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 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. 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 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 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 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 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 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...