A Great Off-the-Grid House!

We met up with our friends Larissa and Patrick on Beaver Island. They live there in the summer, with their two boys, and their house just so happens to be my dream home.

Here are some pictures:

The kitchen, with a gravity-feed water system, that they refill in town.

The couch (which converts to a bed) across from the kitchen.

The loft, where the kids sleep.

Larissa made the tiles on the countertop herself.

The house runs on a 12-volt battery, which is charged by the solar panels. Occasionally, they take a battery into town to charge it as well.

We really enjoyed seeing our friends again, and I can’t help but wish that we could trade houses…

Off the Grid MONDAY: Check Out This House!

When I called my friend, Dori, to set up a visit, while we were in Louisville, I told her that I couldn’t wait to see her house.

“Oh, it’s not much,” she said. “It’s small…You know, it’s totally you. You’ll love it!”

Sure enough, she’s living one of my two dream lives. When I grow up, I want to either homestead or live aboard full time. Dori has got quite the almost-off-the -grid homestead going.

As we entered the house, she explained, “We’re redoing the drywall in the laundry room…and the baby chickens are in there.”

Makes sense to me.

The house itself is Amish-built, and heated by a woodstove. The furnishings are modest–minimalistic, to be sure. The bedroom is a loft located upstairs, with plenty of room for three full-sized beds. Next to the kitchen is a “birth and death room,” where the sick and new mothers would be cared for. Dori and her husband are converting this to a sewing room. There is a well-stocked pantry, filled with dry goods that Dori is able to purchase from the nearby Amish store when they are on sale.

Dori and her husband have four children, ranging in age from 2 to 10. What do they do, with such limited space in the house? They can be found outside, jumping on the trampoline, chasing the chickens, feeding the pigs, exploring the forest, or getting into mischief in the pond. Beanie was immediately assimilated into their collective, and followed them wherever they went. She was engaged the whole time, and was even talking to them by the time we left.

Here are some pictures from my visit:

Beanie and her new little buddy. They held hands the entire time!

Inside the chicken pen. The birds were free to come and go as they pleased, and the result was VERY positive–the BEST eggs I’ve ever eaten!

Chasing the chickens

Dori and me. (Yes, I am wearing my foul-weather jacket…Long story…)

The eldest–and ringleader! She kept a great eye on the Bean.

Their house–not glamorous, but elegant in its simplicity.

Chickens milling about the yard–why not?

I love pork, but I refuse to buy factory-farm meat. These pigs are treated wonderfully–meet Pork Chop, Ham, and Bacon!

Feeding time! No slop–just hormone-and-antibiotic-free feed and table scraps.

These are true free-range kids!

You need serious boots in this yard!

Look at this beautiful, antique “Porky” woodstove. MUCH better than DTE or Consumer’s!

Their house is wonderful, and simple. Their kids are healthy and happy. The scenery is beautiful, and the neighbors are friendly. If I can’t move onto the water, I just might look for a house in Kentucky…

Off the Grid Tuesday: Back to the Basement

OK, so having the basement ready to move into this winter was a lofty goal, but not exactly realistic. However, meeting my New Year’s Resolution of being off the grid by next January is completely feasible. We are plugging along, while paying the higher gas bills (not sure exactly why) and lower electric bills than last year.

Here are some pictures of our project:

The woodstove, waiting in the new workshop.

The main room, a bit less cluttered.

The workshop, moved to the newly enclosed area, out of the main room!

We moved the veggie oil refinery out of the corner and moved the cupboards that used to be next to the fridge (which is also gone). Eventually, the cupboard will be moved over the dryer, and we'll put countertop over the drawers.

Open space! This is where the fridge was, with the cupboards next to it.

The area where the workshop used to be. The garbage, of course, will go. And the fridge as well. We plan to make this a closet.

So this week’s pictures aren’t very impressive, but do compare them to when we started! Today we buy the carpet, so there will be a bigger difference next week. Hopefully we’ll have the carpet laid and the woodstove installed!

Off the Grid Tuesday: Samovar!

This little device will be more practical on Moonraker than at home, but it’s sure been a lot of fun!

In Russia, many homes did not have heated water until recently. So, instead, families own a samovar. Water is heated–using charcoal, wood, or pine ones–and a tea pot is set on top. You make very strong, concentrated tea in the pot, and you dilute it with the heated water.

We’ve enjoyed this in our house in the winter, when a cup of hot tea is always appreciated. In the summer, we can set up a chimney and use it on the boat. It produces a great deal of heat and will make a nice heater in the boat. And while we don’t drink much hot tea in the summer, having hot water while on board will also be very nice!

