Posts Tagged ‘generator’

Digging Out

After several big snowfalls, and last night’s 8-incher, we decided that before tackling the digging out process, we would go on a short walk in the woods.  We live near several snowmobile trails that except for weekends are barely in use.  Because these trails are groomed and compacted regularly, it means we have many options for walking in the woods in remote areas, but don’t require snowshoes.

On Sundays we might see as many as 10  – 15 snowmobilers.

A snowmobiler crosses our path

A snowmobiler crosses our path

I have mixed feelings.  I am certainly appreciative both to the state of Maine and private snowmobile clubs for maintaining the snowmobile trails.  It’s a lot of work and expense to keep them groomed right after a snowfall, packing down the snow and making sure the trail is free from debris.  These trails go on for hundreds of miles, right to the Canadian border, and it enables people to enjoy the woods and go places they couldn’t reach otherwise.  Snowmobilers also bring in a huge amount of revenue for local businesses and the State of Maine, from rentals, sales, motels, restaurants, gift stores, gas stations, apparel stores, and even repair mechanics.

For people who don’t have snowmobiles, the trails provide a place to go hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.  Caveat:  proceed with caution.  Snowmobiles are basically motorcycles on skis.  They go fast, and some trails are narrow.  It is the snowmobilers, not other outdoor adventurers, who have the right of way, so if you hear a snowmobile approaching, you had better step aside off the trail – – and do so quickly.  The downside to snowmobiles is that they are noisy and their exhaust is smelly.  It seems counter to enjoying a beautiful day in the woods to be creating so much noise, when one of the things I like best about our area is the pristine quiet.  But since there are easier, quicker places to reach, we really do get a minimum amount of trail use by snowmobilers in our area, so the benefits of trail use for hiking outweigh any negatives.

 The ethereal beauty of our woods

The ethereal beauty of our woods near our home.  If you look carefully, you will see a snowmobiler to the left of the shed.

 

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Walking along the groomed trail

Walking along the groomed trail

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When we returned from our 3-mile excursion, we decided to get to work digging out from the previous night’s storm.

First we tackled the mailbox. Two years ago I had a welder create the frame for our mailbox so that the mailbox could be hung from chains, thereby averting knocks and destruction by passing snowplows.  The top of the pole is 7′ tall, so based on these pictures you can see that we’ve gotten a lot of snow so far.  In fact, even though I try to keep the mailbox area clear so that our mail lady won’t have any difficulties delivering our mail, if we get much more snow in the coming weeks I won’t have any place left to shovel the snow away from the mailbox.

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Even though our Plow Guy snowplows the 500′ long driveway following a snowfall of at least 4″, there is always plenty snow clean-up that remains for us to address.

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First my husband cleared a path to our 1000-gallon buried propane tank.

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Next he removed the snow from our emergency back-up generator, ensuring the air vents and access to the doors were clear.

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He also made a path to and under the laundry lines, since even on freezing days, I hang freshly laundered clothes out to dry.

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He shoveled a way to the solar panels so I could brush off the snow from the glass with our corn broom.

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We have two kinds of snow shovels. One is actually a snow pusher, as seen here. It can move huge amounts of snow without killing one’s back. Our regular shovel, seen to the left of the picture, is good for tight spots, icy or heavy, wet snow that the snow pusher can’t handle.

This has been a cold and snowy winter.  We’ve used quite a bit of wood.  But no worries:  I have several more cords of wood sitting under tarps alongside the wood shed, which have been drying out for 2 to 5  years.  The wood was harvested from our property starting six years ago, when we cleared part of the land to make the driveway, the foundation for the house, and a sunny, open field in front of the solar panels.  This summer I will be lugging and stacking wood into the wood shed, getting ready for the Winter of 2016.  The 12′ x 16′ wood shed can hold 5 – 6 years’ worth of stacked wood.  Our super-efficient Hearthstone soapstone wood stove and excellent interior insulation means we’ll only use about 2 cords of wood this year (about 2 pickup truck loads).

The white bag in the shed contains kindling.  I got this huge bag for cheap from a furniture shop - inside are the discarded raw  wood ends that are perfect for fire-starting.  Otherwise, I gather kindling from broken branches right on our property.

The white bag in the shed contains kindling. I got this huge bag for cheap from a furniture shop – inside are the discarded raw wood ends that are perfect for fire-starting. Otherwise, I gather kindling from broken branches right on our property.

Of course, we are far from done with shoveling.  Another storm is headed our way Wednesday and a 1′ snowfall is predicted.  It would not be unusual to still be shoveling in April.

