Blog

Spring!

cuccumbers resized

By Cynthia Brownell

Spring has finally arrived.  No, I am not talking about mud season; the time after the last snow and before pollen.  I am talking real spring.  Warm weather, blue skies, and song birds.  Running around finishing school work, homeschool co-op, performances, and testing.  Ah spring!

Staying busy has made planning for the summer months difficult.  Next thing I know May is over and June is on the calendar.  Garden…what garden?  This past two weeks in between rain storms and cold nights we have finally planted the garden.

We were lucky enough to plant the garden right before a week of constant rain.  After last year’s drought and our first hot day, I started to think about our water situation.

We do have a storage container that we have converted to a rain bucket, but I noticed one thing that I didn’t take into consideration.  Evaporation!  We did collect about a foot of water when it was raining, yet by the time I needed to water the garden about half of it had evaporated.

What to do?  I am going to try to cover the storage bin.  I know that sounds simple…but when we built the rain collection unit I cut a hole in the top of the lid, and added a screen to keep the bug and debris out.  When it isn’t raining I will take a lid from another storage bin and cover it.  I am going to do a quick experiment to see if this helps with evaporation.

rain barrel resized

The other solution is to create a few more rain collection units.  When we roofed our cabin, we used asphalt shingles.  I have read that the chemical that seeps into the rain water from the asphalt shingles are not appropriate for food gardens.  We have started our outdoor kitchen/storage shed and plan on using metal roofing.  With that in mind I am hoping to add at least two more water retention buckets.

Let the experiment begin!

 

zuccinni resized

As my husband and I were planting our garden a few fun facts came up.  Are they truths or myths?  What do you think?

  1. Before planting bell pepper starts, dig a six inch hole, place a book of matches in the hole.  Cover lightly with an inch of dirt.  Then plant the pepper start on top of the layer of dirt.  Apparently, it adds phosphorus to the soil.
  2. Add egg shells to each hole before you plant your tomato starts. I was told this will help with blight.
  3. Plant marigolds with and around your tomato plants. This will help with bug and pest control.
  4. Add egg shells around your tomato plants. The egg shells stops cut worms from getting to the plant.
  5. What about the problem with worms in cabbages? An older woman told me to use a fine mesh sifter and sift all-purpose flour on top of the cabbage that is beginning to show signs of worms.  I am not sure what the flour does to the worms, but I know they don’t like it.

Any garden suggestions?  I would love to hear them.

Advertisements

Entertainment

kite flying resized

Vacation!

This past spring, we went on a much-needed vacation.  We spent time in the Outer Banks of North Carolina with family and enjoyed the warm sun and cool ocean.  A nice break from our typical spring weather of snow and mud.

While on vacation we once again enjoyed the amenities of living on grid.  Twenty-four-hour access to television and the internet.  The funny part is that we barely used them.  We spent most of our time outside or visiting with family.  Oh, we would watch some T.V. at night.  But most of the time we spent swimming in the pool or walking on the beach.

Living off grid like we do, you soon learn to tone down entertainment habits.  We produce enough electricity with our solar that we have lights and occasional T.V.  If I can charge the lap top during the day we will watch a movie at night.  We have been a little more selective about what we spend time watching.  No more binge-watching episodes on Netflix.

Do we miss the twenty-four-seven constant connection to the outside?  No, not really.  Since we have “disconnected” I notice I feel less stressed out and anxious.  Our son has started a renewed interest in reading and composing music.  My husband has been spending his free time with odd chores and finishing touches around the cabin.   We talk and spend time together.  Our heads are not bowed down and glued to the hand-held screen.

I do admit that when we went on vacation it was a treat to enjoy the amenities of living on grid.  Would we run back to that lifestyle?  Not right now.  We are where we need to be.  The cabin is wired as a D.C system.  The house will be wired for traditional 110.  We just need to upgrade our power.   Our goal is to have the house work as if it is on grid.  We know a few families that have created enough power that they are living comfortably off grid.  We are headed in that direction.

