Archive for the ‘Solar Power’ Category

The Homesteading Retreat Weekend

(or more specifically the “Dispelling the myths and showing the realities of the homesteading, independent, sustainable, independent ‘life in the country’ dream” totally awesome weekend!)

Michelle and I have had great success with our one day workshops over the years. We are grateful to the many people who’ve come for the day to learn about our experiences and outlooks on energy systems, food production, the economy, security and the reality of living the homesteading dream.

People have often traveled great distances to get here, and then they have to travel home on the same day. Some, especially our American guests, have stayed in nearby motels. I’m sure this allows them a chance to wind down before they head back to the city, and so Michelle and I have often discussed allowing people to stay overnight here to avoid this.

One of the reasons we don’t usually offer an overnight stay after a workshop is because of my voice. For many years I did workshops at colleges where I’d have a morning workshop followed by an afternoon workshop which meant 6 hours of talking loudly, as well as the whole before/lunch/after informal chatting. I believe in keeping people awake, so I talk loudly (and much to Michelle’s consternation …’quickly’) and spend a lot of time shouting and cajoling and doing my best Sam Kinison imitation which ends up with me collapsing on the floor … just to make sure that people are paying attention to the part on … energy efficiency, or the basics of home security, or the world according to Cam in general.

Anyway, my voice was usually gone by the end of the day and I would have to spend most of the following day (usually a Sunday) not talking. Michelle LOVED IT!

The result is that I’ve learned I need to be more careful with my voice and it seems to be working. I do way less yelling and friends say they miss the old ‘angry Cam.’ Alas.

So we have decided to offer our first “Homesteading Retreat Weekend.”

I’m also calling it the “Dispelling the myths and showing the realities of the homesteading, independent, sustainable, independent ‘life in the country’ dream” totally awesome ‘this must be just like livin’ in paradise’ weekend. I have never been one who believes in being short and concise. Long-winded and convoluted is more my style.

For this workshop our guests will be able to arrive on Friday night, which means they won’t have to get up really early and commute to our place. We’re excited about that.

The weekend will include three meals on Saturday, beginning with our totally awesome Sunflower Farm breakfast, which I rave (and blog) about constantly because it’s my favorite meal of the day. Then we’ll do the workshop as we have in the past. We focus on energy in the morning – all elements of it including solar, wind, wood heat, solar hot water, hot water production in general, propane back up, geo-thermal, etc. After lunch we focus on food – first on production with extensive tours of our gardens, then discussions of all areas of food preservation and storage. Then after the afternoon break we talk about all those things most people at the workshops seem to want to talk about most – economics..i.e. alternative currencies, security, and how do I tactfully put it…ah….er…sensible preparation for potentially temporary disruptions to those modern luxuries…i.e. electricity, water, heat.. that we often take for granted.

At our past one-day workshops, it was at this point in the day that this seemingly divergent group of people in our home would begin to find out what they have in common and that is when the best sharing would take place. So this time at our weekend-long retreat, the discussion gets to go right into dinner and beyond. I’m very excited about that. At our lunches once people get talking I often find it hard to drag them away from their conversations with complete strangers who they are now the best of friends with, to get out to the gardens to talk about important stuff … like horse manure.

On Sunday morning, we’ll enjoy another utterly fantastic life-altering Sunflower Farm brunch (OMG Michelle absolutely hates it when I build stuff up and create unrealistic expectations) … did I mention you’ll use this brunch as the standard for which you’ll compare all other brunches for the rest of your life, none of which will be up to scratch? Nope, no pressure here.

And after that you can do what you want on Sunday. Hang out and chat. Get the hell out because you are soooo tired of hearing me drone on that you feel that you’ll need some sort of brain cleanse to ever think clearly again. Go for a bike ride, canoe on Fifth Depot Lake, help me weed the garden, load a box up with vegetables to take back to the city … you name it. I think what I’ll do is offer a long walk on the property. People only get to hear me wax poetic about the magic of being temporary custodians of our 150 acres of paradise, so this weekend I’ll have the chance to take guests out and explore it themselves. If you’re desperate for bird watching or hope to see deer or otters, we’ll leave Jasper the Wonder Dog at home. Or we can take him and he will sprint miles ahead of us and sprint back to us and bound and leap with the joy that a border collie just seems happy to spend his day doing.