It may sound like we need to get our heads examined, but both of us truly enjoy our outside chores in the cold temperatures.  Not only does it beat going to the gym, it makes us appreciate how blessed we are that we are still up to the task.

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Am I The Only One Who Loves Winter?

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View of the wood shed and generator during a short lull in the storm

(Disclaimer:  Unlike most people, I am not in any way inconvenienced by snow.  I don’t have to worry about a power loss.  I don’t have to commute to work or drive kids in a carpool to school in the snow or ice; deal with traffic; idiotic drivers who go too fast or too slow; or be at risk for a driving accident due to inclement weather.  I don’t have a  job outdoors like a utility worker who must risk his or her life during a terrible ice storm in -40F to help restore heat or power; or a logger who must hoist tens of tons of felled trees into a logging truck and then drive the logs on icy, narrow, snow-laden back roads to the mill.  I don’t, thank G-d, have to worry about how I can visit a loved one in the hospital in inclement weather, and I am most assuredly not 9 months pregnant in the middle of the blizzard of the century.)

Our ground-mounted solar panels during the storm.  This is why it's ridiculous to install solar panels on your roof:  Are you really going to wait for the snow and ice to melt after the storm so they can start collecting light?

Our ground-mounted solar panels during the storm, easily cleaned off with a broom after the storm stops. This is why it’s ridiculous to install solar panels on your roof: Are you really going to wait for the snow and ice to melt after the storm so they can start collecting light?  Or even worse, are you going to climb a ladder to reach them all the way up on the roof so you can clean them off?

Yesterday I was grocery shopping in No. Conway NH and I overheard a conversation by some workers taking a break.

“I am ready for summer!” said one.

“I am sooo tired of winter,” the other agreed.

Meanwhile my Zumba teacher said that class is cancelled for next week – she is “going to Florida for a break from winter.”

(I could not get over the fact that they were having this discussion on a brilliantly sunny, clear day witih temps in the mid-20s, when visibility from Mt. Washington was 100 miles and it was gorgeous everywhere you looked!  Besides… would they be truly be happier in Spring, aka Mud Season and Blackfly Season?)

It might be wishful thinking, but all the stores in town have started putting out their Spring merchandise, and winter garments are on clearance.  This, despite the fact that realistically we have another one to two months of winter weather ahead of us.  Still, there is something different in the air – – a feeling that winter (despite today’s mammoth snow storm!) is winding down.  Am I nuts?  I miss winter already!  I simply love winter  in Maine.  There are so many wonderful things about it:

  • I love the heat from our wood stove.  It’s a heat that penetrates to your bones, and makes you feel cozy all over.
  • I love the fact the wood we use is from our own land.  We had to clear quite a bit of woods to make way for the driveway and our house.  None of that wood is going to waste!  We also had to clear a large area beneath the house so the solar panels would be unobstructed from the sun.  I have since planted semi-dwarf apple trees in that area so we don’t feel the loss of trees from our woods.  I worked really, really hard over the summer stacking logs in the wood shed.  It’s nice to see all that work being put to good use!
  • I love my MICROspikes, my hiking boots, and my Muck Boots in winter.  They keep my feet warm and dry and allow me to go anywhere outside, even when it’s icy.
  • I love walking outside.  It’s astoundingly beautiful and you rarely see another human being on a trail.  It’s not just black and white – there are thousands of shades of grey in between. With the absence of foliage the views are even more expansive.  And it’s so good to keep moving in cold weather!  You just feel wonderful, and your cheeks get an apple red color that make them positively pinch-able!  When I go for walks in winter, I feel like I’m glowing from both inside and outside.
  • I love the quiet.  Everything is muffled in the snow, the world is at rest, yet when there is sound, it is heightened and your senses feel sharpened.
  • I love the secret world of animals, revealed.  Evidence of life is everywhere in the tracks in the snow.  Raccoons, birds, chipmunks, squirrels, coyotes, mice, skunks, deer – – it’s amazing to know what traverses our property when we’re not looking, and this is something we may otherwise miss any other time of year.
  • I love shoveling snow.  Yes, I know, people die of heart attacks from shoveling snow all the time.  But ever since we bought our snow pusher, it’s not a chore; it’s a joyous exercise in efficiency and fun.
  • I love the exuberance.  Even though I don’t go snowmobiling, I love watching snowmobilers having their fun.  I love watching kids building snow forts.  I love watching ice fisherman drive with their pickup trucks right onto a frozen lake and settle in to their ice shacks.
  • I love the clothes.  Down vests, down jackets, Peruvian wool hats, leggings, fleece – – they’re all incredibly cozy and comfortable.  If you know how to dress for the weather, you simply Will. Not. Be. Cold.  Even outside in -5F.  Really!!!
  • I love the food.  Freshly made thick soup on a cold day — what could be more divine?
  • I love bird-watching in winter.  Is there anything funnier than a blue jay that looks like he’s wearing an inflatable sumo wrestler suit, all puffed up to protect himself from the cold?  Our bird feeder attracts nuthatches, chickadees, blue jays, woodpeckers and turkeys, plus squirrels and chipmunks and the occasional annoying raccoon.  We don’t keep a bird feeder out any other time of year except winter, due to marauding bears.
  • I love not being afraid of winter, and feeling prepared to take on challenges.  We have a well-insulated house with a good heat source; we have plenty of food and emergency supplies stocked and rotated for freshness; our AWD cars are always filled with gas and we have studded snow tires. We have backup power for our solar system and a backup to our backup (generator).  Our propane tank is filled before winter starts. Our cellphones are kept charged.  We have a huge library.  My husband is a licensed ham radio operator.  Even in an emergency,  if we couldn’t get out, we are good for several weeks by ourselves.
  • I love the sunny days.  Winter in Maine has a surprising number of sunny days.  It would be unusual to go for more than 3 or 4 days without clear, brilliant blue skies.  And when it’s sunny it feels much warmer than the actual temperature thanks to the rays reflecting on the snow.  I have been outside on a windless day for a sun bath in my shirtsleeves in 20F and I was not cold.
  • I love passive solar in winter.  When it’s sunny on a winter day, our south- and west-facing windows heat up the house so well that I don’t even need to use our wood stove to keep the indoor temperature at 65F.  Yesterday our porch, which has acrylic panels instead of screens in winter, heated up to 80F just from the sun, when it was 30F outside.
  • I love the sight and sound of snow and ice crashing off the roof.  It’s very dramatic, thrilling, and scary.
  • I love the fact that one is never too old to make a snow angel!
The birdfeeder

