Tag Archives: off-grid

All growth does not take place in sunlight

The best pillow.

I had an epic sewing day, catching up possibly as much as two years of mending and hemming, which put a lot of clothes back into my wearable circulation.

I also made this wonderful piece of embroidery into a pillow (case? sham? cover?  cover.)  — pillow cover, complete with buttons to get it off the pillow for washing, done with the buttonholer!!

 

Away from the storm

Maritime Canada and Eastern US is being pummeled by an epic storm, and I’m not at home.  HW is holding down the fort, (perhaps literally, in the gale), and I hear a chick has hatched for Brown Bonnet in the broody kennel.  She’s now comfortably in the house, working on her pet chicken status. (It was only a matter of time.  Whomever I once confidently told that I would “never have hens in the house” … yeah, yeah, ok). All the hype about these storms rolling through is making me suspicious.  Isn’t this phenomena also known as … winter?

And why all these names?  There really isn’t anywhere to go from “Bomb Cyclone”.  That seems to set up an expectation, like it might be disappointing if it turns out not to be aggressively destructive; if it turns out to be, simply, a storm.  With rain, snow, and high winds.

To compare, this is the 20 year anniversary of the truly epic cataclysm in Ontario and Quebec, and it’s known as “The Ice Storm” (dignified and deserved capitalization).

The birds have been at work, preparing.

Manual sewing

It was a beautiful sunny day when I decided to finally sew the curtains.  Pretty soon, we’re gonna need them to help keep the house cool inside when it’s sunny out.

I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so much of a total body workout.    I’ve never associated sewing with ab and quad fatigue before.

The century-old treadle sewing machine sews like it plans to sew for another hundred years.  Even, serene, but determined stitches, marching in a resolute line.

Most electric sewing machines I’ve used have a delicacy about them.  If you look at them wrong, they might start pinching the fabric, the  stitches might get cramped and tight, or the thread on the underside might generate big loopy snarls while you confidently sew away!- because the top thread looks perfect.  You have to coddle them; create ideal conditions around the tension, bobbin, threading, lubrication, etc, etc.

This machine scoffs at your mysterious bobbin issues.   It’s not very delicate to stomp vigorously and repeatedly, and maintain the rhythm of a train, for the presser foot to lap the miles.

I didn’t plan to break a sweat sewing.  But curtains happen to be long straightaways of stitching, requiring maintained speed.  Also focused concentration, to fold and feed the fabric to the munching presser.

Who knew?  Off-grid sewing = exercise.

While I sew, I can’t help imagining Laura Ingalls and her mother, exercising their (fantastic new labour-saving) treadle machine, wearing floor length dresses and corsets!

It’s almost Earth Hour!

Since we live off grid now, that wonderful novelty of a power outage is rather quotidian for us.

However, I remember well the liberating thrill of the lights and various whirring hums powering down in an unexpected power failure.  Time to read by candlelight!

Earth hour is time to do it intentionally.

My favorite earth hour was years ago in B.C.  From my home with a view of half the town and the lake, I stood outside with my neighbours in front of our darkened houses and watched the lights around us wink out steadily.

A dozen  blazing sodium-vapour lights illuminating the grocery store parking lot down the hill from us stayed on.   Bright was an understatement, in contrast to the majority of homes darkened around them.

I ran inside and phoned them.  I got a manager on the line.  Was he aware of Earth Hour?  He was.

“Oh, no. ” he said immediately.   “Are we sticking out like a sore thumb?”

“Yes.”

In three or four minutes, we watched those piercing sodium lights pop and fade out, as we cheered.  Without that central feature blazing like an arena, the town looked like it might have historically, lit by gas lights, or candles.  A few windows were lit, some houses winked out a few minutes late, but the vast majority of houses were participating – an achievement of collective action.

A beautiful treat, to see the contrast between the usual and the possible, the present normal and probable past, and notice the volume of light pollution we generate together.

Lights out is fun!  And ever so quiet.  The peace is lovely.

 

This off-grid life

Off-grid is just the way we live, so I tend not to think about it at all, let alone how it’s different.

When I am struck by how living off-grid is different, however, is when I’m at someone’s else’s house, and I turn on the tap, and hot water comes out.  That startles me.  It’s that easy to just wash a dish?!  I’ve already forgotten.

Definitely, there are many ways to live off-grid that preserve many or most conveniences.   You can still have hot running water and plugs in the walls, but it has to be accomplished differently.  That’s not our way.  We prefer it to be really hard (joking).

We are on the very primitive end of the off-grid spectrum, partly because we are just getting started out here.

