Off Grid Electrical

Solar SunriseWhen we were shopping for the ideal property to build our homestead on, I assumed it would probably have grid electricity already installed. At that time, (2010 – 2011) the math argued for staying on the grid, and perhaps installing some solar under a net metering program. This would not be energy independence, as these systems tend not to be usable during an outage. The main advantage was that you would not need to buy, maintain and replace batteries. The experts said that at best, a solar installation would help reduce your home energy costs over time. The property we found in the fall of 2011 had grid electricity available at the lot line. The quotes we got for installation made us re-think the idea of going totally independent. We reasoned that the 25k saved on a grid installation would buy a lot of panels and batteries. My simplistic calculations at the time estimated that over 20 years, the grid option would cost about 75k, whereas fully independent off grid should not exceed 50k. The advantages of full energy independence are still evident, uncertainties about the cost and security of grid supplied energy have not receded. The ecological considerations are important to us, but are generally not allowed to overule the practical and economic. The good news is that it seems to be getting easier to reconcile ecology to economy.
Power System 2013 During the earliest days of establishing a presence here on the land in 2013, all electrical power came directly from a gas powered generator. After we moved from the west coast into a rental in town (14km from the property) I set up the first storage and inverter system. During the early stages, my efforts depended heavily on elderly components left over from my first off-grid experience more than a decade ago. Over the winter of 2013-14, I commuted to the property every day warmer than about -25c. The simple system that consisted of two 6 volt golf cart batteries, a 45 amp charger and a 1500watt inverter was adequate to provide lights, a fan and to run small power tools.
After we moved on to the homestead full time at the end of April 2014, a major upgrade was needed. Our original plan to run my RV type fridge on propane ran into a snag when the propane control burned out after a couple of weeks use. The fridge could also be run on 110volt, but was hideously inefficient, drawing an average of 350watts. Late in the season we replaced that fridge with a smaller 4.3 cu. Ft. bar fridge with a modest 65watt draw. Our initial solar capacity consisted of two ancient 75watt panels, plus a 100watt panel acquired from a big box store the year before. After some hunting around we found a good supplier in Regina, who provided 2 additional panels of 150watts each. A problem at that point was that the combined solar capacity was enough to overwhelm one of my old 20amp charge controllers. So, I split the system into two battery banks, each with it’s own charger, inverter, charge controller and solar panels. This setup made best use of the components I had on hand, gave some redundancy in case of component failure and allowed me to delay expensive upgrades. Power System 2014
The setup as it exists in the winter of 2014-15 is working reasonably well, but still requires a fair bit of generator run time. Long term plans call for a much bigger array of panels, the deployment of the small wind generator that we have on hand, a possible upgrade to a larger wind generator, a 4000watt true sine inverter/ charger, an mppt charge controller to reconcile older and newer solar panels and a much bigger battery bank. (whew!)
We will continue to learn as we go, but our confidence level in being able to live off-grid with acceptable levels of comfort, convenience, security and economy is on the rise.

SYSTEM SPECIFICATIONS as of January 2015

Solar Capacity: 550watts @12volts
Wind Capacity: n/a
Generator Capacity: Main – 6500watts
Backup – 2000watts

