Posts Tagged ‘Solar’

Mommy’s Alright, Daddy’s Alright, They Just Seem a Little Weird

When you’re a parent there comes a time when you have to look back and think about your parenting choices and their impacts on your kids. And how did they perceive you as a parent? The song lyric from the title is from the band Cheap Trick. It was on their 1983 Live at Budokan album and the song is called Surrender.

I played it the other day and was taken back to a day when I was pretty young and my parents called a family meeting, which they rarely did. We all sat in the living room, with the so hip deep red shag carpet (it was 1968 or thereabouts). They then proceeded to tell us that they were selling the house and were going to buy a sailboat and we were going to sail around the world. What? No school? Can we leave tomorrow?

I do recall it being brought up that they had never sailed a day in their lives, but we lived near Kingston, Ontario which was swimming with sailors, so really, how hard could that be? I had sailed with my neighbor Paul in his “Laser” which required locking your feet through this seat belt strung down the middle of the hollowed out leg area, then hiking yourself as far out over the water as you could. It was so much fun until the wind gust died and you went into the water head first, although at age I’m pretty that was a blast too.

As it was the world wide adventure never happened. I’m sure inertia eeked back into my parents’ life … the mortgage…the promotion that was probably offered when they heard he or she were leaving … maybe they thought they shouldn’t interrupt the kids from school.

And really what kind of person would do that anyway? Yank their kids out of nice, controlled, suburban lifestyle, with access to good libraries, shopping, activities … well that would be just wrong. That parent would be completely irresponsible. Clearly. No doubt about it.

No wait, that’s me! Back in 1998 we moved from a suburb of Toronto 3 hours away to the woods, with no phone, internet, or electricity cables to the house. We were going from the middle of advanced 20th Century Developed First World Affluence, to the middle of nowhere.

Listening to Cheap Trick the other day was when I finally figured it out, that I was even worse than my parents! I followed up on my threat to drop out. “Daddy’s alright, he just seems really weird!” I had at least become my parents in spirit, and I believe this is many children’s fear. I could do worse I suppose.

My father is still alive, so I would never refer to the “sailboat incident” as a ‘mid-life’ crisis, but come on, what else could you call it? That is so “Mosquito Coast”ish (the movie/book where Harrison Ford drags his family to “Brazil” for his midlife crisis) And why are so many wives tolerating these male mid-life crises?

I have no doubt that I was the prime instigator in us ‘going off-the-grid,’ but Michelle was right along there with me during the whole ride. It took us close to 5 years to find this place. When it came time to pull the trigger and put in an offer she said, “Just do it.” Was that encouragement or an ultimatum?

Regardless, here is where we ended up when our girls were in their early teens. I can’t tell you how many people have said to us, ‘oh we’d have done that if the kids hadn’t been in school. We didn’t want them to have to leave their friends.’ Oh get over it. They’re kids. They’ll adapt. And yes, we were homeschooling so it was easier, but today, why do I get the impression that ‘friends’ for kids today are mostly pixels through text and online chats on smartphones as opposed to hanging out after school and building stuff with Lego … which you should never do once you get to high school … which I might have been doing but would never admit to publicly.

So how many kids think of their parents as stressed out and miserable? How many parents come home from work every night bagged? Pissed off at their boss? Another promotion overlooked. More job cuts and those who manage to hold on to their jobs just get more work dumped on them … blah blah blah. To counteract the stress they say, “Let’s book a trip, I need a change of pace. And we NEED a bigger car.”

For the first little while after our move our daughters still saw me stressed out about earning an income, especially with the challenges we had with phones and communications and therefore fax and early internet stuff. But as we were able to shift more of our income to book publishing and producing information about sustainable living, well that phase was over for me. Plus, the girls did a few years of high school and then went to university, so I suppose they missed most of the really happy dad days.

Today, as long as we don’t talk about last summer’s drought, everything here at Sunflower (aka Cam’s Midlife Crisis) Farm is pretty awesome.

I left a city where I was pretty miserable when I was 39. I have heated with wood, which I love, and grown much of my own food for almost 20 years. I have spent 20 years looking out my windows at nothing but forests and ponds, and often wildlife. When I wanted I chickens, I just got them. There is no by-law against it here. When I want to snow blow at 3:30 am (as I did the other night when I couldn’t sleep) there are no neighbors within earshot to complain.

