. Since I haven’t got off my ass and added pumps and a loop through our woodstove, our baths come from water heated in stock pots on the woodstoves. Decidedly low tech but also nothing to break.

The wood we heat with we harvest from the property and cut and buck and split with increasing amounts of solar and wind generated electricity. It’s way easier to use gas, but we take the time and put in the additional effort to keep our ‘carbon neutral’ wood fuel source as close to carbon neutral as we can, with very little gas burned in the process. So this takes extra long.

As the weather has been warming up of late I don’t crank the woodstove in the morning so it takes longer to get it hot enough heat to boil our water and cook our breakfast. Living the way we do just sometimes seems to take an inordinate amount of time. So I understand why people take the easy route and use fossil fuel derived energy. It’s so easy! It’s like powering your house with heroin… so easy and it just feels great to have so  much time to do other stuff.

But something keeps us at it. I’m not ready to throw in the towel and move back to suburbia and a natural gas/nuclear powered existence just yet.

I checked the weather network one morning to see how much of next winter’s wood I could cut and split with the solar powered chainsaw and wood splitter that day. The Weather Network had a little information note beside the forecast along the lines of “Brutally warm winter has arctic sea ice at lowest level on record .. read more here …” Ya, like that sounds like a great way to start your day before you jump in your car and start your hour long commute to your job selling stuff.

The reality is that the arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the planet. We’re to blame. I’m to blame. I used to commute back to the GTA for years after moving here to visit customers. I took the kids to Disney World when they were little, twice! I used to run my generator … a lot … before I cashed out retirement money and put up more solar panels and a proper wind turbine. So I’ve done my part.

But I have the information now and know there is an alternative. If governments would just show a little resolve and put a price on carbon most people would also seek out these alternatives.

The other day I was starting the fire so we could have a bath and I was thinking to myself, what an inordinate amount of work. Why am I doing this? I have a hot water tank. If I wanted to, I could just run the hot water out of the tank and let propane do the work. Most days right now we have enough sun that our solar domestic hot water system will actually have heated up the in-line hot water tank so that by the time it gets to the propane it doesn’t have to come on. But on dark days, so the choice is zero-carbon firewood or propane.

As I get down on my knees for the 11, 560’th time this winter to start the woodstove (there may be some exaggeration there) I think to myself ‘why AM I doing this again?’

Then I think about the people in the Maldives islands in the Pacific who are rapidly losing their homes with the rising seas. And then I say “Hey Cam, shut up and stop your whining and do the right thing.”

And then I do indeed stop whining and become extremely grateful that I have the opportunity and ability to do it the old fashioned way and try and impact other people as little as I possibly can. If I had a therapist she would say “… and how did that make you feel?” and I would say…

You can find Jonathan Taggart’s website; http://jonathantaggart.com/projects/life-off-grid/

And here is the trailer for the movie.

‘Life Off Grid’ trailer from Jonathan Taggart on Vimeo.

Such Are the Dreams of the Everyday House-Husband

(aka If I Have to Wash Another Dish I’LL SCREAM!)

No really, I am sooo sick of doing dishes it’s unbelievable!

I was never a big Glenn Campbell fan, but I like his music and with so many hits it’s hard not to be aware of them. I watched a documentary about his battle with Alzheimer’s recently which was quite interesting. Lately a lyric keeps running through my head … “Such are the dreams of the everyday housewife, you see anywhere any time of the day… the everyday housewife who gave up the good life for me.” Only I change ‘housewife’ to ‘househusband’… and I haven’t given up the good life, in fact, ‘I’m livin’ it baby!”

Unfortunately, right now that involves the dishes. A lot of dishes. Mountains of dishes! Every day. Constantly. They never stop. How two people can make sooo many dishes is beyond my comprehension. Personally I think Michelle secretly sleepwalks and goes downstairs and takes dishes out of the cabinets and puts them on the counter to be washed. This is just a theory at this time until she’ll let me buy one of the trail cameras to prove it.

During the growing season Michelle does most (almost all) of the dish washing. I manage to avoid them by working outside from sun up to sundown … because … well … exhaustion is way better than washing dishes in my opinion.

Right now though Michelle is working on a contract from home so she’s the breadwinner, and the ground is frozen so I can’t spend as much time outside. So I’m on dish detail. I never actually minded doing the dishes but it’s starting to creep up on me.

As I feminist I always vowed that my daughters would see me doing household tasks. In our house, cleaning the toilet is my job, or ‘men’s work,’ because, well, I’ve been in public washrooms and my experience is that men should be living in caves and therefore are probably responsible for most of the cleaning that needs to be done in the bathroom. Obvious apologies to my sons-in-law for setting this standard.

Anytime the kids are home I do most of the dishes too. Everyone kicks in on most things, but Michelle shoulders the bulk of the cooking and so I do clean up. My attitude is if my grown kids do hours’ worth of driving to get to our place, they should relax while they’re here and I’ll do a few hours’ worth of dishes.

