Winter Storm Nadia is Naughty.

I remember years ago in first grade our school taking two vacation days in February to celebrate the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln, February 12, and President George Washington, February 21st.  We would work on crafts centered around both presidents and display them the entire month of February.  Today, schools celebrate Presidents’ Day, which complete robs the importance of these two presidents who were models of what a president should do and behave like.  Plus, 2 days off from school with presidential arts and crafts for a month, what more could a first grader ask for during one of the bleakest winter months?

On Abraham Lincoln’s 210th birthday, N. Idaho was hit by Winter Storm Nadia.  Unlike the snow apocalypse the media might make you think it is, the snow storm was a forgotten normalcy we faced since we moved to N. Idaho.  I plowed 7 hours yesterday and could not keep up with the falling snow.  This morning the sun is out and so will I, but today I will cut the final paths that will get us out of our snowed-in off grid, toasty, bungalow.  Enjoy the quick video I made during the rush of yesterday.  If you are snow bound today.  Perhaps, my old blog post on Spokane’s worst snow storm and preparing for such an event will help encourage you.

Off Grid electricity is NOT free.

Out with the old… The T-105’s are being retired.

I believe I am guilty of promoting free energy on the off grid homestead, and during the summer months it appears that way.  However, during the winter months cloudy skies make solar energy creation improbable, and it’s the battery bank that keeps the home’s electricity going from day to day.  When the fog and inversion continues throughout the week, a 5 gallon jug of fuel is added to the generator. The generator is fired up to produce the home’s power and to fill the battery bank for a few more days.

Winter is the time of the year when an off grid home realizes they are not living “free”.  Perhaps a nice sunny equatorial home would provide the energy the home needs and less reliance on a large battery bank.  But even then, a home close to the equator has a constant 12 hours day and night. In which the daylight begins at 6 and ends at 6 in the evening.  If only we lived on the equator… but I really like the 4 seasons, so that’s out for now.

If you are thinking about going off grid, depending on where you live and what your winter is like as far as darkness and climate, you will want to size your battery bank accordingly.  Our new bank, if we conserve, can get us about 4 days, without direct sunlight.  We have added so many new systems that require more power and we added to our family another person, so power usage has naturally increased.  More lights are on, our fridge runs more often, and the phantom load of the Internet and the propane tankless water heater begin to add up over a few hours.  If I remember, like I just did, I shut them off.

As seen in the video,  I crunched the numbers and our new battery bank (basic electric bill) is estimated at $25.00 a month over a 10 year period.  That’s not bad, but that doesn’t include the generator maintenance or the fuel for it.  A 5 gallon jug is required to charge the battery bank from 50% back up to 100% and to equalize them.  Without equalizing, it’s about 4 gallons of fuel needed.  I am keeping tabs on our generator usage this year with the new bank and tractor generator; it will be nice to be able to prepare a constant monthly budget by spreading the winter expenditures year round.

Off grid electricity is NOT free!

If my wife and I lived on the grid in this area and had solar panels that covered our electrical usage, the power company would still charge us a $25.00 minimum monthly hook up fee.  That doesn’t seem fair, but with many people trying to save money with increasing electrical bills the power companies do not want people wiggling out from their profit margins, plus someone has to pay for all those linemen who repair the down wires after a devastating storm.  Either way off grid or on, you will have to pay someone for your electricity.  As electricity bills increase, so does the price of batteries. The T-105’s I first bought were $155 each in 2011; this year they are $180 a piece.

If you are thinking about supplementing your on grid home or building an off grid power system, now is the time to start because prices are always going up.

Snow Storm Hits and the Solar Panels Quit

During the winter gray skies and snow defeat our solar panels’ power production.  This is the time of year we rely heavily upon our backup generator once the battery bank is spent. Removing snow from the panels, isn’t too bad, but if left undone it can become a real problem if the snow melts into a thick slush and freezes solid on the panels.  I have the panels tilted to the steepest pitch possible for the winter months, which helps remove the snow when it warns up enough for it to begin to melt.  However, because it takes a lot of effort to adjust them each season, I leave them at the winter pitch all year.  My power production is fine enough during the spring, summer, and fall months even at the winter pitch year round.

The snow storm was severe enough to knock several trees over.  Many people were without power for the next 24 plus hours.  Even though we weren’t producing power from our solar panels, we had enough stored power in our battery bank to ride us through.  We did not realize our area had lost power until our son was excused from school the next day because the school was without power.  It is moments like these that being off the grid is really nice. We don’t have to wait until power crews can find the time in the outage to bring our street’s power back on.  We are no longer a number on someone else’s priority list.


Wrapping up the Fall Harvest

Looking for the Great Pumpkin... Spending time at the local pumpkin patch enjoying the craft fair, bouncy houses, maze, and fun.

Looking for the Great Pumpkin… Spending time at the local pumpkin patch enjoying the craft fair, bouncy houses, maze, and fun.

These past few weeks we have wrapped up the fall harvest. We salvaged what we could from the garden and took the hoop houses down.  Our back room has the tomatoes strewn about, so they can ripen.  Our garden did not produce much this year.  We planted late, the heat wave shocked the plants, and smoke from the wildfires blocked much of the sun needed to ripen the vegetables the last month. Krista has spent the last few weeks canning what our garden did produce, and thankfully the cupboards  are full with the canned goods of the harvest.

Today, we finished cutting up our lamb into chops, racks, burger, and roasts.  It is now all safely stowed in the freezer.  Last week, I slaughtered my lamb and helped our friends slaughter theirs.  They were kind enough to raise the lamb for us since our property is not yet ready for livestock, except for the chickens we have.  A few more projects are needed first, such as a barn/garage/shop, which we could call a garnop or a sharnage.  I’ll keep working on the name.

