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Reluctant Rebels

Two Years Off-Grid: Home Power

Two Years Off-Grid
Part One: Home Power

We are fast approaching the end of our second full year of living unplugged from the electric grid (yeah for team solar!). It has been a phenomenal experience so far and, after a few initial tweaks, the house has performed better than expected. Our home is completely normal, being an 1,800-square-foot two-story with three bathrooms (yeah for flushing toilets!!!) and central air. In fact, the house is so "normal" that almost no one believes it is battery powered...that is until we show them the battery bank in the garage.

“How can a house this size be off-grid?” is a question we often hear.

The short answer: because technology has outpaced awareness. There are two major factors to this gap between preconceived notions and reality. The first is cost and the second is efficiency.

 

Grit-House-Pic_1

Cost:

Over the last 40 years the price of solar panels have come down... A LOT! Our home power system consists of a 7.8kW array with batteries and a backup generator. After rebates, the cost was $28,000 installed. To put this in perspective, the 7.8kW array alone would have had a purchase price of $598,026 in 1977. Sort of makes you wonder about the next 40 years.

“But how long will it take for the system to pay for itself?” we’re often asked.

“Depends,” is the only answer we can give.

In a worst case scenario, let’s assume that we’re only saving $1,000 a year. At $28,000 that would be 28 years. This is admittedly a long time. But, that’s 28 years we aren’t supporting another pipeline or another lobbyist. It’s 28 years of us living by our convictions and not adding to a system that seems to be so intent on wrecking this beautiful planet we live on.

So for us, the cost is totally worth it. But let’s say, for sake of numbers, that we trade one of our gas powered vehicles for an electric car. How much do you spend every month in gas? Suddenly, that 28 years to payoff gets much smaller.

Efficiency:

As I write this, our house load is showing 1.3 kW of demand. The outside environment is hot and humid with a projected heat index reaching close to 100 degrees. The upstairs mini-split is keeping things cheerily cool and the dehumidifier is set at 50 percent. There is a whole host of phantom loads that I can’t get rid of, including a fridge, but the main pull on power is the mini-split and the dehumidifier. I don’t know what kind of wattage it would have required to run central air and a dehumidifier for 1,800 square feet of living space 40 years ago, but I’ve got to think it would have been significantly more.

Between LED lighting and hyper-efficient appliances, engineers have made incredible accomplishments in energy reduction. (Honestly, I don’t think they get enough applause.) But thanks to their efforts, they have made it so that if you do your homework and know exactly what your load is — both at peak startup and run — you can really reduce your dependence.

I am convinced that as awareness comes inline with reality, more and more people will take advantage of home power systems. Current capability and cost are to the point that if you are building a new home right now and not planning on it powering itself, you are building yesterday’s home. Think of it as building a house without a garage — which is totally acceptable, but not always the best for resale.

For us, powering our own home and living unplugged has brought more than just reassurances against natural disasters or even a zombie apocalypse (lol). It has brought a new mindset; one of responsibility and caring. I would have never guessed when this adventure started that I would be tending chickens everyday or eyeing a dirt-covered rototiller and wondering if it’s really going to work on my cover crops come next spring. But the mindset that has come from this new "techy" reality of solar power has moved me as an individual closer to the character of my amazing, "make-it-on-your-own" grandparents than I would have ever thought possible.

Stumps Suck!

Jack Fernard“That tree has got to come out.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

I groan, rubbing my face in frustration as we’d had this conversation before.

“Do you want to buy a new septic tank?” I ask.

Now it’s her turn to growl.

“But it’s the nicest tree we have.”

And for the record, she’s right. It IS the nicest tree on the property, shading the yard and the house late in the afternoons — right when we need it most. But unfortunately, the builders had put the septic tank just 15 feet away from the base of the tree. And considering its 43-inch girth, I was betting the roots would find their way there.

“I don’t know about you, but I like toilets that flush,” I countered.