Michelle has asked our daughters to each contribute a chapter to the book she is just finishing on homeschooling. I hope they discuss their experience with moving from suburbia to the bush. I hope it didn’t impact them too negatively. Me, on the other hand, well listening to and responding to my midlife crisis was the BEST thing I ever did (after marrying Michelle and having kids, obviously). If Sunflower Farm is what a midlife crisis looks like, they can be pretty awesome!

The Feng Shui of My Wind Turbine

Remember that scene in the first Star Wars where the Death Star blows up that planet and Obi-Wan Kenobi says, “There’s been a disturbance in the force”?

That’s been the theme of my life for the last couple of months since our wind turbine got knocked out by lightning. For the last nine years, I’ve been able to look up and see the wind turbine, from pretty much anywhere I stand near our house. It’s a wonderful, glorious, beautiful thing. It reminds me of the cost of living in an advanced society … that requires electricity … when electricity poles don’t run to your house.

So while it was down, first so that I could diagnose the problem and then to order and wait for the replacement parts, there was a disturbance in the force here. I felt like the “Feng Shui” of the place had been thrown off. Not that I know anything about Feng Shui. I thought it referred to where you put your couch in the living room, but according to Wikipedia it is the Chinese philosophy of harmonizing everyone with the surrounding environment. With that description it makes sense to me that the Feng Shui of this place has been off kilter.

In so many parts of my province people are vocal in their opposition to large wind turbines, claiming they are a blight on the landscape. They never mention the utility poles that line every roadway and the power lines which crisscross the province, and the enormous electricity towers that dot the landscape. Nope, it’s the wind turbines that are the problem.

And yet I somehow find them so beautiful. And I absolutely love mine. Especially at this time of year! With less and less sunshine, and more and more wind, the wind turbine is a marvel. I’m surrounded by trees and forests and somehow it just feels like it fits in.

This may be because of the literal translation (according to Wikipedia) of Feng Shui which is “wind-water.” You see, after our drought this summer, the pond that the turbine towers above is dry. It’s never been dry before, but this summer’s historic drought did it in and we have yet to see enough fall rain to put any water back in to it. In my silly, rose-colored glasses, idyllic world, wind power represents the potential to reduce how much CO2 we belch into the air to make electricity, and therefore reduce these weather anomalies like droughts. And therefore the wind/water connection is very close.

Do you think about electricity all the time? I do. It’s amazing stuff. And when you make all your own you get a marvelous appreciation for how difficult a process this is. And expensive. Without the wind turbine I had to run our gasoline powered generator several times, which I haven’t had to do at this time of year for, well, 9 years. It was horrible.

It’s not the expense of doing it, it’s the carbon I put into the atmosphere. It feels like defeat. I grew up watching ABC Wide World of Sports, so I have been experiencing “the agony of defeat” every time I turned that generator on, like the ski jumper who goes off the ramp to bad results.

But now the turbine is up and I am living “the thrill of victory” once more. Michelle keeps finding me just standing there gazing at the thing. “You gonna get any work done today?” Nope. Just gonna stand here looking at this marvelous machine. And if I do any work, I will probably use some electricity to help my efforts, and some of that power is coming from that amazing machine up at the top of that tower.

cam-admiring-wind-turbine

Once we got the tower down and my friend/neighbor Sandy, the engineer, spun the blades he noticed there was too much movement in it. He said the bearings should probably be replaced. I was skeptical. But since I was ordering a new rectifier I added bearings too which were not expensive.

When they arrived Sandy helped me remove the old bearings and put in new ones. So much grease! Again, the old bearings looked fine to me, but whatever, if it made Sandy happy, I was fine with that.

Then my other wonderful neighbor Ken and Sandy and I put the tower back up, and I turned off the brake, and it started to spin, and generate electricity, and I said to Sandy “Listen… there’s no noise!” There was noticeably less sound coming from it than previously. The noise was never excessive and because it meant I was making electricity, I loved it, but clearly, Sandy was correct. The bearings weren’t sitting correctly or there was too much play and the new bearings corrected this.

Ken has a saying that he often repeats to me when we work on projects and I say stuff like, “Are you sure that little weld is going to keep this tracker from flying apart in a wind storm?” He says “Oh ye of little faith.” The solar trackers have never flown apart. And once again my skepticism was proved false when Sandy’s diagnosis of wonky bearings proved bang on.