Parting With Consumer’s–Next Steps

When you read my resolutions, “Eating Less Poison” probably wasn’t the one that immediately caught your attention.

Now we’re going to talk about the crazier one, #2.

I felt the joy of seeing our kilowatt wheel stop (other than the power outage!) when we closed up the house, right before we left on our cruise.
Next year, I want to see it stopped in January.

To be honest, I didn’t think going off the grid was something we would actually accomplish, at least not living in a subdivision as we do now. However, for Christmas we got a used woodstove, solar panels, and a bit of cash…

So, here is our game plan, for reducing our dependence on the electric company:

1. Reduce, reduce, reduce, is the name of the game. Solar panels aren’t going to allow us to continue with our current lifestyle. Immediately, we need to turn off lights when we aren’t in the room, keep the desk top computer off most of the time, etc. Eventually, we will get LED lights, which use less energy than our fluorescents. Before we install the wood stove, we are going to make sure the house is adequately insulated (which is currently is not). We already replaced one door, which has cut down significantly on drafts.

2. While we have a high-efficiency furnace, the blower uses a great deal of energy. The woodstove should heat the house well enough that the furnace will not be necessary. If need be, we will continue with our plan of moving into the basement during the cold months.

3. Our next largest energy user is the hot water heater. Luckily, those are available as attachments to wood stoves.

4. We received money for purchasing solar panels for Moonraker, which will be infinitely useful when we are anchored out, or moored in Thunder Bay. There is no reason to leave these on the boat in the winter, though. Hopefully, we can get our usage low enough for these to support it. If not, we would consider a wind generator (for the boat and the house!).

5. If the solar panels will not support the washing machine, we will use our portable unit. We’ll invest in a drying rack.

6. I’m neglecting our largest energy user: the well pump. Our current pump is not doable off the grid. We are considering more efficient pumps, and a gravity feed water system. Our house is very tall, so this would work quite well!

So, breaking it down this way, you can see that off the grid living is not so much of a pipe dream, even in our home in a subdivision!

Off the Grid Tuesday: Basement Project, Continued

We’re still working on making our basement the perfect winter hideaway. Our first step was to enclose the “cave,” which is the open area in front of the walk-out door. Enclosing this will make our basement a full, rather than a partial, basement. We’ve installed the French doors we bought from our neighbors, and surrounded them with siding we bought pre-painted. We did not want to spend the money to match the paint to the house, because we intend to paint the house a different color in the near future. Now, we can move Rob’s work bench out into this area. The washer and dryer also may be moved. We haven’t decided whether to put in a wood or concrete floor.

Zero Waste Wednesday: A Little Planning Goes a Long Way

In my efforts to reduce food packaging waste, I’ve learned one valuable lesson: the importance of planning ahead.

First, I plan my menus for the month. This helps with budgeting and gives me a direction. Then, every other week, I plan out what groceries I will need. I used to shop once a month, but this resulted in a reliance on pre-packaged and processed foods and, of course, more packaging waste. Whole foods, which are available in bulk, will not last a month. If I bought a month’s worth of flour at a time, I would need many, many containers!

Once I’ve bought the food, I need to plan a couple of days ahead with preparation. I make a large batch of bagels and tortillas over the weekend, so that I do not have to worry about them during the week. All baked goods, granola, and yogurt require advance planning.

The planning takes some getting used to, but it’s really starting to pay off.


Off the Grid Tuesday: Let’s Talk About Dishwashers

When the topic of simplicity comes up, people become passionately defensive of their automatic dishwashers. They keep dishes from piling up in the sink. They use less water than hand washing. They cut down on time spent on housework. Isn’t life simpler WITH this machine?

In our case, the answer is a clear “no.” Here are the reasons why:

1. First of all, we use cast iron cookware. This should not be washed with soap, much less put in the dishwasher. So, we are already running the water and taking the time to wash after each meal. We’ve found that, since we wash them after each meal, we only need two pans.

2. If we were to place the remaining dishes in the dishwasher, we would either have to run it once a day and own more dishes, or run it after each meal. If we ran it after each meal, we would load it up with the spatula, 3 plates, 3 cups, and 3 forks. The dishwasher uses more water in a cycle than it would take to wash those items by hand. While it ran, we would not have access to those dishes, and we still have to load and unload them. It would require much more time and resources. If we ran it once a day, we would need to own 9 plates, 3 spatulas, 9 cups, and 9 sets of silverware. This would take up a crazy amount of cupboard space, and we would still be loading and unloading once a day.