So, we will have enough power to run the T.V., stereo system, and DVD player.  Yet we will still have to limit our use.  As for the internet, we haven’t found the best plan for our situation and have been ok living without it.

Living off grid is our new normal.  I appreciate the amenities of grid life, but I also value our family time and do not miss being plugged in 24-7.  Reality is a nice break.

Stewards of the Land

 

By Cynthia Brownell

What does it mean to be stewards of the land?  Growing up in the 1970’s it wasn’t uncommon to drive down any road and see a ton of garbage and empty bottles.  I also remember the commercial of the native American looking at the garbage with a single tear running down his face.  That image had an impact on my young mind.  Upstate New York has come a long way since the 1970’s  in controlling the garbage and picking up after the long winter.

Yet it still amazes me when I do see garbage on the side the road, especially our dirt road.  Our house is hidden in the woods and isn’t exactly visible.  If you took a random turn onto the dirt road you would almost think it was seasonal.  You wouldn’t believe the things we have found on the side of our road.  Here is a brief list:

  1. Dirty cat litter.  Yes, you got that right.  For one full summer, we had a mysterious cat litter dumper.  It was like they took their litter box out of there house, drove down our road and then dumped it on the side.  Whew! Gross!  Last summer we didn’t see the mysterious litter at all.  It made me wonder if they were finally caught.
  2. Deer carcasses. At the end of our road is a state park.  It has road access and several times we have walked our dog on the roads.  One section this year was loaded with ten to fifteen deer carcasses.  It looked like a massacre.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I grew up on venison and hunting is a natural way of life for us.  This was beyond hunting.  The hunters took the best part of the deer and let the rest lay around and rot.  We contacted the D.E.C. and State Police to let them know what we found.
  3. Of course, trash. V’s, carpeting, weird strange mechanical things just randomly appear.  One day we even found a pair of pants hanging in a tree on the side of the road. ??  One day my son and I saw a fresh bag of trash on the side of the road.  The next day the animals and wind had gotten into the bag.  It was strewn all over the woods.  We walked into the mess and found an address.  Yes!  We went to the local sheriff and handed him what we had found and told them the location of the trash.  That weekend amazingly enough someone was in the woods picking up the trash.
  4. The strangest thing we have seen on the side of the road was just a random person. No,  they weren’t deceased.  Thank God!  But he was obviously not right and we weren’t sure why.  It looked like he was either on drugs or having a mental health issue.  This was before we moved to our property and my husband was driving over to hunt on the property.  He said the young man was sitting in the woods on stump in the middle of a cold fall day without a coat and he was smoking a cigarette.  He stopped to see if the guy was ok.  When my husband addressed him he just looked straight ahead without responding.  Off course not sure what to do my husband rolled up the window to the truck and drove on.  When he was driving back he noticed the kid was gone.

Since we have moved onto our property full time, the instances of “dumping” are becoming farther and fewer between.  We have a good group of neighbors, some are seasonal and some are year-round.  The strangest thing I recently saw, a very large black bear crossing the road.  Now that is something!

A Safe Power System

What happens when your husband starts talking about upgrading your power source?  Well I did the first thing any normal wife would do, I started reading.  I signed out from our library as many books on solar and wind power I could find.  I have to admit when my husband starts talking wiring, inverters, and batteries, I start hearing white noise.  The noise that happens when your T.V. channel in the old days would tune out.  I find I tune out.  However, in the process of reading the information I found at the library (I am not going to mention any book titles because I wanted to make sure this didn’t sound like a promotion for their books) Brought to light a few safety issues.  No pun intended.

