Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The sinkhole in the city

The unique old home that used to stand on the lot to the south of us.
Usually you visit here to read about our adventures at Turtle Falls. Today I will write about the adventure we're experiencing at our house in the city instead. As many of you know, we live in a very small house on a very small lot, just 35 feet wide, in the downtown heritage district. The houses on our street are a varied bunch, ranging from single storey clapboard bungalows to 2½ storey brick homes and a 3 storey apartment building thrown in for good measure. The lot next door, and directly south of us, is also only 35 feet wide. It had one of the most unique and oldest homes on the street until January of this year. Long story short, that house went up for sale last year and the buyers have since torn this house down despite the fact that it was on the inventory list of houses with significant heritage interest. It's a headshaker that the city planners and the heritage department let this happen. Needless to say, the neighbourhood was up in arms over the intentions of these new owners and the whole fight, led by Ras and myself, took us all to the city's Committee of Adjustment and then the Ontario Municipal Board. This is one year old news and something we're trying hard to forget about and will not explain any further. Suffice it to say the new owners of the lot next door are being allowed to build a monster home on a 35 foot lot. Bye-bye sunshine!

Footings of the hotel next door are done.
Fast forward to the present. The mosquito-ridden cesspool of a hole that has been our neighbour for almost 11 months now is finally under construction. We came home from several days away last week to find the hole, now much larger, and the concrete footings nearing completion. There was one lone fellow in the hole working away on smoothing the freshly poured concrete. He looked so tiny in the massive hole I couldn't help but ask him, "What are you building? A hotel?" He agreed the hole was too big for the lot and then continued to tell us the problems they will have trying to deal with setting up the forms for the foundation. He was a skinny little dude like me so that gives a little bit of a clue to how tightly this house is being squeezed onto a little lot. I look at the pictures and it certainly doesn't give the same perspective of huge as when you're standing on the edge of the abyss! Did you know that if you click on any photo in this blog it will show you a larger view of said photo? Go ahead, give it a try! Cool.

Really? You think plastic will work?
We're all excited now because finally, the building will get under way and somewhere down the road when it's all said and done maybe we can start adjusting to living in the shade of this ridiculous house and start forgetting about the bad feelings that have been stirred up because of it.

I tweeted this picture yesterday and wondered if the flimsy plastic sheets would be able to retain the walls of the dig with the several days of rain being forecast. This is actually a really cool picture and the more I looked at it the more I wished it would freeze so I could go skating on it! Just a little more rain is needed first to make it a super smooth surface. I really ought to be careful of the things I wish for.

And then the rain came!

This has got to be one of the most common Murphy's Law moments ever. This also happened to us when we did our renovation. As soon as the hole gets dug the rain won't stop. Why is that?

The weather elements sure are providing our new neighbours with a good dose of early Karmic grief. Ah...Karma...don't ya just love it when it's not actually working against you, but rather against those we feel so richly deserve it? We didn't have any mudslides in the dig during our renovation, even though it rained for days afterwards. Huh, guess we didn't overstep the ideals of the neighbourhood during our renovation. We tried to set these new people on the right track when they started in with their applecart upsetting attitude. They weren't interested, I guess. Oh well, c'est la vie!

It's like I have a crystal ball or something!
So, as I said earlier, I should be careful for what I wish. This morning was really rather interesting, after all of last night's rain. The remaining portion of the privacy hedge between our two lots is now in the hole! Apparently, the flimsy plastic sheeting was NOT enough to hold the walls of the monster house dig through all the rain. Mother Nature took care of the last bit of the hedge that was going to be torn down sooner or later anyway. I guess she thought it looked ridiculous too and offered a helping hand.

This photo just shows the side closest to us. The house on the other side is dealing with the same thing except with the added fear that the hole is within 2 feet of his fence and foundation. And being one of the original houses on the street, with an old stone basement, it's no wonder the builder is actually frightened about what could happen over there. It's predicted this fence will be in the hole before the rain stops. We at least have 10 feet between our house and the sinkhole...well, where the hedge fell from now is about only 7-8 feet from our foundation. It's questionable whether part of our gate will end up in the hole or not. I think we'll be good though. Dave, the very nice man from the construction company, has worked very hard draping more plastic sheeting to keep our cobblestone walkway from falling into the sinkhole.

Dave was also a little concerned that Ruth was going to end up in the hole. Ruth is our 6 foot, 1000 pound, concrete statue that has stood at the edge of our garden for 16 years now. Ras and I rescued her this morning as soon as we discovered the hedge was in the hole. All we could do was lay her down because she's so heavy and it was raining pretty hard at the time. At first, she was face down but then I was worried she'd snap her neck as all the weight was on her forehead, so we turned her over on her back. I feel bad for her laying out there in the rain, exposed to the elements. Almost makes me want to put a tent up for her...or throw a waterproof blanket over her. Way to treat a lady Tony! For those who don't know...Tony is the neighbour. We blame him for everything...it's a little game we play to help us keep from crying.

Holy crap...hang on...there was just a big crashing sound...be right back!

Good grief...things are sliding into the hole faster than you can shake a stick. Look at the blue wire fencing at the foreground of the photo. That's been standing stalwart for 11 months and now it's falling into the abyss! See the wooden fence in the background of the photo...?

Now you see the wooden fence...

Now you don't. It's taken a dive too. Somebody...call the Coast Guard! Call Noah! Call somebody!!

Now you don't!

Ok, things have calmed for the moment. There's been no crashing for all of 10 minutes. Now I can focus on the rest of the story again.

Nice builder-guy, Dave, can't believe the city allowed this infill project to happen. Our neighbouring city to the southwest would never have allowed such a fiasco to happen in its heritage district, so he says. And he would know, he's the guy building new places all over this region.

At this point, all we can do is laugh. We've done our bit to fight the good fight and this city seems to care less about its heritage district than our new neighbours care about us, so there's nothing left to do but laugh. There are no tears left to shed. We have no more energy left for this situation. It has taken too much from us already.