It’s a work-in-progress for us, trying to find a balance between livable convenience and dependence (on fuel/complex systems).

There’s a reason why ready electricity has become so pervasive it’s practically assumed to be a human right:

Electricity is damn convenient. 

Nearly everything runs on it.  Rarely does anyone think of having a home without electricity presumed to be part of it, just there, in the walls.  You’re really in trouble if you get so hard up they turn the power off- wow.

Other life supporting systems of the house depend on it – running water, heat, sump pumps.   And almost all the lifestyle supporting systems require power – fridge, stove, lights, freezer, telephone, tv, computer, tools.  Farm and industry absolutely depends on electricity, to water and milk livestock, run machines.

I had to sit here and think about that list just now – What are all the things assumed essential in modern life? – because we live without plugs in the walls and that presumption of electricity.   I forgot “lights” at first.

That means a compromise for every single thing.  It has to be done without or had from a  different source.

Different power sources:  

Mostly, batteries – stored potential electricity – are our number one alternative source.  Lights, phones, computers, the internet, all run off batteries.  These get charged off our solar panels, or the generator, or when they are plugged in other places in the world.  Rechargeable batteries are in constant rotation (Eneloops rock).

Tools other than cordless, like a table saw, need the amperage only the generator can supply.  Turning on the generator is a minor event.  It starts with one of us announcing the forthcoming use of the generator:  “I need to vacuum/charge my computer/make some cuts”.  Then all the things, and their associated wires, must be gathered up and plugged in in the charging area, to take advantage of the time that the generator is on.  Plans are made:  “Well if you’re going to have it on anyway, then I should vacuum, and transfer some files to my (AC dependent) external hard drive. ”  It’s not a bad thing, to have to turn on the genny once in awhile.  Every few days, it runs for an hour or two, maybe less.  We can go a long time without it during periods of sun.

So far so good.  We watch movies on our rechargeable laptops, don’t stint on the internet, use only cell phones and battery lowered lights.

Water and Electricity

Everything to do with water is where we get into the afore-mentioned primitive nature of our situation.  Water is heavy.  It takes a lot of energy to move it from place to place.  Exactly how much energy is quickly forgotten when it’s being done by cheap and readily available electricity, and quickly remembered once you start moving it around by hand.

First, pump it up out of the ground, an essential job usually done by friendly neighbourhood electrons.  Because lifting water through the air with a pump is an onerous job, rainfall is very abundant here, and the well usually goes dry briefly at the end of summer, I’ve become a nut about catching rainwater.  There are more elegant ways to do it, but I’m at stage 1- buckets and barrels.   This is not a good look. Buckets everywhere.  And it’s work- cleaning the buckets so the water stays clean, storing and readying them, filtering the water.  But less work, to catch water off a steel roof than carry it across a field.  In the winter, this turns to clean snow and ice collection, and melting.

We people use a lot of water.  Drinking, preparing food, washing the things, washing ourselves.  The chickens consume a lot of water.  Pigs, even more.  Cows drink huge quantities, transforming so much of it to milk.  When you are intimately involved with all the water that you use, because you catch, hold, transport, pump, heat, or melt every drop, you use one hell of a lot less than when it just flows past you from tap to drain while your mind wanders.

The other aspect of electricity and water is the hot water heater, which is generally forgotten in the basement until the bottom rusts out and it empties on the floor and you become glad you are renting, or wish you were.  Hot water an option with a flick of the wrist.  On-demand propane is an awesome alternative to that hot water heating behemoth, and the usual choice for the off-grid life.  We have an ideal one that we use for showers, but it is not yet integrated into daily life.  By that I mean, hanging it on a tree by the well, and one person showers while the other pumps, is not “well-integrated”.

I am definitely looking forward to moving up to stage 2 or 3 vis a vis water and hot water – more sophisticated water collection and supply – gravity feed, or solar, low volt pumps, and truly on-demand hot water.  It won’t be hard to get more sophisticated than buckets, but this bit of convenience requires an investment of work we have not yet had time for.

Doing without: 

At the moment we are doing without only the fridge and freezer.  While this means we have no problems with a superfluity of old half full condiment bottles cluttering a fridge, the lack of refrigeration in the summer is sort of tedious and I am very much looking forward to a root cellar. And a neighbour has given us a nook of space in his freezer.  That’s where the pesto is.

What are the costs of living like this?

