It’s almost Earth Hour!

Since we live off grid now, that wonderful novelty of a power outage is rather quotidian for us.

However, I remember well the liberating thrill of the lights and various whirring hums powering down in an unexpected power failure.  Time to read by candlelight!

Earth hour is time to do it intentionally.

My favorite earth hour was years ago in B.C.  From my home with a view of half the town and the lake, I stood outside with my neighbours in front of our darkened houses and watched the lights around us wink out steadily.

A dozen  blazing sodium-vapour lights illuminating the grocery store parking lot down the hill from us stayed on.   Bright was an understatement, in contrast to the majority of homes darkened around them.

I ran inside and phoned them.  I got a manager on the line.  Was he aware of Earth Hour?  He was.

“Oh, no. ” he said immediately.   “Are we sticking out like a sore thumb?”

“Yes.”

In three or four minutes, we watched those piercing sodium lights pop and fade out, as we cheered.  Without that central feature blazing like an arena, the town looked like it might have historically, lit by gas lights, or candles.  A few windows were lit, some houses winked out a few minutes late, but the vast majority of houses were participating – an achievement of collective action.

A beautiful treat, to see the contrast between the usual and the possible, the present normal and probable past, and notice the volume of light pollution we generate together.

Lights out is fun!  And ever so quiet.  The peace is lovely.

 

This off-grid life

Off-grid is just the way we live, so I tend not to think about it at all, let alone how it’s different.

When I am struck by how living off-grid is different, however, is when I’m at someone’s else’s house, and I turn on the tap, and hot water comes out.  That startles me.  It’s that easy to just wash a dish?!  I’ve already forgotten.

Definitely, there are many ways to live off-grid that preserve many or most conveniences.   You can still have hot running water and plugs in the walls, but it has to be accomplished differently.  That’s not our way.  We prefer it to be really hard (joking).

We are on the very primitive end of the off-grid spectrum, partly because we are just getting started out here.

It’s a work-in-progress for us, trying to find a balance between livable convenience and dependence (on fuel/complex systems).

There’s a reason why ready electricity has become so pervasive it’s practically assumed to be a human right:

Electricity is damn convenient. 

Nearly everything runs on it.  Rarely does anyone think of having a home without electricity presumed to be part of it, just there, in the walls.  You’re really in trouble if you get so hard up they turn the power off- wow.

Other life supporting systems of the house depend on it – running water, heat, sump pumps.   And almost all the lifestyle supporting systems require power – fridge, stove, lights, freezer, telephone, tv, computer, tools.  Farm and industry absolutely depends on electricity, to water and milk livestock, run machines.

I had to sit here and think about that list just now – What are all the things assumed essential in modern life? – because we live without plugs in the walls and that presumption of electricity.   I forgot “lights” at first.

That means a compromise for every single thing.  It has to be done without or had from a  different source.

Different power sources:  

Mostly, batteries – stored potential electricity – are our number one alternative source.  Lights, phones, computers, the internet, all run off batteries.  These get charged off our solar panels, or the generator, or when they are plugged in other places in the world.  Rechargeable batteries are in constant rotation (Eneloops rock).

Tools other than cordless, like a table saw, need the amperage only the generator can supply.  Turning on the generator is a minor event.  It starts with one of us announcing the forthcoming use of the generator:  “I need to vacuum/charge my computer/make some cuts”.  Then all the things, and their associated wires, must be gathered up and plugged in in the charging area, to take advantage of the time that the generator is on.  Plans are made:  “Well if you’re going to have it on anyway, then I should vacuum, and transfer some files to my (AC dependent) external hard drive. ”  It’s not a bad thing, to have to turn on the genny once in awhile.  Every few days, it runs for an hour or two, maybe less.  We can go a long time without it during periods of sun.

So far so good.  We watch movies on our rechargeable laptops, don’t stint on the internet, use only cell phones and battery lowered lights.

Water and Electricity

Everything to do with water is where we get into the afore-mentioned primitive nature of our situation.  Water is heavy.  It takes a lot of energy to move it from place to place.  Exactly how much energy is quickly forgotten when it’s being done by cheap and readily available electricity, and quickly remembered once you start moving it around by hand.

First, pump it up out of the ground, an essential job usually done by friendly neighbourhood electrons.  Because lifting water through the air with a pump is an onerous job, rainfall is very abundant here, and the well usually goes dry briefly at the end of summer, I’ve become a nut about catching rainwater.  There are more elegant ways to do it, but I’m at stage 1- buckets and barrels.   This is not a good look. Buckets everywhere.  And it’s work- cleaning the buckets so the water stays clean, storing and readying them, filtering the water.  But less work, to catch water off a steel roof than carry it across a field.  In the winter, this turns to clean snow and ice collection, and melting.

We people use a lot of water.  Drinking, preparing food, washing the things, washing ourselves.  The chickens consume a lot of water.  Pigs, even more.  Cows drink huge quantities, transforming so much of it to milk.  When you are intimately involved with all the water that you use, because you catch, hold, transport, pump, heat, or melt every drop, you use one hell of a lot less than when it just flows past you from tap to drain while your mind wanders.