Thank the good Lord we have Turtle Falls to move forward with. And once it is built, we may just say bye-bye to the city we have loved for over 20 years.

Thankful I know how to swim,

All joking aside now. Here's what's happened since I got the main part of the story close to completion. Our side is now starting to slide into the hole, right up to the edge of the cobblestones. There was 2 feet of earth there just a few minutes before I snapped this first photo. Our neighbour on the other side of the hole is scrambling to try and save his foundation. And the rain just keeps on falling! What a mess.

Hey Tony...Cha-ching!!

Mudslide reaches right to the edge of our walkway and takes out
our underground irrigation and lighting systems

Neighbour's foundation is close to being exposed

How long until our gate slides into the hole?

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Hydro sends me off on a Rant

Not having owned more than one property at a time prior to acquiring Turtle Falls, Ras & I are just now experiencing what those of you with seasonal properties have been experiencing for years...the picking of your pocket by the utility companies! This rant is directed specifically at Hydro but it could apply to all of them, since they all treat their customers equally appallingly. Don't we, Ras & I, live in a Pollyanna world, thinking that using no electricity for the next 6 months would result in no hydro bills for the next 6 months? There needs to be an "Occupy Utilities" movement, or something. It's astounding that we let these companies charge us for services not rendered. But that's what good Canadians do...we just take it, politely...all while bending over!

I'm in utter disbelief of the Hydro One bill that arrived in my mailbox this past week for Turtle Falls and my subsequent phone call to customer service.

Before turning off the breaker panel for the season, and thanks to Priscilla's hydro-hogging fridge, we used a total of $12.78 worth of electricity, but got charged 9.2% more for the electricity that got lost during transmission, for a grand total of $13.94. Add the delivery charge, regulatory charge, the ridiculous debt retirement charge, account set-up charge and, of course, HST and the bill came to $107.21. Now, I know this won't put us into bankruptcy any time soon but it's the principal of it.

I really don't know which one of these charges I dislike the most, but today I'll focus my rant on the delivery charge. It cost $55.10 to deliver that $13.94 worth of electricity. It only cost $50.11 to deliver $51.16 worth of electricity to our house in the city. I was told by Hydro One customer service that the delivery charge is based on the amount of electricity delivered. Am I the only one seeing an imbalance here? That's $3.95 to deliver every dollar of electricity to Turtle Falls vs. 98¢ to deliver each dollar of electricity to our city house. Then I'm told by the customer service agent to expect a monthly charge for the ability to have hydro at the ready if I need it. I told her I wouldn't be needing any until May and that's when I thought I heard her ask me to bend over. I could be mistaken about that though. I really want to Occupy...something! This short video pretty much covers how I feel about Hydro right now.

My only saving grace is that once our passive solar, off-the-grid house is built we can kiss Hydro One goodbye. We will become our own electricity producer, and because we will be producing the electricity right where it will be used there will be no transmission loss adjustment factor, no delivery charges, no regulatory charges, no debt retirement charges, no HST, and best of all, no power outages. No, wait...the best part will be no invoices from Hydro One in my mail box. Or...is the best part the family gatherings at our house when the power goes out at theirs? That should be about one family reunion per month based on our experiences at Turtle Falls so far. Who knew the dependable part-time power service of Hydro One would be such a big player in bringing families together?

Ok...I'm done now,

Friday, 21 October 2011

Ten fingers, nine fingernails

                         The following scene may be disturbing to some.
                         Viewer discretion is advised.


Many have been asking about my rock-wall-building, blackened fingernails and how they are healing. Well, there's no better way to describe this than in a photo.

 A good friend once told me, "Fingernails are jewels, not tools."  These nails...definitely not jewels!

Sorry...hope I didn't gross anybody out too badly. It actually feels better like this though. There was always the fear that I would catch the nail on something and rip it right off...oh wait...that actually did happen! But like I said, much better now. Click here for a reminder of how these fingers got this way.

So, how long do you think this will take to completely grow out? My guess...6 months.

Counting the days to ten fingernails,

p.s. Be sure to click on the Fun Solar Gadgets tab above...particularly those of you with a new iPhone 4.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Can't see the sun for the forest

Removing the pine needle carpet from Priscilla's rooftop
This past weekend at Turtle Falls we experienced the trees with almost no leaves for the very first time. There's a totally different feel to the place when the trees are bare. While there, I took the opportunity to sweep said leaves and pine needles from Priscilla's roof. We were there primarily to look at how much sun shines on the proposed house location at this time of the year. The sun sits very low in the sky right now and there are so many trees on the lot. This is a blessing and a curse all at the same time. It's a blessing because of all the reasons we know trees to be important to the environment and, of course, the character of the lot that we fell in love with has much to do with all these tall, mature trees. It's a curse, obviously, because of the tremendous amount of shade these beautiful trees provide. Not a good scenario when looking to power a house with solar panels, but definitely beneficial for passive cooling of the house in the summer. Blessing, curse, blessing...you see my dilemma here. And Ras is already stressing over the fate of certain trees.

To be perfectly honest, our heads are spinning from the little bit of research we have done so far. The first steps have us delving into the fields of passive solar design and the basics behind powering a house with solar energy. At first glance, the Keep It Simple theory, to which I fully subscribe, gets lost amongst all the compulsory calculations and the long list of essential energy-producing equipment. I can only hope that further investigation into this renewable energy lifestyle will calm the "Holy smokes! This seems complicated" fears!

Passive solar design definitely has its two camps: those who think it's the be-all and end-all and that there will not be much need for any further heating or cooling if done properly, and those who think it's a crock. This little divide in the passive solar debate has me somewhat concerned.

South-facing windows...too cold, too hot, or just right? Which is it?
Orient the house in the right direction, add thermal mass, insulate, insulate, insulate and use the correct number of south-facing windows and roof overhang. Add some properly placed deciduous shade trees on the sunny side and some strategically placed wind blocks on the north side and you're good to go. Although grossly simplified, this is the proponents side of passive solar design.