The birdfeeder

Wicked Cold

_1140067Is anyone reading this blog old enough to remember that “wicked” was the predecessor to “groovy” (and before that, “bitchen” which, I should add, was not considered a curse word)?

Well, here in Maine, “wicked” somehow never disappeared.  People say  “wicked fast,”  “wicked fun,” “wicked hot,” etc. to give emphasis to an adverb.  The town of Lovell, which is just down the road, even has a convenience store named “The Wicked Good Store.”

Fittingly, today it is definitely “wicked cold,” as you can see by the photo taken just after 7 a.m. this morning outside our porch.

Thanks to our woodstove and great insulation, we are warm and toasty inside, but I should add . . . we currently (no pun intended) have no power.  Luckily, our house runs primarily on solar/batteries, and we also have a propane-fed generator as a back-up to our back-up.  We don’t fool around!  (Our HVAC person told us that when he gets a call that someone has lost their heat in the middle of winter, he treats it as a 911 call – – it’s that serious.)

I’m not really planning on going outside today until it warms up to, say, -5 F or so.  Meanwhile the dog will just have to walk himself.

Spring Cleaning House Tour

When it became apparent that winter was finally, truly over and the woodstove could now be retired until autumn, it was time for spring cleaning.

This tortuous process lasted for 2 full days and nights and included dusting, vacuuming, thoroughly cleaning out the woodstove and removing ash dust from every nook and cranny including the ceiling fans.

The sand, salt and dirt traipsed  by our car into the garage was removed (along with the car) and the cement floor soaped, scrubbed and rinsed many rounds until it was clean enough to convert into a temporary bedroom, awaiting summer’s visit of eleven of my grandchildren (all at once!).

Accumulated stuff had to be tossed or rearranged and reorganized.  Winter items, from heavy coats, gloves, and hats as well as crampons, down comforters, and snowshoes were put into winter boxes and summer items were reinstated to the closet.  Our cement floors were re-polished.

Emergency food storage supplies were rotated.

Our food storage supply.  It's not only for emergencies.  When you live 40 minutes from the nearest supermarket, you don't want to make a last-minute trip if you run out of something.  So I make sure to have plenty of staples on hand at all times.  Also, it costs about $10 in gas everytime I make a trip into town.  That forces me to be much better organized about planning menus, and combining shopping, and other errands to keep those trips to a minimum.  When I do go to town, it's usually an all-day venture.

Our food storage supply, kept in the basement. It’s not only for emergencies. When you live 40 minutes from the nearest supermarket, you can’t make a last-minute trip if you run out of something. So I make sure to have plenty of staples on hand at all times. Also, it costs about $10 in gas every time I make a trip into town. That forces me to be much better organized about planning menus, and combining shopping and other errands to keep those trips to a minimum. When I do go to town (about once a week), it’s usually an all-day venture.

