Posts Tagged ‘solar’

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.

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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

In Search of the Perfect Clothesline

(click to enlarge)

 

Because we are living mostly off-the-grid and are highly dependent on sunny days for our electricity, I needed a washing machine that used very little electricity or water.  Our water comes from a well, but its source is hundreds of feet below the ground.  To get it up to the surface requires a 3/4 horsepower pump – which uses electricity.  So the less water used, the less the pump has to work.

We also want to avoid wasting water, because that flows into our septic system.  A full septic tank is not a pretty smell.  Do you feel frustrated and unfulfilled by your current job?  Realize that there are people who make their living doing nothing but pumping out septic tanks day in and day out, in all kinds of weather.  Makes you start appreciating the persnickety boss and suffocating cubicle at your current place of employment, doesn’t it?

If there is cloudy weather for days and days, and our battery supply is depleted to the point of no electric service, we do have two possiblities:  one is that we simply flick a switch and we are reconnected to the grid via our local power company.  When we’ve had to rely on this, our electric bills have typically been $10 – $25 per month.  The reason they’re so cheap is that we’ve invested a lot of time and thought into how we can cut down on energy expenditure.  Our house is super-insulated which means in summer we don’t need a/c even on the hottest days; in winter it retains heat so well that the woodstove is more than adequate and at times we’ve even had to crack open a window because it gets too hot inside the house!

We’re extremely careful about turning off lights that aren’t in use and using power strips that can be easily turned off to avoid energy vampires.  Most of the lights in the house are LEDs, which use much less electricity than CFL bulbs – – only 10 watts per fixture.  These look like any old recessed lighting fixtures, but they give off wonderful light, are much more pleasing and softer than CFLs, yet more natural looking, brighter and more intense .  I highly recommend them to anyone considering an update to their home’s lighting system:  www.cree.com

We put the largest windows on the south and west sides of the house.  On clear winter days the sun’s rays are absorbed by the glass and warm up our rooms nicely.  This is known as “passive solar.”

There are some things in the house that are powered by propane gas: our back-up heating  system, our kitchen range, our hot water, and our generator.  If we have a week of no sunshine and then there is a major storm and the power lines are down (and this happens a lot), the generator is a life-saver.  The downside, besides the noise, is that propane gas is rather expensive.  We have a 1000-gallon propane tank buried underneath the ground, but at $2.30 a gallon, it’s not something you want to drain quickly.  That’s why we don’t have a clothes dryer – – it eats up too much propane gas.  When I cook, it’s usually on top of my stove, because I find that using a pressure cooker cooks food very quickly and uses a whole lot less gas than if I bake something in the oven.

When looking for a washing machine, I first went to www.energystar.gov This was very useful also when looking for a refrigerator.  You can find out how much energy a particular appliance consumes, and compare different brands.  I found out that a medium-size Miele washing machine was the lowest for both electricity and water use, and it had excellent reliability ratings.  I wasn’t scared off by the smaller capacity, since I’m doing laundry for only 2 people these days.

There is only one problem with a Miele washing machine: the price.  At $2,000 – $3,000 there is no way I was buying one – – new, that is.

Thank you, CraigsList!  A guy in New Hampshire was selling his as-new Miele machine for $1200.  I waited a couple of weeks and then I emailed him.  “I noticed a couple of weeks ago you were selling a Miele washing machine.  There is no way I can pay you $1200, but if you’re willing to take $450 cash, I can be there tomorrow and take it away.”

It even came with an extended, transferable warranty.  I was very excited.  And, I’m happy to report, it does live up to its promise.  Our Miele washer really does get the clothes cleaner, using a bare minimum of detergent, water and electricity!

Hanging the wash is a work in progress, however.

Our laundry smells of fresh mountain air – it’s wonderful.  And we have lots of trees from which to string a clothesline!

A sunny November morning

But the trees have to be at least 20′ apart and here the woods are too thick.  And the line can’t be too far into the woods, because of mud in the spring and snow in the winter.  The clothesline has to be in an area of sunlight, because the cold temperatures and short days in the fall and winter mean the laundry will otherwise not get dry.  Location, location, location!