“You are soo totally in the doghouse.”

Realizing that was about as much as a concession as I was going to get, I nodded and waited for my opportunity.

Fast forward a few days and I’m standing on the porch waving goodbye as she’s off to the grocery store for a few hours.

“Time to cut a tree down.”

Being deathly afraid of chain saws, I grab my trusty ax and set to chopping. Progress was slow, with a couple of low branches being right where I wanted to cut. But nine blisters later, I heard that cracking sound I had been working toward all afternoon.

“Yes,” I shouted as it slowly started to fall. And then I saw where it was going.

“No, no, NO!!!”

The tree was clear in every direction but one...and that’s exactly where it went. I had managed to drop the tallest tree on the property directly on top of her favorite flower bed. Paul Bunyan couldn’t have lined it up better.

Just about then, I hear the sounds of tires rolling across our long gravel driveway.

“So much for the doghouse. A dog would have it good compared to what’s coming to me.”

Pulled-over

After the inevitable fallout, I thought it best to leave things be for a while. They say that time heals all wounds, but I’m guessing whoever said that was never married. Fall gave way to winter and soon snow blanketed the pulverized flower bed, hiding the trenches dug as weighted branches were pulled away. But as much as it snowed, it wasn’t enough to cover the stump; a standing testament to my fantastic failure.

It felt like every time she looked out the window and saw that jagged reminder, the temperature in the room jumped 5 degrees. Obviously, waiting for the stump to slowly rot away was not going to be an option.

I could have hired a stump grinder to come in. But then I’m too cheap; and I hate paying for things if I can do it myself! So I started researching and soon came to the conclusion that burning would be the quickest way to be rid of this bane to household peace.

Armed with a bag of charcoal and some lighter fluid, I started my fire and went inside, fully believing that my trouble would soon be over.

The charcoal burned great, right down to fine gray ash. The stump did not. Point of fact, it didn’t burn at all.

Not to be discouraged, I bought a second bag of charcoal, this time adding a healthy dose of kindling to the endeavor. Wood would burn for sure this time!

And the kindling did...but not the stump! Smokey the Bear would have been impressed. Burning was clearly not an option.

Winter gave way to spring and with it came a new idea. “I’m going to dig that thing out,” I announced.

She looked at me perplexed. “You know we could just hire a stump grinder.”

“That’s too much money.” (Now THERE’S an argument we’re familiar with.) “I’ll just dig it up,” I countered.

This idea must of amused her as she just shook her head and went about her business.

So off I go, armed with my trusty shovel and ax.

For the record, hiring a stump grinder would have been worth every penny. Digging this stump out turned out to be the mother of all projects! I would dig, clearing away the dirt and then chop my way through a layer of roots...only to turn around and do it all over again. For three weekends I did this. When I finally got about waist deep, I stuck a garden hose in and let it run for awhile, getting things all soft and mucky. Only then was my truck able to budge it. Back and forth I tugged, digging more trenches in the yard, before it finally leaned over.

“Yeah!” I told her. “Did you see that? I told you I’d get that thing loose.”

“Good job,” she complimented. “So how are you going to get it out of the hole?”

Talk about raining on my parade.

The weight of a stump that size with all of those roots is pretty substantial. Anything short of a chain and a tractor was going to be a challenge. And seeing that I have neither of those, some thought was going to be required.

While pondering this dilemma, I came across an article about hugel gardening. “What if I just bury it?”

For those who are not familiar with hugelkultur, this involves burying logs in such a way as to form small mounds and then planting vegetables on top. The idea is that the wood absorbs the spring rain then slowly releases it throughout the summer, requiring less watering for the vegetables. Also, as the wood decays, the logs collapse, moving the soil and aerating things in the process. It’s a great concept for the low maintenance gardener.

Another two weekends of digging and I was good to go. I pulled that troublesome stump back over, threw in some scrap wood that needed disposing and covered everything up.