So there you have it. How’s that for a sales pitch? Two nights, 4 meals & refreshments, the undivided attention of 2 individuals who have lived the homesteading reality for 2 decades and will give you their honest assessment of what’s realistic and what’s not, and time for reflection by a pond and recreation in the heart of “Land O’Lakes.”

The cost for the weekend is $700/couple. We’re saying ‘couples’ because so often at our workshops people say, “Oh I wish I’d brought my spouse because ‘they’ need to hear this…” This way you both experience it so you lose the personal bias when get home and say “Homesteading is totally awesome!/totally unrealistic!”

We offer home cooked meals, peace and quiet, infinite perspectives on your retirement goal of moving to the country/quitting your job and moving off-grid/getting out of suburbia and earning an income away from the rat race, etc. It’ll be a blast.
We’re doing this the weekend of August 18-20th. The lakes will be swimmable (i.e warm enough.) The garden will be at its prime which means much of your food will be picked hours before its cooked. Hopefully it will be great weather for your bike ride or walk in the woods and to hear the loons on Sixth Depot Lake at night so you can you turn off your white noise machine. That weekend falls just before a new moon which means if there aren’t clouds you can spend the night in complete darkness realizing just how puny and insignificant you are in comparison to the expansiveness of the universe and its billions and billions of stars you see from our front yard. And you’ll be able to pick a box of veggies to take home with you to enjoy all week long.

We are going to limit this to 3 couples. We think this is the most workable. I’m thinking from the interest we’ve had in the past it will be booked quickly and I think we’ll only offer this once this year. Send Michelle an email at m.d.mather at gmail.com to ask questions and reserve your spot. I’ll give our blog readers a few days to respond before we put it out there to the rest of the ‘interweb.”

Hope to see you soon! For some photos of our place be sure to check out www.sunflowerfarm.ca

(If you are interested, but that particular weekend isn’t good for you, let us know and we might be able to change the date.)

 

 

 

The Net-Zero-Carbon House … almost

Years ago, Michelle and I did a ‘green’ show in a big city and a person perusing our books informed us she had gone “completely solar” in a somewhat, dismissive, ‘that was soooo easy’ sort of way. I was intrigued. We’d been off-grid for a decade and were still a long way from being completely free of fossil fuels. After several probing questions, I was able to qualify that what she meant was that all of the calculators in her home were now solar powered … and I’m pretty sure that even back then it was hard to buy a calculator that wasn’t.

I just made the mistake of reading a great book by Andrew Nikiforuk called “Slick Water, Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry.” It’s about the challenges of living in a place like Alberta that has a huge industry fracking to get at natural gas. (http://andrewnikiforuk.com/)

It reminded me that we must have hit ‘peak fossil fuel energy’ for companies to be putting so much effort (and energy) into forcing out things like shale oil and natural gas. It also reminded me that the choices we make, in our purchasing decisions and how we choose to live, impacts other people. The book follows one woman’s challenges with the results of fracking around her rural home, and the lawsuit she eventually launched to try and draw attention to the impact of resource extraction.

As I read a bit more each day and went further and further down the rabbit hole of modern day energy production I was getting more and more critical of what I was up to in my own home. In July we just breeze by being completely “solar,” and I mean more than just using solar-powered calculators. I mean everything from cooking to hot water, and this is a big deal. We are very proud of it. It feels great.

In November and December, it’s much more of a challenge. As I remind people in my workshops, in the northern U.S. and Canada (according to Natural Resources Canada) 60% of your home’s energy requirements are for heat, then 20% is for heating water, and the remaining 20% is for all your other electrical needs … washing machines, toasters, TVs, computers, electronic toast butters … all the essentials.

We’ve got the heat covered by heating with wood which is carbon neutral and which I’ve blogged about … on and on … ad nauesum. The real challenge right now is hot water. We have a Solar Domestic Hot Water (SDHW) heating system which we invested $5,000 in. But it is pretty ineffective when the sun is only up for about 2 ½ hours a day and barely clears the tree line because it’s so low and basically gives us zero hot water. So, we improvise and use our marvelous woodstoves for hot water. I say woodstove (s) plural because we one in the house and one in the guesthouse.