Energy is a requirement for us furless people.  We need structures, warmth, to cook our food, and we’ve decided we like to communicate.   All of which require energy these days.  Our dependency on energy is immutable, but living off-grid, the dependency is shifted some from electricity to other.  Chiefly wood.  Our heat is 100% wood.  Next, propane, to cook, and to create electricity with the generator.

Our not-the-hydro-bill costs are fuel – a small amount of gasoline for the chainsaw to cut the firewood, infrastructure costs- the genny, the panels, charge controllers, batteries in the bank (these are all made elsewhere with energy from other sources), and propane.

Our propane costs, for cooking, water heating, and powering the generator, have averaged less than $35 a month.  I think that’s ok.

If we had to, we could live without these things too- go back to the axe and Swede saw, walk to someone’s house if we want to talk to them, but that would make life very, very different.  We would really no longer be living in the world the way it is now.  It would be hard to get a job, let alone show up to it, and communication with anyone outside of a 5 mile radius would be impossible, not least because you’d be too busy at home making candles.  That’s an extremity I’m really not interested in.  For a modest price, we can still mostly participate in the wide, evolving world.  Using less energy, from different sources, we still have the opportunity to get outraged at the Oscars and watch cat videos.

It’s amazing to think that not so long ago – all of that energy, for shelter, water, food, and communication, was ALL accomplished by the metabolism of food to physical energy.  Everything was made with hands – carried and chopped and hewn and grown and harvested, and communication was face to face.  First the harnessing of steam, then electricity and fossil fuels, and everything has changed, including the world, to the degree that the planet looks different from space.

Now, we think of the cost of physical movement and work as “time”.

Time is one of the costs of our off-grid life.  To do the dishes, I have to boil water first.  Every morning, I heat up water for the hens and move wood around.  I spend time messing around with things, daily, that many people never do.   That time is freed for them.  The electricity is in the wall and water in the tap.

There’s a lot of complexity behind the scenes required to deliver water to a tap- a different application of time, in my opinion.  Time to build and maintain the delivery system throughout house, property and municipality, time to build and maintain the grid that creates and  sends the energy from dam to meter, time spent working to pay the bill for both those things…

Comparing it, would some of us be better off to just carry the water?

The advantages are short and sweet.

No power bill.

The power never goes out.

No in the wall wiring, therefore zero risk of bad wiring, old wiring, or short circuits causing fires.

Quiet.  There is no ever present electric hum of appliances.

No poles, no wires looping through the scenery.

One less drop of energy consumed from coal or hydroelectric infrastructure.

Some might say there is no electromagnetic radiation from the constant movement of electrons through wires.

No power bill.  Ever.

Inflating an Off-grid Greenhouse

The short answer: a bilge blower fan on 6v.

The first question to ask yourself if you’re considering an off-grid greenhouse, is, should I choose an inflatable?

It’s more work stretching the plastic perfectly tight over a non-inflating greenhouse, but, then you’re done.  An inflatable is stronger, and warmer, but, is it worth it?

If you have a robust solar system and can hardwire your inflatable greenhouse into it, great.  Otherwise, say if there’s a possibility of having to carry batteries from a charging station to the greenhouse, you may want to choose more work up-front vs. more ongoing work maintaining power to the GH.

We  have an adequate solar array,  not a generous one, and it is set up too far from the GH to directly wire it or the batteries stationed there into the controller.  Therefore, we assumed from the beginning that we’d be carrying batteries.  How often was another story.

Choosing an inflated GH off-grid, the first hurdle is the inflator fan. AC fans are readily available, but DC fans are not, and the issue is not readily answered by Google either.  That’s why I’m writing this.

I’ll spare you the harrowing hair-pulling details in this quick overview of our journey to get our off-grid GH inflated:

1) Can the squirrel cage blower be detached from the AC motor it came with and be retrofit to a heater fan out of a car?  Yes.  It depletes a 12v battery in a few hours.  Not sustainable.

2) Go see an electric motor specialist.  Can a DC motor of appropriate specs be obtained that will run the squirrel cage at the right rate?  In theory.  It’s $349, and wait, no, it’s out of production.

Feeling very much trapped inside the box, 3) Call Inventor Dad. In 48 hours, he found the right thing.  A bilge blower fan from a marine supply.  It’s cheap ($25ish), it’s made to run on 12v, it’s the right size, and compact into the bargain.  Yay!!!!  This one is from Binnacle.com.

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Our troubles are not over…

I hooked it all up, plugged it in, it started blowing like it was born to, filling the envelope entirely in about 7 seconds, and then it kept blowing, and blowing.  Oh crap!  The plastic started to strain and at about 12 seconds I lunged to yank the leads off the battery before it blew.  Far too powerful.