Battery storage: 900amp hours @12volt
Inverter Capacity: 1500watt x 2

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Walden Puddle Expansion

Before we started the homestead in the bush we looked far and wide for a “turn key homestead” that would meet our needs and be within our means. After the housing crash in 2008, there were some genuine bargains in rural areas where we would have been content to settle. Unfortunately, we lacked the resources to acquire a ready built homestead without going into debt, something we are trying very hard to avoid at this stage of life. Our modest savings did allow us to purchase the fifty acres of bush that has been our home for the last year and a half. When a long awaited family legacy finally became available this year, we determined to make one last attempt to find a turn key homestead before we settled down to the long grinding process of building the house, workshop and all the related off-grid infrastructure. Our latest search seemed to confirm that the market had fully recovered and that we had been priced out of any option but building it ourselves. On what we both agreed was our last day of viewing properties, our realtor turned to us as we were leaving a particularly overpriced garbage heap, and said “there is one more place I would like to show you, it is not listed yet.” Fine… whatever, the afternoon was already shot.
Down about a mile of country roads, we came upon a farmyard with a massive mature shelterbelt surrounded by yellow canola fields. As we headed up the driveway, the house suddenly appeared to the left tucked securely in a grove of mixed evergreen and deciduous trees. Further along the driveway was a completely original CPR station freight and mail shack that had been moved on to the property. At the north end of the yard stood a large metal building just waiting to become a workshop. Scattered around the property were a number of small outbuildings in varied condition. There was a large vegetable plot, fruit trees and bushes, extensive perennial beds and all of the other indicators of a homestead that had been nurtured and maintained over the decades. The house had been built in 1958 and had extensive additions added in the 1970s including an attached double garage. It was well maintained and tastefully done inside and out. The asking price was at the top of our price range, but the property on 6.25 acres offered more value than anything we had seen. After a night spent re-crunching the building budget, we decided to make an offer. A short negotiation later we had agreed on a purchase price and possession date.
House Deck
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Future Workshop

Future Workshop


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If we did not already own the large woodlot on the first acreage, it would have been harder to make sense of this choice. The new house is currently heated with oil, at a cost of 3-4 thousand dollars a year. Our plans call for additional heated spaces including the attached 2 car garage, the main workshop and two greenhouses. An outdoor wood boiler seems the most reasonable and economic way to go. Although the distance between the properties is about 25km, it seems a reasonable solution. The banner of “Walden Puddle Homestead” will be moving to the new location on October 31, and this acreage will be re-designated “Walden Puddle Farm”.
I am a bit disappointed that we will not have the chance to design and build the entire homestead from a blank sheet of paper. If I had a decade to spare (and cash resources to match) it would have been interesting to put all of our ideas into practice. On the upside, the rigors of rustic living will be eased straight away and I know this will make my life partner E, a happier person. Another benefit is that with so much of the building done, I will be able to focus more time and effort on the real payoff of homestead living, which is the production of food and farm income.

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One Year at Walden Puddle

We have now lived on the land at Walden Puddle for one full year. It is by contemporary North American, post industrial standards an insane undertaking. And yet, for us it compares favourably with the other forms of insanity that enjoy greater popularity at this time. Thinking about it now, I can think of no better terms than the three I put on the tag line of this blog at the beginning, but after my first winter here, I might add heated bathroom to that list.002 (3)
Thankfully the winter was mild by local standards. After an awkward last minute rush to insulate the two thirds of the tiny house that was standing last fall, we stayed cozy and warm in the 192 sq. ft. of living space. Firewood for the two hungry woodstoves ran short at times, but never critically. The most novel difference was the need to live in four hour intervals during the few periods of extreme cold. When the timer sounded, I would bundle up and run out to start the SUV and main generator. After 15 minutes I would run back out and shut them down and reset the timer. Eliminating that routine by next winter is high on my list of priorities.
With the coming of spring, new activities became possible. With more discussion about selling off the east homestead, I was becoming more dissatisfied with the choice of the site for the permanent house. The problem was that E was only willing to consider a site that she could walk to, and with the vast majority of the property covered by dense bush, a lot of good potential sites had not been examined. With growing pressure to finalize our plans, I had to set aside a couple of weeks to cut trails from one end of the property to the other. When that was done, we went for a walk on a Saturday morning and within 2 hours, had settled on a new site for the house and workshop that we are both exited about.
With the heavy work of selecting the perfect site behind us, all that is left is the small matter of building the perfect homestead. Even before that can be started in earnest, there is a lot of work to do improving the east homestead. The living conditions have improved greatly in the last year, but much more needs to be done to allow us to pass the two remaining winters we expect to stay here in a reasonable amount of comfort. We hope to then sub-divide one or two small parcels and make these available to new homesteaders. As the plan currently stands, the north parcel of approximately 6.3 acres has good road access, good drainage and an established vegetable plot garden. It was the site of a previous homestead that was occupied between the 1920s and 1960s. The south parcel where we currently live is approximately 6.4 acres and has a 30 foot wide right of way extending to a well serviced road to the east. It will be made available as a kind of “homesteaders starter kit” But more about that later.
One of the biggest jobs here in the early going has been the cleanup of the mess left behind by the previous owner. They seem to have been running some kind of auto salvage business, so the site was strewn with partially stripped vehicles, piles of junk and garbage of every description. Starting with my moving trips in 2013, I have been hauling the refuse out of here as fast as I can manage. Now in the spring of 2015, the end is in sight. The last remaining vehicles were buried deep in the bush, but a bit more cutting should make them accessible. Removing the last of the mess, will give us more elbow room and a boost to morale. Even though our permanent homestead will not be on this spot, It did not feel right to avoid cleaning up. The work we do now will ease the task for the new homesteader who takes over here in a few years.
To sum up, 2015 will be a year of bringing the east homestead up to a decent level of comfort and function. Only then, will we be able to move ahead with work on the permanent homestead. Our goals for progress over there are fairly modest for this year. The current footpath improved to a cart path, an improved understanding of the location of all property lines, the building site cleared and foundation work started. A bonus project would be the construction of an additional 8’ x 12’ skidshack on the west site, that could serve as a tool shed during construction and ultimately become the electric shack. It seems like boredom will not be a problem in 2015.

