My Energy Obsession

By Cam Mather

I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that I’m a little bit obsessed with my energy usage. I thought I’d share a typical Sunday at Sunflower Farm Off-Grid Retreat with you, to give you some idea of just how obsessed I am. Well, a typical day in my mind anyway. Believe me, Michelle looks at the world radically differently than I do.

We had friends over for breakfast. I boiled water and cooked potatoes (for the home fries) on the woodstove. When the potatoes were cooked enough I put them into a huge cast iron frying pan with onions, again on the woodstove. I also had a few kettles of boiling water on the woodstove to be used for our tea and coffee. I cooked the rest of the meal on our induction electric stovetop. It was a sunny morning and the batteries were already fully charged so I had power to burn. I toasted our bread in the electric toaster.

Of course the energy used to cook our food is only part of the picture. Lots of energy is used to ship food from where it’s grown to where it’s consumed. That morning our potatoes and onions had come from our garden. The cream in our coffee and the eggs were local. The bread was from a local bakery – if I’d grown and processed more wheat this past year, it might have also come from our garden! The worse energy offender on our menu was the coffee, which was not grown within 100 miles of our place. As meals go, it was pretty low on the carbon scale.

Later that day Michelle was working on accounting, and trying to listen to the radio. She kept losing the station though, so I turned on the TV/satellite dish which offers about 100 music channels including hits from the 1970s, the 1980’s, blues, jazz, dance, you name it. It was a mid-winter day and I was able to leave the TV on all day! How great is that? Once my batteries are charged I’ve got to use the excess juice some way or another!

Solar panels work best in the cold. It was -22 ° C (- 7°F) that day. The panels also work best with the type of clean air we have this time of year. During the summer, we often experience a “haze” of pollution wafting in from Toronto and the Ohio valley. It’s surprising how much particulate in the air can restrict the output of my PV panels in the summer. This time of year we have lots of snow on the ground, which reflects even more light at the panels. All of these conditions were working to our advantage and when I checked my Outback Charge Controller, it indicated that there was 2320 watts coming in from my panels. This is close to the rated capacity of all the solar panels on my two trackers, so was pretty exciting to see how well they were working.

On a day like this I have way more power than I can use or store in my batteries, so I divert the excess electricity in to a hot water tank. Actually, the electric tank is my second hot water tank. Our Enerworks Solar Domestic Hot Water Heater (SDHW) heats the first tank. Even though it was -22°C that day, the Enerworks panel was heating water. If my home was hooked up to the electrical grid I’d be able to send my excess power to the grid, but the grid is 4 miles away and I won’t be hooked up any time soon. Our third hot water tank is powered by propane, but with all the hot water coming into it from tanks heated by the sun and our excess electricity, it won’t be coming on for a while.

Our water pump is a big electrical load, so by noon I’d filled three huge pots with water and put them to heat on the woodstove to use that night in the bathtub. I also filled 5 buckets with water and left them near the woodstove. They didn’t get very warm, but they were warmer than water coming directly from our well. Every little bit helps.

That afternoon I headed to the bush to haul firewood (as I wrote about in my “world’s most sustainably managed woodlot blog here.) Harvesting firewood sustainably from our 150 acres is one of my favourite ways to spend a Sunday afternoon.

When I’d hauled enough wood, I sat down to watch a bit of the NFC Championship Game. Then I watched at bit of the AFC Championship and then it was time to run Michelle’s bath. I carried all the water that I’d been heating on the woodstove into the bathroom. Michelle enjoyed a wonderfully hot bath in our deep claw foot bathtub. The water was heated with wood that I’d hauled out of the bush last winter. No fossil fuels were burned. In fact the bathwater was so hot that she didn’t even have to any from the tap. How great is that!

At 8 p.m. that night we started watching the movie “Sex in the City” which was on TV. I guess the networks know that all the guys will be watching the channels with football, so they might as well put a “chick flick” on the other channels. We’ve often noticed that during the Superbowl, the other channels run Hugh Grant movies. Now we call it “Hugh-per Bowl Sunday”.

I used the bath water after Michelle was done and then I watched a bit of the movie. Michelle left the room to surf the ‘net so I got to finish watching the football game. Then the game was over and Michelle went to bed and there I was watching Sex and The City all by myself. Luckily our nearest neighbor lives 4 miles away so there was no chance anyone would walk by the window and witness this. I would have vehemently denied it!

So by 11 pm the TV had basically been on all day, all of our hot water tanks were full of water heated by the sun, our batteries were fully charged, and all of our cooking had been done without propane. I left the bath water in the tub so that it could help to heat up the bathroom (which is on the north side of our house and tends to be chilly.)  In the morning I’ll flush the toilet using buckets of bath water since it’s going to end up in the septic tank regardless, and it means less water needs to be pumped.

Here the energy meter shows that our panels generated a total of 13.6 kWh of electricity that day. We can get by using about 5 kWh a day, but when we’ve got the energy I use every last drop of it. Nothing is wasted.

Sometimes my obsession with energy drives Michelle nuts. But she is a wonderfully patient woman. As we watch our propane bills get progressively smaller every year and we move closer to our goal of eliminating them completely, she’s a little more understanding of my obsession. She still likes to tease me about my “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” routine of moving water buckets from the woodstove to the bathtub. She also likes to remind me about a new invention called a “tap.” But the way I look at it, carrying all of this water is a load bearing exercise and this is what you need for strong bones, right?

I know what you’re thinking… this guy’s obsessed about energy. You’d be right. If you’ve got to be obsessed about anything, I think it should be energy. Our use of energy is where most of us are having our greatest impact on the planet. It’s all that coal that’s burned for your electricity and all that natural gas you use for cooking and heating and making your water hot. It’s all carbon that was trapped in the ground and released when you use it to make your life better. My life is absolutely fantastic spending my days making sure I’m not releasing any trapped carbon that I don’t have to. If the worst anyone can say about me (and it’s not) is that I am a little bit loopy about the whole energy thing, I’m good with that.

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4 Responses to “My Energy Obsession”

  • admin:

    Thanks Gerrit.
    I should save more data but I’m not as much as numbers guy as I seem sometime. But I’ll try and keep some data. Your Packers just squeaked by. With two minutes left it was pretty tense! Cam

  • admin:

    Hi Perry
    Thanks for the note. I will be biased and suggest you read “The Renewable Energy Handbook” by William Kemp. When we moved off-grid there was nothing like it, and it’s still the best book to take you through every step of the process, with an emphasis on energy efficiency which has to be your starting point. Bill is an engineer, but he’s able to describe this stuff in an easily digestible way that people really get. He also takes you through the economic approach to maximize your return on investment as you invest in all the technologies. Basic energy first (CFL light bulbs) advanced energy next (replacing appliances over time) then solar thermal (using the sun for heat for hot water or heating your home) then finally solar and wind electric. The book really is the best resource out there, I just wish it was available when we moved off grid 13 years ago. It would have saved alot of mistakes and missed opportunities.

  • Cam,

    You had to start somewhere with all that solar hardware. How did you get your start?

    I am a newbie and also want to convert to zero! Can you provide insight and resource materials for the novice. I want to get started today!

    Love you blog!

  • This is a fantastic example of a mid-winter day’s energy use at Sunflower Farm. I’d like to see a comparative example from spring, summer, and fall. I didn’t quite realize we get Toronto’s pollution in the summer. That’s quite a shocker.

    Go Packers!
    Sustainable Living Blog

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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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