The other aspect of electricity and water is the hot water heater, which is generally forgotten in the basement until the bottom rusts out and it empties on the floor and you become glad you are renting, or wish you were.  Hot water an option with a flick of the wrist.  On-demand propane is an awesome alternative to that hot water heating behemoth, and the usual choice for the off-grid life.  We have an ideal one that we use for showers, but it is not yet integrated into daily life.  By that I mean, hanging it on a tree by the well, and one person showers while the other pumps, is not “well-integrated”.

I am definitely looking forward to moving up to stage 2 or 3 vis a vis water and hot water – more sophisticated water collection and supply – gravity feed, or solar, low volt pumps, and truly on-demand hot water.  It won’t be hard to get more sophisticated than buckets, but this bit of convenience requires an investment of work we have not yet had time for.

Doing without: 

At the moment we are doing without only the fridge and freezer.  While this means we have no problems with a superfluity of old half full condiment bottles cluttering a fridge, the lack of refrigeration in the summer is sort of tedious and I am very much looking forward to a root cellar. And a neighbour has given us a nook of space in his freezer.  That’s where the pesto is.

What are the costs of living like this?

Energy is a requirement for us furless people.  We need structures, warmth, to cook our food, and we’ve decided we like to communicate.   All of which require energy these days.  Our dependency on energy is immutable, but living off-grid, the dependency is shifted some from electricity to other.  Chiefly wood.  Our heat is 100% wood.  Next, propane, to cook, and to create electricity with the generator.

Our not-the-hydro-bill costs are fuel – a small amount of gasoline for the chainsaw to cut the firewood, infrastructure costs- the genny, the panels, charge controllers, batteries in the bank (these are all made elsewhere with energy from other sources), and propane.

Our propane costs, for cooking, water heating, and powering the generator, have averaged less than $35 a month.  I think that’s ok.

If we had to, we could live without these things too- go back to the axe and Swede saw, walk to someone’s house if we want to talk to them, but that would make life very, very different.  We would really no longer be living in the world the way it is now.  It would be hard to get a job, let alone show up to it, and communication with anyone outside of a 5 mile radius would be impossible, not least because you’d be too busy at home making candles.  That’s an extremity I’m really not interested in.  For a modest price, we can still mostly participate in the wide, evolving world.  Using less energy, from different sources, we still have the opportunity to get outraged at the Oscars and watch cat videos.

It’s amazing to think that not so long ago – all of that energy, for shelter, water, food, and communication, was ALL accomplished by the metabolism of food to physical energy.  Everything was made with hands – carried and chopped and hewn and grown and harvested, and communication was face to face.  First the harnessing of steam, then electricity and fossil fuels, and everything has changed, including the world, to the degree that the planet looks different from space.

Now, we think of the cost of physical movement and work as “time”.

Time is one of the costs of our off-grid life.  To do the dishes, I have to boil water first.  Every morning, I heat up water for the hens and move wood around.  I spend time messing around with things, daily, that many people never do.   That time is freed for them.  The electricity is in the wall and water in the tap.

There’s a lot of complexity behind the scenes required to deliver water to a tap- a different application of time, in my opinion.  Time to build and maintain the delivery system throughout house, property and municipality, time to build and maintain the grid that creates and  sends the energy from dam to meter, time spent working to pay the bill for both those things…

Comparing it, would some of us be better off to just carry the water?

The advantages are short and sweet.

No power bill.

The power never goes out.

No in the wall wiring, therefore zero risk of bad wiring, old wiring, or short circuits causing fires.

Quiet.  There is no ever present electric hum of appliances.

No poles, no wires looping through the scenery.

One less drop of energy consumed from coal or hydroelectric infrastructure.

Some might say there is no electromagnetic radiation from the constant movement of electrons through wires.

No power bill.  Ever.

Hen homies

I have the most thoroughly integrated flock of hens I’ve ever had, to date.  They hang together, closely.  I fact, I rarely count them anymore, because I’ll see them as a group, in at most two not very distant packs, and know they’re all there.  No more outliers or lone wolves (I know, I know- inapt).

They have friendships and preferences; two or three will roll side by side and, say, stay out to the very last minute, or linger under the birdfeeder together, while other girls lurk on the dog’s bones, but all of them are never very far apart, and usually surprisingly close together.

This is odd because the current layers are from three sources.  The “old original hens” – the wise old survivors that grew up free-rangin’, yo, the “co-op hens” – unfortunate clipped beaks, and no survival skills at all, and the “leftover hens” from the neighbour, the arrival of whom seemed to catalyze the new familial cohesion.

I can tell the birds of various provenance apart easily.  The old birds are looking dull, and the leftovers are the darkest.

Why are they so tight all of a sudden?

I wish I knew.  They just like each other more now?

As long as they’re happy.

Beavers at work

In this spot where I often stop to give the carsick dog a break on the way to town, a beaver has been logging.