I do have a single clothesline strung, but am looking into stringing more on the side of the shed.  That’s when I found the Cord-A-Clip.  Even though we did not end up getting a Cord-O-Clip, as I watched the info video on YouTube, I got positively teary-eyed.

It made me think of my mother-in-law, a’h.

My mother-in-law was a TV addict.  She always felt grateful for television.  When she came to this country after the War, she didn’t understand or speak English, and everything and everybody was so different from what she was used to.  She had no money, but she did have a husband and two small children to nurture.  Rent had to be paid and food had to be put on the table.  There was no time to go to night school – – there weren’t enough hours in the day between caring  for the children, and she and her husband working their heads off.

At night when things quieted down, my mother-in-law watched TV.  She learned English from “I Love Lucy” and “Bonanza.”

But as that age of innocence devolved, TV embraced the culture of marketing.  And with it was born “As Seen On TV.”

My mother-in-law was its biggest devotee.

To my mother-in-law, if something was As Seen On TV, it was irresistible.  A product had to be good if it was clever enough and wonderful enough to be As Seen On TV!!!  Soon, the mail carrier  and UPS man were on a first-name basis with my mother-in-law, due to the weekly arrivals of innovative gadgets that were all stamped, “As Seen On TV!”

In her later years, she was thrilled when WalMart and Target created special sections in their stores, whose aisles were limited to items that were As Seen On TV.  It made shopping so much faster – she only had to go to that particular aisle when looking for presents to buy for her family!  Because if it was As Seen On TV, it was surely the most unique, clever and perfect present in the world!

When I saw the Cord-O-Clip, I knew my mother-in-law was smiling down at me from Above.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4RLDKKdoQQ

If my mother-in-law were alive, I imagine this Chanuka we would have gotten presents marked “As Seen On YouTube!” because towards the end of her life, she really loved shopping on the Internet . . .

We miss her!

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.

Shabbat in the Maine Woods

I could really relate to this and next week’s Torah portions.  Avraham is out in the middle of nowhere, recovering from several life-changing experiences, and he decides to seek out guests.  So he leaves his tent doors open, waiting.

Well we didn’t leave our door open (too many bugs and falling leaves) but somehow we found Shabbos guests, the “P’s.”  And they are both Jewish!  Who knew?  They live two mountaintops away, and like everyone who comes and settles in this part of Maine, they are “interesting” (in a good way).

First, a bit about my Shabbat preparations.  I had forgotten to bring a small blech from our “home town” (the stovetop piece of metal that keeps our food warm), and I didn’t want to keep the propane oven running the whole of Shabbos (propane is expensive and we’re conservation-conscious).  That’s when I realized we could use the top of our soapstone woodstove!  The night was cold enough so that a crackling fire would make things cozy and comfortable, in addition to serving as a food-warmer.  I’ve attached a photo so you get the idea…

 

Soapstone Woodstove as a Shabbos blech (hotplate)

 

Back to the “P’s.”  It’s a second marriage for both, nearly 20 years strong.  Both were idealistic hippie-ish kids in the 70’s, children of affluent doctors and lawyers and academians, suburban Jews on the East Coast, and both were part of the “Back to the Land” movement that was prevalent way back then – a kind of predecessor to the “green” movement of today, when people bought cheap land on which they grew what they needed to eat and live, building teepees and cabins and yurts, sometimes living communally and sometimes as hermits, raising families and becoming generally self-sufficient.  Many couldn’t hack it – it was a hard life; some realized that there was little romance in having to toil at all hours in extreme weather; with little guidance or experience many found handling tools and livestock beyond their ken; for some the isolation was too great.  But those that made it became modern-day homesteading pioneers.

Mr. P came to Maine simply because land was cheap.  He bought an entire mountain – several hundred acres – and with his wife and a couple of babies they started to carve out a home.  And I do mean carve – literally.  By themselves, they started excavating a long, winding road up the mountain to their home site, cutting trees, removing stumps, smoothing, laying gravel up the steep incline.  The house itself sits on ledge – solid bedrock.  Mr. P had to shave the granite so it would be flat enough to place his foundation.  They were too far from power lines, nor did they have the funds to think about (or desire) having electricity, so they put in some solar panels and a small generator for the most basic needs they couldn’t do without.  And slowly, every day of their lives for 30 years, they toiled (and continue to toil) to build and maintain their house and property as it sits today.