Windows and mirrors were washed until they gleamed.  Screens were cleaned.

Seeds were planted in small seed starter boxes and placed on the porch, awaiting transplantation in a few weeks’ time to a summer garden.  (Although it was warm enough to take out the plexiglass panels and replace them with screens, I kept the plexi panels in so that it would have a greenhouse effect and encourage faster sprouting).

Wannabe garden

Wannabe garden

Apple trees were pruned.  Old wasps nests were removed.  The dog got his first heartworm and flea & tick medication, along with a summer haircut.

It was exhausting but satisfying.

In the midst of cleaning the garage, my husband, who reached a momentous birthday milestone recently,  stopped to rest and, looking out onto the woods and the pond,  said, “I don’t know what will be ten years from now.  Will I be healthy or sick? Active and of right mind, or decrepit and feeble?  But I want to remember this moment, right now,  because our time in Maine has been the happiest years of my life!”

It sounds crazy, I know – – he was cleaning the garage, after all – – but it meant so much to me, and I really get it, because I feel the same way.

I took some pictures of our super-clean house because let’s face it, it ain’t gonna stay this clean very long!  Have fun on the tour . . .

Enter at your own risk:

Yes, I know it's kitschy, but how could I not buy this sign for my front door?

Yes, I know it’s kitschy, but how could I not buy this sign for my front door?

My moose hat rack/dog leash holder from IKEA.  That's bear spray at the top of the antler - I keep it by the front door just in case!

My moose hat rack/dog leash holder from IKEA. That’s bear spray at the top of the antler – I keep it by the front door just in case!  We keep our muddy boots under the bench on the left.

Here’s why I love my living room / dining room.  Besides being cozy, comfortable and welcoming, it consists mostly of furniture from craigslist, Goodwill, and the dumpster, closeouts and contractors’ overstocks. Translation:  it was cheap, but it looks great.

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Living room (click to enlarge)

Sofa End Table:  $20 Goodwill

Bookcases:  Total of 4, $5 each from Borders Bookstore that went out of business, found on craigslist.

Mirror:  $50 IKEA. Totally opens up the room, and reflects the woods.

Carpet: $50 Commercial carpet  remnant from contractor’s overstock.

Solid leather recliners:  $400 ea, Costco.  I got these new because I couldn’t find used ones that were comfortable or didn’t smell like cigarette smoke, but in my hometown I did manage to find one on craigslist for $175 that I keep in my hometown.  Recliners are the world’s best invention after the washing machine!

Old futon sofa renewed with new cover:  $15 for cover, Target clearance.

That’s our soapstone woodstove in the rightmost foreground.  Even though we got it on sale, it was not cheap.  But a good heat source is crucial to living comfortably in Maine in the winter.  We bought the best that money can buy, and we do not regret it one iota.

The floors are polished cement.  Not only are they easy to keep clean, but in the summer they are cool, and in the winter, thanks to the woodstove and under-floor radiant hydronic heat, the are nice and warm.  They are also inflammable and indestructible.

Paint:  I love, love, love the dark accent color behind the bookcases, which works because it’s only on one wall broken up by the shelving, and the high ceilings and plentiful windows don’t make it feel like a cave. The color is called Bittersweet Chocolate – – with a name like that what’s not to love?  The light color is called Bennett Grey.  It’s a taupe-y neutral, but what I like most about it is that it subtly changes tone and intensity depending on season and time of day.  Another great color is by the entry, a taupe-y brown called Texas Leather (not shown).  It’s just very, very soothing.

Dining Room (click to enlarge)

Dining Room (click to enlarge)

My solid wood, handcrafted pine farm table, which I use as both a work table and a dining room table, was $75 on craigslist.  I found the beechwood chairs left out for the trash at someone’s house in my hometown.  There was nothing wrong with them other than the soiled upholstered seats.  For $20 I recovered them with faux leather bought at Joanne’s Fabrics, attached with a staple gun.  Since our car space is limited, we brought one or two chairs per trip when we’d travel from our hometown to Maine.

Note all the sunlight:   that’s “passive solar” at work!  Even on a snowy day, as long as it’s sunny, the room will get to about 65 degrees!  Between the energy-efficient windows on the southern and western sides of the house,  and the spray-foam insulation in the walls, the house is airtight and it stays warm on cold days!  The heavy insulation and ceiling fans keep the house pleasantly cool during hot summer days.