But this winter I’m finding that the dirty dish piles are just endless, and it’s just Michelle and me here. I’m my own worst enemy. We spoil the chickens and that doesn’t help. We had a great harvest of potatoes for the CSA this year, so there was an abundance of ‘chicken grade’ potatoes as I call them, so every couple of days I have a stock pot on the wood stove cooking potatoes, which I then mash and serve warm to the ladies. They seem to love warm mashed potatoes on cold days, so there seems to be an endless supply of new pots and things needing to be washed… constantly. And if I had half a brain I’d soak the potato masher, but I invariably forget so the starchy mess just gets petrified on there requiring soooo much scrubbing to remove.

I know what you’re thinking. “Cam, that’s what they invented dishwashers for, you moron!” I get it. There are labor saving appliances out there. But we live off-grid and I don’t think I can reasonably justify the electricity required to run one of those machines. Some days and most seasons I could, but not this time of year. Secondly, I hate dishwashers. They suck. They leave the dishes with this creepy filmy feeling. Oh, and from an energy perspective, they can only clean dishes by nuking them with hot water … so much scalding hot water that it can blast baked on cheese from the lasagna three nights ago. Think about it. Think about how hard it to wash some stuff off after the dish has sat there for a while. Even scrubbing by hand with steel wool. And that the whole concept of a dishwasher. Let the dishes sit and get the crap really hardened on there ‘until you have a full load’ … i.e. to do the right thing for the planet, then use massive amounts of energy to nuke the stuff off. Come on! They are bad news. Dishwashers should be outlawed.

I will now get hate mail from the ‘Dishwasher Fans of the World” club and be harassed on social media for being a luddite. I am prepared for that. Luckily I’m not on Facebook anymore to avoid all those “Dislike” posts.

Instead I will accept my lot in life. I will accept the endless hours at the sink, hands immersed in zero-carbon hot water heated on my woodstove, manually scraping that baked-on stuff, using my own personal energy rather than some created at a centralized power generating station hundreds of miles away with who knows what environmental impacts.

And I will enjoy every meal on dishes free of the tyranny of the dishwasher oppression that leaves that gross feeling on the dishes and glasses and cups. Every cup of coffee I drink will be in a mug removed from the legacy of some “New and Improved” dishwasher pod created in some lab to substitute what your mother did for you lovingly and with her own elbow grease.

As I do my dishes, the old fashioned way, I will contemplate the fate of the world and solve its problems with my mind free of clutter and focused on the big picture solutions. I will be grateful for so many blessings … to be born at such a great time in human history, in such a great country … and to the have the right to choose to not have to submit to the tyranny of an electrically powered dishwasher, but to be able to savor the satisfaction that comes with looking at a dish rack of drying clean dishes, that I lovingly washed. And I will step back before I put them away and say … “I did that.” That is my blood, sweat and tears in those clean dishes. I did that.

And I will look out the window beside the sink where I can see the garden, under a blanket of snow, where soon I will begin growing the food that will ultimately dirty these plates that I wash. I will think, that once I get out and get my hands in that soil, that dish detail will return to being a shared responsibility at Sunflower Farm … and I will think… spring can’t come soon enough!

Sorry about the rant. Thanks for listening.

(The photo below is not mine but you get the idea….)

By User:Mysid (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By User:Mysid (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Time to Evaluate Your Preparedness

First off, thank you to the many thoughtful responses to our healthcare blog. I guess I was hoping to help any of our American readers get a sense that the Canadian universal healthcare system, while awesome, has some pretty big challenges on the horizon.

I’ve had a good haul of ‘day-old’ newspapers and copies of “The Guardian” to plow through of late and I’ve noticed a bit of a trend. An article in The Guardian was titled “Crashing Markets are telling us something.”  Ya think? (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/17/china-economic-crisis-world-economy-global-capitalism)

In a recent Globe and Mail, Carl Mortished’s article “Why Cash is Still King” starts off by asking if the world descends into chaos what would you stuff in your pockets as you bugged out? “Would it be plastic cards or paper bills?” That article doesn’t even get into the reality of how gold and precious metals have started their upward climb with the uncertainty in the markets.

This brought me back to the book “Lights Out” by Ted Koppel. He wrote about the impacts of a widespread blackout should the grid ever get hacked. After 18 years of living off the grid I’m finally getting a handle on how many people don’t ‘get’ what has to be done to prepare. For example, I’ve often had friends tell me about someone they know who has moved off the grid and powers their home entirely by renewable energy. Usually it turns out that ‘powered’ only refers to keeping their lights and appliances on with solar and wind power. They might innocently admit that they heat with propane through hydronic in-floor heating. They probably also heat their hot water with propane. So much for being “off grid.”

Once you realize that 60% of the ‘energy’ you consume in your house is used to heat it, and 20% is used to heat your water, you realize that for these individuals, independent renewable energy is only meeting 20% of their home’s energy requirements (this is obviously tailored towards people who live in colder parts of the country). So if you are off-grid for environmental reasons, using a fossil fuel like propane for 80% of your energy needs doesn’t really cut it. Or if you’re off-grid because you want to be ‘prepared’ for the zombpocalypse (a fancy amalgam of zombie apocalypse), then heating your home with a fuel you have to purchase and have delivered to your house (and that frankly requires a huge amount of very capital intense infrastructure to drill for and refine), then you really haven’t achieved that goal of independence.