The other side of it goes something like this: windows are a big hole in the wall and no amount of insulation will make up for all those holes in the wall, regardless of any windows' high-tech qualities. As well, a wall of windows on the south side in the summer will overheat the house, increasing the need for air conditioning. Simply stated, the opponents think the house will be too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer and the blame falls squarely on the glass.

We are looking to squeeze as much free energy from the sun as we possibly can. By reducing the need for active heating and cooling, we will be able to reduce the total amount of electricity we will have to produce. This, in turn, will allow us to build a smaller (read less expensive) solar energy system for our off-grid home. Minimize, then energize...what a great concept!

I am looking for real-life examples, rather than book theory, of your experiences with passive solar design. Have you encountered times of "too cold" and/or "too hot" or something more consistent? Maybe you know a good passive solar design professional, preferably in Ontario, that you can refer us to? Please click the "comments" link in the grey box below this post to leave your stories, ideas, advice, suggestions, links, or referrals. Any and all help will be greatly appreciated.

Seeking assistance...from you and the sun,

Sunday, 9 October 2011

We will be building in the spring of 2012

For those of you familiar with RVing, you already know there's the always necessary chore of emptying holding tanks. This is my least favorite part of the whole "trailer park girl" experience. The first time we had Priscilla's holding tanks pumped out was a particularly bad experience. The absolute inexperience of the guy who showed up that first day has scarred us both for life. All this fellow knew how to do was pump out porta-potties. He had only been on the job for two weeks when he showed up at our place. His boss was supposed to give him the rundown that morning on what to do to pump out an RV, but that never happened. The list of things he didn't know how to do ranged from not even knowing where Priscilla's clean-out valves were to not knowing how to operate his truck. Ras couldn't take it anymore and pretty much ripped his gloves off his hands and finished the job herself. Total exasperation! His incompetence did buy us one free pump-out the next time though.
Imagine a few interior decor additions and voila...
designer Outhouse! How cute is this?
                                                              photo credit

It seems like the holding tank for the toilet holds about three gallons. Now, I know that isn't true but the time between visits by our now much more experienced pump-out guy seemed very short...and very expensive! There must be a better way. An outhouse is an option but we would have to go back to the conservation authority for another permit, hire the LoEG to dig us a pit and build us a house over said pit. Rest assured, I would not be attempting to dig a hole this big with my pry bar and pickle jar. I would need a much bigger pickle jar to be sure!

We have decided to go the composting toilet route. No permit required, no need to dig a pit and no visits from the pump out guy necessary.

While wandering through the Cottage Life Show a couple of years ago we found a fantastic unit that requires no electricity and can be enclosed in a cute little house that we can build ourselves. Then once the cottage is finally built we can move the outhouse a little closer to the dock, although not too close...we wouldn't want to get the conservation authority's knickers in a knot. Hmm...maybe we can make it a dual purpose building, with two doors, one opening into a storage space for some tools or water toys.

Needless to say, we can hardly wait to start building our little designer outhouse in the spring. Not to wish time away, but we are already missing Turtle Falls. It's certainly not helping that the weather has been absolutely gorgeous this week. It would be way more fun sitting on the dock, looking at the lake and the surrounding fall colors, than sitting in our little backyard in the city looking at the hole in our hedge that looks out onto the soon-to-be-built monster home next door.

I shamelessly ask for your comments if you feel so inclined. I have been having so much fun with this blog and hope you have been enjoying it too.  Please click on the tiny little "0 comments"  link in the grey box at the bottom of each post, right beside "Posted by Mimi at..." My goal is to see something like "49 comments" or some similarly great number rather than just zero. We have loved your comments you have sent to us via email. Even better would be to leave your comments right on this blog so that they stay connected to the blog forever, rather than getting lost in our email inbox.

I hope to continue posting throughout the winter with some of the things we will learn about passive solar design and living off grid from our research and the courses we intend to take over the winter.

Thanks for...and please continue...reading!

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Closing the gate on the 2011 season at Turtle Falls

What country property worth its salt is without a gate at the entrance? A gate, for our situation, is most helpful at keeping out the curious waterfront property seekers. The "SOLD" sign certainly doesn't deter these people. It amazes me to no end how people will drive up just at the moment you've stripped off all your clothes to enjoy an outdoor shower with Mother Nature. The other 23 hours and 55 minutes of the day when fully clothed...no curious property seekers. Stinkin' damn Murphy!

The lack of tool selection at Turtle Falls makes for some very odd choices when it's time to tackle certain tasks. Take digging post holes for the gate, for instance. I decided to attempt to dig the two holes for the gate posts. If I hit rock, which is very likely on this land, then we would make a call to the LoEG and have the holes dug by machine. I had to try, at least.

Digging post holes with a pry bar and extracting the dirt with a pickle jar...definitely not the speediest way to dig a hole.

The shovel worked well for the first foot of the needed 3ft depth, but then it loses its usefulness because of the narrowness of the hole. Then I changed to a borrowed post hole digger and that didn't work because the dirt would completely fall out of the thing before I could lift it out of the hole. Hmm...now what? I have an old, borrowed, and extremely heavy pry bar that did the trick of breaking up the dense clay very nicely. But then the only thing I could find to get the dirt out of the hole was a pickle jar....didn't need to borrow the pickle jar. You read that right, I dug two 3ft deep holes with a pry bar and a pickle jar. Worked like a charm!

 Ras mixes concrete for the post holes near the water supply. The gate installed and the 3 tools that got the job done.

Setting the posts in concrete and installing the gate itself were easy by comparison. Here's hoping our efforts will make for outdoors showers with a whole lot more privacy from now on, although we will have to wait til next season to find out. This is, sadly, our last project for the season. Priscilla has been given the winterizing treatment and the new gate will stand guard now until the ice is off the lake in the spring. The winter months will be spent learning about passive solar design, solar panels and energy efficient appliances. I can only hope time flies as fast over the winter as it did this summer.

By the way, the Turtle Falls moniker found favour with 77% of voters in last months naming poll. Thanks to all the readers for helping us choose the name. Click here to read about how the name Turtle Falls came about.


Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Giving phantom load the boot

Now that summer is over, our focus will turn from outdoor projects to the larger task of choosing the type of house we want to build and sizing a renewable energy system for it. Our goal is to build an off grid home with all the modern conveniences we have grown accustomed to over the years. The thought of this was a bit daunting at first having read that the typical off grid home runs on the same amount of electricity per day as the typical clothes dryer uses to dry one full load of towels. Having a look at our hydro bill, I thought it can't be done. If this little house we live in averages between 17 kWh/day in the summer to 39 kWh/day in the winter, there's no way we will ever reach our goal to have a self-sufficient renewable energy home.

A little research and a little knowledge can go a long way in taming fear. Doing more with less is the driving force behind living off-the-grid. Doing more with less does not mean doing without; it means being more efficient. A few months ago I started the exercise of determining the amount of energy each electricity-sucking item in our house consumes and where we could trim some excesses. I was nicely shocked to find out how easy it was to reduce 6,336 watts or 6.3 kWh per day without reducing the quality of our lives or adding extra workloads. Our last hydro bill, compared to the same billing period from last year, showed a reduction of 399 kWh, bringing our summertime daily average to just over 11.5 kWh/day.

The following chart lists what I changed and how many watts were saved each day. The yellow high-lighted items are strictly phantom loads that were reduced simply by switching things off or plugging into power bars that can be switched off. The next biggest reduction came from changing the type of light bulbs used in the rooms where we spend most of our time. I have the small added task of hanging one, maybe two, loads of laundry on a drying rack once a week...no biggie. The two question marks in the chart are there because my energy meter cannot be used to find the usage of the oven because of the oven's plug size.

Having seen the results of using energy more efficiently, and taking into consideration our house was built in 1938 with its lack of insulation in the walls and terribly inefficient duct work, I'm starting to believe that it will be possible to run a properly built, energy efficient house with the same amount of electricity our dryer uses for one load of laundry.

Some may look at a daily reduction of 6.3 kWh as a drop in the bucket and why such a big deal is made about saving approximately $200 per year. It's about taking a step in the right direction to reduce the amount we consume unnecessarily. If every household in North America were to take steps to eliminate just the phantom loads in their homes then there would be no more need to build new coal-fired or nuclear generating stations. These steps are easy and the benefit to homeowners is immediately measurable. The benefit to the environment will be massive.

Read this CBC article about the difference using electricity more efficiently can make.

"Studies show time and again that for every dollar spent on conservation there will be a $2 or $3 return," says Ben Chin, formerly vice-president of communications at the Ontario Power Authority. "Since 2006, we have spent $1.7 billion on conservation programs — and that has saved $3.8 billion in generation costs and has saved 1,700  megawatts."                                                                                               -CBC News, March 2011

Enthusiastically eliminating phantom loads everywhere,

Friday, 23 September 2011

Rock jockeys

I can't believe it's already fall, as of today, and it will be soon time to close Priscilla up for the winter. That's a very sad thought. It seems like just last week that Priscilla rolled onto the lot and the whole summer was ahead of us. We got the things on our priority list achieved...dock, internet and hydro. The last item on our wish list for this year was to make the walking path to the dock a little less treacherous. I suppose the path is not that scary if you're a squirrel or a chipmunk but we have all ages and agility levels walking, sometimes running, to the dock and all it would take is to step on one acorn to roll you over the edge of the rock and it's 911 time. The pictures below show the path as it was. On the right, the grass at the top of the rock is the same patch of grass that Holly and Gary (Holly's hubby) are on in the left-hand picture. Gary's chair is on a good tilt there. Add some tequila to this mix and for sure there will be some spills in the future. This cannot be allowed, for the humans nor the tequila!

To solve the problem we had another extraordinary gentleman with a backhoe do a little digging for us. He uncovered a whole pile of rocks of which he made into a new pile of rocks but his pile of rocks was not nearly as pretty as Mother Nature's pile of rocks. Yikes...now what do we do?

First, I asked my sister for help. She loves landscaping with rocks...and she's as strong as two men, as my mom always says...and she has a dolly to help move the big rocks around more easily. Holly was a great help getting the flat stones in the ground for a walkway. Thanks sister! The walkway will be a work in progress as we find more flat rocks.

Next, we decided to build a retaining wall to use up the rock pile and disguise the exposed earth left behind by the excavation. Ras began by digging out a section of the remaining hill area where we want to have a bench. This is a perfect spot to enjoy the morning sunshine with a coffee. It's the perfect spot for getting out of the sun in the afternoon on a really hot day or the perfect spot to get out of the wind when it's too chilly to sit on the dock on a blustery day. It's just an all 'round perfect spot for a bench.

Ras worked like a trooper to dig out the bench spot, encountering numerous rocks and roots of all shapes and sizes. Half way into clearing the space she hit a monster rock which may have stopped a lesser woman...but not Ras. She and her trusty hammer pounded and scraped away at the dirt around that rock until she achieved her goal. The rock was too big for us to move from its place by the time it was finally unearthed because we were pretty tired so we waited for Holly's next visit. Who needs a backhoe when you have my sister, Holly? She didn't even need to use the dolly!

Ras was the search and rescue girl throughout this mission, finding and lugging nicely shaped rocks from all corners of the lot...as if there weren't enough rocks in the pile already from the excavation. I had the fun job of stacking...and unstacking...then re-stacking until the fit was just right. There was more than one occasion for bad words to escape into the atmosphere as I repeatedly smashed my fingers between the rocks. You would think after the first time I'd know enough not to do it again. Kids just never get tired of the things they love!!  Here's the result of the worst of the smashings. The index finger is doubly crimson because it got smashed twice. Double the bad words!

And here's the final result of all the lugging and finger smashing. We'll replace the one chair with a tete-a-tete bench of a similar style in the spring. Although I will have my lovely crimson nails for months, it was all worth it. The walkway to the dock is much easier to manage and the time spent overlooking the water from this viewpoint will bring many years of joy. To use one of my mom's quotable quotes, "It's a thing of beauty, and a joy forever."