Here are the top five:

  1. Ground your solar array to your house ground so that when it gets zapped by lightning the extra power isn’t allowed to surge through your system and fry your electrical.
  2. Wind turbines are just asking to be zapped. Protect your system. Follow installation instructions or hire a professional.
  3. Batteries do freeze!  Yes our batteries did freeze during the cold spell.  My husband and I are talking about bringing the battery bank inside.  Ok, I am having a problem with this.  I just don’t like the idea that they might leak poisonous gas or god forbid explode.  We are open to any suggestions!
  4. Getting the correct wiring for your system.  It does matter in regards to resistance.  I am not an electrician and my husband understands this concept much more than I do, but having the correct wiring will protect your house against house fires.  I do understand that!
  5. Lastly the key idea that we needed to really research is the idea of making sure our fuses were designed for an DC system.  This system creates a particular arc that will blast through a AC designed fuse and cause a ton of problems.

I am comfortable with my husbands knowledge of design and electrical systems.  He understands much more than the average person and can talk my ear off (or anyone else who is listening), on the pros and cons of particular designs.

My suggestion is that if you are like me and not comfortable with your own knowledge of designing a system than your best bet is to hire a professional.

We have learned keeping our family and house safe from destruction rather than saving a few pennies should always be our top priority.  Safety First!

Six Winter “Must Haves”…

dsc_0380

 

Seasonal Checklists

While on grid the seasonal checklist was rotate clothes and make sure the shovel is handy.

After our first year off grid we have concluded that we need to create a check list and have everything in order before the season changes.  Especially fall into winter.  Why?  In the past year, we have found ourselves in different situations that could have ended better than they did.  Especially with proper planning, some of our experiences would have been less traumatic for us.

One example is when our truck battery finally died on us.  We had the telltale signs all fall.  One day I was charging the phone and working on line using the truck plug ins.  We ended up draining the battery and having to flag down someone to give us a jump. Of course, our jumper cables were at home at the time!  Luckily the person we flagged down had a pair in their van.   Do you think we took the hint?  A week later the same thing happened.  Once again, we forgot to put the jumper cables in the back of the truck.  Duhhh!  Now we have a permanent box in the truck for our safety gear.  Life kept us busy and next thing we knew it was winter and the coldest night of the year.  We walked out to start the truck and it didn’t turn over.  Long story short we ended up replacing a battery when it was 10 degrees below zero instead of replacing the battery when it was 60 degrees outside.   In my mind that was basic stupidity on our part.  Lesson learned!

Six  “Must Haves” on our winter list:

  1. Truck: emergency equipment. Jumper cables (smiley face), blanket and extra winter gear if we get stuck in a snow storm.  Shovel, snow scrapper, extra windshield washer fluid, and chains for the tires.
  2. Access to the house. Now, we are hauling and walking to our house.  We have had a few people come in to see if they could plow us out, yet they have all said that the driveway would be a pain because there wouldn’t be a spot for the extra snow.  So, we are at this moment saving to purchase a tractor with a snow blower attachment.  For the time being we still need to have bring in propane, water, and groceries to the house.  In the winter, we pull a large black sled.  Amazingly enough this has helped.  You barely feel the weight as you are pulling the sled.  Who needs the gym right?  On our check list for the winter is to make sure we wax the bottom of the sled so that it glides much smoother on the snow.  It isn’t fun when the sled sticks!
  3. All construction is completed before the first snow fall. We try to make sure we finish the major construction while we can still drive in.  This past fall we had just completed the bedroom addition, then that night we had our first heavy snow fall.  That was cutting it close!  I told my husband that I would not be pulling drywall down the driveway on a sled.  Not happening!  We take a break on the construction projects during the winter.  By the time spring comes around our construction list has grown.
  4. Cleaning up the grounds before the snow falls. Our area is in a constant state of flux.  We have a construction pile here, small storage unit there, a tarp covering outdoor furniture, outside gardening equipment, etc.  Last fall we must have taken at least two truckloads of construction debris to the land fill.  Once the snow falls, all bets are off if you misplace a tool.
  5. Crampons.  We learned the first year that when the spring arrives this usually means ice on the road.  I call them crampons, they are probably named something else.  But we used to use them when we hiked the high peaks as kids.  The crampons usually have metal teeth on a strap that you attach to your boots.  What a life saver!  There are many times I had walked on the road and came close to wiping out.  Since my ankle injury last year, I am a little leery.
  6. Backpack.  This useful tool is handy all year round.  We call it our electric go bag.  All our chargers, ipads, computer, and cell phone fit neatly into the bag and this helps when you need to go.  Everything is in place.