My Miele washing machine

My Miele washing machine

I really like my Miele washing machine.  It retails for about $2,000!  I found mine on craigslist in southern New Hampshire.  The guy was asking $1200, and I offered him $400.  I was worried lest he be insulted by my low-ball offer,  but he accepted my price.  Shlepping it to Maine in our car wasn’t exactly a piece of cake, but it was well worth it.   This machine is tops for energy efficiency and quality.  It uses very little electricity, and almost no water.  The secret is in the spin cycles – something like 1200 revolutions per minute!  After a spin cycle like that, the clothes are practically dry when the wash is done, and on a clear  summer day my clothes dry outside on the line in an hour.  Although this machine is much smaller than the typical American washing machine, you can really stuff the dirty clothes in tightly so actually it can handle about the same amounts as a traditional American washer.  Anyone who has lived in Israel is familiar with this European style of washing machine, but Miele brand is definitely the best!

My IKEA kitchen, small but functional (click to enlarge)

My IKEA kitchen, small but functional (click to enlarge)

Kitchen:  $1200 cabinets from IKEA, discounted for discontinued style.  Big Box stores estimated $7000 for a similar kitchen!

Spice Rack

Spice Rack

These shelves from IKEA were actually designed as ledges to display framed artwork, but I found they work perfectly as spice racks.  Yes, I really do use all those spices in my cooking on a regular basis!

Screen porch

Screen porch

Our screen porch is off the kitchen/dining room.  When you are there, you feel like you are in a treehouse, in a canopy of the greenest leaves.  In the autumn thru the Spring there are views of the bog below,  with its amazing array of wildlife, and the surrounding mountains.  What I love about our porch is that it can be used all year round.  In the autumn through the Spring, it has plexiglass panels, and thanks to passive solar, it warms up beautifully when it’s sunny outside.  In the summer, we take off the plexiglass panels and replace them with screen panels.  With summer breezes and because it’s under the trees, it always stays cool.  We also keep a futon on the porch where we sometimes read or sneak a nap.  We often have our Shabbos meals on the porch.  This Spring, I used the table to hold my seed starters.  You are looking at future sunflowers, basil, lavender, parsley, and oregano seedlings.  Once the danger of frost has passed, they will be transplanted to my garden.

Milkweed

Milkweed (click to enlarge)

One of our guests asked me if this floral arrangement came from a designer showroom in Manhattan!  I had a good laugh.  I bought the vase from TJ Maxx for $10.  I found the piece of peeled birchbark outside our house in the woods.  I cut the milkweed from a deserted field, while on a walk close to my house.  Since I don’t live anywhere near a florist and I don’t like to pick wildflowers that grow on my property (many are endangered species,  such as Pink Lady Slipper), this makes a nice “floral” arrangement for my Shabbos table and it lasts forever.

This wild iris popped up unexpectedly along the driveway

This wild iris popped up unexpectedly along the driveway

Okay, now on to my husband’s office.  One of the great things about our life is that my husband, a computer whiz with the job title of Software Architect, works from home.  The biggest risk we took in building our house out in the middle of nowhere was the possibility that there wouldn’t be good Wi-Fi connectivity for a computer, and that would mean he couldn’t work from home.  (A dial-up modem would not have been fast enough to meet his needs.)  Miraculously, our phone carrier offers a DSL line, even way out here in the woods!

My husband works in the basement since it’s less distracting than in the main part of the house.  But it’s not all doom and gloom:  since our house is built on a slope, it’s a walk-out basement and mostly above ground.

Busy at work

There is nothing fancy about his work environment:  a folding table, chair, and computer.  But the view . . . !!!!

Office window view of the woods

Office window view of the woods

The view from my husband's office window

The view from my husband’s office window

To the left of his desk is the table holding his ham radio station.  (He’s been begging me for 35+ years to get a ham radio license so we can participate in this hobby together.)  From this little station he has spoken to ham radio operators from all over the world.

The Man Cave:  Amateur (Ham) Radio Station

The Man Cave: Amateur (Ham) Radio Station

One thing about rural living is that property taxes might be lower, but you don’t get what you don’t pay for!  We don’t have a police force (we have to call the county sheriff, and he could be between 1 – 2 hours away).  Both the rescue and fire departments are run by volunteers, who might be at their workplace when you call in an emergency.  So you have to wait until they get to the station, and then travel to your location, which can be 15 or more miles away.  (Though neither of us suffer from heart disease B”H, we are seriously considering purchasing a defibrillator as a first line of defense.)  There are no fire hydrants for the fire trucks, so when the pumper truck runs out of water, he must make a run to the lake (5 miles away) to refill the truck.  (If G-d forbid you have a fire, the typical approach is unfortunately not to save the house, which under these challenging limitations is almost impossible, but simply to ensure that all occupants are safely out of the building, and that the fire is prevented from spreading to other homes or creating a forest fire.)