Looking forward to seeing the fall colours from here,

Monday, 19 September 2011

Why the LoEG are so extraordinary

Contractor Mark finally came by to give us copies of these pictures. Mark lives just on the other side of the lake from us and built the floating dock at his place and then "motored" it over to our place. These guys have tried every method of transporting large docks through the water and say this way ranks right up there as the best. Al, the mastermind behind the idea, has been thinking about this for some time and this was the maiden voyage for his plan. Here are some pictures to show this adventure.

Al attaches an old 9.9 hp to one end of the dock

Al and Lee getting ready to launch

Under way and everything is going according to plan

Somehow, this picture makes me think of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn...or is it Deliverance?

Anchored at the rock here and fastening the last of the deck boards after the motor has been removed

We love our League of Extraordinary Gentlemen...very ingenious men!


Thursday, 15 September 2011

Refrigerator frustrations

You may remember from an earlier post how unimpressed I was with the amount of electricity Priscilla's fridge uses...8 kWh per day, the same amount our whole house in the city uses per day in the summer. We are thankful to have the option to switch the fridge from electric to gas operation. It's hard to determine how much the fridge consumes since it is not the only appliance using gas. We are at least able to confirm that on electricity the fridge costs us approximately $17.19 per month to run. Compare that to the $5.10 per month our full-sized fridge in the city costs us...not good!! On gas, so far, we were able to run the fridge, the stove top and the water heater for 2 months on a tank that we knew was close to empty. It costs $25 to fill a 30 lb propane tank. Even if that's all the info we gather it costs $12.50 per month to run the fridge, stove and water heater on gas versus $17.19 per month, just for the fridge, on hydro. And we know for a fact that a full 30 lb tank will supply the gas use of Priscilla for much longer than 2 months.

Our solar generator on wheels so it can follow the sun
Life is good. The sun finally decided to shine for more than a minute and we are able to run the whole trailer with our solar generator...at least during the day. We decided we would plug into the grid when the sun goes down to conserve our battery for those inevitable blackouts. The 1800 watt generator will only run for so long unless it is being continually charged by the sun. As soon as the sun is up, we resume our off grid status. When the sun is shining brightly the generator even handles the draw from the toaster or the electric kettle. Very cool.

And just like that, life is a little bit less than good for a moment. The fridge has defrosted itself because the pilot light had gone out some time earlier. We attempt several times to relight with no luck. Our only option is to cook everything that is in the freezer and plug into the grid. Yikes!! I think my blood pressure is matching the escalating numbers on the hydro meter. We are definitely not sticking to the agreement of reduce 3 kWh in the city to use 3kWh in the country. Also, we are completely unable to use the solar generator now since there is no way it can handle a constant draw of this size, even if the sun is shining. This is not making me a very happy camper. Ras is secretly happy though because she knows it's only a matter of time until we have a new, bigger fridge at Priscilla.

We try to be sensible about this situation and rationalize that it doesn't make sense to get the new fridge now since we have only a few more weeks before we close the place up for winter. The problem with the fridge is its lack of travel. These old trailer fridges work best when they are travelling, otherwise the fluids responsible for cooling don't flow through the system properly when the fridge is not perfectly level, resulting in no cooling. Apparently Priscilla must be sitting at a bit of a tilt. It stymies us both because every time we take out the level...things are level. Off to my trusty how to fix everything in a trailer websites. Have I mentioned how much we love our new internet tower? I find out we need to burp the fridge! That would be great if all that means is slapping the back of the fridge a few times. No, this means disconnect the ac, dc and propane connections, remove the fridge from its cubby hole and turn it upside down for 24 hours. Then turn the fridge right side up and let it sit for another 24 hours and then return it to its cubby hole and reconnect everything. This will get the fluids moving and everything should work again...but for how long? Until the next freezer load of food has to be cooked all at once, I guess.

Since burping the fridge seemed like a ridiculous waste of time, we headed into town to look at replacement fridges. It turns out there is this fantastic little Danby fridge at Costco that gives us almost 3 more cubic feet of interior space and only uses about 855 watts (0.85kWh) per day...almost one tenth what the current fridge uses per day. This will allow us to use the solar generator again during the day...and bring my blood pressure back down to normal.

We have decided to put the purchase of this little fridge on hold 'til spring. In the meantime, I'm still looking into that dehydrated food the astronauts eat.


Sunday, 11 September 2011

Results of one week with the league of extraordinary gentlemen

Ras has named the crews of men that are doing the big jobs here the league of extraordinary gentlemen. This post is a pictorial of the things these men have created during one very busy week on the land. It was a very nice change from all the waiting we were doing the weeks before.

Contractor Mark's crew building a dock on an impossible rock.

A little celebratory dock dance.

Beautiful morning sun on the dock now easily accessible by stairs.

Although the ramp and the handrail are not yet done, it is much easier to access the water and enjoy the lake. Ramp expected next spring, handrail expected any time now. Hmm...the waiting game is starting again, I think.

The internet tower was also a big activity this week. The first part was to set the base piece of the tower and fill the hole with concrete.

Since the truck couldn't get any closer, the concrete had to be wheel barrowed from the truck to the hole.

Making adjustments...ya, like I'm really helping.

While the concrete sets there will be a few days of waiting for the crew to come back to build the rest of the tower.

Two fearless and very strong men haul each section of tower up with a rope and then manhandle it into place.

At this point, one of the guys yells down to the rest of the crew that between the two of them there is 515 pounds
standing on the tower, not including their safety gear. They have an absolute trust in the strength of the steel.

Only one guy puts the last three sections in place and then the receiver is pointed in the right direction to access the signal.

I know this is a weird photo to end with but this is what all the tower fuss is about...look at all those beautiful bars!!


Thursday, 8 September 2011

Moving water from here to there

This experience so far has been mostly about getting other people to get things done here. The big stuff like digging trenches and large holes, connecting to hydro, building docks on impossible rocks, erecting towers, and replacing toilets is better left to the people with the right tools. So far, our tool selection consists mainly of a shovel, a rake and a pruning saw. By the way, Priscilla's house call went very well. Repairman Sean had the shiny new toilet in and the leaky window fixed up in good time. We were also able to get some welcome information from him about Priscilla's electrical workings which, for the most part, still remain a mystery to us. He looked at the fridge and it seemed to be working fine at the time, of course, so nothing further was done about it and he went on his way.