I am always amazed at the number of people who feel their preparation for an extended power outage is a gas or diesel or propane generator. That’s great for a few days or a week, or until your fuel runs out, but during an extended outage it’s not a good strategy.

After reading all of this I finally decided to offer a spring workshop here at Sunflower Farm. I think we will ‘go dark’ or really off the grid soon, but for now I think I’ve got another workshop in me. I really do enjoy the energy that comes from a house of people who seem genuinely interested in how we’ve got our home as energy independent and low carbon as we have.

The time is growing short if you’re planning on getting serious about putting a plan together about being prepared for an uncertain future. It only works if you do it while you have access to the tools you’ll need. And most importantly, you need to know the most efficient way of harnessing your limited resources (because most of us have some limit on what we can spend) and putting them to the best use.

I have spent almost 20 years trying to figure this out. Initially it was because I wanted our home to run more efficiently. Then I became more motivated to put as little carbon into the atmosphere as I physically could. Then it became because I wanted to offer the best information I could to the people who read our books. And now it’s because I want to be as logical and ‘sensible’ as I can in making our home independent and prepared for ‘bumps in the road.”

I start out each workshop saying if I didn’t leave my house, and nothing came down my driveway for 6 months, the quality of my life wouldn’t change. I readily admit I will get a caffeine withdrawal headache for several days when the coffee runs out and I am forced to detox, but I know that’s coming and I’m mentally prepared for it.

So this may be our last “Hands-On, Solar-Powered, All-You-Can-Grow, Ready for Rough Times” Workshop. We’ve set aside April 30th for it. We limit participation since we can only sit so many people around our dining room table for lunch, so if you’ve been thinking about this, now’s the time to do it. Or you can send your spouse (or kid, or neighbor) and have them give you the highlights. I would highly recommend you come yourself and see how our place it works. It’s pretty awesome.

I’ll also note that we’ve had a number of Americans come to our place and with the Canadian dollar outrageously low right now, you’ll get way more bang for your U.S. dollar. So don’t delay! Book early! Book often! Extend your American Dollar Value and make the trip the today! It’s always worth the drive to Sunflower Farm!

For more details, click here.

from-the-air-Sunflower-farm

 

 

The Myth of Relaxation When Homesteading

I think there is a myth out there among people who live in urban areas and work in jobs that they aren’t overly enthused about. The myth involves the glamour and romance of a move to a rural homestead. I get it. I had it for many years before we moved off the grid. And perhaps it’s not just the image of sitting and drinking tea by the fire while reading novels that attracts people. Sure, we all know there will be work involved, but sometimes I think many people don’t realize the scale of the work that is involved.

If you consider the original homesteaders 150 years ago, they worked from dawn to dusk, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, then probably died at about the age of 29. Today we have all these amazing modern machines that make our lives so much easier, but we still have to power them. If you use gas/diesel/propane, you still require an income to purchase them. So you’re either doing the work yourself manually, or working to earn an income to purchase these miraculous (personal) energy savers.

You can go off-grid like us, and generate all your own electricity, but to generate it in the volume you require to live independently requires a massive capital outlay on equipment upfront. So most off-gridders make a casual deal with the devil. We try not to sell our entire soul, but just enough of it to put some gas in the chainsaw and some diesel in the generator for the cloudy months (like right now) when no amount of photovoltaic panels will allow you to live anywhere near a typical North American lifestyle. Oh, you can go all ‘Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on The Prairie” and have a hand pump for the well and read by candles or just go to bed at 5 pm, but if you’re used to those luxuries … like refrigerators and lights … then you have to make some compromises.

Michelle and I have the added challenge of trying to get our house to as near zero-carbon as we can. Many people move off-grid and simply switch all their thermal or heat loads (hot water, cooking, clothes drying…) to propane. This is an expensive fuel, and if you move off-grid partially for environmental reasons, then you just lost the battle. Sixty percent of a northern home’s carbon comes from heating, 20% from heating water, and 20% from all those other electric needs like refrigeration, water pumping, TV, etc. So really, just putting up some PV for 20% of your home’s energy requirements is a huge waste of time if you switch the other 80% (heat and hot water) to a fossil fuel.

Michelle and I heat with wood which is carbon neutral except for the cutting and splitting of it, and we are increasingly moving to more ‘solar powered’ electric chain sawing and splitting. We have a solar domestic hot water (SDHW) system which provides about 60% of our hot water using the sun, but then we have to make up the difference without using propane. Again we use carbon neutral wood.

So here’s a typical day for me right now.

I get up early and start the fire in the woodstove. I put the kettle and some cast iron fry pans on for our eggs and hash browns. Then I feed the chickens. Then I bring in firewood. Then I start breakfast which takes a while since I juggle multiple items on the woodstove. If we experiencing a really dark period, as we have been for the last two weeks without sun and not much wind, I also use a cast iron fry pan on the woodstove to toast our bread. (We like to call it ‘the griller’ using a horrible fake British accent.) For 11 months of the year we use the electric toaster but during some dark periods I do everything I can to avoid using electricity that will require me to run the generator (gasoline) more than absolutely necessary.