 

We are now heading into February and I am already starting our list for spring. If I continue to pour over the seed catalogs, my list is going to be longer than I intend.  I am already planning a second bed and a new projects once warm weather comes around.

Building the Cabin…

dsc_0192

Building the Cabin ….

by Cynthia Brownell

The following photos show the step-by-step process of how we built our small cabin.  It basically took us a year to get this far.  Whew!  Next project; the pole shed.  I actually think I did manage to talk my husband into letting me build the pole shed using the cord wood technique.  Looking forward to starting that project this spring!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Do you need money to live off grid and start a homestead?

by Cynthia Brownell 1/3/2017

dsc_0047Happy New Year everyone!  As we move into the next year plenty of people are trying to get their acts in order.  Finances, fitness, and new year resolutions.  If one of your life goals is to move off grid and start a homestead this year, maybe this article will help.

Five financial tips to help you move to your homesteading dream!

By Cynthia Brownell

Before we decided to move to the property, I read as much as I could about off grid living and money.  Financing off grid living or not to finance off grid living.  As much as I read I realized there were very different views and lifestyles.   Some people felt comfortable living off the land and other people seemed to have a huge estate.  We wanted something in the middle.

We have already been down the financing band wagon and our goal with moving to the property was to simplify our life.  We were tired of our finances ruling our lives and forcing us to make decisions on where to live and work.  We wanted to take control of our money not our finances controlling us.

Now if you know me, you realize I am not the savviest person with money.  When I make the money, I like to spend it.  I like spending my money on experiences.  Road trips, vacations, and new places.  That’s me.  My husband on the other hand likes “stuff”.  And not just any “stuff” good, high quality “stuff”.  When we had the extra income, we did just that, spend!

Now that we are in recovery mode, every dime must be accounted for.  When we made the decision to restructure the shed and turn it into a live-able cabin, we realized we had to get the money somewhere.  We just couldn’t live in an uninsulated 12 ft. by 12 ft.  shed.  We scrimped and saved, took out a small retirement loan and completed the cabin with in a few months.

Phase one was completed.  We were now living in an 18 ft. by 12 ft. insulated heated cabin.  We lived in that space for the first year.  Two adults, one teenager, and three pets.  I don’t know who was more stressed at this point, the adults or the teenager.  This past fall we completed the other half of the cabin, phase two.  We now live in a two-bedroom heated cabin with a bathroom.  Overall the completed renovation of the shed cost us about $8,000.00.  We also saved money on labor because we did the work ourselves.

Back to the question:  Do you need money to live off grid?  For us, yes.  We may be at phase two, but our “honey do list” is huge!  Our next phase is paying off old debts and saving money for a tractor and small garage.  Phase four is planning and building the house.  Phase five, the barn and fields. And the list goes on.  I can’t imagine not working and trying to live just off the land at this point.  I don’t think we will ever get there and I am ok with that.

The following list is a guide we have been working on to put our finances in order.  You may feel that we seem to have a lot of accounts open, but for us this works.  Out of sight and out of easy access!  You will find out what works for you, but please do not dismiss the power of planning and finances.