I believe I am becoming, slowly, less skeptical … ‘of greater faith’ in people more knowledgeable than me. I would rather not have taken the turbine down. Lowering and raising the gin pole tower is a stressful job, for me anyway. The forces and stresses seem enormous. And yet somehow down and up it goes.

And if it hadn’t been struck by lightning we wouldn’t have taken the time to replace the bearings. Now it’s not only quieter, but there’s less vibration and new lubrication and things are all working better, I’m potentially getting more electrical potential out of this marvelous machine.

More electricity for cutting wood, and watching Netflix and making toast! I do love toast!

Feng Shui has been restored to Sunflower Farm. It is once again the “Sun- and Wind-Powered Farm” and it features ‘all-you-can-eat toast.’ Well, within reason.

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Thanks once again to our wonderful friend and blog reader N.B. for his generous donation to the “Help Fix the Wind Turbine Fund.” Your donation could not have come at a better time and was most appreciated!

 

 

 

If I’m Livin’ The Dream, Why Does It Feel Like a Nightmare?

The other day Michelle told me over breakfast about a Facebook post she’d seen. It was one of those canned generic things that people like to repost. It was a photo of a cabin in the woods. I paraphrase but it said something along the lines of  …”Livin’ off the grid … no electricity bills … growing your own food … sounds pretty good to me.”

And we started laughing. Not in a nasty way (I could have used ‘pejorative’ but frankly I overuse that darn word), just a kind of ‘ah yes, the dream vs reality’ view of the world.

This started a number of years ago when we had a friend over and we had just toured the garden during a drought (yes, another one) and he looked around at the garden that did indeed look petty awesome from all of our hard work and said, “You guys are livin’ the dream.”

So anytime anything goes wrong this has become our mantra, said in a very sarcastic tone, of course …” We’re just livin’ the dream!”  On the day that Michelle was describing this Facebook post about how great livin’ off-grid and growing your own food is, we had just had a storm with tornado warnings roll through. We’d experienced an unbelievable lightning storm which had trashed our wind turbine … yes, again! It was at breakfast too…prior to us heading out to the garden for our 237th consecutive day of 100°F heat and no rain dustbowl drought conditions (okay I exaggerated just a bit here, but not that much.)

Which brings me to the point of the blog …yes I do have a point. Michelle and I are ‘focus grouping’ the title of our next book, and by default, by reading this blog, you’re in the focus group. Thanks!

So this is the title for our new book … “If I’m Livin’ the Dream, How Comes It Feels Like a Nightmare?” subtitled something like “Dispatches and observations on two decades spent living off-the-grid, growing our own food, living far from the maddening crowd” … or something along these lines.

So what do you think? Am I correct that it has “BEST-SELLER” written all over it? And film rights with a big pay-day. With Ryan Reynolds playing me … or Ryan Gosling … doesn’t matter, they’re both Canadian eh.

I know what you’re thinking, that it sounds like a pretty negative title. I agree. It’s more to attract attention and bring a huge payday for us … so we can buy some hummers, bling, a private jet … you get my drift. Most of the time our life here has been awesome. But I can’t tell you the number of times I feel like just flopping on the couch in November and vegging in front of the TV and I realize we’ve had some cloudy days, so I have to go out and check the batteries to see how low they are and decide if I should run the generator or not. And then if I do have to run it how I have to get up and check it constantly. I don’t HAVE to check it constantly, but I do, because that’s just how I am.

Turns out there’s more to living this ‘low carbon’ lifestyle than meets the eye.

If anything I think it may be a bit refreshing for people to get some of that perspective. Yes, I have NO Electricity Bills! But I have spent way, WAY more on my solar and wind system in the last 20 years than anyone reading this blog has spent on their electricity bills. FACT: Generating and transmitting electricity is really complicated and expensive. It is in fact not a right, but a privilege, and when you spread all those generation and infrastructure costs across a whole society, your electricity bills are outrageously inexpensive for the value of the electricity you receive and how it improves the quality of your life. If you doubt this, take a second and think about the last extended power outage you had. No lights. No fridge or freezer. Or stove. Or washing machine. Or internet. Or NETFLIX! Yup, it’s pretty amazing stuff.

We published “Little House Off the Grid” more than 5 years ago, so by the time this new book is ready there will have been a reasonable hiatus for us to revisit what it’s like to live the way we do. Things change. Circumstances change. Life happens. Time to revisit the whole little adventure we’re on here in the woods.