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It’s pretty amazing how they fall their trees exactly where they want them.  In case case a series all lined up parallel.  Do they get it ever so close, and then push on them?  Wait out, or wait for,  windy days? Then they limb them, just like loggers.

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This beaver will probably be unlucky.  His work is already flooding a road, right by the highway.  He will not go unnoticed.

They do such wonderful landscape design work, but so often at odds with our human notions of good planning.

Squirrel skirmishes

My ersatz bird feeders ain’t pretty, but they get the job done.

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20160421_095430However, they do NOT pose an inconvenience at all to the (fat, glossy) squirrel who frequents the buffet.

I haven’t gotten around to building a proper squirrel proof feeder. Attempts last year with shields totally didn’t work, although they inspired some squirrel acrobatics and probably gave him some brain exercise, thus creating a smarter squirrel.

Squirrel have impressive intelligence.  The squirrel obstacle course videos never get old.

Our best method is to whisper “Squirrel!” to the dog if he’s inside,  who instantly leaps to high alert, and presses his nose against the crack of the door.   (Think Up!, the movie.  Yes, there is a shortened circuit in the brain of dogs – thy name is Squirrel!)   Open it and he bursts out, galloping at the bird feeder.  The squirrel leaps out of the feeder, and if he’s unlucky enough to not grab a tree to run up, a wild ground chase ensues.  That will keep him away for a few minutes.  There have been close enough calls that this is still exciting for the dog.

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My recent attempt to deter the squirrel is funnier than it is effective.

I’ve got a long string strung from the feeder to inside the window.

20160421_095359When I see the squirrel making himself at home in the milk jug, I give the string a sharp yank.  The squirrel goes catapulting out of the jug, twisting in the air and landing willy nilly, after which he spends some time running up and down the trees and shaking his tail in umbrage.  Then he goes back in the feeder.  He’s already used to it, now it’s just a surprise rollercoaster ride.

My next version will be cantilevering a stick so that it whacks the feeder when I pull the string.  That should be good for a few more days of tail twitching outrage.

I don’t really begrudge the squirrel, either.  He’s not taking all that much product, and he does not bring all his friends.   That’s not in his best interests.   I just mind that he gets in the feeder and then the birds can’t.

Also, he safecracked the bird seed bucket. 

20160420_124301Straight to the motherlode.  Ruined a functional lid, the little %@##&!   This must have taken him all night, and if now if I don’t put something heavy and steel on it, and turn my back for even a second….

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Song bird buffet

It’s like hosting a dinner party where unexpected guests come.  You feel obligated to feed them all.

The attendance at my feeders this year has increased almost five-fold, judging by the bags of black oil seed I’ve bought this year.  I don’t begrudge buying them seed, but sheesh, I’m gonna have to try growing a crop of sunflowers, at this rate.

There are two distinct flocks, the grosbeak clique, and the sparrows.  The Evening Grosbeaks show up first thing in the morning (?), populate the treetops, and shout while I do the chores.  They wait for me to clear the area and put away the dog before they descend.  They are SO loud, and very sensitive.  The slightest movement will send them up in the air like a gust of wind.  They move on by mid morning, and then it’s the sparrows’ turn.

Last year, the Grosbeaks came every two or three days, and not in these numbers.  This winter, they seem to tell more friends every week.  I was surprised at first when I counted 17 males at once.  Wow!  Now there are more than 30, daily (the ladies are there in equal numbers, but much harder to count in their subtle colours.

I have six feeder ports, and the perches are long sticks, so sometimes the birds queue two deep on them, waiting their turn, and of course, squabbling.  You’re hogging!  You’ve had FOUR seeds, get out of here!

The raspberry birds (purple finches) hang with either the grosbeaks or the sparrows.  Last year, it was exciting to see two.  This year, I counted eight! at once!  Sometimes there’s a nuthatch, or a couple of juncos.  There are three woodpecker regulars.  They are exceedingly awkward when they try to get into the feeders, miserably trying to creep on and cling to the swinging milk jug, and twist their head into the hole.  When they manage a position that works, they stay for a while.  The creepers are much more at home attacking the wads of beef fat I hang so picturesquely in the trees.

The flock of goldfinches also go with either the sparrows or the grosbeaks.  They amuse me when they browse the ground with the grosbeaks, because they are so similar in colouring to the big birds, but a quarter of the size, they look like little mini-mes.

I cast a lot of seed on the ground.  All the visitors seem comfortable ground foraging, and six ports seems pretty unfair when 50 birds are here at once.  The female grosbeaks and sparrows and goldfinches blend in so well that you can’t pick them out of the background of frozen bare ground until they move, and it can look like the ground is rippling when they are working methodically.  This winter is so different.  The ground has been exposed more often than not, and the temperature fluctuates wildly and often.

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Meantime, there are the constant chickadees, who are outnumbered and outshouted by the others (and don’t object to photographs).  While the two flocks come and go, the chickadees avoid the crowded times and work the feeders all day, first in in the morning and last out at dusk, even working around the squirrel.

Even with these numbers, there has only been one casualty this winter (and one last).  The window ribbons are working pretty well.