  1. Build a savings account that has enough money in it for your basic expenses for at least six months. Since my income is sporadic, sometimes it is easier to have the money set aside so that when it is time to pay a bill we aren’t scrambling. “Robbing Peter to pay Paul” so to speak.  Start small if you have too.  Just start!
  2. Set up a separate account for emergency expenses. It isn’t fun making the decision, “do we eat this week or buy a new battery for the truck?”  For me out of sight and out of mind works best.  My husband has a small amount per pay check going to this account.  We have made it harder to access than our regular checking account so that when a “real” emergency occurs we have the money set aside.
  3. Budget and learn to live off one income. My husband has a salaried position.  We have cut our expenses so that we can live with in his bi-weekly pay. When we first started this budget we had quite a few bumps in the road.   If an emergency happens it would throw us off.  Now that we have set up a separate emergency savings account, we can breathe a sigh of relief.  The added benefit is when I do get paid, the extra income goes towards the emergency and saving accounts.
  4. Set up a septate savings account for taxes and insurance. Even though we have had a bad mortgage experiences before, we did learn one thing.  Taxes and insurance do need to be paid!  So, we have set up something like an escrow account in which we have calculated how much per month we need to set aside for the yearly tax and insurance bills.  Once again, this account is set up separately so that we can’t access it on a whim.   This payment is also taken out of my husband’s pay and is directly deposited.  Out of sight out of mind until we need it.
  5. Build credit! When we went through our financial mess a few years ago, we did end up claiming bankruptcy.  My husband has been slowly building up his credit.  I checked my credit report not too long ago, and was surprised to find out that I didn’t have bad credit, I just didn’t have any credit.  We are both in repair mode.    Some banks offer secured credit cards in which you can place a minimum deposit.  The idea is that you make purchases using the card, then pay the monthly payment and the key here is on time!   The goal is to use this credit card to build positive credit history.  My parents repaired their credit by financing a vacuum cleaner.  You never know!

 

It has taken a lot of trial and error on our part to get ourselves out of our financial mess.  But it does take time, some sacrifices and for me the ability to say no!  No I can’t go out to lunch with the girls every Wednesday.  Or no, we can’t afford the extra car at this point.  Or no, Christmas is going to be small this year and we are going to scale back gifts for other family members.  (This was a tough one for me because I love to give!).

In a nutshell, you do need money to live off grid and set up a homestead.  Not a huge fortune, but enough to live comfortably and not worry about who is going to get paid next week and who isn’t.  If an emergency occurs can you financially handle it?  What if you get sick and lose additional income?  These things are reality.  It takes a while to be prepared, but I think it is the smartest way to approach homesteading.  Start small if you have too, but at least start!

 

Resources to help:

  1. Credit Karma
  2. Gail Vaz-Oxlade’s blog and web site at gailvazoxlade.com. She has posted great articles and advice about getting your finances in order.

 

 

Our First Solar Array

dsc_0675

Solar Power…..

When we realized, we were headed off grid we started to research our options for electrical energy.  We knew a friend of a friend who sold and installed solar systems.  We received a quote and was in a bit of a sticker shock.  The cost to start our system was over our budget, so we decided to research our options and do it ourselves.  We had a general idea what we wanted to run off the solar power; lights, fans, and possible T.V.  with DVD player.

We spent the first winter using battery operated lights and fans.  We soon found out that we were replacing batteries on a by-weekly basis.  This turned out not to be too efficient and we also didn’t like the cost of replacing the batteries as well.

So, we started to watch the sales and finally we found a system we could afford. The solar system consists of the quintestial harbor freight kit.  The basic kit includes three 15 watt panels, two CFL light bulbs, a bus that you can connect eight harbor freight kits to, and a 12-volt charge controller (which we discarded).  We bought an extra 15-watt panel, a 30-amp charge controller, and two deep cell marine batteries.   We didn’t want to skimp on the charge controller because this nifty little object helps control the charge going to the batteries and helps to protect them from overcharging.   We also bought a 1000-watt inverter to help run the T.V.  The original cost to set this up was about $850.00 plus or minus.