After breakfast we do the dishes with hot water heated on the woodstove. Then I shave with water from the kettle that I pour into the bathroom sink rather than using the hot water tap. I don’t use the hot water tap because there has been so little thermal energy from the sun, the hot water tank (propane) is lukewarm and I don’t want the propane to come on and heat up 40 gallons of hot water. And yes, I should have an on-demand hot water tank but I haven’t gotten around to that yet.

I usually also put on a pan of our lower grade potatoes and sweet potatoes to cook for the chickens. They like a warm treat first thing in the morning and sometimes before they head to bed (their roosts in the chicken coop.) After breakfast I head outside and right now I continue to do work in the gardens and greenhouses. Even in mid-December the jobs seem endless. Once the ground freezes, which it did 2 weeks ago but thawed again recently, I’ll switch my daytime activities to cutting firewood. To minimize my use of gasoline, I bring down trees with the gas chainsaw, then drag them in longer lengths back to the house to be bucked into woodstove-sized logs with the electric or battery powered chainsaw, and then split with the electric splitter (all carbon neutral).

If it’s bath night I fill up big pots of water and put them on the woodstove by late afternoon so they’re ready for that night’s bath. I also fill up buckets of cold water and let it sit during the day to warm up. Baths take forever by the time I run the bath, clean out the pots to try and minimize the mineral build up on them from our hard water, and dry the buckets I filled during daylight hours. We leave warm water in the cast-iron bathtub overnight to dissipate heat into the bathroom, then I flush the toilet the next morning using buckets of bath water. It ends up in the same septic system and this way I get one more use of the water that required electricity to pump it up out of our well.

Some days I also peel and boil some potatoes to be ready for the next batch of hash browns, and do another load of dishes. Michelle is busy putting away the laundry that she dried on racks inside the house since it’s too cold for the clothes line outside. One little job after another, and the next thing I know my whole day has passed by!

I am not complaining. I love living the way I do. I love everything I do. I can’t imagine living any other way. There are times during these activities though that I think to myself “Holy cow this is an immense amount of work!” I am constantly trying to find more labor saving techniques to minimize what we have to do each day, but I think I’ve picked all the ‘low hanging fruit.’ Most other options involve the use of fossil fuels.

We have bookshelves full of books, many I have yet to read, and many that I want to re-read. By the time dinner is done though, picking up a book is a sure way to put me to sleep while sitting straight up on the couch! Netflix, on the other hand, or a video from the video store will keep me awake and entertained until 9 pm which is finally official bed-time. Yup, we’re a pretty wild and crazy bunch here at Sunflower Farm at night. Now that I think of it, we’re pretty boring and mundane all day too. Just the way I like it.

the-warmth-of-a-woodstove

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The Title Fight for Battery Supremacy

Ever since Tesla announced their new Powerwall, we’ve received lots of emails and messages asking us for our opinion on this new product. So here is my quick response. Now I am heading back out to the garden!

The Tesla Powerwall

Ladies…. and. …Gentlemen (said with long pauses, like before a boxing match) … Welcome to the premier event in the battery fight world!

In this corner, weighing in at … well… not much… using state-of-the-art lithium-ion technology… backed by a financial and tech super-heavy weight… with more hype than sliced white bread when it was first introduced… Elon Musk’s Tesla Superwall Battery for the Home!

In this corner, weighing in at… well… a bazillion pounds… using a 100 year-old lead-acid technology… backed by… well, no one really, with media hype that is … well… non-existent… Cam’s Off-Grid Deep-Cycle Lead Acid Batteries!

And there you have it. In 17 years of living off-grid and many years of doing workshops on off-grid living and blogging… I have never had so many people ask me my opinion about anything… let alone something as cool as battery technology that the manufacturer says would work great with solar panels charging them. How awesome is that!

But I have to remind myself of the caveat. Most of these same people are probably aware that solar panels cost about a tenth of what they cost when I started buying them. They are crazy cheap right now, but we still haven’t seen a widespread adoption of them by individuals. Generating electricity is still something that, for most people, someone else does for them.

Everything I read tells me that the Tesla batteries are great. And there will be early adopters. But the hype seems to be related to this paradigm shift they will spearhead in which individuals will take personal responsibility for powering their own homes. And I’m not sure how likely that is.

My batteries that cost about $5,000 are a deep-cycle lead acid technology that is designed to be cycled up and down many times. I should not let them go below 50% of their charge so I have to watch their state of charge and I have to periodically add distilled water to the electrolyte. So they are not maintenance free. Each of my batteries weighs 270 pounds, so when I leave the house I do not worry about intruders stealing my batteries. They came with a 10-year warranty and if I treat them really well, I should get 17 to 20 years of life out of them. At that time someone will purchase them from me for the value of the lead in them, which will be recycled into new batteries.

off-gridbatteries

The Tesla battery will be lighter and have less maintenance. That’s awesome.

I’m not sure they will meet most people’s expectations though. In my case I know I can get through 3 cloudy days in November, as long as I switch all my thermal (heat) loads to propane and wood. If I’m just running the fridge and freezer, TV, computers, lights, and small electric appliances I’m fine.