We also have no garbage collection; we must take all trash to the dump 8 miles away, and it is open only for limited hours a few times a week.

Let me tell you, when you are responsible for the trash you create, you create a lot less trash.  Suddenly you become conscious not only of what you buy and use, but the containers things come in.  What is recyclable or reusable before it has to be dumped?  Also realize that there are no sewer lines, and everything that goes down the sink or toilet goes to a septic tank, which is under a “leach field.”

The leach field.  Giant boulders prevent cars from parking there, because if the earth gets too compacted the septic waste will not decompose properly.  The whole thing sounds worse than it is - - it is odor free.

The leach field. Giant boulders prevent cars from parking there, because if the earth gets too compacted the septic waste will not decompose properly. The whole thing sounds worse than it is – – it is odor free.

We cannot have a garbage disposal due to the septic system.  But, we can  – – and do – – have a composter.  Egg shells, coffee grinds, tea bags, and  fruit and vegetable peels all go into the composter.  It’s a painless, odor-free process, and eliminates a huge amount of refuse that would otherwise go into a garbage disposal or trash can.  After approximately  2 months of “stewing” the composted food waste creates a rich black humus soil that can be transferred by wheelbarrow to my garden.

We try to run the house on solar power as much as possible.  Unlike most people who use solar power, we are not tied to the grid and therefore do not “sell” any energy back to the power company.  What most people do not realize is that if they are tied to the grid, then if there is a power outage, you will be without power too!  We wanted to have complete independence from the power company, so we opted to go “off” the grid.  The solar panels generate electricity which is stored in a huge battery array located in the basement. These batteries look something like golf cart batteries.  They are very heavy, and frankly, they will be a landfill nightmare when they finish their lifespan in about seven years’ time, so I hesitate to call this system “green.”  We also have a backup to our backup:  a propane-powered generator.

Generator

Generator

The 1000-gallon propane tank is buried under the ground.

The cover to the propane tank.  We keep a marker so we can find it in the wintertime!  We lift the cover to monitor usage so we know when it needs to be refilled.

The cover to the propane tank. We keep a marker next to it so we can find it in the wintertime when it is buried by snow! We lift the cover to monitor usage so we know when it needs to be refilled.  We fill it once a year, in the summer, when propane prices are lowest.  Winter rates are 30 – 50% higher.

Despite the government’s position on encouraging “green” living, did you know that you cannot get a government-backed mortgage if you run your house on solar power off the grid?  We also realized that not everyone appreciates living conservatively in terms of electricity usage amounts.  So we designed our house so that with a flick of the switch, we can go from solar power to being connected to Central Maine Power (CMP), our local Maine electric provider.  This has come in handy when we’ve been without sunshine for a week or more, or on winter days when the days are very short and the solar panels don’t have enough daylight hours to collect any substantial electricity and we need a bit of a boost.

Here is a photo showing both our composter and our solar panels:

WP_001195And here are photos taken from the utility room in our basement, showing the cistern, on-demand furnace, hydronic radiant heat lines and battery array:

The Utility Room.  The grey tank in the left corner is our cistern.  An electric-powered pump draws the water from the well and directs it to the cistern.  The water is so pure and delicious!   The propane-powered furnace provides unlimited hot water on demand. The tubing leads to the radiant heat under the floor.

The Utility Room. The grey tank in the left corner is our cistern. An electric-powered pump draws the water from the well and directs it to the cistern. The water is so pure and delicious! The propane-powered furnace provides unlimited hot water on demand. The red tubing leads to the radiant heat under the floor on the main level.

Our house runs on battery power!

Our house runs on battery power!

We spend a great deal of time in the summer months preparing our wood supply.  That means cutting the downed trees into chunked logs, splitting them, drying them for 3 months to a year before they are sufficiently “seasoned” (otherwise there is too much sap and moisture and they don’t burn well), and then stacking the split and dried wood into the woodshed.    I remember once upon a time, both George Bush and Ronald Reagan were shown on television at their homes in Texas and California, splitting wood with an axe and maul.  This is really, really hard work, especially with the amount of wood we need to split.  We pay someone to do the splitting, and he uses a massive gas-powered splitter.  Each log (especially the oak) is very heavy, but shlepping them undoubtedly beats going to the gym for exercise.

Pile of logs

Pile of logs

The woodshed.

The woodshed

Here is a picture of the back of the house (which is really the front entrance).

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Yes, our skies are really that blue!

The house looks bigger than it really is.  The lower level has a small office, but otherwise it's just a utility room for the furnace and cistern, and a one-car garage.