So what do you think? Sound like something you’d want to read?

Better yet, what do you think of the title? Too negative? Too misleading if we end up writing that it’s awesome more than not? Such an awesome title that it’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius (thank you Dave Eggers for the best book title ever to slip in).

Please let us know. Feel free to post below or send me an email at cam mather…with no space… at gmail.com. (Hopefully the evil internet robots won’t figure that out.)

Thanks in advance!

Down the Wishing Well and My Coffee Can Solar Tracker

Several years ago, in the month of May, I was talking to one of our off-grid blog readers in California who has become a friend. We were discussing the California drought and she said “Oh we won’t see rain now until probably November.”

May to November without rain. That was my worst nightmare. And in the words of Alice Cooper, this summer at our house it’s been “Welcome to my nightmare.”

I will admit that I wrote this in the middle of August and we were getting the tail end of the rain that caused all the flooding in Louisiana. For us the rain was glorious. Too little, too late, but I welcomed it. (And since then we’ve had a few showers, never amounting to more than 3 or 4 mms. My garden still resembles a giant sandbox.)

Part of my “Embrace the suck, move the ‘heck’ forward” in the mess that was our summer running a CSA in the worst drought for 100 years, is my newfound knowledge of our wells. Mostly the ‘dug’ well near the barn foundation which provides the bulk of the water for irrigation.

The well was ‘dug’ by hand, in 1936. We know this because the builder put his name and date in the concrete and we know his son Ken, a former resident of this wonderful place, who is in his ‘80s ’90s now (see comment below from Ken’s son Lynn!).  The well is about 15 feet deep and how they managed to dig such a deep hole by hand, and then build forms and mix everything up by hand and add a foot of concrete all around boggles my mind.

When we arrived here almost 20 years ago the last vestiges of the shed that was built over the well had just fallen over. I used one of the walls as a cover for a few years, then built a better fitting one about 10 years ago (with scrounged wood of course). It was just spruce and softwood and had started to rot a lot, but like so many of the odd jobs around here I just kept telling myself, “I’ll fix it next year.” Human inertia is a powerful thing.

I use a 12V DC pump, which I just hook up to an 80 Watt 12V solar panel, to pump from this well. I used to move the panel around a frame I made, but it was cumbersome, so this year I built a tracker. I call it my “Coffee Can Solar Tracker”. I just put a cedar post in the ground, and bolted the solar panel to a coffee can that sits on top. It has worked marvellously all summer. Very low tech. No software has failed on it or had to be updated.

Version 2

Version 2

The pump is rated to only suck water from 8 feet below. This is fine early on during most summers, because the water level is high. But over most summers it gets pretty low and the pump basically loses prime constantly. This year with the drought this started happening earlier than ever before.

So I ripped the cover off the well. Then I built a frame, put the pump on the frame, and lowered the frame into the well. This way the pump is now closer to the water level so it doesn’t have to ‘pull’ the water as much. These pumps are great at pushing water once it has reached the pump, just not so good at pulling it up to the pump.

Version 2

It still loses prime sometimes and my trick to get it going is just take the intake pipe and ram it into the water a few times and off it goes. Once the pump was down the well though this technique wasn’t available. So I put an aluminum ladder down the well and so I have to regularly climb down the ladder to prime the pump.

I don’t think I’m claustrophobic, but there is something about being deep down in a well. I think it’s because of all those televised news events where a child falls down a well and has to be rescued.

As the water has gotten lower it’s allowed me to solve the great mystery of what is at the bottom of the well. There is some water-logged wood, and like all things immersed in water, they are pretty creepy. I, of course have been straining to see something shiny … something of a precious metal nature … because I’m pretty sure that’s where people used to put their valuables 80 years ago … down the well. Just makes sense, right?

Version 2

Since we moved here almost 20 years ago, I’ve wondered what was at the bottom of this well. Thanks to our awesome drought, I am now intimately knowledgeable on the well and all its workings. Just another reason the lack of rain has been so awesome. (Please note there is a lot of sarcasm in this blog).

Version 2

Version 2

Version 2

Thanks D. C. for your recent contribution to the TIP JAR. It is very much appreciated!

Installed a New Clothes Dryer!

(Cam is busy 24/7 these days getting everything planted for our CSA but luckily he wrote this post a few weeks ago.)