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Our First Power Outage That Never Was

Hurricane style oil lamp converted to use a 4 watt led bulb

Hurricane style oil lamp converted to use a 4 watt led bulb

Last night was a pretty ordinary night. After supper (I am still getting used to calling the evening meal supper after 30 years out on the west coast, where they called that meal dinner) we washed up the dishes, did the normal evening chores and settled down to relax. Elaine was in the bedroom screening a murder mystery on her computer. She watches a lot of those and since she was widowed twice before we got together, I sometimes wonder if I should worry that she knows literally hundreds of ways to do away with me and get away with it. I mean unless my demise was investigated by Poroit, or Miss Marpole. I will start to worry if she starts writing off the cost of new movies on her taxes, under “research”.
I was sitting in the front room playing “whack a troll” on face book. The woodstove was humming along and I was feeling quite contented. Then one of my neighbours posted that the power was out. I peered out the window, and sure enough the lights normally visible from the hamlet to the east of us, were not to be seen. A few more posts confirmed that the town and surrounding rural area were without power for what turned out to be about two and a half hours. With the temperature sitting around -16c, it probably seemed like a long outage to anyone without backup sources of heat and light. I thought again about the difference from last winter to this one. Although there were no outages while we were in the rental, every unexplained flicker in the lights gave me an uneasy feeling. I found myself listening carefully to the furnace starting up, memorizing the sequence so that I could be aware of any problems developing. This winter I am more comfortable, with confidence in my sources of heat and light, and backup systems in place.
If not for face book, we would likely have been completely unaware of the outage last night. I do hope no one experienced any significant discomfort last night, and am doing my best to suppress a tiny bit of smugness that I might feel today toward those who scoffed at our decision to go off grid.