The house looks bigger than it really is, thanks to high ceilings, lots of windows, and an open floor plan. The lower level has a small office, but otherwise it’s just a utility room for the furnace and cistern, and a one-car garage.  The total living space is around 1000 square feet.

Many people wonder why I didn’t build a log home.  Log cabins are indeed very  romantic, not to mention beautiful.   However, besides their tremendous expense, they are extremely high maintenance.  Wood is slowly but surely constantly drying out and “shrinking.”  This means that the chinking (the white filler stuff that goes between the logs) must be re-applied every few years.  Also, the outside logs must be re-varnished and treated every 2 to 4 years, a big and pricey job.  We assume that we will be on a very limited income once my husband retires, and won’t have the funds for major maintenance costs, so we specifically designed the house to be as maintenance-free as is humanly possible.  We opted to go with fiber-cement siding for the exterior cladding.  It is highly rated as a fire-retardant, but more importantly, it is guaranteed to not need repainting for 15 years!  We chose the color that most resembled the color of the surrounding trees.  It blends in so well with the immediate environment that you can’t  see the house from the road unless you already know it’s there.

Our property is located in a very windy location.  About 3 miles away, back in the 1980s,  there was a historic blow-down that permanently destroyed many acres of forest landscape.  In the summer there is almost always a breeze, but the wind can sound pretty scary during a storm.  The roar of wind is frequent and regular, and we figured based on the noise that some of the gusts had to be at least 75 mph.  We bought this anemometer (a wind-measuring device) from the store at Mt. Washington Observatory:

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The anemometer

But it turns out that our maximum recorded wind speed so far was only 37 mph. It just sounds much louder and scarier because of all the trees.  Placing the anemometer was a bit tricky, since we have to be careful that it isn’t damaged when huge sheets of snow and ice fall off the roof in the winter.

Here is a picture of my orchard.  This heavily wooded area was cleared to allow for more sunshine on the solar panels.  I planted 8 Honeycrisp and Macoun apple seedlings there in place of the thick stand of oak, pine, beech and birch trees that were felled.  Since these semi-dwarf apple trees will only grow to about 15′  high, they won’t create shadows on the solar panels that are placed on the other side of the driveway.

Two-year-old apple seedling:  hopefully only 4 more years to go until mature enough to bear fruit.

Two-year-old apple seedling: hopefully only 4 more years to go until mature enough to bear fruit.

Last summer I also planted 6 blueberry bushes.  I also planted  kale in raised beds, with great success.  This past autumn I planted garlic, and it’s doing beautifully.

Garlic growing in a raised bed

Garlic growing in raised beds

One corner of the orchard has 3 beehives which are not owned by me; I let someone use my property as a bee yard.  He gets the honey, and I get to watch and learn about bees and my plants benefit from the pollination.  At one point I thought I might get into beekeeping, but after observing the Bee Man I decided it’s more physical labor than I can realistically handle.

The bees are buzzing!  The hives are surrounded by a solar-powered electric fence, to deter bears.

The bees are buzzing! The hives are surrounded by a solar-powered electric fence, to deter bears.

In early May, the leaves are still not on the trees.  You can barely make out the apple saplings.  The beehives are on the far right.  In the distance in the middle of the photo, you can see part of my neighbor's cabin, which he uses only occasionally, on weekends.

In early May, the leaves are still not on the trees. You can barely make out the apple saplings. The beehives are on the far right. In the distance in the middle of the photo, you can see part of my neighbor’s cabin, which he uses only occasionally, on weekends. (Click to enlarge)

The same view of the orchard 2 weeks later, with leaves on the trees.

The same view of the orchard 2 weeks later, with leaves on the trees.  The cabin in the distance is now completely obscured by the foliage.

This is my latest future project:  I am having more woods cleared to make room for a raised-bed garden.  I hope to plant squash, cucumbers, herbs, beets, and kale for starters.  The downed trees will not go to waste:  the wood will be used to heat our home in the coming winter.

Site of future garden

Site of future garden

Our property sits on 5.6 acres of woods, and backs onto the White Mountain National Forest.  The WMNF abounds with trout streams, ponds, bogs, lakes, waterfalls, wildlife, and hiking and snowmobiling trails. With each season, the landscape changes.  I never get tired of the woods.  Every day I thank HaShem for enabling us to experience this wonderful, spiritual, and healthy way of life in the woods of Maine.

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Early spring, when tiny leaves are just starting to show. Two weeks later, these trees were covered with heavy foliage.

The driveway.

The gravel driveway.