3. This plan completely falls apart if we allow dishes to pile up in the sink. Only owning enough dishes for the 3 of us provides us with the motivation to clean them after each meal. It does not take more than 5 minutes–which adds up to less than 15 minutes a day! (We do own 2 more plates and forks, for when we have company, but we don’t use them on a daily basis). It is a matter of cleaning up right after the meal, as part of your routine.

4. Hand washing in small batches uses very little water–not even a sinkful.

5. The icing on the cake is that this is a routine that can follow us anywhere–to a hotel room, camping, in the motor home, and on the boat.

I know the situation is different with larger families and people who have company frequently, but I challenge you to do the math and give it a try. Try going a week or two without using your machine, and see if hand washing can be made into the simplest option for you!

Off the Grid Tuesday: No, You Don’t NEED Air Conditioning

I forgot that we “pulled” this plug, because it was never really plugged in!

Rob and I both grew up without much in the AC department (even though our parents both got central air after we moved out!). I had a pool, and he had a river. So it was all good.

We have owned AC machines at both of our houses, but we haven’t used them much. The sound of those kilowatts running all day is a bit disturbing, especially in a poorly-insulated house. And we’ve not huge fans of staying inside on sunny days. So we pulled the plug.

Now, I used to be a big wimp about summer, until I worked at a day camp for 5 years. We were outside. All day. With little-to-no shade. And I didn’t die. Nobody went to the hospital. In fact, we had a great time.

So, here’s how we do it:

1. Stay hydrated. There was a water fountain going all day at the camp. You’ve got to drink hydrating beverages. That means no excessive caffeine, and not a ton of alcohol. Water, iced green tea, etc. are great. We pretty much have a glass with us all day. For long boating trips, I make a gallon and a half of iced tea. And then, on hot days, we drink water after that.

2. Get your hair off your neck. This is the second biggest one for me. Rob has short hair, and Beanie’s hair is pretty short and thin still. But if you have long hair–and especially really thick, long hair like me–you have to tie it up. I feel a hundred times better once it’s off my neck.

3. Dress for the weather. Yeah, you don’t want to run around naked. But, it is all right to wear a tasteful tank top and shorts, or a sun dress. And forget socks; they add a LOT of heat! I go barefoot, unless we’re entering a business (not one in a marina–they don’t care whether I wear shoes or not!). Then it’s sandals.

4. Turn off the lights, pull the shades–but open the windows. This keeps our house pretty comfortable. Just beware of the second story, if you have a two-story house like we do. It might be a good night to camp out in the living room!

5. Use that basement! It’s magic, if you have one. Instant central air. Set up a little game area. When I was a kid, we all slept downstairs, on the floor, in the summer!

6. Get some box fans. Family Dollar sells them. They’re great. And cheaper than AC, by far! In our boat, we put one in the front hatch, and we’re good. At home, we put one in a window on the main floor and in our bedroom window. They help a LOT!

7. If all else fails, get wet! At day camp, we would just start spraying each other with the hose, or have a water balloon fight. At home, we get out the sprinkler, kiddie pool, or make a trip to the public beach. On the boat, well, there’s water everywhere! If you have nothing else, jump into the shower, but keep it cool. I did this with Beanie a few times, when she was a baby. Get your hair good and wet, and you’ll be fine for a few hours.

So, enjoy the summer, stay cool, and don’t use any extra energy in the process!

MOONRAKER UPDATE: The insurance adjuster is supposed to be coming today, and it’s scheduled (once again!) to be pulled. We’ll know later in the day or tomorrow.

Off the Grid Tuesday: OTG Laundry!

Well, yesterday I finally unplugged the refrigerators, then ran out to the kilowatt wheel to check my progress. Rob informed me that I’m a dork. But doesn’t everybody wish they had a power meter inside their house?

So, today’s off-the-grid goodness…

One day, while we were exploring the Habitat for Humanity ReStore (which I strongly recommend, by the way!), Rob and I found this:

It’s a combination washer/dryer, that fits on our counter! It will not do large loads, so we will need to do laundry frequently. If we use it on our boat, we will need to make sure we get detergent that does not produce suds. Homemade detergent is great for this. I always keep mine powdered though. It takes up less space that way.

So, if we feel like being on the grid, when we’re somewhere with shore power, we can use this to wash and dry our clothes. No more bothering with the laundromat! When we’re anchored out, the washer is able to run off of our 12-volt battery, through an inverter. We will have to line dry afterward. Luckily, Moonraker has plenty of lines!