I think there is a myth out there among people who live in urban areas and work in jobs that they aren’t overly enthused about. The myth involves the glamour and romance of a move to a rural homestead. I get it. I had it for many years before we moved off the grid. And perhaps it’s not just the image of sitting and drinking tea by the fire while reading novels that attracts people. Sure, we all know there will be work involved, but sometimes I think many people don’t realize the scale of the work that is involved.
If you consider the original homesteaders 150 years ago, they worked from dawn to dusk, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, then probably died at about the age of 29. Today we have all these amazing modern machines that make our lives so much easier, but we still have to power them. If you use gas/diesel/propane, you still require an income to purchase them. So you’re either doing the work yourself manually, or working to earn an income to purchase these miraculous (personal) energy savers.
You can go off-grid like us, and generate all your own electricity, but to generate it in the volume you require to live independently requires a massive capital outlay on equipment upfront. So most off-gridders make a casual deal with the devil. We try not to sell our entire soul, but just enough of it to put some gas in the chainsaw and some diesel in the generator for the cloudy months (like right now) when no amount of photovoltaic panels will allow you to live anywhere near a typical North American lifestyle. Oh, you can go all ‘Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on The Prairie” and have a hand pump for the well and read by candles or just go to bed at 5 pm, but if you’re used to those luxuries … like refrigerators and lights … then you have to make some compromises.
Michelle and I have the added challenge of trying to get our house to as near zero-carbon as we can. Many people move off-grid and simply switch all their thermal or heat loads (hot water, cooking, clothes drying…) to propane. This is an expensive fuel, and if you move off-grid partially for environmental reasons, then you just lost the battle. Sixty percent of a northern home’s carbon comes from heating, 20% from heating water, and 20% from all those other electric needs like refrigeration, water pumping, TV, etc. So really, just putting up some PV for 20% of your home’s energy requirements is a huge waste of time if you switch the other 80% (heat and hot water) to a fossil fuel.
Michelle and I heat with wood which is carbon neutral except for the cutting and splitting of it, and we are increasingly moving to more ‘solar powered’ electric chain sawing and splitting. We have a solar domestic hot water (SDHW) system which provides about 60% of our hot water using the sun, but then we have to make up the difference without using propane. Again we use carbon neutral wood.
So here’s a typical day for me right now.
I get up early and start the fire in the woodstove. I put the kettle and some cast iron fry pans on for our eggs and hash browns. Then I feed the chickens. Then I bring in firewood. Then I start breakfast which takes a while since I juggle multiple items on the woodstove. If we experiencing a really dark period, as we have been for the last two weeks without sun and not much wind, I also use a cast iron fry pan on the woodstove to toast our bread. (We like to call it ‘the griller’ using a horrible fake British accent.) For 11 months of the year we use the electric toaster but during some dark periods I do everything I can to avoid using electricity that will require me to run the generator (gasoline) more than absolutely necessary.
After breakfast we do the dishes with hot water heated on the woodstove. Then I shave with water from the kettle that I pour into the bathroom sink rather than using the hot water tap. I don’t use the hot water tap because there has been so little thermal energy from the sun, the hot water tank (propane) is lukewarm and I don’t want the propane to come on and heat up 40 gallons of hot water. And yes, I should have an on-demand hot water tank but I haven’t gotten around to that yet.
I usually also put on a pan of our lower grade potatoes and sweet potatoes to cook for the chickens. They like a warm treat first thing in the morning and sometimes before they head to bed (their roosts in the chicken coop.) After breakfast I head outside and right now I continue to do work in the gardens and greenhouses. Even in mid-December the jobs seem endless. Once the ground freezes, which it did 2 weeks ago but thawed again recently, I’ll switch my daytime activities to cutting firewood. To minimize my use of gasoline, I bring down trees with the gas chainsaw, then drag them in longer lengths back to the house to be bucked into woodstove-sized logs with the electric or battery powered chainsaw, and then split with the electric splitter (all carbon neutral).
If it’s bath night I fill up big pots of water and put them on the woodstove by late afternoon so they’re ready for that night’s bath. I also fill up buckets of cold water and let it sit during the day to warm up. Baths take forever by the time I run the bath, clean out the pots to try and minimize the mineral build up on them from our hard water, and dry the buckets I filled during daylight hours. We leave warm water in the cast-iron bathtub overnight to dissipate heat into the bathroom, then I flush the toilet the next morning using buckets of bath water. It ends up in the same septic system and this way I get one more use of the water that required electricity to pump it up out of our well.
Some days I also peel and boil some potatoes to be ready for the next batch of hash browns, and do another load of dishes. Michelle is busy putting away the laundry that she dried on racks inside the house since it’s too cold for the clothes line outside. One little job after another, and the next thing I know my whole day has passed by!
I am not complaining. I love living the way I do. I love everything I do. I can’t imagine living any other way. There are times during these activities though that I think to myself “Holy cow this is an immense amount of work!” I am constantly trying to find more labor saving techniques to minimize what we have to do each day, but I think I’ve picked all the ‘low hanging fruit.’ Most other options involve the use of fossil fuels.
We have bookshelves full of books, many I have yet to read, and many that I want to re-read. By the time dinner is done though, picking up a book is a sure way to put me to sleep while sitting straight up on the couch! Netflix, on the other hand, or a video from the video store will keep me awake and entertained until 9 pm which is finally official bed-time. Yup, we’re a pretty wild and crazy bunch here at Sunflower Farm at night. Now that I think of it, we’re pretty boring and mundane all day too. Just the way I like it.
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