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Walden Puddle 2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,200 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 37 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Polar Bear Shower

One of the enduring areas of interest in our life here at Walden Puddle concerns our bathroom and bathing arrangements. Not bathing at all might be a good option as we would save a lot of water, but the downside might be that they would not let us into the stores in town. Our first strategy was to buy a season pass for the regional park near here. This worked ok for the first while, but was time consuming and inconvenient. Our next attempt at something better than a simple Navy scrub was made when E ordered in a couple of camp showers. These are simply a plastic water bag with a showerhead attached that can be hung up. The idea is that you fill it with water, hang it up and after the sun shines on it a few hours, you have a nice warm shower. This worked ok on a hot summer day. Hanging up the full bag anywhere high enough to stand under was challenging and a little dangerous. After a couple of attempts at hanging the full bag from my orchard ladder, I decided something better was needed. I built a rough framework on a base made from a salvaged pallet. It provided a framework strong enough that the water bag could be raised by a rope passing through a pair of pulleys. A boat style cleat provided a quick and easy way to secure the rope once the bag has been raised to the proper position. At first the framework was left open, but as the temperature started dropping, a tarp enclosure was added to shield the user from unwelcome breezes. We have enough privacy out here that modesty was not really the issue there. By heating the water on the stove before filling the bag, we were both able to keep using the outdoor shower well into the fall. At a certain point E decided to forsake the outdoor version in favour of an ever more sophisticated system of indoor washing up that includes multiple wash basins and specialised procedures.
030 Myself I still like to supplement my simple daily navy scrubs with a proper shower whenever the conditions seem favourable. I watch for warmer days, but the real important factor is wind. As long as it is a dead calm day, I have enjoyed my outdoor shower on days as cold as -20c. I am scheming about setting up something in the workshop for winter use (time allowing), but right now I have batter fish to fry. I have to get that bedroom insulated before the real cold arrives.

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A Game of Inches

The cold persists at Walden puddle, -27c at 6am, but now rising to -23 at 10am.
On the upside, the snow is beautiful and makes squeaky, crunchy sounds under my boots. The single room of the tiny house that we are currently heating is a cozy refuge. The chickadees and pine Grossbeaks are coping as long as I keep the supply of oilseeds stocked. The old terrier Riley has claimed a spot on E’s bunk near the stove with a good view out the window. He has perfected the efficiency of his outside business trips, now managing a double header (#1 and 2) in less than a minute.
I feel content, but focused. A combination of circumstances and small setbacks has limited our firewood gathering effort in the last few weeks, so now that has become top priority with work on the bedroom put on hold.
I picked up the replacement starting cord for the small generator yesterday and had a go at fixing it. Unfortunately there was a second problem with the spring loaded return mechanism. It is a curse of modern manufacturing that many parts that should have been made of metal, are made of plastic. As a temporary fix, I was able to rob the needed part from a spare engine I keep on the shelf.
1:10 pm, I need a chance to rest and normalize my temperature once in a while, this might be a good chance to catch up on some blogging and playing “Whack a Troll” on face book. I have split wood, filled all of our containers, and stowed the current supply in the shop. Next, I will take the chainsaw out into the bush and start bucking up deadfall. I hope to get a good collection cut by the weekend, when E can help drag it out for further cutting and splitting. The forecast is for warmer temperatures by the weekend, but now they are starting to talk about more snowfall (crap).
2:47pm In to cleanout the tiny house stove. I am getting a good volume of wood in, but it is of poor quality. Aspen has one of the lowest BTU ratings of any firewood, and this is deadfall and dead standing, which is even worse. Against that, this is a free resource and cleaning out the bush prepares it for useful development and reduces fire risk.
Right now it is a game of inches. We need to get far enough ahead on firewood to allow me to spend time insulating and improving the buildings. That will in turn reduce the demand for firewood. Although there is a lot of satisfaction in building up everything from scratch on our own, I won’t mind too much if the next winter is a tad more comfortable.