4) Try a 6v battery.  Perfect.  It runs for two days on a charged 6v at exactly the right pressure.  Are we done?

Not quite.  The 70lb 6v batts that we have are, to put it mildly, no effing fun to carry back and forth from the cabin where our solar panels are mounted to the greenhouse.  Put a panel by the greenhouse?  A possibility, but there’s nowhere to mount ON the greenhouse, so it would require its own stand.

One last attempt. 5) Aha, I think, a dimmer switch.  An AC dimmer switch does not work in a 12v line.  DC dimmer switches exist, and are super cheap on eBay.  I thought this would be the final answer.  12v batts are no prob to carry, and the dimmer would cut it down to 6v.  The dimmer blew up on the first day.  Turns out you really can’t load them with a motor.

If this sounds bad and you’re wondering how much hair-pulling I left out, just imagine 100s of trips over months at all hours, in all weather, carrying batteries, and add in periods of despair (while carrying batteries) between each breakthrough.

Especially sucky is that in the winter, when you really need it inflated, there’s no sun to keep the batts charged.

Our reality: Most of the time it is not inflated.  That’s because we still have to carry 70lb 6v batteries back and forth, and it just doesn’t need to be inflated 100% of the time.  We turn it on for windy and snowy days and nights. I was a nervous Nellie at first about it, but the first winter it saw was one of the worst for snowload ever in the Maritimes, and it handily evaded Greenhouse collapse disorder.  I tightened up the plastic much more assiduously than usual for an inflated GH,  to quite smooth, and cold, there’s hardly any slack to flap.  In the heat of the summer sun, I’ll have to reevaluate how often it needs to be inflated, and perhaps dedicate a panel to it.  Then the battery-carrying might be eliminated or limited to the wintertime.

The moral of the story: think hard about inflating vs. not, before you buy.

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May 2015- We dedicated a panel to it.  Built a simple frame with legs.   It rotates manually:)  It’s working really well, now that the summer time sun is here – now we just leave GH inflated all the time, as it was intended to be.  It’s a bit of a waste for a 120W panel, perhaps, from our home system, but then, maybe it will be just right for the shorter days of winter and be not such a waste.

Solar oven

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First loaf of real (yeast) bread on the go

One essential off-grid accessory is the solar oven.  It was on my list of early things we would have to build, but my Dad gave us this commercial oven (Sun Oven, from Illinois), and is it ever wonderful.

Its praises:

Portable.  Oh so portable, because it’s ultra light, and it’s a perfect size dimensionally for picking up with two hands and toting around, even when there’s something stewing or brewing in it.

Incredibly well-designed.  The inside is easy to wipe clean; there’s an adjustable landing leg on the back for easily adjusting the tilt to aim it at the sun;  when you stow the reflective panels, which takes about 2 seconds, there’s a snap strap that secures them, and then there’s a suitcase handle; the exterior is molded plastic, without seams; the glass has a airtight rubber seal; it holds a tall pot or two bread pans side by side.  Especially, there’s a cradle inside that holds the pot or pan, and it swings to keep the contents level no matter of the tilt you put on the oven.   The cradle has a little edge to keep your food aboard.  All so very very well-designed.

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The internal thermometer is obscured by condensation pretty quickly when it heats up.  This oven heats up very fast, hitting boiling in about 20 minutes.  It takes 3-4 hours to bake, say, banana bread.  I scoot it around in the afternoon and adjust the leg to keep it aimed at the sun.  On a sunny hot day, I can bake two items.

It’s not just for baking of course.  It boils water, cooks rice (like a dream), cooks anything in a pot, really.  I even managed to burn something.  I’m trying to get into bread, in the spirit of reducing things that we purchase.  H.W. got a lot of discount bananas though, so there was a run of banana bread, which does very well in the Sun Oven.

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Starting to steam up. Looks like a banana bread loaf.

I try to use it for cooking every sunny day.  Every time I use it instead of the stove, I save that much propane.  And when it’s hot, no one wants to heat and steam up the camper, ugh.  This keeps the heat outside.  I pick it up and set it in the sun, open the reflective wings, set something to bake and turn it to optimum sun a couple times during the baking, then fold in the reflectors and put it away for the night.  E-Z.  Awesome.  I’m really glad I didn’t know until now what this oven goes for, (phew!), but it does have a lot of advantages over the bulky, heavy, less portable and versatile homemade possibilities, and I can’t imagine any possible improvements.  This is the top of the heap of solar ovens.