The one chore that we deal with most often around here is moving water. This job is like having a membership to the gym but at a much lower cost. Before the large water holding tank was here we would take the bucket down the hill, dip it in the lake then haul it back up the hill...excellent cardiovascular workout with some good resistance work all rolled into one activity. Water conservation just comes naturally when this much effort is involved in collecting such a small amount of it.

We are constantly being asked why we don't just pump water up from the lake. In the beginning, with no hydro, this was the obvious answer but it is also a good distance from the lake to Priscilla with a pretty steep uphill climb. It would take a substantial pump to move the water this distance. I want to be able to deal with the water in a less energy intensive way. With the dependable part time power in this part of the province, we would still have to haul water up the hill by the bucketful when the power goes out...which seems to be quite often. Our goal is to keep the holding tank topped up with rainwater but we need to seriously overhaul our collection practices so we can also collect rainwater when we aren't here. This will be a challenge since Priscilla has no eaves troughs and the collection points are mostly near ground level.

To fill Priscilla's interior holding tank, initially I was siphoning water from the large holding tank into a bucket and then using a bailing can to transfer the water from the bucket to a small handheld funnel into Priscilla's water inlet. This would take at least an hour to fill the 38 gallon tank and by the end of it I would have swallowed more water than I cared to from siphoning. Hmm...there must be a better way. The next week, back in the city, the latest Lee Valley Tools gardening catalogue arrived in the mail. What great timing and, sure enough, there is a better way to siphon water with a garden hose siphon pump. I love Lee Valley Tools.

Moving water from here to there takes care of itself with the siphon pump and temporary ramp setup.

The next challenge was getting water the 20 foot distance from the large holding tank to the interior tank's inlet. I needed a ramp to support the siphon hose. I made a 16 ft long v-shaped, wooden holder at my shop in the city and attached a garden hose with cable ties. Then at the lot, I was able to use old dock boards, from the little dock that was removed to make room for the new dock, to make a stand to hold the ramp. That was different since all I had to cut wood with was a pruning saw. I might not make furniture with a pruning saw but it worked just fine and got the job done. Once I got the ramp set up at the right angle, it took a couple of tries for the water to continue running through the siphon pump but it finally did. I will admit that the speed at which the water was transferring from one tank to the other would certainly not break any records but it was working. Water is moving from here to there without the use of electricity, buckets, funnels or the climbing of any hills. Life is good. Now I have the time to get to the gym again...the gym of hydro trench infilling, of course. Where's my shovel?


Sunday, 4 September 2011

And now the (w)hole story

The margaritas are helping heal our bruised egos...me for losing my phone, Holly for tipping her kayak and Ras for not being able find the phone. While we wait for RipNET to arrive it begins to rain. RipNET's only job today is to check the hole that has been dug for the concrete base for the internet tower. They had instructed us to have the hole dug to the exact size of 4 ft long by 4 ft wide by 4 ft deep. However, the size of said hole got lost in translation by the time it got to the guy actually digging the hole. The hole ended up being 5 ft long by 7 ft wide and 5 ft deep. Wow, that's going to be a lot of concrete.

The rain is coming down quite hard now and we are enjoying our margaritas under the canopy at Priscilla. A massive amount of rain is pouring off the corner of the canopy and it occurs to me we should be collecting rainwater rather than paying to have it trucked in. I find one bucket and the container of the pressure weed sprayer we have been using as our shower, to catch the rainwater. Both are full in minutes. I recruit my sister to assist in getting the water into the holding tank. She is needed to hold the tea towel filter since there is plenty of pine needle debris in the collected water. "Bring your umbrella, sister."  I really don't know why I had her bring the umbrella because for all the water Holly was able to keep off her head with the umbrella I poured 10 times that amount down the front of her trying to pour slowly enough for the tea towel filter to handle the water. She's a good sport...no doubt about it.

Filling the water tank with collected rainwater proves to be a real soaker so Holly abandons her umbrella all together.

The RipNET guys arrive and they are surprised to see the size of the hole. The man we left in charge of supervising the dig must have thought a crew of men were going to need to get in the hole to build a 4x4x4 form for the concrete and that's why it ended up being so much bigger than needed. In reality the concrete is to be poured directly into the hole in the ground, no form required. RipNET gives us three options: fill the hole, as is, with concrete and pay almost 3 times the quoted price for the concrete, build the form with all the added material expense that goes along with that, or fill in half the hole with the dirt that we just paid some guy with a machine to remove. I weighed my options, thought about the very expensive booboo I had made earlier in the day by letting my phone go for a swim, and picked up the shovel.

One hand-me-down fixed wireless internet receiver = wobbly, sore legs
One over-dug hole for internet tower base = blistered hands
Internet service at Priscilla in the very near future = priceless


p.s. My phone is still swimming with the fishes.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

A second member joins the Tippy Kayak Club

We're playing the waiting game a lot these days. We're waiting for the rest of the dock to be built. We're waiting for the internet tower to be built and we're waiting for the RV repair guy's first house call to Priscilla to fix her problems. But we will wait no longer to spend a day exploring the lake in our kayaks. We call my sister, Holly, to join us. She's all in for this little adventure and we plan on being in the kayaks early the next morning following a wonderful breakfast of campfire bacon and eggs. Ras is amazing with campfire cooking.

Campfire breakfast
Holly comes prepared with topographic maps of the area so we can plan a route. Maybe she thought we'd end up lost at some point. Either way, it was really cool to see a map of all the lakes and to discover the routes leading from one lake to the other. Holly is a very experienced canoeperson so I feel secure in having her with us. And how can I overlook the lifeguard skills of AquaGirl Ras...doubly secure...I'm good to go!