The problem will be someone in an urban environment who is not into the whole “paying attention to their energy use thing”, and the family may try and switch to the batteries and someone in the family will warm up a pizza pocket in the toaster oven for 15 minutes and suddenly the potential of the batteries will not meet the hype. A few times of not being disciplined to watch your electricity use could quickly dampen your enthusiasm for the product.

If you use them just to run non-thermal electric loads they will be awesome, but from an environmental point of view here in the north and for the northern parts of the U.S. 60% of your home’s energy use is for heat, 20% is for hot water and the remaining 20% is for appliances. So if you heat with natural gas or oil, and make your hot water this way, then installing a set of these batteries only helps with 20% of your energy requirements. What you should be doing is installing a geo-thermal/ground source heat pump to stop burning natural gas for your heat. What you should do next is install a solar domestic hot water to reduce your natural gas use to produce hot water. Then you should install one of these battery banks and some solar panels to charge them.

This is exactly what happened in the province of Ontario with the Green Energy Act. We had very low carbon electricity because of our nuclear plants and hydro. They introduced incentives to put solar panels on roof-tops and they killed the solar domestic hot water and geo-thermal industries. People didn’t do the right thing. If they had just put a price on carbon, the market would have sorted this all out. When government meddles they inevitably get it wrong.

We moved to our off-grid home the year after the 1998 ice storm that devastated this part of the world. As I did workshops at colleges throughout the area I’d ask people to raise their hands if they’d been without electricity for a week. Most hands went up. 2 weeks? A lot of hands. 3 or more weeks, still a fair number of hands. Then I’d ask how many people had bought backup generators. Very few hands.

There’s this inertia that keeps people from doing what they should do. “Well, another ice storm is highly unlikely, so I’m not worried. And besides for the price of a generator I can get an all-inclusive week in Cuba, so I’m takin’ the personal gratification now baby! And that includes booze!” Because really, who wants a gas generator sitting in their garage that they may never have to use? And really, not being able to keep the lights on, heat your house, have a hot shower or keep food cold, really it wasn’t that bad.

If you want backup power for an electricity blackout, a $700 gas generator is a better investment than $3,500 for the Tesla Powerwall. Not good for the planet, but better bang for the buck. If you want to save the planet, look at how you heat your home and hot water first. These are by far much greater contributors to our environmental challenges.

So there’s my rant. I wish Elon Musk all the best. The lithium-ion battery in my new 20V drill and 40V electric chainsaw are awesome! I can hardly wait to see how these batteries perform. We have been early adopters of new technologies since Michelle bought one of the first Macintosh computers to roll off the line in 1984. She bought it because she had a good job and I kept bouncing around from sales job to sales job. By being early adopters we helped drive down the cost of solar panels that people should be buying today, because it’s an existing technology and it works. But for most people that vacation abroad or that new deck’s worth of outside living room furniture, or that newest type of coffee maker that uses non-recyclable pods and plays your favorite music while it brews is by far the sexier choice.

Once some developed country’s politicians have the intestinal fortitude to put a realistic price on carbon and then start ratcheting it up, products like this will fly off the shelves … just like all those other new and exciting ‘must-have’ consumer products.

Here’s Elon Musk introducing the new Tesla Powerwall, just in case you missed it!

THE Workshop you NEED to Attend!

I’m pretty sure I’ve spoken about some of my former illustrious and numerous careers, especially in sales. I sold advertising in my uncle’s used farm equipment paper, radio advertising in Peterborough, television advertising in Kingston, computers in Hamilton, desktop publishing systems in Toronto, and then my own business in Burlington & Tamworth for 25 years. So hold onto your seat, ‘cause this is gonna get ugly!’ Because I want to fill up our spring workshop early. We sold out our fall one and it helps us to get a spring strategy the sooner it’s booked. Soo… long inhale… here goes…

So, this is… THE BEST WORKSHOP…. EVER! No, it really is. No exaggeration. No hyperbole. This is a fact. You can look it up.

We call it “The Hands-On, Solar Powered, Off-Grid, Personal Independence and Resilience, All You Can Grow, Ready for Rough Times Workshop” and that doesn’t even begin to explain how totally awesome it is.

It started many years ago as an offshoot of the renewable energy workshops I was giving at colleges. I focused on energy in the morning, then expanded on the independence theme in the afternoon to talk about food production and storage, transportation, water, alternative forms of monetary exchange … that sort of thing.

Eventually I began calling it “Thriving During Challenging Times” and one time at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton a few years back we had 75 people attend the workshop.

In those days it was all PowerPoints, and there were probably 300 photos in it, but I don’t always think that has the same impact. So we decided, hey, if we really want people to see how this is done, and know that you can really do this, then we need to have them come to the house to show them.

Now we’ve been offering it here for a number of years and every one gets progressively better. I appreciate the first people who came and we have used their feedback to continuously improve it. At the beginning I used some of my PowerPoint slides to set the stage for ‘why’ you may want to become more independent and resilient. I quickly noticed that people would start dozing off as early as 9:30 am during the PowerPoint presentation, and duh, they were here already, so obviously they got the “why” thing.