Breakfast is served... Our first breakfast this season on the Kitchen Queen wood cook stove. Crisp bacon, eggs, and moist biscuits add a little cheese and mustard and a perfect little breakfast sandwich is quickly devoured.

Breakfast is served… Our first breakfast this season on the Kitchen Queen wood cook stove. Crisp bacon, eggs, and moist biscuits just add a little Tillamook cheddar cheese and some mustard. A perfect little breakfast sandwich is quickly devoured.

The weather is beginning to turn as the colder temps are more dominant during the day and nights.  Frost is starting to form overnight and into the early mornings. A morning fire in the wood stove is becoming more common with another fire in the evening.  Tea and coffee can be left on the wood stove, our most economical warm plate.  The clouds have socked in around us bringing the necessary rain, and the forestry service has finally lowered the fire risk warning to “moderate” just this weekend.

The generator was started for the first time today to charge the batteries, which over the past few cloudy days have been drained to thirty-four percent capacity.  The generator was prepared back in July for this moment and started up on the third pull.   The last time we used the generator to charge the house batteries was 271 days ago, last February 2nd.

The snow plow has been fixed and is placed by the house; plow facing out like a sentinel waiting for the first substantial snowfall of the year.  We are warm and toasty this Hollow’s Eve, happy for the time change tomorrow and an extra hour of rest.  Grades are due tomorrow evening as well, so it is another working weekend, and I can’t wait for the Thanksgiving Holiday to actually a take a break from the race of life we are all running, even if it is for a few days.  I am ready for the change; I think we all are and what we have prepared for this summer is now almost upon us, winter.  The cold wind blows the rain sideways, yet we find our warmth inside while enjoying each others company.

Electricity, making the choice to be off grid.

For us the choice was purely economical and a desire to be self-sufficient. The choice to live off grid is not a desire of most people, and I am not trying to convert anyone to the idea. However, if you like to save money, which most of us do, many of our off grid tips will help you save on the electric bill without being off the grid. And, it’s also good for the environment. (I will explain some money saving tips in later posts).

It's no wonder insurance costs are continually on the rise.

It’s no wonder insurance costs are continually on the rise!

About eight years ago, my wife and I were evaluating our finances.  As a teacher due to budget cuts, the cost of living increases were shrinking or non existent while our cost of insurance, electricity/utilities, gasoline, and groceries were increasing.  Something had to be done.  If I wanted to remain a teacher, I needed to tighten the budget, but also take control of areas that were price gouging us, remember Enron?  One night while watching the news and sensing the storm clouds of financial despair, a ray of hope was broadcasted about a community in Taos, New Mexico that was taking control of their utilities and living sustainably.  They spoke of living in rammed earth tire houses, harvesting electricity from the sun, collecting rain water for their dinking water, and using gray water for their gardens in their green house type homes.  This was the ray of hope I needed during an era of $4.00 per gallon of gasoline and a student loan of just above 9%.  Through an even longer story, we eventually moved to Sandpoint, Idaho.  We sacrificed the rammed earth tire house for now, but we decided to harvest our own electricity from the sun, repurpose an old well for our home, and eventually we’ll use our gray water for our orchard and garden. Below is the video that changed my perspective 8 years ago.

Currently, our house today is located about a quarter of a mile from the nearest electrical grid tie in. Most home owners would simply call the electric company and have them pull the electrical line to their home.  We estimated it would have been around $20 dollars a foot.  At a quarter of a mile or 1,320 feet x $20 per foot that equals approximately $26,400.00, and that was just to have electricity from the electrical company brought to our home.  This upfront cost provided the justification we needed to pursue our off grid solar option. Our solar system cost us around $15,000 at Backwoods Solar, who serves customers nationwide, but it is locally operated and less then 10 miles from our home. With the savings from choosing the off grid option, we decided to buy more efficient electrical appliances to sustain our off grid electrical system. Plus, we would never have an electric bill again. Yes!

Solar panels set at a steep pitch for winter sun, and to shed snow.  The square board to the left of the ladder is where we hand the regulation dart board in the summer months.

Solar panels set at a steep pitch for winter sun, and to shed snow. The square board to the left of the ladder is where we hang the regulation dart board in the summer months.

First, this is our solar array. It has been successfully powering the house for two years now. The panels are facing south and very slightly east to pick up the morning to late afternoon sun. This is the optimal position for the most solar gain in the northern hemisphere. As you can see the panels have a very steep pitch. This is the winter position or tilt most desired in the dark months since the sun is so low in the winter sky. Last year, I set the panels in this position which helps to also shed snow. I left them in the winter position for the full year. I made less power in the summer, but the loss was minimal. It was the difference of having the battery bank fully charged by 11:00 in the morning versus 9:00 in the morning. I can live with that to keep from climbing the ladder and adjusting the panels twice a year. I’m in my forties now, and I begin to think about things like back pain, or will this cause me back pain?

Despite the settings to achieve the most solar gain, the winter storms and cloudy weather prevent the panels from charging the house efficiently. The battery bank will keep the house functioning for about a week before the backup generator needs to be brought out to charge the battery bank to full. I will explain this system later.  On a good note, we only used the backup generator seven times this past winter and only during the months of November, December, and January.

Last, in the picture, you will notice the deer family at the bottom left feeding by the panels. Northern Idaho has some amazing wildlife to gaze at from our front windows. Wildlife will be another series of posts after electricity.