Yup, we installed a new clothes dryer! Nothing to it. Pick up the phone. Have the appliance company deliver it. Set it up. Presto! Keep working until you’re 97 to pay for the energy to power it. Well, you knew that wasn’t going to be the case for us!

We used a clothesline in the city so it wasn’t a leap for us to use one in the country… with the added bonus of a lot less diesel particulate from city buses. You can have a dryer in an off grid house, but it would be powered by propane and I am too cheap to buy that stuff. And the concept of burning fossil fuels and blasting the heat out into the atmosphere, to accomplish a task that the sun and wind will do just as well … albeit somewhat slower… seems ludicrous to me. Anyway, if you’re not a clothesline user now, I’m not going to convince you, so I won’t try.

Our existing clothesline was giving up the ghost and was easily 25 years old. Last year when it was clear it needed to be replaced I just built a support to try and hold up the 3 sagging lines, which kind of worked, but kind of didn’t and was kind of a huge stupid waste of time, which I’m noted for in these situations. Why bite the bullet and just fix it right when you can dick around and do a half ass job a number of times and use 3 times as much mental energy?

I knew it was going to be a big project. We picked a new spot which meant digging a couple of new 4 foot holes by hand. In our sand this is no big deal. Then I had to get the new cedar posts. My goal was to have the job done by mid-April so it wouldn’t interfere with the CSA at all … but the guy that I buy my posts from had eye surgery which held us up, and I got distracted with this job and that … and so I was two months late finishing it.

Gary has tons of cedar on his property and he cuts it in the winter and sleds them out on the snow. Debarking the posts is the responsibility of the purchaser and it was a slow process.

removingbark2

 

removingbark

Then to get them into the holes I lifted each post off the ground about 6 inches at a time while Michelle slid the sawhorse under the log and closer to the hole with each lift. When Michelle described the operation to our daughter she said it sounded like something “Ma” and “Pa” in “Little House On the Prairie” would do. I took that as high praise.

Then I cemented them in place with two bags of ready-mix for each post and topped up what space was left in the hole with our stone.

Then I had to cut the notches in for the cross pieces. Then I had to put in the eye rings and string the clothesline. I found this awesome attachment that allows you to tighten the clothesline by turning this reel around, then clipping a hook over the line to hold it in place. It’s quite brilliant because now I can tighten it any time I want, without having to use tools.

And voila, it’s done! And I have to say, I’m pretty impressed. The posts are so strong they feel like if I drove the truck into them at highway speed, the truck would fall to pieces … which with the age of my truck may not be far from the truth. But they do feel as though they were built to last.

newclothesline2

newclothesline

When I was talking to my neighbor Ken about it and he offered his tractor and post-hole digger (which I declined because by the time I got that attachment on, and drove it here and back, it was just easier to dig the hole with a shovel) he said “If you build it right it should outlast you.”

That kind of freaked me out on many levels. The mortality thing obviously. But then there is the pressure to build it right. But the last cedar posts lasted 25 years and these new ones are even thicker. So I’m 56, add 25 and boom, I’m 80+ and dead. Yup, that makes sense. I would think with my life of smokin’, drinkin’, and late night carousin’ and red meat eatin’, I’ll be lucky to make 60. But my clothesline shall live on. (I actually don’t engage in any of those activities.)

Someday my grandson, as a young man will be at the farm grounding himself in the real world to escape his job of programming apps for the space teleporter he works on, and he’ll hang his towel after a swim in the lake on that clothesline and say “My grandfather built that!”

Of course he won’t, he won’t have any idea who built the darn thing. Since there was barely enough room to get the concrete down the hole, let alone have a level surface area at the top to sign my name I’m thinking I’d better weld up a plate identifying that it was me and “I did that.”

I’ll leave the final word to Michelle who will be the person making the most use out of it, since she says that I am “clothes hanging challenged” which apparently is a real thing and not just a typical male ploy to avoid the drudgery of hanging clothes on a line. Okay, that’s a lie too. I’m not good at it because I hate it.

Michelle’s Review: “The new clothesline is awesome! Thanks Cam! You are not only handsome; you are handy too!” (I always tell Cam when he’s attempting to hang the laundry out, “Hang the bottoms from the top and the tops from the bottom” but for some reason he keeps getting it wrong!)

 

 

 

 

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!

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About Cam
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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