The challenges were immense.  An experiment with a windmill tower as a power source ended when it was hit by lightening, and the entire house burned to the ground, leaving them with only the clothes on their backs (Mr. P and his 3 children were fortunately not home at the time).  The fruits of their years of toil were over in minutes.  Yet, the next day, he walked to the bottom of his driveway and found the back of his pickup truck piled full of food, clothing, toys, and written offers to help him rebuild – all from neighbors (“neighbors” in these sparsely populated parts can mean people living 10 miles away) who were just being “neighborly” in the way often-reticent Mainers are.

Mr. P’s marriage ended, but 6 months later he began his providential relationship with the current and like-minded Mrs. P.  She works as a teacher in a school for high-risk teens; Mr. P works as a private consultant and installer of solar-powered systems for people living off the grid, as well as a mason, a carpenter, a woodsman – a jack-of-all trades, completely self-taught.  They may not be “rich” but they pay in cash and have no debts.     They use only what they need.  They are happy.

Their life is not an easy one.  Their road up their mountain is too windy and steep to plow in the winter, so they park at the bottom and walk up in snowshoes.  Come November, they buy all the non-perishable food they will need for the next four months – huge commercial-sized barrels of rice, oats, beans, flour, powdered milk and condiments.  Mrs. P spends the summer canning and preserving the multiple fruits of their orchards and the vegetables from their large garden.  Any fresh food is brought up in backpacks.  Since bad weather is no excuse for not appearing at her work in school, Mrs. P must climb down the mountain to her car when it is still dark in the early morning hours, sometimes in blizzard conditions and gale-force winds, with a windchill temperature of –25.  While it’s impressive under any circumstances, it is all the more so when you realize they are in their late 50s.

We met the P’s when I was looking for someone to install our solar array, so we could divorce ourselves from the heavy hand of the power company.  It’s not that we were so into being “green” as it was a practical consideration:  we knew it would be expensive to power our home in the winter in Maine, and the power company could charge whatever they felt like for that privilege.  We were (and are) generally worried about what will likely be a very limited income for us once my husband retires (or G-d forbid, loses his job in the current economy) and how the heck we will pay for the most basic of needs (power, heat, etc) as we age.  So we decided we’d attempt to live as self-sufficiently as possible, and not let outside forces dictate how we’d power our home and to what extent, based on affordability.  Plus, here in Maine, the weather is so bad that power outages are a fact of life.  We have a back-up generator (powered by an underground propane tank) but it’s noisy and annoying and can take half a day to recharge the house’s batteries.  Solar seemed like the best option (yes, despite the severe winters, there are plenty of sunny days with brilliant blue skies, and solar power is based on the amount of light, not the amount of degrees outside).

The P’s invited me up to their place to see for myself how a self-sufficient household is run.  That’s when I noticed a yellowed photograph of one of their sons wearing a tallis – a classic bar mitzvah picture.

“Um, excuse me for asking – but are you Jewish?” I gasped.  I had yet to meet a single Jew anywhere within 50 miles.

Not only are the P’s Jewish, but they are very proud hosts of an annual Passover seder – where 40 Jews (and some with their non-Jewish spouses) gather amid lots of food, Manischevitz wine, charoset and the Four Questions!

“You’d be surprised to know how many Jews are hiding in these parts,” Mr. P confided.

So we invited the P’s for dinner.  They especially enjoyed the Shabbos zemiros (songs) and discussion about the weekly Torah portion.  We got another surprise when they told me about what a wonderful Sukkot gathering they had this year – for twenty people!  Apparently one of their Jew in the Woods friends had recently taken an interest in rediscovering his roots – and had been corresponding with a Chabad rabbi in NY via the Internet.  The rabbi offered to send some rabbinical students with a portable sukka… and the rest is history.  The Lubavitchers drove 7 1/2 hours up the 95 in a rented pickup truck that they had converted into a portable sukka – and over lox and bagels the P’s rounded up 20 Jewish souls to celebrate the Sukkot holiday for their very first time.

Life in Maine just keeps getting more and more interesting…

 

Our Shabbos table overlooking the Maine Woods