Every second day or so I heat up 4 or 5 stock pots of well water on the woodstove for our bath. Michelle has the first bath because she can stand it scalding, and then a while later when the water is humanly tolerable I use the same water. Then we leave that bath water in to heat the bathroom in the cast iron tub, because the bathroom is on the north side of the house and a long way from the woodstove. In the morning I use the bath water to flush the toilet. Sure, it’s “Little House on the Prairie-ish” but I love it. It just feels right. We are in complete control of all the inputs, including the massive amount of energy required to heat a bath full of water. When you live in a typical house and just pay energy bills and turn on taps and get hot water out of them, you never really have a handle on the enormous energy required to make that possible. And you never think if you heat with a fossil fuel, what the impact is on someone who lives near the well where that propane or natural gas came from. I strongly recommend you read “Slick Water” to give you some perspective.

The challenge is that we use hot water for other stuff. Like dishes. I only do them with a kettle of hot water heated on the woodstove. And shaving. I only shave with a kettle heated on the woodstove … first sink full to shave, second sink full to rinse the soap off. Hand washing … well, our bathroom is so far from the hot water tank that we’re used to washing with cold water by the time it gets to the bathroom taps, so I just wash them really well occasionally with hot water … from the woodstove.

So … heat … check … net-zero-carbon. Hot water … check … net-zero-carbon.

Cooking … ZZZZZT (loud gameshow buzzer sound when you get the answer wrong). We have a propane cookstove. A woodburning cookstove is in the plans, but right now in the kitchen there is a beautiful, monstrous piece-of-art propane stove reeking havoc on some poor fellow human who moved to their piece of paradise not realizing they were near a coal-bed-methane deposit.

So breakfast preparation starts an hour prior to eating. Kettle for coffee goes on the woodstove. Hashbrowns and eggs are cooked in cast iron pans heated on the woodstove. Bread is toasted in a cast iron pan on the hottest part of the woodstove. This is my favorite way to eat toast because it’s less dried out than using the electric toaster. I do so love toast. Michelle makes the most awesome bread to toast!

After breakfast, dishes are washed in woodstove-heated hot water. Water for the chickens is warmed up using water heated on the woodstove. Ugly sweet potatoes and potatoes that I’ve had in the root cellar go into a stockpot on the woodstove, boiled until mashable, then served warm and mashed to the chickens. They love these and devour them, especially on a cold day.

There are some days when it feels like I spend the whole day trying to live a typical North American lifestyle in terms of what we accomplish, while doing it pumping no carbon into the atmosphere, so feeling like I am living on the prairie a hundred years ago … but with internet and Netflix.

So if your response to reading this is “Well, see, you can’t realistically live without fossil fuels so why even think about the impact of their extraction” I would suggest that’s simply not the case. Most of our readers live plugged into the electricity grid and could be heating their home, which uses 60% of energy needs, with a ground-source geothermal heat pump. This provides some hot water as well. If you live in a state or province where electricity is generated with coal, you could purchase zero-carbon energy through an intermediary in Canada like “Bullfrog Power.”

Yes, you will pay a premium for these options, but it’s not usually a large premium. If you like and respect your neighbors like I do, you could never imagine doing anything that might impact them, such as digging up your yard if it was going to affect their water supply. If you start thinking on a bigger picture basis about your purchasing decisions, making these changes is much easier. And with a geothermal system your spouse won’t roll their eyes at you as you come up with new and more complex ways to use less or zero fossil fuels. It can be a fun game, until it’s not. Then you’ll need to clean the bathroom or something to get back in their good books, and no one wants to go down that road, least of all me.

(p.s. We do fall down as we do use a bit of propane and I still own and drive a car … but I’m working on it)

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!

Picking Spinach in the Dark

I am NOT in a rut. I don’t think I’ve ever really been in a rut. Life constantly throws new things my way, and I’m getting better at just going with the flow. When I think of people who put on car doors for 30 years, I am grateful for the path I have chosen.