Almost-done

Finally, after all of the drama and hard work, it was finished. The septic tank was safe, the flower bed was put back together, and that eyesore of a stump was finally gone. Would I recommend this process? Not unless you have a tractor. And even then, I’d probably urge caution. The root structure of a sizable tree can be surprising and knocking the stump loose is no small feat. But whatever you do, don’t even think about cutting a tree down and leaving a jagged stump standing in the yard. Take it from me...stumps suck!!

Not Your Father's Stove

Jack FernardHaving grown up splitting and stacking ... and stacking and splitting ... and splitting and stacking, I had an ingrained concept of what it means to heat with wood. Between the bee stings, pinched fingers, and countless slivers, it’s a concept I was determined to put behind me. But fast-forward a few decades, and wood heat has, once again, found its way into my home. Only this time, I’m loving it!

Enter the wood pellets.

Pellet-Stove

For the record, wood pellets and firewood are not what you would call an ‘apples-to-apples’ thing. Sure, they both come from trees, but that’s about where the similarities end. With wood pellets there is no going into the woods, felling a tree, sawing it into a bazillion chucks, throwing these chunks into the back of a truck, driving to the house, tossing the logs back out of the truck into a big pile where you can later split and stack ... stack and split ... (Get the picture?) Instead, pellets come in relatively clean, 40-lbs bags that line up ever so nicely in the garage. No bee stings, no pinched fingers, and no slivers!

Another great thing about wood pellets is the low ash content. Shoveling out ash was a daily routine with burning firewood. By comparison, I’ve emptied out the ash pan of my pellet stove twice this season.

My particular pellet stove ignites electrically. This means no chopping kindling, no trying to get the newspaper in just the right spot in order to get the kindling going, and no back-drafts into the room when it’s really windy outside.

Of course, I do need electricity to run my pellet stove — something a lot of firewood stoves do not. This would be especially important for those occasions when the power goes out for days at a time. But, seeing as I’m already off-grid, I’m not too concerned with the utility grid.

Also worth noting: The wood used to make the pellets I purchase actually come from waste that would normally end up in a landfill. So not only am I using a renewable source of fuel, but I'm re-purposing trash.

About the only thing wood pellets and firewood have in common is the fire. I love watching the flames dance in the evening when the only other light in the room is coming from the Christmas tree.

This is our second winter heating with the pellet stove, and I must say I’m impressed with how well that little stove keeps our whole house comfortable. It is our primary source of heat and it has performed wonderfully. So, if you're considering a wood pellet stove, I highly recommend them. Just understand, they’re not your father’s stove!

Over Already

Jack FernardAnyone else seriously bumming these days?

Quiet backyard

I looked out at the backyard this morning and found myself giving a heavy sigh. “It’s awfully quiet out there,” I complained to no one in particular.

Fall has always been my favorite time of the year. The trees change colors, the salmon (or "kings" as the locals know them) start their spawning run upriver, and hunters pull out of their summer withdrawal and head to the woods en masse. Fall is a great time to be outdoors!

But today, I’m kind of bummed. The chicken coop has been vacated, its door locked for the winter, and my gardens have been given their winter blanket of weed barrier — the cover crops so carefully sown now peacefully laid to rest. Am I imagining things, or does my tumbling composter actually look lonely?

Right about now, I am seriously contemplating one of those hoop greenhouses — AGAIN!

But the break from the growing season gives me time to contemplate the successes and the failures of this year’s efforts. My Yukon’s did great — best harvest ever! But my red potatoes did nothing ... as in, not even a single sprout. Frustrated by this, I grabbed the last two red spuds, chucked them out in a field, threw an arm full of straw over them and walked away. Guess what grew just fine? (And here I actually thought I knew what I was doing!) That oddity has me wondering if I shouldn’t try leaving some potatoes above ground next year. Wasn’t a whole lot of work involved. No weeding, no tilling, I didn’t even have to water them.