Before dropping the kayaks in the water, we make sure we have all the necessities...life jackets, water bottles, trail mix, roll of toilet paper...check. Kayaks are now in the water and we are all carefully maneuvering into our respective boats. Just then, I hear an odd thump and when I look toward the sound I see my cell phone bounce off my kayak and into the water. "Oh crap!"  It turns out that the ziplock bag I had enclosed my phone in was a brilliant idea but the fact that I had put the phone in my pocket...not so brilliant. Now the three of us are at the end of the dock straining to see a black phone, in 14 feet of black-bottomed water, on a cloudy day. I can only hope the ziplock seal is holding as I run to get Ras's snorkel gear. AquaGirl to the rescue!

Ras is known for being able to find lost fishing lures, fishing rods and nets, sunglasses, almost anything you drop in the water, so I am confident she will find my phone. Her first dive down is a practice run and her eyes, behind her mask, are as big as saucers when she resurfaces. "Wow, it's really dark and weedy down there and I'm not sure I can get down far enough because of the pressure." Several more dives and still no luck. We even try calling the phone so when the screen lights up Ras will be able to see where it is. Well, that would have worked fine if there was a decent signal in the area. What were we thinking...that 14 feet of water was going to enhance that already crappy signal? Holly and I are lying on our stomachs, looking over the end of the dock, trying to keep an eye on Ras as she dives. At times we lose site of her in the depth of the water and it seems like an eternity that she is submerged. Holly is now chanting, "Please come up, please come up, please come up..." Ras is starting to tire and says she can't stay under long enough to get a good look around. Holly offers to hold her under with a kayak paddle and Ras is asking for the garden hose to help her breathe and therefore stay under longer. At this point, I call an end to the lunacy.

Bailing the tippy kayak
We are now back on track and under way in our kayaks. We paddle for an hour or so through some very beautiful areas. We stop at a small island to stretch our legs and check where we are on the map. The wind is picking up and it is threatening rain so we decide to head back. Just as well, being our first paddle of the season, it's been a long enough trek for me, at least. Also, we do have to be back at Priscilla for an appointment with RipNET later in the afternoon. Back at the dock, Ras and I disembark and are once again scanning the water for my phone. I'm not sure but I think Holly decided she was going to take a turn at looking for the phone because, without warning, she and her boat are upside down in the water. I'm guessing it wasn't her intention to look for the phone since she didn't find it either.

Although Holly is less than enthused about her new membership in the Tippy Kayak Club at Turtle Falls, Marie will be grateful for the company.

We all agree the events of the day have earned us a jug of margaritas while we wait for RipNET to arrive.

To be continued...

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

High speed high point

The day of the site survey by RipNET, the fixed wireless internet provider, finally arrives. We are both a little nervous because if we get bad news we may as well put the place up for sale and look for another one where the internet is more accessible. Several of contractor Mark's crew have been telling us they have already had the site survey and RipNET cannot help them unless they are willing to build a tower in excess of 120 feet and the signal would only be so-so. That's a very expensive tower for just a mediocre signal!

The bucket truck finds us a good signal at 68ft.
The RipNET van pulls in and a much bigger "bucket truck" follows. The crew gets to work setting up the truck's outrigger legs and looking for the prime location for the tower. We need to get the location right since the tower also has to work with the future house as well as with Priscilla's location now. What they are doing by going up in the bucket is finding where the best signal is and how high the tower has to be. Only a few minutes go by and they are happy to report that we are receiving an excellent signal and our tower will only have to be 68 feet tall. Oh my god, I'm so ecstatic that I grabbed hold of the closest crew member and said, "Can I hug you? You can't believe how relieved and happy this makes me and I feel compelled to give you a big thank you hug." He was very obliging and possibly a little frightened by the overly affectionate crazy woman in the woods. Big sighs of relief as the trucks head off down the driveway...for us and the man that I latched onto, I'm sure.

While we were waiting for the day of the site survey to happen, my brother, Scott, had discovered that the very same service we are looking to procure is no longer working for him. The trees have grown between the signal sending tower and his receiving tower and he is not receiving a signal at all. He's lucky though; he can just switch over to the DSL service that RipNET also offers instead of having to extend his tower by another 10 feet.

Getting fitted with safety equipment
Scott kindly offers us his fixed wireless equipment he no longer needs, with one condition...I have to retrieve the receiver from the tower! He's concerned the tower won't support his weight but will be fine with mine...ya, good story Scotty. I'm game for this as I have no fear of heights and I always used to climb the TV tower at home when I was a kid, just for fun. It'll bring back fond memories and I'm always up for a good climbing adventure.

Outfitted with the safety equipment and a fanny pack with the necessary tools, up I go to get that little square box that will connect us to the rest of the world. All is good until I get above the roof line; the higher I climb the more the tower sways. Somehow, I don't remember this ever happening as a kid. The onlookers on the ground look really, really small.

Retrieving the little box at the top of the tower
The retrieval mission goes smoothly with the exception of needing a screwdriver. I climb halfway down while my nephew (he's only 12 otherwise I'd have made him do this exercise) climbs halfway up with said tool. Back up to the top I climb...wrong screwdriver! Repeat down and up for correct screwdriver. Now my legs are starting to burn and shake from all the climbing and standing on my toes on tiny little rungs while I work. The safety equipment is quickly becoming my new best friend because every muscle in my body is now shaking. The job of releasing the receiver is not a difficult task; hanging on to the tower with one hand while trying to work with the other is the tiring part. A few minutes later the job is complete and the receiver and I are safely on the ground. Ras and I are starting to envision how nice it will be to have internet service at Priscilla. No more driving around searching for a signal.

We could have just purchased our own fixed wireless equipment and not gone through this thigh-burning exercise, but why, when this equipment will do the same job at no cost. Well, ok, there was the small cost of wobbly and very sore legs for the next couple of days. Isn't it crazy what we'll do for something we really want?

One step closer to high speed!