And now every time I present my workshop I further refine it so that people are just getting the essentials. You know how when you used to write essays in school the more you reread it, the more extraneous stuff you could take out and make it shorter? Well that’s what I’ve been able to do and so now there is less to absorb, just the essentials. I have lots more information if people want it, but I won’t put it out there if it just puts extra pressure on everyone’s brain synapses … because at 55 I now realize there’s only so much ‘stuff’ you can file up there. Now the daylong workshop consists of visiting various areas of our house while I explain the how’s and whys of our various systems and then allowing time for people to ask questions that are directly related to their own situation. I stay on message and answer quickly and if I think I haven’t got them what they want, I revisit it with them at lunch or during the breaks. ‘No one leaves with questions unanswered’ is my mantra.

You learn only the essential stuff and not some esoteric, theoretical concept you see on a screen, you see ‘IT.” You see what a kilowatt of photovoltaic panels looks like and what sort of lifestyle you can live depending on how many hours of sun you receive. You see what an acre and a half of cultivated gardens looks like and how much food it can produce. You see what’s involved with backyard chickens and what you need for a proper root cellar.

Michelle prepares wonderful food and people really seem to love sitting down for lunch at our dining room table and having a chance to talk to everyone else. I love meeting all these cool people. It’s a blast. It’s fantastic! I love these days! I’m totally pumped when they’re over!

This year our spring workshop will take place on Saturday, April 25. The cost for the whole day, which includes coffee breaks and lunch, is $120/per person. This includes two of our books, one of which will be “The Sensible Prepper,” hot off the press. We’re 2 ½ hours from Toronto, less than 2 hours from Ottawa, less than 6 hours from Boston and less than 11 hours from New York City. So there’s no excuse to miss it. Book a plane. Book a train. Fill up your gas tank. It’s an incredible value! The knowledge is priceless! Bring your parents … bring your adult children … bring your neighbor … tell your co-workers, tell your baseball team, let your homesteader wannabe group know about it, put it on your local bulletin board, post it on your Facebook page. It’s a really big deal! It’s that awesome!

Thanks for listening. If I have any blog readers left two days from now I’ll be shocked!

 For more information click here. To sign up for this workshop, email michelle at gmail dot com.

sunflower-farm-sign

The Price of Oil is Scary

So have you noticed the price of oil lately? Pretty great eh? Cheap gas! Yee ha!gaspistol

I think not. I don’t think this is a good thing. I guess I’m a glass-half-empty kind of guy but I think something is amiss and I don’t think it’s going to end well.

A barrel of oil has stayed above $100/barrel for quite a while now. Then last summer it started this crazy nosedive to its current level of about $50. And it frankly just doesn’t make any sense to me, on so many levels.

First off, it is just such an amazing commodity; it shouldn’t be this cheap. The potential energy in a barrel of oil is mind-boggling. Three tablespoons of oil is the equivalent of a human working manually for 8 hours. If you spent your whole life toiling in the fields (which I lovingly do every summer) your whole life’s energy expenditure would be equivalent to 3 barrels of oil. 3 barrels. So if the world is burning through 80+ million barrels of oil everyday, you can appreciate just how much work that fossil fuel is accomplishing for us.

Now some (like me) would argue that much of it is wasted commuting long distances or flying to exotic places. Some would argue (like me) that we have to burn less of the stuff because when you use a liquid hydrocarbon like this, it releases sequestered carbon from under the ground into the atmosphere, and on a large scale that’s not a good thing. Some organizations like 350.org or even the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggest that if we want to have any hope of stopping the planet from warming more than 2°C we basically need to leave three-quarters of the known fossil fuel reserves that energy companies have on their balance sheets, in the ground.

And that’s one of the biggest problems with cheap oil. Some countries seem to be pumping it likes there’s no tomorrow, to generate cash, and this stuff is too precious to sell at a discount.petrol-pump-icon

There are lots of great theories as to why the price has collapsed the way it has. One is that countries are trying to punish Russia, which relies heavily on oil revenue, for it’s incursion into the Ukraine. I tend to take the more classic economic perspective and that is that demand is simply not there. The media loves to remind us of how great the economy is doing and why we should be so confident and get out there and run those credit cards up making ourselves happy. But I don’t things are as rosy as we’re being told. And I think the plummeting price of oil is the proof.

There is a hard cold reality of cheap oil and that is that many North American producers are no longer profitable. Fracked shale oil and Alberta tar sands oil are really expensive to get at. At $120/barrel there is an economic incentive to do this. At $60/barrel, well, not so much. And some of these investments we’re talking about are long term. So if you take drill rigs out of the fields and scale back investment in looking for new supplies, eventually you’ll have a drop in supply, which should bring the price back up. But I don’t think you can replace lost supply that quickly which means a huge price spike later on. More pain after the short-term gain we’re experiencing.

In a perfect world the price of oil would have just kept going up indefinitely. This would destroy demand and get consumers to switch to alternatives, many of which use free energy, like the sun and wind. A high price of oil is good for the environment. But economics being what it is, this whole supply and demand thing doesn’t seem to fit with an ever-increasing price of a commodity. Sooner or later the bubble bursts and prices come back down to earth. And customers shopping for new cars see cheap gas and buy big honking’ vehicles that will be on the road for 15 or 20 years. (These same consumers will be on the nightly news when gas goes back up in price complaining at the cost of filling up their inefficient vehicles!)

