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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4 Responses to Nobody Told Me that they Have Winter Here

  1. Keith Tall says:

    Hi Mark, Great blog. That’s the kind of detail us city folk like to hear so we are not tempted to move away. Homesteading is for the strong of body and soul. Did I mention that my new gate is solar powered which allows me to deduct the costs of the gate as well as the photocell. It’s a 12 volt gel battery and runs the gates fine. If it opened a hundred times  a day it wouldn’t work. Mostly I open it in the morning , close it at nite and close it when we go somewhere in the day. My 12 gauge provides the security when we are home with Marilyn at the trigger. I discovered you can buy 12 volt screw in light bulbs same size as the standard sockets. I ordered some from Amazon. They should be here shortly. Too bad you don’t have a small herd of cattle. Their body temperature would keep a car warm if left in the barn overnite  to allow it to start in the cold weather. I presume when Elaine gets to town she has a plug in for those very cold days. She could probably connect a charger and a couple of extra batteries in the circuit and bring home your light supply in the trunk. Tell Elaine she should be heating her irons on the stove like we did when we were kids. The coffee pot is just a bad habit so there goes another juice drainer. I think they make a dipstick heater which would keep the oil warm using those town charged batteries. There that solves your problems. I remember as a kid we had a 2 foot diameter metal pan about 6 inches deep and we would carry coals from the fire in the pan and place it under the oil pan a half hour before we needed to start the car. It worked. Aren’t I helpful. Seriously I worry about you two when the weather gets real cold after xmas. Short of staying in town or getting a diesel generator I’m not sure your present operation will work in the coldest weeks of a northern Saskatchewan winter. Just saying, We had a low temp last nite of minus 5 Celsius. Coldest for this date ever I believe. Must go. Keep the faith and your sense of humor. Keith

      From: Homesteadmark To: kmtall66@yahoo.com Sent: Friday, November 14, 2014 11:34 AM Subject: [New post] Nobody Told Me that they Have Winter Here #yiv0175404270 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv0175404270 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv0175404270 a.yiv0175404270primaryactionlink:link, #yiv0175404270 a.yiv0175404270primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv0175404270 a.yiv0175404270primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv0175404270 a.yiv0175404270primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv0175404270 WordPress.com | homesteadmark posted: ” 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 r” | |

  2. Hi Keith, I love the idea of parking the car in the barn. Now I just need a barn, and some critters to fill it up with. E might get cranky if she were to find chickens in the back seat, so I will have to work on the details.
    Unfortunately there is no plug in parking where Elaine works, so as it stands I will have to drive her in on all of the days colder than -20c. We are asking around about a parking space with a plug in that could be rented. As for your suggestion that she could steal power and bring it home, shame on you, I will just put that down to the fact that you have probably been hanging out with the wrong crowd (Republicans:) hee, hee.
    I tried to sell Elaine on the idea of heating flatirons on the woodstove, but there has been no progress there so far. A breakthrough has been achieved in another area, as she has recently started experimenting with crock pot cooking on the woodstove.
    I have never run across a dipstick oil heater, but it seems like a great idea. I will do a search when I am finished this note. I had already thought about a variation on your idea of the coals in a pan under the engine. For the generator, I was thinking of say a half dozen ordinary bricks heated on the woodstove and placed in a pan, then slid under the generator engine. Might be a bit less volatile than coals that sometimes re-ignite into an open flame.
    I do appreciate the concern, and it is true that we will have to keep our wits about us this winter. In a funny way, I feel better and more confident about my comfort and security this winter than I did last winter in the rental in town. There the electricity came from the utility company and if there was a failure, we would be powerless to restore the power until they got around to it. I passed they winter last year listening nervously to the furnace, knowing full well that if it failed, I would again be at the mercy of an overpriced repair service. Out here on the homestead, I am the power company and the heating company. I designed and built all the systems, I understand them, and can repair or replace anything that fails. My systems are simple as a brick and everything has a back up. In time I expect this homestead will be the safest place we can be, but I do worry about you folks in the city.
    All The Best,
    Mark.

  3. Marcela says:

    that was brilliant! “…but I do worry about you folks in the city.” As you should, it’s mayhem, even on the green(ish) and serene(ish) Isle of Vancouver…

  4. Everyone has to cope with challenges every day. I feel lucky to be able to understand my challenges and see them coming.

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