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Priscilla receives her first guest, rather ungraciously

Other than to immediate family, Priscilla had not yet been shown off, except by photo. Our first visitor, Marie, is an enthusiastic camper and fisherwoman. We figure she will be fine with the lack of hydro and as long as there is a dock to fish from all will be fine. Thank goodness contractor Mark will be delivering the floating dock the day before Marie arrives. As it turns out, the floating portion is the first part of the new dock system to be built and the rest will be built after we see how this part works with the shoreline and then the building will progress upwards with the final piece being the landing at the top of the stairs. It seems we have hired the perfect contractor for ourselves...he does things backwards too. We like him. He gets us. No odd glances are exchanged...yet.

Priscilla, having 22 years of experience already behind her, is starting to sputter a bit and she is not being subtle about it. Most notably, the fridge is not getting cold but, oddly, the freezer is working fine. Marie takes this in stride and just puts ice in her beer. Problem solved. Off she heads to the dock with that iced cold beer and her fishing gear. Ras joins her.

A few minutes later, I get a call on the walkie talkie to say the new floating dock is breaking away from its temporary mooring and can I come down to the water and help secure them all before they end up floating away. Marie was probably hoping the dock would break loose then she could chase after the big pickerel that just got away from her. We have no fishing boat at this point so Marie would have settled for a fishing barge, I'm sure.

A moment in time when more fish stories are fabricated.

Is it nice to laugh at your friends when they fall out of their kayak while attempting to disembark? Maybe not, but I did, and I find myself compelled to mention that Marie is the inaugural member of The Tippy Kayak Club at Turtle Falls. Hey, maybe we could call the place Marie Falls.

Back to Priscilla and her problems. With her new larger audience it's Show and Tell time for Priscilla. She's showing her age and telling us in no uncertain terms, fix me, fix me! The toilet is leaking. That sounds much worse than it is. It's really just the fresh water line from the pump that's leaking and every time the foot pedal is used to flush, clean water leaks onto the floor. No problem...Sham Wow to the rescue! We discovered very early one morning, in a heavy rain, the window in the dinette area leaks...badly. Niagara Falls comes to mind. This is a problem and explains the spongy section of the interior wall beside this window. Also, the winterizing antifreeze had not been flushed from the freshwater holding tank. Oh, that's not a pleasant smell. That means I now have to flush this tank a few times with water we just paid to have delivered to the lot. That's what I was doing when the rescue call from the dock came over the walkie talkie. I haven't even mentioned the noise from the generator that my brother loaned us for Marie's visit. We thought it would be nice to have some power while she was here. I will admit it was great to be able to charge the battery in Priscilla so we could run the water pump and turn on a light at night, but talk about can you hear me now! My ears are still ringing. Those things are unbelievably loud. Fun times on the land with Priscilla, indeed. Somebody, please, remind me again why we are doing this!

Shortly after Marie headed back to civilization, Ras and I looked at one another and agreed Priscilla was not a very gracious host and maybe it would be best to postpone any further visitors until these problems are fixed.

Marie did appear to enjoy herself though. She's far too polite to ever tell us if she didn't. She didn't catch any fish worth keeping. She got eaten alive by mosquitoes and she witnessed, first hand, Priscilla's penchant for problems. Her ears are probably still ringing too. She said she'd come back again next summer.

See you next year, Marie?

Friday, 26 August 2011

Hydro...the dependable part time power

One interesting thing about our lot is the fact that hydro and telephone lines run right through the middle of it. That's right, we are 75 feet away from a hydro line and we want to go off grid. The choice to go off grid usually happens because the hydro line is more like 750 meters away. How backwards can we possibly be? We're getting used to the odd glances.
Hydro lines being buried & the temporary panel.

Several confusing calls are made to Hydro to start the ball rolling to connect Priscilla to the grid. I have also ordered a small solar generator. This, I figure, will allow us to practice with using solar power and will definitely come in handy when there is a power outage. Now we just have to get serious at thinking in terms of energy conservation.

One of the fun things I've been doing as my required homework before building a renewable energy house, is using an inexpensive energy meter to find out how much energy we use per day in our home in the city. Ras is amused at my crazy obsession with this and realizes that I will come back to normal once I know how many watts absolutely everything in our house uses. This turns out to be a very eye opening exercise and explains why every hydro bill is slightly higher than the last. Long story short, I have been able to reduce the energy consumption in our house by close to 3 kWh per day, bringing the average daily summertime usage down to 10 kWh/day for our 1100 sqft home. Phantom energy use in today's electronic equipment is massive and, thankfully, avoidable. When I read that the average total daily usage for an off-grid home, that's anywhere from 2-3 times bigger than ours, is about 4 kWh/day I realize I still have some work to do. So I've told Ras that we can only use 3 kWh/day at Priscilla because I cannot bear the thought of using/paying for any more hydro than we already do. Reduce 3 in the city to use 3 in the country. Not sure, but I think she shot me an odd glance. Although, Ras will have no need to worry, after a week at Priscilla with power we are using about 1kwh per day, as long as the fridge is running on propane.

The waiting game we played with Hydro was tons of fun. Every week we were told we would have power at Priscilla and every week we were still in the dark. This game lasted for 2 months. We excelled at using candles, battery-operated everything and propane. And just when our solar generator finally arrived we got hooked up to the grid. Just as well, the sun decided to go on vacation that week anyway. Does anybody know where I can find Murphy? I've got a noose with his name on it.

Hydro Hog...the fridge, not Ras! Note the swank retro interior style.

Just for fun, take a guess at how much energy a 1989 Priscilla fridge uses on a daily basis...8 kWh/day!!!  I am not impressed. That's certainly more than my little solar generator can handle and almost as much as our whole house in the city uses. This is totally unacceptable. I think I'll look into that dehydrated food the astronauts eat...

More later,

p.s.1. Ironically, I was editing this post during a power outage in the city (love the battery powered iPad) and the solar generator is at Priscilla.

p.s.2. I thought this was funny. This is a quote from the email I got from our electrician to let us know we were finally to be connected to the grid.
"Hey Girls, you will be happy to know your power is to be connected this coming Monday August 8. Hydro One called today to confirm.  So one more weekend and you will have the dependable part time power the rest of us have."