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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Alternative Home Builder: Week 17

While I knew that our alternative home could be a challenge for Tom the Builder, no one told me (and I hadn’t that through) the challenges of basic construction support.   I mean how do you actually construct a home without pipelines to electricity and water?  All contractors, except for the Mike the Mason, show up with electric tools, to which I’ve managed provide electricity via the tractor-powered generator.  All it requires is diesel fuel (lots of it) and a tolerance for an ear-splitting, 747 whine.  Though I’m thrilled that Mike the Mason only uses gas-powered tools, he’s the only one that asks for water.  How else to mix mortar and clean trowels?  Since our rainwater harvest cistern is not yet filled, I’ve been hauling a 30 gallon tank back and forth from our cabin, filled with a hose from the outside faucet.  No more.   With winter knocking on the door, loudly!, we turned off the outside faucet yesterday to avoid freeze-up.  And wouldn’t you know it, Mike the Mason shows up today for the first time in 3 weeks.  I’d even saved containers of water, just in case, but these too I dumped yesterday so they wouldn’t turn into blocks of ice.   But there’s always a way.  And that way involved filling 4 gallon blue containers (pictured) from the kitchen faucet.    Fortunately, today’s project only involved laying limestone caps beneath each of three windows, so he only needed two blue containers of water.  Mercy knows how many blue container trips I’ll make when he caps the masonry heater with limestone.  I once dared tell Mike the Mason that he reminded me somewhat of my dad.  Not only do they look alike but my dad also laid block with those pop-eye arms.  And now they share one more trait:  they both ask me to be their gopher.  “Go-for this.  Go-for that."


Today I went looking for hope.  Though, as they say, hope can be found in the most unlikely of places, I needed a little more intentionality around my search.  It’s those damned windows, the blight on a nearly perfect project.   A month late, they’re holding up the next (and long awaited) stage of project:  buttoning up and moving inside.   And, I must admit, the emotional impact is far worse.  My usually buried doom and gloom side even wonders if they’ll ever arrive, fearing myself a victim of the all-too-common construction con-game.    So I arrived at the homesite before sunrise, looking for...something, anything, a sign.  As I lit the day’s first small fire, I glanced outside the hole of hope, the hole (in the picture) that should already be a window.  And there it was!  Eagle, white tail flashing as he glided away from the harassing crows.  That, and a rooster pheasant swooping by, pretty much got me through the morning.  But by noon my hopes had sunk below my knees.  I was just about ready to call Tom the Builder and ask if it was time to get tough, when he called.  He’d heard that the window truck might arrive tomorrow.  A story I’ve heard too many times. Now desperate, I went seed collecting.  My hand running up the tall stems, the fluffy seed heads of showy goldenrod reminded me why I’m here.  Plastic bag now pregnant with seed collected from our first little test plot prairie, I zigzagged across our newer 41 acre planting, searching not only for hope, but for gopher mounds on which to spread the seed.  When I’d nearly climbed to the homesite, the phone rang.  It was Tom the Builder again.    “Got the window truck driver’s name,” he says.  “Who?” I ask.  “Don, she’s supposed to arrive at noon tomorrow,” says Tom.   “Don?,” I say.  “I don’t know too many women named Don.  Sure its not Dawn.”   So there you have it.  I went looking for hope at dawn.  And tomorrow, at noon, hope arrives with Dawn.  Hopefully!  

Today, at 11:14AM, Dawn finally arrived.  She backed her 18-wheeler down our long gravel driveway, stopped in front of the garage, and bantered with Tom the Builder as she unlatched the trailer doors.  I had no idea what they were saying and could care less.  All I wanted was to peek inside.  Are they there?  Are my windows really there?  I could have timed her with a calendar.  The creaking doors swung wide.  I gazed deep into the bowels of the nearly empty trailer.  Is that them?  Is that my windows way back there?  Now I can’t really say when it happened.  When exactly did I come to believe that the windows were actually here?  Was it when Tom and his crew unloaded the first 180 pound plastic-wrapped rectangle?  Was it when, after they laid it on the garage floor, that I snapped a photo and sent it to Linda?  Was it when we counted them, all nineteen?  Was it when they tried to install the very first window and voila! it fit.  If I had to say when it finally sunk in---like a healing balm rubbed into an ancient wound---I’d say it was when the great gang of windows, seven facing south and two facing east, finally manifested.  Suddenly the room, where you will one day eat and laugh and warm yourself before the fire, became real.  “I’m so happy,” I told Tom.  “I don’t know if I like the windows, or if, like the man constantly whacked by a hammer, I just feel relieved that the ordeal is over.”   Yes, the window label claims an industry-leading R-value of 5.25, 50% better than their nearest competitor, and the reason we opted for Serious windows in the first place, but right now I’m just happy to have any windows at all.  Oh, I almost forgot.  The 16 batteries which will store our solar-generated electricity, arrived right on schedule today.