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Another Broken Generator

A little frosty this morning at Walden Puddle. This morning the reading at our thermometer was -27c which was only one degree colder that what was being reported in town. I have noticed that we can vary by as much as 3 degrees from the reading in town (14km) away.
Yesterday was a day of mixed fortune, the snow removal went pretty good. Our winding 900ft driveway is decently cleared, the yard is largely done except for a few corners and work areas that I will tend to as time allows. The road from our approach to the first corner has a goat trail done. I don’t want to spend too much time on that section, as it might give the RM snowplow driver an excuse to pass us by. A new challenge got tossed onto the pile when E went to harvest some firewood. The small generator we have for that purpose kicked back while starting, eating the starter cord and giving E a sore hand in the process. Since this machine is also our emergency backup to the main generator, getting it working again is top priority. I stripped it down last night and it does not look too bad. The cord had jumped off it’s spool and wrapped around the shaft. There was some minor damage to the cooling fins, but I am hoping that all we need is a piece of suitable cord. I had one in my spares box, but it turned out to be too thick. So its off to town as soon as I can get the truck started. The battery in the truck is on it’s last legs, so starting in the cold is a challenge. As soon as E left for work, I laid out our longest extension cord and got the block heater plugged in. I suspect that it will also take the battery charger to get it to turn over. The pickup was parked about 75 feet away from the power source because of the shuffling that comes with snow removal. After today, it will be tucked up close to the generator shack at least until after the new battery arrives.

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Cold Morning Test

This morning this the temperature here at Walden Puddle was -33c before a little wind chill was figured in. It was the first really cold morning, so this is a good time to look at our progress in coping with the cold.
I rose this morning at 4:30 and stoked the stove in the tiny house. I had a good bed of coals, but it was slow to take off. E noticed the problem first, the top damper was still partly closed. With that corrected, we jumped back into bed to wait for the house to warm up a bit. At 5:00 I rose, dressed and went out to the generator shack to light the propane heater. This was where I ran into the first problem of the day, the bar-b-q lighter that I keep in the Gen Shack was too stiff from the cold to function. I grabbed a different lighter from inside the shop, and got the heater going. I had hoped that running the heater about 30 minutes would be adequate to allow the generator to start. While I was waiting, I cleaned out the stove in the shop and started a new fire there. The shop had fared reasonably overnight with the interior temperature dropping to only -3c. I tried to start the generator at 5:40, but it was clear that it was no where close to starting. Since I needed to be able to get E’s vehicle to start by 8:30, it was time to shift to a backup plan. I dragged the small wood harvesting generator out of the shop, started it and plugged in the Jimmy. I tried the main generator again at about 6:00, but it was making little progress. We decided to take a chance and attempt to start the Jimmy at that point, it protested a bit, but fired up. That was a big relief, with the truck running I could switch the generator to running a parabolic electric heater in the gen shack. By 6:30 that strategy paid off and the main generator sprang to life. This was the real breakthrough, because now I could make coffee. As the homestead thawed out this morning, I took stock of how things were working and what improvements could be made. The woodstoves work fine, with improvements to insulation and sealing, comfort will improve and wood consumption will be reduced. Electricity is still a worry, the generator shack needs improvements and soon. Not sure that I will get too far on that today, more firewood to split and stock for tonight, a trip to town this afternoon for errands and my very first flu shot. Everybody have a great day and stay warm.
Mark.

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Nobody Told Me that they Have Winter Here