I may be out in left field on this one; in fact I’m sure I am. I simply can’t understand how such an abrupt price drop in oil can be a good thing over the long haul. Something’s up. I just can’t get my head around exactly what that is. But I don’t think it’s a good thing. Or, quoting the title of my friend Joe Ollman’s book “This will all end in tears.”

 

The Devil You Know and the Status Quo (or Whoops I Did It Again!)

I ran for municipal council in our recent election … and just so I don’t keep you perched on the edge of your seat, I’ll just put it out there … I lost.

And that’s okay. I’m down with that. The great news is that 3 out of the 5 councilors elected in my township are female, and that’s a great step forward. In Ontario all of our municipal elections occur every 4 years, so just so you know what kind of celebrity this entails, this was the same election in which Rob Ford, sorry, I mean Rob Ford’s brother Doug, did not get elected as mayor of Toronto.

Once I had submitted my nomination papers I began to realize the limitations of municipal council. I lost some of my motivation to win.

I had decided up front, as I did when I ran for the Green Party in the last provincial election, that I wasn’t going to use lawn signs. We have an enormous riding and I’d have to spend a fortune on them to make any difference. And my attitude is that if you’re just going to vote for me because I have the ‘most’ or ‘biggest’ signs, well then I really don’t want to participate in that kind of democracy. The great news is that my friend John Wise, the organic farmer that grows the organic strawberries for our CSA, got re-elected, and he didn’t use signs either. John also got the most votes, which is even better news. So much for the sign theory.

I decided to use the ‘Anita Roddick’ school of promotion as the basis for my election campaign. Anita started the retail store “The Body Shop” when she was a single mom as a way to earn a living. As it grew she never advertised, and yet it became massively success worldwide. She tended to source natural ingredients for her personal care products, and when she found a sustainable source of say, cocoa butter in some remote village, she would promote this with local media and would inevitably get promotion for her store without having to purchase advertising. I met her many decades ago when she did a book tour and she was very much an inspiration for me.

So I decided that I had a certain profile in our community based on activities I’ve organized such as a number of Green Energy Fairs, along with the writing I do in the local paper as well as my Green Party campaign last spring. I might have printed a campaign brochure and put it in mailboxes but after the first All Candidates Meeting I realized two things. First that I would be only one of 7 votes on council and I would have to create consensus for anything I wanted to accomplish. I’m sure you’ve got a sense that someone who lives off the grid, homeschooled his kids, eats a plant-based diet, etc. etc. etc, I don’t always play well with the other kids in the sandbox, so this may have proven problematic for me.

Secondly, township councils have to work within heavy guidelines or constraints mandated by the provincial government. So it seemed challenging to want to move forward with an agenda that may be outside of council’s mandated responsibility.

If you’ve read my book “Thriving During Challenging Times” or followed this blog for long, you have probably realized that I believe that we are all, including our governments, in the midst of a period of abrupt change which will require outside-of-the-box thinking. Our weather is getting much more extreme, we have run out of easy to find oil and what’s left requires a whack of energy to get it out, and most of our governments are heavily in debt if not bankrupt, thereby limiting their ability to deal with these crises.

Last spring our township had the worst flooding anyone remembers. This requires a rethink of how we run our local government. Our township has an enormous number of roads to maintain, and a relativity small population to support them. I love living in a sparsely populated area, but it hurts our ability to raise taxes to maintain those roads. About half of all taxes in our township goes to roads. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on just diesel fuel alone so we have to rethink how much we can afford to put into our roads.

I made this central to my campaign platform – that we had to start reducing how much money went to roads. I suggested we start by rolling it back 5% in the first year. This would send a signal to staff and taxpayers that the days of constant tax increases to pay for increased services were going to end. I’m just not sure people wanted to hear this. This certainly was the case in our last provincial election. The Liberals, who have ruled for 10 years, have run up an almost $300 billion deficit. The Conservatives said that to bring spending in line with revenue, they would reduce the civil service by 100,000 people, which had grown by 300,000 in the last decade under the Liberals.

Voters gave the Liberals a majority. Apparently we either like the status quo or all the services the government provides. In Ontario, the government will provide $12 billion more in services than it will generate in revenue. This doesn’t seem to faze anyone. I guess when you look at the fact that Canadians are up to their eyeballs in debt, like Americans were in 2007 before the collapse, it’s understandable we don’t mind our governments behaving the same way. Or maybe that’s why we’re so comfortable with that debt because our role model is doing it.

At the All Candidates Meeting I discussed how severe weather as a result of climate change required action on our part and that peak oil with the number of road miles we have to maintain required action. I just don’t think voters want to hear this. They want shiny happy stories, and I’m afraid I won’t tell those stories.