The same view of the driveway two weeks later, when the leaves are on the trees

The same view of the driveway two weeks later, when the leaves are on the trees

Going Solar

 

This was supposed to be straight-forward. We had ordered a bunch of catalogs from solar equipment distributors and installers. The material was good. They all included chapters explaining how solar energy systems work; what to buy; how to configure them; etc.  We knew we needed the following equipment: batteries for storing the electricity captured by the solar panels, the solar panels themselves (frequently called PVs, as in photo-voltaics; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photovoltaics), an inverter for converting the DC voltage to AC voltage. After doing our homework, we understood that we also needed to buy something called a charge controller, whose job was to control the voltage and current from the panels to the batteries.

Our system isn’t small. We have 24 6-volt batteries, configured to put out 48 volts. Each battery weighs 67 pounds!

Bottom: batteries.   Top (left to right): digital readout for charge controller, charge controller, inverter, circuit breakers; junction box for generator

We have 8 solar panels that put out about 1200 watts of power on a good day.

The solar panels in winter: maintenance & snow removal are a lot easier when they’re mounted on the ground instead of the roof, which is why we went this route

So is that enough to power our entire house in Maine? We don’t really know yet — ask us after this winter!  But it does seem to be close, perhaps too close.  In a future post we willl  write about  the appliances and other electrical items in the house that were specifically chosen due to their small electrical footprint.  (Just to give you an example, our Whirlpool refrigerator consumes about 340 kilowatt hours of power per year! That’s the lowest rated power consuming fridge of its size (19 cu ft)  on the market today.)

And just to be on the safe side, we have two backup systems in place. Our house is about 500 feet from the road where there is grid power courtesy of Central Maine Power (CMP). When we originally started to build our home, we decided to bring power up to the house (even though we knew, a priori, that we wanted to live off-grid) for a couple of different reasons. We knew the solar system wouldn’t be in place until the house was finished. Also, the contractors that were building our home, were going through gas with their portable generators as if it was water — and of course charging us for the gas and the rental of the generator that they needed to power their tools. Lastly, we thought that whoever one day would buy our home, might not want to rely on solar power and would therefore appreciate a grid connection.

So CMP is our backup system if the battery voltage goes below a certain predefined threshold. In addition, we installed an 8.5 kilowatt generator as a secondary backup. That double backup system is how I viewed our electricial power solution. It seems that our solar guy, our electrician, and our generator man didn’t have that same view or vision.

When the generator was installed, we had only been using grid power from CMP. The contractors tested the system; and indeed, when we cut the power from CMP, the generator kicked in and completely powered our house. Very cool!

And then the solar panels and assorted hardware were installed. Suddenly, the house was being powered by the sun. It was such an incredibly cool feeling. I loved the idea.

But that cool feeling didn’t last that long. After a couple of weeks of living in our solar powered house, we suddenly noticed all the lights went out for an instant and then came back on. We also heard our generator kick on. Uh oh. We were on generator power and I had no idea why.  I had myself to blame, really. Our solar system had two display panels that could show all sorts of information about our system. I just (a) didn’t look at it; (b) wouldn’t have known what to look for as I had not really read any of the manuals nor asked sufficiently detailed questions. But now it was too late.

I called our solar guy and explained the problem to him. I also mentioned that we were going back to our other home for a few weeks and hoped the problem would be resolved before we got back.

A subsequent email from him said that everything is working fine. The batteries had been drained too low and he simply had them recharged. Had I been running on batteries the whole time without solar recharging? That was my first (and incorrect) thought. It wasn’t until months later that I realized our solar panels had simply not been able to keep up with our electrical demand. I now monitor our system on a daily basis and this is, I believe, the correct thing to do — unless you are rich enough to buy sufficient panels to cover any amount of power consumption you might have.

Everything I have said up to now is, more or less, historical and simply background information. As a result of the incident above, I realized something rather quirky. When our house is being powered by the generator, the batteries are not being recharged. When the house is powered by CMP, the batteries are being recharged. What’s worse is that if I turn on the big CMP breaker switch, our house automatically switches from solar to CMP (and the batteries start charging).  There is no way for the system to automatically go from solar to CMP when the batteries are too low. Rather the system goes from solar to generator; and then the batteries don’t get recharged.

So this is where we are today. We have hired a new solar person who is also an electrician (eliminates the need to talk to two contractors). He understands what we want — but he doesn’t (yet) know how to get there. He is speaking to the company that makes the hardware we purchased and hopes that with their help, a solution will be found (that hopefully won’t be overly expensive).  They all said that had we wanted only one backup solution to our solar system (that is, CMP or a generator), then the wiring would have been straight-forward.

So yes there eventually will be a follow-up to this story. I hope it’s soon, before the winter comes, as we would really like to spend much of that season in our cabin/house in Maine.