Oh well, I’ve got another five months or so to think about it!

Fairs, Ponies, & 4 Year Olds

Jack FernardIn the summer of 1953, a little four-year-old boy took his very first pony ride. It was at the local fair, and it was magical!

 

 Pony ride

Fast forward to the summer of 1977 and a little, red-headed, four-year-old girl took her very first pony ride. It was also at the local fair, and it was magical!

Pony ride

Jump ahead yet again, and it’s the summer of 2016, where another four-year-old boy finds himself atop a pony for the very first time. It was at the local fair ... and it was magical!

Pony ride

What do these random spots in time have in common? They were experienced by members of my family.

It’s mind-boggling to me to think of how much the world has changed since 1953, and yet the magic of these humble steeds has remained so strong. Who would believe these gentle creatures could imbue such powerful memories as they slowly carry their precious passengers around and around a simple circle. Even with all of the hype this modern age can produce, it does not hold a candle to the pleasure of a pony ride.

To all of the people who work so hard to make these experiences possible, I offer you my sincerest thanks. And if I can echo the words of my father …

“Happy Trails” to all of you.

The Dangers of a Straight Run

Jack Fernard"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." ~ Mark Twain

 

 

Comb, Bantam

Just before Easter, my family and I brought a box of baby chicks home to raise. We were full of excitement, anticipating raising these little birds to maturity and hopefully seeing them raise baby chicks of their own.

Right around five weeks or so, I began to notice the differences in the birds and enjoyed pointing them out to the family. Some had lighter coloring, some were much bigger and one had a very pronounced comb. Having bought these chicks "straight run" -- or for those who are not familiar with this chicken terminology, not sexed -- I was really hopeful for at least one rooster. And upon seeing the comb, and how it was different from all of the rest, I assumed the best. I just knew it would be a matter of time and there would be a new generation baby chicks running around the yard.

I was wrong.

At right around ten weeks, the birds started fighting...and I mean REALLY fighting. I began to wonder if they weren’t trying to kill each other. As it turns out, they were!

After consulting with other chicken owners, I realized that what I had was one rooster of mixed heritage and seven thoroughbred males. So much for the baby chicks!

It’s actually kind of unbelievable to think that I could reach into a bin of 100+ birds and pick out all males, but that’s exactly what I did. (One more reason you’ll never see me at a casino!)

Lesson learned: If you want hens, then make sure you’re buying hens!

Mutation Vs Miracle

Jack Fernard"Mutation," is the term the experts use to define it. "Improper cell division," they say. To this I reply, "What a horrible way to describe things!"

Double-headed daisy

Sitting on the window ledge just over the kitchen sink is one of the most unique and attractive plants I have ever seen. It's not the most expensive plant and I doubt that it was ever intended to be the grand thing that it has become, but it is a flower that will stay in my mind for some time. Why? Because it has two heads flowering on the same stem. I had never heard of such a thing and promptly set out to research this little miracle.

After twenty minutes of internet consultation, I was thoroughly disgusted. Clearly the science nerds and I weren't on the same page. One article even went so far as to refer readers to Fukushima — the place of the horrible nuclear accident. Surely this living beauty is more deserving than to be associated with a terrible toxic disaster!

Admittedly, an animal with two heads is a little freaky and I realize that the science is probably the same. But I don't have a mutated animal sitting in my kitchen, I have a flower. And this flower didn't grow this way because of some horrific radioactive event, it grew this way simply by chance.

I'm sure the science nerds are right and I credit them for their studies and the contributions they give. But as I stand in front of the sink looking at this double-headed daisy, I am not moved intellectually as much emotionally. For me, it's like reading a poem and appreciating it for the way it moves me and not super-analyzing the structure.

Beautiful imperfection

I'm not sure how many times I will see a flower like this. But being able to witness it growing, even this one time, leaves me marveling at this incredible process we call life!