I also made a commitment to get our fire stations provided with proper backup power generators. Right now in my town if there is a power outage, which often occurs during severe weather like ice storms, basically the only way the fire station can keep the lights on is if our volunteer firefighters bring in their own generators. That’s pathetic. And sure, rural people should have their own independent power systems. But some people can’t afford them. And sometimes, older residents don’t have them or have family they can rely on to help them out. So I believe our community should have one place where people in distress can go to get warm and seek refuge from the elements. And so off I go to figure out where to find money for a big ‘ole generator for our fire station.

I learned an enormous amount about municipal government running for office. I learned a lot about provincial government running in our last provincial government. Now all that’s left to learn a lot about is federal politics …

Potassium Iodide Pills and That Whole Fukushima Thing

Like so many things I disagree with, I have resigned myself to nuclear power. The Province of Ontario (home of Toronto and mayor Rob Ford!) where I live uses nuclear reactors to generate more than 50% of our electricity. The Green Energy Act has inspired a huge buildup in solar and wind power, but we aren’t going to continue to live the way we do now with renewable energy for a while. Which begs the question; can we keep living this way? That is a topic for another blog post.

After watching the Fukushima meltdown I am concerned about the hazards of radioactivity in a worst-case scenario. I remember reading that Scandinavian countries that were proactive when they discovered radioactivity from the Chernobyl meltdown had much lower rates of thyroid cancer. What had they done? So with 18 or 20 nuclear reactors in the province, and bits and pieces of information about previously unknown fault lines and potential earthquakes near Lake Ontario, I thought I would educate myself about the hazard.

I stood talking to one of our CSA members last summer and when she said she grew up in Pickering where there is a nuclear plant I said “Well I hope you didn’t live less than 5 km from it” and of course she was quite close. She told me that every year in public school they had a least one “drill” where the sirens went off, each kid was given a pill to take, they were watched to make sure they took it, and then they were loaded on to buses and driven a safe distance away. I suggest to anyone who doesn’t want to live near a large wind turbine because of health effects that they should move their kids to Pickering. But what was that pill?

The pill is potassium iodide. If there is a nuclear accident radionuclides are released that head right for your thyroid and promote thyroid cancer. The main one is iodine-131.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iodine-131

Potassium iodide, which is a ‘stable iodide’, saturates the thyroid to prevent radioactive iodine from getting in there. It lasts about 24 hours so you would need to take a pill once a day.

My interest coincided with my research for my book The Sensible Prepper so I began to look at how to get the tablets. I found that it’s surprisingly hard to get a human voice on the phone at any of the province wide emergency disaster phone numbers. So I sent emails and made calls. Eventually I discovered that if you live within 10 kms of a nuclear plant, and there is a disaster, you can go to a local pharmacy to get potassium iodide. It’s not widely publicized because hey, you don’t want to start a panic right? I called some of the pharmacies and asked if I could get the pills. I came clean. I said I didn’t live that close but I did drive through the area when I visited my daughters so I wanted the pills. No dice. I was told that doesn’t count.

I did everything I could to get the government to give me some pills in case there was ever a nuclear emergency, and they just didn’t seem to want to.

After weeks of this I finally asked one of the pharmacist how many tablets I would get if I lived in “the zone.” She said “One.” ONE!? Seriously? Are you kidding me? You mean if a local nuclear plant melts down you’re going to have hundreds of thousands of residents lining up patiently every day to get their “ONE PILL!??” Have these emergency organizational people never seen a zombie movie? Don’t they realize as soon as the crisis hits, everyone heads for the local drugstore and they don’t stand patiently in line waiting to be served!

Eventually someone in the federal government gave me these two websites with brand names and dosages etc..

http://webprod5.hc-sc.gc.ca/lnhpd-bdpsnh/info.do?lang=eng&licence=80033693

http://webprod5.hc-sc.gc.ca/lnhpd-bdpsnh/info.do?lang=eng&licence=02248172

So we ordered a bunch of pills. And I gave some to my daughters who live closer to the nukes or would be driving past them on their way to safe and organic Sunflower Farm. It used to be that I freaked them out when I did this sort of stuff, but now they just roll their eyes. And I’m happy about that. I had put off ordering these pills for months. Then one day I thought you know what, now that I have this information, can you imagine how much I’d beat myself up if when I had the chance I hadn’t ordered them? Because when you need the pills you need them quickly, and if you want to order a bunch all of the sudden you can bet you won’t be the only one and they’ll be sold out pretty quickly. Or, you could just go and stand in line at the local pharmacy, for your ONE pill a day.

So I can tick that off my list. Fear of nuclear fallout. Check. Now if we can just figure out how to stop the radioactive tritium from leaking, and how to store the waste from nuclear plants safely for 100,000 years until it’s no longer lethal, all will be well with my world.

 potassiumiodidepills

Cam’s Addendum: I actually posted this blog a month ago but then decided to “unpost” it. But recently, several of Canada’s largest media outlets including CTV News and The Toronto Star have reported on it. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has recommended what I was attempting to do a few months ago and just distribute the pills to everyone in the zone:

http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2014/10/16/nuclear_watchdog_orders_antiradiation_pills_for_ontarians_near_power_plants.html

http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/anti-radiation-pills-to-be-given-to-neighbours-of-ontario-nuclear-plants-1.2056853

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Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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