The last few CSA delivery days found me in the garden, in the dark, picking spinach by headlamp. And it was kind of weird.

headlamp-spinach

During CSA season, I try to get on the road with our weekly boxes by 11 a.m., and as the season progressed and there were more and vegetables to go into the boxes, this became increasingly challenging … like those games you play where the machine throws more and more balls at you and you have to try and deal with them.

At the end of the season we had all of the regular fall stuff … squash, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, potatoes, kale, etc. as well as a new crop of stuff that our members also got in the spring, like spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce… and a bunch of other stuff.

I think spinach is really healthy and I therefore assume our members like it. But it is time consuming to pick. I could pick it the day before but I believe it’s better picked on delivery day, and we aim to delight our members. I could have skipped the spinach because there were already a lot of other greens in the box, but no, I wanted the spinach in there.

At this time of year it doesn’t really start getting light out until 7 a.m. or so, and there was no way I could get everything done for the delivery unless I started before 6. And so I got up and headed out in the dark, with my headlamp on, to start on the spinach. My headlamp is awesome. It is a really good LED one that my daughter gave me last Christmas, so I could set aside my cheap and ineffective Dollar Store ones finally.

It’s usually around 10°C (50°F) that early, and since we’ll have had a dew, it’s wet, and once your hands get wet they get really cold. Which brings up the point of this blog.

How the heck did I find myself in a situation where I’m out in the pitch black picking spinach? My instinct is that it’s less than ideal. I’d rather be in bed. Or reading. But alas, spinach picking it is.

I just read a book by Chris Hedges called “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.” He talks about struggling places like Camden, New Jersey and he devotes a chapter to a city in Florida where workers, many undocumented, meet in parking lots at 4 a.m. to hopefully get picked to be bused out to produce fields to harvest crops all day, for meager pay. Much of the produce is grown under plastic mulch and has heavy pesticide residues and it sounds pretty lousy.

And I am grateful that my harvest activities were very much voluntary and under much better conditions, not counting the brutal heat this summer, which my comrade harvesters in the south would no doubt be dealing with as well. There was not a time during the season that I didn’t haul around a box of vegetables that I picked that I didn’t feel a kinship to others who put the food on our tables, often for very low wages in brutal conditions.

As I picked in the dark once in a while I’d hear a vehicle go by. And I’d think it was someone on their way to a job in the city. The two likely cities they’re headed for are a good hour away. And I wondered how long they have to work to pay for the vehicle and fuel and maintenance to get them to that job. Which takes me back to the first decade we were here when I drove 3 hours back to the Greater Toronto Area to see customers every 4 to 6 weeks. And I’d be up around 5 a.m. and on the road in the dark, and I never really thought much about it.

I would spend the day eating industrial food and dodging huge trucks and stressed-out drivers and constantly monitor the 680AM All News Radio station “with traffic on the ones” to figure out how best to navigate some of the worst traffic in North America, with it’s awesome new “All Day Rush Hour” … traffic that just never ends.

As I picked spinach I did the math on how much easier it is to make more money commuting to a city job. But except for the odd car on the road, I am in a place of peace, and quiet. Right now we hear a lot of owls. And I can hear the Canada Geese on nearby ponds. I don’t think I’ve heard the loons recently…I guess they’ve headed to overwinter in Florida.

When I think about it, harvesting spinach in the dark is pretty awesome. I have this great gift … property to grow food on, people who will pay me to grow organic produce for them, no neighbors, no man-made noise cluttering the sounds of nature … a wife who will be out to help once it’s light enough to start packing the boxes.

As I look back to the house the kitchen light is on. It’s powered by electricity from batteries that were charged the day before by the sun. For the last 100 years or so people have been looking back at this house in the early morning, after milking cows when the barn still stood, or picking spinach…without a high tech lithium-ion powered LED headlight… and seen what a warm inviting place this is. I would finish picking the spinach around 7:30 and that’s when we’d have breakfast.

the-glow-from-the-house

Breakfast included potatoes from our garden and eggs from our chickens. At this time of year, I chop up some spinach and throw it in the scrambled eggs to give it some color, and for the iron and other goodies it contains. That spinach … I picked that! In the dark!

sunrise

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!

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 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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