All this summer while we were scrambling to get our feet on the ground here, I have been promising myself that I would get back to blogging as soon as things settled down this winter. It is becoming clear that there will be no period of rest and reflection this winter, and quite possibly for many more to come. This task of establishing an off-grid homestead, is clearly intent on taxing my meagre resourses of time and skills for some years into the future. At least we have lots of money….no wait, that was a fantasy I had after inhaling too many paint fumes. The choice here is to give up blogging, or proceed under less than ideal conditions. What the hell, why should my blog be any different than the rest of my life? My other excuse this year, has been that the internet connection out here seems to be inadequate to load photos on wordpress. Therefore, I can’t promise photos with every post. When the planets align, and I can make a post during one of my supply trips to town, there will be pictures. Otherwise it will be text only. Comments and e-mails get though with no problem, and are always welcome.
The latest of many detours from my orderly plans to establish this homestead has been provided by the weather. Only a few weeks ago, I was suffering from what seemed like excessive heat and insects. The last few nights the thermometer has been flirting with -20c as an overnight low. We are simply not ready for this. We are two-thirds living in two-thirds of the tiny house (and it is less than two-thirds insulated). The list of deficiencies that the homestead has for coping with extreme cold would take me until spring to describe in detail. The good thing is that cold sharpens the wits. We have thrown out all plans currently before us to concentrate on the simple demands of survival.
Firewood and lots of it. The two old woodstoves that I schlepped out here from the coast are working overtime. The fire in the old workshop is started about 6 am and stoked well into the evening. This has been just enough to keep the temperature above freezing overnight. Abandoning the shop in cold weather is not an option because our main water supply is contained in a 325 gallon tank in that building. Also Elaine’s house plants and the cats would not appreciate any frost forming. The stove in the tiny house is now maintained 24 hrs. Fortunately I am finding it to be a reasonably efficient little heater, with a sensitive air control that allows me to get more out of my wood supply. A little experimentation has allowed me to pare down the number of night stokings. When the tiny house is complete and fully insulated, I would hope to be able to set it up at bedtime and still have some good coals to get the house warmed up quickly in the morning.
With Elaine holding down a job in town, certain facilities have to be maintained. That all important paycheque will allow me to keep buying plywood and solar panels, so I have to find a way to make sure she can wash behind her ears and get to work on time. At the most basic level, that means a warm comfortable place to sleep and wash up, electricity to press her work clothes, a vehicle that starts in the morning and the ability of that vehicle to negotiate the 900 feet of winding bush trail that connects the homestead with the nearest maintained road. This should not be too much of a challenge under normal circumstances, but with the state of things around here at this point, it keeps me hopping. Being able to start my old tractor becomes vital to dig out after a big snow. I know that it has little chance of starting in the open in anything colder than -15c. Last winter with most of our stuff in the rental, I was able to use the box trailer as a garage. With a space heater powered by a generator, I could always get the tractor started within an hour or two. This year however, the trailer is jammed full of furniture, and that presents a problem. Parking the tractor in the workshop would work, but that would mean giving up a vitally needed workspace. Even moving it out for the day would not work as I discovered last winter. I have been looking for some sort of block heater that could be installed on this tractor, but I am finding that to be a bit tricky. Both types of heaters that I have looked at, would be a tough installation because of the lack of space on that tiny engine. In time I might be able to solve that one, but time is not something I have at present. The best short term solution I was able to come up with, was to park the tractor directly in front of the shop doors. If it won’t start where it sits, I can open the shop doors and push it inside with the pickup.
Although the solar system is doing better now, having been relieved of the burden of a horribly inefficient fridge, we still need a generator to charge the batteries on cloudy days, and heavy loads such as engine block heaters, the espresso machine, microwave, clothing iron, table saw, and mitre saw. Our main generator is housed in one half of a tiny duplex that also contains the “country convienience”. I have speculated about the possibility of converting the generator to run on locally produced methane, but my wife just rolls her eyes. At the time the cold set in, the generator shack still lacked a door and had large openings that I had cut to improve cooling during the warmer weather. On the second cold morning, Elaine came back into the house to tell me that the generator wouldn’t start. Before taking drastic measures, went out to give it one more try. I had noticed that in the cold, sometimes the starting solenoid would not click in on the first try. I pressed the starter button.. Nothing, then I cycled the switch off and back on, it cranked very slowly and eventually fired up. He writing was on the wall, that I would have to improve the arrangements in this department soon and in a big way, because this was only -17c and we will see much colder days than that in the next few months. The first thing to do was to cover up the opening I had made for extra cooling. A top hinged door is in the future plans, but for present a scrap of OSB screwed over the hole will have to do. Next I rigged a canvas tarp as a temporary door, and last but not least I wheeled out our spare 100lb. Propane cylinder and mounted the small heater on top. I feel confident that this jury rigged system will get us through until I can make proper improvements.

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