We bought the system in the winter and had to store everything until we could finally break ground.  Once spring arrived we started to build our  frame to hold our solar array.  We used two six by six pressure treated posts, a couple of 2×4’s and a few 1×2’s and a metal pipe down the center to pivot the array if we needed to adjust for the season.  We didn’t want to place the panels on the roof of the cabin because of snow removal issues.  We decided to build the chasse about 20 feet from the cabin and low enough that we can broom off any snow that would build up on the panels.  The following weeks we purchased the electrical conduit, junction boxes and about 100 ft. worth of 14 gage low voltage wire.

Then we spent a weekend in the summer digging trenches to bury the conduit and wire to the house.  On the house and the solar array , we attached exterior junction boxes to protect our wire connections.   We then built a battery box out of wood to keep our batteries protected from the weather, and we then connected the system.

To our amazement almost everything works!  Not the DVD player.  The minute we tried to play a movie, our inverter started to beep.   We didn’t have enough power to run the player.  We soon learned the value of the “beeps”.  Once the inverter alarm beeps, that is a signal that we have drained the power.  We have suddenly become very selective as to what we watch on T.V. and when.  If we have a full sunny day that usually means about an hour and half of T.V. time that night.  My husband has also learned that the inverter is still drawing power when it is hooked to the batteries.  Therefore, we have gotten in the habit of un hooking the inverter when we are finished.   My husband is an unhappy person when he has to go outside in below zero temperatures to unhook the inverter.  He is currently considering installing an inside switch to help prevent the late night battery run.

What have we learned from this experience?

The harbor freight system is an excellent start if you are not sure about setting up a system on your own, or paying someone to set one up for you before you even realize your electrical needs.  The kit comes with instructions, if you read them.

The cost setting up our system was under $1000.00 and we are still able to upgrade when we have extra cash flow.  Our next purchase is an additional 340-watt panel that will upgrade our solar system to 400-watts.  The additional wattage will allow us to run the DVD player and possible stereo system.

We toiled with the idea of wiring the inside of the cabin, yet our system is a low voltage system.  At this point we don’t have anything that runs on a constant flow of 110-watts.  The inverter helps to change the 12 volts to 120  so that we can watch T.V., but we wouldn’t be able to rely on that set up for long lengths of time.

Our youngest son has also started researching wind power.  The winter days are much shorter up in the cold north, but wind is plentiful.  We have considered a 400-watt wind turbine and tower.  His goal, longer T.V. time!

As for our lighting, we will be switching out the CFL light bulbs for longer lasting Edison style LED light bulbs.  They may cost a little more, but they use about half the energy of the RV CFL light bulbs we are using now.

If we look at what we used to pay in regards to our electric bill when we lived on grid, and what we used to pay for batteries, our system has paid for itself with in the first year.  It is a new feeling to look at your lighting and say to yourself, “I did that!”

We have also realized that when we build the main house that the solar system will be a totally different set up.  We plan on wiring the house for a normal electrical plan.  I do eventually want a  washer that you don’t have to attach to a bicycle to run.  Now we know what to expect.  We also realize as we build the house, we will be contacting the friend of a friend and say, “Ok…it’s time to install the system!”  Yet now we are better informed and will understand what we need and when.

First Year Anniversary!

This is officially our first year living off grid.  We took a headlong jump of faith last year and held on to all of the ups and downs.  We found out we are still in one piece and  we are still somewhat sane!

Some things we knew about when we moved off grid:

  1.  Yes animals do live in the woods…don’t be surprised when you see one!
  2.  Our driveway is really long!
  3.  Yes I understand you need heat, water and food to survive.  No Problem !
  4.  That this is only temporary!
  5. Oh we are still young, sort of, this shouldn’t be a problem!

Some things we know about now:

  1.  Yes, hauling water is a pain!
  2.  Make sure you have enough pine shavings for the compost toilet!  It does stink when you don’t.
  3.  Refrigeration…what is that?
  4.  Personal space? I have heard it exists!
  5. Would never look back, we love the simplistic life style and all the challenges it brings!