Ho my gosh!  I have so much to learn.  I should have begun this home when I was four years old.  I mean, look at this picture:  off-grid central, what it takes to NOT be connected to the electric grid.  In the foreground:  16 batteries (Rolls S530 ), which I must not only learn how to keep charged (by either solar panels or tractor-powered generator) but also maintain (keep filled with fluid).  On the floor, just behind the batteries:  the wooden box for safely storing them and venting their exhaust (hydrogen gas).  There’s not much I need to learn about a box except to keep it locked when mischievous children are around and to keep an eye on that vent so our house does not become another exploding Hindenburg.  But all this learning pales compared to what I need to understand about the invertor, the Outback Flexpower One, mounted on the wall.   This off-grid brain (1) charges the batteries (from either the solar panels or the backup generator), (2) drains electricity out of the batteries, converts it from DC to AC, then services the AC electric panel for home usage, (3) monitors the performance of the batteries (are they too low?  do I need to recharge them?), (4) monitors the performance of the solar panels (how much are they putting out?), (5) provides the user with a loving and meaningful relationship (just joking, but you never know).   I’m so lucky to have found Solar Curt.  Not only does he install this stuff, but he’s my teacher, taking time-outs to give me valuable lessons.  Little by little.  For example, today I learned that it’s up to me to decide when to turn on the backup generator and when to turn it off.    Flexpower One could decide for me, says Curt, but it can’t know if tomorrow might be sunny, in which case maybe we should wait and see what the sun can do.  And that’s exactly why I went off-grid:  to connect me to the Land.  I didn’t want systems that “free” me.  I wanted systems that engage me with the Land.  And what could be more central to the Land than the sun?


Your end of the week quiz:  What do lights have to do with an off-grid home?  Answer:  Everything.  While solar panels and batteries and invertors get all the sexy press, what we soon learned is that off-grid is about making do with less, much less, electricity that is.  Very roughly, each daily watt hour (consuming 1 watt of electricity for 1 hour each day) adds $10 to the cost of our off-grid system (cost of the batteries and solar panels and invertors).  Say you want a recessed light above your kitchen sink which you expect to leave on 10 hours each day.    If that’s a standard 65 watt incandescent lamp,  then the off-grid cost = $10 * 65 * 10 = $6500.   For one bulb!  If instead  we use an 11 watt LED lamp then off-grid cost = $10 * 11 * 10 = $1100.  Suddenly, LED, which normally looks very pricey in the store, looks very, very cheap.  But it doesn’t end there.  The next journey is realizing how much money we can save by simply turning off the light when not using it.  Since we’re using the sink 2 hours per day, we can save almost $800 if we plan on turning off the light when we’re not at the sink.   So today, as Linda and I agonized over light fixture selections with Kim at Citilights, one thing we agreed on was LED.  Period.  Still, much stomach churned over all the $ we spent.  So on the 2 hour drive home I had plenty of time to think about why.  Why does off-grid cost so much more than grid-power?  As the sun set behind me, I had an aha!   We’re powering our off-grid house on contemporary sunlight (solar panels), while our old Minneapolis home was powered by fossilized and compressed sunlight (coal, natural gas).   Rather than mining the earth for our electricity, we’re plugging our power cord directly into the Land, like any other creature.  So one day, as I wash dishes under the recessed LED light, my hope is to feel part of the community of Land, sipping on the daily straws of the sun. 

Ahoy Matie!  Storm’s a-breaking on the starboard.  Batten down the hatches.  A thrill was upon me this morning as my heavy sorrel boots carried me to the homesite.   Though only a few flakes were then flying, the radar glowed blue to the southwest.  Snow!  Over 6” possible at the epicenter of the storm, which seemed poised to pass overhead.   Something---a familiar impulse---was driving me to tighten up the house.  Yes, the new windows now held back the rain and snow, but two doorways still remain open to the elements: the garage and the east Corridor.   Two sheets of plywood, secured by rope, soon covered the garage doorway, while a tarp did the same for the east Corridor and also allowed for relatively easy entry.  But I found I couldn’t stop there.  The west porch (pictured next to the garage door), where all the precious cedar trim boards were stacked, was apt to fill with drifting snow.   Not that anything would really suffer, I just couldn’t stop myself from hanging a protective tarp over a rope.   That task accomplished, I walked round and round the house, assuring myself that all now was ready.  All was secure.    Suddenly, I recognized the feeling.    It’s exactly how I feel when we’re camping and a storm approaches.  I love it.  There’s an underlying terror, yes.  But a thrill, stronger yet, rises to meet the challenge.  Visceral.  Primal.    Especially in the remote wilderness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, where the threat is very, very real and no quick help can come.  It is then that I discover the greatest bursts of creative energies I have ever known.  It is, in part, the search for this creative energy---divinely granted it seems---that pulls me to the Land.  Building an alternative home certainly feeds my creative urge.  Yet today, as winter comes a-howling, I’m reminded there is a power greater than myself---dwelling it seems at the very intersection of house and Land---capable of asking the very best of me.
Today, I thought you deserved some of my joy today.  So come, walk with me, from the cabin to the homesite.  We’ll take a leisurely route---which actually means longer---if you don’t mind.
Down Kim and Troy’s “grassy lane”…
…past their pagoda dogwoods…
…across the road, through the gate, we enter the Land and gape at the majesty of the oaks…
…so as not to exhaust you, we magically teleport ½ mile, to the very eastern edge of the Land, where we look across the pond to the cottonwoods and beyond to the homesite…
…walking isn’t too hard as we follow the mowed paths (fire breaks)…
…into the house, we light the fire and gaze out those wonderful new windows…
…good-bye house (and solar electric panels and solar hot water panels and...), time to go back to the cabin…
…the Land greets us, and greets us, and greets us, as we journey home.



  1. Cute story! Lynn and I are in Charlotte, NC this week. We are loving the daily updates! :) Heather

  2. What a beautiful, winter wonderland! Imagine looking out at that beautiful scenery everyday in the winter months!!! It makes me want to go on a sleigh ride. Thanks for sharing - WOW! Lynn

  3. what an amazing adventure you are on! So glad you share bits and pieces of it with us.